OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen.
For a film with such a forceful and felt political message, Eternal Spring could have gone into much more depth about the politics surrounding the persecution of Falun Gong. Director Jason Loftus opts neither to detail the internal processes of then- PRC president and CCP general secretary Jiang Zemin’s government, when it moved to ban Falun Gong in 1999, nor to address the various stigmatizations that the media — both inside and outside China — have used to discredit the movement, resulting in a tone that comes off like pure, unabashed propaganda.
The sad thing is that the one-sided account this film gives of an unprovoked genocide perpetrated (and continued today) by the CCP is largely true — it just requires additional context to really believe and understand. For instance, it would be beneficial to know how weak Jiang Zemin’s base of power was at the time of his unexpected ascendency to general secretary as a compromise candidate after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre (an uncommonly huge promotion from his previous position as Shanghai Party secretary), and how Jiang saw the growing scale of Falun Gong as an excuse to create and exercise a military authority modeled on that which effectively crushed the Tiananmen protests a decade earlier. Similarly, Loftus could have referenced the many articles published by official Chinese media before Jiang’s 1999 ban, which lavished praise on the health and spiritual benefits of practicing Falun Gong, and even referenced testimonials from high-ranking Party officials. Lastly, the point this film is making might have been considerably more credible had Loftus acknowledged some of the criticism Falun Gong has received — whether that means addressing the “cult”-like rhetoric of some practitioners or getting into the motivations behind their staunch, very public anti-CCP stance.
On the other hand, one could argue there’s a certain justice in the approach here: Just as State-run media under Jiang launched a campaign to aggressively slander Falun Gong in the broadest and most unsubstantiated of terms, Eternal Spring leads with the uncomplicated message that “Falun Gong is good,” and produces its own counter-propaganda that’s probably coercive enough to reach the minds of some who need that kind of forced reprogramming. Unfortunately, a justified approach is not the same as a cinematically compelling one, and even taken as a blatant message-movie, Eternal Spring doesn’t really hold together: Loftus chases the prestige trail of last year’s Flee, in choosing to make large portions of his documentary animated reenactments of fraught memories, but even that decision feels tangential, since the comic book artist whose involvement motivates it isn’t directly related to the main narrative.
The various 3D animation sequences in Eternal Spring — like the opening action set-piece, which depicts Falun Gong activists who were responsible for staging a highly risky 2002 hijacking of State TV being methodically tracked down and arrested by Chinese police — were influenced by storyboards and character designs drawn by Daxiong, a famous comic book artist for DC and Dark Horse, who also happens to be a practitioner of Falun Gong. Daxiong was not a part of the TV hijacking, though he did live in the same city in which it took place (Changchun, in the northeast of China), and he becomes a kind of guide for this film, as he travels to interview some of the people (notably a “Mr. White” in South Korea) who managed to flee China after lengthy periods of incarceration. Most of Eternal Spring unfolds like a heist film; on-screen text labels the various hijackers things like “The Electrician” and “The Mastermind.” Loftus tries to validate this genre-fication with Daxiong’s narration, as he draws comparisons between the “heroes” of the hijacking and mythic warriors of the classical Chinese comics he read as a child.
There are two main problems with Eternal Spring. The first is that there isn’t much thought or attention given to what Falun Gong actually is (aside from a better-marketed form of qigong, thanks to charismatic founder Li Hongzhi), and so a lack of understanding as to why people would die for it. The second problem is that the hijacking itself doesn’t seem particularly momentous – in practical terms, a group of people who were either jailed for years or died of the conditions that they were subjected to inside Chinese prisons sacrificed themselves for 10 to 50 minutes of broadcast time (there are varying reports on the duration) that clearly failed to move the needle on public opinion of Falun Gong in China. In any case, there’s a much bigger, and more persuasive, story to tell about the persecution of Falun Gong by the CCP, such that even though Eternal Spring manages a few affecting movements by dialing into these specific recollections of oppression (and of people who died fighting), it fails to grapple with broader political implications. (For instance, how the labor camps for Falun Gong practitioners could be seen as a blueprint for the Uighur re-education camps the CCP has set-up in Xinjiang today.)
Ultimately, Eternal Spring suffers from the same kind of poor management of its messaging and its media that’s caused so many to believe the fabricated narrative the CCP put forth. Whole scenes unfold with the gait of storybook fiction, which is exactly the kind of distance you don’t want to put between viewers and these events (and compounds the effect already created by the emotionally inexpressive animation). Falun Gong deserves a more rigorous and sophisticated defense than this templated, trend-chasing documentary is able to mount for it.
Writer: Sam C. Mac
The horrific true-life tale of axe-wielding Lizzie Borden is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to genre filmmakers, specifically those looking to inject a little prestige into their slasher shenanigans. The question remains: why did Borden so sadistically kill her father and stepmother? Dozens of theories abound, with most settling on the notion that the young girl suffered from some sort of mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder and possible schizophrenia. Hollywood has always proven particularly offensive when it comes to accurately portraying psychological disorders, with most simply equating such illness with homicidal tendencies or other sensationalistic flourishes. Director Jerren Lauder’s new horror flick The Inhabitant bills itself as “A Lizzie Borden Story,” implying that we are on the verge of a cinematic universe built solely around a real-life murderer who was possibly sick and definitely troubled. This wouldn’t be the first time — ahem, Ed Gein — but there must be a reason why this particular point in history seems like an appropriate time to further defile the corpse of this appalling tragedy; girl power has never seemed quite so neanderthal.
Further irksome is that The Inhabitant doesn’t have anything particularly interesting to add to the legend. Taking place in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, where the initial incident transpired, the film follows a descendant of the infamous Miss Borden, a sullen 17-year-old by the name of Tara (Odessa A’zion). Murder runs deep in the roots of this particular family tree, as 20 years prior Tara’s aunt killed her own baby with an axe, schizophrenia proving the culprit. Mom (Leslie Bibb) is convinced that Tara is on the verge of such a breakdown, as she has both terrifying nightmares and a real bad attitude. She also plays field hockey, and that stick does look a little axe-ish. Tara is indeed suffering from visions, ones in which she sees herself slaying her loved ones with a particularly sharp and blunt object. Meanwhile, a killer is roaming the streets of Fall River, dispatching their victims with, yes, an axe. The question then: is Tara the culprit?
The Inhabitant wants to be a gory whodunnit in the vein of Scream, but is so half-assed in its execution that it takes over an hour of the film’s 95-minute runtime to figure out writer Kevin Bachar’s true intent. The kills are so few that the viewer often forgets they are in the midst of a slasher, with a couple of appearances by some cliched small-town detectives apparently providing the procedural aspect, even though they have roughly five total lines of dialogue. Bachar is far more concerned with Tara’s grisly past and possible mental break, which involves spending the night at a Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast to get some dirt, because that seems like something an actual human being who is fearful of their mental faculties seems inclined to do. The film also occasionally throws out some red herrings, even though they barely function as such, with a few Google searches revealing that the town of Fall River might be cursed, so really the killer could be anyone. And then there’s the matter of Tara being a master seamstress, who inadvertently alters clothes made by Lizzie Borden herself and sells them on Etsy. Those that buy the clothes become obsessed with Tara, because they apparently hold some sort of special power. This is all indeed as dumb as it sounds, no sense to be found, but it does provide numerous scenes of both her best friend and a random pervy neighbor masturbating with the garments, which is really what the story of Borden was missing. The best friend also cuts herself, so overcome she is with lust and not being able to act upon it, because again, mental illness is nothing if not a symptom of murderous intent.
For viewers who hear all this and may think the mess sounds fun in a “Holy shit!” kind of way, be warned that the final product is painfully self-serious and mind-numbingly boring, which is quite an accomplishment considering the film is predicated on a plot wherein axe slayings are essential. The practical effects, to the film’s credit, are actually quite decent, but unfortunately not plentiful enough to keep the viewer from arriving at slumberland by minute twenty. As has always been the case with movies depicting this particular story, it’s not Lizzie Borden who deserves something more respectful — although in regards to possible mental illness, she certainly does — but the victims who so violently died at her hands. Not that the makers of The Inhabitant care much about such trivialities; they can’t even be bothered to deliver a watchable product.
Writer: Steven Warner
We here at InRO consider ourselves fans, connoisseurs even, of the VOD action flick, an increasingly visible sub-genre of low- and medium-budget movies that have proliferated at a stunning rate as streaming services and international co-funding entities (i.e. tax shelters) look to bulk up their libraries and make a quick buck. But as we’ve mentioned before, this sometimes requires grading on a curve of sorts. While the action might be accomplished enough, frequently you’re losing something in plotting or writing or acting skill. No matter; these things are hardly a deal breaker if one is in the mood for the kind of gnarly fist-fights and bloody shootouts that Hollywood largely shuns these days. Into this crowded field comes Section 8, a reasonably diverting action-revenge-thriller that tidily highlights both the virtues and limitations of the medium.
The film kicks off with a brief prologue in the Middle East, in which cocky soldier Jake Atherton (Ryan Kwanten) accidentally gets his squad killed in an ambush after disobeying an order from his commanding officer, Colonel Tom Mason (Dolph Lundgren). Fast forward several months and Atherton is back stateside, working as a mechanic for his Uncle Earl (a typically bizarre Mickey Rourke, who somehow always gives the impression of adlibbing his dialogue while staring off into space). Atherton is barely making ends meet, and the bills are piling up at home. But he’s got a devoted wife and an adorable young son, and he’s determined to take care of them. After some local gangbangers beat up Earl while attempting to extort him for protection money, Atherton kicks the hell out of them and sends them on their way. The gang leader makes some threats, and soon enough Atherton returns home to find his wife and kid dead. Tracking the gang leader down to a local strip club, Atherton shoots the place up, kills the entire gang, and then gives himself up to the authorities. He’s got nothing left to live for, and doesn’t care about spending the rest of his life in prison.
Enter Sam Ramsey (Dermot Mulroney), a mysterious man who runs a shadow government agency that recruits certain skilled but troubled individuals like Atherton. They’ll get him out of prison, give him a new identity, and put him to work. All he has to do is kill whoever Ramsey tells him to, no questions asked. If you think this sounds a lot like the recent Netflix wannabe blockbuster The Gray Man, you’re not wrong. But director Christian Sesma careens through plot at a dizzying pace, packing all of the above incident into less than a third of the film’s relatively brief 95 minutes. It’s all very brisk, but none of it really lands, unfortunately. Kwanten is quite compelling in the lead, bringing a weary desperation to the role, but he’s not really a credible fighter. Lundgren and Rourke are reliable old pros who can deliver these kinds of brief appearances in their sleep, but it’s the other members of this clandestine black ops group that really sink things; they are uniformly bad, stilted and awkward in front of the camera. Meanwhile, Mulroney is hamming it up, stopping just short of twirling his mustache and declaring himself the villain.
Still, all would be forgiven if the action was top notch, but instead it’s merely serviceable. Early scenes set in the generic war zone appear to be blatantly riffing on The Hurt Locker, while a nighttime shootout is patterned almost exactly after the climactic action sequence in Mann’s Miami Vice. A case of a young director calling their shot, or pure hubris? Possibly a bit of both. Section 8 does contain one grace note, a small role for the king of DTV, Scott Adkins. Playing an assassin who Ramsey calls in for particularly tough assignments (although it’s never made clear why an organization comprised entirely of ass-kicking ex-soldiers would need to occasionally outsource), Adkins pops up periodically to thrilling effect. He commands the screen, all charisma and graceful physicality. It’s a reminder that there’s no doubt Section 8 would be immediately improved if Adkins was the lead; as it stands, he gets to shoot some guns and then has an excellent final fight with Kwanten. It results in a mixed bag overall, and sometimes the seams really show on what was presumably a quick production, but fans of the genre could do worse, and have certainly done so. Tiny victories.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
The Internet exists for precisely two reasons: porn and cat videos. Mye Hoang’s new documentary Cat Daddies may be missing the web’s more salacious elements, but it does feature a lot of very handsome and bearded men — the titular Daddies, if you will — playing with cats. If anything is true, it’s that there is an audience for such material; this critic showed up, after all. Cat Daddies takes an episodic approach to its subjects, highlighting various manly men in select parts of the United States as they tell their tales of how they became cat lovers, the talking head interviews interspersed with footage of all sorts of adorable feline frolicking. Only a few of the participants are afforded anything resembling depth, with most limited to a five-minute segment that basically amounts to cats playing against sun-dappled vistas and snuggling their burly owners. But a few do stand out in the crowd, mostly because Hoang actually returns to their stories over the course of the film’s brief runtime; for instance, the story of a disabled man in New York City by the name of David whose rescue of a stray named Lucky inspires him to continue persevering in the face of homelessness and cancer genuinely resonates. Indeed, it’s impossible not to be moved by his story, even though there are times where Hoang seems far more interested in the hunky, cat-loving police officer who helps him on his journey.
Make no mistake, Hoang is perversely interested in highlighting straight males, often taking the time to address their dating lives and rituals, as if to assure the viewer of their pronounced heterosexuality. It’s not hard to figure out what Hoang is up to: mainly, upending outdated cultural stereotypes that have long equated cat-love with femininity. Unfortunately, in the process, the filmmaker has simply reinforced roughly a dozen even more harmful cliches, to the point that the movie feels like a borderline offensive endorsement. It doesn’t help that a few of the segments here — such as one highlighting a New York City pioneer in the ever-growing trend of Trap-Neuter-Release, which ensures that cat populations become stagnant in specific areas — seem like thematic outliers, which Hoang attempts to address by adding some voiceover near film’s end about how compassion is a key part of being a Cat Daddy. Still, there’s no denying the surface pleasures inherent in Cat Daddies, with Hoang quite purposely using Cinemascope as a rather novel visual contrast to the endless hours of grungy and artless cat footage clogging the likes of YouTube and Instagram. This looks like a real movie, and a gorgeous one at that, often resembling a travelogue highlighting the natural beauty of the United States, with cats almost coincidentally doing their cute thing in the foreground. Yet despite all of the applause-worthy aesthetics on display, one wishes that Hoang had either been a little more focused in his thematics or simply abandoned anything resembling a thesis statement. Sometimes all that is needed in this world is a sexy fireman gently petting a purring feline’s head, cultural and intellectual weight be damned.
Writer: Steven Warner