Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon : excellent familial drama

After reading Donald Richie’s fascinating study of Japanese cinema A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, I became interested in seeing the films of Ozu Yasujiro 小津安二郎, Naruse Mikio 成濑巳喜男 and Mizoguchi Kenji 溝口健二 . While DVDs of Naruse and Mizoguchi films are harder to find and often quite expensive (think Criterion editions), Ozu’s films are extremely affordable as Hong Kong Region 3 DVDs. I’ve always been worried about the quality of these discs since local editions can be had for HK$49, compared to HK$340+ for a Criterion edition of the same film. But last week, I finally bought one title, Ozu’s last film An Autumn Afternoon 秋刀魚之味.

An Autumn Afternoon focuses on the dynamics between an aging widower and his daughter. Since the death of his wife, the widower has relied on his daughter to run his house efficiently. But at the beginning of the film, the father starts to worry that if he selfishly keeps his daughter from marriage, he will ruin her future and turn her into a sad spinster. In the end, the daughter finds a husband and leaves the father’s home to begin a new life. Ozu keeps the focus solely on the father’s feelings throughout the film and the original Japanese title The Taste of the Pacific Saury (a common fish eaten in Japan which tastes bitter) suggests the final outcome leaves the father lonely and sorely missing his daughter. Ozu avoids any form of melodrama in this film yet keeps viewers thoroughly engaged.

Highly recommended.


Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor & Humanity

And talking about convoluted plots, I really doubt anything matches Kinji Fukasaku’s (深作欣二) legendary Battles Without Honor And Humanity a.k.a. The Yakuza Papers (Jingi naki Tatakai). Fukasaku made a total of 5 films in the series and the double dealings and change in alliances between the yakuza oyabuns, captains and their families are horrendously difficult to follow. The amazing and amusing thing about this is it does not detract from the enjoyment of the films at all. (Home Vision Entertainment’s DVDs include a nice diagram to highlight the allegiances).

During its time, Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor And Humanity was supposed to reveal the yakuza for the scum and thugs that they really were; the more traditional Japanese yakuza films normally portray the underworld as a place where honor and loyalty meant everything. Fukasaku turns this notion upside down with his Battles Without Honor and Humanity films, and the often weak looking bosses turn out to be nastiest schemers who control the more physically commanding captains of the underworld families. Of course, today, the films come across as nothing more than entertainment – but very riveting gangster films these are!

The star of the series is of course the iconic Bunta Sugawara. But I particularly liked Hiroki Matsukata’s Sakai from the first film – he wears the cool Japanese gangster look (with shades and trenchcoat) that surely must have fueled the imaginations of many a Japanese youngster.

So far I have seen the first 3 films in the series. The first film traces the forming of the modern yakuza families after Japan’s defeat in WWII and how they used the black market to build their families. The second film (subtitled Deadly Fight in Hiroshima) is a minor detour that features a young Sonny Chiba. The third film (subtitled The Proxy Wars) gets back on track with Sugawara’s Shozo Hirono once again taking center stage.

All 3 films are excellent. Highly recommended.

Bunta Sugaware as Shozo Hirono

Hiroki Matsukata as Tetsuya Sakai

Good German : bad imitation of classic 40s thrillers

dvd-good-german.jpgOn paper, The Good German looked like a promising project : recreating the noirish cinema of classic 1940s studio productions. To mimic the working conditions of these films, Steven Soderbergh shot the film in black and white under a tight budget and even managed to locate a few vintage 1940s camera lens. For the plot, Soderbergh chose Joseph Kanon’s novel set in Berlin immediately after the defeat of Nazi Germany, when both Americans and Soviets tried to poach as many German scientists as possible for their own agendas.

The Good German never made it to the screens in Hong Kong. And when the local region DVD came out a few weeks ago, I knew the film distributors had given up on this film’s chance of securing any decent box office in the territory. After watching the DVD, I can see why. There is very little chemistry between the actors, the direction seems too obviously an imitation of classic noir thrillers and the cinematography is over saturated. The entire film feels too much like a formal exercise on Soderbergh’s part. Some scenes are supposed to be homages to recognized classics like The Third Man and Casablanca, I suppose, but they often just seem like pale imitations, leaving the viewer unsatisfied. I felt the actors were also miscast – Blanchett wasn’t really success at being a German femme fatale, Maguire falls flat as a scheming dirt bag and Clooney can’t replicate the world weariness of say a Humphrey Bogart. A total disappointment.

Afro Samurai : retro-futuristic actioner rocks

dvd-afro-samurai-00.jpgAfro Samurai is one of those modern concoctions that you just know will take place some day – a Japanese animation made exclusively for an US network. Featuring typical Japanese themes, yet voiced by immediately recognizable American actors and a hip hop fuelled soundtrack, even the title of Afro Samurai indicates the bastard nature of this violent animation.

Set in a retro-futuristic wild west, Afro Samurai sets out to the avenge the death of his father by challenging the current No.1 fighter Justice, the man who slaughtered Afro Samurai Sr. Along the way, Afro Samurai is challenged by what seems like a group of monks known as the Empty 7 – in these battles Afro Samurai crosses swords with ninjas, terminator robots and a cybernetic friend from his childhood.

Created by Gonzo Studios (Basilisk, Samurai 7), Afro Samurai delivers very beautiful graphics with a very sharp colour scheme and well choreographed action sequences. The pace of the series remains fast throughout the handful of episodes, despite several flashbacks establishing Afro Samurai’s childhood. Many of the characters in the series remain mysterious but this is the kind of animation in which questions about how they came to be like that are better left off the table. Key characters are amusing, in particular Ninja Ninja (Afro Samurai’s motor mouth imaginary friend) and Kuma (the teddy bear headed assassin). Samuel L. Jackson does an excellent job voicing Ninja Ninja, delivering a sort of Tarantino feel to the dialogue. I bought the Director’s Cut DVD which keeps the swearing and gruesome / violent fights intact. I was very impressed with the gate fold package for the Director’s Cut; it was made with high quality paper bound of stiff cardboard and features awesome artwork.

In concluding, if you like animations like Ninja Scroll, Trigun and Cowboy Bebop, you are likely to be entertained by Afro Samurai. Recommended.


Who’s tougher, Alien or Predator?


It does not make for a promising project when you base a film on a comic that in turn pitches two film monsters against each other. But since both the alien (from the Alien series) and the predator (from the Predator series) have a loyal fan base, it does make marketing sense. The resultant movie remains reviled by critics and Rotten Tomatoes’ Critics TomatoMeter reveals that an overwhelming majority dislike the film. I beg to differ. Critics often miss the point when it comes to B-grade films that have no pretence of being anything more than juvenile fun. I actually found Alien Vs Predator rather entertaining and the best thing it did was to head straight for action. It actually delivers what it promises, which means we get to see multiple predators duking it out with a pack of aliens (and a queen too). This is not one of the lame movies where the monsters only face off in the climax of the film. No, we the viewers see the two breeds of space monsters in conflict in more than a couple of scenes.

The film was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. I won’t call Mr Anderson an artist of great magnitutde, but he has made some decently entertaining B-grade sci-fi films (to be fair, he has made some really horrible pictures too). I actually quite liked his Aliens-Hellraiser mashup movie Event Horizon. Of course, Alien Vs Predator cannot be compared to Ridley Scott’s pioneering first Alien movie, but it is not really that much different from the original Predator film. I am sure that the Alien Vs Predator DVD will be one of the discs that I view on a frequent basis, which is not something that can be said of Scott’s Alien (which I find a bit slow).

Devilman : Live Action + CG + Anime = a colourful mess

I must confess that while I am aware of the manga called Devilman, I have never really read it. Devilman was created in the early 1970s, but this movie was produced in 2004. The basic plot follows Akira, a teenage who can mutate into a demon but retains the conscience of a human. Determined the fight the demons who run amok, he becomes more and more disappointed with the humans as they exploit the growing distrust among each other.

Obviously with a title like this, the narrative plays second fiddle to the on-screen visuals. Devilman combines live action martial arts fighting with CG demons and even a few scenes with animation. The overall effect can lack a bit of harmony, this is fun to watch nevertheless. There is a slight amount of gore, so it isn’t entirely appropriate for young kids, and the movie is really targeted at adults who grew up with the comic.

Verdict : online reviews panned the film. I found it decently entertaining but abit long at over 110 minutes.

Link to wikipedia entry for Devilman (manga)

Epitafios : Argentinean serial killers are sadistic

Released as a DVD set, the 13-part HBO mini-series Epitafios is a Spanish language serial killer crime thriller than became a sensational hit in Argentina. So successful in fact that HBO decided its viewers in America ought to see it – the mini-series was carried on HBO’s American outlets and subsequently released on DVD.

Apparently the South Americans have a long tradition of crime fiction and it shows in the impeccable scripting on Epitafios, which translates into “Epitaphs” in English. The series follows the trials of an ex-detective Renzo and a psychologist Laura as they try to put a stop to a maniac killer who seeks revenge for wrongdoings committed by selective people five years ago. A botched mission causes 4 students to be burnt to death five years ago, and both Renzo and Laura played a part in the disaster. Over the course of the series, the serial killer taunts them and it gradually becomes clear that he is out to make them suffer as much as possible.

Shot in Buenos Aires, the drama features excellent production values, is fast-paced and keeps viewers guessing with unexpected plot twists. Obviously inspired by David Fincher’s Se7en, the series nonetheless never succumbs to cheap thrills or excessive gore – the gruesome killings are presented matter-of-factly and should not be a turn off for most viewers. An utterly depressing conclusion highlights that the series as definitely not made for American viewers.

The verdict : highly recommended