• Tampopo (1985)

    Tampopo is certainly one of the most creative and imaginative movies I have ever seen. The film is humorously categorized as ramen western which is obviously a pun on the spaghetti western genre but it fits surprisingly well. One could also describe it as an anthology film because the main plot is interrupted by numeros anecdotic side stories about the relation between humans and food. The main story follows a truck driver who helps a restaurant owner and single mother transform her pitiful ramen shop into one of the city's greatest restaurants. The movie has a positive message as it shows what human beings can accomplish when they support one another.

    The main story is already quite quirky as the cool truck driver with a cowboy hat who seems to come straight out of an American western of the fifties finds numerous people who help him improving Tampopo's ramen shop. We meet a homeless ramen connoisseur with excellent manners, a quirky limousine driver who secretely is a hobby cook as well as a rough contractor who always looks for a fight but turns out having a heart of gold. These characters observe other ramen shop owners, try to find the perfect recipe for ramen broth and successively transform the decrepit shop into a clean restaurant.

    The side stories are also refreshing and show how people ignore conventions in order to appreciate food to the fullest. We see a lowly worker who displays his vast culinary knowledge in a French restaurant while his bossy superiors always order the same thing without thinking about it or even understanding the menu. We observe a mother on her deathbed who rises for one last time to cook a final dinner for her saddened family. We follow a woman obsessed with squeezing food in a supermarket who is tracked down by a clerk who then observes a twisted investment scam. One side story that has recurring elements is the love story of an elegant gangster and his girlfriend who use food to sexually arouse one another. It's strange to realize that some scenes that initially seem disgusting are actually exciting such as the scene when the elegant gangster hurts his lips while eating an oyster he purchased from a poor female fisher which makes their social discrepancy disappear as they start sharing an intimate kiss.

    Tampopo is an unusual experience as it always comes around with more surprising anecdotic elements that request multiple viewings. I have rarely felt like watching a movie again just after it had come to its conclusion but this was exactly the case here. If you like creative filmmaking, food and Japanese culture, Tampopo is what you have always been looking for but didn't know existed. After having watched this movie, I felt like going to a restaurant and have an excellent meal and this is precisely the film's entire purpose.

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  • Shichinin no Samurai / Seven Samurai (1954)

    I hesitated checking out the Japanese epic samurai drama Seven Samurai because I made the mistake to watch Kurosawa Akira's Ran a few years ago which turned out to be stiff, predictable and overlong and didn't live up to its excellent reputation. I'm relieved to realize that Seven Samurai indeed deserves the praise it gets. Ironically, it's not the best movie of the year, not even the best Japanese film of that year which was Honda Ishiro's groundbreaking Godzilla which shows how great movies were back in those days. Still, Seven Samurai is a timeless classic whose plot, duels and characters have been copied in numerous films such as The Magnificent Seven.

    The first thing I liked about the movie is its atmosphere. It has a quite gloomy touch as the fearful peasants and seven brave samurai have to be constantly prepared for the raids of an elevated number of ruthless bandits. As opposed to Hollywood movies, one never knows who is going to survive the next attack which builds up quite a lot of despair and tension until the very end. This atmosphere is perfectly supported by the sinister black and white cinematography and the simplistic yet fitting soundtrack.

    The settings are also carefully chosen. The village has a raw and simple charm but can turn from a little piece of paradise into a muddy hell rather quickly. It's definitely a very difficult battlefield. The romantic scenes in the fields of flowers in the middle section are contrasted by the torrential rain during the epic final battle that ends the movie on a high note.

    The characters are fascinating and fleshed out. Each of the seven samurai has different character traits. The most impressive ones are the aged leader Kambei with his strong moral compass, the hopeless young romantic Katsushiro and the savage outsider Kikuchiyo. Even the villagers are quite unique. The elder miller and village patriarch Gisaku who refuses to evacuate, the hotheaded Rikichi who hides a sad secret and the emotional farmer's daughter Shino are only some of these fascinating characters.

    The acting performances make the characters even better. Shimura Takashi's performance as intellectual leader is absolutely believable and one can understand why the other characters follow his commands despite risking their lives. Mifune Toshiro is brilliant as tough guy with a soft core who constantly tries to improve his reputation which leads to some brutal, desperate but also humorous scenes not unlike Eli Wallach's performance as Tuco in the iconic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. On the other side, Miyaguchi Seiji contrasts the young and emotional characters with his performance as calm, disciplined and serious swordsman. The actors and actresses aren't only convincing on their own but complement one another perfectly. Their diversity is a strength in this film.

    The directing has to be pointed out as well. Despite its colossal length, the movie never felt boring because it found the right balance between the main plot and numerous efficient side stories that add depth to the different characters. The camera work is calm and precise and on a much higher level than contemporary action movies with shaky cameras. On the other side, the use of wipes to change between scenes gives the movie a more fluid pace at times. The mixture of calm cinematographic techniques and a few more dynamic elements is perfectly balanced.

    In the end, I have only positive things to say about this movie. If you like action films, this groundbreaking film is an iconic milestone. If you prefer dramas, you will find plenty of it in the complex relationships between the different characters. If you like period films, this movie brings the life in sixteenth century Japan to life in a brilliant way. Seven Samurai is a movie that anybody who truly likes cinema should watch at least once in his lifetime.

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  • Gang dao / Brothers (2016)

    Brothers is a mixture of a historical drama and a military action movie. Based upon true events, it tells the tragic story of two brothers. The older brother protected the younger from a ruthless criminal whom he killed. He had to spend ten years in prison. Upon his release, the older brother decided to throw a party that quickly ran out of control. The two got arrested but instead of being sent to prison, they were supposed to be trained as soldiers by the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War. They tried to escape but while the younger brother fled into the woods, the older brother got caught before he could leave. Five years later, the younger brother has joined the Chinese Communist Party and is asked to escort a group of female musicians to a strategically important city. On his way to High City, he gets ambushed by a group of Kuomintang soldiers led by his brother. The two brothers have to keep their cool in front of their colleagues but secretly start talking about what has happened to them. It soon turns out that both of them have drastically changed. The younger brother who was once innocent and naive has turned into a reliable and resilient sergeant. The older brother who was once careless and ill-disciplined has turned into a clever and ruthless leader. Still, the old brother wants to protect his younger brother and tries to prevent by any means necessary that he goes to High City to find certain death. However, the older brother underestimated the younger brother's determination and the two friends soon turn into foes.

    One element that immediately stands out with this film is the use of impressive visual effects reminding me of the Sin City franchise. Most shots are in black and white with specific elements being painted in flashy colours such as blood, gunfire or some of the female musicians. 

    While this approach gives the movie a visually stunning look, it certainly takes away from the gripping story. Despite the serious circumstances elaborated in the plot, the film fails to builds up any tension and plods along for prolonged periods of time. The audience is led to focus on the visual effects and fighting scenes but all other elements remain disappointingly shallow. 

    The acting performances are rather unspectacular. The two brothers seem constantly overwhelmed by emotions, supporting each other at one moment just to try to kill each other a few moments later. The supporting characters aren't developed very well and seem quite lifeless. Especially the shy love story between the younger brother and one of the female musicians could have been much stronger. The short running time doesn't help in that aspect either. Many characters are introduced on the side and end up dying a few minutes later anyway. 

    The plot has one minor twist in the final quarter but fails to build upon this element and ends on a bloody but simplistic resolution.

    In the end, Brothers is worth to be watched thanks to its stunning visual aspects, its numerous prolonged fighting scenes and its steady pace from start to finish thanks to a concise running time. The plot however doesn't exploit its full potential, the historical elements aren't fleshed out and most characters remain shallow or confusing. Brothers is an entertaining experience and worth to be watched once but overall lacking quality to leave a deeper impression.

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  • Dai si hing / Big Brother (2018)

    Big Brother is a highly entertaining movie that mixes social drama with some martial arts action elements. The movie tells the story of a veteran with a troubled past who comes back to his former Hong Kong high school to work there as a social science teacher. The school faces several problems such as reduced funds, obsolete infrastructures and difficult students. The protagonist uses quite unusual strategies to help his students and invests a lot of energy and time to solve their individual problems. While he soon gets along with his students, his colleagues and the principal are quick to criticize him and Henry Chen soon realizes that being a teacher might become his biggest challenge yet.

    Donnie Yen's latest movie is so efficient because it combines social drama and action scenes in a very balanced way. The plot is quite mature, profound and serious. The occasional fight scenes offer welcome breaks from the intense content. The film convinces with intriguing characters that have troubled pasts. Viewers will connect with the war veteran who was everything but an obedient student, his former friend and antagonist who wasn't given the chance to realize his dreams and especially the students who have serious problems such as poverty, criminality and addictions. The film comes around with life-affirming, optimistic and positive message that are truly inspiring, especially if you are a student or teacher yourself.

    Some people might criticize that this film features less spectacular fights than other movies starring Donnie Yen but this reduced and realistic approach suits the film very well. Other people might argue that such an intense social drama would be better off without any big fights at all but the serious content is much easier to digest with these vivid sequences. Big Brother leaves the trodden path, tries out an unusual combination of genres and succeeds almost perfectly to my very positive surprise.

    If you like social dramas and martial arts films, you will adore this movie that turns out being one of the best in Donnie Yen's impressive career. The content, messages and vibe of the movie will make you think even long after the movie is over. Big Brother is a film for your body, brain and heart and one of the most positive surprises of the year.

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    Ou Zhou gong lue / Europe Raiders (2018)

    Europe Raiders is a quite entertaining action-thriller with strong martial arts sequences that comes around with a major and quite efficient twist in its surprising conclusion. The movie revolves around an invention that makes it possible to track down terrorists around the world. This tool has however been misused by the Central Intelligence Agency and its inventor died in grief and regret. Many years later, the inventor's very intelligent daughter seeks vengeance and manages to steal a part of the invention. The inventor's former bodyguard and friend cooperates with his female colleague and love interest in order to bring the tool back for the Central Intelligence Agency. To achieve this goal, the duo must cooperate with the inventor's imprisoned son whose goals are quite shady. Quite soon, a family drama unfolds and leads to a brutal showdown.

    There are many positive elements about this movie that reminds me of the glorious days of Hong Kong cinema in the late eighties and early nineties. First of all, the film has fluid pace and a perfect length. Secondly, the dynamic martial arts elements are performed in a very grounded way which give the movie a more realistic touch than similar efforts. Thirdly, the characters are quite interesting as one cares for the gentle yet determined bodyguard and his quirky yet charming colleague but also for the desperate daughter and mysterious son of the sympathetic inventor. Fourthly, the locations are quite interesting as the film takes place in numerous beautiful cities in Italy. Fifthly and most importantly, the film comes around with a twist that I didn't see coming but that made sense to me and ended the film on a very high note.

    A few elements need to be criticized as well. There are too many artificially flavored special effects in this film. This still looks cool in the opening sequence that could come from the James Bond franchise but the final showdown ressembles a video game rather than an actual movie. The depiction of the Central Intelligence Agency members and their objectives remain relatively shallow as they are quickly stigmatized as bad guys without adding any depth to it. The plot seemed to be somewhat shallow until the final twist turned it around in a most positive way.

    In the end, I can recommend the movie to those who like and miss Hong Kong action-thrillers of the eighties and nineties. Europe Raiders gives you everything you need from breathtaking fights over intriguing characters to a story with a major twist. Tony Leung convinces as cool protagonist while Tang Yan, who might have her breakthrough with this role, complements him with breathtaking charm and beauty. Ignore the negative reviews and enjoy the wild ride.

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