J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

NYICFF ’17: Your Name.

It is the second highest grossing domestic film in Japan, second only to a Miyazaki film. In some ways, the teen body-switch Macguffin is comfortably nostalgic, evoking memories of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s I Are You, You Am Me, but it also displays a post-Fukushima sensibility. Perhaps it came along at the perfect zeitgeisty time for Japanese audiences, but it is still more than sufficiently universal to sweep up viewers of any nation in its tragic romance. Anime does not get much more emotionally sophisticated than Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. (trailer here), which screens as the opening spotlight selection of the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Taki Tachibana is a bit of a mess, but the Tokyo high school student works hard at his part-time job waiting tables. Mitsuha Miyamizu is a very together student, but she would much prefer to live in Tokyo than the provincial Itomori, because she is embarrassed by her overbearing father, the most likely crooked mayor, and the Kuchikamizake rituals (sake brewed from chewed-up and spit-out rice) she is forced to participate in. Even though they are strangers separated by miles, Tachibana and Miyamizu start waking up in each other’s bodies. It happens regularly enough they develop a system leaving notes for each other on their smart phones of what transpired while they were swapped.

Initially, they bicker via voice memos and generally angst out over the ways they disrupt their respective lives, but naturally a strange attraction percolates between them, even though they never met face-to-face. As a result, Tachibana grows alarmed when the switching suddenly stops. In fact, he is so concerned, he sets off to find Miyamizu offline, or whatever the right term might be, only to learn her hometown was destroyed several years prior in a freak comet collision.

At this point, Name takes a turn into Il Mare territory, introducing unexpectedly fantastical, temporal, and spiritual themes. Frankly, Shinkai’s adaptation of his own novel is almost assuredly the most mature and potent movie romance you will see all year—and its anime. Seriously, if you are not carried along by its sweep and earnest pluckiness than you really must be old and mean.

Both Miyamizu and Tachibana are appealing but imperfect teenage characters, who are each surrounded by believably distinctive social circles. Anyone living in the first world, broadly defined, should be able to relate to the body-switchers and their friends. A perfect case in point is Tachibana’s rather endearing crush relationship with Miki Okudera, a college student also working at the restaurant, whom Miyamizu finally asks out, on his behalf.

Arguably, the first act body-switching business is like cinematic comfort food. We have seen it before, but it always seems to work. However, even reasonably committed anime fans are likely to be surprised how original Your Name gets and how deep it goes. The characters, especially the co-leads, are gracefully rendered and many of the visuals are quite striking. Very highly recommended, Your Name. screens this Saturday (2/25) at the SVA Theatre, as the opening spotlight of this year’s NYICFF.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reel South: An Enduring Legacy

If you have ever gone on an eating tour of New Orleans and Cajun country, there is a good chance you ate oysters supplied by Croatian-American oyster farmers. It really is more like farming than fishing, as the veteran oyster hands duly explain in James Catano’s An Enduring Legacy: Louisiana’s Croatian Americans (trailer here), which airs as part of the current season of Reel South on PBS’s World Channel (hosted by Darius Rucker).

It stands to reason the skills one learns living off the Dalmatian Coast translate fairly readily to the Gulf Coast. In fact, Croatian immigrants quickly identified the comparative advantage they held in oyster farming. Since the late 1800s, they have built a small but resilient community in Louisiana, largely centered on the oyster business. As one might expect, Hurricane Katrina did not do them any favors, but it was the BP oil spill and the clueless response that really threatened their livelihoods. Yet, they persevere and have started building more permanent community infrastructure.

Basically, Catano pitches it to viewers straight over the plate, but it is a story worth hearing, so why get overly complicated? These are hard-working, hard-playing folks who do not ask anything from anyone. All they want to do is work their oyster beds and keep their Croatian cultural traditions alive for the next generation (who seem to be showing interest, even though there is less oyster work to be had).

It just goes to show, when it comes to New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, the more you look, the more you find. Frankly, just the thought of oysters prepared any dozens of ways in the Crescent City should make you hungry, so it is nice to take twenty-some minutes to appreciate the oyster farmers who helped make so many great meals possible. Recommended for additional perspective on a fascinating state, An Enduring Legacy: Louisiana’s Croatian Americans airs this Sunday (2/26), as part of the current season of Reel South.

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Bitter Harvest: Ukraine’s Tragic History, Finally on the Big Screen

On the spectrum of human enormity, the Holodomor, Stalin’s genocidal campaign to starve Ukraine to the brink of extinction, ranks somewhere near the Cambodian Killing Fields, just below the National Socialist Holocaust. Yet, many in the West never knew it was happening. The prime culprit of Stalin’s disinformation campaign was the compromised journalist Walter Duranty. The New York Times no longer stands by his reports but the Pulitzer organization refuses to rescind the prize they awarded for his denial of Stalin’s crimes against humanity. On one level, George Mendelok’s English language Bitter Harvest functions as a historical romance, but it is also a timely reminder of what happens when journalists chose to serve as propagandists. Truth is a victim along with upwards of 7.5 million Ukrainians in Mendeluk’s Harvest (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There was no love for the Czar amongst Ukraine’s sturdy peasantry, so they initially welcomed the revolution as an opportunity to finally declare independence. Unfortunately, Lenin soon reconquered the republic, expressly so its grain could fuel the Soviet regime. After his death, Stalin pursued a more exploitative and intentionally brutal policy. All land was nationalized and collectivized. Harvests were almost entirely exported back to Moscow, leaving insufficient stocks for even subsistence living and the borders were sealed, with full knowledge mass starvation would result.

Like so many Ukrainians, Yuri comes from Kulak stock, the so-called “rich land-owning” peasants, a term that only makes sense to a Marxist-Leninist theorist or a Bernie Sanders intern. His childhood sweetheart Natalka grew up in even meaner conditions, but her family will still suffer and starve at the hands of the brutal commissar quartered in their village.

When Yuri is awarded a scholarship to a Kiev art school, he assumes it will offer opportunities to help his family, but conditions in the city turn out to be worse than in the countryside. He also witnesses the Party’s attack on free expression first-hand when Socialist Realism is rigidly mandated throughout the school. He assumes his old village chum will protect him when he is elected Ukrainian Party Secretary, but poor Mykola fails to understand the caprices of Comrade Stalin until he finds himself on the business end of a purge. When Yuri is also imprisoned, his hopes of reuniting with Natalka look grim, but the grandson of a legendary Cossack warrior has more fight in him than the art school pedigree might suggest.

On-screen, Bitter Harvest has the epic tragedy of its obvious role model film, Doctor Zhivago. However, if you sniff underneath the celluloid, you might smell the burnt rubber and tear gas that permeated many crew members who participated in the Maidan Square demonstrations on their free days from shooting. The parallels between the Lenin and Stalin eras of exploitation and attempted annihilation and the Putin era neo-Soviet militarism hardly need explaining. Yet, lingering ignorance of the Holodomor helps embolden Putin’s military incursions.

Much like Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn, Mendeluk and screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover clearly illustrate the acrid demoralization of the propaganda that so brazenly denied the victims of Communism’s abject suffering (Duranty does indeed make an appearance in the film, but there is no context to explain who he is). Yet, the Zhivago-esque storyline has plenty of sweep and even harbors a handful of surprises. Samantha Barks was probably the best part of the Les Mis movie, but she is even more convincing as an illegitimate Slavic peasant than a French street urchin. Max Irons is a little stiff portraying Yuri’s puppy love years, but he shows some surprising grit in the second and third acts. Terence Stamp does his hardnosed thing as old leathery Ivan, while Tamer Hassan chillingly projects the wanton cruelty of the empowered extremist.

Bitter Harvest is not a pitch-perfect film. Frankly, Mendeluk’s dream sequences are far too woo-woo for a film that ought to be all about cold hard realism. However, it vividly shines a light on a criminally under-reported and often deliberately misunderstood case of systematic mass murder, while the family saga picks up speed and power as it develops. Highly recommended for fans of big picture historical dramas, Bitter Harvest opens this Friday (2/24) at the AMC Empire in Midtown and the Village East downtown.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

WFA ’17: Beyond the Curtain (short)

Even though Chinese opera has a long tradition, all but eight so-called “model operas” were banned during the Cultural Revolution. Not surprisingly, comic books faced a similar, but possibly more stringent prohibition. Yet, a mysterious man will spark a young boy’s interest in both, despite the oppressive conditions mandated by the Gang of Four in Haixu Liu’s short film Beyond the Curtain (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Winter Film Awards.

Hai’s family has relocated to the provinces, but they have largely been spared the worst of the Cultural Revolution. They certainly seem to be sufficiently poor, since Hai lacks even the simple toys enjoyed by his classmates. One day, a mysterious homeless man starts to take an interest in the boy, giving him a few modest gifts, including a series of hand-drawn comic books that begins the narrative of a dark and stormy operatic tale of courtly intrigue.

With tragic inevitability, Hai’s comics and discovered. Consequently, his parents and local cadres force him to denounce the homeless man. Although the resulting guilt and shame will haunt Hai all his life, he will not understand the full significance of his forced betrayal until he visits that same provincial village decades later, returning as a successful opera director.

Curtain really is bittersweet in the fullest sense of the word. While the pain from the Cultural Revolution lingers, the inspiration stoked by the mysterious vagabond also has a lasting, edifying effect. Somehow, Liu tightly bundles up every conceivable emotional response in his potent happy-sad pay-off, getting key assists from his small but talented ensemble. As young Hai, Zhiwen Zhang is arrestingly open and earnest, while Xianli Meng is hauntingly dignified and sad as the homeless man.

Liu also has an impressive eye for visual composition. He dramatically contrasts the drabness of life during the Cultural Revolution with the lush, stylized sets of the opera unfolding in Hai’s comic books. Arguably, Curtain is more cinematic than most full length features. In fact, Liu fits plenty of character development into its twenty-seven-minute running time, telling quite a dramatic, era-spanning story with great economy. Very highly recommended, Beyond the Curtain screens this Sunday night (2/26) and the following Wednesday (3/1) as part of programming blocks of the 2017 Winter Film Awards.

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The Girl with All the Gifts: R-Rated Zombie YA-Crossover Adaptation

Humanity ought to just give up the ghost and make way for zombies to rule the Earth in our place. It is what we deserve for being so rapacious and exploitative, whereas zombies are all about sensitivity and sustainable growth. Not according to any zombie film we’ve ever seen, yet those same films insist the shuffling hordes will be better stewards of the planet. That is even true of the zombie movies based on YA-crossover novels. In this case, it also happens to be rated R. Regardless, humanity is up the creek, but Melanie, a second-generation “hungry” probably has the right stuff to survive in Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In this case, Melanie really is a girl, a bright ten-year-old who carries the zombie-turning fungal infection. Since she was infected in-utero, she can still conduct herself in a rational manner, as long as she does not get a good whiff of human flesh. She and two or three dozen of her fellow hybrids are serving as research guinea pigs in a secret military base outside London. Helen Justineau is probably the only sympathetic adult figure the kids-with-the-gift know. Aside from her, nobody on staff really takes her daily lessons seriously, but it provides a bonding catalyst for Justineau and the children, especially Melanie. Therefore, when the hungries over run the base, it is Melanie who she will save.

Rather awkwardly, Justineau and Melanie fall in with the hardnosed hungry-hating Sgt. Eddie Parks and the icily self-assured Dr. Caroline Caldwell, who was one zombie attack away from vivisecting Melanie for the sake of a cure. Together, they will try to make it to the Beacon base, but all the hungries in their way make it hard going.

We have been down the humanized zombie road before, most notably with Sabu’s Miss Zombie, but also with Maggie, In the Flesh, and Wyrmwood, but at least Gifts starts promisingly. With the help of aerial drone photography of Chernobyl-decimated Pripyat, McCarthy creates an eerie vision of post-zombie apocalypse London. Melanie also seems to engage with her human captors in mature, interesting ways, particularly her intellectually curious exchanges with Dr. Caldwell. Unfortunately, nearly everyone becomes a zombie movie cliché is the third act, including Melanie herself. Events and decisions that are not well-founded by the preceding scenes just seem to happen in order to bring the film to a ridiculously unsatisfying conclusion.

Sennia Nanua is pretty impressive as Melanie, even when she is forced to wear that protective ski mask (lucky they made that model out of transparent plastic). Glenn Close chews the scenery like a pro and Paddy Considine broods like nobody’s business as crusty Sgt. Parks. Gemma Arterton looks uncomfortable playing Justineau, but she manages to get by. Unfortunately, the ragamuffin hungry-hybrids who shows up later are far more laughable than feral or fierce.

Despite some intense hungry-zombie action, most notably the scenes in which they are able to sneak around the zoned-out in-place packs of the fungal-infected, Gifts ends on a dubious note. It is like McCarthy and screenwriter Mike Carey (adapting his own novel) just give up on their narrative as well as the human race. Only recommended for zombie fans in dire want of a fix, The Girl with All the Gifts opens this Friday (2/24) in New York, at the Village East.

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WFA ’17: Moon of a Sleepless Night (short)

Neil deGrasse Tyson might not approve of the astronomy, but so be it. This gentle quest fable is a charmer and probably good bedtime viewing for little ones, so hopefully some enterprising DVD distributor will pick it up, despite its twenty-seven-minute running time. When the moon gets stuck in the trees only a young boy and a lunar squirrel can save it in Takeshi Yashiro’s elegant stop-motion animated short Moon of a Sleepless Night (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Winter Film Awards.

The little boy is tossing and turning tonight, so his woodsman father takes him out for a stroll to tire him out. There is no moon to light their way, so the woodsman deduces it is hung up on the treetops somewhere to the east. Naturally, they set out to free it, unless the “Rabbit of the Moon” does so first. Apparently, that is exactly what happened, except he is a squirrel, not a rabbit (as he explains repeatedly to the boy and his mother)—and he has rather negligently let himself get left behind.

The following day refuses to give way to night, because the squirrel-less moon is presumably stuck beyond the horizon. That has rather real world implications for the boy’s family, because his father might not know when to come home from his fishing expedition, so the boy heads off with the squirrel to right the situation.

Moon is a wonderfully gentle and captivating tale, whose charms are equally endearing for viewers of all ages. It is certainly fantastical and furry, thanks to the talking squirrel, but it also functions as a thoughtful coming-of-age story. The deliberately woody, rough-hewn look of Yashiro’s people are still oddly expressive and well-serve the film’s rustic woodland vibe. Yet, the forest world they inhabit is rich in detail and lushly realized.

Frankly, Moon just leaves viewers with a contented glow. That combined with its nocturnal sleepytime themes could well make it staple evening viewing for families. Regardless, it is a lovely piece of filmmaking, very highly recommended when it screens this Friday (2/24) and next Monday (2/27), as part of this year’s Winter Film Awards.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

FCS ’17: Bitter Money

Even prior to the Ming Dynastic Era, Huzhou was known as a center of the silk trade and for the production of ink brushes. Somewhat logically, it is now a regional hub of the Chinese textile industry, but that does not necessarily make it a fun place to live and work—quite the contrary, in fact. Wang Bing documents the hardscrabble lives of a number of migrant workers laboring away in Huzhou’s sweatshop-like workshops in Bitter Money, which screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

There is more “reality” in Wang Bing’s body of work than the entire reality television genre, in toto. Yet, Bitter Money could almost be considered his Real World, given how much of it is confined to the dilapidated dormitory provided by the workshop owner for his employees. Initially, we meet two teen cousins as they take the long rail passage from Yunnan to Huzhou in search of work, but Wang will only follow them for so long. Like Linklater’s Slacker, he will hop from one textile worker to another that might happen to cross their paths. It looks random, but he seems to have inside info telling him when to jump. As a result, he captures a nasty confrontation between twenty-five-year-old Ling Ling and her defiantly unsupportive (and physically violent) husband Erzi.

By far, Ling Ling and Erzi represents the most extreme case in Bitter Money. Most of the dormitory residents are reasonably healthy, undeniably hardworking, and in some instances maybe even somewhat happy. Two teenage sisters certainly look and sound like teens you might meet anywhere else in the world, but it is a shame they aren’t in high school, where they could better enjoy gossiping about boys. However, hard-drinking Huang Lei is another hard case. Whether the boss’s refusal to pay him until he sobers up is protective or exploitative is a highly debatable question.

Frankly, there is more such ambiguity in Bitter Money than most of Wang’s uncompromisingly soul-crushing documentaries. Nobody appears to be making much money out of textiles, unless it is the “big factories” that factor so prominently in rumors throughout the film. From what the audience can pick up on, the margins just sound punishing. Yet people keep coming and they keep finding work, albeit at wages not far above subsistence level.

Once again, Wang is fleet of foot and handy enough with the handheld to capture some telling moments. Arguably, this is the most engaging group of subjects he has filmed since Three Sisters. We feel sympathy for nearly all of them, but we only despair for a select few, which gives it a considerably less downcast tone than most of his films. There is a lot of life going on in Bitter Money, as everyone tries to get by as best they can. Recommended for admirers of Wang’s intense examination of the human condition in contemporary China, Bitter Money screens this Thursday (2/23), as part of the 2017 edition of Film Comment Selects.

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FCS ’17: Dogs

How do you keep 550 hectacres of strategically located land undeveloped for years, even during Romania’s Communist era? You have to be one bad cat, like Roman’s late grandfather, whom he hardly knew. Perhaps not surprisingly, the town’s terminally ill police chief and various low life thugs are less than welcoming when Roman takes possession of his property (with the intent to sell) in Bogdan Mirică’s Dogs (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

“Uncle Alecu’s” property comes with a cranky caretaker, a snarling guard dog ironically named “Police” and a drafty old farmhouse with a shotgun prominently displayed. Soon after his arrival Police the dog alerts him to two strange cars secretly meeting in the middle of Old Alecu’s barren scrub grass. A few days later, Roman and his sales agent Sebi Voicu interrupt another such nocturnal rendezvous. Rather ominously, Voicu’s car was discovered abandoned shortly thereafter.

Voicu’s disappearance is one of two cases Chief Hogas is trying to clear. The other involves a severed foot discovered floating in a nearby pond. Unfortunately, two serious complications have imposed artificial time constraints on Hogas. His precinct is imminently due to be replaced by a roving mobile unit and his body is fatally riddled with cancer. Before he goes, Hogas desperately hopes to take down his nemesis, Samir, the local drug trafficking kingpin.

Dogs could indeed be considered the Romanian No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water. It definitely has a contemporary western vibe, but it is still a Romanian film, so it should come as no surprise Dogs is a bit of a slow-starting slow-builder. Yet, Mirică organically develops the tension out of the moody, frontier-like setting. While the title is somewhat metaphorical, Police the junkyard dog still gets plenty of screen time. If you liked A Dog’s Purpose, you would probably be utterly horrified by Mirică’s Dogs, but it is still features some impressive canine screen work.

Dragos Bucur is actually a rather big fellow, but he manages to make Roman convincingly gawky and passive. Gheorghe Visu is quite salty and wry, playing Hogas much like a Romanian Jeff Bridges, except more emaciated. Constantin Cojocaru adds plenty of sinister local color as the caretaker, Epure, but Police’s constantly barking presence really makes the film.

Dogs steadily works towards some legit genre mayhem, while still staying true to its Romanian New Wave heritage. Mirică shows tremendous patience and a careful command of mise-en-scene, but it is still one of the more easily watchable Romanian films you are likely to see on the festival circuit. It really is a thriller and not just a film that inherits the category label, because it includes cops and guns. Recommended with enthusiasm for discriminating viewers, Dogs screens this Thursday night (2/23), as the conclusion of the 2017 edition of Film Comment Selects.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

FCS ’17: Harmonium

Japanese cinema has brought us gracefully humanistic masterworks of domestic drama from the like of Yasujiro Ozu, Yasujiro Shimazu, and Yoji Yamada. This is not one of them. The Toshio Suzuoka and his family are not exactly happy, but they are essentially in a state of equilibrium until the arrival of an associate from his past in Kôji Fukada’s Harmonium (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

In all honesty, Suzuoka is not an especially loving husband or father, but he provides well enough with his garage-based metal-working shop. In fact, business is brisk enough, he can hallway justify bringing on Kusataro Yasaka as his assistant. Unbeknownst to his wife Akie, Suzuoka was the accomplice Yasaka never named for his role in the murder he has just finished serving a prison sentence for. Obviously, Suzuoka is acting out of guilt, but his wife and daughter Hotaru take a genuine liking to the new member of the household, even when Yasaka partially confides in Akie (diplomatically leaving out her husband involvement).

At first, Harmonium seems to follow the general trajectory of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, with Akie fighting to deny her sexual attraction to Yasaka, and ten-year-ish Hotaru looking up to him as a supplemental parent-figure (especially when he starts giving her lessons on the titular pump organ). However, the film takes a shockingly disturbing turn late in the second act that frankly might be too much for many viewers.

Regardless, the effects of the now missing Yasaka’s actions will remain ever present for his former employers. Yet, fate takes an almost Biblical turn when the grown son Yasaka never knew is unknowingly hired by Suzuoka to succeed him.

Harmonium is a taut, claustrophobic film, but it never observes traditional thriller conventions. In fact, it has a pronounced habit of zagging whenever you expect it to zig. Although certainly not a genre film per se, it is still something of a domestic horror story. In many ways, it compares quite directly with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata.

All four starting principals give impressively assured, stringently restrained performances, but it is especially harrowing to see Mariko Tsutsui go slightly, but not completely nuts as Akie Suzuoka. It is also rather remarkable how Tadanobu Asano can shift Yasaka from quietly world weary to fiercely ominous with almost imperceptible alterations in body language and tone of voice. Yet it is Momone Shinokawa and Kana Mahiro who really tear up viewers as the younger and older incarnations of Hotaru.


Arguably, the ending is maybe a bit too indeterminate for such an otherwise uncompromising film. Regardless, it is definitely the work of an assured stylist of distinctly Japanese sensibilities. Highly recommended for the unsentimental, Harmonium screens this Tuesday (2/21) as part of the 2017 edition of Film Comment Selects.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Tales of Our Time: Terra Nullius or: How to Be a Nationalist

Thanks to his preparation for this film, James T. Hong is now a licensed fisherman in Taiwan. That would give him a trade to fall back on, if he were not so prone to seasickness. Nevertheless, his is determined to reach the disputed Senkaku no man’s land islands, with whichever nationalist group can reach its shores. Fitting in chameleon-like with each faction, Hong follows their demonstrations and high seas hijinks in Terra Nullius or: How to Be a Nationalist (trailer here), which screens today at the Guggenheim, in conjunction with the Tales of Our Time exhibition.

After WWII, the Senkaku Islands were covered under the American administration of Okinawa. Basically, the U.S. military just used it for bombing practice until returning it to Japanese control in 1971. Subsequently, both Taiwan and Mainland China claimed the remote islands. However, the ROC no longer formally disputes Japanese possession, whereas the PRC is cagey on the subject. It hardly matters. Nationalist groups from all three nations are more than willing to press the claims that inspire such circumspect caution in their governments.

Somewhat ironically, the People’s Republic activists now sail out of Hong Kong, because the Mainland authorities will just automatically chuck Diaoyu (as they call the Senkaku Islands) activists in prison. Of all the fake fisherman Hong spends time with, the Mainlanders probably get the most screen time, possibly due to their ability to cuss a blue streak when confronting various maritime authorities.

Oh by the way, a 1968 survey suggested there could be oil under them there islands. Yet, the activists seem oblivious to any strategic value the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyutai as they call them in Taiwan, might hold. It all seems to be about land and blood for them, sort of like a Frenchman discussing Algeria.

Frankly, it is pretty amazing how easily Hong fell in with such disparate groups. Seriously, they do not seem to be the compromising types. Granted, the energy level of Terra Nullius rises and falls, but he captures some pretty nutty behavior. He also contributes to the lunacy with climatic gesture of grand futility worthy of Mads “The Ambassador” Brügger.

Presumably, Terra Nullius is intended as a cautionary critique of nationalism, but it is hard not to think a lot of trouble could have been saved if the U.S. military had just kept occupying the islands. We would still just be shelling the shellac out of them, so maybe we could have avoided the Vieques controversy too. It is somewhat inconsistent, even at a mere seventy-nine minutes, but its strongest sequences successfully marry the sensibilities of gonzo journalism and video installation art. Recommended for curious vérité fans, Terra Nullius or: How to Be a Nationalist screens again this afternoon (2/18) at the Guggenheim, free with Museum admission.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

The Great Wall: A Monster Co-Production

They first crawled out of the earth centuries ago, yet somehow the swarms of Taotie lizard-beasts represent modern commercial values sweeping across China. Only collective action can stand against them—and perhaps a hotdogging Western adventurer. Or maybe they are just monsters who need killing. If you can work with it on that level, Zhang Yimou’s mega-budget co-production The Great Wall (trailer here) is rather enjoyable viewing when it opens today nationwide.

Evidently, the Taotie first spewed forth as punishment for a venal emperor’s greed. Every sixty years they return, strewing havoc in their wake. That is why subsequent emperors built that large wall thingy and it is probably why they also invented gunpowder before the West. They were highly motivated. A group of blundering Western mercenaries came to China hoping to acquire game-changing quantities of the “black powder,” but they have been much abused by the indigenous Khitan of the north. Yet, somehow the two survivors, Irishman William Garin and Spaniard Pero Tovar, manage to dispatch a Taotie scout.

In most respects, the Westerners’ timing is pretty terrible. They are about to be capture by the Nameless Order, the elite corps that stands guard on the Great Wall, just as the Taotie attack—six weeks early. Both will distinguish themselves during the initial battle, but Tovar is biding his time, hoping to score some black powder and make a break for it, whereas Garin’s long dormant idealism starts to stir, like a Medieval Rick Blaine.

There is no getting around the film’s greatest weakness. That is obviously Matt O’Damon flailing around as Garin. The bad news is his Irish accent is what you might call mushy (seriously, isn’t he from Boston?). The good news is he only uses it about half the time. In contrast, Jing Tian once again proves she can be a flat-out fierce action star, despite her supermodel looks (for further proof checkout how she redeems the conspicuously flawed Special I.D. with her barn-burner fight scene facing off against Andy On). As Commander Lin Mae, she throws down with authority and generally anchors the film with her no-nonsense intensity.

Although movie stars do not get any bigger than Andy Lau, he takes a supporting role in Zhang’s 3D spectacle, but he rather seems to be enjoying the erudite sagaciousness of Strategist Wang, which rubs off on viewers. When the kaiju hordes (or whatever) rampage, you would definitely want his wise counsel. Teen heartthrob Lu Han also helps humanize the rumble as Peng Yong, the sensitive soldier. However, it is always rather confusing whenever Eddie Peng’s Commander Wu pops up. His role is not exactly clear, but he seems to be the Song Dynasty equivalent of a Communist political officer, given his arrogance and authority to insist on unsound military tactics.

Zhang brings quite a bit to the party himself with his visual flash and dazzle. The awesome vistas of the Wall and the teeming throngs of Taotie are perfect for his sensibilities. Plus, Commander Lin’s bungee-jumping shock troops are undeniably cool to behold. That is why the 3D is so frustrating: it definitely makes the film look artificially dark and murky.

So, apparently, the takeaways from Great Wall are walls and gunpowder are both darned useful when you are living in a dangerous world. The notion that Westerners are only out for themselves is not so subtly sewn into its fabric, but at least there is a meeting-of-the-minds between Lin and Garin—chastely so, thanks to Chinese censors. Regardless, it is always fun to watch Zhang, Jing, and Lau do their thing. Recommended for fans of big, noisy special effects movies and fans of the all-star cast, The Great Wall opens today (2/17) in theaters across the City, including the AMC Empire.

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Fabricated City: Gamer Gets Played

It takes a real piece of scum to make a lay-about millennial slacker look sympathetic, but an attorney should do the trick. Min Chun-sang will do in spades. He is no mere crooked mouthpiece. The supposed public defender is really the mastermind of a shadowy organization that frames the unemployed and marginalized for murders committed by their powerful clients. Kwon Yoo is their latest victim, but the gamer has more game than they anticipate in Park Kwang-hyun’s Fabricated City (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles and the Tri-State Area.

It all proceeded according to Min’s usual playbook. A cell phone was left for Kwon Yoo to find, which he readily agrees to return to the owner’s hotel room for a reward, but finds himself framed for murder instead. Kwon Yoo is referred to Min, who does a bang-up job defending him. Nobody was supposed to hear from him once he was safely buried in prison, but the former Taekwondo junior champion has more fight in him then they bargain for. First, he will stand up to the beatings meted out by gangster Ma Deok-soo and his men and then he pulls off an unlikely escape.

Once at-large, he will finally meet-up offline with his online gaming team, Resurrection. Together with their help, especially that of socially awkward hacker Yeo-wool, he investigates his notorious case. When they figure out Min’s culpability, they start taking the fight to his network, so he temporarily springs Ma to do his dirty work.

As Min, Oh Jung-se makes one of the creepiest, clammiest sociopaths (bordering on outright psychopath) you will see in many moons of movies. He is just a vile, oily dog. In short, he is a convincing trial lawyer. TV heartthrob Ji Chang-wook is actually pretty impressive in his first film role, dialing up plenty of righteous outrage as the wronged Kwon Yoo. Shim Eun-kyung (the original Miss Granny) plays effectively against type as shy, reclusive Yeo-wool. Kim Sang-ho also takes a bit of a departure from the shlubby figures he frequently plays, but he records mixed results as the thuggish Ma.

Park stages some nifty car chases and enough explosions to keep even the snobbiest film critic awake, but the best sequences involve Resurrection’s sneaking and scheming. It is a super-slick thriller that never feels its running time (just over two hours, which isn’t as excessive as it sounds, by Korean cinema standards). Recommended for fans of Korean and “wrong man” thrillers, Fabricated City opens tomorrow (2/17) at the LA and Buena Park CGV Cinemas and the Edgewater Multiplex in New Jersey.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Hollywood Reel Independent ’17: Seppuku (short)

She goes by Marie, but her parents call her Mari. That gives you an idea of the generational divide separating them. Frankly, the prospective Olympian is not inclined to deal with her family or her heritage, but a possibly career-ending injury sparks a fantastically-charged journey into her subconscious that may very well change everything (one way or another) in Daryn Wakasa’s short film Seppuku, which screens as part of the Shorts 18g program at this year’s Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival.

Mari/Marie holds the record for the 400 meter, but she will probably miss the Olympics due to a torn hamstring. Surgery would be the logical course of action, but Mari is acting on emotion, lashing out at her parents and defiantly training anyway. Her workout looks painful even before she crashes and blackouts.

Suddenly, Mari finds herself in the desert, accompanied by Bettari, a Ghost of Christmas Future-like figure, who also bears some resemblance to the nurse she encountered earlier in the day. Mari will dutifully follow Bettari (presumably a reference to the bridal kimono-wearing “nothing but blackened teeth” Ohaguro Bettari Yokai spirits) to the Manzanar internment camp, where she will face an increasingly strange series of challenges.

Seppuku was shot on-location at Manzanar and a medical office, both of which look like really depressing places to spend Purgatory. However, Seppuku boasts an impressive, feature worthy cast, including emerging star Akemi Look, a former member of the U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics team, who has the appropriate athleticism and stubborn intensity to convincingly portray Mari.

Tamlyn Tomita (Look’s co-star in the ridiculously underseen Unbidden) is totally believable and ultimately quite touching as Mari’s long-suffering mother Linda and Tomita’s Karate Kid II co-star Yuji Okumoto buttresses the film with his solid, dignified presence as her father, Thomas. It is always great to see them, but in this case, their grounded performances really help anchor the symbolically-charged Seppuku.

Short film-making is usually an adventure in scarce resource allocation, but cinematographer Ernesto Lomeli really makes the desert scenes look cinematically surreal. This is definitely a feature-quality short and the twenty-five-minute running time should be sufficiently long enough for most viewers to emotionally engage with it. Recommended for psychologically expressive, socially-conscious cinema, Seppuku screens this Saturday (2/18) during the 2017 Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival.

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Suffering of Ninko: Sex and Buddhism

Ninko wants to know the sacred, not the profane. Unfortunately, he finds himself in the Edo-era monastic Buddhist Carry On movie Gerald Thomas never made. It is hard out there for a monk with inconveniently potent animal magnetism, but he will take an ominous detour through Kwaidan territory in Norihiro Niwatsukino’s terrifically inventive Suffering of Ninko (trailer here), which is available for a limited time only on Festivalscope’s public-facing VOD platform.

Ninko’s spirit is earnest and chaste, but his flesh is too darned tempting for women (and also some men). Whenever he begs for alms, it creates bedlam on the streets. That might sound great to some guys, but it is a nightmare for a novice monk trying to hold up his end of the monastic duties. Eventually, things get so chaotic, the abbot sends him away on a journey to level his sexually charged karma.

To cleanse himself, Ninko tries to avoid people, but he is still visited by erotically charged dreams and visions. Disheartened and somewhat disoriented, the novice starts to doubt his purpose. However, fate will bring him to a cursed village terrorized by Yama-onno, a succubus-like goddess who seduces men, draining them of their life force in the manner of a sexual vampire. A notorious ronin thinks he has her number, but Ninko and his mojo would seem to match up better against her.

Suffering is no mere bawdy comedy, though it certainly never lacks for bare breasts. It is also rather shockingly learned when it comes to Buddhist traditions. Visually, it is rich and distinctive, augmenting the live action with animated segments stylistically derived for woodblock prints and mandala paintings. Naturally, there are hat-tips to classic Japanese ghost movies, but Niwatsukino clearly aims more for caustic irony than horror, per se.

It is hard to believe this is his first full-length feature. The animated sequences are wildly cool and his initially naughty narrative holds some real surprises for unsuspecting viewers. Masato Tsujioka is a good sport enduring all sorts humiliations and slapstick travails as Ninko. Credit also goes to Miho Wakabayashi, who never holds back as Yama-onno. In contradiction of its title, Suffering of Ninko is a total blast, so fans of Kwaidan films or smart (goofy) movie spoofs are strongly encouraged to check it on while it is still available to the public via Festivalscope (especially now that the Dollar and the Euro are so close to parity). Very highly recommended, it plays through the weekend (until 2/20).

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

American Fable: Farm Subsidies and Other Crimes

Probably no profession carries as much extraneous romanticizing as the family farmer. Everyone assumes farming is inherited through the genes and if you were born on a plot of land than you are destined to work it. That almost sounds like serfdom. Meanwhile, nobody asks what all those price supports do for the cost of food for the urban working poor. Maybe Gitty’s father Abe was actually better suited to a different line of work, but he considers himself a born farmer. To save their ailing farm Abe and her brutish older brother Martin will entwine themselves in a risky criminal scheme in Anne Hamilton’s American Fable (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Gitty (short for Gertrude) idolizes her father Abe, but her mega-pregnant mother Sarah not so much—and her jerkheel brother even less so. Therefore, when she discovers a battered man evidently being held captive in their silo, the implications are quite troubling. Rather puzzlingly, he implores her not to speak to her father of him. Instead, he asks her to bring food and books, which she does.

He would be Jonathan, an agri-businessman, who is soon reported missing (under suspicious circumstance) on the local news. Not being an idiot, Gitty starts to suspect Honest Abe and Murderous Martin are behind his abduction, apparently in cahoots with a Cruella de Vil figure known as Vera. The more time she spends with the captive, the more she fears for his safety.

Coming-of-age sure can be disillusioning, can’t it? At eleven years-old, Gitty will have to choose between her soul and her family (and possibly her life). Given her circumstances, we can well understand why she has such surreal dreams. She is also prone to fall into bouts of symbolically laden reverie. Her subconscious takes special inspiration from chess pieces, but she seems to forget her father’s evocative tale of scarecrows (Chekhov would not approve).

Hamilton paid her first dues under Terence Malick’s tutelage and you can see his influence in her Andrew Wyeth-esque imagery. Frankly, there is a lot of Americana influencing Fable, including To Kill a Mockingbird and even Huck Finn. After all, Gitty must decide whether she will do the right thing, even though it runs counter to the class warfare values she has been inculcated in.

Peyton Kennedy is a forceful and relatively mature Scout Finch-figure, who holds up well under the film’s long, close-up scrutiny. Likewise, Richard Schiff is terrific as the hostage, conveying all due desperation, as well as his own compassion for the bullied and misunderstood Gitty. Gavin MacIntosh is just ridiculously hostile as Martin. It gets to the point we just can’t believe respectable parents like Abe and Sarah would put up with his abusive behavior. On the flipside, Kip Pardue’s Abe completely lacks the dark edge a desperate kidnapping accomplice really needs to have.

Hamilton allows Abe to misrepresent the Aesop fable of “The Lion & the Mouse,” presenting it, without correction, more in the spirit of “The Scorpion and the Frog,” which apparently dates back to Orson Welles in Mr. Arkadin. That poor lion gets slandered. Regardless, Fable features two excellent central performances, but the trappings are a tad over-stylized. Still, as debuts go, it shows promise. Recommended for fans of rural gothic, American Fable opens this Friday (2/17) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Comfort: Make the Nights Count

It is like Before Sunrise, but with extreme photosensitivity. When the sun finally rises, it will cause Cameron Le physical pain, but he will still try to make the most of his brief nights with a client’s daughter in William Lu’s Comfort (trailer here), which releases today on VOD, presumably in honor of Jack Benny’s birthday.

Cameron has Erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP), so he avoids the sun’s UV rays like the plague. He works the graveyard shift for a crummy 24-hour delivery service, pretty much guaranteeing he won’t meet anyone. Yet, one night, a regular customer, Martin the workaholic hot sauce magnate, hires Cameron to pick up his daughter from the airport. Initially, she is rather put off by Cameron’s slacker appearance, but she soon finds he is easy to talk to.

In fact, they spend most of the night together dining and chatting, but right when things are about to take a romantic turn, the rising sun forces him to abruptly end things. Yet, even if Jasmine understood his condition, it presumably would not change the things much, given she leaves for Japan and a one-year English-teaching commitment the following morning.

You could dismiss Comfort as another Linklater-inspired ships-passing rom-com, but Cameron’s necessarily nocturnal life gives it a darker, more melancholy and Edward Hopper-esque vibe. The chemistry of the two pseudo-romantic leads is also intoxicatingly potent. Chris Dinh (from Crush the Skull) and Julie Zhan are obviously photogenic, but they also convey a sense that each has put up with a lot of disappointments in life. Viewers will want to see them work something out somehow, even though we all realize their circumstances are too complicated for simplistic endings.

Lu’s treatment of Cameron’s EPP is issues is sensitive, but realistic. He nicely walks the line dividing bittersweet romance from maudlin sentimentality, throwing in some bonus food porn in the form of the gourmet “comfort food” Cameron periodically whips up. Yet, it is the smoky heat Zhan and Dinh generate that really drives the film. Recommended who enjoy Brief Encounter-like romantic drama, Comfort is now available on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Boston Sci-Fi ’17: The Open

This would be a rare case of a sports film without an equipment sponsorship. Perhaps Wilson did not want viewers to think their strings would not last through the apocalypse. At least the frames endure in Marc Lahore’s The Open (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival.

Stephanie Tavernier was poised to dominate the French Open until nuclear Armageddon rudely sidetracked the world. However, she will survive and so will her dream, nursed by her denial-facilitating coach Andre. Taking refuge on the Scottish Hebrides, they continue to train as if the Open is still on. Of course, it will take two to play for the title, so Andre manages to abduct Ralph, a reluctant militia fighter, who was previously a low-ranked professional (#942) before doomsday. They still lack balls and strings for their rackets, but they Andre insists they go through the motions anyway.

Initially, Ralph finds the absurdity of it all too much to handle, but he eventually agrees training with Tavernier under Andre’s protection is probably preferable to waging a pointless urban war. Soon, he too acclimates to their mental game, but there is still a war going on out there and it makes Ralph particularly jumpy when it distantly intrudes on their strange oasis of tennis.

The Open is one of the oddest post-apocalyptic films ever made as well as the unlikeliest sports movie, but it respects the conventions of both genres, synthesizing them for its own ends. Obviously, it is considerably surreal, but Lahore largely steers clear of pretentiousness. Essentially, Lahore asks, all things considered, why shouldn’t they play tennis? It seems to be just as productive an option as anything else they might do, under the circumstances.

James Northcote and Maia Lavasseur-Costil are terrific portraying the players’ evolving relationship from ostensive rivals to something more supportive and considerably deeper. Pierre Benoist gives the film further tragic dimension as Andre, the coach who had already sacrificed so much for Tavernier, even before Armageddon.

Lahore (as director and cinematographer) makes the Hebrides look like they were dreamed up by Dalí. He might have trimmed ten or fifteen minutes while wearing his co-editor hat (with Benjamin Minet), but the film still avoids the listlessness you would expect from an absurdist allegory. Recommended for fans of apocalyptic cinema, The Open screens this Wednesday (2/15) as part of the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival.

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John Huston’s Restored and Uncensored Beat the Devil

It has been the African continent’s great misfortune to be blessed with extensive mineral wealth. Since the end of colonialism, the natural resource economy has been ripe for dictatorial exploitation. During the prior colonial days, it lured plenty of unsavory fortune-hunters. Billy Dannreuther’s associates are about as desperate and unscrupulous as it gets. They intend to grab a stretch of uranium-rich land in British East Africa, but they are their own worst enemies throughout John Huston’s Beat the Devil, which screens as it has almost never been seen—fully restored and uncensored, starting this Friday at Film Forum.

Dannreuther was once rich and extravagant, but now he is just extravagant. He has high hopes of regaining his fortune through the uranium scheme, but to do so, he must work with the dodgy quartet of rogues led by the rotund Peterson. His associates, former National socialist Julius O’Hara and Ravello (named just like the town) have been cooling their heels for a while, but Maj. Jack Ross has just arrived, after presumably murdering a suspicious bureaucrat in the London Colonial office.

The co-conspirators are anxious for the skipper of their tramp steamer to somber up, so they can be on their way, except of course Dannreuther. He always enjoyed the charms of Ravello (the Amalfi town), especially when in the company of Gwendolen Chelm. The Chelms are a distinctive couple. He is a snobby Englishman’s Englishman, while she is a complete mythomaniac. She is also a young, attractive blonde, so Dannreuther would like to seduce her, but she is too interested in him as well for that to be necessary.

Since Harry Chelm and the Anglophile Italian bombshell Maria Dannreuther also get into the extramarital act, it is not hard to see why the Production Code nannies demanded two of three minutes of strategic trimming. Frankly, it is almost a miracle there was anything left. Although there is certainly no sex or nudity in Beat the Devil, it is crystal clear what kind of monkey business is going on behind closed doors.

With that healthy lustiness restored, the film does not quite seem as larky as its reputation suggests. Reportedly, it was scripted by Huston and Truman Capote on-the-fly, day-by-day, almost as a series of dares or screenwriting Madlibs. Granted, the ensemble’s tongues definitely find their way into their cheeks, but there is still some terrific film noir business going on. Clearly, Huston and cinematographer Oswald Morris were inspired by the Amalfi settings, utilizing some dazzling crane shots that fully exploit the cinematic backdrops.

Humphrey Bogart could play a picaresque anti-hero like Dannreuther in his sleep—in fact, he may have, but still flashes the old charm in his scenes with Jennifer Jones’ Ms. Chelm. As one would expect, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley, and Ivor Barnard (recognizable from The 39 Steps) make up a deliciously seedy rogues gallery of Dannreuther’s would-be accomplices. Comparatively speaking, Gina Lollobrigida’s Maria Dannreuther counts as the grounded commonsensical one in this farcical caper, but she still adds plenty of allure and elegance. Yet, the most surprising work comes from British character actor Edward Underdown, who makes Harry Chelm quite the wildcard of the film.

It is just great fun to see legends like Bogart, Lorre, and Morley hamming it up and savoring the film’s skulduggery. However, the fully restored version offers a happy opportunity to revisit what many call the original camp classic. It might have been played for laughs, but Huston executed the caper with tremendous style. Many, many scenes have a tremendous sense of composition (and they were shot by camera operator Freddie Francis, who would go on to direct several classic Hammer Horror films). Very highly recommended, the fully restored Beat the Devil opens this Friday (2/17) at Film Forum.

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Meiko Kaji at Japan Society: Female Prisoner Scorpion—Beast Stable

Even Tarantino will readily admit Kill Bill was transparently inspired by/ripped off from Meiko Kaji’s Lady Snowblood released thirty years early. However, Kaji’s signature series came right when all the women’s prison films starring Pam Grier just started to take off. By the time of the third film, Nami “the Scorpion” Matsushima has escaped from prison and she will not be recaptured cheaply, as Det. Kondo learns the hard way in the first five minutes (worth the price of admission right there) of Shunya Itō’s Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (trailer here), which screens as part of the Japan Society’s weekend retrospective, Cruel Beauty: A Romantic Weekend with Meiko Kaji.

If you plan to corner “Sasori,” the Scorpion on a subway car, you’d better bring back-up, plenty of ammunition, and maybe an extra arm. Needless to say, when Matsushima hacks her way free, it is a painful failure for Kondo, leaving him more embittered and obsessed than Inspector Javert. Matsushima heads underground, but she is hardly living a carefree life. Instead, she works in a backroom garment sweatshop and befriends Yuki, a freelance prostitute who must tend to her brain-damaged brother’s every need (including sexual).

Inevitably, Matsushima draws the attention of the lecherous yakuza in the flat beneath her. However, when she takes care of him, his gang comes calling for reparations. It turns out the boss’s lover is Katsu, an old prison rival of Matsushima, who has plenty of ideas how the Scorpion can work off her “debt.”

If you want lurid, Beast Stable is definitely your huckleberry. Even the Roger Corman chicks-behind-bars movies wouldn’t go where it goes. It also delivers the stone-cold payback in spades. The morale could not be more clear: do not screw with the Scorpion. However, one wonders how many so-called feminists could really handle this kind of empowerment. Forget “equal pay for equal work,” this is kill or be doped into sexual slavery (by a sister, no less).

As Matsushima, Kaji is all kinds of fierce. Yet, there is still something tragically human about her as she jealousy guards the freedoms she still has. Mikio Narita nearly matches her ferocity step-for-step as the driven Kondom which is saying something. Yayoi Watanabe is arrestingly open and vulnerable as the much-abused Yuki, while Reisen Lee is just eerily creepy as the Lady Gaga-looking Katsu.

This would be it for Kaji playing Sasori, but the franchise would continue and spawn multiple reboots. Frankly, it was a good way to hang up her wide-brimmed hat and scalpel, because it actually ends on a note that suggests closure, albeit after a deceptively surreal fever dream of an epilogue. All things considered, this one pretty much has it all, but it is most definitely for mature audiences. Keep in mind it is all based on a hit manga series, which shows how far ahead of the curve Japan was in treating comic art as a viable medium for grown-ups. Highly recommended for appreciative cult audiences, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable screens tonight (2/12) at the Japan Society, as part of their Meiko Kaji celebration.

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Meiko Kaji at Japan Society: Blind Woman’s Curse

When it comes to hacking and slashing, Japan has long been a progressive nation. They brought us Zatoichi the blind swordsman and followed up with this sightless vengeance-seeker. Her sad fate is all the fault of Akemi Tachibana, played by Meiko Kaji. However, Tachibana is not just a fierce killer. She is also the leader of the most virtuous of the rival yakuza clans. Regardless, the bodies pile up quickly in Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (trailer here), which screens as part of the Japan Society’s weekend retrospective, Cruel Beauty: A Romantic Weekend with Meiko Kaji.

Ostensibly, Curse was part of Rising Dragon historical yakuza franchise, but you would be hard-pressed to explain how it was related to previous films, aside from a handful of thematic commonalities, even if you were intimately familiar with the series. Frankly, that is probably for the best. As the film opens, Tachibana is about to slice through a rival clan, who presumably had it coming, but she inadvertently blinds Aiko Gouda while the young girl was trying to protect her thuggish brother. We then flashforward a few years to see Tachibana released from prison and Gouda working as a blind knife-thrower in a traveling sideshow.

The dastardly Dobashi clan leader has been trying to instigate a war between the Tachibanas and the Aozoras, but thus far neither has been willing to bite. However, the tide turns in his favor when the mysterious swordswoman offers her services. Soon, she is hunting down Tachibana’s clan sisters and carving off their dragon tattoos. The bloody carnage rather delights the spectral black cat who accompanies her, as well as Ushimatsu, the sideshow’s hunchback.

Curse is a wonderfully weird cocktail of genre elements, including hints of the supernatural and plenty of macabre stylings, but swordplay is always the first order of business. Some touches are downright bizarre, such as Aozora, who looks like he could feel at home in A Clock Work Orange (which would release the following year), given his foppish western silk shirts and distressing butt-cheek revealing loincloth.

Kaji is terrific as Tachibana, projecting as the resolute conviction and mother hen protectiveness you would want from your yakuza leader. However, jazz singer and wife of Henry Miller Hoki Tokuda makes an even deeper impression as the eerily unsettling Gouda. Makoto Sato adds plenty of zest and energy as Tani, a stout-hearted freelancer who often throws in his chips with the Tachibana Clan. Yet, even if you try, you can’t unsee Ryôhei Uchida’s Aozora and the loincloth stuffed up his backside.

So yes, Blind Woman’s Curse pretty much has it all. Kaji wields a sword with authority and Ishii keeps the mayhem coming fast and furious, building up to some Grand Guignol-worthy set pieces. That all makes it perfect for Valentine’s viewing. Highly recommended, Blind Woman’s Curse screens this Sunday (2/12) at the Japan Society, as part of their Meiko Kaji celebration.

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