2011 has been marked by two things – I went to the cinema less and I bought more Japanese films on DVD. This is partly explained by my decision to shift the blog to focus on Japanese films and bore people to death with my opinions on them. It’s also explained by the fact that few titles released in cinemas captured my imagination this year.
There was no film like Inception that totally blew my mind as to what a major Hollywood blockbuster could do, where films could technically and thematically go and what they could visually depict. There was no film like Scott Pilgrim that appealed to the nerdy fanboy in me and showed wild visual imagination. Okay, I’m demanding.
Of the films I did write about seeing they have all been well-crafted but lacked a magical hook for me. Norwegian Wood was a visual spectacle but having read the source novel I felt that the filmmakers had excised so much source that what was left was hollow much like Tinker Tailor. The King’s Speech was a lesson in excellent acting and brilliant writing but lacked any challenging or euphoric elements which made me tackle thinking about it with any gusto. Jane Eyre captured what I had imagined the book to be like but the fire of romance was lacking. I did gain a new depth of understanding for Lars von Trier and Pedro Almodovar. When I think about it I’m left with one title that did impress me. It made me so happy to be alive and able to watch it on the big screen.
If there is a cinematic equivalent of a pleasurable electric chair (if one exists…) then 13 Assassins was it for me.
For the first half of the film there was an ominous and careful build up as the narrative and historical details gripped me by the arms and walked either side of me, escorting me to my seat and attaching the restraints. I felt my nerves pushed increasingly on edge as an impending sense of dread stole over me and I wondered what I would meet in the second half of the film. Takashi Miike flicked a switch and for an hour I felt like electric was coursing through my body as I twitched and ducked, grinned and winced while I watched an hour-long on screen battle. Has there ever been a film which has had a battle last more than an hour and maintained a sense of coherence and interest?
If there has then it hasn’t been as good as 13 Assassins. This was a lesson in carefully choreographed and controlled the chaos as charismatic characters contained and killed scores of samurai so stylishly that I can still remember snatches of sequences as I write this.
When people comment about Takashi Miike they focus too much on him being an extreme director and miss his skill and interest in (mostly twisted) humanity and the cinematic craft that he can bring when focussed. Audition is probably the biggest example.
Other critics have been somewhat sniffy towards this when comparing it to the original 1962 version but I have yet to see that one so I cannot comment. All I know is that when I stepped out of the cinema with the end credits still rolling I was on a cinematic high, grinning maniacally and full of vim and vigour. Not even a sudden rain storm could wash away my feelings because I had just seen a film that got my blood rushing! I loved every moment of it.
DVD of the Year – House (Masters of Cinema)
Despite recommendations stretching back years from Neo magazine and my Japanese teacher speaking highly of it I didn’t buy House until this year. Quite honestly I don’t know how I’ve gone so long without seeing it because this is one of the best films I have seen.
Essentially a film about a haunted house that eats people there is a lot to love from the large cast of adorable girls to the wonderful set design and painted backgrounds, the imaginative flights of fancy and the hilarious musical scenes and the awesome soundtrack. House was directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi and its scenario was dreamt up by his daughter. There’s a childlike horror and glee unleashed here with a combination of grue and cuteness that should sate the appetites of gorehouds, cinematic explorers and general audiences.
It is a wonderfully inventive, surreal, playful and joyous film that bears little resemblance to modern Japanese horror or any horror to be honest. Not that it matters because it can live side by side with its more grim horror-genre counterparts and shine all the more because the film has a beautiful heart. I have no problem recommending this film for everyone.
Best Film Distributor of the Year – Third Window Films
This was a foregone conclusion for me. Third Window Films have been steadily releasing some of the best films from East Asia for a while. Whether it’s Japanese films like Sawako Decides or Cold fish, or classic examples of the South Korean new wave with No Blood No Tears or Guns and Talks, there’s good taste at work here. For any audience curious about the cinematic output from East Asia Third Window Films is a brilliant place to start. The diversity of titles from different countries, the focus on releasing the filmography of directors instead of cherry-picking the best, the discovery of new talents
I could bore you with my history of growing up with Far Eastern films and the UK distributors who once released but I won’t. Just know this, Third Window Films are releasing some of the most interesting titles to come out of Asia. Not necessarily the biggest or best known but the titles that genuinely deserve to be known, the ones that deserve a wider audience and 2012 is shaping up to be a brilliant year with Himizu and Mitsuko Delivers as well as Shinya Tsukamoto’s Kotoko known to be getting a release.