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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

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.

Joen / The Affair

Joen / The Affair (1967)

Not a bad affair if you ask me

Director: Yoshida Yoshishige (or Kiju)
Writers: Tamura Tsutomu, Yoshida Yoshishige
Date: 1967

Genre: Drama
Description: Love affair, love, marriage, extra-marrital affair, rape, identity, freedom

Cast: Okada Mariko, Minami Yoshie, Sugano Tadahiko, Shimegi Shigako, Kimura Isao, Takahashi Etsushi

Crew of note:

Runtime: 1 hour 32 mins
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
Oriko’s and her mother had a difficult relationship. She knew of her mother’s relationships with men, and insisted she stop, interfering in the affair. Now that her mother has passed away, Oriko attempts to find out more about her from her lovers. Oriko herself is in an unhappy marriage; one without love. She wishes to divorce him, but her husband refuses. Through this dilemma she begins to understand her mother more and more, and that they are more alike than she thinks.

Joen / The Affair (1967)

'Oh mom you're such a slut'

review
Admittedly, this didn’t start that well for me. I’m not sure why, but I found myself uninterested for the first few minutes. The movie starts rather slow, and already comes out with an affair: Oriko’s mother and a much younger man. Okada Mariko, in fact, is just there to complain. Another movie about sarcastic, petulant women? Okay, probably not.

The film’s events are launched by her mother’s affair, and much of it revolves around love and love affairs. Yet what the film is truly about is Oriko’s discovery of herself, both as her mother’s daughter and as a woman. Her relationships with men–with her husband and with her mother’s lovers–all represent different parts of Oriko’s life. The juxtaposition of events (and rather clear dialogue) and character relationships creates a web of meaning brought about by contrast: freedom and comfort; submission and animal desires; choice and depth. We discover with Oriko who she really is, and what she really wants–one or the other, both, all, or none at all.

This is all created with about as much silence as conversation, and Yoshida proves himself a worthy student of Ozu in how he strings together images to surround events with more meaning and context. The beach, the forest, those long walks alone or with a companion, the smalled room (through close up), the cabin, her large but seemingly empty house… the camera is also one of the principal story tellers.

Joen / The Affair (1967)

I guess she isn't a fan of furniture

If the film has one flaw, it is that it may be hard to follow. The sequence of events feels somewhat confusing, even though they occur chronologically (I think), but I am unsure why I experienced this difficulty. Everything seemed to be next to one another, which, in my mind, merged one event with those around it, even if they were with different characters or in different settings. Perhaps this is a reflection of Oriko’s character.

Or perhaps this a reflection of my fickle attention span. :p

Joen / The Affair (1967)

This would be an awesome chambara scene if only they had katanas

conclusion
Despite my terrible attention span (that’s only really good enough for chambara), for the most part, I was captivated by this film. The images are very strong, and many scenes will linger long after they are seen. It is because of the way Yoshida combines his pictures and scenes that the movie is able to be more than a sappy melodrama, and maybe one of his most memorable films.

things to take note of
The excellent cinematography
The hand-held camera going around
Pay attention because the chronology of events and the cutting is a little confusing maybe

best moment
In the log cabin: meaning + great cinematography = good movietimes

why you should watch this
That log cabin scene alone is worth it, really
Okada Mariko!

rating: 8.8

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

similar movies, maybe:
Many of Yoshida’s films have the same feel, so probably those. Akitsu onsen, Arashi o yobu juhachi-nin, Juhyo no yoromeki… etc.
New wave-era directors like Shindô Kaneto and Kinoshita Keisuke, but not Oshima, Shinoda, Masumura

Tonari no Yae-chan / Our Neighbor, Miss Yae

Shimazu Yasujiro - Tonari no Yae-chan / Our Neighbor, Miss Yae

That sock gets a heck of a lot of attention

Director: Shimazu Yasujiro
Writers: Shimazu Yasujiro
Date: 1934

Genre: Drama, Shomin-geki
Description: Neighbors, friendship, young love, divorce

Cast: Aizome Yumeko, Obinata Den, Isono Akio, Iida Chouko, Okada Yoshiko, Katsuragi Ayako, Iwata Yukichi, Mizushima Ryotaro

Crew of note:

Runtime: 76 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia: Two famous directors acted as assistants on this film, Toyoda Shiro and Yoshimura Kozaburo.

summary
Two families live in rural or suburban Japan, somewhere in the Kansai region probably. The two families are quite close to each other; the two fathers are drinking buddies, the children are friends, and the mothers happily look out for the other family’s well being. One day, Kyouko, Yae-chan’s sister, comes home after leaving her husband whom she is unhappy with. Her arrival suddenly stresses the once peaceful pair of homes; the father becomes unhappy, the mother worried, the sister envious of her relationship with Keitaro.

review
Before seeing this movie, I thought Yae-chan would be an old hag living alone, throwing cats at passersby and drinking tea from a flower pot. Then people would find out she’s not actually a crackhead and the neighbors learn to love her. Then she dies and people remember her fondly, and not as the crazy lady with a mysteriously unending supply of cat ammo. I have absolutely NO idea why my brain made up this story, though I’d like to categorically deny childhood trauma and repressed memories. This was my second Shimazu film by the way.

Thankfully Tonari no Yae-chan is neither as absurd nor as depressing as my made-up-movie. In fact, it’s actually quite delightful. Sure, there’s the conflict created by the arrival of Kyouko, one that is sufficiently complex and complicated. The scenes with Kyouko are a little melodramatic, actually, but despite the fact that I’m not a fan of sappy melodrama, these moments didn’t really hurt that much.

What I enjoyed most about this film were the pointless everyday encounters between Yae-chan and Keitaro. There is something very natural, very modern about how they talk to each other, or actually, how they flirt with each other. Not only is it hilarious, it’s also quite unique, as I don’t remember any other film from the 30s with such a non-judgmental, care-free and modern picture of youth getting their flirt on. Really.

Shimazu Yasujiro - Tonari no Yae-chan / Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (1934)

Proof: Getting their flirt on

I was not pleased, however, with Yae-chan’s parents’ decision (spoilers*) at the end, though Shimazu pulls this back a little by isolating this decision to the two old people. Yae-chan’s far too lively, far too hopeful, indeed far too important for them to drag along. Some might consider it a little naive, how the movie ends just as it begins with the youngsters playing, but I’d like to think it’s more a result of an enthusiastic, positive outlook. And it’s during the best parts of the film, unencumbered by drama or farce, simply letting the neighbors be neighbors and live their normal happy lives, that Shimazu shines.

conclusion
The movie has some flaws. Ok, there are quite a bit of flaws, but it doesn’t dampen how enjoyable some of the best scenes are. I would have been more pleased if the film had continued showing the growing fondness between Keitaro and Yae-chan without having to insert Kyouko (the inevitable conflict), as their conversations and exchanges are some of the most relaxed and realistic from this age. Still, this is a fine film despite all my complaints, one that fans of old Japanese movies should certainly see.

things to take note of
The relationship and exchanges between Yae-chan and Keitaro
Yae-chan’s pretty cute

Aizome Yumeko in Tonari no Yae-chan

This cap kinda reminds me of Juri-chan's 'Okaaaaasaaan' moment from Swing Girls for some reason, which is awesome you know

best moment
Socks those dirty dirty socks

Tonari no Yae-chan / Our Neighbor, Miss Yae

Disclaimer: film does not include foot fetish scene

why you should watch this
Shimazu, though pretty unknown in the west I think, is considered one of the early masters of Japanese cinema, particularly the shomin-geki, movies about middle-class Japanese homes.

rating: 8.1

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

similar movies, maybe:
I’ve so far only seen one other Shimazu, Kon’yaku samba-garasu (1937), so maybe that one. It’s pretty good.

* According to Jacoby’s “A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors”, Yae-chan’s parents’ decision to move to Korea is a not-so-subtle endorsment of Japanese imperialism. I was weirded out by the choice of moving to Korea, so maybe this is true, though I’d like to think it isn’t.

Kokyô / Home From the Sea

Kokyô / Home from the Sea (1972)

Only a Japanese and Chinese DVD exist I think. Once again English people I'm disappointed

Director: Yamada Yôji
Writers: Miyazaki Akira, Yamada Yôji
Date: 1972

Genre: Drama
Description: Dumping rocks into the sea, the times they are a-changing, tradition, ordinary life, the importance of work, home

Cast: Igawa Hisashi, Baisho Chieko, Ryu Chishu, Maeda Gin, Ito Mayumi, Atsumi Kiyoshi, Ito Chiaki

Crew of note: Music by Satô Masaru

Runtime: 101 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia:

summary
Seichi and Minko are a husband and wife, captain and engineer team working a boat in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. They collect rocks from construction sites in the area, and dump them into the ocean with their rusty fickle ship. As Japan continues to develop its post-War economy, bigger businesses are opening up in the region, putting their livelihood in danger. Despite all his efforts, Seichi, proud of his work as a boat captain, is having difficulties making ends meet. His brother-in-law offers to introduce him to a shipping company in nearby Onomichi, but Seichi is hesitant; is he ready to uproot his family and move on, give up his work, his boat, and his home?

Kokyô / Home from the Sea (1972)

Not a shipwreck. That's actually their boat.

review
In the West, Yamada Yôji = Tasogare seibei / Twilight Samurai. This is inevitable, because its pretty much the only Yamada film to get much acclaim, to get any screen time outside of Japan. Actually, Tasogare Seibei isn’t even what Yamada is known for in his homeland. There, he is known as the director of Tora-san, a film series about some lovable oaf that went on for 48 films and 25 years. You really can’t be blamed if you’re surprised that Tasogare Seibei is his 70th or so film. Yikes.

Once starting his journey with Tora-san, Yamada films outside the series became somewhat infrequent, at least, compared with his amazing output for it. One of these, and perhaps one of his most memorable, is Kokyô / Home From the Sea. By the 70s, many of the most popular directors were either part of the Japanese New Wave movement or made Kaiju-eiga or Yakuza-eiga. Even pinku-eiga directors were more popular during the 70s. Traditionalists, concerned with the state of old, rural Japan, in presenting it as it is without the embellishments of Marxist theory or fancy film techniques, were, to my knowledge, not quite as common, or at least not as well known. But films like these, about the changing world and persons and families trying to keep up, are timeless; you could transport this tale to today or 60 years ago, and it would still be true, still be significant.

I always find these chronicles of small struggles–small according to the writers of epics and history books anyway–fascinating. At worst they are uneventful, generic and inconsequential. But at their best, they can be moving, unique yet familiar, and very very powerful.

Kokyô / Home from the Sea (1972)

In Japan, engineers are allowed to be cute

What I loved most about this movie is how elegantly it traces the difficulties of arriving at a decision. Where most films would focus on what happens after a decision is made–in comedy, a success, in tragedy, a failure–Yamada stops at the choice itself. The result, it seems, is not quite as important, not quite as valuable as the decision to endeavor. It’s not a cliffhanger or a truncated and incomplete story, as many of those used to more traditional story-telling, where the outcome is the true prize of the narrative, will feel. It isn’t to say that the outcome is irrelevant, of course it’s relevant, but it is how Seichi and his family come to their decision, and what they decide, that is truly meaningful here.

conclusion
I like blood, bombs and boobs as much as the next guy, but there is also something to be gained from this kind of movie. It might not be entertainment, it might not be arousal, but there is a kind of satisfaction that I don’t think the English language quite understands, is quite capable of expressing. In Japanese, there is such a thing as “mono no aware”, which I wouldn’t deign to translate or explain, but it is present in movies like this. I can’t say that I completely understand it yet, I doubt many people from anywhere do, but after seeing many great films like this, I feel like it starting to become something familiar, something I love.

things to take note of
The boat and how they work it
The relationships in the family
Ryu Chishu in a post-Ozu role. he looks.. really old?

best moment
The last day before doing what they decided
Slow motion rocks

why you should watch this
Dumping rocks in the sea will never look this beautiful or be this touching

Kokyô / Home from the Sea (1972)

Or be this dangerous!

rating: 8.3

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

similar movies, maybe:
Dude, I gots tons of reviews about ordinary life already.

genres

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