Friday, December 01, 2006

Director Profile: Juzo Itami

A tragic end belies a life lead with purpose. The son of a successful filmmaker, Juzo Itami made his name acting in television and films before making a late career shift into screenwriting and directing at age 50. Known to choose the subjects of his films through everyday observations, he often followed up significant events in his life with films depicting idiosyncrasies that he felt were unique to the evolving Japanese culture. He was the definition of an iconoclast who took the great Molière’s words to heart, "castigat ridendo mores" (criticise customs through humour).

Attributed as a key figure in the re-emergence of the latest wave of Japanese films that marked their presence outside of Japan, Itami proved to be a force of energy and originality that revived the country’s stake in international cinema during the 80s. Critics and audiences alike were simpatico when it came to his clever and keenly entrenched satires of his country’s societal misgivings and he quickly became the most famous modern director of his generation. Throughout his directorial oeuvre of 10 films (list at the end), which stretched from 1984 to his final film in 1997, they were popular both domestically and maintained a staunch international following.

Every so often Itami was compared to his then recently deceased French counterpart, Jacques Tati, who utilised similar styles of critiquing their society’s cultural transition while crafting films with trenchant distinctions in humour and sadness. They also had almost similar, brief numbers of films that they directed and wrote before their death and they also used similar elements in the majority of their films. Itami cast his wife, Nobuko Miyamoto in every one of his 10 films. She was synonymous with Itami’s fans across the world. Her versatility with melodrama and her impeccable comic timing proved invaluable to her husband’s unique blend of the two genres as she portrayed characters that have been labeled as an “Everywoman” role. These roles laid the groundwork for a much more diverse representation of genders in Japan’s films as Itami’s women were usually strong, smart and gifted with moral fortitude when faces with tremendous adversity.

A common misconception outside of Japan would be that “Tampopo” was Itami’s career-making debut. And although “Tampopo” is his most successful and critically acclaimed to date, his first feature was actually a humourous look at the Japanese attitudes towards death in “Ososhiki” which touched on the generational gap opposing the stringently revered traditional values of the elders and the often-callous modernism of their children. “Tampopo” followed it to immense and unexpected success outside of its native land. The gastronomic “noodle western” as Itami himself had coined it, was an episodic venture (which formed the structure of his other films) of a restaurateur determined to create the best possible noodle for the best possible noodle eatery. Consumed with quirky characters and their own respective obsessions, it was a surreal fusion of wink-wink ribald imagery that was obstinately Japanese and a cheeky lampoon on the Leone “spaghetti westerns” that showed early signs of his development to an auteur. The public was now aware of Itami’s established comedic style and free-wielding use of the narrative and they wanted more.

After a string of successful hits such as “A Taxing Woman” and its sequel came one of Itami’s most intriguing films to date in “Minbo”, also commonly held as “The Anti-Extortion Woman”. It was scathing attack on the pride of the Japanese Yakuza through the film’s story of a spirited female protagonist skewering and training feeble men to fight back against the criminal elements through courage and determination instead of resorting to violence. The film’s realistic content apparently hit a sore spot with real gang members who waited outside of Itami’s home and slashed him across his face that left him in the hospital. During his recuperation at the hospital, he found material for his next feature in “Daibyonin” about a dying film director accepting with his illness amidst an uncaringly cold healthcare system with an ironic look at infidelity and suicide that was a precursor to the rest of Itami’s life. Still haunted and suitably outraged by the attack following “Minbo”, Itami’s final film in 1997 was the black comedy “Marutai no onna”. It was his ode to freedom of expression that revolved around an actress witnessing a cult murder and becomes a target, both in the media and for hired guns.

On December 20 1997, the 64 year-old Itami was found seriously injured on the street below his office and later died in the hospital. A suicide note was left behind by Itami that expressed innocence to a tabloid’s accusation of his infidelity with a younger woman. Itami’s energy and aversion to jadedness in his long career in films would have no doubt been still at use to this day if he was alive.


1. Marutai no Onna (Woman of the Police Protection Program) (1997)
2. Supah no Onna (Supermarket Woman) (1996)
3. Shizuka na Seikatsu (A Quiet Life) (1995)
4. Daibyonin (The Last Dance) (1993)
5. Minbo no Onna (Minbo — or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion) (1992)
6. A-ge-man (Tales of a Golden Geisha) (1990)
7. Marusa no Onna II (A Taxing Woman's Return) (1988 )
8. Marusa no Onna (A Taxing Woman) (1987)
9. Tampopo (1985)
10. Ososhiki (The Funeral) (1984)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Quinceañera (2006) (Richard Glatzer / Wash Westmoreland)

“Quinceanera” has an understandably broad appeal in its keenly observant and unassuming exploration of a Mexican American family and the extending community. And that proved to be the case when it seized both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury prizes at Sundance, a feat unheard of in these times of divided opinions. It gladly wears its optimism and giddy exuberance on its sleeves when it introduces us to the innocent charms of its ingénue, Magdalena (Emily Rios) during a zestful celebration, a rite of passage for young women called a quinceanera. But will Magdalena’s own quinceanera be as joyful?

When the threat of an extra mouth to feed comes looming over her family’s celebratory mood, the shamefaced Magdalena finds herself exiled to her great-uncle’s rented apartment in a building owned by a duo of gay white yuppies eager to cash in on the burgeoning property market. She finds herself sharing a common but uneasy bond with Carlos (Jesse Garcia), another family member ousted because of his sexual preference.

The writer-directors in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland do not condemn the conservatism of the immigrant Latino community. Their social commentary is primarily concerned with the ones that are forgotten, misplaced in the functioning society’s own religious principles and way of life. Astutely crafting a smooth flow and a nicely paced narrative, it has an astonishing amount of detail and observations in its compact and decidedly simple story of outcasts in the country’s minority neighborhoods. Transcending its clichéd scenarios, it manages to convey a sense of longing in the pariahs while they huddle together in a small apartment with problems that can only be sorted by them. Staying clear of odious stereotypes about gangland lifestyles and contrivances about inhabitants of the barrios, it finds an able and authentic footing in its environment that effuses a rare amount of sincerity. In its packed house of flawed but relatable characters, each of them is made real by distinctive and natural performances.
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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cure (1997) (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

With a much more divided critical base than his much revered namesake, Kurosawa either draws ire or much respect for his genre twisting mindfucks of Asian cinema. I stand somewhere in between because even while I recognise and applaud his intentions and sheer nerve in bending the genre to the extent of esoterica, there's just something hollow left behind. With "Cure", he adds to an oeuvre of stringently erudite horror/thriller by quite obviously referencing the 1995 Sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway system.

He dithers around the subject of cults and finds that searching for identity in a (dys)functional society a much more clamant aspect of a person's descent into GroupThink and susceptibility of persuasion. Deliberately coy and abstract, Kurosawa is an auteur of surrealism and builds a intriguing cross between David Fincher and David Lynch while questioning our buried impulses and slowly pulling back the layers of detachment in a country that's gradually supplanting it's own identity with nothing of note.

Arguing that the diegetic murders are related in more ways than a mysterious amnesiac and a curious X carved in the victims' neck, Kurosawa links the cause to the alienation from our contemporary lifelessness by way of allegory. With no discernable soundtrack aside from the electronic droning, ambience and permutations of desperation in the lone protagonist's voice, Kurosawa demands attention through arduousness in minimalism but relents a caveat before long in its subtle ambiguity.

Rating: 3½ out of 5

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Clerks 2 (2006) (Kevin Smith)

Almost everyone is familiar with the indie sensation, “Clerks” that transformed Kevin Smith from a struggling new director into a cult hero amongst detached and world-weary young adults. If not there’s always “Chasing Amy, “Mallrats”, “Dogma” and “Jersey Girl” (which I believe even Smith wouldn’t even want mentioning). No longer an unknown quantity, we pretty much know about his modus operandi in his movies. With a repeating menagerie of quirky slackers and his incredible knack for persuasive patois, it’s much like observing cinematic vaudevillians staging hijinks in everyday situations.

Indeed, Smith still preaches the same iconoclastic ideals in his entire oeuvre as he did in his debut. Now he returns to his most beloved stomping ground in the View Askewniverse with his tried and trusted caboodle of key characters in Dante (Brian O'Halloran), Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith). He brings aboard veteran (in these circles at least) performer, Rosario Dawson as Becky, Dante and Randal’s boss at their new burger flipping jobs, and Smith also brings along a couple of new performers in Trevor Fehrman and Jennifer Schwalbach (Smith’s wife), who are unfortunately the weakest links in this retrospective self-justification. Smith’s stroll through his past brings back the laughs that’s unseen in his later works, but leaves a lot of the heart behind in lieu of loftier ambitions.

What “Clerks II” has going for it is its vintage, ubiquitously ribald humour being delivered and scripted by its master vulgarians who don’t seem to have missed a beat even a decade on. It’s pretty much a jazzed up (budget wise), more sophisticated jaunt with its manchilds through the tedium of minimum wage jobs, all in the space of a day. More elaborate gags, unconstricted by singular locales and a much more rounded soundtrack are welcome additions. “Clerks II” has substantially more plot than its predecessor, making the humour and characters much more significant in their presence, not just participants in episodic events staged about specific punchlines. This obviously offers a chance to craft a suitable bookend to the lives of these characters as well as possible openings for further ventures in the future.

Randal takes the centre stage in this film, much like Dante did in “Clerks”. He’s possibly the best and most elevated character within the cartoon cutouts that the rest of his cadre appear to be. He’s the biggest manchild of them all but also the one who seems to be the most self-aware about his situation, keeping his insecurities hidden just long enough to belt out another diatribe to strangers about the changing world that is adamant on leaving him behind. Compare this to the uneven characterisation of Randal’s fellow burgershack colleague, Elias (Trevor Fehrman) who’s a devout Christian, a “Lord of the Rings” and “Transformers” fanboy virgin that happens to believe the most inane lies told to him by his peers. Oh, and he’s also a mama’s boy.

Perhaps the most unforgivable misstep for Smith would be his indecisiveness in actually settling on a message. 10 years ago, leaving it open was a great setpiece for the rest of Dante and Randal’s stunted lives. But how was he to know that he’ll be revisiting the Quick-Stop once more and now, conclusion is needed especially in the midst of potentially life-changing revelations.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Exiled (2006) (Johnnie To)

What an interesting double bill this would be with “The Departed”. As opposed to that film’s approach of visceral, unflinching violence, Johnnie To brings a sophisticated chic to battles in his newest thriller, “Exiled”. To is fast becoming the most dependable Asian director in this genre today, after coming off a string of acclaimed hits with the complex and purposeful Election films. This could seem a return to a style that first garnered him critical attention and gifted him the nickname of Hong Kong’s “Sergio Leone”.

With the handover to China looming just a year away, reverberations are being felt throughout the Macau underworld. There’s a strong need for scores to be settled and feasting eyes of the mobs from the nearby territories are directed at the southern island. With this political realignment as a backdrop, To urges an intrinsic race against time as old friends and old enemies take their places in order to topple impending gangland regimes and secure their final paydays. Like démodé dinosaurs trapped in a world of lawlessness, friends sharing the same childhood are pitted against each other, silently contemplating their options in midst of divided loyalties as the clock ticks down.

These steely-eyed men, with determined and hardened exteriors each hide a sentimentality that does not go unnoticed. The film does not make any apologies for their line of work, nor does it give excuses or consolations for the acts they’ve committed. But you don’t need to like them in order to root for them. Their reticent features and certain resignation to the twilight of their era are telling enough of their fates.
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My Summer of Love (2004) (Pawel Pawlikowski)

It’s a cruel summer indeed. “My Summer of Love” stands as almost a scornful swipe against its title. Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski shows the impudence of being that age when romance is almost as grave as life and death and important enough to be swept away in a tide of hormones and irrationality. In a small idyllic village, just north of England, a snapshot of an intoxicating and sultry femme relationship between a naïve native and a worldly, cultured out-of-towner starts to bloom just as the hillside flowers start to.

Seductive and sensual, Pawlikowski’s naturalist tones and earthy colours complement the summer’s languorous transience. Class warfare, religious transgressions and misandry bubble below the surface but strong performances from each of its main cast give a trenchant sense of knowing of painful adolescence to the film during a fateful event of a young girl’s life.

Gravelly voiced, booze-guzzling young Mona (Nathalie Press) craves for a distraction this season. Her brother, Phil (Paddy Considine) is an ex-convict, born-again Christian seeking emotional refuge in the town’s sect of charismatic Christians. When we first meet him, he drains the bottles of alcohol, intent on making their bar a new haven for his religious congregations. Naturally, Mona spends more time with the girl she met during a balmy afternoon on the grassy knolls. Almost chivalrously plucking her out of the dense reality she faces during the summer, Tamsin (Emily Blunt) strides up to her on a white horse and introduces her to a different life.
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Friday, October 13, 2006

The Anti-Extortion Woman (1992) (Juzo Itami)

The rumours go that the Japanese director Juzo Itami was attacked by the Yakuza due to the realistic and disrespectful portrayal of them in his 1992 comedy “The Anti-Extortion Woman” or more commonly known as “Minbo”. Realistic? I can’t say for sure. But was it disrespectful? Absolutely. Itami crafted a niche for himself in the early 80s and late 90s with off-kilter comic gems that reveled in their absurdity and dealt with unusual subject matter, starting with his hit, “Tampopo”. This feature definitely extends that offbeat sense of humour coupled with his darkly tailored undercurrent of social criticism in a simple plot that unfortunately is neither biting nor potent enough to warrant its lengthy runtime and exaggerated mode.

Minbo according to the attorney Mahiru Inoue (Nobuko Miyamoto) is slang, a truncated term for something that lawyers understand as the gentle art of extortion used by the Yakuza. She’s somewhat of an expert in these matters as we see in a promising first scene at the poolside in Hotel Europa, a first-rate hotel competing for the attention of foreign delegates. However, the hotel’s reputation is tarnished with the continued presence of the different Yakuza families who use the grounds as either meeting/exchange places, lounging areas or even to cheat the hoteliers out of some yen. The boardroom decides on taking action by assembling an Anti-Yakuza force from within but only manages a schmuck accountant and a meathead bellboy, both with plenty to learn about the world they live in. After an inspired introduction to both of them, the film gets down to the nitty-gritty of them failing to get rid of these foul-mouthed, shrewd gangsters. Well, this movie isn’t called “The Anti-Extortion Woman” for nothing. And after about a dubious quarter of the film, we finally get to be truly acquainted with Miss Inoue, which really puts the opening scene’s purpose into perspective.

She’s here for a reason and that’s to help the hotel and in the process teach these men a thing or two about being men. The film is strongly attuned to its titular character with her presence alone driving the film forward in terms of its comedy and plot. She faces up to overly confident mob bosses and talks them down to the hilt with her legal expertise and well-prepared plans that rely on surveillance and the need to be vigil in the face of overwhelming threats. It’s novelty wears thin after awhile though, when she uses the same strategies over and over again with the new gangsters that show up. However, it can’t be understated that the film’s bulk of coherence lies with these scenes as she mentors the hotel into self-defending itself against these thugs.

Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami’s wife is often cast in his films in a variety of roles. Her role as Inoue is by far the strongest in the cast that is usually prone to overacting and embarrassingly over-the-top theatrics that can actually be described as vaudevillian. She brings a deep sympathy and caring into her role as a confident but never hubristic seasoned attorney that specialises in Minbo. She never talks down to the dolts in the casts and is believable in her persuasiveness with the Yakuza and Itami wisely revolves an inert comedy around her pint-sized figure being surrounded by pompous, large men that inevitably fall to her knees. She even changes a massive shift in tone by coming up strong in an uneven denouement at the end, finally wising up everyone else to the virtues of being strong even in the face of hardship.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Departed (2006) (Martin Scorcese)

As darkly comedic and resonant as “Goodfellas” (if they had mobiles and wireless Internet) and as virile and gritty as “Mean Streets”, Scorcese scores a winner by all regards in “The Departed”. And yet the closest description for a story of this magnitude that spans across the generations and multiple complex characters would be “L.A. Confidential”. Rarely does a film work on every level that it aspires to and there’s really not much to say that contradicts it. It’s a potboiler crime fiction of epic proportions with every strand of intersecting plot brimming with rising conflict.

The coarse dialogue, contextual environments and masculine anti-heroes are straight out of Scorcese’s playbook, transposed from mobs to cops. The frissons of being mucked in such a ravenous war zone of conflicting ideals is slowly transformed into a deeper sense of apprehension when it becomes an operatic thriller that closes in on the deception and betrayal between the men caught on the frontlines.

Let me just begin by assuaging fears of a slavish copy of the original as Scorcese, who is arguable the master of the modern gangster genre (including the inspiration for Hong Kong’s wave of gangster films) makes this revision very much his own and all but seals his accolades come award season. The premise and plot structure remain true, but key sequences have been given a new treatment and there are different assertions and idiosyncrasies in the characters which are created by their respective actors.

It’s a welcome difference in the locale from Hong Kong to Boston. It allows for more elaborate setpieces with clever use of racial prejudices and homophobia in the language that adds another dimension to the politics involved. And of course a much more vibrant Boston landscape in the film’s brooding atmosphere that plays a bigger part in the film’s scope with its flagrant bending of time and space. And as usual, one actor stands out playing his role the way audiences have always recognised him. He brings a crucial, unrestrained element to his larger-than-life character that one might suspect is unseen in the script.

Nicholson’s Costello is an expanded takeoff from Eric Tsang’s supremely underdeveloped but scene-stealing role as the mob boss Sam in “Infernal Affairs”, just one of Scorcese’s prerogatives that was undertaken with the glut of talented performers he was presented with. Nicholson forces himself into the foreground with yet another of his quintessential performances that borders somewhere between paranoia, rage and aloofness. But Scorcese burdens the film’s strongest scenes by placing Nicholson in the centre stage, letting him pull the emotional strings with nervy self-reliance by sheer presence alone. Of course, this can be a masterstroke at times, but an overdose of Jack can betray a scene’s natural gravitas.
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