Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Third Murder Review 2017 Japan 三度目の殺人

The Third Murder 三度目の殺人
Year: 2017
Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Writer: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Cast: Masaharu Fukuyama, Suzu Hirose, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Mikako Ichikawa, Izumi Matsuoka, Yuki Saito, Kōtarō Yoshida, Isao Hashizume, Kōji Yakusho
Running time: 124 minutes
Country: Japan

Japanese auteur Kirokazu Kore-eda's latest film is a break away from his usual gentle family-centric dramas instead opting for a complex murder mystery legal thriller.

Misumi (Kôji Yakusho) has beaten and killed an industrialist. He turns himself in and confesses to the crime. The case could not be more straightforward until defence attorney Shigemori (Fukuyama Masaharu) arrives, determined to do all he can help his client avoid the death penalty. Challenging assertions, seeking out inconsistencies and refusing to take anything at face value, he seeks to obscure the truth in order to save his client. (Glasgow Film Festival)

Kore-eda is undoubtedly one of the finest Japanese directors working today. His films have been consistent and received praise at film festivals from critics and fans alike. However, in spite of this, he has never managed to become one of the well-known Asian directors whose name is known worldwide to more of a mainstream audience like Miike or Kitano.

The Third Murder has performed very well in Japan; it did well at the box office and recently went on to win six awards at the 41st Japan Academy Prize. Including three big awards for Kore-eda himself for Director of the Year, Screenplay of the Year and Best Editing of the Year. It also took home the main award for Picture of the Year, as well as Best Supporting Actor (Koji Yakusho) and Best Supporting Actress (Suzu Hirose).

But is it any good? Short answer, yes. Is it as good as Kore-eda Hirokazu's other work? Short answer, no.

The film opens with Misumi played by veteran actor Koji Yakusho gruesomely murdering a man at night with a hammer. It's a startling introduction, and it informs the viewers they aren't in for a typical whodunit type of film. Instead, Kore-eda uses his slow-paced meditative style to unwrap a complex narrative of why he committed murder. There are many different theories and ideas placed throughout the film which will leave most viewers with different beliefs as they try to piece it together for themselves.

The script is expertly handled with the courtroom scenes and the scenes with lawyers interviewing witnesses really bringing the film to life with its sheer honesty and brutal reality. In preparation for making The Third Murder, Kore-eda brought together seven lawyers over several months and had them do mock interviews with a criminal and stage mock trials while he observed and studied their thought process and language. This idea paid off extremely well as it all feels incredibly accurate.

Some of the greatest scenes of the film involved the lawyer Shigemori interviewing Misumi behind security-glass. These would involve long takes with little to no camera movement with everything focusing on the characters facial expressions. Sometimes he would frame the scene where you could only see one of the faces and the other was just a reflection in the glass. This all adds the emphasis to how important these discussions are for the lawyer and just how frustrating it is for him to try to get to the bottom of this mystery as Misumi constantly changes his version of what happened.

Suzu Hirose actually shot to fame back in 2015 with her starring role in another Hirokazu Kore-eda film Our Little Sister. She was only 16 at the time of release but managed to deliver a stunning performance. Now, at the still young age of 19, she has somehow managed to improve leaps-and-bounds. If there is one actor or actress in Japan that I was to tell you to keep your eye on, it would be Suzu Hirose. I believe she is going to have an exciting future in the film business.

The only downside to the story is a subplot with Shigemori's daughter slows down the pacing of the film and can get a little muddy as the story overlaps with some similarities to Misumi's own story. The film might also be a little too 'talky' for mainstream viewers, which could turn them off before we get to the exciting climax. For those who are familiar with Kore-eda's filmography then this shouldn't be an issue at all.

The Third Murder tackles some interesting points and asks compelling questions about the legal justice system and the death penalty, which is still legal in Japan. Kore-eda may have written this as some social commentary towards these issues, as the ideas and themes will definitely linger in your mind long after you have finished watching.


Written and reviewed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2018

Monday, 5 March 2018

When The Promised Flower Blooms Review 2018 Japan さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう

When The Promised Flower Blooms aka Let's Decorate the Promised Flowers in the Farewell Morning さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう
Year: 2018
Director: Mari Okada
Writer: Mari Okada

Cast: Manaka Iwami, Miyu Irino, Ai Kayano, Yuuki Kaji
Music: Kenji Kawai
Running Time: 115 minutes
Country: Japan

Acclaimed screenwriter Mari Okada makes her directorial debut with a breathtaking animated fantasy feature.

The people of Iolph have a lifespan of hundreds of years and maintain their teenage appearances for life. When an army invades their peaceful town, seeking Iolph blood and the secret of their longevity, a young girl named Maquia is forced to escape. Wandering the land alone, she encounters an orphaned baby in the forest. Maquia chooses to raise him, but as the boy grows older, her looks remain the same, throwing the difference in their lifespans into ever-sharper focus. (Glasgow Film Festival)

Although this is Mari Okada's directorial debut, she is no stranger to the Japanese animation world. She has worked as a screenwriter for hits such as Basilisk and Fate/Stay Night and worked on many other successful shows such as CANAAN, Black Butler and Vampire Knight. I believe working on a variety of different genres has helped her first attempt as a director because When The Promised Flower is something of a genre-bender itself. Combining elements of fantasy, action, drama and coming-of-age, Mari managed to create something truly epic.

The film features some beautiful animation with the backdrops being the main stand out! They have created a beautiful fictional world which takes place on locations such as an island that looks similar to Themyscira from Wonder Woman to a city that is reminiscent of a location from Game of Thrones. These are simply breathtaking to just sit back and admire as the characters explore them. While the main characters themselves might not be as aesthetically pleasing and are more minimalist than what you would see in a Ghibli film, they still seem to work very well with this style and genre.

The meat of the story focuses on the main character Maquia and her relationship with her adopted son Erial. Their relationship starts off cute and cuddly with Erial being a baby right through to boyhood, featuring some hilarious and often touching moments between them. However, things get more complicated as he gets older, grows taller and goes through his teenage years on his way to manhood, yet his mum still appears to look like a teenage girl. This is when the story gets deep and ventures into some heart-wrenching scenes. While not everyone can relate to being immortal, everyone can relate to the changing relationships between parents and children as they grow up.

There are also a couple of wonderfully crafted action scenes spread throughout the film which keeps the flow of the film going at a steady pace while also keeping you interested and alert. They could have benefited from another big action scene, but the film already has a near 2-hour run-time and I don't think they wanted to go overboard.

Because the Iolph people are immortal, the story will often leap forward years ahead which can sometimes be a little jarring. Some of the characters don't stand-out as well as others which can leave you confused trying to figure out who is who. However, because of this plot aspect, they manage to create some compelling, powerful and intriguing storytelling which wouldn't be feasible otherwise.

Kenji Kawai took control as the musical composer and really lifted the film to give it the feel of a huge blockbuster film. Kenji Kawai has lent his hand to many massive anime films including Ghost In The Shell and The Sky Crawlers. However, he has also ventured into live-action, composing for films such as Ringu and the massive Ip Man series starring Donnie Yen. Kenji has created a score that fits the film's emotion perfectly while also suiting the medieval setting, and although there are only a few big action scenes, the music really brings them to life. The main title song Viator by Rionos is enchanting and when it plays at the end I overheard more than a few people bubbling away in the theatre.

The film has a few issues for the climax with many false-endings and some over-clarification. I believe the viewers will have already figured it out without them rehashing points and explaining it again. The film manages to redeem itself with their real ending though, which is what viewers will have been waiting patiently for.

When The Promised Flower Blooms is truly magnificent! It's an incredible story of a relationship between mother and son which just so happens to be set in a stunning Game of Thrones-esque fantasy world! Highly ambitious, extremely moving, at times hilarious and completely beautiful from start to finish.


All The Anime are releasing When The Promised Flower Blooms in select UK and Ireland cinemas on 27th June.

Screened and reviewed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2018.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Mary and the Witch's Flower Review 2017 Japan メアリと魔女の花

Mary and the Witch's Flower メアリと魔女の花
Year: 2017
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writer: Riko Sakaguchi and Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Based On: The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart
Running Time: 103 mins
Country: Japan

The debut film from Japanese animation company Studio Ponoc screened at the Glasgow Film Festival 2018 in both original Japanese language with English subtitles and the newly produced English dub.

The director of When Marnie Was There returns with a thrilling animated adventure based on the Mary Stewart classic The Little Broomstick. Mary is sent to live with her great aunt in the countryside. Venturing into the woods, she discovers a mysterious blue flower that only appears once every seven years, and an old broomstick. Soon she is soaring beyond the clouds to a city in the sky where Madam Mumblechook presides over the Endor College of Magic. An absolute charmer that young and old alike will love. (Glasgow Film Festival)

Back in 2014 Studio Ghibli announced that it would stop making films after Hayao Miyazaki decided to retire and the company came under financial hardship. There was a missing void in high-quality hand-drawn animation that many feared wouldn't be replaced. But several of the most talented alumni behind Studio Ghibli decided to join forces, start their own production company Studio Ponoc and create animated films in the same traditional fashion. The name Ponoc comes from the Serbo-Croation word for 'midnight' which is meant to signal the beginning of a new day.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi has the all-important job of directing their first feature film. After his successful and highly acclaimed 'Arrietty' and 'When Marnie Was There', Yonebayashi once again returns to the tried-and-tested formula of adapting a British novel to Japanese animation.

On the surface, the film appears to combine elements from classics Kiki's Delivery Service and Castle In The Sky mixed with the wizardry of Harry Potter. Die-hard Ghibli fans will be keen to notice moments or visuals which are lifted from films like Spirited Away, The Cat Returns and Princess Mononoke, almost like they are paying homage. There is also a scene featuring a kid with glasses trying to fly a broom who shares a striking resemblance with Harry Potter, this has to be completely intentional!

As you would expect, Mary and the Witch's Flower is full of vibrant, bright and stunning animation. The backdrops and scenery are beautiful and lifelike. The style and technique looks very Ghibli-esque but it still has some of its own unique flavour. The soundtrack is handled by composer Muramatsu Takatsugu, who also scored Yonebayashi's last film When Marnie Was There, and it is a real highlight of the film. The soundtrack fits the world wonderfully, bringing the drama and action to life with its magical sound. The music also really helps build up the suspense and action towards the climax.

The humour and jokes are handled extremely well with some genuinely great laughs throughout. The cat duo of Tib and Gib are excellent comic relief. Their mannerisms and movements are used to add some real comical humour and the animators managed to capture exactly how cats act and move in real life. Like a Disney film, there are plenty of jokes for adults and children, there were many children in attendance during this screening and they were laughing loudly at many of the gags.

One of the main issues with the film is that the world they have created and its lore is just too large to develop over one movie. It would have ideally worked better over two or three films or maybe even an anime series. The introduction to Endor College for Witches is fascinating and there is some time spent there, but you end up craving more before it's quickly abandoned to further the story. Mary's dilemma and intentions are also never really fully explored or realised, she doesn't have enough drama or consequences in her life, it almost just seems like another day to the protagonist as she never really learns or develops as a character.

The screening I attended was the original Japanese language, which was handled extremely well. But I believe Mary and the Witch's Flower could be seen in either the original Japanese language or the English dub. The film is based on an English book, it's set in England and the characters have English names. I haven't watched the English dub but judging from the trailer the new English voice cast seems to suit the film very well. It could be one of those rare animes which can be enjoyed fully either way.

An excellent stepping point for Studio Ponoc which will draw in the fans of Studio Ghibli while hopefully creating some new fans of their very own. The film isn't ambitious as it could have been but maybe playing it safe was the best option for the beginning of this new company. If their future films are as good as or can improve on Mary and the Witch's Flower then their new work could be truly spellbinding.


Screened and reviewed at The Glasgow Film Festival 2018

Monday, 12 February 2018

City of Glass Review 1998 Hong Kong 玻璃之城

City of Glass 玻璃之城
Year: 1998
Director: Mabel Cheung
Writer: Mabel Cheung, Alex Law
Starring: Shu Qi, Leon Lai, Daniel Wu, Nicola Cheung
Running Time: 110 mins
Country: Hong Kong

City of Glass was another commercial success for the tried and tested team-up of director Mabel Cheung and writer Alex Law. But can it match up to their other hits such as An Autumn's Tale, Eight Taels of Gold and The Soong Sisters?

Raphael (Leon Lai) and Vivien (Shu Qi) tragically died in a car accident on their way to a New Year's celebration in London, England. They met and fell in love during their days at the University of Hong Kong in the 1970s, but many challenges and obstacles would often come between them. In the present day, after their funeral, Raphael's son, David (Daniel Wu) and Vivien's daughter, Susie (Nicola Cheung) met for the first time and go on a journey together to discover more about their parent's secret lives.

Following two extremely different love stories, a nostalgic romance in the past and a fresh romance in the present. One story is about destiny and tragedy while the other is more uplifting and positive. Although the film is well written and the characters are extremely likeable, the shifting between stories and time affects the overall drama and impact that the film could have had. It also somewhat hinders the authenticity of the story as Shu Qi and Leon Lai's characters appear to age extremely well. With that being said, Shu Qi is thoroughly engaging and possibly one of the most beautiful screen actresses of all time.

The film is full of stunning still moments with excellent cinematography, dazzling art direction and gorgeous locations, especially capturing the nostalgia of the seventies. Mabel Cheung manages to brilliantly take this period of energetic youth and excitement and frame it all beautifully. The musical soundtrack fits the film perfectly, the choices of songs really set the mood and feelings of the scenes. Leon Lai's rendition of Try to Remember will be lodged in your brain after watching and no doubt you will be humming it for days.

David and Susie are played very well by Daniel Wu and Nicola Cheung. Both are fun characters with a story which unfortunately doesn't receive as much time to blossom. With more development, their romance and side story could have really felt more important. Even with less screen time, the young actors manage to showcase and capture the self-doubt of the Hong Kong youth, some of which is still prevalent to this day.

City of Glass has a lot going on, some of the side-stories and plot devices add to the story, like the Diaoyu Islands dispute, but you are left wondering if it was really needed for the overall story. But in contrast, the Hong Kong handover is used during the story with Wu and Cheung's characters and it embodies the feeling of the whole film. Both sets of love stories can be used as a metaphor for the end of British rule in Hong Kong and the handover to China with an uncertain future ahead.

Overall, it's a flawed film but definitely worth watching. The story, romance and light melodrama are commendable but it's more of a stunning cinematic showpiece with exquisite performances from Shu Qi and Leon Lai that really makes the film feel significant.


Sunday, 21 January 2018

Il Mare Review 2000 South Korea 시월애

Il Mare 시월애
Year: 2000
Director: Lee Hyun-seung
Writer: Yeo Ji-na, Kim Eun-jung, Kim Mi-yeong, Won Tae-yeon
Starring: Jun Ji-hyun, Lee Jung-jae
Running Time: 96 mins
Country: South Korea

Il Mare is the Italian translation for "The Sea" which is the name of a beautiful house which both protagonists live in but tragically they are separated by two years in time.

Eun-joo (Jun Ji-hyun) moves out of her house "Il Mare" on the lead up to Christmas in 1999. She leaves a Christmas card in her mailbox for the future owner, asking them to forward any of her mail to her new address in the city. Sung-hyun (Lee Jung-jae) is the original owner of "Il Mare", he moves into the house in 1997 and discovers the Christmas card in his mailbox from Eun-joo, it is signed with the date 1999, Believing it to be a joke, Sung-hyun writes her back telling her so and reminds her that it's actually 1997. The two eventually realise that they live in the same house but are separated by two years of time, after discovering that they can communicate through the mailbox, they start to bond through the letters they send each other.

Jun Ji-hyun has superstar written all over her in this performance but she actually didn't become a megastar until a year later with the release of My Sassy Girl. Il Mare surprisingly did poorly at the box office but later developed a big following among Korean film fans after the home release and Jun Ji-hyun's popularity explosion. It's now regarded as a bit of a classic! Lee Jung-jae and Jun have great chemistry even though they hardly spend any screen-time together. You really believe in both characters and root for them to overcome their obstacles to meet and be together.

Il Mare is a stunning film with exceptional cinematography and stunning locations. The beach and the house sets are breathtaking and inspiring. It really makes you want to live in a location similar to this. The locations for the film were Ganghwa Island's Sukmodo and Jeju Island's Udo, I'm not sure if these are popular locations for movie-fans to visit, but if they aren't then they should be.

The beach setting and calm pacing, topped with a beautifully relaxing piano musical score give the film a tranquil feeling and peaceful vibe. The story and subplots also develop organically at a slower pace which allows viewers the time to piece together clues and absorb every little detail. That being said, the story involving two different timelines can be puzzling at times and a second watch really does the plot justice!

For fans of modern Korean dramas, there is plenty to keep you entertained and plenty of familiarities. The story has many dramatic moments and tears will be shed. Il Mare has similar beats, ideas, acting and pacing. It also has an engaging plot from beginning to end which will keep you emotionally invested.

In 2006 Hollywood attempted a remake of Il Mare titled The Lake House starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. It really doesn't come close to the original, especially by simplifying the ending. Avoid it and seek out the far superior original!


Thursday, 11 January 2018

Best Asian Films of 2017

2017 was another brilliant year for Asian Cinema! Although not as strong as 2016 which had many record-breaking films also doing well worldwide. 2017 has been a varied year with countries like Hong Kong having a strong showing, Thailand producing a huge award-winning film, China continuing to make brilliant and terrible films which are both very popular and South Korea came nowhere near to their string of hits they produced last year (The Wailing, Train To Busan, The Handmaiden, Inside Men, The Tunnel).

That being said, there are still many films from 2017 that I haven't had a chance to see or that hasn't been released in the UK yet. But from what I have seen, this is a list of my favourites.

10. Wolf Warrior 2 (China) (IMDB - 6.4/Rotten Tomatoes - 70%)

Wolf Warrior 2, the Chinese action film directed by and starring Wu Jing became the highest grossing film in China of all time, completely smashing the previous record set by The Mermaid. (My full Review here)

After the events of Wolf Warrior, Leng Feng (Wu Jing), China's deadliest special forces operative settles into a quiet life on the sea. When sadistic mercenaries begin targeting nearby civilians, he must leave his newfound peace behind and return to his duties as a soldier and protector. A Chinese destroyer arrives to evacuate strictly Chinese civilians caught up in the middle of the civil war, but after overhearing guards talking about needing someone to rescue workers at a factory and an important doctor who knows the vaccination for Lamanla, Leng Feng volunteers.

It is extremely interesting to a Chinese film almost mimic the formula for big-budget Hollywood films and do it so well. It's similar to films such as Rambo but told from the Chinese political perspective. The action scenes are brilliant especially the introduction featuring some cleverly shot underwater fight scenes. The special effects and CGI are mostly handled very well and the story never sags as there is always some action only a few minutes away.

Wu Jing shines in this role and finally becomes the film-star he deserves to be after being a sideman in many previous great Hong Kong and Chinese action films.

9. The Outlaws (South Korea) (IMDB - 7.1/Rotten Tomatoes - NA)

The Outlaws is a crime film based on real events from 2007 known as the Heuksapa Incident, revolving around a turf war between a local gang that runs the Garibong-dong neighbourhood and an up-and-coming ruthless Chinese gang.

A local gang war is on the verge of eruption. Jang Chen is a Chinese loan shark in the Chinatown area of Seoul and is backed by his two terrifying henchmen Wei Sung-Rak and Tang-Tae who use brutal methods when collecting money. When Jang Chen makes his move to take over the local gang's turf of Garibong-dong, a local bruiser detective Ma Seok-do tries to keep the peace while stopping the local gang warfare.

Ma Seok-do is played brilliantly by Ma Dong-seok, most people will know the actor as his role in Train to Busan as the tough-guy husband who is on the train with his pregnant wife. Incredibly well suited for the role mainly due to his macho appearance and the way he carries himself. Ma Dong-seok has a build that makes him look like a tough rugby player or a bouncer, which makes the role of the tough-cop extremely believable as he enters scenes and slaps about the bad guys like they are cannon fodder.

The story is equally as compelling due to the villains of the film. Jang Chen and his two henchmen really do commit some horrible acts in the film, so much though so that they aren't even likeable bad-guys, they are genuinely chilling and horrifying characters that you are praying they get caught before they do anything else.

The Outlaws is a familiar plot, in a familiar story and setting but it's the characters and the style that are its real driving force for making it still seem like a fresh film.

8. Blade of The Immortal (Japan) (IMDB - 6.8/Rotten Tomatoes - 85%)

Takashi Miike marked his 100th film by returning to two genre's he is already familiar with (manga adaptations and the samurai genre) for the completely bonkers over-the-top and highly entertaining Blade of The Immortal.

A highly skilled Samurai called Manji becomes cursed with immortality after a legendary epic battle. After meeting a young girl named Rin, he decides to help her avenge her parents who were killed by a group of swordsmen led by Anotsu. Still haunted by the murder of his sister, Manji realises that fighting evil and helping Rin will help regain his soul.

Miike is still one of the most exciting directors working today! During the 90s and early 2000s, he released many fascinating films, often breaking boundaries and going against the mainstream with shock cinema. But for the past 10 years or so, he has directed some films that are a lot more commercial and not up to his usual standards. Many of his fans believe his last truly great film was 2010's 13 Assassins or 2011's Hara-Kiri. So it would make sense for him to return to the Samurai genre once again.

If you are looking for a film filled with many bloody battles and fight scenes then this film definitely delivers. Featuring many huge battles with one vs over one-hundred, it sometimes reminds you of a video-game like Dynasty Wars as Manji cuts down victim after victim. There's also some more low-key skilful Samurai Swordplay fights shot with stunning cinematography for the real Samurai enthusiasts.

For the Miike fan's who are more into his crazy side. Fear not, Blade of the Immortal often ventures into the downright bizarre especially in scenes with characters losing limbs. There is also a fair share of laughs delivered in a shock black-humour type of fashion which will leave you shaking your head while you laugh out loud.

7. Duckweed (China) (IMDB - 6.5/Rotten Tomatoes - 100%)

Duckweed was released for the Chinese New Year but fortunately, it doesn't descend into the usual idiotic nonsense that they are known for. Instead of slapstick comedy, Duckweed puts a smile on your face with nostalgia.

Xu Tailang is a champion rally driver who after unfortunately being involved in a massive car accident is transported back in time to 1998. Waking up, the year before he was actually born, Tailang accidentally bumps into his father Zhengtai. In the 90s his father was a hoodlum who ran a lame gang and ran a small Karaoke bar. When Tailang realises the women, his father is dating isn't his mother, he quickly goes about trying to break them up while also finding his real mum.

The best thing about Duckweed is that it never takes itself too seriously. Ignore logic and just enjoy this trip to a simpler easy-going time. The director may have borrowed plot points from American 80s cinema, especially Back To The Future, but the film is also steeped in 90s Chinese pop-culture. From the fashion to the films they watch and emulate, there are many references to 90s Hong Kong films. The gang that Zhengtai often act like they are starring in a John Woo film especially with their attitudes to brotherhood.

The 1990s do not seem that long ago, but the world has changed and moved so quickly. Gone are the days of groups of guys hanging out and eating dinner and drinking beers while telling stories, because now everyone has a mobile phone glued to their hand. And that's what this film celebrates. Many people didn't want to change and move on and there are also mentions of them from characters who collect videotapes or stock up on the essential pagers.

The idea of going back in time and meeting someone who unfortunately died before you got the chance to meet them will always tug at the heartstrings. But going back in time and hanging out with your father while you are both the same age, seeing how he became the person that you know him as today is equally as gripping, interesting and emotional.

6. Memoir of a Murderer (South Korea) (IMDB - 6.9/Rotten Tomatoes - NA)

South Korea definitely makes the best serial killer films on the planet. And with Memoir of a Murderer director Won Shin-yun still manages to keep the genre fresh and interesting.

Veterinarian Byeong-Soo was a former serial killer who reluctantly gave up killing after an accident seventeen years earlier. Now he is being plagued with dementia and Alzheimer's setting in which is quickly erasing his old memories. After getting into a car accident with Min Tae-joo he immediately recognises that he is also a killer. When he discovers his daughter is dating Tae-joo he battles to keep him away, but in doing so he also must battle his own memory which he no longer trusts.

Memoir of a Murder is an excellent example of how to do a serial killer thriller but still keep it feeling new. Not just dealing with a game of cat and mouse, and the themes of murder and serial killers, the film also tackles the confusing subject of memory loss and how the mind works. Imagine catching someone in the act; you know they are a killer, you go to the police to inform them but by the time you get there you completely forget what you were going to tell them in the first place. That's how frustrating and scary life is for Byeong-soo who only wants to protect his daughter.

Sol Kyung-gu has a great outing as an ageing serial killer. He almost becomes unrecognisable in his weathered broken down role. His mannerisms are also great, as the film progresses you witness him struggle more and more with his memory but you also see changes in his appearances such as his slight facial tick which develops more and more to the stage of it being similar to Takeshi Kitano's immediately following his real-life accident.

Memoir of a Murderer is a dark and brutal thriller reminiscent of popular films from the Korean new wave which will keep fans of that era happy. Featuring elements and plot devices similar to films like Memories of Murder, I Saw The Devil and Oldboy, although unfortunately it never quite hits the same heights.

5. A Silent Voice (Japan) (IMDB - 8.2/Rotten Tomatoes  - 91%)

Released in 2016 in Japan but released everywhere else in 2017. A Silent Voice is one of the most mature, honest and emotionally charged anime films ever made. (my full review here)

A Silent Voice revolves around elementary school student delinquent Shoya Ishida. When a hearing impaired girl Shoko Nishimya transfers to the school, she starts to get bullied, especially from Ishida. Several years later he meets her again and sets himself on a path to redemption by trying to make it up to Nishimya and to help reconnect her with her old classmates that she never had the chance to befriend.

Tackling many different subject matters such as bullying, suicide, redemption, friendship and love. A Silent Voice is one of the most ambitious anime films ever made. Without using giant robots or time travel or fantasy, it achieves its deserved praise by focusing just on raw human emotions. Bullying is the main subject of the first act. Often shown lightly and during montages, some of these scenes are actually surprisingly amusing. But you soon realise that this poor girl is being bullied, and it's really not funny at all. Any feeling of amusement you had quickly changed to anger as Nishimya is tormented by her classmates. It's hard to think of an anime film that brings out so many feelings of outrage and pain while you watch on helplessly.

The animation style of the characters and backgrounds are completely stunning. Although there are animes out there with higher production values, which might look technically better. A Silent Voice is bright and sparkling and beautiful to look at. The film's soundtrack fits perfectly. It might open with a bang as My Generation by The Who kicks off the intro. The audio then transitions into a lighter soundtrack with piano and soft musical scores which suits the underlying themes and tones.

 A Silent Voice is a must-see for anime fans. It wasn't as popular or as accessible as other recent emotional anime films such as When Marnie Was There and Your Name. But while maybe not as big, A Silent Voice delivers something much deeper. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that if every school student was sat down and forced to watch A Silent Voice then this world could be a much better and kinder place.

4. Let's Go Jets! (Japan) (IMDB - 7.1/Rotten Tomatoes - NA)

One of the most surprising films of the entire year for me was a film about Japanese cheerleaders. Based on a true story of a cheerdance club from Fukui High School in Japan who made it to the national competition in the USA in 2009.

High School Girl Hikari Tomonaga joins the cheerdance club at Fukui Chuo High School because she thinks it will make her cooler while also impressing her crush Kosuke Yamashita. The cheerdance club is still finding its feet after being recently converted from a baton twirling club. The girls must deal with an ultra-strict instructor Kaoruko Saotome and her many rules, as she announces that their goal is to compete at the National USA Cheerdance Championship.

The driving force and backbone behind the entire film is a show-stealing performance from 19-year-old Suzu Hirose, whose claim to fame was a stunning role in Our Little Sister (2015). It's an incredibly energetic performance that draws you in. She really becomes the character she is playing. The instructor backs Hikari because she sees something special, her smile, her charisma, her aura. Fortunately, the actress embodies all of these aspects because it makes the story all the more believable.

Let's Go Jets! Takes the coming-of-age sports drama formula and manages to make it incredibly charming, extremely funny and at times deeply moving. Laughs are had and tears are shed... All over some girls becoming cheerleaders!

This unique and quirky take on a school cheerdance club is achieved by taking an American institution and transporting it to Japan and seeing it uniquely through their eyes. Think less of Bring It On! and imagine more of the 2004 Japanese comedy Swing Girls meets the 2002 Japanese sports-drama Ping Pong!

3. Bad Genius (Thailand) (IMDB - 7.9/Rotten Tomatoes - 92%)

Another surprise hit for 2017 was the Thai film Bad Genius. When most people think of the best Thai films they will think back to Tony Jaa's Ong Bak and The Warrior King or maybe even their horror film's like Shutter. But their biggest hit in years is a drama about students who cheated on exams.

Lynn is a genius High School student who receives a scholarship to a prestigious school because of her high intellect. After befriending a few of the wealthier students and offering to help them on their exams, she quickly realises she can make money by helping them cheat. After a few successful schemes, they decide to take the cheating to the next level by going to Sydney, Australia, and helping her friends back in Thailand cheat the international STIC(SAT) exams.

On the surface Bad Genius is a modern-day heist film, think Ocean's Eleven meets The Social Network. It's a clever, extremely tense thriller with nail-biting, intelligent, neatly woven set-pieces which just so happen to take the normal heist setting and transport them to a student exam room. The production looks fantastic and very slick to give it the feel of a huge-scale thriller.

The cast all does a tremendous job, especially Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying who is likeable and relatable in the lead role. She is believable as a genius who would resort to helping these students cheat exams but at the same time still being a sympathetic character that you want to succeed. The rest of the cast all have great chemistry with all the school friends bouncing off of each other and creating some very enjoyable and funny scenes together.

Bad Genius is a real crowdpleaser. It became the highest grossing film in Thailand in 2017 then went on to do extremely well across Asia breaking many box-office records for a Thai film. It's hard to place exactly why a teen-comedy meets a high-stakes thriller was such a success with fans and critics, but Bad Genius just simply works on every single level.

2. Mad World (Hong Kong) (IMDB - 7.4/Rotten Tomatoes - NA)

For his directorial debut, Wong Chun managed to convince Eric Tsang and Shawn Yue to star is a low-budget drama dealing with the issues of mental health and the problems of living in an urban society.

Tung, a mentally ill financial analyst suffering from bipolar disorder is suddenly discharged from hospital and has to adjust to now living with his estranged father. Tung is struggling to reconcile with his ex-fiancee while dealing with the cloud of his mother's death who was also diagnosed with bipolar. The former financial analyst tries to find a new job and gain control of his life with support from his father.

Mad World was shot in Hong Kong in just over two weeks on a shoe-string budget of $258,000 USD. This speaks wonders for the power of the brilliant script written by Florence Chan, so much so that it would attract a star cast of Eric Tsang and Shawn Yue with support from Elaine Jin and Charmaine Fong. The storytelling is personal and ambitious. It never shies away from social stigmas. It takes the issues of fear and intolerance towards mental health and tackles them head-on.

The heart of the story revolves around Tung and his father's relationship. Drawing off of each other's emotions, the film is filled with extremely powerful scenes between the two leads, many tear-jerking moments that are deeper than any melodrama as they will stay with you, make you think and maybe even challenge your own beliefs or attitudes towards these subject matters.

So far Mad World has won a total of 13 film awards at the big Asian Film award shows, and it's received even more nominations. It was selected as Hong Kong's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards but unfortunately, it wasn't selected. An exciting break from genre films from Hong Kong which will hopefully inspire other local filmmakers to tackle more risky projects.

1. A Taxi Driver (South Korea) (IMDB - 7.9/Rotten Tomatoes - 95%)

A Taxi Driver is a South Korean historical drama based on the true events of the Gwangju Democratization Movement from May 1980.

In 1980, a foreign journalist Hinzpeter hires a down-on-his-luck taxi driver to take him to Gwangju, South Korea. They soon arrive to find a city under siege by student protesters and the military. After witnessing a street demonstration being met with tear-gas and military brutality, Hinzpeter is determined to record footage and smuggle it out to be shown by a German news channel.

Directed by Jang Hoon who helmed the 2011 war epic The Front Line and starring the ever-reliable Song Kang-ho, who is now arguably one of Korea's finest actors after delivering excellent performances in a string of hits such as JSA, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Memories of Murder, The Host, The Good, The Bad and The Weird, Thirst, Snowpiercer and The Age of Shadows. Essentially everything he touches turns to gold and A Taxi Driver is no exception. His onscreen team up with German actor Thomas Kretschmann is perfect and it's actually dumbfounding how great their chemistry is together considering the number of barriers between them.

For a historical drama, the story is still filled with some genuinely heart-warming moments including seeing the locals coming together, embracing the foreigner and the sheer pride they convey in their goals. There are also some excitingly tense scenes featuring the protagonists trying to escape the overpowering military, especially one long car chase which would rival any action film.

A Taxi Driver is extremely captivating, powerful, informative and moving from start to finish. The film is opening doors in South Korea to look into the events that took place during the uprising which has never fully been revealed. It's also a great tool for the rest of the world to learn about a moment in modern history that most will be completely unaware of. It's an educational gut-wrencher which deserves to be witnessed by everyone.


Honourable Mentions

I have 4 honourable mentions. Films that were originally in the top 10 but unfortunately got knocked off the list. First honourable mention is Headshot, the Indonesian martial arts film starring Iko Uwais from The Raid fame and directed by the Mo Brothers(Killers). Fans of The Raid and Merentau will love the brutal relentless action! The film was actually released in 2016 but in the UK we never got it until 2017, which is why it never made the list. The third instalment in the SPL series Paradox was another big box office hit in Asia in 2017. A great Hong Kong action film with an excellent dramatic and physical performance from Louis Koo. Fans of the SPL series and martial art fans, in general, will be pleased! South Korean action comedy Confidential Assignment was another film that was just edged out of the list. The 3rd biggest film at the Korean box office of 2017. Think Rush Hour but instead of Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan teaming up, it's a South and North Korean. Some great action scenes & shoot-outs and this one is genuinely funny! The last honourable mention is Shock Wave. This Hong Kong action thriller directed by Herman Yau and starring Andy Lau was viewed by many as Hong Kong's first proper Blockbuster. Filled with many impressive engaging action set-pieces and fairly great special effects, Shock Wave is an entertaining film looking at the work of the bomb disposal unit.


So there we have it. My top 10 of 2017! As previously said, there are still loads of films I haven't seen yet from '17. But if there is one you feel strongly about being excluded, then let me know.

Let's see what 2018 has in store for us!

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Asian Christmas Films Part 2

Back in 2013, I wrote an article highlighting 3 of my favorite Asian Christmas films from Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. After rewatching more this year, I figured a follow up was due with 3 more of my favourites! So sit down in front of the TV with your family, grab a Christmas KFC and some mulled wine and let the holiday festivities begin.

It All Began When I Met You
Year: 2013
Director: Katsuhide Motoki
Writer: Atsuko Hashibe
Cast: Hiroshi Tamaki, Rin Takanashi, Fumino Kimura, Masahiro Higashide, Tsubasa Honda, Miwako Ichikawa, Saburo Tokito, Nene Otsuka, Nenji Kobayashi and Chieko Baisho
Running time: 106 minutes
Country: Japan

In 2013 Japan released their Love Actually inspired romantic Christmas film. Following 6 different semi-interlinking stories focusing on 10 different characters in the lead up to Christmas. The film revolves around the location of the magnificent Tokyo Station which was used in celebration of its 100th anniversary.

The characters and their stories feature a wide range of diversity. A train driver has received the news that his illness has left him with only 6 months left to live and he is faced with the difficult decision of telling his son. A long-distance relationship between a fashion designer in Tokyo and a construction worker in Sendai is facing some real tough issues. Will they be able to resolve their schedules and meet each other for Christmas? A miserable company president with severe trust issues meets a woman at a restaurant in Tokyo Station. He believes all women are only after his money but that accusation doesn't sit well with the woman. A 7-year-old girl who lives at an orphanage hopes and prays that her mum will come back to pick her up for Christmas. The owner of a cake shop at Tokyo Station is reminded of a promise she made to her partner 49 years ago while she watches one of her part-time workers nervously try to approach her crush.

The romantic element of  "It All Began When I met You" is actually more suited for the Japan setting than it is for the British setting of Love Actually. In Japan, Christmas not being a national holiday, is actually more about couples and dates than it is about family. Many singles desperately try and find someone they can date and spend Christmas with.

While the film may play out like a romantic comedy. The film is actually far from it. Some of the stories are sad and others are downright tragic. Plus some of the "love" stories feature some characters acting like jerks. Some of the stories don't quite touch the heart as much as they should, but still does a fair job of feeling Christmassy and some of the stories shine on their own!

A solid Christmas film with great performances and a beautiful setting. You will laugh, you will cry and probably cry again.



The Tower
Year: 2012
Director: Kim Ji-hoon
Writers: Kim Sang-don, Heo Jun-seok
Cast: Sol Kyung-gu, Kim Sang-kyung, Son Ye-jin
Running time: 121 minutes
Country: South Korea

2012 saw the release of the surprise Christmas disaster film, The Tower, inspired by The Towering Inferno(1974). Set on Christmas Eve in Seoul and released on Christmas Eve across South Korea on Christmas Day. It's not exactly your everyday standard festive film, think of this one as more of a Die Hard or Batman Returns.

 It's Christmas Eve at Tower Sky, a luxury twin-skyscraper in central Seoul as the staff and president prepare for a massive Christmas party. Dae-ho the maintenance manager has a crush on the restaurant manager Yoon-hee, which often causes him to screw up in her presence. Dae-ho's daughter arrives for the Christmas party, but he has to leave her in the care of Yoon-hee as he is forced to deal with security issues including a faulty sprinkler system. While everyone is enjoying the party, the Sky Tower manager dazzles the guests with fake snow being dropped from above from hired helicopters. However, strong winds cause serious disaster as one of the helicopters loses control and crashes into one of the towers. Raging fires soon begin to spread across the building, engulfing floor by floor. Veteran firefighter Young-ki leads the fire department to the scene to try and stop the disaster.

The Tower is easily one of the best disaster films in years. While most disaster films struggle to hold the viewer's attention in the opening act while they patiently wait for the action and chaos to start, The Tower manages to be entertaining from the very start. All of the characters are intriguing and their stories as captivating as you try to suss out who will become the heroes and who will be the victims. The pacing is frantic with none of the acts really dragging out or leaving you bored.

For being a lower budget film than Hollywood counterparts, all of the visual and special effects are brilliant. The scenes with the fire spreading are genuinely scary as are the exploding flames. The film often leaves you feeling on edge and tense and almost claustrophobic as the fire surrounds all the poor guests.

The film definitely has it's Christmas moments. From the party setting, to the Christmas music to the family drama and romance. The first half hour introduces you to the characters and makes you care for them. The next hour and a half is an adrenaline rush and those characters you now care about trying to survive. If you are looking for a 2 hour no-nonsense gripping thrill-ride this Christmas then this one is for you.



MIRACLE デビクロくんの恋と魔法
Miracle: Devil Claus' Love and Magic
Year: 2014
Director: Isshin Inudo
Writers: Kou Nakamura (novel), Tomoe Kanno
Cast: Masaki Aiba, Nana Eikura, Han Hyo-Joo, Toma Ikuta, Hitori Gekidan
Running time: 115 minutes
Country: Japan

The most original film on the list is easily Miracle: Devil Claus. Not being based on or inspired by another movie but based on an original Japanese novel, this makes Miracle feel all the more uniquely Japanese.

A bookshop worker Hikari(Masaki Aiba) is extremely kind and reserved, not really getting himself out there, his kindness often makes him look pathetic to others. Hikari dreams of becoming a successful manga artist and he spends his free time spreading mysterious flyers called "Debikuro Communication" around the city. He meets a girl one cold winter night that he immediately falls for. Anna(Nana Eikura) has been Hikari's best friend ever since they were children but she secretly wants more from him. It turns out she works with the girl that had the chance encounter with Hikari, a successful lighting designer So-Young(Han Hyo-Joo). Meanwhile, Kitayama(Toma Ikuta) who was friends with Hikari is back in town, he is now a popular manga writer and his life is just about to cross with Hikari once again.

The Devil Claus from the title is actually a fictional character that Hikari creates for one of his manga comics. The character pops up from time-to-time as an animated cartoon character in a real-world setting, looking like a similar effect to Roger Rabbit. It is only Hikari that can see him like an imaginary friend, offering wisdom and often added to scenes for great comic effect.

While not being as cliche as you might first think, it is still a somewhat familiar story of misunderstood love and finding your way, set to the backdrop of Christmas. The story has just enough Christmas and romance to be in that genre without becoming to sickly-sweet. Pretty predictable from start to finish, it never pretends to be anything more than a fun Christmas drama. This is one that will certainly leave you feeling in the Christmas spirit and maybe even hoping for a Christmas miracle.



So there we have it. Another Christmas is nearly upon us. But there is still some time to sit down with a few festive films and get into the spirit of the holidays.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!