Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Colt Is My Passport (Takashi Nomura, 1967)

Jerry Fujio and Jo Shishido in Takashi Nomura's A Colt Is My Passport (1967).

Part of the new Nikkatsu Noir box set from Criterion, A Colt Is My Passport is one of the "borderless" (meaning something like being influenced by American and European films, stories about escaping, taking place in locations and using situations not common in Japanese films) action films from Nikkatsu released in the 60's. Heavily influenced by western films, it starts out with the sound of gunshots and a spaghetti western theme and it features Jo Shishido as a hitman character that would be more likely in a Hollywood film than in anything from Japan.

Shishido plays a hitman who is hired by a yakuza group to take out the leader of another gang, only problem is, Shishido does the job a little too well and finds himself, along with his accomplice (Jerry Fujio), on the run from the gang whos boss he just killed as well as the gang that hired him.

Trying to get out of Japan, first by plane and then by boat, they are hiding out in Yokohama at a trucker inn where they meet a woman who is also trying to leave her old life behind. It turns out that it's not as easy as just jumping on a ship when the former rival yakuza gangs team up to catch Shishido and Fujio. It all boils down to a desert finale, filmed at a landfill, that is everything you would expect from a showdown in a spaghetti western, only thing missing being a coffin full of guns, instead you get a golf bag this time around.

It's not a complicated film but what makes it really stand out is the acting by Shishido, and this was apparently the film that cemented him as a leading man. Every time he's in the frame he breathes life into the film and there is no doubt who's the toughest guy around. For sheer entertainment it doesn't get much better than this. If the rest of the films in this box set is half as good as A Colt Is My Passport, it will be the release of the year.

To read more about Nikkatsu Action Cinema I'd recommend Mark Schilling's book No Borders, No Limits.

Stop the Bitch Campaign (Kosuke Suzuki, 2001)

Kuni's plan turning on him in Kosuke Suzuki's Stop the Bitch Campaign (2001).

Released recently on dvd in Hong Kong under the same title as the new 2009 version by the same director, Stop the Bitch Campaign Version 2.0, but it's actually the original from 2001. Kenichi Endo plays Kuni, the strange, to say the least, manager of a phone sex service who discovers that a group of young girls is using his service to black mail his middle aged male clients by bringing gangsters to their arranged meetings.

That is when Kuni hatches the brilliant plan to stop the prostitution, save the country and become a hero of Japan by meeting the girls himself and violate them with his special kind of s&m and then leave without paying. After torturing a virgin who tries to commit suicide afterwards, and who happens to be the little sister of the leader of the blackmailers, Kuni is the one being hunted by the girls instead of the other way around.

I've always liked Kenichi Endo and his weirdo characters even though he sometimes goes too far into just screaming and mugging territory. Going into Stop the Bitch Campaign, I was a bit worried he'd be as bad and annoying as in the first sequel, Stop the Bitch Campaign - Hell Version (2004) starring Aoi Sora, but in this first installment he stays just insane enough for it to be entertaining. For anyone looking for something serious, Stop the Bitch Campaign can't be recommended, but if all you want is Kenichi Endo in a thong and eye make-up torturing high school girls and a guy getting firecrackers up his butt, this is the film for you. Even if it brings up issues like compensated dating (enjo kosai) and the immorality and greed of both men and women the film is, just like Kuni's plan, just an excuse to show/get some sex.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Intentions of Murder (Shohei Imamura, 1964)

Shohei Imamura's Intentions of Murder (1964).

In Intentions of Murder, the follow up to The Insect Woman (1963), Shohei Imamura takes another look at a woman struggling to maintain her way of life and at times just to survive. In The Insect Woman the main character was, just like the bug in the opening shot of the film, trying to make her way to the top, to get ahead in order to survive. Sadako in Intentions of Murder is likened to another animal, a mouse running on a treadmill is in the foreground in several scenes of Sadako doing her chores. Unlike Tome's climb from peasant to madam for a group of prostitutes, Sadako's main goal is to preserve her family after she is raped by a burglar who falls in love with her and keeps coming back. Just like The Insect Woman, Intentions of Murder is a film about the strengths and struggles of women on the lower end of society.

As a teenager Sadako is sent from Tokyo to a northern town to work as a maid in the same household as her grandmother once did. Once there she's treated badly by the lady owning the house and even when she has a child with and marries the son in the house, Riichi, Sadako is still not allowed into the family registry.

Years later, living with Riichi and their son Masaru, Sadako is still treated as nothing but a maid by everyone in her family and Masaru is registered as the son of her now mother-in-law. Completely repressed by her husband, controlling their finances down to the cost of an onion, Sadako mindlessly performs her everyday chores, just like the mice run on their treadmill, with her only self initiated activity being some knitting work to get some extra money.

One day a man breaks into the house to steal money but when he sees Sadako he rapes her instead. Sadako fights back but is overpowered and though it is clear that she doesn't want anything to do with the man, there is a flashback to when she was a teenager. She's sitting outside with a silkworm crawling up her thigh but is discovered by her future mother-in-law who scolds her badly. Possibly the rape has awoken something inside Sadako that has been repressed for a long time, something instinctual, the opposite of her current life. Sadako's reaction is to commit suicide, but thinking of her son while standing next to the railroad tracks makes her unable to. Her next reaction is as basic as protecting her young, to eat. From here on Sadako's life becomes more about protecting her family unit and trying to resist the carnal desires she has rediscovered than to simply just exist as before.

When the rapist comes back, claiming he's in love with Sadako and wanting to elope to Tokyo with her, she keeps resisting him. It's first after several meetings, where she has tried to make him stay away by paying him, that she lets her sexual desire take over and has consented sex with him, but as he's still a threat to her way of life with her family, she plans to kill him.

Maybe this is Imamura's way of showing the strength of women this time, Sadako protecting her family at almost any cost, being able to overcome just about anything, be it through denial or dealing with it. It's a world where men are strong on the surface but which is really run by women. Both Sadako's husband and the rapist are weak, sickly men and Riichi is himself having an affair with a co-worker while condemning Sadako on the suspicion of her doing the same.

I feel like I'm on thin ice with this one. Compared to The Insect Woman, Intentions of Murder feels like the more layered film and I'm most certainly not the person to decode them all. It also doesn't help that the fact that Sadako starts to somewhat enjoy the rapes didn't sit well with me and that the film felt overly long. It has many similarities with The Insect Woman in its use of freeze frames and voice over from the main character and the feeling of it being more of a study than a regular film. Once again I felt more like an observer than part of an experience. But in the case of Intentions of Murder, the story takes some turns that just makes it too ludicrous to really take seriously, even though Sadako in a way, comes away with a win in the end.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Quick takes #4

Anthony Wong and Jo Odagiri in Plastic City.

Plastic City (Yu Lik-Wai, 2008) - Strange gangster story about illegal immigrants in Sao Paolo, Brazil, played by Anthony Wong and Jo Odagiri. When the government wants to show the US that they are cracking down on crime, they ask Yuda (Wong) to cooperate and give up a few truckloads of merchandise and then he'll be left alone. Instead, Yuda is framed and sent to prison, leaving Kirin (Odagiri), Yuda's adopted son, to take care of business. Starts off gritty and somewhat engaging but is marred by Wong and Odagiri not really speaking Portuguese and being, I think, both dubbed and speaking phonetically and some weird CG enhanced environments and a voodoo ending that really takes you out of the film. Disappointing.

The Masked Girl (Isao Kaneko, 2008) - At 45 minutes in length, originally a double bill with Hard Revenge, Milly (Takanori Tsujimoto, 2008), there is not much plot to talk about in The Masked Girl. Hoshino (Yuki Shimizu) is kidnapped by an organisation called Clown and transformed into a martial arts expert with super strength. While she tries to figure out why, the same thing happens to her friend Yumi (Shizuka Nakamura), only Yumi is also brainwashed into believing that Hoshino is a traitor to the organisation. The fighting begins.

To compare The Masked Girl to films like The Machine Girl (Noboru Iguchi, 2008) and Tokyo Gore Police (Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2008) might not be the best way of describing the film since The Masked Girl is more like an episode of a kid-friendly tokusatsu show while The Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police are nothing but gore fests. But since they are all films that are made with only one purpose in mind, they are somewhat alike, The Masked Girl going for some harmless tokusatsu action and The Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police going for getting as much blood and guts in the frame as possible. Where The Masked Girl succeeds and the others fail though, is in its short running time, it never slows down and doesn't have any unnecessary scenes to make it an overlong bore fest like Tokyo Gore Police. Entertaining low budget nonsense.

Shizuka Nakamura and Yuki Shimizu in The Masked Girl.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Favorite moment #1: Battlefield Baseball (Yudai Yamaguchi, 2003)

"Jubeh's tears made it happen!" - Battlefield Baseball (2003).

I don't like lists, whenever I try to list something, I always end up unhappy with the final result. No matter how much work I put into trimming the list down I'm never able to decide what to keep and what not to, so this is just going to be a random post about the first moment that popped into my head when I first thought of making a list of my favorite moments in Asian cinema.

At the end of Yudai Yamaguchi's zombie-baseball comedy, when everyone has finished beating the crap out of each other with fists, feet and poisonous bats and both players and audience have been massacred by a machine gun wielding living dead, the tears of Yakyu Jubeh (Tak Sakaguchi) saves the day. Everyone comes back to life and the differences between the baseball combatants are put aside because after all, it's all about teamwork. Pure goofy, incredibly stupid feel good moment that gets me every time.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tokyo Decadence (Ryu Murakami, 1992)

Tokyo Decadence (1992), written and directed by Ryu Murakami.

Tokyo Decadence takes place in a world where everyone has money and bodies are nothing but merchandise. The human body and mind as a contrast to the high-rises of Tokyo during the economic boom. It tells the story about Ai (Miho Nikaido), a prostitute but not a very confident one, making you believe that her life wasn't always like this. She takes on s&m clients, sadists as well as masochists, but doesn't handle either very well. She never seems comfortable in playing a role but every time her own personality comes through she is punished for it. Perhaps a failure of identity and individuality, she is just a prostitute, not a person.

Within the context of the bubble economy (a context I only got from reading the essay included on Cinema Epoch's dvd) and Japan as a country where everyone works with financial gain as the only goal, Ai is one of the people on the outside who for some reason wasn't included or lost her place in society. She tries to find her place in the crowd as an individual but as such she will always fail. On several occasions she finds herself the object of a crowd's condemning stares, only once being saved by another outcast who Ai has shown some kindness earlier. Not even this original, a vocalist, in a crowd of otherwise likeminded people lets Ai be herself, repeating Ai's customers' demands of "more" and "louder" when she wants Ai to be her audience.

In the end, none of Ai's problems are solved, her only happiness seemingly coming from accepting her situation and take some pride in having the strength to be who she is. As a prostitute friend of her says, the masses have achieved wealth without pride, but maybe Ai as an individual can find strength within herself.

When I watched the film I had no real knowledge of the social circumstances surrounding it and it seemed like just a story about a young woman trying to find her identity and place in a world she doesn't necessarily want to belong to, the only clear sign of societal critique being the comment by Ai's friend. Knowing the context do help put things in perspective, and to see the meaning behind the film, it makes it easy to see that Tokyo Decadence is more than just a soft-core s&m flick. But does it really help it as a film? Since the first 80 minutes or so consists of barely nothing else than sex scenes that seem to go on forever and the last 30 being a mess of Ai running around, all drugged up, trying to find the house of a former lover she can't forget, I would have to say no. Even though the end does help in conveying that she should be more self reliant, that she wouldn't be in this mess had she not taken the advice of others, it feels too contrieved, too self consciously strange for the sake of being strange, and towards the end the film just lost me completely. An interesting premise wasted by a bad presentation.