SHOPLIFTERS – movie review

SHOPLIFTERS (Manbiki Kazoku)

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Kore-eda Hirokazu
Screenwriter:  Kore-eda Hirokazu
Cast:  Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Matsuoka Mayu, Kiki Kilin, Jyo Kairi, Sasaki Miyu
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/31/18
Opens: November 23, 2018
Manbiki kazoku Movie Poster
It could be an ordeal for a typical American audience to watch two hours of a film with such a measured pace as “Shoplifters,” but for those who appreciate a deeply humanistic look at a scruffy, odd-ball Japanese family, the film offers rewards.  The director, Kore-eda Hirokazu, in fact, is known for stories about folks who are living on the edge, barely getting by, or families that are faced with momentous decisions.  Consider “Like Father, Like Son,” in which a businessman is told that babies were switched at birth.  He faces the decision of a lifetime: to keep the boy that he and his wife raised from birth, or to tell the truth and replace him with his biological son.  In “Our Little Sister,” a group of sisters living with their grandmother prepare for the arrival of a 13-year-old half-sister.

“Shoplifters,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, is all about a rag-tag group of people who consider one another as though they are legally or biologically related.  Husband, wife, children—all are together in a small rickety suburban home. They are led by a good-natured man, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) who makes the young ones earn their keep by shoplifting.  Osamu is Fagin to his Oliver Twist-like “son” Shota Shibata (Kairi Jo) and “daughter” Yuri (Miyu Sasaki).  Shota looks about 14 years old, having lived for a while with Osamu and Osamu’s “wife” Nobuyo Shibata.  Five-year-old Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is picked up by the family, the product of an abusive home, and she is treated like their own.  In fact, it’s not completely clear just which people have makeshift identities and which are genuine.  But all little Yuri had to do was show the burn on her arm, and she is immediately taken in and fed, no matter how poor her new family is.  What income the family uses is largely from the alleged pension collected by Granny (Kiki Kilin), an elderly lady who seems always to be eating, schlurping up noodles or biting into croquettes.

When we meet Osamu and his “son” Shota, they have been shoplifting on a freezing winter’s night at the local grocery store.  Back in the shack, the family ponders the danger of taking in five-year-old Yuri.  Isn’t that kidnapping?  It certainly is, but surely if anyone in the family were charged with the crime, they could always plead “guilty with an explanation” as we would do in traffic court.

Just as Osamu trains Shota to shoplift, so Shota trains Yuri.  In one scene, Shota takes off with a pair of fishing rods, a theft made easy as Yuri pulls the plug on the alarmed door and replaces it when her “big brother” has done the deed.  If this family were treated by the strict laws of kidnapping and shoplifting, the “dad” and “mom” would go to jail.  But a wise judge would consider the circumstances, and a kidnapping charge would be reduced to probation.  They have performed a service, taking in people from abusive homes and making them happy and healthy.

The sparks fly only in the final half hour, as police move in to enforce the law.  Granny’s demise has much to do with the penalties they face, and while we root for everything to turn out according to true justice rather than the formal laws, we wonder what will happen to Shota, who obviously would like to stay forever with these quirky people, and to Yuri, who has been treated with kindness for the first time in her life.

The acting is naturalistic, standouts being Lily Franky as the putative head of the family and Kairi Jo as his teen “son.”  Behind the lenses, Kondo Ryuto captures a part of Tokyo probably no tourist ever sees, while Hosono Haruomi issues a score that makes the proceedings look like a fairy tale—which, I suppose, it is.  In Japanese with English titles.

121 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

A WHALE OF A TALE – movie review

A WHALE OF A TALE

Fine Line Media
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Megumi Sasaki
Screenwriter:  Megumi Sasaki
Cast:  Jay Alabaster, residents of the Japanese town of Taiji
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 8/7/18
Opens: August 17, 2018

 

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It’s easy for moralists to sit back, sipping their bourbon, smoking their Cuban cigars, and waxing poetic about the need for a universal code of morality.  Never mind that some cultures are so poor that many must kill creatures to make a living, and we’re talking about people who live in countries where earning a dollar a day for mining is acceptable.  Many of us in the U.S. (members of PETA like me) might understand, if not condone, the poaching of elephants in Kenya for their valuable tusks, the clubbing of dogs in China where dog meat is no different from cow meat, and the massive slaughter of animals in our own factory farms.  After all, if most Americans eat beef, pork, lamb and the like, who are we elitists to complain about the killing of any animal?  What about the clubbing of seals in Canada, a rich country, the seals used not for survival but for the making of fur garments.  And we can go on and on about the fur trade in general, a lucrative one, and never mind the torture that animals must go through to provide chinchilla and mink.

There is one form of killing that—at least according to Megumi Sasaki’s documentary “A Whale of a Tale”—is almost universally condemned, and that’s the fishing of dolphins, centered on the village of Taiji which was the subject of the Oscar Best Documentary of 2010, “The Cove.”  It’s not that dolphins feel more pain than halibut, salmon, tuna and swordfish, but that they are creatures of intelligence matching that of human beings.  They are fished out of international waters by the whalers of this Japanese town of 3,000, whaling has been their tradition long before Moby Dick carved out revenge, and they’ll be damned if they let foreigners come in with cameras to tell them what to eat or catch.

As with “The Cove,” with its sobering look at the butchering of scores of dolphins trapped in a cove, the industry has been the focus of mass protests, not only in “the West” as the whalers call the accursed protesters, but also in the Philippines, a march with signs among the images captured in “A Whale of a Tale.”

On the one side are activists who are in Japan and appear 100% from the West, though many of them have been denied re-entry into the country because of their use of Facebook and Twitter to tell the world about what they consider a great evil. On the other are the whalers who depend on dolphins which they catch and kill and sell for food, or if they can manage it, sell the fish to Seaworld-type centers—which in my mind are as immoral as the late, ungreat, Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus.  In the middle is Jay Alabaster, an American journalist from Arizona who teaches English in Japan, who is fluent in Japanese, and who serves as a neutral party trying to bring the opposing groups together.  His view is that the small-town Japanese cannot begin to match the power of the foreign protesters because locals are not computer-savvy on Facebook and Twitter and therefore cede the propaganda ground to the protesters.

When the cameras are not on the waters around the village, they are at a press conference bringing the two sides together, including the mayor who would prefer to change the economy to tourism rather than whaling.  It’s probably not because the mayor has had a moral epiphany but rather that the Japanese do not eat much whale meat—the equivalent in a year as a slice of ham—and prices have tumbled.  As Seaworld-type entertainments are biting the dust, there may not be much market for dolphins there either.  And many believe the dolphins have toxic loads of mercury making them inedible.

By the way, from what I get, what the Japanese call whales are what we call dolphins.  The camera-work is stunning, contrasting the bonhomie of a small village with the madhouse atmosphere in overcrowded Tokyo.  The arguments are balanced, the director seeming to be impartial.  In any case the industry is on its last fins, which means that not only the whalers will be deprived of a living, but Hollywood would be deprived of a moral tale to trot out at awards time.

Animal rights activists will rejoice while traditional Japanese fisherman will be outraged by this effective story of the struggle to ban the exploitation in a small Japanese town of whales. A sequel to the Oscar-winning doc “The Cove.”

Unrated.  95 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

THE GIRL AND THE PICTURE – movie review

THE GIRL AND THE PICTURE

USC Shoah Foundation
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Vanessa Roth
Cast: Xia Shuqin, Chris Magee, Xia Yuan, Li Yuhan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/8/18
Opens: April 27, 2018

The Girl and The Picture Poster

As right-wing, authoritarian parties are gaining influence in the West—think Hungary, Greece, France, Germany, Russia, and (gulp) the U.S.– we would do well to remember the consequences of extreme nationalism wherever it exists. Among the best examples is that of Japan during the 1930s and 1940s. Known as a highly civilized country where talking in a loud voice was considered virtually a crime, Japan fell prey to Fascist politics, which led the country—even before its attack on Pearl Harbor—to invade China, provoking atrocities especially in Nanjing where up to 300,000 civilians were tortured, raped and murdered. Faced with unusual resistance beginning in Shanghai, Japanese soldiers turned barbaric, ignoring the rules of war by focusing on ordinary people, though some Japanese went over the line under the influence of Crystal Meth, resulting in the exclusion of civilized norms of morality.

We in the U.S. have been apprised of the Holocaust in Germany by an onslaught of films. Even high-school classes sometimes devote an entire term to the murder of six million Jews. But the Holocaust by Japan is given twenty minutes of so in a world history class (I can testify to this as a retired history teacher). But China has a constructed an elaborate memorial to the victims in Nanjing, all civilians, with some memorial constructs similar to those found in today in Berlin and especially by a block-long museum in the city where the devastation took place.

To remind us once again of the dangers of fascism, Xia Shuqin, an eighty-eight year old survivor who was able to hide until the soldiers went away, is questioned by her granddaughter with the great-grandson in attendance. Among her dramatic testimony is her recollection as one of the only two survivors of the massacre. The Japanese killed her father immediately when he opened the door, then her one-year-old sister, her mother, grandparents and two sisters. Xia shows three scars on her back as she was bayoneted by the soldiers.

Xia reveals with still pictures the horrors of bodies everywhere, but most important we in the audience see archival films, now faded, of the weeks beginning with Japan’s invasion of Shanghai in September 1937, then on to Nanjing, where the Japanese acted with barbarity that might have shocked some Nazis. Chris Magee demonstrates the camera used by his missionary grandfather to create a moving image of the slaughter. Had he been caught filming by the Japanese, he would not have died in bed.

Nanjing today is a completely modern city, as renovated after the war as was Rotterdam after the German bombings. It appears so clean and friendly that it should a tourist destination for visitors who cannot tolerate the pollution in Beijing and Shanghai.

This film is as much about Xia Shuquin as a record of the slaughter. She is intent just as Holocaust survivors today in the U.S. to ensure knowledge of fascism in the hope that similar tragedies will never occur again. Tell that to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Tell that to the Russians who are propping up the worst dictator in our time.

The film is a project of the USC Shoah Foundation founded by Steven Spielberg to record eyewitness accounts of genocides, whether they be in Nanjing or Europe or wherever. Festival dates TBD.

Unrated. 40 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

BEFORE WE VANISH – movie review

BEFORE WE VANISH (Sanpo suru shinryakusha)

Neon
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenwriter: Sachiko Tanaka, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, based on the play by Tomohiro Maekawa
Cast: Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Atsuko Maeda, Hiroki Hasegawa, Yuri Tsunematsu, Mahiro Takasugi, Masahiro Higashide
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/25/18
Opens: February 2, 2018

If you’re looking for the suspense and melodrama of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” you won’t find it here except in such rare moments that you’ll welcome the mayhem. If, however, you seek a philosophic understand of the concept of love and the dire necessity of it in a world that sometimes seems on the fast track to hell, you may get some satisfaction from “Before We Vanish.”

Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director who has enough of a reputation to encourage attendance by cinephiles, is best known for films like “Cure,” wherein a detective investigates a series of gruesome murders by people who have no recollection of what they have done. Here the famous Japanese director continues on that theme, soon noting that Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu), the daughter of a victim, may be guilty of murdering her family. When Sakurai (Hiroki Hawegawa), a journalist with a weekly magazine, is following the story when he wanders into a more original and involving tale: Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), an alien, asks the journalist to be his guide. One wonders why Sakurai would involve himself at all given that Amano speaks of an imminent invasion of Earth by his fellow aliens. Grudgingly, Sakurai acts as a guide, informing the young man, a fish out of water, of the general culture of his fellow earthlings.

The principal story, however, is a romantic one, one of the redemptive power of love. Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) is having a difficult time getting along with her estranged husband Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda), who has become like an empty vessel. He has no memory of his life and, resembling an autistic man of about 30, has no knowledge of social graces. When Narumi, an illustrator whose boss is not satisfied with her designs for a festival, finds that Shinji interferes with her work by following her into her office, Shinji, with the touch of a finger, transports the rigid employer into a fun-loving fellow who throws papers around the office and acts like a fellow who’d rather not wait until the Christmas party to act child-like. In other words, sometimes changing people by taking from them their concept of work may not be an altogether bad thing.

Expect people to act odd, whether they are aliens with little knowledge of the culture of earthlings or human beings who have been inhabited by them, but the moments of violence are doled out as though with the annoyance of a director who would rather remain on a philosophic plane. With a Japanese title of Sanpo suru shinryakusha, or “Strolling Invaders,” we can understand that Kurosawa is in no hurry to rush into physical actions.

At 130 minutes with scattershot attempts to discuss the meaning of life, “Before We Vanish” is highbrow sci-fi that could have made its points with a metaphoric red pencil. The film played at the prestigious New York Film Festival in 2017. There are bound to be journalists who consider this the best sci-fi movie of the year, but for me, a more intense and focused narrative would have better served the entry.

Unrated. 130 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+
Acting – B-
Technical – C+
Overall – C+