17.12.12

Air Doll (2009)

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda Starring: Bae Doona, Arata, Itusuji Itao, Joe Odagiri Runtime: 125 minutes Country: Japan

A lifesize inflatable sex doll (Bae Doona) develops a soul and falls in love with a video store clerk (Arata).

Air Doll is a perfect example of the kind of film that could never be made in the Hollywood. Many Americans who see the film describe its unique premise as weird and consider this a valid criticism. If a film can be criticized for originality, we live in a sad world indeed. Air Doll's creative premise is not only what attracted me to this film, it's also the film's greatest and only strength.




I had been hoping for a stirring meditation on loneliness and isolation in modern society in the spirit of Lee Hae-jun's Castaway on the Moon (2009). Air Doll certainly had the potential to deliver it, but my hopes were deflated when it became abundantly clear that the film was going absolutely nowhere. On top of the film's aimlessness, it also suffers from some serious plausibility issues. Obviously, it's a fantasy film, but the implausibility becomes too much when we see Junichi's reactions to Nozomi's naïve questions. Junichi, the video store clerk, seems completely at ease with the fact that Nozomi doesn't even know what a birthday is. Mind you, this is before he discovers Nozomi's secret. I considered that perhaps he assumes she's mentally handicapped, but there is no indication he does. Similarly, there was a scene roughly half an hour into the film when Nozomi goes into a beauty parlor, where a beautician applies makeup to the seam on her neck. The beautician doesn't seem at all alarmed or even curious as to why Nozomi has seams on her body.

Air Doll is a highly disjointed and slow-moving film. The scenes just don't seem to fit together at all and it's filled with too many minor characters who ultimately could have been left out to trim the film down to a more manageable runtime. As I've indicated previously, a lengthy runtime doesn't bother me, but its premise had lost so much momentum before even reaching the one-hour mark that I could hardly wait for the ending credits to roll. Air Doll was a great idea, but a poorly executed one.


D-

16.12.12

Nobody Knows (2004)

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda Starring: Yuya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu, Hanae Kan, You Runtime: 141 minutes Country: Japan

In a small Tokyo apartment, twelve-year-old Akira Fukushima (Yuya Yagira) must care for his three younger half-siblings when their mother (You) abandons them.

It's easy to overrate a film like Nobody Knows. It's easy to be blinded by the seriousness of the mournful story it tells. Nobody Knows is not the earth-shattering, perception-altering film many reviewers make it out to be, but it's an excellent film and, with the sorry state of Japanese cinema, it comes as a breath of fresh air. One of the one criticisms other reviewers have is the film's lengthy runtime. I personally don't get why people consider this a valid criticism. A lengthy runtime simply allows a film to provide greater character development, greater plot development, and greater immersion, none of which I am opposed to; yet, it's easy to see how reviewers who have all their lives suckled the teet of Hollywood and its ninety-minute rule might perceive 141 minutes as grueling.

To be fair, some scenes do outstay their welcome, but the runtime allowed director Hirokazu Koreeda, with whose work I was previously unfamiliar, to capture the children's gradual decline over a period of months. Each scene, no matter how long it lingers, drips with poignant significance and relevance to the overall plot. We see small touches like Yuki's (Momoko Shimizu) crayons worn down to the nub toward the end of the film and the perpetually deteriorating state of the children's clothes. This film is a heartbreaking slow burn, though I can honestly say that I didn't find it to be much of a tearjerker.

What impressed me most about Nobody Knows was the subtlety of it all and the beautiful restraint exercised by director Hirokazu Koreeda. There are no cheap tricks to tug at your heartstrings. The performances are all wonderfully subdued. You is perfect in her role as the children's mother, herself remarkably childlike. Her performance was the highlight of the film; of course, she doesn't stick around for very long since she winds up abandoning her children, each of them from a different father.

Once criticism is that the ending was a bit of a cliffhanger. I found myself doing research on the affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo to find out what actually happened. What I found out was that the film is only very loosely based on the actual events and that, in actuality, things may have been even grimmer than what we see in the film. Japanese viewers may be familiar with the affair that inspired this film, but foreign (i.e., non-Japanese) viewers might benefit from a little research, if only so the abrupt ending doesn't take them by surprise and leave them hanging.


B

15.12.12

Gate of Hell (1953)

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa Starring: Kazuo Hasegawa, Machiko Kyo, Isao Yamagata Runtime: 86 minutes Country: Japan

Following an attempted coup d'état, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyo), a lady-in-waiting at the court, disguises herself as the lord's wife and loyal samurai Moritoh Enda (Kazuo Hasegawa) escorts her from the city, thus diverting the rebels and allowing the royal family to escape unscathed. After the coup d'état fails, Moritoh asks his lord to arrange a marriage to Lady Kesa on his behalf. The lord grants the request only to discover Lady Kesa is already married to one of the ruling family's lieges (Isao Yamagata). Driven mad by love, Moritoh refuses to give up on Lady Kesa, insisting that she leave her husband. When neither Lady Kesa nor her husband are willing to yield to Moritoh's unreasonable demands, tragic consequences ensue.

Hollywood can keep its 3D and its CGI. The 2011 digital restoration of Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell from the National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo is without a doubt one of the sexiest films I've ever seen. One of Japan's first color films and the first to be released outside of Japan, I was well aware of the film's existence but hadn't seen it prior to this restoration; yet, given that I've never seen a film from Japan's Golden Age of Cinema that comes anywhere near the visual splendor of this one, I think it's more than safe to say they did an amazing job. Not even Criterion can approach the quality of the restoration work done here. From the moment the opening credits finished rolling to the film's climax, I was in awe. It's a treat and it's a privilege to see a film from Japanese cinema's finest era brought back to life like this. If someone had shown me this restored film without telling me what I was watching and then told me it's from 1953, I would have called them a dirty liar. The acting style and the aspect ratio sort of give it away, but the video and even the audio could make you believe it was made only yesterday as some kind of masterful imitation of 1950s Japanese cinema. I can assure you though that this is the real deal.




I was particularly struck by a scene involving Machiko Kyo's character playing the koto. Not only was the song she played beautiful, it also serves as a perfect example of the audio quality of this restoration. Picking up speed as she plays, her brilliantly colored kimono is the orangest thing I've ever seen. At the same time, the saturation level never appears artificial. It's obvious that Teinosuke Kinugasa was making the best possible use of his new medium: color. Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956), also among the first Japanese color films, comes nowhere near this level of detail and attention to color. It evokes Mainland Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou but of course predates Zhang Yimou's work by decades.

As we can learn from the example put forth by Hollywood, eye candy isn't enough to make a film great. Gate of Hell falls short when it comes to its script and performances. Since I don't speak Japanese and have to rely on the accuracy of subtitles, I can't comment in detail on the script, but there were parts in the script, especially toward the end of the film, where characters were simply describing how they feel at some length. The film seems to rely on this rather than trusting in the abilities of its actors. Kazuo Hasegawa, despite being the star of the film, gives a disappointing performance while Isao Yamagata's character comes off as quite flat. Overall, performances are lacking in subtlety. Furthermore, the plot takes a highly predictable route. Like Hollywood today, some of the most important aspects of the film become secondary priorities to the stunning visuals. Being one of Japan's first color films, it's easy to understand why.




Not until South Korea's recent cinematic renaissance have we seen cinema as rich as that of 1950s Japan. While Gate of Hell falls short of greatness due to some lackluster performances and a predictable plot, its new restoration earns it my highest recommendation as a glorious example of what Japanese cinema of the era may have looked like behind the black and white, even if not quite so colorful.


B

14.12.12

The Housemaid (2010)

Director: Im Sang-soo Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-jae, Seo Woo, Yoon Yeo-jeong, Ahn Seo-hyeon, Park Ji-young Runtime: 107 minutes Country: South Korea

A man's affair with his family's housemaid leads to dark consequences.

For the record, I have not seen Kim Ki-young's 1960 film, so I'm at a disadvantage when it comes to comparing this South Korean remake to its South Korean original. It was a rare decision on my part not to see the original because the original employed post-production dubbing, which I personally cannot stand. The first thing that struck me upon sitting down to see this film is its visual splendor. Regardless of what you think of the direction Im Sang-soo took with this remake and how it may differ from the original, one cannot deny the appeal of this film's eye-popping visuals and expert camerawork.

The film's opening scene involves a young woman committing suicide by leaping from a building. I expected some light to be shed on the significance of this scene at some point during the film, but I had yet to determine its relevance to this film plot-wise or even symbolically until I subsequently read an interview with Im Sang-soo. Indeed, both the beginning and the end of this film are its weakest points whereas the film's entire midsection is a simple yet complex melodrama in which smart socioeconomic commentary and absorbing entertainment intertwine. This film seemed to be doing everything right until its sloppy ending. It was highly erotic, carried that pathos I love about Asian cinema, and it strongly evoked Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern (1991), one of my all-time favorites. Alongside its visuals, the film's greatest strength lies in its well-rounded characters and their brilliant performances. The tension between characters is palpable and each character complements each other perfectly.




Where The Housemaid takes a nosedive is at its very end. Eun-yi claims she's going to exact revenge. The moment she says this, I felt dread well up inside me because I think South Korean cinema needs to focus on things other than vengeance for awhile, but it turned out that, unless Eun-yi has a very different definition of revenge than I do, she never did exact revenge. What we get is so much worse. To the film's serious detriment, the ending, which I shan't reveal here, is totally implausible and nonsensical (particularly the second to last scene). Like I said, I haven't seen the original 1960 film, but I did check out the ending just for comparison's sake and, needles to say, that's not how it ended at all. Like the rest of the world, South Koreans have grown desensitized and, judging by the violence for which South Korean cinema has become known, South Koreans are even more desensitized than average. The ending was no more than a shock tactic to provoke a reaction from audiences and it did irreparable damage to the film as a whole. This is a really regrettable situation given that I really enjoyed this film up until its final ten minutes.


C+

13.12.12

Hollywood Remakes of Asian Films

In order to illustrate the disgusting lack of any semblance of creativity or originality in Hollywood, I've gone to the effort to compile a list of Asian films that have been remade by Hollywood over the years or are in the process of being remade. This list only takes into account remakes of Asian films I have actually seen, as I wouldn't have much to say about those I have not; however, with only a couple of exceptions, I have not bothered to watch any of the remakes that have so far been released. I make a very deliberate effort to avoid them. I think this list illustrates well why I long ago gave up on Hollywood and turned to the films of the East. Without further ado, let's get started:



Rashomon (1950, Japan): I regard Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon as the single most influential and groundbreaking Asian film ever made because it opened the floodgates for Japanese cinema when it won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and, in turn, it opened the floodgates to the cinema of an entire continent. Countless films and television episodes have employed its storytelling mechanism called the "Rashomon effect" in which a story is told from multiple differing perspectives that frequently contradict each other. It therefore comes as no surprise that Rashomon was remade as The Outrage, a Western, in 1964 by Martin Ritt.


Seven Samurai (1954, Japan): In 1960, director John Sturges had the nerve to rip off what is commonly regarded as the crown jewel of Japanese cinema. The remake was called The Magnificent Seven, which spawned three sequels, including Return of the Seven (1966), Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), and The Magnificent Seven Ride (1972). The Magnificent Seven itself inspired 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars and the 1986 parody ¡Three Amigos!; furthermore, a remake of The Magnificent Seven (that's right: a remake of a remake) is now in the works for a 2015 release with Tom Cruise already signed on and possible costars including Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, and Matt Damon.

In 1998, Pixar ripped off the plot of Seven Samurai and turned it into A Bug's Life. More recently, Hollywood decided to further soil this legendary film's good name with yet another remake scheduled for release in 2014. Scott Mann will be directing and John Fusco writing. Of course, as much as they'd love to, they can't just plant a bunch of white people in a feudal Japanese village, so they're totally reworking the story by making it about a town in Thailand that recruits seven paramilitary contractors from around the world to protect it from some yet unknown threat. The likes of George Clooney and even Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi have expressed an interest in the project. How anyone could express anything other than revulsion and indignation at the idea remains a mystery.


The Hidden Fortress (1958, Japan): In 1977, a film called Star Wars hit American theaters. It was directed by some guy names George Lucas who ripped off basically the whole first entry in the franchise from Akira Kurosawa's 1958 jidaigeki The Hidden Fortress. Some elements of The Hidden Fortress even pop up here and there in the later Star Wars films. As it turns out, Star Wars fans don't take kindly to being told that the film that kick started their beloved franchise is a ripoff, not to mention a vastly inferior film.


Yojimbo (1961, Japan): In 1964, Akira Kurosawa's 1961 jidaigeki Yojimbo was ripped off and reworked as a spaghetti Western by Italian director Sergio Leone. Despite a successful lawsuit by Toho, A Fistful of Dollars went on to spawn two sequels in what is known either as the Dollars Trilogy or alternatively as the Man with No Name Trilogy. The final film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), is ranked at #5 on IMDb's Top 250.


Hard Boiled (1992, Hong Kong): John Woo's wildly popular action film is due for a US remake helmed by Johnnie To. Apparently, Hard Boiled star Chow Yun-Fat is supposed to reprise his role as the film's star in this upcoming remake. Production was supposed to begin in May 2007, but it seems things have been delayed significantly for unknown reasons.


Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, Taiwan): A year following the release of Ang Lee's breakthrough success Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a US remake of one of Ang Lee's older films emerged in the form of 2001's Tortilla Soup, a remake of Eat Drink Man Woman directed by Maria Ripoll.


Ju-On (1998-2003, Japan): Ju-On, a whole series of horror films that started with two 1998 short films, Katasumi and 4444444444, was remade in 2004 as The Grudge. Directing the project was the Ju-On series's creator, Takashi Shimizu. The 2004 remake spawned a whole series of sequels, including The Grudge 2 (2006), The Grudge 3 (2009), and the upcoming The Grudge 4 due for release next year, but it gets worse yet: The Grudge 4 is planned as a reboot to The Grudge, which itself is a remake of Japan's Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), which, in turn, is a reboot of the direct-to-video Ju-On: The Curse (2000). Confused? You should be. All the films, both Japanese and American, have been directed by expert milker Takashi Shimizu.


Ring (1998, Japan): Ring spawned an American remake in 2002's The Ring from director Gore Verbinski (now rumored to be producing a remake to 2006's The Host) and even a 2005 sequel to said remake directed by Hideo Nakata, director of the original Japanese film.


Battle Royale (2000, Japan): In 2008, young adult novelist Suzanne Collins released a book entitled The Hunger Games, which, though it has never been admitted to, is just a watered-down ripoff of Battle Royale. Battle Royale is both a 1999 novel by Koushun Takami and a 2000 cinematic adaptation thereof from director Kinji Fukasaku. Like Battle Royale, The Hunger Games also received a cinematic adaptation. The film, directed by Gary Ross, was released this year. There was previously a direct remake of the film planned, but the remake has since been canceled following the release of The Hunger Games. Producer Roy Lee, who had wished to do the remake, stated that "[a]udiences would see it as just a copy of [The Hunger] Games — most of them wouldn't know that Battle Royale came first. It's unfair, but that's reality." Lee added that he may consider remaking the film in another ten years.


Il Mare (2000, South Korea): Il Mare was the South Korean fantasy romance film that inspired Alejandro Argesti's 2006 remake The Lake House. It stars Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in their first collaboration since 1994's Speed.


Joint Security Area (2000, South Korea): There are films that simply shouldn't be remade and then there are films that simply cannot be remade. Joint Security Area, which itself borrows storytelling elements from 1950's Rashomon, is one such film because there exists no equivalent scenario in the United States to that presented in Joint Security Area. At present, screenwriter David Franzoni's name has been attached to this remake. Apparently, he plans to adapt the setting to the US-Mexico border, which really doesn't make any sense to anyone who is even remotely familiar with Korean history.


My Sassy Girl (2001, South Korea): My Sassy Girl was a huge hit throughout East Asia and it is virtually a blueprint for the vast majority of Korean romantic comedies to have been released since. In 2008, the massively popular film received a much-loathed American remake by the same title from director Yann Samuell. It was released direct to DVD.


Pulse (2001, Japan): This confusing J-horror was remade in the form of a 2006 American film by the same name from director Jim Sonzero, who would not go on to direct the remake's two sequels. In Sonzero's stead, Joel Soisson took the reigns for Pulse 2: Afterlife and Pulse 3: Invasion. All of the Pulse remakes have been critical failures.


Dark Water (2002, Japan): Ring director Hideo Nakata released another popular J-horror in 2002 that caught the attention of Hollywood, who proceeded to rip the film off with Walter Salles in the director's chair. The 2005 remake goes by the same name as the original.


The Eye (2002, Hong Kong): The Pang Brothers' The Eye is one of Asian cinema's finest horror offerings and certainly Hong Kong's finest. Its strength lies in its fascinating premise, so it came as no surprise when Hollywood's 2008 ripoff came out. In the directors chairs were David Moreau and Xavier Palud.


Infernal Affairs Trilogy (2002-2003, Hong Kong): Remade as The Departed in 2006 by director Martin Scorsese, which "borrowed" bits and pieces from all three films in the trilogy, the film—the remake, that is—met with great critical acclaim. It is #51 on IMDb's Top 250 while the original first film, which is far superior, only holds the #210 spot.


Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002, South Korea): Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is admittedly one of South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook's weakest efforts, but it's also one of several films on this list for which Park sat in the director's chair. In January 2010, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. acquired the remake rights to the film. Brian Tucker has been enlisted to author the screenplay.


Into the Mirror (2003, South Korea): 2008's Mirrors from director Alexandre Aja was originally planned as a remake to this film; fortunately, Aja, while still borrowing the basic premise from Into the Mirror, ultimately made use of a revised script that wasn't a total ripoff of Into the Mirror.


Oldboy (2003, South Korea): This particular remake has pissed more people off than perhaps any other most likely due to the original film's devoted following. Those up in arms about it couldn't be more righteous: Oldboy is, in my opinion, South Korea's greatest film and the very notion of a remake of this already flawless work of art is appalling at best. While originally attracting the interest of Steven Spielberg and Will Smith, the project was ultimately taken on by Spike Lee. It's due for release on Friday, 11 October next year and stars the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley. I personally loved Sharlto Copley in District 9 (2009), easily one of my all-time favorite films, but the fact remains that this is a film that should never be remade because some things are just sacred; unfortunately for us all, American audiences are ignorant and Hollywood is driven by one thing: greed.


A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, South Korea): What is probably the highest regarded, most well-respected Korean horror film was remade in 2009 by the Guard Brothers. Confusingly, the title chosen for the film was the same as the title of a totally different 2003 South Korean horror film: The Uninvited.


Art of the Devil Trilogy (2004-2008, Thailand): Cerenzie-Peters Productions owns the remake rights to this gruesome Thai horror trilogy. Little information is available about this impending remake or how it will deal with the very Southeast Asian theme of black magic, but it is said the remake will focus primarily on the second—and best—entry in the trilogy.


A Moment to Remember (2004, South Korea): CBS Films has acquired the rights to remake this South Korean tearjerker with Susannah Grant set to write the screenplay. The original has quite a number of similarities to The Notebook, which came out the same year, so it should be interesting to observe how American audiences react to the film, should those similarities be kept in.


Shutter (2004, Thailand): Japanese director Masayuki Ochiai was put in charge of an English-language adaptation ripoff of the popular 2004 Thai horror film. Reception to this 2008 remake was particularly icy.


Windstruck (2004, South Korea): There have been only whispers about a potential remake to this 2004 South Korean fantasy romance, but the remake rights have been bought and paid for. By whom, you ask? No one seems to know anything other than that it was a Hollywood company.


A Bittersweet Life (2005, South Korea): In 2007, Mohit Suri directed the Bollywood remake of A Bittersweet Life entitled Awarapan. Suri would go on to direct the 2011 Bollywood ripoff of The Chaser (2008). Since then, there has been talk of a 2015 remake of the film to be helmed by Allen Hughes with Anthony Peckham set to write the script. It is likely to star Mark Wahlberg, Russel Crowe, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. As one of the most popular South Korean films among foreigners, this is sure to upset a lot of loyal fans, including myself.


Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005, South Korea): Screenwriter William Monahan has a nasty habit of what I would consider plagiarizing Asian films. He wrote The Departed (2006) and his name has been attached to the upcoming remake of Na Hong-jin's The Chaser (2008). His name has also been attached to an upcoming remake of Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the third and final entry in Park's Vengeance Trilogy, all of which are currently in the process of being ripped off by Americans. The remake of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is set to star Charlize Theron. As it turns out, it was Charlize Theron's idea in the first place.


A Dirty Carnival (2006, South Korea): Sparkler Entertainment will be remaking this South Korean gangster film with Chris Hauty working on the script. There is no information regarding who will be directing or when the remake is expected to come out.


The Host (2006, South Korea): In November 2008, Universal Studios announced their intentions to remake The Host. Set for a 2011 release, the film was to be produced by Gore Verbinski, who notably remade Ring (1998), written by Mark Poirier, and directed by Fredrik Bond. It has yet to see the light of day and there has been no further word on the film's status, but it's surely only a matter of time.


The Chaser (2008, South Korea): In 2011, director Mohit Suri, who ripped off A Bittersweet Life with 2007's Awarapan, remade The Chaser as India's Murder 2. In March 2008, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. purchased the remake rights to this amazing South Korean serial killer film for a cool $1 million. The names William Monahan and Leonardo DiCaprio have so far been attached to the impending remake, the former to write the script and the latter to fill a starring role.


Departures (2008, Japan): In 2009, Departures won the Academy Award for best foreign language film, which it most certainly did not deserve. Still, it wasn't enough and now the Motion Picture Corporation of America has secured remake rights to the film, despite the fact that the film isn't going to make any sense whatsoever in an American context.


Castaway on the Moon (2009, South Korea): Perhaps because the Oldboy (2003) remake is such old news, the upcoming remake that has me the most outraged is Mark Waters's remake of Castaway on the Moon, a film which I only recently discovered and with which I promptly fell in love. Like Joint Security Area (2000) and Departures (2008), there's a lot of elements native to its country of origin that simply will not translate in a remake, but that's not what has me so upset. My reason is simple: Castaway on the Moon is the best film I've seen in about the last two years. It's just such an insult to the original and I take it personally when a film touches me as much as did Castaway on the Moon.


Mother (2009, South Korea): There's very little information about this remake, but US studios have expressed a very strong interest in doing a remake of this overrated South Korean flick, making it the second Bong Joon-ho film on this list after 2006's The Host.


Thirst (2009, South Korea): The fifth Park Chan-wook film on this list, just about everything the man has ever done is being remade in Hollywood. Thirst, my personal second favorite of his films after 2003's Oldboy, is on the drawing board for a remake from Focus Features.


Hello Ghost (2010, South Korea): In February 2011, 1492 pictures purchased the remake rights to Hello Ghost, which is scheduled to be remade by Chris Columbus and released in 2014.


The Man from Nowhere (2010, South Korea): I hated The Man from Nowhere, but that doesn't stop it from being one of the most popular Korean films among foreign audiences. Dimension Films, hoping to capitalize upon this, has acquired the remake rights from CJ Entertainment. Shaw Christensen is writing the film.


The Yellow Sea (2010, South Korea): Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. has, to my understanding, owned the remake rights to The Yellow Sea since before the film was even released as director Na Hong-jin's sophomore effort. The remake to Na's debut effort, The Chaser (2008), is already under way.