Wednesday, October 8, 2008

TJSFF’08 REVIEW: Momo Programme: Four films by Hiroyuki Nakano

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Hiroyuki Nakano is a filmmaker who’s had his share of ups and downs. He first made a name for himself directing music videos in the late 80s and early 90s, the best known on these shores being the video for Deee-Lite’s 1990 dance hot “Groove is in the Heart,” but Nakano went on to be dubbed the “Kurosawa of MTV” after moving into feature films with his samurai comedy “SF Samurai Fiction” in 1998. Along director Shunji Iwai, who also burst out of music video and commercial filmmaking, Nakano was painted as the next big thing in Japanese cinema, but his follow up projects, “Stereo Future” and “Red Shadow” didn’t live up to critic’s expectations. For most of this decade he’s returned to his roots making music videos for acts like Photek, Mr. Children and Les Negresses Verte through his own Peacadelic Productions. He’s also been producing short films, four of which were selected to kick off this year’s 6th Annual Toronto Japanese Short Film Festival. As always when dealing with a series of short films, either as a festival programme or an omnibus film like “Rampo Noir” or “Genius Party” I think it’s only fair to judge each of these four individually:

“Iron” (2005)

The Momo Programme and this year’s TJSFF started out with one of the better short films I’ve seen in a long while. “Iron” is a poetic, beautifully scored, black-and-white examination of self-discipline and the struggle to maintain inner peace. A bald, shirtless man with an elaborate yakuza tattoo on his back spends his days obsessively ironing items of clothing and even sheets of paper, his focus sharpened to a point as he flattens every wrinkle on the white space in front of him. He’s observed by another man whose only purpose seems to be to make this ironing man tea and to wonder to himself why this character is so fascinated by bringing perfect order to these pieces of fabric. The 15-minute run time for the film could have been punishingly dull with shot after shot of the iron making its pass, but Nakano gives us glimpses of a world and a life outside of this room, of the yakuza declaring that it’s easy to kill a man, but it’s hard to master his almost Zen-like approach to this simple household task. We’re also treated to flashes of this bald yakuza’s violent fantasies. We soon realize that there is more than housework going on here as Nakano subtly introduces issues of redemption and self control into the film. The title itself, “Iron” speaks of someone tempering themselves, of becoming strong and unyielding in a chaotic world. This is a fantastic little film that very deservedly won the International Critics Week - OFAJ Young Critic Award at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.

“Full Speed on the Beach” (2006)

The Momo programme was definitely a somber affair with more pathos than laughs, but what laughs there were came in the form of the second and only full colour film of the four, “Full Speed on the Beach”. The concept: if people run as fast as they can on a certain beach it’s believed that their wishes will come true. Nakano assembles an eccentric group of wishers, a pair of dueling kendo swordsmen, a smartly dressed woman in her late 20s, a trendy-looking fellow played by Yoshiyuki Morishita (Survive Style 5+, Funky Forest) and an awkward young woman who charges all of them ¥100 to race along the shoreline. Again, like “Iron”, Nakano takes what could have just been dull, repetitive scenes of people running through the waves and actually makes it funny. The two swordsmen wish for strength, at least until they get a look at the woman who wishes to get married. Their rivalry got the audience at Innis Town Hall chuckling, but what really set people off was Morishita’s strident wish not to go bald. Again, Nakano used music to great effect, pumping the energy on screen up with propulsive beats, but in the end I found it a little off-putting that the awkward woman charging the toll for use of the beach shared the only dream that women seem to have in the film, “I want to get married!” Chalk this up to a cultural difference.

“Ferris Wheel at 3:03:15 pm” (2008)

Tomorowo Taguchi (Tetsuo the Iron Man, The Most Beautiful Night in the World) plays a middle-aged man contemplating suicide in what I felt was the weakest film in the bunch. Yes, the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography was back, and so was the almost breeze-like musical score, but Nakano uses too soft a touch portraying what can happen when someone reaches the end of their rope. We follow Taguchi as he wanders the streets, his brow and his old trench coat wrinkled, his mind echoing with both remembered and internal critical voices. A pair of high school girls manage to stop him from jumping in front of a train, but when he visits a ferris wheel we start to wonder if he’ll be successful in throwing himself off the top of it. When an equally sad looking pregnant woman appears and shares Taguchi’s compartment the ride becomes a momentary touching of two lonely souls. Flashbacks reveal that the father of the woman’s unborn baby has abandoned her, so she has just as much reason to end it all as Taguchi’s depressive salaryman, but it’s her encouragement that keeps him from literally taking the plunge. Again “Ferris Wheel” is a beautiful looking film, but it’s pat treatment of suicide just left me unsatisfied. For a moment in the middle of their ride I wondered for a second if both characters had in fact killed themselves and that the ferris wheel was some representation of an after life, but Nakano missed the chance to add that extra kind of interest to this film.

“Lighthouse” (2008)

A yakuza film in miniature, and a good one at that. That’s what my friends and I agreed the final film in the program, “Lighthouse”, was. Receiving its world premiere at TSSFF’08 it had all the hallmarks of the tried and true yakuza eiga formula: a man is released from jail after serving a term for murder only to find that some things in the world have changed beyond recognition while other have managed to stay exactly the same. In this case a man has served 8 years after having avenged the murder of his yakuza father. Back on the outside his fellow gangsters have planned a big welcome back party, but the man asks for a detour to a beach first. It’s here he reminisces about what led him to jail, memories of his stern but loving dad (played by yakuza eiga veteran Hiroki Matsukata), his beautiful stepmother and how his innocence was tripped away one autumn day when a hitman killed his father before his eyes. Nakano doesn’t resort to the growling tough guys, eruptions of machine gun fire and flashy camera work that characterizes so many yakuza films. His guns have silencers, the mood is kept sedate and Matsukata plays his old mob boss as a man at peace with himself and his world. His only wish? To be as useful as a lighthouse that stands at the end of the beach. Like “Ferris Wheel at 3:03:15 pm” this film addresses the issue of suicide, but here it makes sense. The man having avenged his father’s death has completed his life’s mission, but the memory of his dad’s love stays his hand at the final moment. About the only thing that didn’t fit in “Lighthouse” was the ending, which I won’t give away, but may make sense if taken as part of the yakuza genre, but felt tacked on.

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