Monday, August 09, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.04: Bull and Tokyo Revengers

Fun accidental double feature here, with the Sunday virtual second screening of Bull and in-person-in-Montreal screening of Tokyo Revengers both featuring movies that involve trying to right wrongs after a ten year break, just with that break running in different directions, time-wise. This amuses me.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, IndeeTV)

Bull is a revenge story, distilled almost completely down to the genre's essence, so much so that its twist arguably just makes it even more elemental. It is lean, nasty, and tremendously satisfying in its nasty way.

It's been ten years since anybody last saw Bull (Neil Maskell), and that is by and large probably for the best; the audience first encounters him buying a gun, plugging someone off-screen, and then casually tossing the weapon back to the person who sold it to him, apparently not terribly worried about being recognized. Soon he's back in his hometown, but only former sister-in-law Cheryl (Kellie Shirley) is to be found. She's not much help in finding the rest of her father Norm (David Hayman) and sister Gemma (Lois Brabin-Platt), who have moved on in the past decade. Bull used to be part of the muscle for Norm's protection racket, and their falling out was such that Norm and his other lieutenants at the time, Gary (Kevin Harvey), Marco (Jason Milligan), and Clive (David Nellist), are shocked to see him alive, to the extent that they track down his mother Margie (Elizabeth Counsell) to find out if he has some sort of look-alike brother or cousin.

The scene where Norm confronts Margie is not necessarily an important one as far as the plot goes, but it's got a couple of moments which exemplify the almost self-contradictory melodrama of it better than almost everything else. Watch Norm just seethe in anger talking to this 80-year-old woman who spends her days making small bets on the ponies, his declaration that her family was put on Earth to destroy his seeming absurdly hyperbolic, but that's the scale of this sort of feud - everything to those involved, but verging on petty from the outside. Nearly as much fun is the moment when director Paul Andrew Williams and his cinematographer zoom in on a corner of the screen, an doubly-unsettling change in a film whose go-to-way to put the audience off-balance is in how it cuts between scenes.

That bit is a great little showcase for David Hayman, who is all over this working-class gangster who never got around to putting on airs or trying to climb to a higher station. There's nothing admirable about that in Hayman's performance - Norm has no imagination to go with his greed - but there's the veneer of something like that in certain scenes, like when he commits to destroying his son in law rather than deal with the disaster that is his daughter, a father's loyalty coming across as an act of cowardice. His lined, weathered face is the complete opposite of Neil Maskell's round, friendly one; Maskell convinces the audience that maybe Bull can compartmentalize and be a good dad to son Aiden (Henri Charles), but it always twists into something disturbing a little too readily. There's a monster in him that can come out on short notice.

Which is why, based upon the conspicuous absence of Aiden outside of flashbacks, one wonders where he's been for the past ten years, what with Williams never exactly letting the grass grow under his feet. Present-day Bull follows a straight line with little room for anything but revenge, and Williams makes sure that it's never the sort of pretty violence where one admires the staging or sees irony and poetry in it. It's mean and angry violence that reflects the rage that the audience can't help but sympathize with even as they feel some horror at how it has found a willing partner in Bull's existing psychopathy.

By the time the film reaches its end, Williams has done his best to push things beyond "man, did they deserve what they got for screwing over the wrong person" even as he couldn't be more clear about this being how you make a monster. Even at under 90 minutes, it's a rough enough ride that some viewers may be ready to tap out early, and those that make it to the end may want to rewind to a family cookout scene to see if they've miscounted the numbe blonde sisters with similar haircuts, just to see to what extent Norm was on to something or if Bull's rampage was more focused than that.

I'm not sure whether that detail which maybe doesn't matter should have been clearer or if it's an interesting ambiguity, but it's an interesting one, and maybe hints at the film having a bit more rewatchability than one might expect for something this nasty and elemental.

Full review at eFilmCritic (dead link)

Tokyo Revengers (Tôkyô ribenjâzu)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Cinando)

As near as I can tell, the anime series and live-action movies of Tokyo Revengers are coming out almost simultaneously, and while the movie is not bad at all - especially for fans of the teenage-delinquents-fighting genre - this is a story clearly made for another medium, whether it be comics or television. There's too much to fit in and spots which beg for both cliffhangers and room for subplots to get fleshed out. The filmmakers do impressive work getting the story down to two hours, but it's really not a movie at heart.

It kicks off with Hanagaki Takemichi (Takumi Kitamura) working the sort of part-time convenience store job usually reserved for teenagers, and his younger boss suggests he peaked in high school. If so, it wasn't much of a peak - he was the kind of kid who thought fighting made him look tough and cool but always got his ass kicked - with the best part of it the girlfriend he had at the time, and now the news says that Hinata Tachibana (Mio Imada) and her brother Naoto have died in their mid-twenties, the victim of violence involving the Tokyo Maji gang. Soon after, he's apparently pushed in front of a subway train, only to emerge ten years earlier, but at least able to convince Naoto (Yosuke Sugino) to keep alert on 1 July 2020 before returning to a reality where Naoto survived and is now a detective who notes that "Toman" changed drastically ten years ago, when leaders Manjiro Sano (Ryo Yoshizawa) and Tetta Kisaki (Shotaro Mamiya) met. They figure out how to send Takemichi back and forth, and he's able to change things so that he's befriended by "Mikey" Sano, who seems pretty nice for a delinquent. Takemichi figures things changed when his best friend and conscience Ken "Draken" Ryuguji (Yuki Yamada) was killed in a fight with Moebius (Keita Arai) and his gang, but he's still more or less the same loser he was the first time through high school - how can he change destiny?

You'd think that a biker gang led by a gang named "Moebius" whose logo is an ouroboros might have something to do with the time-travel shenanigans, and there are vague hints that there's more going on than what happens when Takemichi and Naoto shake hands, but that's not an element this film does much with. Maybe that's for the best - if screenwriter Takahashi Izumi were to commit to a cause, he might have to spend time explaining it, then maybe talk about how, if there's more going on than just these two coincidentally having this power, someone thinks their best use of it is pushing a group of street punks to become a powerful yakuza rival, which isn't really the story these filmmakers are interested in telling. Still, it feels like they could have done a lot more with Hinata, who had apparently been the best thing in Takemichi's life but often gets treated like an impediment to the plot. Heck, there's barely any talk of what happened to her during the missing ten years. This story could be streamlined down to someone older but not at all wiser reliving his youth and determined to do it right (for a weird value of "right") without all the back-and-forth and maybe work better.

That might have made it a more basic delinquents-fighting story, and it's not exactly bad by that measure. That genre is an acquired taste on this side of the Pacific - it's one of those things that gets done so much in Japan that I don't know as an outsider to what extent it reflects something real and to what extent something similar was a big hit and spurred enough copycats to become a genre - and Tokyo Revengers has a good handle on all the character types and the basic outline, as well as the weird violence of it, where folks like Takemuchi and his friend Akkun (Hayato Isomura) get beaten so badly and so realistically that it looks like they'll break from the abuse but where you can also see how Mikey's casual almost-superhuman skill at just clobbering the people in his way makes him an idol of sorts. And then, when two gangs clash, the rumbles are a blast. In this case, the fights aren't quite the balletic mayhem that Sion Sono and Tak Sakaguchi managed in Tokyo Tribe and the like, but director Tsutomu Hanabusa fills the screen with action while still focusing the eye on where Mikey is plowing through a crowd, tweaking things slightly so that this three-on-one looks like a big deal and that one looks dangerous, letting the characters get fatigued even if the audience is still energized. It can look tacky as heck, but the themed costumes and crazy hair just highlight how, if you're more like Takemichi than Mikey, it's all about plowing through even as you take a beating from those who are really good at inflicting violence, while even Mikey can have his heart broken even if his ass can't be kicked.

Of course, one of the things viewers kind of learn to ignore about the genre is that the guys in these gangs don't ever actually look like teenagers, although it's a little easier to ignore that when the same actors aren't playing them ten years older. Takumi Kitamura actually looks younger in the present day - he and Hayato Isomura tend to present their characters as slumped and timid at 27 but are standing up relatively straight with a couple extra inches of spiky hair at 17 - and is performances in both periods don't quite match; one wonders if his worn-down experience isn't supposed to be able to override his impulsive teenage brain. They actually have to joke about Naoto being so big for a middle-schooler, although Yosuke Sugino winds up being the standout in the cast, actually looking and acting like he's grown up and is genuinely driven by his sister's death. It would be nice to see more of Mio Imada as that sister; as much as she plays the sweet schoolgirl, it's not hard to extrapolate a story where Hinata also became a cop and was more headstrong than Naoto from what she's given. There's not much of Ryo Yoshizawa in the present, which is probably for the best; he does fun but breakable well in 2010 but it manifests as a lack of personality rather than a damaged one in 2020.

Apparently, this film's release was delayed by Covid in Japan, which means it likely comes off even more as an over-compression of the manga and anime series there, rather than the anime being able to play as an expansion. It's a tough break - this may be the best possible two-hour version of the story, and does what it's able to include very well, but you can't help but be aware that there's another adaptation out there that doesn't skip over so much.

Full review at eFilmCritic (dead link)

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