Thursday, September 29, 2011


Smuggler (dir. Katsuhito Ishii, 2011, Japan)
Katsuhito Ishii's Smuggler — his return to bruised-up, coked-up crime thrillers like his early genre-bender Sharkskin Man and Peach-hip Girl — was one of my top five most-anticipated films of the festival. See, I'm an Ishii-devotee, having begun with Sharkskin Man… on a total blind whim and the knowledge that Tadanobu Asano — IMO Japan's Johnny Depp for adaptability — was the lead. That ensemble-cast film turned the Yakuza genre on its ear, inserting off-kilter humor and extended, chatty dialogue and gorgeous, sun-dappled shots of foresty Japan with the usual bursts of violence and dapper characters. Think Dick Tracy but Japanese and crazier. I then saw his sweet family drama Taste of Tea and the bonkers anthology Funky Forest (and Ishii's web-only semi-related segments that followed) before backtracking to Party 7, which revolved in the same crime-riddled world as Sharkskin Man… yet managed to be even more hyperbolized, even chattier, even more deviant and colorful. The chattiness probably turned some people off, particularly non-Japanese speakers (I found a lot of the dialogue hilarious), but Party 7's classic opening sequence, streamlined anime like Ishii's famous contribution to Kill Bill, remains legendary. Which is why I don't get why Ishii remains a cult director in the States. You'd think his cocktail of Yakuza punks, bizarro humor, fast pacing and colorful characters would be a sellable option…yet it seems there are those filmgoers who know him for his more sentimental (and psychedelic) output (Taste of Tea, Funky Forest) and those who know his earlier crime-comedies (Sharkskin Man…, Party 7). And don't get me started on Ishii's Yama no Anata, Sorasoi and Strawberry Seminar (the latter of which I've seen partially online) — more serious outputs within the realm of the most humanistic parts of Taste of Tea, the most atmospheric bits of Funky Forest (think the "Babbling Hot-spring Vixens" segments, but more burbling water and wind in the trees) — which to my knowledge have NEVER shown stateside. This is a great disservice to an incredible, creative contemporary auteur and just added to my excitement for Smuggler. As in: ANYTHING new from Ishii was already good in my books.
Thank goodness he didn't let me down. Ishii's signature humor is stitched into Smuggler's storyline throughout, but this is w/o doubt Ishii's darkest, most violent film. The brutality hinted in his past works (particularly the anime sequences in Kill Bill and the opener to Party 7) manifest in sharp and extended relief here. While Sharkskin Man… involved a lot of bloodshed and bullets, a good deal of that occurred in the cover of night or was mostly left to the imagination. Not in Smuggler, where yakuza heavy Kawashima (a wildly eyebrowed Masahiro Takashima) smacks crime-world envoy Yamaoka (Yasuko Matsuyuki, varying her outfits across the Gothic Lolita spectrum) in the face, and blood continually flows from her nose as she collects herself and makes a phone-call from him. Nor in the decimation doled out by hyper-villain Vertebrae's (Masanobu Ando, scarred up and sinewy, easily outdoing his crazed Kiriyama role in Battle Royale by like 1000%) nunchucks, as he takes down a room of Yakuza thugs and gangleader (all buddies of Kawashima, incidentally) in bullet-time ultraviolence. Nor, finally, in Kawashima's prolonged torture of Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki, who I recognized as Akemi's BF in Michel Gondry's superior segment of Tokyo!), the out-of-work actor and titular smuggler (as in, smuggling dead bodies, mediated by Yamaoka's company) posing as Vertebrae in a dangerous game of deception.
It's pretty sadistic, but Ishii deftly injects humorous doses throughout, like a particularly funny and tense mad-dogging at the convenience store, run by Ishii regular Yoshiyuki Morishita (Kill Bill-ers will remember him as the graveyard-smiling salary-man who gets gutted by schoolgirl assassin Chiaki Kuriyama), where truckdriver Jo (Ishii regular Masatoshi Nagase, weathered and world-weary here, but still dangerous as a blade), a sort of hesitant mentor for young Kinuta in the world of smuggling, stands down Vertebrae and associate Naizou (uh, "Viscera"?) over who was first at the register. Plus cutie Hikari Mitsushima adds toughness to a mostly male cast, one-upping Yamaoka as mob-wife Chiharu, though she was the one who ordered the hit on her man, which Vertebrae gracefully "executed". Plus Ishii regular Tatsuya Gashuin (in EVERY Ishii film…I think, as twitchy hitmen in Sharkskin Man… and Party 7 and the eccentric old dude in Taste of Tea) is a welcome presence, w/ his love for fried-squid soba and his nuggets of wisdom for Kinuta. Smuggler opens on Oct 22 in Japan.

Two Eyes Staring (dir. Elbert van Strien, 2009, Belgium)
My main issue with this pretty scary ghost-possession (that hyphenation might be subjective) is its length. Elbert van Strien draws out the tale far too long, but the creepy elements and believability of young lead Lisa (Isabelle Stokkel) keep Two Eyes Staring tense and intriguing. I really dug Stokkel's performance, going from bleak and worried as her parents move her from Holland to grandmother's old house in Belgium, to wide-eyed and laughing in mini-adventures with her doting dad Paul (Barry Atsma). Seems Lisa has trouble making friends anyway, so coupled with a traumatizing move away from the world she knows, her overactive imagination hits the red as she befriends a strange young (*cough*, DEAD) girl Karen (Charlotte Arnoldy) living in the cellar of grandma's house. Meanwhile, Lisa's mother Christine (Hadewych Minis) remains distant and guarded from her daughter as she pursues a new fashion career in Belgium. Distant to the point that I really felt Christine was Lisa's step-mother, in the way she genuinely distrusts the little girl, particularly as Lisa's relationship w/ Karen strengthens and she begins uncovering secrets from Christine's past. Two Eyes Staring epitomizes slow-burn thriller, but I was so pleased with Stokkel's performance that I'd see it again. Plus, apparently Charlize Theron is optioning it for an English language remake.

Yakuza Weapon (dirs. Tak Sakaguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi, 2011, Japan)

I had the pleasure of previewing the two new and very strong Sushi Typhoon titles Yakuza Weapon and Karate-Robo Zaborgar (review below) in NYC, though Fantastic Fest was the first time I saw them on the big-screen. Now Yakuza Weapon, the combo directorial effort by Yudai Yamaguchi (participating in upcoming horror anthology The ABCs of Death, and director of Battlefield Baseball and Deadball fame, plus I loved his contribution to Meatball Machine) and Tak Sakaguchi (premiere Japanese schlock-action hero), should be on any action-lover's radar, as it's a very loose followup to Ryuhei Kitamura's underground classic Versus, like Rambo on shabo, that rocketed Sakaguchi onto the scene as consummate ass-kicker. And ass-kicking he does in Yakuza Weapon, bearing the strongest fight choreography of any Sushi Typhoon title to date. We're launched into it via the blitzkrieg opening sequence in the South American jungle, with Shozo (Sakaguchi) systematically dispatching each and every armed thug before heading back to Tokyo. There, he learns his familiar Yakuza world has been shattered by dad's right-hand man Kurawaki (the dapper and unhinged Shingo Tsurumi, one-upping his platinum-coiffed attack-dog persona from Katsuhito Ishii's Sharkskin Man and Peach-hip Girl), and Shozo's confrontation leads to a skyscraper's demolition, plus Shozo in a government medical facility with a cannon on his arm and a rocket launcher in his leg. Cue more ass kicking! The buzzed about 4+ minute one-take fight scene that follows here, where Shozo takes on waves of Kurawaki's henchmen with his fists, feet and eventually cannon and rockets over two levels of the facility is properly, singularly superb. If Oldboy set the tone for video-game-style one-take action via a side-scrolling brawl b/w a hammer-wielding Oh Dae-su and dozens of heavies, Yakuza Weapon throws that into three dimensions, as Yamaguchi maneuvers a hand-held gracefully around whole rooms and up staircases, following the violence. The coup de grace follows in the lithe form of Sumire (Cay Izumi, her athleticism as leader of pole-dance troupe Tokyo Dolores coming into full play here), sister of Shozo's former best bud and current rival Tetsuo. See, Sumire's been engineered w/ the same technology as Shozo, only by the bad guys, turning her into a naked fembot assassin whirling around her brother whilst firing crotch rockets and mouth lasers at Shozo!

Karate-Robo Zaborgar (dir. Noboru Iguchi, 2011, Japan)
The eminently huggable and deviant Noboru Iguchi (participating in horror anthology The ABCs of Death) won the Fantastic Features "best director" award at Fantastic Fest for Sushi Typhoon charmer Karate-Robo Zaborgar, his unique take on a pre-Transformers '70s TV show for kids. The lauding behind Zaborgar is well deserved, as it's not only the most accessible Sushi Typhoon title to date but also an all-around awesome, funny film, taming down Iguchi's ultraviolence and perversion and amping up his clever use of humor and cheeky action. Plus, a story about a secret police officer (Yasuhisa Furuhara in the teen role of Daimon) whose sidekick is a karate-fighting cyborg that transforms into a motorcycle just SOUNDS badass, right? Daimon and Zaborgar clash against Sigma, the evil organization responsible for Daimon's scientist father's death. In a curious turn of events, Daimon and Sigma lead fembot Miss Borg (uber-cutie Mami Yamasaki) fall for one another, causing Zaborgar to step in and detonate both her and its own robotic essence into a ball of fire. 25 years pass and an aching, diabetic Daimon (played now by the reliable Itsuji Itao, whom careful viewers will remember as the "head" engineer in Yoshihiro Nishimura's Tokyo Gore Police) finally reunites with Zaborgar, leaving the comforts of retirement to face Sigma once again. The evil organization unleashes their super-robot, a 400-ft destroyer powered by the spirit of Android Akiko (the cute half-human, half-fembot result of Daimon's affair w/ Miss Borg), which leads Zaborgar and Daimon many many stories above Tokyo, brawling with another cyborg and Daimon's disgruntled son across canvases of swelling metal bikini and smooth flesh that is Android Akiko, as she discharges waves of radioactive destruction by chattering on her mobile phone. I absolutely loved every minute of it!