31 August 2014

Sympathy for the Underdog (Japan, 1971)

A yakuza gang gets driven out of Yokohama by a big gang from Tokyo. They relocate to Okinawa to violently start over.

Director Kinji Fukasaku is one of the biggest names in the Yakuza-genre, he made Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), Graveyard of Honor (1975) and Yakuza Graveyard (1976) to name a few (he also directed Battle Royale). So he's a man that knows the subject like few others. Sympathy for the Underdog (a.k.a. Gamblers in Okinawa) features some superb Yakuza warfare between two gangs, and they all fight for the right to rule over the sunny island of Okinawa. 

Stylish Yakuza with elegant, expensive and perfectly cut costumes can be incredibly cool, especially when Kinji Fukasaku makes them fight to the death.  

Genre: Crime/Drama

29 August 2014

What Time is it There? (Taiwan, 2001)

When a young street vendor with a grim home life meets a woman on her way to Paris, they forge an instant connection. He changes all the clocks in Taipei to French time; as he watches Fran├žois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows", she has a strange encounter with its now aging star, Jean-Pierre Leaud.

Tsai Ming-liang has done some really memorable and beautiful films, two of my favorites are Vive l'Amour (1994) and Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003). What Time is it There? continues with the same unique film style, It has that certain something like it's adapted from a really good book, almost. The female actress in the lead makes a genuinely amazing performance and I found myself unconsciously holding my breath in the scene where she's in the bed and looks into the eyes of another woman. The tension and presence was so thick you could cut it with a knife. That's how movies should be.  

A stunning and mesmerizing story about two individuals who seem a little lost in life, and their way of finding a way back. Even if it means changing the time on every clock in the city.

Genre: Drama/Romance

28 August 2014

Dead or Alive (Japan, 1999)

Without a home and feeling no obligation to Japanese society or Yakuza, Ryuichi and his small group decide to make their own place by trying to take over the Shinjuku underworld and the drug trade from Taiwan. As they plan an all-out-assault on the remaining Chinese and Japanese mafia kings, only Detective Jojima stands between them and complete domination.

In 1999, Takashi Miike started working on a trilogy of films, Dead or Alive. They have no connection to each other except for the same director, two actors and same title. The first one is a nice Yakuza flick that just breaths Takashi Miike style with every scene. It doesn't take itself so seriously so expect crazy shootouts that demolish everything and mad Japanese perversity. The first one is the one I would watch again, the second one is a bit slower and the third one just tips insanity-scale so much with a post-apocalyptic setting. 

So, you may or may not know what to expect of a Takashi Miike film where he's in a playful mood, but Dead or Alive is a good example of what could be the result of his madness. Fun stuff, and the ending will surprise everyone.

Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

Boiling Point (Japan, 1990)

Two disquieted junior baseball players seek revenge on the local yakuza for attacking their coach.

What happens if you mix Takeshi Kitano, black comedy, a story of retaliation and some small time Yakuza thugs that stirs up some problems. You get Boiling Point, of course, one of Kitano's earliest films. It's not his best film by a long shot, but a valiant effort from one of the kings of Yakuza movies. 

Genre: Action/Comedy/Crime

27 August 2014

Metro Manila (UK/Philippines, 2013)

Seeking a brighter future in megacity Manila, Oscar Ramirez and his family flee their impoverished life in the rice fields of the northern Philippines. But the sweltering capital's bustling intensity quickly overwhelms them, and they fall prey to the rampant manipulations of its hardened locals. Oscar catches a lucky break when he's offered steady work for an armored truck company and gregarious senior officer Ong takes him under his wing. Soon, though, the reality of his work's mortality rate and the murky motives of his new partner force Oscar to confront the perils he faces in his new job and life.

Metro Manila had an English director, but with a Filipino cast in the capital of the Philippines. So it's debatable if the film is Asian or not, but what I do know is that you can not miss this film. It's so well-acted and it looks incredible, the cinematography is nothing short of amazing. Manila is portrayed through filters of purple neon and warm, orange colored sunlight. It exposes the often horrible nature of a modern society, a mix of tears and alcohol. The musical aspect is also of high quality, with slow, melancholy and atmospheric post-rock to accompany the tragic and desperate situations. 
A truly powerful experience that leaves you breathless.

Genre: Drama/Crime

26 August 2014

Red Sorghum (China, 1987)

In 1930s China a young woman is sent by her father to marry the leprous owner of a winery. In the nearby red sorghum fields she falls for one of his servants. When the master dies she finds herself inheriting the isolated business. 

Red Sorghum is based on a novel by Chinese Nobel prize winner Mo Yan, and was directed by Zhang Yimou, whom you might recognize as the man behind incredible films such as Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Hero (2002). With Red Sorghum he portrays a woman's struggle to run a winery, but encounters hardships around every corner. I like how the color red is dominant throughout the film; the liquor, the  cloths, the paintings, the blood

Genre: Drama

Dodes'ka-den (Japan, 1970)

Episodes from the lives of a group of Tokyo slum-dwellers: Rokkuchan, a retarded boy who brings meaning and routine to his life by driving an imaginary streetcar; children who support their parents by scrounging or by tedious and ill-paying endeavors; schemers who plot or dream of escaping the shackles of poverty.

Dodes'ka-den was directed by a man I think we all know, Akira Kurosawa. The master of Japanese cinema, the man who gave us so many classics and amazing movies that it's nearly mind-blowing. But, if you think that Kurosawa simply lived an easy life directing masterpiece after masterpiece, you'd be wrong. In the 70's, Kurosawa went through some of his toughest times ever, and the biggest reason for his declining mental state was the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, a Hollywood film he had been involved in and it had been such a nightmarish experience that he had to leave the production. After this, Kurosawa had few chances left of making another film, the first project was Dodes'ka-den, his first film in color. Yet, things went wrong again, and the film became a commercial failure. Kurosawa tried to commit suicide the following year, and sailed into a depression

So, that's some backstory. How does the film hold up today? It's very different from the directors other works, but still, I liked it very much. It portrays a bunch of interesting characters that lives in a scrapyard, but instead of acting like a sad bunch of homeless people, these folks have dreams, hopes and they laugh just as if they had lived anywhere else. So despite being made in a turbulent and difficult time in Kurosawa's life, Dodes'ka-den contains a lot of heart, and I wish that it had gotten the praise that it deserves.  

Genre: Drama

25 August 2014

Oasis (South Korea, 2002)

Jong-du, a young man just out of prison for manslaughter, is a social misfit. When released, he calls on the family of the victim; they send him away, but not before he has seen Gong-ju, a young woman disabled severely by cerebral palsy. Both are abused by their families, and both are used by them as well. Although their relationship begins with Jong-du's criminal behavior, a friendship develops. They talk of favorite things; they go out; in late night phone calls, he helps her past her fears of the dark. Is there a place in the world for these two inarticulate people?

Oasis features so strong performances that it can make you very uncomfortable watching it, and it has a bunch of scenes where the atmosphere is incredibly awkward. It's far from being a feelgood-movie, with its dark story and broken characters. It tackles subjects such as prejudice and selfishness, but also romance between those who stand outside the normal society. 

A tough watch from time to time, but a film that feels very genuine and real in its way of portraying love in a reality that's far from perfect.

Genre: Drama

24 August 2014

The Attorney (South Korea, 2013)

An ambitious tax attorney decides to represent an old friend in court.
I've been wanting to see The Attorney for a long time, now. A movie where Song Kang-ho (The Host, Thirst) plays a carefree attorney that takes on a case that will challenge the legal system itself? Yes, please. In the first half of the film Song is trying to get his practice together, and he's a pretty carefree guy who loves his family. In the second half, we have a full-scale court drama. 
It didn't have as much humor in it as I first would have thought when I heard who was going to play the main character, but nonetheless, it was still a great film and Song Kang-ho remains a big favorite.     
Genre: Drama

23 August 2014

Fudoh: The New Generation (Japan, 1996)

Set on the island of Kyushu, it tells the story of successful high school student Riki Fudoh, who leads a double life in organized crime. With his gang of underage assassins, including five-year-olds with hand guns and a teenage stripper, he not only controls the goings-on at his school, but aspires to take over criminal affairs on the entire island. Fudoh's true motivations however, are not just a lust for power, but for something far more personal.

Something tells me that there's only a handful of people who have directed as many Yakuza films as Takashi Miike (13 Assassins). His filmography is a mountain of Yakuza flicks, including some of my favorites such as Gozu (2003) and Graveyard of Honor (2002). Even with an early film like Fudoh, Miike showcases what his vision is all about: over the top-violence and buckets of blood. 

Fudoh isn't a masterpiece, but it's definitely a fun and intense Yakuza story about vengeance, honor, and of course, a woman who assassinates Yakuzas by shooting darts out of her vagina. Yes, it's a Miike film, alright.   

Genre: Action/Comedy/Crime

22 August 2014

The Bow (South Korea, 2005)

On a fishing boat at sea, a 60-year old man has been raising a girl since she was a baby. It is agreed that they will get married on her 17th birthday, and she is 16 now. They live a quiet and secluded life, renting the boat to day fishermen and practicing strange divination rites. Their life changes when a teenage student comes aboard...

Kim Ki-duk is a director that often has been praised on this blog before, and be it for Moebius (2013) or Samaria (2004), the man deserves it. For The Bow, it shouldn't be any less of that, as it retains some of Kim's trademark film styles such as very little dialogue, a small cast and minimalistic shots. Those trademarks of course go hand in hand with a slower pace, but it's not too slow by any means. One thing I found funny was how the old man shoots arrows at everyone he dislikes, I would never turn my back against him. The soundtrack also stand out, it fits the movie really well with peaceful, melodious violins that dance alongside the calm waves. 

If I only could choose a few of my favorite directors, Kim Ki-duk would without a doubt be on my list. He can convey so much emotion and atmosphere without a single line of dialogue, and films that can survive on other things than dialogue are films I embrace wholeheartedly.   

Genre: Drama/Romance

21 August 2014

Metropolis (Japan, 2001)

Metropolis follows a young boy and his uncle (a private investigator). The story is set in the far future where humans and robots live together, unfortunately not in harmony. Many robots are forced underground and are terminated for entering unauthorized areas. They are more or less servants to humankind. The plot starts to unfold when the boy meets a robot named Tima and they get in all kinds of trouble.

Madhouse is the animation studio that made this incredibly good-looking and sweet robot story. They always deliver when it comes to quality, just look at Redline (2009) or Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000). Metropolis also had a legendary script writer, Katsuhiro Otomo, who's responsible for works such as Akira (1988) and Steamboy (2004). So, already we have amazing talents working on this film, and they all helped creating this fantastic film. Metropolis is based on an old manga from 1949, which itself was inspired by the 1927 German silent film of the same name. 

The robot design are often funny and peculiar, and as the art style is very cartonish it somehow feels like a R-rated kids movie when the poor, helpless robots are getting shot to bits. With a jazzy soundtrack and such a lovable look to it, Metropolis should not be missed by fans of both animation and science fiction.  

Genre: Animation/Adventure/Sci-Fi

20 August 2014

Barefoot Gen (Japan, 1983)

Gen and his family are living in Hiroshima as Japan nears the end of World War II. Gen's father has come to believe that the war is unwinnable, thus earning the wrath of the town officials and, in turn, discrimination from the rest of their neighbors. Shunned by the local merchants and tradesmen, food becomes scarce for Gen and his family. All these concerns soon pale, however, as the American military begins its final assault on Japan with the unleashing of its terrible new weapon.

Barefoot Gen is, sadly so, based on the real stories of Keiji Nakazawa, a man who as a boy experienced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Don't be fooled by it's cartonish exterior, Barefoot Gen is a nightmarish flashback to one of the most horrible events in history, seen through the eyes of a small boy. You'd think that a animated film would spare us from the worst parts of the tragedy, but no, all the gruesome details of both the bombing itself and its aftermath are portrayed. 

The amount of hardships and heartbreak Gen goes through is soul crushingly tough, and I can't understand how anyone could have managed to get through it all. A truly powerful film that everyone should watch, as it is one of the most important films that tells the story of that fateful day in 1945.

Genre: Animation/Biography/Drama

19 August 2014

The Bird People in China (Japan, 1998)

A young Japanese salaryman is sent by his company to a remote Chinese village to evaluate precious Jade that is found there, but before he arrives meets the yakuza who was sent to tail him to protect his bosses interest in the company. When the men finally arrive their mission become sidetracked by their interest in a mysterious young village girl, her haunting English language song and the secret that makes men fly like birds.

You have to admit, that it's easy to get curious with a synopsis like that. Surprising as it may sound, the film was actually directed by one of Japans craziest directors, Takashi Miike (Ichi the KillerAudition). Here he uses a far more laid-back approach to the film than most of his other works, and it can be described as the most mature or serious film in the directors filmography. It's interesting to see a man that is responsible for some of the most gory and brutal scenes in Japanese film history, now takes the time to show the clouds rolling in over the hilltops, and the children who play on the grassy fields with towering mountains in the background. 

With a good story and beautiful settings, The Bird People in China should be one of Miike's most respected works.

Genre: Drama/Comedy

17 August 2014

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (China/France, 2002)

In 1971 China, in the lingering grip of the cultural revolution, two university students, Luo and Ma, are sent to a mountain mining village as part of their reeducation duty to purge them of their classical western oriented education. Amid the backbreaking work and stifling ignorance of the community, the two boys find that music, and the presence of the beautiful local young women are the only pleasant things in their miserable life. However, none compare to the young seamstress granddaughter of the local tailor.

Okay, here's a winner for you. Balzac is based on a novel by Dai Sijie, and when the time came for a movie version, Dai himself chose to be the director. That was a great move, because Balzac turned out to be a beautiful and poetically stunning piece of cinema. There are many shots that looks amazing, especially those that incorporate the view from the small village and around it. 

Acting-wise it's also nothing short of fantastic, the casting is flawless and at the end it's easy to get sentimental about the time spent with these characters in their youth. 

Genre: Drama/Biography/Romance

16 August 2014

The President's Last Bang (South Korea, 2005)

A look at the life of President Park Chung-hee and the events leading up to his assassination.

A black comedy about the real life assassination of a president? How can it go wrong? Well, it apparently couldn't because The President's Last Bang is a fantastic and tight film with a good cast. Han Suk-kyu who plays one of the main roles as a Chief Agent, you might recognize from films like The Scarlett Letter (2004) or The Berlin File (2013). The whole film is very well-written and after doing some reading about the actual assassination, I noticed that this film is fairly accurate (which makes the film even more incredible) in the portrayal of something so sensitive as a president's murder. 

After the films release, the film-makers were taken to court because the son of the late President thought that the movie tarnished the image of his father. I'm glad that the court ruled in favor of the director because what we got here is a film that isn't afraid of showing you the killing of a president, and not just that, it has fun with it. 
Black comedies, I tell you, black comedies.

Genre: Comedy/Crime/Drama

15 August 2014

The Classic (South Korea, 2003)

Shy Ji-hae's friend is having problems expressing her feelings to the boy she loves, so she asks Ji-hae to write e-mails to him in her name. As the boy falls in love with her letters, Ji-hae discovers the story of her mother's romance which is remarkably similar to her own circumstances.

At first, The Classic seems pretty straightforward and can almost be a bit cheesy from time to time, but it turns out to be a very competent tale of love in two completely different times in South Korea's history. We have the story of Joo-hee that grows up in a very conservative and turbulent time, who falls in love with Joon-ha, and then there's her daughter many years later that goes through the same experience.

The Classic is done by the same man who gave us My Sassy Girl (2001), an almost universally loved romantic comedy, so it's easy to have high hopes for this one. Except for some few overly sappy moments, The Classic tells a heartwarming story about how strong a bond can be between two people.

Genre: Drama/Romance

14 August 2014

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (China, 1991)

The story is set in the year of 2001 in a prison owned by a major company. A new prisoner sees his friends being harassed and killed by the guards and seeks his revenge.

Riki-Oh is the kind of movie where you can see a dog get split in half by a kick, and where people punch through stomachs with superhuman strength. One major downside with the movie is that it's so obvious when a doll is used because they look kind of cheep. That aside, some effect are great, like when a fat guy gets his stomach ripped open and blood is gushing out. It's a B-martial arts movie where body parts are getting torn off, bodies are exploding and bad guys being pushed down meat blenders. If the practical effects just had been a little better it would have been one of the most disgusting films ever, but now it ranges from decent to terrible, but terrible in a hilarious way. 

Nothing too serious, but fun if you're in the mood for it. 

Genre: Action/Comedy

13 August 2014

The Wayward Cloud (Taiwan, 2005)

There's a drought in Taiwan. Watermelon are abundant and become juice, food, something to share with a guest, and an aphrodisiac. In a large building of flats, Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-chyi's paths cross; she knew him when he sold watches, now he acts in pornographic films. She scavenges for plastic water bottles. He bathes in the building's cistern. Song and dance numbers punctuate the characters' nearly aimless pursuits: she has lost her keys and he helps her find them; he naps in a park, she watches; can they connect?

First I feel like I should warn you that this film is intended for mature audiences only, due to it's extremely graphic sex scenes. The opening scene sets the bar for how nuts this film is, and the closing shot made people walk out of the theater on it's premiere. It blends sex, anxiety, porn and comedy in such a brutal way that it's impossible not to get affected. Whether you're affected in a good or a bad way, that solely depends on you. 

Directed by Tsai Ming-liang who also made fantastic films such as Vive l'Amour (1994) and Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), he tried something more daring with The Wayward Cloud and  in my opinion succeeded in creating something we've never seen before and will never see again. That will always be impressive to me.

Genre: Drama

11 August 2014

Rebels of the Neon God (Taiwan, 1992)

Defying by his parents, Hsiao Kang drops out of the local crammer to head for the bright lights of downtown Taipei. He falls in with Ah Tze, a pretty hood and their relationships is a confused mixture of hero-worship and rivalry that soon leads to trouble.

Youth, and all the troubles that it brings. That's what Rebels of the Neon God is about. Through sweaty arcade halls, boring jobs and late nights at the cafe, we follow a couple of teenagers that are trying to break free from the shackles of early 90's Taipei. The city itself looks almost decadent and you can nearly smell the pollution and the exhaust fumes, making it feel like a filthy metropolis that breeds adolescence and youngsters without goals. To give it a more realistic look, it is filmed with handheld cameras and I love when that style is done right, as it is here. 

Rebel of the Neon God is a film that deals with teen angst and the search for something more, something that could make make life easier and whether it's money or love, these kids are hell-bent on finding it.

Genre: Drama

8 August 2014

The Terrorizers (Taiwan, 1986)

A metaphysical mystery about the lives of three couples in Taipei that continually intersect over a span of several weeks.

The director of The Terrorizers, Edward Yang, only made a handful of movies, including my favorite film of all time: Yi Yi (2000), but still managed to be recognized as one of the most important film-makers ever. He sadly passed away in 2007, but his work will always be remembered. 

The Terrorizers shows Yang's skill at bringing out the best in his actors, the tears and the subtle gestures feels so real that it's scary. He follows a small group of people that sooner or later will cross each others paths, and when they do, nothing will ever be the same again. A relationship is portrayed almost as a house of cards that's about to fall, there's no way to turns things around once things begin to crumble. 

Yang's use of static shots are also magnificent, making it almost feel like a Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story) film. Not bad at all. So, as you can tell I'm more than satisfied with The Terrorizers. It didn't knock down Yi Yi from the number one spot, but for me, it once again cemented Edward Yang as one of the sharpest film-makers to have lived. Rest in peace.

Genre: Drama

7 August 2014

My Girl and I (South Korea, 2005)

Beautiful student Su-Eun prevents her fellow student Su-Ho to drown in the ocean. Su-Ho however, does not know who saved him, until Su-Eun tells him after a while. The love between them starts to grow, seemingly infinite. But then something terrible happens.

My Girl and I is, yes you guessed it, another Korean romance/melodrama that wants you to bawl your eyes out so bad. While I wasn't exactly moved to tears, the film definitely had a certain charm and a heart in the right place. You might recognize the guy in one of the lead roles from My Sassy Girl (2001) or Speed Scandal (2008), he's always doing a good job at balancing the funny and quirky side with the more serious one. 

This film I think would have been a lot better if you hadn't been told how the love story will end early on, but aside from that it's a good love story with lots of warmth, smiles and emotions.

Genre: Drama/Romance

6 August 2014

The Suspect (South Korea, 2013)

Dong-chul is the best field agent in North Korea - until he is abandoned during a mission, his wife and daughter murdered. Hunted and on the run, torn between grief and vengeance, he takes a job as a night driver for the CEO of a powerful corporation. The chairman is brutally assassinated - but gives Dong-chul a pair of glasses before he dies. Now, he's on the run again. Accused of murder, wanted for treason, and desperate to uncover the volatile national secrets hidden inside the glasses. Dong-Chul wants the truth. And he'll start a war to get it.

If you're familiar with the American Bourne film series, then you kind of know what you're getting with The Suspect. Imagine those film, but with an all asian cast. Tight action and some high speed car chases here and there makes it a competent thriller that should please those who just want something action-packed and fast. 

Genre: Action/Thriller

4 August 2014

The Hole (Taiwan, 1998)

A strange disease starts to affect people in Taiwan just before the year 2000. The authorities order everyone to evacuate, but some tenants of an apartment building stay put, including a shop owner who lives by himself. One day, a plumber goes to the shop owner's apartment to check the pipes. The plumber drills a small hole in the floor, which comes down through the ceiling of another apartment. The hole never gets repaired, and this leads to some tension between the shop owner and the woman who lives below him. 

I hope you're the kind of person that can handle a film with a slow pace, because Tsai Ming-liang's (Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Vive l'Amour) The Hole sure is taking its sweet time convincing you that this film is indeed amazing. Don't worry, it is amazing, but it may take a while before you know it. Imagine the opposite (ok, almost) of a Hollywood blockbuster with enormous explosions and a huge cast, then throw out the script and keep the dialogue down to a minimum. 
A great film, if you have the patience for it. 

Genre: Drama

2 August 2014

Sad Movie (South Korea, 2005)

Eight individuals are facing seperation in their lives. The passionate fire fighter, tries to propose to his lover, but he misses his chance every time. In the meantime, she becomes anxious whenever she hears a siren. Suk-Hyun intends to break up with her jobless lover, Ha-Suk, and he begins an agency that helps other lovers to break up. Joo-Young is mad at her son's troubles in school, but she realizes that she has little time to spend with him. Soo-Eun, with a hearing impairment and a burn on her face, falls in love for the first time, but she doesn't have the courage to come out in his presence.

Not surprisingly, the title of Sad Movie sums up the whole thing. Melodrama has been the most popular genre in South Korea for decades, it dominates the film industry and Koreans simply can't get enough of the bitterness of love. 

I usually don't think too much of these kinds of films, as it easily can get a little too sappy for my taste but Sad Movie hit a sweet spot.  It got some very adorable moments and a nice soundtrack. If you think you would somehow enjoy a film that's all about the worst parts of a relationship, then you should give this one a chance.  

Genre: Drama/Romance