Review: The Princess

Twenty-five years after she perished in a car crash while fleeing paparazzi in Paris, Princess Diana’s overstuffed legacy hardly needs another cinematic boost (that biopic with Kristen Stewart opens in Japan next month), but this HBO documentary does a pretty convincing job of bringing the media—and with it, the general populace—to task for destroying the woman with too much tough love. Assembled by Ed Perkins completely from available footage and unencumbered by voiceover narration and talking head comments, the movie is as pure a distillation of poisoned public image as we’re likely to see, and that’s simply because no other person in the history of celebrity culture has been as doggedly covered as Diana Spencer. 

Though Perkins generally adheres to the chronology, he opens with her death, which conveniently gets that out of the way, thus allowing the viewer to absorb the wildly divergent tone and import of the images as they come. He wisely chooses footage that also plays up the environment in which Diana rose as a public figure, especially the economic doldrums of Britain in the 80s and how her youth and seeming iconoclasm was so appealing to a public that was tired of the dourness of everyday life as embodied by Buckingham Palace. He also focuses on her privilege and how it informed that seeming lack of artfulness in her dealings with both the House of Windsor and the attendant press. Much is made of the 12 year age gap with her husband, who, inevitably perhaps, comes off badly, though the portrait is more sympathetic than it is in The Crown. If anything, the future king seems more like someone who simply received bad advice and was even worse as gauging the media’s propensities than Diana was. Even after marriage, he was winkingly, approvingly portrayed by the press as still reveling in a bachelor’s life, thus pointing up the obvious inherent sexism in the coverage. Invariably, Diana’s disillusionment, first in her marriage, then in her “position,” was conveyed as being “willful” and ungrateful. 

It wasn’t until after the divorce and the revelation that Charles had been continually unfaithful that the public’s sympathy fell on her side, but even here, Jenkins managed to bring in recordings that reveal the media’s real agenda, which was totally exploitative. If they championed Diana’s charity work and progressive mindset, it was all a means to an end, which was to ridicule the monarchy in contrast in order to boost their bottom lines. Throughout The Princess we keep hearing about the “damage” she caused to the royal family, and, for sure, the royals really bring that damage upon themselves, but the media plays it up in such a way as to put more pressure on Diana than she’s capable of withstanding. She died not so much because the press wouldn’t leave her alone, but because by that point there was absolutely nothing and no one left to protect her, including her so-called loyal public. 

Opens Sept. 30 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264). 

The Princess home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 DFD Films Limited/Kent Gavin

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Media watch: The orphans who made it to Japan

Some Japanese people abandoned in China and their children

We rarely have anything positive to say about the late Shinzo Abe, but with his state funeral happening tomorrow we wanted to point out at least one good thing he did. This year marks the 50th anniversary of normalized relations between Japan and the People’s Republic of China. One result was the repatriation of Japanese people who had been left behind in China at the end of World War II. Almost all were children at the time. Some were even infants. They were raised as Chinese by Chinese people, but many knew they were Japanese by birth and desired to reclaim their ancestry and nationality. However, it took a long time, and some, it is assumed, have never been able to “return” to Japan and probably never will, considering how old they would be.

According to an article in the Sept. 19 Asahi Shimbun, after Japan surrendered in the summer of 1945, many Japanese who were on the Asian continent struggled to make it back to the Japan and were reluctant to bring their children because of the hardship and danger involved, so they left them with Chinese people, usually peasants. The Japanese government officially deemed such children 12 years old and younger as being Japanese “orphans,” while for some reason girls 13 and older were considered to have “decided to stay of their own volition,” perhaps because many of them were married off to older Chinese men. Over the years, the health ministry says that about 2,500 orphans have been repatriated, but of the women who supposedly stayed of their own accord, more than 4,000 have returned to Japan to live.

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Review: The Dry

The awkward title of this mystery, based on a best-selling novel, describes a small town in rural Australia that has been suffering through a drought for some time. The intent seems to be to prepare an environment of discomfort and depression into which the story is then injected, and to an extent it works. The town is an unpleasant place, but the reasons go further than the climate. The movie opens with a catastrophe: a woman and her son have been murdered in their home, with the presumed killer, the woman’s husband, dead by his own hand, or so it seems. A big city cop named Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) returns to the town, where he grew up, for the funeral, but reluctantly. Falk himself was marginally involved in the death of a female friend when he was a teenager, and some in the town still think he had something to do with the death. When the presumed killer’s parents ask Falk to hang around and try to prove their son’s innocence, he obliges but with serious reservations.

Though the mystery itself is competently developed, the aforementioned atmospheric details add so much dead weight to the action that following the story becomes something of a chore. Falk reconnects with an old girlfriend whose utility to the plot is not clear, and as the requisite red herrings pile up Falk becomes more aggressively determined in his investigation, despite or perhaps because of the general air of hostility he encounters at every turn for leaving the town long ago without resolving whatever role he played in the death of his childhood friend. His sudden departure meant he must have been guilty of something. And while these varying, often conflicting dynamics add to the drama, they aren’t marshaled in a way that makes the core mystery satisfying. Falk’s mean-spirited detective work comes off as a means of addressing these obstacles but it’s hard to follow his logic toward any viable solution. As a result, The Dry, true to its title, offers no suspense or, for that matter, cumulative excitement. It’s inert, like the dusty air that hangs over everything in the town.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).

The Dry home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 The Dry Film Holdings Pty Ltd and Screen Australia

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Review: The Monopoly of Violence/Babi Yar. Context

For those of us who don’t live in France or, for that matter, the EU, the so-called Yellow Vest Movement, in which mostly working people and far-left and far-right elements opposed to Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal policies clashed violently with police during large-scale street demonstrations, was a typically French phenomenon. There always seems to be demonstrations taking place in Paris, as if France were a nation of preternaturally aggrieved citizens. Most likely this conclusion is born of lack of fundamental knowledge of the French situation, but, in any case, it points to the supposition that French people are at least engaged, if not necessarily in politics then in the everyday struggle to make those in power understand how much pain that power can exact on them. Journalist David Dufresne’s assembled footage documentary about the movement focuses on the main product of this struggle, violence, and whether it is the state that determines how and when that violence is applied. 

All the video in the movie was recorded digitally by demonstrators, media, or police (mostly through bodycams), and Dufresne prompts discussion of their content among the people who participated and scholars whose job it is to interpret such images. Many are so violent as to be unsuitable for mainstream broadcast, and much of this violence is perpetrated by the police, though there are shots of demonstrators getting their licks in, so to speak. Dufresne, however, isn’t interested in trying to be even-handed. It’s obvious from both the English title of the movie (the original French title translates to something like “a well-behaved country”) and the bulk of the commentary that the authorities in any society have the upper hand because they can wield violence more readily than the citizens can. What mainly interests him is how violence is a function of emotional overreaction, and whether the state can use that to its advantage. When the police, after the fact, defend their actions they often seem to be ignoring the proof of their viciousness that’s right in front of our eyes. In one potent scene a large group of young Arab men are being made to kneel painfully for hours, seemingly because it pleases the police who have subdued them. After a while, the constant battering of demonstrators’ heads and bodies becomes numbing, which may be a point: the police themselves are so used to it they don’t think of it as “violence” any more.

The commentary is illustrative without always being coherent, but it is consistent in the way it frames the violence as being inevitable given the varieties of social imbalance. Some scholars mention that the state can only hold power with the consent of the majority, but that theory doesn’t properly take into consideration the present media environment, where proof of the brutality of authority is available everywhere. Ironically, a subtext of the movie is that the cops themselves feel they are the victims, because their actions are always on display. One even tells Dufresne that he can’t do his job properly because of the fear that someone might be nearby recording him with their phone. It’s as if he were saying that citizens are depriving him of his right to a monopoly on violence. 

Violence was the overt point of the Nazi regime’s hold on authority, and Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary about the massacre at Babi Yar in the Ukraine, where more than 33,000 Jews were murdered en masse in 1941, attempts to place the atrocity in its historical context by accessing only contemporaneous films and photos and then post-dubbing ambient audio to give the images more presence. The opening title cards claim that Loznitsa wants to plumb the “meaning” of the massacre, which sounds odd at first, since the Nazis already had decided on the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population. But the footage and the commentary he digs up attests to the concept that the Jews were convenient scapegoats for almost anyone, not just Germans under the sway of Hitler. Ukraine, after all, was a Soviet state, and Jews, as a minority, were caught between the communist authorities and the aggrieved non-Jewish locals. When the Germans move in and take control, they have little trouble assembling a Ukrainian militia to do their bidding, which is to suppress the Soviet presence. The Jews are accused of collaborating with the Soviet secret police in acts of sabotage, and are summarily rounded up and transported to the titular ravine, just outside of Kyiv, where they are shot and buried. However, other Jews are simply told to show up at designated locations where they are then taken to be killed. The monopoly of violence here is absolute. The Germans instigate the atrocity, but they carry it out with the help of Ukrainians, who likely imagine they have no choice. POWs, communist functionaries, Ukrainian nationalists, and Roma were also executed.

Loznitsa’s context necessarily includes plenty of footage detailing the horrors of the Nazi occupation, whose corollary purpose was to normalize the dehumanization of Jewish people. However, a quarter of the documentary takes place after the war, when the Soviets round up all the Germans they can get their hands on and put them on trial. In this section we hear testimony, from both Germans on trial and civilian Ukrainians who witnessed their actions, and then see the Germans publicly hanged, their bodies twitching under overcast skies surrounded by hundreds of spectators. For the most part, nobody during the trial says the word “Jew.” All the victims are conveniently nameless. But it’s the final image of the film that really adds the context, especially given what’s happening in Ukraine right now (the movie was completed and originally released in 2021): Babi Yar ravine, still holding bodies, became a receptacle for industrial waste in 1952. 

The Monopoly of Violence, in French, is now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

The Monopoly of Violence home page in Japanese

photo (c) Le Bureau-Jour2Fete-2020

Babi Yar. Context, in Russian and German with English intertitles, is now playing in Tokyo at Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Babi Yar. Context home page in Japanese

photo (c) Atoms & Void

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Review: Lamb

Though it does contain a cosmic joke that’s shockingly funny if not particularly original, Icelandic director Valdimar Johannsson’s Lamb seems stuck for most of its running time in narrative limbo. Atmospherically creepy and purposely bizarre, its milieu is nevertheless so steeped in everyday tedium that the movie can’t muster the power necessary for either horror or black comedy. Part of the problem may be that Johannsson sets the story up with such visual assurance. Lamb is set on an isolated farm in a large meadow surrounded by majestic snow-capped mountains that are often shrouded in mist, an environment that accentuates the sullen demeanor of the central couple, Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), who go about their chores with a quiet determination that seems to hide a deeper misery.

Most of their attention is focused on sheep, which Johannsson depicts in such a way as to bring out any nuance of expression on the animals’ part. The dark portent that the script requires to sell its central joke is generated by the normal human-animal relationship you see on a working farm. Maria and Ingvar show no particular affection for their four-legged charges—until lambing season when one ewe discharges a female that leaves the couple blinking in disbelief, the first time in the film they’ve manifested any raw emotion. 

Maria and Ingvar endeavor to raise this lamb as their own daughter, and it’s suggested several times that the animal is a surrogate for a child that was lost. Cut off from anything resembling human society, they can do this without raising eyebrows, since there are no eyebrows to raise; that is, until Ingvar’s brother, Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson), shows up unexpectedly. At first, Petur, a former addict and general misbegotten soul (nobody calls him a “black sheep,” but that seems to be the message), finds the lamb’s position in the household disturbing, but in a sudden and very disconcerting change of heart, he decides she’s adorable and becomes a kind of doting uncle, which frees his brother and sister-in-law to spend more time for themselves. Then Petur spoils the vibe by making moves on Maria, with whom he obviously had a relationship in the past. 

Lamb never quite gets back on track after this detour, which seems both unnecessary and dramatically destablizing. The portentous elements continue to accummulate, but they become less portentous as the viewer navigates this inter-familial subplot. It’s definitely a lost opportunity. The couple’s affection for their lamb-child contrasts starkly with their disregard for the welfare of the other sheep, in particular Maria’s resentment of the ewe that gave birth to Ada, which is what they name the lamb. It’s a theme I expected Johannsson to explore more fully, but he’s so distracted with other matters that by the time he gets back to it you’ve lost the plot. 

In Icelandic. Now playing in Tokyo at Marunouchi Piccadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Lamb home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Go To Sheep, Black Spark Film&TV, Madants, Film I Vast, Chimney, Rabbit Hole, Alicja Grawon-Jaksik, Helgi Johannsson

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Review: Petite Maman

Serious movies that focus on the lives, particularly the inner lives, of children make me suspicious; or, at least, mildly uncomfortable. The assumption of innocence allows filmmakers to exploit feelings in the viewer that might be more problematic were the characters adults. Celine Sciamma’s third feature has such a quality, and there’s almost a winking acknowledgement that she’s going to use this exploitative facility to her dramatic advantage. But the story and direction are so deeply involved in a particular child’s inner life that the viewer doesn’t have much of a chance to observe the action from a remove. You either enter this world fully or remain outside, baffled.

Everything we see and hear is from the 8-year-old standpoint of Nelly (Josephine Sanz), who is first seen walking through a nursing home in rural France saying goodbye to the female residents. It’s a politeness that becomes somewhat chilling when we realize that Nelly is there because her grandmother, another resident, has just died. Not unsurprisingly, her mother (Nina Meurisse), is heartbroken and uncommunicative, and Nelly allows her her grief, even if she doesn’t fully understand it. And yet we also feel her need to comfort her mother in any way she can, and this effort makes a vital impression in the sense that we can tap into our own childhood memories as a means of empathy. 

Nelly, her mother, and her father (Stephane Varupenne) repair to her grandmother’s house in the woods, where Nelly’s mother grew up, to pack up her things. The next day, the mother is gone, and her father tells Nelly, “She’s not coming back.” Of course, he means she’s not coming back to this house, and the adult part of our brain, conditioned by storytelling devices, immediately understands that she is too bereft to remain in a house with that many memories; but the part of our brain that has appropriate Nelly’s sensibility thinks: Maybe she’s never coming back. At this point, the movie takes a daring leap, with Nelly entertaining a fantasy about her mother that is both easy to comprehend and yet very specific to Nelly’s circumstances. It’s not just that Nelly invents an imaginary friend (Gabrielle Sanz) who is essentially her mother at her age, but that Sciamma doesn’t frame it as a fantasy. Nelly passes back and forth between the world of her imagination and so-called reality without any change in temporal or spatial quality, and seems to fully understand what is going on. Her father, who for some reason she doesn’t seem to know very well (he has to ask her permission to smoke), suddenly becomes her only human link to her present reality, and in her sudden need to be close to her mother and, more vitally, understand her and her grief, uses what she knows about her (the illness she shared with her own mother, her desire at one point to become an actress) to build a relationship that she can use in her mother’s absence, meaning as a friend and not a parent. 

And as children do, Nelly and her new companion communicate through play, which is presented in a disarmingly private manner. Sciamma doesn’t explain away Nelly’s behavior. She instead uses her loneliness to explicate how a universal human condition, the need to understand where we come from, affects our emotional development. 

In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).

Petite Maman home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Lilies Film/France 3 Cinema

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“Pachinko,” Korean heritage, and sidestepping the real Japan

Last spring I saw Korean-Japanese filmmaker Yang Yonghi’s latest documentary, Soup and Ideology, at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. During the post-screening Q&A, Yang expressed frustration over her belief that Japan has not really produced any great films about the Korean experience in Japan. Of course, there have been movies made in Japan by Japanese and Korean directors that depict this experience at a certain level, and all her movies, which include one narrative fiction work, are about the Korean experience in Japan, specifically her family’s, but she was talking about something larger, more sweeping, and mentioned Pachinko, the international bestseller by Korean-American novelist Min Jin Lee, which, at the time of the press conference, had just begun streaming as an 8-part TV series adaptation on Apple TV+. The bulk of the plot takes place in Japan among the resident Korean community, commonly known as zainichi, but since it is a South Korean-Canadian co-production, apparently much of it was not filmed in Japan, though the credits do include many Japanese names. Yang’s point, however, is not that Japan should have been more involved in the making of Pachinko, but that Japan, by now, should have produced something as monumental as Pachinko on its own. After all, the novel and the series are worldwide hits, meaning not only that the subject matter has a broad appeal, but that the readers and viewers who enjoyed the story now have a particular image of Japan as it was conveyed by Lee. Though the image is not a flattering one, I don’t think that was Yang’s concern. Her implication was that the Korean experience in Japan is central to Japan’s history and even its identity, and that leaving that story for others to tell is a lost opportunity. Of course, it’s also easy to infer from Yang’s tone that she herself would have loved to tackle something as wide-ranging as Pachinko since she herself is a Korean-Japanese filmmaker, but she has addressed that theme in all her work and likely knows she could never raise the kind of money or interest in Japan necessary for such a production, because that’s the way the industry—and, by implication, the culture—works. 

I recently finished watching the first season and came away thinking that it did, in fact, miss something essential about Japan. I did not read the novel, and from what I gather the scenarists changed some things and added some others, though the basic multi-generational plot about an extended family of Koreans who originally came to Japan in the 1920s and 1930s is the same. Initially, I had little interest in the series simply because multi-generational family epics are not my thing, especially as TV series, but my partner, who did read the novel in Japanese translation, wanted me to watch it so that we could discuss it. 

Her reasons are practical. Masako’s father was Korean, though she didn’t know he was until after he died when she was just 8. At that age she had no real concept of Korea. Her mother was not married to her father. She had been employed by him as a housekeeper. He was a widower with two teenage sons who was often on the road for work. By the time Masako was born her mother was living in his house full-time. Her father was much older than her mother, who rarely talked about him after he died of cancer shortly before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Over the next turbulent year or so, Masako’s two half-brothers would move out and she and her mother would be forced to leave the house. From then until Masako was 15 and moved away from her mother to live on her own, the two existed in a state of abject precariousness, always one step ahead of the landlord and beholden to whichever man her mother, who had never even finished elementary school, was taking up with at the time for the sake of financial security, which was almost always a mirage. 

Masako’s life before her father died was comparatively stable, or as stable as it could be for a small child who was legally illegitimate and living with a father in late middle age and two much older brothers, not to mention a mother who didn’t always seem to know what was going on. Consequently, she has always romanticized that time of her life and in recent decades tried to find out who her father was and how and when he came to Japan. This effort has become a project, since she hopes to write it all down in English, which is where I come in. Unfortunately, she hasn’t had much luck since she can’t prove to the authorities that her father was actually her father and, thus, can’t get access to relevant records the government may have on file. When her mother registered Masako’s birth by herself, she couldn’t name him as Masako’s father because he wasn’t a Japanese national. Had she or her father registered Masako as his daughter, she would have effectively been Korean in accordance with the laws at the time, which determined nationality through paternity, though Masako’s mother didn’t seem to know this. It was the city hall officials who decided the matter. So while Masako was later able to find out where her father came from in Korea and even secured a copy of his Korean family register, she has been unable to go any further. Masako’s mother, who now lives with reduced cognitive capacity in a facility, has never had much information to give. She may not even have known he was Korean until she actually went to city hall. After all, his late wife was a Japanese national—but, per the law cited above, not his sons, though they were born in Japan—and he lived as a Japanese man. He did not manifest any noticeable Korean traits, such as a penchant for Korean food or a tendency to slip into Korean speech. But the fact remained: He was, legally, Korean, not Japanese. 

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Media watch: Government does itself no favors with new incentives to promote My Number cards

For several years the Japanese government and, more specifically, the new digital agency has been trying to sell the public on the My Number system, which assigns a 12-digit ID number to everyone who lives in Japan. Assigning the numbers was the easy part: bureaucrats generated the numbers and sent them out on small paper cards. The idea was that these would be used, as are social security numbers in the U.S., for various government functions to streamline procedures, such as filing tax returns, using national health insurance, and applying for public services. The problem has always been that a certain cross-section of the public doesn’t feel comfortable with the number, since it smacks of government overreach and control, and, despite the ruling party’s continuing success at the polls, the public for the most part doesn’t trust the authorities, which is understandable. Twenty years ago, for instance, the welfare ministry discovered it had lost millions of pension records, thus necessitating a years-long retrenchment of the whole system that inconvenienced thousands of retired people. How would such officials handle numbers that in principle were supposed to connect to the most personal data the government keeps under virtual lock and key?

Consequently, the relevant authorities have had their hands full trying to proceed to the next step of the My Number system, which is to get dedicated My Number cards in the hands of everyone in the country. The card is more elaborate than the little paper thingy, which simply has the holder’s name, address, and number printed on it. The real cards, which are plastic, look like a genuine piece of ID, with a photo of the holder and a chip that makes it usable on digital devices to connect to a central database. This, apparently, is a bridge too far for many people, and the penetration rate for card application has been much lower than the government had expected. According to various media reports, as of May, only 44 percent of people who should have the cards have applied for and/or received them, which is pretty sad because the expressed goal is to have cards in everybody’s hands by the end of fiscal 2022.

I received mine about a year ago. Call me an easy touch, but I think the basic concept is good. As an American, the My Number card just sounds like a supercharged social security card, which many Americans find scary, too, but as someone who actually pays their taxes in full and on time, I figure I have nothing to fear from Washington (unless they read this blog, which I doubt), so, naively perhaps, I don’t really think the Japanese government is going to come after me. (By no means do I speak for all foreign residents.) Having an all-in-one card that I can use to pay my taxes, handle my health insurance payments, and access government documents sounds like a fine idea. And it was a painless, easy process. After receiving an application in the post from my local government I sent it in with a photo and a few months later went to my local city office to pick up the card. There I registered a password and received a short lecture on how to use the card. That was it. In the past year, I’ve used the actual card only once (the number itself I’ve used several times), when I applied for my vaccination certificate for overseas travel.

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Review: Hostage: Missing Celebrity

Basically meta-cinema for dummies, Pil Gam-sung’s debut feature takes full advantage of its star’s screen image to keep you guessing as to how much he is acting. Hwang Jung-min has cultivated an enviable, respectable career playing a wide variety of types but essentially the same character, whose down-to-earth, self-deprecating attitude lends ironic gravitas even to roles that are comic in nature, like the principled rogue cop in Veteran or the wildly obnoxious mafia scion in New World. In Hostage he plays himself, literally, one of Korea’s biggest movie stars, who is kidnapped by a bunch of psychos and held for ransom. That Hwang’s version of Hwang feels indistinguishable from many of his other parts is probably a function of his star power rather than any representational skills he may possess, but that seems to be Pil’s aim because often the inside jokes are double edged: Is he or isn’t he? An asshole, that is. 

As with all Korean crime thrillers the violence is sadistic and relentless, but more importantly celebrity culture is pretty intense in Korea, and the contrast of these two tendencies has a bracing effect on the plot. Driving himself home after a big movie event, Hwang parks his car at a convenience store and walks the rest of the way to his house, presumably because he’s had a few drinks and is afraid of being seen by paparazzi. It just so happens that a bunch of criminals who’ve been carrying out kidnappings in the neighborhood pass by and spot Hwang. “Jackpot,” says the buzz-cut crew leader Dong-hun (Ryu Kyung-soo), who taunts Hwang as a fan and then beats him before trundling him into their van and spiriting him to their woodland lair. In classic hostage-movie style, Hwang awakes tied to chair in the company of two other kidnap victims, one of whom is quickly dispatched by the sleepy-eyed ringleader, Choi (Kim Jae-bum), ostensibly because he hasn’t come up with his own ransom yet but mainly to impress on Hwang that Choi means business. 

The subtext of what entails is that Hwang, thanks to his extensive experience playing everything from prosecutors to cops to hardened criminals to victims, knows what he needs to do to escape, though he’s confounded by the fact that his co-hostage, a young woman, also has to be saved, as well as by the unpredictability of the kidnapping crew, one of whom is a fan and annoyingly keeps demanding Hwang recite lines from his most famous movies. However, as the story develops and the police start following leads that expose the kidnapping ring and the press finds out that Hwang is a prisoner, Pil gets caught up in the action movie prerogatives. In the end Hostage becomes just another efficient, bloody, twisty Korean thriller; which is not a bad thing at all, but we never find out what kind of person Hwang really is. He certainly can’t be this guy, who turns out to be a real ass-kicker. But that was probably intentional all along.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Hostage: Missing Celebrity home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Next Entertainment World & Filmmakers R&K & SEM Company

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Opening press conference for the 27th Busan International Film Festival

Official poster

It was obvious from all the prefatory statements made by the various officials of the Busan International Film Festival on Sept. 7 to announce what would take place this year that the opening press conference was supposed to be a bigger deal that what it turned out to be. The organizers wanted it to be a live event in front of flesh-and-blood journalists in both Seoul and Busan, with the mayor of the latter city showing up to lend his unqualified support, but, unfortunately, that pesky typhoon showed up and they ended up limiting the event to one venue with reporters participating online. Consequently, it wasn’t much different from the last two opening press conferences, which were online and relatively brief. Why it was doubly disappointing this year is that the four men who talked to us online were bursting with the wonderful news that BIFF was back to full strength from two years of limited exposure due to the pandemic, meaning more sections and screenings than ever in real theaters with full attendance and, more importantly, big guests from Asia and the rest of the world in attendance because without that celebrity cachet, BIFF isn’t BIFF. Though it’s got the best market and the biggest, most eclectic selection of any film festival in Asia, it’s mostly a party for Korean film fans, and they do love their stars and VIPs.

Still, it’s the selection itself that means the most, and while BIFF tends to play down the spectacle when it comes to programming, as programmer Nam Dong-chul said at the press conference, this year he and his colleagues focused on “large-scale films” that were designed to be seen in theaters with an audience. However, the organizers chose Iranian director Hadi Mohaghegh’s Scent of Wind as the Opening Film, a seemingly modest production set in a rural environment among people who must deal with isolation and disability. In 2015, Mohaghegh won the New Currents Award, the only prize given to films themselves by the festival, for his second feature, Immortal, so the honor of opening the event can be seen as a kind of family affair. The Closing Film sounds like more a big deal: Japanese director Kei Ishikawa’s hotly anticipated A Man, which is based on a best-selling mystery about a woman who learns after her husband’s death that he wasn’t who he said he was. While A Man should be a crowd-pleaser—its release had been delayed more than a year due to the pandemic—it won’t be a world premiere, since it was already screened at Venice.

Even the Gala Presentation, which usually includes the festival’s highest-profile films, this year contains only two, both European: Alain Guiraudie’s Nobody’s Hero and Pietro Marcello’s Scarlet. Where the festival hits its stride with regard to the goals articulated by Nam is in the Icons section, which offers a whopping 24 selections by the world’s most famous and/or important directors, and while only one of them, Philippine director Brillante Mendoza’s Feast, is a world premiere, the section fulfills the real mission of BIFF, which is to assemble those movies that other, bigger, flashier (i.e., Western) festivals showed off over the past six months all in one convenient place, including James Gray’s Armageddon Time, Claire Denis’ Both Sides of the Blade, Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, Dario Argento’s Dark Glasses, Francoise Ozon’s Peter Von Kant, and Noah Baumbach’s White Noise. Asia is represented by Kore-eda’s Korean co-production Broker, which already opened in Japan, and two-count-’em-two Hong Sang-soo features, Walk Up and The Novelist’s Film.

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