Ramen Shop (Eric Khoo, 2018)

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Opening this weekend at the Northwest Film Forum is this perfectly fine food drama by one of Singapore’s leading directors. After his father, a successful ramen chef, dies, a young man heads to Singapore in search of his mother’s family. Gauzy flashbacks fill in his parents’ back story in-between meetings with his estranged uncle and grandmother. His father, Japanese, and his mother, Chinese, married against her mother’s wishes, her hostility a result of lingering hatred of the Japanese following their occupation of the city-state during World War II. But as resentments and hatred are passed down through the generations, so too are recipes, taught from parent to child, adding personal touches learned from their own life experience. The cuisine of Singapore, with its influences from throughout East and South Asia as well as Europe is the blunt instrument of metaphor in Eric Khoo’s quiet, yet maudlin melodrama. The young man’s journey is as much about learning the recipes of his mother’s family as it is reconciling himself to the past atrocities of his father’s homeland. English serves as the lingua franca, bridging the gap between ancient hatreds, facilitating the fusion of Japanese ramen (itself a combination of Japanese flavors with Chinese noodles) with Singaporean pork rib soup (a combination of Chinese soup with Southeast Asian flavors).

As a vision of transnational solidarity dramatized by a Japanese person’s trip to Singapore, it’s vastly more conventional and less interesting than Daisuke Miyazaki’s Tourism, which also played at last year’s Japan Cuts festival but which is not getting, as far as I know, even a very limited North American release. Probably because the food, at least, looks much better. Though even that pales in comparison to the food in the quiet Korean drama Little Forest (a second adaptation of a manga, the first of which, a Japanese version, played in two parts at SIFF a few years ago), which likewise won’t see American theatres, but you can stream it on Amazon.

Regardless, I too hope to one day pass down to my grandchildren my own ramen recipe, which I’ll also share with you here:

1. In a small pot, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add noodles, breaking up if desired. Cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Remove from heat. Stir in seasoning from soup base packet.
3. Try adding an egg, vegetables, or meat as desired.

Liz and the Blue Bird (Naoko Yamada, 2018)

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Shunji Iwai’s Last Letter wasn’t the only tear-jerking teen romance to sneak onto Seattle screens this past week. Naoko Yamada’s anime Liz and the Blue Bird, based on a novel called Sound! Euphonium by Ayano Takeda that has already been adapted into two seasons of a TV series and a couple of movies by Tatsuya Ishihara, is playing at the Varsity and the Grand Illusion, where it will be held-over for a couple more shows this coming weekend (the 24th and 25th of November). It’s about the relationship between two girls in the school band. Nozomoi, a flautist, is lively and gregarious, while the oboist Mizore is shy and withdrawn. After a brief prologue, we follow the two girls on their walk to school for practice on a Sunday morning, Mizore following behind, her gaze, at Nozomi’s feet, her legs, and, most of all, her gaily swishing ponytail, brilliantly establishing the obsession that is her crush. The two girls are assigned a duet as a part of the band’s end of the year competition, and their negotiating that piece, and their interpretations of the children’s story on which it is based, is the vehicle through which the delicate negotiation of teen love and self-actualization will be realized.

More muted and intimate than the other high-quality Japanese animated films that have played here this year, specifically the bombastically inventive Night is Short, Walk on Girl and the generationally-expansive Mirai (coming soon to a multiplex near you), Liz and the Blue Bird is no less breath-taking, both to look at and in narrative. Interspersed throughout the slice of life real-world story are the girls’ imagining of the eponymous fairy tale, given a story-book smudginess and an orange and yellow glow that contrasts sharply with the steely blues of the classroom interiors and rainy sidewalks of the city. But most of all it’s Yamada’s focus on small gestures and behaviors, the way Mizore tugs at her hair when she’s nervous, or how the camera, when adopting her point of view, tends to face downwards, like it’s afraid to face the world, that marks Liz and the Blue Bird as one of the most keenly observed romances of recent years, animated or otherwise.

VIFF 2018: Mirai (Mamoru Hosada, 2018)

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In 2012 Mamoru Hosada released Wolf Children, one of the finest animated films of the decade. It followed a young mother’s struggle to let her children go as they age, to become their own people, separate from her (that one of them chooses a human life while the other heeds the call of the wild and runs off to live as a wolf like his father is only tangentially relevant). With Mirai, Hosada addresses much the same issue from the opposite perspective, this time we see the child’s point of view as he grows form a wholly ego-driven individual into a member of a family, a continuum of people that extends not just horizontally to his sister and parents, but also backwards and forwards in time, to the people his ancestors were and the people he and his sister will become.

He’s not a werewolf this time (though he does have a talent for canine imitation) rather he is subject to a series of fantasies that grow out of the trauma of the arrival of his younger sibling, and the shattering of the idyllic existence he’d led as the center of the universe. He sees the family dog anthropomorphized into a fallen prince (an initial act of empathy that mirrors his own loss of place). He meets an older version of his baby sister, and he has an adventure with his great-grandfather. In interacting with these people (which may be mere figments of his young imagination or could be the manifestation of some supernatural power, it amounts to much the same thing) he learns perspective: that other beings are just as conscious as he is, that the world and the people in it are both distinct from him while also forming an essential part of him, a vast web of humanity with a center that might belong to him, but then again, it might not.

Mirai is as fanciful as anything Hosada has made, with a trip to the geometric horror of a train station a particular highlight. But like Wolf Children, as well as his version of The Girl Who Leapt through Time, it is fundamentally grounded in the every day, which in this case means a whole lot of parent humor, for which I am, no doubt, a sucker (I happen to have a self-centered, train-obsessed boy in my home as well). Hosada expertly fuses fantasy and slice-of-life anime, following in the tradition of the best of Studio Ghibli (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart), as well as any director of his generation.

VIFF 2018: Asako I & II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

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In keeping the same minute attention to the smallest details of human routine and interaction that so distinguished his intimate 2015 epic Happy Hour, but trapping them within the familiar confines of a romantic comedy, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi has created something remarkable, a genre film as alive to the possibilities and contradictions of the human psyche and its dealing with other souls as we’ve seen in some time. It’s certainly the best romantic film since Hong Sangsoo’s Yourself and Yours, with which it shares a certain surface similarity. But in every important respect it is sui generis, very much its own thing.

Asako and Baku meet-cute at an art gallery. It’s love at first sight, the two are wordlessly drawn together and stay that way for some time, in the pure romance of youth, impervious to the outside world and not only unafraid of death but turned on by its impossibility. Until, one day Baku disappears. Five years later, Asako meets cute again, this time with a young businessman named Ryôhei, who looks exactly like Baku and is played by the same actor (Masahiro Higashide, from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish). The bulk of the film tracks their relationship, growing from awkward avoidance to friendship to love with the rhythms of the everyday and in parallel to the romance between their respective best friends. The friends’ antagonistic first meeting over a performance of Chekov, is the best of the films several digressions, with an unexpected natural disaster and an idyllic montage in a fishing weekend providing other highlights.

The inevitable conflict comes in the final third, as Baku returns. If Hamaguchi doesn’t resolve The Case of the Two Bakus (or rather, the Two Asakos, the first crazed with the freedom of youth, the second safe in the benign contentment of maturity) with as much bald-faced ingenuity as Hong did, he can be forgiven. The solution he does find is as emotionally confused and true as real-life. We are unlikely to see a more open and all-embracing film this year.

Lu Over the Wall (Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

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Things have been bleak on the family film front lately on Seattle Screens, at least as far as I have seen. The last movie I took my kids to was The Last Jedi, and there hasn’t been anything they or I have really been interested in since then. After seeing several toy tie-in cartoons over the last few years (really the only animated film we saw with any kind of heart to it was the ballet movie Leap!, which even then diminished itself with kid-movie cliché chase sequences), something like Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall is an absolute joy, worth taking the kids to even in its English-dubbed version (I assume: the version I watched was Japanese with English subtitles). The mash-up of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea and Linda Linda Linda we don’t know we needed, Lu is the best variation on The Little Mermaid of 2017.

Lu is a ningyo, a creature from Japanese folklore roughly analogous to a mermaid. In a reversal of Greek myth, she’s drawn to the shore by music, specifically the pop-rock stylings of a middle school trio named “Seiren”. Moved by the tunes, Lu sings and then jumps onto the land (a protective bubble of water around her head), sprouts legs and dances wildly. The legs go away when the music stops, and after some initial confusion the band members, especially the shy Kai, befriend her. It seems the small fishing village in which the action takes place has a complicated history with the merfolk, with stories of them eating people circulating among the elderly (in particular Kai’s grandfather, who saw his mother get bitten and disappear under the sea). There’s a giant island in the town’s harbor, a Gibraltar casting a shadow over the sleepy village and separating it from the wider ocean and the island where the merfolk are said to dwell. It’s a literalization of the walls separating the village from the outside world, the people from the spirits and nature around them, and Kai from other people. Catchy music and simple messages (“Like everyone!”) are the medium through which Lu breaks down all these walls.

While much of the animation and plotline recalls Ponyo (with a little bit of Kiki’s Delivery Service thrown in), Lu Over the Wall isn’t nearly as derivative as the otherwise pleasant Mary and the Witch’s Flower from earlier this year. Yuasa has a goofier touch than Miyazaki, trading the mystical beauty of Ghibli’s nature for a more Looney Tunes aesthetic. In an interesting twist, Yuasa’s merfolk are vampiric: they are allergic to sun, they can transform creatures into the undead with a bite, and they appear to have to hypnotic power to make people dance in spite of themselves. This leads to some of the film’s most memorable images: denizens of a dog pound transformed into an army of merpups; undead fish dancing their way out of a sushi restaurant. The film’s crisp primary colors and cartoonish character movements are both flatter and more fun than what we’ve seen in recent Japanese animated films like Makoto Shinkai’s experiments in photo-realism (Your Name.) or the more traditional anime Napping Princess, and the look of the film is vastly more appealing than the CGI blandness of recent American efforts. I haven’t yet seen Yuasa’s Mind Game, which is reputed to be quite good. It’s playing this week at the Grand Illusion, and I’m guessing pairing it with this would make for an excellent double bill. Probably want to leave the kids behind for that one though.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2017)

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With his third feature film as a director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi has yet to develop an identity for himself outside of Studio Ghibli, where he began his career and made his debut, The Secret World of Arrietty, eight years ago. His films are technically impeccable, with the kind of detail and beauty that Hayao Miyazaki is known for, but something is missing. And it’s that something extra that marks Miyazaki as a great artist, while Yonebayashi is merely a skillful animator. Mary and the Witch’s Flower proves an excellent case-in-point. A young girl, bored while living with older relatives in the countryside, accidentally stumbles into a magical world above the clouds. Finding a flower that temporarily grants her magical powers, she’s mistaken for a new student and rushed into a wondrous school of wizardry by a magical broomstick. But it turns out the headmistress and the school’s resident scientist have been conducting mad experiments in interspecies hybrids, jeopardizing the girl and her friend Peter. Mary has to rescue the boy and defeat the evil sorcerers before it’s too late*.

The look owes everything to Miyazaki joints like Kiki’s Delivery ServiceCastle in the Sky (which you can catch this week at the Egyptian, kicking off the Northwest Film Forum’s annual Children’s Film Festival) and Howl’s Moving Castle. Mary is a headstrong girl with a mess of unruly red hair and a strong moral center. The magic school is made of gently steampunkish castles floating in seas of green, and the herds of experimented-upon animals recall the armies of forest creatures in Princess Mononoke. It’s all very beautiful, with some nice fantastical images and one quiet moment of repose. But where in Castle in the Sky the quiet moment is an oasis of beauty in an otherwise non-stop adventure, a pause to remind the heroes of what they’re fighting to defend and what the world has lost, and in Spirited Away the quiet moment leads to a soft deflation of all the expected action film anxiety right before it should have burst, in Mary it merely serves as a location for the delivery of flashbacked backstory before the final, rote, chase/battle sequences.

Yonebayashi’s last film, When Marnie Was There, was much more successful in breaking out of the Miyazaki template, bringing a ghostly Gothic romance edge to its story of a young girl coming of age. Mary, though, is a recapitulation, a kind of remix of Miyazaki without any of the idiosyncrasy. The scenario isn’t much more complex than that of Howl’s, or Ponyo, but Miyazaki is incapable of making an impersonal work and those films, targeted as they are (especially the later) toward the littlest kids, abound in the kind of small oddities and plot-free idylls that make a movie world come to life. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a beautiful movie, and God knows it’s better than at least 90% of what passes for children’s entertainment in American multiplexes, but it’s a ghost.

*Note that I watched the English dub of this Japanese film. It’s what was available on the press screener and, as far as I can tell, the English version is the only one that will be playing during the film’s run at the Meridian. But Regal is haphazard in noting dubbing or subtitling on their animated films. The English dub is quite good though, with Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent adding some degree of star power. The film’s source and setting, it’s based on a novel by British writer Mary Stewart, are perfectly consistent with English accented voices, with none of the discordances caused by the dubbing of Isao Takahata’s very Japanese Only Yesterday a few years ago.

VIFF 2017: Close-Knit (Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

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While watching Naoko Ogigami’s Close-Knit, I often remarked to myself, “The camera is always at the right distance! Every Time!” like an idiot. But it is this observation that best captures the appeal of Ogigami’s cinema. She is not fashionable or current or modern in ways that are obvious. Indeed, her concepts and sensibility are probably downright corny. But she has judgment, and her gaze is always a respectful one. Thus her camera is always at a careful distance, marveling at the nature of her characters and accepting them for who they are. Hers is a welcoming vision, perhaps most ably realized in her masterpiece Kamome Diner (2006), where all sorts of people are brought into the fold of the narrative, their tastes, mannerisms and behavior given their place. The same applies for her latest feature, Close-Knit.

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In This Corner of the World (Sunao Katabuchi, 2016)

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The obvious point of comparison for In This Corner of the World, an anime set on the home front during World War II, is with Isao Takahata’s 1988 Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies. But in spirit it’s more akin to Takahata’s later work: the world-dissolving subjective images of memory in Only Yesterday and the episodic focus on the family of My Neighbors the YamadasFireflies is about devastation, about the terrible consequences of war and, more specifically, of the cruel pride that makes for such wars, but Corner is about resilience, about a people to whom war is happening, with or without their complicity: it’s more Mrs. Miniver than anything else. Beginning before the war and skipping quickly through the early life of Suzu Urano, an artistic girl who lives near the city of Hiroshima. After short episodes from her childhood, the film settles down once she gets married and moves to Kure, a nearby town that is a center of naval manufacturing, in 1943. In these early scenes, the war is merely a background element: characters speak of the navy, the construction of a factory displaces the family’s seaweed business, ships are seen in the distant harbor, new ration recipes with variable results are tried, while the drama centers on Suzu’s integration into her new family and her rivalry with her new sister-in-law. But the war plays a bigger and bigger role as we proceed through time: a wrong turn into a red light district populated by displaced young women, air raid drills followed by actual bombardments, a visit from an old school friend who admonishes Suzu to “stay ordinary, stay sane”. Finally, in the summer of 1945, the horror of war becomes nigh unbearable, culminating the the atomic bombing of the city on the other side of the mountain. But even in the blasted hellscape that follows, the loss of so much humanity, Suzu and her family endure.

Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui, 2017)

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The most anticipated, and almost assuredly the best, World War II film of the summer, by one of the greatest filmmakers of the past forty years, opens here tomorrow exclusively at the Pacific Place: director Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come. Based on true events in the resistance against the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the film is so effective at its generic thrills, the suspense and action sequences and quiet moments of melancholy patriotism and laments for lost comrades that form the core of the resistance/war film, everything from For Whom the Bell Tolls to Army of Shadows, that one almost doesn’t notice that she’s radically revised one of the most masculine of genres into a story about the unbreakability of women.

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SIFF 2017: Mr. Long (Sabu, 2017)

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The SIFF program describes this as “Yojimbo meets Tampopo“, which definitely has an “I can only think of two Japanese movies” vibe, in that it isn’t really like either of those movies except its main character is a man who slices up people for hire and also sometimes makes noodles. It’s more akin to Johnnie To’s Where a Good Man Goes, but I’m probably only saying that because I’m the kind of person who compares everything to a Johnnie To movie.

Chang Chen’s a hitman in Kaohsiang who gets sent to Japan to kill someone. The job gets botched and he barely escapes. Recovering in a dilapidated slum, he’s befriended by a young boy (whose mom is a junkie) and eventually a whole community of locals, who figure out that he’s an excellent cook and, in like two days, build him an apartment and a noodle cart, while at the same time he helps the mom kick her heroin habit. It’s a story of rebirth fostered by community, and its portrait of the unity of people living on the margins recalls the spirit of no less than Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons. The fairy tale approach is leavened by a harder edge, but director Sabu (last seen here as Samurai #1 in Scorsese’s Silence) keeps things brisk and light, with long wordless stretches scored jauntily by Junichi Matsumoto. Chang’s deadpan performance is a delight, even as his hair comes perilously close to “Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element”. Befuddled as to why the locals seem to like him, the kid explains “it’s because you keep cool and don’t say anything”. Taiwanese actress Yao Yiti is unconvincing as a junkie (she cleans up into super-adorable way too quickly), but shines in her extended flashback, providing the unlikely link between her and Chang. That that link should go undiscovered by the characters involved is one of the many small idiosyncrasies of Sabu’s storytelling, one which defies both Hollywood notions of causality and Hong Kong traditions of cosmic coincidence.