Sunday, April 8, 2012

Two of the seven Japanese films I viewed at the 2012 Hong Kong International Film Festival

I Wish... was the title of a Japanese movie that screened
at this year's HKIFF -- and, as it so happens, 
the words on one of my Hello Kitty handkerchiefs! ;b

 I Wish (Japan, 2011)
- From the Auteurs program
- Hirokazu Kore-eda, director
- Starring Koki Maeda, Oshiro Maeda, Nene Otsuka, Joe Odagiri, Isao Hashizume, Kirin Kiki, Kyara Uchida, Hiroshi Abe, etc.

Famed Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest cinematic offering has a number of big and respected name thespians among the adults in its cast.  But they largely play second fiddle in the film to the children -- in particular Koki and Oshiro Maeda, the real-life pair of brothers who play two brothers who now live in different Kyushu towns as a result of their parents (essayed by Nene Otsuka and Joe Odagiri) having divorced.

Serious sixth grader Koichi (Koki Maeda) and his mother have moved in to live with her parents in Kagoshima while cheery fourth grader Ryunosoke (AKA Ryu) (Oshiro Maeda) lives with his slacker musician father and his bandmates in Fukuoka.  Both boys appear settled in school and have made  friends who they do spend time hanging out with but they still make time and effort to regularly talk to each other over the phone.

I'm not sure how long ago it was that their parents divorced but it's clear enough from early on in the film that Koichi pines for the days when his parents, brother and himself still lived in the same town and under one roof. And one day, after he hears another student in his school tell a story involving there being a way to make wishes come true, he decides to go about doing what he can to make his wish to have his family reunite come true.   

Koichi assumes as a matter of course that his younger brother will share this wish, and Ryu agrees to journey to meet up half way with Koichi and help him effect his plan. But the truth of the matter is that Ryu doesn't share Koichi's wish for their family to get back together again as Ryu's memories of time spent as a family tends to involve quarrels breaking out at some point or other between his parents.

If Hirokazu Kore-eda were a more conventional filmmaker, the brothers' differing wants and wishes would get easily resolved.  But because he is not, they are not -- and, in the process, I Wish turns out to quite a bit more than the average, conventional movie revolving around a couple of children who, as it so happens, do actually -- and admirably -- come across as regular kids (rather than the kind of precocious tykes that feature in way too many movies).

Bereft of cheap theatrics, I Wish is the kind of drama that doesn't contain any incredible emotional highs or dramatic emotional lows.  Instead, it has a lot of moments that appear close to life -- that will make you smile in knowing recognition as well as smile in amusement, with pleasure or, a couple of times in the movie, through bittersweet pain.  

As it so happens, the best section in the film for me actually didn't involve Koichi and Ryu's family but, rather, the boys and their friends who had decided to go off with them in their journey to make their own wishes come true as well and a lonely elderly couple who open up their home to the children and make them pampered guests for the night. The possibility is left hanging in the air that maybe it might turn out that this elderly couple and one of the children are related.  

No matter however that it's never confirmed or disproved.  Rather, the magic lies in realizing that there are such things in this world as the kindness of strangers -- and love between two brothers who some people might be inclined to dismiss as being too young to really be capable of having feelings so strong and thoughts as deep as they are depicted as having in I Wish.

My rating for the film: 8

 13 Assassins (Japan, 2010)
- From the Gala Presentation program
- Takashi Miike, director
- Starring Koji Yakusho, Goro Inagaki, Takayuki Yamada, Hiroki Matsukada, Yusuke Iseya, etc.

Six years ago, I viewed Takashi Miike's torture-filled Imprint at the 2006 Hong Kong International Film Festival and considered it the second worst of the 23 films I saw at that year's HKIFF. (Not only that but I'd also consider the Japanese filmmaker's English language offering to be the worst of his films that I've seen to date.)

As it so happens, I've not seen another Miike movie since then... that is, until this year's HKIFF, when I took in a screening of his masterful reworking of a 1963 film about 13 assassins who embark on a suicidal mission to assassinate the Shogun's younger brother that is considerably more mature and dramatically serious than any other Takashi Miike film that I had previously viewed.

13 Assassins has been compared with Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.  I also see similarities between it and Peter Chan Ho Sun's Bodyguards and Assassins, notably in the structure and rhythm of both films being along the lines of introductory/teaser action, then a period of not so much action during which considerable time that is devoted to introducing and fleshing out both films' large group of "good guys" before the action truly (re-)commences in earnest.      

At the same time, 13 Assassins also contains touches of the kind one expects to see in a Takashi Miike movie (and would most definitely not expect to see in a film by either Akira Kurosawa or Peter Chan).  In particular, this film's cruel villain, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu, may be based on a real life historical personality (and identified as a member of the real life Matsudaira clan) but he (who is portrayed to chilling effect by Goro Inagaki) is shown enacting atrocities in a way that could be described as over-exaggeratedly larger than life as well as cold-blooded and casual.

And the horror of it all is dramatically hammered home by the shocking physical uncovering of what he did to one truly tormented woman in particular -- who, among other things, literally weeps blood red tears when recounting what had happened not only to her but her family at the hands of the evil lord.

In contrast, the main hero of 13 Assassins is a man whose demeanor as well as physique would not cause him to be noticed by many. Instead, what comes to stand out about Shimada Shinzaemon (who is played by Koji Yakusho) as the film goes along is this samurai's steadfast resolve, honorableness and, also, uncommon intelligence and craft -- all of which bode well for him and the motley crew he assembles to carry out their mission to assassinate Lord Naritsugu despite his small group inevitably having to go up against a force that is several times their number.

Understandably, the movie's 13 assassins are not all equally memorable.  But there definitely are a number of interesting characters in that group, including Shinzaemon's nephew (Takayuki Yamada) -- a gambler who views going on the mission as the biggest gamble of his life -- and the single non-samurai of the bunch, a deceptively tough mountain man (Yusuke Iseya) who doesn't seem to fear death like more normal men even while he also has an uncommonly strong zest of life (or is it just sex?!).

For all of the colorful characters who populate the film, the truth of the matter is that the star of the show really is the incredible action on display.  When viewed especially as individual strokes, much of what is on display in 13 Assassins is actually not particularly flashy. Instead, it's the intensity and ferociousness that really stand out -- and left me gasping for breath in view of how long it all goes on for in the film, and also at amazement at the spectacle of it all and how much it did resonate emotionally.

My rating for this film: 9


Anonymous said...

Hi YTSL! I Wish is the one film I really wanted to see at the SFIFF this year. Unfortunately, I can't make either of the two screenings. However, after reading your review, I'm going to try and sneak away from work for the Monday afternoon screening. ;)

YTSL said...

Hi duriandave --

I'm happy to learn that my review of "I Wish" has made you want to really watch it. What about "13 Assassins" -- do you have any love for it? ;b

Anonymous said...

I don't know why, but I've lost my taste recently for action films. I'm sure I'd love 13 Assassins if somebody dragged me to it, but I'm just not feeling the urge to see it, despite your and others' high recommendation.

Speaking of films that I was dragged to and loved, my wife took me to see the documentary Jiro Dreams of Fish last week. Have you seen it? It's really excellent, especially in the way it unfolds and the subject matter expands.

YTSL said...

Hi again duriandave --

"13 Assassins" was one of *the* films I really looked forward to seeing at this year's HKIFF -- and I'm glad to say it lived up to its hype. However, I can see how you might not be for you at this point in time -- and would recommend, instead, "Go Boys High School Drama Club" and "A Letter to Momo" as well as "I Wish" for you. (And yes, amazing isn't it that they are all Japanese films?)

Re "Jiro Dreams of Fish": I've only seen the trailer but definitely would love to check it out. :)

Stefan S said...

Hi YTSL, wow you've also enjoyed 13 Assassins :-)

I can only hope that A Letter to Momo and I Wish somehow make it to Singapore given that I've missed them during HKIFF!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendations, YTSL! I just watched the trailer for A Letter to Momo. It looks wonderful. I'll keep my fingers crossed for a screening in my neighborhood, or I'll just pick it up when it's released on DVD.

YTSL said...

Hi Stefan --

Yup re "13 Assassins". My favorite Takashi Miike film by far! :)

And good luck re seeing "A Letter to Momo" and "I Wish"!! :)

Hi once more duriandave --

Good luck to you too re catching "A Letter to Momo". :)