Monday, August 03, 2009

Fantasia Catch-Up #01: Love Exposure, Sweet Karma, and Lalapipo

This Week In Tickets will be delayed a bit this week, in small part because I haven't been out to a theater since returning home. It's not really something I planned on - I was just wiped out for the first couple days back, then over the weekend it got too hot to walk anywhere. Plus, after two and a half weeks of rushing to and from buses and movies... Well, it was nice to kind of just pull up a deck chair, grab a root beer from the fridge, and read some of the three weeks of comics and other books that piled up.

Plus, I tend to keep all my files and scans of calendar pages on an SD card, and the reader died a tragic but heroic death taking a hit that might have damaged the computer otherwise. A new, sturdier-looking one is on the way from Amazon. In the meantime, here's some reviews of the movies from the first weekend that I couldn't get to at the time and for which I don't have screeners for memory-refreshment.

Ai No Mukidashi (Love Exposure)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I recommend Love Exposure, rather highly, in fact, but be warned: Maverick Japanese director Sion Sono has a rather singular vision, and his previous feature, the more or less mainstream horror-comedy Hair Extensions, only gives audiences a glimpse of it. Love Exposure, on the other hand, is an amazing mix of transgression, sweet romance, naughty slapstick, and out-there plotting. It's also nearly four intermission-free hours long, so before you sit down for this movie, you had better be committed to the Sion Sono experience.

It starts off relatively small: Yu Tsunoda's religious mother died when he was a boy, but before she went, she noted his fascination with the Virgin Mary and said she hoped he would find his own Mary someday. Those words would stick with Yu, especially after his grieving father Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe) becomes a Catholic priest. Eventually, when Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) is a teenager, two women do enter his life: Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), the beautiful but man-hating girl he meets while dressed in drag for losing a bet with his friends, and Aya Hoike (Sakura Ando), who catches Yu and said friends doing upskirt photography but who, upon hearing Yu's motives, opts to keep an eye on him.

That may not seem like much of a start for such a sprawling movie, but I'm holding some details back - Sono structures the first hour or so of the movie by giving Yu, Hoike, and Yoko detailed introductions in turn, and too much background on any one of them could spoil the surprises in store for when we see how their stories connect. Suffice it to say that none of the three kids have an easy road to the points where they meet, as each is the victim of some form of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. This isn't done just to play off our sympathy, though; the one whose abuse sets off the most visceral reactions is often the hardest to like. It mainly gives us a sense of just how thoroughly askew their perspectives have become, so that some of their more unusual actions become reasonable.

Full review at EFC.

Sweet Karma

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Sweet Karma is an "avenging angel" movie with all the fat boiled off. The filmmakers know why people are seeing this movie - a hot girl killing bad men in a cool, righteous fury. And even though it's doing better than just going through the motions, it is still keenly focused on giving the audience what it wants, without other distractions - like dialog from the title character, for instance.

Karma (Shera Bechard) was born mute, you see, though anyone looking at her will readily admit that there's nothing else wrong with her physically. Her sister Anna (Patricia Stasiak) went to Canada to take a job as a housemaid, but we know how that sort of endeavor really plays out: Strip clubs and prostitution if she's lucky, a mutilated body in a ditch when she's not. So Karma heads to Toronto in her sister's footsteps, intent on following the chain from the people who recruited Anna in Moscow to the man by whose hand she actually died until they're all dead.

Sweet Karma is a nasty little movie, plunging into its seedy underworld setting without giving it even a surface sheet of respectability. I wouldn't say that this movie rises above the exploitation inherent in its genre, but director Andrew Hunt is keenly aware of it and uses it like a precision tool, manipulating matters so that we feel grimy and unclean in a low-rent strip club and yet still powerfully drawn to Karma, even when she's pointedly using her sexuality as a weapon, in ways that are not that far removed from her targets' practices.

Full review at EFC.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I suppose I should just get the unfair comparison out of the way - Lalapipo is not in the same class as Kamikaze Girls, Paco and the Magic Book, or Memories of Matsuko. It's only in the same sentence because the writer/director of those fantastic movies, Tetsuya Nakashima, wrote the screenplay, adapting a novel by Hideo Okuda for Masayuki Miyano to direct. It's certainly understandable that festivals would play up Nakashima's involvement, as his recent films have been audience favorites, but this movie has to settle for being quirky and kind of clever.

The title "Lalapipo" comes from a character mispronouncing an American tourist's comment that Tokyo sure has a lot of people, and focuses on six in particular: Technical writer Hiroshi (Sarutoki Minagawa) is a bitter, slovenly man who has started having conversations with penis (portrayed here by a puppet). Tomoko (Yuri Nakamura) is a pretty but shy department store clerk who is recruited into the sex business by "scout" Kenji (Hiroki Narimiya), who has also been given a "mature" actress to manage, without knowing who sort of secret Yoshie (Mari Hamada) has been hiding. Also crossing these characters' paths are Koichi (Yoshiyuki Morishita), an uptight young man whose superhero fantasies are a bizarre combination of the puritanical and the explicit, and Sayuri (Tomoko Murakami), Hiroshi's plus-size hookup who aims to be a voice actor but is already in the entertainment business in another capacity. Their stories overlap in several ways beyond what has been described.

The film sounds like a broad, raunchy comedy, especially since the penis puppet story is the first one out of the gate, and there's certainly a lot of that to it. It's not all fun and games, though - though the porn and adult entertainment industries are somewhat more mainstream in Japan than, say, the United States, there's still quite the strong sleazy undercurrent to even the more playful of those storylines. Other characters do things that aren't always exactly sex-related but have the potential for making the audience very uncomfortable, more often than not without much resolution one way or another. Lalapipo has plenty of belly laughs, but the funny and disturbing content tend to work against each other, rather than as a team.

Full review at EFC.

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