Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Japanese Cinema on Special Order: Confessions & The Bullet Train

Well, I don't know that either disc was really a special order, technically - you can find both on Amazon, mostly through resellers, although it's probably cheaper to go straight to the source.

Confessions I picked up at DDDHouse, an online retailer out of Hong Kong whose website can sometimes be a bit challenging to get through, but which offers pretty good prices (and the US$/HK$ exchange rate is currently pretty favorable on the American side) and reasonable shipping. I've made a couple orders from there since, mostly for stuff that hasn't been released in North America at all - and a couple cases, like The Mermaid, where we only get 2D versions of a 3D movie - but been hesitant to actually pop a disc in, just as a matter of not having a lot of time and a little fear of there not being good subtitles. Like, as long as I haven't watched one and been disappointed it's still potentially a good idea. So I haven't actually watched the thing I built the first order around (10 Years), but I will soon; the Confessions disc looked pretty good, and the subtitles were okay.

Tons of logos at the front before even getting to the menu, though, even more than when you see a foreign film in theaters and way more than the typical amount at the front of an American disc. If you ever need any demonstration that Hollywood is fundamentally different than most other movie industries, the fact that only a couple of production companies and distributors have enough skin in the game to merit an animated title card.

The Bullet Train came from Twilight Time Movies, again as part of an order for something else, but it was on sale and you might as well stack things up to save on shipping. They're a company I kind of wish I'd known about earlier; they press 3,000 copies of four or five titles each month, mostly available through their own site, and given that the numbers are relatively small, the special features are (1) this thing is available in HD at all and (2) an isolated soundtrack option. It's a nice disc, though - clean copy of the film, fine subtitles, and what may have been a decent supplement, although it was past midnight when I started it and it seemed too heavy on clips for me to finish.

I'll be ordering at least one film from them this month (Dragonwyck with Vincent Price and Gene Tierney), maybe more. I kind of wish I'd known about the company earlier; I get the feeling I may have missed a few things.

(Fun note: I bumped this to the top of my pile and decided to pair Confessions with it because they offered $2 off my next order for a review. After ten-plus years of doing these things, this is awful close to being the first actual remuneration!)

Coincidentally, both of my first orders from these sources included 3D movies named Inferno, which seems like as good a double feature review as any.

Kokuhaku (Confessions)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen on 29 December 2017 in Jay's Living Room (The Shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Tetsuya Nakashima's Confessions is a movie just good enough to fall through the cracks: After the director's films Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko got raves on the genre and Asian film festival circuits, the producers of this somewhat more mainstream film targeted more prestigious audiences, opting for festivals like TIFF instead of those like Fantasia, and when it didn't sell at those, it wound up never officially making its way American audiences. It is, however, worth seeking out an import disc - the one from Hong Kong is Region A and has decent English subtitles - as it's absolutely good enough to see why the producers might have seen it as a possible breakout.

It's got a bit of a rough start, in part because the first of the film's confessions seems like the set-up for a certain type of movie. In a junior high homeroom, teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) announces - in a voice that barely penetrates the din from the rowdy students - that she is leaving at the end of the term, and she expects most of the students will be pleased. Their initial cheering tapers off when it becomes increasingly clear that she's got zero damns left to give, not only mocking a student who came to her for emotional support but implicating two - brilliant but cruel Shuya Watanabe (Yukito Nishii) and angry but timid Naoki Shimomura (Kaoru Fujiwara) - in the death of her four-year-old daughter Manami. She says she won't go to the police to have them reopen the case, though; she's just tainted two of the the individual cartons of milk handed out that morning with the HIV-positive blood of Manami's father.

As this plays out, Confessions has the feel of a movie that's not going to leave that room, playing out as a battle of wills between the teacher and her students, maybe with her exposing that they are all, in some way, complicit, or the the trouble-making kids showing that most of them actually have decent hearts. The film never quite finds a rhythm during this opening act, though; the students' quick reversion to rowdiness doesn't quite ring true and Nakashima is good at a lot of things, stillness and restraint are not his best tools. By the time Ms. Moriguchi has finished her story, it's clear that this confrontation can't be stretched much further.

Full review at EFC

Shinkansen daibakuha (The Bullet Train)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 8 January 2018 in Jay's Living Room (The Shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

When even the essay that accompanies the limited edition blu-ray disc of a movie repeatedly mentions that the 152-minute cut presented is really just too long, there's probably something to it - they may not need to sell anybody reading the booklet on the movie anymore, but it still seems like the writer would have to feel very strongly on the subject to repeatedly make that point to people presumably excited to have a copy of the film. He's not wrong - some releases were able to cut an hour out of The Bullet Train to get what I imagine is just as intense a thriller - but there's a certain appeal to its thoroughness and that at least makes an argument for keeping every scene.

The plot, at the time of the film's 1975 release, was devilishly clever: Tetsuo Okita (Ken Takakura) has placed a bomb on the 109 train from Tokyo to Hanaka. When the train accelerates above 80 kph (about 50 mph), the bomb will arm, and it will detonate should the train drop below that speed. Four five million dollars, he will tell the railway how to find and disarm the bomb. One accomplice (Kei Yamamoto) has rigged another train to explode as a demonstration, while another (Akira Oda) will help collect the ransom for the 1500 people on board. While the police try to hunt the bomber, it's up to Kuramochi in the control station (Ken Utsui) and engineer Aoki (Shin'ichi "Sonny" Chiba) to keep the train running long enough for a resolution.

The basic plot would serve as the (uncredited) inspiration for Speed nearly twenty years later, and it's instructive to see how Graham Yost's later script would streamline it for the better, most notably by getting the passengers down to a manageable number and actually giving them something to do; the potential body count of The Bullet Train may be enormous, but after the filmmakers introduce a number of passengers in the opening - including a celebrity and his entourage, a documentary film crew, and a captured fugitive who supplied Okita with his explosives - only to never do much with anyone but pregnant Kikuchi (Raita Ryu), who will inevitably go into labor (whether this is a direct result of someone slapping her to get her to stop panicking is not clear, but it's either the worst or most hilariously ironic use of that ugly trope). The interview with director Jun'ya Sato on the disc has him saying that he wrote the first half of the script and Ryunosuke Ono the second; perhaps Ono simply couldn't find anything to do with the subplots Sato set up and abandoned them. Instead, the film offers up a lot of generically frazzled salarymen causing a few near-riots because they can't get off the train and to their business meetings, and those moments are good and genuine-feeling, but it can be hard to get a sense of the threat's scale or a feeling of immediate danger with the action on the train so relatively unimportant.

Full review at EFC

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