This is the second article out of a series of three (parts one and threecan be found here and here, respectively) and includes the 2010 discoveries of the several of the major contributors to both the VCinema blog and podcast:
Of all the films that this VCinema contributor had the pleasure of seeing at Nippon Connection in April of this year, Tomorowo Taguchi’s coming-of-age comedy Oh, My Buddha! (2009) was clearly the runaway crowd-pleaser. Although he is best known in the West for playing the transforming salaryman in Shinya Tsukamoto’s cyberpunk shockers Tetsuo (1989) and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992), the multi-talented Taguchi is also a musician and performed as a member of the underground band Bachikaburi in the 1980s and early 1990s; Taguchi’s alternative credentials are evident in the musically-themed Oh, My Buddha!, but this teen movie is as much of a celebration of the loyal support of friends and family as it is of youth in revolt. Jun (endearing newcomer Daichi Watanabe) is a student at an all-boys Buddhist high school circa 1974 who would rather listen to Bob Dylan and write songs than work on his grade average. Hoping to lose his virginity over the summer, Jun travels with two friends to the island of ‘free sex’, but returns home with his innocence intact and turns to music as a means of shaking off the shackles of his middle-class upbringing. This adaptation of Jun Miura’s novel is peppered with cultural reference points; Jun looks up to Bruce Lee as a physical role model and later emulates Dylan by making the necessary transition from fragile folk songs to raucous rock-‘n’-roll when performing at a school concert. Heartfelt and hilarious, Oh, My Buddha! takes its place alongside Nobuhiro Yamashita’s equally exuberant Linda Linda Linda (2005) in terms of capturing the importance of music within Japanese youth culture while also establishing Taguchi as a director with a personal yet populist touch.
John Berra is a lead writer on the VCinema blog. He is also a Professor of Film Studies at Nanjing University and the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010).
My favorite Asian film experience of 2010 would have to be sitting down and finally watching the classic 1985 film Tampopo. Directed by Juzo Itami and starring his wife, Nobuko Miyamoto, plus a veritable who’s who of the Japanese film industry, including a very young Ken Watanabe and an almost unrecognizably clean-shaven Koji Yakusho, the film can’t instantly be boxed into one genre. That’s not to say the narrative is somehow difficult or meandering to follow. The story is rather straightforward: the eponymously named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) is a widowed single mother who asks a pair of truck drivers, played by Itami regular Tsutomu Yamazaki and Ken Watanabe, to help elevate her humble roadside noodle stall into a neighborhood hotspot, and along the way we are treated to a smorgasbord of comic scenes, erotically charged moments, and well-earned sentimentality. Yet what made the film essential viewing for me were the vignettes peppered throughout the 114-minute runtime. Each side story is a self-contained narrative and yet the one thread that connects them all is that the simple act of cooking and eating is the purest expression of love that someone can show to another person. Be it a dying mother whose last act is to cook a final meal for her family before collapsing or a vagabond breaking into a kitchen to prepare a rice omelet for a little boy, when we stop and take the time to pay attention to the food on our plates we are not just feeding our stomachs but also accepting their affection. I have yet to explore all of Juzo Itami’s films but after having viewed Tampopo I am chomping at the bit to dive right into the rest of his oeuvre.
Rex Baylon is a lead writer on the VCinema blog. Check out his personal blog, Film Expressions.
2010 was an incredibly rich year of Asian cinema experiences for me, and I certainly had lots of choices for this piece. Among them would be the selection of new and exciting Japanese films I saw at the Nippon Connection film festival in Frankfurt and the Shinsedai Cinema Festival in Toronto, seeing Seven Samurai (1954) and Red Beard (1965) on the big screen as part of the TIFF Cinémathèque’s celebration of Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birthday, discovering several gems for my weekly reviews for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow (including Tampopo (1985), Tokyo Twilight (1957), Carnival in the Night (1982) and Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs (1974) and getting to see more of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work thanks to the Cinémathèque’s superb Best of the Decade program.
Ultimately, I decided to go with a pair of screenings that revolve around my ever-growing appreciation of one of contemporary Asian cinema’s most exciting new voices. In January, I had read and heard much about Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (2006), which many critics were then championing as THE best film of the 2000’s. Intrigued, I seized the opportunity to see it myself when it was featured in said Best of the Decade program – and was transfixed by the film’s beautiful strangeness and nonchalant refusal to conform to conventional storytelling techniques. By the time I went to Toronto’s new TIFF Bell Lightbox building to see Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) eight months later, I was one of the converted, having sought out and bought on DVD both Syndromes and his earlier film Tropical Malady (2004) and actually seen him in a career-spanning talk with Village Voice critic Dennis Lim during the Toronto International Film Festival. Uncle Boonmee proved to be just as much of a treat as his other films, steeped in magic, warm compassion and pleasantly challenging deviations from the norm. I look forward to seeing his other two films (Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) and Blissfully Yours (2002)) as well as whatever he will be coming up with next. He is a rewardingly original filmmaker who fashions his works from simple pleasures, intimate moments, details from natural and urban realms and a deep-running spirituality, all of which contributing to an inspiring and life-affirming vision. The world – or, at least, my world – is truly a better place with Apichatpong Weerasethakul in it.
Marc Saint-Cyr was a guest host on VCinema podcast coverage of the Shinsedai Cinema Fest 2010 and a guest reviewer on our Toronto International Film Festival 2010 episode. He is a staff writer for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow. He has also written for Row Three, Midnight Eye and the Directory of World Cinema: Japan from Intellect, and runs his own blog, Subtitle Literate.
Prior to the summer of this year I’d seen a few Taiwanese films but never actually sat down to specifically watch one. In September, a Taiwanese friend of mine, studying for a film and media PHD in the UK and writing about Taiwan coming-of-age queer romance cinema, came back from a field study trip and brought a couple of films to watch. One was a new film that had a good reception in Taiwan and toured the globe at several film festivals this year called Taipei Exchanges (2010). The second was the one of my friend’s case-study films that received a western DVD release, albeit a few years ago, Blue Gate Crossing (2002). Both star Taiwanese actress Lunmei Kwai, though this didn’t influence their selection.
Taipei Exchanges is written and directed by Ya-chuan Hsiao, while the acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien is executive producer. The film tells the story of Doris, a young Taiwanese women living in Taipei, who leaves her current employment to set up a coffee shop in the city. With the help of her slightly younger and more free-spirited sister, she begins bringing in customers by allowing them to donate or exchange any number of unusual items. Although set in a small independent café opened in Taipei, the film lacks real local specificity and feels a little watered down and global. While it certainly looks the part, the entire feature sports a very clean modern aspect, ultimately the film feels sanitised and, despite high production quality, it’s disappointingly uninvolving.
Blue Gate Crossing had a largely opposite impression on me. Despite being a low budget feature and looking comparatively less polished, the film is a decent production and visually it’s suitably more realistic. The narrative revolves around Taiwanese high school student Meng who has a secret lesbian attraction to her best friend, Lin, who in turn has a secret crush on a boy at school, Zhang. Meng is inadvertently pushed into a date with Zhang by Lin after an incident involving a love letter and the situation becomes increasingly complicated when Zhang falls for Meng. Written and directed by Yee Chin-yen, the film is an honest, yet perhaps slightly naïve, portrait of teenage life. And thanks to strong performances, subtle characterisation and a relatively simple story, it’s relatable, affecting and memorable. I found it one of those rare pieces of cinema that stays with you long after the credits role.
I very much enjoyed Blue Gate Crossing and it was one of my favourite films that I watched for the first time this year, but the main reason these films were significant for me is that they helped introduce me to a new region of Asian cinema. I’ve checked out a few Taiwanese films and filmmakers in the past few months and plan to continue to do so next year.
Mathew Holland is a contributing writer on the VCinema blog. He is a British university graduate with degrees in Film Studies and Creative Writing, and Japanese Cultural Studies. He is currently pursuing work in media journalism and other writing.