WCS 2010: Goemon, Fish Tank, Still Walking

FILM, Film Festivals

Three films at the World Cinema Showcase. By CALEB STARRENBURG, BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM, STEVE GARDEN.

Japan’s Kazuaki Kiriya—who cut his teeth directing fashion shoots and music videos—burst onto the international scene in 2004 with the madly ambitious but mostly incomprehensible sci-fi-opera Cassheren. Fast-forward six years and Kiriya returns with Goemon, another based-on-an-anime eyeball melting spectacle. The film explores the tale of 16th century bandit Goemon Ishikawa, a sort of Japanese Robin Hood. Little is known about the real Goemon—however it’s believed he was boiled alive following a failed assassination attempt on Chancellor Toyotomi Hideyoshi (affording Goemon the dubious honour of having a kettle-shaped bath named after him). Goemon’s ‘rob from the rich to give to the poor’ popular appeal has seen his story reproduced in a number of mediums, from kabuki plays to video games, manga and anime. Kiriya injects his telling with a dash of historical events and bucket load of battle-royals—alongside the obligatory (but mostly pointless) romance.

Of course, the director’s fingerprints are on every scene here, from the physics-defying action sequences and stylised CGI backdrops, to the bombastic score. Kiriya made his debut film on spare-change. This time around he’s been given a stack of cash, and it shows. Everything—weapons, costumes and castles—is ratcheted up to an outlandish scale. With Goemon, Kiriya has created the closest realisation yet of a live-action anime. However, this is both the film’s success and its failing. Goemon’s emotional resonance is too-often buried under a mountain of CGI-pyrotechnics. Yosuke Eguchi is impressive as the titular bandit-hero, but it’s Goemon’s adversary Saizo, played by Takao Osawa, who steals the show. Saizo’s character—unlike the nonchalant Goemon—wishes to see an end to Japan’s civil war and gives the film an urgency that might otherwise be lacking. Eiji Okuda is also notable in the role of Toyotomi Hideyoshi—he clearly enjoys himself as he chews up the scenery. For fans of Japanese cinema, Goemon is recommended viewing, and a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen.—Caleb Starrenburg

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British filmmakers have a long tradition of working-class, concrete jungle-set stories. Fish Tank isn’t particularly different given this recurring narrative in British cinema. Despite such clichés, hotshot director Andrea Arnold (this is her second film after Red Road; both have won Jury Prizes at Cannes) manages to draw a compelling film out of unpromising material. She’s largely helped by her explosive lead, Katie Jarvis, who succeeds in humanising what it is an all-too-predictable storyline.

Jarvis plays Mia, a fifteen year old girl living in a Council flat who dreams of becoming a dancer but has far too much energy spent in awkward teenage ways. Her mother isn’t much more mature, but when her mother’s new boyfriend (a typically brilliant Michael Fassbender performance) moves in, sparks fly. Fish Tank has a clear lineage to the Antoine Doinel films of François Truffaut; films in which moody teenage protagonists rail against the system. The title implies a kind of ‘objective’ viewing onto this situation, and Arnold’s film certainly stays far back enough to not judge its characters.  This also means it doesn’t rely on a simple redemption motif or a forced climax (even if it seemed like approaching one towards the end). Rather, her film gives the impression that the characters just live, and will continue to live once the camera stopped rolling.

Arnold’s visual qualities manage to overshadow the potentially mundane, though it might have been apt to use the camera to create a fish-tank effect. Instead, the cinematography has a restless cinéma-vérité feel to it, but occasionally pauses for moments of beautiful clarity to attack the realism, such as during Mia’s night pursuit through the field, or the scene in the pond. While Fish Tank does retain a sense of the all-too-predictable, Jarvis’s incendiary performance and Arnold’s visuals manage to wring poetry out of it all.—Brannavan Gnanalingam

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Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking is a film that examines the very human capacity for squandering what is fundamentally precious—in this case, familial love. The Yokoyama clan has gathered to observe the 15th anniversary of the accidental drowning of eldest son Junpei, a keenly felt raw-wound that continues to infect the lives of everyone in this damaged family. The central character (if indeed there is one) is Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), an unemployed art-restorer still living under the shadow of his favoured older brother. His defensive resentment is an early indication of unresolved tensions within a family accustomed to venting disappointment and pain by subtly swiping at each other. Ryota’s proud father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), fears a loss of respect and stature now he is retired as a doctor, pretending to busy himself in his office rather than engage with the family. The standards he set for himself and his family were obviously high, and he has never forgiven Ryota for failing to be the equal of Junpei. Ryota’s mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki, who incidentally delivers a note-perfect performance), cradles her loss and pain, and uses it to inflict discomfort on others. We see this at first hand when the boy Junpei saved from drowning (the action that cost him his life), now an overweight man with little prospects, is subtly made to suffer for being alive. Like everyone in this film, he is still walking but barely living.

The themes and emotional dynamics in Still Walking may be sober, but the film is far from cheerless, in fact, it’s a tender, warm, sometimes amusing, but always humane study of everyday regret and loss. In other hands, this could have been an intolerable angst-fest, but Kore-eda’s masterful exposition is free of undue emphasis or emotional grandstanding. He reveals characters and events with a light, almost wistful touch, encapsulated beautifully in a sequence with a yellow butterfly. While there are parallels with Ozu, they aren’t as deep as one might at first suppose, in fact the film has more in common with Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien in terms of its elegant rhythms and gently oblique narrative style. Still Walking is a great example of what cinema does well—conveying the ‘time of being’. Just before the coda, the parents climb the stone steps that have featured throughout the film as a subtle metaphor for the journey of life. As they climb out of the frame (and out of the movie), they also climb out of life. Beautifully written, performed and directed, Still Walking is Kore-eda’s most resonant and perceptive film to date, a finely crafted, mature addition to an impressive oeuvre.—Steve Garden [Originally Published 10/08/09]

‘Goemon’, Dir. Kiriya Kazuaki
Japan, 2009; 128 minutes
‘Fish Tank’, Dir. Andrea Arnold
UK, 2009; 124 minutes
‘Still Walking’, Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
Japan, 2008; 114 minutes
The World Cinema Showcase 2010 graces the following centres: Auckland, Academy Cinemas, March 25-April 14; Wellington, Paramount, April 1-18; Christchurch, Rialto Cinemas, April 15-28; Dunedin, Regent Theatre, April 22-May 5.