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Film Review: Season of Terror (1969) by Koji Wakamatsu

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Film Review: Season of Terror (1969) by Koji Wakamatsu

“What did you watch? A pink film?”

By the late 60s and the beginning of 70s, a number of independent filmmakers frequently mixed fiction with non-fiction while appropriating journalistic materials of well-known media events. Nagisa Oshima and Koji Wakamatsu were two of the most prominent directors in that regard, with “Season of Terror”, which was released just two months after “Go, Go, Second Time Virgin” , being a prominent sample.

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In that fashion, the movie begins by presenting a series of press photographs and newspaper headlines, mostly focusing on the student riots and their clashes with the police, along with the military training of what appears to be a rightist group. As soon as the rather impressive montage is finished, we are introduced to the first protagonist of the movie, a former radical leader who has been out of sight for quite some time. Next, we get to meet the other two, with two policemen who have received reports by an informant that the young man is planning to assassinate PM Sato, who is about to leave for the US to negotiate about the return of Okinawa.

To do so, they plant a bug in his apartment and start listening to him through the apartment of a single across the street, whose owner has agreed to let them use one of the rooms. However, what they hear is not revolutionary in any way, since the young man seems to stay in his apartment all day, only being visited by two young beautiful women, who take care of his every need, and have almost constant sex with him. The visit of an old friend is the only moment they gain some info, with the visitor, however, ending up chastising the former activist for abandoning the “struggle”. As he accuses him of desertion and essentially considers him a hippy, the two policemen start to realize how futile the week they have to spend there is. If that was not enough, during the nights, the woman in the apartment the two officers are staying is also having sex.

One of the main and most evident purposes here is evidently to criticize the police, in a way though, that can only be described as intense mocking. Starting from the torturing of the informant, and continuing with the fact their “mission” is relegated into peeping in various forms, the ridiculousness of their actions becomes rather obvious. Their rhetoric, particularly of the younger of the two, since the older one seems to be somewhat more cynic, also moves in the same direction, with him mentioning torture as means to an end and compassion as a completely unnecessary concept. That the woman owner of the house has sex almost every night and essentially treats them as guests in a somewhat forceful manner, barging into their room to bring them tea and food whenever she likes, furthers their ridicule even more.

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Where this aspect is cemented, though, is definitely on the finale of the movie, with Wakamatsu presenting it as quite ironic, again in the same mocking path. At the same time, and in a rather interesting aspect, the finale also makes the viewer question the whole movie and what we were seeing until that moment, particularly regarding the behavior and action of the young activist, in one of the best traits of the film, highlighting both Kazuo Komizu’s writing and Wakamatsu’s direction.

While essentially a pinku film, wherein Wakamatsu and Adachi ingeniously utilized the medium’s freedom to make pointed sociopolitical commentary, Wakamatsu found himself compelled to incorporate numerous sex scenes adhering to the genre’s “guidelines”. Consequently, the film brims with erotic sequences, approached this time with a delicate balance between the artistic and the voyeuristic. Wakamatsu strategically situates the camera at a distance from the protagonists for most of the film, minimizing overt titillation, although the recurring threesomes contribute to this aspect. Moreover, within the film’s framework, the voyeurs are portrayed as policemen, further enhancing the underlying satire and imparting the sex scenes with a distinct contextual significance.

In that regard, Hideo Ito’s black-and-white cinematography is excellent throughout, with the way he presents the two apartments as completely different spaces, with the one of the police being claustrophobic and the one of the revolutionary, a place of sex, being truly impressive to watch. The editing, with the exception of the rather fast introductory montage, results in a leisure pace, with Wakamatsu lingering intently on the sex scenes, and passing the rest in faster fashion. The buildup to the finale, though, which comes at an ideal moment in 78 minutes of the movie, is rather competent, with the splash of color also working well.

The acting definitely has a secondary role here, with the women appearing almost exclusively in sex scenes, and the men playing archetypal roles, even through this radically unusual approach Wakamatsu implements here.

“Season of Terror” is another testament to how Wakamatsu could take the sex film and make social comments and political statements through it, and a movie that has definitely stood the test of time

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‘The Village Next to Paradise’ Review: Somali Family Drama Doubles as a Potent Portrait of Life in the Shadow of War

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‘The Village Next to Paradise’ Review: Somali Family Drama Doubles as a Potent Portrait of Life in the Shadow of War

Mo Harawe’s debut feature The Village Next to Paradise is a haunting offering. The film, which premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section and is the first Somali film to ever screen on the Croisette, presents a compelling narrative of one family’s survival in a sleepy Somali town. But it’s the devastating backdrop against which their drama plays out that lingers long after the credits roll. 

The siren wails of drones soundtrack each scene of Harawe’s film, which opens with footage of a real-life report of a United States drone strike on Somalia. Since the U.S. began using drones in the East African country in the early 2000s, Somalis have suffered at the hands of an enveloping and ravenous counterterrorism operation. According to data from the New America foundation, there have been more than 300 documented uses of drones resulting in hundreds of known civilian deaths.

The Village Next to Paradise

The Bottom Line

Uneven but affecting.

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Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Ahmed Ali Farah, Ahmed Mohamud Saleban, Anab Ahmed Ibrahim
Director-screenwriter: Mo Harawe

2 hours 13 minutes

The fatal impact of contemporary warfare organizes life in Paradise village, a locale whose name seems more melancholic with time. Marmargade (Ahmed Ali Farah), a principal character in Harawe’s languorous film, makes money doing odd jobs, but one of his most lucrative gigs involves burying the dead. Some of the people for whom he finds a place in the sandy terrain died of natural causes, but many of them are victims of foreign airstrikes. When this business slows, Marmargade reluctantly smuggles a truck full of goods — the contents of which play a pivotal role later — to a nearby city. 

Because Marmargade knows the realities of living in a place shrouded by the shadow of death, he strives for a better life for his son Cigaal (Ahmed Mohamud Saleban), a buoyant kid who thinks nothing of the constant buzzing coming from the sky. When the local school cancels classes for the year because of chronic absenteeism among the teachers, Marmargade works to send Cigaal to a school in the city, where safety is more than an illusion. But Cigaal doesn’t want to leave his family, friends or his life in the village. When Marmargade proposes this new life to him, the child rejects the idea. 

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The main narrative of The Village Next to Paradise revolves around the conflicting desires within this makeshift family. Marmargade lives with his sister Araweelo (Anab Ahmed Ibrahim), a recently divorced woman who wants to build her own tailoring shop. The two have the kind of fractious relationship resulting from years of mistrust. She thinks her brother should be honest with Cigaal instead of trying to trick the young one into going to school. Marmargade wants his sister’s financial support more than her advice. After she refuses to lend him the money for tuition, Marmargade makes a series of decisions that threatens all their livelihoods. 

Harawe’s film contains many admirable elements. With its unhurried pacing and tender focus on a single family, The Village Next to Paradise recalls Gabriel Martins’ 2022 feature Mars One. And the way Harawe structures the film around a broader geopolitical conflict resembles the role the Chadian civil war played in Mahamet Saleh Haroun’s  2010 film A Screaming Man, which also premiered at Cannes. The cinematography (by Mostafa El Kashef) offers truly striking images that conjure up the ghostly atmosphere of this village without turning its people into caricatures for a Western gaze hungry for a particular kind of poverty porn. 

But The Village Next to Paradise is also hobbled in places by its meandering narrative and occasionally wooden performances from Harawe’s cast of local nonprofessional actors. The sharpness of Harawe’s vision is dulled by a story that takes one too many detours before settling into itself. Characters with dubious relevance are introduced and then dropped, while ones who come to play crucial roles don’t get an appropriate amount of screen time.

The film becomes more dynamic in its latter half, when Marmargade’s desperation leads him to questionable decisions that clash with Araweelo’s desires. Indeed, it’s also during these parts of the film that Harawe pulls the strongest performances from his actors, who otherwise struggle to shake off an understandable stiffness. 

Despite these flaws, Harawe’s film does have a real staying power. The Village Next to Paradise orients itself around a quiet optimism and surprising humor that mirror real life. There are moments throughout that serve as a reminder that even in places where death feels close, hope for tomorrow is still alive.

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Short Film Review: Karita (2023) by Virginia de Witt and Koji Ueda

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Short Film Review: Karita (2023) by Virginia de Witt and Koji Ueda

“So I came here…”

Headed by actress-turned-director Virginia de Witt and Koji Ueda, a Kyoto-born Tokyo-based director, photographer, and filmmaker, “Karita” is a film inspired by the manga series “Nana”, while trying to answer the question, what if “Lost in Translation” was cast with the “Fleabag” character. The 17-minute short will be premiering at the Dances With Films Festival on June 22nd in Los Angeles.

The film begins with a series of impressive images from nighttime Tokyo, while the ominous music suggests that something dangerous is about to happen. The next scene has two women walking in the streets during the day, as Nico, an American, is shown around Tokyo by her friend
and supervisor at a local record store, Rumi. The camera is shaky and the cuts frantic, while there is a different dialogue heard in the background. The next, dominated by neon pink lights scene, brings us to the location the dialogue is taking place, inside a bar, where the two girls are talking to two boys and one girl, with Nico asking them if they have ever done anything dangerous. One of the boys, Ren, starts talking about people stealing cars. Nico shares her own experience in the US, which makes everyone in the table rather amused.

The night continues with a lot of drinking and eventually, Rumi decides to go home, cautioning her friend not to do anything stupid, before she goes. The next scene takes place in a garage with a sports car, which belongs to the uncle of the second of the boys in the company, Kenji. Suki, the other girl, who is quite drunk, insists they take the car for a drive, despite the yakuza-like uncle having specifically cautioned his nephew otherwise. In the end, with Ren in the driver’s seat, they take a drive around Tokyo.

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Unfolding much like a road-movie/music video, “Karita” will definitely stand out due to its impressive visuals, with Koi Ueda’s cinematography, in combination with the impressive lighting and coloring, capturing night time Tokyo in the most impressive fashion. Curtis Anthony Williams’s frequently frantic editing also adds to this sense, while the rather fast pace definitely suits the overall aesthetics here.

At the same time, there is a part of the movie that is quite realistic as the group visit various locations, as a pier, a convenience store, the record store, and the aftermaths of getting drunk and doing stupid things is also highlighted. A pinch of humor, as in the whole concept of the uncle and Suki’s actions, and some notions of romance, cement the rather entertaining narrative here.

Virginia de Witt plays the foreigner that tries to appear cool in order to fit in with gusto, while Haruka Hirata as Rumi is quite convincing as the “cautious” friend, with the chemistry of the two also being on a very high level, presenting a rather kawaii relationship between them. The other actress that stands out here is Mika Ushiko, who is quite convincing as the drunk Suki.

As mentioned before though, the aspect that makes “Karita” stand out is definitely its production values, which are on a level very rarely met in short films, while being the main reason the movie definitely deserves a watch. All in all, a very appealing film, in an effort that intrigues on what the filmmakers could do with a bigger budget in their hands, that would allow them to explore the script and the characters more.

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Woof Woof Daddy: Aaron Kwok plays a reincarnated mutt in doggy mess

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Woof Woof Daddy: Aaron Kwok plays a reincarnated mutt in doggy mess

1/5 stars

Filmmakers’ relationship with dogs over the years has proved just as rewarding as other people’s bond with their loyal, four-legged companions. They have produced classic weepies (Old Yeller), thrilling adventures (The Call of the Wild), uproarious comedies (Beethoven), and countless animated favourites.

Asian cinema has supplied many memorable entries, including Hachiko and Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Antarctica, both of which inspired Hollywood remakes.

The secret to a compelling canine caper is either brilliantly trained animal performers or engaging animated characters – whatever effectively brings a dog’s personality to the fore – and showing them having meaningful relationships with human characters around them.

Sadly, Aaron Kwok Fu-shing’s new movie Woof Woof Daddy accomplishes none of this; it is an underwhelming combination of lazy writing, unlikeable performances and woefully subpar visual effects.

There is so much wrong with the film it is difficult to know where to begin. Suffice to say that, even within the fuzzy lines of its own insultingly half-baked premise, the film does not make a lick of sense.

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Kwok plays single father Siwang, who moonlights as a rock star between shifts at a confectionery factory. His only fan is his nine-year-old daughter Lulu (Xing Yunjia), who is left to fend for herself when Siwang is killed in a freak accident.

Banished to the afterlife, the desperate dad rebels against his assigned fate and, 24 years later, is magically reincarnated as a puppy.

Xing Yunjia as a young Lulu (centre) in a still from Woof Woof Daddy.

With remarkable ease he tracks down Lulu (Lyric Lan Yingying), who is a failing pop singer trapped in a loveless engagement to her sleazebag manager (Darren Wang Da-lu).

Siwang muscles his way back into Lulu’s, determined to help his daughter get back on her feet, despite being trapped in a small furry body.

Chief among Woof Woof Daddy’s many failings is its visual effects; the dog looks absolutely rotten, even for a modestly budgeted mainland Chinese quickie like this.

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On the page, the film fares even worse. Siwang the dog is essentially magic: he walks on two legs, holds objects between his paws, and responds to literally anything said to him; he even plays the guitar. Yet nobody bats an eyelid.

Why Siwang does not make Lulu a millionaire simply by existing is never discussed. All director Kexin Lu Ke deems to be of value is Kwok’s immature father earning a redemptive reunion with his daughter; that, and the fact the dog lays a few scatological poop jokes along the way.

Lyric Lan (front) as the adult Lulu in a still from Woof Woof Daddy.

Laboured from start to finish, Woof Woof Daddy is one bad dog that deserves to go straight to the pound.

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