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House of Hummingbird (2018, Kim Bora)

Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) is an average Seoul eighth grader circa 1994, which would be fine if being average weren’t a one-way ticket to nowhere. Park’s the youngest of three children; while presumably eldest sister Park Soo-yeon has already screwed up and is going to a crappy school across the bridge, son Son Sang-yeon is doing great. Studies hard, works hard; sure, he regularly beats the crap out of Park, but it’s actually just one of the things making her average. At least Son doesn’t hit her in the face—Park’s best friend, Park Seo-yoon, gets hit in the face and has to hide it.

The only thing Park’s got going for her at the start of the film is boyfriend Jung Yoon-seo. Except working class Park isn’t supposed to have a boyfriend. She’s not supposed to karaoke either. She also smokes. Her classmates think she’s a troublemaker and her parents—well, mom Lee Seung-yeon is worried about it. Dad Jung In-gi has long since decided all the hopes and dreams are on Son. Though we find out in the first act, when mom’s drunken brother Hyung Young-seon shows up and establishes she had the smarts as a kid and Hyung screwed it up for both of them as it turned out.

This visit from Hyung is one of the inciting actions. It kicks off the sibling comparison subplot—theme, theme seems more appropriate—while Park goes through her routines until something else interesting happens. She gets a new Chinese teacher. Instead of a boring straight-edge guy, it’s cigarette smoking—out the stairwell window no less—Kim Sae-byuk. Thanks to some drama in Park’s friendship with Park Seo-yoon, she unexpectedly has the opportunity to bond with follow flounderer Kim. Of course, Kim’s at least ten years older—or more, she’s on an extension of an already extended break from university—and she’s had some time to think about how damaging reality can be on eighth grade girls.

Except reality also doesn’t let Kim intervene. There’s this frangible quality to Kim and Park’s relationship and their scenes are probably the film’s best in terms of character development. The limited character development is generally fine—Park’s like fourteen, right? It’s a character study in how it’s studying how her character develops.

Because it’s a big year for Park. Six major events. Seven if you could a first kiss. One of them is national news and presumably the point of the precise 1994 setting. No spoilers but… turns out House is going to have deus ex machinas to its deus ex machinas. Kim’s script stays fairly loose given how much it’s got to lead the narrative–House’s lyricism is in Kim’s direction and maybe what the script skips, not the script itself. The story—in an epical sense—is anticlimactic; thanks to Kim’s direction, the film instead gets to be passively climatic. Or at least significantly cumulative.

Park’s performance is good. Very strong performance. Not… singular. You keep waiting for Kim to throw something at her she obviously can’t handle. There’s something askew about the narrative distance, just a bit, and it ends up hurting more than helping. Because all it helps with is some narrative shortcuts—Kim maintains the same narrative distance throughout, even when it means dropping entire plot lines in addition to an indifference to the passage of time. They’re things you can cover with some nice direction and Kim indeed makes it up with nice direction. Kang Guk-hyun’s photography is good, Zoe Sua Cho’s editing is good.

Matija Strnisa’s music is fine. It never really sweeps when it needs to sweep. Sound is really important in the film only there’s no precision in the score… it always feels vaguely like stock music. Good stock music. But stock music.

Most of House of Hummingbird is really good. Until Kim gets to the third act and panics. It’s not one of those things where the deus ex machina is necessarily bad—or even the second one—but the work from the first to the second isn’t there. Kim employs this combination of a twist and a bait and switch; it doesn’t seem craven but it does seem cravenly pragmatic. The film’s pace slows down in the second act then speeds up so much in the third—when calling a scene a scene (versus, say, a snapshot) is a stretch—it feels like they needed another fifteen minutes.

Lots of House of Hummingbird is excellent and the way it showcases Park’s performance is at times just the right coming-of-age picture exquisite. But the finish is a mess of a mess of a mess of a mess.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Bora; director of photography, Kang Guk-hyun; edited by Zoe Sua Cho; music by Matija Strnisa; production designer, Kim Geun-a; costume designer, Yang Hee-hwa; produced by Zoe Sua Cho and Kim Bora; released by At9 Film.

Starring Park Ji-hu (Eun-hee), Kim Sae-byeok (Young-ji), Jeong In-gi (Eun-hee’s father), Lee Seung-yun (Eun-hee’s mother), Park Soo-yeon (Soo-hee), Son Sang-yeon (Dae-hoon), Park Seo-yoon (Ji-suk), Jung Yoon-seo (Ji-wan), Seol Hye-in (Yo-ri), and Hyung Young-seon (Eun-hee’s uncle).


Samurai Marathon (2019, Bernard Rose)

Samurai Marathon has some strange epilogue problems; all of a sudden the movie’s about marathons, when it turns out the marathon isn’t a particularly big deal in the story. It’s central to the story, but as a narrative tool. It provides the right stage for these characters. Though, with a title like Samurai Marathon, you’re thinking how important the marathon’s going to be.

It’s not.

Director (and co-screenwriter) Rose doesn’t rush through the marathon—no pun—but he keeps up a good clip. Especially after he establishes the shenanigans. At least two people in the marathon—high ranking samurai—are cheating, which is in addition to one of the runners being a spy, which is in addition to another of the runners being the Lord’s runaway daughter (Komatsu Nana). Satoh Takeru is the spy—raised from a child to be the Shogun’s spy in the Lord’s court, a life-long sleeper agent—Moriyama Mirai is the Lord’s favorite, who gets to marry Komatsu, who’s so thrilled with the prospect she runs away in the first place. Then there are nice guy runners Sometani Shôta and Joey Iwanaga, they’re just out to win and better their lives. Sometani might be able to elevate his position, which would help with the family, and Iwanaga needs a promotion to impress a girl.

It’s never soapy because Rose keeps Marathon grounded when it’s time for the dramatics. The first act also has a lot of Philip Glass music over fading shots, it’s very much a Philip Glass scored movie; he’s good at a lot of it, even some of the action, but if the main theme isn’t a nod to Liz Phair’s cover of Chopsticks… then it’s just Glass doing Chopsticks and not doing anything with it.

So. Could use a better theme.

There’s a cute subplot about old retired samurai Takenaka Naoto who bonds with former colleague’s son Wakabayashi Ruka. Rose seems very aware things are only going to look nice living in the 1850s for so long so he rushes through a bunch, which is particularly noticeable with Komatsu, whose female empowerment arc works because Komatsu’s appealing and pretty good and Rose’s direction is good, not because it’s a real arc. It’s less substantive than, say, that Takenaka and Wakabayashi arc, which is very much background and Komatsu is very much foreground.

Similarly, Satoh’s arc is a tad too pragmatic.

Not to mention the whole thing with Danny Huston, playing the U.S. Navy Admiral who shows up in Japan trying to start trade, which sets off cultural panic. Part of that panic is regional lord Hasegawa Hiroki deciding his men are too weak in the face of Colt revolvers so they need to do a thirty-six mile marathon. But the movie’s not about them running thirty-six miles in kimonos with a very rigid running stance, it’s about Satoh sounding the alarm on his spy channel without realizing Hasegawa just wants some pageantry not to revolt against the Shogun. So these samurai have to fight an invading force, turning it in a war movie. There’s a little bit of Western in it too, the way Rose establishes the characters; just not really any sports movie.

Until the end.

When it’s forced in and is absolutely bewildering.

But Samurai Marathon’s pretty good. Strong performances without any particular standouts, gorgeous photography from Ishizaka Takuro (love the primary color use), Glass-appropriate editing from Kamitsuna Mako, and decent direction from Rose. Solid sword fights.

I’m sure every fourteenth shot is an homage to one of Rose’s favorite Japanese movies, but adequately wraps them in a compelling story.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bernard Rose; screenplay by Rose, Saitô Hiroshi, and Yamagishi Kikumi, based on a novel by Dobashi Akihiro; director of photography, Ishizaka Takuro; edited by Kamitsuna Mako; music by Philip Glass; production designer, Sasaki Takashi; costume designer, Wada Emi; produced by Iguchi Takashi, Ikegami Tsutakasa, Nakazawa Toshiaki, Ohno Takahiro, Sasaki Motoi, Yagi Seiji, Zushi Kensuke, and Jeremy Thomas; released by GAGA.

Starring Satoh Takeru (Jinnai), Komatsu Nana (Princess Yuki), Moriyama Mirai (Tsujimura), Sometani Shôta (Uesugi), Aoki Munetaka (Ueki), Kohata Ryu (Hayabusa), Koseki Yûta (Saburo), Fukami Motoki (Momose), Kato Shinsuke (Okajima), Joey Iwanaga (Kakizaki), Wakabayashi Ruka (Isuke), Tsutsui Mariko (Kiyo), and Takenaka Naoto (Mataemon).


Rock Jocks (2012, Paul V. Seetachitt)

Rock Jocks is full of “it’s not racist because” jokes. There’s even a moment early on when Felicia Day tries explaining to Gerry Bednob how he’s actually a racist even though he says he’s not. When he disagrees, Day gives up, which is a fairly good place to give up on Jocks. You’ve hit the peaks worth sitting around for, namely Bednob is funny as the crotchety old White bigot who just happens to be of East Indian descent. It’s real cheap, real easy jokes. All of Rock Jocks is real cheap, real easy, real problematic. Writer and director Paul V. Seetachitt likes teasing racism, sexism, homophobia, whatever, but he never commits to it.

Well, wait. The sexism. There’s some real committal to the sexism.

The movie’s about the night crew at the United States’s secret remote asteroid destroyer program. If you’re good at video games, you get recruited and then you save the world from big asteroids the rubes don’t know about night after night. The captain is burn-out waiting-to-happen divorced bad dad Andrew Bowen. Bowen’s never anywhere near as bad as some of the other actors in the movie, which is the closest his performance gets to deserving a compliment. Day’s his first officer. She’s overly ambitious because she’s a woman and so it’s funny. He’s going to mansplain to her fierce and her other major subplots involve asteroid shooter Kevin Wu trying to humiliate her—his commanding officer—while captain Bowen ignores it to mope.

Part of the joke is supposed to be how all the Jocks are actually just shallow, thinly written assholes, but Seetachitt makes Wu the biggest asshole of all. Wu’s the shooter with the big ego, but Justin Chon’s still got the higher scores. Chon… could be worse. Wu could not be worse, not without supernatural intervention or something. He’s real bad and not funny.

Jocks hits occasionally—almost always in some way thanks to Bednob—but it’s a very low success rate on the jokes working with the acting working with the directing. In some ways, Rock Jocks is impressive. It’s low budget, but Seetachitt knows how to shoot everything in the script, he just doesn’t have a great editor in Adam Varney and for some reason Seetachitt and photographer Polly Morgan really want to do shaky-cam and shaky-zooms. Just, you know, because.

It’s annoying.

And invites you to ignore the performances because the camera’s ignoring them.

Supporting cast. Mark Woolley’s bad as the bean counter who just happens to be there on the night of the biggest, most important asteroid strike on the planet Earth in… at least a couple days. Who knows.

Doug Jones is great as the space alien who just walks around the base. There’s a bunch of nonsense about Jones having a giant Rube Goldberg contraption in his quarters but it’s all time waster. Lots of time wasting in Jocks, which would be fine at twenty-two—as a TV pilot—or maybe seventy as a goofy low budget, independent pop culture reference comedy….

But it’s ninety minutes.

There are subplots.

There are Robert Picardo and Jason Mewes as the security guards who sit and bullshit all night. It is very awkward. Especially since Picardo and Mewes aren’t bad. They’re just not funny. Ptolemy Slocum is bad as Bowen’s ex-wife’s boyfriend, who shouldn’t be in the movie but again, Rock Jocks really wants to hit that ninety minute runtime so let’s do full subplots for these jerks.

Day and Wu both have moments good and bad. Middling would be an accurate descriptor.

Rock Jocks proves you can be not competent while also not being incompetent.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul V. Seetachitt; director of photography, Polly Morgan; edited by Adam Varney; music by S. Peace Nistades; production designer, Greg Aronowitz; costume designer, Jenny Green; produced by Sheri Bryant and Craig Lew.

Starring Andrew Bowen (John), Felicia Day (Alison), Justin Chon (Seth), Kevin Wu (Danny), Gerry Bednob (Tom), Mark Woolley (Austin), Zach Callison (Dylan), Ptolemy Slocum (Roger), Robert Picardo (Guard 1), Jason Mewes (Guard 2), and Doug Jones (Smoking Jesus).


Enter the Fat Dragon (2020, Tanigaki Kenji)

Enter the Fat Dragon is about Hong Kong super-cop Donnie Yen (already in a pound of makeup before he puts on the fat suit, presumably to look more age appropriate for love interest Niki Chow) who goes too far one too many times and finds himself busted down to the evidence room. After Chow dumps him—they’ve been together ten years and just now about to get married and he ruins their engagement photo shoot with his opening action sequence (it’s a bigger deal because she’s an actress whose profession he doesn’t respect)–Yen hits the junk food hard, which is clearly a big change for him since he started the movie junk food shaming subordinate then boss Louis Cheung for eating a slice of pineapple. Pretty soon he’s put on a hundred pounds; Yen started the movie at a cool one-fifty, because it’s in the opening narration.

It’s weird for a fifty-seven year-old man to talk to you about his weight at the start of a movie but whatever.

He’s clearly only supposed to be thirty-five.

Anyway. Dragon is a movie from 2020 where star producer hyphenate Yen thought it was a great idea to put on a fat suit and do wire-fu on an absolutely fantastic Japanese street set. It took a while to realize it was a set, but once I did, I kept getting distracted with the great detail in the background cast. Whoever designed the set, built it, directed the extras, just phenomenal work.

Lee Kin-wai’s the art director, so maybe it’s Lee Kin-wai’s department.

There’s an okay fight scene on the street set, going on the rooftops and such. Tanigaki’s direction gets most of the martial arts action, but doesn’t do anything interesting with it. It doesn’t showcase Yen well, which might more be because he doesn’t get any close-ups in the movie because of all the make-up he’s clearly wearing.

And some of the other action is fine. It’s too rush—Dragon runs just over ninety minutes and hurries through subplots. But it’s obvious we’re not missing much.

After a while—and all the junk food in the vending machine—Yen goes to Japan on his redemption assignment, a prisoner transfer (throughout Dragon feels like a mix of an eighties action movies, James Bond, and whatever else I’ve forgotten—just never Enter the Dragon, outside some forced references). The transfer goes wrong thanks to dirty Japanese cop Takenaka Naoto and Yen’s stuck in Japan—he also loses his luggage, leading him to ex-Hong Kong cop Wong Jing. Wong—who also cowrote—is a big lovable dope who loves the restaurant owner (Teresa Mo) across the street. Together they’re basically joint foster parents to lovable teen orphan Lin Qiunan. Every Chinese person Yen meets in Japan is great and every Japanese person he meets in Japan is a villain.

The main villain is Joey Iwanaga, who’s more enthusiastic than the role needs or the movie seems to care. He’s Yakuza and behind Yen’s prisoner transfer problems; he’s also Chow’s new boss.

It’s never good—though there are a handful of great laughs, most of them exceptionally cheap because Enter the Fat Dragon is slapstick. Some of the way they “get away” with Yen being clumsy in the fat suit is having him be clumsy before the fat suit, when he’s just in that pound of make-up. Most of the slapstick’s not good.

The end is a large scale action finale; not good either. There may even be a Superman: The Movie nod.

Dragon’s bad slapstick with a lot of cheap jokes. Not the expected ones, but still cheap ones.

Yen’s not able to even make micro-expressions in his makeup so he hasn’t got much of a performance. The martial arts stuff looks good enough it’d be nice if the movie had a good director.

Chow’s eh. Even though they’re even more age inappropriate, Jessica Jann—as Takenaka’s Chinese national interpreter but not accomplice—and Yen have more chemistry than he ever has with Chow. It’s not her fault; she’s kind of a villain? She’s shallow because she doesn’t want him to be a super-cop, which somehow manages to become a subplot, though I guess you need it for the reconciliation arc.

The first act kept having… not exactly potential, but enthusiastic possibilities only it never takes them on. Instead—outside that great street set and some technical aspects of the finale–Dragon never really does anything. It’s milquetoast.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tanigaki Kenji; written by Chan Kin-Hung, Lui Koon-Nam, and Jing Wong; directors of photography, Fung Yuen-man and Ishizaka Takuro; edited by Lee Ka-wing; costume designer, Lee Pik-kwan; produced by Connie Wong and Donnie Yen; released by Mega-Vision Pictures.

Starring Donnie Yen (Fallon Zhu), Niki Chow (Chloe Song), Joey Iwanaga (Shimakura), Jing Wong (Thor), Teresa Mo (Charisma), Lin Qiunan (Little Tiger), Louis Cheung (Commander Huang), Takenaka Naoto (Inspector Endo), Jessica Jann (Maggie), and Watanabe Tetsu (Grandfather).