I will spend the next few weeks covering the New York Asian Film Festival 2021. I’ll be doing an episode of the Heroic Purgatory podcast tomorrow and publishing as many reviews as I can and also an interview. This week, I posted about the action film Hydraand continued to marathon The X-Files. I have got to mid-way in season 4 and decided to select the best episodes from later seasons.
After its initial theatrical run in 2019 in Japan, Well Go USA Entertainment have picked up HYDRA for home release to give American audiences a taste of an indie action title from Japan. Lasting 78 minutes and featuring veteran stunt performers and genre movie actors, it feels like an introduction to its lead actor’s martial arts skills as well as a proof of concept that could lead to more films.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics are live and it’s a case of so far so… alright? The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic disaster, IOC corruption, bigots in the organising committee and a conservative government cynically using “cool Japan” schtick aside, Google launched a cool JRPG to celebrate and there’s an anime which is listed below.
This week I’ve been marathoning the X-Files, watching six episodes a day. The show leaves Amazon Prime next week Friday, so I have my work cut out. I also have to watch a LOT of films because I will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) via this blog and Heroic Purgatory!
This week, I posted the preview of Japanese films at NYAFF 2021 and also my review of Reiwa Uprising, a hopeful film which shows a world of better politics is possible if we can mobilise around core progressive values and engage with different communities.
The New York Asian Film Festival is a go for 2021 and runs from August 6th to the 22nd. It is a hybrid event with over 60 films split between cinemas and online streams.
It’s a beautiful and exciting mix of experiences from 12 separate territories/nations with a mix of big-budget blockbusters to indie movies. There are tales from towns and cities in the mountainous land of Tibet (A Song for You) to a backwater in the Kazakh countryside (Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It). A humorous take on a utopian community in Singapore (Tiong Bahru Social Club) to the dank underworld of Hong Kong (Hand-Rolled Cigarettes and Coffin Homes) and the gritty streets of Tokyo (JOINT). Stop-motion dystopian sci-fi (JUNK HEAD) rub shoulders with Korean tales from the hellscape of capitalism (I Don’t Fire Myself). Who populates these cinematic landscapes? Fiery office ladies, hitmen, dancers, mutants, wannabe singers, DJs, and more.
Here’s the trailer introducing the fest:
Here are certain highlights:
The Opening Film is the tense action thriller Escape from Mogadishu, directed by Ryoo Seung-wan (The Berlin File, Veteran), a based-on-a-true-story title that retells the escape attempted by North and South Korean embassy workers who were stranded in a hostile environment during the 1991 Somali Civil War.
Legendary filmmaker Ann Hui will receive the Variety Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award and the biographical documentary Keep Rolling will be screened. Her film, The Story of Woo Viet will also be screened, so auds can get a taste of what made her one of the most important voices in Hong Kong cinema.
There will be a free outdoor screening of the Hong Kong wu-xia New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), which stars Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, and Donnie Yen. This marks the 10th anniversary of the film’s restoration by NYAFF.
Popular discontent and disillusionment with governments and traditional media are increasingly a feature of societies worldwide as economic conditions and alienation deepens for many. People are now seeking alternative voices that promise some semblance of change, even in Japan where the conservative Liberal Democratic Party has maintained a near unbroken grip on the steering wheel of the country since World War II. While this continuance of command has conferred the veneer of stability to the nation, beneath the surface is a history of corruption, incompetence, and persistent social problems which many people have linked to regressive official attitudes and an uncaring ruling party. What one finds is that these factors have led to a general sense of malaise amongst the populace. So, what hope is there for change?
Enter documentarian Kazuo Hara who, in his first film made without his wife and producer, Sachiko Kobayashi, spent three months in 2019 tracking a set of outsiders who tried to break into the conservative world of Japanese politics. He turns in a fun film that presents an optimistic picture of citizen engagement and collective action that upturns any cynical assumptions of what a politician should be and just how normal people can challenge the status quo.
Reiwa Uprising starts with Hara receiving an invitation to join a political campaign run by Ayumi Yasutomi, a transgender Tokyo University professor who specialises in economics and whose hobby is horse riding. She is one of ten candidates handpicked at short notice by actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto (Kawada in Battle Royale) to represent his then newly established Reiwa Shinsengumi party in their first national election. Up for grabs are seats in Japan’s House of Councillors. There is an understanding that the politically and financially dominant LDP are sure to retain power, but the hope is that some sort of breakthrough can be made and the party established. After briefings lay out a general strategy, each of the candidates sets off to campaign however they want.
And so Hara and his team follow Yasutomi with handheld cameras and smartphones. They record her as she goes on a whistle-stop tour of Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, selling her message and listening to local issues like the Henoko base move. Her PR methods are lo-fi, especially when compared to the moneyed LDP figures: armed with a banner, sash, and microphone, Yasutomi travels alongside a horse and a small orchestra whose instruments include kazoos, melodicas, and an iPad and, as a group, they rock up in front of train stations, on street corners, and in community centres where Yasutomi gives speeches while her eccentric orchestra plays and spectators are invited to contribute, by dancing, drawing, and commenting.
It is easy to dismiss these rallies as cute, especially when the film shows the quality gap between the focus-group-tested precision-engineered messaging of the LDP candidates who ride along on vans with a huge entourage of handlers – we see them in action when the LDP candidates send heavies and spies in to shut Yasutomi down – but she remains a calm and intelligent figure even if her presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Initially, her wandering speeches espouse two vague messages – “save the children” and “bring horses into cities” – and she is light on policy but as election day approaches, a clearer political rhetoric emerges as she takes inspiration from what she has seen and she rails against the strictures of society and unites it with the humanism and environmentalism she believes in. This stands in contrast to the LDP candidates who are like automatons who parrot insincere lines with inauthentic smiles that seem to wash off the crowds who breeze by with nary a glance. And this is where the film begins to show how the LDP can be overturned.
What we notice is that the novelty Yasutomi’s outreach catches attention and her sincerity and progressive and inclusive messaging inspires people to join in until her audiences grow larger, more diverse, and more dedicated. Even kids joyfully contribute drawings and comments praising her. While Yasutomi is never perfect on messaging, as evidenced by a talk about LGBTQ rights which feels too blasé, the public are genuinely swayed by her. Hara shows this through vox pops and in the many rally scenes caught in cinéma vérité style where we see people are drawn in to participate and are moved to tears by the increasingly impassioned Yasutomi who, herself, frequently bursts into tears, especially as she returns to her home prefecture of Osaka near. Sometimes, Yasutomi’s methods are magic, especially a Michael Jackson-inspired street concert that is definitely toe-tapping and grin-inducing, but what we see is her steadily building coalitions and active engagement with all sectors of society, especially those who are marginalised, and this provides the impetus for change. It is something that leftist parties tend to forget as they retreat away from working with unions and charities and communities and become professional politicians divorced from reality. The fact is status quo parties, especially conservative ones, tend to have the money, the way to beat them is to bring the people.
While the film follows Yasutomi, we are introduced to the other candidates including Teruko Watanabe, a single mother, Eiko Kimura and Yasuhiko Funago, who are both disabled, and Taro Yamamoto himself who is using his star power to boost the prospects of his fellow party members. There are others, some slightly more polished, others more rough around the edges, but what is felt is that they are real people and of the people and committed to bringing difficult issues that the LDP ducks to the docket.
One of the other compelling strands in the film comes near the end where normal people begin to berate of the fourth estate. One woman, inspired by Reiwa Shinsengumi to travel from the distant Awaji islands to the election night gathering in Tokyo – watch the audience for raised eyebrows when she announces where she is from – chastises big news outlets for offering little coverage and this is followed up by many other stern comments. The lack of media interest is an idea that is seeded throughout the film by Hara who uses YouTube and social media visuals to convey how Reiwa Shinsengumi use the internet to disrupt the normal political narratives and this allows them to secure recognition for their party. This really gets across just how grassroots and genuine the party are. Whatever the election results, it does seem like change is possible.
If Hara’s early works focussed on individuals and gave a glimpse of the collectives that formed around them, his late work, starting with Sennan Asbestos Disaster, is all about collectives and the individuals within them, each of whom pulls together to make a change. Through following Reiwa Shinsengumi, the film shows picture of people championing the rights of the disabled and the marginalised and offering an alternative vision for the way society is run. It’s a refreshingly unvarnished and cheerful experience that offers real slices of Japan, from Henoko base protests to stump speeches in Nishinari where the local crowd have little time for airs and graces. As the film played out, I felt myself swept along by the messaging and even getting emotional alongside Yasutomi whose genuineness definitely won my vote. Alright, I was really impressed by Taro Yamamoto, too!
Uplifting, fun, and hip to contemporary issues, Reiwa Uprising breezes through its near 5-hour duration quite easily and offers plenty to think about and relate to.
I have taken a break from writing this week and spent some time doing gardening with my mother and recording an episode of the Heroic Purgatory podcast, this one dedicated to the 1993 Ang Lee film, The Wedding Banquet. In terms of films and TV that I have viewed, I am half-way through my re-watch of season 2 of The X-Files and I watched John Wick 2 and Snakes and Earrings.
Happy weekend, part two (you can find part one here)
A bit of a slow week for me. I’ve just finished 13 days of work and will do another 13 from next Monday. I’ve been re-watching and enjoying season one of The X-Files. I only posted one review, that was for Sennan Asbestos Disaster. I’ve also updated my Cannes post with a couple of films.
Following on from their first – and only – fiction feature, The Many Faces of Chika (2006), Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi returned to documentary filmmaking with the release of Sennan Asbestos Disaster in 2018. It is a heart-breaking and infuriating document of the bitter legal battles between people who found their lives blighted by asbestos and the Japanese government who failed to protect them despite knowing the dangers the material posed.
This week I watched Shin, Shin, Shin (2011) and Antonym (2014) from Japan, Symptoms (1974) from the UK, and I started season 1 of The X-Files. I forgot just how much of a procedural/office drama it was at a first. That stuff is really good! I watched it when it first came out so revisiting it has been a nostalgia trip.