Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2018 started on July 19th and is running through July 29th. My thoughts on films from 2015’s festival can be read starting here, 2016’s starting here, and last year’s starting here.
Ramen Shop (Ramen Teh)
Once again I came into Japan Cuts’ opening movie unfamiliar with the director and star and without any frame of reference or preconceptions. And once again I was extremely pleased with the result. Ramen Shop is a wonderful drama where people’s lives are affected in significant ways via food and longing. It parcels its story out slowly, letting everything build from the actions and emotions of the characters in a strong example of showing versus telling. There are admittedly a couple of small oversights and parts where a little more spelling out would have been appropriate, but overall the balance of what’s implied and what’s addressed more explicitly is excellent.
The story of Masato’s (Takumi Saitoh) search for his mother’s estranged family in unfamiliar Singapore is carefully grounded and supported with his love of food and desire to understand more about the recipes that arose from the crossing of his parents cultures, as well as perfect touches of humor from Mark Lee to lighten the atmosphere whenever the film’s in danger of getting too heavy. There are serious, important topics and themes of prejudice, tragedy, acceptance and rejection, the fleeting nature of life, and parts of history often avoided that are handled extremely well, conveyed and addressed with nuance and respect by careful treatment from director Eric Khoo and excellent acting. Saitoh and Beatrice Chien have several particularly difficult, important emotional scenes and both are absolutely fantastic in them.
With the creation and love of food being so integral to the film its depiction is extremely important, and those aspects are incredible. Excellent food photography, just enough explanation of what’s being done and made, and a real sense of of why the characters relate and care so much about the creation of food all work in harmony to make these crucial elements work wonderfully.
The Q&A after the screening was great, with Khoo especially fascinating to listen to as he talked about his goals with the film, the process of working with crews and actors from two countries who couldn’t fully communicate, the uncomfortable topics he wanted to shine some light on, and several other great insights into the films creation. Saitoh was equally gracious and engaged in the conversation, and both stayed for the after party to continue to talk and meet the audience.
Overall this was a great movie and a fun night, and an excellent way to kick off this year’s festival.
Night is Short, Walk On Girl
I don’t know exactly what I expected from Night is Short, Walk On Girl, but this wasn’t it. It follows college student Otome from a friend’s wedding reception out into a weird, epic night of adventures that connect and unfold in unusual, absurd ways. At times it was admittedly a bit too much for me, but I still found it interesting and engaging and it featured clever several surprises that I really should have seen coming, which is always a difficult, wonderful thing to accomplish that I adore. Also, Otome is a wonderfully strong, compelling protagonist.
A friend of mine was initially critical of certain aspects of Ramen Shop but liked it more and more the more she thought about it, and I’m having a similar experience here. It took me by surprise and while I generally enjoyed it immediately parts of it, including certain characters, content, pacing, etc, put me off a bit at first. But the more it settles in my mind and I’m able to digest it all the more I appreciate it. The animation style is striking and unique, going for exaggerated forms for emphasis often while still managing to stay grounded and create a connection with the characters. Despite some of my own conflicted and evolving feelings here Night is Short, Walk On Girl is an easy recommendation that any fan of animation should check out for themselves.
Preceding this was Dreamland a five minute short film showing a constantly evolving cityscape composed of shifting rectangular shapes that felt like a kinetic M.C. Escher vision come to life. It was interesting enough, with the complex, technically precise motion paired well with the score and made for a nice pairing with the main feature.