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Ramen, sake and drama: Japanese Film Festival Roundup

This past week I attended the Japanese Film Festival here in Sydney. As much as I love Japanese cinema I haven’t seen enough of their films as I’d like (my habits mean I lean much more towards Korean cinema), so I went and picked five films of their awesome line up. I attended most with friends, and each night we tried a different Japanese dish at a local restaurant. Y’know, to ease into the experience.

I’ve already covered “After the Storm” in a previous blog post, so here are the other four.

The Top Secret: Murder in Mind

 the_top_secret-_murder_in_mind-p02If there was ever a film that takes itself too seriously, it’s this one.

It’s a sharp sci-thriller slash murder mystery slash family drama that utilizes some interesting concepts about rifling through the minds of the murdered for memories to point the police force in the direction of the murderers. The process of doing so is not neat (and involves saws, cutting and scooping brain matter out), and there’s inconsistencies and tripwires along the way. The film tries to sell itself as a gritty crime drama, but when the lead detective is essentially emo-punk ripped straight from an anime and half the cast is dressed in cosplay, it’s difficult to take it seriously. Admittedly this isn’t atypical of Japanese films, but the lack of self-awareness hurt this film’s chances from achieveing greatness. And it also finished on an incredibly weird and somewhat arbitrary final shot that made…zero sense?

But bonus points for a creepy, evil schoolgirl with a soul-destroying gaze.

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Concentration.

Creepy

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This is the highlight of the festival, no doubt about it.

It’s not just the captivating characters, wild performances or even the razor sharp plot that makes this film superb: it’s the relentless tone. The lingering dread that pools in your stomach with every wide shot, every darkened hallway and every encounter with a certain character. It’s a pure exercise in showing without telling, saying so much without actually saying much at all. There were several moments where the entire audience just gasped at a quiet, subtle reveal. It’s about as restrained as horror and thriller flicks go, something that’s incredibly lacking in both international and Hollywood cinema. This isn’t director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first thriller film like this and it shows. The entire film teeters on the precipice as the most innocent of shots or facial expressions tells you that something very, very wrong is going on. But you don’t know what, and you don’t know when you’ll find out.

It’s a pure masterclass in storytelling and maintaining tension, and has one of the best climaxes in recent memory. This might just be the best thriller since Gone Girl. The lingering, bittersweet final shot will be haunting me for a long, long time.

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If you think this dinner is awkward, wait for the next scene.

Himeanole

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Every screening has it’s weak point. This is it.

What starts off as a light-heearted romantic comedy with a dash of super awkward turns into a visceral hurricane of murder, ultra-violence and a serial killer with a thirst for brutal aggression. It’s an interesting experiment, but doesn’t completely work out. What could have been a slow-burner of a film becomes a showcase of senseless violence (including sexual violence), strained relationships and a desperate attempt to make the audience simultaneously sympathize and despise the antagonist. Only you can’t just drop elements of characterization 97% of the way through the film, and follow it up with a flashback and expect the audience to care.  It’s far from a complete failure, but without an actual motivation other than the obvious childhood bully victim, there’s nothing here to latch onto, and the gratuitousness of the violence doesn’t help either. There’s a shot in here (pun intended) that made me as a male cringe as a pure reflex, but otherwise it’s brutality for the sake of it. Skip this one.

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Subtle emotions.

 

The Sun

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Now this is how you do a post-apocalyptic bio-terror dystopia.

The world-building seen between the higher class Nokusu and the not-quite oppressed Kyurio sets it apart from most dystopians, where a certain minority of people oppress the majority for the hell of it. Here there’s an actual, physical motivation between the separation, one that the higher class attempt to breach and build a bridge between the two groups. Wonderfully filmed with flawless framing and soft colours and lights used in contrast between the two societies, The Sun is filled with heart-wrenching drama, mixed in with pure absurdist slapstick humour that East Asian cinema is known for. You know what you’re seeing is terrible and depressing, but the way the characters scream and jump around and knock into object and go sprawling on the ground made me (and the audience) crackle with laughter when it really shouldn’t be funny. Whiplash tone isn’t atypical of Japanese cinema, and they do it brilliantly here, jumping between slow, creeping sombre shots and frantic drama. And it’s brilliant.And funny.

Please do see this one. It’s better than any YA dystopia Hollywood has mashed out in the last few years, and it’s deeper and richer, too. It’s a perfect finisher for the Japanese Film Fest, and a fantastic experience in its own right.

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Did anyone ever tell you you suck at Hide and Seek?
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Film Review: Suicide Squad

So. I just got back from a preview screening of Suicide Squad here in Sydney. My smart smart sister managed to procure two tickets to the event through a competition. And we went. Not only did you get a free shot of whiskey, every single seat was supplied with a mega-sized box of popcorn and a drink. They also gave away an Xbox One for best cosplay, but sadly we didn’t win it.

(ETA: Since some folks over on Reddit and Neogaf (thanks for linking guys!) are concerned about spoilers, I’ll say there that this review is spoiler free. You may read without peril).

Oh, how was the film?

It was pretty damned amazing.

It’s easily one of the best superhero films around. It’s the absolute epiphany of grunge, the alt-punk aesthetic dripping from every frame. It leans towards the unconventional and stylistic, especially towards the beginning where all the characters are introduced to use by way of a montage. It’s bursting with psychedelic colours; it’s in your face and down your throat and it’s proud of it. As much as I love the gritty urban realism of Nolan’s rendition of Batman, it’s a breath of fresh air to see the zaniness leaping off the screen.

That isn’t to say that it isn’t intense or dark or visceral; it’s all of those things and more. It pushes the “PG-13” rating to the limit and then some (some day I’ll actually be able to process US-ian rating systems – or anything the US says or does – through my Aussie brain). The action is razor-sharp and just as wild and insane as you’d expect, although sometimes it’s so chaotic that untangling the cacophony makes your head hurt.

But it’s not the straight-forward story, by-the-by scenario, or even the (somewhat lackluster villain) that makes the film inciting: it’s the characters. They’re constantly hurling razor-sharp remarks, deflecting the verbal blows and bouncing it right back. There’s a chemistry here that can only be compared to magnets: opposites attracting in the most warped of ways. These guys are insane and they know it. And they don’t care. They relish it.

At least half of the cast has a compelling personal history and/or demons looming over them that drive their motivations – if they don’t constantly pop up through the film they loop around by the end. Make no mistake: this is about as character-driven as a superhero film as ever been. In all other Marvel and DC films the camera is distant and detached, more interested in the space around the characters than themselves. The opposite is true here: we get treated to close ups and medium close ups of the entire cast, peeling back their layers and their histories and motivations. The camera cares about these people and their attachment as a group, as by extensions so do we. There’s a point around 3/5s through the film that I was waiting for, when their relationships all started to cement, their personalities evolving. There’s one incredible extreme close up at the film’s climax that sent shivers down my spine, the relationships and banter and collective charisma building up right until this point and executing it flawlessly. Easily some of the most fleshed around characters that any superhero film has ever offered up. The highlights were Deadshot and (of course) Harley Quinn, but I would have loved more backstory on Killer Croc and Captain Boomerang, although we did learn one of them has a fetish for pink unicorns. Have a guess which one.

The film isn’t without it’s solid flaws. Leto as the Joker was underwhelming, particularly with the character being given minimum screen time. The film also went through re-shoots and they stick out like a sore thumb if you’re looking hard enough. The pacing is somewhat inconsistent, and to say that the villain is meh is an understatement. Leto’s Joker doesn’t hold a candle to that of Ledger (RIP), but we all knew that from the start.

But these are small flaws in what’s certainly one of the better superhero films to grace our screens. The characters are a sadistic joy to watch in all their gory train-wreck glory, the action is solid and the dialogue top notch. Highly recommended.


 

ETA: Whoa, 25,000 views in less than twenty hours. You guys are amazing and I love you all for reading my rambling, incoherent mess that is somehow a review everyone wants to read. If you liked the review please do check out my other published short fiction (mostly science-fiction) and critical reviews, all catalogued over here on this page under “Bibliography”, it’s all free to read, and it perpetuates my fantasy of being a writer/critic. So if you checked that out it would be awesome. PS: I also co-edit a podcast.

Feel free to leave your responses in the comments. I seem to be getting a lot about Leto’s Joker. By all means, keep ’em coming (and thanks again for reading, it means a lot to me!)

Short film: The Crush Space

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I’m currently assisting on a short film by Permanent Ink Pictures, The Crush Space. I got this position through the use of my good looks, charm, and persuasive arguments, and definitely not because I happen to know the director from my university class.

Anyway, feeble attempts at blowing my horn aside, I’ll be Production Assistant on the film, which will commence shooting in late June. I’ve worked on films before, but it seems that none of them have gone anywhere (one of them is still in the editing stage), so this is my debut in film, so to speak. Erin Latimer, my good friend from Film Studies classes here at UNSW, is going to be the director. We already have dozens of people, and actors, involved in the project.

You can check out the film, the director, and more information here. If you do decide to help fund the project, not only shall you possibly receive tickets to the film, you’ll sleep better at night, knowing that you did a good thing. You didn’t need those groceries, anyway.

Thanks!