Sandome no satsujin – The Third Murder

Director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s more recent films have been family focused (After the Storm, Like Father Like Son, Our Little Sister) exploring broken relationships and human frailty. With The Third Murder however, Kore-eda has returned to much larger questions of life’s purpose and what it means to be a human being, in the vein of Air Doll and After Life.

The film opens with a murder, followed by sweeping drone views of a water-side city. We almost get the feeling that we’re about to watch an American crime drama.

But no. Or at least, not quite. We already have our perp. He’s even confessed.

Here’s a thing I didn’t realise – Japan still has the death penalty. The complexity of how this sentence is applied drives the team of legal brains (led by Shigemori – played by Masaharu Fukuyama) to understand why the prisoner Misumi (Kôji Yakusho) has confessed, what exactly he has confessed to, and why he keeps changing his story. It’s deftly handled by Kore-eda so that we understand just as much as we need to, and we don’t spend the entirety of the film inside a courtroom.

As the lies are peeled away and the truth begins to emerge, we start to understand *what* is going on with Misumi, but not necessarily *why*. And as the lawyer Shigemori learns more about his client, Kore-eda and his camera crew shift the view inside the prison visiting room each time so that in the last meeting, some exquisite work sees the faces of the two men almost superimposed on one another.

The audience is left to make up its own mind as to exactly how the ending could be interpreted and while I’m fine with this, there are a couple of loose ends that make me wonder if this wasn’t originally a longer film but had to be cut. The storyline around the lead lawyer’s daughter, for example, feels like it’s going to be quite significant until about half way through but then it just disappears, to the point where she was preying on my mind a little.

But despite these small niggles, Kore-eda delivers yet again. If you’re not familiar with his work, then this would be a great starting point, and I actively encourage it!

A version of this post first appeared on http://www.themovieisle.com

 

The White Girl (2017)

I had a meeting at relatively short notice in London last week and, knowing it would mean an overnight stay, headed straight to the London Film Festival website to see what options were still available for the evening in question.

Well, The White Girl had me at Christopher Doyle.

The master of cinematography has co-directed this film alongside Jenny Suen, a first-time feature director from Hong Kong.

The eponymous white girl is played by Angela Yuen, and is a lonesome young woman isolated from most of her fishing village due to a sun allergy which means she has to keep away from bright daylight and keep her skin covered. She’s bullied at school, shouted at by her fisherman father (with whom she lives), and misses her mother who she was told died when she was a baby. She’s an outsider in her own village.

Into this world comes a young man, an artist who moves into an old derelict property nearby. He’s alone and mysterious, and (although it took me a while to realise) doesn’t speak the local language.  The young man and woman find some kind of bond through their broken English.

Another strand is the appearance in the economically unstable village of wealthy developers from mainland China, who have some nefarious plans to buy what remains of the village to develop a huge tourist spot.

I did enjoy watching The White Girl, but I must admit that had it not been introduced by director Jenny Suen herself, I would not have grasped the significance of most of the references. I’m sure that to people from, or who have a connection with, Hong Kong this would not have been a problem. I hadn’t realised that in 2047, just 30 years from now, Hong Kong is set to lose its own government and laws, and revert to being just another part of China. With this knowledge, then all the visitors to the tiny village take on greater significance, as does the father’s over-protectiveness of his daughter. It also wasn’t obvious to me (as I have little knowledge of Asian languages) that the artist is actually Japanese – I figured it out part way through.

It seems as though, in her enthusiasm and passion for her project, the young director simply tried to put too much onto the screen at once, certainly for someone like me to fully appreciate.

However, unsurprisingly, the cinematography is the star of the show. The framing, the light, the observations – they all have Christopher Doyle’s fingerprints on them and it is beautiful.

If you haven’t heard this BBC World Service interview with Doyle, made while he was shooting The White Girl, then I urge you do so. The section where he talks about potentially losing his sight is quite extraordinary.

 

Umi yori mo mada fukaku – After the Storm

Another slice of domestic Japanese life seen through the lens of director Hirokazu Kore-eda.

In many ways this is nothing new from the Japanese director, yet at the same time it is a different domestic arrangement which provides the backdrop for the narrative.

Uncontrollable natural elements force together a broken family and we end up completely understanding every single person’s point of view by the end.

The two stand out performances for me were the father (Hiroshi Abe) and his elderly mother (Kirin Kiki). He is a loveable, shambolic failure – his career and marriage floundering, he is out of place everywhere both emotionally and physically; he is unusually tall and appears squashed in the doorways of his mother’s apartment.

His mother is perhaps one of the most authentic characters you will see on screen – physically ageing but with the wisdom of longevity, she reminded me so much of my own grandmother, who died before I was advanced enough in years to begin to understand what it is like to get old.

And this is the essence of Kore-eda. His films return repeatedly to every day life, to situations and people who we can instantly recognise. It’s a shame that only those with the patience to allow him into our lives benefit from his observations. 

Ah-ga-ssi – The Handmaiden

I wasn’t expecting to laugh as much as I did in this tale of grifters, oppression and eroticism.

Director Chan-wook Park has reframed this story from Victorian England to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, and it looks gorgeous. It’s clever in the way it uses flashbacks and replays scenes from different viewpoints, gradually letting the audience in on the twists and turns of the relationships and plot. For there are twists a-plenty.

I’ll be honest and say that the final third didn’t quite keep up the suspense, but by then I was with the characters and wanted to see how things played out for them. I didn’t feel like I had been sitting in the cinema for 2 and a half hours either.

Personally I didn’t need to see as much of the intimate scenes as we were shown – not through any sense of prudery or feeling uncomfortable, but because I felt it wasn’t required. The actors clearly yet delicately show us their feelings for each other, and once this has been established, the rest feels like a touch of unnecessary voyeurism.

A beautiful, sometimes over-the-top creation – would we expect anything less from Chan-wook Park?

Hacksaw Ridge

Why do I find Andrew Garfield so difficult to watch? I can’t work out if he’s over-earnest, over-rated or over-acting. Or perhaps it’s just me.

Parts of this film were horrific, parts were  like something from the True Life Stories channel and together it was a bit of a mishmash.

I could have done without the Christ-like image at the end, and the talking head coda.

In the end I appreciated what the man had done while not really enjoying the film much.

Silence

Martin Scorsese must feel a huge sense of relief, having finally brought to screen a story which has been in planning for 20 years or so.

But this is so clearly a very personal exploration of faith, doubt and belief by the director that any opinions I have seem unnecessary. Scorsese has bared his soul on screen and I don’t see how it’s my place to argue with him on this one, even though I am coming to this from arguably the very opposite direction.

I will say that I felt a profound inability to empathise with the two padres, which is not the film’s fault, I don’t think.

Speaking specifically about the film, it’s certainly beautiful, with the strongest performances from the Japanese cast. I’m not convinced that Andrew Garfield was the right choice for the lead role, and I would have liked to have seen more from Adam Driver. In fact, had their roles been switched, it may have been different all together.

 

 

Suicide Squad

The pleasant surprise of Suicide Squad was seeing such good performances from Will Smith, Margot Robbie and Viola Davis. But to be honest that was the only pleasant thing about this.

The MCU has had the benefit of the forward planning which allowed many of its superheroes to be introduced in their own movies, so that when they get together, we know who they are, why they are and what they are.

In the absence of this, Warner Bros and DC have to spend the first half hour just introducing everyone, but are never really able to present any depth to the characters. The relationships and motivations didn’t make sense to me, as I have no knowledge of the comic book origins.

And *what* was Cara Delevingne doing? Quite apart from not having a clue as to what was going on with her, her powers seem to be controlled by some kind of weird hip swivel which was, quite frankly, ridiculous. Don’t even get me started on The Joker, who was annoying, badly defined and largely absent.

It’s an unholy mess of a film and was only marginally better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in that it didn’t make me angry, just bored.

 

An – Sweet Bean

An excellent example of why I enjoy watching films from other cultures so much.

The story starts in a conventional manner, then takes a turn which reveals things about Japanese history (recent at that) of which I was not aware. It also throws in some interesting culinary information too.

The lives of a solitary chef, an elderly woman and a school girl intersect at a small shop selling dorayaki – sweet bean paste-filled pancakes – and while their meeting may be conventional, their histories gradually reveal more than would normally be imagined.

It’s a very gentle-paced film, with lots of listening – to the wind in the trees, a bird singing, beans cooking – but it doesn’t drag in the slightest. Kirin Kiki is outstanding as the elderly woman, and Masatoshi Nagase delivers an excellent performance as the solitary ‘Boss’. Interesting to note that the young girl is played by Kyara Uchida, who is actually Kirin Kiki’s granddaughter.

I have to admit to having seen none of director Naomi Kawase’s previous films, so I will definitely rectify that – and am open to advice on where to start.

 

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)

Subtle, gentle, delightful and insightful – Kore-eda Hirokazu manages to present the delicate intricacies of family life in which on the surface not much happens, but beneath that, each family member learns something about herself and her sisters, without huge revelations or tantrums.

Kore-eda’s last two films, I Wish and Like Father, Like Son focussed on sons in the families. This time, it is four daughters who take centre stage, and they are older than the previous protagonists, making an interesting contrast.

Kore-eda is often mentioned in the same breath as Ozu Yasujiro and while the family scenario connection is obvious, this is the first time that I’ve been put in mind of a specific Ozu film – in this case Late Spring. I attribute this to the female focus, certain shots of the oldest daughter reminding me of the framing of Ozu’s Noriko, and the coastal setting.

But in any case, this story is absolutely beautiful, and reveals events and feelings from the characters’ pasts – and of people no longer present in their lives – subtly and poignantly.

It examines how death touches our lives, and how the legacy of a person’s life and our memory of them can alter over time and affect our own self-perception.

It’s also the first time I’ve ever noticed that a film mentions its own Food Stylist in the credits. Preparing, cooking and eating food is the centrepiece of family interaction, so if you go to see this film, make sure you have a table booked for the moment you emerge – you’ll be hungry!

Deliciously beautiful.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

I had no idea what to expect with this, except that it had received positive reviews and it sounded intriguing.

The film splits into two parts, the first set in Tokyo has the flavour of a genuine authentic Japanese film. It picks up a depressed, isolated young Japanese office worker who becomes convinced that she can find the treasure buried by Steve Buscemi in the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo. The second part transfers Kumiko to the snow of Minnesota as she goes on her adventure to find the treasure, based only on her hand-stitched map.

It’s both a charming and sad tale, which I was thinking about for several days after. It has elements of fantasy, but isn’t too quirky or whimsical, which I generally can’t abide.

Lovely and touching.