• Xiu chun dao II: xiu luo zhan chang / Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield (2017)

    Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield is a prequel of Brotherhood of Blades released three years earlier. However, you don't necessarily need to know the latter to understand the former. Some of the characters and the settings are alike but the story is a different one that even contradicts some elements shown in the first film.

    Stylistically, we get a stylish wu xia movie with some conspiracy elements. The characters use arrows, daggers, swords and bare hands and feet to fight and most fight sequences look quite realistic. The opening sequence suffers from heavy CGI effects but the rest of the movie convinces with stunning landscapes and beautiful costumes. The locations are more diversified than in the first film. The conspiracy is similar to the first movie as Imperial Assassin Shen Lian gets caught in a conflict between a group of rebels supporting the emperor's younger brother and the emperor, his eunuch and government officials. Shen Lian tracks down some of the rebels before he decides to save a female painter he sympathizes with. From then on, he tries to cover his actions up and gets progressively involved with the group of rebels. However, he soon realizes that some of his colleagues are two-faced and that he can't trust anyone.

    There are only a few minor reasons why I like this second film a little bit less than the first one. First of all, the exaggerated opening sequence doesn't start the movie on a positive note. Secondly, the side characters aren't as intriguing as in the first film. Thirdly, the movie's ending feels rushed and the scene after the credits is a waste of time.

    However, if you like dynamic historical fiction cinema, Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield delivers the goods. It's stylish, filled with action, passion and tension and is entertaining from start to finish. Even though you don't need to be familiar with the first film to understand this prequel, I would recommend watching the former first because it's the better movie. If you like it, you can't go wrong with this one either.

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  • Xiu chun dao / Brotherhood of Blades (2014)

    Brotherhood of Blades is a very entertaining wu xia movie. It combines dynamic martial arts and sword fights with historical costumes and settings and a dramatic dose of suspense in form of complex conspiracies. The greatest thing about the movie is that its outcome is quite unpredictable. Until the final fifteen minutes, it's not exactly clear who is friend and who is foe. This is a welcome change to Hollywood films featuring a lone wolf protagonist who fights his corrupted superiors. Until the final scene, it remains a mystery who is going to survive or not. Once again, this is a great change from Hollywood movies featuring a protagonist who is going to survive against all odds. This film will keep you on the edge of your seat until its dramatic resolution.

    The story revolves around three Imperial Assassins who are charged to eliminate powerful eunuch Wei who has become a nuisance for the young Ming dynasty emperor. However, the leader of the trio decides to spare the eunuch and accepts a bribe instead without telling his colleagues. Back in the capital, the three sworn brothers are both tracked down by the eunuch's numerous followers who want them to take their secret to the grave and by suspicious government officials who realizes something is afoul. As if that weren't enough, they have to face numerous personal challenges. The youngest of the trio has fallen in love with the local pharmacist's daughter, the second assassin wants to buy the freedom of a prostitute who despises him for having participated in killing her family and the oldest assassin is tricked into getting promoted to be under constant surveillance. The trio decides it must flee the capital city in order to save their lives but their enemies give everything to try to prevent their escape.

    Aside the fascinating story, the movie convinces with a gloomy and tense atmosphere that brings the dying Ming dynasty back to life. The emotional acting performances are very solid and show three overall sympathetic protagonists with strong moral compasses but quite a few personal weaknesses as well which makes them dynamic and round characters. The fight choreographies are intense and not as exaggerated as one is used to from numerous other wu xia movies. This approach suits the film's more authentic tone.

    Brotherhood of Blades might not reinvent the genre but is one of the very best movies of its kind in recent memory. Especially the plot is truly intriguing while the film's atmosphere, settings, acting and choreographies are other positive elements. The movie became such an unexpected success that it spun off a prequel released three years later. If you like Asian cinema, you can't go wrong with Brotherhood of Blades.

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  • Koroshiya 1 / Ichi the Killer (2001)

    Ichi the Killer is a brutal yakuza movie by renowned director Takashi Miike. If you haven't watched any of his movies yet, let me tell you that this film isn't for lighthearted audiences. In the first five minutes alone, we see illegal gambling in a shady bar, a yakuza boss beating up and raping a prostitute and a voyeur masturbating to this instead of helping the poor woman. You will see prolonged torture sessions, people taking drugs and blood-red rooms filled with guts after intense massacres. Anyone who criticizes this movie for these elements or calls the viewers of it sick clearly didn't inform himself what kind of movie he was about to watch. Japanese yakuza movies are usually over-the-top, graphic and for mature audiences only. This is what makes them stand out.

    Ichi the Killer tells the story of a mentally unstable killer who seems to be manipulated via hypnosis and psychological torture by a lowly yakuza named Jijii who orders him to take out two rival yakuza gangs. Sadomasochistic hitman Kakihara wants to avenge his deceased boss but also desires meeting the killer in order to be domineered and tortured by him.

    If you think that this movie is only filled with perverted brutality, you've got it all wrong. The film features a lot of cultural elements related to yakuza traditions such as yubitsume, a ritual to atone for offenses by performing self-mutilation. The filming techniques are very experimental, working with unusual camera angles and stop-and-go technology. The authentic settings in form of dirty back alleys, small apartments and shady bars clash with flashy costumes as the sadomasochistic hitman walks around in colorful suits while the unstable killer wears a costume with special hidden weapons. The film works a lot with colors and their symbolism with white standing for the loss of childish innocence, black for darkness and red for violence. The experimental and vivid soundtrack blends in perfectly.

    The greatest element about this movie might be its stunning finale that actually offers some food for thought. It isn't immediately obvious what actually happens, how it occurs and what the consequences are. Personally, I believe Ichi the Killer, lowly yakuza Jijii and prostitute Karen are one and the same person with multiple-personality disorder since they share the same memories at times but there are many possible theories. No matter how you think about the film's outcome, it's something you will still be thinking about long after you have actually watched the movie.

    In the end, I can recommend the movie if you are equally interested in Japanese culture, brutal gangster films and intellectual film-making. Ichi the Killer stimulates your brain, your guts and your heart. It's an unforgettable experience based upon a unique manga and directed by one of the best directors of all times.

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  • Peurizeun / The Prison (2017)

    The Prison is a South Korean thriller that convinces with great acting performances, profound characters and sinister settings. It tells the story of a former detective who ends up in a prison controlled by an influential criminal who organizes blackmail, murder and theft inside and outside the prison walls. The former detective gains the criminal's trust when he protects him from an influential politician and an uprising organized by some jealous inmates. However, it turns out that the detective is on a dangerous undercover mission and trying to expose organized crime with the help of his journalist brother.

    The intense movie that entertains from start to finish convinces on many levels. First of all, the main characters are particularly intriguing. The undercover cop is a courageous, intelligent and selfless person who can show his raw and rough side but also an empathizing and idealistic side. The wise main villain has a calm, diplomatic and intellectual side to convince other inmates to support him but he can become brutal, pitiless and relentless in order to keep his power. The clash between these two men is particularly interesting to watch. Both characters are played convincingly by an energetic Kim Rae-won and a truly diversified Han Suk-kyu. The settings of the movie are quite gloomy and add to the film's oppressive atmosphere. The film takes place in bare prison cells, dirty basements and dark streets that are occasionally blended and contrasted with beautiful gardens and shiny lofts.

    The movie has a few minor downsides as well. The story takes too much time to get started as the first half of the movie basically only shows how the undercover cop is trying to gain the criminal's trust which becomes quite predictable and repetitive. The background stories of the characters are told in flashbacks which are sometimes randomly inserted and rather confusing the audience than solving the puzzle. The cop's relentless motivation to expose the criminal never becomes quite clear and it also remains a mystery how the criminal became so influential in the first place. The movie's conclusion was also somewhat odd and ended with a negative surprise related to the protagonist's fate.

    In the end, you will enjoy The Prison for its outstanding acting performances, intriguing characters and great settings. The movie is overall lacking pace and precision to be more than just good as it doesn't exploit all of its promising potential. Fans of atmospheric crime flicks in general and Korean cinema in particular will still certainly like this film.

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  • Gintama (2017)

    Gintama is a so-called jidaigeki action comedy film based upon the popular manga series of the same name. I would rather categorize the movie as steampunk comedy. It combines elements of feudal Japan such as clothing and dwellings of that era as well as the terminology of the capital being refered to as Edo and the presence of samurai and ronin with science-fiction elements such as the presence of aliens, flying ships and sophisticated weapons. This mixture makes for a colourful, entertaining and vivid movie even though characters and stories are completely exaggerated and make me think of the slapstick comedy genre. The story takes place in Edo where aliens have taken control after defeating a group of rebellious samurai. Gintoki Sakata is one of the surviving ronin and is doing odd jobs with former waiter Shinpachi and the vivid Kagura. They are asked to find a powerful sword that was apparently stolen and which seems to be used by a mysterious serial killer who assassinates ronin. These incidents seem to be related to sinister ronin Shinsuke Takasugi who has gathered a group of fierce followers on a flying ship and who pretends to desire to challenge the aliens who defeated his comrades and him. Gintoki Sakata must arrest the pitiless serial killer, face his former comrade and retrieve the dangerous sword before it causes any more damage.

    There are numerous things that make this live-action film adaptation highly entertaining. First of all, the franchise's eclectic universe is fascinating to watch as it always comes around with new creative surprises. When the main characters are looking for a valuable royal beetle in a forest, we get introduced to characters covering themselves in honey, smearing mayonnaise on a tree and disguising themselves as giant beetle to catch the mysterious insect. If that description makes you shake your head in disbelief, expect plenty of scenes like this one in the movie. The characters are equally intriguing and I particularly liked some of the female characters like the agile, colourful and eccentric protagonist Kagura with her orange hair and soft skin or the brutal, emotional and loyal antagonist Matako Kijima with her two revolvers that always seem to miss their target. There isn't one single boring, predictable or stereotypical character in this movie which is positively exceptional. The movie's pace is as vivid as its universe and truly entertaining from start to finish.

    There are also a few downsides here and there. The most obvious offender is the story which is truly over the top but often lacking background information, for example about the strange aliens controling Edo. It's also somewhat confusing, frustrating and random that seemingly deceased characters suddenly come back to life in vague circumstances and appear out of nowhere at the right moment. It seems obvious to me that this franchise doesn't take adversity, coherency and scriptwriting seriously at all. As colourful as the characters are, some of them can become quite annoying after a while like megalomaniac swordsmith Murata Tetsuya who always shouts because of a hearing problem or cabaret hostess Shimura Tae who seems to be obsessed with controlling Gintoki Sakata as much as she possibly can. One also has to address the typically Japanese humor which will please those familiar with it while it might rather confuse those unfamiliar with it. The movie had a few great laughs, especially in the beginning of the story, but sometimes dwelled on these elements for too long and lost momentum in the process.

    Gintama offers light-hearted entertainment for colourful, creative and juvenile spirits and is a very welcome change from movies that take themselves overtly seriously and try to teach their audience a lesson. This diversified, vivid and unique steampunk comedy potpourri is an unusual experience and best enjoyed with your friends when you're in a good mood and ready to switch your brain off. This memorable film is highly recommended to fans of Japanese culture. Since I'm not familiar with the source material, I can't comment upon any comparisons but I certainly enjoyed the wild ride and would watch this film again.

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