The Next Thing

Thoughts On Visual Culture

Category: live-action


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Love is the Moment: Some Notes on Heirs

heirs_episode_8_img_5 Read the rest of this entry »

You’re Mine: On Yash Chopra’s Darr

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When watching Yash Chopra’s Darr, a quote from film critic Daniel Kasman regarding Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night constantly came to mind:

“we see two great kinds of love, both obsessive: the transcendental which will sacrifice itself for the love, and the destructive, which will sacrifice anything else for that love.”

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.

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Known primarily for being the film that launched Shahrukh Khan to stardom, Darr is a fascinating film that anticipates but also complicates his screen persona of the next two decades. The film tells the story of Kiran and Sunil (Sunny Deol), a young couple who are engaged to be married. He’s a badass navy guy who, in the film’s most incongruous scene, wipes out a boatful of baddies in a hostage rescue mission (by himself!). Kiran is home from school and just happy to stay at her brother’s house and just wait for life to be wonderful. And then there’s Rahul (Khan). Ostensibly a supporting performance, there’s not a moment in the film where his presence isn’t felt; the characters may not be thinking about him, but the audience is always aware of the danger lurking near. The film then turns toward a stalker narrative where Rahul harasses and tries to sabotage Kiran and Sunil’s relationship, while trying to tell her how much he loves her.

But, although there’s definitely moments of interest regarding that setup, I remained more invested in how the film takes the elements that would fuel SRK’s later Yash Raj films, and shows the flip side. The Swiss alps that Chopra loves so much and that show up continuously in the 90’s Yash Raj vehicles are perverted here. Although they act as fantasy in those films, too, here they are converted into Rahul’s demented vision of happiness. When he finally is able to hold Kiran in his arms in a platonic and friendly dance, he denies the reality of it, and imposes another narrative on top of it (which looks exactly the same as other films). In those other Yash Raj films, the fantasy aspect of it is shared between the characters, as their love for each other eliminated their physical reality and placed them into a higher plane (Kiran and Sunil have their own rendezvous in the alps in the film as well). Darr allows Rahul not only to hijack its narrative, but to reshape it in the way he would like it to be.

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By committing so fully to showing Rahul’s mania and obsession to wreak havoc upon its narrative, Darr truly becomes disturbing at points. Moments that should be celebratory and beautiful become rife with tension. The Holi celebration, a staple of the Hindi language cinema, takes on an element of danger, as Rahul inserts himself into it, participating in its rituals. As he witnesses the flirtation between Kiran and Sunil, his beating of the drum become more and more desperate. The scene takes on two different meanings: we’re watching the movie this could be if Rahul weren’t present, and also waiting for the shoe to drop as it were – we wait for Rahul to make the scene about himself. His action in the scene, mirroring the song’s lyrics (“douse the colors on me my love”), are another perversion of the traditions of the Bollywood narrative (the Holi powder could be standing in for his blood).

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The ultimate tension at the heart of the film, and the reason why it’s so powerful, is because you can feel its characters trying desperately to live another happier story, but Rahul resists all their attempts and drags them into his personal hell, turning this into a completely different and terrifying film.

Darr (1993)

Directed by Yash Chopra

Yash Raj Films

Images: Alone in Love

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Alone in Love (2006)

Episode 4 (dir. Han Ji-seung)


Movie Night with Jhon: Kimi ni Todoke

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.

kimi ni todoke

In this week’s installment, I take a look at the 2010 adaptation of Kimi ni Todoke.

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.


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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.

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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.

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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!

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There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

Melodrama at its most beautiful and heartbreaking.

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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.

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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.