Review: Song Without a Name

This Peruvian black-and-white film, directed by Melina Leon, who also wrote it with Michael J. White, feels schematically predictable on paper. It presents the all too common tragedy of an indigenous woman who is cheated by a nameless, criminal entity that represents contemporary capitalism — ruthless exploitation by any other name. And though the visual production is meant to evoke a feeling of timelessness, the plot exerts a strong sense of the year in which it is set, 1988. 

Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) sells potatoes on the streets of Lima, though she lives in a shack on the edge of town, thus compelling her and her husband to walk a long distance with their wares, even though she is visibly pregnant. One day she hears over a radio loudspeaker an offer for free prenatal care, and checks it out. A van takes her to a clinic in a different part of the city, where she is given a health check and told to come back when she thinks she is going into labor. She does, but after delivering her baby she is placed in another room and told that her child had some complications and was taken to a hospital. She objects and is turned away. When she returns later, the clinic has vanished, and the police say they know nothing about it.

At this point, which is early in the film, the viewer already sees the degradation that Georgina lives with, and while her despair is heart-rending, it also feels eerily familiar, which has something to do with the viewer’s expectation for such a movie, meaning the viewer’s expectations when thinking about a woman like Georgina. But then Leon throws in a ringer: Pedro (Tommy Parraga), a journalist who listens to Georgina’s tale when his colleagues won’t and sees not only a story that needs to be told, but a means of making his own life meaningful. Pedro is a closeted gay man who has recently, reluctantly embarked on a love affair with an artist. At first, however, he tries to convince a colleague to cover Georgina’s tale, since Pedro himself is in the middle of an investigative report about a paramilitary death squad. The viewer’s interest then goes beyond the usual lurid fixation with the lot of the poor. The possibility of a thriller pulls us in.

But that isn’t Leon’s game, though the investigation does proceed at a certain pace. Leon is too honest a storyteller to sensationalize the story beyond its power to make us angry and sad. Both Georgina and Pedro have lives to live, even as their minds are occupied with the investigation, and as Pedro’s romance stumbles along in an atmosphere of fear and self-doubt, Georgina still does whatever she needs just to survive. The effect is both disorienting and terribly depressing. Most of us can’t handle the genuine drama of quotidian life as an outsider. 

In Spanish and Quechua. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

Song Without a Name home page in Japanese

photo (c) Luxbox-Cancion Sin Nombre

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Review: Inside (uncut)

Not particularly a fan of horror movies, I was nonetheless curious about this rerelease of an infamous 2007 slasher flick that has since become identified as a prime example of the so-called new wave of French horror, which tends to intensify the disgust factor by combining graphic bodily injury with extreme emotional distress, usually through the narrative use of torture. The local distributor has promoted this new release as the “uncut” complete version without really explaining what makes it different from the original one. The movie is about a pregnant woman being stalked by another woman who apparently wants the child for herself, and according to an internet search the original version had shots of the fetus inside its mother’s uterus reacting to the mayhem going on outside the mother’s body, and the directors, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, didn’t know about these inclusions until they saw the finished product at the premiere. Apparently, they were pissed off at the producers for interfering and demanded they be removed, so I am assuming this uncut version is actually that original version, since it does include shots of the fetus.

Obviously, placing a child—nay, an unborn child—in harm’s way will make the bloody action even more off-putting, but, for me, at least, there’s a tipping point to horror after which every bit of extreme carnage simply feels redundant. The thing about Inside is that it delays this point for a long time, so much of the first half of the film (a very efficient 83 minutes) is compelling dramatically; which isn’t to say it’s suspenseful. Maury and Bustillo dispense with the hackneyed jump scares and musical jolt cues and concentrate on an accretion of plot elements that explain the motive of the murderous, unnamed stalker (Beatrice Dalle) in a satisfying way, meaning it’s not much of mystery. Her victim, Sarah (Alysson Paradis), lost her husband several months earlier in a traffic accident in which she herself was injured, but both she and her baby survived. The action takes place on the night before she plans to have her delivery induced, and she is alone when the stalker invades her house armed with a pair of scissors. 

The simpler the horror premise, the more effective the movie, but you need more than just a woman with scissors chasing a pregnant woman around her Paris apartment to create ongoing excitement for a feature length film, so Maury and Bustillo inject a subplot about riots going on in the neighborhood which allow them to place a fair number of policemen in harm’s way, not to mention Sarah’s mother and employer, who drop by to check on her, understandably anxious that she is spending such a fraught night alone. (She has still not recovered from her husband’s death, another important facet to the story.) Suffice to say that once the blood-letting does start, it gets pretty gross, but at about the time when a prisoner of the police, begging for his life, gets the scissors-through-the-skull treatment I had reached my own tipping point. You can probably guess the ending. “Uncut” is definitely not the operative word here. 

In French. Opens today in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Inside home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2007 La Fabrique de Films BR Films

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Review: In the Heights

So much has happened in the world that could affect the basic premise of the musical In the Heights between its Broadway stage beginnings in 2008 and its cinematic manifestation last year that it’s impossible not to ponder them while watching the movie. The most direct influence was the extraordinary success of Hamilton, another Broadway musical by composer and original lead actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, who provides a clever cameo in the film. Miranda’s work explores how people of color with mixed backgrounds navigate the promises of America, and in that regard In the Heights is more approachable since it’s contemporary. In fact, the movie version seems to be taking place around now, though that other big change, Trumpism, is barely mentioned. Still, anyone who enters a movie theater right now to bask in the film’s infectious score and general atmosphere of cross-cultural solidarity can’t help but think of the actual world outside the theater and just how realistic the characters’ hopes and dreams are. 

The “heights” refers to Washington Heights, the uptown Manhattan neighborhood that has been home to a large Latin community — both immigrant and native born — for decades, and its theme is one that Jane Jacobs would approve of and could use as an illustration of her urban studies theories: neighborhoods are the bedrock of a city, not only in terms of cultural viability but economic resilience as well. As with the play, the movie charts half a dozen storylines that only occasionally cross, thus freeing Miranda and writer Quiara Alegria Hudes from the burden of trying to make some kind of grand statement. Each story has its own statement, and keeping them intimate and simple is the key to their power. The character who holds it all together is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the owner of a bodega that’s smack in the middle of the Heights, thus not only giving him a vantage point from which to observe the various plot vectors, but the film a central location from which to launch many of its big production numbers. The long opening song, which is meant to put across the notion that living in the Heights means living with music constantly, is first reflected in the window of Usnavi’s bodega, as the morning crowd spontaneously morphs into a dancing, singing community. Even the inanimate objects join in the symphony. 

If the stories themselves aren’t as striking as the songs that explicate them, it’s mainly because all are presented as familiar threads in the American fabric: the woman who quits Stanford because she feels out of place in a white person’s world; her father’s angry disappointment at her not fulfilling his dream of her making it in the white person’s world; the hair stylist who wants to move downtown and become a fashion designer; the undocumented immigrant who works to secure permanent residency; the elderly abuela who endured the abuse of white employers for decades and dreams of her native Cuba. Even Usnavi’s story, which involves his saving enough money to move back to Dominica to fix up a bar once owned by his parents, means looking beyond the Heights for something else when, in fact, everything they have that is worth having is right there. Though these themes seeemed corny to me when I saw the stage musical years ago, right now they make much more sense as diversity is being challenged as a cultural goal by the powers that be, and not only in the U.S. As for the controversy surrounding the film and which Miranda has addressed, as a white person I’m not sure how to talk about whether the actors chosen are themselves diverse enough to carry these themes accurately. But director Jon M. Chu knows how to balance the drama with the music and the comedy, which itself provides welcome diversity to the musical film genre: rock, hip-hop, salsa, and the usual American musical theater bombast. It works exceedingly well in that you leave the theater exhilirated and, I would like to think, enlightened. 

Opens July 30 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Piccadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Wald (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

In the Heights home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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Media Mix, July 24, 2021

Satoyama area

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about some of the root causes of the killer mudslide that hit Atami on July 3. As Shukan Asahi pointed out, this sort of disaster is bound to happen again, and not just because climate change is intensifying rainfall. Japan doesn’t really have an effective forest management policy, and even if it did, there doesn’t seem to be enough trained people to carry it out. Traditionally, the concept known as “satoyama,” wherein rural areas, mainly surrounding farmland, were kept tidy by residents, helped forests thrive, but since World War II, during which so much of the archipelago’s trees were cut down for the war effort and then replanted with fast-growing cedar, the forests have mostly fallen into disrepair. Now that wood for construction is commanding a good price, lots of timber companies are cutting down trees, but many are doing it illegally, which isn’t difficult. Part of the forest management problem is that ownership of forested land isn’t clear. Property owners are supposed to maintain their forests by cleaning out undergrowth and removing dead trees, but, as with so much land in Japan, many have died over the years and their heirs have neglected the properties. Timber companies take advantage of this by going into a remote forests and clear cutting, often without anybody knowing about it, but they can only clear cut in areas that have some kind of road access, so sometimes they get found out by local residents. I remember once reading about loggers getting caught in the act and then pretending that they made a mistake, that they were on the wrong tract of land and then just disappeared. Since no one could find the owner of the land, nothing was done, and this seems to be a big part of the problem. Before the government can devise effective forest management regulations it has to be able to enforce them, and if it can’t find land owners then it can’t do anything, unless it wants to just take over the land. Given how hesitant Japan is when it comes to eminent domain, I doubt that will happen. Though rain is what causes mudslides, in a way it’s good that Japan is a wet country. Clear-cutting is bad for watersheds and leads to more landslides, but overgrown, unmaintained forests tend to catch fire more easily in dry weather. 

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Review: Plan A

Having been pleasantly surprised by the 2018 German-Israeli co-production The Cakemaker, I was looking forward to Plan A, another German-Israeli co-production. The Cakemaker had explored the still difficult relationship between the two countries but on an intimate scale and in modern-day Israel. Plan A, however, is a historical film that gets to the heart of that difficult relationship by recreating, at least in part, a true story related to the Holocaust: Following the liberation of the camps in 1945, a group of survivors work together secretly on a scheme to poison the Berlin water supply as an act of revenge. Not much of this story is presented in an intimate fashion, and in the end, while the movie, directed by brothers Doron and Yoav Paz, is competent and often quite suspenseful, the shifting moral certitudes among the characters becomes something of a chore: Will they or won’t they? gives way to a nagging sense that it’s very doubtful that it all went down in this way.

For one thing, the movie is almost all in English, thus giving the whole production the quality of a fantasy. It opens with a voiceover challenge: “Just imagine that your entire family was murdered,” the idea being that the viewer must put themselves in the position of many of these conspirators, who feel justified in killing as much of the civilian population of Berlin in retaliation for what the Germans did to the Jews, even though many of the victims will not be Germans but also members of allied forces and even other surviving Jews. This caveat will be repeated throughout the action that unfolds to diminishing effect, mainly because the focus is on action for action’s sake, though obviously the filmmakers want to say something about the nature of revenge. That their message is confused and muddled may indicate that too many people with too many conflicting ideas were involved.

In addition to the plotters, there is a contingent of Jews who are dedicated to the idea of relocating to Palestine, where fighting is already under way between underground Zionist factions and non-Jewish residents, and for a while the contrast and conflict between these two groups is compelling, but the exposition is stiff and anecdotal, and you lose sight of the larger historical context. It becomes a drama about individual character, but except for the protagonist (August Diehl), a Jewish civil engineer who, in the chaos after surrender, has been given access to the city’s water works, the characters themselves are so simplistic that they never come through as people, only figures to put across the plot and the themes, some of which—could the Jews have done more to resist their extermination; how could any Jew trust the West to let them have their own country?—are worth discussing. And in the end, the practical argument against the plot—that if they indiscriminately kill civilians, the West won’t give them Israel—ends up overshadowing the moral argument against it. In truth, if the movie were a complete fiction, it might at least stand on its own as entertainment, but it keeps reminding us that Israel came into being and was thus the best revenge possible. That’s not how history works. 

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

Plan A home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Getaway Pictures GmbH & Jooyaa Film GmbH, UCM United Channels Movies, Phiphen Pictures, cine plus, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Sky, Arte

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Review: Last and First Men

The late Icelandic film composer Johann Johannsson amassed an admirably ecelctic body of soundtrack work that ranged from Hollywood potboilers to pure art cinema, and the posthumously released Last and First Men is the only film he directed. The score is impressive, but while watching the film the music isn’t the thing you pay attention to. Overall, this 70-minute movie is even more minimalist in design than his music, which normally combines orchestral compositions with electronic filigree and loops. In that regard, one can see Johannsson’s sensibility more clearly here, since, like his music, the visual and verbal elements are hybridized. The theme, in fact, has already been noted as perhaps a variation on the ideas presented in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, for which Johannsson wrote the score. But it’s very, very different.

The clinically precise narration, in English, is taken directly from a book of the same name by early 20th century philosopher Olaf Stapledon, which comprises a message to 20th century civilization from 200 million years into the future by a generation of humanity that is facing annihilation due to the self-implosion of the sun. Reportedly, the book, published in 1930, inspired Arthur C. Clarke to write the short story that was eventually adapted as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but its apocalyptic pronouncements are stripped of all sentimentality. In fact, thanks to Tilda Swinton’s clinically precise voiceover, it is sometimes difficult to follow the musings on 2 billion years of human endeavor that these future beings try to elucidate. It’s been said that many filmmakers have pondered a movie version of the book, and you can see why they gave up. 

But that doesn’t seem to be Johannsson’s purpose anyway. His visuals are mostly static black-and-whit images of brutalist monuments that are meant to illustrate the way humanity has attempted to leave its mark on eternity. In truth, the sculptures were commissioned by the post-communist Yugoslavian leader Tito. They are scattered throughout Eastern Europe as an affront to socialist realism, abstract in the most hackneyed way in that they represent nothing except their unnaturalness in natural settings. (Harper’s magazine recently ran an article about how these monuments have become very popular tourist attractions, though it has nothing to do with this movie.) The program notes suggest Johannsson was always fascinated by mankind’s striving for utopia, and the visual, narrative, and musical elements do combine to render a kind of horrible, material millennialism, except that there is no religious component. Stapledon, supposedly, was so traumatized by the cruelty of the first half of the 20th century that all he could think about was the far future, and this film certainly feels like an attempt to come to grips with a mindset that can only be imagined. Film may not be the ideal medium for the “work” (apparently, it is supposed to be peformed in concert form with live musicians and a narrator), but even as an experiment it is scary and haunting. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Last and First Men home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Zik Zak Filmworks/Johann Johannsson

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Media Mix, July 17, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the media’s, and the authorities’, attitude toward public protest. Generally speaking, the police see their job as maintaining order rather than safeguarding free speech, so the inconsistency that I describe is perhaps best explained in that way. It’s not so much that the police themselves have a political agenda, though some very well may. As it happens, the art exhibition cited in the column did take place starting this weekend in Osaka, though only for three days, and reportedly the organizers received several messages from people opposed to the exhibition that implied they might attack the venue and its visitors. Unlike some organizers of this and similar events, the one in Osaka did not cancel the exhibition for safety reasons, and the police presumably were on hand to make sure nothing terrible happened. In this case, the police could be seen as defending the organizer’s free speech rights, but mainly they were just keeping order. 

The right to free speech seems to be determined by circumstances. The president of the distribution company cited in the column says the right wing groups that tried to shut down his movie by parking outside the theater and blasting complaints were violating his right to free speech. Meanwhile, the police were on hand to make sure that the right wing group didn’t go beyond loudspeakers in their protests, so in a way you could say they were protecting the right wing group’s right to free speech. Are they both correct? Are they both wrong? It’s not an easy question to answer, but given that the right wing group’s purpose was to disrupt the theater’s business, you could say they were breaking the law, since there is a law in Japan against interfering with a person or group’s right to carry out business. And it doesn’t even have to be a commercial enterprise. Several weeks ago I wrote about the entomologist in Okinawa who was raided by the police for leaving trash outside the gate of a U.S. military installation in protest. The police said she broke the law by interfering with the installation’s business. So why do the police normally allow sound trucks to park outside of addresses of people or groups they disagree with and blast insults and music in a bid to disrupt their activities? That would seem to be against the letter of the law. My guess is not that the police are safeguarding those groups’ right to free speech, but rather that they are bending the law in order to avoid worse trouble, meaning violence. In any case, such tactics by right wing groups would seem to violate some kind of ordinance to limit loud noises, but maybe not. During political campaigns everyone has to put up with sound trucks circulating through their neighborhoods blasting the names of candidates. Defending free speech or the right to carry out one’s business without interference doesn’t seem to be the point. The point seems to be to tolerate bad behavior in order to avoid something worse.

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Review: Jallikattu

Though India has always flourished as a prime source of original films, most of the world still only thinks of Bollywood. In fact, there are myriad subdivisions of Indian cinema depending on region and language that have achieved their own industry-level importance and which are finally being exposed to the rest of the world. Jallikattu is the seventh feature by director Lijo Jose Pellissery, whose work is predominantly done in the Malayalam language and set in the state of Kerala. Though his films cover a wide range of genres, they almost always contain violence in a way that not only provides a visceral thrill but comments on the basic primitive nature of man, and by “man” he means male human beings.

Jallikattu may not necessarily be his most characteristic work, but given the reception it received at the Toronto International Film Festival, it is certainly his most well-known outside of India. Unabashedly an action film, Jallikattu (the word describes a local sport involving bull-riding) almost demands a certain amount of knowledge of the cultural mores of the milieu in which it is set for the movie to make sense even as a thriller, but it’s so relentlessly forward-moving that the viewer gets caught up in the kinetic energy and basically absorbs Pellissery’s notion of how male violence intensifies under a specific set of circumstances. The action is set off by a bull that is being prepared for slaughter by a village butcher. The bull escapes into the jungle and reports from outside the village soon indicate that the bull is destroying crops and even structures. The men of the village decide to hunt the bull in order to capture or kill it, which sets off a series of competitive rivalries that, on the surface, represent macho posing but reveal deep-set antagonisms related to class and position within the village. 

The men thus become the thing they are hunting, i.e., single-minded beings whose frustrations feed on themselves, turning them all into raging beasts. The action of chasing the bull as it rampages through homes and markets, destroying everything in its path, is mirrored by a dozen subplots showing how the men of the village destroy the lives of their women with their unchecked privilege, poison the well of community with selfish ambition, and generally have no control over their emotions because everything to them is a game for power. It gets to the point where the hunters’ zeal in capturing the bull is channeled into destroying those for whom they have always harbored resentments. 

Along the way, the uneducated viewer realizes some interesting things if they hadn’t known them already: that butchering cattle is illegal here and done in the shadows (it’s why the police won’t get involved in the hunt); that alcohol is as much of a social scourge in this nominally religious community as it is anywhere else; that arranged marriage is a tool of the patriarchy. But even with the pointed social critiques, the operative concept here is action, and the movie never lets up in its incessant rush to an apocalyptic climax that is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. 

In Malayalam. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum, Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Jallikattu home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Jallikattu

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Review: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Regardless of the moral or religious arguments wielded by pro-life activists, there is one truth they cannot deny: Even if abortion is outlawed, pregnant women who don’t want to give birth will try to find ways to rid themselves of their fetuses. Eliza Hittman’s film takes that truth as its guiding premise and everything about it, from its clinical exploration of the abortion seeking process to the way the story makes the sexual dynamic for adolescents specific, focuses the viewer’s attention on the unwavering will behind the protagonist’s quest. In fact, the choice of setting the opening scene at a high school talent show with a 1950s theme might feel like a bad joke in any other movie, but in this one it immediately conveys the idea that matters haven’t really changed for American teenagers in fifty years. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) stands alone on stage with a guitar singing the 1963 hit “He Got the Power” while one boy in the audience yells “slut!” She sulks off the stage to desultory applause.

Things are not better at home. Autumn’s step-father (Ryan Eggold) complains about her depressive attitude, which her mother (Sharon Van Etten) picks up on but cannot fathom. Autumn eventually summons the wherewithal to go to the Planned Parenthood clinic in her small working class Pennsylvania town, where she discovers that she is, in fact, pregnant. Her decision to terminate the pregnancy is not discussed with anyone, nor does Hittman give any indication that Autumn mulls it over. It is a foregone conclusion, and after a disturbing instance of attempted self-harm she starts looking for ways to get an abortion. In Pennsylvania, however, a minor must have the permission of a parent or guardian, and Autumn is loath to tell anyone of her predicament. The only person she can confide in is her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), with whom she works part-time at a supermarket where the manager makes sexually suggestive comments as a matter of course. Because of Autumn’s singular determination, Skylar offers to go with her to New York, where it is assumed an abortion is easy to obtain, and after the pair raid the cash register they hop a bus.

Though some will label Never Rarely Sometimes Always (the title refers to the multiple choice questionnaire that abortion patients must fill out regarding their sexual histories) a road movie, it also has that surreal quality of a memory of an overwhelming experience that happened so long ago. To say that neither Autumn nor Skylar is prepared for not only New York but the tribulations involved in getting a difficult medical procedure with insufficient funds and knowledge is a vast understatement. Hittman’s presentation of Autumn’s doggedness in pursuit of her goal is so single-minded as to be scary in and of itself, despite the fact that the people they meet are, for the most part, good. Even the college kid (Theodore Pellerin) who hits on Skylar on the bus and whom they later hit up in turn for help to survive their night in the city and get back home is sincere in his sympathy, even if he demands some kind of sexual gratification in return. Never Rarely Sometimes Always has an extremely simple premise, but its complications in terms of social themes and emotional resonance are too numerous to catalogue. By laying out that incontrovertible truth about the abortion question, the movie actually transcends it. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Cine Quinto Shibuya (03-3477-5905).

Never Rarely Sometimes Always home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Focus Features LLC

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Review: Better Days

Now that China has effectively exercised its mandate over Hong Kong and all that entails in terms of freedoms for the former British territory, it remains to be seen how independent of party influence the city’s famously independent film industry will remain. Derek Tsang’s Better Days is being touted as a kind of test case. Though a typical Asian youth drama, it was pulled from the schedule of the Berlin Film Festival in 2019 by Chinese authorities, which later cancelled its theatrical release, though the movie finally opened in theaters at the end of the year. These factors probably had something to do with its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film; that and the notion that, a year after Parasite won big, the Academy probably thinks it has to recognize at least one Asian film a year from now on (Minari didn’t really count). Generally speaking, the movie’s buzz is more intriguing that the movie itself.

Apparently, what pissed off the Chinese censors was Tsang’s portrayal of school bullying, which is pretty brutal, as well as the national university entrance text process, which comes off as slightly less distressing than a season in hell. These are hardly original subjects, especially in Asian coming-of-age films, but now that China has its hooks in Hong Kong the authorities probably think it’s best to get people prepared for lowered ambitions. In any case, the story is based on a novel set in 2011 and focused on a student named Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu), who, like everybody else, is cramming miserably for the exam. When her study mate commits suicide, the police center their investigation on Chen, who knows that her friend was being bullied by a clique of girls. These girls now redirect their malevolence toward her in order to keep her quiet. 

One night while trying to evade her tormentors, Chen happens upon small-time hood Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee), who is himself being beaten up by his betters. When she tries to intervene the thugs humiliate her, but the incident gives her common cause with Xiao. At school, the bullying escalates to physical violence and threats against Chen’s family owing to the fact that, in order to corner the “queen bee” bully, the police lie and tell her that Chen has already fingered her as the dead girl’s tormentor. The bullies are suspended and, naturally, come after Chen one night with box cutters and a cage full of rats. She seeks sanctuary with Xiao and asks him to be her protector until she takes the exam, and from then on he shadows her wherever she goes. They become close, and one night while being questioned by police, Chen is attacked by the bullies who beat her mercilessly and cut off her hair.

Tsang’s command of tone is impressive, and he juggles the various story lines adeptly until the thriller plot points that drive the second half shove the film into a mire of implausibility whose excuse is that it is meant to be heartbreaking. As with most youth movies of its ilk, the romance is chaste and the sins of the fathers (and mothers) explain everything about the mess that these young people now have to navigate, though Tsang doesn’t hold anything back in his condemnation of societal rot. It’s not clear what kind of future he has in such an environment, but he’s already mastered the art of stylish youthful melodrama.

In Cantonese. Opens July 16 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).

Better Days home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Shooting Pictures Ltd., China (Shenzhen) Wit Media Co., Ltd., Tianjin XIRON Entertainment Co., Ltd., We Pictures Ltd., Kashi J.Q. Culture and Media Company Limited, The Alliance of Gods Pictures (Tianjin) Co., Ltd., Shanghai Alibaba Pictures Co., Ltd., Tianjin Maoyan Weying Media Co., Ltd., Lianray Pictures, Local Entertainment, Yunyan Pictures, Beijing Jin Yi Jia Yi Film Distribution Co., Ltd., Dadi Century (Beijing) Co., Ltd., Zhejiang Hengdian Films Co., Ltd., Fat Kids Production, Goodfellas Pictures Limited

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