Late Bloomer (Osoi hito)

Dir: Go Shibata, 2004. Starring: Masakiyo Sumida, Naozo Hotta, Mari Torii. Asian Cinema.

Picture, if you can, a film with the nightmarish quality of a Harmony Korine movie in Japanese, with a bit more focus on the characters and plot, that is deliberately presented as an avant-garde horror film. Late Bloomer is about as close to that combination as you're ever going to get. Not only is it toxic and arresting like the films of Korine, who I'll admit is one of my favorite directors, but the film is extremely off-putting.

As far as craft goes, it is shot in black and white (needed, I assume, for the eerie quality and mass bloodshed), with out-of-date dissolves and overlapping images that I haven't seen in years. The soundtrack is also jarring, mainly consisting of minimal electronic and death metal.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 22, 2010 5:51pm

Paradise Now

Dir: Hany Abu-Assad, 2005. Starring: Kais Nashif, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, Amer Hlehel. Asian Cinema.

The marriage between religion and politics has no known date. To explore this link with films is to visually investigate the times and reasons for which people intertwine the two in order to make sense of their disrupted lives and societies. Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now is the story of two friends whose lives have been torn apart by institutional violence and injustice. At first glance, they appear to be unaffected by their environment until a commitment made years before manifests the horrific day when they are called upon to become martyrs for a cause that they don't fully understand.

The story takes place in modern times with the Muslim dominated Palestine being in a constant state of war with the Zionist/Jewish society of Israel. Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are two childhood friends who agreed as teenagers to carry out a suicide bombing together for an organization which has been plotting its next attack for over two years. Each man, now in their early twenties, is visited separately by their messenger Jamal (Amer Hlehel) and told that the bombing will happen in less than 24 hours. The two begin saying goodbye to their families in order to prepare for their brief training.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 15, 2010 4:03pm

Sword of Doom

Dir: Kihachi Okamoto.1966. Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Toshiro Mifune. Japanese. Martial Arts/Asian Cinema

大菩薩峠 literally translates to “The pass of the great Buddha” which is a much more evocative and memorable name than the calculatedly generic “Sword of Doom.” Despite being one of my favorite films of all time, I usually get it wrong as it’s so vague and unmemorable. In my (and many others’) opinion, it’s the greatest example of the martial arts sub-genre of chanbara which are Japanese period films focused sword fighting.

The film is based on the serialized, newspaper-published stories written by Buddhist author Kaizan Nakazato beginning in 1913. Over three decades he wrote and published new segments until his death. Sword of Doom isn’t the first time the stories have been adapted for film, but it is the most highly regarded.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Aug 22, 2008 9:40pm

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Dir: Chan-wook Park, 2002. Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Doona Bae. Asian Cinema.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is perhaps one of the best anti-hero films I have ever seen, based on concept alone. Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy is unlike most others because the plot, actors, and characters are all in no way linked or the same, but each film circulates around revenge. Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is a young deaf-mute who lives with his sister in a seedy apartment complex. His ambition was formerly focused on art school until his sister fell ill and needed a kidney transplant. He quit school and began working as a manual laborer in a factory in order to save up for her operation. Unable to give her one of his own kidneys because their blood types don't match, Ryu takes a chance and, using all the money that he has saved, tries to purchase a kidney from an illegal organ supply group which offers to give him the kidney he needs in exchange for one of his and 10 million won. But after waking up from the operation, he finds that the group has split with his clothes, money, and kidney.

Disheartened and furious about yet another streak of bad luck in his life, he vows to kill the people who wronged him. While visiting the medial center he frequents to find a donor, he receives the great news that they found a proper donor, which is hard to do in such a sort amount of time. The only problem is that Ryu has just been fired from his job and the operation costs 10 million won. Together, he and his girlfriend Cha-Yeong-mi (Doona Bae) decide to kill two birds with one stone by seeking vengeance on the illegal group and kidnapping his former employer's daughter for ransom in order to pay for his sister's operation.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 21, 2010 4:02pm

The King of Masks

Dir: Tian-Ming Wu, 1996. Starring: Xu Zhu, Renying Zhou, Zhigang Zhao. Chinese. Asian Cinema.

To be honest, the number of modern or even present Chinese films that I have seen is very little, which is a shame to say the least. And while I don’t have much to compare this film to, I would still argue that based on it, one could conclude that China varies in extremes, in terms of artistic expression and tradition, compared to other East Asian cultures. But when I stumbled upon The King of Masks, a new aspect of Chinese culture was introduced: the traditional and male dominated performing arts.

The film is about a lonely performer named Master Bianlian Wang (Xu Zhu), who has a very unique and superbly rare talent of performing Sichuan Change Art, a form of magic involving elaborate handmade masks being changed upon one’s face fast enough to create the illusion of a transformation without any noticeable interruption. As a performer of the art, which is passed down only in families and only to males, Wang worries that his dying art will become extinct because he does not have a son to pass it onto. He is given offers by highly popular Master Liang (Zhigang Zhao), a leader of the Sichuan Opera and also praised as "The Living Bodhisattva," to join the Opera, but he remains true to his desire to stay solo.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
May 17, 2010 4:23pm

Turtles Can Fly

Dir: Bahman Ghobadi, 2005. Starring: S. Ebrahim, A. Latif, S. H. Feysal, H. F. Rahman. Kurdish. Asian/Drama/War.

Bahman Ghobadi, an Iranian director, is one who chooses to make a film about a subject matter that is not quite openly discussed today – in Turtles Can Fly, his impressive second directorial feature, he weaves a youthful tale set along the border between Iraq and Turkey.

The story follows a young boy, Satellite, nicknamed for installing television receivers in his minefield town of makeshift tents and tanks. He is part of a group of refugee children who expectantly await the war. This group of kids was placed in this area by Saddam Hussein and they find ways to work through Satellite’s leadership. In the midst of his tragedy, Satellite occupies himself with other duties – calling meetings, arranging work – essentially becoming the ringleader of the children. Among the children are the Boy With No Arms, and teenage girl Agrin, who accompanies a younger blind boy. The children’s fate, warranted by the end of the story, is a grim look at Kurdish experiences during the Iraq war and a collective of memories that don’t necessarily make any sense.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Apr 8, 2009 1:36pm

Uzak (Distant)

Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002. Starring: Muzaffer Özdemir, Emin Toprak. Foreign/Asian Cinema.

Everyone’s paying homage to Tarkovsky nowadays, it seems, albeit often losing something in the translation. Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is among the few directors (along with Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako, Malian Souleymane Cissé and Iranian Abbas Kiarostami) who thankfully picks up not only on Tarkovsky’s aesthetic, but also his humanism and subtle humor.

Ceylan makes no attempts to hide his most obvious cinematic inspiration; using Bach in a library scene, referring to the Soviet director in a speech among artists, and in one scene even using one of the master’s films to bore his unsophisticated house guest into going to bed so that his host can watch porn in peace. In the special features, Ceylan also professes a debt, not surprisingly, to Anton Chekov and Yasujirō Ozu. A short film included on the DVD, Koza, is even more overt in its aspirations to reflect Tarkovsky.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 23, 2010 2:32pm

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

Dir: Mikio Naruse, 1960. Starring: Hideko Takamine, Tatsuya Nakadai, Masayuki Mori. Asian Cinema.

Regardless of the decade, there aren't many Japanese films that I've seen that approach the human experience on a more common level. The Japanese directors who've upheld great popularity abroad usually deal more with the folklore and customs of ancient Japan, while directors such as Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) and Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) deal more with ultra-violence and action. Perhaps the most popular, Akira Kurosawa, has made an impact on the western world because American cinema, particularly Westerns, were of great influence.

While in Ginza, Naruse and his close acquaintances were gathered in a bar and noticed something special about the matrons. The complexity of their relationship with their customers, vastly different than the relationship of a geisha or bartender, had never been breached in cinema. Fueled by intentions to bring something new to the screen and introduce the world to the life of a high-end hostess, Naruse crafted this film. Its emphasis on the common man and his relation to the world was not exactly something that made it popular, and this, along with the director's other works, has left many bored, if not unsatisfied. Ozu's popularity with similar themes of the common man have done well, so what makes them different? Could it be because Naruse shot something in 1960 about people in 1960? Is it the lack of action in his films, or the fact that he cast based on a person's resemblance to the character in terms of personality? Whatever the reason, this film, while praised by cinefiles, has failed to impress or be understood by the masses; many have yet to realize that the film is full of feminist theory, breathtaking cinematography, and an example of the hardships that come with middle age.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Apr 28, 2011 10:41am

Woman in the Dunes

Dir: Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964. Starring: Eiji Okada and Kyôko Kishida. Japanese. Asian Cinema.

Metaphors are perhaps the greatest and most poetic way to express a concept or condition without heavy exposition in dialog. A good poem, for example, should never be clear in words alone, but with a trained eye, one should and hopefully can decipher what the work is getting at. When I first saw Woman in the Dunes, while watching it and after finishing it, I interpreted it as having many metaphors, one being commitment and the surrender that comes to people in terms of settling down. Also, it places the main character into an alien existence that is far removed from his conventional and vanity-filled comfort zones. The sand in this film also presents a metaphor of its own, but I’ll leave that for you to conclude.

Early Japanese cinema is a leader in this kind of poetic and classic storytelling. Also shot in black and white, films like Double Suicide and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon incorporate centuries' worth of idealism and culture into an hour and a half’s worth of wonder.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 29, 2010 5:53pm

Zebraman

Dir: Takashi Miike, 2004. Starring: Sho Aikawa, Kyoka Suzuki, tons of CGI-jellybean aliens. Asian Cinema.

I know most folks immediately shy away when I say it’s directed by the maestro of mayhem, Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q, the Dead Or Alive series, Audition, and over 70 (!!!) other movies); and it’s finally being put out domestically by an outfit, foreign exploitation/ultra-gore distributors, Tokyo Shock Cinema, for which I have a soft spot in my ugly, mean heart, but Zebraman [or, more properly, “Zee-Borah-Mahnu”] quickly reveals itself to be super-campy fun and vaguely family-friendly (no disembowelment or graphic torture, honest!) in a way not seen from Miike since the uneven kiddie fantasy Great Yokai War or the gorgeous piece of art that is Bird People In China (one of the few films I can say without hesitation must be watched by everyone who loves movies).

Whereas Bird People made its pretentions obvious to all, Great Yokai War somewhat and Zebraman very explicitly are aimed (in the sense of appealing to AND in the weapon sense) directly at adults reared on monster/fantasy/superhero movies and television, making them terrific fare for dorks like me and you. C’mon, admit it, you know you are…

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Posted by:
Eddie Vegas
Mar 3, 2008 3:01pm
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