Thursday, August 20, 2020

Fantasia On-Demand Preview 2020.04: Crazy Samurai Musashi (plus Sheep Without a Shepherd and Fantasia Classics)

I thought I'd be doing more of these, but I got caught up watching a couple baseball games (which is stupid, because the Red Sox are awful this year and take a long time to lose), but there's going to be plenty of time over the next couple of weeks to catch up on some even as I try and keep up with the "real time" screenings. I'd still hoped to get a couple more in, but some time has to be saved for work

Crazy Samurai Musashi is a lot of fun, at least - not a great movie, perhaps, but one whose central gimmick is nifty enough that it's worth checking out even if star Tak Sakaguchi and his cohorts didn't have a major place in world genre cinema back when I first started going to Fantasia: Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus was a huge deal, arriving right around the same time Audition did and signally that there was this sort of energetic, entertaining live-action stuff being made in Japan when most of what came over was either animated or very formal, and they were followed by a group of B-movie filmmakers who often seemed to be making Crazy Japanese-Brand stuff for export as much as for consumption at home, especially when you consider what strong in-person presence these guys would have during the festival in Montreal (and, presumably, Austin a month or two later). As I mention in the review, the bubble kind of burst without anyone really taking that next big leap into the mainstream in Japan and Kitamura sort of becoming a journeyman here, their cheap-but-crazy entries more or less replaced with slick manga adaptations. I kind of miss them, from Tak Sakaguchi showing up and doing martial arts demonstrations to having my jaw drop at the utter madness of what Yoshihiro Nishimura would come up with for his own movies compared to the KNB-quality professionalism he brought to others.

The other "premiere" that I can review from the on-demand section is Sheep Without a Shepherd, which is this year's "wait, this played Boston but not Montreal, even though this sort of movie seems to be all the Cineplex at the Forum plays?" entry. It's kind of reasonable, though - as I noticed when it played here, it came out on the same day as The Rise of Skywalker and although it was a big deal in China, it was kind of secondary even among the Chinese movies playing in North America at the time. It is pretty darn good, and even if you're not able to access it via Fantasia because you're not in Canada, it's on Prime in the U.S., as are a couple of the "Fantasia Classics" that include a lot of Japanese movies listed toward the end. It's been kind of weird seeing embargo dates for some of these, as I've had reviews up from the last time around for a while.

Crazy Samurai Musashi

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

It probably won't be too long before someone teaches an entire course on action cinema using just Crazy Samurai Musashi; though there is some extra material on either side, roughly 80% of this is a single shot of a single samurai taking on a veritable army. It's not perfect - folks taking that hypothetical course will likely learn a whole lot about how editing and coverage can be pretty useful - but it's a fairly amazing achievement and a must-see-it-at-least-once for fans of the genre.

It opens, more or less, with a child watching a butterfly; Matashichiro is the heir to the Yoshioka clan and it is technically his right to challenge Miyamoto Musashi (Tak Sakaguchi) to a duel to avenge the killing of a fallen comrade. Neither he nor his grandfather will actually fight Musashi, of course; there are over a hundred samurai loyal to the clan and 300 mercenaries hiding in the woods around the compound, prepared to swarm on him should he get too close.

They may almost be enough.

Star Tak Sakaguchi and director Yuji Shimomura both got their starts working with Ryuhei Kitamura on Versus (Tak starred and Shinomura choreographed the action), part of a group of young filmmakers who had incredible amounts of enthusiasm, imagination, and style but who by and large never really figured out storytelling beyond the high concept or the ins and outs of studio filmmaking. By all appearances, Crazy Samurai Musashi seems to have taken this idea to its logical extreme, with the big 77-minute fight shot around seven years ago - Sion Sono is listed as writing the "original story", so right around when Sakaguchi was choreographing the action for Tokyo Tribe - with the segments on either end either clearly featuring an older Musashi or trying to keep him in the shadows. They came up with the fight, did an impressive job of shooting it, and then took years to scrape together the bare minimum amount of material to make an actual movie out of it - and even then, it doesn't quite fit, as Sakaguchi plays Musashi as kind of put-upon and righteous during the fight but the material around it portrays him as more an unrepentant killer.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Wu Sha (Sheep Without a Shepherd)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 December 2019 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

Sheep Without a Shepherd is the sort of thriller that elicits happily complicit snickers from the audience because they are extremely invested in someone getting away with murder. Well, maybe not quite murder, but you get the point. The filmmakers know exactly what's going to get the audience rooting against the police and manage to make it work even when what they are doing is pretty obvious.

It starts with a jailbreak that's actually a story being told by Li Weijie (Xiao Yang), a Chinese man living in the Thai village of Chanban who watches a lot of movies between calls at his network service business. He's a bit tight with money - he, wife Ayu (Tan Zhuo), and daughters Pingping (Audrey Hui) & An-An (Zhang Ziran), have a fair-sized house because a lot next to the cemetery is a bargain - but he relents when 16-year-old Pingping needs 6000 baht (about $200) for a special weekend camp for high achievers. It goes badly, and things get worse when a fellow attendee, Suchat (Beety) shows up with cell phone video to blackmail her into another "date" while Weijie is away on business in nearby Lua Pathom. Ayu interrupts and Pingping fights back, accidentally connecting with Suchat's skull rather than his phone. The next morning, Weijie must call on everything he's learned about avoiding arrest from watching movies to keep what they've done from being discovered, especially tricky because not only are Suchat's parents chief of police Laoorn (Joan Chen) and mayoral candidate Dutpon (Philip Keung Ho-Man), but Sangkun (Shih Ming-Shuai), a corrupt cop who has long had it in for Weijie, actually caught a glimpse of him getting into the victim's car the next morning.

Six screenwriters are credited with adapting the Malayalam-language film Drishyam (the sixth remake, following four in other parts of India and one in Sri Lanka), something which often seems like a recipe for turning a pointed story into mush, but that is not the case here. It's a really impressively constructed machine of a film which lays out where it's going but still makes the audience enjoy the process of getting there, turns dark comedy into something that really stings, and finds plenty of room to bring emotions to a boil even as it's being methodical. The writers and Malaysian director Sam Quah Boon-Lip are able to wear their influences on their sleeves and even find a way to use a mid-credits scene to wring something out of the Chinese "content guidelines" that the film had mostly been mostly able to skirt by being set in Thailand. Quah and company manage to walk an impressive tightrope between the different ways that crime is difficult in the movies and in real life, keeping the audience aware of it but never becoming a movie about movies.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Mirokuroze (Milocrorze: A Love Story)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

Milocrorze: A Love Story is the sort of colorful, genre-mashing flick that doesn't just try to bowl the audience over, but practically insists on it, overwhelming the viewer with color and sound and sudden shifts until they either walk out numb or give in. And there's no reason not to give in, as writer/director Yoshimasa Ishibashi finds ways to both pop the eyes and tug at the heart.

Of course, the title character (Maiko) doesn't seem to be that important at first; she's the etherially beautiful woman that oddly-independent seven-year-old Ovreneli Vreneligare falls for one day in the park, but soon enough she's gone, leaving the boy with a broken heart. That's when we meet Besson Kumagai (Takayuki Yamada), a "love counselor" for young men whose hotline leads to him berating his callers and giving them questionable advice. Following his path eventually brings us to Tamon (Yamada again), a one-eyed samurai on a quest to find his beloved Yuri (Anna Ishibashi), stolen away by kidnappers four years ago. It's only after the end of Tamon's quest that we catch up with the now-grown Ovreneli (guess who), who encounters a familiar face while still nursing a hole in his heart.

Though all three sections are quite something to see - Yoshimasa Ishibashi and his fellow filmmakers seldom see a frame that they don't think could be improved by a little more color, a poppier beat, and a bit of absurdity - it's Tamon's segment in the middle that is Ishibashi's and Yamada's tour de force. Yes, the film changes styles before and after, but it shifts genres several times within this part, jumping from samurai to something contemporary to western to a stylized blending of everything without any sort of explanation other than that this genre perhaps feels most appropriate for this moment. It also features one of the most astonishing action sequences in recent memory, in which Tamon hacks his way through a brothel filled with yakuza in one long, apparently continuous shot that moves like a side-scrolling video game and continually jumps between regular speed and slow motion. It's jokey at some points and surreal at others, but Ishibashi packs an amazing amount of activity into what certainly appears to be one continuous shot.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Tabineko ripôto (The Traveling Cat Chronicles, aka Tabineko Report)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The Traveling Cat Chronicles was the first film to play the festival lineup on this day, and it was a canny bit of scheduling not just because this was a more family-friendly movie than what makes up the bulk of this genre-heavy schedule, but because it's unapologetically sentimental in a way few other movies playing the event are. So, fine, let's get the day's crying done early and have fun with the rest of the movies; it's not like that will be unearned.

The film is narrated by a once-proud stray cat (voice of Mitsuki Takahata) who mentions that she as yet has no name, though has been living with Satoru (Sota Fukushi) since he found her on the side of the road. Satoru is a young man, at a point where one's life is often in flux, and there is no space for a cat in this next phase, but he's also a cat lover who wouldn't dream of not making sure Nana does not find a good home. So he travels up and down Japan meeting with childhood friends Kosuke Sawada (Ryosuke Yamamoto), who is recently divorced, and Yoshime (Tomoya Maeno), who has recently adopted a kitten; former classmate Sugi Shusuke (Takuro Ono) and ex-girlfriend Chikako (Alice Hirose), now married and running a pet-friendly B&B; and his aunt Noriko (Yuko Takeuchi), who raised him after his parents' death and whose itinerant work as a judge prevented Satoru from having a pet as a child. None of them, unfortunately, are quite able to take in a cat who has grown attached to her human.

There has, obviously, been a fair amount of tragedy and upheaval in Satoru's life already, and each time Satoru visits a friend there is an accompanying set of flashbacks to how Satoru met them, how they were separated, and some story about how they bonded over a cat. The stories inevitably fall into a bit of a pattern, but director Koichiro Miki makes that a good thing, telling some funny stories that glide into a bittersweet place; they point at where the film is heading while still misdirecting the audience a bit. Where the story is heading is both a surprise and not by the time it gets there, but that doesn't matter; the film is generally about taking both animals and people who need it in, even when it's difficult and leads to some heartache, and never loses sight of that.

Yes, this is the sort of movie that tries to soften a blow with cute animals, but since it's cats instead of dogs (as is more common), it's kind of no-nonsense about it. Nana is smart and not sentimental in her narration (or his; the subtitles use male pronouns despite the female voice, but I suspect that will be fixed if this gets any sort of official release), with Mitsuki Takahata giving her a default tone of annoyed indignation that matches the feline performer without ever seeming aloof (and occasionally being quite emotional). It's just enough tartness on top of a sort of simple, child-like vocabulary to feel like a cat. There are some other animal voices (though mostly confined to the present where Nana can relay them), but Takahata's performance sets the tone.

Full review at eFilmCritic

HK: Hentai Kamen (HK/Forbidden Super Hero)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, HD)

Look, I'm not going to make Hentai Kamen out to be anything other than it is: It is a deeply silly, tacky, crude spoof of the superhero genre that takes Warren Ellis's description of their outfits as "underwear pervert suits" to its illogical extreme. It's got roughly one joke in it and hits that gag relentlessly. But, man, does it do that well.

A while back, Det. Hario Shikjio ran a gangster visiting his favorite dominatrix to ground. The gangster's, that is, although when Maki (Nana Katase) responded to the cops busting in on her business by slapping Hario around... Well, it was love at first sight. Sixteen years later, their son Kyosuke (Ryohei Suzuki) is part of his high-school martial arts team, but though he's inherited his father's sense of justice, he's kind of a wimp. Still, when new student Aiko Himeno (Fumika Shimizu) gets in trouble, he races to her rescue but the only mask he can find to conceal his identity is a pair of women's panties. Good thing wearing them on his face stirs the kinky blood of his mother that flows in his veins, and from then forward, he fights crime as Hentai Kamen, the masked pervert!

There's a way of telling this story that would make it about not denying who you are and embracing the totality of your heritage, even if it's kind of embarrassing. And while that's there, it's buried deep underneath a ton of crude jokes based on Kyosuke having the most embarrassing secret identity ever and fight scenes whose choreography is built around making evildoers (and audiences) kind of uncomfortable with all the raw beefcake on display and how every finishing move seems to involve pushing the contents of improvised g-string right up into somebody's face. There are plenty of jokes at the superhero genre's expense as well, with Spider-Man getting hit the hardest from the spoof of Marvel's familiar logo animation to the distinctive eye-holes that appear on the "mask" for no discernible reason.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Fukufuku-so no Fuku-chan (Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2014 in Salle D.B. Clarke (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Huh. I missed something about this movie when reading the program description, although on a certain level it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that this is a big-hearted, charming movie that pays off in some unexpected ways. It also has one of the single funniest sequences I've seen in a movie this year, which never hurts.

The "Fuku-chan" of the title is Fukuda Tatsuo (Miyuki Oshima), a 32-year-old house painter who is fairly well-liked both at work and the cheap apartment block he calls home, where he winds up making peace between his neighbors Nonoshita (Asato Iida) and Mabuchi (Tateto Serizawa) over the matter of the gigantic snake the latter is keeping as a pet. He isn't quite rude in how he rebuffs his supervisor and friend Shimacchi's attempts to set him up with women, but is even more standoffish than one might expect given how he's overweight and not exactly handsome. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, pretty businesswoman Chiho Sigiura (Asami Mizukawa) quits her job after winning a photography prize, only to be put off that when her mentor (Toshiyuki Kitami) proves more interested in her body than her eye.

Where this is going is kind of obvious, but just as the audience is starting to wonder just how writer/director Yosuke Fujita is going to arrange the meet-cute, he throws the audience a curve that makes Fuku's and Chiho's story a bit more complicated than a girl who is, by her own admission, kind of focused on surface-level things realizing that Fuku has a big heart underneath a face that, while expressive, is not conventionally attractive. What's more impressive is that he doesn't waste much time in doing so after starting to hint that the audience is looking in the wrong direction. And while the events of the story are more or less the ones you might expect, Fujita doesn't just acknowledge how these two would likely view each other in real life, but deflects the film from the romantic comedy path fairly explicitly.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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