In a bleak, post-Trump reality wherein nationalist hogwash has pervaded casual discourse, Yû Irie’s Ninja Girl reflects the kind of right-minded rhetoric that the world could do with more of. It also, unfortunately, realizes the kind of facile, lightweight logic all such binary idiocy is founded upon, and so its preschool-level sermonizing doesn’t land with much oomph. The film concerns a Japanese community seeking to enact xenophobic legislature under the auspices of Covid safety protocols, an early-film bit of election propaganda signage reading “Yes to the Immigrant Elimination Ordinance.” The film’s sweeping condemnation of this sentiment comes in the form of ineffectual outcast Miu (Saki Fukuda), a pencil-pushing government bureaucrat who, after her grandfather elucidates the ethical evil of the ordinance and the family’s enduring legacy as moral warriors, internalizes her crisis of conscience and subsequently becomes an expert markswoman of poisoned blow darts who seeks righteous vengeance upon the bigoted hometown cronies. There’s also something of a love (tri)angle to the whole thing, but it’s so superfluous as to be easily left unmentioned were it not for its shoehorned but notable coda. So, mentioned; moving on.
The result is undoubtedly silly, but it’s not initially without its own campy potential. Early on, the film seems like it might work as a send-up of the weirdo-with-a-purpose genre flick, as if Miu’s lifelong mousiness might spontaneously erupt into full (playful, of course) psychopathy along the way. And there’s a bevy of stuffy, suited-up mouthpieces of hive-mind regionalism, casually evil enough to engender dreams of municipal carnage from so disposed viewers. But such pleasures represent only a dream for Ninja Girl, one that quickly fades as things skew more toward outre comedic shlock a la Napoleon Dynamite, a film whose meme-ready character could never have been leveraged to the ends of socio-political commentary). This mode comes replete with a light EDM-backed training montage, as Miu drinks some presumably protein-rich goop and becomes a slight master of straw-assisted assassinship, and some sweet Spaghetti Western musical stylings during a climactic reckoning sequence. And the whole thing is shot in some washed-out color or another, further muting any sort of playfulness the film so obviously seeks to embody. And just in case the intended tenor ever gets away from the viewer, there are multiple interludes of Miu practicing some goofy ninja moves on her back patio.
It’s all sweet enough, and it’s admittedly tough to shit on a film so earnest in its moral rectitude — especially in an era where such common-sense decency can’t be taken for granted. But there’s no denying the odd pairing of Ninja Girl’s palpable (if bottom-barrel) didacticism with its overt cartoonishness, perhaps most fully realized in the aforementioned coda when Miu’s skeezy, one-time love interest is eye-stabbed for his wrong-doings, before Family Guy-style tumbling down a hill, including multiple cuts; there hasn’t been a worse such sequence since the WOAT-contender Lone Survivor. Still, that film reminds that jingoism is always more evil than any easy rejection of it, and so Irie’s film at least situates itself on the “right” side of what’s essentially the same coin. But in a present reality where such blatant degeneracy as xenophobia has found ample space to thrive and proliferate, and especially when a filmmaker isn’t accomplishing much from a formal or intellectual perspective, you have to do better than shooting down such ills with a blow dart. The stakes, depressingly, just can’t be left that low.
Writer: Luke Gorham
It might surprise Western viewers watching the raw portrait of youth in Snowball to learn that its writer/director Lee Woo-jung has spent the last decade penning smash-hit K-dramas alongside star producer/director Shin Won-ho. The duo’s television work, like the nostalgic slice-of-life Reply trilogy and their most recent Grey’s Anatomy-styled Hospital Playlist (all available on U.S. Netflix), are slick and heartwarming rating juggernauts in South Korea. Snowball, on the other hand, is sparse and unnerving, calling to mind the stark realism of last year’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. While it’s common to see K-pop stars populate Lee’s television casts, the presence of Bang Min-ah (better known as Minah of the group Girl’s Day) is yet another surprise, as the singer, whose only other film credit has been the weepy melodrama Holly, delivers a fascinating and nuanced performance in the lead role.
The story is told through flashback, framed by the voice-over narration of high school student Kang-yi (Bang Min-ah) on a lonely train ride, describing her two best friends Ah-ram (Shim Dal-gi) and So-young (Han Sung-min). Fragments showing the three in school give way to them escaping from its strict structures and carousing in the streets of Seoul, renting rooms for the night, or sleeping in the street instead of returning home. On one of these returns, we catch a glimpse of Kang-yi’s homelife, a comfortable middle-class existence with aloof but seemingly well-meaning parents uncertain what it takes to keep their daughter at home. While we never see the other girl’s parents, enough background is dropped for us to get a sense of the dynamics: So-young’s parents coddle her with presents on each return, while Ah-ram is physically abused for it.
Heightened by undercurrents of class consciousness, the girls’ respective situations straddle opposing ends, with Kang-yi’s in the middle; while Ah-ram runs away out of a sense of desperation and the prim So-young does so out of boredom, Kang-yi’s decision is caught in between these two impulses. A moment of sexual experimentation between her and So-young further complicates matters, as the feelings between them oscillate from friendship to desire, and finally into a hostility that threatens to rip their friendship apart. Lee captures the pivotal moment with stunning restraint —the girls sleep on the floor in a sweltering apartment, Kang-yi wakes and walks to the fridge to have some Baskin-Robbins as relief, and when she returns, So-young has taken off her shirt. The sound of the ice cream spoon clacking against her teeth from the previous scene plays over the silence as Kang-yi removes her own shirt and sidles down to watch the beads of sweat cascade down the arc of So-young’s shoulder. Moments like this highlight Lee’s directorial command in a film that doesn’t call attention to itself apart from its mesmeric editing that sharply cuts across days and weeks and months without ever losing cohesion.
Lee’s sparse and intimate narrative of youth on the precipice would make a fascinating double-bill with another fantastic South Korean film: Kwon Min-pyo and Seo Han-sol’s Short Vacation, which played at this year’s Berlinale. While the latter tells the story of middle schoolers finding themselves faced with the transition from childhood to adolescence, Snowball captures the intense growing pains of the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. As the second half of the film pushes towards uncomfortable extremes, Lee zeroes in on a universal brand of teenage alienation, as riveting and elemental as James Dean’s quivering breakdown in Rebel Without a Cause. Much like the Nicholas Ray classic, the film’s effectiveness is tied wholesale to the performance of its lead, with Bang Min-ah’s finely tuned expressions of inner turmoil bringing Lee’s world to life.
Writer: Igor Fishman
Snakehead starts with a rather deceptively benign premise that promises a much more generic film than is actually on offer. A Chinese immigrant gets mixed up with human trafficking while attempting to make a better life for herself and her family, blah blah. What ends up on screen, however, is more of a tight, pulpy thriller with a minimum of exposition, some economical performances, and an exhibition of shrewd cinematography.
Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) arrives in New York illegally, in a cargo container. Years ago, she abandoned her infant daughter to send her to America, and now she’s here in a perhaps futile attempt at redemption. But she’s also in debt to the cartel of smugglers that delivered her, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Indentured servitude is one thing, but Tse immediately displays to her “keepers” that she’s more than just a janitor or prospective sex worker, and pretty soon she’s running increasingly shadier errands for local boss Dai Mah (the legendary Jade Wu) and her dangerously foolish son, Rambo (Sung Kang).
Chang’s performance is truly remarkable, a portrayal of a woman who’s able to cross moral boundaries not because she’s ambivalent or unfeeling, but because she’s singularly intent on survival. This ultimately does not become a story of redemption or of justice, but of simple pragmatism, and the tiny acts of trust and kindness that ambition affords. As Tse’s relationship with Dai Mah deepens, of course, ripples appear in the stream (especially as regards a friendly family Tse wants to help get into the country without the burden of debt), and eventually even some bodies start to stack up, but she never wavers, and Chang manages to stay almost monotonous in her affect and posture with only micro changes in expression. (Hopefully, this role brings about some real clout for her.)
Director Evan Jackson Leong knows his muscle here, and he makes the most of his lead actress. The camera rarely ever shies from her countenance or her purposeful walk or her steely eyes. Even when the other characters seem dangerous (especially Kang, in a small but crucial role as a sort of Elmore Leonard-style antagonist, deadly because of his stupidity), or when Tse appears trapped, Leong centers the compositions on his leading lady; it’s her decisions that will ultimately steer the narrative and the images. It’s just one of several critical decisions that sets Snakehead apart from so many similarly-shaped narratives.
Writer: Matt Lynch
Time, Ricky Ko’s debut feature after a decade of assistant directing, opens with its splashiest and most exciting sequence. Featuring a male and female assassin, along with their getaway driver, executing a hit, the scene utilizes comic-book freeze-frames in a sly homage to ’60s and ’70s Hong Kong action flicks. However, the film then flashes forward decades later, and shifts gears to the much slower, more ruminative mode that’s more typical of the rest of the film. The intervening years haven’t been very kind to this trio of contract killers. Chau (Patrick Tse) is now a humble noodle chef working in a cheap restaurant, who’s eventually replaced by a soup-making machine that can churn out bowls at a much faster pace. Mrs. Fung (Petrina Fung) runs a cabaret where she performs oldies on stage nightly; in her home life, she’s saddled with a shiftless son and his shrewish wife, who insists that Mrs. Fung belongs in a nursing home. Getaway driver Chung (Lam Suet) is an underemployed security guard harboring a delusional notion of marrying the much younger happy-ending masseuse he frequents, wishing to take her away from that life.
As a way to earn extra money, as well as to enliven their drab existences, the three revive their murder-for-hire careers, this time establishing a business they call “Guardian Angels of the Elders,” a euthanasia service for infirm or depressed older folks who wish to hasten their inevitable passage to the afterlife. Chau is the one sent to carry out these assisted suicides, using his trusty, steely curved blade. Things get complicated when Tsz-ying (Chung Suet-ying), a teenage girl, attempts to use the service, distraught and suicidal over an asshole boyfriend who knocked her up and then ghosted her. Thwarted in her desire to kill herself, she then tries to make Chau into some sort of surrogate father.
Time ultimately proves to be a modestly genial dramedy, injected with commentary on the neglect of, and inadequate social services for, Hong Kong’s elderly citizens. However, it doesn’t push so hard on this that it disrupts the film’s low-key, rambling mood. The presence of beloved veteran actors Tse and Fung evoke nostalgia for classic Hong Kong cinema, and the addition of the much younger Suet (a delightful character actor whom fans of Johnnie To’s films will quickly recognize), makes for a pleasant viewing experience. And even if all this doesn’t add up to anything terribly significant, one won’t feel as if they’ve wasted any of the titular commodity.
Writer: Christopher Bourne
New rom-com The Con-Heartist comes courtesy of director Mez Tharatorn, a filmmaker who made a name for himself in his native Thailand with 2012’s blockbuster ATM: Er Rak Error. While he has yet to parlay that homegrown acclaim into larger international success, that might change with his latest venture, a candy-colored, high-concept flick that has all the markings of a crowd-pleaser. The director has a suitably endearing and painfully modern/relatable protagonist in Ina (Pimchanok Leuwisetpaiboon), a twenty-something college grad drowning in debt whose five-year plan for financial recovery hits a potential snag when she encounters low-level con-artist Tower (Nadech Kugimiya). Smart enough to see through his initial ruse, Ina blackmails Tower into helping her get revenge on a former lover, Petch (Thiti Mahayotaruk), a duplicitous dirtbag who dumped her a year before and absconded with a small fortune, leaving Ina in her current financial predicament. With two other cohorts in tow — money-strapped school teacher Ms. Nongnuch (Kathaleeya McIntosh) and “human ghost” Jone (Pongsatorn Jongwilak) — Ina and Tower plot an elaborate con that will naturally spin out of control, with all of the requisite double- and triple-crosses that are hallmarks of this particular genre. In the process, the two may just fall in love…that is, if anyone is to be trusted.
The Con-Heartist, in tenor, is closer to a big Bollywood flick than your average Hollywood studio fare; from the whooshing camera movements to the overexaggerated sound effects to the hyperactive editing and absolutely bonkers musical cues, it plays like a live-action cartoon where “realism” is a complete afterthought. Given such bombast, it’s easy to imagine some viewers being turned off by the outre theatrics, but the tone is consistent throughout, lending an infectious spirit to the proceedings that is fairly irresistible, thanks in no small part to the pair of likeable leads in Leuwisetpaiboon and Kugimiya. The latter, for his part, might be readily known outside of Thailand, but on the strength of his charismatic performance here, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn he is one of his country’s biggest stars. Leuwisetpaiboon, meanwhile, smartly commits to keeping her character just off-center enough to prove compelling.
Almost perversely, however, despite billing itself as a romantic comedy, the relationship between the pair is barely developed, making the requisite happy ending ring more than a little hollow. For both better and worse, The Con-Heartist is far more concerned with its con game trappings and a series of over-the-top digressions — including a lisping hotel manager who sprays spectators with an abundance of CGI spit — and while its narrative maneuvers are clever enough to keep things engrossing, they’re not entirely surprising. Tharatorn and co. at least deserve credit for an epilogue that actually uses the COVID pandemic in an organic and amusing way, a true rarity in post-2020 cinema. The Con-Heartist isn’t ultimately much more than broad entertainment, pure escapist play, but taken on those terms, it should be considered remarkably successful. In other words, it seems not unlikely that there will be an American remake of this within the next five years; it will star Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds, retain its cornball title, and make a small fortune. That prediction fairly suggests all possible praise and criticism of The Con-Heartist.
Writer: Steven Warner