All About Lily Chou-Chou – Shunji Iwai (2001)


Everything about the Japanese earthquake outside of Sendai is terrifying. The casualty numbers are so high, or at least expected to eventually be so high, that it’s numbing. So what do I do? I think of it in terms of film.

I’m not alone. Bill Nye, for instance, referenced The China Syndrome during his time on CNN explaining the nuclear meltdown process.

WB immediately pulled Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter from theaters in Japan because the film opens with a tsunami wiping out a resort town. But from the outside, the cell phone camera shots of the actual tsunami are much more frightening. You can see the hand shaking with terror in those, while everything in Hereafter is clearly CGI. Not to say this is the wrong decision — it’s not — but they have no power to screen the film anyway, so it could have been done quietly.

But I don’t know anything about nuclear meltdown, and I don’t know anything about tsunamis.

I just know about film.

And I know that one of my favorite directors, Iwai Shunji, comes from Sendai.

“My country has suffered a terrible disaster,” Iwai said on his website over the weekend. “Many are dead, many are missing, and many more suffer in the loss of homes and loved ones. Even my hometown was not spared and so I too share in their pain. I cannot put into words my feelings for what has happened. Please everyone, help in whatever way you can.”

Aside from donating money there isn’t a lot most of us can do except stare slack jawed at the video footage as it comes in. One thing we can do is take a look at the work of the man from Sendai and get a little bit of a better understanding of the general area.

Filmed in 2001 a few miles south of Sendai among the lush rice paddies of Ashikaga, All About Lily Chou-Chou is the story of the descent of youth, seen through the eyes of a high school class that is splitting apart at the seams. It is a painfully honest exploration of bullying, the beauty of the photography and Kuno’s (Ayumi Ito) Debussy solos belying the helpless feeling that the film leaves you with. But the film’s main interest is not how to stop bullying, or even defining what bullying is. The film’s main interest is what causes someone to become a bully in the first place, and how it turns the world upside down.

The film finds Japan at a cultural crossroads, as the new generation of youth is starting to come into their own, but on very unsteady footing. The film’s main characters, Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) and Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari), are fairly typical junior high school students having a rough time adapting to the new conditions of a larger school environment. They are still fledglings in that sense, but the pressures they face cause them to try their hardest to soar with still maturing wings.

Yuichi is a reserved, quiet boy from a broken home. What personal voice and confidence he has at the beginning of the story is quickly washed away by little fish syndrome as he comes into contact with the more alpha male (and female) classmates. He often hangs in the background with his head down, and along the way can only find comfort in the ethereal pop music of Lily Chou Chou (voiced by J-pop singer Salyu).

Hoshino, on the other hand, is smart and wealthy, a class leader asked to give a speech on behalf of the incoming students. He shrugs off the fact that everyone but Yuichi secretly, or openly in some cases, hates him. Yuichi is the only one he opens up to about this, but Yuichi seems somewhat bewildered by this opening of emotion from Hoshino and himself shrugs it off.

Life changes drastically for Hoshino in the summer of 1999, first starting with a trip Yuichi, Hoshino and their friends take to Okinawa. This trip is a key moment in life for Hoshino, as he has two near-death experiences. If the first one shook something loose in his head, the second seems to contain the incident that changes his character the most visibly and unalterably. He is simply different in the next few moments. Problems with his family when he gets back home open the fissure up even more.

It also turns out to be a key moment in life for Yuichi, whose life is irrevocably altered when he is sucked in by Hoshino’s strong-arm gravitational pull against his will.

Despicable doesn’t accurately describe the awful things that Hoshino – or others because he demands it – has done, or will continue to do. He is an über-bully. Like Daniel Plainview, he’d rather own you to the point of complete destruction than to get his hands immediately dirty. He is not deserving of any sympathy after returning from Okinawa, nor does he find any. I do believe he is deserving of empathy, though, or there is no point in watching the film. Though initially blessed with wealth and gifted with brains, fate has seemingly conspired against him that summer and he did not have the strength to continue shrugging it off. His life has spun out of control and instead of helplessly watching it circle the drain, he picked up his rage and went the other way, recreating his misery for everyone he comes into contact with.

As such, the parents and teachers in this film are just as culpable as any of the kids. At no point do any of them have any semblance of control, nor do they look willing to try. The kids are left to themselves to run amok, or to run away.

“Kids these days are scary,” Yuichi’s mother says during a news story about a high school student who takes a city bus hostage, completely unaware of what Yuichi has become because of Hoshino. It’s not something Yuichi can confide in her, or anyone, and not something she could guess. So to avoid confronting the horror that his life has become, Yuichi buries himself in a message board dedicated to Lily Chou-Chou where he finds that he is not as alone as he would seem, spending countless hours in conversation about Lily and the ubiquitous ether that, to them, her music is culled from.

Iwai does something completely innovative here, allowing the text of the message board to appear on screen as typed, instead of on a monitor in the screen. These anonymous names – like Bear, Pascal and Blue Cat – are just as important to the film as any other. More and more, this is how kids connect to one another. Not face to face, but avatar to avatar, like a shunt to relieve the overwhelming pressure of life at that age. It creates a delicate mood, one that contrasts and balances the film at the same time. But this running textual motif makes it a difficult film to grasp at first. The film offers a constant stream of information, making heavy demands of your attention otherwise you will suddenly find yourself completely lost in the maze of these overlapping lives as they make their descent.

All About Lily Chou-Chou could almost be classified as a horror film as Hoshino drags his class down with him. The depth of Yuichi’s suffering, because of the things he does and are done to him, is more palpably scary than any BOO! films can muster. But through Iwai’s lens, the film is loaded with tenderness for these characters, these lost, broken kids, willing someone to notice what is happening, screaming “please, look!” into the void, hoping someone shouts back “okay”.

Isabella – Pang Cho-Cheung (2006)


Early on in Isabella, we find thirtysomething Ma Chen-Shing (Chapman To), a moderately corrupt cop on the island of Macau, as he wakes up and finds the girl he slept with the night before, Cheung Bik-Yan (Isabella Leong), on his couch eating a bowl of instant Ramen.

In spite of her apparent young age, his hand slowly finds its way to the back of her head and begins to push downward, but she fights it with a frightened rabbit look in her eyes.

He paid good money for her time, so why was she so hesitant?

The answer, as we find out, is that she is his daughter.

It took me a little while to figure out how to put a defense of this film into words. At first glance — especially with the shoddy Media Asia subtitles (more on this later) — the film dips almost into the same territory as Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (which, by the way, Wikipedia does not accurately describe the depth of the mother/son relationship in its synopsis). But Murmur of the Heart was nominated for an Academy Award, and it was an honestly deserved nomination, as it’s possibly Malle’s best film (certainly in his top three). So why should I have a hard time defending a movie where there wasn’t actually incest? Why should I even have to defend it at all?

Of course, Bik-Yan isn’t the girl that Chen went to bed with the night before. Taking the time to track him down following the death of her mother, she has sneaked into his apartment when the actual girl he slept with left in the morning. She had no where else to go. Unable to pay the rent any longer on the apartment she once shared with her mother, her landlord has padlocked it and she has come the Chen for help.

Chen, for his part, never knew he had a daughter. As a teenager he got a girl pregnant, but thought the girl, Isabella, had an abortion. Chen, though, ran away from the clinic before she’d done anything, and Isabella hid the truth from him despite seeing him often (and often with other women) on the small island.

It’s a piling up of misery for Chen at this point, who is about to be indicted for helping mobsters smuggle cigarettes into the country. The film takes place in the late 90s, as Macau was to be handed over to China much like Hong Kong had been handed back to China from Britain in 1997.

As an outsider, it’s difficult to say exactly what something like a handover means to people. Being ruled, or administrated, for better or worse is a part of your identity, so intensely for some in Macau that they identify as Macanese instead of Portugese or Chinese. It’s something that seeped through the action veneer of Hong Kong films in the run up to their handover by Britain as well, but was handled mostly in a flurry of gun violence and Kung Fu instead of honest drama, as is done here.

But with the handover rapidly approaching, officials are trying to sweep up the corruption and make everything as tidy as possible, which leaves Chen with few options. He can either kill the man who informed on him and risk life in jail, flee or Thailand or serve his sentence for corruption. The arrival of Bik-Yan does nothing to help him make a choice.

In Hong Kong, Chapman To is more known for comedies than dramas, but the movie he may be most known for in America is his dramatic co-starring turn in Infernal Affairs, the Andrew Lau/Alan Mok film that Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was based on. He’s always been charming, but hard to take seriously in most of his roles. He has a good comedic presence, but Isabella came as a shock to the system for people who didn’t realize he had some acting chops. He has a lot of acting chops, honestly. He ends up being almost a poor man’s Little Tony Leung, stretching his role into entirely vulnerable areas that you’d never expect of him. His character is all flaw and all vulnerability all of the time. He drinks too much, gambles, smokes, takes up with whores and, as mentioned earlier, is a corrupt cop, though mildly corrupt compared to what surrounds him. It is a snowball effect, it seems. One thing leads to the next and the next, and so on. Chapman To carries all of his on his small shoulders and delivers it right into our laps.

Isabella Leong is a mega-star in the Canto Pop scene, and even tried to break into the American market with a turn in one of the God awful Mummy movies. Needless to say that just like South Korean megastar Jun Ji-hyun before her, it didn’t work out as well as it did for Zhang Ziyi. Still, there is something about Isabella Leong’s performance here as a teenage in trouble that draws you into this picture fully. If she didn’t have that unexplainable “it” factor to her, Chapman To’s performance might not have been enough to make the film work. She too is vulnerable, which is nothing new for young girls to portray on screen, but beyond that there is a deepis fragility and naivety to her, but still she tries to make her new situation work. She does for herself what no one else will do any more. It’s one of those roles that will probably always be part of the definition of her career, especially in my eyes since I don’t listen to C-Pop. She will always be Bik-yan, no matter who she plays. While that might be a great thing for her career, it’s a great thing for this film.

Isabella is a beautiful film as much as it’s a beautiful story. Pang, his cinematographer and art director capture all of the lushness of the island’s Pacific greenery and it’s Portuguese architecture, creating a depth of stunning visual texture to lay over the emotional texture.  What might have felt like an awkward love story in less capable hands becomes a story of engage and retreat, connection and disconnection, of isolation and dependence, and of reliance and self reliance.

Quick Hits on Jane Eyre – Cary Fukunaga (2011)


-I’ve never read the novel, and the only previous adaptation I’ve seen of Jane Eyre is the one from the 40s with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles in the lead roles. It wasn’t intentional, but I couldn’t shake the idea of how much better this film could have been with this cinematography and art direction but populated with Welles and Fontaine.

-I did like Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender in their own roles, but was left a little dry by their lack of chemistry in the scenes they shared. Fassbender had plenty of strength of character and an immense screen presence to occupy a role that Welles made his own, though he was maybe a little too good looking to play Mr. Rochester.

-I get excited every time I see this kind of understated-yet-lush, deep-grained, autumn-colored cinematography. This is the second time Fukunaga worked with Brazilian director of photography Adriano Goldman, who also worked one another film I find to be incredibly beautiful, Cao Hamburger’s The Year My Parents Went on Vacation. The two last teamed up on the gang/immigration drama Sin Nombe, which, again, was beautiful almost in spite of its subject matter. It’s getting increasingly rare to see this style of shooting with the mass exodus to digital. Grain structure is so important to the way light (that is, the image) shows up on film, but it’s not something video does well, because it’s not designed to. It’s designed to look sharp. Which looks like shit.

The Troll Hunter – André Øvredal (2011)


At the start of the film, we are given a message that the following footage found and is offered to us without comment. It is the footage shot by three Norwegian college students (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Mørck, Tomas Alf Larsen) who were tracking down a news story about a series of bear murders around Norway, and the mysterious man in a weird van, Hans (Otto Jespersen), who is supposedly behind it.

They end up tracking him down to a trailer park where they ambush him with cameras and lights and try to get an interview. He brushes them aside and goes on about his business. They get the shock of their lives, however, when they follow him into the woods, hoping to catch him red handed. What they find instead is an onrushing Hans, screaming at them — “TROLL!”

They run, finding their car bitten in half, and eventually, from somewhere in the moving treetops, see it. A goddamn giant, monstrous, three-headed troll, running right at them.

Annoyed somewhat at his bosses, Hans tells them the students can follow him — as long as none of them are Christian. Trolls, you see, can smell the blood of a Christian man. The three all assure him that they are not Christians and they begin traipsing around Northwestern Norway in search of trolls — and answers.

It’s an impossible thing to deny the fact that The Troll Hunter is great fun (especially on a big screen), but it’s hardly a breakthrough experience. At times it treads too clumsily on the ground that The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield (etc…) have paved before it without bringing anything really new to the increasingly loathsome “found footage” genre of filmmaking. As the gruff, tired troll hunting veteran, Otto Jespersen serves up quite a lot to like, especially as he morphs into a reluctant father figure, trying to keep the students safe, but the films big comedy setpiece is one long troll fart joke that André Øvredal almost seems to be embarrassed about having included.

Growing up, I had a friend whose family was from Norway, but none of the stories he told us involved trolls, so I don’t know where this falls into the Norwegian myth canon, if it does at all. Even with the ’94 Olympics taking place in Norway, it’s a country that Americans were never really educated about, or at least my classmates and I weren’t. But the exquisite local atmosphere and breathtaking Norwegian mountain scenery are exciting inclusions that set the films secondary mode almost into travelogue territory. At points, they are worth almost as much as the story of troll hunting, if not more.

I would have preferred to just see it as straight storytelling rather than the reliance on the camera crew, but the film still works well. It’s a film that might work better as an experience than it does as film by itself, but that’s more than most films can say at the end of the day.

Somewhere – Sofia Coppola (2010)


(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

In the opening moments of Sofia Coppola’s new film, Somewhere, we see her protagonist, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a bad boy “it” actor loosely based on people she knows and stories she’s heard, navigating in circles around a desert race track in his Ferrari. The rest of the film plays out much the same, but for Johnny real life comes along at a more glacial pace outside of his car. Still, he barely seems to notice. Johnny is just there, somewhere, not sure where.

Physically, he’s living at the fabled Chateau Marmont, the famous Hollywood hotel, as famous for celebrity deaths as celebrity guests, and where lavish parties seem to accumulate in his room. Emotionally, Johnny is harder to locate. The twin strippers that he orders up probably brought him joy at one point, but this seems to be about the rich guy equivalent to watching the same episode of Seinfeld again just because it’s on not because it’ll make you laugh, but he is just as content smoking a cigarette and staring at the wall. Sex is habitual to him now, not sexual, and he’s as likely to fall asleep in the middle of the act as he is to finish.

It isn’t at all that Coppola forgot to explore the depths of Johnny Marco’s character. It’s just that the depth of Johnny Marco doesn’t exist at the moment. If he turned sideways, you would half expect him to be a flat layer of fabric and skin. No life seems to stir in his eyes until the moment he looks up and sees his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo smiling at him, signing his cast. In the light of her smile, we don’t see the same man that fell asleep in his place the night before.

Played beautifully by Elle Fanning, Cleo is an effervescent hit of sunshine that doesn’t otherwise exist in his world, and DP Harris Savides’ lighting scheme reflects this, almost as if the light were radiating from her blonde locks down onto Johnny. In fact, the film’s main flaw is not enough Cleo. Within the framework of the film, she is just the longest lasting of the characters he brushes shoulders with. Her imprint on the film is huge, though, because she’s the only thing that nudges Johnny out of his listlessness, but her screentime starts too late in the film and ends too early.

Somewhere is less of the tone poem that the director calls it and more of a straight character piece. She has left us mostly alone with the character and left the abundant needledrop soundtrack in a drawer. At times the film almost feels like a staring contest between audience and actor, and much has to be extrapolated from small moments about Johnny’s life that we get glimpses of. He is so detached and so empty that it almost plays as a demure middle finger to Coppola’s detractors who claim her films are filled with frivolous, moneyed characters whose drifting is something only the spoiled can experience and thus has no value. This is the most frivolous, most moneyed character, and his drifting is the most aimless. This, however, does have value, and it all works in harmony with her previous films and as a standalone, as long as you give it the time to work.

Life During Wartime – Todd Solondz (2010)


(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

In Life During Wartime, writer/director Todd Solondz’s latest sojourn into the awkwardness and fragility of the demented human experience, we are brought up to speed on the characters that inhabited his 1998 indie film, Happiness. However, it’s not quite as simple as calling it a sequel.

In the 12 years since Happiness was released it’s become something of a mythic line in the sand amongst film fans, fanatic and casual alike. It is the very definition of a love-it-or-hate-it film, with its supporters preaching it needs to be seen because of how fucked up and brilliant it is, while its detractors vocally and viciously deride it because of how fucked up and miserable it is.

The characters, even a decade plus later, are still stunted by their delusions and emotional walls, and as such tend to look more towards breaking even in life rather than getting ahead. Any thematic sense of a positive move forward the film possesses is shouldered handily by the youngest Maplewoodson, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who, on the eve of his bar mitzvah, has learned his father is not actual dead, but an imprisoned pedophile and rapist. This news throws an abrupt and considerable – but not impassable – hurdle into his path towards manhood. For everyone else, it seems to have caused them to skew into an alternate 1998 and live imitation lives.

But this is likely Soldonz’s intent. As with his previous films, his characters are, in equal measures, loved and pitied by his camera. They are not quite easy to root for sad sacks as much as living, breathing wads of neuroses and baseness. But it’s tough to root against them either. Especially Joy.

Jane Adams is replaced by Shirley Henderson as Joy, the waifish songwriter and failed do-gooder. She is still a floundering mess trying to figure it out, but is now burdened by the specter of Andy (Paul Ruebens, not Jon Lovitz) haunting her neural space, still trying to get laid. In fact, every character is bodied by a different actor, adding to the absurdity of Solondz’s charm. While not offputting, it does set the film into more of a companion piece area than a sequel, but works despite these character facelifts.

But the most remarkable makeover is Bill Maplewood. If the saying “prison changes a man” ever came to life on screen, it would be here. Once the slight, effete suburban dad played by Dylan Baker, the kind of man you might imagine jumping up on a chair and shrieking upon seeing a mouse, the character is now a sturdy, serious man who might stomp on and eat the mouse played by Ciarán Hinds. His mission, somewhat oddly, is a noble mission. Not exactly redeeming one (there is no redemption for him, ever), but it is a good and necessary first step for such a malignant, fractured character.

While Wartime may end up in the discussion for worst film of the year by some, I find it hard to dismiss so easily. Yes, gone is the shock value of the fifties throwback American family man serially raping little children and the depravity and criminality of a lonely apartment complex. But to replace it, Solondz had to try and find real stories within his characters, and he does. And, more importantly, he succeeded.

The Illusionist – Sylvain Chomet (2010)


(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

Anyone who has seen Sylvain Chomet’s last film, the Oscar Nominated animation The Triplets of Belleville, will know that the director is capable of conjuring pure magic out of the simple tools of ink and paint and music. In The Illusionist, an animated rendering of an unproduced Jacques Tati screenplay from the 1950s, Chomet conjures visual magic and creative controversy in equal measure.

The story centers on a traveling illusionist and showman in the 1950s as he goes from town to town, entertaining rapidly diminishing crowds with his tricks and sleight of hand. While performing in a pub in rural Scotland, he comes across a young girl, around 15, who becomes attached to him and his magic. She follows him toEdinburgh, where he becomes attached to her as well, but where work is an even harder grind.

The oncoming rush of Rock N’ Roll and television are largely responsible for the small crowds his kind of show can attract, eventually leading the illusionist to take odd jobs when he is not on stage to pay the added expenses of a young girl that he likes to dote on, buying her shoes and dresses, making them magically appear to her, an extension of his magic off of the stage.

The relationship between the girl and the illusionist is a suddenly deep one, built mostly upon a foundation of gestures and glances. It’s an automatic, easy trust, but not a cheap one. It starts out as a sleight of hand that they are both willing participants in, but does not stay that way for long as she matures and he comes to grip with the change in the wind.

Chomet and his team of animators have done an astounding job bringing this story to life, even if it is over the objections of Jacques Tati’s living relatives. I wish I could list every single animator here, because they all deserve recognition. It was no simple task to bring this to the screen, and the film relies almost entirely on the quality of the animation. Words don’t get in the way because they are few and far between. It doesn’t need words. It’s about the emotional faces and the measured motion, and the whimsical interplay of shadow and light is of particular beauty and note.

It’s an understandable thing that Tati’s family should have reservations about someone else completing his work. Tati was singular; he made Tati films and only Tati films. Chomet is singular as well, however. There is no mistaking this film for another director, not even Tati. But there is a good balance struck between the two worlds, and if Chomet has perhaps misunderstood some of Tati’s motives, it was clearly not out of disrespect. It’s a controversy that doesn’t need to exist in public. It’s something for Tati aficionados to squabble about, but not of material importance to what the film is any more than Krzysztof Kieślowski’s intentions were to Tom Tykwer filming Heaven after his death. Heaven was a brilliant film in and of itself, a part of Kieślowski, but a Tykwer film. So is The Illusionist, and that’s how it should be taken: by itself, as an exceptionally well made, heartbreaking film.