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Cheap Thrills

In between sleeping, spacing out and looking sad, I spent my first two weeks of vacation watching movies. These are the leftovers.

Fearless (2006)

This is the last action flick of Jet Li's career. I figured someone out there thought about this for two seconds, and suddenly thought, "I know! Let's get him to fight lots of stuff! Continuously!" Which is exactly what he's been doing in all his other movies. So fight he does, with fists, ninchaku, katana, halberds, spears, broadswords, rapiers, boxing gloves, kitchen knives, arsenic, furniture, scaffolding, balcony railing, pillars and people bits. As you'd expect from a Jet Li flick, the choreography is immaculate. There are gobs of good close combat (think Tai Chi Master) and far too much running up walls (think Wong Fei Hung). As a final statement of his career, Jet Li seems to be saying he's done it all. The message he leaves behind for his fans is that his experiences taught him that tai chi is a means of knowing others. That for all it was worth, it was a tough struggle to the top.

I admit, I was never fond of the guy. I'm prone to equating his acting skills to a piece of wood. But, say what I will of him, he is many things a great martial artist. My Chinese New Years used to have at least one Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon a Time in China) movie playing somewhere on local TV. I still remember this scene from II or IV, with lion dances up scaffolding and swords behind peasant hats. And I probably will not ever forget the spinning water scene from Tai Chi Master. It's the moves, not the movies, that are most memorable. *

*Hero, possibly my favourite kungfu film of all time-space, survives with him and Zhang Ziyi in it by virtue of the magical powers of Maggie Cheung x Tony Leung.

Ashura-jo no Hitomi (2005)

If I remember anything about this film, it will be demons that spew lime green blood. Ashura is the kind of movie that you could watch, fall asleep halfway through in, and still make sense of at the end. It's pretty. Costumes range from passable to Cher. The CG is corny enough to remind of very old kung fu comedies. There are lots of falling cherry blossoms. There's a sequece with stairways that looks like someone watched Labyrinth. There is poetry, and the poetry is good. There is kabuki theatre, and the kabuki theatre, that was great. There is abyssmal choreography. Whyyyyyyyyyyy? (Hamp raises hands to the heavens and wrings them with drama.) With that kind of budget, they could've afforded better wiring, beastlier demons, or maybe a story worth writing home about, because there were real hints this could've been something linear-yet-tragically nice. Instead, we have a badly choreographed love story and just barely enough characterization. Not worth the pretty packaging.

Shinobi ~Heart on Blade~ (2005) - I suppose we could think of this as a very short Azumi. Imagine Azumi without the extra half hour or so of obligatory characterization, strip down all that stuff about having a Major Villian, and possibly strive for a lower budget (I don't think they'd have a lower budget than Moon Child, and Moon Child wins in the choreography department, however little they had to work with). Chuck in what must be distinctly less choreography worth writing home about. Have a cute, but otherwise not very useful fighter as one of your lead characters (and give her something destructive to fight with, like "Eyes of Destruction" -- all she'll have to do is stare the enemy in the eyes). Have a nice looking lead guy who fights all but once in the entire movie (and give him a good power, like "The Anti-Gravity Look", which causes all oncoming enemies to fall on their own swords). Shoot everything amidst picturesque woodlands and gorgeous waterfalls.

Hope no one notices that for a movie entitled "shinobi", we don't appear to be seeing much subterfuge or actual ninja-like characters.

Lots of people beating the crap out of each other though. This movie actually starts out better than I'm giving it credit for. The first two action sequences we see, of a shuriken specialist taking out a platoon and a guy wearing one of Faye Wong's long-sleeved costumes slapping people around with threads (er, sort of like Bride with White Hair, except the threads slap people around instead of stab them to death) taking out another platoon, actually suggest this movie could've gone somewhere. There's a hack romance that doesn't really do anything for the plot, apart from the promo shot used on covers and posters. It causes a beautiful set of shots at the very end of the movie, when a despairing love crawls around in the snow next to Gorgeous Waterfalls. It also causes an equally compelling scene of said despairing love begging for the safety of her village and poking her own eyes out. Nice drama. Terrible in all other ways. Go see something reasonable, like Red Shadow.

School Daze (2005) - Watching this before All About Lily Chou Chou, I did find it much less difficult to behold than the aforementioned title. School Daze follows Mizuno Haruo, a child actor who shocks Japan when he quits acting at age eight to save his parents' marriage. Now in his mid-teens, Haruo's parents are even more worse off than they ever were. The public has completely forgotten he'd ever existed. Bullies pick on him at school, and his only friend in the world is an eerily loyal shutterbug who really loves him that much.

Haruo accepts a role in a long-running high school serial, hoping to regain some of his lost glory. There are a few hints that this might not be everything he expected, starting with the fact his character would be named after himself. Then, screen Haruo turns out to be a horrifically bullied character with virtually no redeeming characteristics, apart from being weak. Faced with performing his life wherever he goes, he still throws himself through every acting hurdle, including doing his own stunts, performing his own real-"istic" rape scene and staring at scripts till he hallucinates the dialogue. It begins to pay off. He gains the respect of the cast and established actors for the heart he puts into his work. The scriptwriters add meatier stories for his character. Now the problem isn't being a better actor, but being able to see where he stops acting.

Director Kentaro Moriya does good work at shrinking Haruo's world. Haruo's claustrophobia is palpably real -- the feeling of being under constant scrutiny, whether from photographers, bullies, or voluntarily standing in front of the lens, there is no escaping the growing sense of unease in Haruo's life. When this existential twitchiness becomes him, it feels natural, as though the drug trip of talking to imaginary friends and seeing imaginary deaths was exactly what he was meant to do. The gruesome (I never thought I'd see the day I'd call tofu gruesome) breakdown of Haruo's mother and the apathy of his father means Haruo isn't offered an escape valve even at home. The jokes are mostly obvious, but still funny. Keeping in mind a lot of story takes place on the set of a soap opera, much of the comedic relief depends on the duality of characters on and off the set. Again, probably because it is a soap opera, the differences are usually obvious, and characters are quickly recognizable through their individual stylings. Interestingly, Oshinari Shuugo plays the soap's head bully in the same way he plays Hoshino in All About Lily Chou Chou. His "off screen" character takes on the persona of Hoshino's "good" side as well.

Snazzy angles and funky shots help add to the frantic pace -- in particular, the running sequence through the city in the middle makes for some great moments. Do check out the cameo by Suzuki Seijun (remember Pistol Opera and tea x sakura petals forever?). [He looks like this.] If you've ever thought Kumbaya was an annoying campfire hug, you will probably get a judicious giggle from what the class here came up with, or more specifically, where they break out the guitar and sing.

It's worth mentioning a number of scenes do involve some pretty disgusting bodily fluids and cringe-worthy bullies. This is not something I'd recommend watching in one sitting either. For all the apparent speed of the way the story moves, the story itself is pretty slow. I was left wondering if it all wasn't a bit much in the end, as it seems there were a few more bullying scenes than there needed to be. They didn't particularly add to anyone's character after the first two or three times. Haruo "x-raying" his script was cute the first time, but wasn't necessary beyond that. Many of Haruo's scenes at home don't make much sense until a few minutes from the end, and even here I wonder if there weren't too many of them. Haruo spends far too much time at home just looking sad. I won't go so far as to suggest skipping the middle, but it won't hurt to get up and walk around. The ending, by the way it keeps going on, is at once annoying and worth it. Seriously. Watch the ending even if you skipped the entire middle -- just don't skip the running sequence, because that's important -- but do not miss the ending.



Oct. 18th, 2006 07:44 am (UTC)
It would, if my brain would stop flailing around due to "need to plan my workshop due in two weeks time!", "need to finish stories!", "need to finish translations of stuff and learn more Japanese!", "need to finally finish the first book in Japanese for Busy People!". And then I fall asleep. *wails*
Oct. 18th, 2006 12:31 pm (UTC)