Movies · Reviews

NYAFF 2015, Day 7: Things Fall Apart In La La La at Rock Bottom and Taksu

By  · Published on July 2nd, 2015

GAGA

The New York Asian Film Festival returns for a 14th year showcasing an exciting and eclectic mix of movies from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, China and Malaysia. This year brings a total of 54 feature films including two world premieres and three international premieres, and while I’m once again unfortunately unable to experience the fest on the ground in NYC I’m excited to cover as much as I can remotely.

Day seven of the festival features three films, Japan’s La La La at Rock Bottom and Taksu along with Ruined Heart from the Philippines.

NYAFF 2015 runs June 26th through July 11th. Follow our coverage here.

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Shigeo (Shibutani Subaru) is released from prison to discover the clothes he arrived in are returned to him smelling strongly of mothballs. “Prison ruins clothes, so stay away,” says the guard who walks him to the door, and it’s advice Shigeo plans to follow. His old friends want him to return to the types of petty crime that saw him arrested in the first place, but he’s only interested in the money they owe him. Left to his own devices, it’s not long before karma catches up to him and he’s the victim of a violent mugging.

He wakes up with no memory of who he is or how he got there, but when the sounds of a nearby concert draw his attention he can’t help but grab a microphone and sing along. Bloodied and confused, he sings his heart out before passing out cold and eventually being taken in by Kasumi (Nikaido Fumi), a young widow who manages a band and agrees to let the newly-named Pochio stay in exchange for cleaning up around the house. He begins singing with the group, but each new day brings more memories of the violent past behind him.

Director Yamashita Nobuhiro’s best-known film is the poppy delight that is Linda Linda Linda, and like that sweet and funny confection La La La at Rock Bottom connects comedy and drama through deliriously catchy songs and performances. The character work isn’t quite as strong here – due in part to the film’s fairly obvious narrative path – but it remains an entertaining, albeit minor, gem.

The story does go pretty much exactly where you’d expect – he finds comfort with this new “family” even as revelations about his past threaten to bring violence back into his world – but it succeeds on the smaller moments throughout. The two leads share a watermelon seed-spitting contest that consists of the simplest of motions and setup, but it works beautifully to highlight their characters’ needs. Pochio’s performing style features immense energy in his vocals while his body remains mostly contained, and it becomes an experience watching his body tense to the point of bursting before finding release through his singing.

One of the film’s best moments is also one of its simplest as Kasumi tells Pochio about the only four things she needs in her life. She counts them off on four fingers, and the idea is revisited later in the film in a powerfully heartfelt moment.

Shibutani is actually a singer in a band, but while acting is his second artistic outlet his performance offers the right degree of warmth and menace. Nikaido meanwhile brings the heart even as her character attempts to retain a solid front of disinterested toughness. Last seen (on these shores anyway) as the yakuza member’s daughter in Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, she once again captures that combination of hard outer shell and inner softness. She’s spunky here without being exaggerated, and she grounds the film.

Nobuhiro once again delivers a simple film about the complexities of life, and he does (again) with catchy songs punctuating the drama and laughs.

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Uzumasa

Chihiro (Saito Takumi) is dying, and he’s none too pleased about it. He arrives in Bali alongside his wife, Yuri (Mitsuya Yoko), to visit his pregnant sister Kumi (Kiki Sugino) and her Dutch husband, Luke (Tom Mes), but attempts at closure seem instead destined to push him further apart from the ones he loves. His temper certainly doesn’t help as his go-to reaction is too frequently one involving anger, but as his actions work to isolate him Yuri finds her social circle growing.

Pushed away by her husband, she explores the beauty of Bali on her own before making a new acquaintance in Wayan (Cornelio Sunny). He’s a beach gigolo used to seducing tourists for money, and while she wants nothing to do with his blunt and forceful style she finds herself drawn to him anyway. He’s alive in ways her husband no longer is, and that may just be enough.

For better or worse, director Kiki Sugino’s Taksu is concerned with visuals and tone more so than plot or real character depth, and while that results in an endlessly beautiful movie it also means it lacks emotional power.

It would probably take immense talent to make Bali unappealing – this is a seriously beautiful locale that serves to consistently act as a contrast to the pre-death mourning on display by Chihiro and Yuri. The pair show barely the slimmest remnants of the love they once felt, and their darkness tries its best to blot the sun from the tropical paradise in which they find themselves. Kumi and Luke have their own issues, but the impending birth – again, a contrast to Chihiro’s quickly approaching death – of their child offers an olive branch into the future.

Mitsuya gives a weary yet intense performance as Yuri, but the character lacks conviction on the page. The lack of connection she’s feeling from her husband makes her ripe for the picking – a trait Wayan spots immediately – but the short journey from unreachable fruit to messy meal is a bumpy one. He essentially assaults her, twice, with a sexual forwardness that eventually succumbs to, and it’s unclear how the audience is meant to respond. Is it sorrow and loneliness that drives her acceptance? The danger is that it rubs dangerously close to stereotypical perceptions and portrayals of Japanese women – that they can be forced into consent and enjoyment – and the ridiculously long sex scene the two share doesn’t work to dissuade that concern.

It’s entirely possible, and maybe even likely, that this is a perception problem, but the effect remains the same in that viewers have no character with whom to connect emotionally. We’re left one step removed, and the damage is irreversible by film’s end. That said, the final shot is probably the film’s most powerful.

Taksu is an emotional slow burn featuring a woman grieving over the death of a husband who has yet to die, but that sorrow never quite outweighs the ennui – both hers and ours.

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NYAFF 2015 runs June 26th through July 11th. Follow our coverage here.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.