Archive for the ‘Movie Festivals’ Category


Yubari Fanta 2013-2015: Part 2

August 22, 2015

Here are some pictures from the streets of Yubari.


Yubari Fanta 2013-2015: Part 1

August 22, 2015

I had intended to write a long article about Yubari International Film festival; however, since it seems I’ll never find the time I’ll just post a very quick introduction with some pictures.

The festival is held in the small town of Yubari in February, when the whole place covered in snow. It’s a pretty beautiful view with all the snowy mountains. The city streets alone are good enough a reason to visit Yubari since they are packed with beautiful old movie billboards from samurai films to yakuza flicks and Charles Bronson movies. I have counted at least 50 of them and trying to find all of them is part of the fun. I’ll post some pictures in the next post.

The festival itself focuses on small genre and indie films, from splatter to drama. Most of the films are world premiers of titles you’ve never heard about before – and may never hear about again. Consequently the average level of the films may not be as high as on some other festivals, but there are many small treasures to be found every year.

Another highlight is the insane side-program. If you attend a screening of a martial arts film, you can probably expect a live martial arts demonstration. If you attend a screening for a special effects splatter film, you may see the film’s makeup artist holding a 2 hour workshop on how to turn an actor into a zombie. And if you attend anything with regular quests Yoshihiro Nishimura or Noboru Iguchi, you should expect total insanity. Seriously, half of the madness that goes on in Nishimura and Iguchi events cannot be posted publicly, with the two gentlemen running around naked in snow being among the cost casual and innocent of their acts. Others include a human sushi plate (a naked woman, of course), Iguchi and Nishimura dancing to a AKB-48 pop song while dressed in girls’ school uniform, and SM torture competition hosted by Eihi Shiina – just to give a few examples of things that kind of can be mentioned publicly.

“Cruel!”. In front of the venue for an insane 2 day Yoshihiro Nishimura program.

Yui Murata mini concert

Nishimura, Iguchi and Kayano dancing to ABK-48

Iguchi and Rina Takeda in Iguchi event

Nishimura, Iguchi, Asami and others

The oriental Tom Cruise

Makeup effects wizard Soichi Umezawa does his magic on Momoko Kuroiwa

Band playing at the closing ceremony

Of course there are also some relatively down-to-earth Q&A sessions, like

Asami, Kudando Mitsutake and Dean Harada at Gun Woman premiere

Maki Mizui and Yoshihiro Nishimura at Kept (Ra) premiere

And what’s best, there are no red carpets in Yubari. Filmmakers and the audience hang out together, sit in the audience together, and constantly run into each other everywhere. In fact, most of the time when you’re sitting in the audince you later discover the guy next to you was the film’s director/actor/cinematographer etc. Or you’re eating delicious deer in the stove party and only later realize the cook was Masanori Mimoto…


Nippon Connection 2011

July 20, 2011

While I’m still in the process covering festival highlights, I thought I might post some brief feedback on the fest itself. For better introduction on this annually held (Frankfurt, Germany) awesome film fest, please see Midnight Eye’s article.

Amazing Film Selection (++)

Many film festivals commit the cardinal sin of only playing acclaimed movies by established directors. Nippon Connection provides an amazing variety of movies from mainstream hits to arthouse, splatter, and student films, without forgetting short movies. While the latest mainstream movies draw larger audience, it’s the unknown indie films that are Nippon Connection’s most important asset. At Nippon Connection one can witness cutting edge cinema and new talents being born – not after Cannes told you about them (as if interesting films were invited to Cannes), but before anyone else knew about them.

Many of the indie treasures, no matter how good, never receive home video distribution in their native country, let alone in foreign countries. Often Nippon Connection is one of the few, if not the only, place outside Japan to see them.

Culture and Food (++)

Nippon Connection is more than a film festival – it’s a culture venue including lectures, activities, movies, food, and more. When you’re not watching movies you can be listening to a film lecture or singing karaoke. The local streetfighters will head to the gambling den, zen-fans go to teahouse. When you get hungry you can have sushi, ramen, or other delicious foods cooked by the Japanese chefs at the festival. And beer – a German movie festival wouldn’t be anything without it. Asahi Superdry always within reach. Those looking for something stronger can try sake.

Atmosphere (++)

More than a few people have concluded that Nippon Connection is the nicest film festival they’ve ever visited. Despite the festival’s high reputation, respect, and star attendance, everyone is friendly. You can chat with Noboru Iguchi on the corridors, run into Koji Shiraishi in the bathroom, and make friends with audience members from different countries. It’s not visiting a movie festival, it’s attending a movie festival – and a lot more.

Poor Film Scheduling (- -)

This is the only negative. The scheduling is, simply put, a failure. There are too few screenings for most films (many of them play only once). Most of the program is also scheduled for evenings, sometimes leaving noon and afternoon half-empty. It’s a terrible choice to make in the evening when four top films are screening at the same time. This year’s theme seemed to be “Sion Sono Retro (with his early works like Bicycle Sighs) vs. Everything Else. Can’t have both. Nippon Connection needs to add more second screenings for afternoons.

The second problem concerning the scheduling is that screens are not synchronized. The main screening room especially is completely out of synch with other screening rooms. This means that Nippon Visions screenings might be starting at 16:00 and 18:00, while Nippon Cinema screenings would be starting at 17:00 and 19:00. As a result one Nippon Cinema screening is overlapping with two Nippon Visions screening. This makes it difficult to surf between screens and make it to the next screening.

In comparison, Helsinki International Film Festival manages this very well. The screens are synchronized to a large extent, they often play films of approximately same length at the same time, and the don’t fall much behind schedule. If there is an unexpected delay, they will even come to ask audience if there is anyone in a hurry to the next screening elsewhere, and try to delay the other screening if possible. With the amount of delays at Nippon Connection, this wouldn’t even be possible.

Fun Stories (++)

• Little screw-ups are a seminal part of all good film festivals. 2011 Nippon Connection audiences got to witness how a film reel inserted backwards (or upside down?) looks like (The Room). People who saw Sketches of Kaitan City in the sold out screening at Orfeo’s Erben were left breathless – not because of the film, but because the theater staff forgot to turn on the air conditioning for the first 40 minutes. And in Nippon Visions it seemed to be a tradition that for the first 60 seconds the projector man plays lottery with aspect ratios – until he finds one that pleases him.

• Nippon Connection draws plenty of audience – I witnessed this from the floor when Noboru Iguchi took the last remaining seat – even though I had a ticket, too (Hoga Holic triple). I wonder if he did.

• <Sunday, what a Sunday. Deciding to protest the Kou Shibasaki cooking film Rinco’s Restaurant (oh, come on, it can’t be good) I took the afternoon off and went to meet a Japanese friend downtown. Music, cheerleaders, beer, bratwurst… and, sunburn, dammit. Getting back to the fest I must admit Teto went beyond me thanks the beer – sunburn – headache combo. Thankfully the day was saved by the last fest film: Karate-Robo Zaborgar. More beer with my good friend Alex, meeting Iguchi after the screening (my Japanese literally downgraded by 2 years as I was trying to explain some nonsense of who I am and how I saw Iguchi in Sapporo last year).

Conclusion (++)
Awesome film festival, just fix the scheduling issues, please! Will certainly attend again if I get a chance.


Hiff – Part 2/2

October 2, 2010


Jackie Chan’s long time dream project Little Big Soldier (HK/China, 2009) turned out a mediocre action comedy. A historical road movie with war background, Jackie plays a coward warrior with unbeatable battle strategy: play dead. As a sole survivor after a battle he captures a wounded enemy general and tries to take him back to collect a reward. The mission is made difficult by countryside bandits, enemy troops, and a hostage that attempts to fight back at every chance.

Slightly more violent than expected, Little Big Soldier entertains but fails to leave a bigger impression. The action choreography and humor have their moments, although there’s little new on offer for Jackie’s fans. The ending isn’t entirely successful, and the gray visual look feels somewhat out of place.

R (Denmark, 2010) is a Danish prison film that hits hard even in its own genre. Unlike most award-hungry prison film it doesn’t attempt to tell a “coming of age” story nor does it feature wise and philosophical narrator. Instead it’s a 90 minute dive to hell. R refers to its protagonists, Rune, and also supporting character Rashid, both of who are serving only a short term sentence in a prison where it’s impossible to survive alone. Loyalty must be towards those who can keep you alive. Even then, R does have his sunnier days behind the bars.

The film doesn’t swallow itself in constant pessimism or overly graphic images, which only makes it more powerful. Many of the actors are real life prison guards and ex-prisoners. Impressive although not overly original film to depress the audience.

In Symbol (Japan, 2009) a Japanese man in funny pajama wakes up in a big white room covered by small buttons resembling a little boy’s genitals. He discovers that by pushing these buttons he can have various items delivered to the room: chopsticks, manga comics, bonsai tree… One button opens a hope in the wall. Getting out proves easier said than done. Same time in Mexico a middle aged wrestler Escargot is preparing for his match. What does this second story – shot entirely in Spanish and falling under the serious drama category – have to do with the nutcase white room Japan scenario?

Hitoshi Matsumoto’s (Dai nipponjin, 2007) brilliant comedy is not only the most confusing but also one of the funnies movies in years. Yes, there’s symbolism – what would you expect from a film with such title – but whether it’s meant to have any comprehensible meaning is up for the viewer to discover. While there’s room for 12 million interpretations, ultimately the “symbolism” is just one of the director’s tools and easily ignorable in the sense of deeper meanings. Matsumoto’s main aim is to entertain, not philosophize. Even if he heavily borrows Kubrick.

Bong Joon-ho’s (Memories of Murder, The Host) new film Mother (South-Korea, 2009) is a brilliant and darkly humoristic thriller-drama. The film’s central character, as suggested by the title, is a mother whose grown up son is arrested as a murder suspect. Convinced that her son has been framed, the mother starts her own investigation to find the real killer.

Unlike many other Korean directors Bong Joon-ho makes more old fashioned cinema. Mother doesn’t excel with ultra-stylized visuals or fast moving plot, but allows plenty of time for characters and storyline. This is why its excitement curve also resembles typical cinema from half a century ago: the film gets more involving little by little as it builds on good screenplay and takes its time to do so. The main character is never given a name in the film – she’s the anonymous woman resembling all loving mothers in the world.

Titles can be deceiving yet accurate at the same time, proves Pang Ho Cheung’s Category III thriller Dream Home (Hong Kong, 2010). While flawed, Dream Home is easily one of the most exiting finds in recent Hong Kong cinema. Lead actress / producer Josie Ho stars as a young woman obsessed with purchasing a flat she’s been dreaming since childhood. The money is there, now she only needs to get rid of the current tenants.

A refreshing mix of social commentary, Hong Kong city landscapes, and unusually inventive splatter, Dream Home is a rare beast to come out of today’s Hong Kong. It’s decently well acted, technically competent, and allows plenty of time for storytelling, even characterization. The somewhat slow moving back story, which forms the majority of the film, is played next to the current moment – the lovable Josie Ho butchering people in ways that are as stylish as they are graphic. Some of the gore and gratuitous sex turn into successful black humor. Dream Home is a modern flashback from the golden years of Hong Kong Category III cinema. And no, it won’t be shown in Mainland China.


Following his sub-par manga adaptation Crows Zero Takashi Miike surprises with a solid sequel Crows Zero II (Japan, 2010). The second film in the high school action saga improves on all areas: the dullish back story is now wrapped, the punk-rock soundtrack is more effective, and most importantly, the strange flashiness that plagued many of the first film’s action sequences is gone. Simply put, Crows Zero II works like an oiled engine despite its longish, 133 minute running time and zero-surprise storyline.

Meisa Kuroki’s odd R&B numbers are included, too, but even these parts are relatively catchy. The focus, however, is on the (near-openly homosexual) male struggle: good looking male idols beating the hell out of each other. The high school war finale alone is 27 minutes of non-stop fist fighting action, some of it surprisingly masochistic fist-in-the-face beating. If it wasn’t already done by the original manga by Hiroshi Takahashi, Miike’s film would define the modern Japanese high school delinquent gang. This is true beat em up punk cinema!

Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (Japan, 2009), the second remake movie in the series of four films, takes a more independent path that the first one, including adding a new character to the story. For an Evangelion fan it no doubt makes a more rewarding film, although newcomers may still be puzzled. With more than 10 episodes fitted into one movie, the pace is quite dazzling at times. After the action packed and somewhat uninteresting opening the film does slow down quite nicely. It’s the quiet moments that are Evangelion’s strength.

The second film doesn’t quite reach the epic hights of the first film, though, and the humor feels mostly repetition. Nevertheless, 2.0 is a very solid viewing that leaves the audience look forward to the next film. And, the scene showing Tokyo waking up to yet another (deceiving) beautiful sunrise – next to the music borrowed from The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979) – that is pure perfection.

Samuel Maoz’s war film Lebanon (Israel, 2010) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Based on the director’s own experience as a tank gunner in the Lebanon war in 1982, the film could be described as the Das Boot of tank movies. Opening and closing shots aside, the camera stays inside the tank for the entire film. Maoz places the viewer where he was; trapped inside a tank, only knowing what the radio tells him and only seeing what he can see from inside the tank. The director’s choice makes the film as difficult and claustrophobic as it’s impressive.

Needless to say Lebanon is not a tale of war heroes. Maoz stated people think veterans get together and share their old memories. That’s bullshit, Maoz says. Those are times you never want to remember again, yet they will haunt you for the rest of your life. War is kill or be killed. And when Maoz once hesitated to pull the trigger, it resulted in team member being killed. Lebanon attempts to display real war on screen to the extent possible without losing the audience. Much of the footage that, according to the studio, would make no one want to see the film, was left in the cutting room.

And then

I didn’t have time to see Armadillo (Denmark, 2010) on the fest, but it opened in normal distribution soon after so I rushed to see it. Might as well attach it to my report because A), it was port of the festival selection, and B) it’s the most talked about movie in Scandinavia right now, and hopefully in the rest of the world soon! Janus Metz’s documentary film follows a platoon of Danish solders in Afghanistan for several months. Why are these young men traveling to the other side of the world to fight and die in a war that has nothing to do with them? What could easily be another “war is hell, ice is cold” documentary becomes so much more in the hand of Metz. He remains objective and unsentimental to the extent of not featuring any interviews or narrator in the film. Instead the cameraman is one member of the platoon, following them everywhere they go, including battlefield. This gives Armadillo an extremely cinematic feel, not to mention the almost unbearable tension of the “battle scenes”. The cinematographer, fully armed to protect his own life, actually gets involved in gunfights, being lucky not getting hit by any of the bullets that seriously wound some other soldiers just next to him.

Armadillo also creates a very interesting comparison part to Samuel Maoz’s Venice Winner Lebanon. While Maoz stated, based on his own experience, that war is hell that you will never want to experience again, Armadillo shows how many of the soldiers in fact enjoy the adrenaline rush of it. Many of them returned home, only to sign up for 2011 comeback to Afghanistan. It’s no wonder the film has been an eye opener and somewhat of a small scandal to the public in its native country. Technically a documentary, Armadillo should be treated as what it truly is: a superb movie that happens to be 100% reality.


The Housemaid (South-Korea, 2010) – 2.5/5
Outrage (Japan, 2010) – 3.5/5
Kaboom (USA, 2010) – 3.5/5
Sound of Noise (Sweden, 2010) – 2.5/5
I’m Gonna Explode (Mexico, 2008) – 2.5/5
Summer Wars (Japan, 2009) – 1/5
Accident (Hong Kong, 2009) – 3.5/5
Little Big Soldier (HK/China, 2009) – 2.5/5
R (Denmark, 2010) – 3/5
Symbol (Japan, 2009) – 4/5
Mother (South-Korea, 2009) – 4/5
Dream Home (Hong Kong, 2010) – 3.5/5
Crows Zero II (Japan, 2010) – 3.5/5
Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (Japan, 2009) – 3.5/5
Lebanon (Israel, 2010) – 3.5/5
Armadillo (Denmark, 2010) – 4/5


HIFF 2010 – Part 1/2

October 2, 2010

The annual Helsinki International Film Festival (aka Love & Anarchy) was held in late September. With 125 movies shown in 400 screenings, 133 of them sold out, the festival keeps rising in popularity. The film selection contained movies from all around world, including a handful of advance screenings and more than 100 films that would not make it to theatrical distribution in Finland. Since I can see my introductions here sucks (just read it again. Wait, don’t) I’ll save your time and go straight to movie reviews. 16 movies only since I only had a chance to drop by for four days.


The Housemaid (South-Korea, 2010), a remake of the famous 1960 shocker of the same name, had the honor to kick off my festival. While the original classic focused on the battle between South-Korea’s poor and the new born middle class, the remake attempts to update the story to modern day South-Korea. The plot is as follows: a young poor woman hired as maid for rich family discovers the ruthlessness of the elite world as she becomes the secret lover of the family head, and ultimately tries to play the game at their rules.

While occasionally haunting in its emotional coldness, much of the film’s intended “scandal value” comes off a bit short: dirty talk and sex scenes that aren’t ultimately all that graphic. The characters, an older maid (Youn Yuh-jung) aside, have very little depth. Lead actress Jeon Do-yeon, who took home the best actress award at Cannes a few years ago (Secret Sunshine, 2007) is a talented actress and certainly easy on the eye, but her characters is walking very familiar paths. Director Im Sang-soon’s social critisism may be accurate but hardly original. The film’s mansion setting is mainly kept alive by excellent cinematography that is the best thing about the film. The ending, while slightly comical and difficult to take all that seriously, does load some punch and bring the film to a nice conclusion.

Kitano is back! After the creative destruction of his cinema career, the iron faced comedian and media personality returns to the genre western audience best know him for: yakuza film. Outrage (Japan, 2010) is a straight forwards crime film in the vein of Violent Cop (1989) or Brother (2000). Gone is the arthouse imagery and humanism of Kitano’s mid-90’s masterpieces, making way for a more simple cinematic expression. Outrage is the core of yakuza film: violence and men in black suits in a superbly stylish package.

The endless brutality is guaranteed to exhaust less experienced viewers but it also works for the benefit of the film in form of dark humor – to the extent of bringing Outrage to the verge of genre satire. Kitano’s more obvious comical touches are firmly included as well. The actual storyline is minimal – crime bosses and their subordinates wasting each other off left and right – and the film admittedly runs 20 minutes too long for its content. Kitano’s ice cold directing and terrific cast featuring actors such as Kippei Shiina, Renji Ishibashi, Jun Kunimura, and Kitano himself, nevertheless keep the film captivating till the end. Outrage also deserves a special award: the most atmospheric use of black cars in the history of yakuza cinema.

“Weird is the new normal”. Upon receiving award for his previous film Mysterious Skin, director Gregg Araki was told by trash king John Waters that Mysterious Skin is great and all, but what he really would like to see is another old school Araki film. That is Kaboom (USA, 2010): drugs, college sex, and mysterious men in animal suits. That’s for beginners, before it really starts getting weird.

The increasingly trippy film ultimately escapes genre classification and wraps up with a big question: what the hell was this all about. It’s the latter that is Kaboom’s potential problem. While realism isn’t what you’d ask for from a Araki film, any movie nevertheless needs some rules and a logic, fantasy it may be, that is at least remotely understandable. Otherwise there’s no reward and the puzzle couldn’t possibly be solved by the viewer. Araki is balancing on a thin fence here, not quite falling but spending some time hanging with one hand. The director’s sunshine-approach towards the subject saves a lot, though – Kaboom is eye candy with terrific soundtrack. Call it the bright side of Donnie Darko if you will.


Good idea can take you far – around 30 minutes in case of Sound of Noise (Sweden, 2010). This Swedish crowd pleaser is pure ingeniousness in the beginning. 6 musical terrorists attack a city and turn any objects they can find into musical instruments. It’s the Jackie Chan art of action applied to making music. Unfortunately after the classic hospital attack the film turn for repetition gear for the following 80 minutes. While relatively entertaining, and cinema novices will no doubt find it mind blowingly original, those more familiar with the inventive cinema of Takashi Miike and the likes would expect bets to be raised throughout the film. The ending aims at epic but comes out soft and corny. A catchier remake or shameless rip off would be more than welcome to give the concept the execution it deserves.

Mexican Bonnie and Clyde for teenagers, perhaps with a drop of Natural Born Killers without killing. I’m Gonna Explode (Mexico, 2008) follows two 15 year olds who run from home with guns and big talks. The parents are left home wondering what went wrong and who is to blame.

The strengths and weaknesses of I’m Gonna Explode are as described before. It’s a slightly pretentious film with something to say and plenty of artistic shots – God help the viewer with all the sudden cuts to blue sky at a dramatic moment. Romance, sex, and cry for freedom – what else would be on a 15 year olds mind – also make it bit strange experience considering its protagonists’ young age. Nevertheless, the film is at its best when it lets go and sings for freedom. Immoral and dangerous it may be, but better cinema. These bits are, however, are ultimately in a minority in an otherwise preachy movie. Even then, it does manage to be decently captivating, partly thanks to the cinematography. The grainy film stock used supports the teen angst dream flawlessly.

Mamoro Hosoda’s unbearable anime Summer Wars (Japan, 2009) hit mixes countryside landscapes to IT-commentary – of course not managing the latter without brain-dead, mecha-style action mayhem in computer drawn virtual world. The storyline follows a shy school boy following a girl to countryside to meet her family – an appalling inbred commune where family decides for the lives of its members. Not entirely rare even in today’s Japan, it’s sad having to witness Hododa’s noncritical and narrow minded philosophies on cinema screen. The film’s “go abroad, become devil” side message would be ignorable and meaningless in any other context, here one can only wonder if it was intentional after all.

Family politics aside Summer Wars still has its healthy load of universally embarrassing bits and pieces from heroic grandmother to teary scenes of the daughter overcoming herself. The potentially accurate social commentary – a virtual community taking over people’s lives – drowns itself in noisy action sequences that do not even allow the viewer to fall asleep. The few humoristic and romantic bits between the main characters are the film’s only redeeming qualities.

Dog Bite Dog director Soi Cheang’s much praised Accident (Hong Kong, 2009) is a Hong Kong flavored combination of Brian DePalma and Francis Ford Coppola. Louis Koo leads a team of assassins who disguise their kills as innocent looking accidents. Each hit takes enormous planning – and luck. The latter is the film’s obvious flaw. While the kills are superbly stylish and exciting, they do lack all credibility. Even with perfectly planned set up too much is left on assumption that the target plays his role and outsiders will not interfere, which almost never works in real life.

In fact, the film improves notably once it gets over the killings and moves on to paranoia phase – the part that plays out like a loving homage to The Conversation (1972). The ending doesn’t quite hit the target – once again playing with coincidences, and later even taking an easy moral route out, but if you can ignore the flaws Accident is indeed one of the better Hong Kong thrillers of the recent years.