Film review – Okja (Bong Joon Ho, 2017)

Remakes, sequels, animated children’s film. Say what you want about the film studios, but if they’re judged solely on how to make money from well-marketed films, then they know how to do it. But when you look at the UK box office for 2017 on an artistic level, the top 10 leaves a lot to be desired.

Of the top ten, only La La Land isn’t classed as a remake, sequel or children’s film. You have to stoop as low as numbers 16, 17 and 18 to find Lion, Split and Get Out respectively, to start really finding good original cinematic enjoyment for adults wanting something fresh to think about.

Paul Dano

So whilst Okja, Bong Joon Ho’s latest futuristic sci-fi action film, was booed at Cannes Film Festival when the Netflix logo appeared at the start of the film, it isn’t a surprise that the popularity of the service has really grown exponentially in recent times. In the month of June, both Okja and the excellent The Circle landed on the service, along with women’s wrestling series Glow and the new drama series Gypsy, which stars Oscar nominee Naomi Watts. I’ve finished watching all but Gypsy, and it was often the case that I actively decided to stay at home to watch these instead of going to the cinema.

My decision wasn’t financially motivated. It was because they looked like better options.

‘Superpig’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it

Okja tells the story of a new breed of superpig that has been created by the Mirando Corporation as the flagship programme for new CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who has inherited the company from her controversial family and is looking to create a better image for their brand. In 2007, 26 superpigs were distributed around the world to various farmers. Now, in 2017, the corporation will crown the best pig as they simultaneously launch products using the meat from the huge slaughterhouses being used to house and kill 1000s of the new species. The ten-year-old daughter of one of the farmers, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has grown close to the titular superpig and attempts to stop the competition from going ahead, teaming up with a band of animal rights activists that include Jay (Paul Dano), K (Steven Yeun) and Red (Lily Collins). Jake Gyllenhall also stars as eccentric television zoologist Johnny Wilcox.

Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando

Bong Joon Ho has created something exceptionally special here, getting excellent performances from all of his lead cast. But it is the performance by newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun that really captivated me. The opening sequence of the film may be all bravado and sensory overload, but the film soon settles into a much more naturalistic tone as we learn about the relationship between the young girl Mija and her best friend and childhood companion Okja. Its remarkable that the relationship feels so visceral given that there is nothing but animation for the superpig. There was a foam head made in the likeness of the eventual CGI creature to give her something to interact with. It’s an age-old technique but one that has resulted in an intimate and captivating coupling.

Jake Gyllenhall as Johnny Wilcox

The message contained within the film is at least on some levels for the viewer to consider the origin of the meat they are eating. “Okja is real,” director Bong Joon Ho said in a recent Independent interview. “It’s actually happening. That’s why I rushed making Okja, because the real product is coming.”

I personally felt disgusted by the end of the film and it brought back memories of Robert Kenner’s 2008 documentary ‘Food, Inc.’ Thry weren’t particularly positive memories, but they certainly were effective.

Given so many people have Netflix and can watch this film at no extra cost, it’s a no-brainer to seek it out and watch it. It might be the start of a new era of high quality original cinema heading first to home streaming platforms. Given the state of the year-to-date box office, it’s a movement everyone should be supporting.

Film review – 縄張はもらった / Retaliation (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1968)

Arrow’s release of Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1968 yakuza film ‘Retaliation’ is well with picking up alongside another release from the same director, ‘Massacre Gun‘ (which I have previously written about). I will admit that these are films in a genre for which my interest far outweighs my actual experience in, but as usual the Arrow discs serve not only as an excellent way to view the films but also to immerse yourself in the history of the company and background to the films themselves. But more on that later.

The film is a tale of gang warfare. Jiro Sagae (Akira Kobayashi) returns to the streets after eight years in prison to find that much of his former life has moved on – his gang is all but completely disbanded and the city he knows and loves is now in the midst of a land dispute over farmland, with two gangs using heavy-handed methods to acquire land off farmers to sell on at a profit to a company that wants to build a new factory there. Jiro approaches the leader of the Hasama family to offer his assistance in settling the dispute and is given two promises: he can complete the task his own way and he will get control over the area once the task is complete. Jo Shishido also stars as Hino, a former gang rival waiting to kill Jiro after his escape from prison, and there is an early performance by Meiko Kaji (as Masako Ota) as the love interest of Jiro, years before her starring roles in Lady Snowblood and the Stray Cat Rock series.

The plot does, at times, feel overly complex. This is perhaps due to the need to introduce characters of interest in each of the gangs, plus a lead character, plus a backstory between two of the Nikkatsu Diamond leading men and a love interest. There’s also an unexpected homosexuality twist near the end, which was undoubtedly controversial at the time. At its heart, however, is a simple turf war story that is the bread and butter of any mafia or yakuza film.

Nikkatsu may have later become known for their sexploitation films, with Yasuharu Hasebe even turning his hand to several “pink” films, but at the time they specialised in yakuza action films. Hasebe’s directorial technique is quite distinctive. The content is, invariably extremely violent (for the time, at least). He was a specialist in violence, and threw in elements of S&M briefly and a sexual assault that should have warned Nikkatsu of what to expect when they eventually gave him complete freedom to direct a number of sexploitation films in the late 1970s.

Another technique is to use foreground blocking to affect the composition of the shots. This is particularly used in fight scenes and in quiet meetings between gang members to give a sense of the action being the kind of thing you usually find behind closed doors, almost as if the cameraman has hidden away and is filming the characters, but if they realised then he’d be in danger. It’s a clever way to raise the intensity of the film.

As previously touched on, there are some essential bonus features on both this disc and that of ‘Massacre Gun’ that are well worth discovering. The half-hour interviews with film historian Tony Rayns are fantastic insights into the company and serve as a video essay to establish the background to the company at the time the films were released and also a means to discover more about the director Hasebe and one of the stars Jo Shishido. Additionally, Jo Shishido is also interviewed on each disc, providing an unfiltered take on the filmmaking process and his memories and experiences about the studio. In the booklets, Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp provides a long essay on the film and the studio that is also well worth reading.

As someone who has never had any kind of film or media training and with no formal qualifications behind me, items like these serve time and time again as very effective mini film study courses. I’m able to watch a film in its best possible picture and sound quality, learn more about it from experts, immerse myself into the history of the company behind it and then check out more films from the era if I wish to. It’s easy to take this kind of situation for granted, but 20 years ago it simply wasn’t possible without finding a rare VHS copy and doing significant research at libraries or enrolling on a course. Indeed, I would probably never have even heard of the film let alone giving it a chance by watching it.

A must have for budding Japanese film fans and one that you need to act fast on since only 3000 copies were released.

 

Short film review – Lou (Dave Mullins, 2017)

A sweet short film about a bully’s relationship with a lost and found box in a playground might just make your ticket to Cars 3 worth the entry fee.

Dave Mullins is a first time director but has been working with Disney since 1995 and Pixar since 2000, working in the animation department for the likes of Up, Monsters Inc., Ratatouille and Inside Out. It is clear that his attention to detail and love of a great story is at the heart of this film, which is brought to life wonderfully in a story that lasts only a few minutes.

The film opens with the lost and found box attracting the attention of the children in the playground of a school boy, encouraging them to play with the contents. However, the school bully J.J. begins teasing his class mates by taking away their toys and teasing them in the process. However, when the contents of the lost and found box come to life and start to turn the tables on him, he quickly learns a fast lesson in being nice to his peers, awakening memories he’s hidden inside himself that may be the real problem behind his poor behaviour.

It’s incredibly difficult to create something with such a large story and get the whole point across in a strictly limited timeframe, but Mullins and his team completely manage it. The short is, essentially, a silent film, but it has no difficulty in delivering a succinct but strong message.

The audience, which were mainly children, were completely captivated and gave a spontaneous round of applause at the end of the screening.

You can watch the opening 40 seconds below.

 

 

Film review – Cars 3 (Brian Fee, 2017)

I always try to stay positive about a film I’ve seen. With that in mind, I can happily announce that Cars 3 is one of the top three films in the series.

The wayward plot that feels deeply familiar on many levels. It’s Rocky III on wheels, with the care and attention of The Karate Kid III. This does little to rescue a franchise that looked in danger of sinking since the poorly-regarded Cars 2.

Put simply, Cars 3 is defined by lacklustre character designs and a thinly veiled attempt to use a film as a means to sell merchandise and toys.

This time around, Lightning McQueen (the returning Owen Wilson) is struggling as an ageing racing car. An arrogant young car named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) has shown up and is utilising modern technology to achieve better performance from his specs, forcing cars based on the older technology into retirement. McQueen refuses to retire and pushes his car too much in the final race of the season, leading to a horrific crash that takes him months to recover from. Determined not to retire, McQueen takes on additional training at a new facility sponsored by Sterling (Nathan Fillion), though he seems to want McQueen to retire and turn him into a brand rather than let him keep racing. Regardless of this, he’s given a personal trainer called Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) who he quickly strikes up a love-hate relationship with.

One of the tough sells for the film outside of North America is that McQueen is essentially a stock car racer. NASCAR is the second most popular sport on American televisions, but is largely unpopular in Europe and the UK. Indeed, the sport is ridiculed by many who see it as vastly inferior and less exciting than the likes of Formula One and MotoGP. Perhaps as a British film fan I am spoiled when I see stock car racing – maybe the subtleties of the skill involved are lost on me. But converting that into an exhilarating plot point in a film is an unenviable task and something I don’t think is achieved in Cars 3.

cars3screen.jpg

For all the disappointment associated with the story, the visuals are nothing short of stunning. There have been huge advancements in animation in the eleven years since the original’s release. The benefits are felt with the backdrops, which feel somehow much more life-like than it’s predecessors. Even the character design, which is hampered by the restrictive nature of bringing cars to life, feels more advanced; a clear sign they’ve learned from two predecessors.

At its heart, this film eventually ends up being a buddy movie. Whilst it takes a while to get there, it’s an important move to bring the film closer to the original movie. I didn’t like either of the first two instalments, but Cars 3 stands alongside the original as being more in line with the Pixar ethos. It is, as the investors would say, “on brand”. So, whilst the first-time director Brian Fee has taken no risks here and the outcome is something that probably won’t overly please anyone, but nor will it offend anyone.

A safe bet that will maintain the franchise and opens the door for further sequels. Bland, forgettable, but pleasant enough to keep its target audience happy.

Though I do think Cars 2 is a better film.