Review: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

A book review that appeared in Harper’s about a year ago analyzed the movies of Nicolas Cage as a kind of literary exercise, and while the critic who tackled this assignment was careful to keep his tongue firmly in cheek he didn’t say anything about this particular movie, in which Cage plays himself as a figure of derision. The movie almost does a better job of placing Cage’s unusual career in context, but not quite. My understanding has always been that Cage does so many movies because he has so many debts, but according to The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Cage can’t help but overextend himself because his ego won’t let him stop. In the opening scenes, “Nick” Cage is trying to secure the lead in a movie by the director David Gordon Green (playing himself, presumably) that he anticipates will be a comeback of sorts, though his therapist wonders what he’s coming back from, since he seems to be working all the time. Here, Cage and the film’s writer-director, Tom Gormican, are clearly sending up Cage’s career in schlock, since he’s hoping to regain the artistic cachet he enjoyed in the 1990s. In any case, Cage overplays his hand by pestering Green to no end, all the while talking to himself via split personality that reveals his total lack of confidence, an observation that’s reinforced by his agent Richard’s (Neil Patrick Harris) total indifference.

Upon losing out on the part, Cage vows to quit acting but takes one last desperate job for a million bucks to appear at a birthday party for a billionaire Spanish fan, Javi (Pedro Pascal), who, unbeknownst to Cage, is associated with a European drug cartel that may have kidnapped the daughter of a politician. When Cage shows up for the gig, the CIA, who is watching Javi, recruits Cage to be a mole. But as it turns out, Javi isn’t the evil drug baron most people might expect; he’s actually at the beck-and-call of his family, who are evil, and just wants to write a kick-ass action flick. That’s why he invited Cage, to see if he can sell his screenplay in Hollywood. The two get on like gangbusters.

So what promised to be a Hollywood satire poking fun at one of the most unusual careers a bona fide movie star has ever enjoyed essentially turns into the kind of low-rent, direct-to-video potboiler that Cage is often accused of stooping to star in. And while those who really like Cage for his characteristic OTT performances will appreciate the way “Nick” Cage does Liam Neeson better than Liam Neeson (there’s even a fictional wife and daughter who are placed in peril), the movie is short on laughs and suspense. The Harper’s article was way more exciting. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6258-0015), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Lions Gate Entertainment Inc.

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Media watch: Consumers will be paying for Tepco’s mistakes forever

On March 22, the Fukuoka District Court dismissed a lawsuit brought against the government by a regional electrical power company that claimed a surcharge added to all electricity bills nationwide to pay compensation to victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in March 2011 is illegal. According to the Asahi Shimbun, the judge in the case ruled that compensation for the disaster should be “borne fairly by all electricity consumers.” The plaintiffs, Green Co-op Denki, a subsidiary of a Kyushu-based food cooperative that sells non-nuclear electrical power to co-op members in 16 prefectures, objected to the surcharge, which it is required to add to its electrical bills, by saying that it had been implemented via an order issued by the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry (METI) without Diet deliberation. The judge said that the order was “based on the opinions of experts and discussions in the Diet.” The plaintiff’s attorney rejected this opinion, saying that the judge was merely parroting the government’s claims. “The fact that anything can be allowed through a ministerial order without revising the law” contradicts the principles of parliamentary democracy, the attorney said. “I can’t accept that.”

However, the issue goes deeper, as outlined in earlier Asahi articles, and addresses the way the government allows former regional power monopolies to do whatever they want in order to retain their exclusive grip on the grid. 

Green Co-op launched its electricity business in 2016, 5 years after the Fukushima disaster, for the purpose of providing its 420,000 members with electricity that doesn’t use any nuclear power sources. Subscribers understand exactly where their electricity is coming from. However, Green Co-op has to use existing transmission lines to deliver their electricity, and those lines are owned and controlled by the former regional power monopolies, in their case, Kyushu Electric Power, which adds a fee to every electric bill, regardless of the service provider, called takusoryokin, or residential transmission fee. When Green Co-op examined this fee more closely they discovered that it incorporated a surcharge permitted by METI in 2017 and implemented in 2020 that is used to pay for compensating the victims of the Fukushima disaster. 

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Review: Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile

Though I was the age that would have been the target at the time for the first of Bernard Waber’s series of children’s books about a singing crocodile that appeared in 1962, this live-action/CGI musical version is my first encounter with the story, which may account for my skeptical impression. Aside from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s original songs, which are mostly sung by pop idol Shawn Mendes, the concept comes across as too simplistic for a big-budget film. In fact, while Lyle the crocodile is the center of attention, the fact that he doesn’t express himself in speech, only song, limits him as a compelling personality. You really do imagine the other actors reacting to mute, green-clad body doubles as they perform.

The cast is certainly game. Javier Bardem is creepily chipper as the anachronistic stage performer and impresario, Hector Valenti, who, down on his luck after his sleight-of-hand shtick is rejected, happens upon Lyle warbling in the back of an exotic animals shop in Manhattan. He purchases the lizard and raises him to sing popular songs in the hopes that he can make a fortune, but when he gets his chance, Lyle chokes from stage fright and Hector is forced to go on the road to make money, leaving Lyle alone in his attic apartment. Though the idea of abandoning what is now a full-grown crocodile in a New York City apartment alone for months at a time challenges whatever capacity you have to suspend disbelief for the sake of entertainment, the bewilderment is compounded by any knowledge you may possess of just how high rents are on W. 88th Street these days, and, yes, the movie is clear in its assertion that it takes place in the late 2010s. Bewilderment then reaches meltdown proportions when a math teacher (Scott McNairy) moves into the same apartment building with his family. Fortunately, his wife (Constance Wu) writes cookbooks for a living that must make a ton of money, because there is no way a public school teacher can afford such beautiful digs on the upper west side. Nevertheless, the couple’s misfit son, Josh (Winslow Fegley), accidentally discovers Lyle upstairs and an inter-species, but mostly one-sided, friendship ensues.

Lyle, of course, despite his heft and length and sharp teeth, is not a danger to anyone, but much forced fun is had by all as Josh and then other members of his family endeavor to shield Lyle from the authorities and, more immediately, the grumpy middle aged NIMBY guy (Brett Gelman) renting the basement apartment; that is, until Hector returns and uses his magical powers of persuasion to set things right and put Lyle back on the road to show biz stardom. Though the script occasionally lightens up with a transgressive idea—Lyle sustains himself not by devouring the city’s storied vermin but by means of late-night dumpster-diving excursions—it’s fairly pedestrian in its aim to provide wholesome family entertainment, though I can’t imagine any kid, no matter what age, preferring this to Spider-Man

In Japanese subtitled and dubbed versions. Opens March 24 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-50609, Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc.

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Review: Moonage Daydream

The curious thing about Brett Morgen’s massive documentary about David Bowie is the way he juxtaposes the self-regarding artistic magnificence of the Bowie brand with the effect it had on his audience. By no means a biography of the definitive rock star, Moonage Daydream attempts a self-examination of Bowie’s purposes and results using his own statements and examples of his art, and not just in the musical sense. Opening with a quote by Nietzche about what the death of God means, the film proceeds through a somewhat chronological survey of Bowie’s attitudes as they changed over time, and the only thing that really remained unchanged was his fans’ adoration, which comes across as Beatlemania for the more discerning teenager. Morgen, who was given unlimited access to the artist’s own vaults by his estate, revels in scenes of pubescent girls weeping at Bowie’s concerts and tough boys in primary hues and glitter making the usual rough noises about rawk-and-roll. Take away the context and you might think you’re watching a movie about the Bay City Rollers—or AC/DC.

But Morgen isn’t interested in this contrast beyond its novelty. He wants to convey the greatness of the man using the largest canvas he can pay for, and the IMAX presentation is not just a commercial gambit. The format is required to deliver the desired enormity of Bowie’s visual ideas, as well as the fidelity of sound as it’s matched with larger-than-life concert performances—some never made available before—that are truly impressive. Morgen has allowed himself all the time in the world, and the presentation of full songs, like the title cut and a particularly mind-bending version of “Heroes,” anchor the movie in a milieu that makes his case for Bowie being the extraterrestrial he always claimed to be. If you want to know about Angie’s role in his initial success or the cocaine addiction that dominated his life after he moved to the U.S., you’ll be disappointed. Most of the biographical stuff is only included to explain one or another philosophical juncture in his artistic development, and while sometimes these explanations are thrilling, as they are with regard to his Berlin phase, other times they feel gratuitous, as if Morgen found a particularly fascinating quote but was unable to convey to the screen the immediate impact it made on him. If the movie drags at the end it’s only because by the new century Bowie had mostly exhausted himself musically and was trying to pass himself off more resolutely as the ultimate millennial renaissance man. I’m not saying he wasn’t, but only that Morgen seems to be fishing for a way to convince us that he was. 

What Morgen mainly gets right is an overriding tone that captures Bowie’s talent for adapting to whatever trend he saw as being relevant to his purposes, using news clips, scenes from movies, original sci-fi animation, and a restless editing style that mimics Bowie’s thought processes. Obviously, prior knowledge of Bowie’s art will help the viewer better appreciate Morgen’s own achievement, but the movie’s psychedelic style has its own special universal appeal. Take drugs if you’ve got ’em. 

Opens March 24 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Shibya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Moonage Daydream home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Starman Productions, LLC

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“Mr. Sunshine” settles historical scores, whether it means to or not

Last week, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met with his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, to settle a wartime labor compensation dispute between his country and its former colonizer brought about by Koreans who say they or their forebears were forced to work for Japanese companies before and during World War II for little or no pay. These people sued Nippon Steel Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 3 separate cases, and in 2018 South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled in their favor, but the Japanese government instructed the companies not to pay, saying that the agreement signed between the two countries in 1965 settled the compensation matter for all time. The plaintiffs and their supporters, which at one time included the previous South Korean president Moon Jae-in, claim that this is a private matter not covered by the 1965 agreement, which was between governments. 

Yoon plans to set up a foundation that will compensate the plaintiffs. The Japanese government is very happy, since no Japanese entities are required to contribute to the fund, but the plaintiffs and their supporters are not, since the main reason for their suit was for the cited companies, and by extension Japan, to acknowledge their actions toward Korean workers under Japanese rule, since Korea was a Japanese colony at the time. General opinions in both countries differ accordingly. A recent survey found that 59 percent of Koreans do not approve of Yoon’s plan, while 57 percent of Japanese do. 

Yoon’s purpose is to normalize diplomatic relations (and please the U.S. government, which approves of the plan) by removing at least one of the historical obstacles to such normalization. As a member of the right-leaning People Power Party, Yoon wants to move forward in Korea’s relations to Japan, mainly for the benefit of trade, but he is also following a policy that Korean nationalists have advocated since the 1965 agreement, which is that Korea needs Japan to ward off its communist neighbor to the north. Many in Korea have always maintained that Japan should more fully acknowledge the brutality of its colonial rule from 1910-45, especially with regard to the suffering of specific groups, such as forced laborers and women pressed into sexual service at front-line brothels. Right wing elements, some of whose fathers and grandfathers fought and worked for the Japanese during the war, tend to see left-wing elements as being easily manipulated by North Korea, and, in fact, one of the planks of the nominally liberal-leaning Democratic Party of Korea is to reunify the peninsula. 

What commentators have noted about this contention is how it has not dissipated over the years, even though Korea achieved its independence in 1945 when Japan surrendered and since the late 80s has become an economic powerhouse in its own right. The position of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which has pretty much governed the country since the mid-1950s, is that Japan did nothing wrong in Korea; it certainly did nothing illegal, since the annexation treaty of 1910 that brought Korea under its control was considered internationally valid at the time. How that treaty came about and how it was enforced afterwards is something they don’t talk about. But the Koreans do. In fact, they don’t just talk about it. They dramatize it all the time.

I write about this now because I just finished watching all 24 episodes of the 2017 Korean historical drama series Mr. Sunshine on Netflix. Mr. Sunshine can be further categorized as a romantic melodrama, and while the main characters are all fictional, the background is the pre-colonial struggle within the kingdom of Joseon (Korea) against various foreign elements that, for all intents and purposes, invaded the peninsula to gain influence. Of these elements, which include Russia and the U.S., Japan is the most aggressive, and the series depicts this aggression in the most dramatic ways. (China, which used to control Joseon as a tributary, doesn’t get mentioned much in the series except as a sanctuary for rebel movements.)

I’ve never been a fan of Asian historical dramas, be they Korean, Chinese, or Japanese, and while Mr. Sunshine contains all of the genre’s requisite attributes, I found its focus on how Joseon came under Japanese rule compelling. As it turns out, while the series was immensely popular when it was first aired on the Korean cable channel nTV, it was criticized for the way it presented its Japanese characters, which to some was too lenient and to others too harsh. I confess to bewilderment regarding the former charge, since almost all the Japanese characters are villainous in a cartoonish way, practically twirling their mustaches (they all have mustaches) in glee as they subjugate the natives while comparing them to the lowest forms of life. As someone who watches a lot of Korean cinema, I found this depiction both amusing and surprising. In most Korean films that take place during the colonial era, the Japanese overlords tend to come across as oppressive but also cold and distant. It is their Korean factotums who tend to be despicable, since they are betraying their birthright for the benefit of their conqueror. Mr. Sunshine does away with this nicety. The Japanese are evil and sadistic.

But while this depiction may seem unnecessarily harsh from a historical perspective, it conveys an inescapable truth. Almost all the major events in the story are based on acknowledged facts. It is the emotional component that’s exaggerated, because it has to align with the dramatic contingencies of the Korean romantic melodrama, which calls for epic suffering on the part of all the sympathetic characters, in particular the lovers at the center of the tale. 

In this case they are two people whose love is doomed from the get-go. Choi Yu-jin (Lee Byung-hun) is the son of slaves whose parents are killed by their nobleman master after his mother resists being given to another nobleman for sexual recreation. Yu-jin, still a young child, escapes death himself and is taken in by an American missionary who brings him to New York and raises him as his own son, renaming him Eugene. The boy grows up and joins the marines, becoming a war hero during the Spanish-American War. He is promoted to captain and later assigned to the American legation in Hanseong (present-day Seoul), where he intends to exact revenge on the family who murdered his parents. In the meantime, he continually crosses paths with Lady Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri), a member of another noble family whose own parents were killed by a treacherous compatriot in an underground patriotic movement to fight against foreign intruders. Ae-shin, with the quiet approval of her grandfather, a mentor to the Joseon king, has become an expert marksman and anti-foreigner sniper. 

The dynamic of the love story is irresistible: the former slave vs. the woman of high birth; the repatriated citizen of an interloping foreign country vs. the single-minded protector of the homeland. Through love, the two eventually find a common ideological goal that seems inevitable in the final analysis, but it relies—again, dramatically—on there being a common enemy, and that’s Japan in this case.

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Review: The Gospel According to Andre

It would have been interesting to see what kind of documentary The Gospel According to Andre would have turned into had it been delayed several years until after the death in January 2022 of its subject, famed fashion journalist Andre Leon Talley. The movie was originally released in 2018, and principle filming seems to have been concluded early in 2017. Having Talley’s untimely death as a natural ending to the movie would have made it not only more biographically definitive, but might have prompted its director, Kate Novack, to question the original tack of the narrative, which hints at darker matters but mostly sticks to a conventionally hagiographic approach. For sure, within the rarefied world of high fashion, Talley was something of a revolutionary, but he was also a tragic figure, an aspect that Novack mentions without actually interrogating. Only a year before he died, Talley was also the subject of a long New York Times article about his failing finances in the context of the false facade of luxury that high fashion has to maintain in order to be taken seriously.

Talley’s newsworthiness is unimpeachable: He was a tall, imposing black man, son of a Southern sharecropper and raised by his grandmother in the church, who succeeded in New York’s fashion world on his own terms and, in doing so, changed the way glossy publications like Vogue, for which he was once the creative director, addressed racial and sexual minorities that had previously been overlooked, even if both had been direct influences on fashion for years. Certainly the best parts of the film are those in which Talley himself, dressed in one of his signature mantels or gowns, speaks of this world in terms and tones both sardonic and appreciative. But because he recognizes his stature in the industry and what it gained by “allowing him in,” he’s justifiably bitter at how things turned out. Due to artistic disagreements that he characterizes as being political within Vogue in the late 90s, he left the magazine under a cloud (though remained on the masthead as an editor at large) and subsequently struggled with a freelance career and chronic health problems (the Times article deals with these struggles much more clearly than the movie does). Countless celebrity talking heads appear during the course of the movie praising Talley’s influence, including Vogue chief editor Anna Wintour, who seems to have been central to his downfall. Consequently, there’s a marked disconnect between the exuberance of the tribute and the sad place where Talley ended up that is not explained. 

I suppose if Novack had focused on Talley’s memories only and eschewed the solicited testimonies, the film would have been more satisfying, though probably no more complete. He himself probably wouldn’t have wanted much more exposure of his personal life, but Talley was too important a figure—and not just in the world of fashion—to fob off with an outline structure like this. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the big literary biography, which is a shame. As a personality alone, he was nothing if not made for the big screen.

Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).

The Gospel According to Andre home page in Japanese

photo (c) Rossvack Productions LLC 2017

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Review: Puss In Boots: The Last Wish/Official Competition

Self-aware and fairly shameless as a performer, Antonio Banderas has become that rarest of movie stars, the guy who finds joy in every role he takes without necessarily finding artistic fulfillment. It’s not so much that he’s happy to get the work, but that work—any work—is what sustains him. Though it took him a while to make the leap from Almodovar’s resident hunk to Hollywood’s most reliable Spanish-speaking actor, he did it by making fun of his outsider status with the most ridiculous role of his career, the voice of Puss in Boots in the animated Shrek series, where his mellifluous Spanish accent perfectly conveyed the character’s absurd self-regard as an outlaw-cum-playboy-cum-superhero. This enthusiasm was rewarded with his own Puss franchise, of which The Last Wish is a sorely overdue sequel.

What made Puss superior to Shrek was its reliance on Banderas’s comic talents, which obviated the need for all those pop culture jokes that made Shrek so tiring. Once again, for Puss it’s all about Puss, and in the brilliant opening musical number, the wily feline is basically on tour selling his Robin Hood shtick. He even highjacks the mansion of the local governor for the “performance” before slaying a monster his shenanigans awakens, all the while singing a stupid song about how great he is. That is until he gets too cocky and is actually killed. No worry, he’s a cat, and cats have nine lives, but as the undertaker informs him, he’s already used up eight, so he’s on his last.

The realization that he’s mortal sobers Puss up, and in the movie’s funniest sequence he gives up the swashbuckling life to become a mere housecat in the home of a sterotypical cat lady, where he has to share the litter box with all the other former strays. He even grows an old man beard out of self-pitying neglect. He makes the acquaintance of an over-eager chihuahua posing as a cat, and when he hears of a magic Wishing Star that might grant him more lives, he and the dog light out to find it and along the way reacquaints with his old flame and rival, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault).

As has become the norm for almost all CG animated films of the last two decades, the pace is brutally fast and the jokes nonstop, and while most of the latter hit their marks, what makes The Last Wish more enjoyable than most of its ilk is the quality of the action sequences, which are presented in a different visual tone, more like anime, in fact. And the action has consequences, as Puss has to compete with Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her family of three criminal-minded, British-accented bears (Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, Samson Kayo), not to mention the patently evil “Big” Jack Horner (whose self-esteem issues stem from him being the spawn of a nursery rhyme rather than a fairy tale) and the figure of Death in the form of a Big Bad Wolf. And while the story falls victim to the same misguided urge to utilize the multiverse as every other superhero movie these days, it does so with a certain measure of comic aplomb. With Banderas as game as ever, it can’t help but be entertaining. 

Banderas more directly derides his image in the Spanish film Official Competition, which isn’t as funny as Puss but given the aims of its directors, Mariano Cohn and Andres Duprat, that’s because the humor is built into the situation itself. An incredibly rich business mogul (Jose Luis Gomez), upon reaching his 80th birthday, decides he has to leave something meaningful to posterity (which, whatever his business entails, wouldn’t, apparently) and hits on making a “great movie” that will live forever. Knowing nothing about movies, however, he purchases the rights to a door-stopper by a Nobel-prize winner and hires the art house director Lola Cuevas (Penelope Cruz) to adapt it. The story is about a tragic rivalry between two brothers, and Lola decides to goose the subtext by hiring the stuck-up Hollywood star Felix Rivero (Banderas) and the consummate stage thespian Ivan Torres (Oscar Martinez) to play the two brothers in the hope that their natural competitiveness and mutual resentment toward each other’s professional approach will imbue the film with tension. 

Though Banderas is perfect as an egomaniacal strutter, it’s Cruz who walks away with the movie. Lola is the kind of self-important auteur who really believes you have to suffer for art, just as long as it isn’t the auteur who suffers. She puts her two actors through some pretty humiliating exercises to get the reactions she wants, all the while flaunting her challenging intellect, which is hilariously telegraphed by her fashion sense: a huge, unruly hairstyle and a new designer ensemble every day that is sillier than the previous one. Eventually, however, her artificially rendered “competition” gets away from her and turns deadly, but by that point the viewer has adapted to the film’s black humor rhythms. Though it beats its one good idea to death, the movie says more interesting (i.e., funnier) things about the clash between art and commerce than you can shake Puss’s sword at.

Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, in Japanese subtitled and dubbed versions, now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Official Competition, in Spanish, now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish home page in Japanese

Official Competition home page in Japanese

Puss in Boots photo (c) 2022 Dreamworks Animation LLC

Official Competition photo (c) 2021 Mediaproduccion S.L.U., Prom TV S.A.U.

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Review: Yokai no Mago

The title of this new Japanese documentary translates as “Grandchild of the Monster,” with “monster” referring to the late Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister from 1957 to 1960 and often called the “monster of the Showa Era.” The term does not necessarily connote a malevolent being (though many do consider him such) but rather someone whose influence was so prevalent as to be overpowering. After all, he masterminded the industrial development of the puppet state of Manchuria and was imprisoned by the American occupation forces as a war criminal, only to be released because of his value to U.S. Cold War aims in Japan. The subject of the documentary, the late Shinzo Abe, was Kishi’s grandson on Abe’s mother’s side. 

At first the purposes of director Taketo Uchiyama, whose previous doc was about former prime minister Yoshihide Suga, seem to be to analogize Abe’s rise to Kishi’s, but he theorizes that Abe, who became the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, saw his grandfather as more of a rival than a hero to be emulated. Abe’s father, Shintaro, was a powerful politician himself who had no time to attend to his son, and, for that matter, neither did his mother, whose job was to support her husband in his political endeavors. Shinzo was basically raised in Tokyo by a nanny, far from his father’s constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Abe was a poor student and self-centered, so when he did have contact with his mother, she was invariably critical of his attitude, especially toward school. One biographer thinks Shinzo’s hurt feelings metastasized into a determination to outdo his mother’s father in the political realm by accomplishing those things that Kishi couldn’t, in particular revising the postwar Constitution. 

Consequently, Abe’s political career was fueled by personal resentment, and while he is identified with certain policies, his whole public outlook was geared toward electability and little else. More than one interviewee comments that Abe was not a deep thinker and likely didn’t even understand his policies, but that was OK. Topics were chosen for how easily they could be understood by the public, and if the public found them boring, all the better since low voter turnout was one of the Liberal Democratic Party’s most effective schemes. Much is made of Abe’s hatred of the media and his campaign of initimidation, a charge he laughed off. But the proof is in the pudding: Abe never really had very much public support, so his staying power was simply a matter of keeping the opposition off-balance and not confusing those who did vote. When he finally did leave the PM’s office, the people were sufficiently sick of him, notwithstanding all the subsequent fuss kicked up by his state funeral. 

In that regard, the movie doesn’t have anything new to add, though it does spend an inordinate amount of time on an alleged deal that Abe made with underworld types in his Yamaguchi constituency to intimidate the rival of a local politician he supported back in 2000. The fact that the matter got out of hand and ended up in court proved two things: Abe is clumsier than he seems (the Moritomo and sakura party affairs reveal the same thing), and that he has an uncanny ability to shrug off scandal and get other people to take the fall for him. That ability in and of itself has a monstrous quality to it.

In Japanese. Opens March 17 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).

Yokai no Mago home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2023 Yokai no Mago Seisaku Iinkai

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Review: The Son

Though I thought the movie was better than others did, I agree that Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance as the titular character in Florian Zeller’s The Father lifted it higher than it probably deserved. Hopkins also appears briefly in Zeller’s new movie, The Son, as the grandfather, a domineering monster who is the farthest thing from the sensitive, dementia-addled protagonist of Zeller’s debut feature. In a sense, Hopkins’ participation reminds us that the French playwright is generally held in high esteem for interrogating the foibles of the upper middle class nuclear family, and like The Father his new movie transplants his original play from a French milieu to an Anglophone one (with the help of Christopher Hampton). The Son, however, takes place in New York and centers not on Nicholas (Zen McGrath), the son in question, but rather on his father, Peter (Hugh Jackman), a successful corporate lawyer who is about to enter Washington politics big time.

Peter is the kind of hotshot whom people often describe as having too much on their plate, and it’s implied this self-imposed busyness has damaged Nicholas without Peter really knowing it, because he hasn’t been around the teenager that much since he divorced his mother, Kate (Laura Dern). Peter now has a much younger wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and a new baby, so when Kate calls him up saying that Nicholas has been a chronic truant, he reacts more put-out than concerned. Still, he knows what’s expected of him and expresses a gratuitous sense of guilt-cum-responsibility by promising to talk to the boy and straighten everything out. Nicholas, who the audience has already been primed to understand suffers from clinical depression, demands that Peter and Beth take him in, not so much out of resentment toward Kate, but out of a desperate need for change that he thinks his father might provide. What Peter soon comes to learn, however, is that this desperation is mainly motivated by Nicholas’s feeling of being abandoned.

Unlike with The Father, Zeller develops The Son in a conventionally straight line, and as Peter comes to understand the depth of Nicholas’s emotional problems he is forced to improvise in ways that don’t suit his temperament. The boy’s instability only worsens, and by the time he ends up in the hospital and a psychiatrist is seriously recommending he be institutionalized, Peter has run the gauntlet of paternal readjustment gimmicks, including an attempt at tough love that fails disastrously. Though the script is coherent and sensitive and Jackman’s performance insightful enough to convey Peter’s drawbacks as a parent without making him into the horror show his own father (Hopkins) so obviously was, The Son is a pure downer without anything edifying to say about mental illness. Regardless of whether it’s due to nurture or nature, the movie implies that kids like Nicholas are doomed from the start. 

Opens March 17 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Son home page in Japanese

photo (c) The Son Films Limited and Channel Four Television Corporation 2022

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Director Shin Su-won discusses “Hommage”

Here is the transcript of my email conversation with South Korean director Shin Su-won, whose latest film, Hommage, opens today in Tokyo and throughout Japan. My article about the movie, which portrays a director, not unlike Shin herself, struggling to restore one of the first films ever made in South Korea by a woman director, appeared last week in The Japan Times. Thanks to J.D. Kim.

Lee Jeong-eun and Tang Joon-sang in “Hommage”

Hommage is based on a documentary you made. Did you have to investigate Hong Eun-won’s career, just like Ji-wan in the movie? 

I first learned about director Hong Eun-won, who worked in the 1960s, when I created the MBC TV documentary Yeoja-manse (Woman with a camera) in 2011. I thought only male directors existed during that period, so I was shocked to learn about her. Moreover, why hadn’t I known about her at all? Why had she been forgotten? I tried to imbue Hommage with those emotions. Hong Eun-won had already long passed when I started shooting the documentary, so I interviewed her daughter, friends, and collaborators. I also met an elderly person who used to work in real estate around Myeongdong while doing my research. I was surprised that she remembered her well. That whole experience helped immensely in writing the script. 

What parts of Ji-wan’s career and home situation were based on your own life? 

Ji-wan’s and my everyday experiences are somewhat similar but vastly different in other ways. In the film, Ji-wan has directed three features but Hommage is my sixth. I specifically gave Ji-wan three films under her belt because Hong Eun-won closed out her career after creating three films. Ji-wan’s son, Boram, and husband also differ [from my family] in terms of vocations and personalities. To be honest, when I quit my job as a teacher and first started directing, there were some conflicts surrounding the responsibilities of household management and child rearing. But nowadays, unlike in the film, my family divides the chores amongst themselves when I’m filming or working overseas. Everyone has their own chores to take care of at home as well. 

I included my experience of these past conflicts in the film. Most working mothers have to come home from work and look after the home and the children, effectively working full time twice over. I wanted to show their everyday plight through Ji-wan. 

I was impressed by the scenes about Ji-wan’s health problems. Why did you include these scenes? 

First and foremost, I wanted to portray Ji-wan’s fear of ‘fading away.’ 

All the people Ji-wan meets as she chases Hong Eun-won’s shadow have grown old. They are all figures who in their youth created films with a burning passion but have now faded from our memory with age and time. 

As Ji-wan meets the editor who doesn’t even remember the word ‘film,’ or the elderly actor with dementia who can’t remember ever working with Hong Eun-won, she’s faced with a sense of fear that though she’s relatively young now, she’ll grow old and no longer be able to create films anymore. To highlight that fear, I made Ji-wan 49 going on 50, around the time women experience physical changes from menopause. 

The second reason is to show her departure from womanhood. 

The uterus is not only the source of birth but is the organ that distinguishes a woman’s biological sex. While men continue to pursue their careers after marriage, many women give up their dreams and quit their jobs after having children in order to raise them and manage the household, because they have uteruses. 

The first thing Ji-wan says to her husband after her hysterectomy is “Hey, brother.” This is said as a joke, but it also contains the underlying idea, ‘I’m your equal now, like a brother.’ Essentially, it notes that she’s been freed from gender based on her societal obligations as a woman. 

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