Big Man Japan (2007)

•April 10, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Big Man Japan, directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto leaves one wondering what exactly they’ve gotten themselves into during the course of watching the film.  Billed as a hilarious mockumentary, Big Man Japan is more of schizophrenic hodgepodge of odd humor peppered with silly but entertaining action scenes.  This movie is largely a spoof on the classic Godzilla movies and the Japanese obsession with this genre.  While the fight scenes are the most exciting parts of the film, they are unfortunately few and far between leaving the viewer with a very slow-moving film with the occasional laugh at the main characters expense.

Big Man Japan is the story of a middle-aged man with a broken family life that can transform into a giant when pumped full of electricity.  A superhero that is laughed at by the Japanese public which he protects and manipulated by an ungrateful talent agent that is solely interested in making some yen as opposed to the interests that suit him.   The style of the film is that of a mock documentary in which a camera crew and a journalist follow him around observing his rather mundane life.  Underappreciated, Big Man Japan views himself as a national superhero who defends Japan against creepy and sometimes outright silly foreign monsters who are intent upon destroying Japanese cities in Godzilla fashion.

Aside from the odd CGI battle scenes, the best moments of this film are those that use side-splitting deprecating humor to detail Big Man Japan’s personal life.  The sidebar interviews with his soon to be ex-wife and daughter provide welcome comic relief in a movie that isn’t quite sure what it wants to make of itself.  The end result is  a somewhat boring movie documenting the life of a somewhat boring man who has the ability to transform into a funny looking giant that resembles a caveman wearing blue bikini briefs.  While the ending does have a twist it is done more as a commentary on Japanese international relations rather than Big Man Japans own abilities.

Magnificent Butcher (1979)

•April 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It’s a rare occurrence when a director can successfully gel violence with raw gut splitting comedy.  Hong Kong director Woo-ping Yuen pulls this off with ease in his Kung Fu masterpiece, Magnificent Butcher.  Without the star power of Jackie Chan, this film is a hilarious romp of slapstick Kung Fu cinema backed up by a familiar plot.  Starring Jackie Chan’s sidekick, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, this film relies more on the directors ability to tell a great story and keep the viewer laughing and less on star power of well-known actors.

Magnificent Butcher employs many of the classic Kung Fu cinema elements without taking itself or the viewer too seriously.  The plot is a simple reincarnation of previous Hong Kong flicks and there is no shortage of action scenes with moves such as The Cosmic Palm, The Dragon, The Flying Crane and of course the infamous fart move intended to stop one’s enemy cold.  Sammo stars as Butcher Wing, a student of an infamous martial arts school who becomes tied up in scandal involving the rape and murder of the god-daughter of a rival martial arts school master.  As members of the two rival schools go to war there are small subplots providing comedic relief often involving an old drunken martial arts warrior.

Without the comedy, this film would be an average so-so Kung Fu film with little to distinguish it from its genre.  It is the creative mix of ballet like fight scenes with slapstick humor that makes this film so enjoyable.  The actors appear to genuinely be having a good time and the cinematography is used creatively throughout the entire film.  The biggest flaw that this movie has is not even the fault of the filmmakers.  If you do not speak Cantonese then the two options available to you are less than savory.  The subtitles are horrific and often timed poorly so that the characters are making seeming irrelevant remarks before a particular action takes place.  The second option is to watch the film dubbed in English which in my humble opinion would be an abomination to do so especially given the kitschy dialogue used throughout the movie.

Samurai Trilogy 3: Duel at Ganryu Island

•April 2, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The final installment of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, Duel at Ganryu Island is arguably the best of the series.  Released by the Criterion Collection, this film is the summation of the life of legendary samurai hero Musashi Miyamoto.  As with the first two installments, Toshiro Mifune plays the role of Miyamoto.  This film is a continuation of the storyline from The Duel at Ichijoji Temple, therefore it incorporates many of the same characters and adversities that Miyamoto has encountered in the past.  Brilliantly shot and wonderfully acted, this film more than the first two makes the viewer feel as if they are an eyewitness to samurai culture in feudal Japan.

In Duel at Ganryu Island, Musashi Miyamoto finds himself being courted by the Shogun in Edo to be the official teacher for this powerful ruling clan.  It is here that Miyamoto meets a man who is both his admirer and nemesis, Sasaki Kojiro.  Since Miyamoto has no intentions of working for the ruling class he shuns the elite teaching position offered to him and finds that Kojiro accepts the position in his place.  Shortly thereafter, Musashi accepts the challenge of a duel from Kojiro on the condition that it takes place in one years time.  From this point, Miyamoto takes up a simple agrarian lifestyle on the outskirts of Edo and rids the small village that he calls home of bandits.  In addition to the physical challenges that Musashi constantly finds himself in, he is also at the center of a steamy love triangle with two women fighting for his affections.

The final scene of Duel at Ganryu Island is possibly one of the most simple yet beautiful samurai scenes ever filmed.  Musashi and his nemesis Kojiro fight at dusk on shore of Ganryu Island resulting in a stunning piece of cinematography.  The technical quality of this film is remarkably improved from the previous two installments.  While the first two films were dodgy and overly dark , Duel at Ganryu Island is for the most part consistent in the lighting and colors with the exception of a few scenes with heavy contrast.  Overall, this series is a must see for any film buff interested in Japanese culture.  Never overextending itself or coming across as a caricature of samurai culture, this series is a beautiful representation of classical Japanese cinema.

Samurai Trilogy 2: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)

•March 28, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The second installment of the Samurai series, Samurai Trilogy 2: Duel at Ichijoji Temple picks up immediately where part one, Musashi Miyamoto left off.  This film is a continuation of the journey of legendary Japanese samurai, Musashi Miyamoto, also known as Takezo.  Toshiro Mifune excels in his role as Takezo and does an excellent job at portraying the samurai as a historical yet semi mythical figure of Japanese lore.

Duel at Ichijoji Temple chronicles the trials that Musashi Miyamoto encounters throughout his travels which eventually take him to Kyoto.  It is here that Miyamoto looks to expand his reputation and sharpen his samurai skills by taking on an elite school of fencers.  Although his goal is to duel the leader of this school, he finds that they are more interested in setting traps and fighting dirty than actually participating in a duel of honor.  In addition to his travails in battling an entire fencing school, Miyamoto finds himself in the middle of a complex love triangle in which he is fending off the affections of two beautiful young women.  Little does Miyamoto know that throughout all of this he has a new foe waiting for him in darkness.

Duel at Ichijoji Temple is well  made and spectacular in all of its glory but not quite as thrilling as the first installment of the Samurai series.  Released by the Criterion Collection, this film also presents many of the same viewing challenges from a technical perspective.  Once again, much of the film has shifty colors and the contrast is completely out of whack along with overly dark nighttime scenes that makes it difficult perceive what is taking place.  Chalk this up to poor film copies but, nonetheless this is treasure of Japanese cinema.

Samurai Trilogy 1: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

•March 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Samurai Trilogy 1: Musashi Miyamoto, is the definition of a classic Japanese Samurai movie.  Presented by the Criterion Collection, this series follows the historical life of Musahi Miyamoto in 17th century feudal Japan.   This film established many of the conventional benchmarks followed by samurai cinema but it is far from predictable and at times can be a bit confusing to follow until the conclusion.  An important element to Japanese culture, the samurai is often portrayed as a lone hero with deep moral convictions and this film is no exception.

Musashi Miyamoto, is the story of Takezo, a man who grew up as an orphan in a small village who convinces his friend to leave his fiancé and mother to go off to war in an attempt to become a respected and feared samurai warrior.  After the war runs its course, Takezo and his friend find themselves on the losing the side and soon end up living divergent lives.  While Takezo’s friend marries a widow with whom he had sought shelter with, Takezo himself continues on his course to become a samurai.  Unfortunately, Takezo is soon accused of being a traitor by his home village and they relentlessly pursue to capture and imprison him.  Finally, the village monk captures Takezo through promises of mercy and fellowship but, Takezo soon comes to realize that he may have been duped.  The film continues on in a similar fashion with an ending that leaves you wishing for more.

Although credit goes to the Criterion Collection for releasing this masterpiece of Japanese cinema, it is disappointing that the quality of the film is very poor.  Released in 1954, Musahsi Miyamoto must have been remarkable to see in a theatre.  Unfortunately, the DVD release of this film is marred by unpredictable shifty color changes, poor contrast and overly dark nighttime scenes that make it near impossible for the viewer to ascertain what is taking place.  By all means, don’t let this stop you from seeing this film as it is required watching for anyone seriously interested not just in samurai cinema but  Japanese cinema as a whole.  Just as the western is an important historical element to American films, the samurai is to Japanese films.

The Bow (2005)

•March 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The Bow, directed by Ki-duk Kim is a simple yet disturbing picture that is in the mold of modern extreme Korean cinema.  Kim sticks to many of the key elements of his past films through the use of limited dialogue which forces the viewer to interpret the motives and moods of the characters solely through their actions.  While the dialogue is sparse and we never hear either of the two main characters utter a single word throughout the movie,  we are sure of their intentions simply by observing the non-verbal cues they display in the interaction they have between them.

The Bow is the story of an old man and a 16-year-old girl who live out at sea on an old boat making a living by offering their boat as a leisure fishing locale and telling fortunes.  The old man has raised the girl for the past ten years out at sea with no exposure to the outside world with the exception of holidaying fisherman.   It quickly becomes known that he is grooming her to be his wife on her seventeenth birthday and in preparation for the big day he is planning an elaborate yet personal ceremony between the two with the use of traditional Asian garb.  Conflict arises when a charming teenage boy comes to the boat with his father and quickly captures the attention of the girl.  With the old man quickly realizing that he is losing the girls affections he does everything he can to move up the wedding date to keep his lifelong dream from perishing.  There is also a strong sense of mysticism that resides in the old man and the young girl through their fortune-telling.

The Bow is slow-moving film that meanders along at a leisurely pace with much of the same melodramatic music piped in the background.  The absence of dialogue does test one’s attention span but Kim is successful at staying on course through the use of strong body language exhibited by the two main characters.  This film definitely has a Lolita like overtone to it and though Kim was trying to end the film with a surreal and artistically pleasing scene, it came across as rather crude.  Kim’s movies can be difficult to watch through Western eyes simply because they test the boundaries of basic morals and this film is no exception.

Fallen Angels (1995)

•March 24, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Upon first viewing, Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels can come across as a schizophrenic mess of a film with a disjointed plot.  Like most of his movies, Wong Kar-wai relies heavily on strong visual imagery and character voiceovers to convey the mood of this film.  The underlying tone just beneath the surface is that of quiet chaos in the lives of its characters and the city in which they inhabit.  Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong is not the Hong Kong of Jackie Chan or the countless other Kung Fu action movies that came to define the city.  Instead, we are taken to a city of lost souls where alienation is rampant and nighttime rules.

Fallen Angels is a simple narrative that follows the lives of two unrelated men through the neon nights of Hong Kong.  The viewer is brought into the lives of an assassin and a mute and their potential romantic interests.  While both of these men lead different lives, they share an overwhelming sense of isolation stemming from self-induced loneliness.  The assassin is a complicated figure that kills alone but needs the assistance of a young female manager to set up the details of his hits.  Even though he is an elusive and detached figure, his assistant has become obsessed with him and roams the streets of Hong Kong at night in search of him.  The second character, the mute, is a young man who carries out crazy antics throughout the night.  Since he is not able to hold a normal job due to his quirks, he takes to the streets at night by hijacking closed food stalls and other small businesses and forcing random colorful characters to pay him for his services.

Fallen Angels is a beautiful film at its core and is a joy to watch.  While the emotions of the characters are kept at a distance from the viewer, we are rewarded with Wong Kar-wai’s surrealism in his portrayal of modern Hong Kong.  Throughout the movie, we are caught in the dreamlike trance of the characters and that of Hong Kong as well, which comes to embody a living and breathing entity unto itself.    It is not an overstatement to say that Wong Kar-wai has a truly unique style of filmmaking and that one could easily identify his films without knowing who the director was beforehand.