Review: La Civil

One of the salient features of the ongoing drug wars in Mexico is how opaque the issue is to outsiders. Though we know who is doing the killing and who is being killed, it’s often difficult to get much further, especially in terms of why the authorities seem so powerless to do anything about it. Watching this debut by the Romanian-Belgian director, Teodora Ana Mihai, I was almost immediately struck by the notion that almost everyone in Mexico feels the same way; that they really can’t grasp exactly why there is a war and why it has become so deadly for “civilians,” per the movie’s title. 

The protagonist is Cielo (Arcelia Ramirez), a middle aged mother raising her teenage daughter, Laura (Denisse Azpilcueta), by herself because her businessman husband has left her for a younger woman. When Laura is kidnapped by a group of young toughs who demand 150,000 pesos and Cielo’s husband’s truck for her return, Cielo is more than just terrified. She’s baffled. Why her daughter, who has no connection to drug cartels and whose father doesn’t really have that much money? Cielo and her prickly husband, Gustavo (Alvaro Guerrero), patch things up on the fly in order to get their daughter back, but each time they meet the kidnappers’ demands the bar gets lifted a little higher, and in the process, as Gustavo loses his nerve, Cielo takes on the personality of an avenging angel, complete with black baseball cap; except that, unlike your usual Hollywood revenge thriller, she is not Liam Neeson and can’t gain much traction on a criminal element that seems so entrenched and far-reaching that it affects everyone she knows. Even as she joins up with an ad hoc paramilitary force that resorts to its own terror tactics to fight the criminals, she comes to see how the drug cartels and their adjuncts carry out kidnappings not so much to fund their illegal activities, but to instill, on a permanent basis, a feeling of incipient terror in the populace so that the authorities, whether they are the police or the military, can’t rely on civilians to help them in their mission. Chaos can be the only result, and the cartels thrive on it.

Consequently, Cielo cannot trust anyone she meets to help her regain her daughter, because they may, like her, be the victim, whether directly or indirectly, of the cartels’ machinations and have carried out terrible acts themselves as a result. As the movie reaches its implication that Cielo will probably never see Laura again, the horror of her realization is, again, compounded by bewilderment: If her daughter is indeed dead, it’s not only a senseless death, but a meaningless one. Unlike Liam Neeson’s actions, Cielo’s own descent into violence is desperate without being effective, because the problem is just too huge. La Civil contains scenes of torture, murder, and brute intimidation, but its most terrifying aspect is the feeling that it’s all inescapable.

In Spanish. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8606), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

La Civil home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Menuetto/One for the Road/Les Films du Fleuve/Mobra Films.

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Review: The Northman

Though not trailblazing in any significant way, Robert Eggers’ first two features successfully perverted forms that tend to be thought of as inviolable. The Witch was a horror movie that implied a deep distrust of the devices that characterize the genre, while The Lighthouse was a rollicking tall tale that peeled away the surface comedy and explored the unremarked motivations that make tall tales subliminally interesting. Connecting both was a convincing, obsessive verisimilitude with regard to time and place that nevertheless provided its own special appeal even if it sometimes got in the way of understanding. Reportedly, much of the dialogue of The Witch, which took place in New England in the 1630s, was taken directly from contemporary documents.

Eggers is now a certified bankable director, and his latest is a conventional historical action movie with impeccable production design (Eggers’ strong point, since that’s what he did before directing) and a story that, aside from being based on the legend that inspired Hamlet and co-written by the Icelandic poet Sjon, wouldn’t have drawn much attention had it been directed by anyone who’s had a hand in the MCU. As revenge sagas go it’s literal-minded and predictable, so there’s little subtext for Eggers to fiddle with. The boy-prince Amleth of an Icelandic king (Ethan Hawke) is on hand when his uncle, Fjolnir (Claes Bang), murders the king and kidnaps the queen, Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), and just barely escapes death himself by fleeing into the wilderness and escaping to the European continent. He attaches himself to a tribe that resorts to raping and pillaging as a means of survival—which isn’t to say they feel guilty about the carnage or, for that matter, don’t enjoy it, but in any case, it’s clear that Amleth does not care for the material spoils and is merely biding his time. Eventually, Amleth, now played with formidable muscles by Alexander Skarsgard, returns to Iceland as a slave captured in battle to work on a farm owned by his uncle, a situation he has carefully planned out. 

The only element of the story that could be deemed perverse is Amleth’s careful subterfuge in demonstrating unswerving loyalty to Fjolnir, which pits him against his cousin, Thorir (Gustav Lindh), thus pressuring him to double down on a masquerade that disorients his moral compass but not his bloody resolve. He himself commits unspeakable acts of violence in secret so as to undermine his uncle’s power, and while these scenes are gory enough to maintain Eggers’ reputation for sick mischief, they don’t add anything distinctive to the story or its emotional contours. Even when Amleth discovers that his mother is and was perfectly happy to aid her new husband’s treachery and evil intentions, there’s no Hamlet-like reckoning with his own humanity. The only corrective to Amleth’s bloodthirsty designs is his love for the fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a side show that’s forgettable because you’ve seen it so many times before. 

In English and Old Norse. Opens Jan. 20 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Northman home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Focus Features LLC

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Media watch: Victim of crime seeks compensation the hard way

When a person is the victim of theft or fraud, it is often difficult for them to recoup their losses, even if the perpetrator of the crime is caught and punished. According to a Jan. 12 article in the Asahi Shimbun, one man has taken a novel approach to this problem. The man, who is from Okayama Prefecture, claims to be the victim of what we assume is fraud, though the circumstances of the case as explained by the Asahi raise questions with regard to criminal intent. 

Eight years ago, the man was approached by a woman who created very realistic dolls as artworks. She wanted to stage exhibitions of her work but didn’t have the money, so she asked the man if he could lend her the necessary funds. He did and she put on the exhibitions at various places throughout Japan. Over the years, however, she neglected to pay him back and the IOUs piled up, amounting to “tens of millions of yen” in debt. Then, in 2019 she was arrested and subsequently convicted and sent to prison. 

The victim sued the woman for ¥20 million, which was less than the total amount he had lent her, and while the court found in his favor, he received no compensation because the woman, who was in prison, was broke. So he sued again, but this time asked the court to allow him to confiscate the money the woman was making in prison through her state-mandated work assignments. Since prisoners make way below minimum wage when they work in Japanese prisons, the man, if successful, would never be able to recoup his losses this way, but he said that his reasons were different; that he was confiscating her pay so that she would face up to her crime. 

This prison pay system is called “work reward,” and according to the Asahi pays between ¥7.7 and ¥55.5 per hour. The woman, whose prison work assignment is not described in the article, makes on average ¥4,537 a month. 

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Review: She Said

The PR campaign for screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s movie adaptation of New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism foregrounds their story as a seminal instance in the progress of the #MeToo movement, which it is. Nevertheless, as the movie presents how the two reporters coaxed female victims of Miramax president Harvey Weinstein to go on the record about his sexual abuse, it neglects to answer many questions the viewer is bound to have as the revelations unfold. One of the story’s precepts is the understanding that sexual exploitation, if not abuse, has been a tacitly acknowledged part of the Hollywood myth-making machine ever since it came into being, but exactly why it came to the fore so suddenly and powerfully at the time it did is left to the viewer’s imagination. The movie, as directed by Maria Schrader, gives the impression that it was the patient and empathetic efforts by Twohey and Kantor (played by Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan), two women who knew exactly where these victims were coming from, that made the difference (the script gives cursory credit to Ronan Farrow’s similar and concurrent coverage of the matter for The New Yorker). 

Consequently, the tone is a bit different from other journalistic thrillers: more even-handed, less melodramatic. It’s easy to infer that Schrader and Lenkiewicz were being overly cautious with such a fraught subject, but, actually, it seems to have more to do with how they characterize the corporate culture of the New York Times, which comes off as the most seriously considerate workplace in the world. Outside its hallowed offices, Twohey and Kantor encounter all sorts of ambient sexism and social censure—Twohey, who is suffering from post-partum depression for much of the early part of the movie, is hit on by a particularly aggressive asshole in a restaurant—while within the realm of the Grey Lady they receive nothing but unconditional support from their editors, Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) and Dean Baquet (Andre Braugher), not to mention the various staff reporters who are only too happy to aid their mission. 

Since most of the running time consists of the two reporters carefully negotiating with sources for both information and their consent to going on the record, there’s very little intrigue, but while the movie doesn’t drag, it does open the viewer’s mind to the abovementioned questions, such as, How did this systemic abuse manifest itself so thoroughly at Miramax without any pushback from management level staff and the male filmmakers they worked with, and How widespread is it throughout the industry? Moreover, why hadn’t the mainstream press picked up on it much earlier? (It should be noted that the Times felt it was OK to pursue Weinstein because of the recent precedent of the Fox News-Bill O’Reilly case.) Of course, we can guess the answers and are encouraged to, but Schrader’s rigor in making sure the movie only adheres to the record Twohey and Kantor developed gives the overall experience of watching it a limited appeal. Perhaps it was impossible to take in the whole issue comprehensively, but the movie feels a little too cautious and pleased with itself. The ending catharsis is real but premature, since the problem is still at large. 

Now playing 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).

She Said home page in Japanese

photo (c) Universal Studios

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Media watch: Is Japan bankrupting itself just to make the U.S. happy?

Aegis Ashore system

We’ve already written about the huge amount of money that Japan plans to spend for defense in the coming years. We’ve also written about how Japan will acquire all the new hardware it says it needs. What we didn’t write about—at least not in detail—is how Japan seems to have been suckered into buying all this stuff from the U.S. government under provisions that are disadvantageous to Japan. 

All this equipment and weapons that Japan has pledged to buy in order to bring its defense capabilities in line with NATO countries will be supplied by the U.S. under its Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Under FMS, the purchasing country does not buy military equipment from the manufacturer, but rather from the U.S. government itself. And the U.S. government adds a margin to the prices charged by the manufacturer as if it were a wholesaler. The purchasing countries, in principle, cannot haggle over this price. They have to pay what the U.S. charges. The ostensible reason for this middle man tactic is that the equipment often contains parts that are classified, and so the U.S. government has to check them. 

According to national security journalist Shigeru Handa, during a recent radio interview on the show Rojo no Rajio, Japan has questioned neither this system of transaction nor the demands of the U.S. as to what Japan should buy. Moreover, Japan must follow onerous loan terms when purchasing this equipment. 

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Media watch: You can’t pay people to have kids

On Jan. 4 during his New Year’s press conference, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to implement measures to increase Japan’s low birth rate. In 2022, the number of babies born in Japan went below 800,000 for the first time, and Kishida said that the “problem” cannot be “neglected any longer.” Most of the countermeasures he mentioned are economical in nature: reinforce or increase the child allowance, provide after-school childcare services, give more government support for ailing children and post-natal care for mothers, and promote a more amenable work-life balance for working women who have children (no mention was made of doing the same for working men with children). 

Though Kishida tried to make it sound as if these steps were “bold” and “unprecedented” (“ijigen,” an odd word that literally means “of a different dimension”), they really aren’t. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike also recently announced she would approve an extra monthly allowance for children. When the government has tried to do something in the past to raise the birth rate, which has been low since the 1980s (though not as low as it presently is in other East Asian countries and Taiwan), they’ve thrown money at the problem, which sounds logical since many couples have said they can’t afford children or can’t afford more children. But so far nothing has made a difference, so throwing money more “boldly” at the problem probably won’t make a difference, either.

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Review: Kung Fu Stuntmen

Perhaps because it was produced by a guild of Hong Kong-based stuntmen, this documentary about the evolution of their craft since the 1950s is both exhaustive (quite a feat at 92 minutes) and wonkish. Every legend you can think of and a few you probably haven’t heard of either comments on that history or is commented upon, and thanks to the relative looseness of the industry’s attitude toward copyrights, there is a wealth of valuable action footage on hand to illustrate each and every point fully. 

Starting out in the era of the Shaw Brothers, whose films dogmatically revolved around action scenes that lasted ten minutes, director Junzi Wei recounts how most of the men recruited to do stunt work were trained in Peking Opera, which helped define kung fu on the screen as being more balletic than violent, and therefore stylistic rather than realistic. The turning point was the development of the Drunken Monkey form of kung fu, which consisted of a standard set of movements that juxtaposed certain strikes to the opponent’s body with tumbling actions. And while the careers of stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (who essentially perfected the drunken monkey style with his Drunken Master series) receive attention because their distinctive screen personalities helped heighten the popularity of the genre, it was the stunt men who filled out their action scenes that get the lion’s share of attention in the doc, and they have a lot on their minds. In particular, they talk about health issues, the rise and fall of the apprentice system, and decades-long efforts to recognize their craft as one that the industry needed to address more responsibly in terms of payment. After Lee died, for instance, there was no big star to anchor movies for the main kung fu studio, Golden Harvest, until action choreographer Lam Ching Ying, formerly Lee’s assistant, revived and refined the art working with the great Sammo Hung, and often was featured onscreen since he was so good at what he did. His work helped transition kung fu into the more comic form championed by Chan in the late 80s, and which helped usher in the genre’s greatest era with stars like Donnie Yuen and Jet Li. 

The doc’s most interesting assertion is that, while the HK stuntman’s skills were proudly “low tech” and completely physical, the stuntmen themselves, understanding that advanced post-millennial film technology was putting them out of business, readily worked with this technology to sustain both their careers and the art itself. The important thing to them was not the technology itself, but rather the human element on screen, because that is what made the action so relatable to the audience. Miraculously, kung fu is even more vital than ever thanks to this progressive mindset, which now welcomes women and foreign actors/athletes into the guild’s ranks. Kung Fu Stuntmen is one of the most educational docs ever made about the movie industry since it obsessively focuses on an essential component of a particular style of filmmaking in order to explain how films in general have evolved over time. 

In Cantonese and Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Kung Fu Stuntmen home page in Japanese

photo (c) ACME Image (Beijin) Film Cultural Co., Ltd.

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Review: Emergency Declaration

Given its star power and large cinematic canvas, this disaster film would qualify as a blockbuster had it been made by Hollywood in the 70s or 80s. Nowadays it would just seem anachronistic, but since it was made in South Korea it could be considered yet another attempt by that country’s film industry to assert its primacy as the biggest challenge to Hollywood. Logistically, however, the movie ran up against the wall that was COVID, its original release date being pushed back until last year, though whether its postponement had to do with restrictions on movie theater attendance or the uncomfortable relevance of the plot particulars (probably both) isn’t readily known. The fact that it didn’t do as well box office-wise as expected was, I imagine, due to different aspects.

The star power is provided by two of Korea’s biggest male international draws at the moment, Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun, as well as one of its biggest domestic female draws, Jeon Do-yeon. The disaster scenario is doubly fraught: a sociopath boards a flight from Incheon to Honolulu and spreads a lethal virus in the cabin. Song and Lee play the two heroes in the parallel plotlines, Song as a police detective on the ground who desperately tries to locate the origin of the virus in order to determine if there’s an anti-viral treatment, and Lee as a passenger and retired pilot who may have to fly the plane after the flight crew falls ill. The juxtaposition of these two thriller threads should be enough to maintain the requisite suspense throughout the movie’s overextended 140 minutes, but, as usual with Korean big tent entertainment, it isn’t enough, and so the detective’s determination is explained by the fact that his wife is on the plane, and the ex-pilot is revealed to be an alcoholic who quit flying because of an accident that, in reality, wasn’t his fault. There’s also an unnecessarily convoluted back story to the mass killer’s motive that extends to his former employer’s refusal to cooperate with the police, as well as lots of international diplomatic intrigue when the plane, running out of fuel, is refused permission to land in both Hawaii and Japan despite the pilot’s “emergency declaration,” which, according to international aviation law, should allow it to land anywhere it needs to. 

Which isn’t to say Emergency Declaration is a waste of time; only that its almost superhuman effort to stuff as much plot into a situation that already tests the viewers ability to suspend disbelief results in more nervous laughter than chilly shudders. Actually, given how outlandish it is I imagine no one is going to be negatively reminded of the COVID pandemic. Maybe a plane disaster movie about that virus would have been scarier. 

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Marunouchi Piccadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955).

Emergency Declaration home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Showbox and Magnum9

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Review: Dream Horse

The British working class underdog movie is a proven box office winner, and much more convincing, if not more sentimental, than its American cognate, which is usually centered on sports. This almost apologetically formulaic fictionalization of a true story that was the subject of a 2015 documentary reveals its unadorned intentions in the title, but thanks to some subtly subversive performances and a script that sticks to the emotional contours of the story without swerving into easy bathos, Dream Horse effectively makes its socioeconomic points while still scoring in the tearjerking sweepstakes. 

The setting is a rural Welsh town where the middle aged protagonist, Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), holds down two boring jobs to support her and her husband, Brian (Owen Teale), whose unemployment seems to be chronic. Director Euros Lyn ably creates an atmosphere of small town conviviality that nevertheless conveys how most of the residents seem to have lost whatever mojo for life they once possessed before the local mine closed down. One evening, Jan overhears a local tax accountant, Howard Davies (Damian Lewis), in the social club where she tends bar in the evening talking to some acquaintances about his past success backing race horses. She can’t let go of the notion and eventually tries to get her neighbors interested in pooling their savings to back their own horse, which would mean actually buying one. Eventually, she convinces enough of them to participate out of a sense of “why not?” more than anything else. 

The mare they buy produces a pony they name Dream Alliance that shows immediate promise, and with Howard helping out as chief consultant and, later, full-fledged joint owner, they find a trainer (Nicholas Farrell) who can get the young horse into real steeplechase races, meaning real prize money is at stake. At this point, the movie enters into a predictable course of alternating triumphs and setbacks, much of which is predicated on the interminable Welsh-English resentment, which itself is a class conflict that the writer, Neil McKay, renders with a lightness of touch that doesn’t detract from its ability to enrage. What never changes in the story, however, is the horse’s seeming will to win, which inspires not only the Welsh folks who have invested their lives in him, but the audience as well. It’s great to have something to cheer for without feeling that you’re being cleverly manipulated to do so. 

Opens Jan. 6 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).

Dream Horse home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Dream Horse Films Limited and Channel Four Television Corporation

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Number 1 Shimbun column January

Here is our January column for the Number 1 Shimbun, which is about the process of choosing the current name of the imperial reign and why the attendant calendar system is so inconvenient.

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