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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

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Kame wa igai to hayaku oyogu / Turtles Swim Faster than Expected

Kame wa igai to hayaku oyogu / Turtles Swim Faster than Expected (2005)

Afro-Juri would have blocked the whole poster

Director: Miki Satoshi
Writers: Miki Satoshi
Date: 2005

Genre: Comedy
Description: Ordinary life, ordinary person becomes a spy, a sudden change in the way one lives one’s life due to a philosophical change, living as a spy

Cast: Ueno Juri, Aoi Yû, Iwamatsu Ryo, Fuse Eri

Crew of note:

Runtime: 90 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia:

summary
Suzume is a bored, lonely houswife somewhere in rural-ish Japan. She’s got a pet turtle to keep her company, but her husband (if I were him I’d never leave Juri-chan’s side, dumbass) is always away on business. Everything changes though, when she accidentally spots an ad to become spy, and inquires about it.

review
I find it rather embarrassing that I’ve already written several reviews of movies with Miyazaki Aoi, and have yet to write one for a film starring Ueno Juri. Note! Juri-chan is my number 3, while Miyazaki Aoi is 4. My girlfriend requires that she be number 1 and that no one’s number 2–since its my favorite number. Anyway.

One of the reasons I started writing reviews was out of boredom. With nothing to do during my spare time (and occasionally at work, shhhh), I found writing about movies rather pleasant. Yet there are times I still long for greater adventure–not necessarily a James Bond/Ogami Itto/Wong Fei Hung kinda life–on the side of my relatively comfortable life.

Well, Suzume gets to keep that comfy life, and get some adventure too. And all it takes is an absurd ad and some imagination. The way her life changes–despite there being no actual change!–is fascinating and quite meaningful, accompanied with tons of laughs and happy funtimes. The silly characters that inhabit her town–the spy couple, the noodle shop man, Aoi Yuu in a great cameo–try to hide their own sillinesses (pluralized noun form of silly?), and this results in some of the best moments in the film. Sure, nothing much actually happens in the film (leading me to have nothing much to talk about), but in the context of Suzume’s new job, her new mission, and her new friends, even something as dull and dreary as a visit to this town can be a magical, meaningful trip.

conclusion
It’s easy to say that this film is simply a feel-good movie. But underneath the laughs, the afro and strange circumstances, there’s an interesting proposition: how much does a change in perspective–or the way one approaches living one’s life–affect life itself, in a tangible, permanent way? Miki treats this message brilliantly, and Juri-chan is impossible not to love. Despite the fact I rate Miyazaki Aoi’s movies better, Juri-chan is still far and away my favorite actress, and Kame wa igai to hayaku oyogu is certainly one of the reasons that she is.

things to take note of
The boredom?
The spy bizniz
Juri-chan ❤

best moment
Finding the ad for the spy biz
What Suzume does in her boredom

why you should watch this
Ueno Juri ❤

rating: 8

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

similar movies, maybe:
Tenten / Adrift in Tokyo, also by Miki Satoshi

Jigokuhen / Portrait of Hell

Jigokuhen / Portrait of Hell (1969)

It just screams of horrors of hell doesn't it

Director: Toyoda Shiro
Writers: Akutagawa Ryonosuke, Yasumi Toshio
Date: 1969

Genre: Horror
Description: Painting a picture of hell, stubbornness, Heian period, living hell, really really scary and depressing, insanity

Cast: Nakadai Tatsuya, Nakamura Kinnosuke, Naito Yoko, Amamoto Eisei, Oide Shun

Crew of note:

Runtime: 95 mins
Color: Color
Trivia:

summary
Poverty, cruelty and evilness in general during the Heian Period have disillusioned Yoshihide, a famous painter, of life in Japan. Lord Hosokawa, aware of his talents, employs him to make fabulous painting. Yoshihide declines, however, stating that he sees nothing worthy of painting, that all he sees is.. hell on Earth. The lord, at first, is angered by his callousness, but soon decides to challenge him to make a painting so frickin’ amazing and real that even he will be impressed. Painting and crazy shit ensue.

review
I labeled this as a horror movie, because any film about hell on Earth should be considered pretty horrific, right? I suppose a more appropriate description might be “freaky psychological inquiry into suffering and obsession that will make you very depressed, or possibly want to paint.”

Okay, so it isn’t so much about a physical hell on Earth (no demons, no monsters, not even a sexy mistress of destruction) as it is about obsession and cruelty. Nakadai’s character isn’t really a bad person, and when compared to Nakamura, Nakadai is an absolute bambi. But all men are capable of some evil–can painting be evil, too?

It’s a very interesting premise, one that could have gone very far, especially with the right music, appropriate set design, and frames that subtly emphasize this hell on Earth–crowded rooms, sharp objects, shadows, fire, etc. The movie, though, is but average in 2 of those 3, only excelling in set design. The music fails to create an atmosphere that is haunting/scary yet beautiful, opting to stick with instruments and perfectly progressing harmonies and neglecting found-sounds and odd unnerving notes. This hell on Earth sounds more like a stuffy oldtimes concert. I also don’t think that sliding transitions and a spinning upward-tilted camera works in this context.

Despite my gripes, there is enough in this movie to warrant seeing. The dynamics between Nakadai and Nakamura carry the film, and their respective talents shine. Not quite a horror, not quite a drama, not quite a psychological thriller, but probably something in between.

conclusion
For some reason, whenever a Japanese film contains the word “jigoku” (such as Jigokumon and the aptly titled Jigoku), I feel compelled to see it, even though I hate being scared out of my pants by movies. With an intriguing premise and two great leads, there is enough to recommend even to those who are chickens in the theater like me.

things to take note of
The painting
Nakadai’s cameleon-like face
Hell on Earth?

best moment
The fire. Crazy.

why you should watch this
Stars two of the most popular actors of the day
Nakamura Kinnosuke in his craziest role
Nakadai in his wimpiest role

rating: 7.25 +.25 for Nakamura’s obnoxious expression + .25 for Nakadai’s facial hair = 7.75

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

similar movies, maybe:
I generally don’t watch movies that will freak me out, so I’m not sure? I guess other films with “jigoku” in the title.

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
Trivia:

summary
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?

review
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.

conclusion
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

scorecard
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

Mabei shang de fating / Courthouse on Horseback

Director: Liu Jie
Writers: Wang Lifu
Date: 2006

Genre: Drama
Description: Literally a courthouse on horseback, settling disputes, customs versus law, old versus new, how to deal with crazy rural people, humanity, justice and destiny

Cast: Li Baotian, Yang Yaning, Lu Yulai

Crew of note:

Runtime: 101 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia:

summary
Feng, an old judge, travels through the mountainous provinces of China to provide judiciary services for small, rural towns. On this trip, he brings along Ah-Luo, a young judge from the city. Together with Yang, something of a guide and assistant, they set out with their packhorse to settle disputes and enforce the law.

review
Honestly, there isn’t much in this story that isn’t already described by its title. Yes, there are a couple of twists here and there, but the focus is always with the courthouse and its rounds through the villages. The three characters that inhabit most of the film feel very genuine, and it is easy to feel like this is more a documentary than a film. It gives them a very human character, and indeed, despite the lack of any real action, it is tough not to care about them. Feng, Aunt Yang, and Ah-Luo live different sides of life, and it is easy to see with the way they treat the villagers. The way Feng deals with the cases is also particularly inspired.

Shots are mostly silent, contemplative, and never invasive or too distracting. The focus is with the conflicts of the different defendants, complainants and how the judges deal with the situation. There is much to say about what the different characters and situations mean, but figuring out these things for yourself is part of the fun of watching film.

conclusion
A little boring and uneventful for sure, but for a film that borders on cinema verite, there is a lot more plot here than meets the eye. An interesting approach to show how rural China has changed little, and how laws and customs continue to rub against each other in places like these. The trials are worth the admission. If you enjoy these “a slice of life” films about exotic, little known ways of life, this will be lovely.

things to take note of
The nature of the arguments
The customs of the towns
The trials and the settlements
The horse knows where it’s going

best moment
The horse in the water

why you should watch this
It’s a courthouse on frickin’ horseback! And it’s a good movie.

rating: 7.7

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

similar movies, maybe:
Life in the China you don’t see is interesting.
Tuya de hun shi / Tuya’s Marriage by Wang Quan-an
Sanxia Haoren / Still Life by Jia Zhangke
Mang jing / Blind Shaft by Li Yan

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