Review: Our Departures

As a Canadian film acquaintance put it, Our Departures is a classic Shochiku release: sentimental, not too dramatic, and warmly funny in spots. It’s also about the importance of family, even if the family in question is unconventional, but, then, that seems to be the point. Jun Kunimura plays Setsuo, a veteran train driver in rural Kagoshima who is set to retire, much to the chagrin of his superiors, who, due to depopulation, don’t think they can find a replacement soon enough. Setsuo, a widower, lives alone in that kind of stoical self-sufficiency real men in Japanese films tend to manifest. One day, a young woman, Akira (Kasumi Arimura) and an elementary school-age boy, Shunya, show up on Setsuo’s doorstep. They turn out to be his estranged son’s second wife and son, who have come from Tokyo to inform Setsuo that his son died suddenly. Apparently, Akira tried to call many times but Setsuo has a habit of not listening to his old-fashioned message machine.

There isn’t much that’s new in Yasuhiro Yoshida’s direction, and the story is emphatic in its boiler plate development, even if the contours of the story sometimes feel forced. (People tend to die too conveniently) Setsuo’s instant family has nowhere to go since being evicted from their Tokyo apartment and so set up house with him and his ghosts. Preternaturally unfazable, Setsuo reacts with neither excitement nor irritation to the arrangement, while Akira becomes increasingly disillusioned with regard to her father-in-law’s lack of regret in causing his son to leave some years ago. Apparently, the son didn’t want to become a train driver like his father and wanted to get as far away from Kyushu as possible, and they never spoke in the meantime. Shunya, however, loves trains, and Setsuo is shocked to learn that he inherited that love from his father, who, according to Akira, was thinking of moving back to Kyushu before he died.

Probably the most radical aspect of the story is Akira’s determination to raise Shunya, who is the product of her late husband’s first marriage, on her own, which is something you don’t see in your average Shochiku family drama, but in a sense that compulsion gives her a reason to become a train driver herself, which is central to the movie’s reason for existence since Our Departures is a tie-up with the local train line depicted. And in that regard, the movie, while overlong and underpopulated (Arimura isn’t a seasoned enough actor to bear the bulk of the screen time), is thoroughly decent in its depiction of train work and culture, not to mention its seemingly effortless ability to evince tears. The best way to approach Our Departures is knowing exactly what to expect. If you do and you like this sort of thing, it’s practically a masterpiece. 

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (03-5367-1144), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Marunouchi Toei (03-3535-4741), Ikebukuro Humax Cinemas (03-5979-1660).

Our Departures home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Kazokuiro Film Partners

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Interview with Im Sang-soo

The following interview was conducted at the Pusan International Film Festival in October 2006. It originally appeared in The Japan Times.

The interview with Im Sang-soo takes place in a karaoke room in the basement of the Paradise Hotel. Though it wasn’t the press coordinator’s intention, the tacky ambience reminds me of the dining room where the assassination of Korean President Park Chung-hee takes place in Im’s movie, The President’s Last Bang, the subject of the interview.

The 44-year-old director sits at the head of the table, smoking languidly and taking questions from a woman reporter for a Korean publication. My interpreter whispers the woman’s questions to me but not Im’s answers, which sound curt. The woman giggles uncomfortably.

Im turns to me and I ask him about the lawsuit brought by Park Ji-man, the son of the late president, to prevent the film’s release, and about the judge’s subsequent order to cut the news footage that opens and closes the movie. “What she said is totally bullshit,” Im says in emphatic English, referring not to Park’s son but to his daughter, Park Geun-hye, who is planning to run for president herself. “The stated reason for the suit,” he continues in Korean, “is that in the news footage, in particular the final scene of President Park’s funeral, Ms. Park appears, and she didn’t want to appear. But it was clearly a political lawsuit instigated by the Park family and her party.”

On August 10, the Seoul Central District Court reversed the ruling on appeal, thus allowing MK Pictures to re-release the movie in its original form. Im believes that his appeal succeeded because “the political pressure had lessened.” The President’s Last Bang (Original Version) had its premiere at the 2006 Pusan International Film Festival. The documentary portion, which in addition to the funeral contains footage of violent protests against Park, who led the country with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979, adds context to Im’s version of the assassination. This is important since he feels that young Koreans don’t know how repressive Park was.

The first judge ordered the cuts because he thought the documentary portion would confuse people into thinking that the whole movie was based on fact. He was, in effect, being a movie critic, not a judge. Im’s film is a comically lurid take on the assassination, portraying the Park regime as an extended mafia family and the presidential Blue House as the Korean equivalent of the Playboy Mansion. The director stands on his version.

“All the people are real,” he says. “And everything that happens in the film really happened. What they do in the film, we know they did it, and what happens to them in the film is all true. Only the dialogue is made up.”

Some of that dialogue is in Japanese, another source of contention. Park and his cohorts, including the director of the Korean CIA, Kim Jae-kyu, who carried out the assassination, grew up during the colonial period and were shaped by their military experience under the Japanese. Among themselves, and especially when they become emotional, these men speak in the guttural Japanese often associated with samurai and yakuza. They revere bushido and get all teary-eyed when they hear enka.

“That was exactly the way they were,” Im insists. “During the colonial era there were Korean insurgents who fought against the Japanese, but there were also Koreans who hunted down these insurgents on behalf of the Japanese. President Park belonged to this latter group. He killed Koreans who fought for independence, and he actually became the president of the country and ruled it for 18 years. That’s the biggest tragedy.”

Im admits he took liberties with the record, but that’s because he doesn’t agree with the record. When he was killed, Park was being entertained by a famous Korean singer. Officially, she sang Korean folk songs, but Im has her sing Japanese pop songs. “She was considered at the time one of the best enka singers anywhere, even in Japan, so I believe she sang enka that night. I don’t believe the official reports, and no one has ever challenged that scene, so I think my version is right.”

A more significant mystery is Kim’s motive for killing his boss. In the movie, he seems to make the decision spontaneously, after Park gives a lecture in which he advocates more brutal measures to stop student protests. “Each person who sees the film will have to decide for himself why he did it,” says Im. “Some think he was standing up for Korean democracy. Some think he was mad. The reason is not important to me.”

What is important to Im is that the audience sees Kim as being no different than Park or any of the other members of the regime in terms of macho pride. The assassination sets off a bloodbath in which the presidential guard, the KCIA, and the army all battle one another. It’s like a gang war, except that some wear military uniforms and others dark suits and sunglasses. There’s a slapstick quality to the violence that plays up the absurdity of the situation. Though the assassination was viewed as being political, the movie conveys the idea that it was sparked by personal resentments and vendettas. As a result, it looks like a classic yakuza thriller.

Im smiles. “To me, they’re all yakuza. All the people in the film, all the people in that government. Pure yakuza.” The director, however, points out that he doesn’t like gangster movies and, in fact, insists he’s never even seen a yakuza film. “But I know the style.”

Given this style and the themes it supports, the movie’s reception in Japan should be interesting, but no release date has been announced yet. “Actually, I know exactly when it’s going to be released in Japan,” he says conspiratorially. “Next year. Right before the Korean presidential election.”

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Review: The Cakemaker

Israeli director Ofir Raul Graizer’s debut feature is a deceptively wicked take on romantic transference in that his strikingly unusual plot devices don’t seem that striking when they happen since they are so seamessly woven into the fabric of the story. Put bluntly, The Cakemaker is a love story between a young German man and not one, but two Israelis, a man and a woman, and while Germany as a country has done its best to reconcile with the Jewish people over its genocidal actions during World War II and is now a staunch supporter of Israel, the scenes where the German character interacts with Israelis on the latter’s home turf show how the relationship is still fraught with uneasiness. But it’s the second plot device, which connects directly to the first, that makes this movie more than a cross-cultural study. For those of us who know about Israel only through the news, it’s an eye-opening revelation, though to Israelis it’s everyday life.

Our German protagonist is the title character, Thomas (Tim Kalkhof), who plies his wares in a small bakery in Berlin. One day an Israeli businessman, Oren (Roy Miller), stops by for some strudel and then buys some to bring home to his family in Jerusalem. Oren has regular business in Berlin and stops by the bakery whenever he’s in town. Eventually, he and Thomas, who is much younger, embark on an affair. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the viewer sees only this side of Oren’s life. Thomas, it’s implied, is lonely and alone, and it’s only gradually that we learn he was raised by a single, now-deceased grandmother, who taught him how to bake.

And then Oren stops showing up, and Thomas is perplexed. After two months he gets up the courage to visit the company Oren was doing business with, ostensibly to deliver a cake, and learns that Oren was killed in a traffic accident in Jerusalem. In the next scene, Thomas is in Jerusalem, and while the suddenness of the progression is disconcerting, it obviates the need to explain Thomas’s motivation, which is important because he boldly seeks out the cafe recently opened by Oren’s wife, Anat (Sarah Adler), and wrangles himself a job as a dishwasher, without letting on that he knew her husband.

This is where the second plot device makes a difference. Thomas is a preternaturally reticent individual, and it’s difficult to understand his purposes in getting close to Anat, but he smoothly moves from utility help to the cafe’s resident confection maker, a role that threatens Anat’s kosher certiication, since he’s not Jewish. In the film’s second most dramatic scene, he bakes cookies for Anat’s son as a surprise for his birthday, and then has to throw them all out after Oren’s orthodox brother, Motti (Zohar Shtrauss), discovers he’s used the kosher oven, which is forbidden. As it stands, Anat is not religious. She only sought the kosher certification because of the greater potential for customers, and as the story progresses she finds herself caught between her regard for the quiet, thoughtful Thomas—whose creations, augmented by the novelty of his nationality, attract crowds—and her caustic, domineering brother-in-law, all the while never knowing why Thomas is there in the first place.

Though there’s much about The Cakemaker that tests credulity, it’s such an emotionally assured work that the eventual reckoning becomes unbearably wrenching, and it’s thanks mainly to the chemistry between Kalkhof and Adler. Though Thomas’s actions are unforgivable, Kalkhof makes him such a sympathetic figure that you dread the moment of truth as much as you would if you were waiting for him to die. And Anat’s ambiguous relationship with her family, including her late husband, lends her a tragic complexity. Even if Graizer can’t quite resolve all these elements in a satisfying way, he shows vividly how culture and character clash, not only interpersonally, but within the same person.

In English, Hebrew and German. Now playing in Tokyo at Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

The Cakemaker home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Laila Films Ltd. 2017

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Review: Hereditary

By far the most effective element in Ari Aster’s debut horror movie is Toni Collette’s face. Hereditary veers wildly and often incomprehensibly between domestic psychological drama and occult mystery, and the only thing holding it together is Collette’s command of her character’s mixture of incredulity and base terror. She plays Annie, a diorama artist grieving over her recently deceased mother, whom she never really liked but nonetheless felt connected to in a primal way she never understood. Her family—ineffectual psychiatrist husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), 16-year-old pothead son Peter (Alex Wolff), slightly developmentally disabled 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro)—empathize with her but mostly stay out of her way through the fitful funeral and its aftermath. When the mother’s grave is subsequently vandalized, Annie’s torment intensifies, and she joins a grief counseling group, where she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), who has a lot of peculiarly apt advice.

However, the movie’s sense of possibility doesn’t really kick in until halfway through, when an accident plunges the family into new depths of suffering. At first, the ghostly goings on seem predicated on Annie’s damaged psyche, and Aster actually has some gruesome fun teasing the viewer through ambiguous episodes that could point to either mental dissolution or forces from beyond. Characters are possessed, things go bump in the night, rooms catch on fire, and all the while Steve tries his best to keep up a professional game face despite evidence that the world he inhabits is becoming, literally, a living hell.

Inevitably, Aster has to show his hand, and given the elaborate and elaborately plotted setup, the climax is at once unnecessarily overdone and logically implausible, even within the liberal confines of an occult thriller. The most common source text cited so far has been Rosemary’s Baby, whose horrific power flowed from Roman Polanski’s subtle manipulation of clues. Aster is constanly hitting us where we live with inventive terrors, so the big reveal is invariably a letdown. We feel as if we’ve seen it before, and done better.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5045), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Cinema Sunshine Ikebukuro (03-3962-6388).

Hereditary home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Hereditary Film Productions LLC

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Review: Killing

Director Shinya Tsukamoto wants people to come to his latest feature prepared for something different, which may sound like quasi-spoiler fodder given that it’s Tsukamoto’s first genuine genre film, namely a jidaigeki or, more familiarly, a samurai flick. But anyone familiar with Tsukamoto’s previous work will likely expect more than the usual gore, given the filmmaker’s penchant for grotesquerie. And, to a certain extent, there is a lot of blood, though not as much as there was in his World War II churner, Fires on the Plain. What’s different is his protagonist, Mokunoshin (Sosuke Ikematsu), a ronin who has decided he will have nothing to do with killing. Modern viewers will think of him as a pacifist, but the impulse is deeper, less philosophical. Mokunoshin is physically sickened by violence.

In fact, we soon learn that Mokunoshin has never killed a man, which, historically speaking, makes sense since the film is set at the tale end of the Edo era, during which samurai had no one to kill since it was a time of forced peace. However, a day of reckoning is coming since the forces loyal to the emperor wish to overthrow the shogun, thus setting the stage for a bloody confrontation that will test the samurais’ mettle. Mokunoshin wants nothing to do with it, and is laying low in a remote forest and working for a farmer, whose son, Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda), has romantic ideas of the warrior’s life. When he learns of Mokunoshin’s vocation, he talks him into giving him lessons. One day they happen upon a duel between two men who are obviously samurai, and while the demonstration of skills whets Ichisuke’s appetites, it repulses Mokunoshin. As it turns out, the winner of the duel, Sawamura (Tsukamoto), is rounding up samurai to join in the coming battle in Kyoto. Stoical and preternaturally polite, he imposes on the farmer and, naturally, learns that Mokunoshin is a samurai and tries to persuade him to join the crusade. He refuses as elegantly as he can.

This dynamic is interrupted by a band of outlaw ronin, who take what they want. Though initially content to simply intimidate the farmer’s family and get some grub out of it, the hot-headed Ichinosuke provokes them into action, which includes a near rape of his sister (Yu Aoi), who constantly berates Mokunoshin for his dithering attitude, not only in relation to his duty as a samurai, but toward her as a possible sex partner (he’s reduced to masturbating with her in his thoughts). Eventually, matters reach a boiling point, with Sawamura taking on the bandits and Mokunoshin holding back, an affront to the former’s honor that leads to another duel, this time between the stoic and the refusenik.

Though the movie has a consistency of tone and theme that makes it compelling as the kind of anti-samurai story Tsukamoto obviously intends it to be, there’s something about Mokunoshin that sets the viewer’s teeth on edge. Perhaps it’s the way the character is conceived, or maybe it’s Ikematsu’s performance, but Mokunoshin’s depressive behavior becomes old really quickly. For an 80-minute movie punctuated by some potently graphic swordplay, Killing sure does drag.

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

Killing home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Shinya Tsukamoto/Kaijyu Theater

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Media Mix, Nov. 25, 2018

Daisuke Miyagawa (middle)

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the Nippon TV variety show Itte Q, which has been accused of fabricating foreign “festivals” for one of its most popular regular segments. One of the points I wanted to make in the column is that “yarase” (faking it) is a function of variety show production and not an anomaly. The cliches that have developed over the years through countless variety show formats dictate what audiences expect from the genre, and so producers work with those cliches, even if they don’t adhere to “reality.” Of course, television is a malleable medium, and anyone with so-called media literacy understands when they are expected to suspend disbelief. The most glaring example that comes to mind is the situation that occurs in many travel variety shows of someone going somewhere to look for a certain person. In every instance the reporter/talent finds the sought individual, and over the years it’s become commonplace for the encounter to be a chance meeting. The viewer probably understands that it’s all a setup if only for practicality’s sake. Why would the producers spend all that money to send talent and a crew all that way, sometimes to a foreign country, without a guarantee that they will have footage to bring back? In the case of Itte Q, as the professor quoted in the Tokyo Shimbun article pointed out, the producers have to work around talent Daisuke Miyagawa’s schedule because he is central to the appeal of the “festival” segment of the show, so they aren’t going to risk wasting resources and time by sending him to a place where he isn’t going to have anything to do. They’re going to make sure everything goes as planned and so will game the system, in this case the “festival” he’s checking out. The point, however, should not be that viewers are being fooled by all this. I’d prefer to think that fans of Itte Q and similar variety shows are wise to the subterfuge and accept it as part of the fun. On the surface, at least, the producers and the network have to make it seem as if it’s all on the up and up, but in the case at hand, the producers definitely misrepresented Laotian culture by inventing something that didn’t exist, which makes the subterfuge unacceptable. Nevertheless, as Donald Trump likes to say, it is what it is.

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Review: Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars

Artist biodocs would seem to be easier to pull off than artist biopics, as long as there’s enough available footage. Eric Clapton has been more or less a star since he emerged in mid-60s England as a blues guitar prodigy and purist, and this career review makes ample use of film and photography, not to mention audio recordings of friends and family who offer insight into Clapton’s mindset at specific junctures in his life. There’s a lot to chew on, and in the end we get a very good idea of the kind of person Clapton is but are not much closer to understanding his sensibility as an artist than we were before we watched the movie.

The overriding theme is Clapton’s sensitivity. A shy kid who buried himself in African-American blues music as a means of co-opting others’ marginalized status to make sense of his own, he admits in voiceover that he had a happy early childhood being raised by two people who he thought were his parents. At age 9, however, he discovered that the woman he called his mother was really his grandmother, and that his real mother had abandoned him after a one-night-stand pregnancy and moved to Canada. Twice during the film, at suspiciously opportune but awkward junctures in the narrative, director Lili Fini Zanuck returns to Clapton’s childhood to point out how damaging his mother’s “cruel” rejection of him as her own flesh and blood was to his psyche, and how it colored his self-image. Zanuck conveniently uses these incidents to explain his addictions but in terms of Clapton’s artistry all she does is point to his identification with the blues as a balm, and leaves it at that for the rest of the film.

This strategy is particularly frustrating given the film’s length, its leaden pace, and its obsessive focus on Clapton’s crush on Patti Boyd, the wife of his best friend George Harrison, and the inspiration for his greatest work of art, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. But while Zanuck does show how a fortuitous meeting with Duane Allman helped crystallize Clapton’s vision for the album, she completely disregards his post-Blind Faith work with the seminal Southern R&B couple Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett, who, more than anyone else, helped him become the singer who was as vital to Layla‘s success as his guitar playing and writing were. (She also excises his first solo album, produced by Delaney, which was a seminal transitional work between the excess of the 60s and the more “authentic” music of the 70s.) Essentially, all Layla is to the movie is the last great creative push before his quick descent, sparked by Boyd’s paranoid rejection of the album, into years of heroin and alcohol abuse. Though, personally, I found his music much less interesting during this troubled period, it sold well and kept him rich, but Zanuck doesn’t even address the music, just the drinking and the inconsistent stage demeanor, which peaked with that infamous racist tirade at a concert in London, an incident he speaks to directly here with great regret. Given Clapton’s obvious sensitive nature and what he owed the great American blues musicians he idolized as a boy, no one could take the tirade as anything other than the ramblings of a self-hating drunk. Zanuck knows this but throws the incident off as if she herself is embarrassed by it.

The last half hour zooms through Clapton’s recovery, the death of his son, and his subsequent success as an MOR superstar, though, again, by not saying much about the music except that it was finally recognized by the Grammys she short changes both his stature and his influence. His story here is that of a survivor of emotional trauma. Leave it to others to analyze his place as an innovator in the annals of rock and roll.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Bushbranch Films Ltd. 2017/Ron Pownall

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