Saturday, March 31, 2018

Two Japanese cinematic gems at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

Kazuo Haro entertained questions after the HKIFF screening 
of The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On

- From the HKIFF's Galas section 
- Kenji Mizoguchi, director
- Starring: Kazuo Hasegawa, Kyoko Kagawa

1954 looks to have been quite the year for Japanese cinema.  Keisuke Kinoshita offered up 24 Eyes, Akira Kurosawa came out with Seven Samurai, and the filmmaker some consider the greatest to have ever come out of the Land of the Rising Sun, Kenji Mizoguchi, made not one but three cinematic efforts, including Sansho the Bailiff and this work whose better known English language title contains a whopper of a spoiler.

Based on a kabuki play and set in 17th century Kyoto, that which I'll refer to -- like the Hong Kong International Film Festival programmers -- as A Story of Chikamatsu centers on talented and kind-hearted apprentice scroll-maker Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa) and Osan (Kyoko Kagawa), his wealthy but miserly boss's wife.  After she turns to him rather than her husband (Eitaro Shindo) to help her get some money to repay her brother's loan, a series of unfortunate developments results in their being falsely accused of having an affair -- a crime whose proscribed punishment is humiliating and painful death by crucifixion.      

Much less well known than the previous Mizoguchi films that I've viewed (including Sansho the Bailiff, Ugetsu, The 47 Ronin and Princess Yang Kwei Fei), A Story of Chikamatsu is easily recognizable as a Kenji Mizoguchi work: visually, on account of many scenes bringing to mind beautiful (black and white) paintings; and also thematically, in terms of such as his predilection for taking the oppressed female view and crying out against social constraints and injustice.   

Did Mizoguchi ever make a film that did not have a sad ending?  I've yet to see one of them.  And yet, even while I'm not usually a fan of films where I can predict how things will end as well as not particularly keen on getting depressed at the cinema, I am willing to make an exception when it comes to this particular Japanese auteur -- because his works are so well made that they do touch the heart as well as leave one feeling privileged to have viewed a bona fide masterpiece.

My rating for this film: 9.0

- From the HKIFF's A Dedicated Filmmaker: Hara Kazuo program
- Kazuo Hara, director and cinematographer
- With: Kenzo Okuzaki 

Some years ago, as we exited the theater after viewing one of the films in Masaki Kobayashi's grueling The Human Condition trilogy, an Australian-British friend of mine was moved to share his thoughts that if the work had been made by other than a Japanese person, its depiction of how the Japanese behaved during the Second World War probably might be accused of being racist.  That's how wrong as well as despicable much of it was.  

I'm moved to surmise the same about Kazuo Hara's The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On and can see very well why Japanese society has largely shunned this documentary which reveals some really horrible as well as incredible practices of the Japanese military based in New Guinea in the final months of World War II and still there days and weeks after the war had officially ended.

Five years in the making, this effort tells the story of Kenzo Okuzaki, an ex-Engineering Corps Private whose unit was reduced to just two people by the war's close.  In his 60s when the film first came out, he had turned into someone absolutely determined to expose the horrors of war and confront those he deemed guilty of war crimes, from the late Emperor Hirohito (who Okuzaki had been imprisoned for having fired marbles at with a sling shot) all the way down to officers and non-commissioned officers in the Engineering Corps who had done such as ordered executions of soldiers after the war had officially ended and more.  

The camera (manned by director Kazuo Hara) and film follows Okuzaki as he pays visits, usually unannounced and often unwelcomed, to the homes and/or workplaces of other ex-soldiers from whom he demands the truth as well as soul-searching.  It's illustrative that many of those who had been in the lower ranks come from remote, rural and not particularly well-off looking areas of Japan (such as Shimane) while the most senior ranked officer, a captain, lived in a much nicer home than most.  It's also eye-opening to see how willing many of the men are to prevaricate, and even downright lie -- though, often, after they are told that someone else has spilled the beans, they start admitting things too.

Prone to violence and making pronouncements that can come across as rather egoistic, Okuzaki does not come across as a perfect human being in this emotionally raw documentary.  Still, I have very little doubt that viewers of The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On can totally understand his indignation and fury -- and see that, to paraphase Shakespeare, even if some of his actions smack of madness, there's a method to it that can yield results. 

My rating for this film: 9.0

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Tremble All You Want at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

The faces of the Hong Kong International Film Festival
and associated Entertainment Expo
 
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (West Germany, 1972)
- Part of the HKIFF's The Ecstatic Truth of Werner Herzog program
- Werner Herzog, director, scriptwriter and co-producer
- Starring: Klaus Kinski, Del Negro, Peter Berling, Ruy Guerra
 
At one point in Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer's Into the Inferno, the two co-directors are heard discussing the German auteur's sanity.  The conclusion, which seemed fairly obvious to me at the time, was of course he is!  But after having viewed the cinematic work that's considered Werner's masterpiece, I can totally understand why it is that there are people who might think otherwise since making Aguirre, the Wrath of God involved filming in unlikely places and requiring cast and crew to do such as climb up and down formidable mountains, ride ferocious rapids, and live on rafts for weeks on end!
 
In the film's mesmerizing opening, the audience is presented with the sight of men and women, many of them dressed like they came from the set of a movie featuring castles rather than jungle, clambering down and up narrow mountain paths in a remote part of South America.  Set in 1560, the people in question turn out to be a Spanish expedition under the command of Gonzalo Pizzaro (Alejandro Repull├ęs) searching for the legendary city of gold known as El Dorado.   
 
With supplies running low, Pizarro decides to send an advance team out down river on four rafts.  Mainly consisting of Conquistadors, they also include the mistress of its leader, Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), the teenaged daughter of the second in command, Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), and a priest, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro).  What ensues afterwards are the kind of mishaps and missteps propelled by folly, power grabs, greed and, increasingly, delusion; the last of which stems in large part from Aguirre, the bug-eyed man who functioned for much of the time as the leader in all but name before going ahead and seeking credit as well as actual command.
 
The kind of cinematic effort that looked to have placed uncommon demands on its cast and crew that gets one suspecting its helmer is demented, a genius or both, Aguirre, the Wrath of God has to be seen to be believed.  Adding to the craziness is the sound of German coming out from the mouths of characters who are supposed to be Spaniards and at least one indigenous South American; and learning that the multi-national cast actually were filmed speaking English, only to be dubbed into Herzog's native German in post-production!
 
My rating for this film: 8.5

Tremble All You Want (Japan, 2017)
- From the HKIFF's I See it My Way program
- Akiko Ohku, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Mayu Matsuoka, Daichi Watanabe, Takumi Kitamura
 
The first line of blurb in the Hong Kong International Film Festival's program booking folder's blurb for this offering reads as follows: "A surprising foray into the world of Japanese Chick Lit and the women who read, live and hide there."  So I think I can be excused for expecting Tremble All You Want to be about avid readers of Japanese Chick Lit.  Only, it's actually an adaptation of a popular Japanese romantic novel targeted at young women like its protagonist, 24-year-old OL (Office Lady) Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka)!
 
The early impression one gets of Yoshika is that she's spirited and vivacious, comfortable to talk with a variety of people, including the matronly woman she regularly sits next to on her bus commute, a waitress in the cafe she often frequents whose dyed blonde hair Yoshika admires and a bearded angler who can be found fishing in all kinds of weather.  Infatuated since her schooldays by a fellow known as Ichi (aka One) (Takumi Kitamura), she finds herself romantically pursued by a socially awkward colleague she takes to calling Ni (aka Two) (Daichi Watanabe).     
 
What initially feels like breezy fluff takes a turn for the dramatic and sad though when it gets revealed that Yoshika can actually only fantasize that she's got many people to talk to and, instead, is painfully shy and finds it difficult to comfortably interact with many of her fellow human beings.  Even sadder and more shocking is that her (dis)position seems to have struck a chord with so many of her countrywomen (and -men?) that this offering actually won the Audience Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year!  
 
Put another way: this romantic dramedy failed to win my heart; though it's by no means the fault of its versatile lead actress, who's called on to display a range of emotions and even sing in one scene in the movie.  Rather, Tremble All You Want made me feel my age (which most certainly is not twenty-something!) as well as made me realize what a blessing it is that I'm the kind of person who actually is inclined to chat with complete strangers fairly regularly, including when I'm in the Land of the Rising Sun!  
 
My rating for this film: 6.0

Monday, March 26, 2018

From Hollywood blockbuster to uncommon animation at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (film reviews)

The way to the university auditorium that's 
one of my favorite HKIFF screening venues this year

Heat (USA, 1995)
- Part of the HKIFF's Restored Classics program
- Michael Mann, director, writer and co-producer
- Starring: Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Val Kilmer

A friend of mine recently complained about how many of the films I review on this blog are very hard to get access to over where she lives (in small town USA).  But she should have no problems being able to view Heat, the 1995 Hollywood crime drama that's probably raked in the most money at the box office of any of the Hong Kong International Film Festival offerings I'm viewing this year (and may well have had the largest budget too).

Al Pacino and Robert de Niro head a strong cast featuring many familiar faces and names (including Jon Voight, a teenaged Natalie Portman and a young Dennis Haysbert, who I now forever associate with 24's President David Palmer).  The former plays a Lieutanant Vincent Hanna, an LAPD detective leading the pursuit of a gang of skilled robbers headed by the latter's Neil McCauley, an ex-con who these days favors suits and the kind of confident demeanor and swagger that one associates with successful businessmen.

The cinematic remake of a failed TV pilot that Michael Mann had worked on, Heat clocks in at close to three hours long and features three sub-plots that look to flesh out the characters played by Pacino, de Niro and Val Kilmer by way of their relations to the key females in their lives.  While they do add dimensions to those characters, I still felt like the scenes in which they are shown interacting with the women in their lives are by far the weakest of the film.  For one thing, none of the female characters in this offering come across as anything but disappointingly one-dimensional.  For another, the best chemistry displayed between any two people in the movie occur in the too few scenes that have Pacino's Lt. Hanna and de Niro's Neil McCauley interacting with each other.

Where Heat really gets the adrenaline going and temperatures rising is in its detailed action scenes, which reputedly have inspired real life copycat crimes as well as the designers of one of the Grand Theft Auto video games.  Also elevating the film beyond that of an average actioner are the characterizations of McCauley and his team, notably explosives expert Chris (Val Kilmer), in such a way that you get to realizing that they may be hardened criminals who won't hesitate to kill on the job but nonetheless are men who want to do good for those they love, and the depiction of its nominal hero, Lt. Hanna, in such a way that it seems inevitable that the more intent he is to nail the bad guys, the more he'll neglect the females in the life and suffering he'll bring on them as well as himself.
     
My rating for the film: 8.0

The Breadwinner (Ireland-Canada-Luxembourg, 2017)
- Part of the HKIFF's Animation Unlimited program
- Nora Twomey, director
- Featuring the voices of: Saara Choudry, Laara Sadiq, Soma Bhatia, etc. 

At the Hong Kong International Film Festival three years ago, I viewed my first animated Irish film.  The Song of the Sea is the kind of the movie one would feel comfortable to bring children to go see.  But while The Breadwinner comes from the same Irish production house, Cartoon Saloon, as that magical movie which introduced me to selkies, I must admit to being rather startled to catch sight of young tykes in the audience of the HKIFF screening that I was at yesterday afternoon.

We're talking after all of a film that, even while it is indeed animated rather than 'live action', is set in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where women are liable to get beaten up if they venture out of their homes unaccompanied by men and a booklover who was a teacher in peace-time can end up not only missing a leg after being taking part in the war but also confined to a prison far away from home.

After her father is unjustly convicted, and with her mother (voiced by Laara Sadiq) and adult sister not allowed to leave their house without a man at their side, preadolescent Parvana (voiced by Saara Choudry) cuts her long hair short and dresses up as a boy to go out and do such as buy food for the household and become the family's breadwinner.  Her days are enlivened by her encountering and deciding to work in tandem with a former schoolmate who has similarly disguised herself as a boy (Soma Bhatia) and she helps banish away fears and nightmares before her baby brother goes to bed by telling him the fantastical story of a brave boy who goes off to confront a scary Elephant King.

But for every little triumph, and joy at discovering the many things she can do and places she can go when people think she's a boy, Parvana also experiences the kind of disappointments and setbacks that people shouldn't have to deal with at least until they grow into adulthood.  Put another way: there's no disguising that The Breadwinner tells a heart-breakingly sad tale, whose many injustices one will find oneself thinking of far more than any of the developments that we're supposed to be (temporarily) happy about; and this not least because it's so very easy after viewing this offering to imagine that there are so many real life equivalents of Parvana and her family out there in our troubled world.

My rating for this film: 7.0

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Two very different female-oriented movies viewed at the 42nd HKIFF (film reviews)

Coverage of the 42nd HKIFF continues on this blog! :)

The Judge (Palestine-USA, 2017)
- Part of the HKIFF's Reality Bites program
- Erika Cohn, director and producer

A (male) friend visiting Hong Kong for film related reasons told me of a mutual friend of ours (also male) who's been getting into viewing a lot of films lately that are directed by and/or starring women.  If so, I told him, I'm surprised I didn't spot that mutual friend at the screening of The Judge that I attended.

Directed and produced by a woman (Erika Cohn), this intriguing documentary also boasts a female principal cinematographer (Amber Fares), mainly female executive producers and a number of female crew members along with having a very interesting female subject in Judge Kholoud Fakir, one of three female Shari'a court judges in Palestine. 

The admirable Kholoud Fakir was just 34 years of age when she and Asmahan Wuheidi made history by becoming the first female judges to operate in Palestine's Islamic law courts in 2009.  For many people, female as well as male, this development had been nigh on unthinkable.  For her, it was only logical and sensible that there are women as well as men assigned to administer justice in courts that largely deals with domestic and family matters. 

The intellectual prowess and mental strength of this judge (who also is a married mother of four children, two girls and two boys) is evident throughout the film.  And as The Judge also goes on to show, this is much needed since Kholoud Fakir has to face (down) more professional along with socio-cultural obstacles than her male colleagues. 

At no point does this captivating documentary try to hide that Palestine's is an imperfect, and arguably overly-politicized, society, with life often being tougher and less fair for females than males.  At the same time, however, it's noticeable how supportive Kholoud Fakir's husband (a lawyer who met her at work) is and also her proud father -- who talks on camera about how he actually thought that it was more important for his daughters to get a good education than his sons because, it was education that would be key to their being able to provide and fend for themselves.     

My rating for this film: 7.5 

Cloud of Romance (Taiwan, 1977)
- Part of the HKIFF's Filmmaker in Focus: Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia program
- Chen Hung Lieh, director
- Starring: Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, Charlie Chin, Chin Han

There's no two ways about it: I adore Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia!  Even so, I wasn't willing to watch her two nights in a row in two Taiwanese weepies (as it would have been the case if I had viewed Outside the Window the evening I attended this screening of Cloud of Romance), since my past experiences of them involve my getting so frustrated that I've actually thrown cushions at the (TV) screen on more than one occasion!  

Chiung Yao may have been a super popular romantic novelist, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, but I think it's fair to say that her stories, and those super melodramatic movie adaptations of them, really have not aged very well.  It's not just that they're full of people who are so affected by love that it really can come across as a terrible malady capable of driving people mad.  Rather, it's also that the obstacles to romantic happiness can come, as was the case in Cloud of Romance, with such as the sort of mothers one wouldn't want to wish on their biological children and, more so, those who hook up with their precious offspring.

In view of how hyper melodramatic some of the scenes in this movie -- which revolves around a love triangle involving a spirited young woman (who thinks of herself as being like a floating cloud), a young man (who says if she's a cloud, then he's like the wind!) and a second, more down to earth fellow -- can be, I actually came away from my viewing of the offering with a greater admiration and respect for the ability of Brigitte Lin and her co-stars, principally Charlie Chin and Chin Han but also the actress who played Charlie Chin's character's demon of a mother, since they appeared eminently able to not only be able put their heart and soul into portraying the characters they do in Cloud of Romance but, also, keep a straight face as per the demands of the film!

I have to admit: for the first 15 minutes or so of the screening, I held a handkerchief to my mouth to choke back the sounds of hysterical laughter that I was afraid would upset some of my fellow viewers.  So it was quite the relief to realize after a while that many other people were similarly unable to stop laughing at certain moments and lines in this often excruciatingly melodramatic movie that proved to be inadvertently hilarious! 

Here's the thing though: amidst all this ridiculousness, I actually found myself shedding tears at two different points during my viewing of Cloud of Romance.  For despite her playing the sort of character I normally would not feel much sympathy for, not least because she needlessly got herself into situations that create tons of hurt for more than just herself, I still ended up caring for Brigite Lin's character in this movie because, well, she was being played by an actress whose charisma and plain greatness is evident even in a work that's far from the cinematic platform she really deserved.

My rating for this film: 5.0 (even with Brigitte Lin in it!)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Two documentaries that benefit from being viewed on a big screen (Film reviews)

Most, if not all, movies benefit from being viewed on a big screen 

Into the Inferno (UK-Germany-Canada, 2016)
- Part of the HKIFF's Galas program
- Werner Herzog (who also scripted) and Clive Oppenheimer, co-directors 

It may have been made for Netflix, whose customers stream the movies they watch onto computer and smartphone screens or watch them on TV screens courtesy of DVDs, but Into the Inferno really is one of those documentaries that really is best viewed on a big theater screen.  An ambitious, sprawling work which transports its audience to far flung places with landscapes that can look incredibly unearthly, it also has truly incredible footage that not only shows the power of volcanoes but also how mesmerizingly as well as frighteningly beautiful lava can look when it churns about, erupts and/or flows out to envelope whole landscapes.

Peter Zeitlinger's cinematographer makes sure that Into the Inferno is no run of the mill documentary but what really makes certain of this is the distinctive imprint that director Werner Herzog (who also scripted this effort) leaves on it.  And while the German auteur may have given Professor Clive Oppenheimer a co-directing credit and had the Cambridge University volcanologist be the main man in front of the camera, the fact that this work takes pains to explore the spiritual side of volcanoes rather than just their scientific aspects is something that comes from Herzog steering the production towards subject matter that truly interests him.

Over the course of the film, Herzog and Oppenheimer -- who met in Antarctica, when Herzog was filming his Encounters at the End of the World (2007) -- journey to the Vanuatu archipelago in the South Pacific, Indonesia (the country with the most volcanoes in the world), Iceland, Ethiopia and North Korea (home to an active volcano that all Koreans consider sacred).  In addition to getting up close with some really spectacular volcanoes and related physical features (such as caldera lakes), they also interact with a diverse group of individuals, including members of a cargo cult, outwardly super-patriotic North Koreans (who often act like they too belong to a cult), and paleoanthropologist Tim White and his dedicated crew as well as volcanologists from various countries.

In the hands of lesser (or plain different) filmmakers, the different sections of Into the Inferno wouldn't feel like they could all fit into a single work.  However, Herzog successfully weaves them into a pretty fascinating exploration of the passionate -- often to the point of obsessiveness -- human quest for meaning, all of which involve volcanoes in one way or another.  

My rating for the film: 8.0

Makala (France, 2017)
- Part of the HKIFF's Global Vision program
- Emmanuel Gras, director, scriptwriter and cinematographer
- With: Kabwita Kasongo, Lydie Kasongo

One of the sights that invariably strikes visitors to the African continent is of people -- men, women and children -- forced to walk far distances because they don't have money for public transportation, let alone a car or even motorcycle of their own.  Adding to the misery is that many of these people are effectively their own beasts of burden, carrying all manner of things on their heads as well as in their arms and on their backs.    

Even when the subject of Makala (charcoal in Kiswahili, the native language of its protagonist), a Congolese charcoal maker and seller by the name of Kabwita Kasongo, has use of a bicycle, it's to load with many heavy bags of charcoal and then push into town rather than actually ride.  Observing the massive effort this takes, one can't help but feel for him.  Knowing that considerable effort also is required beforehand to do such as cut down the trees whose wood then gets turned into charcoal gets one concluding that his is a life that so many of us would not be able to lead and endure for long at all.

While much of this affecting film is taken up documenting mundane activities, there are elements in it which can disturb despite being depicted in a matter of fact way rather than sensationalist manner.  One example is rat being part of the diet of the protagonist and his family.  Actually more upsetting though is how it can seem that the closer he gets to town (and supposed "civilization"), the more unpleasant Kabwita's encounters with his fellow humans get.  In addition, there are scenes in this documentary that get me questioning why he has so much faith in God when there seems to be so much inequality and suffering in this world.

Rather than look upon him merely as an unlucky wretch condemned to a Sisyphean existence, however, I came away from my viewing of Emmanuel Gras' documentary thinking that Kabwita Kasongo is one of those heroic as well as admirable individuals who, somehow, against the odds, manages to not only eke out an honest living but also provide for his wife Lydie and their children, and continue to dream of, and plan for, a better future for them all.  And it is my sincere hope that he's been amply rewarded for agreeing to appear -- nay, star -- in this work which has gone on to garner a number of accolades, including the Critics' Week Grand Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

My rating for this film: 7.0

Monday, March 19, 2018

Omotenashi gets the 2018 Hong Kong International Film Festival off to a promising start! (Film review)

The director (second from the right), lead actors (far left and 
second from the left) and lead actress (third from the left) 
at the international premiere of their film
 
Omotenashi (Taiwan-Japan, 2018)
- From the HKIFF's Galas program
- Jay Chern, director, co-scriptwriter (with Mami Sunada), co-producer (with Junichi Kitagawa) and cinematographer
- Starring: Edison Wang Po Chieh, Rena Tanaka, Kimiko Yo, Lea Yang, Yao Chun Yao 
 
The 2018 Hong Kong International Film Festival got going this evening with a rare Opening Film that, unlike the likes of Aberdeen (2014), Trivisa (2016) and Love Off the Cuff (2017), is not a local production.  The disappointment felt by some film fans can be gauged by tickets for Omotenashi not having sold out as quickly as for, say, the two Opening Films of recent years that were directed by Pang Ho Cheung.  
 
Still, the director and stars of this Taiwan-Japan co-production whose title is the Japanese word for the Japanese form of hospitality were received warmly enough when they showed up to greet the audience before the screening and, more importantly, they and their movie received an even more enthusiastic round of applause as the end credits rolled on the screen; one that, in my (not so) humble opinion, was well earned.
 
The first feature film of 36-year-old Jay Chern to receive a cinematic release, Omotenashi is a mature drama that makes sure that its veteran cast members get chances to shine along with the fresh-faced lead actors.  Edison Wang Po Chieh (who face, not just first name, can call to mind Edison Chen's!) plays Jacky, the young, upstart son of Taiwanese construction magnate Charles (Lea Yang), who goes to Japan -- ostensibly to supervise the renovation of an old ryokan located on the shores of Lake Biwa that's run by Charles' old flame, Mitsuko (Kimiko Yo), and her daughter Rika (Rena Tanaka), with the help of  Bo Hao (Yao Chun Yao), a young Taiwanese man with a love for Japanese manga and anime.
 
The only one of the quartet to be unable to speak Japanese, Jacky also is in a different camp from Charles, Mitsuko and Rika in his working behind his father as well as the two women's backs to sell off the ryokan that Charles acquired to get Mitsuko out of financial trouble after the premature death of her husband (and Rika's father).  But with each passing day that he spends at the ryokan and in Japan, where his father went to university and fell in love, Jacky (who also has a Japanese old flame whose heart has been won by another of his own) gets his heart and mind being tugged in different directions from what he's used to.    
 
As preparation for the ryokan to host its first ever wedding, Mitsuko get Jacky, Rika and Bo Hao take lessons on omotenashi from strict but good-hearted Kimura-sensei (Tae Kimura) who, among other things, arranges for them to meet Shimizu-sensei, the kind of gracious as well as graceful lady who, as Bo Hao remarks, looked like she had stepped out of a Yasujiro Ozu film.  Since she's played by Kyoko Kagawa, who really did feature in a number of Ozu movies, this is one of those moments that will make cineastes smile; with more layers to this in-joke coming from this movie that's so respectful of the past having been co-produced by Shochiku, the Japanese film studio that Ozu's most associated with
 
Lest it be thought otherwise, however, rest assured that Omotenashi contains some truly novel touches.  For one thing, it's the rare film that has Japanese actresses delivering the bulk of their dialogue in Mandarin (in the case of Rena Tanaka) and English (in the case of Mina Fujii, who portrays the woman Jacky loves) along with two Taiwanese actors (Lea Yang and Yao Chun Yao) playing characters fluent in Japanese as well as Mandarin and another (Edison Wang) fluent in English as well as Mandarin (but not Japanese)!    

Rather than feeling muddled, it all makes sense.  Indeed, the film's multi-lingual nature actually adds layers to the heart-warming movie's story and also produces funny moments: one of which comes about because someone understands a language it's forgotten in the moment that she understands; another of which comes about because another person shows that, while she doesn't understand Mandarin, she nonetheless is familiar with a beloved singer from Taiwan whose fame's not restricted to that island!

My rating for the film: 8.0

Friday, March 16, 2018

Beautiful as well as delicious sushi at Fukuoka's Tenjaku!

 
Beautifully cut ika (squid) sushi!!
 
Shiny kohada (gizzard shad) sushi in the foreground
(with portions of negitoro maki in the back)
 
 Anago (sea water eel) sushi, with so many other toppings 
I wanted to try behind glass in the background!
 
Considering how much I love to eat sushi, it can come as a surprise to those who know me that I don't eat sushi every day whenever I'm in Japan; and this particularly since, almost needless to say, there's so much delicious sushi to be found in the country where this delicacy was invented and it also being the case that so much of it is a good deal less expensive than you might expect (with my actually never ever having paid more than 10,000 Yen (~HK$739 or US$94) at a sushi-ya in the Land of the Rising Sun; and my regularly paying one third what I would do in Hong Kong for the equivalent quality).
 
One big reason for this is that there are so many foods I want to try and/or want to eat when I'm in Japan, including regional specialties (such as Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, Osaka kushiage, Obuse's kuri okawa and Funabashi's sauce ramen!) that are hard to find in other parts of the country, let alone beyond Japan's shores.  Still, it's true enough that I frequently end up going to a sushi-ya for the final meal of each of my Japan trips!     

On this most recent Japan trip, the restaurant in question was a sushi-ya located in Kawabata-dori, Fukuoka's oldest shopping arcade.  When looking at Tenjaku's understatedly shop front, I got a really good feeling about the place and I also thought that its advertised lunch set was a pretty reasonable 4,320 Yen (~HK$319 or US$40) since it consisted of an appetizer, bowl of chawan mushi (steamed egg custard), sides of pickles, miso soup and dessert (which turned out to be a super large and sweet seasonal Hakata Amaou strawberry) along with seven kinds of nigiri sushi and one order of maki sushi.  
 
And so it proved, with Tenjaku's chef/owner proceeding to serve up some of the best sushi I've ever had in my life (and most definitely the most worth it in terms of quality at its price point)!   And yes, I know that is indeed quite the claim but just look at the photos at the top of this blog post!  Put another way: Look how big that tiger prawn and consider that the portion of rice on which it was placed on top is a regular sized portion for nigiri sushi; check out how masterfully cut the slice of squid I was served was; and just marvel at how beautifully shiny was that delicious slice of gizzard shad that I had at the restaurant!
 
Speaking of beautiful: I must admit to being one of those people who often makes happy noises and will let Japanese chefs know how I oishii I find the food they have prepared.  But I don't think I ever told a chef how beautiful I thought the food he put in front of me as many times as I told Tenjaku's chef/owner over the course of that one meal I had at his restaurant!
 
And on the subject of the chef: one big contributing factor to my thorough enjoyment of my lunch at his sushi-ya was my interactions with him, which included him obviously wanting to see and hear my reactions to the sushi he served up, and appearing to derive quite a bit of pleasure from witnessing how happy his creations made me!  In addition, thanks to a friendly customer able to speak English as well as her native Japanese (who, much to my surprise, was the only other customer there in the restaurant the entire time that I was there), we got to chat quite a bit -- and I also got to add two more slices of nigiri sushi to my overall order.
 
On occasions like this, I wish I had a greater stomach capacity than I in fact do.  If so, I'd have happily ordered even more sushi to eat at Tenjaku!  As it was, I reluctantly stopped myself from asking to try the akagai (ark shell clam), awabi (abalone) and other hikarimono (shiny blue/silver-skinned fish) I saw in the glass cases on the sushi counter besides the kohada and sayori (Japanese halfbeak) I couldn't resist getting.  And while I know there are people who'd be horrified at the thought, the main reason why I didn't try kujira (whale) sushi at Tenjaku was because I felt too full to eat anything as fatty looking as it by the time I spotted it in the glass case and asked the chef what that was!
 
For those wondering what else I ate: I definitely remember eating a decadent piece of chu toro (medium fatty tuna) nigiri sushi and also delicious pieces of ikura (salmon roe) and uni (sea urchin) gunkan makiAnd while I cannot recall which were the two other types of nigiri sushi I was served, I think I can state with some confidence that they were pretty tasty affairs too! ;b  

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Machiya and museum in Hakata, Fukuoka

A Fukuoka craftsman fashioning figures out of wood
 
 A craftswoman at work on a Hakata Weaving machine
 
The first time I ventured into a machiya was in Kyoto a few years ago.  Having seen many of these traditional wooden townhouses when moving around in the city (be it by bus or on foot), I was happy to discover that a restaurant serving up delicious kushiyaki could be found in one of them and consequently was open to the public if they went and had a meal there.
 
In the years since, I've come across machiya in a number of other Japanese cities and towns.  While many remain private residences, others of these buildings -- which, be they in Kyoto, Nara or Fukuoka, follow a long and narrow design that made them far more spacious than they look from the front -- have been converted into museums that give one a fairly good idea of how they were traditionally furnished back when they were occupied by merchant families, many of whom customarily set aside areas in the houses to store and sell some of their goods as well as keep other rooms as their living quarters.
 
In Fukuoka, specifically the section of the city built by merchants, there's the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum, part of which is housed in a machiya but actually encompasses three buildings.  More ambitious in scope than, say, the Ohashi House in Kurashiki or Nara's Nigiwai-no-Ie and Koshi-no-ie, it has exhibits on Hakata's history and area festivals (including an informative video on the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Matsuri hosted by the Kushida Jinja located just a stone's throw away from the museum) as well as the traditional merchants townhouses themselves.
 
In addition, one can observe traditional craftspeople at work inside the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum.  The afternoon that I visited, an elderly man was fashioning a group of figures out of wood on an upper floor of the main museum building while a younger artisan was operating a weaving machine that was producing Hakata-ori (thick, tightly woven silk cloth specific to this part of Japan) in one of the rooms in the restored machiya section of the museum.
 
I must admit to generally having mixed feelings with regards to seeing people effectively put on display in a museum.  But my discomfort at encountering this at this Fukouka museum was eased quite a bit by both of the craftspeople taking it upon themselves to engage me in conversation when I approached their area.  
 
Incidentally, our conversation utilized a mix of English and Japanese.  And while there is no way I can claim to be fluent in Japanese, I must say that I'm actually amazed how many Japanese words and phrases I've managed to pick up over the years -- though it probably won't come as a surprise to those who know me that a good bulk of the Japanese vocabulary I possess pertains to food and drink! ;b    

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Colorful sights abound at Fukuoka's Kushida Jinja (Photo-essay)

There are certain cities and towns in Japan, notably Kyoto and Nara but also such as Onomichi and Tomonoura, where visits to Buddhist temples and/or Shinto shrines feel like a must do for even the non-religiously inclined.  Although I wouldn't consider Fukuoka to be one of them, it happens to be the case that I've spent time at the most important shrine in Kyushu's largest city -- and on more than one occasion too! 

It may not be the biggest Shinto shrine I've been to but Kushida Jinja is one of those places where it feels like there are a lot of interesting things to see.  On my first visit some twelve years ago, I found the colorful as well as very large portable wooden floats carried around during the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Matsuri which the shrine plays host to every July -- a couple of which are on display at Kushida Jinja -- to be particularly awesome.  But while they continued to fascinate me on my second visit, I found a number of other colorful sights catching my eye too...       

This otabuku mask installed at one of the shrine's entrances ahead
of Setsubun is what got me to visit Kushida Jinja once more!
 
An even bigger otabuku mask at the shrine's main entrance
that, at 5.3 meters high and 5 meters wide, is Japan's largest! :O
 
Pass through the giant mask erected for Setsubun to 
get good luck and, also, to enter into the shrine grounds
 
As luck would have it, I witnessed a priest performing what 
looked to be a ritual blessing on my visit to the shrine
 
Puppet Ponyo poses with ema that have different depictions on them :)
 
Barrels of donated sake and other shrine accoutrements, including a 
Hakata Gion Yamakasa Matsuri float, on display for all to see
 
I think it'd be remiss of me to not include a close-up photo of 
one of the festival floats installed in the grounds of the shrine... ;b

The decorations on the float are as beautifully 
elaborate as the float itself is big!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Polling Day urgings

Hong Kong's best!

The Hong Kong Legislative Council by-election to fill four seats left vacant by the ouster of their pro-democracy incumbents involved in "oath row" is taking place today.  A few hours after polling began, I went to my local polling station to cast my vote.  With it being just one minute's walk away from my apartment and the polling station being far from crowded, I was there, in, out and back home within minutes.  

For all the ease of casting one's ballot though, the early signs are that voting numbers are down this time around.  This is less because Hong Kongers don't care about politics per se but, rather, because many people think any elections in Hong Kong are now a farce when the politicians they vote for can be ousted from office because they did something as innocuous as quote Gandhi when taking his oath like Nathan Law did and a 21-year-old political campaigner gets banned from seeking office.  

While I can understand their frustrations, I honestly think such folks are playing into the hands of, and strengthening, the very groups they actually oppose and loathe.  Remember that during the Umbrella Movement, protesters and supporters were urged to register to vote, if they hadn't already done so.  And the likes of Nathan Law and Agnes Chow still obviously believe that voting matters since they've been out on the campaign trail for the likes of Au Nok Hin (who stepped in to contest the Hong Kong Island seat after Agnes Chow's disqualification).

The power of the vote may not seem like much these days but, as far as I'm concerned, it still represents a vote for Hong Kong and a slap in a face of those who think that Chinese people are better off controlled rather than free.  So please, those of you who are eligible to vote and actually care about Hong Kong, go and exercise your civic rights and fulfill your civic responsibilities before the polling stations close at 10.30 tonight!

Friday, March 9, 2018

An underwhelming Fukuoka yatai experience


 Scene inside a Fukuoka yatai

More than a decade ago now, my mother and I went on vacation to Taipei.  Among the attractions we were most looking forward to checking out was at least one of its famous night markets.  But our visit to the one at Shilin turned out to be on the underwhelming side.  

Upon wondering why it was so hyped, my mother was moved to suggest that those visitors who make such a big deal of it do so because they have never been to Penang, where there are lots of places to eat street food -- and a great variety of food to eat -- at night.  The more I think about it, the more I think she may have been right.  And I got to thinking again that growing up in Penang has spoilt me as far as this kind of thing is concerned when I went and checked out the similarly famous yatai scene one evening in Fukuoka and found the experience rather disappointing.

It may not have helped that the night I went out to get a meal at a yatai was a Sunday; the one day of the week that many -- though by no means all -- of them are closed.  So there may have been less variety as well as fewer options numerical available.  In any event, I figured that I might as well as go for it and selected a food stall that looked popular, yet didn't have too long a line of people waiting to get a seat at it, which turned out to have oden (fish cake stew), yakitori (chicken skewers), ramen and gyoza (Japanese pan-fried dumplings) on its menu (which was written in Japanese and Korean but not English!).

To be fair, the bowl of oden that I had was pretty tasty.  And I liked that it had a good assortment of items; with mushroom, offal and shirataki in the mix along with the "classic" daikon and boiled egg.  But the gyoza that I followed that comforting winter dish with was disappointing -- in that I didn't only think that it was over-cooked but also wasn't handmade.    

Worst of all was how expensive it all (together with the one bottle of beer that I also ordered) proved to be.  Given the spartan conditions of the yatai as well as the by no means high quality of the food and drink on offer, I most definitely wasn't expecting it to be more expensive than a meal of equivalent size in an izakaya with more room, comfortable chairs (as opposed to rickety stools) and indoor heating!

While I wouldn't go so far as to say that I think I had been ripped off, my Fukuoka yatai experience didn't feel as much of a bargain as well as pleasant as I had hoped that it would be.  Feeling unsatisfied and unwilling to return to my hotel just yet, I went and found a dining establishment nearby where I could eat in heated, indoor comfort -- and which turned out to have better food and drink as well.  Put another way: the Fukuoka yatai experience seems over-rated and since it's so easy to eat (and drink) better elsewhere in the city, I think that's what I do from now on whenever I'm there!