One Cut of the Dead

Ueda Shinichiro’s One Cut of the Dead was a highlight of the recent Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne, and possibly my favourite film of the year. It’s a budget horror flick, a movie about movie-making, and a sweet story about the shared love of things that can bring people together.

Opening with Director Higurashi making a low budget zombie movie in a spooky abandoned facility, the film quickly takes a turn as the cast find themselves under attack by “real” zombies. He sees this as an opportunity to get genuine emotion and real horror from his cast so he will not stop shooting and actually pushes the actors into more peril. Bloody, profanity laden, decidedly B movie, unintentionally funny, the story speeds to its conclusion. All in one epic 37 minute take. But then the clock winds back and we get to see how Higurashi and his crew came to be in this place, all the planning and preparation for their movie, and what motivated them to do it. And finally, Ueda takes us back to the day of filming, but this time we see the things happening on and off camera and what that means for Higurashi and co.

The director Higurashi is completely over the top, threatening his performers and demanding they keep filming even when their life may be at risk. He has one shot at making the film and will do what it takes to deliver. I really enjoyed Takayuki Hamatsu’s performance as he would swing from politely earnest to literally spitting with rage and back, all in the service of his film. His relationship with his sulky teenaged daughter Mao (played by Mao) and retired actress wife Nao (Shuhama Harumi), who are both on the set, gives the film an unexpected sweetness amidst all the gore and dismemberments.

Akiyama Yuzuki and Nagaya Kazuaki play Chintatsu and Ko, the stars of the film. I enjoyed their deliberately bad acting in the movie within the movie, and the contrast with their vacuous celebrity sides. When things started to go awry they were the least prepared and therefore, among the funniest. Shuhama Harumi’s Nao is a walking cliché in some respects, intoning warnings and urban legends straight out of every other horror movie. Her hobby and practical application of her skills almost brought the house down, and her character really comes to life in the latter part of the film. The rest of the cast includes stock types like the has-been actor who drinks to steady his nerves, the goofy AD who never challenges an order, the finicky cameraman, and his enthusiastic assistant who just wants a chance to try her style.

Things move at a frenetic pace but there are beats where you can simply enjoy what’s going on before plunging back into the thick of it. I was constantly delighted by small details like the appearance of a hankie wiping blood spatter off a lens as the cameraman gamely ran in pursuit of a screaming actor and zombie.

The narrative structure is brilliant and the editing is timed to perfection. Things that looked like bad acting or glitches in the movie might later be seen in a different light and instead make you want to cheer for this game little bunch of movie crazy people. The jokes were sometimes funnier from the second perspective too, which is quite an achievement. Dolly Parton once said it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. Ueda Shinichiro has managed to make a highly technical and polished film look like it was made on a shoestring, but in a good way. It’s a tribute to the spirit of making do.

I flinched, I groaned, I cheered, I laughed so hard I cried. If you can stand a lot of swearing and fake blood splashing around, see this.

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Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura

The Japanese Film Festival is on in Melbourne and I’ve found lots of gems to enjoy in this year’s programme.

Yamazaki Takashi’s adaptation of Saigan Ryohei’s manga, Destiny: Kamakura Monogatari, is beautifully odd and charming.

Akiko (Takahata Mitsuki) moves to Kamakura after marrying Isshiki Masakazu (Sakai Masato), a popular author. The town is unusual, and there are supernatural creatures living alongside the human residents. Akiko is a high spirited and curious young woman, and she generally enjoys her new home and the strange goings on. However an entity from the underworld takes an uncomfortable interest in her, a bad luck god sneaks into the house, and things start to go very wrong. She is separated from her husband all too soon. But Masakazu is Kamakura born and bred, is matey with a grim reaper, and he finds a way to travel to the underworld to rescue Akiko’s spirit.

The film is as much a rom com as it is a fantasy. Akiko is quite a bit younger than her husband Masakazu, and she is worried she won’t be able to be a proper wife to a fancy author. He is a little worried about his precarious work situation, how she will settle in, and if she will be able to deal with the supernatural. They are both quirky characters and the actors sometimes go for energy over subtlety. But I was won over by their mutual affection and sense of fun. Sakai Masato is wry and charming, unless Masakuzu has a deadline. Then he becomes a panicky work avoiding child, obsessed with toy trains. Masakuzu also has a side line in helping the police with hard to solve cases, and they act as small episodes within the story, showing more about the village and how things operate between the communities.

Akiko learns some household tips from elderly and enigmatic Kin (Nakamura Tamao) and finds out more about the mysterious side of Kamakura. She is generous and impulsive, and that is both a curse and a blessing, quite literally. Takahata Mitsuki plays Akiko as wide eyed and a bit too perky, but she has an endearingly goofy energy that plays well off her co-stars. I particularly enjoyed the quieter scenes between the couple when they were just happy to be together, and the warm contentment was palpable. She wants to do the right thing for her husband and that gives her strength to make some hard choices. And when they are separated, she stays strong because she has faith in their love.

I liked Ando Sakura as the administratively overwhelmed and under-resourced grim reaper. It’s quite a change of pace from her amazing performance in Shoplifters (the film that had me crying in public at MIFF earlier this year). This grim reaper is kindly disposed towards humans, fancies clothes at the more garish end of the all black wardrobe spectrum, and seems to enjoy having local celeb Isshiki Masakuzu as a new friend. Masakuzu’s mate Honda (Shinichi Tsutsumi) strikes a deal with her and his story takes quite a turn. Again, his story is about family and regrets as much it is about magic or gods. The bad luck god Binbogami (Tanaka Min) is loud and blustering but develops a soft spot for Akiko who treats him like a welcome guest. Guests are god, after all.

The visual effects are often jawdroppingly lovely, and I think anyone would want to go to Kamakura as a result. Every shot counts, and some things that seem to be a bit of whimsy become more meaningful later in the film. Scenes at the Goblin Market were both magical and relatable, with a blend of real world and supernatural. Little creatures scuttle in the background, or ramble around in Akiko’s garden apparently unnoticed and unremarked. The yokai can look very elaborate and non-human, but some blend in quite well unless they choose to reveal themselves. The underworld is where the effects skills get a serious work out, creating a vast expanse of structures and landscapes with incredible detail. I love that they catch a train to get there, and the journey on the way in was gorgeous. Getting out was a bit less relaxed!

I was in the right mood for a feel good film with tons of charm, and this was perfect.

Badhaai Ho (2018)

The Kaushiks live in a cramped old apartment in a colony overflowing with other lower middle class families. Priyamvada (Neena Gupta) runs the household and her husband Jeetu (Gajraj Rao) is a ticket inspector on the railways and sometime poet. They have two sons, 20-something Nakul (Ayushmann Khurrana) and stroppy teenager Gular (Shardul Rana), and Jeetu’s overbearing mother (Surekha Sikri). After a particularly trying evening, tired of keeping the peace, Priyam retires to her room. Jeetu reads his latest poem to try and sooth her hurt feelings. The poetry, the stormy night, the emotion…one thing leads to another. And 19 weeks later, the Kaushiks find out Priyam is pregnant.

When people find out about the pregnancy, reactions are varied to put it mildly. The GP and his wife are supportive of Priyamvada but give Jeetu the side eye as though to say he should have been more careful. The boys are just horrified that their parents still have sex, and are embarrassed by their degenerate behaviour. The mother-in-law goes full harpy mode and criticises Priyamvada, saying she is no better than she ought to be. And the gossip mill goes in to overdrive as news spreads.

Jeetu tells Priyamvada he’d prefer she had an abortion, but she won’t contemplate that option. He gently tries to make her see the downside, but says finally it’s her body so it should be her decision. Good man, Jeetu. I really enjoyed seeing an older couple as the focus of the story, and Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao are wonderful. They are both conditioned to defer to their elders and maintain the peace. She looks elegantly middle aged, her face showing gentle lines and character. He is sweetly reticent, all business and stingy as hell on the surface but secretly romantic.

I loved a scene at a family wedding where he manoeuvred his way to be close to her in a photo, his face alight with booze and proud affection. The female relatives and wedding guests are less happy with the pregnancy and make free with their remarks, tormenting mild-mannered Priyamvada. Neena Gupta was quietly compelling but easily switched to perfectly timed comedic beats. Seeing Jeetu and Priyam navigate their way through a life changing surprise, their relationship, and all the reactions was highly engaging without being overly dramatic. It was disappointing when the film shifted focus to Nakul and his girlfriend as their relationship is one you see in every other film. I liked seeing the often invisible people get their time front and centre.

In the midst of all the talk of reproductive rights and safe sex, the male characters’ idea of masculinity rarely strays from the often toxic manly man stereotypes. Jeetu is in demand as a fertility coach among his peers, asked to counsel a troublesome nephew who remains childless despite two marriages. The nephew is introduced dancing enthusiastically to a Sridevi hit song as onlookers make snide comments. Gular is considered to be fine once he has beaten up a bully and asserted his masculinity. Nakul made fun of an impotent friend and hides lest he be on the receiving end. His jokes are funny, in a mean spirited and rehearsed way, but it is kind of telling that his friends are really frenemies. The men seem less supportive and rarely get real in their conversations with each other. The women bitch and bicker but ultimately they seem to get that family is what it is and in the end all they may have is each other. And bingo.

Ayushmann is delightful as the sooky, moody manchild Nakul who is the centre of the universe. His timing in the dialogues and his physical reactions are just about perfection, and when Nakul isn’t brooding he has a goofy energy that lights up the screen. But Nakul is an entitled dick and everything is about him. Everything. And although I was happy to see some character growth, I grew tired of the perfection of reformed Nakul, Best Son Ever. Even when the baby is born, he makes it about him. I just never really got why the boys were so horrible. Shocked, sure. But feeling betrayed – why!?! When the film detoured over to focus on him and Renee, I did lose some interest. On the upside he and Sanya Malhotra are great together and also do some excellent eyebrow choreo in the big production number, Morni Banke, that closes the film. I love an all-in end titles extravaganza!

Sanya Malhotra is charming but Renee is a little under-written, a standard issue modern girl. I liked that she has a career and that she straight up called Nakul out on some things. But when her supposedly progressive mother, played by the elegant and considered Sheeba Chaddha, criticises the Kaushiks and Nakul fires back, Renee breaks up with him. It seemed a bit convenient for the plot given her previous behaviour, but I didn’t care so much about that relationship. She has appealing looks and energy, and was a good match for Ayushmann.

Jeetu’s mum likes an orderly world where people pay attention to god and their elders, but she might not be as backward as she seems. Surekha Sikri is over the top as cantankerous Dadi at first, but when restraint was needed she wound it back nicely. Dadi helped demonstrate the strong familial love and support that helped the Kaushiks get through everything. Mostly by demanding maximum forbearance from everyone around her.

I was so relieved that Priyamvada is not simply fodder for tacky jokes, despite the dreadful poster designs. Writer Akshat Ghildial and director Amit Ravindernath Sharma deliver humour, pathos, social critique and a warm respect and affection for most of their characters. I like a good slice of life middle class social comedy and this delivers in spades. A great cast, a smart screenplay, and beautifully immersive visuals make this a delight to watch.