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Ryuichi Hiroki's
Love on a Sunday and Love on a Sunday 2: Last Words (Japan 2007)
Subway Cinema Presents 7th New York Asian Film Festival
June 20 - July 6, 2006

Starring: Maki Horikita; Shunsuke Kubozuka; and Saki Takaoka.

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

While a lot of Japanese teen movies, many of them based on manga, are high drama fantasies, the New York Asian Film Festival offered American audiences a new angle on Japanese teen dramas by screening two touching works by director Ryuichi Hiroki: Love On A Sunday and Love On A Sunday 2: Last Words.
In Love On A Sunday, Akira (Takami Mizuhashi) is about to leave her provincial town to move Tokyo. She’s hoping to spend her last night with her childhood friend Nao (Ryuya Nakabo), hoping to finally declare her love for him. Unfortunately, Nao’s more interested in popular girl Tamaki, who’s suddenly interested in Nao. But she’s only toying with him to hurt Akira, since Tamaki’s ex, Gaku dumped her for Akira. When Akira finds this out, she’s determined to prevent Nao from getting hurt at any cost.

From here on, something extraordinary happens. A gavotte of sexual and emotional gamesmanship worthy of Dangerous Liaisons unfolds, all through the filter of adolescent insecurity and longing. Of course, there’s no Valmont in this equation, in keeping with Hiroki’s commitment to teen verité, the boys remain clueless, while the girls know exactly what’s going on.

Hiroki tends to keep his camera at a certain distance, letting the complex interplay between characters unfold from a subtle yet omniscient distance. Mizuhashi delivers an incredibly strong and nuanced performance, all coltish awkwardness and nostalgic introspection. Her chemistry with Nakabo is lively and charming.

In spite of the stereotypical angsty and immature adolescent antics on display in this game, Hiroki never insults his characters, and offers them moments of ebullient joy. When two characters make a mad dash toward the future through the halls of their school, it’s a beautiful tribute to youthful optimism and exuberance.

Hiroki continues to explore the tribulations of the young heart, in the sequel Love On A Sunday 2: Last Words, a new story of nostalgia and unfulfilled dreams in small-town Japan. Nagisa (Maki Horikita) finds out she’s got six months to live, so she decides to go back to her rural hometown to visit an older boy she’s always carried a torch for. She’s hoping to fall in love ad revisit her childhood memories. When it becomes apparent he still thinks of her as a kid, she acts out and becomes sullen, but then tries to make the most of the time she has left.
The strength of the film hangs on Horikita’s incredible performance. She vacillates between sullen impulsiveness, mournful dejection, and romantic idealism. She holds close-ups with the professionalism of a much more seasoned actor, and manages to convey a subtlety and depth of emotion.

An example of Horikita’s extreme talent occurs late in Last Words, when in an exhilarating long take, Nagisa gets to live out her childhood dream of being a bus tour guide, narrating her memories while slowly breaking down. It’s a beautiful and poignant moment that makes one hope that well be seeing a lot more of Hiroki’s work in the future.

For more information about the Asian Film Festival, log onto:

Kim Mee-Jung’s
Shadows In the Palace (Korea, 2007)
Subway Cinema Presents 7th New York Asian Film Festival
June 20 - July 6, 2006

Starring: Park Jin-Hee; Yun Se-Ah; and Lim Jeong-Eun.

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

Something’s rotten in the King’s household in Shadows in the Palace, first-time director Kim Mee-Jung’s taut, elegant period thriller about the machinations of the female members of the royal court.

Since his Queen has been unable to give him an heir, the King’s been considering legitimizing his son by his concubine Hee-Bin (Yoon See-Ah). The Queen and the Queen Mother are naturally against this move, while Hee-Bin sees it as her only chance to protect herself and her courtiers in her old age. The women on each staff are trying to do everything to forward their mistresses’ causes. When one of Hee-Bin’s maids is found hanging from the rafters, court nurse Chun-Ryung (Park Jin-hee) is determined to investigate the death, despite the fact that the women of the palace are determined to keep the truth buried.

The procedural is fascinating to watch: the forensic techniques Chyun-Rung uses (the film is set in the Jesong dynasty) are fascinating and surprisingly advanced. Jin-hee’s performance is all staunch determination and righteous indignation. The rest of the strong, almost exclusively female, cast does a fantastic job maintaining the level of high drama and intrigue. Their confrontations are vicious, calculating and often chillingly violent – and a heck of a lot of fun to watch.

There are enough twists and surprises to keep the audience engaged, but at over two hours long, the big secrets become apparent a little too soon in the plot. Mee-Jung makes up for it with a stunningly heart-racing and shocking ending that’s a powerful testimony to the power of female will and solidarity in this supposedly male-dominated arena. In the world of Shadows in the Palace, behind one great man are hundreds of greater, stronger women, pursuing their own agendas with all their might.

For more information about the Asian Film Festival, log onto:

Hitoshi Yazaki's
Strawberry Shortcakes (Japan, 2006)
Subway Cinema Presents 7th New York Asian Film Festival
June 20 - July 6, 2006

Starring: Chizuru Ikewaki; Noriko Nakagoshi; Yuko Nakamura: Toko Iwase; Ryo Kase; and Masanobu Ando.

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

A girl is dragged down the street holding on to a boy’s ankle. She’s in her pajamas, her hair wild, crying.

“If you don’t like me anymore, I’ll try harder to make you like me,” she wails. “Even if you hate me I’ll try my best to make you like me! Don’t dump me, I’m begging you!”

“Get lost!” the boy says, as he kicks her to the ground.”

For any woman watching, it’s a wickedly parodic moment. But it’s also painfully, horribly, cringe-inducingly real.

So begins Strawberry Shortcakes, Hitoshi Yazaki’s brutally honest, poignantly tender and realistic look at the existential challenges facing the modern urban woman, which made its Manhattan debut at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

The Festival is branding Strawberry Shortcakes as “the movie Sex and The City should have been.” But while the story, based on the popular manga "Sweet Cream and Red Strawberries," has little in common with the Manolo-clad megafranchise so familiar on these shores. Only one pair of shoes feature prominently in Strawberry Shortcakes. And when a band of women walk down a street, arms linked, clad in little black dresses, it’s a bunch of hookers going out for noodles after their boss’ funeral.

If the show that brought us SJP and her flower corsages trumpeted itself as a celebration of city women and their close-knit friendships, Strawberry Shortcakes brings a more troubled, raw and sophisticated look at young women navigating life’s tribulations.

Satoko (Ikewaki Chizuru), the girl from the opening scene, works as the receptionist for the Heaven’s Gate escort service. At night she prays to a stone she believes is the form of God to bring her a boyfriend, while trying to overcome her insecurities about her looks. She strikes a tenuous, unlikely friendship with the existentially depressed Akiyo, the most in-demand prostitute in Heavens Gate, who puts on her jeans and nerdy glasses to go visit a university classmate she’s crazy about, and who doesn’t know how she makes her money.

Satoko works a second job as a noodle shop, where Chihiro, an office girl, is a frequent client. Chihiro is so desperate to get married she lets her noncommittal boyfriend treat her like a doormat and sucks up to every man at work, much to the scorn of her female colleagues. Meanwhile, her roommate, the artist Toko (Iwase Toko, author of "Sweet Cream and Red Strawberries," in her first and extremely impressive film role) tries to complete her unique vision of God for a freelance assignment while she pretends she doesn’t care about her break-up six months ago and ties to rid herself of her inner demons.

All four women defy, easy, stereotypical categorization; Hitoshi Yazaki takes the time and unusual visual details to introduce us to each character as fully formed individuals. We know almost everything there is to know about Akiyo when, in a single shot, we learn that she sleeps in wooden coffin with a goldfish tank perched above it. Similarly, an overhead shot of Toko, her thong peaking out as she bends over a canvas, points to an indefinable element of her character that’s never fully explored, a mystery left for the audience to ponder.

The most extraordinary thing about Strawberry Shortcakes is the viscerally honest way it depicts the pitfalls of women’s friendships and the awkward sexuality of one’s twenty-something years. Toko reads Chihiro’s diary as she indifferently masturbates – is this out of jealously, lust, or something in between? Rejected by her boyfriend on her birthday, Chihiro resorts to an awkward one-night stand with the noodle shop owner, only to have him come on her face while singing “Happy Birthday” to her. These awkward moments, so real and recognizable, are what make the film so empathetic and powerful.

“You know, I really hated you,” one roommate says to another towards the end of the film. “I really hated you too,” the other replies, moments before they laugh and embrace. It’s moments like this that so many chick flicks get wrong, and this one nails perfectly. If you get the chance to see Strawberry Shortcakes, bring your best girlfriend along, and when it’s over, give her a hug.

For more information about the Asian Film Festival, log onto:

Kenta Fukaskau’s
(Japan, 2007)
Subway Cinema Presents 7th New York Asian Film Festival
June 20 - July 6, 2006

Starring: Nao Matsushita; Ami Suzuki; and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi.

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

They say a man can’t resist a great pair of gams, but the men of the remote Japanese village in Kenta Fukaskau’s X-Cross prefer their women one-legged. It’s an ancient tradition that two Tokyo girls must try and escape in this alternately chilling and laugh-out-loud riotous horror flick.

Recently dumped good girl Shiyori (Nao Matsushita) and her slutty friend Aiko (Ami Suzuki) find their vacation spoiled when they learn that their hosts are after their limbs. Separated from each other, Shiyori tries to figure out who she can trust and escape with the aid of a mysterious stranger on the other end of the cell phone while Aoki has to fend off the crazed love child of Edward Scissorhands and a harajyuku girl.

The fractured narrative, alternately telling the story from each girl’s point of view, builds up a tension. There’s plenty of suspenseful chase scenes, and the depictions of the town’s odd and creepy ritual have a gory, almost medieval beauty. But in addition to the thrills and chills, the movie has a powerful B-story about the importance of female unity in spite of petty fights and superficial differences that’s refreshing and empowering to watch. A horror flick this entertaining and unique hasn’t come along in quite a while, and hopefully American audiences will get to see a lot more of Fukasaku’s twisted vision on our screens.

For more information about the Asian Film Festival, log onto:


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