Review: Girls of the Sun

Though horrific in intent, this French film about a battalion of Kurdish women fighting against the Islamic State in Iraqi Kurdistan avoids scenes of overt violence and goes rather light on the gore. It’s both a relief and a cop-out, since what’s left of Eva Husson’s movie is mostly suffering for the sake of suffering.

The commander of the battalion is Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani), a former lawyer from a fairly well-to-do Yazidi family with a husband and a young son. Their village is invaded by IS troops, who summarily execute all the men, including Bahar’s husband, commandeer the children for military mobilization, and imprison the women as sex slaves. Husson structures Girls of the Sun as a chronicle of a specific mission to take back a Kurdish town from IS insterpersed with flashbacks showing how Bahar was militarized. As a kind of Greek chorus, we have the French journalist Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot), who, with her borderline PTSD and eyepatch is obviously meant to remind us of Marie Colvin, who was killed covering Homs, which Mathilde has just left when she is embedded in Bahar’s battalion. The two women bond over their equivalent losses (Mathilde’s journalist husband was killed in Libya) but mostly they stew in their own fear and uncertainty. It’s an oddly inert film. Even the battle scenes feel like interruptions rather than means of showing these women’s determination to avenge their loved ones and affirm their faith. It’s not really a problem that the IS soldiers are portrayed as soulless monsters—they barely register as human beings—but the women who serve under Bahar are difficult to distinguish from one another; that is, until one shockingly runs to her death on purpose in order to take out a bunker.

Obviously, Husson does not want to exploit these women’s experiences for shocks and visceral thrills, but she doesn’t have a lot to work with except Bahar’s determination to find her son, who is presumably fighting for the IS now. That should be compelling enough a reason to stay involved with the film, but even that aspect seems outside Husson’s concern. In trying to let these women tell their own tale, she loses the story.

In Kurdish, French and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Cine Swich Ginza (03-3561-0707).

Girls of the Sun home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Maneki Films-Wild Bunch-ARches Films-Gapbusters-20 Steps Productions-RTBF (Television belge)

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Media Mix, Jan. 20, 2019

Rendering of the proposed nuclear power plant on Anglesey Island, Wales

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about remarks made by Hitachi’s chairman, Hiroaki Nakanishi, about the future of nuclear energy in Japan, and the world, for that matter. As pointed out at the beginning of the column, Nakanishi made the remarks mainly as the chairman of Keidanren, Japan’s main business lobby, though it was obvious that he was answering a specific question as the head of one of Japan’s biggest nuclear plant providers, or “vendors,” as he put it. The gist of his remarks was that the government needs to do more to make nuclear energy commercially viable, since it’s national policy, despite the fact that Hitachi itself was about to pull out of a big nuclear project in the UK due to the insurmountable costs involved. In a sense, the difficulty in getting assistance guarantees from the UK government for the project aligns with Hitachi’s annoyance with the Japanese government for not being able to convince the public that nuclear is the way to go. The central government has done little work to persuade the citizenry that nuclear is fine. Its safety plans since the Fukushima meltdown have been rather half-hearted, and accepted as such by people who currently live near nuclear plants, most of which remain offline. Obviously, the government doesn’t need the people’s “permission,” but it nevertheless seems sensitive to criticism, which it would prefer to ignore. Nakanishi may simply be giving lip service to the presumed will of the people with his remark that public opinion needs to be swayed, but he has that luxury as someone whose direct stake in the matter is not dependent on public opinion.

Hitachi’s concerns are completely of the financial sort. It is leaving the Anglesey Island nuclear reactor project in Wales because costs are too high, but despite the promise of some 9,000 jobs that would have been generated by the plant construction, local support wasn’t necessarily forthcoming and might have added more obstacles in terms of lawsuits and court costs. For one thing, the island is a bird sanctuary, and plant construction would have necessitated extensive landfill work. Much of the industry in the area is in agriculture, and reportedly farmers were united in their opposition to the plant. But even in terms of economics, the rationale for the plant has changed since Hitachi first became involved around 15 years ago. Originally, the UK’s energy policy was to increase its nuclear output from 9 gigawatts to 16 gigawatts by 2030, but since 2005 electricity consumption has decreased significantly and will continue to do so. At the same time, the cost of buying electricity from renewable sources has also decreased significantly, to about 57 pounds per megawatt/hour. In order for Hitachi to make money from the plant it’s building, the price of the electricity it sells would have to be at least 92 pounds per megawatt/hour. In addition, the UK’s committee on climate change says that the country can reach its CO2 reduction goals with the nuke plants it already has. It should be pointed out that Hitachi never really wanted to operate the plant it’s building, but was forced to do so since it couldn’t find a third party operator. Now that operations have become irrational, Hitachi has decided it’s not worth building. So, yes, without government support, the nuke business isn’t a business. The question remains: are the climate change advantages of nuclear beneficial enough for a government to completely subsidize it? In that regard, only socialist arrangements make nuclear power viable.

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Review: Rebel in the Rye

Whether couched in prose or celluloid, literary biographies are a dodgy enterprise, but prose at least has the luxury of length for people who are probably pre-disposed to sitting for long periods of time reading a book. Danny Strong’s rather precise film about the development of J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) into one of the most iconic American novelists of the 20th century isn’t really that long, but it feels over-stuffed with details that could have been conveyed in different, more economical ways. It’s likely that most people with any interest in Salinger know that he was a difficult artist, that editors had their hands full with a writer who knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish even if that vision didn’t jibe with conventional publishing wisdom at the time. However, they may not have known about his PTSD as a result of his service in WWII, his crush on Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona (Zoey Deutch), or his brief but seminal interest in Buddhism, and while Strong was right to explain these matters, he treats them as milestones on Salinger’s road to success and self-exile without distinguishing them in terms of relative impact.

If the movie works in any valuable way it’s in the way Strong weaves Salinger’s difficult writing regimen into the fabric of the story. We see how Holden Caulfield developed not so much as a character in Salinger’s most famous work, but rather as a means for Salinger to process his disappointments with a life less ordinary. Though there’s a certain mechanical efficiency to Strong’s methodology—raging at arbitrary acts of authority or sexual frustration leads to feverish sessions at his writing desk—it does show how such a unique creation emerges from a need to make sense out of random experiences. Also instructive is the central inclusion of Whit Burnett (pre-scandal Keven Spacey, marvelously self-effacing), the writing teacher who had more to do with Salinger developing his voice simply because he made him suffer due to his own envy.

The problem is that Strong gets too close to Salinger: the inner monologues adapted from writings, the rather hackneyed psychological treatment of his relationship with his well-to-do parents, and, most especially, Hoult’s eternally brooding portrait, which doesn’t change meaningfully as he grows older and becomes a literary star. It’s easy to understand how a writer of such a peculiar sensibility would never be satisfied with success, but maturity has to count for something. In Rebel in the Rye it seems to have no effect on Salinger, either spiritually or physically. He’s still incredibly beautiful, and grouchy.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).

Rebel in the Rye home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2016 Rebel Movie, LLC

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Review: His Lost Name

The cautious tone and austere aesthetic of Nanako Hirose’s debut feature was what most likely got it placed in the New Currents section of the most recent Busan International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere. New Currents is the only section of the festival with a dedicated competition, and it’s limited to films that are the first or second feature of their respective directors. They are also limited to Asian films, and over the years a certain type of film has ended up in the section, and they tend to look and sound a lot like His Lost Name. They also tend to be more interesting or, at least, more exciting. The fact that this was the lone Japanese entrant in the category says more about Japanese indie films than it does about new Asian directors.

As everyone loves to point out, Hirose has apprenticed with Hirokazu Koreeda, and you can see Koreeda’s fondness for the offbeat family dynamic in Hirose’s script. Yuya Yagira plays a young man, Shinichi, who jumps into a river in rural Chiba. An older woodworker, Tetsuro (Kaoru Kobayashi), sees his body in the water while driving by and fishes him out. But the audience’s immediate concerns—why did Shinichi jump, mainly—are continually pushed to the side until they seem to have no bearing on either anything that goes on in the story or, for that matter, the movie itself. Tetsuro is not particularly interested, in fact, especially after he learns the young man’s name is Shinichi, which just happens to be the name of his son, who is no longer around. This coincidence is the movie’s lynchpin, and while Hirose doesn’t belabor the matter she also places too much faith in the notion that it will be enough for the viewer.

It becomes clear that Tetsuro sees Shinichi as the replacement of his blood heir, and all plot devices are set toward realization of a family in name only, and while there are suspicions among locals, in particular Tetsuro’s employees and creditors and the younger woman (Keiko Horiuchi) he plans to marry, all tend to feel that Tetsuro’s happiness is paramount and go along with the fairy tale—except, of course, Shinichi, whose dark past can’t be banished the way the original Shinichi’s guitar was locked away in its case. Eventually, the effort to be a son to a man who, despite his generosity and decency, can’t see past his own self-pity and guilt, becomes too much to bear.

The ambiguities at work might have made this a fine addition to the New Currents tradition, but Yagira’s performance is anything but ambiguous, or subtle. His painful reticence act becomes tiring and then just plain unbearable. It’s difficult to believe any of these characters would want to be in a room with him for more than a few minutes. People just don’t act this way, even those with terrible secrets.

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Uplink Shibuya (03-6825-5503).

His Lost Name home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Yoake Seisaku Iinkai

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Review: Creed II

As a gambit to legitimize the reboot of a franchise that should have been put to rest years ago, this sequel to the potently effective Creed works surprisingly well, but probably for the wrong reasons. Though it continues the story of fighter Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the early nemesis and then BFF of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who has made his own name as a professional boxer thanks to the ministrations of Rocky, it flatters moviegoers with long memories, since it basically revisits the original Rocky series’ most gaga installment, Rocky IV, in which Apollo Creed was killed in the ring by the Soviet-engineered bruiser Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who then had to fight Rocky in what everybody understood was a revenge match. In Creed II, Adonis, who has recently won the heavyweight title, is pretty much forced to fight Drago’s son, Viktor (Florian Munteau), to defend that title.

Though Ryan Coogler, who wrote and directed the first Creed, is installed in the credits as a producer, the sequel is directed by Steven Caple Jr. and written by Stallone and Juel Taylor, and as such it returns with shameless aplomb to the original Rocky style—long on elliptical montages, short on rich character development, ripe with feelings that aren’t earned. That said, Caple is the equal of Coogler when it comes to action set pieces, and the boxing segments are as brutally absorbing as they need to be. More to the point, Adonis’s relationship with his girlfriend, a singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson) with a genetic hearing problem, is fleshed out in ways that makes the romantic subplot so much more affecting than the Rocky-Adrian relationship in the original series. Moving into marriage and then fatherhood while his life is thrown for a loop due to celebrity, money, and the attendant need to prove himself as a symbol of modern American masculinity, Adonis approaches his new responsibilities with understandable trepidation, and Jordan and Thompson’s chemistry in this light is visceral to the point of painful. If Creed II succeeds as anything, it’s as a mature love story that doesn’t avoid the ugly truths.

But that isn’t what the movie is selling. It’s selling the legacy fight between Adonis and Viktor, who is trained by his father in the Ukraine for one purpose only, to seek vengeance on Rocky for Ivan’s own humiliating defeat years ago, which destroyed his marriage and made him an exile in his own country—even after the breakup of the Soviet Union. An opportunistic American promoter (Russell Hornsby) seeks out the Dragos, knowing it’s what they want, to propose a fight with the newly crowned Adonis. Rocky is against it for reasons that make sense only within the parameters of Rocky movies, but those reasons manifest unfortunately when Adonis is beaten badly and almost dies. Of course, there is going to be a rematch, and the movie is nothing if not honorably realistic about the time frame, but during the year of his recovery and rehabilitation there is plenty of time for babymaking and those montages, not to mention patching up Adonis’s relationship with Rocky, which was shattered with the loss.

Creed II thankfully avoids the jingoistic hyperbole of Rocky IV (which some saw as satire). The US-Russia relationship in the movie is strictly focused on Drago’s desire for payback, and the movie’s cleverest comeuppance in this regard is bringing back Brigitte Nielsen as Drago’s ex-wife (as well as Stallone’s) to taunt him as a loser in order to spur him to greater things. How Ukrainian this is, I’m not sure, and I certainly don’t think Ivan has much love to lose for the Russians in his corner. In a way, it’s a lost opportunity, since Drago is potentially the most interesting character in Creed II (Viktor, as played by the neophyte Munteau, is a lunkhead nonentity). Which is to say the movie has too many things going on for its own good. It could have been a contender. As it stands, it’s just another good boxing movie.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Toei (03-5467-5773), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Cinema Sunshine Ikebukuro (03-3982-6388), Toho Cinemas Ueno (050-6868-5066).

Creed II home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc.

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Review: The Looming Storm

Film noir is defined as much by atmosphere as by any other visual or narrative attribute. The first film by director Dong Yue, a noted cinematographer, is drenched in heavy weather per the title. Ostensibly a murder mystery, The Looming Storm tries to say many things about its milieu—a factory town that’s slowly dying—and how it affects people who have perhaps had their hopes elevated too high.

The story is set in 1997, the year Deng Xiaopeng died and Hong Kong reverted to Chinese authority. As part of these stunning changes a large factory complex in a rural burg is being gradually decommissioned. Yu (Duan Yihong), the security chief for the factory who tends to cruise through his job by catching (framing?) the occasional thieving employee, is anxious about his own position, but he tends to act as if there’s nothing to worry about. As the movie progresses ever downward, Yu’s fate becomes inextricably tied to the fortunes of the town.

The incident that launches his downfall is the gruesome murder of a woman, the fourth in a series that follows a creepy pattern. Naturally, the town’s police are on the case, and they question Yu about workers who might be suspects. Yu plays up his importance in the investigation in the hopes that sucking up to the right people and impressing them with his own police skills will get him a job with the constabulary, but his own gumshoe techniques turn out to be severely wanting, and it hardly helps that his closest assistant, Xiao (Zheng Wei), is as dumb as a doornail. His desperation leads him to a shadowy figure and a chase that, at first, feels gratuitous in terms of length and complexity, and when he fails to catch his quarry he decides to use a prostitute-cum-beautician (Jiang Yiyan) with whom he has struck up a listless romance as bait without her knowing it.

So far, The Looming Storm has all the required elements of a potent noir, and then the movie shifts gears, heading into territory as murky as the rain-drenched mise-en-scene. It becomes increasingly difficult to tell what’s real, what’s plausible, and what’s illusion. What started as an intriguing allegory about the beginning of the end of Chinese optimism ends up as yet another stylish, Lynchian descent into garbled fantasy. You’ll leave the movie feeling as gray as the landscape.

In Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).

The Looming Storm home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Century Fortune Pictures Corp. Ltd.

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Media Mix, Jan. 6, 2019

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about right-wing internet trolls. In the introductory paragraphs I described journalist Koichi Yasuda’s comparison of classic rightists with the newer, anonymous internet type. Yasuda tends to think that classic rightists have more integrity than internet rightists because they at least have a patriotic agenda that they understand and stick to. Classic rightists would have protested American forces in Japan, because they want Japan to beef up its own defense by itself, but internet rightists support American bases simply because they’re opposed by Okinawans and “liberals.”

Yasuda also says that classic rightists would never denigrate Koreans and other “marginal” types, mainly because they consider themselves fringe-dwellers, but that seems to be a debatable point. Counter-racism activist Yasumichi Noma, also referenced in the column and Yasuda’s discussion partner on the web program No Hate TV, had said that classic rightists tend to be bigots even if they don’t always manifest their bigotry in their speech. In truth, classic right wing organizations contained many members who were ethnic Koreans, chiefly because those organization gave them a chance to belong to something, even if it was a group that often targeted foreign elements as undermining the purity of Japanese society. (For similar reasons, ethnic Koreans can often be found in yakuza organizations) The point is that Yasuda’s theory about the difference between classic right wingers and internet rightists isn’t quite so clear cut. In the end, they both hate anyone who’s to the left of them, so they still have a lot in common.

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