Thursday, December 15, 2011


It's been awhile since I had a good ol' J-horror jump scare, the kind that makes your girlfriend scream and sends the popcorn flying. The good folks over at Synapse were kind enough to send me the latest installment in their Asian Cult Cinema Collection, Gurozuka (2005, out on DVD in January) and boy did it do the trick. At least twice my hands involuntarily went up to my face, and that's saying something. It's not like I haven't seen my share of this sort of film -- I could write a book! (No wait, I did.)

First off, the title. Gurozuka is a made-up word consisting of guro, slang for grotesque, and zuka, which can mean illustration or making a rude entrance (take your pick). In the film, this portmanteau word is said to be a corruption of a term used in Noh theater and, in fact, Noh is a central theme running through the picture, centered chiefly on a psychotic murderer in a Noh mask. (The mask is of the deigan variety, a woman's face with golden eyes and teeth, usually associated with the character of Lady Rokujo, a jealous spirit in the Noh play Aoi no Ue, adapted from The Tale of Genji.)

Gurozuka is also the title of a student film unearthed by pretty college students Ai (Chisato Morishita) and Maki (Yuko Mitsuya) that depicts a brutal murder committed by someone -- wait for it -- wearing a Noh mask. It's very creepy and, intrigued by the knowledge that the two actors in the film came to tragic ends, Ai and Maki decide to find the spooky, wooded location and recreate it. In tow are Maki's older sister Yoko (Yuko Ito), angry lesbian Takako (Nozomi Ando), stuck-up wannabe actress Natsuki (Yuko Kurosawa) and her two flunkies Yuka (Yukari Fukui) and Yayoi (Keiko Saito). See where this is going? Yeah, not all of them are going to make it past principle photography ...

Now I know some of you might be thinking, "What? Yet another J-horror? Who needs it?" And I confess, I was kinda thinking that too at first. But then you throw on a film like Gurozuka and everything that you loved about J-horror comes flooding back. You discover it all over again, fresh and visceral and oh so atmospheric. To their credit, the Japanese know how to create a winning formula and stick to it. Consider sushi, Toyota, green tea ice cream, heated toilet seats, beer vending machines, those little schoolgirl outfits, you name it. Same goes for J-horror. After a bit of a hiatus, I find that I still dearly love this film genre. Thank you, Synapse, for keeping the love alive!

Monday, August 22, 2011

East/West Mash-ups

I've been neglecting this blog shamefully of late, and for those who follow it, I offer my sincerest contrition, along with a couple of reviews.

As it happens, I saw two pictures recently worth mentioning, both of which have an East-meets-West connotation. One was A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009). It's a remake of the Coen Brothers' first film, Blood Simple (1984), only set in Ming dynasty China (Gansu province to be precise). It's pretty faithful to the original film plot-wise and a feast for the eyes. Director Zhang Yimou (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern) contrasts the desolate wastes of his locations with brightly colored costumes and talented actors, several of which are also accomplished noodle dough jugglers (you just have to see it). My only complaint is one I normally have with Hollywood films -- no character development. At least not up front -- you are thrust into the midst of the main characters and have to hit the ground running. Eventually they develop, but it's a little rough at first trying to get a handle on who they are and what they're like, as well as whether you give a fuck about them. All in all, though, I found it enjoyable and I got completely sucked in, even though I knew what was going to happen next.

I also enjoyed The Warrior's Way (2010), a rip-snorting western featuring Korean superstar Jang Dong-gun (Friend, Tae Guk Gi, 2009: Lost Memories) as a master ninja. Jang plays it like an Asian Clint Eastwood, handling the language passably. Geoffrey Rush is fun as the irascible town drunk and Danny Houston chews scenery to beat the band as hideous, tooth-obsessed baddie The Colonel. It's just a romp, but rookie director Lee Sngmoo delivers the goods with style and verve, creating a quality picture that augers a promising career. If you were disappointed by the predictable Cowboys and Aliens, perhaps Cowboys and Ninja will be more to your liking.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Clone Returns Home

OK, I never heard of it either. But the good folks at AnimEigo sent me a review copy, so I feel I owe them a review. Unfortunately, this time around it's not going to be a good one.

I suppose there is an audience out there for incredibly slow Japanese films (Maborosi comes to mind … ). As it happens, The Clone Returns Home received several awards at prestigious film festivals like Sundance, Fantasia and the New York Asian Film Festival. And I can't for the life of me understand why. Maybe because Wim Wenders was executive producer? Perhaps it was one of those emperor's new clothes things; it's so tedious and boring, it must be good and I'm just not getting it. Nobody had the balls to stand up and say, "I'm sorry, but this is just pretentious and dull."

I've seen a few Japanese art films in my time, and I can go for a slow burn with the best of them. I love Kubrick at his slowest (Barry Lyndon anyone?). Kubrick is obviously an influence here, in the form of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the compositions don't warrant such loooong lingering shots, and the actors need not pause like junkies nodding out between every line.

I will admit the film gets interesting about 55 minutes in when talk turns to the spiritual ramifications of cloning and what becomes of the souls of the original person and his clones (unlike a lot of film critics, I actually welcome a little philosophical inquiry in a film). However, things snap right back to dull-as-dishwater a few minutes later and stay that way for the rest of the flick.

If you liked the film Moon (the one directed by Zowie Bo-- er, Duncan Jones), you probably would like this film too, but certainly not in its current form. Actually, while I'm no fan of remakes of Japanese films, this one could actually benefit from the Hollywood treatment (wow, never thought I'd say that).

So sorry AnimEigo, I'm a big fan of every other Japanese film in your catalog, but I'm afraid you've got a dud on your hands with this one. Slow as molasses, The Clone Returns Home is a test of anyone's attention span. Watching this film made me realize what ADD must be like.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cold Fish

I originally saw this film last fall at Pusan (and said this). Upon re-screening, I think it no exaggeration to state that, with Cold Fish (2010), Shion Sono has created the definitive serial killer picture. Based on actual events, the film conveys a raw reality that is so much more chilling than Silence of the Lambs-style theatricality. Here, you're going to get blood on you. Lots of it. Here, characters wallow in the gore -- literally. Cold Fish is the kind of film Asia Shock is all about.

So you've got middle-aged Japanese character actor Denden (Cure, Ju-on, Uzumaki) channeling notorious serial killer Gen Sekine who, during the 80s and 90s with his wife Hiroko Kazama, dispatched, dismembered and destroyed the corpses of four people (that we know of -- there were likely many, many more). Sekine was an exotic animal importer specializing in Alaskan malamutes, so no doubt some of his victims found their way into his dogs. In the film, Sekine becomes Yukio Murata and his specialty shifts from dogs to tropical fish. He's got a huge shop, staffed by teenage girls in tight tees and hot pants. He takes mild-mannered Nobuyuki Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), a competitor with a much smaller shop, as his business partner. Unfortunately for Shamoto, a primary component of Murata's business is killing people, and before he knows it, our hapless ultra-wimp protagonist is sucked into Murata's murky world of murder.

I received a review copy of the Cold Fish double disk from Third Window Films and particularly appreciated one of the special features, a half-hour discussion of the actual case upon which the film is based. This comes courtesy of Jake Adelstein, journalist and author of the book Tokyo Vice. Adelstein relates the details of the case in great detail, revealing how accurate the film is to real events (although the plot goes in a completely different direction in the third act). Adelstein also offers insights into the way murder is investigated (and often not) in Japan. Apparently 80,000 people a year go missing in Japan, and only 4% of suicides are investigated. So it seems that a lot more people are being murdered in Japan than is reflected in official records.

Anyhow, if you're a fan of serial killer flicks, you've got to see Cold Fish. Fan of Japanese film? Even better. And if you like sushi … there's a moment in the film that will forever color your sense of it. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Japan Cuts in NYC

Summer in New York City means one thing to Japanese film fans: movie time! Beat the heat next month at the fifth annual Japan Cuts film festival brought to you by the Japan Society. Partial proceeds go to the Society's Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. Follow the links for more details and enjoy all those cool flicks for me while I sit here in the woods and whittle.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Rug Cop

There's nothing particularly shocking about The Rug Cop (2006) -- it's just a silly police procedural spoof concerning a cop with a super-powered wig. But I haven't blogged for awhile, so I figured I'd better post something.

If you're a fan of a certain kind of goofy Japanese humor, one that goes for lots of sight gags and dick jokes, you'll find The Rug Cop a pleasantly quirky 78 minutes. Directed by Minoru Kawasaki (who gave us such memorable titles as Pussy Soup, The Calimari Wrestler and The World Sinks Except Japan), the story concerns an aging cop who nevertheless maintains a high arrest record thanks to his amazing rug. In tough situations, he invariably whips it off and throws it at whomever/whatever is endangering him; the hairpiece knocks guns out of peoples' hands, beheads a ventriloquist dummy (he was holding bank employees hostage -- really), the fucking thing even bites. Rug Cop is aided in his investigations by clownish cops with nicknames like Old Man, Big Dick, Handsome and Shorty. It's all very puerile and it probably says something about me that I sat and watched the entire thing.

It occurred to me after screening The Rug Cop that the whole concept likely came from a misinterpretation of the phrase "rogue cop," as "rug cop" sounds about the same in a Japanese accent. So there you have it: One very silly concept based on a mistake. Is it a mistake to see it? Probably. But then you could say that about half the films on this blog!

Friday, May 27, 2011


Back in 2007 I attended the 30th Portland International Film Festival (I blogged about it once or twice). One of the films supposedly playing was Exiled (2006). However, every time I went to a scheduled screening, someone would walk out, sheepishly apologize, and tell the audience that the film was still on the way -- sorry, here watch this instead. After a couple of attempts, I gave up on seeing it. Finally screening the film yesterday, I realize it wasn't a great loss.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad film. However, it's a Johnnie To film starring Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, Lam Suet, Nick Cheung and Francis Ng -- it should have blown my mind, but instead it merely held my attention. It's a low-key affair, very dark (literally as well as figuratively -- most of it is people silhouetted in inky blackness) with long periods of brooding. There are, of course, the usual explosions of violence, usually protracted gun battles, but there's an emptiness at the center; I just didn't feel a connection to the characters, and the tempo was a bit too adagio.

It's about five guys from Macau, childhood friends, who became gangsters, and one of them apparently shot the boss. Now his four friends are split; two are loyal to the boss and have been dispatched to rub him out. The other two are loyal to him and determined to stop the other guys. At least that's how it starts. But you know how gangsters are, always flipping sides. This goes for the bosses as well, and before long everyone is blasting away.

Simon Lam turns in a frightening performance as Boss Fay, but Anthony Wong merely phones it in (or perhaps he was directed that way -- I don't know, I'm forever ruined after seeing his performances in The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome). Lam Suet, the John Goodman of contemporary Hong Kong cinema, is great as usual, and Nick Cheung shows his range (compare his taciturn family man here with his vicious assassin in Beast Stalker).

I need to see more Johhnie To films (and there are certainly plenty to see), but this one just didn't do it for me. I much prefer something like PTU.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

13 Assassins

For those of you who find the contemporary samurai films of Yoji Yamada a bit dull, have I got the film for you! I'm not normally a fan of remakes, but I've got to hand it to Takahsi Miike -- once the enfant terrible of Japanese indie cinema, our boy is all grown up now, making modern samurai films that attempt to capture the horrendous realities of living and dying by the sword. In 13 Assassins (2010), he more than succeeds.

Whether intentional or not, the film begins as something of a mindfuck. The early scenes are virtually a shot-for-shot recreation of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 original. I was thinking, "Oh great, another Gus Van Sant Psycho affair." However, things become distinctly Miikean around ten minutes in, with a graphic beheading followed by the image of an emaciated, limbless, naked woman bleeding from her eyeballs. Miike is clearly upping the stakes here, but he manages to do so while remaining loyal to the story, as well as the spirit, of the original film.

Playing the central role of Shinzaemon Shimada is Koji Yakusho, one of the few remaining Japanese actors in the same league as the samurai stars of old. A protege of the great Tatsuya Nakadai, Yakusho made his film debut alongside his teacher in Hideo Gosha's most excellent Hunter in the Dark (1979). Us folks in the West became aware of him as the foodie gangster in white in Tampopo (1985). He's since appeared in scads of great Japanese films including Kon Ichikawa's Dora-heita, Shohei Imamura's The Eel, Shinji Aoyama's Eureka and a whole slew of Kiyoshi Kurosawa films. Needless to say, he's great in 13 Assassins. His character is much more engaged in the action than his predecessor (who only entered the fray of the final fight right at the end).

While I still have reservations about Miike's upcoming reworking of Masaki Kobayashi's immortal Hara-Kiri, I will anticipate it with somewhat less trepidation having seen 13 Assassins. Miike's definitely maturing as a filmmaker, and while he'll never stand up to the likes of Kobayashi, he just might do justice to the legacy of that great auteur. (Boy, did that sound pompous. Oh well, fuck it, that's what I think.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Thirteen Assassins

Sometimes you revisit a film and you're amazed to find how much better (or worse) it is than you remember. And you're struck by the realization that since the film obviously hasn't changed, it must be you that has. When the film seems better, you've changed for the better (and when it's worse, you realize what an idiot you used to be). Fortunately for me, the former was the case when I went back and watched Eiichi Kudo's The Thirteen Assassins (1963). Screening the film several years ago, I'd found it tedious and dull up until the big finale. Perhaps I was just watching too many samurai films at the time. In any case, re-watching it the other day I finally got it.

Perhaps I have a greater appreciation now for the intrinsically Japanese passion for planning than I did here to for. It's an intense pursuit that, in the case of this period film, reflects not only a fastidious intellectual acuity, but also a deep knowledge of the forms of etiquette and ritual of the samurai ruling class (and the best ways of subverting same). One cannot truly appreciate The Thirteen Assassins without some interest in such matters.

The plot is essentially contained in the title: Thirteen guys are going to kill a guy. As I say, it's not the what but the how that is of interest here, and the fact that the thirteen guys are up against incredible odds. Their target, a cruel and detestable daimyo (feudal lord), is on one of his annual trudges back and forth to Edo (this time on his way back to his fief), heavily guarded and in the company of a wily and resourceful retainer capable of matching our baker's dozen samurai's maneuvers feint, parry and thrust.

Cast-wise, The Thirteen Assassins is stellar. You've got Toei veteran Chiezo Kataoka at the helm as master strategist Shinzaemon Shimada. He's hired by Lord Doi Oi-no-kami (The Inevitable Tetsuro Tamba) to knock off Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Kantaro Suga). Naritsugu is aided by the more than capable Hanbei Kito (Ryohei Uchida) who matches wits with Shimada throughout the picture. The master swordsman among the thirteen assassins is Kujuro Hirayama (Ko Nishimura). I'm a big fan of Nishimura, one of the most expressive and unforgettable faces in Japanese cinema. You may remember him as Shintaro Katsu's skeevy boss in the The Razor films, or as the guy Toshiro Mifune literally drives insane with fear in The Bad Sleep Well. Ryohei Uchida you'll know from Samurai Wolf and Shadow Hunters. And Tetsuro Tamba? Forget about it. He's been in every Japanese film ever made (plus Bond film You Only Live Twice and the spaghetti western Five Man Army).

In terms of story, The Thirteen Assassins bears more than a passing resemblance to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. There's the seasoned pro leading a team that includes a trusty lieutenant, a master swordsman, a country bumpkin wannabe samurai, a young dude, etc. They're hired to eliminate a menace (swap out bandits for a heinous lord). Even the manner in which they execute their plan is similar. So no points for originality there.

Nevertheless, The Thirteen Assassins is an absorbing film, far more well paced than I'd remembered, and the 30 minute melee at the end is fantastic. Yes, I must reexamine Eiichi Kudo. I recall not liking his The Great Killing either. Hmm. Watch this space ...

Thursday, May 12, 2011

I Saw the Devil

Just when you thought Korean revenge flicks couldn't get any more extreme, along comes Kim Ji-woon to raise the bar a dozen rungs. In I Saw the Devil (2010), the director pushes the envelope into psycho killer/torture porn territory, making what has to be the final statement in the genre.

If you thought Choi Min-sik was intense in Oldboy, wait 'til you see him here. As serial killer Jang Gyeong-cheol, he gives Anthony Wong's Bunman a run for his money (something I never thought I'd say about any actor). See Asia Shock for more on the amazing Choi, a stage and screen veteran who is South Korea's answer to Lawrence Olivier, Robert De Niro and Tatsuya Nakadai all rolled into one. Choi plays opposite Lee Byeong-Heon, no slouch in the Korean film star world -- JSA, A Bittersweet Life, Three ... Extremes, The Good, the Bad, the Weird -- you could say he's been around. When these two top-notch performers go head-to-head, it makes for an explosion of violence that leaves no surface unbloodied.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Jang kills a woman who happens to be the fiance of intelligence agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee). The latter, crushing his bereavement into a tight ball of monomaniacal rage, is out for revenge. No spoiler, you get that much from the trailer. What really blows you away is the way in which he goes about it and the unpredictable events that result from his unique methodologies. As Jang tells Kim more than once in the film, "You fucked with the wrong guy." I won't say any more -- the mind-blowing plot twists and OTT gore are best experienced with as little preconceptions as possible.

I've been a fan of Kim Ji-woon since seeing his first film, The Quiet Family (1998), an exquisite black comedy (also featuring Choi Min-sik). Kim went from strength to strength with The Foul King (2000, a wrestling comedy starring Song Kang-ho), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, a creepy K-horror), A Bittersweet Life (2005, a gangster saga starring Lee Byeong-Heon), The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008, a bonkers, Leone-fueled western) and, finally, I Saw the Devil (as well as a few shorts along the way). Moving from genre to genre, Kim seems out to prove he can master them all, and he has yet to put a foot wrong. It's hard to believe the guy's only made half a dozen features -- they're all so good that it feels as if he's made many more.

I Saw the Devil was at the top of my list of films to see in Pusan last year. However, like the other films I wanted to see, they had all played by the time I got there, mid-festival. What could I do? They didn't post screening times online until I'd already booked my flight and hotel. Thanks guys. Oh well, got it on Blu-ray now -- and I'd recommend you do the same.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


AnimEigo has released Tadashi Imai's 1964 samurai classic Revenge (Adauchi), which I reviewed in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades. In the book, I stated my opinion that the film is good but has problems. It suffers from uneven pacing, underdeveloped characters and a confusing use of flashbacks (are we now or are we then?).

That said, Revenge boasts strengths as well, chiefly in the performance of its star, Kinnosuke Nakamura. Nakamura was the most emotive of the samurai stars of the 60s, and here he gives 110%. He plays a low-ranking samurai who duels a haughty superior and wins -- against the wishes of his clan (who promptly banish him to a mountain monastery). Things go from bad to worse when the slain man's brother shows up (the inevitable Tetsuro Tamba). Before long the clan elders want our hero dead, and as the pressure mounts, so does his anxiety, fear and rage (see box cover, above).

My opinion of this film is in the minority, as most critics hail Revenge as a masterpiece. Its political allegory works and, as I said, Kinnosuke Nakamura is mesmerizing. So decide for yourself and feel free to add a comment.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Confessions (2010), a harrowing tale of psychosis, child murder, AIDS, parricide and revenge, is currently winning awards. It just won Best Asian Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards and previously received Best Film, Screenplay and Director at the 34th Japanese Film Awards. It was also Japan's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at last month's Oscars. So who am I to dispute such accolades? I'm Pat Galloway, that's who, and I just will. For while there are some great things in this film, ultimately, in my opinion, the fundamental flaw of its execution is what defeats it.

And what might that be? Confessions is an adaptation of a novel by Kanae Minato, and moves from one first-person confession to another of a group of people brought together by a murder. Narratively, this concatenation of personal admissions works fine in a novel; film-wise -- not so much. What results is a near nonstop voiceover throughout the film. Blah, blah, blah, the chatter never ends. After awhile it gets to be somewhat unnerving. Film is a visual medium, and telling a story with images is its primary strength. Ironically, filmmaker Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Memories of Matsuko) does a fine job in this department. Unfortunately, he ruins the striking visual dimension of his film by covering it in a thick layer of verbal diarrhea. I can understand his dedication to the source material, but common film sense should have dictated a more sporadic use of voiceover. The way he's done it might seem daring to some, but for me it just doesn't work.

The story revolves around the murder of a school teacher's young daughter and the revelations that result from her frank disclosure to her class that two of their fellow students committed the murder. The path of her revenge takes various twists and turns, and the fallout from the initial murder leads to madness and more killing for the two young perps. Takako Matsu (who played the lovely Kie in Yoji Yamada's The Hidden Blade) delivers a slow-burn performance that culminates in a (literally) explosive grand finale. This comes, however, at the cost of a tedious 30-minute speech at the opening of the film which nearly put me off the whole picture.

So yeah, clearly my opinion is in the minority, but I do encourage you to see this film and decide for yourself. As I said before, there are a number of things to recommend it. The dual themes of the nature of evil and the essence of grief are compelling, complimented as they are by a sombre soundtrack that features songs by Radiohead (I kept thinking, "That singer's doing a Thom Yorke impression …"). Superbly shot and idiosyncratically edited, it is visually challenging and innovative. A shame about all that yakking. In the end, it all comes down to the old adage: Show, don't tell.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Man From Nowhere

Korean superstar Won Bin proves he's more than just a pretty face in this ultra-violent crime/revenge thriller, a film that grabs you by the [your sensitive body part here] and literally does not let go until the final frame. Like fellow up-and-coming director Jang Hun (Secret Reunion), Lee Jeong-beom proves that a sophomore effort can totally kick ass as he proceeds to take what could have been yet another routine trawl through the Seoul demimonde and raises it to the heights of classical tragedy.

A cursory look at the story elements (mysterious loner, cherubic child, gangsters, cops, drugs, organ harvesting) is sure to elicit a "ho hum" from the jaded Korean film aficionado. However it's the film craft and performances that transform The Man From Nowhere (2010), ennoble it, and make it something special. Because of this, there's not a lot left for me to say -- I could go over the not-that-interesting-on-paper plot, or describe the gory details of the various gun/knife/axe/nail gun sequences, but what's the fun in that? Surely you'd rather see it, yes? Let my enthusiasm be your guide -- I've seen a boatload of these films, and if I found this one riveting, so will you.

What's that, I'm copping out? OK, let me add that the cast all give 110%, particularly leads Won Bin (as the mysterious loner badass) and wee Kim Sae-ron (as the impossibly cute little girl he must protect). Won Bin, you'll recall, was in the gut-wrenching Korean war epic Tae Guk Gi (2004), the film that broke him globally, although he was already a big star across Asia from his appearance in a number of popular Korean TV dramas, chiefly Autumn in My Heart (2000). Following the blockbuster success of Tae Guk Gi, Won dropped out of sight for five years, entering the military for real for his compulsory service and then suffering a severe knee injury. He made his comeback with Mother and, now, The Man From Nowhere. Something tells me he's going to be around awhile ...

I should add that The Man From Nowhere was a box office smash in Korea, the highest-grossing film of 2010, bagging a whole slew of Korean Film Awards including Best Actor, New Actress, Editing, Music and Visual Effects. It was on my to-see list at Pusan last year, but had already played by the time I got there (screwed the pooch on that one ... ). Thankfully, lovely PR people send me screeners, so now I'm up to speed and telling you this is one hell of a film not to be missed.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Strange Circus

[Note: Japanese cult director Shion Sono's given name is frequently spelled "Sion." However, it's pronounced "Shion" -- "si" is nowhere in the Japanese syllabary. So I'm going with Shion.]

Shion Sono's films are a mixed bag to be sure. At the brilliant end of the spectrum there's Suicide Club (see my full-length review in Asia Shock), Love Exposure and Cold Fish. Down at the crap end you'll find Noriko's Dinner Table and now, not quite so far down but definitely in the vicinity, Strange Circus (2005).

On paper, Strange Circus has it all: Near-hardcore sex, insanity, gender-bending, extreme body modification, incest, dismemberment, psychedelic fantasy sequences featuring fat transvestites, and the odd beheading. Add to that Rampo-esque touches like someone hiding in a cello case observing others having sex. Yes, it could have been so much more, but the pace, oh the slogging pace -- just kills it. To his credit, Sono seems to sense just when he's about to lose his audience completely, doling out plot points right at the last moment to keep them from bailing. I came close several times, to be sure.

So what's it about? OK, you've got a love triangle between a father, a mother and a daughter. In true Electra-complex fashion, the girl fucks her dad and kills her mom. Later the daughter grows up to be a mad novelist -- is all the transgression of her past just her literary fancy? Does she even know? A young editorial assistant from her publishing house wants to find out, and his investigations into her sordid private life reveal things that … well, I don't want to blow it for you should you decide to stick it out on your own.

Strange Circus offers more than enough bizarre imagery and memorable moments to haunt you for years, especially if you're a newcomer to extreme Japanese cinema. Just wish Sono could have made it flow better ...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Rough Cut

When I was in Pusan in October, I saw a great film called Secret Reunion, an outstanding sophomore effort from director Jang Hun, and I knew I had to see his debut film, Rough Cut (2008). Although "Rough Cut" is a typically slick, slapped-on afterthought of an English title (the Korean title, Yeong-hwa-neun Yeong-hwa-da, translates as "A Movie is a Movie"), it describes the film fairly well. I get the pun: "rough cut" is an industry term, and there's a lot of fighting in the film. However in the case of the film itself, it's literally rough in the cutting. Some cuts are abrupt and confusing, like visual non-sequiturs. This is a common problem with first-time directors -- they're still getting their arms around the gargantuan responsibilities of film directing. Some things are bound to fall through the cracks. However, in the case of Rough Cut, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses.

Jang Soo-ta (Kang Ji-hwan) is an actor with anger management issues and one hell of an attitude. His specialty is gangster pictures and he's as tough offscreen as on. Only problem is: kicking your fellow actors' asses for real on the set -- it's just not done. Soon nobody wants to work with Soo-ta. Enter Lee Kang-pae (So Ji-sub). He's a real gangster with a yen to be an actor. He has a run-in with Soo-ta early on, and, as you've no doubt guessed by now, winds up shooting a picture with him. He too has an interest in kicking ass for real (hey, it's his job), and proposes that the two men just go for it, no holds barred, in every fight scene. What results is somewhere between Fight Club and All About Eve.

Given the premise, and the fact it's a Korean film, you can bet your bottom won there's gonna be wall-to-wall whoopass. The male leads are cool and tough, the love interest (Hong Soo-hyeon) is smokin' hot, the gangland b-story is tense, and the pace is relentless. Nevermind the occasional bad edit, Rough Cut is a gripping, brutal adrenaline rush from beginning to end. And Jang Hun is a director to watch.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Secret of the Urn (again)

It's a great film, a fantastic entry in the genre, and just a roaring good time.

That's what I said in a recent blog entry regarding Hideo Gosha's samurai classic Secret of the Urn (1966). So you can imagine how surprised I was to read those very words on the back of the box containing Animeigo's new DVD release of the film. Hey, that's me! And it is!

I originally wrote about Secret of the Urn in my first book, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves. The blog entry was a revisit for the sake of last Fall's annual Wildgrounds' Japanese film blogathon. So between book and blog, I've said pretty much what I want to say about this fine film. Now it's your good fortune to have it readily available. My advice: Carpe diem, temups fugit and that -- snap it up and cherish it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Alien Vs Ninja

The worst thing about contemporary action drama is the practice of presenting a group of undeveloped, cookie-cutter protagonists and expecting the audience to identify with and care about them as they spring into action. There's a name for people we know nothing about. They're called strangers. And we tend to not give a fuck about them. We usually need to get to know someone first before we start to care about them -- it's just human nature. That's why in drama there's something called character development, and it is this element that is sadly lacking in most action films today.

Now you might think I'm expecting too much from a movie called Alien Vs Ninja, but in fact character development does occur over the course of the film (albeit on the fly). So the first act was fairly wasted on me. But the film gets better as we get more acquainted with the spunky young ninja, fighting their hearts out to save their village from the vicious onslaught of their reptilian/humanoid foes.

You've got your main hero, full of gusto and derring-do, his sullen, preening pal, the hot chick, the comic relief guy and the traumatized teen. OK, still pretty cookie-cutter. What ultimately saves Alien Vs Ninja is a combination of hyper-kinetic fight scenes (utilizing swords, mixed martial arts, wire fu, shuriken, biting, nut shots, you name it), over-the-top, splatterific gore and just an overall gonzo, go-for-it vibe. No gag goes unexploited, and there's a nuanced comic underpinning to the film that makes it more enjoyable -- no one is taking themselves too seriously here, and the film is stronger for it. Basically it's a romp.

The top-notch action choreography comes courtesy Yuji Shimomura who also worked on Versus and Death Trance. The heroic male leads, newcomer Masanori Mimoto and seasoned pro Shuji Kashiwabara, are truly awesome fighters, absorbing Shimomura's swift, tightly orchestrated moves seemingly on a molecular level. (Wow, I guess I wound up liking this film more than I thought ... ).

So if you're out for some gory ninja hijinks and feeling particularly like a fourth grader, you can't go far wrong with Alien Vs Ninja, a low-budget actioner redeemed by winning performances and sheer panache.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sleepy Eyes of Death Vol. 2

My friends over at Animeigo were kind enough to send me a copy of their latest Sleepy Eyes of Death box, the second in what will be a trilogy of quadrilogies (there are twelve films in all, featuring the great Raizo Ichikawa). It's been a long time coming, and it truly warms the heart of an old samurai film fan like me to see these fine films in disk form at last. (Animeigo had previously released the first six films on VHS back in the '90s.) This is one of the all-time best samurai film series ever made, one that should be on the shelf of every true fan of the genre.

I won't go into plot synopses here -- suffice to say you'll find the usual array of corrupt clan officials, deadly temptresses, machinating merchants, vengeance-seeking samurai, secret Christians, pirates, ninja, the sadistic Princess Kiku from film #4 and at least one cherubic child. What really makes these films so enjoyable is central character Nemuri Kyoshiro, that supremely cynical, red-headed ronin, played to bitter, smirking, full-moon slicing perfection by Ichikawa.

If you're a fan of Zatoichi, you'll see plenty of familiar faces, as both film series were released by Daiei Studios during the same period, featuring the same contract players and made by a rotating stable of excellent house directors including Kenji Misumi, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, Kazuo Ikehiro, Akira Inoue and Kazuo Mori. Actors appearing in the films of this box include personal favorites Shigeru Amachi, Tamao Nakamura, Ryutaro Gomi and, of course, the great character actor Saburo Date.

Times are tough right now for specialty outfits like Animeigo, and god forbid they're unable to release the final batch of Sleepy Eyes of Death films -- I urge all my friends and fellow fans out there to support Animeigo by purchasing these excellent film sets. They really are must-haves for anyone into this most magnificent of film genres. Oh, and if you haven't already, buy my books!

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Shock Labyrinth

Roughly two and a half hours north of Tokyo, near the base of Mt. Fuji, you'll find an amusement park called Fuji-Q Highland. The big attraction there is the massive Haunted Hospital, the largest haunted house attraction in the world (according to Guinness). This is the setting for Takashi "Ju-on" Shimizu's first 3D effort, The Shock Labyrinth (2009). The 3D aspects of the production were lost on me -- more about that in a minute …

The Shock Labyrinth is one of those horror pictures that opens with a series of inexplicable images and then sets about explaining them. Slowly. Yes, this film is a slow burn, so much so that I had serious doubts until about 30 minutes in, when things finally started to gel. In the classic formula, there is a woman who has been grievously wronged (to death) and now seeks revenge. In this case, the female ghost in question died as a child, at the hands of one or more of her small coterie of friends, in the Haunted Hospital (they snuck in after hours, got lost, things went horribly wrong, etc.).

Ten years later, the surviving friends are all grown up and having a strange night, particularly due to the fact that the girl they all thought dead has shown up at their door. She's acting weird and soon has an episode that requires medical attention. The group drives her to a nearby hospital -- a hospital that bears an uncanny resemblance to … you see where this is going? Things go from strange to surreal. Are they all dead? Have they entered an alternate dimension? Is all this happening in the mind of one of them? You'll find out, eventually. It's almost as if The Shock Labyrinth was made for a second viewing -- it's so much better the second time around. It's as if you have to get the first viewing out of the way before you can really enjoy it!

Fans of art house auteur Hirokasu Kore-eda may recognize young actor Yuya Yagira from his devastating film debut in 2004's Nobody Knows. He plays the pivotal role of Ken in The Shock Labyrinth. Also on hand, portraying pretty blind girl Rin, is Ai Maeda, who was also in Battle Royale (she was Shiori, and her sister Aki was Noriko). And if you're very observant, you'll recognize Suzuki Matsuo from Ichi the Killer and the risible Robogeisha.

Oh, about the 3D: The DVD package comes in both standard and 3D editions. I tried the latter first, wearing the old-timey red/blue cardboard glasses supplied … for about 90 seconds or so, before ripping them from my face, tears running from my burning eyeballs. Nope, that didn't work for me. But then I'm not a big fan of the whole 3D thing, not even the new, high-tech version you get at the cineplex these days. I find it more a distraction than anything else, another run at the same old gimmick. I caught the end of Avatar the other day on my satellite dish at 1080p and it looked way better than it did in the theater with the friggin' glasses on. I'm guessing the same goes for The Shock Labyrinth. So to hell with the 3D, just sit back and enjoy this enigmatic, ultimately enjoyable J-horror creation in glorious, it-ain't-broke-so-don't-fix-it 2D.