Whee!!! I got home yesterday, and what should be waiting for me but nice big envelope from those lovely folks at Palm Pictures, containing not one, not two, not three, but four DVDs. Several of them have already been reviewed elsewhere on Opus, so I’ll just post a few thoughts on each. However, before I begin, I just want to give some major props to Palm.
I’ve always been of the opinion that Miramax should be banned, by international law, from acquiring the rights to any more Asian films. If such a blessed event ever occurs, than Palm gets my vote as their replacement. So far, they’ve done a pretty bang-up job with all of the films they’ve released, giving them the respect and integrity that they deserve.
That’s right… no editing hack jobs to dumb them down for American viewers, no stupid artwork (I would love to get a poster of the sleeve artwork for Last Life in the Universe), no horrible dubbing jobs, no endless shifting of release dates, and best of all, no damn hip-hop soundtracks. Basically, just think of everything that Miramax does to their Asian releases, and then picture the exact opposite behavior. Palm, you done good.
Whew, not that I’ve got that off my chest, on to the DVDs. As of right now, the only one I’ve sat down and watched all the way through is Last Life in the Universe (which was just as good as I remembered — more on that in just a bit), but I’ve skimmed through the other 3 just to see what’s on them. Here goes…
Last Life in the Universe
Tadanobu Asano plays Kenji, a Japanese man living abroad in Thailand. His life is carefully ordered and precise, but also incredibly empty. Kenji just drifts through life with no attachments and relationships. In fact, he’s so alienated that he constantly fantasizes about suicide. His carefully ordered life, however, is upset by two events.
First, his brother, a boorish yakuza thug, shows up unannounced with news that he’s on the run. And second, he witnesses a tragic accident involving a young girl. Soon, Kenji is on the run himself, holing up with the girl’s older sister, Noi. Noi is the polar opposite of Kenji, a slob who prefers to sit around all day in her rundown house smoking pot.
After hearing Todd rave on and on about this, I finally got a chance to see it when I was up in Toronto for last year’s TIFF, and it certainly did not disappoint. The thing I remember most about the film is how graceful it is, how it deftly envelopes you in its atmosphere with nary a misstep. Nearly everything about this film is perfect, from the measured and minimal tone to the understated acting, from the gorgeous cinematography (Christopher Doyle once again shows why he is a genius) to the lovely soundtrack whose electronic pulses and sparse piano melodies perfectly accentuate the film’s themes of alienation and loneliness.
Palm really nails this release. The movie looks fantastic — seriously, words like “dreamlike” and “haunting” only scratch the surface — and it sounds great. It’s a very quiet film, which is just fine. The music just lingers there on the edge of the film, and the dialog is sparse and hushed, forcing you to pay attention to the film’s subtleties.
As far as extras go, you’ve got a short but intriguing interview with writer/director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, a Christopher Doyle photo gallery, and a collection of trailers. Not a packed disc by any means, but well worth picking up just to have the movie in your collection.
Most people know Takeshi “Beat” Kitano from his ultra-violent yakuza films such as Sonatine or Hana-Bi, or from his recent take on the long-running Zatoichi franchise. As such, Dolls is probably going to be the one film that really divides his fans. From what I’ve seen so far, most people either love this film for its gorgeous scenery and fable-like telling of 3 interconnection love stories, or hate it for being so pretentious and artsy-fartsy.
I personally lean more towards the former. Once you can get past the fact that this film is not “realistic”, but rather more of a fairy tale than anything else, it’s quite easy to get pulled in by the movie’s lush visuals, quirky storytelling, and solemn pacing.
Special features on the disc include: interviews with Kitano, Miho Kanno and Hidetoshi Nishijima (the film’s two “leads”), and costume designer Yohji Yamamoto; the film’s trailer; previews for other Palm releases; and weblinks.
The only other Kiyoshi Kurosawa film I’ve seen prior to Bright Future is his grim horror/psychological “thriller” Cure, which makes for a very interesting and marked contrast. Two young men just wander through life, working aimless jobs that they hate. One of them, Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano) raises a poisonous jellyfish as a hobby, and is trying to acclimate it to fresh water. His friend, Yuji, hates their boss, and is planning to kill him when Mamoru unexpectedly does the deed. For the first time in his life, Yuji is forced to face life on his own — until, that is, he meets Mamoru’s father, a down-on-his-luck electronic repairman.
Once you get past Kurosawa’s sometimes oblique style, and can get past the concept of a jellyfish as a major storytelling device, Bright Future becomes a very subtle, yet strangely moving story of forgiveness, redemption, and finding wonder in the mundane details of ordinary life. I know many people might be frustrated by the film’s storytelling — there are times when it seems stubbornly opposed to anything coherent or rational — but that’s part of the movie’s charm. And believe it or not, the scenes with the jellyfish are some of the movie’s most intriguing and lovely moments.
One note, however. I really wish that Palm had gone with something more akin to the Korean release’s artwork. It’s a lovely image, one of the film’s best, and is more indicative of the movie’s tone and atmosphere than Palm’s artwork, which is a bit cluttered IMHO.
Special features on the disc include: “Ambivalent Future”, a 75-minute behind-the-scenes look at Bright Future; the film’s trailer; and previews for other Palm releases.
Of these four releases, Purple Butterfly is the weakest by far. Which is a shame because it has so much potential. I caught this 2 years ago in Toronto (here’s my review), and I still remember feeling quite frustrated by the movie. Not because it was bad per se, but because it could’ve been so much better had the filmmakers made a few slightly different decisions about some of the film’s elements.
Zhang Ziyi plays Cynthia, a young woman who is in love with Itami, a Japanese businessman, right before the start of World War 2. When war breaks out, he’s called back to Japan and she becomes mixed up with a resistance group named “Purple Butterfly” after her brother is killed by Japanese. Meanwhile, a parallel plotline unfolds involving Szeto, a Chinese man whose fiance is killed in a crossfire involving Cynthia and the Japanese agents, who are now being led by Itami, who has been ordered to destroy Purple Butterfly.
From then on, the movie becomes increasingly complex and melodramatic, layering tragedy upon tragedy in an attempt to show us just how shattered its characters have become. It becomes rather pedantic before too long, especially when the movie starts laying on the Wong Kar-Wai-isms nice and thick, from the nonlinear storylines to the solemn, melancholy atmosphere (2046 is a ray of sunshine compared to this film).
Oh, and once again, I have to call into question the artwork, especially when it’s compared to the posters and artwork that I saw accompanying the festival screening I attended, and which were much more in-line with the film’s dark, rain-shrouded mood.
As far as special features go, this one is the lightest of the four. You get the film’s theatrical trailer, some previews for other Palm releases, and that’s about it.
Palm is just rocking out as far as Asian movie releases go (not to mention everything else they’ve released within the last year or two). Last Life In The Universe is an absolute must-have, I can see Bright Future being a real sleeper, and people are going to check out the remaining two because of the names attached to them (Kitano and Ziyi).
If any other industry types out there are checking this, you could learn a lesson or two from Palm’s behavior. When you release critically-acclaimed films that people are dying to see and you release them with the respect that they deserve and and you show some respect to the fans, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.