• Dead or Alive 3: Final (2002)

    Dead or Alive: Final is the third and last instalment in Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive trilogy. The only point this film has in common with its predecessors are the facts that all films are directed by Takashi Miike and feature Japanese V-cinema cult actors Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi in the lead roles. Dead or Alive: Final isn't even a classic gangster movie but rather a dystopian science-fiction movie. It's not as quirky, explicit and brutal as the first instalment of the trilogy but more vivid, surprising and experimental than the second movie. Considering the long list of characters and balanced mixture between the first two instalments, it makes me think of Takashi Miike's third part of the Black Society trilogy where Ley Lines had a very similar approach if compared to its predecessors Shinjuku Triad Society and Rainy Dog.

    The story line is quite unusual, even by Takashi Miike's experimental standards. The movie is set in the year 2346 in Yokohama where people of several cultures coexist. The movie's dialogues are in Cantonese, English and Japanese but different people seem to understand one another effortlessly despite speaking different languages which proves that society has become very educated, multicultural and polyglot. However, after numerous violent wars in the past, Yokohama's mayor has established radical birth control to prevent further conflicts. It has actually become illegal to give birth to children and homosexuality is praised as a political and social ideology. People are forced to take pills to suppress their desire to have sexual intercourse and give birth to children. Those who disobey are hunted down. Riki Takeuchi plays a cop that is hunting down social outcast living in hiding to have families. Show Aikawa plays a human-like robot who gets in touch with one of these communities by pure coincidence after saving a young kid that gets attacked in front of him in a restaurant. The two characters end up fighting each other but soon realize that they have more things in common than they would have thought.

    Among the movie's strengths, one has to note a quite quirky and surprising story line that ends in a very surprising way such as the first part of the trilogy. The acting performances by Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi are outstanding and they have great chemistry on screen. The supporting actors are also doing a great job. Richard Chung convinces particularly as manipulative gay mayor and Josie Ho shines as female rebel that has to find a sense of life after most members of her clan got betrayed and assassinated. The settings of the film are often abandoned, broken and dirty which is typical for Takashi Miike's movies and give this film a slightly gloomy atmosphere. The sky is mostly yellow-brownish which adds an interesting tone as well. The movie is obviously inspired by several dystopian science-fiction stories. The pills that suppress the will to reproduce could make you think of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 while the presence of robots is closely inspired by Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Movies such as Blade Runner and The Matrix seem to have influenced parts of the script as well. On the other side, Takashi Miike's movie isn't a cheap copy of these well-known stories and he manages to add his own touch to it thanks to the great acting performances, quirky story line and quite vivid action sequences filmed by local Hong Kong choreographers.

    The most negative element of the film is that it rarely looks futuristic. You can still see old cars, cell phones from the early millennium and simplistic weapons that seem out of place in the twenty-fourth century. While the action sequences look great, the special effects are very artificial and look as if they were taken from an old manga. The movie would be more convincing if it took place in the near future than in the twenty-fourth century. 

    In the end, each of the three instalments of Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive trilogy complements one another perfectly and shows the diversified skills of its director and main actors. It's a matter of taste whether you prefer a fast-paced and brutal gangster thriller, a thoughtful drama or a vivid science-fiction movie. I liked all these movies but I would probably prefer the first for its intensity, put this third film in second place for its quirky creativity and might put the second movie last because of its minor lengths in the middle section. Still, fans of Japanese cinema should be familiar with the entire trilogy and purchase the excellent boxed set by Arrow Video and also try to buy Arrow Video's boxed set of Takashi Kiike's Black Society trilogy.

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  • Dead or Alive 2 (2000)

    Just like Rainy Dog, the second instalment in Takashi Miike's Black Society trilogy, the second part of Dead or Alive is the most introspective part of the trilogy. It's essentially a drama carried by two superb lead actors with Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi who develop great chemistry on screen, elaborates on the characters' identities in a harmonious and nostalgic vibe and features exotic natural landscapes on a remote island that contrast the big city life and define the smooth atmosphere of this movie. The movie is surprisingly relaxing for a Takashi Miike film without getting completely rid of the filmmaker's quirky trademark scenes. The brief moments of violence and sexual innuendo are probably even more efficient because they are quite short and concise this time.

    Dead or Alive 2: Birds opens and closes with Takashi Miike's excessive action sequences but the main part of this film focuses on the character development of two contract killers who realize they have grown up together and been childhood friends and who decide to work as a team for a good cause in order to rid the world of pitiless criminals and donate their money to buy vaccines for children in developing countries. Aside of the facts that both movies focus on Japanese crime syndicates and its associates and that both movies feature the same main actors, this film is completely different from the first movie in terms of atmosphere, characters and story. Aside of a few experiments with flashbacks and some minor religious symbolism, this is also one of Takashi Miike's most realistic movies. 

    It's possible to dismiss the quirky first part and adore the more mature second part but it wouldn't be surprising to dislike the first movie for its exaggeration and the second one for its realism. Personally, I appreciate both movies for what they are but have a preference for the first part because I thought it was addicting from start to finish while the second instalment had a few minor length in the middle section. Takashi Miike fans should watch and purchase all three parts of the excellent Dead or Alive trilogy anyway.

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  • Dead or Alive (1999)

    Dead or Alive is another classic gangster movie from Takashi Miike's early years which includes the following ingredients:

    1. a brave cop as lonesome protagonist who has to take enormous risks in order to face three different groups of pitiless gangsters

    2. a vicious criminal as main antagonist and his gang that are seen as outcasts and are desperately looking for attention and respect through their ambitious and violent actions

    3. the topics of belonging, identity, family, friendship and loyalty that define both the protagonist and the antagonist as well as their immediate surroundings

    4. numerous violent outbursts in the intense action scenes

    5. nostalgic elements that portray where the antagonist and protagonist come from and how and why they have become who they are

    6. several sexually explicit scenes involving prostitutes as well as the adult movie industry that portray a Japanese society that has extremely progressed from a very conservative into an overtly experimental society within a few years

    As you can see, Takashi Miike's best gangster movies have an almost perfect balance between profound character and society studies on one side and explosive action, gore and sex sequences on the other side. That's why both open-minded intellectuals and adrenaline junkies will like his movies. The best audience for this type of movies would obviously be open-minded and intellectual adrenaline junkies.

    There are still several elements that make the first instalment in the Dead or Alive trilogy stand out. First of all, there is the fast- paced and visually explicit opening sequence that portrays the wild life in Tokyo's special ward Shinjuku City. Takashi Miike manages to get to the point and filter the essence of this place in about five minutes and accomplishes something most documentaries that are ten or twenty times longer fail to achieve. 

    The second thing that stands out to me is the meeting between the protagonist and cop on one side and an adult movie producer on the other side. While they are almost casually discussing the possible identity of the antagonist who wants to control the underground by any means necessary, we can see one of the director's assistants who is masturbating a male dog before he attempts to force the animal to have sexual intercourse with a naked woman who is patiently waiting on her knees. The almost casual and neutral way Takashi Miike shows us this deviance silently portrays or maybe even criticizes the extreme evolution of Japan's society without trying to be moralizing or pretentious. 

    The third legendary scene is the unpredictable ending of the movie that leads to the inevitable clash between the protagonist and the antagonist. Takashi Miike is the kind of director who only writes seventy percent of his script and then gives himself and his assistants and actors the occasion to improvise on set. This is precisely what has happened in this case since Miike made up a completely new ending in a few hours and surprised everyone with this unusual conclusion to an intense yet profound movie. Some people will adore this courageous ending while others will feel that it might not fit but one has to admit that it's unique and underlines why Takashi Miike has become one of the most distinctive and respected directors in the world. 

    Takashi Miike's gangster movie are authentic, breathtaking, creative, entertaining, profound, shocking and unique all at once. This kind of movies was made from the mid-nineties to the early years of the new millennium. It was an essential part of the Japanese V-cinema culture. Dead or Alive and its two sequels as well Takashi Miike's Black Triad trilogy are authentic documents of this unique period of Japanese film-making. Both trilogies were recently released with new bonus material by Arrow Media and I highly recommend purchasing these boxed sets.

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  • Jiu ceng yao ta / Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe (2015)

    Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is a fantasy movie based upon Tianxia Bachang's novels about a nurse and a soldier that team up to raid tombs. It's interesting to note that another movie about the novels entitled Mojin: The Lost Legend was released less than three months after this movie. There are actually two different production companies. One owns the rights for the first few novels, the other for the more recent novels. That's why both movies aren't directly connected and even slightly contradictory at times. This movie here focuses on the first novel and shows us how the two main characters actually meet.

    Many contemporary Chinese fantasy movies suffer from terrible special effects that look extremely artificial and wooden. This isn't the case for Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe. The action sequences are captivating, the costumes, landscapes and relics look stunning and even the monsters look rather scary.

    The movie has a very strong introduction that develops a mysterious atmosphere that makes me think of Indiane Jones or Tomb Raider video games. Our two main characters discover the remnants of a mysterious and dangerous civilization in an ancient tunnel system in northern China. It's quite gripping to watch our main characters discover creepy skeletons, face aggressive butterflies and run away from a massive avalanche in a very fast-paced way.

    The movie loses some significant momentum after these opening sequences. The story shifts several years forward multiple times which is slightly confusing. The story also gets quite predictable. Some terrifying monsters related to the mysterious civilization have escaped and attack an oil town in a desert. Our main character will go on the mission to find a mysterious professor, fight the monsters and prevent the evil ancient civilization to break its curse and enslave mankind.

    The last third of the movie quickens up the pace a little bit. The fight scenes in the oil town are gripping and the clashes between the ancient civilization and those who accompany our protagonist are entertaining, intense and include a few minor twists. The conclusion itself is somewhat disappointing though because several questions are left unanswered. Since the movie is based upon a novel that had numerous sequels, it seems probable that there will be more movies about this story line in the future. If you want to watch a single movie with a coherent story line from the introduction to the conclusion, you shouldn't watch this film in the first place.

    While the movie has a mysterious atmosphere, a solid pace and great special effects, it's lacking in the acting department. Mark Chao's acting performance as the protagonist is average at best as it doesn't leave a deeper impression. Chen Yao as female lead isn't quite convincing even though her character has more depth. The romantic relationship between the two characters happens so quickly and unexpectedly that it's not credible. The supporting actors and actresses are doing a solid job but there isn't one performance that really stands out.

    Despite the movie's flaws concerning the acting performances and a story that is too closely inspired by numerous other archaeological fantasy stories, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is still an overall entertaining and convincing film thanks to its atmosphere, pace and special effects. The film should get more praise than it gets. It might not be the most innovative genre movie but it's clearly more interesting than Hollywood's fantasy reboots in the key of Kong: Skull Island and other shallow flicks.

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  • Tang shan da di zhen / Aftershock (2010)

    Aftershock is a highly emotional drama about the Tangshan earthquake. It tells the story of a simple but happy family consisting of a father, a mother and two twins, a daughter and a son. When the earthquake hits, the father dies when he tries to rescue his children. The young kids are trapped under a large slab of concrete. Lifting the slab to save one child would mean to probably kill the other one as well. The surviving mother who just witnessed her husband die must make a quick choice whether she wants to try to save her daughter or her son. She feels unable to take such a decision but doesn't have any choice and ultimately chooses to save her son.

    The son is saved but loses his arm. Ridden by guilt and unable to turn the page, his mother lives as a recluse and refuses to get married again. She is afraid to let her son go away from home when he is older because she knows she will be all alone at that moment. He becomes a rickshaw driver and eventually the boss of a successful travel agency. He tries to leave his difficult past behind. He gets married and has a son but his mother doesn't want to live with them or move to another place which leads to conflicts, debates and discussions between the mother, her son and her daughter-in-law as old emotional wounds are opened again.

    On the other side, the daughter has miraculously survived the earthquake as she wakes up next to her father's dead body. Traumatized by the events, she first lives in a military camp before she gets adopted by a couple that doesn't have any children of its own. In the beginning, she refuses to speak and accept her new family. While her foster father is very gentle and patient with her, her foster mother is quite emotional and severe because she always wanted to have a daughter and is afraid of losing her. As she grows up, the girl studies medicine but gets pregnant in the last year of her studies. When her boyfriend tries to convince her to abort the child, she is unable to do this because of her childhood memories. She is shocked, leaves her boyfriend, doesn't finish her studies and moves to another town where she earns some money as a private English teacher. She tries to forget about her difficult past but when she meets a Canadian lawyer and decides to move to Vancouver, she has to go see her foster father again who is bitterly disappointed that she left town and didn't even bother to call or contact him.

    The twins meet again by chance thirty-two years after the Tangshan earthquake when both volunteer to rescue the victims of the Sichuan earthquake since they know how terrible such an earthquake can be. The young woman accepts to finally meet the mother that decided to let her die twenty-two years earlier. A broken family reunites and has to deal with sorrow, loss and despair but ends up finding forgiveness, hope and optimism.

    Aftershock convinces on many levels. The acting performances are very authentic. The movie touches many philosophical topics and exposes numerous ambiguous, difficult and life-changing decisions and situations. The story has epic proportions and remains yet profoundly human. The movie shows all characters with their flaws and strengths which makes the viewers feel empathy for them.

    On the other side, the film's extremely emotional vibe gets a little bit overtly melodramatic at times. The movie is also at least half an hour too long and it's quite tough to sit through a series of tear-jerking events for far over two hours. The movie loses some momentum towards the middle when the prodigal daughter mourns the death of her foster mother or when the handicapped son argues with his wife. On the other side, the moment when the two twins talk to each other for the first time in thirty-two years isn't shown. This would have been one of the climaxes of the movie and I can't understand why the director didn't emphasize on it.

    In the end, Aftershock is a very philosophical drama. It convinces with authentic characters and great actors and an overall gripping story that convinces both emotionally and intellectually. On the other side, it has an overlong middle section and is quite hard to digest at times. Fans of Asian cinema and profound dramas should watch this movie but it isn't as essential as some critics claim the film to be.

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