Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Fantasia '06, Day 6: Good start, so-so finish.

Wow... Nothing I saw yesterday repeats today, so just capsules to fill in later (and I have been filling some in; the post about Sunday now includes/links to a new Funky Forest review. So this'll be a short one. At least for now.

Spent the first few hours of the afternoon up on Mont Royal, which is a pleasant enough activity - you get to sweat off that big Cocktail Hawaii breakfast, but aren't terribly hot because a lot of the paths up are in shaded areas. Weird how that works out. There's a nifty little artificial lake up there with paddleboats available. All two-seaters, though. There are days I wish I had a girlfriend not because I feel particularly lonely but because the things that were designed for couples look like fun. How's that for selfish?

I would have liked to sit up there a little longer and rest and write - I know that there is plenty of park space in Boston or Cambridge where I can just drop flat on my back and zone out, but I don't take advantage of it - but moviegoing called. Azumi 2 and Black Kiss (aka Syncronicity) were both very good in different ways, and I'll enjoy writing more about them. Bad Blood is the type of subtle horror-as-reflection-of-family-issues movie that has to be better than it is to really get my affection, and Art of Fighting wound up striking me as ugly despite all of its dark comedy.

Today's plan: Maybe do some shopping, since I've spent too much of the morning on writing the Funky Forest review (my plans for the week were heavily influenced by the assumption of more rain than there's been), followed by Tokyo Zombie, SARS Wars, Blood Rain and Ils

Azumi 2: Death or Love

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2006 at Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival 2006)

Wouldn't it be a kick if Shusuke Kaneko shot Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All Out Attack at the same time Ryuhei Kitamura made the original Azumi, and then Kaneko wound up making Azumi 2 at the same time Kitamura made Final Wars? The times don't add up, but the reversal is fun to ponder. Fans can debate which director served which series the best, but all four permutations have wound up working pretty well.

As you may remember from the first film (and for those who don't, it's recapped), Azumi was one of ten orphan teenagers raised from early childhood to be assassins, with the intent of snuffing out ambitious warlords and preserving the peace. Then, on the eve of their first mission, they were paired up and ordered to kill their partners to prove their resolve; Azumi was paired with Nachi, her first love. Now, of the original ten, only Azumi (Aya Ueto) and Nagara (Yuma Ishigaki) remain to take down the last warlord, Masayuki Sanada (Mikijiro Hira), in his heavily-guarded mountain fortress. Well, they're not quite alone - they make contact with the priest who sponsored their training, Tenkai (Shigeru Koyama), picking up a perky new sidekick, Kosue (Chiaki Kuriyama) to act as their guide. They also meat a Robin Hood-style bandit, Ginkaku (Shun Oguri) who could be twins with Nachi.

Kaneko is probably best known for his work in the kaiju genre, where his 1990s Gamera trilogy and his entry into the Godzilla series gained raves for not only being action-packed city-flatteners, but for the genuine sense of danger present - those buildings the monsters crushed were pointedly occupied. Here, he's clearly working with a smaller budget than Kitamura had for the first film, but he's able to make up for it by focusing more on Azumi's emotional burden. The kids were naïve and their minds were programmed but good before; now that they've been out in the world a little, they're starting to realize that they've done horrible things, to the extent that Azumi and Nagara are OK that attempting to kill Nagara is likely a suicide mission, not just because they're good, brainwashed little soldiers, but because they're not keen on living with that much blood on their hands.

Read the rest at HBS.

Black Kiss (Shinkuronishiti or Syncronicity)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2006 at Théâtre Hall Concordia (Fantasia Festival 2006)

It's almost assuring to see that other film industries can occasionally do the things that drive us crazy in America. Consider the case of this pitch-black serial killer movie from Japan that played film festivals under the name of "Synchronicity" back in late 2004 (and that name still figures prominently into the design of the opening credits), but didn't get a theatrical release until 2006, when its name had become "Black Kiss". It's a great, grimy movie, but it must drive a filmmaker crazy to have his work just sit unseen for over a year.

The film opens with a man and a beautiful young woman on a date, and to every outward appearance, it's a "getting ahead in business" date; she's a model trying to upgrade her status to "actress". They flirt, they drink, they check into the "Hotel Bat's". He runs out to get a drink, and when he comes back, he's knocked out, tied up, and... Well, it's gross.

Flash back a week and meet Asuka Hoshino (Reika Hashimoto), a young model who just moved to Tokyo and is living out of her duffel bag. A fellow model introduces her to Kasumi (Kaori Kawamura), who used to be in that business but is now working retail, and whose roommate just moved out. Kasumi is initially hostile, but lets the sugary-sweet younger girl move in. Kasumi is mysterious and unstable; she'll be friendly one minute and then get a phone call that has her screaming, followed abruptly by "I'm going out". It's after one of those calls that Asuka looks out the window and sees the grisly murder from the opener. The police are called, including one (Shunsuke Matsuoka) who has a history with Kasumi; he's told to consult with a retired detective (Masao Takayama) who worked on bizarre cases with the FBI in America, who is a little odd himself.

Read the rest at HBS.

Bad Blood (Coisa Ruim)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2006 at Théâtre Hall Concordia (Fantasia Festival 2006)

There's nothing particularly wrong with either story Portugal's Coisa Ruim ("Bad Blood" in English). There's material for an interesting family drama, and there's decent material for a ghost story, and a connection between the two. It doesn't come together, though - the supernatural is a constant distraction from the more conventional story, but it's not big enough to really make for a notable horror story.

As the film opens, the Monteiro family is preparing to move from their home in Lisbon to the country house that father Xavier (Adriano Luz) has recently inherited from a great-uncle. No other member of his family is nearly as enthused, though his wife Helena (Manuela Couto) supports him in front of their three children - young single mother Sofia (Sara Carinhas), elementary-schooler Ricardo (João Santos), and Rui (José Afonso Pimentel), a college student who is the most overtly hostile. What they don't initially realize is just how superstitious the local residents are - Father Vicente (José Pinto) regularly performs exorcisms, and they soon make the acquaintance of a self-described medium, along with the young new parish priest, Father Cruz (João Pedro Vaz). There's something creepy about their new home, and it soon begins encroaching on their already contentious relationships.

I probably annoy my theater-major brother by describing a lot of productions he acts in as "yelling plays", by which I mean stories about families who seem to spend so much time shouting at each other that it's hard to spot the actual affection they must feel. They're gritty, real actors' showpieces that the audience can usually relate to and they bore the hell out of me. Coisa Ruim is a yelling play put on film with a ghost story grafted onto the edges which serves as much as an excuse to enter into intellectual reason-versus-faith debates as to actually intrigue us. It's a terribly frustrating way to tell a ghost story, for as much as I agree that it is important for a tale of the supernatural to be populated by complex, interesting characters, focusing too much on characterization takes away from what is unique about the film. I've seen men of faith and men of science challenge each other (with the end result almost always annoying me because the existence of ghosts or other paranormal activities tends to give the men of faith the last word), and it's seldom as interesting as the writers seem to think it is. And I've got no trouble with yelling plays per se, but when you stick them into a ghost story, the presence of some extraordinary element highlights just how petty the arguments are.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Art of Fighting (Ssaum-ui gisul)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2006 at Théâtre Hall Concordia (Fantasia Festival 2006)

It's an old, old story - kid gets picked on, finds a mentor who can teach him how to defend himself, and later stands up for himself. Maybe, just maybe, the mentor learns a little bit about himself and becomes less of a recluse as a result. The audience can stand up and cheer, safe in the knowledge that things are going to get better.

It's a pleasant enough fantasy, but not one with a lot of connection to reality. In real life, standing up to a bully often means that they escalate, either bringing in their friends or attacking those close to the target who can't easily defend themselves. There's no ring where things can be settled in a neutral, controlled environment. And a mentor who can teach you how to really fight in a manner that is effective, rather than just aesthetically pleasing, is generally someone you're better off not dealing with.

Such are the problems for Song Byung-tae (Lee Hyun-kyoon). His father recently had him transfered to a vocation school from an academically-oriented high school, reasoning that if Byung-tae isn't college-bound, he should learn a trade. Byung-tae has always been a target of bigger kids, but the worst apples at his new school are a quantum leap over what he's had to deal with before, and things just get worse when the bullies find out his father is a police officer. He spends most of his after-school time hiding out in a local study center until he encounters Oh Man-su (Baek Yun-shik), a disheveled middle-aged guy who doesn't look like much but makes a couple thugs regret trying to mug him. Byung-tae tries to get Oh to teach him how to fight, but the man refuses, on the grounds that violence isn't the answer to his problems. He eventually relents when he sees that violence certainly looks like a better answer than pacifism. But what Oh has to teach Byung-tae isn't specific techniques - it's being willing to fight dirty, to make sure that a guy who goes down stays down, and generally how to meet the bullies on their own terms.

Read the rest at HBS.

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