Audition (1999)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game. Continue reading

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Underrated Directors Who Should Totally Helm A Blockbuster

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Directors; to many casual film goers, they are the driving force behind all aspects of a movie. And while those of us who actually work in film, writing scripts, editing footage, mixing sound and so on, know that this isn’t true, it is true that directors can have a huge influence on a picture’s look, tone, and style. And that look and style can attract audiences, and make the pictures better as a whole. Now there are certain directors whose look and style have become well known to the public–the Spielbergs, the Burtons, the Tarantinos–but there are others whose talent is clear when you watch their films but, for whatever reason, they and their work have remained out of the spotlight. I’d like to remedy that today. Here is my list of awesome, underrated directors who should totally helm a blockbuster. Why a blockbuster? Because that’s what most people see, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s the only way most of us will ever hear about these artists.

1. Bong Joon-Ho.

  • What They’ve Done: The Host, Snowpiercer, Okja.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Star Wars Movie.

Perhaps the best-known filmmaker on this list, Bong Joon-Ho is one of my all-time favorite directors, and a household name back in his native Korea. And yet, despite all his critical and commercial success in Asia, he remains relatively unknown in the West. Film nerds have probably watched a few of his flicks, but the vast majority of audiences aren’t familiar with his sumptuous visuals, dark humor, sudden shifts in tone, and biting social commentary, all of which make him ideal to helm a Star Wars movie. Just watch The Host, see how he shoots action, writes villainous characters, and uses creature effects, and tell me you couldn’t see him directing an episode in a galaxy far, far away.

2. Jaume Collet-Serra.

  • What They’ve Done: Non-Stop, The Shallows, Orphan.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A MIssion Impossible Movie.

Best known for his many collaborations with Liam Neeson, Spanish director Jaume Collet Serra has a habit of taking silly genre scripts, and turning them into much better films than they have any right to be. Seriously. If you take a hard look at the plots of any of his features–Unknown, Non-Stop, Orphan–they don’t really hold up. But the films themselves are so well-acted, so beautifully shot, and so viscerally entertaining that you don’t really care. Which makes him an ideal match for the Mission Impossible franchise, which, let’s be honest, isn’t  really famous for having the most believable story lines, but whose insane action set pieces more than make up for that. And let’s not forget, several of Collet-Serra’s flicks, like Unknown, have espionage elements to them. So it’s not altogether out of his wheelhouse.

3. Wes Ball.

  • What They’ve Done: The Maze Runner Trilogy.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Fast & Furious Movie.

Say what you like about the Maze Runner films–I, personally, am not a huge fan–they have amazing action sequences. Even these movies’ harshest critics agree that the chases, the fight scenes, and the stunt work are incredible, and that the director, Wes Ball, has a good eye for action. So what better franchise to put him in than the Fast & Furious, which we all can agree is extremely light on story, but very heavy on amazing set pieces? I have no doubt whatsoever that Mr. Ball could concoct some truly bonkers action scenes, and give this series’ fans the high octane thrills they crave.

4. Mike Flanagan.

  • What They’ve Done: Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Batman Movie.

One of this generations true horror masters, Mike Flanagan’s films work, not just because they’re beautifully shot, and possess ghosts and serial killers, but because of their fascinating explorations of their characters’ pasts and psyches. Gerald’s Game and Oculus are all about people revisiting childhood trauma, and trying to work through it. And if there’s one blockbuster franchise that relishes horror, and childhood trauma, it’s Batman. He’s a tormented character, who just can’t let his past go, and several of his rogues, the Joker, Scarecrow, Two Face, are horrifying manifestations of various mental illnesses. So who better to helm a Batman film than a horror master with an interest in dissecting the minds of damaged people? Well, okay, I’m sure there are loads of filmmakers who’d be totally great for Batman, but Mike Flanagan is at the top of my list.

5. Takashi Miike.

  • What They’ve Done: 13 Assassins, Audition, Ichi The Killer.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Predator Movie.

A prolific and controversial director, whose work I’ve written about before, Takashi Miike is perfectly suited for the Predator franchise. Why? Because just like John McTiernan’s 1987 classic, which began as action, and ended as horror, many of Miike’s films blend genres and tones. Several of his features, like Yakuza Apocalypse and Ichi The Killer, synthesize elements of thrillers and horror. Many more, like Fudoh: The New Generation, Blade Of The Immortal, and Terra Formers, include insane, stylized characters with insane, stylized weapons i.e. the exact kind of fighters that the Predators would want to hunt. And, as if this needs mentioning, Miike is superb at crafting creative, bloody fight sequences, which are precisely what this franchise thrives off of.

Blade Of The Immortal (2017)

When her parents are slaughtered by a ruthless group of swordsmen, teenaged Rin seeks out a ronin named Manji, who, rumor has it, cannot be killed. This gossip turns out to be true, as we see Manji being able to recover from what should be fatal injuries, including several instances where he re-attaches severed limbs to his body. Manji is reluctant to help her at first, knowing, all too well, what the price of vengeance is, but eventually agrees, seeing in Rin a shot at redemption. So the two set out in search of the wicked swordsmen, and what follows is 151 minutes of spraying blood and flashing steel. Continue reading

Top Directors Self-Respecting Actresses Should NOT Work With

Greetings loved ones. Liu is the name, and views are my game.

No one ever said that being an actor was easy. You’re constantly facing rejection, and your whole career can crumble in less than a minute. But, sometimes, even when you’ve got steady work, even when you’re on the set of a big budget movie with top tier talent, things can be difficult. Especially if you’re a woman. Directors can be verbally, or even physically, abusive, and the things you get asked to do can be extremely degrading. That is why I’ve decided to create a list for all you self-respecting actresses out there of the top directors you do NOT want to work with. Now, just to be clear, these are not being placed in any kind of order, and I’m not trying to say that these men are untalented, or that your careers wouldn’t be helped by working with them. I’m saying, if you want to be treated with respect on set, if you want to play complex, multi-faceted individuals who aren’t just victims or eye candy, these are not the people to audition for.

Michael Bay.

Transformers, The Rock, Pearl Harbor.

One of the most financially successful directors of all time, Michael Bay has made enemies with many, many groups over the years. These include film critics, the NAACP, and, of course, women. From the beginning of his career, Bay has been trashed for objectifying and degrading members of the fairer sex, and for good reason. Known for including unnecessarily long shots of women’s breasts, backsides and legs in his movies, Bay also makes a habit of mocking those who aren’t physically perfect, as he does in Pain and Gain and the Transformers film series. He’s even worse when it comes to representing women of color, who are often reduced to racial stereotypes. And the female characters in question are either dumb sluts, like Bar Paly in Pain and Gain, weepy, needy girlfriends, like Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor, or eye candy, like Megan Fox in the Transformers film series. Bay is also known to be aggressive and uncompromising, being rude to both cast and crew members. A friend of mine actually worked as a PA on his film Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, and told me stories about how mean he was. Bottom line is, Bay is not a good director to work with if you’re a woman. If you’re attractive, he’ll objectify you. If you’re not white, he’ll turn you into a racial cliche. And if you’re just a crew member, he’ll shout at, and bully you.

Eli Roth.

Hostel, Cabin Fever, Knock, Knock.

Perhaps best known for playing “The Bear Jew” in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards, writer/director Eli Roth is widely credited with creating the “gorno” or “torture porn” sub genre of horror. But beyond simply spraying blood across the frames, Eli Roth is well-known for reducing women to their bodies. Seriously. All his films, Hostel, Cabin Fever, Knock, Knock, The Green Inferno, include sex and nudity, and the women getting naked are never really given any personality. Well, that’s not true. Most of the time, as in Hostel and Knock, Knock, the women turn out to be evil psychopaths who want to do harm to the male heroes. And if they aren’t that, they usually wind up being incredibly shallow, as in Hostel, where the only good female character decides she’d rather die than go in living disfigured. Roth might be the future of horror to some, but to women, he’s an absolute nightmare.

Takashi Miike.

Audition, Ichi The Killer, 13 Assassins.

With over 90 film and TV credits to his name, Takashi Miike has established himself as one of Japan’s most prolific directors. As well as one of its most controversial. For while Miike has made movies in a variety of genres, including family films, The Great Yokai War, road movies, The Bird People in China, and musicals, The Happiness of the Katakuris, he is best known for directing extremely violent, extremely bizarre horror and crime films. Pictures like Audition, Ichi The Killer, Visitor Q, and his black society trilogy, Shinjuku Triad Society, Rainy Dog, and Ley Lines, are infamous for including shocking scenes of high impact violence and sexual perversion. Rape, torture, necrophilia, slicing people in half from head to groin, these are but a few of the many cruelties Mike has show off in his work. And while he’s not above having men get maned and skewered, Miike’s bloody gaze does seem hyper focused on women. His film Ichi The Killer, for instance, begins with a prostitute getting violently beaten and raped. And this is not the only film of his to start in such a way. Ley Lines, which, for the most part, is pretty tame, includes several scenes, which don’t contribute to the movie’s overall narrative, that show the film’s female lead getting beaten by her pimp, beaten by her customers, and being tied up and tortured in a weird, non consensual BDSM scenario. Add to this the fact that almost all his female characters are either prostitutes or strippers, and the fact that one of his most famous movies, Audition, is all about sexist men holding fake auditions to find girls to bang, and you’ve got a laundry list of reasons why self-respecting actresses shouldn’t work with him.

Lars Von Trier.

Nymphomaniac, Melancholia, Antichrist.

A founding member of the Dogma 95 movement, Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier has seen more than his fair share of criticism over the years. For while many have found his movies’ examinations of depression, love, and sex both deep and refreshing, many more have taken issue with these pictures misogynistic content. Many of his early films, The Element of Crime, Europa, are about idealistic men being brought down by deceitful, fatal women, while several of his later pictures, Breaking The Waves, Dogville, Nymphomaniac, include very graphic, very violent rape scenes. And that’s not even getting into the general violence towards women his films exhibit, such as one scene in antichrist where the female lead cuts off her clitoris. There’s even a scene in this same movie where the character looks straight at the camera and says, “all women are evil.” Yikes. And as if this weren’t bad enough, Von Trier is notorious for mistreating his leading ladies, most notably Bjork , who starred in his movie Dancer in the Dark, and who was so upset by him that she wouldn’t speak to him for weeks. If that doesn’t convince you to not work with him, I don’t know what will.

Takashi Ishii.

Gonin, Freeze Me, Hello, My Dolly Girlfriend.

If you’ve never heard of this notorious director and manga artist before, that’s hardly surprising. He’s not nearly as successful as someone like Michael Bay, nowhere close to being as acclaimed as someone like Lars Von Trier, or even half as prolific, and varied in his work, as someone like Takeshi Miike. Why then am I including him on this list? Simple. Literally all his films include the rape, or repeated rape, of a woman. Let that knowledge sink in. Every single one of his films–several of which he also wrote–have rape scenes in them. Sometimes multiple rape scenes. He actually created a manga series, which was later adapted into a movie franchise, called Angel Guts, which is literally just about rape. This man shouldn’t be making movies. He should be in prison. Because it’s bad enough for him to be including rape in films at all, but to add insult to injury , he often shows the women enjoying the rape, and even falling in love with their rapists, like in his movie Original Sin. There’s also a ton of creepy, downright uncomfortable stuff in his films, like his movie Hello, My Dolly Girlfriend. It’s about this office rat who gets fired from his job, and so he assaults a stripper, insults a lesbian couple, who chase him into a nearby clothing store, where, after he witnesses them get raped and murdered by some criminals hiding behind the clothes racks, he finds and molests a manikin. This whole film is beyond exploitative. It’s beyond demeaning. If you have any respect for yourself as an artist, avoid this man like the plague.

Abdellatif Kechiche.

Blue Is The Warmest Color.

Much like Lars Von Trier, French director Abdelatif Kechiche has garnered great acclaim for his cinematic explorations of love and loss. And also like Von Trier, he has attracted a fair bit of criticism for his mistreatment of cast and crew members, and his overall representation of women. Several technicians on his 2013 film Blue Is The Warmest Color accused him of harassment, unpaid overtime and violations of labour laws. Likewise, the two main actresses, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, also complained about Kechiche’s behavior during the shooting. None of this was helped by the fact that, apparently, in one interview about the film, Kechiche said he filmed the actresses “like they were statues.” Ooh. Never a good sentence to utter. Kechiche might be talented, and you might win awards if you work with him, but all the awards in the world can’t make up for unpaid overtime and sexual harassment, both of which you’re bound to encounter on his films.

What A Bloody Mess Part 2: Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer

Greetings loved ones! Liu is the name, and views are my game.

And welcome to the second installment in the What A Bloody Mess series.

There are some movies out there that are so vile, so depraved, so unspeakably awful, that they actually transcend the realm of bad taste and, in the eyes of certain critics, become worth watching. No, I’m not talking about Flowers Of Flesh And Blood or The Human Centipede: Full Sequence. I’m referring to films such as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and, of course, Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer. These movies not only sickened audiences to the point of vomiting, walking out and, in the case of Ichi The Killer, unconsciousness, they also got people praising their directors’ “artistic vision” and critics raving about their “social, cultural and political relevance.” Why? Well, at one point in the not to distant past, I would have said, “I have no idea,” or else, “as a means of self-defense.” I used to think that critics and cinephiles made cult classics out of these movies because they just didn’t want to believe that someone would put the time, money, and dare I say, effort, into making something so profoundly twisted. Now, however, I’m not so sure I can stand by that previous assertion. Yes, these movies are disgusting in every sense of the word, but the fact remains, some of these films were actually made with a specific social and/or political agenda in mind. A Clockwork Orange, for example, is a story about freedom, the freedom to do and think as we please, and how society strives to limit that freedom by forcing us all to conform to a certain standard of behavior. As for the others, they might not necessarily have been made with a specific message in mind, but they are just vague, and over the top enough, to have the potential to be profound. Case and point; Ichi The Killer.

This 2001 Japanese film, described by some as horror, and by others as old school thriller, is notorious amongst moviegoers, has raised widespread controversy, and is banned outright in several countries, due to its high impact violence and graphic depictions of cruelty. When it was first released internationally, the Norwegian Media Authority classified it as Rejected and banned it due to “high impact violence and cruelty.” It’s been banned outright in Malaysia since its distribution in 2001, and the uncut version is unavailable in Germany. Basically, it is so, so violent, that practically no government is willing to let its citizens watch it.

And yet, despite all the negative backlash that the film garnered due to its excessive bloodshed, Ichi’s general critical reception was quite warm. The movie currently holds a 64% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 72% approval rating on IMDb. Most critics who’ve managed to sit through the whole thing agree on two points: 1) that it’s way, way, way too violent, and 2) that it’s reasonably well made. And you know what? I would tend to agree with them. The intense, acid soundtrack lends itself well to the visuals, the dialogue is natural sounding, the performances are decent (for a Japanese film, that is), and the intricate plot is reasonably well developed. Some critics, like the Dutch journalist and author, Tom Mae, have gone even further, and suggested that the film is actually a sophisticated commentary on violence, and how the media plays a role in our perception of it. “It’s a paradox,” he writes, “but Ichi the Killer, a film that sets new boundaries in the portrayal of violence and bloodshed, takes a strongly critical stance towards the portrayal and the consumption of the violent image. However, it does so without ever taking a moral stance towards either the portrayal or the consumption, thus circumventing any accusations of hypocrisy on the part of the director. Miike does not moralise or chastise, but provokes the audience into questioning their own attitudes towards viewing images of violence. He steers them into a direction but leaves it up to them to draw their own conclusion.”

When I first read Mae’s review, I thought it was complete rubbish. I mean really. A violent movie that’s critical of violence? Who’s ever heard of such a thing? Now, however, having seen the film for myself, I can almost believe him. ALMOST. Sure, the movie shows us all different kinds of violence, ranging from the intense and brutal (a prostitute being beaten up and raped by her John), to the absurd and humorous (a pigeon crapping on the windshield of a woman’s car, causing her to crash into a guy), and it was interesting to see how I reacted to each of those images. But I never got the sense that Miike was challenging me to question my own tolerance or acceptance of them. I’ve seen plenty of his other pictures, and take it from me, Ichi is just a collection of his usual cinematic fingerprints on steroids. He’s made movies about the Yakuza before. He’s made movies about prostitutes. He’s made movies that involve torture and, yes, he’s also made movies that have rape in them. The only thing that stands out about Ichi is that, in the past, he’s tried to soften his pictures–make them more approachable to the public. Here, he just threw caution to the wind and made the kind of no holds barred, in-your-face intense violent movie that he’s always wanted to do. Which is sad, if you ask me. See, Ichi The Killer is not a sophisticated commentary on violence or the media or whatever else writers like Tom Mae might assert. But it had the potential to be one, and that, dear friends, is what makes up the back bone of my argument in this latest addition to the What A Bloody Mess series.

See, Ichi The Killer is a violent movie, and in more ways than just showing violent images. Every single thing that a character says or does in this film is aggressive or threatening in some way. Either they’re shouting at each other at the top of their lungs, which is a form of violent communication, or else their talking about violence. For example, one minor character, Karen, is introduced to the audience in a scene where she tells a client of hers about a time she strangled her neighbor’s dog. Similarly, the titular character, Ichi, is first shown to us in a scene where his boss brandishes a knife in front of him and orders him to kill himself for serving the wrong drinks. So, even when nobody’s getting mauled on screen, there’s no escape from the brutality in this movie.

Now, usually, when a director is this consistently over the top in his or her film, there’s a reason. If the film in question is a comedy, like Tom Hanks’ The Burbs, the constant absurdity lets us know that we’re not supposed to take the movie seriously and, therefore, think of the whole thing as just one big joke. Similarly, when a certain character or series of events is consistently over-the-top in a drama film, like in Rosewood or To Kill A Mockingbird, we know straight away what the movie’s underlying message is. With Ichi, though, which lies somewhere between comedy and drama, horror and thriller, its difficult to say what Miike’s intention was by making it unrelentingly bloody and aggressive. Maybe he’s trying to say that we shouldn’t take this movie seriously, that, in its own sick way, Ichi The Killer is one big joke. Maybe he is, as Tom Mae suggested, trying to provoke us into reconsidering the way we look at violence by giving us no rest bit from it. But, honestly, I don’t think either is what he had in mind. As I’ve said before, he’s made similar, less violent movies in the past. In all likelihood, he simply made Ichi The Killer unnecessarily aggressive as a means of compensating for all the other times that he couldn’t make his films as bloody as he wanted. Which doesn’t make sense, if you read the film’s source material.

Yeah, I should probably have mentioned, Ichi The Killer was originally a manga series written by Hideo Yamamoto. While the graphic novels are every bit as violent as their screen adaptation, they do possess a certain amount of heart and depth that the movie lacks. In the manga series, Ichi, a timid but skilled martial artist, is manipulated by a scheming old geezer named Jiji to assassinate key Yakuza bosses in the hopes of raising turmoil and making money in the Tokyo underworld. Jiji convinces Ichi to do what he says by filling the latter’s head with lies about his childhood. According to Jiji, Ichi was severely bullied in school, and was a helpless witness to a rape of a fellow classmate named Tachibana. Jiji manages to convince Ichi to kill the people he wants him to by stating that they are the bullies that hurt him and raped the girl. In reality, there was no rape and ichi was never bullied, but, as you can imagine, Jiji doesn’t bother to tell him that. While we’re shown, quite extensively, the kind of carnage that Ichi can create, we also get a look at his gentler, more sympathetic side. He acts as both a mentor and father figure to a young boy from his dojo, and appears to have real feelings for Sheila, the prostitute he frequents. In the movie, however, Ichi plays a significantly smaller role, and is considerably less likable. Don’t believe me? Well, why don’t I show you. First of all, the guy who’s face is on all the movie’s advertisements is not Ichi. He’s Kakihara, a yakuza enforcer who’s on the lookout for the person who killed his boss. Ichi doesn’t show up until we’re about 20 minutes in. Second, the film’s Ichi is less of a sympathetic, emotionally scarred man that you want to see prevail, and more of a sadistic, seriously terrifying psychopath. He’s still shy and cowardly, and Jiji still convinces him to do what he says by lying to him about his past, but Ichi doesn’t seem to mind the fact that he was bullied or that he watched a girl get raped. In fact, in one scene where he’s talking to Jiji about the event, and Jiji asks him if he wanted to help Tachibana, Ichi replies, “Nope. I just wanted to rape her too.” Wow! Way to suck any hope for relate or likability out of your titular character, Miike. Similarly, both the manga and the movie show Ichi killing Sheila’s abusive pimp, and then her as well. The two media, however, present these events in drastically different manners. In the manga, Ichi is shown killing the pimp as a means of avenging Sheila, and he only regretfully kills his love when he remembers Jiji’s orders to not let anyone see him. In the movie, by contrast, Ichi is seen spying on the pimp as he is beating the living shit out of her, and only gets involved when the pimp catches him and slaps him around a bit. Then, when Ichi does kill the pimp, he turns to Sheila, smiles, and says, “From now on, I’ll be the one that beats you up.” He ends up killing her because she attempts to defend herself, and he doesn’t appear to mind doing so in the least. As you can see, movie Ichi is not exactly the nicest guy in town.

But what, you might be wondering, do all these differences between the manga and the movie really add up to? Do they matter in the long run? After all, it’s an adaptation. You’ve got to make changes, right? Yes you do, but, generally, when you make changes, they’re ones that make the plot or characters more interesting, or else more compatible with the limitations of a motion picture. Having Ichi be both less important and less sympathetic does neither of these, which is why the movie flops in my mind. See, in the manga, even though the story was violent, you were willing to keep reading it because you had this rakish, off-beat protagonist to go back to. Sure he was seriously messed up, but his heart was still in the right place, and that made the excessive murder and torture easier to get through, because you wanted to see this sympathetic person prevail. In the movie, there’s just nothing likable about Ichi, and so, with no one to sympathize or relate to, you don’t feel obliged to finish it.

But what would have helped the film even more than making Ichi halfway decent, in my mind, would have been having him find out that everything Jiji told him was a lie. This would open up the possibility for an internal analysis, on Ichi’s part, of his own violent behavior, and by extension, the violent behavior of all. Why do we see certain acts of violence as more justified, or else less heinous , than others? Does the fact that the person we’re hurting is “bad”–they’re a bully, a rapist, a murderer–really excuse the fact that we are hurting someone else? This kind of internal dialogue would have been very interesting to watch, and even if we never saw Ichi act on it, this whole set up would make the confusing ending scene more comprehensible. I should probably explain, the film ends with a shot of an unknown corpse, most likely Jiji’s, hanging from a tree while a group of school children look on. None of the characters in this scene are mentioned earlier in the movie, and so most critics are uncertain as to what it means. If, however, Miike had had Ichi find out that everything Jiji told him about his past was false, it would help narrow down the number of possible readings. Perhaps the corpse is Jiji’s, and Ichi put it there after killing the former for lying to him. Or perhaps its Ichi’s dead body that we’re looking at, and he killed himself as an act of atonement for his past deeds. Either way, the “Ichi finds out” set up would make the film as a whole much more interesting to watch, and give it a certain level of depth that it does not, at present, possess.

So, is Ichi The Killer actually an astute analysis of society’s consumption and perception of the violent image? Not really. But if the director and screenwriter had made the titular character more important and more sympathetic, and had him undergo a thorough self analysis, it might have been.

And that, loved ones, is all I have to say about that. Hope you enjoyed my latest essay, and I’ll see you all soon.

My Fifteen Favorite Underrated Films.

Greetings loved ones! Liu is the name, and views are my game!

Have you ever come across a movie that you just loved, but no one else around you seemed to like or understand? I have, and on multiple occasions. So many times, in fact, that I’ve decided to compile a list of my fifteen favorite underrated films. Why fifteen? Because I like to give 150%. Anyway, my hope is that, by sharing the names of these pictures with the readers of my blog, I’ll be able to expose more people to their brilliance, and subsequently aid the talented artists who made them. Just to be clear, when I say “underrated” I’m referring to a well-acted, well-written, and well-produced film that, for whatever reason, was either critically or financially unsuccessful at the time of its release. It can have a large or small budget, be directed by a Hollywood A-lister, or an obscure Art House Intellectual. All it has to be is a good movie that wasn’t appreciated when it first came out. But, why waste any more time telling you about these pictures? Let me show them to you! Here are my fifteen favorite underrated films!

Number 15: The Lady Vanishes, by Alfred Hitchcock.

The name of Alfred Hitchcock will forever be linked to such classic thrillers as Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window and North By North-West. But what many people forget is that he had quite a successful film career back in the UK before he came to America. The Lady Vanishes is just a single excerpt from that impressive earlier portfolio. A humorous and exciting tale of intrigue and espionage, it tells the story of a group of British tourists and their misadventures while on holiday in a fictional Eastern European country. Possessing many of Hitchcock’s trademark storytelling devices, including a slow, atmospheric start, constant misdirection and continuous narrative twists, Lady kept me laughing and on the edge of my seat until the very end. Considerably lighter in tone than other Hitchcock movies, Lady is a good place to start for any cinephiles out there who might be too timid to watch Psycho or The Birds. Its always enjoyable to see the early work of a genius, and with Lady, that work is both interesting and impressive. I would strongly advise any fans of Mr Hitchcock or simply of good cinema to check this one out.

Number 14: Miller’s Crossing, by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Anyone who’s familiar with the Coen Brother’s movies knows that much of their work is inspired by classic noir. The title of their first film, Blood Simple, is a reference to the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest, while the classic stoner comedy The Big Lebowski is, in essence, the Coens interpreting how their real life friend, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, would react were he placed in the Raymond Chandler novel, The Big Sleep. Basically, the Coens are no strangers to the world of wise guys, spies, and private eyes. What’s unique about their 1990 flick Miller’s Crossing is that here, rather than simply allude to or draw inspiration from the gangster genre, they went ahead and made a full fledged mobster movie. And what a movie it is! Blessed with superb dialogue, exquisite costumes and stellar performances from its stars, Gabriel Byrne, John Torturro and Albert Finney, Miller’s Crossing was lauded by critics when it first came out, but only managed to collect a modest $5 million at the box office. I suppose that, with so many other mobster movies coming out that year–Goodfellas, The Godfather Part III–people were just weary of the gangster genre, and so didn’t find the time or energy to go see an intelligent, intricately-crafted film like Miller’s Crossing. But that doesn’t mean that you all shouldn’t! Give it a look when you’ve got the chance.

Number 13: Turtles Can Fly, by Bahman Ghobadi.

There are some movies out there that are so shocking, so eye-opening, that they change the way we look at the world. For me, Turtles Can Fly was one such movie. I doubt that any of you have ever heard of it, but this harrowing and heart-breaking Kurdish picture is the first foreign film ever to be shot in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Set in 2004, in a small refugee camp along the Turkish border, the story revolves around a group of children, many of them disabled, as they struggle to survive day after day with the threat of an American invasion looming on the horizon. It was the first war movie I’d ever seen that dealt with the suffering of the civilians, with the total squalor and penury that the dispossessed live in before and after the last shot is fired. I’d never heard of the Kurds before I watched this movie. I didn’t know about the absolutely atrocious conditions that people lived in under the HUssein regime. I never would have imagined that children would also be the victims of rape and torture until I saw this film. Turtles Can Fly sickened me, saddened me, and educated me, and allowed me to look at the War in Iraq, a conflict I’d long been opposed to, in a far more nuanced light. It’s a film that I’ll never forget, and one that I think all people who’d like to understand the Middle-East conflict and Iraq a little bit better should see.

Number 12: Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles, by Zhang Yimou.

Though he’d already won critical praise for such exquisite dramas as Raise The Red Lantern, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou first broke into the American mainstream with the martial arts epic Hero. And for good reason. A colorful, visually-striking spectacle, it synthesized unbelievable fight choreography with strong performances from its leads–Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung–and also managed to raise some interesting questions about the role of government in ensuring stability and the point where personal loyalty must be sacrifice for the greater good. In a word, it was awesome. Another equally awesome, but considerably less well-known film from Zhang Yimou is the 2005 drama, Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles. A quiet, touching picture, it tells the story of an aging Japanese man trying to make amends with his estranged, and terminally ill son, by going to China to videotape a rare nuo opera performance. What I was most struck by when I first saw this movie was that the majority of the actors in it are amateurs. You’d never guess it to look at them, which is a testament to how good they are. Plus, I enjoyed the fact that Yimou chose to follow the grand, ostentatious extravaganza that was Hero with this gentler, more realistic piece. In my mind, Riding Alone showed the true depth and range he had as an artist, and made me that much more interested in his other films. And honestly, what could be better than watching a movie about love, reconnection and reconciliation?

Number 11: Dead Man, by Jim Jarmusch.

Thanks to directors like Sergio Leone, the Western genre will forever be associated with bar brawls, gun fights, and other such ridiculous displays of machismo. JIm Jarmusch’s slow-paced, cerebral, black and white potboiler Dead Man is about as far from all that as you can imagine, which, in my mind, is what makes it the ideal Western movie. Part poetry, part satire, part psychedelic rock, Dead Man is an intelligent, engaging and altogether unreal audio-visual experience. Anyone who’s read my early blogs knows how adamant I am about this picture, and if any of you get the time to watch it as well, you’ll understand why.

Number 10: Lake View Terrace, by Neil Labute.

Horrendous flops like 2006’s The Wicker Man have made director and playwright Neil LaBute a laughing stock. But what the people who hurl the most biting remarks often forget is that, before and after his embarrassing collaboration with the king of kabuki acting, Nicolas Cage, Mr LaBute made several financially, if not critically, successful films, the most notable of which is Lake View Terrace. A harsh, racially-charged thriller, it tells the tale of Abel Turner, a black LAPD officer, and his increasingly hostile relationship with his new neighbors, a young interracial couple. With such stars as Samuel L Jackson and Kerry Washington in the lead, it almost goes without saying that they acting in this movie is superb. The cinematography is also something to be admired. In keeping with the effect that extreme heat can have on people’s judgement, the filmmakers drained all cool colors from the movie’s images. But what I truly appreciated about Lake View Terrace is that each of its characters is realistic and well-rounded. Few films made these days can claim to have no real villain, and Lake View Terrace is one of them. People who’ve seen the movie might argue that Abel is the bad guy, but I would tend to disagree. True, he’s not the friendliest of men. He slashes his neighbors tires, and sends a burglar into their home to mess it up but, we also see him act as a loving, if strict, father, and a dedicated law enforcement officer. Hell, the first thing we see him do is look at his wife’s picture and pray. Basically, Lake View Terrace is too thoughtful, too complicated, to be categorized, trivialized or demonized. To quote the late Roger Ebert, “Some will find it exciting. Some will find it an opportunity for an examination of conscience. Some will leave feeling vaguely uneasy. Some won’t like it and will be absolutely sure why they don’t, but their reasons will not agree. Some will hate elements that others can’t even see. Some will only see a thriller. I find movies like this alive and provoking, and I’m exhilarated to have my thinking challenged at every step of the way.

Number 9: Red Belt, by David Mamat.

The first film I saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in was not, as it was for many of my classmates, 12 Years A Slave, but rather, this slick, low budget, critically-acclaimed neo-noir martial arts thriller. I enjoyed this movie so much when I saw it, and have so thoroughly associated it with Mr Ejiofor as an actor that, now, whenever someone mentions his name, my first response is usually something along the lines of “Oh! You mean the Red Belt guy?” The story of a morally stalwart, if financially insecure jujitsu instructor, this film deals with corruption and intrigue within the world of professional fighters, and is populated by a number of extremely interesting, highly unique characters, including a young lawyer recovering from the trauma of a rape, an emotionally unstable LAPD officer, and an aging movie star with anger issues. When I first saw the film, I had just begun to study Aikido, and so its fight sequences and philosophy really resonated with me. Then, three years later, when I stopped taking martial arts and reexamined the movie, I found that I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, than the first time. True, its ending is a bit abrupt, but the film more than makes up for that with plot intricacy and character development. So, whether you’re a diehard fan of the martial arts, or simply someone who likes good cinema, Red Belt should definitely be at the top of your Netflix queue.

Number 8: John Rabe, by Florian Gallenberger.

If ever there was a movie made with me in mind for an audience member, it would have to be John Rabe. A 2008 German-Sino-French film, directed by two time Oscar winner Florian Gallenberger, this modern masterpiece tells the true tale of John Rabe, a German businessman who, while living as an expatriate in China, witnesses the horrors of the Rape of Nanking first hand, and decides to get involved. Working with several other foreigners, including a French teacher, an American doctor, and a German-Jewish diplomat, Rabe establishes the Nanking Safety Zone, and saves the lives of nearly 250,000 people. When I first saw this movie, I was overcome with a multitude of emotions, foremost among them, gratitude. For three years after I moved to Maryland from Germany, all I ever heard from people was how I was a “Nazi” and how “all you krauts are evil.” This film, a true an inspiring story of a German risking his life and business to save innocent civilians, was more than refreshing. The fact that it was set in China, and revolved around the Rape of Nanking, an event that I have long been interested in and have a personal connection to, was a huge bonus. Add to that the fact that its shot in all the right languages–German, Japanese, Mandarin, English–and the fact that all the actors portraying Germans, Japanese, Chinese, French and Americans are actually from these countries, and I’m one happy camper. Now, some of you might be thinking, “okay Nathan, you’ve told us why it made you feel good, but what about us? Will we, people who don’t have personal connections to Germany or China, enjoy it? Is the movie actually any good?” YES! YES! YES! In addition to being visually striking and historically accurate, the film has a beautiful soundtrack and astounding acting. The movie’s stars, Ulrich Tukur, Daniel Bruhl, Zhang Jingchu, Anne Consigny, and Steve Buscemi (Yes! That Steve Buscemi. Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, Big Fish, The Sopranos) don’t simply portray their historical counterparts, they become them. You actually believe that they’re in a horrendous, inhumane circumstance, and that they want to help, knowing that doing so will likely just make the whole situation worse. Each character has a personality and an arc, and you feel genuine sympathy for all of them. It’s not too long, it’s very well acted, it’s historically accurate and it addresses an event and people that both merit greater attention. What can I say? It’s awesome. Check it out.

Number 7: Rosewood, by John Singleton.

Every great director has, at one point in his or her life, made a movie that, while as interesting and well crafted as his or her hits, nevertheless remains unknown to the public. For the Coen’s that movie is Miller’s Crossing, for Christopher Nolan it’s Insomnia, for the Wachowski Brothers its Bound, and for John Singleton its Rosewood. An intense, perfectly cast, beautifully shot drama, this last film gives a fictionalized account of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, the burning of an all-black town that took place down in Florida. A rich, multi-layered movie, Rosewood was showered with praise upon its initial release back in 1997, and yet only managed to reclaim a modest $13 million from its $30 million budget. Which doesn’t make sense, if you ask me. Sure, the movie is over two hours long and it takes some serious liberties with history, but its so well acted, and has so many interesting scenes that move the plot forward, that you never get bored or really care if its inaccurate. But what really stands out to me about Rosewood is the amount of depth and internal strife that every character has. Each person that’s presented to you has a name, and some individual issue that needs to be addressed. Within the single family of Jon Voight’s character, for example, there are at least three separate conflicts–his desire to protect his black neighbors while not endangering his family; his sons’ distrust of their new step mother; his new wife’s sense of isolation in Rosewood, and so on. A truly great film is one that has several believable sub-plots that are continually addressed throughout the story and add color and texture to the overall narrative. Rosewood possesses plenty of these, and they are what truly makes this film, in my mind, an underrated masterpiece.

Number 6: Snow Falling On Cedars, by Scott Hicks.

I’m always somewhat weary when I go to see a movie adapted from a book, especially if the book in question is one I grew up loving. There’s always the fear that the picture won’t be accurate, that it won’t stay true to the events or themes of its source material. That’s why I was extremely anxious when I rented Scott Hick’s Snow Falling On Cedars. Few books have influenced, or touched me, as deeply as Snow Falling, and I didn’t want to see it get turned into Hollywood trash. Well, I’ll tell you right now, I felt more than relieved when I finished watching it. Not only did the film capture the raw emotion, sexual energy, and unforetold beauty of the original novel with its striking visuals and lyrical soundtrack, it even managed to add a new dimension to the tale which I could never have foreseen. For those of you who aren’t familiar with either the book or the movie, Snow Falling On Cedars is a rich, multi-layered story of love, murder, betrayal and prejudice. Set in a small island community off the puget sound in the years following World War 2, it centers around the murder trial of a Japanese American fisherman, Kabuo Miyamoto. Several other townspeople, including the accused man’s wife, Hatsue, a local reporter named Ishmael, and the dead man’s wife and mother, all give testimony, and in so doing ,reveal the scars that the recent war and internment have left on their island community. A slow-paced, atmospheric story, it is one that left millions, including myself, in tears, and one that I feel every fan of good literature and good cinema should be exposed to.

Number 5: The Beautiful Country, by Hans Petter Moland.

My senior year of high school, I landed a speaking part in the epic rock opera, Miss Saigon. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the play follows the tragic romance between a young Vietnamese woman and an American GI during the final days of the Vietnam War. Among its many themes is the one of abandonment, specifically, the Americans’ abandonment of their mixed-race children, known in Vietnam as “Bui Doi,” an offensive term that means “less than dirt.” I was so touched by the plight of these children, that I decided to do some research of my own and, in so doing, came across this gem of a picture. The Beautiful Country is a bittersweet independent drama that tells the story of one “Bui Doi,” Bin’s, journey to America to find his father. Shot on a relatively low budget, it still manages to capture all the color, heartbreak and tenderness of a major hollywood movie. It’s acting is quiet and subdued, which fits the somber subject perfectly. It’s writing is simplistic, but powerful, the reason for this being, as the screenwriter said in an interview, to give depth and dignity to people who might only speak two or three words of English, and I can tell you now, it does that perfectly. The Beautiful Country might not have the flare and style of its thematic counterpart Miss Saigon, but its every bit as powerful, and every bit as touching. The last fifteen minutes are guaranteed to leave you in tears, and in the best possible way. So, don’t hesitate. Put it at the top of your Netflix queue.

Number 4: Mystery Train, by Jim Jarmusch.

One of the reasons why I enjoy watching Jim Jarmusch moviesis the music. See, unlike most filmmakers, Jarmusch doesn’t let it just play in the background or add a little flare to a moment that’s supposed to be dramatic. No. He uses it. He has it permeate every scene, every character, to the point where it almost becomes the story. From that regard, one might be able to look at every Jim Jarmusch movie as a sort of cinematic representation of a different kind of music. Dead Man has the rhythm and chords of classic rock, while Ghost Dog: The Way of The Samurai synthesizes elements of both hip-hop and jazz. Mystery Train, Jarmusch’s 1989 anthology film, has the soulful, mournful, and almost wistful feel of blues. A fascinating and genuinely funny picture, the movie is set in Memphis, Tennessee, and focuses on three separate, yet equally colorful groups, a young pair of Japanese hipsters, an Italian woman accompanying a body back to Rome, and a trio of depressed and out of work young men, all over the course of one night. Each of them encounters the legacy, and in one instance, the ghost, of Memphis’s most famous resident, Elvis Presley, and each of them manages to find their way to the same flea bag motel. The dialogue and acting both feel natural, and the movie manages to capture the quiet despair of the former American music capital beautifully. And yet, despite its warm critical response, the film failed to break even with its modest $2.8 million budget when it was first released. A shame, really. Maybe it just didn’t have enough explosions. But, then again, who knows what the public will go see?

Number 3: 13 Assassins, by Takashi Miike.

Very few people in the West have ever heard of Takashi Miike, and even fewer have heard of his 2010 samurai epic 13 Assassins. Which is too bad for them, because they’re missing out on one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. If you can imagine a movie which pays as great attention to story and character development as Seven Samurai, but is also as fast paced, visually striking and tightly choreographed as The Matrix, you’ll have some idea of what you’re in for with this film. A remake of the 1963 black-and-white epic of the same name, 13 Assassins follows a group of samurai who have been given the task of killing the shogun’s sadistic half brother, Naritsugu. An action-packed, yet oddly meditative adventure, the film is as much about friendship, loyalty and the desire of warriors to feel useful in a time without war as it is flashy fight sequences and impressive visual effects. What’s most astounding about it is that its a surprisingly un-gorey movie, and it was produced by Takashi Miike, a man who made a name for himself directing unbelievably bloody cult films. I guess every artist has got more than one side, and in the case of 13 Assassins, its a side that’s worth seeing.

Number 2: In Bruges, by Martin McDonagh.

Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is easily one of the funniest, most mean-spirited, and deeply moving motion pictures I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. The fact that its all of those things at once should give you an idea of how truly unique it is. A 2008 black-comedy crime thriller, the film follows a pair of Irish hit-men, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, who, after a botched job, are told to hide out in the small medieval town of Bruges, Belgium. Having lived for several years in Europe, and visited Bruges myself, the movie offered a lot to me in terms of nostalgia. But don’t worry. It’s great for more reasons than just that. Its viciously funny to begin with–within one five minute sequence, for example, Collin Farrell manages to insult both a group of overweight tourists, describing them as “a bunch of fucking elephants,” and the town of Bruges itself, stating “If I’d grown up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me”–but the film quickly turns down a much darker path. We learn that the reason the two are in hiding is that, on his last job, Farrell accidentally killed a child, something for which he has never forgiven himself. Had the movie been made by any other director, or starring any other actors, the transition from raunchy, biting comedy to brooding meditation on morality, personal responsibility and guilt might have been jarring or unnatural seeming. As it is, though, with McDonagh behind the camera, and Farrell and Gleeson in front of it, the movie manages to seamlessly shift from hilarity to depression in almost every scene. Some will find it too bleak, too vicious, but i personally think that it is precisely this film’s dark tone and subject matter that make its sparks of comedy shine all the brighter, and the picture as a whole an underrated masterpiece.

And my absolute favorite underrated film is…

The Flowers of War, by Zhang Yimou.

Where do I begin? This film is beautiful, in every sense of the word. Not only are its sets and costumes astounding, the vibrant color scheme is gorgeous, the lead actresses are all jaw-dropping, the performances are amazing, and the soundtrack is so hauntingly lyrical that it will stay with you for months after you hear it. As for the story, it deserves to be in a class all its own. A heartbreaking tale of redemption and ultimate sacrifice, the film gives a fictionalized account of the Rape of Nanking, and focuses on a group of people trapped inside a Catholic Cathedral, one of the few places untouched by the marauding Japanese hordes. Among those left for dead is a class of Chinese school girls, a group of local prostitutes, and a drunken American mortician (Christian Bale) who’s been sent to bury the priest. None of them likes each other to start off with, but as time passes, and conditions worsen, they all grow closer and do their best to help one another. Bale sobers up and takes the place of their fallen priest, while the prostitutes impersonate the school girls when the Japanese arrive. As the grandson of someone who survived the war in China, the film was extremely difficult to watch. Yimou doesn’t hesitate to show us all the atrocities committed by the Japanese–the worst scene, by far, is the protracted gang rape of Dou, a kind-hearted prostitute–and let me tell you, even though its all staged, he makes it look pretty damn real. And yet, in an odd sense, I’m actually quite grateful that he took such an unflinching approach to the subject matter. What happened to the inhabitants of Nanking in 1937 was more than inhumane. It was evil. Portraying it as anything less than that would be disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands who were slaughtered. Anyway, when Flowers first hit the theaters back in 2011, it gathered nearly $96 million at the box office. And yet, in spite of all the money it made, it was almost universally panned by critics. Many, like Roger Ebert, hated the fact that a Chinese movie had a white man (Bale) as one of its leads. Writing in the Chicago Sun Times, he asked, “”Can you think of any reason the character John Miller is needed to tell this story? Was any consideration given to the possibility of a Chinese priest? Would that be asking for too much?” No disrespect to the late Mr Ebert but, he clearly didn’t know what he was talking about when he wrote that review. Anyone who’s familiar with the history of the Nanking Massacre knows that foreigners played a HUGE part in protecting the civilian population. The Japanese had absolutely no respect for the Chinese, whom they viewed as sub-human. They did not, however, wish to start a war with Western nations like America or Germany, and so were willing to negotiate with people from these countries. So, if Bale’s character had, as Mr Ebert suggested, been Chinese, the Japanese would likely have shot him and then pissed on his corpse. And if Mr Ebert–who, by the way, gave such stinkers as El Topo, The Devil’s Double, and the 2011 remake of Straw Dogs positive reviews–had actually paid attention, he would have seen that all the film’s real heroes, the prostitutes, Major Li, Mr Meng, George the alter boy, are Chinese, and that Bale himself is actually quite a minor character. And honestly, is including a person from another country in your movie really so heinous an offense that it merits terrible reviews? No! Absolutely not. And that, dear friends, is why you all should have absolutely no trepidation about watching this film.

There you have it! My fifteen favorite underrated films. Hope you found this list helpful if you were looking for new stuff to watch. If you’d like to list some of your own underground idols, please leave a comment. Alright, that’s all for today. Good night and god bless.

Gozu, or Salvador Dali’s Trip Through Shinto Hell.

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

It’s funny how, sometimes, it’s the most obvious aspects of our personalities that have to be pointed out. For some of us, this anomaly comes in the form of discovering strange little quirks, like arranging the food on our plate in a certain way, that we never knew we had. For me, it came in the realization that I absolutely adore strange stories. Now when I say “strange stories,” I’m referring to imaginative books or films with slow-paced, intricate plots, and vivid, dream-like images. Such stories often take unexpected turns into the realm of the surreal or fantastic, usually with little to no explanations why. Books that might fall into this category include The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami, One Hundred years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The Trial by Franz Kafka. Films that fit this classification include Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and just about every picture produced by David Lynch.

 

Anyway, I came to the realization that I have an almost insatiable appetite for the absurd while waiting for Takashi Miike’s Gozu to arrive in the mail. Gozu, which literally means “Cow’s Head,” is a 2003 cult film from one of Japan’s most infamous directors. Nearly every review I’d read described it as, hands down, the absolute weirdest, most surreal piece of work put to the screen. This, of course, caught my attention, and so naturally I placed it at the top of my Netflix queue. It was while I was waiting for that lovely red envelope to appear in my mailbox that I realized something. This was, without question, the most excited I’d been to see a movie in a long time. This got me thinking. Did I like weird movies more than regular ones? No, I told myself, of course not. It was not the strangeness of the picture that had attracted my interest. It was the fact that the movie was directed by Takashi Miike, the man who brought the world such masterpieces as 13 Assassins and Hara Kiri: The Death of a Samurai. Still, as time passed, I started to notice certain details that flat out contradicted my denials. Some of my absolute favorite movies–The Big Lebowski, Life of Pi, and The Triplets of Belleville–are pretty darn weird. In addition, four of the movies that I’d reviewed on my blog–Dead Man, Oldboy, Valhalla Rising, and The Crying Game–were extremely strange. Faced with all this cold, hard evidence, I decided there was no point in lying to myself any longer. I loved weird movies, and that was why I ordered Gozu. Having finally accepted this part of myself, I was able to view the picture with no inhibitions.

 

Now some of you might be thinking, “Alright, so you had no inhibitions while watching it, but did you actually like it? Was it any good?” Yes and yes. In addition to being highly entertaining, Gozu was just as weird as everyone described, if not more so. It had unique, effective cinematography, extremely creative characters, and an eerie soundtrack that leant itself well to the story. Watching it was like seeing a René Magritte painting get turned into film. Yet despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this picture, I wouldn’t recommend it to most people. It’s over two hours long, meandering in some places, and flat out disgusting in others. Also, I’ve learned over time that most people don’t share my love of foreign films so, for all you out there who hate having to read subtitles, this movie’s definitely not for you. But, all weaknesses aside, Gozu is still a highly unique work of art that should garner more attention from analytical movie-goers. That’s actually what I intend to convince people of in today’s analysis. However, before I can do that, I feel like I should explain a few details to those readers who are unfamiliar with the director and genre.

 

First of all, the man who made this movie, Takashi Miike, is someone who  recently made his way to the top of my favorite filmmakers list. You’ve probably never heard of him but, with more than 50 pictures to his name, he is one of contemporary Japan’s most prolific directors. He is also one of the most controversial. Miike has often been described as the Japanese equivalent to Quentin Tarantino. I suppose it’s a valid comparison. Both directors have garnered international notoriety for depicting shocking scenes of extreme violence and sexual perversion. In addition to this, both men are famous for their black sense of humor and for focusing on the activities of criminals and minority peoples in their films. Beyond these few features, however, one simply cannot compare the two. See, where Tarantino is sort of a one trick pony, only making strange, ultra-violent movies, Miike has expanded his repertoire into a wide variety of genres, including period pieces, family comedies, musicals, dramas, and horror. I was actually introduced to him through 13 Assassins, one of his more innocuous, mainstream movies, and have yet to see his most controversial projects–Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q.

 

What I like about Miike is that, while he’s as showy and over the top as directors like Tarantino and Baz Luhrman, he’s also very subtle and profound. Many of his films, such as the horror classic Audition and the crime drama Ley Lines, deal with difficult and controversial issues, including the sexism and xenophobia that are all too present in contemporary Japanese society. That’s part of the reason why I was interested when I heard about Gozu. I wanted to see what new message Miike was trying to get across. Everyone had told me that Gozu was strange, and I figured he’d made it that way deliberately in order to get some political or social agenda through to the audience. Then again, it’s equally likely that he’d made a weird movie simply because he wanted to make one. There’s a whole genre of films out there that exist simply to poke fun at the notion that stories have to have a meaning. Almost none of the pictures that the Coen Brothers do make any sense, and the  black comedy Rubber  even advertised itself as an “homage to the element of nonsense that exists in every story.” But, I’ve kept you all waiting long enough. Let’s begin today’s analysis of the beautifully bizarre breakthrough that is Gozu.

 

Concerning plot; If you thought movies like Mementos, Mullholland Drive or Donnie Darko were confusing, you probably aren’t prepared for the picture I’m about to describe to you. What it is, in essence, is the story of a low level criminal trying to find the body of a man he accidentally killed, but in reality, it’s so much more than that.

 

The film starts in a restaurant where a group of Yakuza (Japanese mobsters) have gathered for a meeting. One of them, a man named Ozaki, appears to have lost his grip on reality. He takes his boss aside and directs his attention to a young couple standing outside the restaurant.  The two have this tiny little chihuahua type dog with them, and Ozaki insists that it is, in fact, a creature that has been trained specifically to kill Yakuza “made men.” He then proceeds to go outside and smash the poor little thing against every conceivable surface until, at last, there’s nothing left except a bloody mass of fur.

 

Recognizing that Ozaki has completely lost his marbles,  the boss orders him killed. He tells Minami, a Yakuza underling, to take Ozaki to a dump in Nagoya to be disposed of. However, before they can get there, Minami crashes his car. This causes Ozaki to bang his head and, apparently, go cold and stiff. While obviously shocked at having just killed someone, Minami is nevertheless relieved that Ozaki went out in a relatively quick and painless manner. Deciding that he should tell his boss, he pulls over to use a pay phone. When he turns around, however, he discovers that Ozaki, who was dead only moments ago, has vanished. Terrified and confused, Minami searches all over the city for signs of the missing corpse, but to no avail. He eventually stumbles across the dump where he was supposed to bring Ozaki, and asks the gangsters there for help. They agree, and offer to put him in an inn for the night.

 

The inn they end up choosing is run by an elderly brother and sister, who are just about the creepiest, most socially awkward people imaginable. Don’t believe me? Well then, why don’t I show you what we’re dealing with here. While Minami is taking a bath, the sister comes in and offers him some breast milk. Now remember, this woman is at least sixty years old, so its anyone’s guess how she still manages to lactate. When Minami refuses her offer, screaming, “No! I don’t want any milk!” she sighs and says, “A lot of our customers have been saying that lately,” before getting up and leaving.

 

The next morning, Minami gets the hell out of there and goes to a diner run by three transvestites. Why he would find this establishment any less weird than the place he just came from beats me but, to be honest, you learn to stop questioning this movie after a while. Anyway, while he’s there, he meets a person who claims to have seen Ozaki. He follows their directions, which take him all over Nagoya before bringing him back to the inn from earlier. Apparently, a man matching Ozaki’s description rented a room the night before, and the creepy brother and sister just neglected to tell him. Minami asks to stay in Ozaki’s room, and the innkeepers agree. That night, a minotaur (yes folks, I did just say minotaur) comes to visit Minami and offers him some red beans and rice. No explanation is ever given as to why this vignette was included or what it means but, like I said, you learn to stop questioning things after a while. The next morning, Minami awakens to find a note by his futon. This letter, apparently written by Ozaki, instructs him to go to the dump where the boss ordered him to dispose of the corpse. When he gets there, however, its only to learn that Ozaki’s body was pressed the day before. The mobsters there even show him the flattened corpse, which they keep hanging on a coat wrack wrapped in plastic like in a dry cleaners. This leaves Minami crushed (no pun intended) and confused.

 

However, before he gets a chance to ask the time of day, he gets hit with another curve ball–a rather curvaceous and attractive curve ball played by gravure idol Kimiko Yoshino. A mysterious woman appears in the back seat of his car and claims to be Ozaki. When he scoffs at her odd assertion, she proves to him that she is telling the truth by repeating, word for word, a dialogue that the two of them had earlier in the film. Confused at this turn of events, but deciding to go along with it, Minami takes the female Ozaki with him back to Tokyo. However, when he presents her to the other mobsters, his intention being to explain that the bombshell he has with him is, in fact, their brother in crime, his boss becomes besotted with her and doesn’t give minami the chance to speak. He chats her up a bit and then spirits her back to his apartment for some perverted sex. How do I know that its perverted sex? Well, in order to get a hard on, he has to shove a metal spoon up his ass. Yes. I did just say that. If you value your sanity, you won’t feel the need to read that sentence again. Anyway, Minami realizes that his boss is really going to do the nasty to Ozaki, so he decides to save her/him in one of the most over-the-top and, in my opinion, unintentionally funny manners possible–by swinging through the window on a rope like Tarzan. He kills his boss by touching the tip of the spoon with a caddle prod, don’t ask me where he got one of those, and takes Ozaki back to his place. There, the two have sex, which for some reason causes the woman to give birth to the original Ozaki. Now, when I say, “give birth,” I don’t mean to a baby. I mean the full-grown, fully-clothed man from earlier in the film comes out. And that’s not even the weirdest part. After the birth scene, we cut to a shot of the Tokyo skyline. Minami explains in a voice-over how, “we put the girl in the tub and she went right back to normal.” We then get a shot of the female Ozaki, alarmingly calm and composed considering what just happened, sitting in a bubble bath brushing her teeth. And if you think that’s odd, wait till you hear this. The scene right after this shows Minami, Ozaki and the female Ozaki walking arm in arm down the street. And you know what happens next? Nothing! The movie just ends there.

 

Now if, at this point, you’re thinking something along the lines of, “what the fuck?” don’t worry, that was my initial reaction too. As you can see, Gozu is a really, really, really weird film, arguably the weirdest that I’ve ever seen. Now to some people, the weirdness of this story exists solely to confuse and entertain the audience, and while I can see the validity of this argument,  I’m not sure I agree with it. Yes, the twists are highly amusing, but I do think that Miike had something larger in mind when he added them. What that something was, I don’t know, but I do have a theory.

 

To me, Gozu is a cinematic exploration of sexuality confusion, with elements of Greek mythology thrown in. How, you might ask, could I possibly come up with such an assertion? Well, in terms of it being mythological, the film manages to artfully weave several aspects of the old legends into the plot. Like Perseus, Minami encounters a minotaur on his journey, and like the blind prophet, Tiresias, Ozaki undergoes several transformations, changing from a man to a woman to a man again.

 

As for the “sexuality confuseon” claim, the clues are everywhere, if not altogether obvious. Sexual imagery is present in almost every frame,  particularly phallic symbols. Numerous characters, including Ozaki and the creepy female inn-keeper, comment on the size of Minami’s penis. When the gangsters at the dump show Minami Ozaki’s flattened corpse, Minami’s gaze is shown lingering on Ozaki’s junk. What all this indicates to me is that Minami is actually gay, most likely for Ozaki, but not comfortable enough with the fact to share it with anyone. This constant pressure to hide his secret, coupled with a sense of guilt at having to kill a man he’s attracted to, has caused Minami so much stress that he’s starting to hallucinate. How else might one explain the bat-shit insanity unfolding all about him? Now I realize that this whole idea might sound totally bogus to some of you but, if you think about it, it makes sense. Minami appears to have very strong feelings for Ozaki, and ones that go beyond simple admiration. When Minami receives the order to kill Ozaki, he becomes incredibly nervous and antsy–more so than one might feel if they were simply unfamiliar with killling. Then, when Ozaki disappears, Minami becomes frantic and spends the rest of the film trying to find him. When he does so, he doesn’t kill him, as he’s been ordered to do. Rather, he welcomes him with relief, and does everything in his power to protect him, even going so far as to kill his boss. The final bit of proof can be found in the sex scene between Minami and the female Ozaki. Minami knows that this woman is actually a man, but decides to have sex with her anyway. Why? Because he, a closeted gay man, has found an outlet through which to satisfy his needs, and in a manner that, on the surface, conforms with societies standards of acceptable behavior. The birth scene that follows symbolizes Minami’s full acceptance of his sexuality.  He, like the male Ozaki, is coming out into the open.

 

So what, in the end, does all this sexual and mythological nonsense add up to? What’s the movie trying to get across? Well, in my opinion, it’s Takashi Miike’s method of subtly criticizing homophobia and society’s narrow perceptions of gender. That’s certainly the most provable reading to have. All the right images, motifs and plot elements are at your disposal but, truth be told, its equally likely that this movie has no meaning whatsoever. And in a strange way, that’s what so great about it. In addition to being an extremely enjoyable sojourn into insanity, Gozu is just specific enough in its content to be seen as more than simple psychedelic entertainment. It dares you to believe that there’s something more to it, that there’s a hidden message tucked between the wide shots. And at the same time, its not annoyingly didactic either. You don’t come out of it choking on a processed moral like you might with Wall Street or Blood Diamond. Rather, your left with a sense of wonder and confusion. “That was really weird,” you might say to yourself. “And you know what, I think it was trying to tell me something.”

 

And that, dear friends, is why Takashi Miike’s Gozu should be at the top of more movie-goers “must see” lists. Thank you all so much for staying with me for this long. This is Nathan Liu, signing off.