Review round-up: Donnie Yen, Takashi Miike, and more Cannes titles

I can’t believe Cannes is already in the rear-view.  It seems like we just found out a few weeks ago that I had my press badge for this year’s festival and would be going, and now it’s all over except for the publication of a few final pieces.  Crazy.

I’m going to start with a round-up of four reviews, movies I liked to varying degrees but didn’t fully love in any case, and I want to make sure the films at least get some attention.  With one of them, I’m sure you’ll have a chance to see it later this year, and with the others?  Well, who knows if they’ll ever play US theaters?  I could easily imagine that these might just disappear or show up a few years from now, once any potential heat has dissipated.  It’s happened to plenty of good movies over the years, and sometimes, these festivals represent my one shot at seeing them in a theater.

Take “Bonsai,” for example.  Chilean filmmaker Cristian Jimenez, working from a novel by Alejandro Zambra, has crafted a wry, sincere piece about how easy it is to get hung up on an idealized love from the past at the expense of an imperfect but attainable love in the present, and it’s a small-scale charmer that would probably have a nice tidy little life on the arthouse circuit in English.  I’m not sure distributors are cool enough to give a movie like this a chance when it’s done Spanish-language instead, and without any easily marketable names.  There’s no real high-concept to the film, so you can’t even cut a trailer that sells it just based on the premise.  This is a film that has to play out in full before its appeal is totally evident.  Julio (Diego Noguera) is a young man looking for work who meets with Gazmuri, a semi-famous writer.  He tries to get the job typing up Gazmuri’s new novel, but he asks for too much money and Gazmuri turns him down.  Julio doesn’t tell his semi-girlfriend Blanca (Trinidad Gonzalez) that he lost the job and instead take the opportunity to write his own book, the story of his first real love, Emilia (Natalia Galgani).  In writing the book, Julio begins to really buy into the romantic legend of how great things were with Emilia, but he seems oblivious to just how determined Blanca is to help him. 

Cutting back and forth in time, “Bonsai” is very effective, and these characters are drawn with real skill and care.  I can believe this is based on a book, because the details are dense like in a good novel, well-observed.  The decline of the relationship between Julio and Emilia is charted carefully, never melodramatic.  And even the way the titular bonsai plays into things is a very skillfully managed metaphor, potent but not blunt.  The performances by everyone, including Emilia’s best friend Barbara (Gabriela Arancibia), are natural and engaging, and Jiminez seems to me to be a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on.  I like the way he makes a film in which nostalgia could be a very real and even romantic thing, and instead, he deflates that idea, savages it.  He sees looking backward as a trap, as a way of evading the present.  It’s very smart, and it avoids so many easy sentimental traps that when it does make a play for some sort of emotional payoff, it seems welcome, completely earned.  Even if “Bonsai” never really gets its shot here, I’m betting Jiminez has a breakthrough in him somewhere, and I hope to keep up with his work in the future.

Naomi Kawase’s film “Hanezu No Tsuki” was not one of my favorites of the festival.  There is some skill on display, and some things to like about it, but the film feels to me like a description of a better film, a sketch of something that might be great.  It is a simple story about the difficulties that come from realizing you’re with the wrong person when you live in a very small, very isolated place where tradition is still more important than love.  It renders its points well, it features very austere, very tasteful performance work, and it is photographed quite well, capturing a particular region of Japan with a delicate aesthetic sense.  And yet, despite understanding and even admiring the film’s intent, I never felt it.  It is a film in which much is unsaid or barely said, but there is a great deal of emotion at play just beneath the surface of things.  It should be a real powerhouse, and I feel like Kawase’s directorial hand simply keeps that from happening.  It is too reserved, too spare.  I’m all for a little bit of understated drama, but there’s a caution here that ultimately keeps the film’s big punches from landing.

Takaski Miike’s “13 Assassins” garnered him some of the best reviews of his entire career, and it seemed like a movie that I never would have imagined him making.  I love samurai films, and that covers a whole lot of ground dramatically speaking.  Like the American Western, the samurai film has allowed Japanese filmmakers to deal with all sorts of ethical and and personal issues as action or drama, using history to hold a mirror up to the contemporary.  With “13 Assassins,” Miike made a sweeping action movie about honor and purpose, and it works as simply a big engrossing piece of expertly-made viscera, but there’s also more going on underneath.  With this new one, he’s made a very different type of movie, and I think it really threw some people who were expecting more of the same.  That’s not Miike, though, and I’m not sure he’s ever been the guy who just gives you “more of the same.”  This time out, he’s telling a heartbreaking little personal story set at the end of the samurai age, as samurai are seeing the world they knew ending, many of them suddenly ronin, without masters, without homes.  Driven by a code of conduct that demands that they either find a purpose or end themselves in a noble way, many samurai have begun going to the homes of successful lords and asking for the right to commit seppuku in their courtyards.

Seeing an opportunity, some people begin posing as suicidal samurai, hoping that the lords will offer them a position instead of assistance in death.  The film opens with a ragged older samurai named Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) showing up to request the use of the courtyard under the supervision of Kageyu (Koji Yakusho).  Before they will allow it, Kageyu and his men decide to tell Hanshiro a cautionary tale about a young man named Motomoe (Eita) who tried the same thing.  What they don’t know is that Hanshiro already knows the story, and that he’s going to offer them a new perspective on it.  There is a stately pace to the way information is doled out in the film, leading to a really wrenching final third.  The stakes for Hanshiro are quite dire, and the way Miike finally lays all his cards out is very simple, very straightforward.  He’s not looking to shock you here, but rather to inflict enough emotional pain that the revenge that Hanshiro seeks feels justified to the audience.  I don’t think this is one of Miike’s very best movies, but it’s a solid, sad little movie.  I still don’t know why it’s in 3D, but that statement could be made about 80% of the films that use the process at this point.

Finally, there is “Wu Xia,” which has been purchased by the Weinsteins and already retitled as “Dragon.”  Donnie Yen stars in the film, and it’s another in the string of largely successful films he’s made lately that showcase him both as actor and martial artist.  I really dig both of the “Ip Man” movies he starred in, and I had ridiculous amounts of fun with “Legend Of The Fist.”  Yen is such a charismatic performer that I find myself really looking forward to his work right now.  It feels like this stage of his career is the most focused ever, and he’s caught a real second wind in his work.  Even so, calling a film “Wu Xia” is fairly bold.  That’s like calling a funny film “Comedy” or calling an action-packed story “Adventure.”  You’re claiming a genre as your own, which would seem like a real obligation to get it right.  I’m not sure “Wu Xia” really stands as the end-all-be-all summation of the genre, but it is a smart and largely successful film that surprised me in a lot of ways, and it was definitely one of the films I enjoyed most at Cannes.

The film, directed by Peter Chan, was originally announced as a remake of “The One-Armed Swordsman,” but it’s become something very different.  Instead, it is the story of Liu Jin-xi (Yen), a paper maker who lives a quiet life in a small village.  He’s a good man, a family man, and when two bandits attack a general store where he does some work, Liu Jin-xi steps in and ends up battling the bandits, eventually killing both of them.  A detective named Xu Bai-ju (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is sent to take down the details of the incident, but he begins to suspect that Liu Jin-xi is not who he claims to be.  The precision of the fight weighs on Xu Bai-ju, and one of the best scenes in the film is his walk-through of the fight, as he recreates what happened.  There is a sad inevitability to the way Liu Jin-xi’s life crumbles in the film, and in many ways, the movie is about trying to shake off your past so you can become someone else.  The relationship between Kaneshiro and Yen is very well-played by both of them, and the film is overall an exciting and emotional martial arts picture, one that may not claim dominion over the genre as the title might imply, but that delivers everything any fan of the genre might want, in smart and stylish fashion.

I’ve got one last review for you and one last interview, both of those tonight as well and then I’m done.  Cannes you believe it?