Film review – Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2015)

‘Journey to the Shore’ won director Kiyoshi Kurosawa the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is also the Masters of Cinema label’s latest foray into the new release market; the label is more frequently associated with the restoration of forgotten classic cinematic releases but has enjoyed success with the likes of ‘Listen Up Philip‘ and ‘Life of Riley‘ in recent years.
The film tells the story of Mizuki, a young female piano teacher mourning the death of her husband Yusuke, who we learn has drowned at see three years prior to the start of the film. However, when his ghost appears mysteriously at home one day, she is less surprised at his presence and more annoyed as he has forgotten to take his shoes off.

The reunited couple set off on a journey together as he takes her to visit the people who have helped him journey home from his point of death, with Mizuki’s resulting spiritually cathartic journey being the focal point of the story.

It’s a story that is rooted in Japanese culture, with the human grieving process following the death of a loved one a typical starting point for its fair share of Japanese films in recent years. Where this sets itself apart is in the very blatant separation from reality afforded by the seamless interaction between the living and the dead. There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule about who can talk to whom, nor does there seem to be any surprise or shock experienced by the living seeing a close departed friend or family member. Indeed, Yusuke is portrayed as a living, breathing being with he ability to fully interact with his surroundings. It’s a unique spin on the matter (pun intended).

There are some really effective cinematographic techniques employed to reflect the mood of the scenes, most notably in the dimming of the lights when a darker story is being retold. The credit here lies with director Kurosawa and his cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa. It was subtle enough to have an impact before I realised what had happened, as key characters revealed their darkest of memories, and it added considerably to the picture.

Whether it really works as a whole is something I’m still not totally sure about. Certainly it is delivered with conviction, though the overall effect is something entirely morose. There seemed to be a relentlessness to the depression involved that, whilst perhaps reflective of the mood of the characters involved, seemed to offer nothing in the way of a positive escape for anyone watching looking to be guided by the grieving process.

The film achieves its aims and carries everything off to perfection. It’s just not a very pleasant experience to sit through.

The Skull (Freddie Francis, 1965)

Freddie Francis’s 1965 Amicus Productions film The Skull was recently restored and released by Eureka Entertainment in the UK. It’s perhaps not the most gripping of horror films ever made, but with the classic pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the leads roles it offers a lot to fans of Amicus and Hammer.

The film follows Christopher Maitland (Cushing), an antiques dealer with a penchant for the obscure and curious, particularly pertaining to the occult. He acquires the valuable skull of Marquis de Sade, a man we learn about in the opening prelude set over 100 years previous. The skull has been stolen from Sir Matthew Philips (Lee), a fellow antiques dealer. Valuable though the skull is, Philips has no interest in reclaiming it, for reasons that are initially unapparent.

When watched alongside modern horror films, The Skull may be hard to appreciate. This is to do with pacing. Watching a horror film celebrating its 50th anniversary needs to be watched with a mindfulness of the context. The cheap shots and by-the-numbers techniques used today are nowhere to be seen. The horror in a film like this is drawn from the suspense built up by every element of the film working together and a quality acting performance of the lead character. You simply can’t view any film like this out of the context of the landscape of cinema at the time of original release.

Lee is atypically subdued in his performance as Sir Matthew Philips. It is a supporting role but it’s really worth checking out to see him portraying someone likeable for a change.

The plaudits should go to Cushing though. He carries it towards a tremendous climax in a film that actually has almost no dialogue for the final act. He may have more popular roles – or indeed more mainstream roles – but this is an off-the-radar performance that warrants at least one viewing to underline his acting credentials.

Enhancing Cushing’s performance is some excellent camerawork and framing from director Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox. It’s all about intelligence in angles and getting close enough to feel the sheer panic on Maitland’s face as the cursed skull becomes increasingly threatening. They do such a great job that the skull becomes a character itself, especially when we’re seeing the world through its empty eye sockets.

A thoroughly enjoyable horror film for anyone looking for an unusual and obscure Cushing-Lee release.

The Skull is available to purchase on Eureka Blu-ray now.

Note: The poster I used for the featured image of this article was by the excellent Andy Potts. His website is full of fantastic posters he’s done for various reasons. Check it out.

Film review -トウキョウ トライブ / Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono, 2014)

Movies should aspire to be the best in their genre. There’s no point existing as a movie unless you can at least be better than everything that has gone before in your genre. If you can’t do that, then why not mold yourself a new genre completely?

With that in mind, I am proud to announce that Tokyo Tribe is the best Japanese-language rap-musical in the tribal gang realm.

The story is pretty hard to explain. To summarise, we are let into a highly stylised version of modern Tokyo, where tribal gangs vie to rule the city. Set over one night, we see the heightening tensions as ganglord Buppa (Riki Takeuchi), his henchman Mera (Ryuhei Suzuki) and son Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) declare war on all other tribes in Tokyo, announcing as much by killing the popular peace advocate Tera (Ryuta Sato). The uprising against their power trip is led by central heroine Sunmi (Nana Seino), and multiple stylised battles culminate in a dawn all-out-war.

Sunmi beat the living daylights out of another bunch of extras

Sunmi beat the living daylights out of another bunch of extras

Amazingly, the intertwining of multiple storylines and characters is reminiscent of Love Actually, though the comparisons inevitably end there. In fact, at times it’s simply hard to follow just who the central characters are. About 90% of the dialogue is delivered as rapping, so as an English native who barely speaks any Japanese it is hard to follow what are clearly some very fast and rhythmical lyrics. On this occasion, it really pays to speak the language.
Another issue is the excessive number of characters that are continuously being introduced into the mix. It felt at times like several characters were frivolously being added in too late for us to care about who they are, often getting only a handful of lines to describe who they are, what tribe they represent and a little about themselves before disappearing for the rest of the film.

That said, there is a memorable turn from Cyborg Kaori as a beatboxing servant, which is worth watching out for. She does things with her voice that seem completely unnatural. The results are fascinating and her various YouTube videos are worth checking out. This is an example of a distinct character being given the chance to shine; it’s a shame that the cast wasn’t smaller so more focus could be given to each of the talented artists involved.

Many of the featured actors and actresses, however, are new to the hip hop world and the intriguing on-disc Making Of documentary reveals a lot of the insecurities of the stars, particularly with standout performer Nana Seino. She’s clearly a talented actress but it’s sad she was the focus of such a lot of “fan-service” throughout the film.

Stylisitically, the film is top notch. From start to finish there is no break in the feeling that the characters inhabit this entirely alternate reality and in that sense it is a great success.

The same cannot be said for the storyline.

At times it’s a brilliantly unique film that threatens instant cult-classic status. Often it’s just a complete mess that loses itself in style over storyline. If you know of Sono Shion and liked his previous efforts then you know you’ll enjoy this. If not, then approach with caution.

Tokyo Tribe can be purchased on Blu-Ray in the UK now and was released by Eureka films.

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F. W. Murnau, 1931)

The last of four films Murnau made after moving to America – the others being the Oscar winning Sunrise, the excellent City Girl and the now-lost Four Devils – Tabu marked something of a departure for the master director. He travelled to Bora Bora near Tahiti with documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty. Setting out to make a docufiction film as co-director, it quickly became apparent that Murnau wanted complete control and Flaherty was bought out of his share of the film.

Despite the unusual setting, this has all the hallmarks of a classic Murnau romance.

Despite the unusual setting, this has all the hallmarks of a classic Murnau romance.

The result of this is an opening sequence that seems very much like a documentary film, with native islanders (almost every actor in the film was an untrained native, along with most of the production crew) fishing, playing and acting naturally. According to the extensive booklet notes (thanks again Masters of Cinema), this was the only sequence Flaherty directed before he encountered technical issues with his camera and brought in cameraman Floyd Crosby to assist. The upshot of this was that the rest of the film was the responsibility of Murnau.

Subsequently, we then pick up on a more traditional method of storytelling. A girl named Reri (Anna Chevalier) is chosen by aged emissary Hitu of neighbouring island Fanuma to be the replacement maiden to the Gods. She is to be transported to the island to live there free of any kind of relationship; from this point on she is “tabu”. This is terrible news for both Reri and her lover Matahi, who defy this command and escape the island to a French-colonised island nearby.

The story of two lovers remaining together despite adversity is reminiscent of both Sunrise and City Girl, and other than the unfamiliar setting Murnau is on safe territory. It doesn’t feel stale, but it’s certainly the least dynamic of the three available Hollywood films. Both lead characters give assured performances in their roles despite a lack of experience. Matahi never worked on another film following this release. Anne Chevalier worked on two subsequent films (Polish film Czarna Perla and an uncredited role in John Ford’s The Hurricane) but neither are as fondly remembered as Tabu.

F. W. Murnau’s final film was actually released a week after his death. Whilst working on the sound for the film, Murnau was being driven up the coast from Los Angeles by a 14-year-old Fillipino servant and was involved in a car crash, dying a day later in hospital. It’s a shame that this was his last film and a tragedy that his life was cut short so early, robbing the world of countless more exceptional films. He had actually spent most of his final months on the island Bora Bora, having enjoyed his time there so much.

The definitive version of Tabu is available on Masters of Cinema Blu-ray and DVD dual-format release, packed with extras (deleted scenes, a short film directed by Flaherty using leftover footage, a documentary) and with an immaculate transfer. It also restores scenes that were cut before its original release, as well as those taken out in subsequent cuts over the intervening years (the explanation for all of this is in the extensive booklet that’s included in the box)

Masters of Cinema Cast

The MOC Cast is a constant on my podcast downloads list, and I’m always keen to download the latest installment. As a fan of the series (as you can guess by how many I have reviewed) but without too many friends that are interested in the same kind of cinema, it’s really useful to hear others delving into the details of certain releases.

The latest episode is an interview with Craig Keller, producer of the Masters of Cinema, and is such an insightful discussion between three huge film fans with a common interests. If you’re at all interested in what goes on behind the scenes of the releases, I heartily recommend downloading it. It covers a wide range of topics, including the history of the label, the role Keller has in the releases and the difficulties in gaining the rights to release certain films. Frankly it’s a joy to hear three people with such a huge passion for cinema simply having a chat.

Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)

The appearance of the Masters of Cinema logo at the start of this film came as a pleasant – and stirring – surprise. My interest for the series was kindled when I bought a copy of Fritz Lang’s M on Blu-ray a few years ago and noticed the #9 on the spine, which was an ingenious way of making someone like me find out more. If this is number nine, then where are the previous eight?! Are they all Lang masterpieces? Maybe it branches out into other early-20th Century German filmmakers…

Actually, the series has no rules, just great films with careful consideration to the packaging, booklets, title screens, bonus features and, crucially, ensuring the transfer of the film itself is of the highest quality. More recently, Masters of Cinema have branched out into the distribution of new films, the latest of which is Andrew Bujalski’s mumblecore triumph Computer Chess.

Admittedly, seeing a mumblecore film I had purposefully avoided reading anything about prior to watching it could have been disastrous, especially considering it was the fourth in a series of seven films I was watching at the London Film Festival over a four-day-period. It didn’t matter a bit.

The film kicks off with a press conference to introduce the key competitors in a computer chess tournament in 1983, all of whom think they have the most advanced computer programme. Running the show is the host of the tournament Henderson (played by Gerald Peary in his acting debut) who lays down the gauntlet of a grand final human-against-computer chess match to whomever wins the tournament. Traversing the chasm to the unfamiliar world we are eavesdropping on is filmmaker John (played by another debutant Jim Lewis), who finds the whole thing both side-splitting and bizarre in equal measure. It is shot so authentically using carefully sourced low-grade home video technology from the period, that I’m sure that the uninformed amongst the audience (myself included) thought they were in fact watching a potentially very boring documentary. It is in this scene that we are also introduced to Michael Papageorge, played by Myles Paige (Funny Ha Ha), the standout performer in the early parts of the film who is clearly happy to ruffle some feathers and show he means business.

As the film progresses, we are indulged with many nods to the early 1980s – be it the naturally delivered chauvinistic comments made by the host or the now absurd general feeling amongst everyone there that the future had finally arrived in the form of their prized personal computers that could almost outsmart a human if programmed correctly. Meanwhile, Paige busies himself falling into a David Lynch-esque subplot and in turn passes the focus to Patrick Reister, whose character Peter Bishop is so excruciatingly introvert you wonder how anyone would dare make him the centre-point of a film for such a long period. Yet Reister is brilliant in teasing out the audience’s emotions as someone we just wish would come out of his shell more and live life outside of the world the players have carved out for themselves. He does this almost entirely through body language and facial expression as his shy character is afforded only infrequent passages of nervously delivered dialogue. It is a first class performance.

Not all of the film works quite as well. The tournament is sharing the hotel space for the weekend with a meditation escape weekend and to be honest it feels like these passages just get in the way. Equally, the scenes in the latter part of the film that appear in colour really stand out as far too polished and detract from the indulgent escapism of the rest of the film.

I left the film feeling like the story hadn’t really been tied together properly. As an authentic ode to the joys of early-‘80s home video recording, though, it was the only way it could have ended.

Computer Chess is released in cinemas in the UK on 22nd November 2013.