Dou niu / Cow

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

Oh wait I think it's a comedy. With a cow. And bombs.

Director: Guan Hu
Writers: Guan Hu
Date: 2009

Genre: Drama, War
Description: Anti-war, survival, man and beast, Sino-Japanese War, rural China

Cast: Huang Bo, Ni Yan, Gao Hu, Hua Zi… and a large cow.

Crew of note:

Runtime: 110 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Huang Bo’s Mandarin is difficult to understand because he is from the province of Shandong, where the film was shot.

summary
Niu’er, a slightly slow, slightly odd farmer in a remote Shandong town, is assigned the task of taking care of the town’s brand new 8th Route Army-provided Foreign Cow which produces more milk than their regular cows. He resents the task, but when he wakes up one day to find himself and the cow alone in the village, their tale of survival and friendship begins.

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

Is it still friendship when the cow gets a little frisky?

review
At first I thought this was going to be a movie about a dude and his cow, in some small town, hanging out and doing nothing. I was sort of right, but I didn’t expect there to be explosions. Lots of explosions. And while that may be an exaggeration, I honestly didn’t expect this to be a movie about war (I tend to decide to watch movies without knowing anything about them). Come on, seriously. The cover has the face of a cow at a funny angle and a bunch of funny-faced peasants. And it’s about a COW. I don’t think you can blame me for being (pleasantly) surprised–which tends to happen really often, huh?

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

What?! I thought we were having beef for dinner?

After watching hours upon hours of Chinese Communist propaganda films from the 50s and 60s, I’d sort of gotten tired of the Sino-Japanese war. It had been a long time since seeing Guizi lai le, and really strong, poignant, intelligent war films from China just didn’t seem very common. Perhaps if I’d known this was going to be about the same war, I would have passed it off for later viewing. Luckily I didn’t, and decided to see it. And while it may not be as great as the aforementioned film, it comes pretty damn close. That’s a huge compliment, and I wouldn’t mind if you stopped reading right at that sentence to go look for the movie. Seriously stop reading and just get it.

The film’s greatest strength is its two stars, Huang Bo and the cow. It might seem a bit frivolous to say this, but their chemistry is fantastic. Credit has to go to Huang for his slightly deranged, out-of-touch, and tender portrayal of Niu’er, though I can understand that some people may be turned off by perceived over-acting, or simply because they can’t connect with such a weirdo protagonist. But it’s his strange character that makes his relationship with “Jiu” (the cow, formerly the name of his wife) work so damn well, and without it the film’s charm is lost. Their story of survival against the odds may not be epic in terms of distance or scope or body count, but the way they are able to transcend this interspecies barrier towards real friendship in the midst or war is a colossal achievement.

conclusion
War sucks, everyone knows that. But after the 100th movie about the same sucky war, with the same themes, same plots, and same ideas, the movies themselves tend to get sucky as well. That’s why when a film with a genuinely unique premise such as Dou niu comes around, you gotta take notice. Full of charm, affection, and pathos, this one is definitely not sucky. War still sucks though.

things to take note of
Huang Bo’s weird accent
Huang Bo is weird
The silliness of it all
The different groups of people they encounter

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

Huang Bo is watching you not watching his movie. Tsk.

best moment
Up in the mountains, oh
A man and a cow is actually really sweet

why you should watch this
Best movie about a cow ever made? Possibly!

rating: 8.2

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

similar movies, maybe:
Guizi lai le / Devils in the Doorstep
Other black comedies set during war

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Mujo / This Transient Life

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

Tons of nudity, if you like that I guess

Director: Jissoji Akio
Writers: Ishido Yashiro
Date: 1970

Genre: Drama
Description: Buddhism, incest, life and death, meaning of life, sculpture, sex, desire

Cast: Tamura Ryo, Tsukasa Michiko, Hananomoto Kotobuki, Kobayashi Akiji, Okada Eiji, Sugai Kin, Terada Minori

Crew of note: Music by Takemitsu Toru. Cinematography by Inagaki Youzo

Runtime: 2 hrs 23 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
Masao wants nothing out of life, until one day he encounters a sculptor obsessed with creating statues of the Kannon (Goddess of mercy). He and his sister live in a large estate, and isolated there, develop a forbidden love affair.

review
I’m very squeamish and I easily get upset. I have to admit that it’s my great weakness when watching movies; it greatly limits what I can see and appreciate. Nudity in most movies rarely feels right or natural to me, and I try to avoid topics like rape or incest or torture. I enjoy experimental cinema, yeah, but when films start pushing the bounds of taste… I’m often left far behind.

That’s why Mujo came as such a pleasant surprise. It combines a few things that I’m not particularly fond of–incest, lots of nudity and sex, and a ton of abstractness–yet somehow I was captivated. This was actually my third Jissoji (after Mandara and Uta, two films that I didn’t quite enjoy and merely appreciated in their craft), so I wasn’t expecting to have a good time. But I did.

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

If you have any interest in Buddhism, in existentialism, in philosophy, Mujo is pretty much required viewing. The dialogue between the different characters–Masao, the Buddhist priest, the Kannon sculptor…–is very deep and intelligent. It will take some concentration and some pauses (to do some research maybe), but their conversations do bring up important points and important questions. And even when they try to elaborate answers, only more questions surface.

Don’t blink or spend too much time staring into space as you think though, because you’ll end up missing half of the film, maybe half of its meaning. Jissoji’s films are well known for their pictures, and Mujo is probably his best work. His use of angles, architecture, shadows and shape, negative space, whiteness and movement is brilliant, and the film does deserve to be seen twice or more; once to understand the story, and once to simply watch the camera and listen to the music. If you can pay attention to the story and dialogue and the pictures at the same time though, then you will also be treated to great cinematic lyricism: Nothingness and negative space, tradition/religion and architecture, desire and shadows, sexuality and shape, transition and movement. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most brilliantly shot movies I’ve ever seen, because the pictures not only supplement the plot; in fact they may be essential to it.

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

The music in the film is also a delight: a very SNES Castlevania: Symphony of the Night MIDI cornfest that somehow works perfectly. Well, at least that’s what it sounded like to me. Takemitsu Toru’s work is quite varied, but always appropriate and beautiful, and he does some of his finest work on Mujo.

conclusion
This film is almost as hard to understand as it is to locate (ok honestly it’s harder to understand). It’s really difficult, but if you can get past the objectionable content and commit some brain power to try and understand the plot, dialogue, and philosophy of Mujo, the experience can be deeply rewarding. In the right frame of mind, Mujo can be mind blowing, but it can also be silly, overwrought and meaningless to many (fair enough, it just isn’t very easy). It’s still pretty to look at though, and that soundtrack is awesome.

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

Wow, I didn't even have anything funny to say for the screencaps

things to take note of
Shadows
Carving Kannon
Negative spaces
Try your best to understand their crazy complicated dialogue?

best moment
Man, just watch that camera move
Let’s talk Buddhism/life and death/existentialism

why you should watch this
One of the most beautifully shot films ever
The discussions on Buddhism, life and death, and other issues are some of the best

rating: 8.5 – it would be much higher, but I’m kinda over sensitive about nudity and the incest; it’d be 9 otherwise

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

similar movies, maybe:
Other Jissoji films from that era, like Uta and Mandara. Also, Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East for some more Buddhism-y goodness.

Koshikei / Death By Hanging (1968)

Ôshima Nagisa - Koshikei / Death By Hanging (1968)

Maybe we should poke him just to check?

Director: Oshima Nagisa
Writers: Fukao Michinori, Sasaki Mamoru, Oshima Nagisa, Tamura Tsutomu
Date: 1968

Genre: Black Comedy
Description: Capital punishment, black comedy, racism, non-linear structure, surrealism

Cast: Sato Kei, Watanabe Fumio, Adachi Masao, Ishido Toshiro, Toura Rokko, Yu Do-yun

Crew of note: Oshima Nagisa is also the narrator

Runtime: 1 hr 57 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
A Korean man is sentenced to death by hanging, but survives the execution. For the following two hours, his executioners try to work out how to handle the situation, and none of them have a clue.

Koshikei / Death By Hanging (1968)

So.. his head goes into the loop right?

review
I usually feel a little guilty about laughing at black comedies. The situations, under normal circumstances, aren’t supposed to be funny at all, yet the director is somehow able to manipulate a few chuckles out of me. I feel cheated and used. But somehow in a good way.

So I definitely got used by Oshima. Repeatedly. And I enjoyed it.

This is black farce at its finest because Oshima never pulls punches or stops short of saying something he might regret. The film tackles a ton of issues–racism, capital punishment, religion, militarism, if it was an issue in Japan during the 60s, this movie has it–that will unfortunately fly over almost everyone’s heads (probably, unless you lived there at the time). But he tackles all these head on and with very little tact that it’s possible to understand what he’s trying to say, or at least appreciate the way he’s trying to say it. It doesn’t always work–there are times that the film feels too propagandistic and didactic (I can imagine some sensitive people being offended)–but the use of farce to shove all of these issues into a small execution hall makes it tolerable.. even fun.

Koshikei / Death By Hanging (1968)

Well it certainly look like they're having fun

This farce is supplemented by an equally strange and unpredictable narrative structure. It might be a spoiler to say it, but even with the knowledge that Koshikei moves through various modes of storytelling, it’s still surprising when it happens. Sometimes even a little unnerving. The film starts off as a drama, then descends into a mad black comedy, acquires traits of a documentary that quickly spins into surreality, or maybe it was just a dream sequence or someone’s imagination? All without very little warning. Oshima toys with reality in Koshikei, and though largely confusing, the absurdity works. If that makes any sense.

Koshikei / Death By Hanging (1968)

This makes absolutely no sense

If there’s one “problem” with the movie, it’s that Oshima tries a little too hard to smash home his ideas. The movie drags on after a while, and his unfettered criticism of various topics is often too propagandistic and one-sided for my taste. This lack of conciseness eventually builds to a slight sour taste, but not nearly enough to ruin what happens before it.

conclusion
Oshima’s funniest movie? Definitely! It’s also a good summary of various social issues in Japan during the 60s mixed into a very interesting, and very confusing, narrative structure. Even if you don’t enjoy the serious aspects of the film, at the very least you’ll get a few laughs.

things to take note of
Transition from different modes: faux-docu, surrealism, dream sequence, ??semi-reality??
The issue regarding Koreans in Japan
Oshima’s views on social issues (he’s the narrator, remember)

best moment
Oh **** what are we gonna do now?

why you should watch this
Great narrative structure, though confusing
Suspiciously hilarious

rating: 8.1

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

similar movies, maybe:
Unfortunately I’m drawing a blank.

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Sucks not to be part of the cool club

Director: Sômai Shinji
Writers: Kato Yuji
Date: 1985

Genre: Drama
Description: Ordinary life, highschool, growing up, coming-of-age film, desire, life

Cast: Mikami Yuichi, Kudoh Youki, Ônishi Yuka, Miura Tomokazu, Benibayashi Shigeru, Date Saburo, etc.

Crew of note:

Runtime: 1 hr 55 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Number 59 on Kinema Jumpo’s 100 Greatest Japanese Films

summary
In a high school somewhere outside Tokyo, a bunch of kids are growing up. One day a storm hits, and five of them get stuck inside the school at night while one takes an adventure to Tokyo.

review
I find it somewhat strange how difficult it is to find a review of this highly regarded film. 5 pages of results for both “taifu kurabu” and “typhoon club somai” only reveal 1 review: a thoroughly misguided NYTimes review from 1986, that likens it to a “more solemn… ‘Breakfast Club'”. What was this dude watching?

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Obviously not this movie

For a film considered among the best in Japanese cinema (in fact, number 59 on Kinema Jumpo’s list), there sure is very little about it in English. Yet I can understand this to some degree, because even I find it hard to say much about it. That isn’t to say that nothing in the film stands out to be remembered and discussed, but rather I am left with the question, “What else is to be discussed?” Sure, there are the conceits of cinema (such as the surprisingly articulate, philosophical, and detached Mikami), but for the most part, Taifu kurabu feels more like a documentary than anything else.

He shows you the world of these adolescents, in a common time, in a common place. Yes, the subject matter is difficult and maybe complicated; the events that take place are far from ordinary. Yet Somai treats his subject with such respect and sincerity that even the most sensitive scenes have a certain tenderness to them. Some will pan him for his “distance”, but not only does it show that said respect, but it also puts his characters in context, and allows a very meaningful emptiness to permeate the screen. The tenderness I speak of isn’t one that is manufactured by cuts, close ups and other cinematic techniques. Instead it is achieved because Somai allows everything space to breathe and time to build, settle, and linger in one’s memory. Those who demand a closeup don’t understand his intention. *

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Definitely not a common classroom

Maybe I am right to think that really, I have nothing to say about Taifu kurabu that isn’t pseudo-intellectual nonsense. Yet perhaps the desire to say something, to give this under-appreciated film a page just to say its name, is the best endorsement I can hope to give Somai’s creation.

conclusion
Japanese cinema has a great tradition of making ordinary life seem so meaningful and fascinating. Taifu kurabu might not be about the ordinary, but everyone will find something here that will remind them or their youth. It is not because of generality–Somai’s world is one of a kind–but rather, because of the sincerity and tenderness, and occasionally ire, that we all, Somai included, feel for our own youth that is extended towards these characters.

things to take note of
The characters’ conflicts and pains
How Somai shoots sensitive scenes
Do you see yourself in one of them?

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Well, I'm definitely not the naked embarrassed guy!

best moment
Let’s dance!

why you should watch this
Great coming-of-age tale
Discusses many issues we all had while growing up
Maybe you’ll find something that reminds you of your youth

rating: 8

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

similar movies, maybe:
Can’t think of anything now, but it isn’t hard to find good movies about ordinary people and their not-so-ordinary lives

Note: I just did a google search 10 seconds after posting this review, and this review is number 1 for “taifu kurabu review” and on the first page for “typhoon club review”. Good news, I guess, but also somewhat disappointing, internetland!

* If you insist on knowing what I’m alluding to, then fine I’ll tell you. It’s the underwear dance numbers. Somai shoots these scenes from afar, and offers no close ups. I’m pretty sure a ton of people will squint, and even offer a zoomed image of it as the film’s best scene, but that’s pretty sad.

That’s right, period films, but about yakuza. I wasn’t sure if there was a particular term for it, so yeah, I guess I’ll stick with that.

Kunisada Chuji / 国定忠治 / Chuji the Gambler (1960)

Like Kozure Okami, minus the babycart machinegun?

Kunisada Chuji / 国定忠治 / Chuji the Gambler (1960)
Director: Taniguchi Senkichi
Cast: Mifune Toshirô , Katô Daisuke, Aratama Michiyo, Natsuki Yosuke, Fujita Susumu, Tôno Eijirô, Tanba Tetsurô

Summary:
Chuji the gambler comes home to find the village, and his family, deep in suffering because of corrupt official Jubei. Unable to take any more abuse, the villagers, along with Chuji, revolt against the magistrate to take back their village and get revenge for their suffering.

The Good Stuff:
– Mifune being Mifune, but there are times when he’s just too Mifune for the character
– The script is by Shindô Kaneto, and the score by Satô Masaru, so you know it’s not your average movie

The Best Stuff:
– Refuses to glorify the yakuza/gambler lifestyle and gives a very balanced portrayal of Chuji, often a do-no-wrong folkhero
– Many of the scenes are at night, adding to the film’s darker tone

Matatabi sannin yakuza / 股旅三人やくざ / Three Yakuza (1965)

Face size proportionate to fame? Maybe not but they sure neglected Matsukata

Matatabi sannin yakuza / 股旅三人やくざ / Three Yakuza (1965)
Director: Sawashima Tadashi
Cast: Nakadai Tatsuya, Matsukata Hiroki, Shimura Takashi, Nakamura Kinnosuke, Tanaka Kunie, Fuji Sumiko

Summary:
1 – Nakadai is Sentaro, a yakuza wanted for murder, who finds himself under the protection and employment of a local yakuza boss. He is tasked with protecting a young prostitute from being rescued by her lover. Sentaro’s kind heart and conscience, however, cause him to feel conflicted.
2 – Genta (Matsukata) and Bunzo (Shimura) meet outside a gambling den. Genta helps Bunzo escape after getting caught cheating at the tables. They eventually find themselves in a small house occupied by Omiyo (Fuji), where the past is revealed.
3 – Nakamura is Kaze-no-Kyutaro, a seemingly world-weary, badass yakuza, who is hired by a small village to protect them from an evil government official taxing the town into the ground. This yakuza, however, isn’t the kind of person he says he is.

The Good Stuff:
– Yakuza action!
– Nakamura is hilarious in this one, one of his least “cool” characters

The Best Stuff:
– Three yakuza stories, three great leading men
– Three different characters that could have had an entire movie made for them
– Probably Sawashima Tadashi’s best film?

Hitori okami / 一人狼 / Lone Wolf Isazo (1968)

Put a mask on Raizo and he almost looks like Batman 0_0

Hitori okami / 一人狼 / Lone Wolf Isazo (1968)
Director: Ikehiro Kazuo
Cast: Ichikawa Raizô, Ogawa Mayumi, Iwasaki Kaneko, Nagato Isamu

Summary:
Isazo is a famous yakuza man traveling around as usual (he even gets an intro song). One day he meets a boy whose mother is revealed to be Isazo’s old lover. His once carefree and guiltless life suddenly changes as he finally decides to right some wrongs and follow the Yakuza code.

The Good Stuff:
– Interesting yakuza > samurai message
– Isazo is a pretty down-to-earth Yakuza, surprisingly!

The Best Stuff:
– Hard to imagine anyone but Raizô playing this role
– Great heroic climax

Kogarashi Monjiro / 木枯し悶次郎 / The Withered Tree (1972)

That bottom-most picture... yeah I can't make sense of it either

Kogarashi Monjiro / 木枯し悶次郎 / The Withered Tree (1972)
Director: Nakajima Sadao
Cast: Sugawara Bunta, Ibuki Goro, Watase Tsunehiko, Yamamoto Rinichi, Koike Asao, Enani Kyoko, Sasazawa Saho

Summary:
Kogarashi Monjiro is framed for a crime he did not commit, and is sent into exile on a deserted island along with other criminals. He spends his days pining for revenge, until one day, a chance to escape arrives. He takes it, along with a few of his fellow criminals, and returns to the mainland. There is only one thing on his mind: revenge.

The Good Stuff:
– Kinda reminds me of Mikogami no Jokichi, but Sugawara Bunta is way more badass than Harada Yoshio
– The exiled part of the story could have been more interesting

The Best Stuff:
– I like Sugawara’s sword style–simple, believable, and effective
– Sugawara Bunta as a yakuza is awesome, and you should already be aware of this by now

Mushuku mono / 無宿者 / Drifting Crow (1964)

Disclaimer: Movie does not feature a nude beach (lower right)

Mushuku mono / 無宿者 / Drifting Crow (1964)
Director: Misumi Kenji
Cast: Ichikawa Raizô, Ishiyama Kenjiro, Abe Tôru, Taki Eiko, Tsubouchi Mikiko, Sawamura Sonosuke, Mizuhara Koichi, Taki Keiichi, Fujimaki Jun

Summary:
Ipponmatsu goes on a journey to find his father’s killer. On the way he meets Kuroki, a samurai on a similar journey to find his father who disappeared 5 years ago after escorting a caravan that was robbed of 4,000 ryo. Ipponmatsu suspects Kuroki’s father of being his own father’s killer, but now they must work together to reveal the plot behind boss Sanshu-ya, the mysterious Shima-ya, and the even more mysterious person behind them.

The Good Stuff:
– Good murder mystery and plot twist
– Misumi Kenji knows how to shoot action sequences (if you don’t know this already!), so you know this will be a treat

The Best Stuff:
– The relationship between Ipponmatsu and Kuroki is fairly complex and nuanced
– Fights in the village are awesome

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