Review: Wife of a Spy (Japan 2020)

Watching Kiyoshi Kurosawa experiment with new genres over this past decade or so has been fascinating. The man knows how to make an incredibly spooky supernatural chiller – his Kairo/Pulse is probably the pinnacle of J-horror for me – but in his later years he can often feel like he’s going through the motions with horror (as in his lackluster Daguerrotype). Whereas with his more out-of-the-box work, like Journey to the Shore, and Tokyo Sonata, or even Before We Vanish, you can sense the excitement of trying something new.

With Wife of a Spy, Kurosawa enters all new territory, the wartime drama/thriller – perhaps closer to Hitchcock than Kurosawa has ever come before. Except where Hitchcock is usually visceral, Kurosawa remains removed and intellectual, even as he engages with more humanist concerns.

It’s an odd project, a Nikkatsu-produced television movie (shot on 8K digital, and converted/reedited for the big screen) that focuses tightly on a married couple living in Kobe in 1940 in a nation on the cusp of war, a war already well underway in China. Industrialist Yusaku Fukuhara (a cool, confident Issey Takahashi) is a self-proclaimed cosmopolitan, opposed to the war crimes and increased militarization of Imperial Japan. Whereas his wife Satoko (Yu Aoi) is more easygoing, more concerned with the personal than the political. When the two get caught up in a plot involving evidence of Japanese war crimes, the biggest confrontations are between them, not the outside world, despite the constant circling of old friend turned military policeman Taiji.

The film is definitely a slow burn. The primary drama lies in the dynamics of the marriage – Takahashi’s Yusaku is an enigmatic figure, whereas the always excellent Yu Aoi constantly wears her emotions on her sleeve. And while the period detail is accurate, I wouldn’t call it sumptuous, this is not Lust, Caution – if anything, it errs on the side of the realistic and drab (perhaps a function of the television budget, perhaps a choice), though the costuming is excellent. And it takes time for the real crux of the plot to sink again, I did not feel fully engaged until the endgame.

Indeed, there are really only a couple of points where the film, for better or for worse, aesthetically feels like what I would call a “Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie.” The Fukuharas fancy themselves filmmakers, and the segments where they and their associates or others gather to watch films capture the oddity of a communal viewing – the in-film films themselves have a slightly surreal quality, especially the choppily edited and faded footage of war crimes.

Oddly, this may be the closest Kiyoshi Kurosawa has come to that other famous Kurosawa, Akira, resembling in some respects his deeply emotional post-war films like No Regrets for Our Youth but mingled with his noir stylings of the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Kiyoshi Kurosawa remains a fascinating chameleon – I’ll always await what he brings next.

Wife of a Spy opens tomorrow, September 17, at the IFC Center in New York before expanding to select theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide, from Kino Lorber.

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Review: Yakuza Princess (Brazil 2021)

Brazil has a large Japanese population, and the social conflicts between returning Japanese ex-pats and more traditional Japanese citizens have been the subject of a lot of great Japanese cinema, like Takashi Miike’s wild City of Lost Souls and Masato Harada’s tremendous, soulful Kamikaze Taxi. But this is the first time I’ve seen the topic tackled from the Brazilian side, as a Japanese-Brazilian woman (musician MASUMI) finds herself pursued by her family’s criminal past in the home country.

The story, based on a comic by Brazilian artist Danilo Beyruth (who did some excellent work on the recent Gwenpool series), leans a bit heavily on yakuza tropes, as we get honorable (and dishonorable) gangsters, betrayals, and assassins. But the film benefits from its atmosphere, as the characters prowl Sao Paulo’s Liberdade neighborhood, home to the biggest ethnic Japanese population outside of Japan. If anything, I wish we’d gotten more of the local color, as the shots of Liberdade are fascinating – I’d like to see a film set more tightly in that milieu.

Despite that, director Vicente Amorim has style to spare, establishing a strong neon aesthetic reminiscent of the work of Michael Mann, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Ridley Scott. But Amorim’s Liberdade has a grungy edge to its Kabukicho-esque visuals – a darker, dirtier edge that still manages to capture the feel of a place where real people work and do business.

Amorim is aided by an excellent international cast, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an amnesiac hitman and Tsuyoshi Ihara as an ambiguous gang boss from the home country. Ihara in particular is very strong here, even though the role requires playing his cards very close to the vest. MASUMI has to shoulder a lot of the narrative burden and frankly looks a little more comfortable when asked to sing than act, but handles the numerous action scenes with aplomb.

Yakuza Princess doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre, but it’s a satisfying yakuza film in an unconventional setting, and small touches of oddness (like the yakuza retirement home) are thoroughly enjoyable. Yakuza Princess opens today, September 3, digitally and in US theatres from Magnet Releasing.

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Review: Behemoth (USA 2021)

Horror is traditionally one of those genres where you can do a lot on a wing and prayer, and where you can show off your chops despite a low budget. Here, director Peter Szewczyk (coming out of major shops like WETA and Skywalker Ranch) accomplishes a ton with just 3 months of work and $65,000, and I can’t wait to see what he can do with a serious budget. As proof of concept, this low budget horror looks strong as hell despite its flaws.

Behemoth is a bit of a mindf—k in the Cronenbergian tradition, as our protagonists find themselves embroiled in both real world complications and increasingly bizarre and alarming visions whose reality is constantly in question. Josh Eisenberg stars as the whistleblowing schlub who gets his friends in way over their heads as he tries to force answers out of his sinister employer, a thinly veiled Du Pont-esque corporation that seems to have poisoned his daughter.

While the effects are initially restrained, Szewczyk gradually lets loose as the real world starts to crumble. I’ll confess, I’m much more of a practical effects guy than a CGI fan, but Szewczyk understands that CGI is often best used to make subtle alterations to the real world or to insert vague menace, and is nowhere more effective than when depicting creeping delusions – more Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Pan’s Labyrinth than Phantom Menace.

The cast, many of whom have put in their time in the DTV sci-fi and creature feature salt mines aren’t all fully up to carrying the film, but there are a couple of bright spots – particularly Jennifer Churchich as the sympathetic friend-hoping-to-be-more Keelee and Paul Statman as a Mephistophelian company man.

All in all, an enjoyable time in the vein of a modern Wishmaster, albeit less tongue in cheek.

Behemoth releases nationwide this Friday, August 27, in the US from Level 33 Entertainment.

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Review: Wonderful Paradise (Japan 2020)

Japan Cuts 2021

Looking to scratch that “weird Japan” itch but with some more substantive meat under the oddity? This has a bit of an After Hours energy, as a small goodbye party thrown by a depressed family losing their home spins out into a full blown festival with funerals, weddings, impromptu yakisoba stands, and Biollante. The surreality emerges slowly, like a turtle poking its head out to test the air before sprinting for the ocean – going from a couple randos stopping by to a full on Bollywood dance number. My only real complaint is that there are a few points where the film goes into Funky Forest territory a little too far too fast.

I need to check out more Masashi Yamamoto – I’ve only seen this, Three Points (which I didn’t care for), and Man Woman and the Wall (which was delightfully perverted).

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Review: Go Seppuku Yourselves (Japan 2021)

Japan Cuts 2021

You want a master class in how to make a monologue absolutely riveting? Look no further than this intensely angry short film that maps Toyoda’s anger about government failings during the pandemic onto the story of a samurai (an intense, excellent performance by Yosuke Kubozuka) made scapegoat for an older epidemic. Very much a spiritual successor to Harakiri, and with a funky Noh-meets-noise rock score.

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Review: Free Guy (USA 2021)

A pinch of Matrix, a healthy smatter of Lego Movie, two tablespoons of They Live, and a dusting of Truman Show, stir in some Ready Player One. Let sit for one year and serve slightly cold.

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Review: What We Left Unfinished (Afghanistan/USA/Qatar 2019)

Anybody looking for a window into the utter chaos Afghanistan is facing as the US pulls out in the face of Taliban advances would do well to watch What We Left Unfinished, a documentary about the aborted film industry that briefly flourished during the chaotic years between 1978-1991. While the current regime is propped up by the US instead of the Soviets – and hopefully at least slightly less cynically colonial – the fragility and barely tamped down violence, and the hopes of the artistic community, remain strikingly similar.

Mariam Ghani, visual artist and daughter of the current President, here takes as her subject five unfinished films partially shot during the that interim period – post-monarchy and pre-Taliban. A period when communist regime succeeded communist regime and coup followed coup, with three successive leaders assassinated within the span of just a few years.

Ghani not only recovered footage from the films – thrillers and action pics depicting the rise of the new regime and battles against lawless elements (let us be clear, these were meant to be popular cinema) – but was able to interview many of the key figures involved, directors, actors and actresses, cinematographers, in order to assemble a snapshot of what was and what could have been.

Part of the fascination lies in the contrasts between the pictures painted by the filmmakers – the brutality of the communist takeover (one filmmaker talks of filming the table where former Pres. Daoud and his family were massacred and how that footage was confiscated later by the Soviets) versus the increased funding and quasi-freedom for filmmakers. Some evoke a type of Weimar Republic, with a flowering of cinema and funding, while others better remember the contemporaneous reign of terror, people being disappeared for criticizing the government and Soviet “advisors” with total editing discretion.

There can be no question that the films were funded for propagandistic purposes – the villains were drug traffickers, mujahedeen, and Pakistani spies, enemies of the regime. But yet, even as they dance around that, all the filmmakers have such affection for their work – even as they worked within the system they felt they were showing truth, as much as possible.

And the resources – Afghan Film studio briefly had incredible access to the military allowing for impressive special effects and explosions, the kind of military-friendly films you see in China now with movies like Operation: Red Sea or in the US with flicks like Top Gun. Of course, filming with soldiers sometimes became an actual battle, as real bullets were fired and actors were killed during filming. And as intelligence agents wrote scripts and coup leaders inserted themselves into the films.

Ghani has assembled these materials with a deft touch, almost Herzogian in her use of editing and music. The film is elegiac yet hopeful, much like the interviewees. At least, no matter what happens in the coming weeks, we’ll always have this document of a unique period.

What We Left Unfinished opens in US theaters and on demand on Friday, August 6, from Dekanalog.

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Review: Cutie Honey (Japan 2004)

Now THAT’S how to do a comic book superhero movie. Total live action cartoon full of bizarro touches and cheesecake, it’s genially sleazy in an old fashioned pin-up kind of way but maybe 1/10th as perverted as the original Go Nagai manga. And the costumes and effects and villains and songs are all delightful.

But man, it’s nice to see a Hideaki Anno project that doesn’t smack of massive depression. I’ve been on a bit of an Anno kick, finally powering through Evangelion and reading Insufficient Direction, so it’s fun to see him so happy. Can’t believe it took me so long to see this.

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Review: Phantom of Death aka Off Balance (Italy 1988)

Man, ‘80s-era Ruggero Deodato is so batshit crazy. Stellar cast (Michael York, Donald Pleasence, Edwidge Fenech) and crew (Pino Donaggio does the music!) in service of a semi-nonsensical giallo about York as a professional pianist/part-time ninja (yes, you read that right) who goes on a murder spree after contracting the world’s worst case of progeria. Plenty of boobs, knives, black gloves, and confused Italian police ensue. 

Oh, and ninjas.

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Review: Zulu Dawn (UK 1979)

If the British clinging on by a thread in Zulu (1964) pissed you off, this is the movie to watch. A prequel to Zulu, Zulu Dawn shows the British stumbling into the absolute fiasco that was the Battle of Isandhlwana, as a combination of greed and arrogance leads British colonial forces to a crushing defeat at the hands of the Zulus.

I wish I could say that any of the Zulus have huge roles, but at least they are portrayed as competent, courageous, and strategically-minded, while the Brits are the very embodiment of the proverb “pride goeth before a fall.” 

The main reasons to watch this, though, are the stunning, large scale action sequences and the deep cast bench. You’ve got Peter O’Toole as the icy, patrician colonial commander, Burt Lancaster as a swashbuckling cavalryman, Bob Hoskins as a gruff sergeant, Denholm Elliott as an officer out of his depth, and on and on. Not essential viewing, or entirely successful, but aficionados of historical war films will find much to enjoy. And it certainly lead me down a fascinating Wikipedia hole.

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