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Hana yori mo naho

Hana yori mo naho (2006)

The only samurai movie with pink flowers on the cover

Director: Koreeda Hirokazu
Writers: Koreeda Hirokazu
Date: 2006

Genre: Jidaigeki, Drama, Comedy
Description: Samurai’s revenge, honor and fidelity, the truth about life, irony of the samurai life, samurai deconstruction, comedy of life, finding a samurai way after war

Cast: Okada Junichi, Miyazawa Rie, Furuta Arata, Kunimura Jun, Nakamura Katsuo, Asano Tadanobu, Harada Yoshio, Kagawa Teruyuki, Tabata Tomoko, Kase Ryo, Terajima Susumu, Ishibashi Renji,

Crew of note:

Runtime: 126 mins.
Color: Color

Soza, a young, honest, and meek samurai spends his days among the impoverished of Edo as he tries to find his father’s murderer to regain his honor, and his lineage. There’s a problem though: Soza sucks with swords, and this becomes obvious quite quickly. As he interacts with the commonfolk around him, and even his father’s murderer, questions about his way of life, and conflicts within his being start to emerge. Will he regain his honor, or … not?

Revenge revenge revenge, it’s one of the staples of chambara. But I don’t think anyone really expects this to be a swordfight based on the director, the poster, or anything else anyone could see about the movie. So I guess it isn’t a spoiler to say, there is only one swordfight in the movie, and it isn’t anything to be excited about. And it’s a good thing there aren’t. Unlike Yamada Yoji’s recent trilogy that inevitably resolves itself with the sword, Koreeda is somehow able to create a true samurai film without the necessity for real blood. I suppose you can call it subversion, and it’s only the tip of that iceberg.

[Insert obligatory mention of how great the cast, script, direction, sets, costumes, music, etc. are]

This is a Jidaigeki because it’s set in Edo during the Tokugawa era, but Koreeda approaches his tale with as much insight, wit, humor and grace as his earlier, as his more celebrated works (Daremo shiranai and Maborosi) set in the modern world. In fact, even though the main conflict in the movie is typical of the samurai genre (ninjo vs giri, honor and fidelity, etc), I found myself being able to relate to Soza more than any other protagonist I’ve spent time with (can you really relate that much to Mifune?). I’d like to avoid discussing the word “deconstruction” even though it’s commonly thrown at this film, but I disagree. This is the voice of the samurai whose story isn’t told, whose exploits aren’t as memorable as the Ryonosukes’, the Musashis’, the unnamed Ronins’. But samurai are human too, and Soza perhaps, lives one of the most human lives of them all.

Wasn’t my review enough to convince you? Koreeda works his magic. Once you’ve seen enough 50s-70s chambara and Jidaigeki, see this.

things to take note of
The Chushingura tale in the background of the movie (no it’s not a subplot and no it isn’t underdeveloped), and its significance
How the neighborhood feels a lot like the one in Ninjo kami fusen / Humanity and Paper Balloons by Yamanaka Sadao, or maybe that’s just me
Miyazawa Rie is so lovely :,(
Soza’s personality, conflict, and resolution
The subversion and deconstruction people keep talking about

best moment
The finale! Definitely one to remember

why you should watch this
Light, amusing, witty and meaningful
Shows a lot of insight into samurai life and its ironies (and loopholes?)
One of the best Jidaigeki from the 2000s (yes, better than Yamada Yoji’s)
I can’t remember the last time I was amazed at a Jidaigeki’s script

rating: 8.9

Plot: A
Cast: B
Cinematography: C+
Music: B+
Entertainment: A

similar movies, maybe:
Tasogare seibei / Twilight Samurai
Bushi no ichibun / Love and Honor
Kiru! / Kill!
Samurai Fiction
Ame agaru / After the Rain

Dubei dao / The One-Armed Swordsman

Dubei dao / The One-Armed Swordsman (1967)

Not shown: Fang Gang trying to tie his shoelaces

Director: Chang Cheh
Writers: Ni Kuang, Chang Cheh
Date: 1967

Genre: Wuxia
Description: A one armed swordsman, trying to forget your past life, repaying kindness, an evil plot, saving one’s master and brothers, doing the right thing, giving up kung fu

Cast: Jimmy Wang Yu, Chiao Chiao, Pan Yin Tze, Tang Ti, Tien Feng, Yang Chih-Ching

Crew of note: Tang Chia and Lau Kar Leung acted as action directors

Runtime: 112 mins.
Color: Color

As a child, Fang Gang witnesses his father, a servant at this famous martial arts school, save Master Qi from the Long-Armed Devil. Upon his death, Master Qi takes Fang Gang as one of his students to repay the father for his sacrifice. More than a decade later, Fang Gang becomes on of the school’s best students, but is looked down upon by the others because of his background. They ostracize him, and eventually force him to leave the school. An accident causes Fang Gang to lose an arm, and he decides to give up martial arts until…

A great wuxia movie that deserves its reputation, but what really sets it apart is a plot that goes much deeper than your average revenge or honor plot. There’s actual character development (gasp!), and Wang Yu shows that he can actually act, despite the fact his face really stays the same shape no matter what he does. Fang Gang actually has some depth to him, and his armlessness, his past, and his future all present difficulties that he faces with much reflection, and not just with testosterone. His motives are explained, and we are enlightened about the character’s feelings, and his true wishes. Some might be screaming “cut to the action already!!” during these more timid scenes, but they truly make the film more enjoyable because of the sympathy one feels for our reluctant hero.

Though there are now many “one last job” movies, this could have been one of the first (this is just a guess), and perhaps the most real in terms of plot development. Again, Chang Cheh shows that with enough thought, these types of movies can have some depth. They won’t change your life forever, but at least your brain gets some exercise, not just your fist. Doing fist pumps of awesomeness. The only thing really lacking is music, which was a great addition in the beginning but suddenly disappears (or at least fades away) halfway into the film.

Fang Gang is the quintessential anti-hero. He has given up martial arts and has found something else that he loves more than kung fu. However, circumstances force him to act against his wishes, and throughout the movie it is impossible to forget the conflict that boils inside him. Thus there is a greater build up of tension and greater satisfaction in denouement. And he kicks ass.

This isn’t one of the most magical or technically brilliant wuxia you’ll ever see, but what truly sets it apart is the unique hero that is Fang Gang. Yes, there’ll be tons of blood. Yes, things will get severed. And yes, swords and other weapons will be swinging wildly. But at the same time, you will care about our reluctant hero, and sympathize with his every difficult decision. Enjoy the action, but pay attention to the story.

things to take note of
The amount of drama time Fang Gang gets
The arm
The number of people that die
and the action of course

best moment
Fang Gang becomes the one armed swordsman

why you should watch this
Lots of action and… death (which is a good thing I guess)
There’s a lot more characterization than most swordplay movies
Chang Cheh + Lau Kar Leung + Jimmy Wang Yu. Duh.

rating: 8.1

Plot: B+
Cast: B
Cinematography: B
Music: C
Entertainment: B+

similar movies, maybe:
The other two One-Armed Swordsman movies
Other Chang Cheh films, maybe The Brave Archer
Swordsman by King Hu / Tsui Hark / others

Zui hao de shi guang / Three Times

Zui hao de shi guang / Three Times (2005)

Three times in one movie? Well color me jealous

Director: Hou Hsiao Hsien
Writers: Chu T’ien Wen, Hou Hsiao Hsien
Date: 2005

Genre: Love Story
Description: 3 stories, 3 different time periods but 1 love story, 1911, 1966, 2005, symmetry, beauty, communication, love

Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen

Crew of note: Cinematographers of China/Taiwan/HK: Lee Pin Bing (who worked this one) >= Christopher Doyle 🙂

Runtime: 132 mins.
Color: Color

Shu Qi works in a brothel, and Chang Chen wants her
Chang Chen is a visiting soldier who encounters Shu Qi at a pool bar
Chang Chen and Shu Qi…. hang out?

That’s probably the worst summary I’ve ever made, but I don’t think there’s any point in discussing the summary. Actually, they’re arranged 1966, 1911 and 2005. All you need to know is it’s three love stories, three stories about alienation, loneliness, communication, and connectedness.

It is difficult for me to explain why I love this so much. There are three stories, but in fact very little happens, and little is said. However, a lot is shown and the differences in each time period’s things, or materiality if you can call it that, that belie the similarities in their symbolism and themes is fascinating. The radio and pool table, the jewels and old dresser, the bike and the electronics… just some of the objects that fill Hou’s time periods.

Though the three segments can seem detached from one another, the use of the same characters creates solidarity, and in fact adds a layer of possibilities to the movie’s meaning. Could they be the same souls that find each other three times? Are they the same people that live out different lives dictated by circumstances and history? Why do they keep finding each other? What are they thinking to each other (as if they know what the other thinks)? I believe it is a mistake to ask questions in a review, yet many of these questions I still consider long after having seen the film, which probably would not have happened had Hou used three different sets of actors. Chang Chen and Shu Qi shine, and throughout the three segments I had this strange feeling that they were the same characters. And really, this is a good thing.

Wrap this all up in Lee Pin Bing’s beautiful colors, and Hou’s unintrusive, silent and still camera, and you’ve got a pretty picture with pretty actors in this beautiful film. Perhaps I have yet to make a good case for the movie, but I am at wits end. There are just some films that strike a cord in your deepest self, and this is one such movie that has absolutely moved me. I really don’t know what else to say.

Note: Some reviewers mention that Hou has more fleshed out versions of these segments in his other films, but this is wrong. Some compare 1911 to Flowers of Shanghai, but the events are almost 50 years apart. 1966 is about 20 years too early to be similar to Hou’s three personal 1980s films (A Time to Live, Dust in the Wind, and Summer at Grandpa’s). They might explore the same themes, but that’s about it. The only real similarity is in 2005 and Millennium Mambo, especially since they both star Shu Qi in a seemingly identical role. Still, 1/3 isn’t a good score. So this is certainly unique in Hou’s filmography.

Hou isn’t known for his love stories (this is his only one, really), but his trademark themes of alienation, loneliness, communication, and connectedness–all essential yet possibly overlooked in the understanding of love–are explored with such insight that this becomes a truly special movie. The use of the same 2 actors in all three segments adds yet another layer of possible meanings. It can be frustrating how Hou tells us very little, but if you have the patience to think about what these things mean, and what could be, Three Times can be an unparalleled experience. This is a masterpiece.

things to take note of
Chang Chen and Shu Qi, their characters, and how they communicate
The different ways the three parts are filtered (the color)
The light
The many symbols, possible meanings, etc.

best moment
The beginning
The empty billiard hall or the final scene
The bike ride or the shots in the room

why you should watch this
Because Hou Hsiao Hsien is one of my favorite directors, and this is my favorite of his
One of the most beautifully colored and shot movies of this and most decades
Chang Chen
Shu Qi
The lighting is brilliant
Hou is a master of alienation/connectedness and loneliness/communication themes
I made a review for this even though I had nothing substantial to say (and I probably just babbled above), just so this movie could be represented on here

rating: 9 – it would be more, but it’s a movie that is easy to find frustrating/boring, so I hesitate to hike it up. Otherwise it’d be more like a 9.4

Plot: B
Cast: A
Cinematography: A
Music: A
Entertainment: B+ (at least for me)

similar movies, maybe:
Dolls by Kitano Takeshi, in that there are three stories and they are about love. Sort of. Different actors though, and all in the present.

Kiru / Kill!

Kiru! / Kill! (1968)

Possibly the most spoiler-free cover ever

Director:Okamoto Kihachi
Writers: Yamamoto Shugoro (novel), Murao Akira, Okamoto Kihachi
Date: 1968

Genre: Jidaigeki / Chambara
Description: Killing, assassinating evil, backstabbing, traitors, double crosses, complicated plot, subversion of the genre, friendship, the samurai

Cast: Nakadai Tatsuya, Takahashi Etsushi, Kubo Naoko, Kishida Shin, Tamura Nami, Nakamaru Tadao, Tsuchiya Yoshio, Tono Eijiro, etc. etc.

Crew of note: Score by Sato Masaru

Runtime: 114 mins.
Color: BW

Genta, a world weary yakuza, meets Hanji, a farmer who has sold his land for a sword in order to become a samurai, along a dusty road of an abandoned town. They part, with the latter wishing to become employed by Ayuzawa Tamiya. It turns out that 7 samurai from his clan are hiding out in town in order to assassinate one of the clan’s higher-ups. Naturally, Genta gets mixed up with this bunch, and he must use his smarts to save them from themselves.

PS. The plot is too convoluted, and too exciting, to reveal in detail in a summary.

Whoahooo. This is one crazy movie. Part parody, part deconstruction of samurai lore, part epic chambara, there is just too much fun and intelligence in this movie not to recommend it to everyone. There will be some comments about how out of place or shallow its comedy is, but if you know enough about Japanese history, the chambara film genre and this film’s contemporaries, and Okamoto’s other films such as Akage, you will be able to pick up on a more substantial level of laughter. Many of Kiru’s funniest moments aren’t even jokes; it is simply the situation the characters find themselves in, and the events that seem inevitable to take place. In fact, the pace of the movie is perfect, and none of the twists seem absurd, even though this film somehow relies on the absurdity of the period it is set in.

A great performance from Nakadai that ancors everything. He is almost like a switch, moving from feigning cluelessness, to noble samurai, to sneaky yakuza, to badass swordsman in only one expression or less. Everything he does seems natural, and his transformation into the character is amazing. His expressions, his slightly absent gaze, his awkward, teetering stance and walk add to his portrayal. He has never been this funny, and if you’ve mostly seen him as a badass samurai (Dai-bosatsu toge, Goyokin, Kagemusha, etc.), the change really is quite amusing. The supporting cast full of strange personalities and quirks also do well. The gambling head priest, the innocent and unambitious old chamberlain, the fidgety constantly moving henchman… characters so out of type yet fit into the world Okamoto creates.

If you watch this as an entry into historic, period-correct, existentialist chambara, this might not work for you. But if you’re up for some funny deconstruction, this is a must see.

Perhaps not a starting point for those just getting into chambara, but this should definitely be in everyone’s “to watch” list. Maybe after you’ve seen 20 or so important films in the genre, and have read enough about the period and its culture, this will be a great experience.

things to take note of
Nakadai’s performance
Genta’s comments and insights into the situation
The against-stereotype characters
How many times they say “kiru” (in any of its forms)

best moment
Hanji’s conclusion about his wish

why you should watch this
One of the funniest chambara ever
A great genre piece that defies expectations
My favorite Okamoto, beating out Akage and Dai-bosatsu toge

rating: 8.5

Plot: A
Cast: B+
Cinematography: B
Music: B
Entertainment: A

similar movies, maybe:
Akage / Red Lion
Hana yori mo naho

Mang jing / Blind Shaft

Mang jing / Blind Shaft (2003)

If they're blind, why do they need flashlights?

Director: Li Yang
Writers: Based on Liu Xingang’s short, “Shen Mu”. Adapted by Li Yang
Date: 2003

Genre: Suspense / Thriller, Drama
Description: Murder, money, corruption, urbanization of China, consequence of greed, youth and naivete, coal mines

Cast: Li Qiang, Wang Baoqiang, Wang Shuangbao

Crew of note:

Runtime: 92 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Was banned in China and was never released there, even though it won a ton of awards like the Silver Bear in Berlin. Shot inside real mines in the provinces of Hebei and Shanxi.

Jinming and Fengming are two buds who work from mine to mine, making money from a wretched scheme. Both have commitments to themselves and to their families, and they feel little regret for what they do. Now, after collecting on their latest victim, they befriend the young Zhaoyang, who has quit school to help his family’s plight. They apply for work at a new mine, and together enter its darkness.

A fascinating yet sometimes uneventful movie. Sure, there’s murder, but it is just the vehicle for Li Yang’s picture of poverty. The premise is an interesting one, despite the fact that the course of the movie is laid out within the first few minutes, with the plot never straying too much from the inevitable. Yes, these characters are conflicted ones, but they seem to be very nonchalant–almost in acceptance of the way their world works–that wolves eat sheep for breakfast. It may seem like there is a lack of characterization, but watch intently as they go about their plans,and act so normally as they wait for an opportunity. Not much can be learned from their conversations–when they talk they are very one-minded (money, money, money)–but they sure act in strange ways.

Shot well, with particularly great shots inside the mine which uses only natural light and light from their headlamps. The first time they show the two descending into the shaft is ominous–knowing their intentions, it is harrowing. Also an achievement is how it is actually possible to empathize with all the characters. Yes, you will blame them, perhaps hate them, but at the same time hope that there is something more to them.

This isn’t your typical suspense or crime thriller. In fact, most of the elements necessary for a good suspense are subverted, because you know who, how, when and where they’re going to do it–all you have to do is wait. Instead the movie tackles the conditions of illegal mines in China, and the lengths the poor will go to make ends meet.

things to take note of
The shots inside the mine
The strange, conflicting characters who sometimes make little sense
It’s a real mine, dudes

best moment
The last scene inside the mine

why you should watch this
It was banned–that’s sure to add interest
It’s a real mine, dudes; it’s not often you get to peek inside
Though subverted, the suspense element actually builds up rather wonderfully

rating: 8

Plot: B+
Cast: B
Cinematography: B
Music: C
Entertainment: C+

similar movies, maybe:
The “suspense but not actually just a suspense” feeling is also present in Suna no onna by Teshigahara Hiroshi, though I can’t say they’re very similar.



January 2009