As a definite non-fan of anime, outside of great directors such as Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, and a few others, I settled in for The Mystical Laws with more than a little trepidation. Alas, I must report that trepidation was justified: The Mystical Laws, despite the crackpot religious message shoved down the viewer’s throats relentlessly, is an unholy mess, a combo of flat and unimaginative animation, conspiracy-minded sci-fi, loopy spectacle, and regurgitated Christ/Buddha origin myths. The story concerns a future world (in the year 202X, whatever the hell that is) that is now dominated by the Godom Empire, a dictatorial, Nazi-like entity ruled by the emperor Tathagata Killer, that has everyone, including neutered superpower the United States and an ineffectual United Nations under its bootheel. Enter Sho Shishimaru, a member of the “international secret society” Hermes Wings, a sort of Doctors Without Borders-type group designed to counteract the Godom Empire. Sho has the ability to see the future, and gets wind of Godom’s plan to occupy Japan. Sho must save Japan and the rest of the world, and in the process, becomes a reincarnated Buddha, and fulfills his destiny to be the world’s savior.
The Mystical Laws turns out to be basically a recruiting tool for Happy Science, a Scientology-like religious organization founded by Ryuho Okawa, the originator of this project and who claims to be the second coming of Buddha, just like the protagonist of this film. At the screening I attended, producer Koji Matsumoto revealed another agenda of this film: he directly compared the Chinese government to the Nazis, citing, among other things, their treatment of Tibet. This makes clear that the Godom Empire of the film is pretty much a representation of China. He also expounded more on the religious messages of the film, a cobbling together of different mystical traditions into … well, I’m not sure what exactly, but he seemed passionate enough about it.
The Mystical Laws has been submitted for consideration for Best Animated Feature for next year’s Oscars, but Disney and Dreamworks have little to fear. This crude bit of evangelical propaganda has little chance of making much of an impact on this race, or for that matter film history in general.
Yonghi Yang’s affecting personal documentary Dear Pyongyang screens at Asia Society on March 11 at 3pm as part of their film series “Extreme Private Ethos: Japanese Documentaries.” This series, screening through March 31, features revealing and intimate documentaries that expose many private details of the filmmaker’s lives, and are all very memorable (and often unsettling) experiences.
Below is what is wrote on Dear Pyongyang when it screened at Japan Society in 2007 as part of its first Japan Cuts festival.
Dear Pyongyang is a revealing and affecting portrait of Yang’s father, a lifelong staunch pro-North Korean. Yang’s film illuminates the experiences of the zainichi, ethnic Koreans living and born in Japan. One of the largest zainichi communities exists in Yang’s hometown of Tsuruhashi, Ikuno-ku, Osaka, where a quarter of the population are Koreans. Besides facing discrimination from the larger Japanese society, they were divided amongst themselves, between supporters of North Korea and South Korea. Yang’s father was a founding member of the Chongryun organization, an activist group who fought for zainichi civil rights and who were fierce supporters of North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. To this end, he participated in the “Great Return” program, a repatriation movement that started in the 1950’s to “return” Koreans in Japan to North Korea, which at that time had a robust economy, supported by the Soviet Union. Ironically, many of these “returnees” were going to North Korea for the first time, including Yang’s three brothers, who left when she was six years old, and who she was only able to see on very brief visits to Pyongyang. Dear Pyongyang, with great affection and humor, as well as considerable poignancy, documents Yang’s efforts to understand her father’s reasons for separating his family because of his unyielding political convictions. Yang builds up many telling details of her family life: the growing care packages her mother sends to her sons’ families in Pyongyang, as their lives become ever harsher over the years; her father’s reluctance to talk about himself; her parents’ refusal to ever speak ill of the “Great Leader”; Yang’s own video footage of her visits to Pyongyang. “Unveiled reality is painful,” Yang remarks upon a shot of a massive abandoned construction project looming just behind Kim Il-sung’s statue. The courageous mission of Yang’s film is to do just that: reveal the truths that are painful to face, both familial and political.
With all due respect to The Artist (which I quite liked), this was the real silent film masterwork of 2011. Frammartino’s wonderfully profound, absorbing and immersive second feature, set in the mountainous region of Calabria on the southernmost tip of Italy, unfolds in four interconnected sections (the “four times” of the title) without relying on conventional narrative or dialog. Even though the film is based on a succession of beautifully composed images with a strong sense of spatial relationships (befitting Frammartino’s architectural training), and not on human speech (which we only hear in snatches here and there, all untranslated), Le Quattro Volte is in fact full of sound: the bleats of goats, the yapping of a dog, the sound of wind and blowing leaves. The ancient philosopher Pythagoras hailed from Calabria (as does the director’s family), and his theories are loosely illustrated here: the film’s four sections represent the transmigration of a single soul through four forms of matter — human (an old shepherd), animal (a stray kid goat), vegetable (a fir tree central to a spring festival), and mineral (the fir tree is converted to charcoal). Frammartino blends fiction and documentary to represent the cycle of nature’s existence, and how all forms of life are interconnected and self-renewing, in this remote village, which in the film’s rendering (despite a few modern conveniences) seems to still live by the ways of ancient tradition. Elegantly composed long takes and plan sequences are brilliantly used to convey this meditative, philosophical way of viewing the world, in which the human being is not privileged as the center of the universe. This results in memorable and gently humorous scenes in which animals take center stage, for example when the shepherd’s flock of goats take over his house after he dies, and the justly celebrated bravura single take in which a mischievous dog upsets a procession of costumed actors on their way to a passion play, causing an accident and freeing goats from their pen. Le Quattro Volte’s serene contemplation of life, rather than being inertly pretentious, instead teems with earthy energy, generous wit and sensitivity; it is a singularly rewarding cinema experience.
Here is the widely praised scene in which one little dog creates a huge amount of havoc:
Music video director and graphic designer Mike Mills’ second feature mines autobiographical material, combining it with indie-quirk elements (that for once, actually work here) to deliver an incredibly moving and resonant film about love and memory that elevate Mills to being one of the great American directors. Based largely on the true story of Mills’ father, who came out as a gay man late in life five years before his death from cancer, Beginners eschews a linear structure in favor of a more associative one that floats freely between the present and the past. Three different temporal strands are woven together: one representing the changed relationship between graphic designer Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) after the latter comes out and dives headfirst into his newly embraced gay identity; the period after Hal’s death, when a still damaged and shaken Oliver begins a romance with Anna (Melanie Laurent), both of them carrying considerable emotional baggage; and flashbacks to Oliver’s relationship with his deceased mother (Mary Page Keller). Beginners proves to be the perfect title of this piece, as all the major characters must deal with having to reorder their existences and extricate themselves from the weight of their personal and cultural histories. Mills handles the myriad elements and collage-like visual styles he employs here (including frequent photomontages with voiceover) nearly flawlessly, incorporating such cutesy devices as a dog who communicates his thoughts with subtitles in such a way that it enhances the poignancy and deep humanity of his film, rather than being an annoying distraction. A rich and visually beautiful text, Beginners may be an often mournful film about damaged souls, but one that is ultimately uplifting and hopeful.
This low budget comic science-fiction feature, the writing/directing debut of British comedian Joe Cornish, and executive produced by his mentor and writing partner Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) was the most pure fun I had at the movies all year. Ingeniously written and designed, Attack the Block concerns an alien invasion of a London city block of council estates (the equivalent of American project housing) during Guy Fawkes Night. A gang of street toughs, led by Moses (John Boyega), runs into the aliens in the process of mugging a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker) on her way home from work. This gang becomes the unlikely warriors battling the aliens and the ones who must save their turf from the alien attack. Cornish goes well beyond this simple geek-friendly genre set-up by injecting his scenario with a powerful sense of place, wickedly sharp humor, a canny evocation of sociopolitical realities, and multifaceted characterization that extends to even the smallest roles. Boyega delivers a fine central performance, bringing to what in lesser hands (of both actor and director) would be a one-dimensional racially stereotypical role considerable gravity and charisma. (Not for nothing did Spike Lee subsequently tap Boyega for one of his upcoming projects.) Attack the Block gained additional resonance when its release this summer coincided with the London riots, which highlighted Cornish’s astuteness in the depiction of the milieu he presents in his film. Attack the Block, in its slyly subversive politics and its success in eliciting maximum mileage from minimal means, recalls the best early films of John Carpenter.
These two films by Koji Wakamatsu, conceived as companion pieces, and which both saw US release this year, if nothing else, prove that this firebrand and revolutionary 75 year-old pink film auteur has most definitely not mellowed in his old age. Both United Red Army and Caterpillar are merciless blunt instruments of devastating criticism of two especially bloody periods of Japanese history: respectively, the radical student-led movements of the 60’s and 70’s and the Sino-Japanese wars of the 1930’s. Wakamatsu takes a cinematic two-by-four to the most cherished ideological illusions of both left-wing and right-wing politics, coming to the conclusion that militarism of any kind is an irreducible and unjustified evil. United Red Army, over the course of its 190 minute running time, documents with both actual footage and dramatized scenes the devolution of the idealism of the young (who had justifiable grievances with US policies regarding the security treaty with Japan and the Vietnam War) to a murderously grotesque version of Maoist self-criticism which led to the deaths of the most extreme members of the titular splinter group at the hands of their own leaders. The few United Red Army members that survived this self-purging (depicted in a grueling, bloody sequence that is often difficult to watch) retreated to a mountain lodge, where they took a hostage and engaged in a 10-day standoff with police, their revolutionary ideologies tragically divorced from any real utility or purpose.
Caterpillar, as spare and concise (85 minutes) as United Red Army is expansive and overwhelming, is no less searing in its historical critiques. A loose adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s short story of the same name, Caterpillar’s greatest asset is the brilliant central performance by Shinobu Terajima (who won best actress at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival) as Shigeko, the wife of Kyuzo (Shima Onishi), a soldier who returns from killing civilians and raping women in China who is nevertheless celebrated as a “war god” in their rural home village. Before the war, Shigeko’s husband was a brutal abuser, but coming home, he is severely physically reduced: he returns from war as a limbless creature with a nearly limitless appetite for food and sex, which Shigeko must dutifully cater to. Eventually, however, Shigeko is able to turn the tables of the power relationship between her and her husband, while still outwardly adhering to the increasingly militaristic wartime cheerleading imposed by the emperor on the citizenry. Wakamatsu brilliantly conveys how thorny and complicated these issues are, and how militaristic ideology makes everyone victims of a sort, even unsympathetic characters such as Kyuzo, who was only in China because his government compelled him.
There is precious little subtlety and nuance in either United Red Army or Caterpillar, but Wakamatsu makes the powerful case that such virtues, in some cases, serve to obscure the urgency and potency of the messages one wishes to convey, especially those involving politics that have been the source of the losses of many lives. These two films valiantly aim to ensure that reasons behind these deaths are not allowed to remain hidden.
Woody Allen’s European sojourn yields one of its most charming and beautifully filmed entries (courtesy of ace cinematographer Darius Khondji) with this cautionary tale of the pitfalls of nostalgia. Midnight in Paris begins with a visual tip of the hat to Manhattan, one of Allen’s earlier classics, with the City of Lights as an Old World stand-in for the Big Apple. The Allen stand-in this time is a successful Hollywood screenwriter, nicely played by Owen Wilson, a rather counterintuitive choice for an Allen hero, yet his laid-back persona melds seamlessly with the film’s textures and is a major source of the pleasures of this film. Beneath the time travel fantasy of early 20th century Paris lies the rueful notion that there is no real escape from reality, and that life consists mostly of navigating through the mundane and conforming to society’s notions of the respectable and responsible. An unlikely hit of 2011, yielding Allen’s best box-office figures to date (in straight dollars; adjusted for inflation, Annie Hall comes out on top), Midnight in Paris clearly struck a chord with many viewers, and for good reason; it’s a smart, funny and well-acted film with gorgeous settings, which is no small achievement these days.
For the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure many times of attending film and other cultural events at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York (website). Besides the great films and other presentations I’ve seen there, a big highlight are the generous and sumptuous receptions they have to offer. It’s always a happy day when I get an invitation to their events from the Press Office, with their unfailingly friendly and helpful staff, and I’m always guaranteed a good time.
At the most recent event I attended there, “Experience the Best of Taiwan’s Cuisine in the Heart of Manhattan,” on December 8, 2011, the focus was strictly on the food. The event celebrated the launch of a new website, “Food Culture in Taiwan,” run by the Government Information Office of the Republic of China (Taiwan), a comprehensive and informative guide to Taiwanese cuisine. The site covers all aspects of Taiwanese food, from street market food to indigenous cuisine and tea. The event at TECO-NY showcased seven representative Taiwanese dishes, with a sumptuous buffet for the attendees. Besides the buffet there were other highlights: a fruit carving demonstration by master chef H.J. Han, and a traditional tea ceremony demonstration featuring Ali Mountain Oolong Tea and Sun Moon Lake Assam Tea. Below are pictures and video I took of the event.
I also have to give a shout out to two great people I met at the event: Peggy Shih, the general manager of TKettle, a great bubble tea place located at 26 St. Marks Place in the East Village (website), and Brian Lin, editor-in-chief of Asian Fusion magazine (website), an Asian fashion, culture and lifestyle magazine. Besides being very nice folks, they introduced me to the concept of whisky-spiked bubble tea, for which I will be eternally grateful.
Yelling to the Sky, actress-turned-director Victoria Mahoney’s debut feature, immediately sets up what we’re in for in its very first scene, that of its protagonist Sweetness (Zoe Kravitz) being beaten mercilessly by a group of neighborhood toughs, including the roughest of them all, played by Gabourey Sidibe of Precious.In contrast to that earlier role, the bully she portrays here isn’t developed much further than it is here.And that points to the main problem with this film; it is obviously very heartfelt and personal, but it is unfortunately wedded to the most tired “hood” clichés of urban life: drug dealing, drug use, out-of-wedlock childbirth, domestic abuse, and it relentlessly piles on the misery in a way that becomes exhausting and tedious.What’s worse, it weds this exhausted subject matter with pretensions borrowed from European directors, at least according to Mahoney – in the Q&A after its screening at the Walter Reade theater, she cited the influence of Andrea Arnold and Ken Loach.To which I can only respond with a variation of Lloyd Bentsen’s response to Dan Quayle’s self-comparison to JFK during their famous vice-presidential debate: I’ve seen Loach and Arnold’s films, and Ms. Mahoney, you are no Loach or Arnold.Another problem is that the film, or should I say its director, wants us to applaud it simply for the fact of its existence: Mahoney claims that it is the very first American film to feature a mixed-race (black and white) female main character.I haven’t yet researched this, but somehow this feels incorrect to me.Presumably the reason that Sweetness is so harassed in her neighborhood is because of her mixed-race heritage (white father, black mother), although this is never directly expressed in the film.Yelling to the Sky, along with ImageNation, the foundation under whose aegis this screening was held (this organization promotes black and Latino film and filmmakers), wraps itself tightly in its noble intentions, but forgets to offer material worthy of celebration.Underrepresented ethnic groups do themselves no favors by promoting artistically inferior work based on the misguided notion that somehow this will benefit them in the industry; in fact, it does exactly the opposite.The sole aspect of this film that makes it watchable are its actors, who acquit themselves well across the board, most especially Kravitz, who I’m sure will be fantastic with material worthy of her, and Tariq Trotter, better known as Black Thought of the Roots, as the friendliest drug dealer you could ever hope to meet.
“How dare God absolve him before I’ve forgiven him myself?”
In an early scene in Secret Sunshine, a pharmacist is attempting to persuade Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), a widowed piano teacher who has come to the town of Miryang with her young son in tow, to join her faith. “Maybe you believe only in what you can see?You doubt what you can’t see? … But there are things you can’t see too!” This question is at the very heart of Lee Chang-dong’s film.A sprawling and rich character study of a woman’s response to the tragedies in her life, and the lengths to which she will go to heal herself, the film is anchored by Jeon Do-yeon’s mesmerizing and multifaceted performance.Jeon won the best actress award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, a richly deserved prize for a physically fierce and tender performance that compellingly rides the quicksilver changes that her character experiences in this Job-like tale.
Beginning with a shot of a clear blue expanse of sky, and ending with an ugly brown patch of ground, Secret Sunshine is about many things, but perhaps the most pertinent is that the beauty of humanity is its unending will to endure and find hope even in the most tragic circumstances.Lee illustrates this with his main character, Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), a widowed piano teacher who arrives in the small town of Miryang (her late husband’s homeplace), with her young son Jun in tow.Miryang is a rather ordinary, colorless place, its inhabitants exhibiting the typical provincialism of such environments.Coming from Seoul, Shin-ae, attempting to start over by opening a piano academy, carelessly breaches the town’s conservative mores.She offends a clothing-store owner by recommending a new coat of paint so that her store doesn’t look so gloomy.She also speaks a little too freely about buying land in town, an act that indirectly leads to an even greater tragedy than the loss of her husband, a tragedy around which this film pivots.What that tragedy is I will not reveal for those who have not yet seen this film, since it will spoil the full effect of the extraordinary work that Lee and his actors have created.Over the course of nearly two and a half hours, Secret Sunshine puts Shin-ae, and the viewer, through an emotionally turbulent ride, one that deals with the questions that philosophers have grappled with throughout the ages: questions of God, faith, the meaning of suffering, and the existence of both the visible and invisible forces that affect our every thought and action.
After receiving a belated US theatrical release last year, Secret Sunshine now has the distinction of being the first Korean film to be part of the Criterion Collection, and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.So … you know what to do.
2007 interview with Lee Chang-dong at Asia Society: