18 December 2014

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Japan, 2013)

An old man makes a living by selling bamboo. One day, he finds a princess in a bamboo. The princess is only the size of a finger. Her name is Kaguya. When Kaguya grows up, 5 men from prestigious families propose to her. Kaguya asks the men to find memorable marriage gifts for her, but the 5 men are unable to find what Kaguya wants. Then, the Emperor of Japan proposes to her.

Once again a new Studio Ghibli film has made it to western shores, and I dare to say that this is one of their best one yet. For the first time in ages, Hayao Miyazaki is not the director, but Isao Takahata, who made Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Pom Poko (1994). Here, Takahata has based his film on one of Japan's oldest folktales: The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, where a baby girl is discovered inside the stalk of a glowing bamboo plant and is said to be from Tsuki-no-Miyako ("The Capital of the Moon"). The film is rich with Japanese customs and culture, being that it takes place so long ago.

There's not much in this film not worth praising, the art style is very distinctive and beautiful, and there's a certain scene where Kaguya runs as fast as she can and flees out into the wild where it's drawn with such perfection and with very violent lines. Brilliant animation.

Joe Hisaishi, who composed the score for Studio Ghibli-films such as Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001), is also back with full force and has written one of his best soundtracks ever. The story is magic, I love the fact that there's both moments where I literally laughed out loud and scenes where the film not only played on a few heartstrings but tore the whole heart down, so to speak. So basically this film has every quality of a Studio Ghibli-masterpiece, but I'm pretty sad that this is most probably Takahata's last film. At least he finished amazingly strong, and gave us one hell of a breathtaking movie.  

For people interested, my Top-3 of Studio Ghibli-films would have to be:

1. Pom Poko (1994)
2. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (2013)    
3. Porco Rosso (1992)

Genre: Animation/Drama/Fantasy

15 December 2014

Man on High Heels (South Korea, 2014)

From people's eyes he seems like a sadistic cop who give no mercy to his enemy. But, deep inside his heart Ji-wook hides his desire to become a woman.

Man on High Heels has one of the most unusual twists I've seen in an otherwise pretty good action flick: the main character is a transgender homicide detective. So, it's perfectly natural to believe that this is a silly comedy where Ji-wook gets in all kinds of funny situations just for the sake of having a funny scene, but that's actually far from how this film plays out. The theme of trans-sexuality is taken more seriously (though there's some humor involved) and is balanced well together with the story of how a gang that Ji-wook took down is plotting a cold dish of revenge. The fight scenes are all great and feels lovely painful, fast and stylish. 

So you might want to give this one a chance, because it's an action drama that is original and interesting, and that's a description which feels way too rare these days.
Genre: Action/Crime/Comedy 

13 December 2014

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Japan, 2013)

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness tells the story of how the animation-house Studio Ghibli came into being and goes in-depth on Hayao Miyazaki and his retirement. 

If you're a fan of Studio Ghibli, you simply must see this. It's the best documentary to date about Miyazaki and his co-founder Isao Takahata, whom I always wanted to know more about. I really enjoyed the rare footage of a much, much younger Miyazaki when he was just starting Studio Ghibli many years ago. 

This documentary was filmed when Ghibli still was working on one of their latest films, The Wind Rises, so we get to go behind the scenes and see how that film slowly comes together and that's really interesting. Another thing that struck me while watching this film was how surprisingly serious and honest it felt. It's far from just being a over-happy behind-the-scenes flick where everything feels right, and I can really appreciate that. So, this film you could say is more for longtime fans rather than new, and for those who've followed Miyazaki's work for years and years.

- Aren't you worried about the studio's future?
- The future is clear. It's going to fall apart. I can already see it. What's the use worrying? It's inevitable. "Ghibli" is just a random name I got from an airplane. It's only a name. - Hayao Miyazaki

Genre: Documentary

1 December 2014

Death Bell (South Korea, 2008)

At an exclusive high school in Seoul, examination marks matter and so do parents' social status. To prepare for a visit from students from England, two popular teachers, Mr. Kim and Ms. Choi, gather top pupils for a Saturday study session. Things go awry: one by one, students disappear, dying in grisly ways, sometimes in view of the others via closed circuit TV. A voice on the P.A. system warns of death if anyone tries to leave. The voice also asks questions, and Mr. Kim leads the students in trying to solve them, hoping to save a student.

Death Bell is a not too serious horror flick with a playful plot, a bunch of students are being targeted by a murderer who wants them to solve puzzles in order to save their lives. I read that it was very gory and had some very shocking deaths, which I wouldn't exactly agree on but there's enough thrills to make you want to see the whole thing through. There's also a sequel, but it's very mediocre and not recommended. 

Genre: Horror/Thriller

25 November 2014

The Housemaid (South Korea, 2010/1960)

Eun-yi is a playful young woman, a good match for a job as nanny to a precocious child, Nami, the daughter of a wealthy couple, Hae-ra and Hoon. Hae-ra will soon have twins as well. The majordomo, Mrs. Cho, is the household's cold stone center. Before long, Hoon seduces Eun-yi, and when Mrs. Cho tells Hae-ra's mother about the affair, Eun-yi is up against women with wealth, power, and no conscience. Can Eun-yi maintain her dignity and perhaps even put the family in their place?

Here's two films for the price of one. I don't know what I mean by that, but I know that you should avert your attention to this duo of films. It goes without saying, but The Housemaid (2010) is a remake of a film released in the 60's, also titled The Housemaid. The older version is a bit more melodramatic, while the remake is erotic and full of sexual tension. The cast in the new one features a couple of recognizable faces and great actors from the last years and you're most likely familiar with some of them. Oh, and the ending. The ending will come at you from nowhere, and it's downright wonderful.

Genre: Drama/Thriller

24 November 2014

A Hard Day (South Korea, 2014)

Detective Go Geon-soo is having a hard day, and the following events happen to him in less than 24 hours: He receives a divorce notice from his wife. His mother passes away. He and his coworkers are investigated by police inspectors over alleged embezzlement. Then on his way to his mother's funeral, he drives recklessly and commits a fatal hit and run. He tries to cover-up the accident by hiding the man's corpse in his deceased mother's coffin. But someone has been watching all along, and Geon-soo gets a mysterious call from a person claiming that he was the sole witness to the crime, who now begins to threaten him.

I expected A Hard Day to be very lackluster and uninspired, but were surprised at how enjoyable it actually was. Even funny sometimes. Sure, there's not a whole lot of originality here, but it delivers a momentarily rush and the excitement rises by the minute. Not a perfect thriller, but still worth your time.

Genre: Action/Crime/Thriller

20 November 2014

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (Japan, 2001)

The year is 2071. Following a terrorist bombing, a deadly virus is released on the populace of Mars and the government has issued a 300 million woo-long reward, the largest bounty in history, for the capture of whoever is behind it. The bounty hunter crew of the spaceship Bebop; Spike, Faye, Jet and Ed, take the case with hopes of cashing in the bounty. However, the mystery surrounding the man responsible, Vincent, goes deeper than they ever imagined, and they aren't the only ones hunting him.

The anime series Cowboy Bebop is one of the coolest shows out there. It's a space western fanatic's wet dream, with 26 episodes of superb action and funky sci-fi. The movie based on the show is no different when it comes to delivering an exciting story and amazing animation. You can easily watch the movie without having seen the series, as it is a pretty much standalone project. Even those who are new to animation should check this one out, as it is a crazy good and awesome welcome to the genre.

Genre: Animation/Action/Crime

1 November 2014

No Tears for the Dead (South Korea, 2014)

Abandoned by his mother shortly after immigrating to America, Gon is raised by the mafia and grows up to become a cold-blooded hit-man. Though usually flawless in taking out his targets, Gon makes a terrible mistake of killing an innocent young girl. A flood of guilt takes over his life and the situation becomes worse when his boss assigns him the job of killing the young girl's mother. Gon's new target, Mogyeong, is a risk manager at an investment firm and has buried herself in work to bury her grief. She is completely unaware of her role at the heart of a dangerous conspiracy. 

No Tears for the Dead is a film I've been dying to see for a long, long time. Ever since it was announced that The Man from Nowhere director Lee Jeong-beom was making a new action film I was hyped like crazy. This led to some impossibly high expectations and that's probably why No Tears for the Dead proved to be slightly underwhelming to me. There's some unnecessary English dialogue between people who both talk Korean, and it's not as packed with amazing fight sequences as The Man from Nowhere was, but instead takes some time to develop the plot. 

Still, that's not exactly a bad thing, and this film has it where it counts and delivers some really cool, fast shots and intense shootouts. You can just tell that the director has completely mastered the art of filming an action scene. So, a good action flick that doesn't quite reach the same level of intensity of the directors previous work, but a satisfying and wonderfully shot action fest nonetheless.    

Genre: Action/Drama

31 October 2014

Shower (China, 1999)

Shenzhen businessman, Da Ming, goes home to Beijing when he thinks his father has died. He finds his father hard at work at the family's bathhouse (the false message was a ruse of Da's mentally-handicapped brother, Er Ming, to get Da home). Da stays a couple days, observing his father being social director, marriage counselor, and dispute mediator for his customers and a boon companion to Er. Da is caught between worlds: the decaying district of his childhood and the booming south where he now lives with a wife who's not met his family. When Da realizes his father's health is failing and the district is slated for razing, he must take stock of family and future.

Shower is a film that spends it time developing a father-and-son relationship inside of a bathhouse. The premise makes it sound like a quirky comedy but there's a lot more to it than that, and halfway through the film it drastically changes tone. A good drama, with both humor and grief. 

Genre: Drama/Comedy

30 October 2014

Another Family (South Korea, 2014)

Taxi Driver Sang-Gu is an ordinary father. He is so proud of his daughter Yoon-Mi who works at a factory for a large corporation, but somehow also feels sorry for Yoon-Mi. Because of their poor financial situation, Yoon-Mi could not attend college. Meanwhile, Yoon-Mi tells her father that she will one day buy him a new car and pay college tuition fees for her young sibling. Less than 2 years after Yoon-Mi begins her job, she becomes ill and returns home. Yoon-Mi is unable to get proper treatment from the company where she worked and she dies. Sang-Gu promises to Yoon-Mi that he will let others know her story.

You know when a movie is interesting the minute you start to read about the stuff that it's based on. Another Family (a.k.a. Another Promise) tells the true story of how a young woman was diagnosed with leukemia after starting to work at one of Samsung's factories. After her death, her family took legal actions against Samsung and demanded that they took responsibility for the daughters death. 

It's a relatively straight-forward court drama, but it's the case that got me hooked. The idea of a small group of people taking on South Korea's largest company sounds more than intimidating and you wonder if such a business giant will ever admit that they're responsible for the tragic deaths of a group of employees suffering from leukemia.   

Genre: Drama

29 October 2014

Barefoot Gen 2 (Japan, 1986)

Three years after the Hiroshima bombing, Gen and his adopted brother, Ryuta, befriend a group of orphans. A fierce typhoon hits the city, leaving the orphans' home flooded and beyond repair. Gen helps them build a new home on an abandoned piece of property, and brings love and encouragement to one of the children whose face has been badly scarred by radiation. Gen's mother, though, is getting weaker and weaker from radiation poisoning.

I've written about the first Barefoot Gen movie, and I wouldn't hesitate in calling it one of the best films ever made about the Hiroshima bomb. This sequel takes place three years later and focuses on the same family we got to know in the first film. Hiroshima is still a pile of rubble, and among the ruins a group of kids form a bond. They find friends when their world has fallen apart and it's easy to wonder how life must have been near ground zero. A generation of kids that crawled up from beneath a disintegrated city. Barefoot Gen 2 tells that story, and how they adapted to their new life.

Genre: Animation/Drama/War

28 October 2014

Night Train (China, 2007)

Wu Hongyan is a young woman working as a prison guard during executions of female convicts. She feels lonely after her husband died, and she takes a night train to another city to visit a dating service. After a series of unsuccessful dates, she meets Li Jun. It quickly becomes obvious that he is hiding a secret: he is the widower of one of the female convicts of which Wu Hongyan assisted in the execution. Li Jun is torn apart by his feelings, as he is both attracted to Wu Hongyan, and having a desire for revenge for his executed wife.

Night Train is a very somber film, with dark themes and presentation. It's a good film for those who don't necessarily need everything to tie up nicely with a warm, happy ending. For those who don't go mad when it's revealed that there's no light at the end of the tunnel. 

Genre: Drama

27 October 2014

Night on the Galactic Railroad (Japan, 1985)

On the night of a cat village's Festival of the Stars, a kitten and his friend go on an celestial journey on a magical space locomotive. On that trip, they have various stops where they meet strange sights, even more unusual fellow passengers and learn some lessons of life on their trip to the terminus of the Galactic Railroad.

It's usually fairly easy to tell if a movie is a happy one or more sinister, but with Night on the Galactic Road I couldn't decide whether it was sweet and lovable, or dark and foreboding. Somewhere in between, I'd have to say. It was based on a classic Japanese novel from 1934, but replaced the main characters with a bunch of cats. It has a very distinctive style to it, and if you think that it's a simple anime adventure you're way off. It's a philosophical journey through the stars with a handful of larger-than-life questions and thoughts. Starring cats. 

Genre: Animation/Adventure/Drama

17 October 2014

Vampire Hunter D (Japan, 1985)

In a far-future time ruled by the supernatural, a young girl requests the help of a vampire hunter to kill the vampire who has bitten her and thus prevent her from becoming a vampire herself.

I have already written about Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000) before, but this version from 1985 I left out because I felt that it wasn't nearly as good as Bloodlust. After re-watching it I can happily say that I must have been blinded by the greatness of Bloodlust, because this 1985 film is a phenomenal, Gothic adventure. It's disgustingly graphic, full of gore and presents a ton of nightmarish creatures and evil vampires like there's no tomorrow. Just like Bloodlust it has an awesome blend of genres like science fiction and dark fantasy. Cyborg horses and vampires? No problem. The world of Vampire Hunter D is a place hard not to get interested in, so luckily there's a whole franchise of this stuff.

While watching it I couldn't help but make some striking connections between this film and the video game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997). I guess that's only natural, since both deals with vampires and Gothic themes. Both D and Alucard (the main character in Symphony of the Night) are a sword-wielding dhampir, which is the child of a vampire and a human. They both fight their way through an army of vampires using supernatural powers and graceful sword techniques. 

                                                 Alucard                                           D

I also saw a resemblance in the women that Alucard and D encounter during their travels. 

                                                  Doris                                        Maria 

Just some fun and interesting observations. Great movie and great game.

Genre: Animation/Action//Horror/Sci-Fi

15 October 2014

Blood: The Last Vampire (Japan, 2000)

In Japan, the vampire-hunter Saya, who is a powerful original, is sent by her liaison with the government, David, posed as a teenage student to the Yokota High School on the eve of Halloween to hunt down vampires. Saya asks David to give a new katana to her. Soon she saves the school nurse Makiho Amano from two vampires disguised of classmates and Makiho witnesses her fight against the powerful demons.

The Last Vampire is the first part of the whole Blood-franchise. Later it would spawn anime series, manga sequels and a live-action film. But it all started with this 45 minutes long film about a schoolgirl slaying the demons of the night. The animation quality is high and the action fast and intense. Production I.G is the studio responsible for making this film, and they've made too many great films to count but Ghost in the Shell (1995) is probably one of the biggest. 

Blood: The Last Vampire is a cool and bloody vampire hunt, albeit a short one and you'll wish it went on longer when the credits roll. Still, it's a warm recommendation to fans of vampire films.

Genre: Animation/Action/Horror

13 October 2014

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China, 2014)

An ex cop and his ex partner decide to follow up on investigation of a series of murders that ended their careers and shamed them, when identical murders begin again.

I remember wanting to see this film for the longest time, and now it's here. With full force. Black Coal, Thin Ice feature some of the best cinematography that I've ever seen from China, It looks amazing and really fits the noir-ish feel of the film. What also elevates the film is the great story and pacing, this isn't your average cop thriller but an extremely well-made and clever film. There's literally nothing stupid about it, is another way you could describe it. 

So all in all, Black Coal, Thin Ice is realistic and dark and exactly the kind of crime films I want to see from China in the future.

Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery

12 October 2014

Doomsday Book (South Korea, 2012)

A Brave New World, a mysterious virus brings the city to ruins and zombies flood the streets of Seoul. The Heavenly Creature, a robot reaches enlightenment on its own while working at a temple. Its creators regard this phenomenon as a threat to mankind and decide to terminate the robot. Happy Birthday, a little girl logs into a strange website and puts in an order for a new pool ball for her billiards-obsessed father. Soon an unidentified meteor heads toward Earth and all human beings flee to underground bomb shelters.

Doomsday Book is an anthology film consisting of three different stories, but all taking place in the future. it ranges from being about a zombie apocalypse to a robot that practices Buddhism and believes he's Buddha. The second segment was written and directed by Kim Jee-woon, whom you've should be very familiar with by now due to his filmography (A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil). Despite all these facts, Doomsday Book got lukewarm reviews and it failed to live up to expectations. I think it's worth a chance due to it's interesting themes, and the biggest complaint I have is that it would have been much better if it had been an half hour shorter (it's two hours long). Otherwise it's a good film and a welcomed entry here due to the lack of sci-fi on this blog.

Genre: Comedy/Drama/Sci-Fi

10 October 2014

Broken (South Korea, 2014)

Sang-Hyun, who lost his wife, lives with his daughter Soo-Jin. One day, Soo-Jin is raped and murdered. Frustrated by the lack of progress in his daughter's case, Sang-Hyun gets a mysterious hint by an unknown voice. He learns the identity of the two men who killed his daughter and the address of one of those two men. Sang-Hyun then goes to the home of that man and finds some evidence. Full of anger, he picks up a rifle and goes after the boy who took his daughter from him.

Broken is based on a book written by Keigo Higashino, who also wrote a book that the film White Night (2009), another film which has been featured on this blog, was adapted from. Here we follow a desperate father who seeks his own kind of justice when his only daughter has been killed in a horrendous manner. While watching the film I pondered over the question of what I would do in the fathers situation, if I had the means and the ways of finding the people responsible. Probably nothing this extreme, I think. 

A Japanese film, called the The Hovering Blade (2009), was also based on this same story and I've heard that it's really good. Unfortunately I've yet to see that one, but Broken is by all means a film you should check out if you're a fan of Asian revenge thrillers.

Genre: Drama/Mystery/Thriller