There is something about unconventional indie films I really appreciate. Filmmakers are able to realize their artistic vision and show the public fresh ideas. Actors have the opportunity to interpret and act out roles that aren’t genre-typical. Viewers are exposed to nonconforming stories that, with a little patience for the avant-garde and the shedding of biased expectation, can reveal cinematic gems and new actors. All of this is often done on considerably lower film budgets than a major movie studio. Don’t get me wrong, not all artistic movies are great. Some are downright awful. However the movies in this review all have a certain ingenuity and quirkiness that make them worth watching.
Country: Japan Year: 2007 Genre: Drama, Comedy, Music
Based on a Japanese novel by Yamada Muneki, this inventive film received the Audience Award at the 2007 New York Asian Film Festival. The story begins when Kawajiri Sho, played by Eita, is informed by his father that he had a 53-year-old aunt, Kawajiri Matsuko, played by Nakatani Miki, who was recently found murdered. His father asks Sho to organize her belongings. While packing up her apartment, the young man pieces together his aunt’s life from neighbors' accounts and the bags of trash and junk strewn all over her studio. As the story unfolds, we learn that she suffered from low self-esteem caused by a negligent father and an ill younger sister who was constantly favored. Matsuko’s lack of self-confidence causes her to make one bad decision after the next. Eventually, the disappointments are too much for Matsuko to bear, and she becomes an eccentric recluse.
I enjoyed how the writers used flashbacks to slowly and creatively feed us Matsuko’s troubled life. Your heart goes out to a woman whose life went so terribly wrong, and even so she managed to make viewers laugh by pulling that odd-ball face. Nakatani really did well portraying the fragility and vulnerability that is so inherent in Matsuko’s character. Eita also convincingly plays the relatable role of a young man who has no direction in life. I enjoyed watching how Sho, in discovering how heartbreakingly empty his aunt’s life became, is able to draw parallels between their lives, and recognizes that he needs to do better. Between the vibrantly-colored cinematography, imaginative scenery shots, stellar acting and the ability to instill dark humor into a tragic story, this movie is impressive.
Country: Japan Year: 2008 Genre: Drama, Life
This is a fantastic coming of age movie depicting life and its challenges through the eyes of a young adult. Suzuko Sato, played by Aoi Yu, is a social misfit who lives in the shadow of her younger brother’s accomplishments. She finds herself sharing an apartment with a co-worker’s apathetic boyfriend, after said co-worker is a no-show on move-in day. Sato and the boyfriend don’t get along, and when he tosses out her pet cat, she retaliates by throwing out his belongings—of which one million yen in cash were among the possessions. She is slapped with a short amount of jail time and as word of her criminal record spreads throughout Suzuko’s neighborhood, she feels increasingly alienated from her parents, neighbors and the world. Consequently, she decides to save one million yen ($10,000/€8,000) with the goal of moving out of her home town and then repeating the pattern from location to location.
Yu Aoi does not disappoint in her portrayal of an unconfident teenager who has difficulty speaking up for herself. However, as she moves from one town to the next, we see Suzuko’s journey of self-discovery and growth, which she shares with her younger brother via postcards. Although she gradually becomes more self-assured, it is still underscored by her avoidance of becoming close to the people around her. At each destination, in addition to reaching her goal of saving one million yen, there is usually a trigger to make her move on. In the seaside town, it’s a romantic interest. In the mountainside village, it’s playing a larger role in the community. In the urban gardening center, where she stays the longest, it’s fear of falling in love with the charming Nakajima, played by Moriyama Mirai. Overall, One Million Yen Girl is an evenly paced drama with enough comedy, in between the moments of self-reflection and mundane realism, to make this film a good light-hearted watch.
Country: South Korea Year: 2009 Genre: Drama, Comedy, Life
This is a unique movie about two social outcasts who find each other by chance. Kim Seung Keun, played by Jung Jae Young, is in debt and recently dumped by his girlfriend. As a result, he attempts suicide off of a bridge. Instead of dying, he washes ashore onto a tiny island in the middle of the river. After several unsuccessful attempts to get off the island, Seung Keun resigns himself to his new existence and even begins to enjoy his shipwrecked status. Meanwhile, Kim Jung Yeon played by Jung Ryeo Won, is a young woman suffering from social phobia who has isolated herself in her high rise apartment for the past three years. One evening while taking photos of the moon, she notices the word “Help” written on the sand of Kim’s island, and later she spies him walking around. What unfolds is a wacky yet meaningful story of a recluse and a castaway as they indirectly interact and take small steps towards confronting their shortcomings and fears.
Jae Young wowed me by credibly playing Seung Keun, a man who already feeling beaten down by life, finds himself in the absurd and ironic situation of being stranded on an island that is in plain view of several nearby high rise buildings in Seoul. How symbolic that in wanting to commit suicide Seung Keun doesn’t die, but he still achieves the end goal of departing from reality. In the end he embraces his situation and makes the environment work for him. Ryeo Won also does exceptionally well playing a recluse with personality. It’s sad to see her shut herself off not only from society, but from her family. Her only connection to the world is the internet and her hobby of studying the moon, which eventually turns into studying Seung Keun, who has become her very own ‘alien.’ Ryeo Won’s self-induced isolation eventually leads to hilarious forays of boldness coupled with paranoia as she attempts to go outside to help her ‘alien.’ This is definitely a film to place on your ‘plan to watch’ list.
Enjoy the weekend!