HKIFF 2012: Day 5 Dim Sum Reviews: Miss Bala, Matsumoto Hitoshi & more

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Today I finally got the chance to see a film that I had been itching to see since it premiered at Cannes last year. I also had the opportunity to see the new film from absurd Japanese genius Matsumoto Hitoshi, as well as a comedy marketing itself as Japan's answer to Glee. A mixed bag to be sure.

Day 5 (26 March)



MISS BALA (dir. Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico)

Young Mexican actress Stephanie Sigman gives what is sure to be a star-making turn as Laura, an aspiring beauty queen in crime-riddled Baja California. When her friend is slaughtered in a gangland hit, Laura is soon drawn into a nightmarish world of drug deals, corruption and extreme violence that may yet win her the Miss Baja crown if she can stay alive long enough! Naranjo's direction is stylish without coming between the audience and the harsh reality of Laura's world. The pacing is masterfully handled, opening on a static shot of Laura's innocent, almost teenage fantasy of what wealth and success means to this young woman. By the time the film comes to its jaw dropping finale your nerves have been shredded and Laura's entire world stripped, beaten and set ablaze. Miss Bala defines the frontier where arthouse and genre cinema come together in the most exhilarating way possible. An incredible piece of work.



GO! BOYS SCHOOL DRAMA CLUB (dir. Hanabusa Tsutomu, Japan)

Adapted from a popular manga and shot on a relatively low budget, but with plenty of colour, vitality and enthusiasm, this is the story of the new kid on campus who reluctantly joins the drama club after falling for the boy playing Juliet. It's an innocent enough mistake but he quickly finds himself piloting the club out of imminent disbandment without knowing the first thing about acting or production. The loud, hyper-energised cast are likeable enough but the humour is played very broadly and most likely to a teenage audience with more patience for the incessant mugging of the lead actors than myself. There are laughs to be had along the way, but the comparisons to Glee and High School Musical are incredibly generous.



SCABBARD SAMURAI (dir. Matsumoto Hitoshi, Japan)

Being a huge fan of Matsumoto's previous films, Big Man Japan and the deliriously sublime Symbol, I have been waiting impatiently for his third film for what seems like an eternity. Finally gracing us with its presence, Scabbard Samurai is satisfying, if not quite up to the incredibly high standards of the director's previous effort. Takaaki Nomi plays a disgraced samurai who is arrested and forced to commit seppuku in front of the resident lord and his young son. However, he is offered the chance of reprieve by participating in a 30-day challenge. Every morning Nomi is brought before the Lord's young son and tries to make him smile. If he succeeds, he will be exonerated. And so begins an extended montage of Nomi performing a deranged variety of circus tricks, vaudeville routines and even death-defying feats in order to tickle the young boy's fancy. Spurring Nomi on is his young daughter, Tae (Kumada Sea - in an adorable performance that steals the film away from her adult co-stars), who initially sees his swordless status and doomed plight as a disgrace to her good name, but eventually warms to the challenge of dreaming up zany antics to perform the following morning. Soon enough even the two guards assigned to Nomi are offering their two cents. While there is plenty to enjoy in the film, from the gags themselves, to the performances and a wonderfully tender finale, the repetitive formula of the story does get frustrating and the joke wears thin before Matsumoto realises and changes things up. But while this may not be the masterpiece of Matsumoto's career - and if I'm honest Symbol sets the bar incredibly high - Scabbard Samurai hits its mark far more often than it misses, even when the real comic talent remains behind the camera.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for more HKIFF goodness.
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