Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Reel Asian 2012: Reviews #3

Reviews of screenings from the The 2012 Reel Asian International Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Cold Steel (Dir: David Wu Tai-Wai. China/Hong Kong, 2011. 101 mins.)

Screens: Saturday, November 10, 2012, 10:45 p.m. @ The Royal

As an established sub-sub-genre of action films, the "sniper movie" is generally thought to be more sedate and deliberately-paced than most — like its protagonists patiently waiting for that right moment to pull the trigger. This hyper-kinetic WWII flick upends all such expectations, barrelling ahead through its action sequences with blink-and-you'll-miss-it velocity. It tends to pause, however, for counterpoints of languid melodrama, both modes laid on with the same heavy-handedness you might find in a Hollywood summer blockbuster.

Dim-witted farmboy Lianfeng is a crack shot while out hunting, and his skills are enhanced with lessons from a rescued American pilot. That's enough to get him impressed into an elite sniper unit, and soon enough he's fighting against the Japanese occupation and becoming a hero to his townspeople. He's also interested in romancing tearoom owner Yan, a widow coming to terms with the love that she's lost.

There's not much subtlety in either the action or romance scenes, and the thin characterizations are sketched out with a sort of all-platitude approach to dialogue, exacerbated by Lianfeng's penchant for parroting back any perceived words of wisdom he's managed to remember from previous conversations. There's also some interesting kinks in the movie's historicism that seem designed to please contemporary political tastes, including both a thorough demonizing of the imperialistic Japanese as well as a problem-solving Communist cadre that manages to pop up whenever a deus ex machina is required.

The movie reaches for some weighty themes, most centrally the need for soldiers to become emotionally-repressing "cold steel", and how that affects them outside battle, but really doesn't get too far with them. For all that, however, the relentless drive does make this a compellingly-watchable actioner, so it's worth seeing for anyone willing to check expectations of subtlety at the door.

The Woodsman and the Rain (Dir: Shuichi Okita, Japan, 2011, 129 mins.)

Screens: Saturday, November 17, 2012, 4:00 p.m., Richmond Hill Centre For The Performing Arts

When aiming for "heartwarming", it's very easy for a film to miss the mark and get stuck on "cloying" — but that never happens in this modest charmer of a film. Lumberjack Katsu lives a fairly uneventful widower's life: avoiding sweets after lunch, trying to motivate his unambitious son and working in the forest that he's strongly attuned to. When a small film crew shows up to make a zombie movie, he's rather indifferent at first. But when he slowly gets roped into their orbit — from politely helping with a stalled car to acting as an informal location scout — it isn't long before he's shemped-up in makeup and staggering along as an undead extra.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Koichi, a young man amongst the filmmakers that at first seems to be a sullen spare part, is the movie's somewhat reluctant scriptwriter and director. Circumstances soon push him and Katsu into an unexpected friendship. Well, no big surprise: the woodsman helps Koichi find his spirit and strength, which in turn gives Katsu a chance to re-evaluate his broken relationship with his son.

All of this unfolds according to a heartwarming formula as rigourous as the internal logic of, say, a zombie flick, but that doesn't subtract from this film's genuine low-key charms. Foremost among them is actor Koji Yakusho, who animates the stoic Katsu with subtle gestures that speak volumes. As he comes to life — and increasingly drafts his fellow townspeople to help with the production of the film — we see him emerge from the zombie-ish routine he'd been stuck in since losing his wife and start living again.

In the end, this film is as humble and workmanlike — and as likable — as its protagonist.

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