Category Archives: Film Reviews

Tokyo Tribe (Sono, 2014)

 

Sono is one of the most prolific Japanese directors, although not up to the standards of Miike who manages more than one film a year without a noticeable drop in quality. Ever since Suicide Club/Jisatsu Saakuru (2001) and Exte/Ekusute (2007), I have been a big fan of his work. Suicide Club has perhaps the best opening sequence in horror.

Unfortunately, I found the overt misogyny of  his 2010 film Cold Fish/Tsumetai Nettaigyo (2010) very hard to come to terms with. Humour, black or not, around rape is highly problematic. I didn’t feel that I could watch it again, and therefore never wrote a review as films need repeated viewing in order to write a proper review – at least for me it is the case. I suspect that part of my problem with it was culturally located as rape itself, is unfortunately, a common component of Japanese cinema. Since then, I have avoided Sono’s films but the trailer of Tokyo Tribes was interesting and I felt that perhaps I had been too hard on Sono. After all missteps are common in any field of the arts and most great directors have one or more turkeys in their back catalogue.

So back to Tokyo Tribe, a film that sets out – consciously  or unconsciously – to offend women and members of the LGBTQIA community in the first 10 minutes. The overall concept is great. A hip-hop musical about competing tribes in a dystopic Tokyo, who eventually come together in peace against a common enemy, is both inventive and innovative. Tokyo Tribe is based on the best-selling manga by Santa Inoue (1987-2005) which was published in Boon, a street fashion magazine which is now published by Shodensha, and feels like a throwback to the mid to late 1980s. The fact that Sono choose to introduce the tribes to the audience by having Mera – the boss of Bukuro Wu-Ronz – trace the geography of the different tribes over the half-naked body of a policewoman (who tries to arrest him on her first day on the job) alerts us to the insistent discourses of male voyeurism and fetishism than run throughout the film. The fact that the female tribe members, are either prostitutes, or dressed up like 2000s Missy Elliot and coded in non-normative terms,  is highly problematic. In addition, the schoolgirl heroine, Erika, who has some kick ass moves – we are told that she comes from Wong Kong (Hong Kong) – is often freeze framed or in slow motion as the camera pans in up skirt to linger on her white underwear is even more troubling.

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Not another panty shot please!

While as other critics have argued, Tokyo Tribe like other Sono films, embeds a social critique of Japanese society, politics and patriarchy, it seems to me that the film simultaneously constructs figures of female empowerment and strips them off that empowerment by overt sexualisation through the use of  terms ‘cultural scopophilia’. I use the term ‘cultural scopophilia’ here to foreground the othering of cultural and ethnic difference in Tokyo Tribe through the visual lexicon of fashion as signifier of Otherness. Erika’s innocence – or sexualized innocence as connoted by her schoolgirl uniform at the beginning – is the opposite to the hyper-sexuality and non-normative sexuality of the Kabukico Gira Gira girls. In addition, while the Mushashino tribe might be all about love and peace, there are limits to this love and peace – as the transcribed lyrics go “No homos, we ain’t Kissing Dudes”. While homophobia, unfortunately, remains at the heart of contemporary hip-hop and rap, Sono did not have to replicate and foreground this homophobia.

Nkoi gets his ‘freak on’

Further the son of the film’s bloated baddy, Lord Buppa (Riki Takechi), Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) keeps slaves that they don’t eat for dinner and pleasure, as his personal puppets cocooned in an ivory room in which his harem have to position themselves as furniture or perform for him in order not to incur his wrath. Once again, suppressed homosexuality is coded as inherently deviant and monstrous, in its opposition to dominant heterosexuality which is capable of ‘peace and love’ but not, as I pointed out previously, to all.

There is much to be enjoyed in its visual excesses and poetic raps, it is just necessary to be aware of what problems such excesses may mask. Excess is not necesssarily subversive. Here excess functions as licenced rather than unlienced carnival, the former  of which props up the dominant ideology by allowing space for subversion and by controlling that space. While I always enjoy Sono’s visual mastery, I was uncomfortable with the gender and sexual politics on display here. As much as it could be claimed that Sono is critiquing such politics, in the end he reinforces such politics at the level of image and sound. In repeating the visual and aural legacy of hip-hop which is predicated on the oppression of women and non-normative sexualities, the message of ‘love and peace’ rings rather hollow.

 

 

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PAINTED SKIN (HUA PI: GORDAN CHAN: 2008)

As part of my research for my forthcoming book on East Asian Gothic Cinema, I have been watching as many mainland Chinese films as I can. Of these, Painted Skin is one of my favourites. Directed by the prolific Gordon Chan, Painted Skin is based upon a short story by Pu Songling in Strange Tales from A Chinese Studio about a beautiful sixteen year old woman who turns out to be a monstrous demon, whose abject interior is concealed through the use of a carefully painted human pelt.

In Chan’s film, the supernatural elements are downplayed as the dominant communist ideology of China allows no space for what are seen to be archaic beliefs at odds with a secular society. By replacing the monstrosity of the original folktale with a melodramatic love story between a human and a fox spirit, known as Huli Jing in China, Painted Skin domesticates the monstrous other and in the process foregrounds filial loyalty and patriarchal values around appropriate femininity.

In the film, Xiao Wei (Zhou Xun) – a fox spirit – who keeps her beauty and youth through a diet of human hearts, is taken into the household of General Wang Sheng (Chen Kun) and becomes obsessed with him, desiring to take the place of his much-loved wife in both his bed and his household. However as in the original story, her disguise is discovered and she is cast out from the household. But rather than being killed and trapped by the forces of good, she sacrifices herself in the name of true love in order to bring both Wang and his wife, Peirong (Zhao Wei/Vicky Zhao) back to life.

Like many Chinese films, the narrative is considerably more complex than this short synopsis suggests. There is an inexperienced demon hunter, Xia Bing (Betty Sun), who joins forces with Pang Yong (the ever present Donnie Yen), an ex-general in Wang’s army who is in love with Peirong, to vanquish Xiao Wei. In addition, there is Xiao Wei’s chameleon companion, Xiaoyi (Qi Yuwu), who serves his mistress by bringing her hearts and tries to prevent her sacrificing her humanity for Wang.

Despite the presence of Donnie Yen, Painted Skin is not a typical martial arts fantasy with fight scenes few and far between. Rather it focuses in on female subjects, who attempt to escape from predefined, constraining stereotypes of womanhood through agency and activity. However such agency and activity is limited, and in the end both Peirong and Xiao Wei must conform to the age old archetype of the self-sacrificing woman: an archetype which is not limited to East Asian cinema but can also be found in Western cinema. Yet, it is the performances of Zhao Wei and Zhou Xun that make Painted Skin so compelling and an engrossing watch. As anti-feminist as the ending might at first glance seem to be, the image of Xiao Wei confined to eternal life in her original form as a white fox lingers in the memory encapsulating her inability to be truly human suggests the difference between the demonic and the human is not so clearly defined as in the day when the original story was written. Further, beauty, we are told, is only skin deep. A necessary reminder in an age of selfies which promotes unrealistic images of beauty and plastic surgery which offers us the tools to become as unrealistic as those images that we are perpetually bombarded with.

 

Notes

The best translation of Strange Stories of a Chinese Studio, is in my opinion, the Penguin Classics version, which is translated by John Minford (2008).

East Asian Culture has many variations on the fox spirit, including the Japanese Kitsune and the Korean, Gumiho.

This review is subject to copyright. I am happy for it to be shared but please do not cite without permission from me as portions of this will appear in my forthcoming book.


12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1 (OH Inchun: 2015)

 

 

BiFan 2015 Review: 12 DEEP RED NIGHTS: CHAPTER 1, A Competent But Unremarkable Practice Run

English Language Trailer

Director OH’s 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter I might not be particularly original, especially in terms of South Korean horror, but it is effective. A low-budget take on the vengeful ghost narrative, OH manages to create a suspenseful and interesting tale of office politics, spurned love, suicide, and alienation. The omnibus structure – 12 Deep Red Nights is composed of four short films – works well here producing short, sharp spurts of horror in which horror is mainly generated through the operation of the fantastic (cf. Todorov): the fantastic is that which is generated through uncertainty – in which explanations for events can either be supernatural or psychological without the narrative foreclosing on one or the other.

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Searching for Sound in ‘atmosFEAR’

The four short films in order are ‘Driver’; 11:55PM; ‘atmosFEAR’ and ‘The Secret Night’. In the first, a taxi driver, In-sik, is made an offer he can’t refuse, but should have refused, by his mysterious, beautiful female passenger. The second short revolves around a translator, Young-ran, who is finishing up work for the night when her doorbell rings persistently at 11:55pm: should she answer the door or not? The third, my personal favourite, concerns an audio sound engineer who in attempting to capture ambient sound at night, records something quite different and much more menacing. The final film, takes on the office politics as a young female employee who is suffering from financial problems returns to the office at night only to run into her unpleasant superior with deadly consequences.


Office Politics in ‘The Secret Night’

For a low-budget independent film, 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1 is effective enough, playing on fears of the alienation that lies at the heart of modern South Korea as a result of the economic miracle which has created an ever increasing gap between the super-rich and the working classes. By placing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, OH taps into contemporary socio-cultural anxieties around the isolating nature of late-capitalism. Purportedly the first in three anthologies, 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1, is sandwiched between OH’s mainstream commercial features, Mourning Grave (Sonyeogoedam: 2014) and Chasing (Jabaya Sanda: 2016). There is enough here to create anticipation for the next two instalments if OH’s success allows his time to complete them.

Notes

See my review of Mourning Grave (OH In-chun: 2014)

OH’s short Metamorphosis is well worth seeking out. My review: Metamorphoses (변신이야기, OH In-chun, 2011)

Tzvetan Todorov  distinguishes between the fantastic, the marvellous and the uncanny in his book, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1975). The fantastic is defined in terms of uncertainty, ‘The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event’ (Todorov 1975: 25). In opposition to this, the uncanny is rooted in the psychological, while the marvellous in the supernatural.

 

Please note that the images are courtesy of HanCinema: http://www.hancinema.net/hancinema-s-film-review-12-deep-red-nights-chapter-1-84776.html (accessed 8th July 2016).


Mourning Grave (OH In-chun: 2014)

A high-school boy, In-su (Kang Ha-neul) returns to his hometown in order to face up to, both literally and metaphorically, ghosts from the past. Like his Uncle, with whom he is staying, In-su has the ability to see and speak to [female] ghosts who have suffered violent and untimely deaths. Returning to his school, In-su discovers that someone is violently murdering his classmates. As he attempts to unravel the trauma in the past that has resulted in the present vengeance, In-su is accompanied by a unnamed girl ghost (hence the alternative title: Girl Ghost Story) whose presence is unexplained. Just who is responsible for the deaths, and what was the original trauma that led to such dreadful and bloody vengeance.

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Mourning Grave is a welcome addition to one of my favourite Korean horror genres, High School Horror, and Director OH manages not to merely recycle the old but to breathe new life into the genre. Traditionally High School Horror of the vengeful ghost variety, is female-centric, and male characters are either non-existent or marginal to the plot. Mourning Grave breaks with this tradition, with its empathetic male protagonist In-su who seeks to right the wrongs of the past. The relationship between In-su and his constant female ghost companion (Kim So-eun) is nicely realised and the relationship has an authenticity to it which is aided by excellent performances by the two leads, Kang Ha-neul and Kim So-eun. In-su’s Uncle, Kim Jeong-tae (Seon-il), who is trying not to speak or appease ghosts, is also haunted by a female ghost, who despite his attempts to ignore her and banish her, refuses to leave.

mourningwomen

Other critics (including Pierce Conran) have pointed out that the trend in Korean horror these days is towards hybridity. Mourning Grave demonstrates this hybridity in multiple ways. Firstly, through the character of Seon-il, who as Shaman priest (Mu) and Exorcist is the centre of a number of comedic interludes, and seems to have been imported in from classic Hong Kong Horror Cinema and secondly through multiple intertextual references (as with Seon-il) to other horror cinemas and specific films, including Carrie (Brian de Palma, US: 1976) (in particular the prom scene), and Carved: A Slit Mouthed Woman (Koji Shiraishi, Japan: 2007) – the visual iconography of the ghost is obviously a direct reference to the Japanese urban myth on which the film is based. The concept of the ghost fracturing into a number of different characters as a result of the trauma of her death was an interesting one, and added another layer of mystery to the central narrative enigma in a similar way to  A Tale of Two Sisters without giving the plot away.

 

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This is not to suggest that Mourning Grave isn’t scary or that it doesn’t have the sort of socio-political commentary around bullying that is associated with High School Horror. The bullying that lead to the death of the vengeful female ghost is horrific when it is eventually revealed, as is the reluctance of teachers and other students who are not directly involved in the bullying to intercede. Here, as elsewhere, after all according “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” (a quotation often attributed to Edmund Burke, but who never said these exact words). Those who look away are situated here as equally culpable as those who actually perpetrate the violence against those weaker than them.

mourningbully

 

Mourning Grave harkens back to the early days of Korean horror cinema, when well-made genre films were all the rage, and first time directors produced films that were both narratively and technically proficient and resonated with young and older audiences alike, with prospective actresses queuing up to be considered for roles in the films. With his feature film debut, Director OH shows technical expertise, an ability to not to over-complicate the cinematographic frame, and a distinctive aesthetic style in addition to generating excellent performances from his cast. OK Clarice Eunhae’s score never overwhelms the image, instead it adds to the underlying melancholic sensibility that imbues this ghost story and coming of age story.  Director OH’s feature film debut, like his short films, is engaging and extremely well-directed and I look forward to his next film with a great deal of anticipation.

Overall, this is a film for fans of Korean horror cinema, and in particular High School Horror, which hearkens back to the age of the well-made genre film while at the same time, being innovative and original.  I really hope that Mourning Grave will do well at the domestic Box Office, and demonstrate to producers and directors in South Korea that horror film remains a lucrative investment – after all horror is perhaps the one genre that travels across national and international borders the easiest. I find myself wondering about a US remake, but really do not think it would work.  While the film has transnational elements, seen in the intertextual and visual references to both Eastern and Western horror, it still has a specifity which marks it out as Korean without Director OH pandering to the exoticism and orientalism that underpin the West’s desire for a traditional, nostalgic and markedly Korean products that confirms stereotypes around Confucian values and irreducible alterity.

 

And finally, what is not to like about a film that opens with a subway ghost!

subway

 


Citizen Jia Li (Sky Crompton, Australia: 2011)

Citizen Jia Li is the feature film debut by Sky Compton, and portrays three days in the life of Jia Li. Jia Li (Claudia Teh) is a Chinese Immigrant living in Melbourne, where she works off the books as a hairdresser and lives in a run-down apartment block, preparing for her twin brother and parents to join her for a new life in Australia. It is ironic therefore that on the day that she receives official notification of her citizenship, she loses not just her job but her home. With nowhere to go, Jia Li moves in with Daisy (Susanna Qian), a would-be rock goddess who struggles with her Chinese/Japanese mixed heritage, who she worked with at the hairdressers before being sacked for refusing to continue to work cash in hand. Complicating this slice-of-life is the tangential narrative of Kong (Chris Pang), gangster who works for some nameless triad collecting protection money who is in love with Jia Li and cannot come to terms with the fact that she has rejected him. The two narratives interweave – Jia Li’s as she tries to find somewhere to live and Kong’s as he desperately searches for her. Will the two lovers be reunited or will Jia Li strike out for herself as an independent woman?

The premise for Citizen Jia Li is an interesting one, and the acting performances good, but an over-complicated narrative structure and some plot inconsistencies prevent it from realising its potential. While the contrast between Kong’s and Jia Li’s lives as Chinese immigrants is interesting in narrative terms, it comes across as contrived and there is no real substance to their relationship. In addition, I was sidetracked wondering how Jia Li could possibly have enough money to purchase the equipment for the salon that offers her the life that she wants for herself and her family, after all she had not only just lost her job, but she had not been paid for her last week’s work. Yes, this could have been her life savings, but why then can she not find anywhere to live and therefore ends up living with Daisy. In addition, if we are to have sympathy for Daisy’s predicament, then the character would need to be multi-dimensional rather than a perpetually happy and optimistic young woman as she is portrayed. In opposition, Jia Li is permanently pessimistic and passive and while there is a degree of authenticity in Claudia Teh’s performance, she is a particularly irritating protagonist who waits for opportunities to come along rather than taking her destiny into her own hands. Having said this, the friendship between the two young women and their interactions is where the film succeeds the most. It seemed to me that there was a lost opportunity here, as a coming-out story the film would have been much more interesting and provocative, especially when the strength of the film lies in the two women’s relationship.

The problem with Citizen Jia Li is that it is overly ambitious for a low-budget feature; Kong’s narrative weakens the film rather than strengthening it. Trying to deal with the complexity of diasporic Asian-Australian communities – and the different lives of those within the communities – Citizen Jia Li tries to cover too much ground and too many experiences. The concept was a good one, but the execution flawed. If it had concentrated on giving the viewer a snapshot of immigrant life by focalizing the narrative through Jia Li – rather than getting distracted by gangster life – then it would have given the viewer a more convincing portrait of immigrant life in Melbourne. Having said this, Citizen Jia Li is well-worth watching, the cinematography is good for a low-budget film, and the performances sound. It will be interesting to see how the director chooses to follow up his debut, which has had a great deal of success on the film-festival circuit, and demonstrates a degree of proficiency that hint at good things to come.