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Archive for October, 2012

Big John and Little John are a couple of swindlers who are on a streak of bad luck. When one of their intended victims The Silver Fox beats them up badly, the duo realise they need to sharpen up their kung fu so Little John asks The Silver Fox if he’ll be their Master. Turning down their offer at first, he eventually relents and starts teaching them a new style of kung fu. Things are going well for the duo under their new Master until Little John discovers his tutor killing a man. It seems The Silver Fox is a wanted criminal and has been using the pair for his dirty deeds. The pair try and fight him but he uses a deadly style of Snake kung fu which ends with Big John paying for his life and Little John barely escaping. He winds up staying at the home of a wily beggar who is also skilled in the art of kung fu. Little John asks the beggar to train him up so that he can take on The Silver Fox and avenge his friend’s death.

Knockabout is a classic martial arts comedy movie which has been rated highly by Hong Kong movie fans. It brings together 3 of the biggest names in the late 70’s of HK movie makers in Sammo Hung (who directs and acts in this movie), Ka-Yan Leung and Yuen Biao. Even though Yuen Biao would never get the acclaim that his brothers in the Peking Opera (Sammo and Jackie Chan) obtained, he is still widely appreciated by martial arts fans. This would be his breakout movie role. I actually didn’t think I was going to like this movie as the first 40 or so minutes is just a rather silly story with some routine slapstick comedy which falls flat and so-so martial arts but once The Silver Fox turns on the 2 swindlers and Little John teams up with the beggar the movie improves with the martial arts fights getting better and better. In hindsight this was probably a ploy by Sammo to show that the swindlers had much to learn in their kung fu skills so that is why the earlier fights in the movie are so underwhelming. You just have to see the training scenes that the beggar puts Little John through – Yuen Biao is bloody amazing in these scenes. The guy was a gifted martial artist and was well known for his kicking and acrobatic prowess. Sammo’s beggar character makes him backflip, somersault and do some cartwheeling whilst using a skipping rope and just the training scenes alone makes it worth seeing the movie. It makes you forget the silly comedy that took place earlier on. The training scenes are topped however by the 12 minute final fight that sees Little John and the beggar combining their monkey style kung fu skills and squaring off against The Silver Fox. The moves that Yuen Biao pulls off in the fight are breathtaking. It rounds off what was eventually a very satisfying movie experience.

A big part of why this movie is such a success is down to Sammo Hung and under his direction Yuen Biao is outstanding. The intricate martial arts fight sequences he employs in this movie was a typical trademark of his and they’re a joy to watch.

Fans of old school HK martial arts will love this movie. It’s an entertaining movie you shouldn’t miss out on. Recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Gojoe (2000)

It is a dark time in Japan. The Keike clan have been victorious over the Genji clan but each night some of their soldiers are being slaughtered by what many are calling a demon. A monk Benkei who was formerly a fearsome warrior hears of what is happening and is determined to destroy the demon. Benkei sees for himself what the demon is capable of during a night attack on the bridge at Gojoe when many Keike soldiers are killed. Benkei comes face to face with the demon but it’s not a fearsome creature after all but a powerful and skilled swordsman along with his 2 associates that are doing the killings. The swordsman is Shanao who has been chosen to lead the Genji clan into battle with the Keike clan but he wants to delay this mission (and accepting his title as Prince Yoshitsune) to have a confrontation to the death with Benkei on the bridge at Gojoe.

Director Sogo Ishii retells the legendary 12th century Japanese story of the famous duel between the monk Benkei and young Prince Yoshitsune on Gojoe Bridge. According to legend, Yoshitsune beat Benkei who then served the Prince but the version of the story served up by Ishii is different. It doesn’t matter if you’re not familiar with the legend because the story explains itself as it goes along. The story is a tried and tested formula of two protaganists linked in some way or the other who must face each other in a fight to the death. At first the movie is more of a supernatural tale as we see various Heike soldiers being beheaded in a fountain of blood by an unseen foe but this gives way to a story of political intrigue and maneouvering.

It’s a very creative and vibrant movie in terms of colour, cinematography and editing. Even though the movie is rather long at two and a quarter hours and was sometimes a bit slow, the story was so engrossing I felt the time just went by so quickly. It’s exciting, mysterious at times and has vast sword battles. The movie displays a lot of mysticism especially with the character of Benkei who is seen practicising his Buddhism through meditation and using his power to rid evil. It’s very much like another movie that came out around the same time called Onmyoji. I liked the fact that the battle between good and evil is signified by the constant motif of the blazing sun and this is demonstrated extremely well in a big fight between Shanao and his 2 followers, some bandits and Keike soldiers in a forest during an eclipse. The action scenes could have been better and I suppose it is perhaps the only thing I can really complain about the movie. There’s plenty of action and it is suitably violent but it’s all filmed in close-up with some parts obscured frequently by objects in the background. This is highlighted best when Shanao and his 2 followers are slicing and dicing their way through soldiers in some long grass. It may look great visually with all the blood being sprayed all over the place but it would have been nice to see more actual swordfighting moves being made by the characters and it is also difficult to follow at times. The confrontation between Benkei and Shanao at the climax was also a big disappointment. I was expecting a good old fashioned sword fight but it was more of seeing swords clashing against each other in the dark with sparks coming off them than anything else. Although there’s not a lot of character development in the movie, there’s quite a bit of emphasis on Benkei’s transformation from being a killer of women and children in the past to being a holy man. People question whether he has changed or not. It is only in the duel on the bridge that the real Benkei comes out to take his fury on Shanao.

With Ishii’s stylish imaginative direction and excellent performances from Daisuke Ryu as Benkei and the brilliant Tadanobu Asano as the deadly emotionless Shanao, this movie is a winner in my eyes. Recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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1990. A number of children suddenly disappear. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defense selects an elite group of scientists for a top-secret mission. Then, 30 years later … The year is 2020 on a reunified Korean Peninsula. A string of murders is committed against retired scientists. The Special Investigations (SI) unit staffed by a crack team from the former North and South Koreas and outfitted with the latest technology is brought in to investigate. The killer, however, far from being deterred, taunts them with a signature pendant at every murder scene. In an act of devilish boldness he even kidnaps the son of the investigation team’s leader, Seok. Then, in a stakeout, Seok manages to shoot dead one of the murderer’s underlings. Cloaked in the man’s clothes, however, is Seok’s son, now dead by the hand of his father … Meanwhile, in the megapolis Intercity, the chief of police is kidnapped right in front of his heavy security detail and the culprit leaves another pendant at the scene. The chief’s daughter, Hui-su, a talented criminal psychologist quickly joins the investigation to find her father. Soon, Seok discovers that he and Hui-su share an uncanny bond…

This movie had a lot of potential to be a very good movie but in the end it was all a big mess. The filmmakers have tried to make a Hollywood type blockbuster but it fails miserably. It looks great visually (probably the only good thing I can say about this movie) and the cityscapes with its dark wet neon streets will remind many of Blade Runner but the script is quite confusing and it goes on for way too long. At 2 hours long it just drags. There doesn’t seem to be any coherent structure in the story. I nearly fell asleep by the time the credits came up begging for the movie to finish, that’s how bored I was with it. Even the numerous gunfights in the movie lacked any excitement. There’s too much techno-babble about genetics and cloning going on and the pacing of the movie is all over the show. The plot doesn’t have a lot to offer and there’s no character development. As such you don’t really care for the characters at all because they’re all dull. The acting is poor with many of the actors sleepwalking in their roles with no emotion showing on their faces. They don’t show any passion or enthusiasm in their performances. The majority of the cast look like they didn’t want to be in the movie. This was director Jeong Yun-Su’s debut behind the camera and it becomes obvious quite quickly that he has no idea how to put together a decent sci-fi actioner. I have no idea if the other 3 movies he’s directed since this one are any better?

Overall, some nice special effects and stylish production values isn’t enough to keep me interested if the story isn’t that good. Mediocre. Give it a wide berth.

Sadako’s Rating: 2 stars out of 5

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Teenager Momo Yuki is at the last chance saloon. A talented violinist but also a loner rebel, she’s been expelled from various insitutions and arrives at a prestigious girls only school thanks to the connections of her parents. Momo isn’t that interested in what’s goes on at the place especially in the fawning idol worship of the school high jumper Aoi. The class representative Mayuko Akaboshi doesn’t like Momo’s attitude and tells her that it will disrupt the whole class. One day she becomes curious at the old school buildings which is due to be demolished. Skipping class and deciding to have a nosey around the buildings she finds an old drama class room which is full of costumes and a copy of a play called ‘The Cherry Orchard’ by Anton Chekov. It was played annually at the school as a tradition but a scandal broke out 11 years previously which resulted in a tragic incident and it has never been played since. Momo sets out to revive the play and recruits her classmates including Akaboshi and Aoi. She also hires out a hall to stage it. The rehearsals for the play is in total disarray with Momo never having directed anything like this before. When the school’s principal finds out about the play she forbids Momo to continue. Her associates in the play will also suffer if they carry on. What will Momo do? Will she quit like she’s done with everything else in her life or fight back?

This is a remake of a movie which first came out in 1990 with the same director coming back to shoot it again. The story is hardly original and you’ll notice similarities to other Japanese high school movies of a bunch of people setting out to do something but coming up against trouble of some sort which threatens to derail what they’re attempting to achieve before adversity is conquered and everyone is all smiles again. It’s got a likeable cast of characters and you’ll root for them to triumph in staging the play. I had a problem with how the movie ended rather abruptly. We see the girls all dressed up in their costumes on their way to perform and suddenly the movie is over. I wanted to see the play being staged in front of everbody but the viewer is denied that. I was a little bit peeved with that! Whilst the males watching the movie might be wondering why this play is so appealing to the girls, you need to understand a little bit about the famed all-female and popular Takarazuka Revue group in Japan. This movie is a little bit like one of their productions in that the girls take on both male and female roles and even perform romantic scenes. There’s a hint of lesbian overtones in the story such as the various crushes on Aoi especially by Akaboshi who gets to play a role that enables her to get close to Aoi. Being tall, attractive and athletic, Aoi has a small dedicated bunch of cheerleaders who worship her. The movie is well directed by Shun Nakahara and there are plenty of beautiful scenes of sakura (cherry blossoms) trees in all their glory. If you haven’t been to Japan during the short sakura season you won’t know the significance of what the trees mean to the Japanese people.

I did like the performances of the young cast who were all starting out in their acting careers at the time. Emi Takei, Saki Fukada, Anne Watanabe (daughter of Ken) and AKB48 member Yuko Oshima perform solidly in their roles. All of them have since moved on to become quite famous in their fields. There’s even a very small cameo by Aya Ueto as the singer of a group.

This movie might seem to be one best enjoyed by teenage girls and that was probably the intended target audience by the director but as a male there was plenty for me to like in the story as well. It’s worth checking out.

I can’t find a trailer for this movie but I did find one for the 1990 version:

Sadako’s Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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In the aftermath of the earthquake that strikes Kobe in 1995, psychic Yukari Kamo comes to help the victims who are living in shelters. She is tormented by the fact that she can read people’s minds and wishes she didn’t have the ability as it has driven her to try and committ suicide on many occassions. Medication has alleviated some of the voices she hears in her head but she fears that in the future they will prove ineffective. Staying at the house of the woman running the shelter, she is shown a collection of tree drawings which have been drawn by one person – a schoolgirl named Chihiro who is suffering from multiple personality disorder ever since she survived a car crash which claimed the lives of her parents. Chihiro has 13 people living inside her head and she’s been shunned by her peers at school. Yukari’s arrival in Kobe coincides with the start of a rash of mysterious deaths which includes a schoolgirl drowning herself in a toilet bowl!! Could the deaths be linked to Chihiro – perhaps one of the personalities she has is a killer or is it linked to a sensory depravation experiment which went horribly wrong as the Kobe earthquake struck?

Despite being hammered by some critics when it first came out, I thought this J-horror was a fairly interesting movie even though the plot shifts from being about a girl with a personality disorder to one about a soul that was released during an experiment with no body to return to about half way through. It’s a suitably atmospheric movie about spiritual possession and the plot whilst some might say is ridiculous was plausible enough. The characters are well rounded and the movie is nicely shot with newsreel footage of the devastating images of the Kobe earthquake at the beginning. And the best thing about the movie is it doesn’t have a long haired dressed in white antagonist!! Unlike other J-horror movies, this story isn’t driven by gore or cheap shocks but by the characters. As much as it is a story about spirits, it’s also about two people who are outcasts of society and lonely due to their condition. There’s a rather stupid romantic sub-plot involving Yukari and a male doctor which was pointless and went nowhere. I felt the plot was building up to what I hoped was going to be a great climax but it just fell flat on its face. It was a disappointing end to a movie that had promised much. Another downside to the movie is that character development is minimal. There were many opportunities where the director could have expanded more about the history of the characters especially Yukari and her background as a psychic but it didn’t happen.

As for the acting in the movie, Akira Kurosawa’s granddaughter Yu plays the role of Chihiro and whilst I wouldn’t say her acting is that good, she is quite creepy as the girl with various personalities inside her. The shame about it all is we only get to see a couple of the personalities. She might have have a chance to extend her acting range had she been given a chance to act out all 13 personalities. Yoshino Kimura who plays the psychic Yukari is a sympathetic character to the viewer. Here is a person who would rather lead a normal life than hearing the overwhelming thoughts of people around her running through her head. Her performance was OK, not really that special. If you’re a rather observant viewer, you might catch a very quick cameo of Takashi Miike in this movie too.

Isola Persona 13 isn’t too bad and if you’re a fan of possession movies you might even enjoy it. J-horror fans better look elsewhere for their kicks as you’re not going to find anything with gore and scares in this movie.

Sadako’s Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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Monday (2000)

Takagi is a salaryman who suddenly wakes up on a Monday morning with no idea how he came to ending up in a hotel room. The last thing he remembers judging by the purification salt he has on him is attending a wake on Saturday. Things didn’t go too well at the wake as Takagi was involved in making the corpse explode in his coffin!! Sunday is a complete blank to him. Then some flashbacks come back which involves him getting drunk in a bar, a yakuza gang and a shotgun. As the fogginess from his brain starts to dissipate, the grim truth of what Takagi has done in his missing day becomes crystal clear!!

I’m not too familiar with any of director Sabu’s movies except Usagi Drop (he isn’t Indian BTW, he just chose an exotic career name – his real name is Hiroyuki Tanaka) but apparently the work he’s done over the years are fan favorites around movie festival circles and apparently he’s well known for his fantastic chase scenes though I wouldn’t be able to tell you having not seen any of his movies. This movie, a dark comedy thriller, was the 4th movie he directed (he was previously an actor). It starts out being very funny but as the movie progresses it gets very dark indeed. Think of Michael Douglas in Falling Down and you’ll get an idea of what Takagi gets up to. If you’re a fan of Takeshi Kitano’s movies I would think you would like this one as well. It’s got the same surreal comedy streak running through it. You’ll know after the joke involving a corpse and a pacemaker in the first 15 mins whether this is the kind of movie you’ll enjoy or not although it has nothing to do with the main plot. I thought it was comedy gold myself but others may not see it like that. I guess it depends on your sense of humour. The situations that the lead character gets himself involved in over the course of 1 day is hilarious such as the drunken sensual dance with the yakuza boss’ moll, his palm getting read by a gay fortune teller at a bar and the no hands urinating scene. The entire premise of the movie by Sabu is basically that people whilst drunk get up to many silly things. In Takagi’s case it’s your average salaryman empowering himself with a gun he managed to find at a yakuza den and taking out the trash of society. The movie falters a little bit near the climax as Sabu goes all preachy on us and delivers a serious message about guns.

I enjoyed Shinichi Tsutsumi’s portrayal of Takagi. I found his giggling demeanour whilst drunk a little bit annoying but his dark turn from being a cowardly salaryman to full on vigilante was great. There seems to be a lot of characters in this movie giggling and laughing. The supporting characters also give strong performances such as Yasuko Matsuyuki as the yakuza moll who enjoys the attention from Takagi.

Open-minded movie fans who can appreciate satire for what it is will get a kick out of this movie. The surreal nature of the plot might be a bit hard to swallow for a lot of people. On the basis of this movie alone I expect to be checking out more of Sabu’s movies in the future. Recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Umizaru (2004)

14 men who are the best Coastguard Officers in their region decide to become search and rescue divers – one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the world. The training facility has the task to weed out those not deemed good enough for the job as the training is tough and unforgiving. Each of the men has a reason to want to become a diver – if it’s not because its a prestigious position then it’s for other shallow goals such as the divers always gets the nice women! Training Supervisor Taro Minamoto who is battling his own personal demons after losing his diving partner whilst on assignment during his younger days is the man who will sort out the men from the boys. Daisuke Senzaki is a confident man who already holds a diving licence and the training people think he is likely to be a candidate who will pass the training without a problem. Each diver is assigned a “buddy” and in Senzaki’s case he is given a rather weak person in Kudo. Their initial diving training tasks together are fraught with failure as Kudo makes countless mistakes. His peers don’t think he’ll be able to complete the training. This leads to Senzaki and Kudo being humiliated by Minamoto and they have to do pressups etc for failing. It also irks another one of the 14 men – a rather cold guy named Mishima who thinks that Kudo is holding up all of them. However with Senzaki pushing and encouraging Kudo he begins to improve. But tragedy is about to strike the team and Senzaki’s spirit is going to be shaken to the core. Will he carry on with his training or will he quit?

Based on the manga of the same name, Umizaru (Sea Monkeys – a derogotary name for the trainees by people) is what some critics have called the Japanese Coastguard version of Top Gun and with good reason as well. A lot of the plot does mirror that of Tom Cruise’ movie. It’s a good though predictable story behind the training routine of search and rescue divers who have the unenviable task of mostly retrieving dead bodies from capsized ships. It’s also a passage of rite movie and about overcoming the odds both physically and mentally to claim the right to become a rescue diver. The training scenes are pretty interesting to watch and I had no idea before this movie what this entailed. It’s no surprise that it involves a lot of hard work and the failure rate amongst recruits is very high. According to the story, only 1% of all men who apply pass the training to successfully become a rescue diver. The first half of the movie is a mixture of drama and comedy as we follow the recruits who are all a bunch of likeable characters at work and at play but after the tragic event that happens around halfway through the story the mood changes as the men realise what the harsh reality of being a diver is all about especially during the final task they have as trainees when an accident occurs at sea which threatens Senzaki and Mishima’s life. With air running low for the duo and a rescue helicopter arriving too late, it’s up to Minamoto and the recruits to seize the initiative to save their teammates. The movie has a little bit of everything from comedy to drama and some romance. Maybe it’s just me but the whole romance aspect of the movie was unnecessary and only distracted you from the main plot. The whole cast performed admirably and in Hideaki Ito you have a hero you want to succeed and someone for the ladies to swoon over. The bond between the trainees and the ‘team building’ you witness was great. A cheesy tune you’ll hear a couple of times during the movie is Journey’s Open Arms. Why the filmmakers put this cringeworthy song in this movie I’ll never know but it’s inclusion is a mistake.

Umizaru was a huge success on it’s release and to date a TV drama series and 3 movie sequels (the latest one came out in July 2012) means the franchise has become very popular in Japan. It wouldn’t surprise me to see other movies coming out in the years ahead. Having already seen Umizaru 2:Limit of Love many years ago I look forward to watching the third movie soon. Despite some corny scenes which will make you either groan or laugh, it is still a very enjoyable ‘feel good’ movie to watch. Recommended.

Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

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