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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Koki Mitani's really funny The Magic Hour ザ・マジックアワー

Magic Hour poster

I saw this some time ago but haven't had the time to write my thoughts. So I'll do it now.

THE MAGIC HOUR is a star-studded comedy that became one of the top-grossing domestic movies in Japan this year. It's directed by Koki Mitani, who previously made WELCOME BACK, MR MCDONALD (1997) and UCHOTEN HOTEL (2006). I've only seen the latter, which is a Japanese version of FAWLTY TOWERS, and very fun. The interesting thing about Koki Mitani is that while he specializes only in comedies, he's really some sort of auteur too, possessing the type of technical skills and artistry I seldom see from most contemporary Japanese directors these days. His background is in theater, so there is always something theatrical about his films, and his all-star ensemble cast always churn out really good performances, he often goes for long takes that aren't exactly 'look at me' show-offy, but effective in bringing out the best from his cast members. Timing and movements is everything for him.

Because Mitani is also a fan of old-school screwball Hollywood comedies from the 40s, the production values of his films are often really high (granted, he does work with a big budget). His films are cinematic and deserved being watched on big screen... not a distinction that can be claimed by most mainstream Japanese films these days.

The Magic Hour, or Golden Hour, normally refers to the first and last hour of sunlight during the day, where a specific effect can be attained through for photography because of the light conditions. (Every single film I've done so far, either as director or producer, had made use of the Magic Hour for some shots.) If I intend to go serious with my examination of this film, I can also say that this film serves as a metaphor for show business, where the excitement is beautiful but fleeting, yet unique and can never be found anywhere else. This film is a love letter to filmmaking.

The young gangster Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabaki, in the first comedic role I've ever seen him in, he was previously in downers like the SPRING SNOW adaptation and NADA SOU SOU) was caught having an affair with his boss' woman, Mari (Erin Fukatsu, last seen in the Takuya Kimura dorama, CHANGE, and also those BAYSIDE SHAKEDOWN films). To save his own butt, Bingo told his boss that he would recruit the legendary hitman Della Togashi in a week, so he was sent off for his search. Unable to find him, Bingo hires Taiki Murata (last seen as the villain Kiyomori in Miike's SUKIYAKI WESTERN: DJANGO), a has-been actor reduced to bit roles to masquerade as the hitman.

Bingo lies to Murata about being a film director wanting to do a new film with him in the starring role as Della the hitman for a percentage of the box-office grosses (which is zero). Bingo later assigned the help of a waitress (Haruka Ayase, in the second of the three films she's in this year, previous one was MY GIRLFRIEND IS A CYBORG) and bartender (Goro Ibuki) from a local club to play his 'crewmembers'. After 'borrowing' a camera from a real production on location, the struggling actor Murata was led to really believe that he's the protagonist in a gangster film.

Comedy ensues when Murata swaggers into Bingo's boss's office (with a rubber gun), thinking that they are all part of the film as well. In his tough-talking, fearless hero mode, Murata baffles the boss and his minions with his bravado, and immediately they take him for the real deal. The actor is later placed in mortally dangerous situations while remaining clueless about the whole deal. It's like a reverse BOWFINGER.

THE MAGIC HOUR, like Mitani's previous film, is very well-made and well-acted, and is filled with lots celebrity cameos. Unlike Uchoten, this film has less subplots, focusing more on how Bingo continues playing off both sides with his deception, and gradually the film moves to Murata trying regain his professional self-respect, becoming more of an underdog film of sorts. I've often marvelled at how polite and quiet Japanese audiences are in cinemas, but THE MAGIC HOUR is definitely the first time when I heard the people in the cinema laughing that loudly the whole time. The hall was packed even though I saw it one month after it begun showing in theaters and it's still playing in theaters now.

The setting of the film is very interesting. Take place mostly in a town called Sukago (Chicago), I initially thought that it was a period film, the triad members and other inhabitants of the place dressed up as if they were in the 1920s. Until Bingo leaves his town to find Murata, and then I see characters using cellphones, taking modern-looking buses, I realize it's actually set in the present.

At the hands of a lesser director, this could have ended up like a low-budget Wong Jing fare, or any Hong Kong B-movies. Good thing it didn't happen. I might actually like this film more than UCHOTEN HOTEL. Definitely looking forward to Koki Mitani's next film.

For the time being, I'll be waiting until October for Ichi, Haruka Ayase's third film of the year as the female Zatoichi (blind samurai). Yummy.