After the Storm (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a film that offers a protagonist who is a loser in the beginning and by the end he is still a loser. More digestible works would have absolved their characters of important shortcomings—or, worse, granted flimsy, silly excuses for the audience to feel good. But writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda is not interested in this approach. Instead, he provides details about the character by showing us what is important to him. Understanding him does not change the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it does remind us to take a second and be more sympathetic before casting judgement. What is film, after all, but a medium by which we get a chance to walk in another’s shoes?
Hiroshi Abe plays Ryôta, a full grown man, divorced, so afraid of losing his son (Taiyô Yoshizawa) permanently—since his ex-wife (Yôko Maki) has begun to date a more financially secure man—that he decides to spy on them. Abe plays the protagonist with quiet desperation and we observe his deep yearnings seep into his work as a private detective. It appears as though each case involves a man or woman cheating on a partner. His escape is gambling. Asking people for money and attempting to pawn off various items for an an extra buck take up the rest of his time. Meanwhile, every time he gets a knock on his door, fear strikes him like a lightning bolt, fearing these might be debt collectors.
The camera has a habit of resting on Ryôta’s tired face. Abe executes a great balance between Ryôta being self-aware of his worthlessness and wanting to change something in his life—even though he doesn’t quite know what to change, or at least admit that he has a gambling addiction and it is a major contributor to his downward spiral. Since Ryôta has trouble defining himself, those around him tend to define him instead. Particularly interesting is the protagonist’s sister who does not mince words. She’s tough and she’s right. She knows he will never change. I found the material honest in its portrayal of someone who understands another down to the bone. Immediately we get a complete picture of these characters’ histories.
Despite an interesting but unexciting protagonist, the film is filled with beautiful moments. There is a series of scenes toward the latter half when the father gets a chance to spend time with his son (despite being unable to pay child support for three months). At first, they are in stores, surrounded by strangers, looking at items, buying them. But then they come to an area where the father spent his childhood. From here they begin to look at one another from time to time, excavating memories, forging a bond. Instead of the boy feeling guilty about which pair of shoes he’d like to have—the glossy, more expensive one versus the one on sale—he is asking questions about his father’s experiences as a child. The contrast between these scenes is stark but can be easily missed. Clearly, this is not a work for those uninterested in interactions between ordinary people.
Koreeda creates a portrait of a family where the audience is asked to observe and note discrepancies amongst what characters say versus what they do. It assumes the audience is intelligent and engaged. He is not afraid of quiet and slow moments. Instead, he uses these moments to reveal disappointments, resentments, and, yes, even hope for the future.
Like Father, Like Son (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Like Father, Like Son,” written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, has the premise of a soap opera: a couple (Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono) learns that the child (Jun Fubuki) they raised for six years is actually another couple’s child—the two boys having been switched at the hospital after being born. But the story is told with such deep insight, high level of detail, and not once is the situation, and the people caught up in it, written lightly. Everyone is treated with respect and we observe how the parents and their children navigate themselves through a series of challenges with neither easy nor convenient answers.
Audiences unused to subtle performances will need some time take on a learning curve. Although it is not the kind of picture where characters are mostly silent, details are embedded in the looks one person gives another. For instance, when Ryota (Fukuyama) gets a chance to take a good look at the boy he thought was his son for the first time since learning of the fact, we cannot wonder about what he is thinking. This is a man who is about following rules and traditions, someone who thinks highly of himself because of his career and money in the bank, someone who thinks that blood is above all else.
Fukuyama plays a father who resembles an iceberg: cold, tough, unbothered. Despite the screenplay requiring the character to go through expected but important changes, the performer is smart to downplay Ryota’s evolution as to avoid cliché. The key is in those looks he gives and the judgments he imparts through those windows. The writing is so rich that even Ryota’s occupation is a metaphor. An architect must learn to demolish what he knows, accept that the life he thought was built just perfectly is not that perfect at all, and reestablish a new, modern way of living that can endure, possibly even flourish, well after what must be done is accomplished by both set of parents.
The picture is also successful in terms of framing images. Because the child actors are not given very many, certainly not complex, challenges in terms of expressing and emoting specific thoughts and feelings, the camera must take on their perspective. This is done by allowing the adults to appear bigger or taller in certain scenes in order to communicate their dominance. When the child feels as though he is being questioned in a forceful manner, closeups of adult faces fill the screen accompanied by very quick cuts of the child’s face, this time the camera is less close in order to allow for room to breathe.
The story is not simply an exploration of whether blood truly is thicker than water. I argue that this work is a critique of that well-known saying because the maxim tends to reduce the subject into something that is either black or white. Thoughtful, surprising, and daring almost every step of the way, “Soshite Chichi ni Naru” is likely to engage and compel those who yearn to explore the gray areas of parenting on a personal level and how society expects or dictates parenting ought be like based upon patterns and traditions.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★
Director Paul Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” is one of the most original biographies to date because not only does it not cover its subject’s life from birth to death, it also manages to incorporate some of the content of its subject’s books into curious and fascinating dramatizations. It is our job, if we choose, to dissect which bits come directly off the private life of Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata), one of the most celebrated Japanese writers of the twentieth century.
Although the picture is structured into four chapters, there is a theme that percolates through their cytoskeleton. Notice that the varying characters from the novels that represent Mishima end up destroying themselves. Most interesting is that the writers—Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader, and Chieko Schrader—place particular emphasis on the characters’ vulnerability. In “The Temple of the Golden Pavillion,” the protagonist has a stutter; in “Kyoko’s House,” the subject suffers from narcissism; and in “Runaway Horses,” the main character plans to execute an assassination no matter what the cost.
These strands are told with poetic elegance. It is apparent that they are shot in the studio—particularly the first two—but the material’s power is not at all diminished. On the contrary, the impact is amplified because the stories work on a symbolic level. Together, the images feel dream-like but never opaque, they inspire questions but are never frustrating. As someone who did not know much about the author, I felt I learned about him—the important parts of him anyway—and yet by the end he remains an enigma. The film made me want to look into his work.
The flashbacks in black-and-white are raw and worthy of analysis. The one that stood out to me is Mishima’s relationship with his grandmother when he was a boy. We get the impression that his grandmother raised him in a strict environment with defined rules and perhaps impossibly high expectations. Because her values have become ingrained in him, as an adult, it appears as though he is not well-adjusted, so willing to go to the extremes to convey a message. I found a great sadness in the film’s fourth chapter because in front of us is a man who is way out of his depth, a person who is clearly intelligent and talented but one who is left behind by the times.
Mishima’s homosexuality is diluted for the most part which is appropriate because he—and his countrymen, maybe to this day still—are ashamed of it. One may be able to create a case that if the author had been able to live his life without having to constantly strive to walk the line of what is expected of him, he would have made different choices. Another theme is one’s struggle to always be in control. Leading a healthy life is balancing control and letting go. He seems incapable of the latter.
“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” engages because it is like learning about a particular person through the way he treats his pets, the people around him, and his possessions. By giving us an indirect way of gathering information, the filmmakers open up the final product for contemplation and discussion. Similar movies of its type are so busy plotting Point A to Point B that the flavor, the drama, and the sense of urgency have been siphoned off by the time the third act comes around.
★★★ / ★★★★
Tired of the ennui of his every day life, Takafumi (Nao Ōmori) joins “Bondage,” an S&M club that offers a unique service: A variety of dominatrixes arrive at any moment and the customer is required to be submissive at all times. The contract lasts for a year and one is not allowed to withdraw from participation once the contracts are signed. Initially, Takafumi finds great pleasure in the encounters. They are exciting, painful, pleasurable. Eventually, however, the man begins to feel the leather-clad women have crossed the line by coming to his work and involving his son in the games.
“R100,” directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto, is one of the most delightfully bizarre movies I have had the pleasure to come across in some time. It is a comedy at its core, but we are given a chance to appreciate the depressing life of the lead character and perhaps understand why he decided to risk everything in order to feel alive again. At times it is savagely funny, occasionally disgusting, and consistently interesting. Things do not always make sense, but I could not peel my eyes away from the screen.
Each dominatrix is given a surface personality and “expertise” so all of them are instantly memorable. A standout is named The Queen of Saliva (Naomi Watanabe), long-haired and carrying some extra weight, who commands such a presence, I did not know whether to be scared of or be amused by her, unlike The Gobble Queen (Katagiri Hairi) and The Voice Queen (Mao Daichi) where I knew exactly how to feel toward them. The Queen of Saliva lives up to her name and although the scene offers gross-out humor, it functions on such a high level of energy that I could never predict what was going to happen next. What ultimately transpires thrusts the story in a very strange but still entertaining third act.
The picture might not have been as effective if it isn’t for Ōmori’s performance. We can tell a lot about the character by how the actor walks from one point to another. He takes rather small steps, calm and slow, as if to delay arrival to his destination. His posture is neither straight nor hunched but it does look defeated, unexcited, like the man in control is not really living but solely existing. There is a sadness to this character that I found to be fascinating; strip away the BDSM club that he is involved in and he remains to be worthy of getting to know further.
The film is a film within a film. From time to time, the same group of people—who I assume to be test audiences—step outside of the screening room to discuss—rather, complain—about the elements that are not working in the movie. I found these scenes to be very funny because some of the questions and criticisms I had were expressed. For instance, why does an S&M club need a CEO?
To watch “R100” is to go down a rabbit hole. It will entertain those with an open mind and likely to frustrate those who require a specific track of what a comedy should be. I enjoyed the picture not only because it takes risks but also because many of them work. The material could have been a one-note joke. Instead, we are provided an orchestra full of strange, curious, shocking, amusing turn of events.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
Grave of the Firelies (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene depicted the death of Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) when Japan finally surrendered at the end of World War II. His story of struggle with his little sister (Ayano Shiraishi) was elegantly told in flashback. They tried to survive by themselves because their father was in the Navy, their mother (Yoshiko Shinohara) passed away because a fire-bombing raid, and their aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi) outwardly expressed that the two of them were a burden since they did not do their share in providing for the household. “Hotaru no haka” is a sublime example of anime transcending animated stories told in a fantastic scope and science fiction. It was able to tell a human story that was very real, tragic and heartbreaking as Seita did his best to keep his sister away from truths that were difficult to digest. Of course, he ended up unsuccessful in the end but the heart of the film was his attempt to construct distractions so that his sister would not think about their parents and the prospect that they, too, could die. Although we saw planes bombing Japanese towns, I liked that the siblings’ main source of struggle was their relationship with other Japanese people. Since everything was rationed, mostly everyone was out for themselves and their own families. Food and shelter were rare and money became irrelevant. Bartering drove the economy which was a problem because the two kids had barely anything to barter with in the first place. There was a complexity in their society’s situation. I did not necessarily see them as “bad people” because I probably would have done the same thing if I was in their shoes. I also admired the fact that Isao Takahata, the director, did not shy away from showing dead, mangled, and rotten bodies. When I saw this film in high school, I remember being shocked at the images because at the time I had not seen an animated movie that mirrored reality so closely. One of the most resonant scenes for me was when Seita glanced over at his mother’s badly burned body. His facial and body expression suggested that he did not at all recognized his mother but deep inside he felt that it was her and she was soon going to die. Just as quickly, he realized he had no choice but to be strong for his sister until their father came for them. “Grave of the Firelies,” based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, had power that made me feel so sad even after a few days since I’ve seen it. I was haunted with what Seita and his sister had been through but at the same time I was thankful that I did not live through those times. Even more impressive, the movie was a war film that did not place blame on any one nation but instead highlighted individual responsiblity in times of war.
Lost in Translation (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first time I saw this movie back in 2003, I thought it was mediocre at best because I didn’t see what the hype was all about. I didn’t see what was so profound about it; all I saw were a series of strange scenes about culture clash and two lonely people with a significant age difference meeting and saying goodbye. Watching it for the second time six years later, I found so much more meaning in terms of what Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray were going through. Johansson plays a neglected wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who realizes that maybe she is falling out of love with her husband. Murray plays an actor who is hired by the Japanese to endorse several products but is conflicted with what he’s doing in a foreign country when he’s having problems at home. What I loved about this movie is its ability to use the characters’ loneliness as a common bond and go from there. Sofia Coppola, the director, was able to tell a somber (but refreshing) story without succumbing to the typicality Hollywood pictures about two people meeting each other in a foreign country. I’ve heard and read that lot of people thought that the two lead characters were involved in a blossoming romantic relationship. I disagree with that point of view because the two leads simply needed each other for some kind of solace. I thought what they had was a special kind of friendship–the kind that might last even after they leave Japan. Even though they were vastly different from one another, there was no language barrier (unlike with the Japanese) and each was actually willing to listen to one another (unlike Ribisi to Johansson and the wife to Murray). I also enjoyed how Coppola made the background conversations louder as the main characters were giving each other looks and smiles. Cinematic techniques like that made me think about the disconnect between ourselves and other people. More than half of the conversations in this picture were heavily one-sided. The characters may be talking to each other but they’re not really engaged or interested in what others have to say. Such scenes were painfully reflected in Johansson and Ribisi’s scenes of generic questions and one-word answers. I thought it was very truthful because sometimes I do feel like that with the people in my life. And like Johansson’s character, I sometimes take it so personally to the point where I start questioning whether I’m mature enough to emotionally handle such things. This is not the kind of movie that is strong when it comes to its plot. My advice is to really take a look at the characters, how their behaviors differ from their words and how lonely they really are underneath the smile and the sarcasm. The film may be a bit hard to swallow at times because one might feel that the pacing might be too slow. However, the melancholy tone was spot-on (with bits of comedy sprinkled here and there) and the characterizations ring true in actuality.
The Cove (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I saw the trailer for this documentary, directed by Louie Psihoyos, I knew I had to see it because the fact that people actually kill dolphins for whatever reason was shocking news to me. Not only did I find it shocking, I felt sort of embarrassed for people in general due to the complete lack of respect for creatures that are established to be very intelligent and have some sort of self-awareness. Dolphins may look like fish but they are actually more similar to us than the kinds of fish that we eat. The trailer made it look like the movie was exciting because the activists actually had to sneak in in the middle of the night to certain areas around the cove to hide cameras in rocks, trees and underwater as guards patrolled the place. It was able to deliver that level of suspense throughout the picture and more. I was impressed with this movie because not only was the film very informative, it was also educational. It wasn’t only about Japanese fishermen in Taijii killing dolphins. It was also about how the dead carcasses were labeled and sold as other types of fish in supermarkets, the levels of toxicity dolphin meat has, the effects of mercury to newborns, and how we as a society shaped this idea that dolphins are cute and can perform tricks so it’s alright to capture them. Richard O’Barry, an animal trainer who captured the five dolphins on the television show called “Flipper,” really made me think because he shared some insight and the experiences he had with dolphins. One of the many scenes that really touched my heart was when he told the story about how one of the dolphins on the show swam up to him, looked at him and committed suicide. And then explained that dolphins breathed consciously, unlike us humans. The dolphin was so depressed because it had been taken out of its natural habitat for so long that it chose to end its life. Another scene that really got to me was when one of the dolphins that was stabbed began to swim ashore as blood was coming out of it. In the beginning, I thought that maybe it’s part of the Japanese culture to eat dolphins. After all, I came from a different background so I don’t exactly know their customs. But then the film talked about how most of the people in Taijii, Japan had no idea that these dolphin killings were happening. I thought Psihoyos’ picture really got its bases covered because each of the question I had in my mind was answered. “The Cove” has a sense of urgency and I believe it should be seen by everyone because this local (though I’m guessing it happens in other parts of the world as well but we just don’t know exactly where) scenario of killing dolphins will have a significant effect on the entire ecosystem. I will never forget the images I’ve seen from this film and if you decide to see it, prepare yourself.
Porco Rosso (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed Hayao Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso,” also known as “Kurenai no buta” and “Crimson Pig,” because it’s unlike the rest of his animated films that are more rooted in fantasy. Although the main character is half-man, half-pig, the movie does a good job commenting and exploring the fact that he’s more human than most of the other characters, especially the pirates and Porco’s American rival in the sky. Its story was a nice surprise because I thought the film was going to be about his journey to remedy the curse that had taken a hold of his body after fighting in World War I. It turned out that Porco was not unhappy with his appearance so we simply got to enjoy him interacting with different kinds of beings, taking strange jobs, and trying his luck with women. It doesn’t have a core story, which strangely enough, I enjoyed because there were many scenes when comedy and heart are at the forefront. However, I wished that I saw this film in its original language with subtitles instead of the dubbed version. I’ve aware of the fact that sometimes dubbing takes away layers of complexities from the original material either due to the language barrier and a culture’s own bias when it comes to what is acceptable for children to see. There were definitely scenes that made me question the subtle differences with what was being said and what was being enacted. Still, I think “Porco Rosso” is still fun to watch (which is probably geared more toward boys because of the many masculine images involving pirates and battles in the sky) despite its flaws because of its energy and it tackled universal emotions. And what I thought made this one special was that I could easily imagine it to be a live action movie, minus the half-pig angle, because it’s that connected to the characters’ humanities. What it lacks in darkness (as I come to expect in Miyazaki adventures), it makes up for romanticism and sometimes dry sense of humor. The animation may not be as “great” as today’s animated flicks but this one might take you by surprise.
In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer and director Nagisa Oshima tells the story of a former-prostitute-turned-maid’s (Eiko Matsuda) and her employer’s (Tatsuya Fuji) sexual obsession with each other. After Matsuda sees Fuji making love with his wife, something inside her changes–it is as if she has to have him no matter what the cost. When the two eventually sleep together, they begin to spend pretty much every minute in bed together as they experiment with their sexuality, sometimes in front of other people. I liked that this film really tried to push the boundary between art and pornography. While it did show certain body parts that a “normal” picture would not normally show, it was different from pornography because it had a story to tell: the repercussions of surrendering to one’s desires without ever having to think of the consequences. To me, even though this was released in 1976, it is still very relevant today, especially in college campuses, due to the high rate of casual hook-ups or one night stands. One can never really know what one is getting into by inviting another person into one’s life–may it be for sexual purposes or otherwise. Disease is one of the first things that comes to mind (or should come to mind) when one engages in random hook-up, but psychology should also come into the equation. I’m not saying that people with mental disorders are always violent (they are not). I’m referring to people’s fetishisms and what they are willing to do to maximize their pleasure. In this film, the two lovers eventually tried to suffocate each other for one reason: it felt good. Other issues that were explored include excess, sadism, masochism, traditional gender roles and transgressions of societal norms. While most people may get lost in its graphic portrayal of sex, one should really try to look at what’s underneath because it’s that much more rewarding. “In the Realm of the Senses” is indeed a classic and should be seen and remembered by film-lovers because it’s one of the first motion pictures that tried to tread the fine line between art and pornography and was successful at it.