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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Japanese Films vs The Rest Of The World

Nakama YukieI'm totally drained after going through a two-film marathon, both Japanese films (you can see I am trying hard to improve my Japanese language skills ;)), both two-hour long, the first was HERO, the second was STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKES (the 2006 movie, not the old 2001 dorama, STRAWBERRY ON SHORTCAKE), one's a commercial courtdoom drama, another an arthouse film on loneliness and adult relationships, former's entertaining, latter's haunting. I'm now drained, yet not drained enough to not rant.

(I'll be peppering this post with photos of the awesome NAKAMA YUKIE, whom I've liked a lot since I first watched the TRICK series, and also in honour of Gokusen 3 being the top-rated dorama in Tokyo now)

Last night (or two nights ago, since it's past midnight), I read an article on Japan Times called FILM FESTIVALS: HOW JAPAN IS VIEWED FROM AFAR by Alexander Jacoby, and I find myself agreeing with the opening paragraphs:

Ask most Westerners today what images are brought to mind by the words "Japanese film," and the answers may include a ghost crawling out of a television screen, a woman sticking needles into the face of a paralyzed man, gangsters pumping each other full of lead in the streets of an urban jungle, or teenage schoolchildren battling to the death on a remote island. For others, perhaps mainly of an older generation, Japanese cinema means the dramatization of epic battles between samurai in the remote past, or serene, contemplative stories about the daily lives of Tokyo families.

The first set of images, from films by directors including Hideo Nakata, Takashi Miike and the late Kinji Fukasaku, typify the kind of cinema exported from Japan in recent years, favored with commercial releases abroad and widely available in the West on DVD. The second group of films, by revered names such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, represent the Japanese film classics sent to the West in the 1950s and now screened at art-house cinemas and in traveling retrospectives.

These two categories, however, do not represent the length and breadth of Japanese cinema. Between the popular genres of J-horror, yakuza flick and animation on the one hand, and the art-house classics on the other, lies a whole undiscovered country.

Nakama Yukie's Gokuzen lookHowever, this common misconception of Japanese films, in my opinion, isn't limited only to Westerners, but also (almost) to the rest of the world, yes, including Malaysia. I am suddenly reminded of a MSN conversation I had with a fellow Monbusho scholarship recipient just a night or two before I left for Tokyo.

Why, of all countries, you chose to study filmmaking in Japan. He asked

Why not? I replied, feeling a twinge of annoyance. Japanese cinema has a long and rich tradition. It's just unfortunate that their finest films are kept within the country, while the more mediocre but obviously commercial films are distributed to other countries, like the (now tiresome) J-horror films, or recent Hollywood-like big-budget blockbusters like the DEATH NOTE films, or the JAPAN SINKS!

Yeah, I'm sick and tired of J-horrors, they are all the same. He said, also seemingly sceptical of my words.

Like I said, Japanese cinema is more than just J-Horror. It's just that we are raised in a country where Japanese films are barely shown in the cinemas. I said.

Why not Hollywood? He asked.

Because I didn't get a scholarship that can pay for all my fees in Hollywood. I replied dryly. And also because Hollywood films have monopolized the entire world, the market's oversaturated with Hollywood stuff. I'm not some generic arty farty anti-establishment elitist who condemns all things Hollywood, but I fear that if I go there, I may end up trying to emulate a style that the whole world is used to seeing. And frankly, I'm not interested in competing against them in what they are best at doing.


I continued. On the other hand, Japanese filmmaking is more... insular, less exposed, less known to the mainstream foreign audiences.

Korean films are better lah. He said.

Nakama YukieYeah, because more Korean films are distributed around Asia than their Japanese counterpart. I sighed and tried to go for a simpler explanation. And so they make more money, and thus having higher production values to pull off stuff closer to Hollywood. The kind of films you are more used to seeing.

You know what director pisses me off? Wong Kar Wai. He declared, just like nine out of ten other countrymen of mine have done.

Yah. Because you, and most others, grew up watching TVB soap operas, and Hong Kong action, horror or comedy films. You have a preconceived notion of what a film should be like, so anything different is bad to you. I replied.

It's just like how I've recently gotten a little miffed when someone describes a film as an 'art' film. I would challenge that someone in naming me an 'art' film that he doesn't think is boring or slow. And most often, he cannot reply, and I will say, so, 'art film' is just a label for films you think are boring and slow huh?

Try to sit through a Robert Bresson film. I said. Or the European cinema of the 60s, try the French New Wave, try Antonioni, try Godard, try Rohmer, try sit through films that emphasize more on form than content, more on mise-en-scene than three-act structure, more on mood and atmosphere than body counts and explosions, more on visual storytelling, hidden allegory than obvious expositions. I would like to see how you react. Maybe you'll end up feeling that Wong Kar Wai films are as fast-paced as a Tony Scott film.

I never really end up saying the last paragraph to him, since our conversation really veered towards him brashly challenging me to explain to him the 'whole point' of 2046. Which I did, flippantly.

All my life, I've always been defensive towards Japanese Cinema. Perhaps it's really not the films I'm protecting, but a more abstract concept, like blind prejudice and stereotyping. It's stupid to just label Japanese films as 'extreme Miike cinema', or 'wacky Japanese people doing crazy shit', or 'ancient samurai swordsplay' or 'needlessly excessive melodrama'.

When are things so simple? There's always another perspective to something, another facet, another layer. Hell, I also genuinely believe that some of the finest Studio Ghibli masterpiece animated films should be respected like their live-action counterparts too.

I don't see the point of staying so bloody close-minded, and I don't see the point of being so stubborn with one's beliefs. Why? The world is easier to understand when you mentally reduce what you're not familiar with into caricatures?

Nakama YukieHERO the Japanese movie brings me back to a full circle, from my high school days when HERO the TV series was setting ratings records, a time when I was trying to convince a high school crush the merits of Japanese cinema.

"I don't like them." She said, when an innocent conversation brought us to the topic of Japanese films. "But then, I don't like the Japanese culture anyway."

"You have to watch LOVE LETTER." I said. It was only a year or two since I've seen the film then, and was really eager to introduce people to its beauty. "It'll change your mind. Really!"

"Do you know that the all-time top-rated TV series is HERO? When a show like that is their most-watched programme ever, it speaks clearly of their unrefined tastes." She said.

"Since when does popularity is the sole indicator of quality? Titanic is the top-grossing film of all-time. Does that mean that it's inarguably the greatest film ever made?" I said, feeling a twinge of spite, almost falling out of infatuation for her.

Few days later, I brought her my prized VCD of Love Letter.

Few weeks later, she returned it to me, untouched. Unwatched.

You know some of those stupid shallow women who tend to go for the bad boys because they wish they can change them? The ones who cling to the silly Chinese saying '男的不坏,女的不爱'? (Literal translation: If the guy isn't bad, the gal won't love him) The types who thought that they could domesticate some asshole just to assuage their own fragile starving ego and satisfy their silly flights of fancy?

Hey, I was like that too (aside from the fact that I'm a bloke), blinded by silly teenage infatuation, well-intentioned but possibly ultimately self-serving. Maybe I didn't want her to adopt such a ridiculous stance towards something she barely knew, and thus in my own naive methods, I tried to change her. I got burnt instead.

Yet she had no idea what she was missing.

I like exploring and excavating things, be it films, literature or music. I was once asked whether it's worth it, when I could just spend my time doing something else instead.

And miss out on all these hidden treasure? Thanks, but no thanks. Self-imposed boundaries are not my thing. My curiosity will get the better of me.