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Blown away by a metaphysical whirlwind

Hirokazu Kore-Eda's latest at the Asian Film Festival's Spring Showcase

The face on the perspex wall. Masaharu Fukuyama and Kôji Yakusho compound their grief in Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s exquisite The Third Murder.
The face on the perspex wall. Masaharu Fukuyama and Kôji Yakusho compound their grief in Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s exquisite The Third Murder.

With its overall superb yearly batting average, the San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase, now in its 8th year, generally heralds the last gasp of quality moviegoing at the multiplex before the summer season of blockbusters sets in. Take advantage of it.

The opening night feature, Meditation Park, comes from Chinese Canadian director Mina Shum and stars Cheng Pei-pei (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, King Hu’s Come Drink With Me, and too-many-to-count Hong Kong action classics). Actor Tzi Ma and director Shum will be in attendance.

Festival programmer Brian Hu was proud to hype a retrospective of films from Malaysian director, Yasmin Ahmad. “Her hard-to-program odd blend of mainstream sentimentality and art cinema rigor have made her one of the least-known great Asian directors in the world,” Hu wrote. “Outside of a MOMA retrospective almost a decade ago, her films have never gotten a program like this in North America. We’re showing her final three features, a short film, some commercials, and a new documentary (Yasmin-San) that just came out about her.”

The festival runs April 19-26 at the UltraStar Mission Valley at Hazard Center. Tickets are $12 for general admission, $10 for students, seniors, and military, and $9 for members.

Here are a pair of entries that come highly recommended.

Video:

Clip from The Third Murder

Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s The Third Murder

Sponsored
Sponsored

Instead of watching the four titles Brian Hu sent to preview, I watched one of the screeners four times. When it comes to theatrical bookings, the films of Hirokazu Kore-Eda generally find a home at one our town’s two Landmarks. Make Hillcrest your nest for subsequent screenings. You’ll want to be the first on your block to experience the director’s inaugural foray into CinemaScope.

On the surface, a Hall of Justice may appear to be a strange choice of location for Kore-Eda (After Life, Our Little Sister), the Japanese director heretofore celebrated for his contemplative, domiciliary family pictures. There’s our lead counsel Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), whose law firm provides a steady flow of surrogate siblings, but the real meaning of family in this film runs much darker and deeper than anticipated.

WTF?

I subscribe to the school of thought that ontology and cinema can make for uneasy bedfellows, and that one need not have a degree in metaphysics in order to comprehend a movie. For every abstruse branch of the philosophical tree that sprouts a flower (The Stunt Man, Fight Club, Lost Highway) there are countless variations on garbled reasoning. Viewings of Vanilla Sky, A Beautiful Mind, The Number 23, a trio of pictures with the word “Matrix” in the title, and the biggest WTF? of all, Synecdoche, New York, will bear me out.

By its conclusion, The Third Murder easily warrants inclusion in the first group, but it begins with a straightforward account of who did what to start things in motion. On a river bank with the lights of Yokohama twinkling in the background, Misumi (Kôji Yakusho), a disgruntled employee who we later learn was caught stealing money from the company safe to pay off gambling debts, quietly shadows his boss with wrench in hand. Fired from his job, Misumi bludgeons the factory owner to death before setting fire to his body.

When a film opens with a lawyer basically assuring a member of his team (and the audience) that their client is certain “to get the death penalty, no question,” it’s a good bet that more questions will be raised then could possibly be dealt with, the most pressing being: why go through all the trouble, especially when the killer has already confessed?

For a good half of its running time, the film looks like a film noir, but plays like an exquisitely accomplished legal variation on a police procedural television series, one in which the emphasis is on the strategy used by the legal team in solving the crime. (As tight as the picture is, there is a subplot — ironically, one involving a family member — that would have played best on the cutting-room floor. As a lawyer, Shigemori makes a fair to middling father. The same can be said of scenes involving the negligent dad’s aid in releasing his 14-year-old daughter from a shoplifting charge.)

Customs are followed: Shigemori delivers Misumi’s hand-written apology to the victim’s widow and daughter. Strategies are blocked out over dinner. The smell of gasoline on the victim’s wallet indicates that robbery was not the motive behind the murder and that the charges should be reduced from robbery-murder to murder and theft.

Then suddenly, there is a change — and it’s not in the direction of courtroom drama. The visual tone shifts and begins to contract. Gone are the comfortable genre conventions, blown away by a metaphysical whirlwind: a detached exploration of truth and identity, with more time spent in the glass-partitioned interrogation room than testifying before a judge.

“You don’t need understanding or empathy to defend a client,” Shigemori observes at the film’s outset. But as the killer and his mouthpiece grow closer, Kore-Eda photographs the two in a manner that makes the perspex barrier all but vanish in his attempt to meld the two men in one. Kore-eda proves CGI hollow. You’re not likely to find a more ingenious in-camera effect (or better picture, for that matter) all year.

The Third Murder screens twice: Saturday, April 21 at 8:25 p.m. and Wednesday, April 25 at 7:55 p.m.

Video:

Trailer for Minding the Gap

Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap

Why, when given a choice, did I opt for a documentary that centers on a trio of skateboarders? I’m a Jackass at heart.

“Damn, dude!” a 17-year-old neighbor kid once remarked. “You’re in your 50’s. Shouldn’t I be the one giving you this shit?”

The question was asked on the occasion of my lending the lad the entire set of Bam Margera’s CKY (Camp Kill Yourself) DVDs. The primitive, not-safe-for-TV videos turned out to be the notorious skateboarder’s audition reel for Jackass. I came for the mean-spirited pranks — dredging a $5 bill in dog poop and leaving it at the foot of an ATM for some unwitting suspect to pocket — but looked on with equal fascination at the zen-like footage of Bam and his band of heavy metal meatheads flipping and dropping their boards.

There was always at least one kid on the block who had a camera in hand ready to video anything and everything that passed before him. Bing Liu, director and one of the three skaters up for discussion, appears to be the official videographer of Rockford, IL. Anyone who has ever visited the run-down town is quick to agree that the best thing about Rockford is the road to Chicago.

Whereas Bam had loving parents to help nurse his wounds, the three lifelong pals up for discussion in Minding the Gap chose to form a family of their own, if only because no one in their broken homes had their backs. Bing’s stepfather ruled with an iron fist that occasionally left marks on both the soft-spoken teen and his mother. Zack is a shaggy mess, partying too hard and making his girlfriend pay for it. Keire is African-American charmer whose occasional bursts of hockey-temper mask a good soul longing for a father figure to hold in respect.

The raw emotions that the film dredges up may have left the young filmmaker feeling a bit overwhelmed. Shot over several years, Bing was determined to close the picture with a happy ending, even if it killed him. He did and it didn’t.

Minding the Gap screens Tuesday, April 24 at 6:15 p.m.

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The face on the perspex wall. Masaharu Fukuyama and Kôji Yakusho compound their grief in Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s exquisite The Third Murder.
The face on the perspex wall. Masaharu Fukuyama and Kôji Yakusho compound their grief in Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s exquisite The Third Murder.

With its overall superb yearly batting average, the San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase, now in its 8th year, generally heralds the last gasp of quality moviegoing at the multiplex before the summer season of blockbusters sets in. Take advantage of it.

The opening night feature, Meditation Park, comes from Chinese Canadian director Mina Shum and stars Cheng Pei-pei (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, King Hu’s Come Drink With Me, and too-many-to-count Hong Kong action classics). Actor Tzi Ma and director Shum will be in attendance.

Festival programmer Brian Hu was proud to hype a retrospective of films from Malaysian director, Yasmin Ahmad. “Her hard-to-program odd blend of mainstream sentimentality and art cinema rigor have made her one of the least-known great Asian directors in the world,” Hu wrote. “Outside of a MOMA retrospective almost a decade ago, her films have never gotten a program like this in North America. We’re showing her final three features, a short film, some commercials, and a new documentary (Yasmin-San) that just came out about her.”

The festival runs April 19-26 at the UltraStar Mission Valley at Hazard Center. Tickets are $12 for general admission, $10 for students, seniors, and military, and $9 for members.

Here are a pair of entries that come highly recommended.

Video:

Clip from The Third Murder

Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s The Third Murder

Sponsored
Sponsored

Instead of watching the four titles Brian Hu sent to preview, I watched one of the screeners four times. When it comes to theatrical bookings, the films of Hirokazu Kore-Eda generally find a home at one our town’s two Landmarks. Make Hillcrest your nest for subsequent screenings. You’ll want to be the first on your block to experience the director’s inaugural foray into CinemaScope.

On the surface, a Hall of Justice may appear to be a strange choice of location for Kore-Eda (After Life, Our Little Sister), the Japanese director heretofore celebrated for his contemplative, domiciliary family pictures. There’s our lead counsel Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), whose law firm provides a steady flow of surrogate siblings, but the real meaning of family in this film runs much darker and deeper than anticipated.

WTF?

I subscribe to the school of thought that ontology and cinema can make for uneasy bedfellows, and that one need not have a degree in metaphysics in order to comprehend a movie. For every abstruse branch of the philosophical tree that sprouts a flower (The Stunt Man, Fight Club, Lost Highway) there are countless variations on garbled reasoning. Viewings of Vanilla Sky, A Beautiful Mind, The Number 23, a trio of pictures with the word “Matrix” in the title, and the biggest WTF? of all, Synecdoche, New York, will bear me out.

By its conclusion, The Third Murder easily warrants inclusion in the first group, but it begins with a straightforward account of who did what to start things in motion. On a river bank with the lights of Yokohama twinkling in the background, Misumi (Kôji Yakusho), a disgruntled employee who we later learn was caught stealing money from the company safe to pay off gambling debts, quietly shadows his boss with wrench in hand. Fired from his job, Misumi bludgeons the factory owner to death before setting fire to his body.

When a film opens with a lawyer basically assuring a member of his team (and the audience) that their client is certain “to get the death penalty, no question,” it’s a good bet that more questions will be raised then could possibly be dealt with, the most pressing being: why go through all the trouble, especially when the killer has already confessed?

For a good half of its running time, the film looks like a film noir, but plays like an exquisitely accomplished legal variation on a police procedural television series, one in which the emphasis is on the strategy used by the legal team in solving the crime. (As tight as the picture is, there is a subplot — ironically, one involving a family member — that would have played best on the cutting-room floor. As a lawyer, Shigemori makes a fair to middling father. The same can be said of scenes involving the negligent dad’s aid in releasing his 14-year-old daughter from a shoplifting charge.)

Customs are followed: Shigemori delivers Misumi’s hand-written apology to the victim’s widow and daughter. Strategies are blocked out over dinner. The smell of gasoline on the victim’s wallet indicates that robbery was not the motive behind the murder and that the charges should be reduced from robbery-murder to murder and theft.

Then suddenly, there is a change — and it’s not in the direction of courtroom drama. The visual tone shifts and begins to contract. Gone are the comfortable genre conventions, blown away by a metaphysical whirlwind: a detached exploration of truth and identity, with more time spent in the glass-partitioned interrogation room than testifying before a judge.

“You don’t need understanding or empathy to defend a client,” Shigemori observes at the film’s outset. But as the killer and his mouthpiece grow closer, Kore-Eda photographs the two in a manner that makes the perspex barrier all but vanish in his attempt to meld the two men in one. Kore-eda proves CGI hollow. You’re not likely to find a more ingenious in-camera effect (or better picture, for that matter) all year.

The Third Murder screens twice: Saturday, April 21 at 8:25 p.m. and Wednesday, April 25 at 7:55 p.m.

Video:

Trailer for Minding the Gap

Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap

Why, when given a choice, did I opt for a documentary that centers on a trio of skateboarders? I’m a Jackass at heart.

“Damn, dude!” a 17-year-old neighbor kid once remarked. “You’re in your 50’s. Shouldn’t I be the one giving you this shit?”

The question was asked on the occasion of my lending the lad the entire set of Bam Margera’s CKY (Camp Kill Yourself) DVDs. The primitive, not-safe-for-TV videos turned out to be the notorious skateboarder’s audition reel for Jackass. I came for the mean-spirited pranks — dredging a $5 bill in dog poop and leaving it at the foot of an ATM for some unwitting suspect to pocket — but looked on with equal fascination at the zen-like footage of Bam and his band of heavy metal meatheads flipping and dropping their boards.

There was always at least one kid on the block who had a camera in hand ready to video anything and everything that passed before him. Bing Liu, director and one of the three skaters up for discussion, appears to be the official videographer of Rockford, IL. Anyone who has ever visited the run-down town is quick to agree that the best thing about Rockford is the road to Chicago.

Whereas Bam had loving parents to help nurse his wounds, the three lifelong pals up for discussion in Minding the Gap chose to form a family of their own, if only because no one in their broken homes had their backs. Bing’s stepfather ruled with an iron fist that occasionally left marks on both the soft-spoken teen and his mother. Zack is a shaggy mess, partying too hard and making his girlfriend pay for it. Keire is African-American charmer whose occasional bursts of hockey-temper mask a good soul longing for a father figure to hold in respect.

The raw emotions that the film dredges up may have left the young filmmaker feeling a bit overwhelmed. Shot over several years, Bing was determined to close the picture with a happy ending, even if it killed him. He did and it didn’t.

Minding the Gap screens Tuesday, April 24 at 6:15 p.m.

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Contributions Rockford, IL gave the world:

Susan Saint James

Aidan Quinn

Barbara Hale

Cheap Trick

Porn star Ginger Lynn Allen

Female wrestler/manager Gorgeous George

None

April 30, 2018
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