J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The Town that Dreaded Sunrise—Still Not Loving the Moonlight

Texarkana is hard to figure. Is it Texas or Arkansas? One town of two? Either way, you would think it was far too heavily armed to have a serial killer problem. Nevertheless, the “Phantom Killer” really did terrorize Texarkana for several months in 1946. There must have been a post-war shortage of ammunition. Eventually, the murders stopped, but strictly speaking, the case was never solved. In 1976, the so-called “Moonlight Murders” were rather controversially dramatized in Charles B. Pierce’s cult favorite slasher movie. The fascination and the killings continue in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s meta-homage pseudo-sequel (don’t call it a reboot) The Town that Dreaded Sundown (trailer here), a Blumhouse production, which releases today on regular DVD.

So maybe the killer is still walking the streets of Texarkana. If so, what would he make of the burg’s annual Halloween drive-in screening of Pierce’s original Town that Dreaded Sunrise? Apparently, he rather resents it, judging from comments made to Jami Lerner and Corey Holland when he viciously attacks them during a moment of parked privacy. Holland quickly exits the picture, but the Phantom lets Lerner live in order to torment her like a cat with a mouse.

The killer quickly starts working his way through the murders in the 1976 film. However, Lerner is convinced she also must look to the archival case files from 1946 to discover the identity of the current murder. Of course, the local cops on both the Texas and Arkansas sides are clueless, but at least Texas Ranger Lone Wolf Morales inspires some confidence, just like Ben Johnson’s J.D. Morales, who was molded after the historical M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas.

There are times when the 2014 Town is surprisingly clever in the ways it engages with both the previous film and the real life Moonlight Murders. Unfortunately, a lot of good set-up is essentially wasted on a third act revelation that feels like no big deal. We are primed for something uber-meta, but get watered-down Scream elements instead.

Still, there is a vivid sense of place (much of the film was shot in Louisiana, but that’s close enough). Gomez-Rejon is often quite visually inventive in his approach to the material and cinematography Michael Goi gives is all a dark glow that is eerie and somewhat Carpenter-esque. There is also plenty of fan service for Pierce partisans, including a trombone murder. Indeed, the film is often quite brutal, matching the tone set by its predecessor, so sensitive viewers should be warned.

Perhaps due to producer Ryan “American Horror Story” Murphy’s involvement, the new Town features an unusually accomplished cast for a slasher flick. Frankly, it is a pity Anthony Anderson does not have more screen time, because he is a drolly entertaining as the flamboyant Morales. In one of his final screen appearances, the late great Ed Lauter is also frustratingly under-employed as Sheriff Underwood. Addison Timlin is perfectly fine as Lerner, but it is not exactly a deep, empowering role. However, Denis O’Hare undeniably steals his scenes as the meta Charles Pierce, Jr.

It is easy to see why Pierce’s film freaked people out in 1976. It came out when many residents still recalled the Moonlight Murders and it predated the masked Jason in the Friday the 13th franchise by over three years. Pierce’s hooded Phantom might have also had further historical resonance for viewers, especially in Texas and Arkansas. Gomez-Rejon’s take starts out quite creepily, but it deflates late in the third act. (Still, it is a good deal more uplifting than his latest film: Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. Oh, the horror. Oh, the humanity.) Recommended for hardcore slasher fans and Pierce loyalists, The Town that Dreaded Sundown releases today (7/7) on regular DVD.

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Dude Bro Party Massacre III: Fake 1980s Nostalgia

There was a time when you could see some pretty weird cultural detritus wash up on UHF channels. Now you have to go out of your way to see grade z micro-budget oddities. That’s the downside when every media outlet aspires to produce the next prestige television show. However, your enthusiasm for nostalgic grunge will probably be curbed by Tomm Jacobsen, Michael Rousselet, and Jon Salmon’s Dude Bro Party Massacre III (trailer here), a selection of this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, which releases today on VOD.

It is the 1980s. We can tell because there is a picture of Pres. Reagan in nearly every scene. The Delta Bis are the worst house on Chico’s fraternity row, but they are survivors. Not only have they escaped punishment for their often fatal pranks, they also lived to tell of their nearly fatal encounters with the serial killer Motherface in Dude Bro Party Massacres I and II. At least, some of them did. For a while, Brock Chirino was one of the lucky ones, but his luck runs out in the opening scenes. Fortunately, he has an identical twin brother to investigate his murder. Brent Chirino couldn’t buy a clue at the clue store, but he looks halfway bright compared to the dim bulbs surrounding him.

According to its framing device, DBPM3 only exists on a VHS tape some bored kid recorded off his local UHF channel back in the day. Supposedly, the Reagan administration destroyed all other known copies, presumably because it is nearly unwatchable. Frankly, DBPM3 is arguably too ambitious for its own good, throwing in a cabal of satanic cops, a suspiciously needy girlfriend, and a grieving father bent on avenging the daughter who died when the Delta Bi’s flooded their small town as a prank. Perhaps the only thing they neglected to include was fun.

The 5-Second Film team best known for their web videos obviously understands the affection for low budget straight to drive-in and video 80s horror films, but not nearly enough of their jokes land. They try to compensate with some unexpectedly surreal imagery, making the film an unusually erratic viewing experience. Still, there are two amusingly appropriate cameos from Larry King and Nina Hartley. A lot of people watched them in the Eighties, but nobody wants to admit it on the record. When it comes to the 5-Second rep players, probably Kelsey Gunn shows the most polish as Samantha, the desperate girlfriend of a bizarrely chaste Delta Bi.

There are some funny bits sprinkled throughout the film, but the extended gags misfire. There is also a short stinger that is about as pointless as most stingers. Probably the best aspect of the film is its retro-distressed look. Watching it brings back memories of taping old horror films off late night television and pausing during commercials. If that stirs enough memories to motivate you, Dude Bro Party Massacre III is now available on iTunes and it will have a special free Comic Con screening this Friday (7/10) in San Diego. As a further note of interest, there is a DBPM3 AMA scheduled this morning (7/7) on reddit, which is the real horror show this week thanks to the censorship-inclined management.

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Monday, July 06, 2015

Comic Con ’15: The Sun Devil and the Princess (short)

Welcome to a time long ago in a galaxy far, far away. However, instead of the Force, the warriors of Karazawa follow the Bushido way. Rather than medieval Europe, this fantasy world takes inspiration from feudal Japan. However, the southwestern sounding horned creature is the reluctant hero of Steven Ayromlooi’s short film, The Sun Devil and the Princess (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Comic Con International Independent Film Festival in San Diego.

For a short film, SD&P presents an unusually richly realized fantasy realm (one that arguably borders on science fiction, but the props consist of swords and daggers, not laser blasters). The floating fortress of the evil Moon Queen is especially impressive. Our title characters have left there in a hurry. To repay a debt of honor, Hirohawa, one of the last surviving Sun Devils of the Ashikage clan has rescued Princess Kyoko, the inspirational symbol of the resistance. Of course, the Moon Queen’s forces are in hot pursuit, resulting in some impressive swordplay and martial arts on Hirohawa’s part.

In some ways, SD&P really does share superficial parallels with what was known as Star Wars in 1977. There is indeed a “new hope” stemming from a daring mission that happened immediately before the film started. There is also a royal to save and a rebellion to inspire. Yet, the trappings are distinctively its own and the fight choreography is terrific. In fact, Hirohawa has one killer move that you have probably never seen before.

SD&P certainly looks like a proof of concept for a proposed feature film, but Ayromlooi packs it with enough action to give genre fans a warm, happy glow. His cast is also polished and professional. While the Sun Devil makeup could perhaps use further refinement, Evan Parke’s Hirohawa has big-screen presence and big-time action chops. For the film’s spiritual side, Mandy Amano portrays Princess Kyoko, the Sun Goddess worshipper, with impressive sincerity and conviction. Plus, cult movie aficionados will get a further kick out of hearing Tony Todd as the voice of the malevolent Baron.

In just half an hour, Ayrmooloi establishes a great deal of Karazawa mythology and hooks the audience on his main characters. It is an intriguing world, with first rate fight scenes, which should be more than enough to get fans psyched for a return trip. Highly recommended for sword & sorcery and martial arts fans, The Sun Devil and the Princess screens this Friday (7/10) as part of CCI-IFF ’15 at San Diego Comic Con.

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New Vietnamese Cinema ’15: The Prince and the Pagoda Boy

It is probably safe to argue the first emperor of the Later Lý Dynasty was considerable better than his predecessor, the last king of the Anterior Lê Dynasty. The latter was only the third of a short line, who had killed the second, his brother, soon after he ascended to throne. The future emperor Ly Cong Uan witnessed all that chaos and oppression first hand, learning lessons in governance to establish a new dynasty that would last for two centuries. Ly’s rise from humble roots to the heights of royal power are chronicled in Luu Trong Ninh’s The Prince and the Pagoda Boy (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of New Vietnamese Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Little is known of Ly’s mother, but it is an established fact he was raised in a pagoda as a Buddhist disciple. As a result, young Ly had mad skills that he used to defend the village children from bullies. Recognizing Ly just is not ready for enlightenment yet, his master transfers him into the king’s service. The new officer cuts quite the imposing figure, so Le Long Dinh, one of three ambitious princes vying to succeed their father, makes a point of befriending him.

However, Ly still has the same sense of righteous justice, causing friction with the prince, especially after he kills his freshly crowned older brother to claim the throne for himself. Nevertheless, Ly agrees to return to Le’s service to help unify the nation and establish security for the peasantry. Of course, their new understanding will only last so long, given Le’s duplicitous nature and Ly’s ethical principles. To top it all off, they are both attracted to the same woman.

You probably shouldn’t swear by the historical details in Pagoda. Some liberties might have been taken, especially with respects to Ly’s hardscrabble origins, but they make for a big sweeping Horatio Alger epic. However, the film will have plenty of credibility with martial arts fans thanks to the involvement of action star Johnny Tri Nguyen as the fight coordinator. There are some great battle scenes, but it is tough to top young (ten-ish) Ly laying a beatdown on a trio of thuggish twelve year olds (who surely walked away from the film with only minor bruising. After all Nguyen co-starred in Power Kids, so he must have picked up plenty of child safety tips there).

Quách Ngoc Ngoan is also a pretty convincing action star and dignified enough to be a future emperor. His size, athleticism, and a speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick presence have the potential to breakout with international fans if they see enough of him. Alas, that could be the tricky part (as it has been for Nguyen), considering Pagoda was released in 2010 to celebrate the millennial of Ly’s founding of Hanoi as the new Capitol city.

Likewise, the young actor playing Ly while still a Pagoda Boy has tremendous moves and similarly impressive screen charisma. Understanding the demands of villainy, Vu Dinh Toán’s prince aptly chews the scenery and preens like a peacock, embodying the absolute antithesis of the ramrod-straight Ly.

Frankly, it is strange Pagoda has not been more widely seen on the festival circuit. Cinematographer Dominic Pereira has an eye for spectacle and Nguyen coaches a game cast through some satisfyingly cinematic combat. It is a really strong fusion of prestige historical drama with crowd pleasing action. Highly recommended for martial arts fans, The Prince and the Pagoda Boy screens this Wednesday (7/8) and Thursday (7/9), as part of New Vietnamese Cinema 2015 at the Honolulu Art Museum.

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Japan Cuts ’15: HIBI ROCK Puke Afro and the Pop Star

The Rock & Roll Brothers want to be neo-punk rockers, but they don’t have much Iggy Pop or Sid Vicious in them. Frankly, bubblegum pop star Saki Utagawa is way fiercer, but she has her own problems. They will not make beautiful music together, but their awkward friendship provides consolation in Yu Irie’s HIBI ROCK: Puke Afro and the Pop Star (trailer here), the opening film of Japan Cuts 2015, the Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Takura Hibinuma and his bandmates have always been bullied, but they cling to their dream. The only club that allows them to play is the dingy Monster GOGO, where they also clean the toilets and perform similarly demeaning labor for the owner, Takeshi Matsumoto. During one of their awful gigs, Matsumoto inebriated niece commandeers the stage, proceeding to rock the joint, before utterly spanking the Rock & Roll Brothers in an ugly brawl. That is where the whole “Puke Afro” thing comes from.

Needless to say, she makes quite the impression on Hibinuma, who is quite taken aback to learn she is actually Utagawa, the pop idol. Despite the messiness of their initial meeting, she rather takes a shine to him as well. Granted, he does not have much talent, but at least he has stayed true to his musical conception, such as it is. In contrast, her all powerful producer Izumi Kazama has successful filed all the rough edges off music. This is an especially bitter truth for her, given her medical prognosis.

Based on Katsumasa Enokiya’s manga series, HIBI is an extraordinarily bizarre mixture of scatological punk rock humor and sentimental John Green-style tear-jerking. Probably only Fumi Nikaido has the range to be equally effective in a mash-up of such disparate genres. She is a convincing hard-rocking angry drunk and sweet enough to be a credible j-pop star. She is also pretty heartbreaking in her Camille scenes.

Of course, nobody can say Shuhei Nomura isn’t trying his hardest as Hibinuma. He regularly gives up body and dignity alike, reducing himself to a grunting animalistic level. Eventually, it ceases to be amusing and becomes an act of performance art-like endurance.

The term “over the top” is lost on Hibinuma, but a lot of the film’s little details are perfectly rendered, such as Utagawa’s compulsively happy, light-electronica hit “Happy Summertime.” Key supporting player Tomoko Mariya is a tart-tongued stitch as Kazama—think of her like a Japanese Dame Kristin Scott Thomas. The name of the Rock & Roll Brothers’ chief rivals at Monster GOGO is also a nice touch: “Dog Rape.”

As exhausting as HIBI gets, it is ultimately rather sweet and touching. Hibinuma can be as annoying as fingernails on a blackboard, but when it is all said and done, we really feel like we have been through a lot with him. Recommended for those who want to take a happy-sad punk journey, HIBI ROCK: Puke Afro and the Pop star screens this Thursday (7/9), the opening night of this year’s Japan Cuts at the Japan Society.

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NYAFF ’15: Banglasia

All the offensive stuff must have been lost in translation. Like clockwork, the latest film from Namewee, the rapper, film director, and goofball government critic was banned by the Malaysian authorities, but for westerners, it is hard to fathom why. Sure, he shows his dependable reckless disregard for logic and decorum, but so what? Maybe you really have to be looking for it. Most viewers will simply try to keep their heads from spinning when Namewee’s multi-national, multi-ethnic cast starts ricocheting all over the place in Banglasia, which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Dirty Harris is a poor, put-upon Bangladeshi migrant worker, who has come to Malaysian to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart. Unfortunately, Laboni’s latest letter announces her imminent arranged marriage. DH has two days to get back to Bangladesh to set things right, but rather inconveniently his scummy exploiter boss Omar holds passport as collateral, until he pays off his transit debt. Harris tries to talk things out with him, but a gunfight breaks out instead, as they will.

Through an odd (and we do mean odd) chain of events, Harris gets an amnesia inducing knock to the noggin and winds up on the run with Hanguren, a Malaysian anti-immigration rabble rouser, whose name translates to “Korean Man” in Mandarin, and Omar’s rebellious daughter Rina, a nurse who swoons at the sight of blood. Rina immediately has eyes for DH, but Hanguren’s befogged grandmother mistakes him for her long deceased husband to further complicate matters. Frankly, it is a logical misperception, since Namewee contrives a way to get DH into the dead man’s rhinestone cowboy outfit. Fortunately, it seems the amnesiac can also shoot, which will come in handy when the Luk-Luk army invades Malaysia, with the help of the treasonous Omar. Or something like that.

At some point in all that, the Malaysian government put its foot down and “oh, no you don’t.” Perhaps they did not appreciate the mockery of Hanguren’s border-closing rhetoric, but it is weak tea compared to vitriol directed at big, bad Donald Trump. Nor is it a glowing endorsement of the treatment immigrants typically receive, but Omar is not exactly a loyal patriotic Malaysian either.

So, whatever. If you enjoy wildly goofy comedy amped up on Red Bull and Pop Rocks than Namewee is your huckleberry. No gag is too goofy and no cast-member is privileged enough to wriggle out of taking some humiliation for the team. Yet, somehow Nirab Hossain maintain a sense of dignity as the utterly confused Dirty Harris. Naturally, Namewee hams it up something fierce as Hanguren, because somebody has to in a film like this. The elegant Atikah Sumaine is also a good sport dealing with a relatively tight wardrobe a spot of blood here and there as the besotted Rina, while Shashi Tharan is completely insane as Wira, the berserker cop.

There are a number of potshots taken at the increasing regional domination of Korean culture, so let’s take a moment to welcome our Korean friends to rest of the world’s jealousy party. Trust us, you’ll get used to it too. However, it is hard to imagine Namewee films ever feeling old hat. For those who saw his Nasi Lemak 2.0 a few years ago, Banglasia is even more barking mad. Recommended for those who dig truly outrageous comedy, Banglasia screens this Friday (7/10) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Sunday, July 05, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Café. Waiting. Love.

Coffee is the one drink that goes equally well with first dates and break-ups. As the setting for a Taiwanese rom com, a coffeehouse is inviting, accessible, and not too expensive to render on-screen. Best of all, if the film is a hit, the fictional brand can be licensed to a brick-and-mortar establishment. Such was the case with Chiang Chin-lin’s Café. Waiting. Love. (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

You might think you do not like rom-coms, but CWL, will still charm you silly. It all starts with the relentlessly cute Siying, a college freshman, who is nearly flattened by bus, but is saved by a handsome mystery man. Naturally quite smitten with him, she takes a part-time job at the titular coffeehouse he frequently patronizes, usually with a bored looking bombshell. Much to her frustration, Siying inadvertently catches the eye of A-Tuo, a seven-year senior, who has developed a scandalous reputation due to all the outrageous bets he has lost. He will soon be liberated from the roller-skates and bikini that have made him such a sight on campus, but he must still carry around a well preserved head of cabbage.

Adapting his own novel for the screen, Giddens Ko assembles an eccentric cast of dozens, including Brother Bao, a former actor known for gangster movies who now mediates mob disputes, Siying’s roommate A Zhu, who aspires to join the Iron Head Kung Fu club (which is exactly what you suspect it is), and A Bu-si, the sardonic barista who once dated A-Tuo, before coming out of the closet. In addition, there are frequent flashbacks, generous helpings of magical realism, and demitasse cup after demitasse cup of delicious looking coffee confections.

Evidently, Taiwan is the place to go for romantic comedies. Like Hou Chi-jan’s When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep, CWL notches all the rom-com boxes, but it is wildly inventive visually and its narrative is considerably more sophisticated than the boy-meets-girl-botches-it-up-and-then-patches-things-up Hollywood formula.

CWL also boasts an infrequent screen appearance from the technically-still-retired-unless-she-feels-like-making-a-film Vivian Chow, who is absolutely smoldering and heartbreaking as the café proprietress. She is also perfectly matched by Yuan Chen as her younger self in flashbacks. As our POV character, Siying, Vivian Sung is enormously earnest and expressive. Happily, there is nothing shticky or clichéd about Megan Lai’s turn as the acerbic and reserved A Bu-si. In contrast, Bruce Lu-si Bu relentlessly tries to endear himself to the audience, much like a lovesick puppy, but his A-Tuo probably works better for the women in the audience.

CWL is propelled by a goofy sense of humor and a highly caffeinated energy level, but when Chiang and Chow lower the emotional boom, you will find yourself blubbering like a baby. Maybe the most satisfying “pure” romantic comedy since Hou’s Sheep, Café. Waiting. Love. is highly recommended for romantics and sentimental java drinkers when it screens this Thursday (7/9) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Saturday, July 04, 2015

New Vietnamese Cinema ’15: Lost Eyes

Linh is like a Vietnamese Zatoichi, except she doesn’t even use a sword. She can make do with her cane or any staff-like object that comes to hand. She is looking for the man who stole her eyes, but she is already too enlightened for revenge. However, the ruthless One-Eyed Cuong is a different story. A showdown is therefore inevitable in Luu Huynh’s Lost Eyes (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of New Vietnamese Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Linh was born with supernaturally intense blue eyes. Unfortunately, Cuong, a low level thug and general underworld whipping boy, receives magical instructions from a crooked priest allowing him to steal their power to fuel his own ambitions. Even though he sort of botches the job, he still gets enough juice from the ritual to become the top kingpin. Tragically, he kills both of Linh’s parents in the process, but a convent takes in the young peasant girl, where she duly receives instruction in martial arts.

Through her own clairvoyant rituals, Linh’s teacher discovers her mother’s spirit now resides in Cuong’s heart, where she lays massive guilt trips on the savage gangster. If Linh successfully faces the man who stole her eyes, she will see her mother once again. So she does not blow into town for the sake of retribution. However, if she just so happens to get some payback as part of her loftier goal then so be it.

Lost Eyes is a throwback in the best way possible. It is mostly about gritty, grungy street-fighting, but it layers some spiritual seasoning on top, just the way we like it. Frankly, this is the sort of film that built Golden Harvest back in the day and it still works for contemporary audiences.

As Linh, Ngoc Thanh Tâm shows instant star power and profound action cred. Likewise, Binh Minh chews enough scenery to be a worthy nemesis as Cuong. Thúy Vinh (still striking looking, despite the film’s de-glamouring) nicely handles the mystical business as Linh’s priestess-guru. There are also plenty of talented stunt performers, who will get thoroughly smacked around by Linh and Cuong.

This is not a complicated narrative, but the fight scenes are pleasingly down-to-earth and super-charged, in an old school kind of way. Both Ngoc and her character wear well on viewers as the film progresses, making a potential franchise an appealing prospect. Frankly, it is just refreshing to see a new film that is so honest to the martial arts genre tradition, yet still manages to establish its own identity. Highly recommended for action fans, Lost Eyes screens this Tuesday (7/7), as part of New Vietnamese Cinema 2015 at the Honolulu Art Museum. Anyone planning a trip to Hawaii in the near future should make a point of checking out their film program, in addition to the beaches and volcanoes.

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Friday, July 03, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Violator

Benito “Super Cop” Alano is dying, but not quick enough. The terminally ill policeman will live long enough to see the apocalypse or something even worse in Dodo Dayao’s cryptic and elliptical horror film, Violator (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

It is the end of the world and everyone feels lousy, but they do not realize how bad things are yet. In a series of vignettes that initially appear unconnected, we see Alano resign himself to his impending mortality, watch several of his colleagues execute a drug dealer for sport, and witness a number of suicides. Perhaps most distressingly, a mucho pregnant school teacher finds her classroom is mysteriously empty, except for the corpse wearing a boar’s head. Perhaps it has something to do with the Jonestown like cult. They also committed mass suicide, but the grainy VHS footage Dayao presents leads us to wonder if another evil agency was also at work.

Just when we are most confused, Dayao finally reverts to a traditional narrative structure for the third act. The long teased super storm has finally made landfall in Manila, stranding Alano and his problematic officers on their leaky hilltop precinct station (#13, of course). However, the weather outside is the least of their concerns. In their cell, the cops are holding an incredibly disruptive teen, who gives every indication of demonic possession. Whenever he talks, it leads to trouble.

Considering how borderline experimental the initial two thirds of Violator arguably are, it is rather remarkable how effective his locked-in-with-the-evil-one story arc turns out to be. It is reminiscent of Stephen King’s Storm of the Century, but grungier, more intimate, and less annoying.

This is definitely the sort of film viewers have to hang in with, although you could almost come in cold for the third act. However, recognizing certain figures adds to the mounting unease. Frankly, it would not have killed anyone if Dayao had tightened up the early sequences, but the cumulative wtf-ness of them all is rather unsettling. It is not exactly a prime showcase for actors, but Andy Bais is quite memorably haunted as Vic, the station’s old custodian and gopher. Likewise, Reji Hidalgo makes a strong impression as the early roof-jumper. We really don’t want to see her do it, but we’re powerless to stop her.

Even when borrowing elements from the V/H/S franchise’s playbook, Dayao maintains a mood a profound dread. However, his cagey approach to story structure gets a little tiresome. In a genre film, there comes a time to come clean and confirm some basics regarding the stakes involved. Recommended expressly for fully informed patrons of unconventional cinema, Violator screens Wednesday (7/8) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’15: Socialphobia

This is a better time to be a relative grown-up than a kid, because you will not look freakishly strange if you keep social networking at arm’s length and ought to be wise enough to understand why that might be a good idea. For those who still do not understand the risks of oversharing and flame-wars, Hong Seok-jae explains it once again in Socialphobia (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

In a Law & Order-ishly ripped-from-the-headlines story, a young soldier has committed suicide, but instead of sympathy, a troll using the handle of “Re-Na” has offered up a series of vile comments. This has generated considerable netrage, particularly with two with students preparing for the Police Academy exams. At the insistence of the more gung-ho Ha Yong-min, Kim Ji-woong agrees to join a small gang of rage-rootsers, who want to take their online outrage offline, by paying her a visit in the flesh, which of course they will broadcast online. However, they will wish they had a tape delay in place when they arrive at the woman’s apartment, finding the door wide open and Re-Na dangling from a noose.

There is no way they can deny their involvement, since tens of thousands of online gawkers witnessed them apparently hounding the woman to death. Her real name was Min Ha-young, but it turns out she had an even more notorious “flamer” identity online. They also soon learn her “Re-Na” twitter account was hacked. Ha soon suspects they were set up to cover for a murder, so if they can catch the killer, they just might salvage their hopes of becoming cops.

Something about the internet just brings out the stupid in people, so every mistake these knuckleheads make is wince-inducingly credible. Hong dexterously keeps increasing the temperature on Kim and Ha, like frogs in slowly boiling water, but he loses the handle on the hyperventilating climax.

Hong’s faux-vérité vibe gives the film you-are-there immediacy and the entire cast looks like it was plucked out of bargain basement internet café. While Byun Yo-han is a bit stolid as Kim, Lee Joo-seung is appropriately tightly wound and jangly as Ha. Basically, we can believe this young ensemble is capable of a wide range of morally problematic behavior, which is a disturbing commentary in itself.

While SoPho shares some thematic similarities with Solomon’s Perjury, it lacks the Japanese film sequence’s depth and scope. It is sort of like comparing a line of shots with a multi-course banquet. One is instantly effective, while the other is much more nourishing. Still, SoPho definitely succeeds as a cautionary tale. After watching it, you will want to run multiple virus scans on your computer and then dunk it in industrial strength disinfectant. Recommended for fans of Unfriended, Socialphobia screens tomorrow (7/4) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Thursday, July 02, 2015

New Vietnamese Cinema ’15: Jackpot

State lotteries are often called a tax on stupidity. Evidently they are quite a hard sell in Vietnam, but peddling them is the only work a naïve single mother can find. However, it seems like Thom’s tickets have an unusually high chance of winning. Naturally, that only leads to trouble in Dustin Nguyen’s Jackpot (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of New Vietnamese Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Thom is sweet as she can be, but she has a hard time providing for her young daughter. Her ex-husband is not totally out of the picture, but his new wife is definitely the jealous type. Fortunately, Tu Nghia will always buy a set of tickets when she most needs help (even though his sensible wife usually protests), while Ba Muoi provides day care on credit. The older woman’s conman husband Tu Phi has just been released from prison, but she is hardly thrilled to see him. Yet, Thom will broker a rapprochement between them. Soon, they settle in rather peacefully together. In fact, when she discovers she has purchased a big winner from Thom, she allows the old fast-talker to claim it as his own.

In retrospect, this will be a mistake. True to form, as soon as Tu Phi feels some money in his pockets, he starts making bad decisions and falling in with the wrong crowd. Frankly, a sudden windfall might make matters worse rather than better for all involved (not so subtle take-away warning). Yet, just as things look desperate for Thom and her extended family, providence might just provide again.

Vietnamese-American expat Nguyen will be recognizable to some for his TV work as a cast-member on 21 Jump Street and V.I.P., but he has since reinvented his career as Vietnam’s top box-office draw. Rather logically, in addition to directing, he also appears in Jackpot, as the rugged, salt-of-the-earth farmer, Tu Nghia. However, there is no question Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc outshines everyone and everything as the earnest Thom. There is something refreshing about her guilelessness and indomitably sunny disposition. However, as Tu Phi, the old reprobate, a little of Chi Tai’s shtick goes a long way. Similarly, the less said about Thom’s man-stealing rival, the better.

Jackpot definitely extolls the value of provincial village life and discourages capital accumulation, which surely pleased the current regime. Still, there is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating community and compassion. Despite his more action-oriented resume, Nguyen displays a light, skillful touch for comedic fare. As a result, American audiences will probably relate to it more easily than the broad, slapsticky Lost in Thailand franchise. Rather enjoyable in an old fashioned way, thanks in large measure to the radiant Ninh Duong, Jackpot is recommended for fans of light comedy when it screens this coming Sunday (7/5) and Tuesday (7/7), as part of New Vietnamese Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art, one of the country’s leading venues for Asian cinema.

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NYAFF ’15: Solomon’s Perjury Parts 1 & 2

Even in middle school, the cover-up is almost as bad as the crime. One fateful morning, Ryoko Fujino discovered a classmate’s body lying dead in the snow. The police and the school declared it a suicide and that was that, until someone started sending anonymous letters accusing the school bully of murder. The grown-ups in authority will try to paper over it again, but Fujino and her classmates will have none of it. They are determined to reveal the truth, even though they have no lofty hopes that it will set them free in Izuru Narushima’s gripping two-part, four-and-a-half-hour-plus film sequence, Solomon’s Perjury Part 1: Suspicion and Solomon’s Perjury Part 2: Judgement (trailer here), which both screen as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

On the Christmas morning in question, Fujino and a classmate trudge to Joto No. 3 Junior High School, to feed the rabbits. They are filling in for the recently absent Takuya Kashiwagi, whose body they are about to discover Fargo style. After a perfunctory investigation, the juvy division detective Reiko Sasaki concludes it was suicide and closes the case. However, a few weeks later, Fujino gets a mysterious missive claiming the thuggish Shunji Oide murdered Kashiwagi and imploring her to have her police detective father reopen the case.

Fujino is not the only person to receive such a J’accuse. Copies were also sent to the principal and Kashiwagi’s home room teacher, but the fate of the latter will become a source of great contention too complicated to explain here. Much to the frustration of the two bullied letter-writers, the police seem more concerned with ferreting out the accusers than investigating the accusations.

Of course, no matter how hard the authorities try to keep a lid on the affair, word still leaks out to the student body—and the effect is poisonous. When the ensuing paranoia leads to the death of one of the not so anonymous letter-writing girls, student outrage reaches critical mass. Resolved to discover the truth, Fujino and her friends will stage their own trial of Oide, complete with a student jury, in a deliberate departure from Japanese jurisprudence. To fairly represent the defendant, they enlist Kazuhiko Kanbara, a former primary school acquaintance of Kashiwagi, who clearly has his own murky agenda.

Without question, Solomon’s Perjury is the event of this year’s NYAFF. It starts out as a twisty turny mystery and mushrooms into a moral treatise on the nature of guilt and responsibility. In many ways, it delivers an emotional walloping similar to the original first season Broadchurch, but in contrast, it leaves the audience with a feeling of empowerment. In film terms, think of it as something like one part Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions and two parts Edward Yang’s Brighter Summer Day, but it has its own distinct tone.

Wisely, screenwriter Manabe Katsuiko retains the tail-end of the 1990 bubble economy setting of Miyabe Miyuki’s source novel, which is a blessing in several ways. While the perceptive kids’ jaded opinions of their ethically compromised parents retains all its bite, the lack of semi-literate text messages cluttering up the screen is a welcome relief. In fact, the existence of phone booths, now practically extinct, plays a critical role in V. 2.

The writing is smart and scrupulously realistic throughout both installments, but the way the young ensemble breathes life into the narrative is truly remarkable. If you want to see youthful actors putting on a clinic, this is your ticket. Up and down the line, they put the Harry Potter franchise to shame, led by the extraordinary Ryoko Fujino, who adopted her character’s name as her professional nom-de-guerre. Words like poise, nuance, and vulnerability do not do her justice.

Still, she does not do it alone. In particular, Mizuki Itagaki, Miu Tomita, and Haru Kuroki have moments of quiet devastation as the mysterious friend, the ill-fated accuser, and the harassed home room teacher. For the sake of our souls, Yutaka Matsushige also nicely lays down some crusty comic relief as the cooler-than-he-looks gym teacher, Kitao.

Even though it was released as separate installments in Japan it would be preferable to see Solomon’s Perjury as a complete package. Be that as it may, NYAFF is showing it over two nights, but it is worth the inconvenience and extra admission. It grabs the audience right from the start and pulls them in deeper with each revelation. Yet, it might be even more exciting to witness the arrival of so much new talent. Very highly recommended, Solomon’s Perjury Part 1 screens this Sunday (7/5) at the Walter Reade and Part 2 screens on Friday the 10th at the SVA, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

NYAFF ’15: The Last Reel

Approximately 300 films were produced during the “Golden Age” of Cambodian cinema, but only thirty survived the barbarity of the Communist Khmer Rouge. That means one missing reel of an otherwise intact Cambodian feature is as maddeningly and tantalizingly significant as the legendary lost bits of The Magnificent Ambersons. One young Cambodian woman sets out to find or recreate such footage, but her search will bring her face-to-face with history both national and personal in Sotho Kulikar’s The Last Reel (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Sophoun is at a crossroads. Disinterested in school and disinclined to submit to her military father’s arranged marriage, she has been avoiding home life as much as possible. Unfortunately, that also means she has neglected her increasingly age-addled mother. Having fallen in with a delinquent crowd, she is forced to take refuge one night in a decrepit old movie theater. Much to her surprise, she finds a movie poster with her mother’s face prominently displayed.

As she learns from the standoffish proprietor, her mother was once a movie star, known as Sothea and he has the only print of her final film. In fact, he compulsively screens it every night, but alas, it is incomplete. Yet, that initially adds to its allure for Sophoun. Did her mother’s character chose the prince she was betrothed to, or the peasant who saved her from a jealous nobleman?

Even with the former filmmaker-projectionist’s help, Sophoun has no luck tracking down either the missing reel or the original screenplay. However, her bad boy boyfriend and the university film department will help recreate the conclusion. At this point, they head into the field, which turns out to be part of the Killing Fields. As her reluctant movie mentor’s memories come flooding back, things start getting interesting for all concerned.

The loss of Cambodia’s cinematic heritage is a true tragedy, especially since those Angkor costume epics look so amazing. The Long Way Home, the film-within-the-film, gives us an enticing hint of what they were like. However, Sotho and screenwriter Ian Masters incorporate Sothea’s film into the narrative in even deeper ways. Structurally, Reel is a very ambitious work—and they largely pull it off. There are a whole heck of a lot of third act revelations, but rather than feeling forced, they organically represent realities of post-Pol Pot Cambodian life.

Any film that brings Dy Saveth (considered the only living survivor of the Golden Age) back onto the silver screen earns its props right there. She is downright haunting as Sothea, especially given the meta-significance of her character. Nevertheless, it is Ma Rynet who must carry the film, being on-screen almost every second. Fortunately, she has more than the necessary energy and presence required. There is a certain unpolished naiveté to her performance that works quite well in the context of Masters’ narrative. Yet, it is prominent filmmaker Sok Sothun who really lowers the boom as the physically and spiritually scarred projectionist.

At times, Reel feels overstuffed with subplots and side-characters, but Sotho manages to tie them all up neatly enough to satisfy the demands of cinema. This film was necessarily a learning experience for many trying to rebuild the Cambodian film industry, so it is rather exciting to see it all come together down the stretch. The final product is sort of like a profoundly serious Cinema Paradiso. Highly recommended for those who care about the preservation and advancement of cinema as an art-form, The Last Reel screens this Sunday (7/5) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’15: River Road

It is hard to believe, but the current administration actually believes the Chinese government is onboard with their climate change protocols. Of course, these are the same people who believe the Iranian regime is a partner for peace. One look at the environmental degradation of China’s provinces and Tibet ought to curb everyone’s enthusiasm. Sadly, it is particularly apparent in northwest Gansu, the traditional home to Yugur (“Old Uyghur”) herders. Viewers will see how dry and desiccated the once fertile grassland has become in Li Ruijin’s River Road (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Their language is Turkic or Mongolic-based and their religion is Tibetan Buddhism. Their way of life is rapidly vanishing, but Adikeer and Bartel’s grandfather provides a link to the older, better days. Bartel, the older brother, lives with the old man, while his younger brother boards at their primary school. Their father promises to return for them at the end of the school term, as usual. However, each year he arrives later and later, because he has ventured further afield in search of grazable land for his herd. Unfortunately, after their ailing grandfather passes away, the boys find themselves waiting in vain for their father. With no other options, the lads set out, making their way home on camelback.

Essentially, Gansu has become desert, desert, desert everywhere, with not a blade of grass to graze. There is not a lot water either. It will be a harsh journey, but the older, entitled Bartel petulantly wastes much of his own in the early stages. In contrast, Adikeer was born to be his father’s son, instinctively understanding the desert’s challenges. However, he begrudges the hand-me-downs and perceived second class treatment he receives from their family.

There are some stunning shots of the boys walking through apparently abandoned cliff dwellings, cave paintings, and temples, almost resembling space travelers on an extinct alien planet. This is clearly a dire and deadly world. There are also very real stakes involved in their fraternal conflict. We come to understand in believably compelling terms how their resentments are rooted in misperceptions of necessities dictated by the family’s circumstances. Naturally, an arduous camel trek will only further fray their relationship.

Despite the intimacy of the story, Li still incorporates an awareness of the region’s once grand history, which only deepens the sense of tragedy. He and cinematographer Liu Yonghong convey a tactile sense of the region—it’s hot and dry. Yet, amidst the wasteland, a small contingent of Buddhist lamas represent hope (and sacrifice). As the film’s lynchpins, the co-leads, Tang Long and Guo Songtao are remarkably natural and unaffected, truly looking like rugged brothers.

River Road is a vividly naturalistic depiction of environmental devastation and the extreme privation of the economically marginalized. Ironically, this means it is highly unlikely most movie-goers in the People’s Republic will have much chance to see it. The sympathetic portrayal of the lamas does not help much either. For those in less restrictively censored markets, it is an exhausting but rewarding viewing experience. Recommended for those who appreciate independent Chinese cinema and endangered cultures, River Road screens this Friday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’15: Tokyo Tribe

This is not your father’s dystopian rap musical. If you had ever wondered what The Warriors or Wild Style would have been like if Sion Sono had made them, well friend, wonder no longer. Control over the streets of a near future Tokyo is divided between a number of gangs or tribes. Kai’s Musashino Saru tribe is super-chill and peace-loving. Lord Buppa’s Bukuro Wu-Ronz is belligerent, Satanic, and cannibalistic. That pretty much guarantees conflict in Sono’s Tokyo Tribe (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Buckle up sports fans, MC Sho will be our rapping guide through this dystopian jungle. He quickly introduces us to the various gangs on what seems to be an average night. However, amongst this night’s batch of prospective sex slaves (or human furniture) picked up by the Bukuro lackeys is Sunmi. This woman can fight. So can the ten year-old Yon, her self-appointed break-dancing protector. She also happens to be the daughter of Lord Buppa’s ally, the malevolent High Priest, who had been saving her and her virginity for a human sacrifice. Therefore, it is imperative Bukuro Wu-Ronz recapture her when she inevitably escapes.

As it happens, Mera, Buppa’s favorite lieutenant is also launching a long planned sneak attack against the other gangs for control of the city. With Sunmi’s help, Kai must unify the rival tribes against Buppa’s secret shock troops, the Waru, all while maintaining a steady stream of rhyme.

Tokyo Tribes is technically based on Santa Inoue’s manga, but it is its own bizarre Sion Sono animal. There are elements of Why Don’t You Play in Hell and Bad Film, but Sono cranks up the lurid Pink exploitation elements right from the start. Frankly, he is just begging for a professionally outraged feminist’s apoplexy, so it would be foolish to fall into his trap. Transgressive violence simply cannot get anymore cartoonish, over-the-top, candy-colored, and defiantly silly.

Frankly, the best comparison for Tribe might actually be Bollywood at its trippiest, because it is a genuine spectacle. We are talking massive street fighting, with all sorts of crazy costumes and lethal hardware. Much of the cast hams it up relentlessly, just to avoid drowning in the madness. However, Nana Seino displays considerable poise and impressive action chops as the quiet but resourceful Sunmi. NYAFF special guest Shota Sometani is also quite an effective rapping Rod Serling as MC Sho. As Lord Buppa and the blond-and-bronzed Mera, Riki Takeuchi and Ryohei Suzuki absolutely gorge on the scenery, understanding a Sono film is not the place act all twee and mannered.

Even by Sono’s standards, Tokyo Tribe is pretty berserk, but it tries to warmly embrace the audience in its own lunatic way. It also proves once again Sono is the best in the business when it comes to staging a massive Kung Fu street war. Unmissable for his fans and a heck of a baptism-of-fire for newcomers, Tokyo Tribe screens on the Fourth of July at the Walter Reade and on Saturday the 11th at the SVA, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

NYAFF ’15: La La La at Rock Bottom

Prepare yourself for an alt-punk Oliver Sachs kind of story. There have indeed been documented cases of musicians who retained their musical skills while suffering from amnesia. It is a bit of a stretch to call Shigeo a musician, but he sure can belt out a power grunge ballad. He has also lost his memory, but he is probably better off without. A clean slate could be the fresh start he needs in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s La La La at Rock Bottom (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Upon his release from prison, Shigeo is beaten senseless by his former criminal associates, who want him to take the hint and disappear. Instead, he wakes up sans memory in an industrial section of Osaka. Somehow he staggers into the park where the hybrid-band Akainu is playing. Much to everyone’s surprise, including his own, he storms the stage and proceeds with a full-throated rendition of what will become his signature tune. Akainu is managed by the teenaged Kasumi, who inherited the motley crew along with her father’s recording studio. She recognizes Shigeo can sing, even though he looks a frightful mess, so she takes him in, appropriately dubbing him “Pooch.”

With Kasumi’s help, Pooch will start piecing together his identity. Of course, we know they will not necessarily like what they find out. There is a good chance it will all come to a head right before the big gig.

Shigeo/Pooch is played by real life Japanese rocker Subaru Shibutani of the band Kanjani Eight, whose distinctive voice would be perfect for Rush if they ever need to replace Geddy Lee. He also turns out to be a pretty good actor, playing the lost puppy and the low life creep equally convincingly. Pairing him up with the young, poised superstar-in-the-making Fumi Nikaido was also a shrewd strategy. She has a smart, charismatic presence, as well as a sense of naivety befitting her youth. The age difference also precludes any kind of manipulative romantic hogwash. They are definitely driving the film, but Sarina Suzuki adds some spicy flair as Makiko, Kasumi’s hard-drinking doctor friend.

There are no huge, huge, huge surprises in store for viewers over the course of Rock Bottom. Lessons will be learned and secrets will be revealed. Nonetheless, Yamashita plays his trump cards as close to his vest as he can. Ultimately the film is rather touching and the music is bizarrely catchy. Recommended for fans of films like Can a Song Save Your Life (or Begin Again as the distributor insisted on calling it), La La La at Rock Bottom (which probably should have been called Begin Again instead) screens this Thursday (7/2) at the Walter Reade and Saturday the 11th at the SVA, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Jimmy’s Hall: How to Get Deported from Ireland

The Pearse-Connolly Hall was sort of like a cross between Hull House and Café Society in rural County Leitrim, but with way more ideology. It was founded by Irish Communist organizer James Gralton, who was not about to let a wee little thing like the Ukrainian Famine dampen his enthusiasm for an all-powerful state. He became the only Irishman deported from his homeland, but fortunately he still had his American citizenship from his previous stint in exile. Gralton’s final Irish residency gets hagiographic treatment in Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Throughout his life, Gralton did a considerable amount of Atlantic-hopping, agitating and fighting in the 1920s uprising, only to periodically retreat to New York whenever things got too hot. In 1932, he thought he was returning for good, in order to help his mother run the family farm. Of course, it is only a matter of time before he reopens the torched Pearse-Connolly Hall, which he bills as a community center of sorts. Boxing lessons and art classes are indeed held there, as well as militant organizing sessions. It is enough to send Father Sheridan, the parish priest into full crisis management mode.

Frankly, instead of Jimmy’s Hall, Loach should have called the film The Passion of the Gralton. Like most heroes of propaganda films, Gralton is pretty darn dull, but it is not the fault of lead actor Barry Ward, who brings an earthy, unassuming charisma to the role. Unfortunately, Loach always makes him the calmest, most rational person in every conversation. “That’s an argument for another day” he says evasively, when Father Sheridan challenges him on the Soviet human rights record. Yes, isn’t that always the case? However, there is no time like the present to settle scores with those on Loach’s enemies list, starting with the Catholic Church and the British government.

Far and away, the best sequences in Jimmy’s Hall involve Gralton’s impossible love for his now married old flame Oonagh. Star-crossed romance is tough to beat. Unfortunately, the instructive drama is appallingly stilted. Yet, despite the lengths Loach goes to stack the deck against good Father Sheridan, he cannot overwhelm the twinkle in Jim Norton’s eye. By the second act, most of the audience will be rooting for wily Father and against the Socialist sob sisters. Even more strangely, the film completely wastes the compulsively watchable Andrew Scott (Jim Moriarty in Sherlock and the voice of Tom Hardy’s high strung assistant in Locke) as the younger and hipper Father Seamus.

Loach has made some wonderfully humanistic films, like Looking for Eric and The Angels’ Share that reflect his proletarian sympathies without didactically bashing the audience over the head. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s Hall is not one of them. Aside from Gralton’s stolen moments with Oonagh, it is a rather slow and lecturey experience. Deeply disappointing, Jimmy’s Hall opens this Friday (7/3) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center, just in time for Independence Day.

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NYAFF ’15: Cops vs. Thugs

In this Yakuza power struggle, Det. Tokumatsu Kuno is backing one faction, while the city politicians have aligned themselves with the opposing clan. Over the long run, the politicians hold the advantage, but Kuno can do plenty of damage in the short term. The ensuing war will produce no heroes. There are only survivors and corpses in Kinji Fukasaku ironically titled Cops vs. Thugs (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival’s sidebar tribute to Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara.

Arguably, it was something of a blessing for the Ohara clan when old man Ohara was sent up the river. The infinitely more competent Kenji Hirotani subsequently stepped up as acting boss. For reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, Kuno has taken an active interest in promoting his criminal career. However, the industrial city’s crooked assemblyman, the exceptionally slimy Masaichi Tomoyasu is rather openly affiliated with Boss Kawade.

For years, Kuno has made it his business to tip off Hirotani whenever the cops move against Ohara operations, whereas he takes great enjoyment in busting Kawade’s men. Now under the pretense of a general crackdown, Tomoyasu has unleashed a goody two-shoes prefecture cop to decisively close down the Ohara outfit. Not coincidentally, Kuno quickly discovers he has been frozen out of department investigations. However, he will still do his best to gum up the works.

To describe C vs. T as cynical would be an understatement. Corruption in this grimy town is deep as a river and wide as a mile. Frankly, it probably is not the greatest Yakuza movie ever. Character motivation is consistently a mysterious black box for Fukasaku and screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara, but it has an impressive sense of history and scope. In many ways, it could be considered a stylistic forerunner to Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection, whether or not it directly influenced the French filmmaker.

As we would hope, Bunta Sugawara glowers and snarls like a wary junkyard dog as the morally compromised, but not completely amoral Kuno. Likewise, Hiroki Matsukata is nearly equally hardnosed as Hirotani. However, Nobuo Kaneko truly makes the film as the utterly detestable Tomoyasu. He is the sort of villain that makes you want to purge and shower under the Silkwood power-faucets.

It is kind of mind-blowing to think Fukasaku had previously helmed the sequences in Tora! Tora! Tora! set in Japan and would be best remembered for the Hunger Games precursor, Battle Royale, but his real specialty was caustic Yakuza dramas, as exemplified by C vs. T. It truly has the gritty, grungy look of classic 1970s New York cops and gangster movies. The anti-heroic Yakuza drama is also another Sugawara film that features a massively groovy soundtrack (in this case composed by Toshiaki Tsushima). Recommended for genre fans (but not with as much enthusiasm as The Man Who Stole the Sun or Abashiri Prison), Cops vs. Thugs screens this Friday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’15: Abashiri Prison

This fortress like turn-of-the-century prison is northern Hokkaido is so harsh, it inspires country-style ballads. You can hear one right over the opening credits. Of course, it is not too tough for a hardnosed Yakuza like Shin’ichi Tachibana. However, when it comes to his mother, he turns all soft. He would like to see her again before it is too late, but the brewing prison break might not be the best way of doing that. Regardless of Tachibana’s immediate fate, lead actor Ken Takakura would soon return to the remote Hokkaido setting when his 1965 hit spawned an immensely profitable franchise. Fittingly, Teruo Ishii’s Abashiri Prison (trailer here) screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival’s mini-tribute to Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara.

When Tachibana arrives in Abashiri, he represents the greatest challenge to the authority of Heizo Yoda, the boss of his nine-man cell. Tachibana is definitely a keeps-to-himself kind of guy, but he knows a phony blowhard when he sees one. Since he has more or less kept his nose clean, Tachibana might be eligible for parole, especially since his ailing mother is not expected to live much longer. Unfortunately, Yoda and his sociopathic running mate Gonda are plotting a cell-wide escape and they want Tachibana in on it. Naturally, they play the Yakuza loyalty card in a big way. Of course, this would irreparably cross up Tachibana’s situation. They also intend to sacrifice their elderly cellmate Torakichi Akuta in the process. Yes, you could definitely say Tachibana is facing a prisoner’s dilemma.

There is something very Cagney-esque about Tachibana, the sentimental Yakuza. Indeed, it is not hard to see why Abashiri launched Takakura’s career. You can see elements of plenty of previous prison genre films in it, especially when Tachibana finds himself chained to Gonda and reluctantly on the lam, as the result of some not so well thought out extemporizing. However, Ishii’s execution is lean and mean, while his cast is pitch-perfect, elevating each stock character to new tragic heights. Especially look out for Kunie Tanaka as old Akuta, because he nearly walks away with the picture in a key turning point scene.

Abashiri Prison is totally about manly men snarling at each other while freezing their manly business off. Despite a wild climax on the rail lines, it is grungy, intimate film that is relatively narrow in scope. Ishii makes it palpably clear just how small and chilly their world has become. It is a great prison movie that will give Yakuza genre fans all sorts of happy vibes. Highly recommended for mainstream audiences as well, Abashiri Prison screens this Friday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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