This article appeared in the Kansai Time Out monthly magazine in September, 2002



Something A Little Different


        Your plans fall through on a Friday night and there is nothing to do but rent a video.  The video stores of Japan have a large selection of films, but what do you do when you find a great film you want to see from Vietnam or Iran since the Japanese subtitles provided will be just as difficult for you to understand as the original languages, be it Parsi, Farsi, Vietnamese or otherwise?  Well, you just sit down and watch it anyway!  While a lot of non-English films are dialogue-based (the French film _le Diner des Cons_, for example) and could send you to sleep, other films tell simple stories and allow the viewer to travel vicariously through the universal language of pure images to far off lands and cultures.  Here are a few foreign films available in Japanese video shops that fit this bill international titles are listed first with Japanese titles (if any) in brackets. 


        Asian Films:

        Children of Heaven (Undogutsu to Akai Kingyo) is the simple tale of a poor Iranian boy who accidentally loses his sisterfs shoes while on his way back from the cobbler.  Not only does she love the shoes dearly, they are her only pair.  The rest of the film shows how the children hide this fact from their parents by sharing the brotherfs shoes.  This is possible due to the fact that Iranian schools have boys study in the morning and girls study in the afternoon.  The apt Japanese title is a sly reference to the clever, gorgeous ending to the film and translates as grunning shoes and gold fish.h 

        The Scent of Green Papayas (Aoi Papaya no Kaori) and Cyclo are two of the early films of the celebrated Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran.  The Scent of Green Papapas shows the life of a rich Vietnamese family in the 1940s through the eyes of a young girl who enters the house as a servant worker.  She falls in love with her young masterfs friend, and after ten years when her employers suffer a reversal of fortune, she goes off to work for that manfs family.  The beauty of the film has nothing to do with plot, though, since its magnetic attraction lies in the lush scenes of rain falling on tropical plants in the housefs gardens, water dripping into buckets, and voyeuristic views of the girlfs (fully clothed) bathing ritual clearly her most personal enjoyment.  Cyclo is a completely different film, offering a vision of modern urban hell: it follows the life of a young cyclo driver as his cyclo is stolen from him, as he goes to work with gangsters, observes and learns to out-trick them, while at the same time amazing things happen all around him and various lifelines are drawn together by fate.  And for the viewer, learning to understand what is happening in the film through visual cues is an interesting act of voyeurism in itself.  Hong Kong star (and Wong Jar-Wai acting stalwart) Tony Leung has a cameo. 

        Swiri (Shuri) is an action thriller set in Seoul, Korea.  It involves a female operative from the North on a terrorist mission to steal explosives, blow up a stadium in Soul, assassinate the President.  While it may seem like a rehash of Hollywood thrillers of the past, primarily the prototypical Black Sunday, the film has rhythm, momentum, and ultimately reflects the frightening reality of two warring nations who are still lying in a dangerous state of political stalemate as they have for nearly half a century.  The film is tense, emotional, exciting, and the training-regimen-from-hell opener makes the famous first third of Full Metal Jacket look more like Private Benjamin.  It is also heartening to see the blockbuster Korean film receive media attention in Japan, which has paved the way for more Korean titles on the shelves. 

        Xiu-Xiu, the Send-Down Girl (Shoo Shoo no Kisetsu) is the directorial debut of actress Joan Chen, and it tells the tale of a beautiful victim.  Xiu-Xiu is a city girl who is sent to fight the Culture Revolution in the foothills of Tibet in rural Sichuan Province where she is to live with a Tibetan shepherd and help him develop his ranch.  The shepherd was a faithful revolutionary, but too wild for his own good: once running afoul of local officials he was to be executed, but in the end was merely castrated.  A calmer and lonelier man now, he nurtures a strong platonic love for Xiu-Xiu and watches her with a quiet, fatherly eye.  Unfortunately the tender, lonely girl also falls under the eye of corrupt local officials, and her attempts to win favors with them backfires as she is used up and consumed and left to rot in rural isolation.  Gorgeous cinematography of a harsh, beautiful, ancient land contrast with young beauty and the loss of innocence in this lush, powerful film.

       Away With Words (Kujaku) is the gorgeous idyllic urban/rural tale of Hong Kong and Okinawa directed by Christopher Doyle, also known as the cinematographer of the idyllic films of Wan Jar-Wei.  Doyle uses Asano Tadanobu to tell the tale of a young Okinawan, awash on the shore of Hong Kong, who becomes the permanent resident of a bar and karaoke lounge.  Part Chungking Express, part Paris, Texas, merely translating the dialogue will not help much in explaining the challenging beauty of the film and its odd narrative. 

        Irma Vep is an unusual work: filmed in Paris, but starring Hong Kong film queen Maggie Cheung, it is about a failed French art film director trying to make a film about a cat thief, which is in turn a tribute to silent film about vampires from 1915 (les Vampires by Louis Feuillade).  Irma Vep is about making a film, but also about a Hong Kong starlet trying to understand French film politics, deal with a French cast and crew, and understand her character.  With a lot of gritty hand-held camera effects, the film is in English with small amounts of French and Cantonese. 

For a bit of action relief from minimalistic art films, there is always the art of the kung fu film.  Jackie Chan movies such as City Hunter, Nice Guy, and dozens of others, are always good for a jolt of energy and a few laughs.  Nearly all of them contain jaw-dropping stunts, sleight of hand tricks and physical comedy, as well as humility in spades as the international film star allows himself to be beaten up, thrown about, and made a fool of.  Some of his later films like Who Am I? and Red Bronx are primarily in English, but donft favor them over Cantonese-language classics like the Drunken Master (Sui Ken) films, which are classics of the genre.  Unfortunately, Jackie Chan still has his weak moments, like the unbearable Gorgeous, which has a gorgeous female lead and absolutely nothing else. 

Another kung fu master is Jet Li.  His films tend to be more serious than those of Jackie Chan, something that is absolutely necessary to do justice to the incredible eye-popping fury of his superhuman kung fu skill.  Sure, some of it is tricky camera work and special effects, but watching the real thing in action means there can be no going back to the laughable chop socky of non-athletes like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible 2 (which, ironically, was directed by John Woo, the creator of more than just a handful of violent Hong Kong classics).  Jet Li has turned up in Hollywood films like Romeo Must Die recently, which has few rewards beyond the great opening scenes, so his must-see films are those with the Cantonese dialogue, primarily the Once Upon A Time In China films where he plays the historical character Huang Fei-Hong (also portrayed by Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master films).  In the film Once Upon A Time In China And America, the sixth and most recent film in the series, Li is a Chinese governmental representative traveling in America on business when he falls victim of amnesia and is adopted by a native tribe.  It replicates elements of other similar Jackie Chan films like Who Am I? (amnesia) and the recent Shanghai Noon (Chinese bodyguard in the wild west), but when the kung fu is nonpareil who actually needs a plot?  It certainly makes a good film to have running while entertaining friends, not least of all for the nasty villain who looks like he stepped right off of Motorheadfs Ace of Spades album cover. 


        Japanese films:

        Zatoichi is a classic in the genre of Japanese sword films.  The title character is a blind monk; dirty and spat upon; few realize that he is in fact a sword master second to none.  Besides that, hefs also got a pretty mean temper!  See Zatoichi run afoul of some local bullies, then wipe the towns and forests with them.  A classic scene has Zatoichi facing an ambush at night he douses the lamp hefs carrying, since hefs blind and doesnft actually need it, then picks off the attackers in the dark swiftly and easily. 

        Picnic is an early film by arty director Iwai Shunji, famous for his roaming epic Swallowtail Butterfly, and shows the exploits of a young group of slackers, outcasts, and mental outpatients.  It is also a tragic romance and features J-pop songstress Chara and a young Asano Tadanobu.  The couple later married in real life. 

        Wild Zero is a rock enf roll movie about gthills, speed, and stupid zombies.h  Starring the boys from Guitar Wolf, set in Japan but (very obviously) filmed in Thailand, the film is about a rag-tag group of rock enf roll misfits and various psychopaths as they become stranded in the countryside amidst an invasion of flesh eating zombies donft get bitten or youfll become one too!  The Guitar Wolves race cool bikes and cars, are fully armed, and possess god-like powers all the better to carve a swath through the zombie hordes, leaving a long trail of zombie guts and exploded heads.  Yum.  Sassy black humor, a great soundtrack, and a rip-off of a classic scene from one of the great movies of 1992 (not saying which, though)! 

        Kikujiro no Natsu (International title Kikujiro) is cult director Kitano Takeshifs most sensitive film in ages, showing him as the worthless slacker Kikujiro accompanying a young boy on a quest to find the mother he hasnft seen for years last he heard she was working in another prefecture.  The film is anecdotal: we see the pair go to the bike races, go to a shrine, hitch-hike on a deserted highway, and generally encounter hurdle after hurdle.  Funny, touching, compelling, and a nice snapshot of rural Japan. 

        Jirai wo Hundara, Sayonara, (One Step On A Landmine And Itfs All Over) tells the true story of photographer Ichinose Taizo, played by Asano Tadanobu.  Taizo went to shoot photos in Vietnam during the war, but eventually fell in love with neighboring Cambodia and disappeared there on his quest to photograph the Angkor Wat temple complex.  The filmfs dialogue is mostly in English, with just a bit of Japanese and Khmer, and its sad but true tale is easy to follow.  Already at that time the people of Cambodia were suffering from widespread mining, and the title quote is Taizofs own.  Cambodia to this day is still full of mines that kill or maim civilians.  Somebody should find the irresponsible countries that produce these mines and name them rogue states. 

        Hukuro no Shiro (Owlfs Castle) is an exciting tale of Toyotomi Hideyoshifs crackdown on the secret ninja societies of 16th century Japan, enraged that they were renegade and would not commit to any faction in warring times.  Rivalry between the Iga and Shoga ninja schools is also depicted.  The film itself is somewhat dialogue heavy, but the stunning special effects make up for it, particularly the spectacular infiltration of Osaka castle on a mission of assassination. 


        Disturbing Asian Ultraviolence

        Some of Asiafs most interesting films of the last few years have been bizarre and unique horror films, which rarely follow the western horror stereotype of slasher/satanic possession and work with other unique motifs and images instead.  Chinese Torture Chamber is a bit of a wild card from the classic e90s era of Hong Kong film: part Chinese moral tale, part judicial fantasy, part sadistic romp, the film shows people wrongfully framed, then brought to trial and brutally tortured, all along the lines of Chinese erotic classic novel the Golden Lotus.  The film is no Silence Of The Lambs, though, and does contain plenty of goofy tongue-in-cheek humor, although its most (over-)indulgent scenes of graphic violence will certainly not be for the faint-hearted. 

        Gonin is the bleak tale of five nasty characters, fringe dwellers in Japanese society, who decide to rip off the yakuza.  Naturally, the heist goes wrong, and the five soon have to face a heartless mob enforcer, played with cold fury by a particularly vindictive Kitano Takeshi.  As tense as Reservoir Dogs, but ten times as bleak. 

        Uzumaki is the odd, stylistically told tale of a town haunted by spirits that manifest themselves in the forms of swirls and vortices a curl of hair, a whorl in a cloud, a snail shell, even in fingerprints and the cochlea of the human ear!  The film is episodic and there is no real plot, but it is interesting to keep a lookout for the uzumaki and where it will appear next.  Very stylish, creative, and way cool!  Based on the stories of manga creator Ito Junji, as are the films Tomie (Replay), and Kubi Tsuri Kokyu (literally gDismembered Head-Balloons). 

        Hakyo suru kuchibiru (Crazy Lips) tells the tale of a cursed family: their father was an executed serial killer, and their brother is now wanted in another string of recent murders.  They resolve to find the true killer and clear their brotherfs name by hiring a psychic.  Bad move - the psychic turns out to be the sleaziest con artist in Japan, and with her sadistic assistant they brutally terrorize the long-suffering family.  When the killer is finally found, a particularly bloody confrontation with the victimsf families ensues.  Of particular note in this film is the main actress, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Winona Ryder! 

        Finally, semi-legendary 12th century prince Minamoto Yoshitsunefs battle with warrior monk Benke is depicted in the film Gojo Reisenki.  While the film itself is oddly uncompelling and drags terribly, there is something gutsy about the film-makerfs endless depiction of the near-invincible Minamoto carving bloody swathes through his Heian enemies aided only by two trusty assistants.  Blood-drenched far beyond any attempt at realism. 

        The video stores in Japan are stocked with plenty of worthy films, neither in English or with English subtitles, but among them are a few interesting treasures that should not be passed over due to language barriers.  Take a chance, rent a non-English video, and learn to understand the language of images that film was made for.