Monday, July 24, 2017

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is immersive and spectacular

Christopher Nolan's latest film, Dunkirk, is a movie of contradictions. Within the expansive, epic frames of Dunkirk's beaches, humans seem miniscule, like ants; yet the movie's intertwined stories are small and personal. It is a movie set in World War II, no stranger to epics of heroism and victory, yet it is atypical as far as these epics go: it is based on a "colossal military disaster," a military evacuation by cornered Allied forces during the Battle of France.

In this movie, Nolan plays with time like he has with his earlier movies like Interstellar, Inception and Memento. The film's three narratives take place over different stretches of time, but eventually intertwine near the end.

Each story is engaging and immersive - helped by impressive technical filmmaking - that collectively helps the audience get into the moment. Dunkirk is all about the moment, and it can almost feel like a tone poem at times. And though its stories are smaller-scale, personal tales of survival, we barely get to know these characters. I can probably identify only one or two characters by name. These stories disappear into the crowd, perhaps communicating the fact that true stories of war are seldom individualized, instead they are formed by a crowd of combatants reacting to the war around them. The enemy is even more mysterious. There isn't a single swastika seen, and they are referred to simply as "The Enemy." They exist out of frame, manifesting as gunshots out of nowhere, planes from high above, faceless and amorphous. Their anonymity may perhaps be a reflection of how those soldiers at Dunkirk viewed the enemy, adding more weight to the entire immersive experience.

Dunkirk is a story of survival, a story of humanity and hope amidst almost total despair. It's a unique take on the WWII epic and an impressive technical and cinematic feat.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Viddsee and the FDCP are holding a program for local filmmakers!

I've been a longtime fan of the video streaming site Viddsee, where you can see short films from around the world. I've also been meaning to write something about the site for a long time, but haven't had the motivation to do so.

Now is a good time, however, as Viddsee and the FDCP are holding a filmmaker program where local filmmakers can submit their own films to the site, and 10 lucky winners will be selected by an expert jury to be shown all around the Philippines. From these 10 finalists, winners will be chosen come November and amazing prizes (filmmaking equipment, for one, as well as an immersion course in Los Angeles.) 

There's no entry fee at all, so even I'm thinking of submitting something. It would be super DIY but why the heck not, right? You can read their submission guidelines via this link and their official Facebook page is over here.

I'm also planning on doing regular reviews (probably short pieces) reviewing random short films from the site, so watch out for that as well. 

The deadline for submission is September 14, 2017, so start making those films, and I'll see you next time!

Friday, July 21, 2017

July Reviews: Beautiful Pain, Kita Kita

Redha, re-released here in the Philippines as Beautiful Pain, is a Malaysian family drama about a husband and wife coming to terms with the fact that their child is autistic. Their journey of discovery is not an easy one; at first the father is in full denial, while the mother goes from doctor to doctor to find out what exactly is wrong with her child.

The film also serves as a tool to teach its viewership about autism. I'm not familiar with Malaysian perceptions of autistic individuals, but if this film is characteristic of such perceptions, it seems that the public at large is misinformed about the condition, attaching some sort of stigma to people within the autism spectrum. The film repeatedly presents situations where the family experiences discrimination, or situations where people attribute the child's behavioral problems to bad parenting. In  righting misconceptions and setting the record straight, Beautiful Pain makes its explanations easy to understand, and in that regard, the film works.

There are some very poignant moments in Beautiful Pain, even though the film can sometimes veer into manipulative territory. It works best when the drama does not call too much attention to itself. The film's last third feels a bit rushed, and could have benefited from dedicating more time to certain characters. Ultimately the film's simplicity works in its favor, and it works in offering a different cultural perspective on autism.

After a series of very stressful events, Sapporo tour guide Lea (Alessandra de Rossi) loses her vision. She then encounters a new neighbor, Tonyo, (Empoy Marquez) who begins a friendship with the young woman.

Genre savvy people might figure out a good chunk of the plot from the first ten minutes of the film, but the climax of Kita Kita still surprised me in a good way. It skillfully manages to create a sweet and cute story of two people finding each other in a foreign land, and subsequently avoids many pitfalls that could have messed up the final product.

Sure, the title "Kita Kita" means "I see you" in Tagalog, but the film cleverly finds the hidden beauty in things we don't see, even if it's in plain sight. The film is riddled with visual cues that make sense later on, an incentive to rewatch the film and find all the things that one may have missed. On a different level, it works too: Kita Kita is also about how even simple acts of kindness can create a ripple effect, changing lives in different and profound ways.

The film's aesthetic is a strange mix of Filipino rom com and anime that I really couldn't place, but nevertheless enjoyed. Visually the film makes great use of Sapporo as a location, and its frames are colorful and soft.

Empoy Marquez deserves a lot of credit for making the movie work. His choice as male lead is an unusual one, given what we're used to with these kinds of films, but his performance saves the film. Instead of being a pushy, even stalkerish suitor, Tonyo is sincere and comes with the best of intentions. The couple's chemistry also manages to work, despite the unusual pairing. Their growth as a couple is done gradually, a slow build-up of mutual trust.

Perhaps unintentionally, the film's title gains another meaning. Kita in Japanese can mean a lot of things (such as "it came"), but in the lingo of otaku, "Kita" as an exclamation is used when something unexpected  and unlikely has happened. It's used, for example, as a reaction when other people say something crazy that they've been holding back on for a long time. Perhaps, a confession of love.

I kinda like that definition.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Bloody Crayons is camp af, but bloody entertaining

Let me preface this by saying Bloody Crayons is no Citizen Kane; if you went into this expecting a masterpiece you are clearly deluding yourself. It's campy as hell, and most of the characters fall within slasher film tropes in that most of them are too stupid to live (or just lack common human sense.) Let me also say this is a sillier review than usual, with me stream of consciousness-ing the entire time.

That said, the film is pretty entertaining, if you go into it to see millennials (and non millennials) get killed in various horrifying ways. Also, it's at least interesting to see how the story and the central mystery plays out, though it quickly becomes painfully obvious who is doing the killings.

The premise, unfortunately, does not involve psychopathic kindergarten teachers stabbing random people with really sharp crayons, which is what I was gunning for. (If anyone ever tries to make a film like that, call me.) Instead, it's based on a Wattpad novel, and we all know Wattpad is home to Palanca award winning masterpieces like Talk Back and You're Dead and Diary ng Panget. 

In the film, a group of film students go to a secluded mansion to film their final project. After playing a (decidedly low budget) party game called Bloody Crayons, people start to die. Who is behind the killings? Why is it happening? Normal crayons don't really make a mark on the skin; aren't those crayon pastels instead of crayons? Why not make it Bloody Markers instead? What's so Bloody about those crayons, or is it an adjective pejoratively addressing the crayons for making awkward social situations possible ("those damn bloody crayons")? Why is the Bloody Mug a plastic party cup worth ~2 pesos with a label on the side?

The acting ranges from "great" to "like cardboard". I won't say who to avoid getting lynched. There's also a scene that has an unusual fascination towards the male characters' abs (complete with slow panning shots!) That I found really weird especially contrasted with the female characters' very conservative swimsuits. But you know, if you're into that stuff, I won't judge.

The film is so unabashedly campy and unpretentious that it's to the film's credit. Its straightforwardness means you get exactly what you pay for: 1.5 hours of slasher film fun. In a world where absolutely everything has to be a commentary on something, sometimes (but not often) genre films like this offer a welcome respite.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

ToFarm Film Festival Report Part 2: What Home Feels Like, Instalado, Sinandomeng

What Home Feels Like is more an OFW movie than a farming movie, but the results are still pretty effective. Antonio is a seaman; he has been for a very long time. When a tiff with his employer ends up firing him from his job, he's now on the ground, which makes him truly face his family for the very first time, as his job basically made him an absentee dad. He takes up his time farming and doing miscellaneous things, including tending to his small farm.

Antonio's story is a common story, and it resonates quite well. For the sake of economic stability, parents have increasingly decided to go to work abroad for longer stretches of time to the detriment of quality family time. The drama hits all the right notes at all the right times, and a surprise twist that should probably surprise no one is still effective when all's said and done. 

The film is far from perfect, however. The film could have shown Antonio's reconciliation with his children with a bit more depth, and the ending leaves some questions unanswered. Antonio may have changed his behavior towards his children for the better, but we don't get much of that on screen as his children leave soon after the dramatic speeches are made.

The film mainly works because of a great performance from Bembol Roco as Antonio. Irma Adlawan is equally as capable as his wife, providing the perfect balance to Antonio's fatherly disposition. What Home Feels Like is decent, though flawed, family drama that balances its drama just right.

The best kinds of science fiction films aren't always the big budget special effects extravaganzas. The best science fiction stories are the stories that give us insight into the human condition within its fantastical setting. The best science fiction frames sociopolitical issues that help us understand ourselves in the present day.

Based on its premise alone, Instalado is very promising. It takes place in a near future Philippines where people have gained the ability to "install" vast quantities of knowledge into their brains. Imagine learning how to become a nurse or engineer overnight - on the surface, it's a groundbreaking tool for humankind.

However, Instalado posits the question: what if this tool meant to uplift humanity was placed within the rotten structures of our current society, which is precariously balanced on class inequality? We get one possible answer: the death of traditional education, the creation of a new elite class, extreme capitalism, and the widening of the divide between rich and poor.

Personally, I think installation in itself is merely a tool and is neither good nor evil - it's only in how people use it that it can be used for an agenda or in unethical ways. Here, it can be used to promote capitalist prospects, it can be used to proselytize, it can erase peoples' identities or religious affiliation, and it can indirectly oppress the poor thanks to the way it is used. While watching this film, I kept coming back to Alex Rivera's 2008 film Sleep Dealer, which dealt with the Mexican immigration problem and how technology with a capitalist streak can affect the problem (and the people involved) in negative ways.

The world is meticulously crafted, but herein lies my one real gripe with the film. In a universe created through worldbuilding, a crucial step in the creation of an effective story arc is to have that world challenged somehow, to show us if it can stay robust or have the world profoundly changed or destroyed thanks to another paradigm shift. Instalado takes its sweet time building its world, having several story arcs seemingly heading towards a climactic third act that doesn't really fully materialize. There is the promise of such a thing happening, a few tantalizing hints here and there, but it's ultimately left unexplored.

Science fiction is a rarity in Philippine Cinema, and the subgenre of social science fiction, even more so. But I think independently made, low budget films are suited to this kind of storytelling, with films like this and Kung Ang Ulan ay Gawa sa Tsokolate offering a Filipino perspective to speculative and fantastical fiction. I can only hope that more filmmakers experiment with different genres instead of  relying solely on vapid rom coms or the "shet ang hirap hirap ko" social drama.

There's a certain kind of nostalgia evoked by the music and images of Byron Bryant's Sinandomeng. Of all the films of this year's film festival, I think this is the film that took the core principles of the festival to heart.

The synopsis on the brochure basically tells you all you need to know about the film: Sinang (Sue Prado) is the remaining child of a family that owns a modest plot of land, used for farming. All of her brothers have gone abroad, leaving their wives and children back home. When Sinang's husband dies, she takes it upon herself to keep maintaining the farm. However, land developers are interested in the family land for their own purposes.

The film is paced rather slowly. It's filled with some really funny comedic moments, while other jokes fall flat. You get the feeling that the premise could be covered by a shorter film, even though the film is already one of the shortest in the festival.

Sinandomeng's images evoke a simpler time when people lived off the land and celebrations were modest but full of heart. It recalled childhood memories of walking through the farms of my relatives in Bulacan and smelling the fresh air. It features sparse musical interludes filled with local folk songs that further evoke this feeling.

And then, once the film has more or less resolved itself, it just stops. The film's greatest weakness may be that it's simplistic to a fault. While enjoyable and immersive in the moment, it just comes and goes, leaving you with interesting images that ultimately fade away.

Friday, July 14, 2017

ToFarm Film Festival Report Part 1: High Tide, Kamunggai, Baklad

Now on its second year, ToFarm Film Festival is a film festival about farmers, farming and everything about them. It's a pretty unlikely topic to make films for, but it's a welcome change to learn about the Filipino farmer in a cinematic milieu where they aren't discussed as much. These guys put food on our collective tables, so it's high time we take notice of these unsung heroes.

High Tide, Tara Illenberger's first feature length in 5 years, is about a number of families in a coastal village devastated by a powerful typhoon. They get by with fish farming, collecting clams on the shore and other activities. The story focuses on three kids, Unyok, Dayday and Leila as they live their relatively carefree childhood lives in an environment that is struggling to heal itself.

High Tide operates similarly to Illenberger's first feature length film Brutus, in that it involves children undertaking a journey of self-discovery. In this case it's Unyok, who lost both parents to the typhoon and has subsequently lost the ability to speak due to the trauma. But High Tide also looks at the bigger picture: it looks at the detrimental effects of climate change not only on the environment, but on the people living in that environment. It puts a human face on the toll our negligence has caused. It shows us that more than ever,in the face of climate change, the poorest of us are the ones who suffer the most.

The mangroves in this tale serve as a character of its own; the mangroves nurture and protect the community, and in many parts of the movie replanting them symbolizes a new beginning. It's no coincidence that it's paired with a human endeavor that itself symbolizes starting over and change - marriage.

The movie takes a long time to get off the ground (at 90 minutes, an hour is spent on just building up the characters and story.) But once it does, everything comes together dramatically, although the production gets a bit rough at some points. It's drama worth watching.

You know, there's something about Vic Acedillo's films that are really charming, even though production-wise his films aren't the best. I had the same feeling with his earlier film Lando at Bugoy, which was about a father-son relationship strained to the limit after dad goes back to school. This time, it's about an elderly retiree and his grandson. Lolo Peping has a real green thumb, but this puts him at odds with his neighbors, who regularly swipe his crops. That sets off a chain of events that threatens his simple way of living.

That's the main premise of Kamunggai. It's about the joy of growing stuff in your garden and eating from the fruits of your labor, relevant stuff especially in modern times where everything is instant or fast food.

The grandpa-grandson duo have a rough start together, but they do eventually develop a mutual respect for one another. They branch off into their own storylines, with Peping finding ways to purchase the land that he lives on, while grandson Kenken tries to fit in at his new school and make friends. It's simple stuff, though both characters live with ghosts from their own past and are trying to better themselves in the process.

The film also raises questions about land ownership and issues of sustainability, though it does so in a relatively lighthearted way. The film isn't as refined as some of the other films in this festival - the sound cuts off at odd times, there are some weird comedic moments that don't work, and the edits sometimes feel off as well. But that's all overridden by a strange charm that I can't place that made me smile at some parts. There's obvious heart in the making of Kamunggai, and it shows.

Baklad means fish trap in Tagalog - it's a practice where people fence off areas of a body of water to trap the fish inside, fatten them up, then farm them for profit. In this case, the trap ensnares people within it as well. Ronwaldo Martin is one such person, hired as a "fishpen boy" who ensures that fish don't escape the enclosure. His boss buys Maya (Elora Espano), a deaf-mute girl who is for all intents and purposes his sex slave. They fall in love and sex ensues.

The premise seems workable, but there's a sleaziness to its execution that reminded me of softcore films from the early 2000's. (Personally, I'd have no objection calling this film Horny Fish Boys.) Everyone seems to be perpetually horny, watching porn or engaging in communal jacking off sessions. It's certainly not my cup of tea, but fine, different strokes for different folks (pun intended.) The first 2/3 of the film wasn't as bad as I thought it could be, though the whole product is pretty skeevy. (I'll also hold off on the mayo for a while, thanks.)

Then the film completely falls off a cliff in the last third. Subtitles start disappearing. There's no soundtrack, sound effects are mostly absent and there's no dialogue for minutes on end. Scenes feel unpolished (unpolished being an understatement.) Everyone acts like they were in a hurry to end production, and it really shows. This last act feels very unfinished, as if it were shoehorned in at the last minute. Character arcs and resolutions appear out of the blue, making for a very unsatisfying experience.

The film tries to insert commentary on fishpens and their deleterious effects on the community by making competition unfair, but it all feels shoehorned in. There's even a commentary on EJK that feels jammed into the movie as well. All in all Baklad was disappointing. I didn't care for the first 2/3 and the last third was terrible.


ToFarm Film Festival, with the motto "Planting Seeds of Change," screens at multiple movie theaters from July 12-18.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Eiga Sai 2017: Anthem of the Heart

From the team that made the anime Anohana comes a youth drama about communication and the feelings we hide from everyone else. When four students are chosen to head a class production for the school festival, the choices could have not been more dysfunctional; there's honor student Sakagami, popular girl Nito, Tasaki, an injured baseball star who's moping about his injury, and Jun Naruse, a girl who decided one day to shut up after running her mouth almost destroyed her life.

Though occasionally given to flights of fanciful imagination, the movie is grounded and the characters all have their own complex web of hangups and neuroses. In the center of it is Jun, whose refusal to speak stems from a deep seated notion of self loathing. How you resonate with Jun's character will reflect how much you will appreciate the film.

For a society that has trouble expressing their feelings, Anthem of the Heart (the Japanese title is roughly translated as "the Heart wants to shout") is about the different ways people express (or don't express) their emotions. While Jun is more overt with her non-expression, her classmates (and even the adult characters, such as Jun's mom) are just as guilty of not saying what they feel in different ways. In turn, they deal with this problem in their own ways as well - with one being direct to the point only in ways boys can be, while others choosing to express their feelings in some other way.

The movie leans on the musical genre, but doesn't take full advantage of it, which is I think a bit of a missed opportunity. The third half of the film descends into predictable territory, though some elements of how the relationships sort themselves out are genuinely surprising (even jarringly so.)

The movie gained enough positive reaction that a live action adaptation is coming. Though not as powerful as some of the other anime films to come in the past one or two years, I'd recommend this if you like stories in the same vein.

*  *  *

That's it for my Eiga Sai reviews this year. This has been a pretty decent lineup, though I didn't really see any standouts compared to last year's edition. I'm super happy that a lot of people decided to attend, often filling Shangrila Cineplex to at least half or more than half capacity. Now that they're charging for screenings, I hope they get some really great films next year. The charging for tickets also has an added advantage of allowing me to marathon films - before, when the screenings were free, once you came out of the previous screening, you were too late to line up for the next free screening. Two great Japanese films for the price of one regular screening is not bad in my book.

There are two films that I've seen before, either on DVD or in theaters, that I haven't reviewed yet (not counting Departures) - the Bakuman live action adaptation and If Cats Disappeared From the World, which is probably the standout film this year, though it will be shown later tomorrow in Tagalized form. I will probably do reviews of both once I'm finished with ToFarm, which started yesterday.

Eiga Sai continues in Edsa Shangrila Cinemas up to July 16 (Sunday), with screenings at other venues, such as UPFI at subsequent dates.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Eiga Sai 2017: Tsukiji Wonderland, Asian Three Fold Mirror: Reflections

When my friend and I got off at a nearby train station to walk towards Tsukiji Fish market six years ago, we followed the smell of fresh fish and a few hundred meters later, we were there. What we did see was pretty fascinating. We'd arrived at around lunchtime and the tourist crowds were already gone, for the most part. But the memories of that place still remain with me even today.

Tsukiji Wonderland, a recent documentary by Naotaro Endo, comes in the wake of the announcement that Tsukiji Fish Market is to be relocated to Toyosu to make way for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The announcement effectively ends the market's decades-long run as one of the largest fish markets in the world. The move has been met with some opposition: while the market is undeniably a site infused with years of cultural heritage, the buildings are old, unsafe in parts, and prone to natural disasters.

Tsukiji Wonderland gently sidesteps this and concentrates on celebrating the market and its people, perhaps for posterity. This may be the last time we will see the market in its present form, whether the move will push through or not. We are acquainted with merchants, wholesalers and chefs, all part of the unique ecosystem of Tsukiji market. We also get lots of shots of expertly made food that will make your mouth water.

But Tsukiji is more than just the fish and the seafood; other "commodities" are not as obvious. Information is traded just as freely, and camaraderie is abundant among all the people involved in the market. Over and over throughout the film emphasis is placed on the strong relationships people have with other people in this place, transcending the normal definition of the word nakama (usually meaning a workmate) into something closer to family.

Ever since the movie came out, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has decided on a compromise; late last month, she finally decided to go through with the move to Toyosu, pending safety and environmental concerns. As the move is done, the original Tsukiji site will be redeveloped into a new market and tourist attraction. So while the old Tsukiji may fade away, the name (and the people who made it what it is today) will live on.

We end today's reviews with a collaboration between the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Japan Foundation, the omnibus film Asian Three Fold Mirror: Reflections. Each film is directed by an acclaimed director, with each film following the interactions between people in Southeast Asia and Japan.

The first film, Shiniuma (Dead Horse) is directed by award winning Filipino director Brillante Mendoza. It follows Marcial (Lou Veloso), a long time illegal immigrant, as he is captured by the immigration police and sent home. Having spent 30 long years in Japan, he has become an alien in his own country - his lingering connection to Japan manifests in customarily bowing tricycle drivers, and nightmares of snow. The Philippines he has come home to has profoundly changed, touched by disaster and political upheaval. The story gains additional layers of resonance once you find out that Marcial's full name is Marcial Bonifacio - the same pseudonym that Ninoy Aquino used as he went home to the Philippines only to be assassinated as soon as he got off the plane. The Ninoy-Marcial parallels only grow from here, with both characters serving long exiles from their beloved land, returning to a place, now alien to them, that no longer seems to need them. It's overall quite impressive.

The second film, Pigeons, is directed by Isao Yukisada, responsible for films like Go (2001) and  Parade (2010), the latter of which was featured in a previous edition of Eiga Sai. Set in Malaysia, it's about an old retiree (Masahiko Tsugawa) bonding with his Malaysian caretaker (Sharifah Amani). It's relatively lighthearted, showing how cultural understanding can still grow between peoples even given a troubled history together. Even with cultural and language barriers, communication can still happen, tying into the motif of pigeons as loyal couriers, sending messages (even from unlikely places.)

The final film, Beyond the Bridge, is from Sotho Kulikar, responsible for recent Cambodian film The Last Reel. In its opening frames we are shown a pottery remade through Kintsugi - a process that repairs broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold. The philosophy behind Kintsugi (and by extension, mono no aware) is reflected in the rest of the film: a Japanese man learns to heal, yet at the same time embrace the wounds of his past, and at the same time, a country profoundly damaged by civil war and strife mends itself slowly, but surely, after a long period of suffering. The film posits that we come to a better sense of self realization only once we are broken and are transformed by the process. Unfortunately the film doesn't seem to mesh together all these concepts too well, with the first half and the second (mostly flashback) half failing to come together in a satisfying way.

I'll be taking a break tomorrow, and I'll come back on Wednesday and Thursday to round up the rest of the movies, as well as the ToFarm Film Festival. See you guys then.

Eiga Sai runs at the Edsa Shangrila Cineplex from July 6-16.

Eiga Sai 2017: What a Wonderful Family!, Sweet Bean

Yoji Yamada's 2016 family comedy, What a Wonderful Family! begins with a divorce,, or at least the threat of one: seemingly out of nowhere, Hirata family matriarch Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) asks her husband Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) for a divorce on her birthday. Judging by the opening scenes, it's not difficult to see why she wanted to do so: he's a tad chauvinistic, he womanizes, boozes and smokes his way though life, and he would probably win a grumpiest grandpa competition. This leads to a number of comedic situations as the family tries to sort out this new problem.

The story of What a Wonderful Family is simple, but it explores the notion of "family" through a Japanese lens. It asks us what causes a marriage to strain under the stress and it asks us what holds a marriage together for many decades. The Japanese aren't particularly known for their ability to express their feelings, so expressing love, especially for an old couple, may prove to be a problem for some. The film also contrasts the impending divorce with an engagement; Shuzo's youngest son, Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) proposes to his girlfriend, nurse Noriko (Yu Aoi) as he prepares to move out of the crowded family house and live independently. We also see how the family structure is patriarchal - while there's much hullabaloo on the grandfather's side of things, no one dares to ask Tomiko what she feels about the whole thing until the climax of the film.

Yamada expertly uses clever staging and his camera to get the most out of his characters. The film's highlight, the family meeting with all the characters in the living room, is a long, extended sequence that's just a delight to watch. Aside from the performances and comedic timing of the cast (Isao Hashizume in particular deserving of praise), there are also things in the background that make you wonder which parts are part of the script and which parts are adlibbed.

There's are obvious references to the classic 1953 film Tokyo Story in this work. Both stories feature an aging couple and their extended family, and perhaps naming a potential daughter in law Noriko is no coincidence either. Yamada reimagined Tokyo Story as Tokyo Family in 2012, and we can see in this film and that remake how the Japanese family has changed since the original Ozu film: an increasingly aging population, parasite singles, both parents working for the sake of their children. Yet despite this, many things such as filial devotion and love between family members stays the same.

A quirky and sometimes even screwball film, What A Wonderful Family is enjoyable from start to finish. With a sequel to the film set to screen this year, Yamada seems to be on the road to making a family movie trilogy of his own.

"Every bean has a story to tell," we hear master artisan Tokue state in Naomi Kawase's 2016 film Sweet Bean. And like those red beans that take time, effort and love to make delicious, the characters in Sweet Bean all have their own stories to tell as well. Naomi Kawase frames her characters in extreme closeup, perhaps trying to find familiarity with these characters. But as the film later shows, Sweet Bean goes into some interesting places as its story evolves, revealing our characters' backstories, their hopes and dreams, heartbreak and regret.

That ties into another theme the film has: of how Japanese society (or any society, for that matter) marginalizes people that they fear, often ignoring the fact that these people, deep down, are the same as they are.

Everyone's favorite Japanese grandma Kirin Kiki is absolutely superb in this film as Tokue. Tokue is damn good at what she does, and lives with dignity and a gentle sense of grace. She touches the lives of the people around her, especially Sentarou, the dorayaki maker who takes her in played by Masatoshi Nagase. The two form an interesting dynamic that is more than a simple employer-employee relationship - it feels like a mother guiding a son desperately in need of direction.

Kawase balances her melodramatic elements well, avoiding an overabundance of sentimentality. Even in its saddest moments, Sweet Bean wears a streak of optimism, urging us to stand with our heads held up high and face challenges head on. Some may criticize the film for being simplistic, but that to me is the film's greatest strength - in its simplicity, it finds a profound beauty in the meaning behind living life that not many films achieve.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Eiga Sai 2017: Her Love Boils Bathwater

Faced with the prospect of her impending death, Futaba (Rie Miyazaki) sets out to straighten out the kinks in her life before she goes. It soon becomes clear that Futaba is no ordinary woman - she has a goal and she sets out to just do it. This goal includes finding her missing husband, revealing secrets about herself and connecting with people she hasn't seen in ages. This leads to some unexpected situations as she touches the lives of people, sometimes complete strangers, in deeply profound ways.

Nakano's previous full length feature film, Capturing Dad, also explored the notion of family through the impending death or death of a family member. This film is a distillation of this theme, concentrating on the impact said family member will have on the people they will leave behind.

The film deals with this impending death not with cynicism, but with an unrelenting sense of optimism, underlined by a passion of life even Futaba does not realize herself at first. The film expresses this through clever framing, the use of the color red as Futaba's motif, and Miyazawa's heartfelt performance.

Futaba faces her inevitable fate with a burning passion to do right by her family members, so that there are no loose ends, no secrets kept, and she does what she does with the intention of having the family go on as usual even if she is no longer there. Though the subject matter is serious, the film is filled with moments of levity that even out seriously tearjerking moments.

Though actress Rie Miyazaki arguably carries the film as Futaba, the supporting cast is impressive as well. Of note is young actress Hana Sugisaki, who delivers a commendable performance as Futaba's daughter, Azumi.

And though the film ends with Futaba gone, it's evident that her passion and love for her family will burn on, hot as the bathwater in the sento she helped rebuild.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Eiga Sai 2017: The Magnificent Nine, Creepy

Based on real historical events, Yoshihiro Nakamura's The Magnificent Nine sounds too good to be true. It concerns the residents of a dying post town that helps carry supplies to a feudal lord from one village to another. There's considerable economic strain on the town (leading many to flee the town at night) which leads the local populace to concoct an audacious, very un-feudal idea: loan money to the feudal lord, then collect on the interest to help fund the town's expenses.

The vibe of the film seems reminiscent of Nakamura's other films, such as Fish Story (2009), where a band of unlikely individuals cooperate to cancel an impending apocalypse. Granted, the stakes  here aren't as high, but we are still invested in seeing these people succeed in their plan.

The film is presented with a very distinct flavor of Japanese humor, which keeps the film from being boring. And while it is presented humorously, it presents us a critique of feudal economic systems that persist even today. It casts a light on the undue suffering the ruling class unwittingly proposes on its subjects, just as now, the 99% suffer through policies, laws and economic situations geared to serve the top 1%. Instead of proposing bloody revolution, the film proposes individuals working the system to their favor, for the continued prosperity of all.

In the film there's also an all pervading cultural sensibility of cooperation to elevate the entire community above economic selfishness and petty desires, a sensibility that feels Japanese but one that I think can be applied to other cultures as well, as soon as we leave our prejudices at the door. And by the entire community, I mean everyone helps - from the rich uptown merchants, the sake brewers from midtown, and the laborers and farmers with nary a cent to their name. In current times where greed and an emphasis towards self preservation prevails, the movie serves as a lesson on capitalist excess.

Though the English title mentions nine individuals, there's a large ensemble cast of varied and interesting characters. The brothers Jinnai (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and Juzaburo (Sadao Abe) take up a large chunk of the narrative, but other characters like Toki (Yuko Takeuchi) serve as the heart and nervous system of the town, often providing help from unexpected places.

Though occasionally languidly paced, The Magnificent Nine proves highly entertaining. Looking at its themes and subtext, it gives us lessons that we need given the state of our economy and life today.

With 2016's Creepy, Kiyoshi Kurosawa returns to form after a slew of lighter movies like Journey to the Shore. Here, however, the horror is less supernatural and far more insidious, making the entire thing far more terrifying. He continues his exploration of the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese family unit as seen in films like Tokyo Sonata (2008), dissecting it piece by piece, organ by organ. And as with his seminal 2001 film Pulse, it is an examination of loneliness in Japanese society.

A detective turned professor, Koichi Takakura moves into a quiet neighborhood along with his wife Yasuko. soon, she tries to befriend her neighbor, eventually concentrating on one in particular (Teruyuki Kagawa). Koichi, on the other hand, tries to investigate a slew of unsolved murders and begins to see a bizarre web that leads him close to home...

Teruyuki Kagawa is perfect as Mr. Nishino, The Takakura's neighbor. There's something off with the man from the very first frame you see him, and Kagawa's face contorts in all sorts of interestingly creepy ways. His presence becomes lingering, like a creeping cancer, and it all plays into the film's climax and conclusion.

The bizarre murders Koichi is investigating tie into Kurosawa's themes - it's home invasion in the most subtle way, an erasure of identity borne from malicious intent, but perpetuated through an inability to communicate properly, even in people within the closest social bubbles. Like in Kurosawa's other films, this self imposed isolation proves destructive for everyone involved.

If you've ever looked at your neighbor's house and wondered what exactly is going in there, asked yourself what kind of lives are those people living in there, this film taps into that curiosity and turns it into unsettling fear. For all its flaws, Creepy is Kurosawa at the top of his game.

Eiga Sai is currently showing at Edsa Shangri-La Cineplex at 100 pesos a screening.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Eiga Sai 2017 + Cinephilia on the Go: Chihayafuru Live Action Adaptations

Last year I went to Japan to relax (with a little semi-work related stuff on the side) and I decided to take a moment and watch a Japanese movie in theaters. Long story short, I ended up watching two. Japanese movies in Japan don't have subtitles, because, why would they need them, right? (I've heard some groups holding subtitled screenings, but they are exceptions to the rule.) English movies are usually presented with subtitles, though some theaters or releases have dubbed screenings. In any case I watched these two films without subtitles to test my own comprehension skills. (It turned out pretty well.)

In contrast to cinema houses here in the Philippines, where they are invariably attached to malls, Japanese Cinemas mostly operate by themselves, with several cinema chains around the country. During this trip I spent my time in two cinemas: the Humax Cinema in Ikebukuro and Cinema City in Tachikawa City.

Humax Cinema is located along Sunshine street in Ikebukuro. They share a building with other stores, such as a karaoke place and a used book store. The Cinemas are located on the 6th floor upwards. It's a relatively small cinema house, similar in capacity to the cinematheques in Hong Kong. Their largest cinemas can probably hold 100 or so people.

The seats are comfy and large and the sound is great, equivalent to a premium cinema here. It goes without saying that the picture and projection quality is top notch compared to Philippine cinemas.

Tachikawa City is farther off from the center of Tokyo. It's an interesting place in and of itself, so sightseeing isn't a bad idea. The main thing you might notice in the city aside from its futuristic design is the presence of the Tachikawa monorail which connects the city with other nearby places.

Cinema City is composed of larger, separate buildings. The cafe at the ground floor of the building I went into was closed, but a concession stand is present at the higher floors. 

The cinema itself is just as large as the cinemas in Ikebukuro, though the seats are a tad smaller. They are still extremely comfortable, comparable to a premium cinema in the Philippines.

So you go to the ticket counter and do the ticket buying thing (choose a scheduled screening, choose a seat, etc.) If you know basic Japanese it's far easier, though I guess you can get through it if you point and speak broken English.

This particular screening (it was Wednesday) cost 1800 yen (~800 PHP). I'm guessing tax was involved somehow. That's really pricey considering our own ticket prices. As a base price, regular non holiday days cost 1000 yen, while Saturdays cost 1300 yen. There are also discounts for children under 6 months or senior citizens.

Tickets are given to a person near the theater entrance, where they punch a hole on the ticket or tear something off. There are usually a few trailers before the actual movie starts. The Japanese for the most part stay all the way all to the very end of the credits; many stand up only until the entire thing is over. It's also very silent as almost no one talks during the movie.

Local releases can last long in cinemas, with some movies lasting months to even a year in theaters. So what exactly did I watch? Here are some reviews.

*  *  *

It goes without saying that Chihayafuru is one of my all time favorite manga/anime. Part sports drama, part romance, part slice of life, it's one of the most emotionally charged, touching anime I've ever seen. The sport in question is Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, a Japanese card game with both recreational and competitive elements. It boils down to memorization: someone recites the first half of one of a number of poems (there are 100 in total) then the player has to select the card with the corresponding second half before his/her opponent can. Of course, the manga/anime is so much more than that, giving us relateable characters and seriously affecting drama.

The first part of the live action adaptation adapts most of the furst half of the first season of the anime, while the second part covers the second half. The direction is sound and although the adaptation moves around or omits or changes certain characters, it keeps most of the dramatic arcs intact...

That is, except for one crucial arc of the anime and manga. The live action Chihayafuru skims over most of the flashback story that establishes the deep friendship between protagonists Chihaya, Arata and Taichi. In the anime it's seriously tearjerking stuff and it helps set up most of the subsequent dramatic arcs of the main story. Here, it's touched upon very lightly, so viewers new to the series might not pick up these relationships as well as they should. It's one of the pitfalls of adapting a lengthy work such as this.

Chihayafuru has always been a series about youth and love and finding beauty in those things, reflected in the hundred-year old poems of the Hyakunin Isshu. Though it's a relatively simple series, it does these simple elements extremely well, Much of that, thankfully, translates into the live action adaptation. 

The production is buoyed by a great cast. Suzu Hirose is a great choice as Chihaya, playing cutesy and serious at just the right amounts. Shuhei Nomura (who was in last Eiga Sai's Flying Colors) brings out the pathos as Taichi (I ship Chihaya-Taichi, no lie) with Mackenyu (a.k.a. Sonny Chiba's son) rounding up the trio in his role as Arata, though he's underused for most of the first part. Other notable actors include Mone Kamishiraishi (Your Name, among others) as Kanade and character actor Jun Kunimura (Shin Godzilla) as Harada. Composer Masaru Yokoyama (who worked in the anime adaptation of Your Lie in April) brings a lot of emotional heft in these scenes, especially in a crucial moment in the climax of the second film.

Though Chihayafuru (the movie and the anime) has ended, the manga series is still on going. And there's word of an additional live action movie, Chihayafuru Musubi, set to release next year. My hopes are up for a possible third anime season if the movie proves popular enough.

Eiga Sai 2017 Introduction

Eiga Sai 2017 runs this week until the next, and since we're all about Asian Cinema in this thing, We're going to cover most (if not all) of the films in the festival.

I've seen a number of the films in the fest already, either in previous festivals (like Departure) or during their original theatrical runs either in Hong Kong or Japan. I've covered The Long Excuse and Mohican Comes Home before and you can find it by clicking on the link below.

I also have unfinished reviews of several other films featured in this festival, so expect those to come out as they come out during the festival. One in particular, (Chihayafuru parts 1 and 2) is part of a 2016 Japanese movie travelogue that I never completed so I guess I can finish that up and upload within the day.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Movie Reviews Jun/Jul 2017: Ang Pagsanib Kay Leah Dela Cruz, Reset, Confidential Assignment, In This Corner of the World (rewatch)

Lots of personal events so the movies had to wait. With Eiga Sai around the corner, these posts should appear earlier. Probably.

North-South narratives are a dime a dozen in South Korean cinema, running the gamut from action flicks to comedies, to more serious fare like JSA. With Confidential Assignment, this narrative is applied to, of all things, a buddy cop movie.

Interestingly, the movie subverts what I expected from these films; the North Korean detective Lim Chul-ryeong is played by handsome Kim Bum, while South Korean detective Kang is played by veteran character actor Yoo Hae-jin, who takes on a more comedic role here. Then again, the handsome/dashing North Korean outsider has existed as a trope as long as North-South movies have existed.

Buddy cop movies take a lot from the relationship of the two buddies with each other, and Confidential Assignment takes this up a notch by having the two protagonists from two countries that are still technically at war with each other. The film doesn't take the easy step of having culture shock jokes at one country's expense, though there's the occasional starving North Korean/capitalist pig South Korean joke in dialogue. Kang and Lim's relationship becomes a reflection of the two Koreas, as both are instructed by higher ups and their ingrained prejudices to spy and mistrust each other. The film resolves itself when both parties begin to work not for their own country's self interest, but for each other. The film's not so subtle message is that once united, both Koreas can do anything.

That said, the cop elements of the movie are okay, but mostly forgettable. The whole idea of both parties mistrusting the other leaves little room for comedic moments, which leads to a pretty unremarkable (though occasionally fun) third act. Confidential Assignment may not be the best, but it's an interesting take on the North-South Korea narrative, and a positive one at that; something that we need considering the current political milieu.

Reset, a science fiction thriller film produced by Jackie Chan and directed by Korean director Chang, is built on a pretty outrageous premise. Basically, the multiverse exists and scientists have figured out a way to use that to travel through time. It operates similarly to multiverse theory in Dragonball Z, where people technically don't go back in time in their universe, but they go to the past of an almost identical parallel universe. (This resolves any paradoxes that might happen.)

This premise is compounded with a corporate espionage plot and a melodramatic thriller where a mom races against time to save the life of her child.

Reset's premise is fascinating, but the resulting fiction betrays the possibilities of the science. Much of the plot can be resolved had protagonist Xia Tian (Yang Mi) just stopped and explained everything to her colleagues. It's not as if her colleagues would not understand; they are working on the same project anyway, and if she either runs out of time or she learns there's a traitor in the midst... who cares? She has a literal TIME MACHINE.

The movie is marred by villains that are uninteresting (including a surprise villain that feels like an ass-pull) and weird lapses in storytelling, like how Xia Tian (3) has easy access to so many guns. The final act is rushed (and predictable, given the situation) and we don't really see what the shadowy organization behind the villain will do next. With such an interesting premise, the movie doesn't really do much with it, as it only eases into the whole time travel thing almost halfway into the film.

That said, the movie has some really suspenseful moments. It's the kind of movie you can enjoy as long as you don't think about it that much. So while it has its merits, Reset is ambitious, but ultimately disappointing.

Ang Pagsanib Kay Leah Dela Cruz is a movie of whispers, whether it be gossip, hearsay, a product of mental illness, or the demonic whispers of a malevolent entity. Its titular character is involved with a bizarre incident which may or may not involve supernatural elements.

But the movie is more than just that. It skillfully creates an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty within the confines of the small town it is set in. As much as it is about  titular character and the dark secrets she holds, it is also about the darkness in all of us, in how we all have the potential to become monsters. None of the characters in Ang Pagsanib Kay Leah Dela Cruz are clearly good; all of them struggle with their own darkness, all succumbing to it eventually in the end.

The storytelling has a couple of lapses, especially in the final act. Its revelations come too fast to process, a consequence of the movie trying to hold out on its revelations for as long as possible. And it begs to be said, and it has been mentioned before, but since it is part and parcel of my profession I have to say it: intubated patients connected to a mechanical ventilator cannot speak. (That is, of course, unless said character developed supernatural, evil vocal cords for some reason.)

Technically, the film is visually superb. Prior to directing this film, Katski Flores was involved in directing for TV. Her only other directing credit for movies was the 2007 Cinemalaya film Still Life, a film that I absolutely loved at the time. Shy Carlos' role as Leah Dela Cruz is quite appropriate, while Sarah Lahbati plays policewoman Ruth Liwanag as tough and stoic, yet troubled by events from her past.

Ang Pagsanib Kay Leah Dela Cruz is a flawed, yet effective exercise in genre filmmaking, creating choking tension and delivering a narrative that operates on themes that feel ever more relevant today.

And finally, the best movie out in cinemas for the past week is Sunao Katabuchi's In This Corner of the World. I've already talked about this film during its commercial run in Hong Kong, so I'll just add some additional thoughts on the film here.

My favorite scene in the movie is during the time of the first major air attack in Kure. US airplanes and flak fills the sky; our main character, Suzu, sees the flak as rainbow-colored clouds; her reaction ranges from fear to awe, wishing that she had something to draw this scene.

That scene encapsulates the movie's viewpoint of ordinary men and women engulfed by the horrors of war, specs of dust dwarfed by war's monstrous scale. It shows us how in war, everyone is made a victim, whether they are on the losing side or not.

While war is a tangible reality to Suzu and her family, it exists more as an abstract idea rather than a range of political beliefs. That's reflective of a good number of Japanese works on the civilian experience of World War II: most are just normal people with hopes and dreams trapped in a situation they didn't exactly want. Even the soldier characters are driven to the military by dwindling economic prospects at home, one character's brother having joined a naval academy because he didn't have money for tuition.

It's a fine, tricky line talking about war in movies, especially in movies portrayed by opposing sides of a particular conflict. I find it has always been most effective, like in this case, when a movie eschews glorification and tells us the human cost of a war and how futile it ultimately is.

Next week is the local Japanese film festival, Eiga Sai, so watch out for a comprehensive take on that. Till then, see you guys at the movies.