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Oh Lucy!

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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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The Soul Conductor

Festival, Film Festival, Horror, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Every culture has their own thoughts about what it would be like to see ghosts. In American blockbuster, The Sixth Sense, it’s a heavy burden borne by a child. In Russian film, The Soul Conductor, it’s an enormous pain in the arse that can only be helped by vodka.

Katya (Aleksandra Bortich) is a moody, gloomy 22-year-old woman who can communicate with the spirits of the departed. The problem is, ghosts are bloody needy! They’re always demanding she help them with their unfinished business and strong spirits are the only way to deal with these, well, strong spirits. Just when you begin to suspect The Soul Conductor will become a Russian riff on Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners, Katya’s twin sister vanishes mysteriously and Katya begins to experience terrifying, nightmarish visions. A dark occurrence is taking place and Katya must try to solve the mystery before it kills her, however it’s hard for her to trust her own fractured, drunken mind much less anyone else…

The Soul Conductor is a strange, appealing, mishmash of genres and tropes with an unmistakably sharp Russian edge. Aleksandra absolutely steals the show as the troubled Katya, and watching her work through a compelling supernatural yarn never stops being engaging. Director Ilya S. Maksimov directs with confidence, imbuing some of the more rote ghost attacks with a genuine sense of tension and otherworldly horror. The film occasionally tries to overplay its hand, with the twists in the third act coming so fast they do tend to strain credulity. However, the strength of the lead and the unravelling of what’s real and what’s imagined gives The Soul Conductor enough narrative propulsion to be consistently intriguing. And while you may or may not be afraid of ghosts, either way it seems like a decent excuse to neck some vodka.

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The Challenge

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Reconfiguring a hostage situation and siege-style action premise into a more resonant story of morality and political whims, Aleksei Petrukhin’s new film is a modern and compelling thriller.

Filled with surprises and shocks, but above all else, showing huge respect for debate and education, The Challenge is actually a sequel to Petrikhin’s 2015 film The Teacher, and once again stars Irina Kupchenko as Alla Nikolaevna.

A high school group of teenagers manage to persuade their former favourite teacher (Kupchenko) to join them on a trip to the theatre to watch the premiere of a new performance of Romeo and Juliet. Everyone is excited, and everything seems to be going well; even the new modern dance interpretation is received warmly enough. It’s a nice evening at the theatre. That is, until masked figures shouting insults and baring guns descend on the stage and the drama all gets very real.

Before the crowd really knows what’s going on, the gang of terrorists start to intimidate and threaten, keeping the hostages in their seats and refusing to explain or make any demands. The former teacher is then forced into a dicey situation of negotiation with the terrorists, asking them pertinent questions to try and work through the confusion.

It’s a wonderfully realised plot device. With violence and melodrama taking over the entire venue, Nikolaevna remains calm, broaching subjects of history and cultural ethics with the bad guys. The film raises several important points such as how we view what a terrorist is, and how they became that way. The history of religion and morality is also widely discussed, and with each new question we can see the process of humanisation taking place, as masked villains become different people in search of an answer.

The ‘challenge’ of the title is one that’s set to the students as well as to Nikolaevena, having to use skills learnt in classroom debates of philosophy in the all too real arena of the crisis. It is also a test of the terrorists as well. The situation forces everyone to take responsibility for their actions and not hide behind political or religious doctrine.

Ultimately, the film is about self-discovery, something that’s only done by asking the right questions. The fact that it manages to do this framed in a high-octane thriller only goes to show what a well-produced and imaginative film this is.

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The Last Warrior

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With wild horse chases, Matrix-style arrow dodging, tree-chopping swords, wizards turning into horses and witches turning into owls, Dmitriy Dyachenko offers a lot to wrap your head around, and that’s all before the opening credits.


The Last Warrior (which also translates as The Last Knight) is loosely based on Russian medieval legends, specifically the Bogatyr warriors, who you could compare to the infamous Knights of the Round Table.

With literally centuries’ worth of retellings and stories behind them, the screenwriters are clearly trying to cram it all in, and unfortunately many characters feel underdeveloped and subplots are introduced half-baked.

The film’s hero is portrayed by little-known Viktor Khorinyak, who makes it very hard to determine whether we’re supposed to like or mistrust his character. He plays Ivan, a hustling magician in modern-age Moscow, who literally waterslides his way into the magical realm of Belogorye. The people there are convinced he’s the long-lost son of a great medieval warrior – who, among his kind, was turned to stone.

From there it’s a very Lord Of The Rings-inspired epic, with a mismatched gang in search of a magical sword, which will supposedly bring the great warriors back to life to defeat the evil witch. Along the way they encounter various battles and strange creatures, most notably a womanising merman.

If that all sounds completely bonkers, well it is, and that’s what makes it so amiable.

Produced by Walt Disney Company CIS, their Russian-based studio, it still has a lot of heart – even if it’s mostly cheesy and predictable.

Marketed as “Braveheart meets Game of Thrones” this should have been a lot grittier, when in fact it’s closer to something like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The tone of the film is rockier than a boat in a storm, whether it’s taking time from the main plot for a 10-minute selfie montage or a soundtrack that’s part orchestrated scores and part new-age pop.

It’s worth noting that when this was released in Russia last year it became their most profitable local-language film of all time, so it’s worth seeing if only to understand why. Whether anyone wants it or not, expect a sequel heading our way soon.

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

Based on the critically-acclaimed stage play by Ukrainian Anna Yablonskaya, director Lera Surkova sticks close to the source for most of the part in this slow-burning family drama.

The moments where she strays in order to take creative control, usually when we leave the main family home setting, is where it also takes audiences out of the moment. Some pivotal scenes feel overproduced for no reason, particularly the black-and-white flashbacks and an impromptu rap routine.

When Valentin Samokhin’s introverted musician, Oleg, is interrupted during an audition with a call from his mother, his minor reaction makes it seem like a regular occurrence. It turns out she’s been out of contact for most of his life serving God, and has arrived at their doorstep to interrupt their very lives.

Regardless of their new visitor, Oleg’s family has many cracks beneath the surface. Their daughter arrives home drunk and depressed, his wife is struggling for work, and their handyman can’t stay sober enough to finish renovations.

Slowly but surely his mother, as though possessed by a higher power, convinces everyone to follow her ways – and ultimately, they think they’re becoming happier people as a result. This is only believable because of the perfect timing of Tatyana Vladimirova, continually tiptoeing a fine-line between compassionate and patronising.

Similar films typically have you question the very idea of religion without forcing beliefs, but initially Pagans seems quite clear about the message: Devote yourself and good things will happen. It’s not until the final act where things start unravelling that audiences get a chance to decide for themselves.

Judgement is the core theme that carries through, particularly the unfair judgement by all five main characters, against one another’s actions and beliefs. This is summed up nicely with the film’s prologue, with each of these characters breaking the fourth wall and raising the question of what exactly makes us happy – whether it’s family, love, creative passion or religion.

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As I Lay Dying

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This is adapted, very freely, from the 1930 Southern Gothic novel of the same name by William Faulkner. It is (of course) relocated to Iran, and there are superficially major plot differences. (The central death in the book is of a woman, for example, while here it’s of a man.) But the big themes and the structure are intact.

The premise, or at least the earliest event, is that an 80-year-old man with a number of children by different women dies. He’s stipulated – in person, though not in his will – that he wishes to be buried in a certain distant location. And, more to the point, he emphatically did not want to be buried in the town where he died: a place whose inhabitants hated him, and vice versa.

The various adult sons and daughter start driving across the desert as requested, with the steadily deteriorating corpse in one of their cars. There are tensions between them, and revelations of mistrust, unresolved disagreements, and ambiguities which should not be revealed here…

‘As I Lay Dying is about as downbeat as it gets, but – intermittent references to putrefaction aside – the grimness is predominantly psychological rather than physical. In fact, on a visual level, it’s rather beautiful and ‘poetically’ shot, especially the twilight scenes. This is a sombre, quiet and lyrical film, whose languid pace and subtlety make it seem longer than its 74-minute running time – but in a good way.

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‘I have the right to testify,’ screams a business woman as she’s manhandled out of court halfway through the latest film from Ivan I. Tverdovskiy (Zoology). And it’s easy to understand where her anger stems from. Dragged up on trumped charges of drink driving, she initially sits in astonishment as it becomes apparent that not only is the police officer who charged her on the take, but so is the judge, the prosecution, and even her own defence lawyer. This is the corrupt world of Jumpman where in Russia, there are those who jump and those who are told to jump.

17-year-old Denis (Denis Vlasenko) falls very much into the latter category. Given up for adoption as a baby, Denis has grown up with rare genetic disorder which means he can’t feel pain. When his mum, Oksana (Anna Slyu), turns up to bust him out of the orphanage, Denis feels that he’s finally attained everything he needs. Mum, meanwhile, is a shambles from day one. A heavy drinker, she regularly spends her time roaming the flat they share together in her underwear and stoking a more than uncomfortable flirtatious relationship with her son. This borderline incestuous care of duty is only the tip of the iceberg before mummy encourages her son to jump out in front of cars for money. Choosing only the wealthiest victims, Oksana’s motley crew offer to drop the charges for large amounts of cash, whilst sending anyone who dares to stand up to them to kangaroo court. See above.

From the minute Denis steps out of his orphanage, Jumpman wears its political leanings on its sleeve. Tverdovskiy has said in interviews that he is fascinated by the notion of adults in 2018 who have grown up only really knowing Putin overseeing Russia. This is echoed in Denis’ genetic condition; he feels no pain, numb even, and happily goes along with what he’s told by those above him in the food chain. He naively trusts the law enforcement of Moscow in the shape of Oksana’s cop buddy. When Denis begins to question his place in this new world and how it’s being run, Jumpman shows that it doesn’t help to question those who are looking out for you, regardless of how much they hurt you.

In terms of an allegory, it’s all about as subtle as the vehicles that plough into Denis, with Oksana being a clear stand in for Mother Russia itself. However, none of that detracts from the fact that Jumpman is an exhilarating thriller with some splashes of black humour. As Denis, Vlasenko offers up a timid, wide eyed performance as he struts through Moscow like Bambi to the slaughterhouse. His naivety is really the only bright light in the film and it’s crushing to watch it dim as the story advances. His performance is supported by Tverdovskiy’s slick visuals and long takes that allow his characters to breathe against a background of blue light and vape smoke.

With a name like Jumpman, and with his Deadpool like condition, comparisons to superhero movies are likely. Get past this presumption early however, and what you’re left with is a twisted take on the coming of age tale, which only struggles because its political point scoring is so on the nose.

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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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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Ryuichi Sakamoto cuts a solitary figure, striding silently along a desolate irradiated beach in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, not far from the nuclear power facility that was damaged during the 2011 tsunami. Along with a group of environmental activists, clad in hazmat suits and masks, Sakamoto searches through abandoned buildings and remote beaches, in search of found objects that may provide interesting sounds that can be recorded.

He’s a collector, of recorded sounds from nature and technology. Earlier in his career, he was fascinated by degraded technology, happy accidents that can create strange and wonderful soundscapes. These days, he’s more concerned with the organic sounds of nature; technology still features though, as exemplified in his wonder at the discovery of an intact grand piano in an abandoned building that was consumed by the tsunami floods. He joyfully tinkers with a dead piano key that emanates a muffled chime and nods agreeably.

Starting his solo career in the late seventies, while at the same time collaborating in the electronic three-piece Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto also established his tastes for working across a variety of media when he composed the music for (and starred in) Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence alongside David Bowie. He would also go on to compose the scores for many films, such as Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Constantly working, Sakamoto has also written for various anime and games.

All this was brought to a grinding halt in 2014 when Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer. Now in remission, we follow him on his daily routine, as he muses about his mortality and his shock at not knowing quite what to do with himself during this extended hiatus.

In conversation, Sakamoto is quietly spoken and reflective though he’s prone to bouts of enthusiastic wonder such as one sequence where he records a frozen Antarctic stream, revelling in the fact that these waters are ‘pre-industrial’ and untouched by modern machines; moments later he stands beneath a huge Antarctic boulder and clangs two hand-held bells together – they chime like tuning forks, shrill and reverberating. As if claiming an unseen victory in the bells tolling amidst the silence of the frozen surrounds, he pumps his fists in the air and bounces on his toes.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s infectious curiosity about nature and the music of life, make for an engaging and moving subject. Highly recommended.

Following its screening at the Brisbane International Film Festival, the film will release in cinemas, which you can find here:

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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.