A State of Mind has to be one of the best documentaries I’ve seen for a long time, in part because it is told from a viewpoint we often don’t get to hear from: schoolgirls in North Korea. Though the film was essentially following two schoolgirls preparing for, and participating in, North Korea’s Mass Games the aspect of the documentary that I found fascinating wasn’t so much the Mass Games themselves but the daily lives of the schoolgirls and their family. Sure, there are the unnerving elements such as the harsh gymnastics routines interrupted only by the impromptu singing about the Dear Leader and the “once in a lifetime” visit to the most sacred site in North Korea – Mt Paektu-San – but the impressive side was that their lives weren’t as far removed from that of any other functional family in any other part of the world as one would expect.
The filmmakers look at the human, ‘weak’ side of these people instead of just showing these people as role models. The North Korean government would see these people as becoming a glorious unified whole during these games. We see them as robots and slaves to a corrupt regime that doesn’t care about them. It is like British people visiting and making documentaries about the Nazi-devotees in the late 30s Germany. We know what is going on behind the scene, but the devotion and naivety shown by the people on screen is almost just as frightening, since these people could be ourselves under similar circumstances.
North Korea is a very insular society, the people have a god-like reverence for their leader, the General, and his dead father, the founder and former dictator who they consider lives forever. Part of the method is to foment hatred for the American Imperialism, which is taught from early childhood. This is reinforced at every chance they get. Adults sometimes spoke of the invasion of Iraq, which they are taught might be the same fate for North Korea. For those of us mostly ignorant of North Korea and its society, this film is a worthwhile viewing. What I noticed is the children are not too different from children all over the world, wanting to sleep late or watch TV instead of study, or even skip out of exercise class if they could. But the whole country, officials, parents, educators, are all so closely aligned in the mission of the country,that individualism must disappear in favor of the collective, the children end up following the destiny that is dictated for them. It made me think somewhere between that, and the excessive permissiveness in many societies, is a good balance where children grow up with appropriate freedoms but still with the right amount of discipline.
I’ll admit there was quite a lot of North Korean propaganda involved in the content of this film such as the comments they make about the “Great General”, but most most importantly I got to see what life must be like for ordinary North Koreans due to restrictions with what foreign broadcasters could show the outside world. Of course this film doesn’t show to the full extent of what other North Koreans have to live through, but the story of two North Korean girls was a very touching story of their determination and will to contribute to their nations greatness and power. If I could get another chance to see this film I will watch it in a flash. Overall, this is one documentary which shows how life is like in one of the least visited, least known…and the least understood nations in the world.
Proving himself to be one of the most intimate filmmakers working in Japan today, writer-director Hiroshi Ishikawa has carved an interesting niche with the films that he’s produced thus far. With only three feature films to his name – as well as a short starring well-known actresses, Maki Horikita and Meisa Kuroki – Ishikawa’s humble filmography is easily identifiable for its refreshingly meditative focus on women. Eight years after his previous film, Sukida – a film about the difficulty and regret of expressing one’s love and feelings for another – the Japanese auteur has returned with what can be considered his most accessible film to date in Petal Dance.
Friends since university, Jinko (Aoi Miyazaki) and Motoko (Sakura Ando) hear that one of their old pals, Miki (Kazue Fukishii) may have attempted suicide and is currently recovering at hospital near the beach. Both of them decide to take a trip to visit and check up on her with the help of Haraki (Shiori Kutsuna), a young woman who Jinko meets under unusual circumstances. As is the case with all of Ishikawa’s films, there really isn’t much of a story to go off on though that isn’t to say that Petal Dance is void of substance. Far from a hollow film, when compared to Isihkawa’s previous works, Petal Dance is far more uplifting and arguably more engaging because of it. Like a lot of road-trip movies, the idea of self-discovery remains prevalent in Petal Dance as all the characters in the film look inward within themselves and each other, in an attempt to find happiness and understand the weight each other person bears. While there certainly is a general sense of melancholy throughout, it’s not nearly as overwhelming as Ishikawa’s similar debut feature, Tokyo.Sora. Petal Dance, in fact, feels like a direct continuation of the ideas that the director toyed with in his first feature in spite of its drastic tonal differences.
Though Petal Dance may lack in narrative, Ishikawa more than makes up for this with his endearing characters and his absolute control of atmosphere. Relying on a colour palette consisting of blue, grey and white shades, the film immediately evokes a strong sense of calm and introspection, making you feel as though you’re breathing the same cool wintry air as its characters. Meanwhile, small details such as the way the characters talk or where they’re placed in a shot emphasise the therapeutic nature of the film and the fine control Ishikawa has over tone and atmosphere. Composer Yoko Kanno, who has collaborated with Ishikawa on his last two films, contributes yet another lovely, piano-driven score which only further accentuates the pensive quality of the film. The characters are all thoughtfully well-written with each line of dialogue reading out like poetry, especially in the latter portions of the film. Each of the actresses, regardless of the size of their role, also turn in good and genuinely natural performances.
Deeply moving and poetic, the cinema of Ishikawa will continue to appeal only to those with the patience to withstand the slow-burn of his films. While the Petal Dance is delicately composed and carries a great poise about it, at times it feels restrained to the point of frustration which can be said of all Ishikawa’s films to date. In spite of this, they nevertheless have the power to compel and mesmerise and in a lot of ways, Petal Dance’s restraint and modesty can be compared to some of the quieter films in America’s mumblecore movement. An impressionable and impassioned work, Petal Dance’s sensitivity towards its female subjects and unexpectedly hopeful optimism make it a satisfyingly therapeutic watch.
The latest firefighting disaster movie from Hong Kong, Out of Inferno, is one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Oxide and Danny Pang’s latest cinematic effort, revolves around a building that’s caught fire. We’re not even trying to be laconic here, there’s literally nothing else to articulate about the plot, unless you count the meandering, barely tied-together character backstories and interactions. Fire fighters are running around like headless chickens. If Out of Inferno’s plot had been as tight as its action sequences, the Pangs would have had a real good movie on their hands.
Although I understand melodrama is required for disaster movies, some subplots are too bad. A minor character’s action involving stealing diamond, killing someone, and doing crazy things is out of place and incomprehensible. This movie is yet another colonization of good movies by China! It seems that it is inevitable as A list actors choose money over art. As it stands, the emotions evoked by the movie are about as authentic as the CGI flames. I don’t understand – that building claimed to be one of the best secured against fire. Then little accident happened. There were no fire extinguishers around. There were almost no fire sprinklers around.
So much drama out of nothing and a boring script. Tthey should first liberalized the industry and improve their moral decay. Shame on these HK actors with so much experience and talent fallen prey. The final version was worked on by the directorial duo, along with Nicholl Tang Nik-kei and Ng Mang-cheung, and it looks a clear case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Avoid.
Strange though it may seem, there’s one ridiculously clichéd sentence that almost perfectly epitomizes the apparent moral of Strawberry Shortcakes: “In an ideal world, everyone would be happy, but the world isn’t perfect”. Happiness – or rather lack of it – is actually the key to understanding the self-conscious irony of the picture and how the experiences of its four women protagonists correspond to the overall decline in emotionality. Yazaki Hitoshi weaves an exquisite and heartfelt tale that has plenty of touching and funny moments, but they’re often in the shadow of the real-life drama that permeates the somewhat tragic lives of the aforementioned characters. Furthermore, Strawberry Shortcakes gives a very detailed account of what it means to search for love. This difficult quest serves its purpose as a thorough determinant of the course of events. Beyond that, it immediately allows to distinguish between the women, their problems, dreams, and hopes. It’s a neatly designed palette of characteristics, in which every person might find something familiar, a trait that more or less resembles his or her own personality. The director establishes a contemplative, yet heart wrenchingly emotional atmosphere of the story not only by addressing the notion of happiness through individual sensations, but also by focusing on two distinct relationships between two pairs of Tokyo women, who ultimately have more in common than one might think.
Satoko (Ikewaki Chizuru, most known for her magnificent role in Josee, the Tiger and the Fish) is an insecure, religious woman, who works as a receptionist at a local escort agency. Although the girl prays obstinately every day, she uses the sphere of sacrum for her own selfish and often unprincipled needs, which ultimately ridicules the whole idea of affinity between God and men. Case of sexual harassment leads her onto a new path towards discovery as she starts working in a low-class ramen joint. For that same agency works Akiyo (Nakamura Yuko), an extremely attractive, classy, yet deeply lost prostitute who’s secretly in love with her college classmate. She distances herself from other people because she doesn’t want to be hurt and indulges in meaningless yet profitable carnal escapades, all the time trying to save money for a new place. Satoko tries to empathize with Akiyo, but her good intentions are ultimately eclipsed by the weight of her personal headaches.
Toko (Nananan Kiriko, the creator of the original “Sweet Cream and Red Strawberries” manga, credited by her acting name Iwase Toko) and Chihiro (Nakagoshi Noriko) have been living as roommates for quite some time now, but their completely different goals and beliefs prevent them from having even one real, hearty conversation. Being a struggling artist, Toko values her artistic creativity more than anything else in the world. Anxieties increased by work-related problems worsen her ongoing struggle with bulimia. Chihiro, on the other hand, is an office lady and a reckless romantic who desperately wants to have a partner, even if it means being treated inhumanely. It’s only ironic that her desperate search for intimacy becomes even more pitiful on the day of her birthday, when an unknown man finishes on her face saying “Happy Birthday” in a comically distorted English. Though the girls have a hard time understanding each other’s feelings and dreams they ultimately realize that there’s an invisible, very profound bond between them, which transcends the limitations of daily connections.
Camera never flinches when it penetrates even the most personal realm of the women’s lives. There’s almost no movement on its part whatsoever, and everything that’s important plot-wise is always in the frame, making some of the embarrassing events look even more awkward for the viewer. Though not all of the actresses playing leading roles can be called experienced, there’s much subtlety and thoughtfulness given to all the nuances, on which the performances are built. This method of attentive acting creates an enormously pleasant and tender aura around the story and works very fine for the ever changing on-screen development of the characters to take impactful shape. Female-friendly Strawberry Shortcakes has its delicious pleasantries and some highly necessary signs of an upcoming hope, but the horrifyingly realistic and sometimes incongruous depiction of a life scarred by struggle makes one think about the importance of setting life goals straight, in order to maintain even the minimal amount of satisfaction. When it comes to emotional stability, however, Strawberry Shortcakes convincingly insinuates that a determined, yet strictly down-to-earth approach might be the perfect way to go.
For me personally this mystery-horror comedy was too shrill and silly – but at least it dares: It is full of anarchic humor and stylistic playfulness. This movie is real film making at its best without regards to genres and formulas. The filming is done and bounces back to horror comedy splatter to drama to tragedy and back again. Boring it is not! But you have to get involved with the crazy and often not entirely coherent narrative. Exciting, however, is the fact that it is one of the first fictional films that picks up the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the associated fears and processed in its own way.
Hong Kong, the present day. At 02:25 a group of passengers in Mong Kok Road, Kowloon, board a late-night minibus heading to Tai Po, in the New Territories. An argumentative couple disembark at the last moment and, as the passengers set off, they see them dead in a roadside accident. Those on board the minibus, driven by Suet (Lam Suet), include You Chi-chi (Wong You-nam); Yuki (Janice Man); Wong Man-fat (Simon Yam), a middle-aged gangster type; Temple Street fortune-teller Mak Sau-ying; married couple Bobby and Pat, who are going to watch football on TV at a friends’ home; druggie Blind Fai, who’s on the run from some dealers and thinks the bus is heading to Tsuen Wan, seven miles from Tai Po; IT specialist Shun (Chui Tien-you); long-haired geek Auyeung Wai (Jan Curious); a nerdy young woman, LV (Melodes Mak); and some students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The minibus goes through the Lion Rock Tunnel on its way to the New Territories, but as it reaches Tai Po the passengers notice there are no other cars on the road. After dropping off the university students – one of whom suddenly starts to feel ill – the minibus reaches its destination in Kwong Fuk Road at 03:12.
The street is totally deserted and, though the passengers’ phones work, nobody answers their calls. Suet and Man-fat remember that the traffic suddenly disappeared in the middle of Lion Rock Tunnel. After exchanging their numbers, the passengers split up. Chi-chi and Yuki, who were sitting next to each other, walk around but he still can’t reach his girlfriend Yi (Cherry Ngan) by phone, nor Yuki her boyfriend (Yiu Yuet-ming). Meanwhile, at the university the students panic when their friend’s illness rapidly spreads. Chi-chi grabs a bike and cycles to Yi’s home, which is empty and covered in dust. Then all the passengers’ phones start ringing, with just an electronic scream at the other end of the line. They all arrange to meet next day at a small restaurant in Tai Po to solve the mystery of what has happened.
Overall, the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s the journey that counts: the group’s efforts to decode what is going on, the confrontational energy that is Hong Kongers’ greatest strength and weakness, and the continual sense of life lived on the edge of total collapse. Part of the solution to the mystery is guessable way before the passengers twig to it, but the film isn’t dependent on any one big twist. After a decade largely spent contributing to portmanteau movies and working as a producer, Hong Kong maverick Fruit Chan finally rediscovers his creative mojo.
At the previous IFFR of 2013 I was pleasantly surprised by a random Japanese short film named “Wandering Alien Detective Robin” which you can view online HERE. It was a 20 minute wacky Film Noir homage featuring.. well.. a wandering alien detective of course! The short was infused with a whole bunch of influences but most of all it was very very funny and entertaining. I rejoiced when I caught word that its director, Lisa Takeba, would return to the IFFR again this year with a full-length feature: The Pinkie.
The Pinkie starts out promising as we witness a young man get into a conflict with yakuza which ends up with him losing his pinkie. The moment he was sat down and a sushi chef came in to chop off his finger the tone for the film was set. As his pinkie gets kicked out the window a girl picks it up from the ground and takes it home. She is actually the young man’s stalker who has had a crush on him for years. She takes the pinkie home and somehow manages to make a clone using his pinkie. I won’t say too much about the remainder of the plot, it takes some familiar directions but takes a few twists and turns along the way.
The film is actually only 65 minutes long, but Takeba managed to squeeze a lot of material in here. The pacing is quite high, and it is filled with numerous random jokes, which is why there is not a single dull moment. You’ll be constantly wondering what will happen next. This is a straight-forward comedy full of colorful characters and visuals, in a way reminiscent of Survive Style 5+ perhaps. This film, even more than Takeba’s previous short, is truly a pastiche of western and Japanese pop culture influences. From 80’s films like Weird Science and Terminator to modern day Sushi Typhoon splatter films, there is something for everybody.
Even though this is the director’s first ‘long’ film, she handled it very well and I was actually pretty disappointed when the credits rolled because I wanted more. This film never pretends to be anything more than it is, which is FUN. I would suggest checking out the trailer and you will know what I mean soon enough. As long as you don’t expect a dramatic epic or the like, you will very likely be amused. Stay tuned for an interview with director Lisa Takeba!
Hana and Alice is a 2004 Japanese teen romance film directed by the multi-faceted filmmaker Shunji Iwai who also dabbles in video art and documentaries. Hana and Alice is about two average teenage girls who like most teenage girls are attached to the hip, goof around, and crush over boys whenever they’re not frolicking in their tutus. Hana, an impulsive and manipulative girl (Anne Suzuki) falls in love with Masashi, a boy the girls have been teasing about on the train for some time. After one stalking spree by Hana, she witnesses Masashi hit his head and get amnesia. In lightening speed, she ceases the chance to convince him that she was his girlfriend before his “memory loss.” Naturally, a continuing series of lies leads Alice to partake in the deception by pretending to be Masashi’s ex-girlfriend. Soon enough, all parties are involved in a love triangle, which tests their faith in their friendship, perception of love, and emotional stability.
From the summary alone, it is hard not to make Hana and Alice sound like an over-the-top chick flick entailing frivolous encounters with predicable outcomes. But while the premise lies on some conventions, it is the style of filmmaking that truly propels the film to be anything but. In verisimilitude style, the story unravels with uncanny naturalism in their cinematography, performance, and environment that helps Hana and Alice outshine your average teenage flick that is filled with tenderness and heartbreak. There is an organic and intuitive chemistry between the actors that immediately bring reflection upon one’s own adolescent euphoric memories.
Although, the film is lauded for its realistic portrayal of teenage friendship and love, the film’s Achilles heel is their editing and tone. It is not stated who edited the film but it can be assumed that Iwai had a serious role in its final decision. It is understandable that some filmmakers consider their films as their babies but Iwai is so completely enamored by the story that he gets lost and sulks in one scene for far longer than necessary with superfluous shots and dialogue. Hana and Alice was originally shot as a series of short films that was later sewed into a feature. That may explain its fatigued construction, which rounds this seemingly simple story to be told over a whooping two hours. His will to incorporate dramatic aspects as well as comedic characteristics is so ambitious that instead of creating a harmonious flow in the story, it creates bipolar indentations in the film. There is a lot of fat that needs to be trimmed out of this potentially potent mediation on the ultimate test of friendship and love that works exceedingly well in its true-to-life format and compassionate performances.
The film ‘The Rocket’ encompasses beautiful, honorable and unique sets of attributes that have touched me and I expect will touch audiences around the world. Australian writer/director Kim Mordaunt was inspired to make this wistful, often lyrical film after his 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest, which told of the annual toll claimed by the unexploded bombs in Laos. Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), a surviving Laotian twin at birth and therefore potentially bad luck for his family, travels with his family and two friends to find a new home after being displaced by plans for another dam. Not only is Ahlo played by a new young actor who keeps your sympathy, but also Kia, his girlfriend is equally charming and intelligent. Their journey is plagued by setbacks, yet Ahlo remains intrepid and creative as he finally plans to nix this curse and become a hero. So far the film is filled with bizarre adventures, mostly suggesting he is a curse on the family as bad luck plagues it (It’s not Little Miss Sunshine’s pleasant turbulence; however, Rocket’s family is an eccentric crew). One of the most interesting fairs to be seen ever in film is the Rocket Contest, held each year to send missiles to the clouds to induce rain, to “poke the gods’ arse,” or something like that. This event is the Holy Grail of the family’s journey, a way to gain prize money and to counter the bad karma of Ahlo’s birth.
The other key part of this story is that Laos was the most bombed country in the world with more than 75m unexploded bombs ( out of 260m dropped) still buried or half buried there as a result of the Vietnam war. These bombs are referred to as “sleeping tigers” in the film and are a very real constraint on the health and safety of the local people. A secondary theme in the film explores in part the Hmong minority. It is not clear in the film but it looks like Uncle Purple may have been part of that conflict. While we discover more about Uncle Purple in the film that story is only sketched out. Beautifully filmed on location in Laos by cinematographer Andrew Commis (Mabo, The Slap, etc), The Rocket looks superb and provides an engaging insight into this exotic land and its rich culture. Mordaunt draws naturalistic performances from the small cast of largely non professional actors.
‘The Rocket’ is one of the first proper feature films based in Laos. It shows its stunning landscape with excellent cinematography and also touches tastefully on some controversial issues, which have been shaping the country in the past and the present. The sensitive storyline includes many layers that give it texture, which makes it such a rich movie and exiting journey for the audience. After taking food from a holy place, Ahlo’s attempt to return it causes serious problems for his family and they are forced to go on the road looking for a new home. When they stumble on an annual rocket festival where top prizes lure participants to build and launch the best rocket into the sky to beseech the sky gods to bring rain, Ahlo seizes the opportunity to bury his image as the carrier of bad luck. While The Rocket requires a suspension of disbelief, it is only a small possibility that you will leave the theater unmoved.
The natural performances of ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ echo in ‘The Rocket’, both leads believable as intrepid young, underprivileged waifs of pluck and imagination. The relationship between Ahlo and his loving but too vulnerable father, Toma (Sumrit Warin) is reminiscent of father and son in Vittorio DeSica’s Bicycle Thief. Caitlin Yeo’s original score, never obtrusive, like the film itself, tells the story with dignity and respect for the characters. Writer-director Kim Mordaunt has balanced the disparate elements perfectly. And best of all, it is not some exploitative tome about the emerging third world. It’s about family! Its formulaic nature and slight drift to the sentimental do not keep it from being an original work of merit. The Rocket, winner of the World Narrative prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, is one of the year’s best movies with a plot as imaginative as anything else out there.
Considered one of the classics of Japanese cinema, this film is a remake of a 1943 film of the same name. Only this time, it’s in color. Director Hiroshi Inagaki also won a Golden Lion for this at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 1958.
Muhōmatsu is a rickshaw man known for his bad temperament. However, this changes when he saves Toshoo, the only son of Mr and Mrs Yoshooka, an affluent family. The family hosts a dinner for him to show their gratitude, as he refuses to accept money. But at the dinner Mr Yoshooka unexpectedly dies of fever. Matsu then offers to help Mrs. Yoshooka raise Toshoo, and he also performs odd jobs at their home. This develops into an unlikely friendship between the lady and the rickshaw man. Will this friendship develop into a romantic relationship? Watch it to know.
Slight over-acting and a bit too dramatic in the beginning, I have learnt you should probably never judge a movie till it’s finished. There has been a lot of play with bold colours in the background, looks like there has been a lot of work bringing the daily life of the common people to life. The restaurants, the interior deco, the costumes, all suggest that a lot of thought has gone into showing the classic divide between the common people and the affluent crowd. Also throughout the movie there have been scenes where just the wheel of the rickshaw is shown moving to show time lapse which was an interesting touch. Clear, precise acting by both Mrs. Yoshooka and Matsu, where Matsu showcases his rugged ways of life very well and Mrs. Yoshooka plays the sophisticated, charming and thoughtful widow beautifully. The divide between their lives and thoughts is very evident. Even the young Toshoo is endearing.
Again like most Japanese films, this film too remains true to their culture and lives of people and which teaches you a life lesson. This movie teaches you how to love without expecting any reward or any reciprocation. Never even once will the audience feel that the protagonist is helping the family in order to get money or some love or because of pity. He simply does it because he adores the family, and it is only in the late second half that he realizes that he has fallen in love with Mrs. Yoshooka. There are times in the film where there are no dialogues, but the music and the acting make the situation very evident, this is a very good example of how to keep only the dialogues which are necessary and to let the cinema and visuals do the talking. I have realized how the old Japanese filmmakers take simple stories, but execute it in a way that touches the heart. The way this film progresses, many people might expect to know the end. However this movie has kept everything extremely real, and doesn’t give it to the audience’s fantasies. The end in fact is very unexpected and grounded. Matsu’s devotion to the family is heart rendering. For all those who want to have a glimpse at probably what real, real love is, do watch this film.