Category Archives: Foreign

King Kong Escapes (1967, Honda Ishirô)

Despite lacking special effects and a phoned in score from Ifukube Akira (reusing his previous Godzilla themes to various effect), King Kong Escapes has quite a bit of charm to it. The film opens with Kong enthusiasts–really, they’re sitting around drawing pictures of him–Rhodes Reason and Takarada Akira. They’re U.N. submarine guys; U.N. submarines, patrolling the globe, is a thing in Escapes’s reality. Along with a female ship’s doctor, played by Linda Miller, who later in the film screams at the sight of blood. It’s like they forgot she was supposed to be a doctor.

Anyway, the film opens with them and isn’t particularly great. Those lacking effects are imaginative–they have a hovercraft–but there’s just something off about the trio. All the chemistry is between Takarada and Miller, which is great, only for some reason Miller’s always hugging Reason. It’s even established later on Takarada and Miller are a couple. So clearly Toho (and co-producers Rankin/Bass) didn’t think the world was ready for a Japanese guy and a white girl. Sorry, getting ahead once again.

Once the U.N. submarine is established, the action goes to the bad guys and the bad guys are awesome. One of the bad guys is evil scientist, Dr. Who (Amamoto Hideyo), who wears a cape and all of his henchmen have, if not capes, something approximately capes. It’s very, very weird and Amamoto plays it for all its worth. He’s working for beautiful foreign agent, Hama Mie–she’s not Japanese, not Chinese, but from some unidentified Asian nation with enough money to fund Amamoto building a giant King Kong robot. Mechani-Kong. They need a giant robot Kong for mining radioactive materials. The movie spends like fifteen minutes on it, the need for Kong (or Kong facsimiles) to mine. Hama plays it all straight, Amamoto chews through every bit of scenery he can. Somehow, it’s a magic combination. They’re both fantastic throughout the film.

When the action gets back to the U.N. submarine, it’s when they just happen to have to stop at Kong’s island. Escapes’s Kong suit conveys this sad and lonely giant ape. He’s got big, soulful, sad eyes and dejected body language. Some of that dejected body language is because the suit’s terrible, disproportionate and haphazardly detailed enough editor Fujii Ryôhei spends most of his time just trying to cover for the suit looking bad. Lots of questionable cuts, just because the head on the suit often doesn’t match the suit.

Once they’re on the island, director Honda does a bunch of homage to the 1933 King Kong, which is pretty cool. The effects are bad, seeing an adorable King Kong violently defend Miller against the Tyrannosaurus Rex stand-in is jarring, but the location shooting is excellent (and too short) and Honda’s homage is neat.

After the island, there’s a significant lull as Reason makes an address to the U.N. only to be sent right back to the island. Before they get there, Amamoto and his goons go to capture Kong in an amazing action sequence with helicopters and gas bombs and so on. The miniatures are okay, the suit is weak, Honda’s direction is phenomenal.

Eventually the bad guys capture the good guys–and Hama starts having a change of heart because Reason is so hot, but he doesn’t make the goo-goo eyes at her. While it is a bit of a plot hole, Kimura Takeshi’s script has a lot of nonsense going on. It does ruin the one chance to humanize Reason, who’s otherwise a stiff. Amamoto can’t even give his scenes with Reason much of a pulse.

Of course there’s a fight between the two Kongs–in Tokyo, on the Tokyo Tower, amid another Kong ’33 homage from Honda with Takarada as Bruce Cabot and Miller as Fay Wray. It’s all rather well-executed, regardless of the suits. The city and military miniatures are fine. In fact, the big fight scene could’ve easily gone on a bit longer. Escapes just needed a better budget. Honda was ready to do this one.

And Reason needs to go. Or at least be less of a stiff.

Takarada and Miller are both more appealing than good. Outside their chaste romance, they’re just around to make Reason seem important.

King Kong Escapes is goofy, the suits are silly, and Ifukube’s score disappoints (though the revised Godzilla 1954 music for Kong and Miller’s love theme is great). It’s still all right, thanks to Honda taking it so seriously. And Hama and Amamoto. Especially Hama and Amamoto.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Honda Ishirô; written by Kimura Takeshi; director of photography, Koizumi Hajime; edited by Fujii Ryôhei; music by Ifukube Akira; production designer, Kita Takeo; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Rhodes Reason (Commander Carl Nelson), Linda Miller (Lieutenant Susan Watson), Takarada Akira (Lt. Commander Jiro Nomura), Hama Mie (Madame Piranha), and Amamoto Hideyo (Dr. Who).


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Tunnel (2016, Kim Seong-hun)

Tunnel is a small scale disaster movie. It’s also not. It’s about a small scale response to a big disaster. Writer and director Kim takes some time introduce threads about craven reporters, craven government officials, craven capitalists, but most of the movie is lead Ha Jung-woo stuck in a tunnel. The first ninety minutes of the movie move real, real fast. Ha’s stuck in his car in a collapsed vehicular tunnel; it’s 2016 so he’s got a cellphone with some reception and he’s got some water so it’s mostly an unpleasant camping experience for the first act.

Then Kim starts introducing more drama, more tension. There’s the initial terrifying experience–a tunnel collapsing as Ha drives through–but the film quickly finds a rhythm. The cellphone helps; it lets Ha talk to wife Bae Doo-na and rescue chief Oh Dal-su. Because Tunnel’s not an actor’s film. Ha’s role is good, but he doesn’t have any amazing “man stranded under 200 kilometers of mountain” scenes. Kim’s more interested in keeping Tunnel moving, keeping it surprising in its relatively limited narrative space. Kim has some texture scenes in the second act, but the action never goes too far from the tunnel.

Bae does eventually get some great scenes. She never gets to take over the movie though. Kim’s direction, with a handful of character moments, is all about the drama, all about the gimmick. Man trapped in tunnel. And he does an excellent job with it. There’s enough tension inherent in the narrative itself, going down a rabbit hole with Ha or Bae is just going to distract. Instead, there are those great character moments and there’s also a lot gentle symbolism. Kim’s got to engage the audience’s sympathy quickly but he doesn’t want to be cheap about it. Tunnel’s deliberate pace, which gets positively exhausting in the third act, is one of Kim’s best contributions to the narrative. His direction of his script is spot-on.

But all of his direction is spot-on. Tunnel’s not sensational enough to push the limits of disaster movie (it’s anti-sensational) and it’s not introspective enough to be a character study. It’s an effects-filled, restrained disaster thriller.

Great photography from Kim Tae-Sung, especially fantastic editing from Kim Chang-ju. Director Kim makes a conscious choice to abandon Ha in the tunnel occasionally, even when his narrative might apparently be more compelling then the subplots; the pacing of everything has to be just right. And Kim Chang-ju’s editing makes it happen. There’s not just audience expectation, there’s the characters’ expectations too. The tension is insoluble, but still reasonably gentle.

Oh has a great time as the rescue chief. He doesn’t exactly get to be comic relief, but he gets closer than anyone else. But he’s also got to be the audience’s objective viewpoint. He’s got to be reliable. For both audience and characters. It’s kind of serious, kind of not. Oh excels at it.

And Bae is phenomenal towards the end of the picture. She sort of takes the protagonist role–as much as Tunnel has one–from Ha.

Good support from Nam Ji-hyun.

Maybe Tunnel could’ve gone further, but Kim’s ambitions are confidently realized where it goes. It’s just a thriller after all. We can’t always be worried about tunnels coming down….

Can we?

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Seong-hun; director of photography, Kim Tae-Sung; edited by Kim Kim Chang-ju; music by Mok Young-Jin; production designer, Lee Hwo-Kyoung; produced by Billy Acumen and Lee Taek-dong; released by Showbox.

Starring Ha Jung-woo (Lee Jung-soo), Bae Doo-na (Se-hyun), Oh Dal-su (Dae-kyung), and Nam Ji-hyun (Mi-na).


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Shin Godzilla (2016, Higuchi Shinji and Anno Hideaki)

Shin Godzilla is the story of hard-working bureaucrats responding successfully to a national crisis. When the giant monsters invade, you can’t do better than the able public servants of Shin Godzilla.

And for most of the film, directors Higuchi and Anno pull it off. The first act of the film, with the introduction of the unlikely new Godzilla, races–Anno edits with Sato Atsuki and they don’t slow down until it’s time for a full stop. There’s a lot of humor to Shin Godzilla, but it’s entirely for the viewer. The characters don’t get a break or a laugh or even regular smiling. They stoically battle the apocalypse, whether it’s a giant monster or the U.S. government externally unwanted pressure on Japan.

Shin Godzilla avoids politics. Way too much. But it does have this steady mistrust of the United States. It’s too bad too, because the U.S. shows up in the second act with all sorts of Godzilla info and those information dumps are a mess. On one hand, Anno doesn’t want to take the kaiju thing too seriously. He knows he’s got disbelief suspended by this time, so why not rush through some really silly origin stuff. There’s a portents to Shin Godzilla, which the directors pull off (thanks to the actors, thanks to the editing), but Anno doesn’t have a sense of humor about it. After the almost goofy first act–which transitions masterfully into the second act through montage–it seems like Shin is going to be something special.

Except it never gets there. For two hours, the movie keeps promising something more in a few minutes, delivering an almost perfect moment here and there, but always dragging it out. The second act is lead Hasegawa Hiroki dragging the cast of hundreds through the clumsy introduction of new ideas, new mutations, new characters.

Shin Godzilla has a hundred speaking parts. Maybe. It has a lot. It’s this rapid fire political thriller thing, only instead of a nuclear war, they’re fighting this giant monster. Every once in a while, there’s a “Godzilla moment” with the giant monster and the film seems to be moving more towards something to do with Godzilla symbolically. Even self-referentially. Anno and Higuchi use some classic Godzilla music, but they don’t do much else referential. The locations, sure, but it’s supposed to be scary. Godzilla’s supposed to be dangerous.

And Godzilla does do some serious damage, which the film completely ignores in terms of human casualties. There’s maybe one tragic scene, early on, when it seems like Shin Godzilla still might go somewhere else–into the cellphone footage, into the lives of the displaced–but then it doesn’t.

Instead, the film introduces Ishihara Satomi. Ishihara is the half-Japanese, half-white American daughter of a U.S. senator who’s on her way up the ladder in Washington. She’s also a bit of a party girl, because she’s rich. Ishihara does okay with some of the part. She’s bad at the English deliveries, which immediately kills the cinema verite the directors try to keep going. She’s got too much character for the movie and nothing to do with it. If Ishihara were better, the character not be such a drag. But Ishihara’s just fine, not phenomenal. Again, she gets no help from the directors. Maybe one of them told her to play flirty with Hasegawa and the other said not to play flirty with him.

As for Hasegawa, he’s a great lead. His character is a young, bright, impetuous staffer who just wants to do good. He wants to be Justin Trudeau. Ishihara wants to be Hillary. Except to change political analogies, Ishihara’s character is more the Mandy Hampton part.

Everyone else is great because they aren’t in it too much. If the performance is broad, the actor is gone pretty soon. By the time they’re back, they’re now a familiar face and they’re welcome. It perpetuates. It’s a very well made film. Until the third act, at least. The sludge second act seems like it’s building, through monotony maybe, but definitely intensifying. Because it’s so well-made. Then it collapses and Shin Godzilla just gets heavier and heavier.

Anno, in the script, tries to keep it light. He tries to play up the characters as familiar to the audience, but the film’s lost its teeth. If you’re going to deus ex machina, put it in the right spot and don’t try to drag it out two weeks in the present action. Because the directors break Shin Godzilla. For a better part of its runtime, it could’ve gone somewhere. But Anno and Higuchi don’t want to take it anywhere.

Except as a politician positivity message.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Higuchi Shinji and Anno Hideaki; written by Anno; director of photography, Yamada Kosuke; edited by Anno and Sato Atsuki; music by Sagisu Shiro; produced by Satô Yoshihiro, Shibusawa Masaya, Ueda Taichi, and Wadakura Kazutoshi; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Hasegawa Hiroki (Yaguchi), Takenouchi Yutaka (Akasaka), Ishihara Satomi (Kayoko Ann Patterson), Ôsugi Ren (Prime Minister Okochi), Emoto Akira (Azuma), Kôra Kengo (Shimura, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary), Ichikawa Mikako (Ogashira, Deputy Director of Nature Conservation Bureau), Kunimura Jun (Zaizen, Integrated Chief of Staff), Pierre Taki (Saigo, Combat Leader), Shimada Kyûsaku (Katayama, Minister of Foreign Affairs), and Mitsuishi Ken (Kozuka, Governor of Tokyo).


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Three (2016, Johnnie To)

Three is about a dirty cop (Louis Koo), a determined doctor (Zhao Wei), and an injured criminal (Wallace Chung). It’s not real time, but its present action is probably seven hours–in an under ninety minute runtime–so it’s close. Zhao is supposed to be getting more and more tired because she refuses to go home from work. Koo’s getting fed up, Chung should be suffering effects from the bullet lodged in his skull. There should be a lot of tension.

And there isn’t. Even when the script goes out of its way to foreshadow tense sequences, it’s never tense. Director To puts so little time into the performances, it’s impossible to emphasize even superficially with any of the cast. And it’s set in a hospital. There are sick people who should be likable. But To never puts anything into the characters. He’s all about this artificial sense of place. Three’s hospital isn’t nitty gritty or pragmatic and functional. It’s often CG. The ultra wide-angle shots, where the actors all stand around and pretend to be intense, hint at some possibility, but To’s either checked out or just doing a bad job.

The script isn’t good. It goes on and on to get to the big events, whether it’s a shootout or Chung revealing himself to be a genius against Koo’s less and less competent cop. Making Koo corrupt–and his entire character motivation built around it–is one of the lamer aspects of the script. It turns Koo’s character into something of a dope and gives Koo, as an actor, almost nothing to do. Chung’s better because the part–manic, superviolent, supersmart criminal–is better. Chung’s character is the trope too, which is just another problem with the script. Writers Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung, and Mak Tin-shu are terrible with the character stuff. They’re not much better planning out the reveals, but they’re worse with the character stuff.

Yet, To’s good enough at keeping it moving he’s able to move Three over the more glaring problems. Zhao’s unlikable evil doctor–she’s not just an uncaring woman doctor, she’s also an overambitious country girl–is reduced to this absurd, derisive point. The script gives her bad material and then makes it worse. She functions in the film as the scapegoat. And because she’s an ambitious woman it’s even worse.

Watching Three, especially in the third act, really felt like watching something from the early nineties. The slow motion action sequences–which all have something flipping over in the air–and the weak music choices (and score). It wastes a compelling hook–they’re all trapped in a hospital after all–but keeps promising it eventually won’t waste it. Then it does. Watching the movie, you see it run out of steam. Everything catches up and drags it down.

Cheng Siu-Keung’s photography is occasionally great, occasionally not. It’s usually competent and able to keep up with To when it seems like he’s building to some kind of visual pace. He never gets to one. David Richardson’s editing is mundane but competent.

It’s a rather depressing seventy-five minutes; fifteen in is about where it’s clear Three isn’t going to work out. But it’s not clear until the very end just how disappointing it’s going to turn out. And To still does do some interesting things–those wide shots, for example–but it doesn’t matter. The rest of his work is either disinterested or just bad. Three’s a stinker.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Johnnie To; written by Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung, and Mak Tin-shu; director of photography, Cheng Siu-keung; edited by David Richardson; music by Xavier Jamaux; production designer, Cheung Siu-hong; produced by To and Yau; released by Media Asia Film.

Starring Zhao Wei (Dr. Tong), Louis Koo (Chief Inspector Ken), Wallace Chung (Shun), Lo Hoi-pang (Chung), Cheung Siu-fai (Dr. Fok), and Lam Suet (Fatty).


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