Review: Right Now, Wrong Then

Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, released in South Korea in 2015, is finally opening in Japan, though it should be mentioned that Hong’s films are not temporally fixed. Current events or even trends have absolutely no purchase on his stories. Even the fashion sense is strictly generic. Right Now is one of Hong’s experiments in bifurcated narratives, and while it doesn’t really do anything different with the form, it does show incremental improvements in his command of it when compared to past experiments, like In Another Country.

Hong tells the same story twice, with slight variations that indicate what might happen if some small detail were changed. The base plot involves director Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong), who has come to a provincial city to present one of his films to a group of enthusiasts and answer their questions. However, the day he arrives he learns the screening has been postponed a day, so he has to kill this one. He does the tourist route and visits a local palace where he spies Hee-Jeong (Kim Min-hee) and is immediately attracted to her. He cleverly positions himself in her vector and strikes up a conversation. She is a painter but doesn’t know Cheon-soo’s work. Nevertheless, she seems impressed by the fact that he is successful and they go back to her atelier and he makes an effort to praise her own work. If you know Hong, you might expect them to fall into bed at this point, but they don’t. Instead they go out drinking and spill their respective guts in suitably humorous fashion. They then join some friends of Hee-Jeong’s at a nearby restaurant where Cheon-soo’s ego, bloated by alcohol, gets the best of him.

Because this story is told first and we are led to expect that variations will ensue in the second telling (the titles give this away), the viewer is acutely on guard for these variations, and that added sense of artificially stimulated attention brings something interactive to the movie that is both invigorating and frustrating. The changes are more a matter of tone. Cheon-soo is more straightforward about his problems and direct about his feelings toward Hee-jeong, whose reactions shift accordingly. Though the writing is sharp and the plot developments never challenge our suspension of disbelief, the second half’s more or less reactionary methodology was a bit of a turn-off for me, since it seemed to remove Hee-jeong’s agency as a character. It’s a given that Hong’s male protagonists are his proxies, but he usually provides his female foils with plenty of opportunity to exert their integrity. Funnier and more formally adept than his past experiments, Right Now, Wrong Then is strangely tentative in terms of what the results of this particular experiment is. I liked it without really understanding what the point was.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Right Now, Wrong Then home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2015 Jeonwonsa Film Co.

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Media Mix, July 1, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the ongoing Kake Gakuen veterinary school scandal. The focus of the column is on the “lie” that a Kake official admitted to, and the subsequent press conference held by the school to point out that both he and the school’s head, Kotaro Kake, a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, would be punished with pay cuts. The lie centers on a meeting between Kake and Abe in February 2015 that the school and Abe say never took place. As pointed out in the article, it would be very easy to prove that no such meeting happened if either the prime minister’s office or Kake produced an official itinerary or schedule showing what the two men were doing that day, but all they can do is “confirm” that no such documents exist, which is an odd way of proving that something didn’t happen.

However, the scandal’s contours take in a whole lot more that wasn’t mentioned in the column, the main element being PM aide Tadao Yasase’s 2015 meeting with officials from Ehime Prefecture, at which, according to those officials, Yanase invoked Abe’s name to gain favor for approval of the Kake veterinary school. Yanase had attempted to erase this matter by resorting to the usual trick: He says he doesn’t remember any such meeting. Bad memory, of course, is the laziest and most common form of denial because it can’t credibly be challenged. The fact that the Kake official admitted to lying, therefore, is something of a radical act in coverup methodology, and some might say it’s very “Japanese” (the samurai falling on his sword for his lord), but in the larger scheme of things the Kake official had little to lose except a few weeks of face.

But there’s a larger matter that the scandal’s neverending intrigues are covering up, and that’s the worth of the school itself. All the energy expended on proving that Abe or Kake or their men lied might be better invested in questioning the value of the school in the first place. As the online web magazine Litera pointed out, the veterinary school is “fourth-rate.” Kake’s institutions are money-making enterprises that add little to Japan’s brain trust or work force. Litera goes on to say that while the Kake veterinary school was being approved the education ministry was cutting the budget for the University of Tokyo, mostly in the area of research. Sure, people who lie to cover up political malfeasance should be called out, but first get your priorities straight.

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Review: Winchester

During the horror film’s formative heyday in the 80s, trashiness was next to godliness. Perhaps by necessity, the gory goings-on were delivered via hilariously ridiculous plots that were gentle on whatever degree of intelligence was brought to the proceedings. Even a fairly sophisticated shocker like Dressed to Kill was, at base, a comedy.

Nowadays, it’s more difficult to tell if the brainlessness on display is purposeful or not. For one thing, in their bid to make the gore and shocks gorier and more shocking than the last guy’s, directors now lose track of the tone of the film and you get a blockbuster like It, which is fairly serious in terms of story and theme, but those aspects are then completely overwhelmed by the scare dynamics. Balance has been lost, but I have yet to see either Hereditary or A Quiet Place.

Winchester‘s problems as both a horror movie and a movie is that the brother directors, Michael and Peter Spierig, can’t decide which kind they’re making. Based loosely on the story of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune whose San Jose mansion was said to be haunted by the victims of her family’s product in the days leading up to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the script parries with ideas related to gun control, certainly a topic that will connect to a lot of viewers these days, but mostly it has to do with guilt of another sort. The protagonist is not Winchester but rather Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), the psychiatrist charged with figuring out whether Mrs. Winchester’s belief in ghosts is the result of an addled mind. Price, however, has his own demons, which mostly spring from his addiction to laudanum but include remorse over a dead wife. In any case, Price takes the job not because he thinks it has merit, but because he needs the money, and is further challenged when Winchester’s lawyer demand he live at the mansion during the treatment and lay off the drugs and booze. So while the spooks keep spooking after his arrival, it’s difficult to tell if they are nominally real or the figment of Price’s withdrawal-affected imagination.

All of these elements point to a relatively serious study of psychological self-delusion, but in the end the Spierigs opt for fun house horrors and a storyline that eventually falls off the deep end in terms of silliness. Though at one point, somebody says “the rifle never discriminates,” the movie never really addresses America’s own addiction to gun-related violence; and the twin hallucinatory problems of the principals are not resolved in ways that make them thought-provoking. The only thing that makes a suitable impression is the production design: What a waste of a genuinely unsettling haunted house.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Ikebukuro Cinema Rosa (03-3986-3713.

Winchester home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Winchester Film Holdings Pty Ltd., Eclipse Picture Inc., Screen Australia and Screen Quennsland Pty Ltd.

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Review: Wonder Wheel

It’s often difficult to tell with Woody Allen where the satire ends and the pretension begins. The narrator of Wonder Wheel is a would-be writer named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who toots his own horn often enough while relating the sad tale of the mess he made of the life of a married woman named Ginny (Kate Winslet). It’s easy to poke fun at Mickey’s pronouncements on Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare, though after a while you begin to wonder if it isn’t the director’s own need for us to understand the allusions he’s making in his own script, which isn’t bad as far as romantic potboilers go, but you can only cut Allen so much slack when it comes to affairs of the heart.

Mickey makes a living as a lifeguard at Coney Island, where Ginny lives with her ne’er-do-well, alcoholic, borderline violent husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), who runs the merry-go-round. It’s the 1950s, and the famous amusement park is on the skids, so Ginny works as a waitress to make ends meet. Her affair with Mickey is aspirational. At one time a budding actress, Ginny falls for Mickey’s lines about a life of the mind that will include her and her talents, but nothing much comes of it. And then Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), from a previous relationship, shows up. She’s running from her mobster ex-husband and Humpty seems to feel responsible for her, though Ginny, obviously, doesn’t. It’s not exactly O’Neill, more like bargain basement Clifford Odets, but it turns out to be Allen’s sturdiest plot in a long time, and for a while the gears move with a steady rhythm that draws the viewer in. Even the grace notes, like Humpty’s love of fishing, which Ginny hates, add credibility to the story and the characterizations.

Unfortunately, once Carolina becomes the focus of the subsequent intrigue, the plot becomes predictable. You know feckless Mickey is going to fall for her and that Ginny will find out and all sorts of hysterical words will be exchanged, turning the dynamics from that of Odets to that of Tennessee Williams. As intuitive as she usually is on screen, Winslet becomes almost unbearable to watch as Ginny falls victim to a series of migraines, which, in turn, knock Humpty off the wagon. The movie turns maudlin and depressing, which is especially a shame since Allen does some of his most creative visual work, perhaps invigorated by memories of the locations, where he grew up. The satiny, golden look of the film would inspire nostalgia in anyone, but there’s nothing to reinforce the longing. The miserable lives on display have nothing inspiring about them. It’s as if the story is all in Mickey’s mind, a play he’s working on. We should have known, because right from the start you could tell the guy’s a chump.

Now playing in Tokyo at Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Picadilly (03-5367-1144).

Wonder Wheel home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Gravier Productions Inc.

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Review: Only the Brave

Though stuffed to the gills with macho signifiers and the sentimentalized homoerotic comradeship of men in peril, this action film about the job of forest firefighting is notable for the way it incorporates the minutiae of the job into a kickass storyline without making it feel pedantic or dry. In the opening scenes, a fire department supervisor for the city of Prescott, Arizona, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), prepares his team for recertification from your normal fire crew to a coveted federally recognized “hotshot” team, which are called on only to battle the most dangerous forest fires. The crew’s grueling physical training regimen is detailed, but also its logistical knowhow in learning how fires spread, which mostly involves preparing a line at the edge of an area where the fire is heading in order to “contain” it. The work looks unexciting—mostly clearing the area of brush and fuel—but is nevertheless fascinating in the way it enlightens the viewer of what they need to know about the drama that will eventually unfold.

Unfortunately, this straightforward methodology is complicated by the usual dramatic flourishes, embodied in the character of Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a former drug addict who, now that he’s a father, is walking the straight-and-narrow with a particularly upright backbone. Mistrusted by the rest of the crew he’s trying to join, he has his work cut out for him, but Marsh keeps cutting him slack because he suspects that what he’s been through will make him more conscientious as a fireman—not braver or less risk-aversive, but smarter when things get really tough. Marsh is the big brother figure, which means Marsh himself needs a father figure, which comes in the form of Jeff Bridges as Prescott’s fire chief. Though director Joseph Kosinski doesn’t belabor these relationships, he doesn’t do much to make them anything more than emotional fuel that never quite gets lit. Then, of course, there are the women, notably Marsh’s wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), who hold down the fort and worry excessively about their men whenever they go into the flaming fray. The requisite action finale is scary and bracing and keeps the focus on what’s real at the moment rather than what’s going to happen. The movie builds suspense from what we have learned about the way forest fires “act.” It’s a rare disaster movie that asks you to appreciate the action based on what it’s already taught you about nature, both human and existential.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Ueno (050-6868-5060), Cinema Sunshine Ikebukuro (03-3982-6388).

Only the Brave home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 No Exit Film LLC

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Review: April’s Daughter

Mexican director Michel Franco’s signature is a sensationalistic storyline told in a dry manner. The basic idea of April’s Daughter is made for tabloid TV—teen pregnancy as the natural outcome of a broken home. However, Franco doesn’t present this scenario in a way you’d expect. The young mother, Valeria (Ana Becerril), is 17 and, we are led to believe from the very start, likes sex a lot. She lives with her older sister, Clara (Joanna Larequi), in a nice rustic house on the beach in Puerto Vallarta, a situation that belies their material circumstances. Both are dropouts working part-time jobs. We soon learn that the house is owned by their mother, April (Emma Suarez), who doesn’t live with them and for some reason isn’t aware that Valeria is pregnant, even though she’s already 7 months along when the movie opens. Clara, a moody, lonely girl who resents Valeria’s dissipated lifestyle, tells April of her sister’s condition against Valeria’s wishes, and April shows up promising to help out. At first Valeria is suspicious and resentful, as if she’s seen this scene before and learned not to believe in it, but her fears over the coming delivery prove to be too much and she asks her mother to stay and see her through. Valeria’s boyfriend, the studly but somewhat clueless Mateo (Enrique Arrizon), is all for it, since his own parents want nothing to do with the child.

Franco never quite elucidates the family history that would explain what transpires, which is both disturbing and narratively problematic. April, we learn, gave birth to her two daughters when she was not much older than the age Valeria is now, and wasn’t married to the girls’ father (or fathers? Clara and Valeria are too dissimilar to be believable as siblings), who was some 30 years older than she was. Though he shows up in the film briefly, he doesn’t seem to have much to do with his daughters or with April, for that matter, which begs the question: How does April survive herself? She seems to be fairly well off, and though she mentions a job in the film industry at one point, she never seems to work. It isn’t as if Franco were being lazy about these plot points, but rather that he wants the mystery of April’s situation to inform our understanding of her cruel and impractical actions. Eventually, she lives up to Valeria’s worst fears and then goes even further, forcing the girl to go to extraordinary lengths to put her life back together again. But even at the end the viewer struggles to distinguish the lies the characters tell from the truths behind them.

Franco’s storytelling methodology is infuriating, but the movie is nonetheless successful as a potboiler. It may, in fact, be too mannered. Had the director used a more sensationalistic approach, he could have retained the mystery and made it acceptable. By treating the whole affair as a psychological study instead of a cautionary tale he robbed it of its natural dramatic potential. Good for film festivals, but not quite what the material deserves.

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

April’s Daughter home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Lucia Films S. de R.L de C.V. 2017

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Media Mix, June 17, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about elderly drivers. I mention that some local governments have tried to address the problem by providing transportation services for seniors who give up their cars, but I didn’t go into detail. This is a problem in my area. We live in the middle of an agricultural area that is not far from a large suburban zone in Chiba Prefecture. Cars are very necessary here and public transportation is very sparse. The city bus that passes closest to our house only comes five times a day in either direction, and even when you order a taxi you may have to wait up to an hour for one to show up unless you order it, like, a day in advance. There just aren’t that many operating in the area. Consequently, older people—and there are a lot where we live—are compelled to keep their licenses and drive everywhere. Personally, I think Uber would do very well out here, or something like Uber, but from what I understand the various taxi industry associations have successfully kept Uber and other ride-sharing businesses out of Japan. Uber’s presence in Japan is as a partner with taxi companies, who use their app and actually charge more for the service, so Uber is thought of (and advertised as) something for people of means. Of course, a complete bus service is what our area and, I imagine, many rural areas in Japan really need, even if it loses money. That’s what local government is for. But if they want something that is more business-oriented, they should look into ride-sharing schemes, even if it’s only available to seniors. Otherwise, it is very difficult to make people give up their cars once their capabilities start to dim.

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