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


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)


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)


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)


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.

Your Name. (Makoto Shinkai, 2016)


Makoto Shinkai’s latest anime smashed records across Asia last fall, becoming the highest grossing Japanese film in the history of China and Thailand, the second highest grossing Japanese film in Japanese history (behind Spirited Away), the worldwide top-grossing anime ever and the eighth highest grossing traditionally-animated film of all-time. Finally opening across North America this week, it has a chance to add to that record, and I think we’re all pulling for it to raise that extra $20 million it needs to overtake Pocahontas. Like his highly-acclaimed short features 5 Centimeters per Second (2007) and The Garden of Words (2013), it’s a story of two young people attempting to forge a connection. Romantically, yes, but also metaphysically. Apparently caused by the appearance of a comet close to the Earth, country girl Mitsuha and city boy Taki begin switching bodies: sometimes they wake up inhabiting the other, sometimes they don’t. They find this bewildering, of course, but eventually they figure out its rhythms and it turns out to be quite fun. And funny: Taki’s teenaged-boy obsession with his own (sort-of) breasts is perhaps the film’s truest note. Things reach a crisis point when the comet reaches its closest point and the body-switching ceases, sending each character in desperate search of the real-life other, complicated by the fact that they keep forgetting the other person’s existence.

Your Name. isn’t quite as other-worldly gorgeous as those two earlier films (they’re the only two other features I’ve seen from Shinkai), its combination of hand-drawn, computer and rotoscoped animation is a little more conventional, just as its plot and approach to narrative is a little more familiar. 5 Centimeters per Second was a trilogy of vignettes about a couple who loved each other once but where split apart by geography, and their attempts and failures to reconnect over a lifetime. The Garden of Words was about the Platonic love between a depressed teacher and a fifteen year old student. Your Name. unites these two in splitting its heroes in both time and space; human connection being so difficult that truly achieving it involves breaking the known laws of physics. The tragedy of the film comes from the loss of memory: human brains are unreliable and fungible, and the omnipresent devices we think make us more interconnected are even more fragile. Tradition and ritual though unite us with a past we cannot comprehend. Mitsuha is part of a long family line of makers of braided cords, who specially prepare a kind of saké as an offering for an unnamed god. They’ve forgotten the reasons for the rituals, but they perform them nonetheless. Where every other device of history and communication (cell phone, history book, museum photograph) fails, the braided cord, explicitly a metaphor for the dense and incomprehensible construction of space-time, persists.

Railroad Tigers (Ding Sheng, 2016)


January is the greatest movie month there is. Not only are we in the lesser metropolises of America finally granted access to tardiest of the previous year’s award hopefuls (see this week’s Silence), but via studio counter-programming logic, we also get Hollywood’s most interesting action films. The bloated prestige actioners get released in the summer (your Marvels and Nolans), while a handful of unstoppable forces stake their claim to winter break (the Star Warses and Camerons), while the suits and bean-counters push the films they don’t know how to exploit to the shadow of Oscar season. This is the month of Paul WS Anderson (his Resident Evil: The Final Chapter opens at the end of the month). It’s also blockbuster season in China, with big titles being released at Christmastime and especially at Lunar New Year, which falls between the end of January and the end of February (it’s January 28 this year). Two years ago the big early January Chinese import was Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, last year it was Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 3. This year, we’ve got Railroad Tigers, opening this week at the Pacific Place.

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The Wasted Times (Cheng Er, 2016)


The Wasted Times was originally slated to be released in October of 2015. The film’s trailer has been playing before presentations of Chinese-language films here in North America for at least that long, but the film kept getting pushed back. There was speculation it might make the rounds of the fall film festivals (Vancouver, Toronto, etc) but when that didn’t happen, the film simply dropped off my radar. Then, when putting together the listings for this week, there it was, playing on a single screen, at the AMC Pacific Place, distributed by the good people at China Lion Film. And the movie provides exactly what that trailer promised: a ravishingly odd tale of 1930s Shanghai, interwoven stories of gangsters, actresses and the Japanese military, with superstars Zhang Ziyi and Tadanobu Asano looking impossibly cool and fashionable, all tinged with a self-conscious meta-humor. That last element is provided by an exchange in the middle of the film, reproduced in full in the trailer, when one of the actresses is describing the movie she’s working on to a friend:

Friend: I don’t get it.
Actress: Neither do I. The Director never wants us to get it. This is an art film, made for the 21st Century.
Friend: We’ll all be dead by then. It has nothing to do with us.
Actress: You’re right.

We’ll, fool that I am, I’m going to try to make sense of it anyway. Spoilers ahead.

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VIFF 2016: After the Storm (Kore-eda Hirokazu, 2016)


Beginning with a shot out of the canon, a small Japanese kitchen, mother and daughter at work, receding into the distance on the left side of the screen are a series of rectangular spaces, the right angles of doorways leading to doorways, director Kore-eda Hirozaku states his intention to work in the mines first exploited by Yasujiro Ozu in a series of domestic comedies and dramas from the 1930s through the 1960s. This seems to be Kore-eda’s increasingly preferred mode of work, it’s been a long time since the minimalist fantasy of Afterlife, or even the bizarre Doona Bae vehicle Air Doll (in which the one of the great actresses working today plays a sentient sex doll who learns what it means to be human, and to kill). Since that film, Kore-eda has been following the vein of his 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, with a handful of films about families told in a patient, superficially Ozuvian style (no director has ever made a film completely in Ozu’s style: his editing and framing system is simply too idiosyncratic, most, like Kore-eda, recall the shapes of his sets and seek to recreate the pace of his movies with longer shot lengths). If this period of his work is as strong as After the Storm, I for one am content to let Kore-eda keep churning out these movies indefinitely.

Hiroshi Abe plays an acclaimed writer who, blocked in the creation of his second novel and succumbing to his gambling addiction, is working as a shady private investigator. He’s recently divorced and trying to keep the affection of his young son and win his wife back as she moves on to another man. The old woman in the opening scene is his mother, played by Kirin Kiki, who was exceptional as the matriarch in Still Walking and just as good here, the woman was his sister, like him a mooch and a bit of a failure. Hanging over everything is their recently deceased father, a compulsive gambler, an unliterary man who nonetheless took great pride in his penmanship. The various threads weave together during the eponymous storm, the latest in an unusually large number of typhoons (I write in the midst of a typhoon here in Tacoma) to hit Japan that year. After the storm, things aren’t resolved, as they can’t ever be in movies like this, where the recognition of irresolvability is always the resolution, but the air is a little cleaner.

The Age of Shadows (Kim Jee-woon, 2016)


Hot off its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and the announcement of its being chosen as South Korea’s submission for the Foreign Language Academy Award, the latest film from director Kim Jee-woon (The Good, The Bad, The WeirdI Saw the Devil) opened this past Friday. But not in Seattle: it’s only playing at the Alderwood Mall AMC in Lynnwood and the Cinemark theatre in Federal Way, another example of the mixed-blessing that is the state of Asian film distribution in the United States. On the one hand, were this exact same film French or German, you could expect it to be picked up by one of the major art house distributors and get a nationwide roll-out, eventually playing somewhere like SIFF or a Landmark theatre. Along with that would go critical attention and a much wider audience. Instead, as Korean, Chinese, Filipino and Indian films are increasingly only released in the US in small runs targeted at diasporic and immigrant communities, with no advance publicity and little advertising to the public at large, it’s likely that if The Age of Shadows does develop an American following, it will come only once the movie is widely available to stream on the internet. But on the plus side, for those of us that happen to live near a major urban center, we get to see some of the best movies in the world in a theatrical setting, with no waiting.

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