DVD Review: Greatful Dead

Starring: Kumi Tachiuchi, Takashi Sasano

Director: Eiji Uchida

Rating: 7/10

greatful-dead 2This bad taste comedy-thriller from Japan nails its colours to the mast with an early scene where the beautiful protagonist poses for a selfie with the wizened remains of an old man who has popped his socks. Lonely and ignored as a child, Nami (Kumi Takiuchi) has grown up to become an independently wealthy young woman who lives in splendid isolation and spends all her time indulging her hobby, which consists of stalking what she terms “solitarians” – people who have gone crazy due to loneliness. Becoming obsessed with one particularly grumpy and isolated old man (Takashi Sasano), she’s infuriated when a pair of Bible-bashers befriend him and start turning his life around. Her retaliation is highly sadistic and involves, among other things, force-feeding the old man Cialis.

The early parts of the film play out in an arch, stylised manner, like a warped version ofgreatful-dead 1 Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. Later on, as the strapping girl and the frail old man take pieces out of each other, the whole thing turns into more of a standard runaround, albeit a gleefully gory one marked by a dark, serio-comic tone. Throughout it’s distinguished by strong lead performances by Tachiuchi as the deceptively wholesome looking (but in fact totally crazed) antiheroine and Sasano as her grouchy, grumbling but wirily tough victim. Director Eiji Uchida struggles to keep control of the theme of urban loneliness – it morphs instead into a litany of the miseries and indignities of old age – but otherwise his direction is slick, pacey and to the point. Odd enough to merit immediate cult status, Greatful Dead is certainly one to check out if you’re bored of the usual stalk and slash fare and fancy an offering that turns the genre on its head and injects it with some much-needed satirical attitude.

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DVD Review: Sake-Bomb

Starring: Gaku Hamada, Eugene Kim, Josh Brodis, Mariane Barnes
Director: Junya Sakino
Rating: 8/10

sake-bomb 2A sake bomb, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is a cup of sake dropped into a three-quarters-full pint of beer and downed in one. In this case, metaphorically speaking, the beer is Southern California, and the cup of sake falling into it is one Naoto (Gaku Hamada), a young Japanese man who comes to LA for a week’s holiday in hopes of tracking down his long-lost love Olivia and finding out why she left him without a word.

Tasked with assisting him in this endeavour is Naoto’s American-born cousin Sebastian (Eugene Kim), who confounds stereotypes of polite, hard-working Asians by being rude, lazy and unemployed (he whiles away his days posting sarcastic vlogs and watching his collection of vintage Asian-American porn). Sebastian takes an instant dislike to Naoto, who has all the virtues he lacks, but grudgingly agrees to drive him to San Francisco, Olivias’ last known whereabouts.

What follows is a fish out of water comedy with a twist. Because, while Naoto is sake-bomb 6embraced wherever he goes by westerners steeped in Japanese popular culture and thrilled to meet the real thing, it’s Sebastian who is the outsider, constantly at loggerheads with everyone around him and channelling his own very personal sense of inferiority into diatribes on the subtle racism concealed within 21st century multicultural discourse. And it’s this fearless engagement with a slippery topic which gives the film an impact far beyond that of your average buddie movie, culminating in a standout sequence (Sake-Bomb‘s equivalent of the deli scene in When Harry Met Sally) when Sebastian and Annie (Jessika Van), a Taiwanese girl, trade razor-sharp, ethnic-oriented insults in an increasingly frenzied tit-for-tat in an effort to get a rise out of each other.

sake-bomb 3At moments like these, Sake-Bomb seems to articulate a fresh, exciting new voice just as the early works of Spike Lee did. But there’s nothing hectoring about it. The vibe is relaxed and easygoing as the central duo encounter various cool characters played by bright young actors – Josh Brodis’ Michael, a charming gay guy who’s into cosplay, and Mariane Barnes’ Joslyn, a feisty redhead who writes comic books. The cinematography by Sam Yano is very interesting – bright, flattened, Technicolorish, as if to say you can’t be a visitor to California without also feeling you’re in a movie. The South Cal locations, Junya Sakino’s breezy, lyrical directorial style, the prevailing mood of bitter-sweet disenchantment in Jeff Mizushima’s excellent screenplay and, of course, the references to alcohol also call to mind the Paul Giamatti hit Sideways – and if you savoured that film, this one might well be your tipple too. It’s all wrapped around an inspired turn from (the actually Korean-American) Eugene Kim as a scurrilous comic antihero who scatters lethal wisecracks right and left like a ninja throwing handfuls of shuriken.

The film is perhaps a little less sunny and evolved, a little more angry and conflicted sake-bomb 5than it at first appears. You could argue it contradicts its own plea to move beyond stereotypes by employing stereotypes itself (there’s a predictably racist redneck traffic cop who makes condescending jokes, and all of the non-Asian women in the film are presented as promiscuous and disposable). And entertaining though he is, Sebastian is disturbing figure – the more so, the more you think about him – because he’s not just at odds with his Asian heritage, he seems to have a palpable, if unexpressed, hostility towards his western upbringing too. But all this comes with the territory. Much more than just a fun movie with a fusion flavour, Sake-Bomb is a rare film that actually has something to say, and it might even be remembered in times to come as an important one.

The DVD has with 29-minute interview with director Junya Sakino, and a very lively 23-minute film festival Q&A. Both have slightly dodgy picture and sound but are full of fascinating insights. Sakino talks in a very honest way about his background (born in Japan, moved to LA when he was 19), how he got into movies, the problems of getting the film financed, and he even cheerfully fields a question about penis size. There’s also a full 4-minute version of the spoof porno Sebastian watches in the film, Yellow Curry on White Rice, supposedly the work of his hero Long Wang and starring Mary Carey of Celebrity Rehab fame.

DVD Review: The Story of Yonosuke

Starring: Kengo Kora, Yuriko Yoshitaka
Director: Shuichi Okita
Rating: 7/10

“Whatever happened to whatsisname?” It a question you find yourself repeatedly asking as you grow older, and it’s also the theme of this gentle, bitter-sweet comedy from the director of The Woodsman and the Rain. Here, the whatsisname is one Yokomichi Yonosuke (the name is apparently giggle-worthily comedic in Japanese, presumably akin to being called Richard Head or Ben Dover), a slow-witted but jolly country bumpkin who comes to Tokyo to be a student in the late ’80s.

In a series of mildly absurd misadventures, he joins a samba club, acts as an unwitting matchmaker to a pair of his fellow students, develops a hopeless crush on a vampish older woman who rinses wealthy businessmen at the hotel where he is a bellhop, and begins a tentative relationship with a flaky rich girl whose nerves have been shattered by her domineering father. At the same time, flash-forwards to these same characters sixteen years later pose the question – where is Yonosuke now?

It’s this bifocal effect that imposes a sense of purpose on what might otherwise seem like an almost random collection of episodes, and that brings Yonosuke’s story into melancholy perspective. Played by Kengo Kora with mugging mannerisms and a collapsing thatch of curly hair, Yonosuke has more than a whiff of other classic movie misfits such as Forrest Gump, Jean Renoir’s Boudu and Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot. Touching the lives of others in unexpectedly profound ways, he remains a bit of a riddle himself, an amiable loner.

But the melancholy is no more than a counterpoint to the general mood, which is full of the joys of spring, the pleasures of friendship and the exciting bustle of student days. This is a charming, easygoing movie, and even at an overlong two hours and forty minutes, it slips along very nicely from one affectionately mocking vignette to the next. It’s perhaps not as memorable as The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker, with which it shares certain ingredients, but it’s a thoroughly pleasant exercise in ’80s nostalgia, Japanese-style.