• 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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  • Mo Gong Mei Ying / Phantom of the Theatre (2016)

    Phantom of the Theatre is a movie that mixes many genre elements. There are some minor spooky horror influences, a few inspirations from the fantasy genre and some hints at the crime thriller cinema. Despite all these influences, this film is first and foremost a darkly romantic drama set in Shanghai's charming, elegant and lush thirties. Chinese audiences and movie makers seem to have a weakness for this type of movies. The most famous film of this kind is without a doubt the original version of A Chinese Ghost Story. Even though Phantom of the Theatre doesn't come close to equal this milestone of Asian cinema, it's an enchanting and entertaining film for genre fans.

    The movie has a few minor flaws. The CGI-ridden special effects look a little bit too artificial. The start of the movie is also quite wooden. It opens with a rather odd scene where a careless thief confronts two scared police officers and ends up dying in an old movie theatre. The introduction to the main characters isn't perfect either as they appear to be quite stereotypical. You meet an abusive investor, an ambitious young filmmaker, an arrogant movie star, an egoistic warlord and an overlooked beauty. The story seems to be quite predictable at first. The young filmmaker will fall in love with the overlooked beauty. The arrogant movie star will be jealous and try to harm the beautiful lady. The greedy investor is also trying to take advantage of her. The egoistic warlord believes the whole world belongs to him and will use his power to get anything he likes. So far, so predictable.

    However, as the movie goes on, it develops a certain magic and ends with a climax that I found both emotionally and intellectually stunning. There are several elements that contribute to this rising action. First of all, the settings in the haunted theatre are quite intriguing and become more important than the superficial supernatural elements one gets exposed to in the first third of the film. The costumes are also quite authentic and contribute to an atmosphere that could be borrowed from a fairy tale. The elegant and emotional soundtrack composed of classical pop, folk music and even jazz influences adds to the atmosphere of the movie. The camera cuts become smoother as well and are a welcome change from the numerous contemporary shaky cam productions. The light techniques are even more brilliant and lead from more uplifting moments to more mysterious passages of the film in a coherent manner. The actors and actresses deliver more natural performances and develop a certain chemistry. The most superficial characters recede into the background and only the more intriguing characters remain present throughout the film.

    The movie truly starts getting brilliant when a detailed flashback explains us what happened thirteen years before the movie takes place. These scenes are both beautiful and heartbreaking. The showdown leads to a certain twist that could make the audience change its mind about certain characters. The film's ending is quite balanced and neither ends in the most sinister way possible nor as a classic happy end which I found rather creative.

    I will let you find out about the rest by yourself. If you like darkly romantic dramas with a nostalgic charm, you will at least appreciate this movie. Don't be discouraged by the negative reviews and the average opening third because you will be rewarded with a soulful rising action and a gripping climax.

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  • Nihon kuroshakai / Ley Lines (1999)

    Ley Lines is the third and last instalment in Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy that focuses on foreign gangsters with inner struggles trying to find a purpose in life. Ley Lines both shares similarities and differences with Shinjuku Triad Society and Rainy Dog. Despite overall positive critics, I think this movie is the weakest part of the trilogy even though it's still slightly above average.

    Just as the first film, Ley Lines focuses on Chinese-born Japanese that have to face a lot of prejudice and racism which is made clear right from the start in a beautiful and surreal opening sequence. Just like in the second movie, the main characters team up with a prostitute that is also looking for a purpose in life. The main characters clash with local gangsters that also have a foreign background which is also typical for the trilogy.

    On the other side, Ley Lines focuses on three characters instead of a lone wolf. It tells the story of two brothers and their school friend who leave the countryside on a train and hope to become rich, famous and accepted in Tokyo. Upon arriving, they get tricked and robbed by a prostitute but she gets beaten up by her pimp and crosses the path with the trio again and decides to accompany and help them this time. The trio first sells petroleum-based inhalant toulene for a weird local low-level criminal. When they realize that they are still living like outcasts, they plan on moving illegally to Brazil on a cargo ship. In order to finance such a resettlement, they rob a local gangster clan that chases them down until the final showdown at the port.

    Ley Lines has a few brutal and explicit scenes like the other two movies, for example when the prostitute gets beaten up by her pimp and when she has to serve two weird clients which are events that convince her to change her profession, life and identity. On the other side, the film has some situation comedy as well. The brothers' friend is weird, overenthusiastic and eccentric which adds a lot of humour and pace to the film but also feels somewhat exaggerated and redundant at times. The prostitute is also quite quirky and has sexual intercourse with all members of the trio to cheer them up which is portrayed in a surprisingly neutral way as this doesn't provoke any conflicts between the four characters.

    The film is overall less brutal and intense than the first movie and less melancholic and solitary than the second instalment. It's somewhere in between those two films and feels directionless at times when weird situation comedy and uplifting moments are followed by rather depressing or boring sequences. Despite a few solid ideas like showing the constant shift of ups and downs in the lives of the three outsiders, Ley Lines is somehow missing its own distinctive identity and has a few minor lengths.

    In conclusion, Ley Lines is still a slightly above average movie and if you have watched Shinjuku Triad Society and Rainy Dog, you won't regret watching this third and last part of the Black Society Trilogy either. If you haven't watched the other two films, there are numerous other Japanese gangster movies of much better quality you should watch first. Let me suggest you Another Lonely Hit-man, Gozu and Outrage.

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  • Gokudô kuroshakai / Rainy Dog (1997)

    Rainy Dog is the second film in Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy that focuses on foreign gangsters with inner struggles that are trying to find a purpose in life. Despite a similar topic, Rainy Dog is very different from the first film Shinjuku Triad Society.

    The first movie focused on Chinese-born Japanese gangsters and police officers that were fighting each other in Tokyo's flashy suburb. This movie here focuses on a Japanese gangster who had to leave the country and settle in Taiwan after committing a crime.

    While the first movie focuses on a more complex plot, includes numerous characters and relies on quite brutal action sequences, this second film is almost an antithesis of the predecessor. Rainy Dog focuses on the solitary main character who works as a hit-man for a local gangster boss after his Japanese boss got killed in his absence. He ultimately tries to run away from his depressing everyday life. The solitary main character is followed by a mute boy that was dropped at his desolate dwelling by a woman the main character had sexual intercourse with many years ago but whose name he doesn't even remember and who claims that he is his son. This unusual duo teams up with a prostitute that wants to start a new life. The trio gets tracked down by three parties: another Japanese hit-man who was asked to avenge the crime that forced the main character to leave his home country, the friends and family members of a guy the main character executed in Taiwan and even the Taiwanese gangster boss the main character was working for in the beginning of the movie that decided to betray him.

    Rainy Dog is a quite revealing title because the main character and those who follow him behave, feel and run way like beaten dogs. In addition to this, it's almost constantly raining throughout the entire movie which adds to the desperate, melancholic and monotonous tone of the movie. Most scenes are set on abandoned beaches, in dark back alleys, in muddy forests and in small impersonal dwellings. This lethargic atmosphere is a little bit harder to digest than the vivid predecessor but it gives the film a very own style. The minimalist acting, the short dialogues and the desolate landscapes only add to this unique approach. The acting performances might be restricted at first sight but that was clearly the director's intention and it's actually quite interesting how the emotionless main character very slowly opens up to not only accepting but even feeling sympathy for the boy that might be his son and the prostitute that is his soulmate.

    The gloomy atmosphere from start to finish leads to a very fitting ending that you wouldn't get in a Hollywood movie and that even some of the actors involved disliked as you can hear and see in the additional interview included on this disc of the Black Society Trilogy package that has been released earlier this year. Personally, I really liked this movie's conclusion.

    In my opinion, Rainy Dog convinces with its profound atmosphere and three main characters that are as flawed as they are fascinating. The downside of the movie is its plot that is average at best and the mostly static action sequences that fail to add some much-needed punch to the lethargic movie. Fans of original Yakuza flicks and director Takashi Miike should give this film a try. Occasional fans of gangster movies can skip the second part of the Black Society Trilogy.

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  • Shinjuku kuroshakai: Chaina mafia sensô / Shinjuku Triad Society (1995)

    Sjinjuku Triad Society was Takashi Miike's first movie that wasn't a direct-to-video release but that made it to Japanese movie theatres. It's also the first part of what would later become the Black Society Trilogy that focuses on gangsters living in foreign countries. This film is also a movie that establishes many trademarks that can be found in numerous Takashi Miike movies until today such as having controversial anti-heroes as protagonists, focusing on a slightly depressing, melancholic and at times surreal atmosphere and including a lot of cold-hearted violence including several anal rape scenes between both homosexual and heterosexual partners, an eyeball being ripped out of an old woman's face and a police officer that nearly gets beaten to death in this particular case. This movie shows the ugly sides of life and how each and every single human being has some serious flaws. Takashi Miike's movie aren't for the faint-hearted but that what makes them so unique after all.

    It has also become a trademark that many of Takashi Miike's movies feature numerous characters and are at times difficult to follow. This is also the case here and it might take about half an hour to figure out who is who and on whose side. You patience will be rewarded with a movie that is equally entertaining and profound.

    The movie shows how a Chinese-born Japanese police officer who isn't fully accepted by either society tries to take care of his old parents who have failed to integrate into Japanese society, protect his younger brother who gets involved as a lawyer for a local triad group and hunt down a homosexual Taiwanese-born gangster boss who is specialized in organ trafficking. The movie shows us flawed but very profound characters who are trying to find a way to be accepted and have a decent life but struggle to succeed in one way or another. This film is a brutal action movie and a suspenseful gangster thriller but also a thought-provoking drama. Despite the depressing settings and the desperate main plot, Takashi Miike also includes a few moments that lighten things up such as his absurd and black humour but also some short moments of compassion between the main character and his parents, a prostitute and his brother.

    Shinjuku Triad Society is a charismatic masterpiece in Takshi Miike's early career that already shows how unconventional and unique his approach to film-making was back then. This movie's brutal, direct and gloomy attitude breaks several taboos in traditional Japan and that's why this film has developed a cult following among younger audiences over the years. If you like twisted dramas, gangster movies and neo-noir cinema, you should not only watch this outstanding movie but the entire Black Society Trilogy that has recently been released in North America with a detailed booklet, analytical commentary and exclusive recent interviews.

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