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Thoughts On Visual Culture

Month: January, 2014

Movie Night with Jhon: Watching Fucking TV All Time Makes a Fool

I’ve started writing a weekly column for the website In this column, I’ll be taking a look at some live-action adaptations of manga and/or anime. This can range from some pretty big blockbuster titles to more obscure arthouse works. It’s all fair game. While I’ll be focusing on how these titles work as films, I’ll also have a section at the bottom of the article that discusses the source work by itself.

watching tv

This week I take a look at Toru Kamei’s adaptation of Naoki Yamamoto’s one-shot, Watching Fucking TV All Time Makes a Fool.


2013: Year in Review

This post will act as an index to the other posts.





2013: My Year in Film

Hey, I don’t solely watch asian cinema that’s based on anime and/or manga properties! Sometimes I watch other movies. These are the best older movies I watched all year.


street scene 2 (vidor, 1931)

Street Scene (King Vidor, 1931)

A neighborhood piece; bunch of characters sitting out in the front stoop, others sticking their heads out peering out their windows, fighting boredom, getting away from their problems, gabbin’ away. It’s obvious that it’s based on a play, sure, but Vidor brings a vitality to it that’s undeniable. Plus: young Sylvia Sidney.

young america (borzage, 1932)

Young America (Frank Borzage, 1932)

Borzage’s compassionate gaze falls on a young kid who’s known as the worst kid in the town. Opening up with a series of brief “juvenile court” sketches presided over by Ralph Bellamy’s stern and yet lackadaisical judge, Borzage then moves on to focus on the particulars of one kid’s story. Instead of the traditional Borzage romance, we get a beautiful friendship between boys (lying for each other, stealing for each other, and ultimately, witnessing). The kids are sublime and awkward, imperfect in their expression and emoting (reminded me a little bit of how the kid in Hereafter acted, of all things), while the grownups (Tracy, Bellamy, etc) are mostly negligible. There’s an overbearing message about understanding troubled youth and not being quick to punish, but it’s small potatoes when compared to the complexity and social nuance behind the image of our small protagonist, seemingly sacrificing his new home, taking one last look at the couple who took him.

heroes for sale (wellman, 1933)

Heroes for Sale (William A. Wellman, 1933)

– Movie #1: great war film; muddy battle scenes that are all chaos, fear and death; reversal of fates, ironies, etc.
– Movie #2: drug addiction melodrama; the antsyness, the constant need; how it eats him alive and brings him shame.
– Movie #3: good old fashioned working class romance; loretta young’s eyes, diners, laundry joints and paychecks.
– Movie #4: proletarian social justice movie; machines vs. humans, the pursuit of leisure, the rights of workers.
– Movie #5: brutal depression era fable; radical depiction of solidarity amongst workers (and mob justice), the equality of man, an almost enlightened view of humanity, its foibles and its spirit of perseverance.

All of this is in 70 minutes.

mr. smith goes to washington (capra, 1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939)

Just like It’s a Wonderful Life, this is a bitter, bitter pill. I get why the Capra-corn label has stuck, sort of, but when the movies are this dark and brutal… what the hell?

portrait of jennie (dieterle, 1948)

Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)

Wow. This was utterly intoxicating. Joseph Cotten is a painter who’s out of money, out of luck, out of everything. But then he spots Jennifer Jones playing in a park, and he’s suddenly inspired. Too bad she isn’t what she seems. This is cinema as a vision of romance inevitably intertwined with death, a fantasy about artistic inspiration and its limits, doom-laden, ethereal; as Cotten draws Jennie’s portrait, it’s like he’s rushing toward the death of his own inspiration (or maybe the beginning of something else? something greater?). Mostly, I found his goddamn mysterious and romantic and spookily brilliant (that scene where Jones sings her theremin-backed song seriously gave me chills). The film’s color-filtered finale is ridiculously brilliant – it reminded me of Vertigo of all things.

fixed bayonets! (Fuller, 1951)

Fixed Bayonets! (Samuel Fuller, 1951)

Basically a depiction of several tense situations (braving a mine field, facing off against a tank etc). Would make a good double bill with what appears to be its sister film, The Steel Helmet (though this one lacks that film’s racial subject matter). Instead, it’s all about men at war; the constant change of who is in command, the guy who needs to get his first kill, the bickering, lingo, rituals and little details that are so lived in and understood that they’re casually tossed off and treated with no more importance than anything else. The guy from The Steel Helmet is arguably the star, but more than anything the camaraderie between men is the focus; just some men huddled together, trying to stay warm, nothing gay about that.

the long gray line (ford, 1955)

The Long Gray Line (John Ford, 1955)

And then The Long Gray Line, which must be up there as one of Ford’s many masterpieces. It tells the life story of a man who served at West Point for over 50 years. This is less of a “rah rah military” film than you might expect (if you… uh… misunderstand Ford completely) as it constantly wrestles with the meaning of the military during several points of the film. It both expresses how it can lend meaning to someone’s life, give young men structure and discipline and turn them into upstanding human beings, while at the same time send them to their deaths. Although the main character seems to come to terms with this, the film doesn’t quite resolve this thread, and it’s this ambiguity in its treatment of its subject that lends the film its power (besides its complete and utter perfection of its dramatic construction). So, yeah, I liked it!

there's always tomorrow (sirk, 1956)

There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

Melodrama at its most beautiful and heartbreaking.

great day in the morning (tourneur, 1956)

Great Day in the Morning (Jacques Tourneur, 1956)

This is Canyon Passage-level of mysterious, complex mise en scene, meaning it’s a masterpiece. Each scene full of confrontations, counter-balances, opposing ideologies, fluid characterization, pictorial beauty, self-destruction, and an acknowledgement of people’s unknowable nature – the final shot (scene) is just incredible.

love in the afternoon (wilder, 1957)

Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957)

If there’s anything that watching a couple of Audrey Hepburn movies has taught me, it’s that there’s nothing wrong with movies that exist solely to capture beautiful moments. The entirety of Funny Face for me exists solely to take delight in the beauty of Hepburn in a wedding dress. Gary Cooper’s gallivanting playboy gets intrigued by Hepburn and her wild tales of debauchery (she’s been reading her detective father’s casebook – wait, is that Maurice Chevalier?!) She pretends it’s all a game, plays around with him, never revealing her name, carrying around her cello – but we all know what’s really going on. The beauty isn’t in the ending, which is as predictable as can get, but the front Hepburn puts up in front of Cooper, teary-eyed, defiant and utterly magnificently in love. Movies don’t get better.

hatari! (hawks, 1962)

Hatari! (Howard Hawks, 1962)

It’s got that later period slowness. Another hangout movie in the Rio Bravo vein. It’s less of a forward momentum-type thing, but more about putting a bunch of personalities together and letting them bounce around for a couple of hours. It’s got a ton of stock Hawks situations that he recycled throughout his career (men doing a dangerous job and the women who must be tough enough to stand up to that – Only Angels Have Wings, Ceiling Zero, Rio Bravo,etc). Sometimes it registers as an opportunity to get together, hunt some animals, tell a few jokes, drink and smoke, have some thrills; postures, accents, romantic reversals, pure Hawksian riffs. It’s probably the most digressive, discursive Hawks there is; it’s seemingly a film that could expand and expand forever, including everything that might amuse its director. But it isn’t bloated, not at all, unless you find a totally superfluous scene where some ostrich get loose to not be meaningful and worthy of inclusion. This is film as an outgrowth of a personality and it’s something I deeply cherish.

starman 2 (carpenter, 1984)

Starman (John Carpenter, 1984)

One great final shot is all it takes.  The rest is pretty good, too.

year of the dragon (cimino, 1985)

Year of the Dragon (Michael Cimino, 1985)

Mickey Rourke gets assigned to Chinatown and immediately starts to fuck shit up. He ignores all the previous arrangements between the local bosses and the police and becomes a one man wrecking crew. Of course he’s a vietnam vet and his unchecked racism and paranoia and general unhingedness basically destroy the lives of all those around him. And yet there are moments in the film where Cimino allows us to focus intensely on the bruised poetry of Rourke’s face, which recalls nothing less than John Garfield in Body and Soul of all things, and see all the pain and miserableness and self-hatred that lies there. This man is hell-bent on self-destruction, but instead destroys everyone else and survives to see the other side. It’s hard to know how to feel about it all; is this one of those incoherent texts? That final slow motion shot seems to belong to another movie, but I wouldn’t trade its beauty for any kind of traditional emotional or narrative coherence. Perhaps this is what I’ve been reduced to, an admirer of moments, instincts, passions, nevermind everything else. Cimino trades in his usual landscapes and expansiveness for a more focused narrative, relatively speaking, but he acquits himself admirably; my favorite moment of the film is a frantic insert shot of Rourke looking down at a bathroom floor, it contains enough rage and momentum to power 8 other movies. And there is enough poetry and strangeness here to forgive whatever other risible elements there might be there.

celine (brisseau, 1992)

Céline (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1992)

Possibly the most beautiful film I saw all year. Words still fail me when trying to describe the beauty of it. But I’m not speaking of a pictorial beauty, although that element is still there. I’m referring more to its elusive elements, how its meanings remain always out of grasp, ever mysterious… like a specter haunting my consciousness. Not really.

dangerous game (ferrara, 1993)

Dangerous Game (Abel Ferrara, 1993)

This is incredibly brutal, uncompromising filmmaking. It’s like some crazed, Godardian update on something like Two Weeks in Another Town that shows the damnation and exploitation that the characters go through in trying to create art. It’s a deliberately ugly and hard to stomach film; loved it.

city hunter (jing, 1993)

City Hunter (Wong Jing, 1993)

A film full of great moments: a skateboard chase scene that leads to several people jumping through glass windows, boobs visualized as hamburgers, a running gag about Jackie not being able to eat, a Gary Daniels workout routine, a musical number that seriously makes no sense, and I could keep going and going. I’ve often despaired at the state of American comedy and its lack of formal ambition. Gone are the days of people like Albert Brooks and Jerry Lewis making genuinely formally inventive comedies. Now it’s all “point and shoot” technique that’s all about letting actors improvise until something amusing happens. Contrast this to the insane energy Jing brings to pretty much everything – whether a random card game, a shootout or a weird seduction scene. I know which I prefer. The most notable scene of the film, by far, is the Street Fighter scene. It’s as advertised – totally incredible. Gary Daniels is Ken, Jackie is E. Honda (and Chun Li!), while some other guys are Guile and Dhalsim. It seems like a random moment, but it’s actually not that out of place. Since the beginning of the film, we’ve been conditioned to expect that anything and everything could happen so this “crazy” break away from the narrative really isn’t as big of a deal as it seems. Part of what makes it special however is that the film allows for a certain brand of openness of form and content, where faithfully recreating the fight moves (and sounds) of video game characters can coexist with the plot obligations. Although City Hunter is a work very invested in its narrative, it mostly registers as a source of play – these things are happening and they’re “serious” (terrorists, etc.), but they are not an obstacle for a joke. Contrast this to comedies that are funny for 80 minutes and then suddenly decide they have to be serious for the last 30 and you’ll see why a film like City Hunter is such a delight.

moving (somai, 1993)

Moving (Shinji Somai, 1993)

This is the live-action version of Only Yesterday I didn’t know I wanted. Filled with Somai’s trademark long takes and elaborate camera movement, it completely captures the turbulent mindstate of its pre-teen character as her parents undergo a divorce. It’s filled with a surprising amount of emotional and psychological violence, too; just witness the scenes where Renko locks herself in the restroom, or when she starts a fire in her classroom. By the time we get to the fire festival, however, we’ve left the realm of quotidian psychology far behind, though, and we enter the realm of personal myth. It’s glorious.

maborosi (koreeda, 1995)

Maborosi (Hirokazu Koreeda, 1995)

Koreeda’s first film is far more obtuse in its characterization than I think any other film of his that I’ve seen so far. Early in the film, his long shots even obfuscate who actually is in the shot and what they’re doing. Even as we come to know more about the main character (sort of), the film never quite lets us in, showcasing its characters at a distance, letting whatever drama there is play out almost entirely internally (its implications suggested entirely through camera placement, movement and color). I don’t know what made Koreeda change his approach (or at what point he does so), but this is something really, really special. Loved it.

comrades almost a love story (chan, 1996)

Comrades: Almost a Love Story (Peter Chan, 1996)

“The only film of the last twenty years which could be directed by Frank Borzage.” – Filipe Furtado

leila (mehrjui, 1996)

Leila (Dariush Mehrjui, 1997)

Emotional destruction; so rooted in the specifics of its setting and milieu that when it delivers images of haunting psychological power and acuity (the closeups that render Leila but a face), it renders me basically speechless. Beautifully empathetic and so deeply embedded in its main character’s psyche that everything is understandable and recognizable. Its final freeze frame representative of all of the film’s concerns, and the final development and emotional logic so self-evident in Leila’s face that there’s just nothing left to say. I need to catch up with Mehrjui’s other films from this trilogy.


harmful insect (shiota, 2001)

Harmful Insect (Akihiko Shiota, 2001)

Absolutely ferocious filmmakingThe final shot an encapsulation of a thousand missed opportunities, chances that never were, and a future that’s uncertain and bleak. This shit broke everything in me.

blue (ando, 2002)

Blue (Hiroshi Ando, 2002)

This isn’t the “forever and ever” first love that shows up in a lot of teen films. It’s messy and sad and inevitably heartbreaking. It’s a film that’s resolutely of the present tense. It isn’t interested in looking back at some innocent first love. Only the film’s ending provides some other perspective on the film’s events that provides an interpretation as to what they might mean in the bigger scheme of things. Blue captures the subtle and creeping reality of love – how someone you love can disappoint you by not being perfect, how maybe even though they’re not the right person you can still grow by having loved them, how stubborn you can be by wanting to make it work. There’s a sense that these characters have changed each other, although it’s up to us to tease out in what way. All of this comes off natural, organic, neatly avoiding pitfalls it could’ve easily fallen into by going for anything mawkish.

main hoon na (khan, 2004)

Main Hoon Na (Farah Khan, 2004)

How could I have not seen it coming? All of Farah Khan’s movies are a pure expression of the joy of filmmaking, both the act of it and the product of it. She gleefully references (or rips off?) films whenever she can – from the snatch of the Mission: Impossible theme song, a bit of gun fu borrowed from John Woo (doves show up later, too), to using the face of Gabbar Singh on a poster to signal the arrival of one of the film’s villains – Farah Khan is an extremely cine-conscious filmmaker. Her background as a choreographer also serves her well, since all her numbers are expertly executed. I love all of them for various reasons, but my favorite might be the first one: a series of long takes that are serve as both thrilling cinema, but also as an introduction to two new characters that will be important to the film’s narrative, it’s a piece of wonderful cinema. Khan always embraces the artificiality of her stories, indulging in fantasy sequences and bits of humor such as SRK’s inability to keep himself from singing when he’s around the woman he likes or imagine her without wind machines blasting her hair and a group of musicians scoring his daydream. Hell, the entire story of this movie (SRK going undercover to protect his army boss’ daughter and to find his half-brother) although treated seriously strikes me as just an excuse for the rest of the stuff. She doesn’t nail the pathos, but she nails the extravaganza of it, if that makes sense. Her next films would make explicit her dedication to film (they both concern filmmaking), all while giving her even more excuses to play around with Bollywood iconography, references and conventions. She does all this while still making enormously entertaining films.

the lake house 2 (agresti, 2006)

The Lake House (Alejandro Agresti, 2006)

I’m interested in watching the original Korean film, Il Mare, and seeing how similar it is. But I’d almost rather keep the experience pure, as this film’s lovely camerawork (the long takes) and almost Adult Contemporary sensibility are something that I cherish.

kamome diner (ogigami, 2006)

Kamome Diner (Naoko Ogigami, 2006)

The most warm-hearted thing I’ve seen probably all year. Ogigami’s sensibility welcomes all. There are certain edits and camera setups that remind of Kaurismaki, but Ogigami’s welcoming vision seems completely her own. Every character is brought into the fold: from the Finnish otaku character who’s all into the most stereotypical aspects of Japanese society, the trio of ladies who make fun of the restaurant at the beginning, and even the older lady who keeps mean-mugging them from the store window – everyone is allowed their place, no matter what their problems. Which leads me to maybe what I liked most about the film: Ogigami’s camera, though inquisitive and essentially curious about its character, never pries too much. We never really learn the most profound secrets of the characters, or often why they’re even in Finland to begin with. But Ogigami seems to prefer it that way. Although, to me, this is a thoroughly accessible film, it’s filled with enough ellipses and gaps in what gets addressed and what doesn’t, that there’s enough ambiguity and space to reflect on what we’ve watched.

the secret of the grain (kechiche, 2007)

The Secret of the Grain (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2007)

If there’s a knock to be had against Kechiche’s film, it’s that his style ultimately winds up being a barrage of hand-held closeups that doesn’t even have the decency to hold still and register the environment around him. Kechiche conjures up a wonderful atmosphere and feeling around his group scenes, but then all he does is cut between close-up after close-up of faces, almost never letting us get the entire picture. I feel he overcomes that through sheer focus on the most miniscule aspects of behavior, however. He gives as much importance to a meal over couscous and to conversations regarding toilet training as he does to anything else. If anything, the specificity of the character interactions – the way they look, sound, feel like – and how it captures those internal rhythms unique to family are the film’s strongest asset.

speedy scandal (kang, 2008)

Speedy Scandal (Kang Hyeong-Cheol, 2008)

Evidence #1 of Kang’s honest, crowd-pleasing mainstream sensibility: the film ends with a performance of “Walking on Sunshine.” The film proves Sunny wasn’t a fluke though it doesn’t really strive for that film’s wonderful pop-transcendent pathos. It instead goes for more of a “isn’t family important?” type message that is redeemed by the performers, but also by Kang’s good instincts to not lay it on too thick. Kang works with teen girls, cute kids, shallow pop ephemera (no animals so far), and manages to create mostly believable characters. It’s sort of crazy that it works.

oki's movie (hong, 2010)

Oki’s Movie (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)

More structural games from Hong. The film is divided up into four distinct units, each with its own credit sequence. All of them concern the usual Hong types (film professors/directors/students) and all of them have the usual Hong story patterns (awkward embarrassment, too much drinking, acute dissection of male assholery). But what makes the film of interest (as in stand out from Hong’s now crowded filmography) is how the female figure in the romantic triangle is allowed an authorial voice of her own. We go from identifying with the social faux pas of the drunken professor and the horny student (Oki is a part of their narratives) to watching as she (meta-textually) recasts the men in her life. Uh, parenthesis. Which for me suggested a generosity of spirit that I also felt while watching, uh, Le Beau Mariage. All of which is fascinating and funny and shaggily melancholic in that uniquely Hongian way. Which is to say that it’s both typical and distinctive. And made me wish for warm covers, drinks and companionship. Damn it.

villain (lee, 2010)

Villain (Lee Sang-Il, 2010)

The film I’m least certain about. Thought it knotty, complex melodrama with surprisingly adroit and nuanced direction, with a good grasp of the main relationship, and it how it builds off both character’s neediness and loneliness.

himizu (sono, 2011)

Himizu (Sion Sono, 2011)

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. Sumida’s dad shows up and beats the crap out of him; 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. 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 hitting 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 gallow 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 its young characters envision a happier future for themselves in a 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.


three on a couch (lewis, 1966)

Three on a Couch (Jerry Lewis, 1966)

– In scenes with Leigh, Lewis often gives the back to the audience and/or Leigh. Any time she tries to get him to open up, he turns away, almost like turning away from psychiatry’s gaze (and the psychology of character identification/turning away from audience).
– Lewis starts out as a suave, put together guy, kind of like a non-asshole version of Buddy Love. The film then sets out to completely tear that image up, fragment it, etc. In this Lewis, isn’t even a “fella,” just an empty vessel, that then gets to try out different masculine personas/identities. The cowboy one is particularly hilarious as he literally casn’t walk comfortably inside of it (the boots are killing him) and then he spends the next couple of minutes unsure of how to have a cigar in his mouth and still talk (undoing the masculine by immediately putting a phallic symbol into his mouth). That’s not even to mention about the cross-dressing, the fey zoologist brother, and the way that he completely fails at every single role he tries to play.
– There’s this incredible sequence where Lewis and Leigh slow dance (with Lewis with his back completely to the audience) that’s beautifully romantic and incredible; it’s seriously like they’re floating in space and the whole thing’s rife with a dizzying romanticism. Of course, the punchline of the scene deflates the whole thing.
– And don’t even get me started on the incredible party sequence, which like the hidden room in Ladies Man, opens up the physical space all the way up to ridiculous levels (just how is all of this happening anyway?) and is a marvel of orchestration and sight-line orientation (the best part is where he directs the three girls to slowly make their way across the throng of people in three different parts of the screen).

excitement class love techniques (tanaka, 1972)

Excitement Class: Love Techniques (Noboru Tanaka, 1972)

The film’s opening credit sequence is arguably the film’s high point – it’s a vision of pure unadulterated teenage desire. The young man at the heart of the film imagines how he could completely dominate and possess his teacher and lose himself in the act of surrendering himself to that passion, but then he opens his eyes and finishes, and reality comes back rushing in. The whole sequence is fantastic, and the rest of the film can’t quite live up to how it works as pure cinema. So, that’s the kind of film we’re dealing with: one where a young man’s sexual obsession turns increasingly dangerous and troubling. Apparently the teacher has a fiancee, and our young man makes it his mission to break up their engagement. This includes a weird assault in a restroom where he drinks toilet water and proceeds to spit it on his teacher’s chest and then sort of motorboat her tits? Can’t say that’s ever worked for me. The whole thing’s disturbing, often comedic, and never less than fascinating. But it wouldn’t be as good as it is without the film’s final movement. I imagine if this were a typical pink film, the film’s final coupling would be a sort of victory or just one more sex scene, but this film is a little too smart for that (comparatively speaking, of course). The teacher, that not so obscure object of desire, is a grown woman who has no interest in these little kids; she also has her own goals. The film’s ending is not a fulfillment of the adolescent fantasy, but rather a display of the teacher’s agency. She uses him for her own purposes, and doesn’t give in to the narrative that she’s supposed to. It’s very interesting.

the spook who sat by the door (dixon, 1973)

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973)

Thought this would be a some blaxpoitation thing, which I guess it still is, but it’s actually a truly radical piece of political cinema. The film’s main character is trained by the CIA after the organization is told to integrate, but after a while he debunks in order to teach his black brothers and sisters how to become militarized and overthrow their white oppressors. And it’s completely serious. 40 years later and we’re still waiting.

erotic diary of an office lady (konuma, 1977

Erotic Diary of an Office Lady (Masaru Konuma, 1977)

Although this is a sex film, it strikes me more as some sort of feminist liberal message movie, wherein the Office Lady title seeks to get out from under the oppressive relationships that bind her while, still, you know, getting some action. I have no idea if this actually is represented in the movie, but the song’s final explosion of rebellion and awesomeness sure sold me on it. A song of freedom.

night of the hunted (rollin, 1980)

The Night of the Hunted (Jean Rollin, 1980)

Apparently a small subset of people have been exposed to some sort of radiation that makes it so that their brain cells are constantly dying off. This means that they’ve lost their memories, can’t make new ones, and have irrational often violent outbursts. Brigitte Lahaie, firm and young, plays a young woman who escaped from “The Black Tower” that the infected people have been sequestered in. She eventually ends up shacking up with some random guy (in a 5-minute sex scene). Apparently the memories are gone, but sex doesn’t really go away. Rollin’s film is highly illogical, moves in fits and starts and often seems stylistically all over the place. He often shoots his actor’s faces against blank walls (they are dead-eyed since they have no memories, but they’re also just bad actors) and often has these random camera movements where he’ll start by looking up at a building and panning down watch his characters walk right next to it. But there’s an intensity of vision to it that’s quite undeniable – think of the hallways full of people whose only connection to any sort of reality happens through physical contact (at one point a character suggests that because their memories will always leave them, “the only thing left for us to do is to touch our bodies.”) If it doesn’t always make sense or if it feels slapdash or awkward, that’s okay – Brigitte Lahaie disrobes several times.

burger cop (hung, 1995)

Burger Cop (Sammo Hung, 1995)

The story’s all mid-90’s drug-trafficking action nonsense. Takeshi Kaneshiro shows up as the hotshot young boss who’s way better at everything than Sammo. Yuen Biao, sporting a hideous goatee, is some other cop who stumbles into the story, and never really leaves. Sammo has hilarious mullet which he pulls up as a ponytail. His name is Pierre. In between all the expected action sequences, Sammo finds time for the inter-office romances. Sammo ends up, almost by accident, romancing Annabelle Lau’s character. Yuen Biao has a one-night stand that won’t go further than that. Takeshi Kaneshiro gets groped on the dance floor. Although it’s a comedy, Sammo’s characters have surprisingly dark sides. Kaneshiro is willing to let a woman be raped because if he interferes it will destroy his case. Yuen Biao is just an asshole in general; my favorite gag including him is when he questions a prostitute about how much money she makes, and he ends up kicking her right in the stomach (and then pretends to not be a cop). And, of course, Sammo isn’t perfect himself. Notice how he brutally beats one of the suspects he has in custory. Or, the surprisingly angry way that he accosts Yuen Biao’s character in the locker room. The film is full of little touches (notice the completely careless way that Yuen Biao picks up some documents, puts them on a desk, only for them to fall down again) that show the rougher edges of the characters. Honestly, I enjoy Sammo’s work when’s he fighting, less when everything gets reduced to gun fights, so some of the stuff here wasn’t all that palatable to me. However, the evidence storage invasion, full of Sammo’s inventive camera movements, makes a great case for its inclusion in the film. The film’s best sequences are a marvel – full of editing that clarifies, acts as counterpoint, is in complete harmony with the bodies in space. That said, Yuen Biao and Takeshi Kaneshiro do spend the film’s final 20 minutes battling it out in black face. And, yeah, it’s completely embarrassing and awful and hilarious

no love juice rustling in bed (tajiri, 1999)

No Love Juice: Rustling in Bed (Yuji Tajiri, 1999)

Another film for the “surprisingly melancholy pink films” canon. This one tells the story of  a normal office lady who gets dumped by her boyfriend, and after falling asleep on the train, hooks up with a much younger man. He’s all about photography and takes pictures of all his friends, even though he wishes he could do something more meaningful; she has no real ambitions. He’s not into mementos or keeping things from the past, but eventually takes a picture of both of them, signifying the couple at their best – but also right at the moment where they must separate. Nothing lasts forever. Part of the charm of the film is  how slight and upfront about its intentions it is. Most of the sex scenes, whether because of how terrible the transfer is, or just because of the lighting, are done in extreme darkness where nothing is really seen. This allows the film to focus more on the emotional meaning behind the acts rather than it just being about the anatomy, which is beside the point in pinku anyway. When love is finally declared, the climax has been reached, finally in the light, there is nothing left but to wrap things up. Time to catch another train. Careless whispers, eye fucking, biting ass, neck, ears, hair, legs, eating ass – yep.

teenage hooker becomes killing machine

Teenage Hooker Becomes Killing Machine (Nam Gee-woong, 2000)

This movie’s completely nuts. Nam Gee-Wong, the director, instead of trying to give the movie any semblance of respectability, commits fully to his gutter-trash aesthetics. He embraces the cheapness of his equipment, the limits of his resources, and exaggerates all the things that might seem “wrong” or “amateur” about it. Constantly bewildering, frustrating and alienating, Teenage Hooker remains a thoroughly surprising and invigorating experience. It isn’t novelty, exactly; just that by itself doesn’t account for the beauty and pathos of the soul-baring monologue (backed by opera!) about 20 minutes into the film where the teenage hooker, her body shrouded in darkness and her face lit by some still unsullied innocence, stares at the camera and tells us of her dreams, making us complicit in her exploitation almost, unaware that the man she loves is about to kill her. The adult world destroys the dreams of the young, and it is heartbreaking.

empty rooms (sato, 2001)

Empty Rooms (Tokishi Sato, 2001)

There’s a sense of disillusionment to everything in this film. Nothing is going the way that it’s supposed to go. A husband waits for his wife to finish having sex with another man. A wife goes dancing with another man just to feel something. Does this outfit still look good on me?, back pain, domesticity: these are not sexy subjects and Sato shoots them with a distant, often static camera in order to leave the acts unadorned. Sato’s film is a little sad, a little funny; it watches patiently as its characters try to regain control of their lives.

singham (shetty, 2011)

Singham (Rohit Shetty, 2011)

An incredibly entertaining film that’s all about Ajay Devgn in full-on hero-giri mode, going to town on everyone and everything, defying the laws of physics, having a LION sound cue whenever he does anything awesome or delivers a badass line, that morphs into a crazy apologia for fascism. The film’s denouement is incredibly disturbing and ultimately what makes the film so fascinating. Singham eventually ends up almost being about the death of idealism when faced with corruption and injustice. Singham ends up destroying the corrupt system that’s in place, but only does so by actually completely rejecting the idea of ethics, law or justice – what ends up in place of that system is an even more reactionary, morally corrupt system than before. Shetty and company clearly believe that Singham’s actions are justifiable, but it never quite comes off as being as rousing as maybe it’s meant to be. It mostly comes off as soul-destroying and doom-laden. Singham may have “won,” but he’s given up his humanity. He’s no hero.

2013: My Year in Drama

I already have posts for Orange Days, Tatta Hitotsu no Koi, I Hear Your Voice, Moteki, Unemployed Romance, Flower Boy Next Door and Kimi wa Petto. I’ve linked to each one of those posts. So: what else did I watch, but didn’t write about? Let’s see!

love generationLove Generation (1997)

I’ve made the argument in other internet spaces that the romance is basically dead. As far as I’m concerned, only Bollywood and Asian television seem to take it seriously. Although Love Generation is now 16 years old, it’s still a worthwhile example of what we should be seeing on our television screens. Kimura Takuya, a hotshot advertising agency dude, gets taken out of his element and transferred to the business office of his company. His long hair and earrings won’t fly there; neither will his complete apathy toward the new work he has to do. It’s there he meets Takako Matsu, a younger Office Lady, who takes an interest in him. Whereas a k-drama would probably use the office job as a source of backstabbing, rivalries and other complications, in Love Generation it becomes a place where Takuya’s character is continually tested. Apart from the growth of the tentative romance between the main characters, the series treats as equally important his growth in dealing with his new situation. So: real weight is given to his work projects, to his relationship with his superiors, to how how he handles all these things; it isn’t background, it’s part of the makeup of the series. All of this while providing plenty of great moments of interaction between the leads: some playful, some romantic, some sad, some utterly ridiculous; we understand their bond and attraction toward each other. It also features hands down the most gorgeous 90’s pop tracks from Cagnet and others. Like, they’re on constant rotation. Love Generation contains multitudes. Also acts as a secret documentary on how awful it must be to be a salary man.

heartstringsHeartstrings (2011)

We must be true to our reasons. Just as Big did for Suzy, Heartstrings exists to simply dress up Park Shin Hye in adorable outfits and let her be cute forever and ever. Okay, that isn’t all there is to it. Something like a k-drama version of those “let’s put on a show” Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals, Heartstrings concerns itself with the almost inevitable union between Park Shin Hye and CNBLUE’s Yong-hwa. She plays traditional Korean music, he plays guitar in a rock band; of course, they’re meant to be together. For a while it plays as a traditional “stuck up boy mistreats plucky girl” nonsense as she loses a bet with him and has to do anything he says for a month, but this soon gives way as each character becomes more honest, and shares their dreams with each other. As usual, sometimes it does play as nothing but a series of confrontations (Park Shin Hye has a rival in the school production who constantly talks smack, the guy who runs the theater department is jealous of the director), but mostly it’s just a bunch of good people hanging out with each other and having fun. The final episode invents some reason for them to be apart from each other, but we all know it’s nonsense; the world of Heartstrings is too optimistic and beautiful for such petty conflicts.

freeter ie o kauFreeter, ie o kau (2010)

Although Love Generation deals with the workplace, the romance is always at the heart of it. This show, on the other hand, is very much the opposite. In fact, the romance is pretty much completely underplayed. Instead, Freeter, ie o kau (which translates to “Part-Timer Buys a House”) focuses on the everyday struggle of the main character in finding meaning in his job. After a surreal and horrifying spell in the salary man world, Ninomiya Kazumari’s main character decides to quit and find something he’s more comfortable with. This proves to be harder than he thought it would be. At its core, Freeter is a social issue show – it’s deeply concerned with the post-graduate fate of the Japanese youth, the process by which they begin to find their role in society, and ultimately how the changing norms that the show depict affect the conception of the Japanese family. And there’s the show’s weird and sort highly risible portrayal of depression. All of this to say that there’s way too much here to disentangle in a little blurb. The show is at its absolute best when it focuses completely on the main character’s growing attachment to his job, and how it comes to define him. His growing responsibility and sense of self-worth is so well done that whatever other things you wish the show did fall by the wayside. That said, the Ninomiya and Karina pseudo-romance is very gentle and subtle, portraying two adults who through the course of the show come to understand and rely on each other. Like Bambino before it, the drama here is in the self-realization. Still, Naoto Takenaka’s character in this is the biggest asshole ever regardless of how his character is eventually half-redeemed.

urakara 1Urakara (2011)

Urakara is the defining document of the Hallyu Wave. This is a demented meta-text that is a product of this boom, but also very explicitly about it. The show opens with the group about to make their debut in the Japanese market (by the point this show aired, their songs “Mister,” “Jumping” had already become huge hits), but all of a sudden their manager disappears. To replace him, a robot takes his place. This is ridiculous by any standard, but it sort of works as a walking metaphor for KARA’s dalliance with the late night TV market (and how that basically involves catering to Japanese taste). The robot manager decides that in order to win over the Japanese market (aka Men), they’ll be assigned Love Missions – the manager will give them a target, and a member must make that man fall in love with them. The manager orders them to do this because it will make them more beautiful and desirable. What we have here is then a show that is explicitly about KARA’s marketing in Japan, and how the Hallyu Wave positions itself in that new market. We get episodes where members appear in strange, folklore-based TV dramas, do music performances, struggle with speaking Japanese, etc.  It’s a TV show that’s not only about itself, but also its mode of production. Even without all this Very Important meta-textual nonsense, Urakara is still just a gleefully ridiculous show that once in a while becomes surprisingly melancholy. There are bizarre moments such as when Seungyeon takes a ghost out to an amusing park, Nicole finds out she can do telepathy (aliens?!) and more; but there are also moments of serene beauty as when Jiyoung, her heart tender and beautiful after her first love, never gets to find out the other person’s feelings (the robot manager’s intersection here a pointed commentary of how members of these groups are often forbidden to date and/or are forced to keep relationships completely hidden).  The most poignant moment, however, is when Nicole says that KARA will be together forever and everyone cheers. You were beautiful.

rich man poor womanRich Man, Poor Woman (2012)

After watching nothing but an endless parade of k-dramas about chaebols who seemingly only exist in order to torment the plucky poor girls around them, this show was something of a relief. Shun Oguri is an eccentric self-made millionaire; Satomi Ishihara is the college student who goes to work for him. Although Oguri is prickly in his interactions with her (he often puts her down), he’s mostly interested in actually using her for what she can do for him. Soon enough, she makes herself indispensable. What I found remarkable about this series is how the focus is remarkably different. Instead of the main character’s wealth being used as an excuse for displays of opulence and a reason to ignore the realities of work, Rich Man Poor Woman explores how much actual hard work it takes the main character to achieve it (it helps that he actually has, you know, skills). Instead of money seemingly coming out of nowhere, we’re made acutely aware of the struggle and sacrificed involved with how the character’s wealth came to be. Indeed, one of the main thematic strands of the show is about how much of ourselves we invest into the work we do, not only because it’s necessary to survive, but because its proof that you have achieved something, that you’ve created something that is truly yours. The show’s missteps all have to do with the Arata character, who unconvincingly turns against his business partner (and then laughs maniacally like he’s Sideshow Bob) and then realizes he regrets it.

summer nude 2Summer Nude (2013)

Instead of pointless confrontations, declarations and other nonsense, Summer Nude concerns itself with the gradual understanding of the bonds between the characters. Although there is a plot, the show almost always seems to try to simply have their characters interact with each other, and have the character development flow through that. Yamapi’s typically emotionally aloof performance is perfect for a character that is stuck in a state of limbo – unable to move on, but cognizant that he’s settled; it’s marvelous. But it’s Karina that is the show’s heart. The first half of the series takes her character, after the 1st episode’s ruined wedding, and gives her time to grief, heal and most marvelously, discover a sort of oasis. Most importantly, she’s simply fully realized; pissed off, arrogant, and always completely human (the friendship that develops between her and Erika Toda is probably the show’s secret MPV). But perhaps what most impressed me was the show’s sense of place; how its rhythms feel influenced by the not only the setting, but the season – laid-back and casual, but somehow still transformative. The show’s beachfront shack becomes not only the home that all the characters can return to, but also the one that they must leave in order to order to find themselves.

Bloody Monday Season 01 - 02.mkv_snapshot_19.38_[2013.12.31_22.30.47]Bloody Monday (2008)

This was one of the most ridiculous things I saw all year. A 16-year-old hacker gets roped into a secret intelligence agency by his dad in order to stop Russian terrorists/religious fanatics? Right from get-go, we’re in the land of constant twists; like some sort of j-drama 24, this thing is full of secret spies, role reversals, impossible twists, ridiculous technology (the show’s depiction of hacking involves a CGI falcon breaking into buildings) and so much more. The whole thing’s ridiculous, but it has the courage of its convictions. The show puts the main character and his friends through the ringer several times (like extreme psychological damage), and yet he somehow still begs to be involved, even though his life has been ruined. Hiroki Narimiya shows up for a bit to have a shitload of fun saying ridiculous stuff, the bad guys talk creepily to themselves, much crying and shouting occurs. Again, ridiculous. The show’s style tries to outdo the content in its outlandish somehow; hand-held nothingness, distorted angles, fish-eye lenses (?), frequent usage of on-screen text (someone is typing ominous messages about the destruction of Japan). Bloody Monday is astoundingly dumb and I would have it no other way.