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The Hidden Blade
By Ken on January 09, 2010 @ 07:55 PM

Rating: 9.0 / 10
Directed By: Yoji Yamada Written By: Yoji Yamada
Yoshitaka Asama
Released: 2004

The Hidden Blade is another masterful work directed by Yoji Yamada in his thematic trilogy, focusing on the humanistic portrayal of Tokugawa period samurai. In this particular film, the protagonist Munezo (Masatoshi Nagase) is confronted with two major problems. The first occurs when a former servant of his, Kie (Takako Matsu), marries into a household that abuses her and neglects her health. The second arises when and old friend of his is arrested in Edo for taking part in an attempted rebellion. To prove his loyalty, he is ordered to kill his old friend, who has escaped from captivity and is holding a village family hostage.

Munezo is a remarkable character because he is unafraid to act on what he believes to be the necessary course of action, despite the public opinion that may form as a result. In a society where maintaining a favorable public perception of one's family is critically important, Munezo chooses to follow the instincts of his heart and moral conscience -- a substantial choice that is both valiant and highly risky.

Despite a rather corny ending, The Hidden Blade is a thoroughly engaging and compelling film. Themes of familial loyalty, the battle between duty and desire, and the underlying theme of the progression of modern warfare and its replacement of traditional ways combine to make this film a powerful look at a heroic samurai. In this sense, it is similar to the other two films in this trilogy, Twilight Samurai and Love and Honor, but possesses enough unique elements to set it distinctly apart.

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A City of Sadness
By Ken on October 08, 2009 @ 10:20 PM

Rating: 5.5 / 10
Directed By: Hsiao-Hsien Hou Written By: T'ien-wen Chu
Nien-jen Wu
Released: 1989

Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien brought to the screen events that had cast a shadow over a period of Chinese/Taiwanese history and had not been widely spoken about for decades with his 1989 film City of Sadness. Bearing many similarities to the Zhang Yimou film To Live, which would be released five years later, Hou's film depicts an average family striving to maintain stability in the midst of a tumultuous social and political situation. In Yimou's film, it was the Cultural Revolution; in Hou's, the period of time from 1945-1949 following the defeat of Japan in WWII, where tension built between the native Taiwanese and Chinese mainlanders, leading to the 228 Incident in 1947 and the "White Terror" - a period of political oppression led by the Kuomintang.

In the style of many of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's films, City of Sadness is a slow-moving and delicately shot art film. Each shot is well calculated, resembling the style of the legendary Ozu, to whom Hou is frequently compared. Furthermore, Hou's approach is subdued. He depicts a family dealing with overwhelming pain and loss in such a way that emotion is restrained and a quiet dignity remains. This is a distinct contrast to Yimou's film, where emotion takes a strongly present role and catharsis is much more prevalent.

Interesting also is Hou's frequent use of partially obstructed framing in his shots. Very often, scenes of dialogue are shot through doorways or with a wall blocking a portion of the frame. Thus, we maintain a distance from the action, which is unique considering many films of this nature rely on empathy with the characters to achieve a cathartic effect, and thus employ framing techniques that make us feel close to the characters. Also present is Hou's apparent fondness for the style of silent film. Like his later film Three Times, which included an entire silent cinema portion, A City of Sadness employs cuts to text (as in a silent film) to show dialogue between a deaf character and the person to whom he is talking as they write to one another.

Overall, Hou's film effectively puts a human face on a significant historic event in a way that probably influenced many later films addressing similar subject matter. However, such an approach does require a connection to the characters that is never really achieved. Although it seems that this is even intentional, it deprives the film of a certain poignancy that is present with other works, such as the aforementioned To Live and Chuan Lu's new film City of Life and Death.

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Last Life in the Universe
By Ken on October 04, 2009 @ 05:05 PM

Rating: 7.5 / 10
Directed By: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang Written By: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Prabda Yoon
Released: 2003

With only his fourth feature, lesser known Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, more commonly known as simply Pen-Ek in the cinema world, has put together a uniquely fascinating film with Last Life in the Universe. The protagonist Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is a character so quirky and intriguing that it's just necessary he be put in a film. An obsessive compulsive, suicidal, introverted Japanese man living in Thailand, Kenji brings enough entertainment with his antics throughout the film to warrant a viewing. Coupling this with some crafty directing from Pen-Ek, who uses many shots of stillness and non-action (especially in bizarre situations) to amplify the awkwardness of Kenji, and what we've got is a slightly strange film that is appealing in its uniqueness if nothing else.

Last Life in the Universe is a film that focuses on the beauty of human relationships, despite the circumstances from which they might arise, by looking at the unlikely relationship born between two social outcasts, Kenji and Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), a young, single, rebellious Thai woman. Where their dialogue, containing fragments of Thai, Japanese, and English, is laced with misunderstanding, there exists between these two a connection that transcends typical social formalities and perhaps can only be found with one other particular person.

Also intriguing are the visual techniques employed by Pen-Ek to blur the distinction between reality and imagination, such as when Noi is replaced by her younger sister Nid (Laila Boonyasak) without any distinct indication that some fantasy has begun. Instead, one shot shows Noi, and the next Nid in the same postion, in line with the flow of action (or lack thereof in this particular scene).

Pen-Ek's film makes rather effective use of subtleties to discreetly reveal more about the characters, their relationship, and their pasts. He chooses to explore one of the more beautiful aspects of the human experience: the possibility of discovering something astounding in a person in whom it is completely unexpected. This exploration he approaches in a way that is both humorous and sincere, and with the added effects of directorial creativity as well as thoroughly good acting by Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak, Last Life in the Universe is definitely worth a look.

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The Seventh Seal
By Ken on October 02, 2009 @ 11:22 AM

Rating: 10.0 / 10
Directed By: Ingmar Bergman Written By: Ingmar Bergman Released: 1958

By far one of the most engaging and profound films of all time, the legendary director Ingmar Bergman brings us the story of a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), returning from ten years fighting in the Crusades to his home country to find it ravaged by the Black Plague. This leads him to question the very nature of life and death, yearning with desperation to see some tangible manifestation of evidence for the existence of God.

Throughout the film, Block's search embodies the spirit by which human beings have been driven for millenia: the quest to discover the purpose of human existence and the question of whether God exists. The experiences to which he has been subjected for ten years as a knight of the Crusades, as well as what he must now bear witness to in his homeland - innocent girls being persecuted as witches and clergy commanding peasants to flog themselves in repentance for the sin that has supposedly brought about the plague, among other things - continually confront him with a hopeless emptiness.

Throughout the film, Block engages in what has become one of the most profound metaphors of our existence: a chess match with death himself. This game we play, living our lives attempting to prolong them in the face of the looming uncertainty of death, is at the core of the existence of us all, and it is for this reason that Block's chess match becomes so relevant to us. His dialogue with death as well as with his atheist squire are remarkable, revealing the universal sentiments that nearly all human beings share, regardless of how resolved they project themselves to be.

There is no question that The Seventh Seal is one of the great masterpieces of cinema. It is a film rich with symbolism and an engaging exploration of mankind's biggest search. The environment that Bergman creates with this film is one of fear and trepidation, but also one that illustrates the beauty of the human experience and the honest search for truth among our world's greatest mysteries.

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The Twilight Samurai
By Ken on September 29, 2009 @ 10:14 PM

Rating: 8.0 / 10
Directed By: Yoji Yamada Written By: Yoji Yamada Released: 2002

Yoji Yamada's Twilight Samurai, the first in his thematic trilogy along with The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor, explores a very human side of a samurai living in 19th century Japan. Iguchi Seibei, a low-ranking Samurai, loses his wife to tuberculosis, becoming a widower responsible for his two daughters - who are absolutely adorable throughout the film. He becomes known as the "Twilight Samurai" because he must rush home each evening after work to care for his daughters and elderly mother rather than engage in their revelry.

The reason Yamada's film is so effective is that it portrays Seibei as a person with whom virtually everyone can relate. He is shown as human and vulnerable, which is a stark contrast to the more traditionally depicted warrior-spirited samurai of the jidai-geki of Kurosawa and Inagaki. Instead, we see a family man, a father caring for his daughters. We see a son caring for his mother, whom he loves deeply. We see a shy man, nervous and flustered when in the presence of his childhood love.

Twilight Samurai, although not the best film in Yamada's trilogy, is a touching, and at times powerful humanistic portrayal of a samurai who is unheroic by the standards of his society, and yet does not desire to be. Yet, he demonstrates true heroism in the actions of his life, struggling to do the best he can, in many of the same contexts that we experience in a culture and time so far removed from his.

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City of Life and Death
By Ken on September 21, 2009 @ 11:27 PM

Rating: 7.5 / 10
Directed By: Chuan Lu Written By: Chuan Lu Released: 2009

With only his third feature, new filmmaker Chuan Lu has created an extremely poignant experience with his film City of Life and Death. I had a chance to see this one at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and was certainly not disappointed.

City of Life and Death is a chronicle of what has become known as the Rape of Nanking, or Nanking Massacre, which occurred over six weeks from December 1937 to January 1938 after the Japanese Imperial Army captured Nanking, then the capital of China. It is not necessary that I expound upon the atrocities that were committed during those six weeks, but please know that this film is a subdued depiction of what actually occurred, and yet remains a very graphic film that is difficult to watch.

Shot in a breathtaking black and white, Lu's film achieves a level of authenticity that often eludes fictional works based on historical events. Furthermore, the perspective that Lu conveys to the audience is not one that identifies with any particular character, but rather places us in the very midst of the atrocities that are occurring. As we spend time with each of the characters in the film - Chinese, Japanese, Westerners, soldiers, and civilians - it is as though we become a part of each of these groups. Lu establishes a means of identifying with all of the characters in his film, regardless of how they came to be involved in the events of the Nanking Massacre. The camera work is very effective in placing the audience in the midst of the hell that has enveloped the city of Nanking without visually overwhelming us with excessive camera motion and chaotic action.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Lu's film is his portrayal of the Japanese officer Kadokawa. In this character, Lu shows a member of the Japanese army who demonstrates humanity, compassion, and utter terror at what he witnesses. Heretofore, no such films of which I am aware have shown the Japanese involved in the Massacre to be anything other than inhuman. That such a depiction has come from a Chinese filmmaker is indeed something important.

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Entries: 6
Comments: 4
The Hidden Blade
A City of Sadness
Last Life in the Universe
The Seventh Seal
The Twilight Samurai
City of Life and Death
marie on The Hidden Blade
Ozone on City of Life and Death
Rob on The Twilight Samurai
Michael on The Twilight Samurai


This blog exists as a venue for commentary on works of film from all parts of the world. I hope it will serve as a means of encouraging people to explore new types of film, as well as generate insightful discussion on the films being reviewed.

I make no claims that anything I write and post here will be coherent, comprehensible, or even that it will resemble something written by someone whose intellectual capacity exceeds that of a third grader. That being said, if you still wish to poke around a bit, please do. If you feel so inclined, please leave comments, that I might read them and be filled with overwhelming joy.

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My name is Ken, I am 23 years old, and am currently working on my M.S. in Mechanical Engineering at Case. I particularly enjoy art film, and enjoy most the works of Kenji Mizoguchi, Zhang Yimou, Deepa Mehta, and Ingmar Bergman.