Monday, February 20, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 14: You Shoot, I Shoot and The Shock Labyrinth

Hey, here's a fun spot to land, even if I had some reasons for reservations.given the specific movies. There was a big delay between the stuff in Round 13 and this as the IFFBoston Fall Focus and a vacation had me not messing with the shelf much, but I tried to pick up some speed after that what with orders coming in.
Mookie's 14 gets him to the end of the Pang Ho-Cheung section, which for some reason is his first movie as director, despite me having put most sections in chronological order. I've got a Pang Ho-Cheung because I've liked his stuff at festivals, and figured the ones I've missed would get reissues and the like from Hong Kong, along with the new releases, because he was on the rise and made movies that those in the know say really captures the place. But then there was an exceptionally stupid kerfuffle in Hong Kong about a Chinese flag being vandalized, he voiced support for China, and then his former collaborators turned on him, as did the public, and he retreated to Western Canada, where he was reportedly doing NFT stuff. His production company was behind a poorly-reviewed English-language horror movie in 2020, but nothing since. I do hope he's able to either mend some fences back in HK or find some work in North America.
A couple days later, Bruce rolls a 13 to get to Shock Labyrinth from Takashi Shimizu, and it's another "hey, why isn't there more?" on two fronts. First, Shimizu himself was notable figure when Ju-on: The Grudge was an international hit, and he's kept working ever since, but while the Ju-on reboots tend to show up at the genre festivals, Shimizu's stuff doesn't, and, honest, I don't know if it can be that much worse than what they've done with his best-known creation. There's also not much at all from Japan on the shelf; I've grumbled often about how relatively little makes its way to disc or even theaters aside from anime, but what can you do?

So how's that go for them?

Maai hung paak yan (You Shoot, I Shoot)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

This is the sort of movie where it feels very clear in retrospect that a new filmmaker is going to turn out to be a big deal. The world was swimming in movies like this at the time - indeed, has the self-aware hitman story ever really gone into a lull over the past 30 years - and it's not so much that Pang Ho-Cheung had a terribly unique idea, but that he executes his gags exceptionally well. It may occasionally be rough, but this is exactly the sort of first feature that inspires a producer to give a filmmaker a bigger platform.

It introduces Bart (Eric Kot Man-Fai), a gun for hire who is seeing a downturn in business because things are rough all over in post-handover Hong Kong. He has found a potential new employer in Mrs. Ma (Miu Fei-Lam), a wealthy woman with a lot of petty grudges, but she demands video evidence of the kill, and since it is very hard to hold a gun and camera at the same time, Bart hires a camera operator, Li Tung Chuen (Cheung Tat-Ming). Li is hardly enthusiastic at first, but for all that the murder-for-hire business is a mess, the movie industry is worse, and Bart's a better boss than the folks making adult movies with his crush Michiko (Asuka Higuchi). Business booms, but their newfound success attracts the wrong sort of attention.

Although, really, is there a right sort of attention in either business? Not that Pang really has a lesson to teach here beyond how neither filmmaking nor crime is glamorous, or even as dramatically tragic as both would have you believe; it's all muck and very little glory. As is Pang's wont when doing comedies, he jumps quickly from joke to joke, often able to make one scene turn into something else seemingly on the fly, and gets the whole thing done in just about 90 minutes, because that's about how long it takes before this sort of premise starts to collapse under its own weight. Indeed, the movie gets pretty close to that point at the end, because the climactic gag is more elaborate than the loose construction of the film to that point can really bear.

It's like that all around - Pang's got good jokes, but he's still pretty raw, the young filmmaker eager to declare his fandom and influences, good instincts for when things are about to get out of hand but not practice in cutting them just right. He works with actors fairly well but doesn't quite give them the material to make their characters more than their type very often, so that the jokes spring from who they are rather than the situation. The budget seems tight and the timeframe limited, and he's not quite able to squeeze all he can out of it.

As a first film, it shows enough sparks that you can see folks involved might be going somewhere, even if they aren't quite there yet. It's still got enough jokes to be a good comedy, at least.

Senritsu meiky├╗ 3D (The Shock Labyrinth)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 December 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 3D Blu-ray)

Takashi Shimizu is, perhaps, a little too professional at times, spending a large chunk of his early career on various versions of Ju-on/The Grudge, and then soon enough doing this little movie which is apparently a rather obvious tie-in to a famous amusement park and which would get re-purposed itself for Shimizu's Rabbit Horror 3D a couple years later (it says "Tormented" on the box, but, c'mon, it's "Rabbit Horror"). Aside from a few short films as part of anthology projects, his only real foray outside horror was a live-action Kiki's Delivery Service soon after those. He dutifully put himself in work-for-hire boxes, and eventually became out of sight, out of mind to the folks who had gotten into Japanese horror because of his movies.

Shock Labyrinth doesn't do anything to bust him out of those boxes, really. It's a familiar as heck story, with Ken (Yuya Yagira) returning to a place he lived as a kid to reunite with friends Motoko (Ryo Katsuji) and Rin (Ai Maeda), only to have someone crash the party - Yuki (Misako Renbutsu), who vanished ten years ago and gives the impression of having been institutionalized since. They try to contact Yuki's parents, but only find her little sister Miyu (Erina Mizuno), who was with them the day Yuki vanished ten years ago, when they tried to explore the shuttered mental institution next to a popular theme park. When Yuki collapses, the directions to the nearest hospital bring them back full-circle.

It's a J-horror first act that feels kind of rushed and sloppy, doing the bare minimum before putting its young group in a position where they can make even worse decisions, with things feeling rather threadbare, like the shooting schedule for this material is short so there's not a lot of time to refine performances and character, while the crew is looking for easy set-ups to knock things out fast on the way to the trickier material. It's capable enough - much of the cast had the talent to go on to have fairly successful careers, and Shimizu has always been good about wringing as much as he could out of fairly little.

And when he gets to the hospital/park? Shminizu knows what he's doing there, milking both dark passages and garish feel like there's something lurking around the corner. Shimizu and cinematographer Tsukasa Tanabe seem to be having fun with the 3D camera rigs, finding clever angles and uses for the depth along with the sheer fun of dropping down the center of a spiral staircase, having something jump out at the audience, or float uncannily in the middle distance. Writer Diasuke Hosaka gives Shimizu the sort of ouroboros of a screenplay that he had done well in Ju-on: The Grudge 2, and it holds together pretty well.

Like a lot of one-hit wonders, Shimizu was maybe never quite so great again as they were that one time, but he was still the guy who could make Ju-on and has occasionally made a fair movie since.

So, nice to fill in some gaps from filmmakers I've generally liked, and it tightens things up a bit:

Mookie: 46 ¼ stars
Bruce: 54 ¼ stars

Next up: If you're reading to see who wins, not gonna lie, round 15 is huge.

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