Review: One Second

At one point the most celebrated and revered member of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, Zhang Yimou has since turned into an equally notorious example of submitting to a repressive system for the sake of survival as an artist, if necessarily a diminished one. Younger film aficionados mainly identify him as a maker of large-scale entertainments in the wuxia style, though older movie fans probably mark his turning point as accepting the role of the artistic director of the Beijing Olympics, both the 2008 and 2022 versions. As such, these jobs supposedly revealed his latent nationalism, an opinion that was bolstered by movies like Hero or, more critically, his Hollywood co-production The Great Wall

In his latest offering, One Second, Zhang returns to the theme that first made him internationally famous—a stubborn will to live in the face of hardship. It’s a theme that’s inherently sentimental, and as such the movie’s most direct cognate is his 1999 feature The Road Home, which not only sealed his reputation on the festival circuit, but made a superstar out of Zhang Ziyi. More to the point, Zhang places the narrative at the center of the Cultural Revolution in such a way as to show that the resilience on display is in reaction to pressures brought to bear by the government’s brutal social engineering plans. Reading several reviews of the film I noted that, while Zhang still seems to enjoy the authorities’ favor, One Second was pulled from festivals before it could be screened. 

The movie is also about movies in the most elemental way. An escapee from a farm prison, Zhang (Zhang Li), crosses the desert on foot to watch a movie in a backwater town. When he arrives, however, he learns that he is too late. The screening, which is carried out by a local workers unit, has already concluded, the film reels packed up and ready to go to the next town. While trying to learn more, Zhang notices an unkempt waif, Liu (Liu Haocun), steal one of the film cans from the delivery motorcycle and pursues her. What ensues for the next half hour is an almost slapstick level cat-and-mouse game, as the film cannister changes hands between Zhang and Liu as they make their way to the next town, where, as it happens, Liu lives in abject destitution with her younger brother. 

Certainly the story’s most striking impression is how central movie-going is to the people who live in this place (Hebei Province in the middle of nowhere) at this particular time (the 70s, I would guess). When the film that is in the can falls out and ends up being dragged through the dirt for many kilometers, it arrives in the town scratched and grimy, but the dedicated, resourceful projectionist, Fan (Fan Wei), afraid that he has a potential riot on his hands, enlists the entire town to restore the film to at least a screenable state. As it turns out, Zhang the fugitive’s self-imposed mission is to see this particular segment, a boilerplate newsreel in which his estranged daughter supposedly appears as an ideal student. The upshot is that because of his “crime” (the preternaturally hotheaded Zhang assaulted a Red Army soldier) his wife was compelled to divorce him and his daughter forced to denounce and disown him. The “one second” of his daughter on the reel is the only chance he may ever have to see her again.

Zhang’s script skillfully taps this theme of parental despair as a contrasting motif to Liu’s story of parental abandonment. Not yet an adolescent, she cares for her younger brother by stealing and scheming. Though Zhang the director does not overtly try to make the claim that both Zhang the protagonist and Liu are victims of a “system,” it’s clear as the movie develops and becomes at once more melodramatic and viscerally exciting they are dealing with their situations, emotionally and practically, the only way they can. Zhang stages the action with an economical efficiency that proves he still sees himself as a technician first, but the movie’s power as pure cinema also shows that his artistic vision is undiminished, regardless of what uses it serves. 

In Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868—5024).

One Second home page in Japanese

photo (c) Huanxi Media Group Limited

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Media watch: Trial of Utoro arson suspect receives scant coverage

Utoro after the fire (Yahoo)

May 16 was the first day of the criminal trial of Shogo Arimoto, the 22-year-old man arrested for starting a fire in the Utoro district of Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, last August. Arimoto admitted to all the charges, though he denies the prosecutors’ characterization of his motives for starting the fire, which is that Arimoto has deep feelings of enmity toward Koreans. Utoro is famous as a community of Japan-resident Koreans who are descendants of workers brought from the Korean peninsula during World War II to help build an airport. In April, a memorial hall containing items related to and explanations of the history of the Utoro district opened, and the fire that Arimoto allegedly set destroyed not only seven buildings, but about 40 items that were destined to be part of the memorial hall’s archives. In December, we reported on the incident and its background here

Though the Asahi Shimbun covered Arimoto’s first day in court, for the most part the significance of the arson as a possible hate crime has been ignored by the media. In their opening statement, the prosecution explained that the defendant quit his job last July and expressed his frustration by setting fire to buildings associated with Koreans. At first he set fire to a South Korean school and the Aichi Prefecture headquarters of the Korean Residents Union in Japan, but neither received any press coverage, so he planned the Utoro arson with more care, targeting the memorial hall artifacts because he thought “society” would pay more attention. He was arrested in October for the July arson attack, and the arrested again in December for the Utoro fire. 

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Media watch: Nothing new in Kishida’s new capitalism

Prime Minister Kishida talking in London (Asahi Shimbun)

The amount of cash that Japanese people keep as savings is legendary. At present, it roughly totals ¥1 quadrillion, an enormous sum and one that many people interpret as being a sign of frugality. Japanese people are averse to risk, and thus are anxious about investing. 

These views have been discussed anew after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave a speech in London earlier this month to drum up foreign investment. The gist of Kishida’s speech was that he will actively promote a substantial shift from savings to investment, and thus he encourages foreign businesses to invest in Japan as well. The response in the media has been skepticism, mainly over Kishida’s air of confidence, which was similar in tone to that of a speech given by then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2014 on Wall Street when he asked members of the New York Stock Exchange to “buy my Abenomics.” Kishida simply said, “invest in Kishida,” but the intent was the same: Trust me personally to help you get what you want. 

What Abe was selling wasn’t bought; or, at least, not enough that it made a difference in the long run. In a widely circulated opinion piece, Bloomberg’s Gearoid Reidy pointed out that Abe’s entreaty was “temporarily” a success but eventually “ran out of gas.” Thus, Kishida’s speech is expected to have even less of an effect, especially when you count the fact that the Japanese stock market has lost 2.4 percent of its value in the meantime. Nevertheless, Reidy is relatively bullish on Japan as a haven for investment for various reasons, including the liberalization of financial services, “healthy banks,” the decline of China as an investment destination, the weak yen, and the country’s relative success in limiting the harmful effects of the COVID pandemic.

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Media watch: Japan’s promotion of IR/casinos looking increasingly unrealistic

Artist’s rendering of planned casino for Osaka

On April 20, the Wakayama Prefectural Assembly rejected an integrated casino resort project being promoted by the prefecture’s governor and other prominent politicians. That leaves just Osaka city and prefecture, and Nagasaki as localities that have said they will submit bid plans to the central government for permission to construct IR-casino complexes. 

Wakayama’s move has refocused the media’s attention on the stalled introduction of casino gambling to Japan, and most of that attention is now directed at Osaka, whose own plans are being boosted by local leadership as represented by opposition party Ishin no Kai, which effectively controls the local government. The plan is to build an IR with casino on the artificial island of Yumeshima in Osaka Bay under the management of a consortium that includes U.S. casino heavyweight MGM Resorts International and local financial firm Orix. Yumeshima will also be the site of the 2025 Osaka Kansai Expo. In fact, the two projects are inextricably linked to Ishin’s plans for growth in the region. 

However, as the opening of any casinos in Japan gets pushed farther into the future their viability looks increasingly precarious. On May 8, Asahi Shimbun ran an article in its Sunday World Economy section about Singapore’s IR casino business as a means of trying to figure out whether Japan could possibly compete. Initially the pitch to the public regarding the legalization of casino gambling in Japan, which most Japanese people have opposed according to surveys, is that it was meant to bolster local economies by taking advantage of foreign visitors, meaning casinos weren’t being targeted at domestic users. However, in the years since the idea was first proposed matters have changed significantly, especially after the COVID pandemic wiped out the inbound tourist industry. Rebuilding that revenue base after the lifting of border restrictions will be a chore, but, more importantly, attracting the kind of high-rollers, mainly from China, who could sustain a fledgling gaming industry in Japan is going to be doubly difficult. 

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Review: Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time

There will be two documentaries released in Tokyo theaters this month about Laurel Canyon, the leafy residential adjunct to Los Angeles that acted as an incubator for the storied Southern California Sound of the late 60s and early 70s. This particular film, a distillation of a two-part cable TV program, is a more traditional music doc in that it straightforwardly explicates the development of the scene in a chronological fashion, and in that regard it’s the better choice if you are inclined to take in only one. The other movie, Echo in the Canyon, which opens at the end of May, is more like an excuse for rocker and narrator Jakob Dylan to pay tribute to his musical forebears without having to mention that his father was pretty much responsible for those forebears in the first place, though to me his main sin was not mentioning Joni Mitchell, one of the canyon’s most famous denizens. She even titled an album after the place. 

Though Alison Ellwood does a good job of delineating the source of the SoCal sound, she leaves out a seminal aspect of the scene, which is incumbent in the very title of her movie: real estate. The reason Laurel Canyon attracted so many musicians is that, at the time, it was cozy and cheap; certainly cozier and cheaper than Los Angeles proper. More importantly, its relative seclusion owing to its precipitous hills, winding roads, and prodigious vegetation offered would-be stars a sense of isolation that was not only vital to their art-making endeavors, but allowed them to mingle with one another in a relaxed manner that would have been near impossible in the city. Most of the visuals are supplied not so much by moving picture footage or video but by Henry Diltz’s still photography, which captures the communal sense of the place. Diltz, in fact, came to Los Angeles as a musician himself with the Modern Folk Quartet, a group whose rootsy sincerity provided an aesthetic foundation for most of the artists who would eventually represent the SoCal sound, in particular the Byrds, which were the Beatles of that scene if not of American pop music in general at the time. Of course, the gigs were in L.A., most prominently Sunset Strip clubs like the Troubadour and the Whiskey A Go Go. For a while, there was not a whole lot of stylistic distinction being made between folk, pop, and rock and roll until certain groups emerged to popular acclaim. Though Crosby, Stills and Nash (and, later, Young) are presented at the quintessential Laurel Canyon act, they wouldn’t have developed their own sound without the precedent of Buffalo Springfield, Love, the Mamas and the Papas, and even the Monkees, all of whose members lived in Laurel Canyon. Even Frank Zappa and the Doors, whose own unique styles sprung from that early scene, can be considered part of the mix, and while Ellwood gives Zappa short shrift, she makes a very good case for the Doors being not only the outlier of the scene, but its most influential and exciting act. 

The movie starts getting wobbly, however, when it moves into what the various narrators term “the 2nd wave,” which centers on artists like Jackson Browne, Gram Parsons, the various singer-songwriters revolving around Linda Ronstadt, and, most significantly, the Eagles, who started out as Ronstadt’s backing band. Though no one can deny the Eagles’ place in rock history, their effect, at least for me, is mostly contingent on the intensifying nexus at the time between rock music and capitalism. The movie makes the case that the explosive popularity of the Eagles essentially ended the Laurel Canyon scene, though their ascendance merely coincided with its demise. The money was already pouring in before “Take It Easy” changed things for the worse. Real estate, right? 

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

Laurel Canyon home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Canyon Films LLC

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Media watch: What is behind mass killer Satoshi Uematsu’s change of heart to pursue a retrial?

Artist’s rendering of Satoshi Uematsu at his 2020 trial

On April 28, Mainichi Shimbun reported that Satoshi Uematsu, the 32-year-old man convicted in 2020 of killing 19 people at a facility for the disabled in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, had applied to the Yokohama District Court for a retrial. Mainichi’s scoop, as it has been called, was quickly picked up by other media who looked around for a motive, because two years ago he had rejected his lawyer’s decision to appeal his death penalty sentence, thus giving the impression that he accepted both the verdict and the sentence. The application for retrial, which the Yokohama District Court is now studying, thus came as a complete surprise, and one that has so far had no explanation.

One of the first persons the media contacted was Hiroyuki Shinoda, the editor of the monthly magazine So and one of the journalists who was in close contact with Uematsu during his trial. If anyone could shed light on Uematsu’s motives for changing his mind and pursuing a retrial it would be Shinoda, but as he explained in detail in a May 2 post for Yahoo! News, he hasn’t been in touch with Uematsu since the end of the trial in the spring of 2020, though not for want of trying. Though the two haven’t subsequently communicated directly, he has been trying to find a lawyer who might take his case in order to apply for a retrial, but has been unsuccessful, so he was just as shocked as the rest of the media when he read the Mainichi article. “Somehow,” wrote Shinoda, “he had found another route to apply for a retrial.” Consequently, Shinoda had nothing to say to the dozens of reporters who called him up following the Mainichi scoop, which isn’t to say he didn’t have an opinion about it.

At the moment, he says, he doesn’t know who is representing Uematsu, and then goes on to explain his own efforts between March 2020, when Uematsu decided to forego an appeal, and June 2020, when he lost touch with him. He says that once a death sentence is finalized, the condemned is not permitted to have visits with anyone except family and lawyers who are handling the person’s case, and since Uematsu refused to appeal his sentence he basically has had no visitors except family, whom Shinoda doesn’t talk about anyway. An exception to this rule is “acquaintances” (chijin), but they have to be approved by both the prisoner and the prison authorities. Shinoda is famous for his reporting on suspected and convicted killers, especially those on death row. In past cases, he has continued to meet with such people while they were on death row in order to document their crimes and thoughts. However, in Uematsu’s case he has been repeatedly denied access, and that seems to be the decision of the Tokyo Detention Center, where Uematsu is being held. 

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Media column May 2022

Here is our media column for the May issue of the Number 1 Shimbun, which is about a veteran reporter for the Asahi Shimbun who was punished for supposedly putting pressure on another publication on behalf of former prime minister Shinzo Abe after the publication interviewed him.

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Review: Marry Me

It strikes me as odd that Marry Me is based on a graphic novel, since I tend to associate the form with science fiction, young adult themes, or horror/suspense stories. Marry Me is about as generic a rom-com as you’re going to find in 2022, and rom-coms are the purest of Hollywood products. As such it works fairly well, since the casting is almost too on-the-nose. Jennifer Lopez stars as a cognate of herself, a rich pop star whose every move is scrutinized by the press and the public, while Owen Wilson plays the self-deprecating everydude who manages to win her heart. This kind of thing has been done a number of times before, most famously in Notting Hill, and it’s always the casting rather than the writing that determines if it will be a success.

Kat Valdez (Lopez) is set to marry her equally popular singer boyfriend, Bastian (Maluma), in an online ceremony at the end of one of her concerts, but minutes before the wedding she finds out he’s been cheating on her with her assistant and impulsively picks a guy out of the audience to marry instead. That guy happens to be Charlie (Wilson), a divorced math teacher who has accompanied his Kat-fan daughter to the concert and is holding up a sign saying “marry me,” which is not an entreaty but the title of Kat’s latest hit single. Though Charlie clearly knows Kat’s desperate move is a publicity stunt, he goes along with it because he’s a nice guy. “I have to finish what I started,” becomes Kat’s mantra, though it’s assumed that the “engagement” will only last as long as the press stays interested. Of course, things become more complicated as Kat, beset by more than just romantic problems, comes to see Charlie as the kind of man she could actually love.

Most of the comedy has less to do with the odd couple premise than with Kat’s glitzy lifestyle, which is ridiculed but only up to a point. The weird thing is that it’s very easy to believe Lopez actually lives like this, with every breath she takes recorded and shared to the world. But as a rom-com the movie also takes certain things for granted, such as the belief that marriage is the highest form of civilized behavior, and thus Marry Me is pure fantasy, though not a fantasy that takes advantage of its ridiculous premise. Wilson doesn’t really have to do much to convey Charlie’s sincerity and worthiness, which I suppose is also a kind of hallmark of these kinds of rom-coms, but even if you can see why someone like Kat would fall for someone like Charlie, you wonder why on earth they would do it all in a fishbowl.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Marry Me home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Universal Studios

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Review: Paris, 13th District

There’s much to like about Jacques Audiard’s breezy feature, adapted by Audiard, Lea Mysius, and Celine Sciamma from a series of stories by Adrian Tomine, and even more to admire in the way it downplays the kind of desperation that usually overwhelms fictional love stories that begin with torrid sex and then descend into something else. However, in its effort to confound expectations it also sets up plots that don’t make much sense emotionally. There are basically two tales that are presented separately and then intersect into a third story. Set in a series of high-rise apartment buildings in the titular outer borough of Paris, the movie’s strongest suit may be the way it presents real estate as one of the most affecting matters of daily existence, even in relation to matters of the heart.

A young Chinese-speaking woman, Emilie (Lucie Zhang), living in her grandmother’s flat, advertises for a roommate, expecting a female, so when Camille (Makita Samba), a male grad student responds, she’s at first dismissive, but he’s a charmer and not only gets her approval as a tenant, but ends up in her bed. Naturally, being roommates and lovers becomes a problem, mainly for Camille, who tends to sleep around without compunction (he almost immediately invites a fellow grad student over to the flat for sex and Emilie walks in on her, naked, checking the fridge). Emilie isn’t so much love struck as offended that Camille doesn’t respond to her subsequent sexual entreaties and resorts to a Tinder-like app to get strangers to come over and satisfy whatever needs she has. 

The second story has to do with Nora (Noemie Merlant), a new student to the city who is painfully naive. When she attends a university costume party sporting a blonde wig, other attendees mistake her for a famous internet sex performer, Amber Sweet (Jhenny Beth), and her life becomes a living hell—or, at least, for a person like her. Eventually, she pays to talk to Amber as a customer, and the two embark on a very intimate online relationship based on their shared insecurities.

The third story is set in the real estate agency that both Nora and Camille end up working for. They have their own complicated sexual relationship that doesn’t work out, with Emilie and Amber providing comments from the margins, and though the movie as a whole eventually gets to where it wants to go, it isn’t always convincing. Audiard seems most invested in Nora, whose personality is all over the map, and who can thus behave pretty much any way the writers see fit to advance their dramatic agenda. Personally, I wanted to know more about Emilie and Camille, their backgrounds as much as their wants and needs. A story that’s honest about sex and how people approach it still needs to be honest about other things as well.

In French and Mandarin. Opens April 22 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).

Paris, 13th District home page in Japanese

photo (c) Page 114 – France 2 Cinema

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Review: C’mon C’mon

Though I have mixed feelings about Mike Mills’ quasi-autobiographical family dramedies, I really liked 20th Century Women because it didn’t make a big deal of the central character’s iconoclasm. His latest film, which is not based on Mills’ own life but rather a stray comment his young son once made, similarly benefits from a light touch even if it makes a bit too much of the burden of parenthood. Joaquin Phoenix is Johnny, an unmarried radio journalist who is summoned by his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman), to take care of her 9-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), when Viv’s ex-husband and Jesse’s father, Paul (Scoot McNairy), has a serious mental breakdown and Viv has to travel from her home in Los Angeles to Paul’s new home in Oakland to get him the care he needs. It’s not a major problem for Johnny. He and the voluble Jesse get along like gangbusters, but Johnny is in the middle of a major project—interviewing children across the country about their hopes and dreams—and he proposes to Viv that he take Jesse along with him.

Road movies can be trite, especially those that invole pre-adolescent boys and unmarried early middle aged men, and Mills doesn’t avoid a lot of the usual pitfalls. In fact, his main running joke is that whenever Johnny turns around in a crowd Jesse is missing. As a leitmotif the joke emphasizes Jesse’s hyperactivity, which doesn’t come across as being debilitating, and Johnny, who recognizes Jesse’s native curiosity, tries to keep up with it as best he can, but even he gets exhausted sometimes. Though he tries to address Jesse as an equal rather than as a child, he runs up against a wall whenever Jesse asks questions about his parents and why his father is the way he is. Johnny can only explain so much. As the pair zig-zag from California to Johnny’s home in New York to New Orleans, they invariably get on each other’s nerves and Johnny’s patience is both admirable and frustrating, since he sees parenting as a noble calling but knows he’s only in it for a short stretch. Jesse understands this as well, and tries to take advantage. 

Mills is certainly a great dialogue writer, and the conversations between the two are some of the most naturalistic and intriguing you’ll ever see in a movie between an adult and a child, but otherwise the movie doesn’t go anywhere, even if its protagonists are always on the move. The title is from one of Jesse’s poems, but it also kept echoing in my head as I watched the film.

Opens April 22 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

C’mon C’mon home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Be Funny When You Can LLC

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