July 10, 2012

JAPAN CUTS 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

Tormented (Rabbit Horror 3-D)

Wabbits! Wabbits! Wabbits! Elmer Fudd would crap his pants and blow his (shotgun) load if he took the M15 bus uptown, just past the United Nations, and headed over to Japan Society this weekend. There, he’d encounter a far more formidable nemesis than Bugs Bunny: The never-ending hallucinatory fuzzy-wuzzy terror of Tormented (Rabbit Horror 3-D)—though this is the 2-D version. One of those films that gives Japan Cuts its edge, this latest lump of disgorged J-Horror is nonetheless more aberrant curiosity than culturally subversive reason-to-go-on-living.

The participation of ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle and J-Horror auteur Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge) has the promise of genius, and a six-foot-tall actor inhabiting a rabbit costume can only add to the psychotronic glory of it all. The latter haunts a little boy who, in an act of mercy, finishes off a deathly sick rabbit with a big rock one day at school. The kindness earns him the taunts of his peers, who call him "rabbit-killer." His mute older sister tries to offer solace, but their home is some kind of strange penumbral world of weirdness, with an artist father lost in his own world after the deaths of both his wives.

Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club

What happens next? I really have no idea. The story dissolves into its own strange internal dream logic (down the rabbit hole, indeed), but everything gets lost in the sickly green murk (what must this look like in 3-D?). Plot twists abound, but the movie never rises to the allure of its premise. I caught a similar "eh?" vibe watching Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club. [Watch the trailer.]

Funny you should ask, but it too begins with a scene of rabbit murder. Mizuko (Kaori Kobayashi), a mean junior-high schoolgirl with a disturbed glare, does the dirty deed, but she can't stop there. She forms a cabal with four classmates when they learn that their teacher Sawako (Aki Miyata) has a baby on board. And, well, this movie isn't called Let's Buy the Teacher Something Nice for Baby at Macy's Club. Their clumsy efforts at derailing sensei's pregnancy only earn them her contempt, there’s very little else Sawako can do when the school system is so cowed by indulgent parents who refuse to accept discipline of their children. The furtive teacher-student combat saga is familiar in Japanese movies, and unfortunately it would seem that director Eisuke Naito hasn't got much new to offer.

Hard Romanticker

The sick pathology has its moments, as when the girls, who have not studied their chemistry too closely, fail to properly dissolve a poison compound in a cup of tea they bring to their teacher, and screw up their mission. In the film's last third, the plot veers into pure thriller territory, though, and then takes a surprisingly serious and emotional turn that proves shockingly genuine—enough to prompt some reconsideration of what's happened in the previous 90 minutes... but not enough to eclipse Confessions, from Japan Cuts 2010. For sheer sick kicks, my vote goes to Hard Romanticker, with Shota Matsuda as a badass zainichi (Japanese-born, but of Korean ancestry), whose criminal adventures in a port city parallel gangland rampages, punk rock body counts and the occasional glue-huffing bachannal.

Several of Japan Cut's 38 features overlap with the closing days of the New York Asian Film Festival (which holds forth from the Film Society at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater), before transitioning into a solid two weeks of screenings, complete with special guests, after-movie parties and plenty of sold-out houses filled with passionate cinephiles (and Asian cinema freaks) for whom the program is bigger than Christmas and Halloween combined. For all the extreme elements—as yes, there WILL be a screening of Noboru Iguchi's cracked-out (in every possible iteration of the phrase) shitstorm, Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead—Japan Cuts is really about the pop culture that appeals to Japanese moviegoers. So you get a nifty sidebar devoted to actor Koji Yakusho, playing a role later taken by Richard Gere in the Japanese version of Shall We Dance?, a detective in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's creepfest Cure, and a noble samurai who goes out in a blaze of glory in 13 Assassins, to be shown in Takeshi Miike's extended director's cut (which includes one cray-cray whorehouse sequence deemed unfit for American distribution).

Love Strikes!

There’s also sweet fluff like Love Strikes!. Basically, it's The 31-Year-Old Virgin, the story of a nerdy, bespectacled beanpole of an otaku who works as a reporter for a pop magazine, where his co-workers push him into the dating world. An online friendsip turns into real-life romance between clueless Yukiyo Fujimoto (Mirai Moriyama), and unspeakably kawaii Miyuki (Masami Nagasawa). Or so he would hope. But he manages to turn every opportunity into an embarrassment, and then lingers like a sad puppy dog even though she has a boyfriend (who turns out to be a rock concert promoter). Mocked by his co-workers and lured into various liasons, Yukiyo doesn't stay a virgin forever, but he still manages to act like it—living out his passions in karaoke sessions and the occasional spontaneous J-Pop dance number. Through it all he seems awkwardly unequipped to deal with his mysterious arrival as a bitch magnet (everyone, it seems, wants him but the one he wants), and the torture continues until the very cusp of the closing credits. Nagasawa, who will be on hand for the American premiere, won a 2012 Japanese Academy Award for her performance as a goddess of mixed-messages (the kind every guy loves and hates), and the NYAFF’s Rising Star Asia award. While the film lacks the perverted grandiosity of Sion Sono's Love Exposure—a summit that is, perhaps, unreachable—its amiably hapless dithering is at once more real and more fantastic than Hollywood’s version.

[Japan Cuts runs from July 12-28 at Japan Society, 353 E. 47th St., New York City. The New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) continues through July 12.]

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Posted by ahillis at July 10, 2012 8:31 AM