The Next Thing

Thoughts On Visual Culture

2017 Asian Film Festival of Dallas

harmoniumThe 16th annual Asian Film Festival of Dallas started this weekend at the local Angelika. Year in and year out, the festival provides a varied selection of interesting contemporary Asian cinema, as well as some choice repertory picks. Thanks to the festival, I’ve been able to see some of my favorite films on the big screen, such as Johnnie To’s Sparrow and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

This year I’ve decided to highlight the festival by writing about some of the films which will be playing over the next week. Out of the films that are not highlighted here, I’m most excited for Takahisa Zeze’s 64, a former pink film director making a two-part adaptation of a famous crime novel. Should be fun!

The Final Master (Xu, 2015)

From the co-writer of Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster comes this rather peculiar martial arts film. It tells the story of the machinations required for an aging martial arts master (Liao Fan) to pass on his Wing Chun expertise, and open up a school in the famous city of Tianjin. Because all of the unwritten rules governing who can practice martial arts in the city, the master is forced to take a wife, an apprentice, and live in relative anonymity, while the role of martial artists in daily life is challenged by the encroaching influence of the military. Xu Haofeng’s film fascinates with intriguing intellectual and emotional undercurrents but never coalesces into a satisfying experience. This is primarily due to the distracting camera movements and edits which often seem unmotivated (notice the bewildering way the camera moves away from the characters to look at a ceiling) and do no further the ideas which drive the film. That said, Xu’s film does acquit itself due to its unwavering focus on the rituals and traditions of his milieu; and the oddity of its eventual showdown (everyone taking turns, the final bosses retreating away from the action politely, an array of weapons and styles on display) which culminates with a final strike that’s over in the blink of an eye. This is an odd, strange creation.


Raman Raghav 2.0 (aka Psycho Raman 2.0) (Kashyap, 2016) (currently on Netflix Instant)

The latest film from Indian maverick, and shrewd self-promoter, Anurag Kashyap, is vastly less interesting than his three previous works. Those films deepened his worldview and his ties to Indian cinema history. Raman Raghav 2.0, on the other hand, is an aggressively point retread of tired cops/criminal sameness that reached its ouroborous apex/nadir with I Saw the Devil. Kashyap’s cinema is a deeply masculine one, and about masculinity. He’s attracted to brash violence and sexual dysfunction, and his best films dissect these attitudes and show them to be empty. But a lot of what drives his films that he also finds these attitudes kind of fun, and his characters fun to spend time with (Gangs of Wasseypur – currently on Netflix as a 8-part miniseries – is basically a realization of that idea). There are some interesting strands here and Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s performance is stylized in a somewhat productive way, but this is still the weakest of his recent work by a wide margin.


Trivisa (Hui + Au + Wong, 2016)

Three debutante directors plucked from the Milkyway ranks combine to tell the story of three master thieves in the eve of the Handover. The entire criminal underworld is excited about the prospect of them working together, and soon enough they each start to entertain the idea. However, Trivisa has other things on its mind. Primarily, this is a film about desperation, and how each of the thieves scrambles to survive in the middle of this uncertain period. The film appears to build towards a great union (and a great heist), but this is deflated as plans quickly implode, and each character is backed into a corner and must act. As with other Milkyway films, the action and technical elements are impeccable, but what registers most is the doom, as each character hurls toward their destiny, unaware of what’s to come.


Duckweed (Han, 2017)

This is a heartwarming film from Han Han, telling the story of a petulant son who travels back into the past to meet his young dad. Most of the film’s success can be traced to MVP Deng Chao, who displays an understated charm, and has wonderful blank-faced reactions to most of what goes around him. So many jokes here are about the lack of understanding regarding the changes that the future will bring (the characters invest in VHS and beepers, and the one character who is into technology is told to settle down and get a real job). The small streets of the town house local tough guys (and their dreams!), but everything is up for sale or has already been sold (the film’s bad guy is the developer who is after a primo piece of real estate and is willing to use violence to get it). There’s also some really interesting rally driving footage (the camera attached to the vehicle’s rear as the vehicle speeds through narrow passages) that’s rather peculiar for this kind of movie. However, I shouldn’t have been surprised as Han Han is a former professional rally rider, as well as a “best-selling author, singer, creator of Party, One (App magazine) and China’s most popular blogger” (per Wikipedia).


Harmonium (Fukada, 2016)

Tadanobu Asano plays an ex-con who arrives at the household of a friend to stay for a few weeks. He quickly integrates into their routine, but also makes clear the fragility of their lives. There is an unnerving quality to both Asano’s performance, his face revealing little of what goes on inside of him (the shock of the red shirt underneath his otherwise all-white dress is one of the key moments in the film), which drives the action in a logical fashion (he represents an unspoken tension) until the film’s halfway point. At this point, Fukada’s film morphs into something else altogether, laying bare all the repressed emotion of the characters in devastating fashion. By the time Mariko Tsutsui’s long-suffering housewife, bathed in red-hued light while driving in a tunnel, discourages another character from offering themselves up to die, you begin to realize the tricky and almost fantastic emotional landscape that the film has entered. Fukada’s film is sneaky like that, and sneakily devastating.



My 2016 in Film

This year was truly terrible, but there were films here and there that made it all worthwhile. Barely.


Mahanagar (Satyajit Ray, 1963)

Each new Ray film I see is a pleasure. Immaculately composed and crafted, with lyrical grace notes that are afforded only to masters, and a gift for drama that is organic, this might be the best thing I saw all year.


Maya Darpan (Kumar Shahani, 1972)

psychology depicted almost entirely through staging, movement and repetition. a film built up of insistent rhythmic patterning; the lateral camera moves becoming almost a mantra. undeniably demanding, but mostly rewarding. the film’s final movements are liberating after the almost oppressive visual schema.


The Crazies (George A. Romero, 1973)

Relentless film. The horror here in how quickly society falls apart. The military converges upon a sleepy town, taking it over and becoming an occupying force. The citizens because they’re uninformed and scared and have access to guns fight back. The editing is at points frantic and rough around the edges, but it’s given focus by Romero’s gaze which is critical and urgent. Although the acting will never be the strongest part of a Romero film, there are some privileged moments given great power by the framing.


Ankur (Shyam Benegal, 1974)

Begins with Shabana Azmi wishing for a child, Sadhu Meher’s zamindar’s son who has to come back home after his studies, and the ways their fates intersect. This is beautifully acted and realized melodrama that underplays it throughout until the film’s climax where all the film’s tensions explode (hypocrisy of the ruling class, caste system, patriarchy) into a piercing cry that shames everyone involved. The film’s final gesture is obvious but re-frames the film as a powerful polemic against these institutions. But the film’s true strength is how it grounds all this in a dramatically satisfying way.


Short Eyes (Robert M. Young, 1977)

Prison drama scripted by Miguel Piñero, based on his play, and directed by Robert M. Young. Focuses on a prison of detention and the tensions between the Puerto Ricans, black and white factions, when a “Short Eyes” (the slang for a child molester) is brought in. The play roots are spotted right off the bat. Not only in the single setting of the dayroom, but rather in its love of the character’s language, the musicality of it – the film is alive with slang, accidental poetry, and more. Each character understands the coded meanings of its language, and the film appreciates those interactions and imbues them with respect. Young’s background for documentary serves him well, as it anchors the film’s theatrical roots in hard-lived detail.


Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (Shinji Somai, 1985)

Begins with a ridiculous long take which incorporates months of the main character’s childhood. And after that it’s just one after another of incredibly composed scenes that depict the various psychological states of its main character. The relationships here are shaded in through the staging and while not all of it lands, it’s impossible to deny the staggering power of the last two images (one of union at the cost of everything, and the other of a distant and mythologized past). It’s frankly overwhelming.


Mouna Ragam (Mani Ratnam, 1986)

This is a film of interiors – Revathy alone in her new home, looking forlorn, is moving because of the way it denies her natural vivaciousness. Then seguing into the way that each of the characters move past each other while sharing the same space. And climaxing with an beautiful shot where the characters hold each other in the same frame, a mirror reflecting the new depths of their relationship and intimacy. At first, had trouble accepting the way Mohan behaves (an almost impossible character), but was able to reconcile with his treatment of Revathy at film’s beginning (an amused smile as he realizes the depths and eccentricities of Divya). A true relationship film; two people slowly learning to love and understand each other with Ratnam’s sensitive and inquisitive camera always respecting and portraying his characters with grace. Great film.


Ijaazat (Gulzar, 1987)

Absolutely heartbreaking drama from Gulzar. Naseeruddin Shah and Rekha play ex-husband and wife, who meet on a stormy night and reminisce about their relationship, and what went wrong. The pace is leisurely and what registers most is the restraint in execution. But really this is a triumph of composition and staging – just so damn elegant and mature. Beautifully executed melodrama, understated and wonderful. If maybe something holds it back is the conception of the Maya character, but even then it’s treated with the same touch as everything else.


Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (Kundan Shah, 1993)

The australians say “mainlining the essence of SRK” and that’s as true a summation as you can get. But it’s also the community and the emotional context around him. Or as Wikipedia states: “This is one of the rare mainstream Hindi movies in which the hero plays the role of a loser.”


The Cloud Door (Mani Kaul, 1994)

Mani Kaul short film focusing on a parrot that has a fondness for erotics. There’s a wisp of a story here; mostly, it’s a total immersion in the sensual properties of color, shape, movement, pure cinema.


Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)

The scene at the beach, played in long shot, is the moment where Kurosawa reveals his mastery. From that point, the film is committed to the mundane as the inexplicable lies there in the frame, never standing out, simply a part of the film’s universe, the rules never quite explained, simply acting out its own brutal logic. The quietness in the film’s performance and style are what create the disquieting and terrifying effect. Nothing really announces itself as it were. It simply exists, slightly off, enervating. The film’s final shot with its shift in focus is everything.


Tokyo Marigold (Jun Ichikawa, 2001)

It’s always a treat to discover a director whose framing is sensual and meaningful. The rhythms here are wonderful, and keeps in check the saccharine score (I love it). Sometimes the emotional territory here is a bit opaque, but the framing always brings me back.  Ichikawa seems like a man ripe for exploration.


Nandha (Bala, 2001)

Odd, troubling film. Begins with a son protecting his mother with brute violence, which destroys their bond. When the son returns to his mother as a man, played by Suriya, his affections are rebuffed – her memories warped, the violence which protected her recast as bloodthirsty. Bala’s 2nd film is a tale of violence – how it’s used and how it destroys. Bala is by no means a technically accomplished filmmaker, but his images throughout have much more conviction and polish than Sethu. It feels like his world and point of view from the start. Suriya is a quiet presence throughout; he lets his actions speak for him. But much of the time those actions are violent one. One of the most troubling sequences has Suriya thoroughly beating down a man in front of a giant crowd, as his mother watches. Sethu had scenes like this at the beginning of the film, but they served to show the character’s prowess and strength; here all they do is show how this destroys familial bonds. The film’s ending, a tragic perversion of the Mother/Son relationship, is the most pure moment in the film. The son finally receives nourishment from his mother, as foundational an image of the Indian cinema that exists, but Bala quickly uses it to his own ends. The violence, which allowed Suriya to find a new purpose, corrupts the only thing he wanted. The final sudden fade to black leaves devastation in its wake.


Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (Rajkumar Hirani, 2003)

Rajkumar Hirani film that started his formula. The reason why this works and the Aamir Khan films don’t is basically the presence of Sanjay Dutt. Whereas 3 Idiots and PK practically deify their main characters, Dutt’s character is a little thornier. Dutt’s face, its hangdog aloofness, suggests a lifetime lived, mistakes made. His methods are often suggest a strange violent nature (although the film tries to neutralize this as well) that basically rub up against Hirani’s often treacly and sentimental instincts in interesting ways.


Aayirathil Oruvan (Selvaraghavan, 2010)

Selvaraghavan’s Aayirathil Oruvan is a hot mess passion project. Released in a truncated 183-minute cut, this is an often strange, bewildering mixture of adventure film tropes, Tamil dynasties revisionism and a sensibility determined to explore the desires which drive his characters. The first half is an adventure film: a group of mercenaries, hired hands and archaelogists go on a search to find the last remnants of the Chola dynasty. A series of traps and challenges awaits them, each one more violent and outlandish than the last. The film is committed to the violence of its scenario at every step, and it has genuine emotional consequences. Selva finds his footing within the adventure film scenario with the Karthi character, an unrepentant coolie who spends the evenings aboard the ship drinking himself to abandon, propositioning his female bosses, and partying with his friends. Many of the film’s early passages are filtered through his gaze; one which is totally unprepared for the unrelenting violence that’s sprung on it, most of it on his own friends. The film’s leap toward the unknown post-interval is one of sheer madness, and is where the film truly reaches its heights. Selvaraghavan, with the introduction of the Chola King, doubles down on his commitment to understanding his characters on their own terms. The king is a man of unfettered appetites and emotions, and the rule of his people is brutal. The atmosphere here is truly hellish and chaotic; so much goes unexplained. Character motivations reveal themselves through action and leaps in the story go without remark. The film’s final set piece, a nightmarish vision which extinguishes the union of the three main characters, is as astonishing as anything I’ve seen in the Indian cinema.


Life Back Then (Takahisa Zeze, 2011)

Starting with the image of a pair of scissors stabbing a school uniform and then showing our main protagonist naked on a roof, Life Back Then throws immediately into the maelstrom of teenage confusion and angst. Takahisa Zeze’s follow-up to the 4-hour whatsit Heaven’s Story appears to be a work-for-hire teen film at first. However, the reality is a little more complicated. This occupies some of the same emotional territory that Sono’s Himizu explored, but as the title implies, it provides a little distance to its characters, who are able to reflect and ultimately mature. Still: this is shameless Japanese teen drama with all that implies (bullying, rooftops, shouting at the ocean, tinkling piano keys and j-pop song through ending credits!), but Zeze shows patience in the handling of his material (although his framing is restless and constantly searching) and allows for moments of understanding to be arrived at naturally through the implications of the scenario. The final scene: an devastating act of remembrance, the final leap toward the imagined as perfectly realized as anything I’ve seen all year, and finally, a piece of dialogue from one character to another that wraps up everything with dignity and grace.


Pizza (Karthik Subbaraj, 2012)

Subbaraj’s debut begins as a slightly distant cousin to Ratnam’s OK Kanmani or Sharma’s Shuddh Desi Romance, focusing on a portrait of a live-in relationship. But this film is a little trickier and soon turns to slipperier territory. Pizza announces its thematic and formal concerns up front with a De Palma-like “unit” which deals with the film’s attitude toward horror, and its place in the character’s lives. Life gets in the way – money troubles, work troubles, real decisions to be made – and that’s when the film starts to really work. Big chunk of running time is taken up with Vijay’s stay in a house that appears to be haunted, and while this is effective horror filmmaking, it’s the aftermath that’s truly interesting. Grief, shock, stress all get worked through in the film’s latter stages, and the way the film moves in these passages is strange and interesting. The film’s twists change the dynamic/crux of the film and turns the protagonists into creators, using horror for their own ends. I don’t know if the film gets away with it, but it’s fascinating, and the film’s final moments are hugely effective and rewarding. This is often exciting cinema and definitely worth watching.


Fandry (Nagraj Manjule, 2013)

Story of a dalit boy, Jabya, who has a crush on fair upper caste girl. nagraj manjule, first time director, fills the story with plenty of good detail toward his setting, and sketches the dynamics of the village and jabya’s family. although Fandry dutifully hits a lot of “first love” notes throughout its duration, manjule only really uses this as a jumping off point to launch his attack on the caste system, and the discrimination that comes along with it. the film’s final 20 minutes bring all the tensions and ideas into focus as the village’s prejudices clash against jabya’s rage. is this simplistic? probably. but it’s rooted in a film’s worth of observations and behavior. the film’s final gambit, as angry a gesture as i’ve seen in any film, is worth everything.

My 2015 in Film

It’s been another year, and a quieter one for me. Less movies I fell in love with. Still, whatever…


Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947)

Impossibly knotty. Preminger’s camerawork doesn’t really call attention to itself – it isn’t exactly showy – but there’s a penetrating intelligence at work here that’s unsettling. Subtle tracks and imperceptible long takes pop up throughout all working fully in concert to convey each character’s unknowable nature. The love triangle ambiguous, each action contradicting, adult, rich with detail and mystery.

princess yang kwei fei

Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1955)

Mizoguchi’s formal control is astonishing, his staging magnificent, and the emotions here are just otherworldly. The final shot with its mysterious movements, its relationship with the voice-over, and… I don’t have the words for this, it just knocked me out. The best thing I saw all year.



McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

Thoughts on how this film functions as deconstruction or as an anti-western recede from memory when faced with Altman‘s wholly sympathetic portrayal of his characters. Beatty’s McCabe is a strange creation – ostensibly a cunning businessman at film’s beginning, his shortcomings are continuously pointed out by Mrs. Miller and his own doom comes because of his obliviousness. Some strange mixture of pride, bravado and cluelessness power him throughout the movie, never comfortable in his own skin, always over his head. Altman‘s film isn’t cynical about its characters – instead it sees them as part of capitalist progress, people trying to make things happen for themselves, come up out of nothing.

pat garrett amp billy the kid_zps2iupgxzt

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)

Not quite an elegiac vision, no – it’s too violent. Its moral universe represented in a series of standoffs, macabre and brutish in their meaninglessness, that slowly build towards its inevitable conclusion. Peckinpah’s staging is supple and beautiful, reserving its beautiful vistas for a few choice moments, largely grounding its poses and attitudes in saloons, bedrooms and the like. Its conflict is possibly too overly-determined; after Peckinpah sets it up, then there’s not much variance in its thematic exploration. Still, this is largely irrelevant when faced with Coburn’s magnificent performance, a masterclass of suggesting roiling emotional states. The most glaring flaw is possibly Dylan who never stops being distracting (the music’s fine, great at points) – the various shots that cut to Dylan reacting or doing anything are largely pointless (except for the great scene where he’s told to read).


Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975)

Relentlessly disturbing. Fleischer’s filmmaking, always keenly observant, highlighting the scenario’s thoroughly fucked up power struggles, is dispassionate in the face of lurid melodrama. It plays as a series of barbarities that are simply treated as a matter of every day life (some even treated as comedy!). The image of James Mason putting his feet on a young black kid crystallizes a lot of the hand-wringing that went on into this one. It’s basically a film that makes you question how its images were produced. It makes you question the economic arrangements that led to the exploitation of black bodies – at each point we are aware that people, just people, arranged these things, these images. The film isn’t distanced and artful, like McQueen, but lives with its characters – in their bloodlust, their bedrooms, in the muck with them. It presents everyone as complicit – even the filmmakers are complicit when they arrange images which feed into our titillation, our bloodlust and curiosity – in a system that every point treats black bodies as a commodity. That all the sexual frustration and dysfunction ends up erupting in a ridiculous, almost Jacobean, gesture makes lots of sense. It’s an endlessly fascinating film.

rich kids_zpsvmoelgps

 Rich Kids (Robert M. Young, 1979)

Sensitive portrayal of two kids on the cusp of adolescence who bond over the marital troubles of their parents. The kids’ interactions are portrayed with poise and intelligence, and the child actors are natural. The adults are portrayed sympathetically, if in a humorous light, as each of them tries to do their best. Most of my enjoyment of the film comes from its respectful nature – it’s a film that cherishes the private worlds that children create for themselves and one that trusts their judgment and emotions. So, yeah, it’s pretty wonderful.


10 (Blake Edwards, 1979)

Almost completely loved this, but felt it lost a little bit of its comic invention by film’s end. Still, another Edwards comedy that’s surprisingly full of pain and sadness, even if pratfalls and drunken buffoonery interrupt things every once in a while. The ending, however, is completely genius, as thematic strands regarding voyeurism, looking and perspective all come to fruition in the iris shot. But we’ve all read Dave Kehr on this movie, right?

disco dancer

Disco Dancer (Babbar Subhash, 1982)

A situation here where technique (and its deficiency) become irrelevant. Disco Dancer is awkward, lumpy, probably bad at points, but its sheer force powers it through everything. Its conception of melodrama is downright mythical. The simplest gestures get complicated, its formal strategies are hard to parse; it’s simply weird. All of this is vague, I understand, because it’s hard to explain what’s remarkable about this weird and goofy film. Perhaps it’s the film’s openness of form, its elasticity (consider the long, long take that places itself behind the drummer in a song number for no logical reason) that makes it an object of interest. I haven’t grasped it yet.


Shocker (Wes Craven, 1989)

An inexplicably giddy and brutal delight. The acting is awkward and stylized, befitting the trauma that the film puts its main character through. But where the film really takes off is it when Pinker’s private voodoo session with electricity, the devil, Wes Craven? (You Got It Baby), and then survives his execution. Logic takes backseat to pure mayhem. Craven stages Pinker’s destructive streak with glee, but still finds time for emotional interludes that give weight to it. It’s a blast.


Ambition (Hal Hartley, 1991)

Pure unfiltered Hartley. Shot-for-shot, line-by-line completely hilarious.


My Best Friend’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1997)

“I do bad things to honest people.” The gesture of Paul Giammati sharing a cigarette with Julia Roberts in an empty hotel hallway says everything you need to know about this movie’s emotional intelligence, formal elegance, and understated beauty.


My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae-young, 2001)

Packs about an entire k-drama’s worth of plot and weirdo incidents into its 2 hour + running time. Was inspired to watch it by my interest (and admiration) of Jun Ji-hyun’s performance in My Love From Another Star, and she’s great. Freed from convention, she’s allowed to give a kind of weirdo free jazzy tsundere performance, where she’s basically allowed to do whatever she wants. There is convention and melodrama here for sure, but what registers most forcefully is how odd and toxic a lot of the relationship at the heart of the film is allowed to be; and by sticking to that for so long, it’s allowed to blossom into something specific and true. It’s pretty touching.

smiley face

Smiley Face (Gregg Araki, 2007)

Anna Faris delivering her speech is the single funniest thing I saw in a movie all year. The rest of the film is similarly wonderful.


Maryada Ramanna (S.S. Rajamouli, 2010)

Rajamouli was my biggest auteur discovery of this year. This, his remake of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (unseen by me), is possibly my favorite of his films. Its sweet humor cedes naturally where the hero narrative starts to make more sense and takes over. Rajamouli’s world and sensibility is reliably goofy (the film features a talking bike!), but the guy has filmmaking chops. His sense of timing in the musical numbers, the way the music works in tandem with the gestures of his actors, suggests a private world where Rajamouli is simply enjoying himself – how much pleasure does he take in filming his actresses’s bellies?


For Love’s Sake (Takashi Miike, 2012)

This is everything that Sono was praised for doing in Tokyo Tribe and much more. A genuine youth film; as radical in its own way as Shuji Terayama’s Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets or one of Oshima’s early films, this is Miike at his most engaged and passionate. The work has gotten glossier as he’s become a studio hand, but the images remain complicated and thorny, full of contradictions and oddities.

Seattle Screen Scene


I’ve begun writing reviews for my friend Sean’s website, Seattle Screen Scene. The site aims to be THE place where people wanting to know what’s playing in Seattle arthouse and repertory screens can come to, read a review of two and grow moviegoing culture. Lofty order. But, somehow they’re letting me write reviews for them. This post will act as an archive of any and all things I wrote for them. Hope it’s not too terrible!

07/14/2015 – Baahubali: The Beggining

07/31/2015 – Bajrangi Bhaijaan

09/18/2015 – Office

09/24/2015 – Hit 2 Pass

09/26/2015 – Attack on Titan

My Favorite TV Shows

These are my favorite TV shows. Or, rather, somewhat of a corrective (an annoying one) to the exclusive focus on English-language television that you get pretty much everywhere. While some of the categories represented here (anime and drama) have a pretty healthy online presence, I haven’t found a lot of their criticism to be all that worthwhile. I’m not a critic, but I am a supporter and I want people to talk about the stuff I like!

It’s not radical, really. If truly we’re in the golden age of television then surely this must include television from anywhere (from The Sopranos to Luffy to Lee Min Ho). This is an outdated list featuring a lot of my favorites with an undeniable bias for the last 20 years. It also features old stuff from my childhood that could also be completely be terrible, but made me who I am. It could still be good… who knows?

Read the rest of this entry »

2014: My Year in Music

The best songs of 2014. I listened to all of them.

13. Ga In ft. Bumkey – “Fxxk U”

 12. SISTAR – “I Swear”

11. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy – “Kill Dil” (sung by Sonu Nigam + Shankar Mahadevan, from Kill Dil OST)

10. ARASHI – “Bittersweet”

09. The-Dream – “Outkast”

08. Girls’ Generation – “Mr.Mr.”

07. Akdong Musician – “200%”

06. The Weeknd – “Earned It”

05. A.R. Rahman – “Maahi Ve” (from Highway OST)

04. 4minute – “Only Gained Weight”

03. FKA twigs – “Two Weeks”

02. Javiera Mena – “Otra Era”

01. Especia – “Abyss”

My 2014 in Film

These are the best older movies I saw all year.



One Way Passage (Tay Garnett, 1932)

Heartbreaking in every sense, formally inventive, and just damn great.


Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, 1932)

If this film was nothing but Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett trading barbs, it would be a masterpiece. And, yet, they exist and there’s a plot and there are characters and dialogue and a million other pleasures (characters address the camera directly, the play with VO, etc.) that both distract, enhance and make the whole thing feel like a bit of play. I could watch movies like this forever.


The Bells of St. Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945)

It all comes down to those final 5 minutes. Bing Crosby suppressing everything inside of himself, McCarey giving us that incredible profile of his face, tempestuous emotions barely hinted at, and finally that final act of confession. Those last 5 minutes are nothing short of miraculous in their mastery of filmmaking. The rest ain’t bad either.


Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948)

“These are our heroes, our fathers who made us what we are today; in a way, they are ourselves. A Kubrick applies placeboes to our consciences, showing us that evil, warped men cause evil; but Ford makes us uncomfortable, showing us that fine, noble people cause
evil — and reminding us that, however much we decry what they did, we are not about to undo their work.” – Tag Gallagher


Way of a Gaucho (Jacques Tourneur, 1952)

Play it with Jauja and let it rip.


Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)

A series of confrontations without resolution; a film that begs for some kind of release but never quite gives you any. It’s basically a series of encounters that explore the main relationship between the main couple, hitting at it from new angles, showing new developments and wrinkles, but basically remaining at a sort of stasis. Naruse’s brilliance is exploiting that lack of forward movement, restaging it as a sort of sad dance between the two main characters that only has one ending.


Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Nothing less than a comic tour de force by Marylin Monroe in surely one of the great performances of all time


Wild River (Elia Kazan, 1960)

Although its insights and exploration of the American South are part of the reason why Wild River is great, what I end coming up back to is Lee Remick. The film juxtaposes the stillness, the severity and passivity of Montgomery Clift beautifully against the rawness of Remick. There’s a keys scene late in the film where Remick implores Clift to take her with him where she allows herself to be as vulnerable as any actor I’ve ever seen. She cycles through a series of complex emotions, all expressed in a series of hesitant facial expressions and stop-start line readings that’s as masterful a bit of acting that I’ve ever seen. But it’s the scene that finds both of them covered in mud, their entire dynamic expressed in a couple of line exchanges, that renders me speechless in its resigned beauty; its masterful staging and execution just a nice bonus. Whole movie’s sorta like that.


Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961)

Two drifters off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see
We’re after the same rainbow’s end
Waiting ’round the bend, my huckleberry friend
Moon river and me


Donovan’s Reef (John Ford, 1963)

It takes a master to be this casually simple, to almost seem dramatically slack, as if nothing important is happening on the screen. It’s the personality that shapes the film, the spirit behind it, that gives grace to Lee Marvin’s silly antics (his fascination with the model train set!), and that dramatizes, without ever descending into preachiness, a community built upon shared history and pain (the war and its aftermath links everyone). The film’s treatment of miscegenation and racial tolerance is simply the logical outgrowth of its handling of community – everyone understands each other, and where they come from – and it’s beautiful.


Lifeguard (Daniel Petrie, 1976)

Sensitively acted and directed, Lifeguard is almost completely unlike what its poster would suggest. Instead of “every girl’s summer dream,” the film sets out to show the various moral choices available to Sam Elliott’s titular lifeguard. The film’s humor and more 70’s shit elements (little miniature stories like the flasher or the teen gropers) serve to balance the detours into moodier territory. That “territory” is ostensibly the film’s actual subject, and here is where it excels. The film’s ambivalent attitude towards its main character is there at every turn; instead of judging Elliott, it seems to be interested in what sort of decisions he’ll make about the life he wants to lead. That’s rare.


Parvarish (Manmohan Desai, 1977)

The three Manmohan Desai films I’ve seen all featured pre-credit prologues that posed moral questions that the film would then go on to, at length, answer. Parvarish revolves around the question of nurture vs. nature, but it weaves its explorations of that idea into a series of hugely entertaining set pieces and riffs and, of course, musical numbers.  My favorite number might be the duet between Shabana and Neetu, where they go around stealing a bunch of watches and wallets and proclaim that all property belongs to the public. I mean, of course.


They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich, 1981)

Classic screwball conventions filtered thru New Hollywood eyes. A film in love with movies and life, puzzles puzzles, just unbelievably perfect. And also corny. Staging its goofy caper moments in real city streets, scoring its celebratory (and more dazzling) stylistic and narrative coups to country music, tossing off its frequently brilliant dialogue like it doesn’t even matter, and, best of all, making every moment profoundly warm and funny while still embodying a hint of melancholy because things never work out this way, only in the movies – all of this embodied at every point by Ben Gazzara’s face, which seems to have internalized the film’s philosophy. So: you could say it’s a little sad and a little funny.


Victor Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982)

Trying to think of what to say about this film, but nothing I came up with came anywhere near the brilliant summation in Dave Kehr’s capsule review: “Blake Edwards’s 1982 sex comedy has the most beautiful range of tones of any American film of its period: it is a work of dry wit, high slapstick, black despair, romantic warmth, and penetrating intelligence.” So there you have it.


Shanghai Blues (Tsui Hark, 1984)

A romantic comedy deeply rooted in particular historical place, where the fates of its characters are not determined solely by the particular of the plot, but also the currents of history. Tsui treats this moment not as background, but rather the instigator – what makes the events possible – and gives it proper weight. This is a miracle of a film. All of the setpieces, whether comic or romantic, are inventive and fun. But it’s in the beautiful realization of the character arcs (how the ending mirrors the beginning) and how its final goodbye is shaped by the weight of history that the film becomes truly great. Plus that final song, come on!


Sound and Fury (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1988)

Brisseau, for some reason tagged as a social realist thanks to this film and some earlier work, here expertly mines his milieu of social housing, schools and youth for his own purposes. Instead of underplaying his on-the-nose metaphor of innocence for his main lead, he actually does something interesting with it. Brisseau takes the metaphor and moves it past the figurative level, where the viewer is simply asked to make a connection, to something more primal, more mystical, something that aims for the unconscious, where it must be accepted as simple fact. The effect is immense simply because Brisseau risks failure at every turn.


Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988)

As usual with Davies, this is immaculate, perfect filmmaking. Building off the achievements of his earlier trilogy, and specially the aesthetic advances he made on Death and Transfiguration, his first feature is a amalgamation of memory, song and family. Flashes of brutality are peppered throughout, and it’s only in the beautiful songs of Davies’ characters that they find any solace. Davies’ beautiful tableaux, dissolving into each other, linked by song, are some of my favorite movie memories of 2014.


Les Sieges de l’Alcazar (Luc Moullet, 1989)

Delightful romantic comedy set in the midst of the 50’s Cahiers/Positif rivalry. It’s basically cinephile catnip. Hilarious start to finish – because of how specific about cinephilia it is – but also a snapshot of communal moviegoing that doesn’t quite exist anymore. Moullet allows for a certain romantic nostalgia for this era, while still lovingly skewering it. My favorite part is that one young critic who names Sam Newfield as “the only filmmaker who excites me.” Same critic later calls a fellow colleague who’s making their first film a traitor. It’s the little things.


Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993)

Carlito’s Way is—no kidding—a story of spiritual rebirth: a mythic western in Seventies crime thriller drag about a man who realizes, deep into his forties, that the thug life he’d killed to create is in fact an imitation of life—not just immoral and shallow, but silly and boring.” – MSZ


New Rose Hotel (Abel Ferrara, 1998)

A Ferrara remix of Notorious that is less interested in its cyberpunk international intrigue plotting than the freeform dissolve heavy collapsing of time and space, bending over backwards to depict the relationship between its three main characters, and how easily it becomes convoluted due to the exploitation at the heart of it. Stylistically, this is rapturously beautiful; a mixture of reds and blues bathing several scenes of intimacy, interiors that never quite spatially cohere, and an ending that goes on forever, as Dafoe’s character wallows in despair. Truly mesmerizing work that simply refuses to settle down and have you make sense of it, forever out of reach.



Love and Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000)

An intelligent adult romance that treats both sides of the couple with equal complexity and gives each character their own narrative and aspirations. It also grounds its characters within a specific milieu that’s explored with sensitivity, and allows for nuance and depth in character relations. My favorite moment in the film is probably the final Dennis Haybert / Omar Epps heart to heart. It shows the care that Prince-Bythewood has for her characters that she also takes the time to develop the character’s parents, because along with basketball, they also act as the moral foundation for who they eventually become. And, of course, parts of this are just beautiful and romantic like few movies I know of. The entire basketball strip game is pitch perfect, along with its callback at film’s end. Just extremely well-done mainstream filmmaking.


Maqbool (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2003)

Bhardwaj’s 2nd feature, and first of his Shakespeare trilogy, recasts Macbeth into a tale of the Indian underworld. Maqbool moves with an intensity and intelligence that’s largely thanks to the consummate skill of its cast. Featuring of a who’s who of Indian’s most respected actors, the acting in this film is subtle and soulful, embodied here by Irrfan Khan’s and Pankaj Kapur’s twin MPV performances. Each man quiet and demure, their faces often still, masking the deep undercurrents of thought roiling about in there, delivers all-time great performance. Kapur’s performance in particular, his shuffling gait, unhurried and soft-spoken delivery, hearkens to something like Brando in The Godfather. Tabu’s very existence, tempting men, with her moles, her gaze, everything about her, just impossible. Bhardwaj’s crime drama also works as as interesting reworking of Macbeth, adding some wrinkles here and there (the sections emphasizing the questions of lust and paternity are probably the most interesting) to the text, while also having some stuff with it (the references to the Bollywood/mafia connection are pretty hilarious).


Spanglish (James L. Brooks, 2004)

What I value about this film (and about the Brooks films I’ve seen, I suppose) is his tendency to populate his film with relentlessly odd characterizations. How Do You Know works because its characters are constantly engaging in self-analysis, the film rubbing them up against characters don’t really require that level of introspection. It makes for an interesting frisson, if you will. Spanglish is similarly interesting for the peculiarity of the reactions. Sandler is something of a small miracle here; every action and facial tic is constantly unpredictable. The way he handles things or doesn’t handle them constantly surprising. Paz Vega’s character is more conventional in how she’s portrayed, but is also given her own eccentricities (the way she admits that she was being hypocritical is maybe my favorite scene, or her final scene with her daughter…) Tea Leoni’s housewife character draws the most interesting and ambiguous responses; she’s proof of Brooks’ self-conscious attempts at complex characterization and neurosis, but her performance almost reaches kabuki-levels of stylization and weirdness (I’ve never seen someone with such a pained/strained look on their face) that constantly push the film into territory that’s uncomfortable and strange.


The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)

I realize it works as pitch black comedy, but this works the best as dogged procedural. Each character Lazarescu meets has a checklist that they work through as they inspect his body, ask the same exact questions, and run this situation through their own training, judgment and indifference. The unvarnished style and pallid color scheme only serve to highlight how awful everything that’s happening is. But, as the process, fastidious and necessary, grows more and more absurd as the night wears on, which is where the comedy comes in, specially as the doctors start basically acting like assholes.


Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006)

Structured around a series of repeating motifs: Ventura in a room with another, listening, his letter, his silence, shadows. Costa has come through the other side after In Vanda’s Room, where his subjects completely determined the form and structure of the film, to here where he feels more comfortable shaping them to his own needs. The most interesting development is the inclusion of some surreal elements, which lend parts of the film a mythic quality, like the film’s environment is an expression of Ventura’s mind.


Night and Day (Hong Sangsoo, 2008)

The Hong male writ large.


Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009)

Part of the reason why this film packs such a wallop is how closely it sticks to Cornish’s perspective. This isn’t dainty costume drama, but an often passionate tale of first love that (like Scorsese’s Age of Innocence) is enacted through and sticks to the social codes of the its setting. It’s undeniably intimate and it often feels undeniably beautiful precisely because of what doesn’t happen. Its explication of how a poem works invariably describes the mode this film operates in, preferring sensations, textures and emotional logic to a clean and tidy progression of plot details. That final quick fadeout is as enigmatic as anything else in cinema.


Mausam (Pankar Kapur, 2011)

Unlike Jab Tak Hai Jaan, this is actually a successful attempt at an old-fashioned romantic melodrama. Not that it comes from another era, but rather that it tries to take seriously its character’s emotions and actions and doesn’t shy away from exploring them with true heft and consideration.


Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap, 2012)

First half tells of origins: grudges, fathers, sons, marriages, history. Second half then systematically obliterates all those things. The time we spend in that first half is crucial – the mini narratives (detours into lust, pot smoke, aviator glasses, and more) are told with verve, color and energy – because of how sharply they contrast with the overwhelming violence of the second half. The Bollywood myths of its characters are brought into relief in the second half as its characters struggle to act out the roles they envision for themselves. Kashyap’s pop historical vision is one forged with blood, incredible songs, and a lot of guys trying to be the hero.


It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

I was only vaguely familiar with Hertzfeldt’s work before this so I was completely unprepared for how emotionally far-reaching and how inventive its techniques are. It’s honestly damn overwhelming what a perfect object it is. Hard to know what to say about it.



Hercules and the Captive Women (Vittorio Cottafavi, 1961)

Immaculate staging anchors this film. Cottafavi’s directions of brawls is as good as Ford’s! A film of simple pleasures and mysterious strengths. Hard to say why I liked it so much, but Hercules being a giant asshole is surely part of it!


Enter the Fat Dragon (Sammo Hung, 1978)

*writes compare/contrast essay on Robert Clouse’s stodgy, personality vacuum direction in Enter the Dragon versus Sammo Hung’s always fleet and agile HK-rooted mise en scene*



Angel Guts: Red Classroom (Chusei Sone, 1979)

What I said you to then… remains true today. Get out of this place. You shouldn’t be here.

There’s something about pink film that can just spook the very core of your soul. It’s probably because the form allows for, and encourages, subject matter that can often be depressing and horrifying. The film begins with depravity then struggles to head toward innocence. But inevitably it all ends in disappointment and disillusionment. The film’s boldest stylistic coup is the distortion the film applies to a key rendezvous in the film when the depths of Nami’s issues becomes clear (her sadness, her fury). But it’s the film’s ending that serves as the true gut punch. The film truly descends into hell, and the promises made earlier in the film, seen in an incredible long shot, are rebuked and forgotten. The film’s final two shots are stunning (the shock of that closeup, and then the abstract reflected body) are rich in ambiguity and power, evoking nothing less than The Third Man. As the film’s evocative theme song plays in the background, these lost souls stumble into the night.


Hardly Working (Jerry Lewis, 1980)

Begins with a curious greatest hits montage of Lewis’ past bits scored to Who’s Minding the Store‘s great typewriter scene, serving as both commentary on Lewis the actor/director’s past triumphs and also as back story to the clown figure of this new movie. Moves on to scene after scene of Lewis trying and failing to assimilate to normal society – Lewis acting as instigator of a thousand small disasters at whatever job he chooses to try next. Even after watching most of his films, HARDLY WORKING still registered as completely bizarre. Lewis is so oddly mannerist; he stretches the fabric of the world at will just to accommodate his gags, discarding things like emotional tenor, logic or causality. If it gets in the way of the scene, the timing of it, then it must go. What this leaves us with is Lewis bending the world and its people to his own peculiar point of view, shredding its plot progression into a series of stop-start sequences that hang around ill-fitting, and turning his characters into Bressonian after school special wannabes. The whole thing is bizarre and weird and desperate. As it should be.

blue rain osaka

Blue Rain Osaka (Masaru Konuma, 1983)

My quippy take on this is that it’s basically like a pink version of Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Past lovers, secret meetings, and a giant brawl that almost caps off the action of the film – it’s pretty good.


Darr (Yash Chopra, 1993)

The first musical number tells us everything: starting with a creepy scene of voyeurism where Juhi Chawla’s character, Kiran, almost disrobes to the song’s lyrics coyly suggesting that regardless of her consent, Kiran will be his. Darr doesn’t start in the realm of pure romantic love; instead it begins with a love that has morphed into a dangerous obsession. The imagery of this number is all subterfuge: Kiran believes she’s being serenaded by her lover and rushes toward him carelessly, her trek through a tree-lined path and empty hallways perhaps leading toward her doom.


Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994)

So eccentric and rambunctious. Instead of the ostentatious crescendos and moral algebra at play in something like Princess Mononoke (which I love), Pom Poko flows freely from vignette to vignette, only allowing its implications to surface in outbursts. At points, it felt like some political insurgent movie that just happened that star tanuki. At others, it felt like some kinda lost family melodrama (those final transformations one last hurrah for now gone way of life). It’s bizarre and troubling and beautiful.


Hollow Man (Paul Verhoeven, 2000)

It’s probably a credit to Verhoeven’s vision and the general hatefulness here that I thought for a long time how a pink film version of this would turn out. The film begins with Bacon but when he disappears cedes control of the narrative to other characters. Verhoeven’s camera, however, often assumes his POV, usually to horrific effect. His complexity is laid bare in those moments, not only stylistically, but also thematically – he will always align himself with that he critiques, take on its characteristics and exploit their effectiveness, even as he eviscerates them ideologically.


The Brothers Solomon (Bob Odenkirk, 2007)

The real trick here is how unabashedly sweet and good-natured Forte and Arnett play the brothers. And when they do break a mean-spirited crack, they only do so for the best reasons (the “look at the tits on that one” joke probably made me laugh more than anything else I saw all year). The reason why the film works is because it embraces the insanity of its characters and their logic all the while building off the emotional core that is the brothers’ bond with each other. It’s uneven, but goddamn funny.


Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012)

Though similar in plot and structure, this couldn’t be further away from the cold, brutally efficient world of Gareth Evans’ The Raid. This film’s sensibility is far more fluid and ambiguous; ranging from ridiculous splatterfest to druggy atmospherics and other weirdo pockets. Truly disreputable and dangerous because its characters are at one with their world and because the film plunges head first into it as well.


ping pong live-action img 14

Ping Pong is an adaptation of a Taiyo Matsumoto manga that ran in Big Comic Spirits during the mid 90’s. Essentially, it’s the story about Peco and Smile, two close friends with different attitudes toward life who are both very good at ping pong. Peco (Kubozuka Yosuke) is our loud, boisterous hero who, although good, doesn’t go to practice anymore, and generally coasts on his talent. Smile (Arata), nicknamed that because he never does, is the very silent type. He views ping pong as a way to kill time, and although he’s extremely talented, he doesn’t like to take the game very seriously.

That Ping Pong is one of the best sports movie I’ve ever seen can be credited pretty much entirely to the source manga. The story is so strong and the characters are so well-defined that any director simply has to try and be generally faithful to that. Although Fumihiko is no auteur, he generally understands that the story and the characters are what are important here, and he basically tries to get out of the way. But, Ping Pong is better than the manga, and it all has to do with the execution. There’s very little in this film that doesn’t originate from the source material, but Fumihiko transcends it at points solely because I believe we’re able to understand the rhythm of the matches better in live-action.

ping pong live-action img 3

As a key piece of evidence, I’d like to analyze the beauty of the climactic match at the end of the film. At the beginning of the match, Fumihiko skillfully uses slow motion so we can understand the thought processes of the two players. We see the physical exertion that taking those big swings requires. Like any other sports film, Fumihiko also cuts back to the audience for some commentary so we can understand the importance of each rally. And, because this was adapted from a sports manga, the characters converse with each other between points (claiming that they’ll win, etc.). As the game progresses, we get some cross-cutting between the game, and the stairs where Smile and his coach sit conversing. This links both things together, as part of the importance of the game is whether Peco will be finally be able to become the “hero” that Smile has wanted him to be. We also get quick glimpses into his “hero” persona from the past, as he takes off his mask and gets ready to finally win.

Most of the action is rendered in singles – that is, each character is showed reacting to the shot and swinging back. I’m assuming partly because Fumihiko doesn’t want to rely too much on the special effects ping pong bouncing around, but also partly because he’s saving it up for when it matters. Part of the ongoing narrative that’s been woven throughout the final tournament is that Peco’s knee is acting up, and as he retreats to his mind in between rallies, he conjures up images of himself as a hero. It’s in the following passages where the film shines the most. Through editing, Smile and Peco are able to have an emotional dialogue about what’s going on. Fumihiko then cuts back to show Smile waiting on the steps where he and Peco used to wait when they were kids. By placing him on those steps, Fumihiko explicitly links the match happening right now to the motivations and feelings of their early childhood. Smile’s voice-over and dialogue with Peco, skillfully conveyed by Fumihiko, are the motivation that’s required to finally win the match. Smile says to Peco: “you can have fun here.” That’s just what’s going to happen. Supercar’s “FREE YOUR SOUL” starts playing in the background as Peco shakes off his injury and begins to play, and what follows is pure pop transcendence as Fumihiko’s fast-cutting, judiciously used slow-mo, and one bravura reverse tracking shot (that becomes a crane shot) allows the fast back and forth between the players to finally manifest itself, as Peco and his rival have the match of a lifetime.

ping pong live-action img 10

All of this is right on the page of Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga, but it truly comes alive in the film. I believe that my analysis of the scene described above acts as a microcosm for the strenghts of the film as a whole. This is a really fun and exciting movie. I hope that all of you can make some time for it. It’s really quite special.

As I previously mentioned, most of the strengths of the film can be found in the source manga. Taiyo Matsumoto is most famous in the west thanks to a film adaptation of his 1994 work, Tekkonkinkreet (also known as Black & White, but he’s created numerous wonderful works).  My favorite of his is probably Hana Otoko, an incredibly moving series about a baseball-obsessed father and his relationship with his son.

ping pong manga 5
Matsumoto’s art is a mixture of wobbly, imperfect lines, that’s both incredibly impressive and seemingly off the cuff. His style isn’t particularly realistic or detail-oriented, but he’s always interested in expressiveness above all else. It may seem crude at first, but Matsumoto’s nuances become more pronounced the more you read him. Which, of course, I recommend you do.
Ping Pong is one of the more conventional things he’s ever done – it’s more or less a simple shounen sports story. But what a rich one it is! I’ve never minded formulas or clichés (as a fan of anime, how could I?) if they’re done correctly. In Ping Pong, Matsumoto takes the usual archetypes and wrings truth and emotion out of them.

ping pong manga 3
My favorite character of both the manga and the film is Kazama. He’s the high school champion and leader of an elite ping pong team. But, before every game, he locks himself up in a restroom to be alone. Why does he do this? Part of the beauty of Ping Pong is how it humanizes all its characters, even supporting ones. Think about how Kong, the Chinese player, ends up really caring for the teammates at his high school, or the changes in Sakuma, Peco’s old rival. But none of them move me as much as Kazama does. He’s relentless, only focused on winning, and stronger and more intimidating than any other player. He’s also aware of his limitations. As soon as he spots Smile, he gets a quick and accurate reading of his talent (and even says that it’s above his own), and immediately starts training to defeat him. As Kong watches Kazama play, he remarks that maybe for Kazama ping pong is pain. Suddenly, the way he locks himself up in the restroom begins to make more sense.
Thanks to his character, and his eventual match against Peco, Matsumoto hits on a really interesting theme. I described in detail the mechanics of the scene as depicted in the film, but I didn’t really get into why it’s so important and so thrilling. During this match, something strange and beautiful starts to happen – Kazama begins to smile. Playing against such a strong opponent as Peco, allows for Kazama to finally feel some joy in the game. It’s one of the most beautiful realizations that no matter the outcome, sports can often be beautiful. Matsumoto literalizes this emotion by suddenly whisking away his two players away from the gymnasium. A recurrent motif in <b>Ping Pong</b> is flying/soaring (Peco throws himself off a bridge to show that he can fly), and Matsumoto reintroduces this motif in this match, as seagulls fly over their heads. Peco and Kazama are pushing each other to greater and greater heights and as the game is finishing up, one of them tells the eventual winner to bring him back to this place again. These two players will chase this feeling forever. I’ve still never seen another work quite get what can be so transcendent about playing sports.

ping pong manga 1




rurouni kenshin live action 2012 img 2

Rurouni Kenshin is an adaptation of the beloved manga/anime series. As such, it’s not a work that allows itself many liberties with the source material. Sure, it conflates a few things, adds in characters who shouldn’t be there and all that, but it pretty much sticks to the work. It’s a respectful adaptation, one that tries to honor the original work and its message. It’s also a really boring film. For the uninitiated, Rurouni Kenshin tells the story of a former legendary assassin who, after participating in the Bakumatsu war, has taken an oath to never kill again. He now wanders the countryside, wearing his reverse blade sword, and minding his own business. Of course, oaths are meant to be broken, and pretty much everything that happens in the film is direct challenge to that oath.

The director, Keishi Ohtono, mostly known for his work on TV, does not quite bring enough visual flair to the table. His main decision seems to color code certain scenes. Any big outside battle scene is done using dark, gray colors (or takes place at night). Ohtono emphasizes the bloody, grimy nature of the battle scenes. That’s fine as far as directorial decisions go. It suggests the chaotic, often morally fraught, nature of battle. But the fight scenes themselves aren’t really choreographed all that well. There’s no purpose in the camera’s movement; it’s simply a recording of slashes and blood. Ohtono captures all that stuff, but he simply edits in between different camera setups. He never really captures Kenshin’s movement as his camera is often too close to the action. He films his actions, but not their meaning and their logic. Ohtono shoots his daytime scenes with an almost golden hue that, at its worst, turns into an ugly, brownish beige. What all of this boils down to is that the film simply isn’t aesthetically interesting or worthwhile. No matter how faithful he is to the material, Ohtono fails to make it come alive.

rurouni kenshin live action 2012 img 6

The film is mostly an adaptation of the first dozen or so episodes of the anime series. However, there are a few differences. Kanryu Takeda is the main villain of the film, and everything that happens is basically under him. The Oniwabanshu are not in the film (although we do get Henya, since he looks cool). Instead, Udo Jin-e is the person in charge of protecting Kanryu. Remember him? He’s the one with the freaky eyes who could freeze people in fear. Jin-e is also the person who pretends to be “Hitokiri Battosai” in the film, whereas in the series that fell to the former student of Kaoru’s dojo, Gohei Kimura. Saito Hajime even shows up, since he’s a fan favorite and who wants to wait until the sequel to see him. The film even puts material from the OVA as a quick flashback (it explains how he got one part of his scar).

This shuffling of characters and stories is fine, but I think they could’ve gone even further in that regard. As it stands, there are too many characters that the film has to include, and the film does justice to barely any of them. The film includes Sanosuke and even has him battle it out with Kenshin, but it doesn’t really give a reason as to why he should be someone we care about. Yahiko ends up being a complete background character. Hell, even Kaoru, ostensibly the female lead of the series, gets short-changed; which makes the final dialogue exchange (moving though it is in concept) ring false. I would say only Megumi’s story gets any sort of depth, and that’s only because it’s connected to defeating Kanryu. I would’ve preferred a more lean narrative that focused on the major characters and actually developed them more, even if it meant being a little more libertine with the source material. By trying to stuff so many of the expected character/narrative beats in the film, there’s just no room for any personality or life to come out. It’s disappointing.

rurouni kenshin live action 2012 img 9

Although the film adaptation tries to be respectful and honor the original work, it fails to capture some of the more interesting thematic strands of the original. A lot of the characters in the series have been affected by the events of the Bakumatsu. It seems like every other character that Kenshin meets is someone who never quite got over what happened during the revolution. Some feel betrayed by the outcome; some just want to fight like they used to back then. The Bakumatsu is a deep, psychic wound for the characters. Their actions in the present are largely motivated by what happened then.

In the series, samurai are largely seen as an outdated concept; in fact, people aren’t even allowed to have swords out in public anymore. But samurai were incredibly important during the revolution, and they had a hand in building this new Meiji era.   There’s an uneasy tension between the violent men it took to build this new era and modernity itself. Men who haven’t been absorbed into the peaceful rhythms of the Meiji era keep popping up, violent aberrations from the way things are now. And then there’s Yahiko and Kaoru and Kenshin’s delightful “oro” and all the little cute things which might seem goofy or annoying if you’re solely into the action elements of the show, but actually serve a purpose – this is what Kenshin will fight for and die trying to protect. The beauty of Kenshin is that it allows both of these realities to exist alongside each other, stressing the ambiguity inherent in society’s progress. Plus they’re just both badass movies.

Kenshin is lucky that he’s able to find a new community, a new home to belong to.  Rurouni Kenshin is an optimistic work, but it never lets us forget the violent depths of our main character; it’s an optimism that’s truly earned, as it’s framed as a constant internal struggle. That struggle makes the eventual happy ending all the more greater.


On Sion Sono’s HIMIZU

Since the website I used to post a bunch of stuff for went under, it’s about time I put up some of it here. Some of it will appear in slightly re-edited form.


Sion Sono, over the last 5 or so years, has become a pretty big name in the contemporary Japanese film scene. The release of his epic 4-hour film, Love Exposure, brought him lots of fans, as it should’ve. Since then, he’s become extremely prolific, releasing one or two films every single year.

Himizu is an adaptation of a manga written by Minoru Furuya in 2001. It tells the story of a 14-year-old boy, Yuichi Sumida (Shota Sometani), who ends up being abandoned by both his father and his mother. Left to his own devices, he continues to run their boat rental shop. The story is set in the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster. Sono apparently was going to make a straight adaptation of the manga, but then later chose to adapt the story to reflect this new reality. It’s the best decision he could’ve made.


The film is a raw, festering wound. It isn’t interested in subtlety, or nuance. It’s a film that bludgeons. It could exist no other way. Often, Himizu registers as a litany of punishments. First, Sumida’s dad shows up and beats the crap out of him. Then his mom leaves him and takes off with her boyfriend. Before long, the yakuza are looking for some owed money. The film does not allow, at any moment, for Sumida to feel any sort of internal peace. His world is in a constant state of chaos. Sono mirrors that chaos with his often ragged, hand-held camera, which plunges head first into the muck of every situation.

Part of the internal struggle of the Sumida character is that he deeply wishes to live a normal, ordinary life. But nothing that happens during the course of the film seems to allow for that possibility. Everyone around him seems on the edge of existence. Victims of the 3/11 disaster have set up small sheds on his family’s property, and although they seem to have become a sort of make-shift family, it isn’t one that will step in when Sumida is being beat up by his father. Only an older man, Yoruno (Tetsu Watanabe), seems to go the extra mile in trying to protect this boy (his little side story with a pickpocket is hilariously over the top, terrifying, and hopeful). But Sumida has no use for kindness and, for the most of the film, he goes about rejecting it and sinking further and further into complete despair.


The beauty of Himizu lies in its complete awkwardness, its earnestness. It’s a shambolic, slapstick take on total suffering. The characters spend the entirety of the movie screaming and slapping each other, rolling about in the muck, trying to murder random people; it’s crazy. It’s a world where there is not just one, but two psycho-with-a-knife incidents. It’s a world where a mother makes a gallows so her daughter can kill herself. It’s a world that is conceived in complete emotional extremes. Whether the film works or not for you relies on the ability to buy into this exaggerated vision of existence. It’s a messy, imperfect work; but, as it’s young characters envision a happier future for themselves a in candle-lit dump, away from the world, it arrives at an emotional purity that is only able to happen because of the extremity of the approach. Sumida’s tears and eventual smile signal a message of hope that seemed impossible at the start.


Released in 2001, Minoru Furuya’s Himizu marked a turning point for the author. In the 90’s, he had released works such as Ping Pong Club and was known for his comedic flare. Starting with Himizu and continuing with Ciguatera he began to explore darker themes in a more serious way.

Minoru Furuya’s Himizu differs from its adaptation in one significant manner. It lacks a social context. Sono situates his characters in post-3/11 Japan, and allows his observations and characters to stem from that environment. But Furuya’s Sumida – what forms him? Just like his film counterpart, he has a ton of bad things happen to him, but his rants and opinions, divorced from his socioeconomic situation, come off as adolescent posturing. Sumida’s point of view and character register more like seinen cliches, and less like a legitimate character. Furuya’s art and character design doesn’t help much, either. His designs are grotesque and exaggerated, and that lends the work an uneasy tension. Furuya’s self-seriousness is sabotaged, almost, by his unwillingness to play it straight. There’s always an awkward joke nudged in there, an unwelcome protrusion, that distracts. Ciguatera, his follow-up work, would find a better balance.