Sunday, August 29, 2010

Green Mind, Metal Bats (Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2006)

Masanobu Ando as Ishioka in Green Mind, Metal Bats (2006).

Nanba is a former high school baseball player who's working in a convenience store. Ten years have passed since he failed to enter the national high school baseball tournament but he's still practicing his swing by throwing his bat a thousand times every day, hoping to turn pro. When he's at work he spends most of his time staring at his co-worker Mami, a high school girl that Nanba seems to have a crush on, but Mami is not interested.

On his way home one day Nanba sees a woman in a drunken rage kicking a car. When the car's owner comes out and grabs her, Nanba hits him in the knee with his bat and runs off with the woman. Her name is Eiko and she turns out to be a huge baseball fan and a violent alcoholic. To be able to afford Eiko's drinking habits when his hours are cut down at the convenience store, Nanba and Eiko start robbing people and soon they are wanted by the police.

Ishioka is a bicycle policeman and one of Nanba's teammates from school. Ishioka was the star pitcher for the team and managed to get all the way to the national tournament finals but because of an elbow injury he had leave the game of baseball and became a police officer instead. He's not a very motivated one though, spending most of his time ignoring crimes or making shoplifting housewives show him their panties, even though he's married.

One thing they all have in common except for their love of baseball is, they're all losers. Their lives are full of failed attempts and missed opportunities. Nanba never became a baseball player, Ishioka peaked playing in the finals in high school and has spent the last ten years being bitter. You never really get to know anything about Eiko's past, but surely becoming a penniless drunk living in a one room appartment with an equally penniless guy like Nanba wasn't part of the plan.

I really like this film, the eccentric, sometimes crazy behaviour of its characters, especially Eiko, is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and even though their lives are pretty bleak and not much good happens, it is obvious that Kumakiri cares for his characters despite, or because of, their faults.

Pistol Takehara and Maki Sakai as Nanba and Eiko.

It's been about four years since I watched this film for the first and only other time and it was interesting to me how differently I perceived it this time. The difference comes from changes in life situation. When I first watched it, I could really relate to the lonely, part-time worker Nanba who wanted to do something completely different from working in a convenience store. Meeting a woman by chance, who happens to be "stacked" and really into the same things you are also seems to be a fantasy of a lot of anime and asian cinema geeks. Despite not much good happening to the characters, the film kind of played like a modest dream come true, and even though everyone in it is kind of crazy, Kumakiri infuses the film with a warm realism.

Watching it now it's more about failed attempts and missed opportunities. Nanba never played in the finals, he was on the cheerleading squad, Ishioka messed up his elbow and had to switch careers losing his girlfriend in the process. Eiko is a drunk. Identification is gone, it's more of an understanding now. This time it's maybe even easier to relate to the bitter, tired of his job, cheat Ishioka than to Nanba. Things change.

What sets Green Mind, Metal Bats apart though from other films where I've noticed that my perception of them has changed is that it's not a case of not appreciating it anymore, or having it go from the true excitement of watching the action movies of my childhood to watching them with a sense of irony or tongue in cheek. With Green Mind, Metal Bats it's purely a change of character identification, a change in my, as a spectator, life situation. It doesn't have to do with maturity, my understanding of the characters is about the same. But still Kumakiri manages to invoke the same feelings for his characters in me, I still care about them, I want them to do well. What wouldn't I give for Nanba to perfect his swing and go pro.

In the end when Nanba and Ishioka finally face off, and Nanba says "I'm having the time of my life" and Ishioka answers "I know" you can feel it. No matter who you are watching this film, Kumakiri makes you feel for his characters and that makes Green Mind, Metal Bats a truly great film.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Snake of June (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2002)

Asuka Kurosawa as Rinko in Tsukamoto's A Snake of June (2002).

A Snake of June takes place in a rainy Tokyo where Rinko works as a psychological counsellor at a call center. She seems to lead a normal life with her older husband, Shigehiko, who's something of an obsessive compulsive when it comes to cleaning. The reason seems to be a fear of or unwillingness to be close to Rinko. Shigehiko not only rather cleans than spends time with her, he also pretends to fall asleep in a chair at night to avoid sleeping next to her. There is no question that they still respect each other and that Rinko has feelings for Shigehiko, but he seems emotionless and their marriage is devoid of physical intimacy. The following text contains spoilers.

One day Rinko recieves a package containing photographs of her masturbating and then a phone call from one of her callers at work who says that he took the photos. If Rinko wants the negatives, she has to wear a short skirt, which she only wears alone at home, without any underwear out in public. Apparently the caller, Iguchi, is a stalker who has been taking pictures of her for a while, and who has also recognized the frustrations in Rinko's marriage. Iguchi is a photographer who has been unable to take pictures of people, turning in photos of sexual objects to an adult magazine, but talking to Rinko and stalking her has made him able to photograph people again, namely Rinko. For this he wants to pay her back by helping her get in touch with her sexuality again and to be her true self and do what she really wants to do.

At first it's not easy to accept that a stalker forcing Rinko to do something against her will is what will release her from her repressions, but the way the film is constructed turns Iguchi more into a part of Rinko's subconscious than a physical character. He's just a voice on the phone, telling her things that is what she really wants to do and he never feels like a threat to her. He has pictures of her but he only threatens to show them to Shigehiko. There is never any physical meeting or violence between them. Soon it becomes clear that Rinko is the one in control as she uses Iguchi to make her husband jealous by letting him find one of the photographs and by that resurrect his feelings for her.

Now I'm no expert on Tsukamoto, but I've seen most of his films and to me A Snake of June definitely represents a big change. From his earliest films and forward, most of his films has contained the conflict between the human body and the city, flesh versus cold, concrete buildings and in every film he's become a bit more intimate, organic. From literally turning a man into metal in Tetsuo - The Iron Man (1989) to covering his characters in rags, dirt and make-up in Gemini (1999). In A Snake of June nature seems to take on a bigger role, a theme which is continued in his next film, Vital (2004). The rain, the images of snails and vegetation in the city, the intimate shots of Rinko, it all adds up to a different kind of atmosphere than in his earlier films, A Snake of June is a film which feels totally natural. I won't go into technical terms that I don't fully know the meaning of, but the way the film is shot, with the tight frames, the black and white images and the rain, creates an almost claustrophobic feel. It's cramped, wet, full of repressed desires and completely erotic.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Invisible Waves (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2006)

Tadanobu Asano in Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves (2006).

Invisible Waves, Pen-Ek Ratanaruangs follow up to 2003's Last Life in the Universe once again teams him up with actor Tadanobu Asano, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, scriptwriter Prabda Yoon and composer Hualampong Riddim and this time the result is a moody, atmospheric noir-like thriller. The following text contains spoilers.

Asano plays Kyoji Hamamura, a chef at a Hong Kong restaurant who is having an affair with his boss' wife. After a while we learn that he's also been hired by his boss to kill the wife and then leave Hong Kong to start a new life in Phuket. Everything is arranged by Kyoji's boss so that he can easily sneak out of the city on a cruise ship headed for Phuket but when he starts his journey Kyoji is having trouble coping with his conscience. It doesn't get any better when he also finds out that his cabin is more of a closet with a bathroom and seems to be located next to engine room, or when he's harassed by a strange man claiming to be an old friend of his from school. The only thing making the trip somewhat enjoyable is Noi, a young lady travelling to Phuket with her baby. She and Kyoji spend some time talking and dancing before they part at their destination. From here on Kyoji's troubles only get worse.

After being attacked and robbed in his hotel room, Kyoji's boss arranges for him to meet another man at a bar to pick up some more money, but that is when Kyoji starts to suspect that maybe it was his boss who had him attacked.

The story, just like in Last Life in the Universe, isn't always completely logical and often somewhat dream like. If it wasn't for this dream like atmosphere things like that Kyoji's boss could easily have had him killed instead of going through all the trouble of sending him on a cruise and have him attacked, might have been a bigger disturbance. The main reason though why the story still works so well is that the focus is completely on Kyoji's inner battle with himself over what he has done. It would be easy to say that he's on a quest for redemption, that the pains he endure during his travels would somehow absolve him of his sins. But Kyoji is a completely selfish character. He has accepted money to murder someone to save himself and while he does feel remorse over what he has done he is totally focused on getting away with it. During the film it never occurs to him to turn himself in to the authorities. He doesn't hesitate to call his boss to ask for more money when he has been robbed, he steals to eat when he's out of cash and he even nags his boss about not wanting to live in Phuket.

When Kyoji finds out that it really is his boss who is behind all his bad luck he sets out to get revenge, because after all, the boss broke their deal. There is no sign in him making you think that he's actually seeing anything that happens as something he deserves because of the murder he committed, but how could he when he didn't know who was behind it?

When finally confronting his boss, Kyoji fails to kill him because of a change of mind caused by his boss' new girlfriend showing up, the woman with the baby that Kyoji befriended earlier on the ship. Kyoji leaves and meets his future assassin on a train and tells him he couldn't kill his boss because he was happy. "Who deserves to live more? A happy man or a homeless ghost?" It seems Kyoji, while not reaching redemption, has reached acceptance. He accepts his fate because of what he has done, but in no way has he attoned for it. Maybe he just realized that killing more people wouldn't solve anything, and like he told his boss, he can never be happy again anyway. Or perhaps it's like his boss said, cause and effect, when you do something bad, bad things happen to you (the invisible waves of the title?). This doesn't seem true to Kyoji's boss though since after hiring Kyoji to kill his cheating wife, he doesn't only get to live but he has a new wife and a baby. But there is a third possibility presented in the film by another character sent to kill Kyoji during his trip who simply says that Kyoji is the "dumbest smart guy" he has ever met.

The ending is the weakest part of the film, feeling rushed and incomplete. It might be on purpose, to put even more emphasis on Kyoji's journey in the first part of the film which also is the most rewarding. The atmosphere and feel of the film, created by Doyle's beautiful cinematography, Riddim's music and the slow pace, makes it feel like a film noir thriller set in the same world also created in Last Life in the Universe. Unlike Kyoji's, it is a wonderful trip but in the end, just like Kyoji, you have to peacefully accept that you don't always get what you want.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Quick takes #6

The villains of Yatterman (Takashi Miike, 2009).

(Takashi Miike, 2009) - Miike continues the work that he started in 2005 with The Great Yokai War and makes another kids movie that isn't entirely appropriate for children. At first look it's a mess of a film. It feels fragmented, like a bunch of set pieces cobbled together more than an actual plot, but in the end Miike won me over by still having the energy of his earlier films intact and crazy ideas coming at you faster than you can register what you just saw. Yatterman is a fun, fast paced, entertaining film. And it's full of mechas.

Samurai Zombie (Tak Sakaguchi, 2008) - A group of criminals, an ordinary family and a couple of cops are stuck in a forest where the dead come back to life due to an ancient curse. Sound familiar? Samurai Zombie is another Versus (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2000) clone that tries to add some more story to the proceedings with a messed up love story and I think that is why it fails. What made Versus so great was its simplicity, it had a forest, zombies and a bunch of criminals battling it out for two hours and that was it, focus was put on the action being as exciting as possible. It also doesn't help that the star of Versus, Tak Sakaguchi, is the director of Samurai Zombie, which is several notches below his other directorial effort of 2008, Be a Man!! Samurai School, or that Ryuhei Kitamura who directed Versus wrote the script, when it's so obvious that they are out of ideas when it comes to action films. Nothing either of them has made post-Versus has lived up to what was expected of them and Samurai Zombie doesn't even come close.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000) - I don't think I'll ever be a fan of Wong Kar Wai, he's just too good of a filmmaker. I didn't really know what to expect from In the Mood for Love, somehow I've managed to avoid reading anything about it except that it's supposed to be great and when it started playing it didn't take long before I was thoroughly bored. The acting, cinematography, music, everything is such a perfect fit that I couldn't help feeling disinterested. It wasn't until right before the end credits that I realized the knot in my stomach, that beneath the perfect, polished surface the film packs an emotional punch that feels real and never sentimental. I believe this is one of the best and most mature films about love that I've ever seen but I still can't call myself a fan, I won't be picking up Wong's other films, not until I'm more mature myself. I wouldn't be able to handle the perfection.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love (2000).