In 2016, mad genius Anno Hideaki took time off from his twenty-year-long project of remixing, remaking, revising, and reinterpreting his classic anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion to reboot the world’s most popular kaiju franchise with Shin Godzilla. A hit at home and an instant cult favorite in the US, Shin Godzilla was the first in a projected trilogy of reboots of beloved properties of post-war Japanese science fiction (specifically the tokusatsu genre, in which the emphasis is on practical special effects), with this year’s Shin Ultraman to be followed by Shin Kamen Rider supposedly in 2023 (though given Anno’s history with deadlines, who knows when we’ll get to see it). Unlike American attempts at Godzilla films, Anno and his co-writer and director Shinji Higuchi, are more interested in using special effects creatively than obsessively chasing after verisimilitude. Thus their films have a charm lacking in Hollywood effects movies: they effectively balance the retro appeal of the original ‘50s and ‘60s products with modern techniques and approaches to storytelling without devolving into intentional campiness or condescending quaintness.
In Shin Godzilla, Anno and Higuchi mixed their increasingly dire monster movie disasters with a healthy and often hilarious satire of bureaucracy and humanity’s near inability to cope with the unimaginable. As the follow-up, Shin Ultraman slims down its cast from the first film, to the relief of subtitlers everywhere no longer required to transcribe massive amounts of on-screen text listing job titles and locations with every cut. Instead, after a quick prologue that runs us through the recent history of various monster attacks (“for some reason they only seem to attack Japan,” one functionary muses) it focuses primarily on Japan’s new anti-kaiju task force, led by Drive My Car star Nishijima Hidetoshi. The new woman on the team is played by Nagasawa Masami, who has Godzilla experience dating back to the early 2000s (and also has starred in films by Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Hirokazu Kore-eda, as well as last year’s Detective Chinatown 3). She tries to strike up a friendship with her new partner (Saitoh Takumi), but he seems a bit weird. It turns out that’s because he’s the human form of Ultraman, a giant space being who mysteriously appears at key moments to defend humanity from the various attacking kaiju.
The film is episodic in structure, with first kaiju and then various extraterrestrials who are attempting to either enslave or destroy the Earth setting up challenges for the human team to figure out and/or Ultraman to solve with his various wondrous abilities. There’s a lot of breathless talk about magic elements like Spacium 133 and unexpected numbers of dimensions. But it all basically boils down to the fact that Ultraman thinks people are worth saving, while the rest of the universe sees us as raw material, basic resources for advanced weapons (in this respect, it reminds of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Silver Surfer). In place of Shin Godzilla’s critique of bureaucracy, there’s a throughline about individualism versus teamwork, as every member of the task force turns out to be key to saving both humanity and Ultraman himself (even the guy who repeatedly wonders what the point of learning anything is in a universe where humanity is so hopelessly ignorant). And Higuchi (taking sole directorial credit this time, with Anno credited as writer and co-editor) gives us a profusion of hilariously weird shots of people sitting around offices talking to each other. The compositions come from overhead at odd angles, or from the side through a crook in an elbow or the arm of a chair, or from far below, at the point of view of a keyboard or computer screen or the inside of a bag of chips. There’s not exactly any particular reason for these perspectives, or for the fact that Higuchi and Anno hyperactively cut from one to another within a scene seemingly at random, other than to liven up what could otherwise be lengthy scenes of incomprehensible exposition. But it’s tremendously slick and entertaining, and that, above all, is indicative of what’s so vital about Shin Ultraman: it’s simply the most fun movie I’ve seen in quite a long time.
Writer: Sean Gilman
Edward Yang’s 1986 film Terrorizers is an opaque, elliptical portrait of overwhelming ennui in a then modern-day Taipei, and one of the earliest examples of what would become known as a “network narrative,” the everyone-is-connected storytelling technique that reached its nadir with Paul Haggis’ Crash and Alejandro González Inarritu’s Babel. Ho Wi-Ding’s Terrorizers faces an uphill battle, then, attempting not only to reference and update Yang’s bonafide masterpiece, but also to revitalize this largely passé mode that has long been relegated to Oscar bait also-rans. The film begins promisingly enough; Xiao Zhang (JC Lin) has returned to the city after years away and reconnects with Yu Fang (Moon Lee), a young woman he once had a schoolboy crush on. As they begin a tentative courtship, we are introduced to other figures orbiting the periphery of their story, including Yu Fang’s father and his new, significantly younger fiancé; a teenaged girl named Kiki (Yao Ai Ning) who works at the restaurant that Xiao Zhang cooks in, and a man who appears at first to be Yu Fang’s ex-boyfriend, Ming Liang (Austin Lin). As Xiao Zhang and Yu Fang prepare to board a train for a weekend getaway, Ming Liang attacks them with a sword, injuring Xiao in the process. At this point, the film rewinds and proceeds to retell the preceding narrative beats (which occupy roughly 25 of the movie’s 127 minutes) from the different perspectives of each of these characters, as well as a former cam-girl named Monica (Annie Chen) and her ex-boyfriend, who both become integral to the plot.
As the story expands and becomes more complicated, more details are revealed about all of these people and their interlocked destinies. Kiki is actually an aspiring cosplayer who breaks into empty condos with a friend and makes sexually charged prank phone calls. Monica is trying to leave her past behind her and transition into “respectable” acting work, but debt compels her back into her ex’s orbit. Yu Fang is revealed to be a deeply damaged woman spiraling at the news that her new step-mother is pregnant, convinced that this baby will further isolate her from her father. Eventually, Monica and Yu Fang meet at an audition and become fast friends, while the menacing Ming Liang lurks in the background and becomes entangled with both an aged, alcoholic masseuse and young Kiki.
Ho handles this potentially confusing narrative overload with clarity, maneuvering the various pieces into place with clockwork precision. But for all the film’s fine formal elements and complicated structure, it possesses a pat psychology that cheapens the overall project. The biggest issue is that Ming Liang gradually emerges from the ensemble to become the main character, or at least the main motivating factor behind everyone else’s actions. But he’s less a fully fleshed-out person than an unpleasant collection of cliches, a quiet introvert who becomes obsessed at different points with Yu Fang, Kiki, and, finally, Monica, watching porn and masturbating when he’s not playing video games. The cause-and-effect that Ho lays out is disingenuous, an afterschool special that checks off various “won’t somebody think of the children” moral panics while expending much of its energy trying to explain the psychology of a violent incel. What emerges is a how-we-live-now statement that eschews Yang’s subtleties for blunt force simplicity. Eventually all of these threads coalesce back at their starting point — the attack and its immediate aftermath — at which point Ho affixes another chunk of narrative detailing the fallout of a recently revealed romantic entanglement. At its best, Terrorizers can feel almost like a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, chronicling characters adrift in modernity and looking for connections in their various screens. But at its worst, this is just a Men, Women & Children retread, another belated attempt to tap the zeitgeist that falls flat and lasts an interminable two-plus hours.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Jeong Ga-young has spent the past several years carving out a space for herself on the fringes of the international festival circuit with films like The Bitch on the Beach, Hit the Night, and Heart. With these meta-cinematic romantic comedies, often starring herself as a hard-drinking, straight-talking filmmaker with a complex love life, Jeong has done as much as anyone to define a new kind of post-Hong romantic cinema. But now, with Nothing Serious, she’s taken on a co-writer (Wang Hye-ji) and moved decidedly into the mainstream for a bright, colorful, resolutely conventional, but utterly entertaining romantic comedy.
Jeon Jong-seo, who memorably made her debut a few years ago in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, plays a 29-year-old woman who loves drinking and sex and is distressed by the fact that her ex-boyfriend — they split up 3 years ago but have been still regularly hooking up ever since — is getting married. On a whim she tries out a dating app, where she is matched with Son Seok-koo, a writer who has just been assigned to his magazine’s sex column, to his never-ending embarrassment. He too is getting over a break-up, and the couple bond over a shared love of drinking soju and asking weird questions. He writes about their relationship in his column (keeping everyone’s anonymity), and it becomes a smash hit. But when she finds out about the columns, she ditches him. Will they find love in the end?
Of course they will. Because this is structured precisely as the movie you think it’s going to be. The only nod to Jeong’s indie roots comes in the dialogue’s explicit and frequent sexual references and profanity, giving the film something of the subversive charm of Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People or Bachelorette, or Pang Ho-cheung’s Love in a Puff and its sequels, similarly conventional films that breathed new life into old story structures with a linguistic frankness denied to filmmakers of earlier generations. As the Hollywood romantic comedy has spent the last decade and a half all but completely mired in the amiably structureless cul-de-sac of ad-libbed Apatovianism (what would we have to show for ourselves without Nancy Myers?), Jeong’s turn to professionalism doesn’t rankle as much as it might have in more interesting times. Nothing Serious lacks the streak of deep-seated loathing (directed both inward and outward) or the riffs on life in front of and behind the camera, of her grittier early films, but it does, like the recent films of Ohku Akiko, capture something of the loneliness of being a single person in an increasingly interconnected and yet unavoidably artificial world. She’s simply too smart a filmmaker to make anything less than interesting, and thanks to a bigger budget and charming stars (Jeon is, if possible, even more electric than she was in Burning), Jeong has given us one of the most purely delightful pop movies in recent memory.
Writer: Sean Gilman
Taiwanese-American filmmaker Arvin Chen‘s previous two features, Au Revoir Taipei (2010) and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (2013), are light, bubbly, visually vibrant variations on romantic comedy, populated with casts of colorful characters and peppered with musical sequences. His third feature, Mama Boy, exhibits these same qualities, but injects considerably more depth and poignancy, much of this thanks to the excellent performance by the Taiwanese star at its center — actress/pop singer Vivian Hsu.
The film’s titular character is Xiao-hong (heartthrob Kai Ko, playing very much against type), a shy, withdrawn fish store employee who lives with his domineering mom Meiling (Yu Tzu-yu), who closely controls nearly all aspects of his life. She constantly exhorts him to find a wife, citing the fact that he’s almost 30 and she won’t be around forever. Meiling sets up a blind date for Xiao-hong with her co-worker’s daughter; given that Xiao-hong has zero game and not the slightest clue of how to talk to women, this date predictably ends in disaster. Xiao-hong’s cousin and co-worker, after hearing about his failed date, takes him to a love hotel with an organized prostitution business, where Xiao-hong can hopefully lose his virginity with one of the escorts in the hotel. But Xiao-hong is no more successful at being a john than at dating; he runs away in a panic just a few minutes into the session. However, through the experience, he becomes drawn to Sister Lele (Vivian Hsu), an older woman who runs the escort business. Xiao-hong subsequently makes frequent return visits to the hotel, pretending to be an escort client when he’s really there to see Sister Lele.
Sister Lele’s story gets as much screen time as Xiao-hong’s, and Hsu’s beautifully soulful performance nicely conveys her character’s weariness and regrets about what her life has become. She has her own son, Weijie (Fandy Fan), an aimless young man who continually runs afoul of loan sharks and gangsters due to his successive get-rich-quick schemes, and who only visits his mother to ask to borrow money. There’s clearly an Oedipal aspect to Xiao-hong and Lele’s almost-but-not-quite romantic relationship, though the film doesn’t lean too heavily on this. There’s also a neatly contrasting symmetry to the mother-son relationships on display, with Meiling being too protective of her son, while Lele isn’t protective enough of hers. If Pedro Almodovar hadn’t already taken the title Parallel Mothers, it could be equally appropriate for this film.
Chen’s visual compositions, aided by ace cinematographer Jake Pollock, are often just as elegantly symmetrical as the plotting. The film’s loveliest sequences are set in the bar Sister Lele frequents, where she and Xiao-hong listen to music and dance. This bar also occasions the touches of magic realism that greatly enhance the pleasurable effects of this frothy confection with a sweet, yet melancholic aftertaste.
Writer: Christopher Bourne
Nounen Rena (Credited as Non) returns with her sophomore feature, writing, directing, and starring in Ribbon, a coming-of-age, Covid-set communion with the precipitate anxieties that lockdown wrought in what could be regarded as a stagflation that swaps economy with temporality. We follow Non’s Itsuka Asakawa as she, like everyone else, is thrust out of routine — specifically for her, art school, and close to the end of her term at that — and thronged into a lowly apartment equipped with miscellaneous supplies, most importantly ribbon, for the foreseeable duration of isolation. It’s a haphazard narrative built on platitudinous expressions of immediacy, ebbing and flowing through repetitive sentiments that meagrely question if we, in fact, have any agency at all. The work utilizes surreal flourishes to invoke gauche symbolism, which ultimately reduces and infantilizes those complex mediations of agency it so tepidly begins to seek intrigue in.
CGI’d ribbon snakes through the air, choreographed to perform indexical emotionality, predictably unfurled during the conclusion of sequences that concern Itsuka’s relationships: to her mother, her father, her sister, her friend. And this is the epitome of the film’s failures: its stilted edit moves incautiously through unthoughtful coverage, assembling a chronology of conflict and resolution that ultimately abbreviates woes and instigates the very temporal abstraction that the thematic core of the work seems intent on confronting. It’s all a bit confounding and more than a little frustrating. More generously, this is perhaps the first Covid film that actually begins to exhume substantial implications of lockdown, but the film seems more intent on the solipsistic character work being done, sidelining the provocations that linger and ultimately letting them fade into the background.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind