Category Archives: Foreign

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).


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).


Ashfall (2019, Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun)

I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to see Ashfall if it hadn’t been for a blogathon. Maybe never. While I’m a Ma Dong-seok fan because how can you not be, I’ve always been lukewarm on top-billed Lee Byung-hun. Lee’s not actually the lead; the lead is Ha Jung-woo, who I don’t follow. So, yeah… probably wouldn’t have seen Ashfall if I hadn’t specifically been looking for a disaster movie and also wanted to watch a (relatively) new South Korean movie.

So I’m glad I saw Ashfall, against the various odd. Writers and directors Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun don’t have many—or possibly any—original ideas in the film, which has a real-life volcano Baekdu Mountain erupting and threatening all life on the Korean Peninsula, North and South. Lee’s a North Korean double agent (or triple agent), it’s never clear. Possibly quadruple. Ma is a Korean-American scientist who finds himself drug into the government response because he’s the one who’s been trying to tell them the volcano is dangerous—I wonder if it’s the Korean equivalent of a Yellowstone “vulcanist”–for years. Ha is the Army bomb tech who’s got two days left on his compulsory military service. Ha’s a bit of an eccentric who can never remember his appointments with pregnant wife Suzy Bae, who doesn’t quite look sixteen years younger than Ha but definitely looks a little younger. They try to play it off with Ha being just immature but… he’s more like just unreliable. It’s unclear.

So the President (Choi Kwang-il very good in a small part) puts Jeon Hye-jin in charge of figuring out how to not go the way of Pompeii and she brings in Ma, who’s got a plan involving detonating nuclear warheads in a copper mine because Ma really likes Broken Arrow, but South Korea doesn’t have any nukes so they have to go steal some from North Korea even though they’re really friendly in this nearish, post-nuclear North Korea, but also pro-disarmament North Korea. Not important. What’s important is spy Lee knows where there are some nukes and they know where Lee’s at because he’s got a GPS tracker in him. The real Army is going in to extract him and go find some nukes, Ha’s team is there to get the nukes transferred into a special case to nuke the volcano.

It’s kind of a Lee and Ha buddy movie, also kind of not because they don’t have any common foes. Not really. The U.S. Army shows up to humiliate South Korea, which Lee finds really amusing, but they’re not really a plot impediment. They’re just something else the movie throws into the batter, albeit with a lot of overt subtexts. Robert Curtis Brown is actually find as the shitty American ambassador, which fooled me into thinking it wouldn’t be crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest but then, of course, it was crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest. Michael Ray is profoundly bad as the general. Though Jai Day could be worse as the guy on the ground.

So most of it’s just Lee and Ha being awful to one another while getting through “Mission: Impossible: Bomb Disposal Unit” with some earthquake stuff thrown in. There’s some great CGI disaster shots in Ashfall but there’s also a lot of bad directing during the disaster scenes too. Kim and Lee are far more successful combining narrative tropes than they are executing mix and match action set pieces. The first one, Ha in a car chase type sequence during the first earthquake, shows they clearly don’t have it cracked and nothing else in the film is ever any better. You eventually just have to give it a pass on that type of action because at least the visuals are interesting. Ashfall’s an odyssey. Lots of different locations and settings. And it often looks great—Kim Ji-yong’s photography, whoever does the CGI; Ashfall’s a fine looking film.

Well, except when it looks like Kim’s got the “soap opera mode” turned on and the artifice shines bright, which happens more in the second half than the first. The first has the most successful visual sequences. The second half is when it needs to have the action sequences….

Unfortunately, the directors just aren’t very good at directing action scenes. It would help immensely.

The acting’s all fine or better. Ma and Jeon have the worst parts of the top-billed but still give the best performances. The material’s so weak. It’s a wonder what they do with it. Lee’s good enough I’m going to have to give him another chance, but he’s also a lot better than Ha, which isn’t what the movie needs.

It’s too long by twenty minutes, but Ashfall’s more than a good enough action-spy-disaster movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun; director of photography, Kim Ji-yong; music by Bang Joon-seok; production designer, Kim Byung-han; produced by Kang Myung-chan; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Lee Byung-hun (Lee Joon-Pyeong), Ha Jung-woo (Jo In-Chang), Jeon Hye-jin (Jeon Yoo-Kyung), Ma Dong-seok (Kang Bong-Rae), Suzy Bae (Choi Ji-Young), Michael Ray (General Michaels), Robert Curtis Brown (Ambassador Wilson), and Choi Kwang-il as the President.



The Raid (2011, Gareth Evans), the international version

For the first forty-five minutes or so, The Raid is able to keep going on the idea lead Iko Uwais is going to be the most kick ass fighter in the movie. There a handful of short expository scenes throughout the film, plus a prologue, where Uwais prays, does some martial arts workouts (it’s all Indonesian martial arts in the film), kisses pregnant wife Fikha Effendi goodbye, has plot twist foreshadowing moment with dad Henky Solaiman, and is off to work—but otherwise it’s all action. For a while it’s shooting action, as Uwais and his fellow SWAT team members infiltrate a high-rise tenement run by drug lord Ray Sahetapy. Once it goes to martial arts action, however, it’s all martial arts action, finally letting Uwais deliver on what the prologue promised.

Except by then we’ve already seen Yayan Ruhian and the movie doesn’t even pretend Uwais is going to surpass Ruhian. When Uwais does finally get around to fighting him, it’s Donny Alamsyah teaming up with Uwais to fight Ruhian. Director Evans knows no one’s going to think Uwais can handle this one on his own, which sort of leaves Uwais an awkward action hero. He starts the movie a renegade—because he’s the only caring SWAT cop, which we know because they were ready to kill civilian Iang Darmawan for being around and Uwais steps in to save the guy—ends up doing the action scenes out of a couple different buddy cop movies, then ends it all solo, even though he’s with a literal cop buddy for it. But it never feels like Uwais is getting short-changed, at least not in the second half; the hero of the first half is Joe Taslim. He’s the sergeant and the only one who knows there’s something shady about the raid because he knows Pierre Gruno is a shady guy. Meanwhile Gruno doesn’t want cannon fodder like Uwais getting in his way, even though Gruno’s not a martial arts bad ass like everyone else in the movie.

The Taslim as lead thing is just weird because director Evans just assumes the audience is going to go for it. The Raid has some beautifully executed action sequences and some great fight choreography, but Evans’s best instinct is for what works with the cast. The movie starts with Uwais, sticks with Uwais—introducing Taslim as the leader and quickly establishing his relationship with Gruno—but when it’s time for Taslim to take on Ruhian, it’s not a supporting character’s fight scene. It’s the big hero’s fight scene.

Uwais’s arc sort of stalling out probably doesn’t help him maintain the spotlight. After the first big action sequence, Uwais has a whole “help wounded comrade” survive arc. Tegar Satrya’s the wounded comrade. The movie’s only ever established he’s a dick, which makes Uwais saving him somewhat more dramatic maybe, but no more entertaining to watch. Plus Satrya’s unlikable. Only he and Gruno are unlikable. Everyone else, good or bad, is enjoyable to watch. Like Alfridus Godfred, who’s basically just “Machete Guy,” because everyone gets their hands on a machete. Godfred’s terrifying, just a walking embodiment of probable dismemberment. But you want to see him, you want to see him more, as the film builds to whatever fight sequence he’s going to participate in. Again, Evans has great instincts for rising action scene tension.

The drama stuff, involving Uwais, Alamsyah, Gruno, Darmawan, and Sahetapy? Eh. Sahetapy’s is the best because Sahetapy’s a very evil hoot of a villain. Evans also knows how violent to get and not to get, when to show, when to tell, when to imply. But the drama? It’s take it or leave it. It’s not bad, just pedestrian and superfluous. Or should be.

See, while everyone who’s got a big fight scene—Taslim, Uwais, Alamsyah, and, obviously, Ruhian—is great at the fighting… Evans isn’t great at the directing. He’s good enough at it for a while, but when it’s the marathon Ruhian vs. Uwais and Alamsyah fight? It gets boring. Evans can showcase his actors’ skills but he can’t keep them compelling. Evans also edited the film and most of the editing is excellent, but the longer fight scenes—usually when there’s not scenery around to damage—the cuts are just between not great shots. It’s a bummer.

Nice photography from Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, great music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese (which is the difference between this international version and the original, plus an added subtitle, Redemption, because of rights issues). The Raid is about as good as you can get for an all-action martial arts movie with the barest hints of a real story and flat direction on the martial arts themselves. It’s very impressive work from Evans and company.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by Gareth Evans; directors of photography, Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono; music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese; produced by Ario Sagantoro; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Iko Uwais (Rama), Joe Taslim (Jaka), Donny Alamsyah (Andi), Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog), Pierre Gruno (Wahyu), Ray Sahetapy (Tama), Tegar Satrya (Bowo), Iang Darmawan (Gofar), Eka ‘Piranha’ Rahmadia (Dagu), Verdi Solaiman (Budi), and Alfridus Godfred (Machete Gang #1).