Sion Sono

FilmWatch Weekly: “Japanese Currents” run strong and swift at the Northwest Film Center

The annual harvest of cinema from across the Pacific is bountiful thanks to films by veterans Sion Sono and Kiyoshi Kurosawa

America may have the most globally popular cinema. Indian may take the cake when it comes to sheer quantity of films released.

But for innovation, quality, and sheer creativity, over a span of decades, it’s hard to top the output of the Japanese film industry. During the 1960s heyday of international cinema, the country kept pace with European hot spots such as France, Sweden, and Italy. And while the era of Japan’s grand masters–Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, etc.–has long passed, filmmakers with vision, craft, and chutzpah continue to carry the torch, as exemplified by the selections in this year’s “Japanese Currents” series at the Northwest Film Center.

assassination-classroom

 

A couple of names familiar to dedicated followers of filmdom pop up among the fourteen features screening at the Whitsell Auditorium between December 2nd and 11th. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) made his name as part of the New Japanese Horror movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s with films such as “Pulse” and “Cure.” Now he’s back with another foreboding single-word title, “Creepy.”

The star of this year’s “Japanese Currents” series, prime for broader discovery as a one-man cult-film factory, is Sion Sono. Active since the early 1990s, he also gained notoriety as a “J-Horror” auteur, before expanding his horizons somewhat with 2008’s four-hour-long “Love Exposure.” In recent years, he’s only gotten more prolific, and has nearly fifty films under his belt as a director, including five released last year alone in Japan.

The Film Center’s series includes a pair of those 2015 films, each bizarre in its own inimitable manner, as well as a documentary profile, “The Sion Sono,” which, frankly, makes him out to be a rather pretentious, difficult persona in real life. Energy, talent, and originality, which he possess in spades, can make up for a lot, but I’m glad I don’t have to work with him.

Sono is clearly the heir to a tradition of Japanese outlaw cinema that winds from 1960s renegades Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki through Kinji Fukasaku (“Battle Royale”) to the similarly productive and bizarre Takashi Miike. But his recent output has demonstrated a willingness and ability to move beyond the grand guignol of genre freakfests to someplace that, obscured perhaps by attention-getting shenanigans, there lies a soul.

Here’s a rundown of the five best titles, including Sono’s and Kurosawa’s, in this year’s “Japanese Currents” series:

“Love and Peace”: If you only see one Japanese film in the next 10 days, make it Sono’s bizarre fable about a failed punk rocker now stuck in a humdrum office job. When he gets another shot at the limelight, he won’t succeed without the help of the pet turtle that he flushed down the toilet and has now been enlarged thanks to a magical hobo who lives in the sewers. It’s all really rather heartwarming. (Wednesday, Dec. 7, 7 p.m.)

“The Shell Collector”: A blind old man lives alone on a remote island, perusing and studying the conches, bivalves, etc., that wash up on shore. One day a woman washed up on shore as well, suffering from a mysterious, incurable malady that’s apparently sweeping the globe. When one of his supposedly poisonous shellfish stings her an unexpectedly cures the disease, the old man’s life gets more complicated than he’d hoped. Based on a short story by American author Anthony Doerr (“All the Light We Cannot See”), this is an enigmatic and potent drama. (Saturday, Dec. 3, 5 p.m.)

“Creepy”: Kurosawa’s first out-and-out genre film in several years centers on a retired police detective, who now teaches criminal psychology but gets drawn back in to a six-year-old case about a family that mysteriously disappeared. Meanwhile, his wife encounters some, well, creepy neighbors, who of course turn out to be connected to the case. The movie lives up to its title, and then exceeds it with a third act that moves from creepy to downright disturbing. (Friday, Dec. 9, 8 p.m.)

“The Whispering Star”: Sono’s other film in the series is as spare and elegant as “Love and Peace” is extravagant and colorful. An android with the appearance of a human woman travels through the galaxy in her charmingly retro spaceship, delivering packages to some of the few remaining humans in the universe. One such planet bears an uncanny resemblance to the abandoned landscapes affected by the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and reactor meltdown; in fact, those scenes were shot there, as shown in the documentary “The Sion Sono.” (Sunday, Dec. 4, 7 p.m.)

“Assassination Classroom”: The misfit, delinquent teen students in class 3-E have a new teacher. He’s a yellow-bodied, sphere-headed, smiley-faced, tentacled monster who has destroyed the moon and plans to do the same to the Earth at the end of the school year–unless the kids manage to kill him first. Matching “Peace and Love” in absurdity, if not heart, this adaptation of a popular manga is chockablock with bizarre visuals, insane slapstick violence, and enough gun-toting, uniform-wearing moppets to put “Battle Royale” to shame. (Sunday, Dec. 11, 4:30 p.m.)

(Full disclosure: the new film from director Hirokazu Kore-Eda, “After the Storm,” wasn’t available for preview, and I didn’t get a chance to watch the five-hour drama “Happy Hour,” because you gotta sleep sometime. For a full schedule, visit https://nwfilm.org/festivals/japanese-currents-2/)

 

FILM: Celebrating Portland’s orphaned movies

Straight to video not a pejorative for these five titles

"Simon Killer"

“Simon Killer”

Living in Portland is a cinephile’s dream come true. Let’s be honest: we’re spoiled. With countless film festivals along with arthouse, independent and second-run theaters, not to mention a multiplex (Fox Tower) devoted mostly to the latest indies and foreign releases, you can see in a theater just about every major and minor movie distributed in this country.

Or can we? Thing is, with an average of more than 600(!) new releases every year, there are titles that inevitably slip through the cracks. From there, it’s straight to DVD and Netflix streaming, where the options get even more watered down. The chance of finding any audience is made that much more difficult.

The phrase “straight to video” has been a pejorative for as long as home video has existed. It’s time to alter that perception. It no longer means what it used to. There are plenty of good to great films that never make it to our many theaters. It seems the work of distributing smaller, difficult to market titles is something of a fool’s errand, but nonetheless I want to know why the films I’m championing this week never made it here.

This week’s column is devoted to the cinematic orphans of the last few years. Narrowing this list down to just five titles was difficult. Here at Oregon Arts Watch, we encourage audiences to see films in theaters, but when you’re not even given the opportunity, well, sometimes you have to look elsewhere for quality cinema.

****

“Simon Killer”

This sophomore effort from young writer/director Antonio Campos (part of the small collective Borderline Films, also responsible for the fantastic “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) debuted last year at the Sundance Film Festival, but never seemed to gain enough traction to screen in Portland. It did make it up to Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum for a weeklong run, though. Much like Campos’ feature debut “Afterschool” from 2008, this film is shot and constructed like the work of European master Michael Haneke (“Amour”) and Claire Denis (“Beau Travail”). In fact, the film is indebted to a style that’s actually quite prevalent in modern world cinema.

While it’s not necessarily breaking new ground in its form, it is presenting a type of cinema that’s uncommon to most American audiences, and does so effectively. The story is simple: Simon (Brady Corbet, quickly becoming the go-to guy for creepy, manipulative sociopaths) is taking some time off after graduating college and dealing with a break up. He heads to Paris to crash at his cousin’s apartment, hoping to meet new people. When he becomes involved with a prostitute (Mati Diop, a great French actress, from Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum”), his nature as a sad, manipulative sociopath starts to become more clear.

While the subject matter is off putting and occasionally difficult—Simon can’t even be described as an anti-hero, he’s just a weird, uncommon protagonist—this is just the kind of low-key, fascinating character study we don’t see enough of. Visuals are top notch as is the killer soundtrack, featuring memorable tunes from Spectral Display and LCD Soundsystem.

WHERE TO FIND IT: on DVD at Movie Madness; streaming on Netflix and iTunes

“Alps”

Though writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, the black comedy “Dogtooth,” received a brief run at Cinema 21, that didn’t seem to matter when it came time to show his follow-up. I pleaded for “Alps” to be shown as part of last year’s Portland International Film Festival, to no avail. “Dogtooth” is a modern masterpiece, and somehow (despite its bizarre premise and dark as coal subject matter) was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Picture category. While “Alps” isn’t quite on that level, it does make for a fascinating companion piece and is proof that Lanthimos is a filmmaker to follow.

His skill is in creating world’s onscreen that are not reflections of reality so much as a skewed and off-kilter near-reality. He also has respect for the audience to figure out what’s happening as the film goes along. There’s no hand holding or exposition dumps in these films. Instead you’re thrown into each world and its characters, left to fend for yourself and figure out what exactly is going on. The results are thrilling, disturbing and often very funny.

The story follows a small group of people in Greece who create a business: a member is essentially rented to act out in the guise of a lost loved one. They recreate scenes from the lives of the grieving folks who can’t seem to let go. Somehow, beyond all the meta film commentary (a lot of the film plays out like a director staging a scene) and bruising hilarity, is an exploration of the nature of grief.

Lanthimos is a provocateur unafraid to challenge the audience, but with “Alps” he gets at a universal truth that is actually quite beautiful. Grief cannot be ignored. It must be dealt with. For if you do not deal with the pain of loss, you’re choosing not to be human.

WHERE TO FIND IT: on DVD at Movie Madness; streaming on Netflix, VUDU, iTunes and Hulu Plus

“Love Exposure”

“Love Exposure,” from Japanese madman Sion Sono (“Cold Fish”), is the kind of transgressive, insane and bold film we just can’t get enough of. I’m pretty sure it didn’t make it to theaters in Portland simply because of its length (237 minutes), but that’s a shame, because it’s an amazing experience. And complicated to summarize: the story is ostensibly about Yu, a deeply confused boy who loses his mother at an early age, and his father who, struggling to cope with the tragedy, becomes a devout Catholic priest. Yu wants to reach his dad, but can’t lure his attention away from his new calling. So he begins inventing sins to confess to his father, but his father sees through the lies. Yu sets out to commit real sins, and finds his path leading towards theft, fighting and panty-shot photography. Only thing is, he’s really good at being a pervert, quickly recognized by his new friends as the best at the “art form.”

All this happens in the first hour, essentially a prologue. Pretty sure this film wins the award for longest time before the opening credits roll, coming in right around the first hour. The film is daring in its style and storytelling. Sono is uninterested in anything resembling mainstream, but that’s not to say the film isn’t entertaining because it’s smart, thrilling and funny as hell; the kind of thing that, if you need a cinematic shot in the arm, will work as the antidote to “normal movies.” “Exposure” is stylish and violent, but will not wear your patience because Sono’s such a visceral, uncompromising filmmaker. As a storyteller, he’s interested in characters on the fringe, but he really loves them, or at least empathizes with them all.

“Love Exposure” is ultimately about the consequences of our actions and firmly asserts there’s a reason for people being the way they are, and we should take the time to understand those reasons, even if you find them weird. Sono packs so much meaty subject matter into the film—love, lust, greed, family, loss, regret, fate, religion—and breaks it up in chapters as it introduces the key players. If that run time worries you, fear not, there’s not an ounce of fat in the film; seriously, it would be worse if it lost anything.

WHERE TO FIND IT: On DVD and Blu-ray at Movie Madness

“Headshot”

While “Headshot,” the latest film from Thai genre auteur Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (the excellent “Last Life in the Universe”), is by no means original, it’s how the story is told that makes it special. It’s part “Blast of Silence,” part “The Killer” with elements of a ‘Bourne’-style on-the-run thriller and, in the film’s freshest contribution to the assassin genre, steeped in Buddhist philosophy. This is a film that takes time to consider the consequences of a life as a hired killer.

Pen-Ek is concerned with not just the cool and entertaining aspects of this kind of movie (of which he delivers in spades), but also the nature and subjectivity of fate. Is life a series of random, bizarre coincidences? Or is there a puppet master pulling all the strings? Is one belief more meaningful than the other? Pen-Ek seems unabashed in his love of genre movies, and enjoys twisting their tropes like a pretzel to suit his thematic and narrative interests. He’s also not afraid of a bit of hard violence and ultra-stylish shot composition.

In “Headshot,” he presents the story like a compulsive liar taking a polygraph test. The quick jolts of gunplay and action raise the excitement level, and then things calm down to a more contemplative approach. The film’s striking visual style is perfectly in step with the narrative structure, balancing Thailand’s serene forests and rivers with cold cityscapes, and often shot in near darkness that’s always comprehensible, Thanks to DoP Chankit Chamnivikaipong’s masterful use of the Red camera, these scenes conjure the literal definition of film noir. “Headshot” proves the hitman genre still has a strong pulse.

WHERE TO FIND IT: on DVD at Movie Madness; streaming on Netflix, VUDU, iTunes and Hulu Plus

“I Wish”

The latest from Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda (”Still Walking,” “After Life”) proves that kids movies don’t have to be dumb or only for the jumpcut-addled mind of an adolescent. In fact, this film is made for adults (yet families should watch it together). It just happens to be from the point of view of children, and in many ways, it captures the awkwardness, fun, fear and mostly carefree spirit of childhood. Family dynamics, friendship, the joy of food, brotherhood, divorce, separation, longing for connection—who can’t relate to some or all of those themes?

They’re explored by the master director with such a deft, nuanced hand that it seems as if he knows something we don’t. One thing’s for sure: he clearly knows how to work with child actors, and he’s successfully filtered all those themes through the perspective of children. Each character is fleshed out, even though some have very little screen time, so nobody is a just cog in the machine to push the main narrative. At the film’s conclusion, when you may very well be reaching for a hanky to wipe those tears away, Koreeda plays his most stylish cinematic hand.

A quick succession of images—some still, some barely moving—are cut together in an absolutely beautiful montage that works as the perfect visual for the film’s biggest theme, which up to that point was mostly hidden deep under the surface of the text. Often in life, especially in childhood, it’s the small moments that count. Running to school with your friends, eating sponge cake with your grandpa, picking seeds from a flower, riding on trains. That’s the good stuff. Koreeda knows this, and he makes a great case for this philosophy. His greatest gift to the audience here is allowing us to witness this realization as it dawns on these children.

WHERE TO FIND IT: on DVD at Movie Madness; streaming on Netflix, VUDU and iTunes