• Garyeojin Shigan / Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (2016)

    Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned is a South Korean fantasy drama that convinces with an intriguing story mixing fantasy and reality with great acting performances despite a few minor lengths in the middle section. The film has a lot of depth as it deals with the topics of friendship, life and trust in a gripping way. The two main characters are authentic, dynamic and sympathetic and most viewers will care about their fates until the very end. The camera work is accurate and slow, the light techniques add a lot of atmosphere, the Locations are mysterious and original, the soundtrack underlines the movie's atmospheric parts and even the special effects are gorgeous yet down-to-earth which is a perfect mixture most Asian fantasy movies fail to achieve.

    The story revolves around the friendship of two young outsiders that most viewers might identify with because they are both profound, sympathetic and resilient. Su-rin is a teenage girl whose divorced mother died and who has moved to an island with her stepfather. She doesn't really get a long with her busy stepfather, fails to make new friends and is often seen as weird because of her interest in the occult. She's a creative, emotional and smart Girl who even develops a secret sign language. Sung-min is a joyful, optimistic and quirky orphan boy who has a crush on the mysterious girl that is so different from all the others. He works very hard to get closer to her and gradually develops an intense friendship and even romantic relationship to the older Girl despite his friends' negative comments. One day, the young couple and two teenage friends discover a mysterious cave in a forest where they find a shining egg in a hidden lake. When Su-rin returns to the cave to look for a lost hairpin, the three boys break the mysterious egg and provoke a supernatural event that will have immediate, short-term and long-term consequences for everyone involved as well as for their families and the island's small community. Telling you anything more would take away from the creative plot.

    While the event that kicks the story off is a supernatural one, the rest of the story is particularly realistic and has a strong emotional, philosophical and psychological touch. Heart-breaking moments and thoughtful passages meet brief moments of hope and joy. The story remains interesting until the end that some might see as a happy and others as a sad ending which makes it even more interesting depending on your point of view.

    Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned is a particularly great movie for intellectual teenagers because of the two brilliant main characters but anyone who likes profound dramas or thoughtful fantasy movies should give this clever film a fair chance. Once again, South Korean cinema has managed to create a profound teenage movie that easily beats Hollywood's current wave of teenage movies around the Hunger Games or Insurgent franchises.

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  • San shao ye de jian / Sword Master (2016)

    Sword Master is a typical example for the new wave of wu xia cinema. The costumes are colourful, the landscapes are breathtaking and the fight sequences are quite spectacular on the positive side. On the negative side, the special effects are exaggerated and overused, the story is developed in a confusing way with numerous flashbacks to hide the fact that the scenario is rather ordinary and the movie doesn't have the magic pioneer vibe of the original version called Death Duel in particular and the first wave of wu xia movies in general.

    There are three elements that make Sword Master stand out and put it on a slightly above average level if compared to other contemporary wu xia flicks. The first twenty minutes of the movie are quite entertaining and feature interesting character developments, ferocious fights and stunning settings. The movie then quickly becomes exchangeable, predictable and shallow but its first impression is very positive. As a second element, the acting performances are rather positive even though they aren't outstanding or even moving. The different characters are credible and the actors and actresses rarely overact. Aside of one silly character who only has a minor role, the movie also avoids adding silly slapstick elements that wouldn't fit in. Finally, the movie has a great soundtrack that unites traditional folk instruments, classical music and a few modern sounds in a highly diversified and always appropriate way. The soundtrack manages to add more emotions to the different key scenes of this film.

    Fans of traditional Chinese action cinema will surely be entertained by this movie even though it can't compete with the best genre flicks of the seventies and eighties. Those who aren't familiar with the wu xia genre should not start with this film though and discover the original films first. I was entertained very well and would watch this movie again in a few years.

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  • 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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