2LDK

2LDK

How 2LDK came about is, you have director Yukihiko Tsutsumi sitting down with Ryuhei Kitamura sometime in 2002. And these guys, they like film, they certainly like each other. So the idea comes up maybe they should work together. Tsutsumi tells the story over and over, how neither of them are drinkers, how the restaurant they chose was perfect for their decision. While the world got sloshed, they set the rules for the Duel Project:

– 60 minutes long, 2 films, no R-18 rating.
– One set each. No one is allowed to leave.
– Two actors, both male, or both female.
– Both films must operate on the same budget.
– Both films must contain ‘mysterious’ similarities.
– Whoever attracts the least amount of business loses.
– Whoever attracts a higher TV audience wins a special award.
– Any director who makes a profit may receive a bonus.
– No complaints if we just do one movie together.

The result is a lovely mess. Kitamura went off to create Aragami, a blazing long old-school swordfight of a film. As for Tsutsumi, well – both directors agree he got the better end of the deal. The premise: two young model-actresses (Lana and Nozomi, played by Maho Nonami and Eiko Koike), both working for the same talent agency, come to lethal blows one terrible night over an upcoming role. The battleground: a “two-bedroom one-living dining kitchen” in central Tokyo. It’s a rather up-scale place; we learn quickly that the girls are guests, that the owner is away on some business or another. There is a “half-character” parrot overseeing the atrium. There are swords and sharp corners all about. There are eggs and chainsaws and fountains and electrical hazards. You can imagine.

Watching these girls brawl is far more fun than it ought to be. This is a movie you can’t help but tell your friends about, even if you don’t find much in the story. For enthusiasts, it’s easy to recommend: the way you watch, say, Suicide Circle for its moments, you watch 2LDK for the duration. Entertaining and digestible, it’s short enough – and surprisingly cute enough – to merit repeat viewings, in mixed company, even in the same night. And it’s likely to hold attention.

But does all this make the movie good? Well… it depends. How much you value any portion of 2LDK may bank on how much you know, or care to know, about its origin. To me, 2LDK needs the backstory to be what it is. To some, take away the ladder and what you’ve got is really not a lot apart from so much obvious dialogue and popcorn violence. TLA Releasing seems to have understood this in putting the DVD together. If you find that at 70 minutes the movie doesn’t qualify, then the hour-plus of featurettes and interviews are very welcome, and perhaps a little bit necessary. It certainly helps the purchase. It also results in a good deal more insight and background than I’ve been able to include here.

And then: 2LDK is alone in distribution (in North America), while an Aragami/2LDK box set has been available in Japan since January. Who made this decision? Tsutsumi’s half certainly isn’t lost without its pair, but especially under the Dual Project heading, it look a bit lonely, if not silly, on the shelf. What makes it so acceptable is knowing that “silly” is the heart of the thing.

Translation notes: Shohei Ikeda

2LDK
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2LDK (2002)
Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi
Stars Maho Nonami, Eiko Koike
Genre Thriller, Action

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Dark Water

Dark Water

Alternative title: Honogurai mizu no soko kara

Japanese director Hideo Nakata put himself on the map when his movie version of Koji Suzuki’s book, the Ring (which had previously been adapted into two TV shows) was released and became a cult horror hit. The movie spearheaded a renewed interest in Japanese horror movies which seemed fresh and exciting compared to the stale output of Hollywood. Here were movies aimed at adults, with complex, unsettling plots and were genuinely scary, a rarity that only smaller American productions, such as Blair Witch Project and Session 9 had managed.

The Ring (or Ringu, to give it back its Japanese name) dealt with the strange simultaneous deaths of a group of teenagers who had all watched a short, bizarre video tape they had found in a rented cottage. The video was linked to the murder, some years earlier, of a telepathically gifted adolescent called Sadako who was now reaping a kind of revenge from beyond the grave.

Nakata created a spooky movie, shot through with a rainy, dark atmosphere. Subsequently he also directed Ringu 2, bizarrely one of two Ringu sequels (the other being Rasen, directed by Iida Jouji), but sadly the result was a disappointing, disjointed movie which dispensed with Ringu’s chilling mystery. This may have been due in part to ignoring Koji Suzuki’s book series and writing the original story himself together with screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi.

Nakata made a few movies after Ringu 2, including the unusually structured Kaosu, a kidnapping movie where the scenes initially appear to be in a random order and a documentary on director Masaru Konuma, but Dark Water was his return to the horror genre. It also partnered him again with Koji Suzuki, who wrote the book on which the film is based.

The movie is set in the middle of a messy divorce as the highly strung Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) fights for custody of her five year old daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Mother and daughter are forced to rent an apartment in a seemingly unoccupied block looked after by an aging, idle janitor.

Not long after moving in, a child’s red bag turns up and a leaking wet patch appears on the bedroom ceiling that seems to undulate and grow. The red bag keeps coming back no matter how often it’s thrown away and seems to be a portent of some kind of unimaginable horror entering into their lives.

Yoshimi learns that several years ago a child went missing from an apartment in the floor above them and there seems to be something supernatural at work, especially when a young girl in a yellow jacket starts to make appearances in the shadows.

Just like Ringu, the movie is full of dark clouds and rain, shocks and a slow creeping terror that grabs your heart with a gradually tightening grip. Unlike Ringu there is a subtext on the importance of the bond between mother and daughter and the true, unbalancing horrors that a custody battle can unleash.

Aside from the beautifully dingy cinematography, one of the real joys in this movie is Rio Kanno who plays the five year old Ikuko, who not only looks incredibly cute but who provides a realistically drawn and sympathetic performance.

Sadly, there are two things holding this movie back from being a masterpiece of suspenseful horror: the broad similarity to Ringu and the unnecessary coda at the end of the movie, which really adds nothing to the plot.

But Dark Water is still head and shoulders above most Western movies in terms of plot depth, atmosphere, acting and shockingly original scenes. Key moments will come back to haunt you for days afterwards, which has to be an improvement on the forgettable crap that often passes for horror.

Dark Water
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Dark Water (2002)
Director Hideo Nakata
Stars Hitomi Kuroki, Rio Kanno, Fumiyo Kohinata, Asami Mizukawa, Shigemitsu Ogi, Mirei Oguchi, Yu Tokui, Isao Yatsu
Genre Horror, Thriller, Drama

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Infernal Affairs

Internal Affairs Movie Review Poster

Infernal Affairs

AKA: Wu jian dao

Infernal Affairs is a crime trilogy that we’ll be hearing a lot more about over the next couple of years. This, the original, was an enormous hit in its native Hong Kong, and has already spawned a prequel, with a sequel on the way. Brad Pitt has snapped up the rights to remake all three, with he and Tom Cruise mooted as the leads. Hopefully, like The Ring, the remake will encourage people to seek out the original, as it’s a lean, gripping thriller that deserves the widest possible audience.

The concept is simple, but has intricate repercussions. The police and the Triads each plant a young mole in the other’s camp, each of which rises to a position of influence over a period of years. Ming (Andy Lau) infiltrates the police, under the patronage of Triad boss Sam (Eric Tsang). Yan (Tony Leung) is the police mole in the Triads, working directly beneath Sam. The relationships are directly parallel; Ming’s boss in the police force is Yan’s mentor, as Sam is Ming’s.

After some brief, lucid exposition, we get into the story proper. The police are pursuing Sam, as his is the only gang they’ve consistently failed to catch. This is, of course, because Ming has always been able to forewarn him. As their efforts become more concerted, however, it becomes apparent to both sides that each is harbouring a mole. Both sides then focus on flushing out the spy in their ranks, a task each assigns to his most trusted officer; Ming and Yan respectively. Thus begins a gripping, deadly game of cat and mouse where each man has to eliminate the other.

Infernal Affairs is a psychological thriller, with little violence, and no martial arts. Instead we study the complex characters, and the difficult choices they face. Ming and Yan are both essentially good men, but each is haunted by his past, and increasingly confused about his own identity. The plot is consistently surprising and inevitable, a product of fine writing and a fertile premise.

Visually the film is both gritty and stylised, with its noirish colour-drained cinematography reminiscent of Se7en. The score dramatically increases the tension, veering from pounding electronica to opera. And the cast demonstrate fully why they are regarded as the cream of Hong Kong’s acting talent. Infernal Affairs is the most exciting police drama in years, and an instant classic of the genre.

Infernal Affairs
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Infernal Affairs (2002)
Director Andrew Lau and Alan Mak
Stars Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Kelly Chen, Sammy Cheng, Edison Chen, Shawn Yue, Elva Hsiao
Genre Drama, Thriller

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A History of Violence

A History Of Violence

If you look at our Greek literature, stories from thousands of years ago, violence is not only seen as a part of life, it is celebrated. Men who were skilled in violence were celebrated as heroes. In Homeric battles violent ability was coveted and rewarded. Violence was good.

Today we live in a different world. Violence is universally regarded as both damaging to society and a character flaw in those who practice it. Yet still it is all around us. People still fight wars and each other in the street. It is possible that violence is a part of human nature that we can never escape, it is always with us, no matter how hard we try to ignore or banish it… or maybe we can. This is the question David Cronenberg asks in his new film A History of Violence.

Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, the archetypal small town businessman in Millbrook Indiana – America’s heartland; a town and a man seemingly mired in cliché. He picks up litter, greets everyone by name as he walks to work past a hundred white picket fences. He eats apple pie and tells his friends he’ll see them in church. Tom runs a diner and lives a quiet life with his wife Edie and son Jack, until one night, two armed murderers on the run come in to his diner just as he is closing and hold him up. One puts a gun to his elderly waitress’s head and the other points a pistol at Tom and tells him to hand over all his money. Within a few seconds both men are dead and Tom and his friends are still alive. He instantly becomes a celebrity, and a hero, until people start asking, “How did he do that?”

A History of Violence is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke and although it is vastly different from other comic book adaptations, the style and techniques that Cronenberg invokes are very much of the genre. The characters, the settings, the dialogue, are all slightly exaggerated. Only slightly, but enough to take the story a half step away from reality. Millbrook is a long way from Sin City but was built on similar foundations.

And what a place for a man like Tom Stall to live. The film revolves completely around its central character and despite its title and Cronenberg’s reputation, the film is outwardly a look at the struggle for personal identity. This actually involves some pretty deep thinking about who we are and the nature of self-hood; themes that go way beyond simple debates around nature vs. nurture. Although Tom is the main protagonist, his wife and son struggle with their own identity issues throughout the film too, just not to the same extent. The nervousness and desperation on his son Jack’s face as he considers whether to unleash his anger on the school bully is both familiar and an example of what the film is all about; the choices we make everyday that determine who we are.

But A History of Violence would fail completely if Viggo Mortensesn was unconvincing in the role of Tom Stall. Thankfully, he pulls it off. In fact, he is so convincing, and his performance so emotive that he is able to bring a subtlety to the role that is the making of the film. The sort of transformation as an actor that Mortensen is capable of, seen even within this film, is the mark of a really great actor, the same ability that Anthony Hopkins and Edward Norton are capable of.

A History of Violence takes one man’s struggle for identity and exaggerates it in to a fantastical story, but at the same time, the fundamental ideas about humanity and identity at its heart remain relevant to everyone. Beyond this, Cronenberg asks some pretty serious questions about America and the world’s obsession with violence and society’s hypocrisy towards it (killing two people makes Tom Stall a hero, just as it was thousands of years ago). But it is the deeper questions that you will still be thinking about long after you have left the cinema. The film offers no answers, but it asks the questions so very well.

A History of Violence
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A History Of Violence (2005)
Director David Cronenberg
Stars Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris
Genre Drama, Thriller

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Domino

Domino Movie Review Poster

Domino

Domino is a car crash of a movie. Not a slight fender bender that chips the paint, but a cartwheeling-down-the-highway-while-on-fire kind of car crash that ends up landing on a gas station and bursting into a ball of flame about twenty stories high. It’s an over the top, out of control, wreck; an eye-blistering, teeth-jarring, epilepsy-inducing head-on collision. Now we have that out of the way, we can continue.

It must have looked great on paper: Keira Knightley playing a tooled-up hard-ass bounty hunter, with a script by Donnie Darko writer/director Richard Kelly and Tony Scott at the helm, fresh from winning plaudits for his movie Man on Fire. With a juicy role for Mickey Rourke—who appears to be making an unexpected comeback after retiring from a brief boxing career and an ill-advised course of plastic surgery—and a cameo from Christopher Walken, how could this movie possibly fail?

The movie is (“sort of”) based on the life of Domino Harvey, a British adrenaline junkie who was expelled from several schools for fighting with boys, became a model for the prestigious Ford agency before finally becoming a bounty hunter. Sadly, she died of a heart attack shortly after the film wrapped, possibly resulting from an overdose. She had been arrested and charged with possession of $2m worth of methamphetamines and was on bail when she was discovered at her home in West Hollywood and pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. A post-mortem proved inconclusive.

With a life as various and interesting as Domino’s, it’s difficult to believe the filmmakers found it necessary to “sex up” her story by introducing convoluted plot strands such as being followed around by a reality TV show hosted by ex Beverly Hills 90210 actors and a double-crossing mafia caper. Although Domino was friends with Tony Scott, acted as advisor on the movie and apparently loved the final result, she was reported to have been upset at the liberties taken with her story.

Because of the number of complex plot elements the film has to cover, Domino hurtles along at breakneck speed. The movie begins at the end: Domino is bloodied, apparently under arrest and is being interviewed by the cold, bitchy Taryn Miles (Lucy Liu). Domino considers her upbringing in flashback and voiceover—conducted in Knightley’s fruity English tones down what seems to be a very poor telephone line—before moving onto her career as a bounty hunter, and finally the reason she’s sitting in the police station being interviewed by the FBI. Annoyingly, the film charges down a particular path only to shrug and admit that what the viewer is seeing on screen is only a possible reality before reversing and taking a different fork in the road and showing what reallyhappened.

Domino is stylishly shot by cinematographer Daniel Mindel in deep saturated colours and high contrast, but is filmed in a bewildering range of film speeds, so the movie speeds up, slows down, stutters, jerks and lopes along, which is fine for a music video, but spread relentlessly across the length of a movie begins to grate like fingernails down a blackboard.

The script allows for very little character development. All the actors do well with the material, despite playing one-note pastiches. Rourke plays Ed Mosbey, Domino’s grizzled boss and the sultry Edgar Ramirez plays Domino’s moody, vaguley psychotic, would-be lover and the third member of the bounty hunting team. Christopher Walken plays a TV producer following the trio around with his camera crew and presenters Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green from Beverly Hills 90210 (playing themselves).

But the script introduces some unbelievable situations when it deviates from Domino’s real life story, the worst of which is a phone conversation with Claremont Williams (Delroy Lindo), the bounty hunters’ bail bondsman. The line breaks up and while Williams is saying “remove the sleeve from the right arm” of some guy they have tied up, Domino hears it as “remove… the right arm”. And without question—such as asking what the fuck this extreme act hopes to achieve—they do it. And with a shotgun. It’s simply a ridiculous, eye-rolling piece of contrivance that perhaps a more experienced screenwriter might have sidestepped, but Kelly, with only a single previous feature to his name (albeit, a superb feature) includes it without batting an eyelid.

Domino is an unsatisfying mess of a movie, more concerned with superficial gloss than character development. It’s a loud, shallow crowdpleaser that’s hard to recommend to anyone who really likes movies.

Domino
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Domino (2005)
Director Tony Scott
Stars Keira Knightley, Mickey Rourke, Edgar Ramirez, Riz Abbasi, Delroy Lindo, Mo’Nique Imes-Jackson, Ian Ziering, Brian Austin Green, Christopher Walken, Mena Suvari, Lucy Liu, Tom Waits
Genre Action, Thriller

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Divergence [San cha kou]

Divergence [San ch kou] (2006)

Imagine this. You’ve just met someone for the first time and you’ve discovered you have a lot of things in common. You both know Jim who works in the bowling alley, and you both like prawn toast. Things are going well, until your interlocutor suddenly starts talking about rabbits. There wasn’t any reason for them to just mention rabbits suddenly like that; and now they’re starting to talk about them all the time: how they’re watching, pawing the ground lightly, having conferences in rabbit sign-language. Something tells you you should probably leave the party when your companion suddenly slips a huge carrot out of their pocket and starts to examine it with furious intensity.

Divergence is a typically convoluted action thriller in the style’as the marketing bumf doesn’t hesitate to point out twice’of Infernal Affairs. Aaron Kwok (The Storm Riders ‘ no, I haven’t seen The Storm Riders either) plays Suen, your average renegade cop with a dead girlfriend and a wardrobe comprised of a single check shirt.

Benny Chan injects a lot of visual flair, and the film by and large has a fresh and vibrant look, but the choppiness of certain sections is entirely unsatisfying: it’s just hard to get a foothold. The acting is generally strong despite this, though, with Daniel Wu’s arrogant, free-wheeling assassin often stealing the show. The hysterical editing, which largely serves to make the entire film look like a trailer, is complemented by a fairly silly plot involving doppelg’ngers, coincidence, intrigue and, at one point, the gloriously incorrect subtitle, ‘Police Headquarter’.

So, everything is bowling along fairly pleasantly until the film suddenly becomes completely and utterly barking. It just flips out.

If I told you that Kwok and Wu are fighting in a fish market after a chase scene, and (SPOILER!) Wu puts a plastic bag over Kwok’s head to suffocate him, you probably wouldn’t bat too much of an eyelid. ‘Oh,’ you’d say, ‘that’s nothing. I ‘ve seen Jackie Chan movies, I know about ludicrous film combat.’ If I then told you that the bag stays on Kwok’s head for the majority of the scene, you might raise a rakish eyebrow above that unbatted eyelid. If I then told you that the scene continues with Kwok putting a plastic bag over Wu’s head, and attempting to suffocate him, whilst still wearing his own bag, your eyebrow’s lateral counterpart might join it in a state of erection.

What, I ask, will you do with your eyebrows when you attempt to assimilate the information that Kwok’s character ends the scene in a dream sequence where he hallucinates riding on a merry-go-round with his aforementioned dead girlfriend, who announces her pregnancy and then turns into a small plume of bubbles?

That’s not the end of it. The sheer daftness of the sequence in which Kwok sobs pathetically into a hotdog while a surging love theme from composer Anthony Chue wells up underneath him is matched only by The Car Scene, which is comprised of Kwok allowing his car to roll backwards down a hill into incoming traffic whilst inexplicably opening and closing his mouth like a goldfish, all set to a cue which I can only describe as ‘comedy ballet music’.

What’s going on? If a film sets out to evoke a certain tension, which Divergence certainly does (yes, an opening scene in which Kwok has to take a large fat man to visit the toilet might not necessarily flag this up from the outset), why is it constantly undermining itself in this thoroughly bizarre manner? The maudlin whinging about Suen’s girlfriend coupled with this kind of nonsensical unintentional comedy means that the film is utterly out of emotional kilter. There’s so little to be said for this kind of haphazard writing and direction.

There’s equally little to be said about the absolutely endless advertising for Nokia which this film perpetrates. Every character has a Nokia phone of some kind, pretty much the whole range is covered and shot in loving close-ups. I’m not exaggerating ‘ it just makes precisely no sense.

While Divergence is at its best doing action, everything is a little overwrought and under-evolved. It’s all been done better before, and Benny Chan can’t solve that problem just by filming everything from underneath, or upside down, or with a handheld camera. This film needs to be stripped of its frills and rebuilt from the ground up, but something tells me the task is hopeless.

It comes down to this: don’t watch this movie, even though it has good points, and even though some of it is utterly crazy. If you want craziness, watch the David Hasselhof sci-fi show which was on TV just now (Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD). If you want taut ‘Asian action’ (sorry) rent some Park Chan-wook movies, or even a Benny Chan movie which isn’t this. Divergence never quite shakes its slight straight-to-video air, and it’s simply not worth your time.

‘Where is Bruce Lee?’ asks a character at one point. Where indeed?

Divergence [San cha kou]
7 / 10 Pixelsurgeon Verdict
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Divergence [San cha kou] (2006)
Director Benny Chan
Stars Aaron Kwok, Ekin Cheng, Daniel Wu, Lee Sinje
Genre Action, Thriller

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