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The Witness

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Businessman Han Sang-soon (Lee Sung-min) comes home late from a workplace party to witness a brutal murder from his apartment window – and for the murderer to see him doing so. Keeping quiet to avoid becoming a target himself, he soon finds himself stalked by the killer anyway and unwanted repercussions building for those around him.

The Witness is a new South Korean thriller directed by Jo Kyu-jang, one that has enjoyed huge commercial success back in its home country. It presents a faulty protagonist making a particularly dubious choice – not to report the violent killing of a young woman – and then ratcheting up his paranoia twist by twist as he begins to suspect the murderer is deliberately following him around. It has a good cast, but otherwise fails to make too strong an impact. South Korea has no shortage of crime films or thrillers, and as a result it takes an awful lot for a movie to stand out from the crowd. The Witness is competently made, and on its own merits fitfully enjoyable, but it lacks the one inventive idea to boost its appeal.

What the viewer is left with is a relatively unlikeable lead; one whose cowardice and indecision begins to have a cost to other people. His reluctance also slows the plot interminably, since while he chooses not to act the story is forced into a sort of narrative paralysis. Things do happen but few of them are that interesting, and the ones that are find themselves shoved back into the film’s busy third act. The film ends particularly well – get through a silly climax and there’s a genuinely effective epilogue – but good epilogues don’t save ordinary films. A subplot about local residents resisting the police investigation to avoid a fall in property prices has merit but feels under-developed.

Lee Sung-min does his best with a rather two-dimensional role, but there is only so much he can do to lift the material. Jin Kyung fares much better as Han’s wilful and independent wife – still something of a rarity in this sort of movie – but she gets much too little to do. Kim Sang-ho is appealing as the police detective tracking down the murderer, but he is playing out old story beats and dialogue. Most frustrating of all is the killer himself, played by Kwak Si-Yang. He receives no back story or depth, despite the film’s near-two-hour duration. He has no motive, shows no logic, and is simplistically presented as a faceless, violent monster. Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees got more personality that this, and that was from behind a hockey mask.

On a technical level The Witness does its job sufficiently, but that just reflects the overall problem with the film. In as crowded a market as Korea, a crime movie cannot afford to be merely competent. I suspect its success at home will be due to popular stars, or weak competition when it was released. Unless you’re a Korean keen to watch something from home, or a particularly keen fan of the country and genre, there is better stuff to watch.

 
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Mirai of the Future

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Kun (Moka Kamishiraishi) is a four-year-old boy living in Japan. When his parents bring home a babysister named Mirai, he is hurt and resentful. Hating the loss of attention, he begins to misbehave until he is visited by a teenage Mirai from the future – sending him on a series of magical lessons in his family’s past, future, and elsewhere.

Mamoru Hosoda has been one of Japan’s most creatively and commercially successful anime directors of recent years, thanks to a string of pictures including The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children. Mirai is his seventh directorial feature, and two TV spin-offs aside it may also be his weakest. There is superb artistry to be seen, but it seems to serve a lesser purpose. It is a pretty confection, rather than a must-see work of art. Given the quality of his earlier features that is quite a disappointment.

The film returns once again to concepts and themes of family and struggling relationships within them. It’s a theme he absolutely nailed in Summer Wars – still his finest achievement – but also tackled in most of his other films. By this stage the well is running dry, and Hosoda’s treatment of the material is feeling worn-out and tired. He particularly struggles here because his protagonist is not entirely likeable. There is only so long one can enjoy watching a bratty, self-indulgent child before it becomes exhausting, and Mirai passes that point well before the halfway mark. Each set piece struggles to maximise its impact because each of them treats Kun better than he deserves. It is also a rather weak narrative for a film: a poorly-behaved child is taught to be a little nicer thanks to magic and time travel.

The fantasy sequences are tremendously conceived, and lead to some delightful scenes in isolation. At one stage Kun meets his pet dog in humanoid form. In another he is taken on horse and motorcycle rides along a beautifully conceived and evocative late 1940s Japanese coast. The film’s climax takes the furthest steps of all, with some great design and animation work that reminds us just how talented a filmmaker Hosoda is.

Even outside of the fantasy scenes there is some excellent work. Kun’s house is beautifully designed architecture, and all of the small details of clothing, toys, even facial expressions show subtlety and thoughtfulness. It is the film’s one big problem in a nutshell: the fine detail is near-faultless, but it is all in service of an outrageously limited and slender story. Fans of Hosoda’s previous work will likely find some value, but you should go in with measured expectations. Casual fans of anime would do better aiming a little higher, if this is likely to be the one anime you watch this year.

 
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The Guilty (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Asger Holm is a police officer under investigation for the illegal shooting of a suspect. While protesting his innocence, he finds himself restricted to working the emergency telephone lines night after night. On the last night of work before his disciplinary tribunal is held, a terrified woman named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) calls having been kidnapped from her own home. Asger is forced to rescue her and catch her kidnapper – all from the confines of his desk.

The Guilty is one of the freshest and most tense crime thrillers of recent years. It is tense because it features a whip-smart plot with several twists and surprises. It feels fresh because not only does Asger never leave the office, neither does the audience. The entire feature takes place in an emergency call centre, with the victim, kidnapper, witnesses and field cops only featuring via a telephone line. It creates something that almost feels like a hybrid of film and radio drama. It forces the audience to imagine the action by themselves, and there’s plenty of action to be imagined. As if often the trend with so-called ‘Nordic Noir’, the violence gets rather blunt and trends towards the actively horrific. It’s arguably even more savage than usual, since The Guilty doesn’t show you horrors so much as describe them to you for you to imagine by yourself.

Such a deliberately limited presentation places a lot of responsibility on both acting and writing. The screenplay is by director Gustav Möller with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, and positively nails the tension required to make the film work. It is not a long film by any stretch, but it still wisely utilises a slow build as a kidnapping turns into a murder, and that murder begins to ratchet up Asger’s own tensions about the killing of which he has been accused. It builds the facts behind the kidnapping like a jigsaw puzzle, as each revelation forces the viewer to reconsider what they have already heard. Once events reach a climax, Möller is quick to exit the film while the audience is still reeling. It’s good that the film is as tightly edited as it is – much more of this level of tension and it would risk becoming unbearable.

Jakob Cedergren does a sensational job playing Asger. It is a hugely demanding role. The majority of the film is dominated by his face in close-up, requiring an enormously subtle performance to both maintain tension and avoid over-acting. It is a pressure-cooker role, with Asger being critical to Iben’s survival yet feeling powerless as a field officer stuck on the telephone, and not well-liked by his colleagues for being a hothead or widely trusted due to his shooting incident. The performance is as close to faultless as to make no odds.

This is a remarkable, must-see thriller, and one of the strongest narrative features of the year to date. It is remarkable the directorial debut for Gustav Möller. If his first shot is this strong, he is definitely a director to keep an eye on in future. The Guilty announces a major new filmmaking talent.

 
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Believer (Korean Film Festival in Australia)

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An explosion at a drug manufacturing laboratory takes out an entire level of a drug syndicate’s management. In the wreckage, the police find a low-level syndicate member still alive. Arrested and detained by a special investigation team, he agrees to help them track down what remains of the syndicate’s leadership, particularly its anonymous leader “Mr Lee” – but can he be trusted?

If this all sounds a little familiar, it may be because you have seen Johnnie To’s 2013 Chinese film Drug War, of which Lee Hae-Young’s Believer is a South Korean remake. While the characters are all subtly re-imagined and the beat-by-beat narrative changed, at the end of the day the two films tell almost exactly the same story. As far as remakes go, it’s a smart one: Lee takes most of the elements from Drug War that worked best but finds room to localise and remix To’s work in the remaining scenes.

Cho Jin-woong plays Jo Won-ho, a tightly wound and vengeful narcotics detective. He has spent years on the trail of the mysterious Mr Lee, and when one of his best snitches is brutally murdered just to send him a message, he steps wildly out of control in a chase to track the elusive kingpin down. Cho plays the role with a brilliant intensity and more than a little brutality; he treads a thin line between being a hero the audience can support and an out-of-line abusive cop who deserves to be arrested himself.

When a drug laboratory is destroyed and a senior lieutenant to Mr Lee assassinated in front of him, Cho’s only hope is Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol): a junior member of the syndicate who agrees to help Cho’s squad when the laboratory explosion murders his mother and almost kills his dog. Ryu is stunning in the role. He finds an ambivalent path that makes it difficult for the audience to ever really trust Rak. He may be helping Cho. He may be protecting Lee. He may even be helping himself. The film does a remarkable job of keeping that ambiguity active and balanced through much of its two-hour running time.

The path to Mr Lee takes in a series of wildly inventive set pieces, all sourced and adapted from Johnnie To’s original film. To get a foot into the syndicate’s operations, Cho impersonates one of its lieutenants to make a deal with a dangerously unhinged Chinese client named Ha-Rim (Kim Joo-hyuk). Immediately afterwards he rushes to another hotel suite to make the same deal from the other side: masquerading as Ha-Rim to fool Mr Lee’s real lieutenant. The sequence boasts a bravura performance by Kim Joo-hyuk, who turns Ha-Rim into someone both amusing and repellent in equal measure. This was Kim’s final performance – he tragically died in a car accident last year before Believer had finished shooting – and he made it a hugely memorable one.

For fans of Drug War intrigued to see how a Korean remake shapes up, Believer is an engaging and satisfying take on strong material. For viewers that missed the story the first time around, Believer is a beautifully shot and paced action thriller. It boasts strong performances, inventive settings and characters, and bold, bloody storytelling. If you like Korean cinema, you’re going to love this one.

 
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Tigers Are Not Afraid (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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11 year-old Mexican Estrella (Paola Lara) finds herself living on the street when her mother is kidnapped by the terrifying Huascas criminal gang. She is soon taken in by a gang of homeless young boys, but their lives come into peril when one of the boys impulsively steals a gangster’s mobile telephone and handgun. With the Huascas now hunting the children down, Estrella’s only hope may be her mother’s ghostly voice whispering in her ear.

The bleak lives of children orphaned by Mexican gangs collide with supernatural horror in Issa López’s confident and boldly directed Tigers Are Not Afraid. The film has already gathered widespread acclaim at film festivals around the world, as well as comparisons between López and fellow Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. It’s an easy comparison to make: not only for their country of origin, but their manner of tackling human emotions via allegory. Here, the dozens of victims of a runaway criminal gang literally haunt the streets. The lives lost are visible, and they beg Estrella to avenge them. It is an uncertain haunting, however: are the ghosts real, or are they only in Estrella’s mind? Does she really have three wishes, or do her desires coincidentally align with real events? López plays her cards very close to her chest in answering that question.

Where López differs from Del Toro is in the much grittier and realistic world that the supernatural invades. Unlike Del Toro’s baroque environments and lyrical photography, López utilises a bleak and naturalistic aesthetic. Her ghosts are rotten cadavers. The environment is broken-down and unpopulated. It is a distinctive look that, when paired with the film’s urgent pace, makes Tigers Are Not Afraid a particularly original and effective slice of urban horror.

The representation of the dead is one of the film’s strongest assets. They are barely seen, most often represented as a soft voice and a thin stream of blood that follows Estrella along floors and walls. When they are more directly seen, they have a visceral impact. At the same time, some of the non-supernatural events provide the stronger horror. The gangsters mean business when tracking down the children, and not every child necessarily emerges safely by the film’s end.

López has found an exceptional juvenile cast for her film. As Estrella, Paola Lara delivers a superb protagonist and combines grit and vulnerability. The real highlight, however, is Juan Ramón López as “Shine”, the de facto leader of the abandoned children. Despite his young age, he shows off exceptional bravado in leading his friends. When Estrella joins the group, he is immediately resentful and makes certain she knows his feelings about her. It is a great performance, packed with resentment and a cocky front, and Ramón López is quite simply superb. Shine does not simply act as a leader either; he is effectively acting as father to his three younger friends – and particularly to the vulnerable Morro (Ney Arredondo), a traumatised four-year-old who wanders the streets tightly clutching a tiger soft toy. With Estrella’s arrival, the Peter Pan and Wendy comparisons become obvious.

Short, sharp and to the point, Tigers Are Not Afraid is an excellent work of supernatural horror with a distinctive setting and an uncompromising story. It is packed with powerful imagery. It does sensational work with a juvenile cast. It deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible.

 
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Climax

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Not enough people are going to talk about the dancing, but we will get to that shortly.

French film provocateur Gaspar Noé returns with what feels – at least on the first viewing – as the strongest feature he has directed to date. Climax does not deviate too far from his earlier works such as Love, Enter the Void and particularly his 2002 film Irreversible, but it certainly showcases how much his technique has been refined. Noé has always pushed boundaries of mainstream taste. His various scenes of graphic violence or sexual activity have earned him a reputation for controversy, and the discomfort created in those scenes leave his audience at a queasy crossroads between shock, inappropriate laughter – even anger at the director himself. He exploits an audience’s prurience and its desire to rubber-neck violence, and punishes those desires by lingering on them to interminable lengths. Then he will perversely break the horror with an absurd moment of levity and fool the viewers into lining up to be horrified again.

The remarkable part is that Noé only needs to present something horrifying a few times for the audience’s paranoia to do the rest of the job for him. One spends much of Climax in a state of constant rising dread. It is a hugely uncomfortable place to be. The film is enormously uncomfortable and tense. In one middle sequence, you feel actively nauseous. For a film to generate such a physical response in the viewer is a remarkable achievement. Most viewers likely will not enjoy it. Some will probably object to its having ever been made at all. For those with an interest at just how far motion pictures can affect the viewer, Climax is the best horror film of 2018 to date.

Climax features a group of contemporary dancers who have been assembled to perform on an American tour. In an isolated school building in the winter, they rehearse their collaborative work. Then they party, dancing and chatting late into the night while getting drunk on home-made sangria. The sangria has been spiked – whether with LSD or some other narcotic nobody knows – and trapped inside the building the party begins to go horrifyingly out of control.

The film is divided into two halves. The second, in which the drugs take effect and the paranoia sets in, is easily the half that everybody is going to talk about. The first, which kicks off with a series of interviews with the characters and centres on a bravura 15-minute dance sequence, is utterly remarkable and deserves as much praise as it can get. It is not just exceptionally performed, with choreography by Nina McNeely, it is also beautifully shot by regular Noé cinematographer Benoît Debie. It makes you long for the idea of a fully-fledged Gaspar Noé musical. It also does a tremendous job of developing the unexpectedly large ensemble cast; a process that continues with a sharply contrasting series of rapid-cut conversations between the characters as they party.

A second dance sequence, strikingly shot from above, cleverly shows the spiked sangria taking effect. The moves become more sexual and aggressive. The mood turns ever-so-slightly threatening. From here, the film descends headlong into a familiar Noé-esque Hell, in which the lightning changes to garish primary colours and the camera starts to pitch and yaw in a queasy fashion. The characters realise they’ve been drugged. Some sink into dream-like stupors. Others get angry – very angry – and for the two dancers that did not drink the sangria, the hunt for the one who spiked the drinks becomes genuinely terrifying. It is not the violence that makes Climax a harrowing experience, it is the potential for that violence. Every character becomes a potential victim, every character a potential assailant. As each shock incident assaults the viewer he or she becomes just as paranoid as the characters, imagining with every moment every potentially horrifying thing that might occur. Some of them do. Others come out of the blue. All of them arc up the harrowing, terrifying nightmare that is beginning to unfold. It is inescapable, unstoppable, and so seemingly unending that it begins to have a genuine physical effect on the viewer.

Climax is a film with niche appeal. It is unapologetic and pulls no punches. For many viewers it will be actively repellent, and even physically upsetting. When reviewing a film, however, there are always three key questions to keep in mind: (a) what is the director attempting to do, (b) do they succeed, and (c) is it well made? With Climax the answer to all three is a resolute ‘yes’. It is not just great at what it does; it is a provocative masterpiece.

 
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Sen Sen (Taiwan Film Festival)

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A boy named Sen (Wu Zhi-Xuan) struggles to cope with the recent death of his older brother. While his mother works each night at a local convenience store, Sen rides his bike around their suburb. He does homework in a fast food restaurant, hanging out at a manhwa (comics) library, and searching through his later brother’s mobile telephone. Via the telephone Sen learns that his brother was a regular viewer of a streaming videocast.

Through the cast he contacts its presenter, an elderly woman known simply as Granny (Nina Paw). Granny is a taxi driver suffering from stage 4 lung cancer and has been given three months to live. She obstinately insists she will make it to day 100. Together she and Sen make an unexpected connection and develop a stronger acceptance of death between them.

Situated less than 200 kilometres off the mainland Chinese coast, and living in a diplomatic limbo for the past seven decades, Taiwan is a small country that punches well above its weight in the screen arts. It is the home of Hollywood darling Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) as well as arthouse darlings Hou Hsiao-Hsien (The Assassin), Edward Yang (Yi Yi), and Tsai Ming-Liang (Goodbye Dragon Inn). It also has profoundly active commercial and independent film sectors – from which most films fail to secure significant international distribution. Given the generally high quality of Taiwanese cinema, that is a failure that borders on tragedy.

Sydney’s inaugural Taiwan Film Festival will hopefully change that in future years. This three-day festival from 27-29 July presents a combination of narrative features and documentary that showcases Taiwan’s film at its very best. Its opening night film Sen Sen represents an excellent way to start. It is well-performed and written, and is told in a carefully restrained and gently emotive fashion.

The film is mostly told from Sen’s point of view. Wu Zhi-Xuan gives a strong juvenile performance. It is surprisingly understated, and it is a good direction to take because it makes his rare moments of vocal upset much more striking and effective. Nina Paw – a rightfully celebrated actor in her home Hong Kong – is tremendous as Granny, expressing a wonderful amount of humour and warmth. The chemistry between the two, via acting and direction, is very strong. While they create the focus of the picture, they receive strong support by Yen Yi-Wen and Hsuan-yen Tsai as Granny’s daughter and Sen’s mother respectively. Each get their own smaller, subsidiary storylines: one about a daughter accepting her mother’s stubbornness in accepting death on her own terms, and the other about a grieving mother reconnecting with one son after another has died.

It would be easy for the film to become too sentimental or even maudlin. That it does not do so is down to An Bon’s steady and uncomplicated direction, and An and Cheng Ying-min’s screenplay. A lonely boy forming a friendship with a charming old lady gives the film humour and brightness. That the old lady is terminally ill leavens that brightness and delivers something more akin to real life. The musical score is sparse and restrained. The photography is simple and direct. This is the kind of understated quality film that deserves strong recommendation.

 
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Wet Woman in the Wind

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Kosuke (Tasuku Nagaoka) is a successful playwright who, unlucky in love, has retreated to a thrown-together shack in the woods while he emotionally recovers. His solitary life is disrupted by the arrival of Shiori (Yuki Mamiya), a deranged woman intent upon invading his home and forcing him to have sex.

Let’s back up for a quick Japanese history lesson. In the 1970s the Japanese film industry was at a commercial low point. The industry was under attack from two sides: by expensive American imports stealing market share, and by the rapidly expanding television industry that was leading audiences to stay at home. The major studios struggled to stay afloat during this period, until they were thrown a valuable lifeline. Television censors kept violent and sexual content off-screen, and that gave feature films an angle of approach to keep everybody in business. A quick survey of 1970s Japanese film shows two main trends dominating: violent crime films, and soft-core erotica.

The erotic films, generally referred to locally as ‘roman porno’, were mostly the domain of the famous studio Nikkatsu. Their previous output of gangster films, noir, and teen dramas gave way to an increasingly salacious production line of pornography. Unable to adjust to a changing industry in the 1980s, Nikkatsu eventually collapsed and declared bankruptcy in 1993. The studio was revived 17 years later and is now cashing in on its notorious roman porno films with a new string of self-aware, referential erotic features for the arthouse market.

These new films have come with a strict set of rules for their unexpectedly high-profile directors: the films cannot run for more than 80 minutes and their production shoot may only last a maximum of two weeks. There are other films in the new range directed by Sion Sono (Love Exposure) and Hideo Nakata (Ring, Dark Water). Wet Woman in the Wind comes from director Akihiko Shiota, and it comes as a sharp contrast to his big-budget manga adaptation Dororo – still his most famous work in or outside of Japan.

There is a certain degree of wit to Wet Woman, as well as a committed cast of actors and genuinely likable jazzy score by Shunsuke Kida. It does deliver a fairly authentic tribute to the roman pornos of the mid-1970s. Therein also lays its problem. What is the difference between a self-aware re-tread of a cheap and sleazy hour of pornography, and the original hour of pornography? The sex scenes – most of which are packed into a seemingly unending second half of gyrating bodies – may satisfy a particular viewer’s desire to ogle naked women, but the film itself does not challenge or critique those earlier films. There is a kind of play at work in recreating the genre and technique, but it feels more satisfying in an abstract sense than in the actual chore of sitting through it.

The sex feels ordinary, and if watching sex is your thing there are countless better and more entertaining avenues to find it. There are some well-timed and performed moments of slapstick comedy, but if that is your thing there are again better films to watch. In the end, Wet Woman in the Wind falls graceless between two stools. It’s momentarily intriguing for recreating an abandoned style of movie, but it ultimately feels no different than just tracking down one of those 1970s original and watching that instead. To be honest, it is all more than a little dull.

 
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The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra

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The peaceful kingdom of Ramthep has been invaded by the armies of Asura. Ott, the son of a resistance leader, is trained in the martial art of muay thai and dispatched to deliver the magical weapon 9 Satra to the prince of Ramthep. On his way he encounters numerous dangers, as well as new allies in the form of a pirate girl, a good-hearted Asura defector, and the mischievous monkey prince.

When looking around the global animation industry from here in Australia, a few specific countries stand out above the crowd. The USA, of course, dominates thanks to its enormous production and marketing budgets. Japan makes a strong play via the large teenage audience for anime. Arthouse audiences get their fair share of French animation via festivals and home video. One of the countries that really hasn’t made a successful play on a global stage is Thailand, although that is not for a lack of trying. The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra is the latest attempt, and one that stands a reasonable chance of finding a local audience. Produced on a US$8 million budget, and developed over four years, it is a mainstream-friendly fantasy adventure with a distinctive Thai flavour and a healthy dashing of drama and humour. More importantly, it recognises and understands its target market. Fans of popular anime including Dragonball Z and One Piece should find a lot of appeal here: it’s a simple story with plenty of action and an aggressive pace.

Given the film’s comparatively small budget, a smart decision has been made to keep the characters and settings stylised and simple. It is a strategy that works, giving 9 Satra an aesthetic that is bold and effective. The story is a familiar one, but in this case the archetypes work. The production team have clearly worked hard to develop a mainstream animated fantasy and to a large extent that effort has paid off. It also comes to Australia with an English language dub. While the animation purists may bristle at the loss of original dialogue and subtitles, it does open the film’s appeal to its target audience. It’s a solid dub which works perfectly well.

The choice in angles and editing is dynamic and lively, but also frustrates. One of 9 Satra’s highlights should be its martial arts, which appear to be unexpectedly realistic and effective, but the directors’ choice to employ rapid-fire editing and whirling cinematography obscures the combat more than it showcases it. It is a sadly missed opportunity, one that would have provided the film with an obvious point of difference to set it out from the crowd.

There are three questions any reviewer must ask of a film: what is the filmmaker attempting to do, do they succeed, and is the film good? In regards to the first two questions, directors Pongsa Kornsri, Gun Phansuwon, and Nat Yoswatananont have definitely succeeded: this is a broad slice of populist entertainment that tells a Thai story in a Hollywood fashion, covering all expected story beats like a comforting blanket. As for the last question: the film is solidly entertaining rather than exceptional, but for its target market of action-crazy and fantasy-loving 8-15 year-olds it is definitely worth a look.