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The L Word – An Update

June 19, 2009 Leave a comment

The L Word

(NO SPOILERS, DON’T WORRY!!!)

In my original post, https://nanchatte.wordpress.com/2009/05/29/the-l-word/ I mentioned that I was rather disappointed at how the show the L Word was shaping up. I thought it was time for an update.

I complained that after eight episodes the program was apparently going nowhere. Well, it would appear that I have managed to manage (!) my expectations.

I am now currently half way through the second series and things have changed quite a lot.

At last, they have created an overall story that permeates the whole series, pushing weekly events into the background for the greater good. Sure there are still titbits that a casual viewer can enjoy, but the story has found its own pace and style and now rewards continued viewing.

The characters are becoming fuller, less random and more interesting with every episode. Minor roles have also become more interesting and stimulating. Real surprises await the viewers and well written, quirky humour litters the whole story.

More importantly, they’ve got the sex scenes under control. I am not a prude, by any stretch of the imagination but by the end of the first series, I was just getting annoyed at the random and graphic nature of the sex that seemed to be added to every second scene, regardless of whether one was needed or not. This second series is like the second year of any long-term relationship. The sex has got a lot more thoughtful, less random and more meaningful. It’s actually now used to enhance rather than obstruct the flow of the story.

Most importantly though, the story threads are themselves heart-warming, touching, funny and moving and sometimes even thought-provoking!

Even the token straight male part has managed to redeem himself with a bit of depth and character!

It’s as if the show itself now has the confidence to carry itself with its audience in the directions it originally intended to go without recourse to cheap titillation.

Whatever the cause is, I’m happy to invest another 13 or so hours in this series.

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The L Word – A case of managing expectations

May 29, 2009 2 comments

The L Word

I’ve just started watching the L word – I know a few of you PMed me and were wondering when I’d get round to it. Well, just to let you know: I got ’round to it!

Oh, yeah right, I hear you saying… here’s a guy who thinks he’s keeping up with the Jones’…

So, I realise that there are like, already 6 seasons and I’m far behind everyone else. but, hey… I’ve been tired.

Watching the first series has been a serious exercise in expectation management. Let me tell you why.

Fox Television’s “24” started a revolution in modern television action drama programming. Indeed, we might think of Pre-24 and Post-24 action and drama series programming as fundamentally different entities.

Pre 24 TV drama series, might include typical sleuth programmes such as Cracker, Taggart and Morse where a case is solved each week and the reset button is pressed. Even shows where continuity would have added so much, like the eponymous X-Files that were opened and closed conveniently each episode were crippled by the Scooby Doo Syndrome where audiences were forced to suffer from lines like “If it wasn’t for that gosh-darn-it dog and those pesky kids!” week after week after week. Promises of deep, intriguing and rewarding viewing were stunted by the “43 minute memory span” of a typical episode.

In X-Files, for example, it got to the point where I’d slap my forehead and shout things like,

“For Fuck’s Sake Scully Open Your God Damn Eyes!!! You Lost Two Hours of Your Life when You Were Taken on Board an Extraterrestrial Spacecraft Last Week, Experimented On and had some kind of Alien Chip Implanted in you and Now You’re Going on and on Like an Old Woman About a Man Who Claims to have seen an Alien!?!”

and I just plain lost interest at the end of season Five.

It would appear that Sci Fi suffered the most. It was as if no studio wanted to give their viewers credit for continued interest, despite the seven year run of, say, Star Trek Next Generation, which had only insignificant episode to episode connections but would have done much better with stronger ones.

Notable TV exceptions to this sad situation included lower budget classics such as the socio-religio-sci-fi epic “Babylon 5”, where individual episodes (after the experimental first season) were bound to a strong story arc with deep character development and long evolving plot threads. Yet still, one show “cheap shots” would take precedence over continuity. The more modern “The 4400” and “Taken” also took steps to fortify the overall story even at the expense of a little viewer responsibility.

The breakthrough was arguably reached with Firefly (by Buffy’s Joss Whedon) which spent it’s whole, tragically and unforgivably truncated 14 episode life, just building up the characters’ backgrounds and relationships one by one without even getting to the core of the story! How’s THAT for character development?  Sadly this show was voted out with a “paltry” 6 million viewers, just below the contract renewal threshold. Still, it wasn’t bad figure for a country and western infused sci-fi potpourri that tackled rocky topics such as blind loyalty, freedom of expression and sexuality, religious beliefs vs atheism, the connections between politics and syndicated crime head on, sometimes all in the same episode!

Among this suffering there was, ironically, a raft of cheesy melodramas and two-bit soaps and even crappy sitcoms that often had far deeper arcs and much more intricately twisted plots, not to mention the obligatory “previously…” bit at the beginning of every week to key the audience in to any recent developments they may have missed/forgotten/not bothered to consider/just made up. And this is exactly the sort of TV where this kind of thing is least necessary, where daily plots would probably have sufficed.

Bring out the Jack!
But the Jack’s Sleeping!
Then You’ll just go and have to wake him up!

On the fateful day of 6th of November 2001, Drama programming would forever be changed when Jack Bauer blazed onto the screen and single handedly saved America from all manner of evils, in one of the hottest, most radical concept series of all times. Built on a Hollywood Film budget with A-grade actors and actresses, the best production and editing ever used on TV and special effects that other series would have died for, 24 forwent or paid to get rid of all of the the baggage that held down other series and had the balls to expect, nay, demand its audience to watch once a week, every week, without fail, or else!

And they did, in their millions and millions.

Drama watchers were no longer treated like second class goldfish, but were rather treated to a new, rich experience that turned the whole perception of depth around and made any film less than a trilogy potential seem shallow.

Post 24 dramas pushed north the boundaries of what audiences were expected to remember and take on board in order to follow a series, leaving the directors time and breathing space to develop gorgeous characterisations, beautifully intricate plots, sumptuous histories and backgrounds, and in the case of 24 a whole new government organisation and structure.

TV series, such as Lost, Desperate Housewives, Prison Break proved to be compelling, intelligent television that made the viewer feel like a discerning customer and not a Joe Six-Pack.

  • Then along came the L-Word.

Billed as a slick, intelligent, high budget, well produced, “late night” (nudge nudge wink wink) drama about a bunch (flock, gaggle, murder – I don’t know the correct word) of beautiful, sassy lesbians living in Hollywood, no less… Every red blooded male’s fantasy programming…(!)

Fair enough, I was expecting Hollywood glitz, lots of good looking gals, relatable yet ultimately unrealistic characters (ala DH) and so on, perhaps even the odd shallowly disguised sexual double entendre or even a few tastefully, sheet clad morning after scenes.

I was looking forward to an intelligent series which might even linger for a few moments on social/sexual or political commentary thrown in under the pretext of entertainment.

Instead, this show rather unfulfillingly skims over, skirts around or just plain dodges every serious topic it bludgeons its way into at the beginning of each week’s episode and after eight of them, I’m left wondering… When will the real story start?

Stories and concepts are to be applauded for being written with a mainstream audience, albeit with one with a good degree of discretion and open mindedness, in mind. However, this is where the lauding ends, since the stories themselves are written with neither insight, nor focus and are littered with rather over the top, unnecessary sex scenes that actually do little more than obstruct the flow of each episode at critical fifteen minute intervals and in my opinion actually detract from the whole quality.

Case in Point; where another, earlier timeslot show would be forced to have some touching dialogue or nuanced atmosphere to demonstrate the (mostly temporary) feelings the two (or more) onscreen characters might have for one another, The L Word  forgoes the foreplay and gets down and sweaty: rather graphically and entirely unashamedly. Close, maybe but Porn this is not. Still, neither is it subtle, intelligent storytelling.

Sure, there is a veneer of a plot development, but it is really playing second fiddle to the weekly episodes and minor happenings that beset the women.

The protagonists appear thinly drawn and are either completely inscrutable or entirely predictable. Most seem far more promiscuous, eminently more shallow and altogether sadder than any of the LGB (or S) friends I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

Except for the “model couple” the characters range from childish and impudent, elitist and cliquey (like it’s morally OK for minorities to discriminate humourlessly against larger majorities) through to a number of downright selfishly hedonistic members.

Random or failed story arcs and traits of each character are not so much gently and subtly written out of the story as just left lying burned out and gutted on the side of the road!

To be honest, I don’t really know what points the directors are trying to make or even what impressions of the main characters they are trying to give, but they’re not particularly clear, whatever they are.

Still, despite all it’s flaws, I find myself looking forward to sneaking an hour in here or there, because, just like the sitcoms of old, it has a certain charm in its shallow, static, stereotypically drenched and somewhat bigoted storytelling that frees the viewer from any responsibility of having to remember plot threads or maintain a character directory of relationships to help solve a crisis, or indeed any responsibility at all: morally or otherwise. And of course, it has a Hollywood budget, excellent editing and production values and invariably first rate acting (except for the annoying appearance of a certain lecherous British professor who I remember from a dismal B-movie called Warlock).

Somehow though, I can’t shake the feeling that despite successfully pushing forward the visibility of lesbians in popular culture, they are doing so in an ever so slightly confrontational “sit on this and spin” fashion rather than with a cerebral exchange of opinions that would better aid integration. But then, that’s why tabloids outsell broadsheets, isn’t it?

It’s clear case of aiming for the bright and fancy patchwork rather than the rich at tasty melting pot!

Film Review: Lost And Delirious (2001, Canada) – La Rage au Coeurs

September 23, 2008 2 comments


Quote

Tori: Paulie, listen to me ok, because I'm going to say this once 
      and never, ever again. I will never love anyone the way that I love you. 
      Never. You know that, and I know that, and I will die knowing that, ok? 
      But it just can never... it just can never, ever, forever be. 
      Do you understand? 

Overview

This exceedingly well acted and often touching Canadian film follows the lives of three girls whose complex relationship spells trouble in the claustrophobic confines of a posh all-girls boarding school.  

 

Synopsis

*Note that although various aspects of the story might be hinted at here, there are no second half spoilers or revelations that will ruin your enjoyment of this film*

Mary Bedford, or “Mouse” as she is called, (played by a young and slightly Sarah Michelle Gellar-esque Mischa Barton), is an intelligent, sensible and mature girl who is sent to a prestigious boarding school after the death of her mother and finds her into room with two seniors, who although both are influential and well liked by their peers are worlds apart in their outlooks on life.

Victoria “Tori” is the archetypal rebellious oldest daughter of a wealthy, closed-minded yet proud Anglo-Saxon Christian family.

And although she loves her father’s devotion to her, she despises her mother for always “mking comments about her teeth”. She feels she cannot escape the future set out for her by her family: A future where she is destined to be the wife of some successful and hideously wealthy professional. This also makes it abundantly clear to her that while smoking abundant quantities of weed is affordable, studying is merely optional. In one situation where her attitude leads to potential embarrassment, Pauli is forced to step in to protect her from making a fool of herself in front of her classmates.

Pauli also happens to suffer from an annoyingly prim and proper (except for her bad language) younger sister who is occasionally barging into her room to wake her up with her group of overenthusiastic friends and interrupting their peace and quiet.

Pauline or “Paulie” is the star of the film and is played by the deliciously adaptable and eminently talented Piper Perabo, (who also happens to have played a more recent lesbian role in the film “Imagine Me And You”).

Paulie is smart, driven to the point of obsession once enflamed and has a lot of repressed anger stemming from a desire to meet her real mother who had her adopted at birth. She has one obsession stronger than all others, however: Her roommate, Tori whom she practically idolises as some kind of angelic heroine from a Shakespearian sonnet.

Mouse, foisted upon the seniors’ secretive lifestyle soon gains their trust by being calm, open minded and mature beyond her years and by revealing aspects of her past to them that allows them to bond.

This trust, coupled with numerous room-filling marihuana sessions loosens the inhibitions of the two girls in front of her and the realisation that her roommates are sharing more than just the room soon dawns upon the unsuspecting first year.

Mouse’s maturity allows her to at first accept and later come to appreciate the precious and loving relationship her two newest friends have, as if substituting for the lack of love she feels towards her new mother.

However, as the numerous Shakespearian references to love and tragedy throughout the play constantly hint at, even the strongest of loves faces challenges and it is not all smooth sailing as the news of their relationship inevitably spreads through the tight-knit and conservative community of the school. 

Mary is forced into a difficult situation as her roommate’s relationship comes increasingly strained. She becomes the natural intermediary as Tori fights to retain her social status and position among her peers and the standing within her own family and Paulie fights to regain the love of her “Princess”.

Impressions

The beginning of Lost and Delerious starts off a little like The Shining, with the family car winding its way towards the grand estate of the boarding school, but its tone is soon lifted, with the sounds of cheerful and carefree girls enjoying their last freedom before returning to the real world.

Of course, “Mouse” doesn’t see it like that: The loneliness of the shadow of her mother’s death, cast three three years earlier and her father’s remarriage cause her to blame the new couple, her busy father in particular for her new and unwelcome situation.

This sets the tone for the main themes of: balance of freedom, love and family, which are repeatedly pushed home throughout the film.

Three girls, although from very different backgrounds feel a kinship in their “abandonment” by their parents and a feeling of being unloved and unwanted by their families and revel together in their newfound freedoms.

Yet the girls find out that their freedom is not as complete as they’d wished when obsessive love, and obsessive peer and family pressure begin to tear at their world, pulling them in unwanted directions.

The film’s crux is the point at which the secret of the two young lovers’ relationship breaks free and Mary finds her friends placing increasing demands on her stability and maturity, making her position among her classmates similarly difficult.

In the end, she herself is forced to turn to the “salt of the earth,” matter-of-fact advice of the old groundsman, whom she has built up a relationship with by helping on the school grounds, for guidance on how she can handle the important decisions she has to make and the impeding crisis which she feels is looming before them all.

Summary

The film’s attention to detail is striking, portraying the grandly austere and sometimes stuffy atmosphere of the school and varied lives of the young adults away from home and tasting freedom for the first and perhaps the last time in a much more fully than other films have tended to depict boarding schools.

Dorm room, dinner, playtime scenes and of course classroom scenes take up much of airtime, but other scenes are equally important in filling out the details, like for example the ritual daily mail check: Portrayed a symbol of the connection to the real world outside, with scenes of Mary and Paulie often returning sullenly empty-handed from their sojourns to the post boxes and almost ecstatic when a letter of any kind arrives.

The film’s relationships elegantly display how people deal with the pressure of being cast into a role against their wills and how one can be pulled downwards by the weight of love, obsession and loyalty.

A key point is Mary’s affection for and loyalty to her friends which renders her unable to let go as she is torn in conflicting directions by their obsessions. In fact, one might add loyalty to the list of themes covered by this film: Loyalty to friends and family and the costs and consequences of those decisions.

As the third boarding school film I’ve watched since Dead Poets’ Society in 1989, this one shares many aspects common to those earlier films and not to mention a tangential similarity to Harry Potter’s experiences after coming away from an unloving home.

Yet of course, this film has plenty that makes it unique, one being the illicit relationship between the two girls.

Still, unique or not, with its many Shakespearian references to love and life, and an increasingly heavy emphasis on medieval “heroes” and “heroines,” as shown by Pauli’s fascination with fencing and more unusually, falconry.

…this drama occasionally appears in danger of becoming heavy handed and a little too “thick with metaphor” but the drama is intense, the story and characters on the whole very believable and the acting of the three girls and their eccentric Headmistress, excellent, pulling this film back from art-flick territory and in to the mainstream.

If there is one minor criticism, it would be that the story is too focussed on the three girls with only minimal time time given to outsiders: i.e. the school appears to have just a headmistress, a teacher and a gardener with only the latter ever given a real relationship building chance. Even Mary and Tori’s parents are given only one peripheral scene apiece, despite their importance to the story.

For those expecting a mildly titillating upskirt, lesbo, sailor-costumed schoolgirl romp, let it be noted that you are in for a disappointment! It’s far more Dead Poet than St. Trinians.

Final Verdict: A Big Thumbs up for the acting and relationships of three main characters.

Seven Films later…

July 26, 2008 1 comment

Over half a dozen films later and I suddenly realised to my regret that Love Juice was probably the last one in my current series of reviews. I had drawn up a list of 10 films in this genre, plus one more towards the end of this year, when it became available on general release in Japan. But I’ve found it neigh on impossible to get my hands on copies of the last three.

  1. Fish and Elephant (2001, China, Hidden Love) 
  2. Ji Sor aka. The intimates (1997, Korea, Drama)
  3. Memento Mori aka. Whispering Corridors II (1999, Korea, Fantasy/Thriller)
  • Drifting Flowers (2007, Taiwan, Three story drama montage)

The first two are not in general circulation. The third, I can’t find the Japanese title of it and Drifting is not released in Japan yet, so unless I find some wicked torrents, I’m out of luck.

So, let’s just recap on the seven films that I did manage to see. I’ll list them in my own personal order of merit.

Butterfly / Hu Die  (Human Drama – 2004, Hong Kong)

Thirty something family woman has a chance encounter with a young singer which reawakens her repressed sexuality. How does she come to terms with her old, true self in the face of her new, stable life she’s built for herself?

This heartfelt personal drama is a story about being true to yourself and coming to terms with your past. If you can keep track of the parallel story-lines played out in fragmeted, non-linear flashbacks, then this film shines for it’s unprecidented background to the main characters, the depth and realism of the issues tackled and the moral ambiguity that is left open to the viewer to fill in.

Although Yan Yan Mak perhaps tried to bite off a little more than the audience can chew, she packed a surprising about of background and depth into her second major film.

  • Two Big Thumbs Up

Spider Lilies (Human Drama : 2007, Taiwan)

A young webcam girl goes to get a tatoo done only to realise that her tatooist is a woman she had a crush on nine years before. Unfortunately for her, the tatooist has chosen to expunge all traces of her traumatic past from her memory, along with the memory a lonely little girl she once met.

This is a moving, dark tale about memory and why some choose to remember and some choose to forget. Again the lead roles are played impeccably and the story fleshes out the characters bit by bit by referring to their past and how they got to where they are today.

Although the second film by Zero Chou starts off well, she looses control of the plot threads causing the story to derail about 30 minutes from the end and rumble over rough terrain in search of new track. Despite the grinding, ambiguous ending, the storytelling, characters and their relationships carry this fine film through to conclusion.

  • Two thumbs up

Love/Juice (Romantic Drama / Black Comedy : 2000, Japan)

An unconventional relationship between two girls, one lesbian and one straight is so close that they’re practically a single person. Their offbeat lifestyle gets complicated when one’s love of the other starts to turn to frustration and jealousy at her lack of reciprocation.

Probably the most quirky, least trodden story of the lot, this low budget classic, black-comedy and romance delves into the murky depths of love and examines the blurry region that exists between deep, platonic love and sexual desire. The handheld cameras, grainy footage and cramped, tight locations lend this film a personality and intimacy that larger budget flicks often lack.

  • Two thumbs up

Red Doors (Family Comedy – 2005, US)

This lighthearted family comedy follows the lives of the Wongs, a suburban American Chinese family with a retiring father who’s trying to regain his raison d’etre after retirement and three intelligent, beautiful daughters, one of whom is lesbian, trying to balance their own lives with those of their fellow family members.

Although this movie suffers slightly by introducing a few too many of the cultural stereotypes that tend to plague mainstream cinema and prevent this film from rising to even greater heights, it more than delivers in sheer quality of all the acting, the slick dialogue, excellent set pieces and of course, the pinpoint humour regarding the generational gaps between characters. Without doubt the most entertaining film of the whole bunch.

  • Big Thumbs Up

Saving Face (Romance – 2004, US)

This is the story of a successful and competant surgeon who is quite certain of her sexuality, though up until now, she has never let it get in the way of her work. When she falls for the daughter of the chief surgeon, her boss, she has to question her lifestyle and choices she’s made. The close proximity of all concerned and a mother with a secret who is in denial of what she knows about her daughter who has not come out to the family yet all conspire to put pressure on her and force her to make some important decisions.

A mainstream film with a great cast, including one of my all-time-favourites, Joan Chen!

Alice Wu manages to create a meaningful, believable modern society as a backdrop to this movie. The two main character work great together on screen for a lovable, heartwarming story with enough twists and turns to keep the audience busy from beginning to end. 

  • Big Thumbs Up

The Botanist’s Daughters (Arthouse Drama – 2006, France)

A strict but brilliant botanist lives on beautiful a garden island with his dutiful daughter. Their stable but monotonous life is turned upside down on the arrival of an intern student who falls for the daughter of the botanist, resulting in bitter consequences for all involved.

A gorgeously shot film with moments of true grandeur and beauty, dragged down by awkward plot twists and an extremely unwieldy ending. The main actresses look gorgeous, if difficult to empathize with.

  • One thumbs up

Love My Life (Drama – 2006, Japan)

An “ideal” lesbian couple’s relationship is split asunder when one of them realises that she should be concentrating on her career rather than her love life. 

Oh purleez, this barftastic amateur flick by an ex softcore porno director reeks of mediocre acting and straight to video production values. Despite being embarrassingly gratuitous, the soft focus shots of bon bon swapping are about as risque as this picture gets, mildly titillating without ever engaging.

At least with real pornography, the poor acting is offset by up close and personal visuals. Instead, the unhappy compromise choosen for this film means that it is destined to satisfy virtually nobody.

  • Myeeh
In Conclusion
So in conclusion, I can say of the seven films I watched over the last three weeks, one was stellar, three were exellent, two were good, and one was myeeh. Not a bad hit ratio, consdering the limited scope of the exercise. 
I really enjoyed watching them and have no regrets. I think that they have had a positive influence on me, in as much as I’ve broadened my horizons… even if only a little.

Film Review: Love/Juice (2000, Japan)

July 22, 2008 2 comments


Quote

"Why were we born as two separate people, and not one?"

Overview

This is the seventh film in my short season of Asian Gay and Lesbian film reviews.

I was very lucky to actually be able to find this minor offbeat flick, made on an absolute shoestring budget by Shindo Kaze, a female Japanese director and screened in 2000.

Synopsis

Chinatsu and Kyoko are two close friends who live together and share pretty much everything, makeup, spoon and even their bed. They are so inseparable as to be almost a single entity. Yet they are neither a couple in the conventional sense, or in any other sense, since although Chinatsu is professedly gay, Kyoko is to all intents and purposes straight.

The two of them own very little and live frugal lives in a practically one roomed apartment as “freeters”, a Japanese term for those with no steady job or income and not particularly interested in getting one. What money they do manage to scrape together is used to fund their recreational drug using, nightclub centred livestyles.

The two of them invariably go out together, cruising the night scenes and looking for love, Kyoko for a man and Chinatsu for a girl. But something always stops either of them from finding the partner of their dreams: each other.

Chinatsu adores Kyoko and worships the very ground she walks on and while Kyoko is with her, she can find true love nowhere else. Moreover, as if to capture her spirit, she is constantly taking photos of Kyoko throughout the film.

Kyoko loves the attention and in a perverse sort of way, leads the vulnerable Chinatsu up the garden path.

But she is a victim of her own making because Chinatsu becomes the main reason why Kyoko herself, never seems to find love and settle down. When Kyoko starts to notice this, the atmosphere of the cozy household take a turn for the worse.

Despite this however, they are both trapped by their situation and their love for each other, because let’s face it, when it comes down to it, how many people can say that they have is a friend and companion closer than anyone else in the world who supports, understands, and who is there for you, right next to you, always.

Still, even a bond so close has its limits, and Chinatsu’s increasing frustration at her inability to find herself a girl to take her mind of the infuriatingly close, yet infinitely out of reach Kyoko, comes to a head when she is played by and subsequently dumped by a stylish nymphette at a party.

That night, feeling desperately sorry for Chinatsu, Kyoko gives in to her friend’s incessant demands and things begin to get even more complicated for the two of them.

As the film progresses, we learn things that suggests their love wasn’t as one sided as it first appeared.

Impressions

First up were the expectations. As soon as the opening credits appeared I saw “Tsunku Town Productions” and sighed, expecting another Love My Life or worse. That’s because Tsunku is responsible for a lot of total and utter garbage which passes itself off as music under the umbrella project “Hello!” His most famous travesty of modern pop is called “Morning Musume” and was unleashed upon the unsuspecting world by THIS MAN. And for that sin, I pray he suffers tinnitus until the day he dies.

Those of you who know me well, will know my esteem for that steaming pig-swill of a girlie-pop unit. Those of you who don’t, just use the previous sentence as a starting point.

But they were my expectations, and over the next fifteen minutes, they were blown out of the water.

This gem of a film was clearly made on a shoestring budget, using small hand-held cameras and digital film, developed in a grainy, contrasty finish. The result is a surprisingly personal account of the two girls’ lives and hardly a Tsunku produced soft focus “Glavia” (Japanese slang for Glamour Video Idol) pop video. What I didn’t know was that Tsunku Town is a production company for aspiring Japanese film directors and has nothing to do with his other endeavours.

No flashy titillation here. No softly lit, pouting teenagers for middle-aged men’s delectation.

Oh, and you can forget insipid Hollywood vista sweeps and pans of the scintillating Tokyo harbour. This is a film by Japanese for Japanese and is not a cross cultural effort strewn with the explanatory cultural crutches required in Saving Faces and Red Doors.

Instead, you get close-up-and-personal with Tokyo’s vast selection of concrete: barren concrete backstreets, canal-side concrete embankments and graffiti strewn concrete tunnels and underpasses are the only backdrops to the characters’ antics.

And when you’re not outside you get seedy, darkened bars, depressingly cramped yet deserted local shops and the main characters’ cute but shabby little flat.

The two actresses, Okuno Mika (Kyoko) and Fujimoto Chika (Chinatsu) both put in commendable, touching performances. They are relatively inexperienced actresses, Fujimoto only appears in TV dramas and Okuno doesn’t even register on the Internet, except for this film!

This makes their efforts especially surprising and rewarding to a viewer who joins with no preconceptions: Their relationship is portrayed with both verve and mood and darts between frivolity and desperate with the incongruous but surreal grace that Asian films seem to have when dealing with wildly disparate moods.

And what a relationship! Sure, in straight terms, this is the standard one-sided unrequited love situation, where A is in love with B, but B only likes A as a friend gig. But this twist on the old story is deliciously fresh and equally painful to watch.

Chinatsu is the glam-butch cynic who only has eyes for Kyoko, the doe-eyed (but pretty much straight) wonderstruck child. Kyoko is the opposite and sees the beauty in everything, including Chinatsu,  which is really the reason why the relationship becomes so interesting.

They also turn another concept on its head. One would expect butch Chinatsu to lead the relationship. But in reality, she’s begging Kyoko for comfort and it Kyoko who’s in emotional control. Kyoko is the adorable but capricious object of desire who gets a high from all the attention, from being loved and then flaunts her straightness and her men in Chinatsu’s face as if to hurt her.

Kyoko is undeniably flirting with Chinatsu just as girls often do with guys they have no real interest in and Chinatsu lives her days and nights locked in frustration.

The way the film follows their relationship is involving and personal. The low budget plays to the story’s advantage and the handheld cameras, especially, lend the film an almost documentary-like appearance at times.

Verdict

The relationship was so novel and refreshing that I was practically hooked from the start. Chinatsu and Kyoko portray their characters so well, and they really do come across as the best of friends and more on screen.

Add to that the dashes of frivolity, drama, hurt, black humour with an ending with a sting in the tail and you have got a budget classic on your hands.

Overall, then, an unexpected gem. Rough and ready with a low budget and straight from the TV cast, it could easily have failed by glamming up the setting, puffing out the sexy bits and casting bigger actresses. But the acting was solid, the canvas was tangibly real ( I know, I’ve been to that part of town) and the characters and their relationships were drawn by a skilled hand of a very high calibre.

I’ll give this film two regular sized thumbs up!

Film Review: Love My Life (2006, Japan)

July 16, 2008 4 comments

 

 

love_my_life_wolfe_video

Erm… No it doesn’t

Quote

 "In our game, the person you fall in love with
  is not always the one you can give yourself to."

This is the sixth film in my series of Gay and Lesbian Asian Cinema… Although, I have to admit that the current renaissance in Mainstream Asian Lesbian cinema has piqued my interest to the point where I’m finding it difficult to make time for the gay stuff.

Overview

This light, 2006, Japanese production by Kawano Koji is set in present day Tokyo and tells the tale of a young and wealthy lesbian couple, currently going through university.

Synopsis

Ichiko and Eri are two happily involved university students that seem to have the perfect relationship. They are both beautiful, intelligent, well bred (!?) and well heeled. And most importantly, they are also madly in love with each other.

Ichiko is the dreamer of the pair. The light hearted optimist. The playful one… The cutesy wootsy one. She comes from a very (VERY) liberal, Apple Mac using family with an extremely cool single father who absolutely considers her the most important thing in his life after the death of his wife, Ichiko’s mother, some years before.

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Eri is the serious beauty, the forward thinking one from a highly competetive family of [probably PC using] lawyers who wants to be a lawyer herself, just to prove to her bigoted father and sexist brother that women have the balls to be lawyers, too.

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As can be expected, their differences of upbringing, outlook and social layer starts to strain their relationships and they take a break from each other.

During this time apart, they both learn things about themselves. Eri tries to find what she really wants from life, wile Ichiko tries to become less selfish and childish, more responsible for herself and gets herself a job working as a book reviewer for her father’s company.

How do they cope with all the pressure society puts on them? Does Eri manage to kick her self righteous father in the crown jewels and send a blow through male dominated lawdom or does she realise it’s not her dream to be a lawyer? Does Ichiko manage to grow up and cast off her perpetual puberty? Can the couple weather the storm…. Can they get back together? Do you actually care enough to keep watching?

Impressions

After having watched four outstandingly good films in this genre, I approached this one with less research going in than the others. http://AfterEllen.com, an online Lesbian authority if ever there was one, gave this film a reasonably good writeup, and having not watched a Japanese lesbian film, I figured this would be the place to start.

To be honest, I was looking forward to watching a film where I could feel the dialogue firsthand rather than having to rely on dodgy subtitles to convey the director’s intentions.

So I pressed play… And then pressed pause after about a minute just to confirm I wasn’t watching a soft porn HBO production. The titillating, saliva drenched bonbon swapping of our lingerie clad dream couple in the first scene of this movie is a work of soft focus soft porn worthy of any a man’s “special interest” video collection.

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More than the scene itself was the absolute superfluousness of it. I came to suspect two things at this point.

1) The director was male: Because the sheer, blatant two dimensional flesh factor was not in any way up there with the three modern day mainstream films I’d just watched, namely Red Doors, Saving Face and of course, Butterfly.

2) The director was previously a porno director: His attention to the flesh, lighting, focus angles and of course, the actions of the two actresses suggested to me a certain familiarity with the subject matter that went beyond NHK daytime TV.

When I finally researched, I realised that the above two points were true. He was indeed a softcore porn director prior to directing this film.

Still, there is only one film I’ve ever stopped halfway through and that was Dancer in the Dark staring Bjork, a film so hopelessly depressing and dark that it can swallow viewers’ sense of well-being like a black hole and required me to watch three Monty Pythons and an episode of Mr. Bean to recover. Thus I decided to strive onwards.

You could build fences out of main characters’ dialogues they were so wooden. I found myself hiding my face in my hands. I don’t know whether the subtitles will protect you from the pain of their piss-poor acting.

Ichiko struck me a sort of 22 coming on 12. Her character was stuck at puberty, with dialogue appropriate of that age. Eri was a bit more grown up.

Even Ichiko’s extremely hip, translator and literary critic, Mac using father who has the disturbing penchant for referring to himself in the third person treats her like a secondary school kid, albeit an outed lesbian one with an appetite for wet bonbons. Except of course, fathers – even renowned translators – would rarely give their dearest a hetero novel about phone sex to translate as their first test job!

Eri was little better and her father was much worse. Take your stereotypical yuppie. Multiply by stereotypical lawyer and mix in a dash of stereotypical sexist bigot and you’ve just about summed up his two minutes of screen time. Horrific stuff.

Still, there were a few redeeming moments which allowed me to justify the time I was spending watching the film.

The scene where Ichiko meets her father’s secret lover over lunch one day is just superb. I can feel them both squirming for something appropriate to say, but finding nothing forthcoming, they resort to mutually inoffensive small talk. Great camera angles, great, vast open spaces between jittery dialogue. Very uncomfortable, very very funny!

Then there’s Ichiko’s best friend Take who is gay. He pulls of a nice, understated performance. Why can’t the main actors act like him for heaven’s sake. He’s believable, cute, insanely likable and most importantly, fully 3D. His own problems appear so much more real than the main pair’s self inflicted angst that I just wanted him to slap them and tell them to grow up.

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Then there was the surprise character of Yukako, a dippy classmate who appeared at first to be the class snoop, but ended up being far more enjoyable.

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And did I mention that Ichiko’s father was an Apple Mac user? He fits the mould perfectly: Handsome, cool, funny, understanding, compassionate, liberal, alternative lifestyle lover… Yes quite. Still, he’s very entertaining in the same way Justin Long (the Mac) is entertaining in the “I’m a PC, and I’m a Mac” ads.

i.e. supposed to be cool, but comes off a little annoying.

 

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Then there’s the random butch lesbian crush / love interest from… somewhere… Who Ichiko falls for before she disappears from whence she came… But not before one of the longest lesbian screen kisses I’ve seen in quite some time… Nope… Make that the longest single lesbian kiss shot I’ve ever seen in a “real” film.

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Again, this one scene by a really minor character eclipses anything the two overproduced, sugar coated bonbons can offer us, whether it’s sheer power and presence of the punky grrl or the awkward way Ichiko has absolutely no ides what to do with her hands or just plain “Yee Har! way to go!!!”. 

Final Verdict

If you haven’t guessed it, I didn’t think too highly of this movie. Why not? The plot is fairly standard, but then, so are Saving Face and Red Doors. No. This movie fails not because of it’s foot-bath-like shallow plot, or the lack of character build up, or the lack of outstanding humour or the absence of coherent social comment or even the ironically atypical number of stereotypes or even anything else to do with the story per se.

What kills this movie stone dead is the “Made for TV” or even worse, “Made for Video” production quality, wooden acting, the seriously lame titillation and the really gay main characters.  And I mean “gay” in this case not referring to their sexual orientations, but as a gay pal of mine amusingly used the word once to describe something I might have referred to euphemistically as “somewhat below par”.

Yes the film is cute, the characters cuddly, the ending all nice and warm-like and it does have its moments, but really everything else is stacked against it. Perhaps this is one of those “chick flicks” that jaundiced male members of the audience often refer to.

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Obligatory doe eyed closeup “Twoshot”.

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Huh? What’s this? A cunning Faustian juxtaposition of object and subject relative to the surrounding paradigm? No, it’s just Eri and Ichiko, this time taking a “Twoshot” of themselves.

Then of course, there’s the gratuitous money shots of the two fine actresses(‘ bodies) naked and gleaming although tastefully obscured since this is softcore… remember?… which I won’t include here.

Oh, and they love tonguing sweets to each other… so as a booby prize for those expecting the naked shots, I’ll just include this completely egregious outtake from the first scene of the film.

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I tried to like this movie. I wanted to like it, really. It’s a lighthearted romantic comedy with a gorgeous cast and some great moments, but just I can’t understand how respectable journals can rate this as anything other than amateur hour LGBT theatre. This is a one episode Fuji TV drama, not a film.

Or perhaps I’m just too jaundiced, jaded, bitter and twisted to enjoy a shallow love story about girl gets girl, girl loses girl, girl gets girl back again on steroids malarky.

I’m holding my right hand out horizontally with thumb and little finger spread out and tilting my hand from side to side in the universal symbol of “undecided”, “so-so”, “touch and go” or just plain MYEEH!

Categories: 2) Music & Film Tags: , ,

Film Review: Spider Lilies (2007, Taiwan) – 刺青 /Cì Qīng/

July 15, 2008 4 comments

Quote

Takeko : A tattoo is just an empty image, nothing more.
Jade   : I won't accept that! I asked you for a tattoo to symbolise
         "remembered love" and you made this for me. It is love!

Overview

This award winning film by lesbian director Zero Chou, set in modern day Taiwan in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake follows the lives of two girls, whose lives were affected by the disaster.

Synopsis

Takeko is a young woman who chose to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a tattooist after he was crushed to death when saving his son, her brother, from their collapsing house in the Taiwan earthquake of 1999. 

Her brother, Ching suffered PTSD and has only one clear memory; that of the beautiful yet haunting spider lily tattoo on his father’s arm. 

In memory of him, Takeko asks her tutor to tattoo the same design onto her own arm even though he tells her that the image of the Spider Lilies (Manjusaka), which line the path to Hell and whose poisonous root causes memory loss, is cursed.

There is another, more personal reason she wants the tattoo and that is to try and help her disabled brother. By having the tattoo copied onto her own arm, she hopes to bring her brother closer to her.  It is clear that she is filled with remorse for Ching and later in the film we find out that she blames herself for his current plight.

When not in the studio, she devotes all of her spare time to looking after Ching who tragically does not even recognise Takeko as his sister. To mask her guilt and deep feelings of loneliness, she buries herself in her work and in caring for her brother, and only expresses her emotions in the stories she tells to him of the strange and varied customers that visit her shop in search of tattoos, closing herself off from all friendship and solace. 

Jade is a local teenager living with her grandmother in a poor, run down apartment. She makes easy money as a seedy webcam chick, capitalising on her youthful appearance to bring in all of the wrong sorts of clientele. She dresses like a little girl and tells melancholy tales to her dolls, remembered from her past and flirts with the nameless clients on the other end of the camera, encouraging them to go one-on-one privately with her for a significant fee. The clients, unsure as to her actual age are quite keen to pay up.

However, Jade senses that her clients are starting to lose interest at her lack of “adventure”, so Jade makes up a spicy story about having a secret tattoo and decides to get one to go with her stories.

Jade, comes to the tattoo parlour seeking a tattoo for “a remembered love” and points to the Manjusaka design on the wall, one that she remembers seeing as a child. It doesn’t take her long to put two and two together.

She tells Takeko a cryptic tale about falling in love with someone when she was nine years old, someone who had that tattoo on her arm, like the one adorning the wall of Takeko’s parlour.

Takeko, recalling nothing of Jade however, rebuffs her off-hand, much to Jade’s chagrin and tells her that memories shouldn’t be trusted.

Jade, who’s memories are all that she has is upset but she embarks on a quest to make Takeko remember her and starts a concerted effort to revive her memories, which Takeko has spent nearly a decade trying to bury.

Impressions

The teenage cybertale beginning with it’s surreal colours and the typing coming up on screen hints at All About Lily Chou Chou (リリィ・シュシュのすべて)by Iwai Shunji and demonstrative scenes and camera facing during characters’ narrative is reminiscent of Trainspotting by Danny Boyle.

The most fascinating thing about the lead characters is how they embody the extreme approaches people take to dealing with trauma.

Jade, tries her hardest to remember everything, to hold on to every sweet moment, few and far between though they were, as if they were her last and most precious possessions. She believes that everything is transient and that existence is only as real as the memories of those involved. Be forgotten and you cease to exist.

Takeko is the opposite: Stony and cold, she has cut herself off from the pain of her past by forcing herself to forget everything, and floats lifelessly through the present like a rootless tree. For her, only the present has meaning and as soon as something becomes the past, it is left behind. Yet contradictorily she fills her days and nights with self pity and guilt for what she has done to her brother while at the same time denying herself the solace that would heal her.

 

The non-linear storyline flits from present to past in a slightly uneven and disconcerting way. Some scenes appear cut short and hurried, while others appear to linger a little longer than is comfortable. Intentional no doubt, but it does make the rhythm of the film a little difficult to follow.

These flashbacks serve to flesh out the lives of Takeko and Jade little by little, following Takeko’s slow reawakening from her morbid, empty state as Jade forces her bit by bit to remember the past and Jade herself.

As the film progresses, we see how the earthquake, and  a romantic liaison changes her outlook on life and why she blames herself. We also learn that this story is as much about the affection-starved Jade whose being abandoned and subsequently forgotten by her mother is the seed of her fixation on Takeko.

As a father, the scenes of the indescribably desperate nine-year-old Jade, though brief, were some of the most heart wrenching moments I’ve seen on screen to date and left me in tears.

The 18 year old Isabella Leong shows remarkable adaptability for this demanding role, whether its playing a high school tomboy crush, the devoted sister for Ching, the substitute mother for  Jade, the talented but troubled tattooist with a buried past or the reawakened and emotional woman she hints at becoming.

Every moment she’s on the screen, she captivates and convinces the audience, pulling them into her world.

However, just when the film starts to promise rewards to the viewer for following the winding and escalating plot with some stunning revelations, it instead starts to unravel and loose focus, plot threads fragment into what I can only, and unfortunately, describe as weird shit.

Plot lines which had been simmering suddenly come to a head, but not in a particularly coherent way. It’s more like Chou forgot the end of the film was coming until it was too late.

And just to heap even more weight onto the already emotionally encumbered lead’s shoulders, the illicit liaison towards the end of the film appears to draw the wrath of whatever gods are watching and Takeko is punished once more, just when she is coming to terms with and makes peace with her situation.

Final Verdict

This is essentially a film about memories: About choosing to remember or choosing to forget. About how we are the sum of our memories and how, if we cannot come to terms with and overcome the past, we can never be happy with what we have right here, right now.

Whether the director was searching for an extra bit of angst or melodrama at the end of the film is uncertain. It is perhaps more likely that a young and inexperienced Chou bit off a little more than she could chew and was unable to present the finale’s dense threads in coherent and comprehensible way.

As for assets, the main actresses are captivating together and prove that opposites can attract the audience as well as each other.

Then there is the highlight of the whole film, the backdrop of the earthquake and the childhood images of Jade with a young Takako are moments of magic and make this film a tearfest.


Despite this slight incoherence and the loss of focus of the jumbled ending, Spider Lilies is without doubt, an intelligent and thought provoking drama. It makes a valiant attempt at uncovering the wide vista of human emotional survival in the face of hardship and succeeds where a lesser film would fail to inspire.

Two thumbs up for this one!