Thursday, July 14, 2011

NYAFF Day 03: A Boy and His Samurai, Duel to the Death, Karate-Robo Zaborgar, Ninja Kids!!!, and Buddha Mountain

My second day at the New York Asian Film Festival was rainy, although I can't say I really noticed once I got in the theater; the folks at Lincoln Center were willing to allow camping out, and with something like twenty minutes between most shows, it didn't make sense to wander very far from my seat once I'd gotten in place for A Boy and His Samurai. It's a weirdly isolated feeling, after a while, but the periodic thanks braving the weather at entreaties to those who hadn't already bought tickets for the entire day's slate to spend the rest of the day there at least assured me that I wasn't completely wasting the day inside.

One thing worth noting for future reference: The Lincoln Center area is not exactly brimming with quick, cheap food. I spent a fair amount of time looking for some before A Boy and His Samurai started, only burn up time that could have been spent actually eating if I'd just gone back to Lansky's and tried the brunch. Sure, it's a bit of a missed opportunity when you go to a new city and wind up eating in the same place multiple times, but "popcorn for breakfast" is not the best alternative. Especially when the very first movie taunts you with delicious-looking sweets for the second half of its running time.

On a side note, I need to get more Twitter followers (@JaySeaver, folks). By the time Karate-Robo Zaborgar was starting, I was hungry again, and I offered the last admission on my ten-movie ticket for a box of Raisinets. Sadly, it didn't appear any of the 150-odd people and robots that follow me were in a position to take me up on that offer, so I tore into a slice of pizza once I got back to the hotel.

(The less said about the hotel, the better - I suppose you shouldn't expect much when you sort by ascending price on Expedia, but it was a narrow room with a sink but only one bathroom for the floor, and you bring the toilet paper that they supplied in the room. Not ideal. I also wound up toting my laptop around all day, partly so I could write, but more for not really wanting to leave it in that room out of my sight. And aside from that, a lot of people must walk their dogs on this street, because even though most people I saw cleaned up after their pets, the scent lingered.)

Monday morning, I would return home to Boston to watch the Red Sox and pyrotechnics. It wound up being a pretty good weekend of movie gluttony, the perfect warm-up for Fantasia (which starts tonight!).

Chonmage Purin (A Boy and His Samurai)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 July 2011 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian Film Festival 2011)

A Boy and His Samurai has a well-worn fantasy premise that could have very easily proceded in a very predictable fashion. However, even if the original novel it was based on did not have its time-lost samurai discovering the joys of baking, audiences still might have expected a clever, even surprising film from the director of Fish Story and Golden Slumber, and that's what Yoshihiro Nakamura delivers: An off-beat and unusually mature fantasy that should still play well for a young audience.

One day, Tomoya Yusa (Fuku Suzuki) and his mother Hiroko (Rie Tomosaka) spot a handsome young samurai outside a supermarket, looking very confused. Hiroko is sure that it's just an actor doing some sort of promotion, but when they encounter him again a few days later, the man - one Kijima Yasube (Ryo Nishikido) is a mess and seems very confused by the modern world. They take him in, and he eventually proves willing to adapt, helping Hiroko around the house and eventually taking an interest in making custards and pastries. Hiroko still suspects he is a confused modern man, but Kijima insists he comes from the Edo period, 180 years earlier.

Though the film's title evokes a certain genre of kid-oriented dramas and places Kijima in the position of a pet (at least according to its English-language title), the focus of A Boy and His Samurai is often less on Tomoya than Hiroko. Indeed, one might argue with a bit of a wink that the movie is as much a single mother's fantasy as it is a young boy's - what woman in Hiroko's position wouldn't want a handsome younger man whose gratitude compels him to help with the housework around? Nakamura doesn't take the movie too far in that direction, in large part because Rie Tomosaka is given that rarest sort of character to play: A single mother who, while harried and busy, is not defined by her lack of a man or guilt over not being at home more often. Even if it weren't in the script, one perhaps wouldn't be able to fault Tomosaka for playing Hiroko that way; instead, she always shows us a woman who takes pride in her achievements and enjoys both her work and home life.

Full review at EFC.

Xian Si Jue (Duel to the Death)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 July 2011 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian Film Festival 2011)

Like the title suggests, Duel to the Death is the martial arts film distilled down to its purest form - noble warriors walking a dangerous road so that they can square off to fight for treacherous leaders. Fortunately, director "Tony" Ching Siu-tung opted to pour his ninja-related nightmares into it, so it's a trip in more ways than one.

The plot is simplicity itself: Every ten years, Chinese and Japanese martial arts masters meet to determine whose style of combat is superior. This year, the task falls to Ching Wan (Damian Lau) for China and Hashimoto (Norman Chu) for Japan. As they make their way to the ancient battlegrounds, their paths cross, both with each other and with Sheng Nan (Flora Cheung), the daughter of the nobleman on whose grounds the contest will take place and whose family has traditionally produced China's champion. But there is skullduggery afoot - Hashimoto's handler Kenji (Eddy Ko) is in contact with the ninjas who are attacking not just Ching Wan, but many of the land's senior masters.

It's easy to dismiss the plots of movies like this as nothing but frameworks on which to hang fights, and in many ways, Ching Siu-tung doesn't even hide that here: The story more or less spells out that there will be a duel and that there are nefarious forces looking to interfere, and when ten or fifteen minutes passes without some sort of fight, you can expect some sort of crazy ninja thing to happen. And yet, dismissing it as just connective tissue would be unfair; Ching and his co-writers do manage to build up stories of intrigue and betrayal on the one side that contrasts nicely with how the various counterparts could easily be friends in other circumstances.

Full review at EFC.

Denjin Zaborga (Karate-Robo Zaborgar)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 July 2011 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian Film Festival 2011)

Western otaku likely would have to be deeply committed to an obsession to Japanese pop culture to be familiar with the original Denjin Zaborgar, a long-forgotten sentai television series most notable for featuring one of the first robots that also had a vehicle mode, years before the toys that became Transformers when imported to the United States - after all, it's not exactly well-known on the other side of the Pacific, either. This is, perhaps, all to the good - since it's not beloved, Noboru Iguchi can take this bit of J-pop ephemera and make it his own (a simultaneously exciting and frightening prospect, depending on one's tastes).

As in the original, Yutaka Daimon (Yasuhisa Furuhara) is a young police special agent, barely out of his teens, with an unusual partner - Zaborgar, a robot that can transform into a motorcycle. Most of their missions are against the Sigma organization, a group of cyborgs led by Dr. Akunomiya (Akira Emoto) looking to wipe humans off the face of the Earth! In the meantime, though, they need human DNA to construct their mega-cyborg, and have Akunomiya's top agent, Miss Borg (Mami Yamasaki) collecting it. Others in Sigma disdain Miss Borg, so they turn on her, leading to her and Daimon briefly on the same side. Things get weird, then intimate, Zaborgar feels betrayed, and-- Well, cut to twenty-five years later. Daimon (now played by Itsuji Itao) is an unemployed, newly homeless loser who still wears the helmet once used to interface with Zaborgar, and Akunomiya is finally ready to unleash his giant robot on the world. Small problem - new-model schoolgirl cyborg Akiko (Aimi Satsukawa) doesn't particularly want to be the CPU for an engine of destruction, and escapes to find Daimon, with Sigma's new top agent, Gen Akizuki (Yuya Miyashita) hot on her trail.

That is a lot of plot for a goofy exploitation comedy, and it doesn't include all of the really bizarre tangents Iguchi goes off on. Indeed, the need to cram in so much exposition makes the movie feel lopsided: Though the promotion on the festival circuit emphasizes the "25 years later" angle and Itao gets first billing (with Furuhara credited as "The Younger Daimon"), the two periods are actually rather evenly split, to the point that more time seemed to be spent in the past than the present. That's not necessarily a weakness, but it does make the second half feel kind of rushed at points, as it introduces Akiko and Akizuki quickly and pushes the plot forward at high speed, with little time for the sort of free-form oddness that would occasionally turn up toward the start. It's more than a little strange to say this about a Noboru Iguchi/Sushi Typhoon production, but between the exposition-filled opening and revelation-filled second half, Karate-Robo Zaborgar might be too focused on having a coherent story, causing the high-concept insanity to suffer.

Full review at EFC.

Nintama RantarĂ´ (Ninja Kids!!!)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 July 2011 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian Film Festival 2011)

For the last few years, I've had this recurring joke about how hiring Takashi Miike to direct family movies is the Japanese equivalent of Warner Brothers getting the rights to Harry Potter and deciding that the right man for the job is David Cronenberg. Now, though, it's just a thing that happens every year or two, not a cause for shock as much as an indication that this particular kiddie flick, even if otherwise average, will at least have a few memorably bizarre moments.

An adaptation of the long-running comic and cartoon Nintama Rantaro, the movie follows title character Rantaro (Seishiro Kato) as he goes off to start first grade at Ninja Academy, where his parents (Shido Nakamura and Rei Dan) hope that he will learn to become a great ninja not have to work as a farmer as he does. He soon makes friends, particularly Shinbei (Fuuta Kimura), a sleepy, roly-poly fellow, and Kirimaru (Roi Hayashi), a poor but hardworking boy who takes babysitting jobs to make tuition. They get into mischief, but pull together when a nice kid in the fourth grade, "gangsta hairstylist" Takamaru Saito, finds his family attacked by members of their old clan.

I've never encountered any of the franchise's previous iterations, but I am not surprised at all the hear that Nintama Rantaro started life as a four-panel gag strip with more of a focus on punchlines than continuing (mis)adventures. That's how the movie often plays, like a stream of skits about just how goofy it would be to have grade-school kids learning ninja skills in the classroom, with even the climactic race broken up into distinct comedy bits that last a few minutes at most. It's not necessarily a bad way to put a movie aimed at young children with short attention spans together, although it feels very stitched-up at times - Takamaru is introduced just when the filmmakers seem to realize that the movie needs a bit of a plot for its finale, and Rantaro being a particularly fast runner wasn't brought up before the race starts.

Full review at EFC.

Guan Yin Shan (Buddha Mountain)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 July 2011 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian Film Festival 2011)

It doesn't always work out this way, but ending the trip to New York City for the Asian Film Festival with Buddha Mountain turned out to be a nice way to decompress. After a non-stop barrage of movies where even the relatively sedate family picture featured a time-traveling samurai, this picture from China about a group of struggling Chinese friends would have been a fine palate cleanser even if it wasn't genuinely good on its own.

Three young people in Chengdu need a new place to live. Nan Feng (Fan Bingbing) is an aspiring singer who gets in financial trouble when a man who claims he was injured at one of her shows starts shaking the bar where she plays down; Ding Bo (Berlin Chen) dropped out of college and uses his motorcycle to work as an unlicensed courier; Fei "Fatso" Zao (Wang Helong) does odd jobs and gets teased for being overweight. Tossed out of their current apartment, they wind up renting a room from Master Chang Yun-qin (Sylvia Chang), a one-time Peking Opera singer with her own issues whose fastidiousness inevitably leads to clashes with her boarders.

Buddha Mountain is the sort of movie western audiences don't see from China very often - it's contemporary, small in scale, and tells a tale of ordinary people; it's also written and directed by a woman. That last bit is apparently quite rare in China, and with at least one of writer/director Li Yu's previous films (Lost in Beijing) banned, it wouldn't be surprising if this film was a truly independent production. It certainly feels like one, with its ground-level photography of what feel like found locations and appealing but not glamorous cast of characters. It's also refreshingly free of the nationalism that has been omnipresent in recent Chinese cinema - there are no reminders of the glorious history, propagandic praise for the government, or pointed displays of prosperity.

Full review at EFC.

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