Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Green Tea is a movie that finds beauty in love's empty spaces

As this year's anniversary celebrations wind down, I'd like to talk to you guys about one of my all time favorite films, Zhang Yuan's Green Tea. I've found that not many people talk about this film, though relatively speaking it had a DVD release in the US back in the day. Critically I don't see a lot of coverage about it, either, so I understand that my views on the film may be an outlier. But out of all the Asian romantic movies I've seen, this one really sticks out to me. Probably aside from Song Hae-sung's Failan (2001) and Shunji Iwai's Love Letter (1995), this film is my favorite Asian romance, because it really isn't a romance in the normal sense.

Green Tea starts with an encounter between Chen Mingliang (Jiang Wen) and Wu Fang (Vicki Zhou Wei). The former is a recent divorcee who was dumped for someone else; the latter is a rather uptight research student whose one job in life seems to be to piss off every man she dates. Chen, however, is immediately smitten and begins to meet up with her regularly. Things become complicated when Chen meets another woman, Lang Lang, who flips the entire situation on its head.

The film's greatest asset is cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who transforms an already good movie into a great one. Doyle shows us Chen and Wu behind windows, colored plastic and glass partitions; he lingers on lips that sip, hands that feel and eyes that steal glances. We're eavesdropping on these two characters, and you know it. The visual feel of the film is sensuous, even though the film doesn't have a single kiss or sex scene. In this regard, Jiang Wen manages to balance his performance and frame him as a person desperately seeking for connection instead of as a weird stalker. Zhao Wei's performance here is my personal favorite, as she exudes mystery and allure without even trying.

The first thing one immediately notices when watching the film is that it's composed mainly of small talk. Sure, it's probably the most interesting small talk you will ever hear in a while, but these are conversations that are mostly about nothing. I remember some of my own long, rambling conversations with people over dark, somber nights like we see in the film, and I remember eventually falling in love with some of these people, essentially over nothing. And that's partly where I am most enamored with this film: it's a love story about that exciting, giddy moment between the tentative state of having fallen in love and the state of seeing that same love reciprocated; an ambiguous, purgatorial state that's neither here nor there and is very difficult to describe. It's breathtaking, even in a metaphorical sense - I liken it to holding one's breath in excitement. This is a film that finds beauty in that space of nothingness between loving and being loved.

Green Tea lingers in ambiguity, leaving you tantalized. One of Wu Fang's stories is about her friend's parents: the mother is a beautician for the dead, whose secrets eventually wreck her relationship with her husband. It's unclear if Wu Fang is telling the truth, embellishing it for dramatic effect, or if she's outright lying. For all we know, she might be talking about her own parents rather than someone else's. This uncertainty permeates every frame of this film until its very last sequence. Here, we are told through the film's final frames, like swirling tea leaves settling down on the glass, sometimes all we have to do is damn it all, seize the moment, and exhale.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Japanese Medical Drama Roundup 2: The Return of the Comeback

One of this blog's most popular posts has nothing to do with movies; it's about Japanese Medical Dramas. I haven't caught up as much in the past seven years, but here are more medical dramas of note:

Iryu Team Medical Dragon Season 4
Starring: Kenji Sakaguchi, Teppei Koike, Ittoku Kishibe
Episodes: 11
Synopsis: After the events of season 3, our resident super ultra hunky genius surgeon Asada (Sakaguchi) goes back to the hospital of his mentor, Sakurai, to help create a hospital geared towards patients and not money. Meanwhile, diabolical Noguchi is at it again,  and this time he's out to break apart the team for the sake of globalization and the creation of his own profit oriented hospital.
Bad Guy: at first, it seems like Noguchi is up to his nefarious money grubbing deeds. But this time the real culprit lurks behind the shadows.
Notes: After the relatively disappointing season 3 of Iryu, which dealt with cardiac catheterization replacing normal surgery, Season 4 returns to top form, though the cases are not as over the top as the legendary season 2. Noguchi is so hammy in this season, it's downright amazing. We found ourselves exclaiming "SUPER MEDICAL ZONE" repeatedly after this season was over.
Medical Accuracy: 3/5. A bit more plausible this time, if you take into consideration the fact that Asada has godlike surgical skills.
Overall: 8/10. Overall, the second best season of Iryu, after season 2.
Additional Notes: Watch out for a pretty sweet cameo at the end of the last episode, hinting at a possible season 5, if it ever happens.

Doctor-X: Gekai Daimon Michiko
Starring: Ryoko Yonekura, Yuki Uchida, Ittoku Kishibe
Episodes: Four seasons to date of 8-11 episodes each; one special and one spinoff special, Doctor-Y
Synopsis: Michiko Daimon (Yonekura) is a genius mercenary surgeon with a shady past who works freelance at different hospitals. She comes off as a greedy asshole to many, but she genuinely cares for the welfare of her patients.
Bad Guy: Changes from season to season, but mostly they are the corrupt hospital administrators that try to use Daimon for their own needs.
Notes: A pretty fun drama that reads a bit like a female version of Blackjack, but is much more than that. Half the entertainment comes from how Daimon acts like an asshole towards everyone else. The cast changes frequently, with the most drastic cast change happening from season 1 to season 2. The season 2 cast pretty much stays the same until season 4, with some supporting roles changing. My favorite character in the series is probably Jonouchi (played by former Idol Yuki Uchida), a skilled anesthesiologist/single mom.
Medical Accuracy: 2.5/5. The surgical procedures are sound on paper, but the drama seems to imply that cancer surgery is curative for a vast majority of cases, whereas the truth is, adjuvant therapies are usually employed along with surgery, and surgery is mostly curative for diseases that are of lower stage.
Overall: 7.5/10. Very Enjoyable, aside from Yonekura's wide-eyed look when she's doing surgery. She looks like she's activating a Sharingan or something, ffs.
Additional Notes: Kishibe Ittoku has a prominent supporting role as Kanbara Akira, Daimon's mentor/agent. He played Noguchi in Iryu Team Medical Dragon. The special has Takeshi Kitano in a guest role as a hospital administrator.

DOCTORS ~Saikyou no Meii~
Starring: Ikki Sawamura, Masanobu Takashima, Manami Higa
Episodes: Three seasons to date of 8-9 episodes each, and a special
Synopsis: Sagara (Sawamura) is a surgeon of immense skill working in a hospital filled with corrupt politics. While humble most of the time, he can sometimes resort to shady (even illegal) behaviors for the sake of educating corrupt medical practitioners.
Bad Guy: At first Sagara is at odds with cowardly (but relatively skilled) surgeon Moriyama (Takashima), but later they form a rivalry. The real bad guy is either the disease of the week, or corrupt hospital administrators.
Notes: Enjoyable, though Sagara can be rather harsh if he thinks that a medical staff does not think of his/her patient in the highest regard. The medical cases can be rather entertaining as well, and in this series, the inter-hospital politics and the conflicts stemming from those political maneuvers become the center of the drama at times.
Medical Accuracy: 2.5/5 pretty solid, though I have my doubts if Sagara has the license to be able to perform some of the procedures outside of his subspecialty. (No doubt about his skill, though.)
Overall: 6/10. Fun, but kinda wears thin if you aren't endeared to the characters.
Additional Notes: Masanobu Takashima looks like a Japanese Alan Rickman sometimes. Manami Higa, who plays a nurse here, also played a nurse in another popular medical drama - Code Blue - which is getting a sequel sometime this year.

Bull Doctor
Starring: Makiko Esumi, Satomi Ishihara, Goro Inagaki
Episodes: 11
Synopsis: Tamami Odate (Esumi) is a forensic pathologist who takes on numerous cases. She always tries to find the truth, even when the case seems to be solved on the surface.
Bad Guy: usually the case of the week.
Notes: A mix of police procedural and medical drama, because of the subject matter. An episode of Bull Doctor often goes like this: a crime is reported by police with a certain cause of death, Tamami thinks something else caused the death of the victim, and she is eventually proven right. Like many other dramas in this list, half the entertainment is from seeing Tamami go against The Man: in this case, police investigators and other authorities involved in the investigation.
Medical Accuracy: 3/5 fairly accurate, though with the forensic slant of the drama, it's not as heavy on medical stuff as the other dramas on the list.
Overall: 7/10: a solid drama and a treat for people wanting this unique type of medical drama.
Additional Notes: Satomi Ishihara starred in another Japanese drama involving forensic pathology: Voice, which was featured in the previous drama roundup. Additionally, the theme song of Bull Doctor was sung by none other than Charice Pempengco.

Starring: Tomoya Nagase, Emi Takei
Episodes: 10
Synopsis: Based on the manga of the same name, Keiichitaro Kishi (Nagase) is a renegade hotshot genius pathologist who diagnoses cases with 100% accuracy. He is often at odds with clinicians who doubt his diagnoses,but are often proven wrong. Miyazaki (Takei), a trainee doctor, is drawn to Kishi and begins an apprenticeship/residency with him in the Pathology department.
Bad Guy: The hospital administration. A corrupt drug company is the main antagonist during the drama's last third.
Notes: I'm biased, as my subspecialty is pathology, and pathology isn't exactly the most exciting of medical specialties. but Fragile somehow makes things interesting and exciting, and the chemistry between Nagase and Aragaki really carries the show forward. The show also tackles issues of medical (especially preanalytical!) errors, accountability for patients and the ethical issues surrounding experimental therapies. I hope they go forward and make a season 2, because there's still so much to discuss.
Medical Accuracy: 3.5/5. Although the treatment and prognosis for some diseases are a bit too optimistic, the show does a very good job showing what a pathologist actually does (albeit a bit exaggerated for dramatic effect.)
Overall: 8/10. I'm biased. But still a treat for fans of Nagase and of medical dramas. This one is solid and unique with regards to its subject matter. We don't get a lot of exposure in medical dramas (forensic pathologists being the one glaring exception) so this is really a welcome development.
Additional Notes: Nagase actually starred in another medical drama, Handoku (Half Doctor) where he was a gang member turned kenshuuin, or trainee doctor. The drama also has former AKB48 member/spicy food connoisseur Rena Matsui playing a med rep with a shady past. Kinya Kitaoji, who plays Kishi's mentor Nakaguma, appeared in some seasons of Doctor-X.

That's it for this edition of the Medical Drama roundup. If you have any suggestions for interesting Japanese medical dramas that you would like me to cover in a future post, leave a comment below. Till next time!

Edit: made an error regarding the casting for Fragile; it's been corrected. Apologies for the error!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Can't Help Falling in Love charms, but is based on a faulty premise


Let's get this out of the way first. Can't Help Falling in Love, the latest vehicle from Star Cinema, can be charming sometimes. Daniel Padilla is great, and Kathryn Bernardo has improved a lot since her She's Dating the Gangster days. They have great chemistry together. Like all the other big love teams out there today, it's safe to say they're all reasonably talented actors and actresses.


Can't Help Falling in Love bases its whole premise on a single fact: That Gab (Bernardo) and Dos (Padilla) drunkenly got married one night, jeopardizing Gab's impending marriage to Joshua (Matteo Guidicelli). This is inherently silly, because the amount of paperwork and required seminars etc. that a couple needs to get married here in the Philippines are probably not available to our protagonists in a dingy bar at 11pm. I mean, look at all the things you have to do. I found this through less than five minutes of searching on Google. Right then and there, the story should have been axed. But no, apparently whoever thought this up had no qualms going through the "Las Vegas wedding" angle and proceeding with the story.

That's just one of the things in the script that proves to be inherently problematic. Can't Help Falling in Love becomes an infidelity film, where Gab wantonly cheats on Joshua because she's feeling a bit of chemistry with Dos, who is for all intents and purposes a stranger to her. This is hand-waved away by hints that her relationship with Joshua wasn't going anywhere anyway, and that they should have separated earlier if they had the chance. Because love teams are everything, I guess. The film could have explained this better, but it's awkwardly done with a few lines of dialogue during the third act. Joshua is apparently characterized as controlling, but thanks to the writing, it's more clear that Gab is unable to assert herself in the relationship and is unable to communicate properly with her boyfriend, a fact that has its own share of problems. It comes across as lazy, and it's a bit detrimental to how the story resolves itself. Imagine yourself in Joshua's position, trying hard to maintain a long term (6 YEARS!) long distance relationship, but then seeing it all fall apart thanks to a random fling with a charming stranger your fiancee met at an afterparty. I'd bet you'd feel shitty too.

The rest of the script falls apart with the slightest scrutiny. I've been told that Catholic priests no longer officiate garden weddings. One of the characters experiences a cliched Potentially Fatal Medical Condition (TM) but has inexplicably earned the money for a complicated neurosurgical procedure that costs hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pesos here in the Philippines. Said character doesn't seem to have an HMO, and good luck getting life insurance to pay that out. He amasses this small fortune in a relatively short time. What's his job? "Raket-Raket lang." Does he sell drugs? Is he a white slaver? Does he participate in the illegal arms trade? Is it related to his political connections (he is well-connected to a recently deceased mayor)? Who the hell knows? Meanwhile, a neurologist/neurosurgeon has no idea what the difference between an aneurysm and a blood clot is. I groan.

Can't Help Falling in Love drops hints about an underlying theme: the importance of marriage in a relationship. Sure, times are changing, and the definition of what a marriage is changes through that level of social evolution. There's also a notion of social media exposure causing people to make the wrong decisions. It's touched at early on in the film and I found it pretty interesting. Ultimately and unfortunately, neither of these themes are really explored.

Perhaps you, dear reader, might be compelled to accuse me of nitpicking. There's a difference between nitpicking and common sense. When you watch a film and the premise is faulty, the immersion is broken right then and there, making the rest of the film far less enjoyable. People can probably appreciate this film if love teams are everything, if they have no idea how a story works, or if they are mindlessly following Star Cinema's patented formula. That's fine, and more power to you. But films like this exist to bring our love team from one cute situation to another, ignoring everything else that makes a story a story, and I think that's kinda sad. I think it's not a sin to demand something of higher quality from these production outfits, because films like this waste the talents of the love teams working on them.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Dispatches from Hong Kong (3): Trespass Against Us, The Eremites, Autumn Autumn

Hey, guys. I'm back from the abyss. Here's the fourth and final part of Present Confusion's HK special 2017. (I can't think of a better name at the moment.)

The Cutler family has lived in the English countryside for years, committing numerous robberies and petty crimes. Thanks to skillful planning, they haven't been charged by the police for anything... yet. Chad (Michael Fassbender) is one of the key members of the gang, but he wants a normal life for his wife and kid. On the other hand, his father (Brendan Gleeson) keeps a tight leash on his most skilled man.

Trespass Against Us is a mishmash of ideas: it's part family drama, part gangster thriller, part comedy. These disparate parts don't really mesh that well, but there's still plenty in the film to enjoy. For example, Gleeson's character, Colby, is an interesting mosaic of a man, both religious and sinister, keeping his charges uneducated and ignorant to keep them loyal. Michael Fassbender is way too handsome for Chad, but he still delivers a pretty impressive performance as a loving dad to his kids. Their two performances carry a film that is deeply flawed.

Trespass Against Us is entertaining, but I wish it would have stuck to one thing all throughout. Instead, the haphazard pastiche of ideas really takes a toll on the final product.

The next two films are part of the HKIFF (and the last films I will be reviewing for this feature.)

The first 30 or so minutes of Romy Trocker's The Eremites takes its time getting you into the daily rhythms of its protagonists. And this rhythm is solemn, paradoxically(?) quiet even. It details the life of Albert, a man who is torn between a life working in a mine and returning to his parents' old farm in the Alps, where that way of life is in the process of disappearing altogether.

Albert's elderly mother is adamant about her son carving out his own way of life, but we are initially not told her reasons why. Trocker decides to peel away these layers subtly, clues hidden in conversations that one might easily ignore. The film's characters are framed in wide shots of the countryside or the inside of the mountain, a dichotomy of man framed within nature, but with wildly different contexts, one where man works in unison with nature, another with a colder, more mechanical atmosphere.

It seems ironic, then, that our protagonist's time mining in the mountain, carving it out from the inside, takes away from the same mountains that have sustained his family all these years. Perhaps it's out of a subliminal sense of vengeance, or perhaps the irony stands. The film makes us fill in the details ourselves. It represents an age old trope of traditional ways of life clashing with modern points of view, between a sense of duty to family and a sense of independence and freedom.

The Eremites is slow, atmospheric arthouse that is challenging to watch, but is rewarding for the patient viewer.

Set in the scenic vistas of mountainous Chuncheon, Jang Woo-jin's Autumn, Autumn is a fascinating portrait of a place as transformative catalyst. It is reminiscent of Hong Sang-soo's 1998 film, The Power of Kangwon Province with its two part story structure (they also take place in the same relative location; Chuncheon is the capital of Kangwon province).

Jang uses long takes and parallel sequences that connect its two plot threads, intersecting on a train during the film's opening sequence. One follows a young man whose regret and frustration over his life choices make him face a crossroads in life; another follows a couple whose motives and backstory are tantalizingly revealed to us through conversation.

Some of those long takes are truly magical moments. In the first plot thread, a lengthy phone call becomes an emotional fulcrum for everything up to that moment; in the second plot thread, there is a fantastic sequence (pictured above) of the couple eating at a restaurant, the natural lighting shifting from dark to light, reflecting the moods of the two characters and the revelations that are brought up during the sequence itself.

Jang uses temporality and repetition to show how Chuncheon as a place transforms its characters: trips to a local shrine may depict a search for answers or relief to a troubling situation. Slow motion scenes during a marathon are met with disinterest or avoidance; the appearance of a praying mantis elicits different reactions as well. It is poetic and tranquil, and by the end we see how these characters can either be profoundly changed or stay the same.

Autumn, Autumn is a real surprise to me. it's a brisk watch at a little over an hour, and it has some fantastic moments, a real achievement for a sophomore feature.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dispatches from Hong Kong (2): Harmonium, HKIFF films

Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) lives a simple life with his wife Akie and daughter Hotaru. One day a man from Toshi's past, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) arrives and Toshio lets him live with the family and work for them. It's clear that Toshio's reasons for letting Yasaka in are anything but altruistic, as they have a past together. Soon, Yasaka becomes entrenched in the family structure.

Harmonium deconstructs the family through Yasaka's presence, physical or not, in Toshio and his family's lives, addressing issues of parenting and poor communication between spouses, as well as the Japanese notions of obligation towards peers.  Fukada's film is crafted with clinical precision; he holds back from being melodramatic and creates a feeling of tranquility that belies the pitch black darkness underneath the surface..The sensibility feels European, with echoes of Bresson and the like within the film's frames. 

Fukada decides to clothe Yasaka in pure white - perhaps a reference to something Akie says earlier in the movie to the effect of "sinners are more beloved by God." It gives Yasaka an almost supernatural look especially when contrasted with other characters in the frame. And when Yasaka transforms visually, you know something has gone terribly wrong.

Harmonium is a devastating film. It gives no easy answers to its questions, but it is cinema done extremely well. It serves as an effective cinematic observation of atonement and guilt.

By the way, the previous post, this post and the post after this one will have reviews of films from the 41st edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. These will include acclaimed films that have been screened at other festivals like Cannes, Venice and Toronto. There are also a small number of Filipino films on the lineup, including Brillante Mendoza's Ma'Rosa, Lav Diaz's Ang Babaeng Humayo and a three film retrospective program featuring Mike De Leon. 

Without further ado...

Raoul Peck's Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, expands upon the manuscript of social activist James Baldwin, applying his words to the state of racism in today's America.

The documentary is part stream of consciousness, part memoir. Baldwin (voiced by Samuel Jackson) gives his own ideas on the nature of race and racism in America, and the film contrass his beliefs with the two other civil rights contemporaries - Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, each with their own ideas on how to tackle the issues of the day. At times the ideas feel too freeform, too much like Jazz, making the film shapeless.

Interestingly, the film examines through Baldwin's words the history of black people in film culture, from the early times when blackface was commonplace, to the sixties and seventies, when people like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were sex symbols, even though nobody would have admitted it at the time.

Baldwin examines the anger from both sides; he surmises that the black man's anger stems from rage from years of oppression, while the white man's anger stems from fear, the fear of a boogeyman that , in Baldwin's words, 'only exists in his head.'

I Am Not Your Negro may feel formless, but its individual images are powerful, its truth, disturbing.

With last post's The War Show focusing on Syria, let's move to Egypt this time for Mohamed Diab's Clash, which was screened  as part of Cannes' Un Certain Regard category. 

The film takes place in the background of violent 2013 protests  that led to the removal of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. Morsi himself had replaced ousted president Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 Arab Spring, the events of which are detailed in the 2011 documentary Al-Midan (The Square.) Morsi's removal led to a clash between supporters of the Muslim brotherhood (Morsi's party) and supporters of the police and military that removed him.

The movie takes place over the course of one day, within the cramped insides of a police riot truck. Several people from both the side of the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-military forces are detained by the police. 

Diab uses the claustrophobic setting to create tension, using tight frames to make you feel the discomfort the characters feel. Although the film adds sidestories to develop its characters, these subplots are seldom unnecessary.

The film remains neutral, depicting neither side being more evil or good than the other. Diab molds his characters into a reflection of Egyptian society: rich, poor, religious, secular, Muslim, Christian. Had affiliations not mattered, there would be no reason not to believe these people could be friends.

The most powerful scene of the movie - and perhaps its most tragic - is a moment of respite just before the film's climax, where we are reminded that some of these people participated in the 2011 Arab Spring Protests. We see, just for an instant, the optimism and hope from that time. And just as quickly we are returned to the present time, where Egypt is now deeply divided, one of the dark legacies of the Arab Spring.

Citizen Jane: Battle For the City is a documentary about the life of Jane Jacobs. You may not know her, but her ideas on urban planning continue to influence how people build the spaces we live in.

Citizen Jane plays it like a David vs. Goliath story, pitting her against the New York City government and Robert Moses, one of the most well known and infuential city planners of his time. Jacobs' planning philosophy centered on the people rather than the infrastructure, where cities are planned with breathing space and social interactions in mind.

The film itself is quite entertaining, and Jacobs herself is quite the character. Jacobs' philosophies are also compared to the state of cities today - the rise and fall of the housing projects guided by th philosophies of Moses and his ilk, and the increasing number of high rise monoliths in developing countries like China.

It's all interesting stuff, and it has gotten me to start reading Jacobs' work and counterarguments to her ideas. 

Black Code, a documentary by Nicholas de Pencier, reads like a science fiction or cyberpunk novel - cyber espionage, an information war waged by world governments, spying on citizens without their consent. But it's all real: the docu is based on academic Ronald Deibert's novel of the same name.

Black Code takes us around the world, where individuals are harassed, tortured and even killed because of what they said on the internet or because they fought against or criticized the government through the net.

The locales are varied: news outfits for the rebellion in war torn Syria; live streaming protests in Rio de Janeiro, monks in exile in Dharamsala; women's rights activists in Pakistan. All of the stories are unique and compelling in their own way. Togethr, they paint a picture of a world that is in a state of flux, as we enter a new age of information distribution.

The content is chilling, and one can only wonder where it can go from here. As governments slowly catch on to the ramifications of this new age of information, the film leaves it to us to be vigilant, to keep our rights to privacy and free speech protected as much as we can.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Dispatches from Hong Kong: In This Corner of the World, The War Show, 76 mins and 15 secs with Abbas Kiarostami

Sunao Katabuchi's In this Corner of the World is based on the manga of the same name, detailing the life story of a young woman as she moves to the port city of Kure during WWII.

There are some really dark moments in this movie, showing us the horrors of the war and how it affects the characters and the place they live in. Comparisons can be made to the manga Barefoot Gen and the classic Grave of the Fireflies. Speaking of Grave of the Fireflies, In this Corner of the World feels like a Ghibli movie and its no surprise, as Katabuchi worked as assistant director for Kiki's Delivery Service, among others.

The film, however, is not as relentlessly bleak as the Ghibli classic. It's far more gentle, even whimsical at parts, despite the darkness going on in the background. There is a lingering spirit of hope and optimism for the future in this film, even though almost everything has been taken from these characters.


The next two films are documentaries from the 41st Hong Kong International Fuilm Festival (description in the next post.) Enjoy~

Ever since the Arab Spring led to the Syrian Civil War, many documentaries have sprung up about the conflict. The War Show is a deeply personal account of the struggle from the perspective of a radio DJ as she joins the resistance against the Assad Regime.

The film has many powerful images that lets us see the disturbing reality of the war: a house filled with orphans of war. Resistance fighters showing off for the camera. Secular and extremist protesters clashing in the streets.

The film also spotlights the power of the camera itself in the course of the war; Assad's men target people with cameras as the highest priority. Men are proud to show the scars of their torture to the camera, hoping that it would be seen by people around the world, as the regime tightens its hold on the flow of information. And it is evident that the propaganda war works both ways to fuel the fire of dissent.

Its epilogue is somber, noting that the Syria these people knew is no more; with the Syrian people itself serving as the new map of a country now lost. 

76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami is exactly what it says on the tin. It's a personal filmi portrait of the filmmaker and the artist behind some of Iran's most celebrated contemporary films.

The film follows Kiarostami as he works on his films, as well as footage of him on the road, capturing images with his eye for the frame. Kiarostami is happy and joyful, enamored by the natural beauty of the world around him. He tries to capture the perfect shot as much as he can: even pleading with people to not move snow on the road or use the windshield wiper to get the perfect shot.

We see a man passionate about his art, from the time he bought a newspaper for his star Juliette Binoche during the making of Certified Copy, or meeting casually with the co-stars of one of his other films. These scenes flow together like a tone poem, creating the portrait of a filmmaker whose works will stand the test of time. He will be missed.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Dispatches from Hong Kong (prelude): A Silent Voice, On the Beach at Night Alone

At first, one might draw comparisons to anime film A Silent Voice and its contemporary, Makoto Shinkai's Your Name, but the two anime can not be more different in style and tone.

A Silent Voice is a nuanced, oftentimes surprisingly dark examination of friendship and guilt. Nearly all of its characters are wracked by guilt over something they did as children - the bullying and social isolation of a deaf student named Shoko Nishimiya. Ironically, one of the persons least affected by the bullying is Shoko herself - or at least that's what it seems at first. The movie follows protagonist Shoya Ishida as he tries to reconnect with all of the friends he lost  thanks to this event.

The movie captures the pain of school life as lived by its characters. Though many of you may not have experienced something as extreme as what the protagonists experienced in this film, you will find yourself relating to them and their problems at least in some way.

Ishida learns that reconnecting is not easy. the film begins with Ishida's attempted suicide because he lacks the self worth to move on, and it only marginally gets better from there. Both this movie and the manga feature characters that act like anime tropes on the outside but are deeply scarred and/or broken individuals on the inside, all of them emotionally needy in some way. While the manga has more breathing room to develop these characters and their motivations, the anime does a surprisingly good job comprssing 50-odd chapters into a two hour movie.

The film balances its darkness with moments of levity, which elevates the overall mood. A Silent Voice's dramatic moments still shine through despite the limitations of adaptation, carried by Kyoto Animation's  overall high quality production. A Silent Voice is a a parade of broken people, finding solace in their own brokenness.

Hong Sang-soo is a filmmaker with a very distinct style that has evolved over the years. His characters are usually men in creative disciplines who try to find meaning in their lives by pursuing (often drunkenly) the opposite sex. In his latest film, On the Beach at Night Alone, Hong shakes it up a bit, where a woman (Kim Min-hee) involved in a creative discipline (she's an actress) tries to (drunkenly at times) find the meaning of her failed love with a man.

The movie is, true to Hong's work especially post Tale of Cinema, paced gently, full of drunken outbursts and impassioned declarations. Hong makes the mundane seem fascinating when he does his magic, often zooming in and out of characters during long takes, at times in asymmetrical frames.

Hong seems to be self reflective at times during this movie, and there's the lingering sense of the fourth wall just out of reach, as his films tiptoe the line between reality and fiction, where the camera feels like a separate character.

Hong's films are full of love and regret drenched in beer and soju. There's no shortage of that in this film, and while many can accuse the director of being a one note creator, it's hardly true - as one of the characters says during the film's climax, it's in the craft and filmmaking where we see variations in the theme. And seeing Hong evolve from his early works like Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors to Woman is the Future of Man and now to this, the progression of the work is clear, like movements in an orchestral piece.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Hana and Alice is a lighthearted story about the stories we tell

First of all, April marks a month of celebration as this blog marks its 12th year of existence, so I'll probably be blogging more than usual for the next few weeks. For this post, I've taken the time to revisit one of my favorite Shunji Iwai films, Hana and Alice. 

Iwai is one of my favorite Japanese directors, and his 1996 film Swallowtail is my all time favorite movie. Prior to Hana and Alice, Iwai shot All About Lily Chou Chou, a dark, brooding examination of youth and disconnection in the digital age, when social media was non existent, and social interactions on the net took place on BBSes or image boards like 2ch (which still exists today.)

Hana and Alice is a far lighter tale than that film; it's more comparable to a slice of life anime. The titular characters, Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) are best friends. One day, Hana gets infatuated with a boy, Masashi. When Masashi gets into a minor accident, Hana pretends that he has amnesia and she is actually his girlfriend.

As the lie grows even more complex, Alice is dragged into the situation, which is further complicated when Alice and Masashi form a relationship based on that lie. This extended network of lies and stories is quite fascinating, and I think it's the central theme of the film. Hana and Alice is a story about stories and storytellers. It's about how we tend to believe convenient tales even when we know they are false, because that's exactly what we want instead of what is. Indeed, aren't some stories but beautiful lies?

The connections to the themes do not stop there. Hana joins a Rakugo club to get closer to Masashi. Rakugo is a form of traditional Japanese storytelling, usually involving a set of characters in a (usually comedic) situation, the sitcom of ages past. It's made even more clear when one of the penultimate scenes juxtaposes a heartfelt confession with a Rakugo performance. One of Alice's friends takes pictures - itself a form of storytelling. These stories give Alice the courage to make amends later on in the story. And Alice herself expresses a story during an audition through dance, after spending most of the film awkwardly going from one audition to another, unable to act out her feelings.

And it's masterfully done at times when the film decides to imply a greater picture instead of spoon-feeding us the answers. Hana and Alice each have their own set of problems and life issues that find their way to us occasionally within the story, and they lead to some really lovely moments. Alice's lunch with her father is quite affecting because of these personal moments, and their interaction shapes a lot of Alice's decisions in the latter half of the film.

The acting can get a little bit silly at times, but it's great overall. The film is carried by Yu Aoi, who in my opinion is the better among the two leads. Her role in this film is markedly different than her much darker debut role in All About Lily Chou Chou, but she brings with it a big helping of charm, while still keeping a sense of vulnerability. A few other Iwai regulars appear in the film, including cameos from Ayumi Ito, and actors like Takao Osawa and Hiroshi Abe.

While light and funny (this is still probably one of Iwai's lightest and funniest films), Hana and Alice is a great movie that tends to be overlooked sometimes when one peruses through Iwai's oeuvre.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Suki ni naru sono shunkan wo is cute, but lacks context if viewed alone

Suki ni naru sono shunkan wo (translated as 'the moment you fall in love') is an anime movie currently showing in SM Cinemas. Before I start with the review, a little background first.

This movie is the second film in the Kokuhaku Jikkou Iinkai (Confession Executive Committee) series. This is a project by a musical group named Honeyworks that composes songs that are sung by Vocaloids

This project aims to adapt Honeyworks' most successful love songs into anime. Yes, the source material for this movie series is a bunch of songs (and a few light novels) about high school love and confessions. The songs themselves detail the intersecting relationships of numerous high school students at Sakuragaoka High School, where everyone is in love with someone else and everyone has no idea how to express that love. 

This movie in particular concentrates on a set on songs written for one character, Hina, who is in love with a shy but bishounen senior. She then decides to study hard for her high school entrance exams and get into the same high school as him. Meanwhile, Hina's childhood friend, Kotarou, has a huge crush on her but is forced to step aside after seeing Hina crushing on her senior. Despite this, his feelings remain.

It's a massive understatement to say that a lot of context is lost if you watch this film blind. In fact, I recommend watching the previous movie in the series, Zutto mae kara suki deshita (translated as 'I've always loved you') first, then going back to watch this movie. That's the biggest problem with the movie in my eyes: it barely stands on its own. Even without context, the film tries too hard to shoehorn in tons of exposition and backstory into one hour of running time. For example, a particular character's motivations are glossed over and presented in the space of five seconds, with no foreshadowing or buildup.

The plot is full of romance anime cliches, such as the childhood friend, the unreachable or unrequited love (that predates our own hugot by a bit) and the dependable older sibling. Taken together it's all quite cute, but nothing new as far as anime conventions go. As expected from an anime tackling relationships and confessing love to someone else, the movie shows us all the myriad ways where making a love confession to someone can fail badly (or succeed!) 

And when the film ends, it ends abruptly, leaving you hanging, and wishing for closure. An after credits sequence is essential viewing for people who want a little bit more closure to the story.

Suki ni naru sono shunkan wo should please fans and people familiar with either the other movie in the series or the songs the movie is based on. Otherwise, it's cute, but it will all be a bit confusing for newcomers. As a standalone film, it doesn't quite work and is probably better served as a series on TV. And if recent reports are any indication, with a TV special on the way, that seems to be the natural progression of things.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

REELive the Classics: Sa Aking Mga Kamay (Restored Version)

I used to think the nineties were the dark ages of Philippine Cinema. But recent screenings care of ABS-CBN's film restoration team have begun to change my mind. Today, we tackle the 1996 thriller Sa Aking Mga Kamay, restored in glorious 4K.

The movie begins with a murder; one of many committed by the "Cattleya Killer," who murders mainly married women, leaving behind a Cattleya flower (not the notebook!) as his evidence/trademark. Joven Dela Rosa is hot on his trail, but then, thanks to a quirk of fate, the killer targets Joven's wife Camille as his next victim...

Aga Mulach plays the role of the serial killer very much against type. He's charming and manipulative, but is prone to maniacal outbursts of violence. His character's backstory is fleshed out quite well - as his murderous impulses stem from a very traumatic childhood experience. He and Chinchin Gutierrez have very interesting character interactions, especially when everything is revealed and Aga's character shows his true nature. Their acting sells the sexual and emotional brutality of their subsequent scenes together.

The story, while very entertaining, can get a bit cheesy sometimes, and near the end of the film Mulach really cranks the ham-o-meter to maximum levels. The last third of the film almost feels like a slasher flick in the way it was made, combining Romy Vitug's backlit cinematography with flashing red strobelights reminiscent of Natural Born Killers, which was released only 2 years prior.

The film tackles topics of shame and family, where communication between family is easier said than done; where the sins of the parents trickle down onto their children. It also puts a spotlight on the double standards between cheating wives vs. cheating husbands, perhaps lampshading or even subverting the tropes established by infidelity films. Unfaithfulness at first seems tantalizing, but it ends up dangerous, even fatal, for the people involved in this film. It takes away the romanticized artifice of the whole thing,  showing us the darkness uunderneath.

The restoration job is gorgeous. Because it was recorded digitally (probably the first in the country), the sound is crisp; the picture is equally good, and the movie could pass for a film released yesterday, if not for the 90's outfits, pagers and cassette recorders.

I've said it a lot of times before, but it bears repeating: mainstream cinema doesn't make movies like this anymore. It's a rare local treat from the nineties, and a very enjoyable film.

ABS-CBN is showing a number of restored films, including this one (AND KOKEY! LIKE wtf man) at Power Plant Cinemas from April 5-12.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Northern Lights brings on the cheese, but that's okay

Charlie Jr. wants to see the Northern Lights, because his mom told him dead people go there and his pet Brownie (I'm assuming it's his dog or pet) is there somehow. He goes to his dad, who he hasn't met since he was born, who lives in Alaska. At the same time, young yuppie Angel is on her way to the same place to find her long lost mother.

Northern Lights is this year's "mainstream drama located in an exotic place" movie. The "Northern Lights" part is definitely okay. With a ton of feel good moments, the film is cheesier than a fondue station at a buffet, but the charm of the main characters, especially Piolo Pascual, carry the film anyway. Its dramatic themes center around children being disappointed by their parents, and understanding these parents' faults and loving them anyway. It's anything but shallow, and although the treatment is sometimes hokey, its fairly interesting.

The problem is the "a journey to love" part. Like Star Cinema's earlier feature Everything About Her, Northern Lights muddles its subject material with a romance that doesn't completely work out. The film was fine as it was as a drama, but it feels even more schmaltzy as it enters romantic territory and doles out happy endings for everyone. A dramatic twist near the end seems shoehorned in and feels more like a cop-out for the female lead rather than a genuine dramatic moment.

That said, the film is pretty entertaining. It's also a treat seeing Sandy Andolong on the big screen again. Piolo Pascual fans are likely in for a treat here.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

The '17 Ghost in the Shell takes a Western approach to an Eastern story

NOTE: This essay contains some spoilers.

I was firmly in the skeptical column when I learned that Hollywood would be producing a remake of the anime/manga Ghost in the Shell. Hollywood's track record for anime adaptations had been previously dismal, churning out stinkers like Dragonball Evolution. Some adaptations were actually quite fine, like 1995's Crying Freeman, but they are, more often than not, exceptions to the rule. Having seen this version of Ghost in the Shell, I can say it's actually quite okay, given my low expectations coming in. While it doesn't quite live up to the source material, as a standalone feature it's okay science fiction.

To me, Ghost in the Shell has always been a story deeply rooted in Eastern concepts, linking technology and transhumanism to spiritual ideas of reincarnation and the soul. It's treated differently by the different adaptations of Shirow Masamune's original manga, the best being the 1995 adaptation by Mamoru Oshii. While Masamune's manga is lighter in tone, it still has a heavy emphasis on metaphysical concepts. Oshii's films are far more introspective, and the tone is noticeably dark. While Oshii peppers both films with Judeo-Christian images and symbols, the films are still deeply rooted in a very Eastern sensibility. The two anime series concentrate more on the political landscape of the manga, while still holding true to existential questions posed in the manga and films.

This adaptation, in contrast, provides a very Western approach to telling the story. It emphasizes the divide between ghost and shell - soul and body - to emphasize western ideas on individuality, identity and self. The Major is asked multiple times throughout the film "Who are you?" or "What are you?" and this is a question that she struggles to answer throughout the film. The film's outward appearance, its shell, if you may, copies a lot of elements from the source material. Its world is a Blade Runner/The Fifth Element-esque heterotopian landscape; it is a mashup of cultural identities, with signs in English, Japanese, Hangul and Chinese, with concrete landscapes modeled after the post-colonial sprawl of Hong Kong. Clint Mansell's synth heavy score is reminiscent of other science fiction works, with some moments evoking his work on (of all things) Mass Effect 3.

The revelations in the last part of the film make the statement that we are defined by what we do and who we are, and our outward appearance is unimportant. (In a metafictional way, it also addresses (and effectively, in my opinion) a certain criticism of the film.) Even in the '95 film, the Major was a blue-eyed, androgynous cyborg whose race, nationality and identity always remained uncertain, something taken to even further extremes with Masamune's follow up manga, Man Machine Interface, where the Motoko entity inhabits multiple cyborg bodies.

One can see the difference in the 'ghost' of this film and that of its Japanese siblings in how it treats the ending. This film and the 1995 film/original manga both end with a choice that the Major has to make. The western remake's ending is doggedly individualistic, with the Major asserting her identity as an autonomous individual with a strictly defined role and purpose, an ending that I believe is rooted in Western ideals. In the original film and the manga, on the other hand, this decision is very different. It takes a collectivist stand on the matter, where the individual merges with another to evolve beyond their original role and purpose. This emphasis on the harmony of the collective over the self is a cornerstone in the storytelling conventions of the Japanese and I see it in a lot of other Asian stories as well. In Eastern storytelling, we are but miniscule players in a grander scheme and we take in the enormity of the world around us. There's a segment in the middle of both the '95 and '04 films that encapsulate this ideal: an introspective, atmospheric sequence of shots that function like a tone poem, showing us the film's themes. This remake doesn't really have that.

Its a significant source of cultural dissonance, and it can seem jarring to many viewers. It's inevitable that one will draw comparisons between this film and the original, and that's one of the pitfalls of making an adaptation of a popular source material, especially if it's an influential cyberpunk masterpiece like Ghost in the Shell. Depending on how you approach the film, it can either be very disappointing, or one of the most accomplished western remakes of anime out there.

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