Tsukamoto: Killing/Haze/The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo

The Japanese director, writer and actor (among other roles in his productions) Shinya Tsukamoto is a fiercely independent filmmaker whose unique, often quite ‘extreme’ visions and styles might not be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s hard to argue about his originality or authorship over his work (give or take a couple of ‘director-for-hire’ jobs). His most famous film is the 1989 twisted cyberpunk masterpiece Tetsuo and he’s got several other well-regarded, if challenging, titles to his name. Third Window Films have been championing Tsukamoto for a while, releasing a number of his films in the UK, and now they’re spoiling us with not only his latest work, Killing, but a box set containing that and two short-feature titles spanning a wide range of his career. These are The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo (1987) and Haze (2005).

The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Screenplay: Shinya Tsukamoto
Starring: Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, N. Senba, Shinya Tsukamoto, Tomorô Taguchi
Country: Japan
Running Time: 45 min
Year: 1987

The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo (a.k.a. Adventures of Electric Rod Boy or Denchû kozô no bôken) began life as a stage play Tsukamoto devised and put on with his theatre company. After it had finished its run, Tsukamoto didn’t want to waste the effort that had been put into making the sets, so decided to shoot the play as a film. It went on to win the Grand Prize at the PIA Film Fest in Japan, helping lead him onto his next film, his true breakthrough, Tetsuo.

There’s a bit of Tetsuo in The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo (or the other way round I should say), as it has a similar cyberpunk aesthetic and explores the idea of metal fusing with human flesh to form a weapon. In Denchu-Kozo, our young hero, Hikari, suffers from having a utility pole growing out of his back. He’s bullied about it before being saved by a girl named Momo. Hikari is enamoured by Momo and shows her his new invention, a portable time machine. He activates it, which sends him hurtling forward 25 years in time to a post-apocalyptic Earth. Here, vampires are keeping the world shrouded in darkness and Hikari bumps into a gang of these creatures, who set after him. Hikari soon comes across Dr. Sariba, an older woman who is trying to put an end to the vampires’ reign. She tells Hikari that she has been expecting him and believes he is the only one that can save the world.

Like Tetsuo, Denchu-Kozo has an intense, energetic style with frantic editing and shaky handheld camerawork. It’s also filled with imaginative low-budget practical effects and inventive visual tricks such as human stop-motion. The film is a feast for the senses and a great example of what can be achieved on a minimal budget.

Although it can be dark and has elements of body-horror throughout, Denchu-Kozo is more outwardly humorous than Tetsuo, with some slapstick and wacky, surreal gags keeping the tone from getting too heavy.

Overall then, it’s a wild and attention-grabbing film that helped pave the way for what was to come. More blatant comedy makes it sillier than what I’ve seen of the rest of Tsukamoto’s work, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Rating: 4 / 5

Haze

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Screenplay: Shinya Tsukamoto
Starring: Shinya Tsukamoto, Takahiro Murase, Takahiro Kandaka
Country: Japan
Running Time: 48 min
Year: 2005

Haze has a simple but nonetheless puzzling premise. A man (played by Tsukamoto himself) wakes to find himself in a dark, highly constricted concrete maze. He can’t remember how he got there and has no idea why he’s there either. He has a serious stomach wound so is slowly bleeding to death. He keeps trying to claw out of the space but doesn’t really get anywhere, frequently blacking out and waking in a new area of this bizarre prison. He eventually comes across a woman in the same situation and they ponder what to do next.

This was Tsukamoto’s first digitally-shot film, commissioned by a film festival as a short but later extended into this semi-feature. He continued to use digital cameras in the films he made after Haze, so must have been drawn to the experience. Given that HD cameras were relatively young at that point, the picture quality doesn’t quite hold it’s own against film as it can these days, but the crisp focus and heavy digital grain add a sense of naturalism to the experience.

The film plays out like a nightmare though, regularly fading to black then coming back into another horrific situation for our protagonist, with no explanation for the sudden shift. It’s painfully tense and claustrophobic with a couple of scenes that border on unwatchable, they’re so squirm-inducing. The pipe between the teeth scene had me hiding behind a pillow!

The meaning or theme of the film isn’t clear, leaving it up to interpretation and adding to the slightly surreal nightmarish atmosphere. Tom Mes suggests the film could be a modern depiction of Buddhist hell (a.k.a. Naraka). That analogy fits with the series of torments our ‘hero’ is faced with and, depending on how you take the ambiguous ending, the idea of karma sending you there works too.

Speaking of the ending, the final half of the film doesn’t quite have the impact of the first, but it’s still disturbing at times and the actual conclusion, though initially coming across as ‘happy’, could be taken in numerous ways, on reflection.

Overall though, it’s a refreshingly spare horror film that’s unbearably tense and uncomfortable for a good portion of the time. It lacks the wild energy of some of his better-known work but still has quite an impact.

Rating: 4 / 5

Killing

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Screenplay: Shinya Tsukamoto
Starring: Shinya Tsukamoto, Yû Aoi, Sôsuke Ikematsu, Kohji Katoh, Tatsuya Nakamura
Country: Japan
Running Time: 79 min
Year: 2018

Killing is set during the end of the Edo period in Japan, when the Tokugawa shogunate ruled and the warrior class (i.e. the samurai) were the top of the ‘food chain’, leaching off the hard-working lower classes whilst the closed-off country was at peace. The country was on the cusp of change though as Western warships were invading and demanding trade. Rice merchants were starting to make a lot of money, so the merchant class was rising in power. Whilst many samurai gave up, some clung on to their power and formed militia groups.

In the film, we open with a young masterless samurai (a.k.a. ronin) named Mokunoshin (Sôsuke Ikematsu) helping a farming community during the harvest. A skilled ronin named Sawamura (Tsukamoto again), who is passing through, sees Mokunoshin sparring with a young farmer (Ryûsei Maeda) and asks them both if they will join him on his way to Edo to make an honourable living as a samurai. They both agree and prepare to leave. The farmer’s sister Yu (Yû Aoi), however, doesn’t want either of them to go. She clearly loves Mokunoshin and her brother is nowhere near as skilled as the others in swordsmanship and knows nothing of killing or the code of the samurai. She tries to stop them and, fortunately for her, Mokunoshin falls ill, delaying their departure.

During this time, a tough-looking band of ronin show up on the outskirts of the farm. The farmers are afraid and want their samurai friends to get rid of them. Mokunoshin (prior to his illness) approaches the group and finds they’re more friendly than they appear, so thinks nothing of it. However, when the fiery young farmer/samurai-wannabe gets caught up with them he’s beaten up. With Mokunoshin out of action now to smooth things over, the old-fashioned Sawamura instead wanders over to the unsavoury samurai and butchers most of them. This leads to a cycle of violence and death that Mokunoshin is tormented by. You see, though he’s skilled with a blade, he’s never killed anyone. He’s torn between an innate desire to do so and his conscience telling him he shouldn’t.

Though my synopsis seems long, this is another sparse, pared-down affair, like Haze, though not quite to the same degree. The anti-violence theme is clear, though different interpretations can be made from it and it never feels as straight-forward or preachy as many films with a similar message.

Killing is Tsukamoto’s first jidaigeki (period) film so at first seems out of place within his filmography, but there are similarities to his previous work to be found. The fusion of steel and flesh (here holding a sword) to create a deadly weapon links to the Tetsuo films and others. Fires on the Plain (from what I’ve heard, I haven’t seen it yet) is a similarly brutal indictment of violence too.

Speaking of which, the violence in the film is very well handled. There’s a mixture of the slow, build-up-heavy minimalism of traditional samurai duels and fast, frenetic fights shot with a handheld camera and sharply edited. Both styles (other than in sparring) end showing us the gruesomely detailed result of the action too. Tsukamoto doesn’t hold back on the gore, portraying violence as vicious and painful, not beautiful or stylised. The sharp, clean digital cinematography reflects this too, though night scenes are quite atmospherically lit.

So, it’s an admirably stripped-back, intense examination of what it means to kill. Like Haze, it’s less ‘in-your-face’ in terms of style than Tetsuo and similar, but still has the power to grab you and hold on tight.

Rating: 4 / 5

Tsukamoto: Killing / Haze / The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo is out on 27th April, released by Third Window Films on (region B) Blu-Ray. Killing will also be available on various VOD platforms. Haze and The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo are available only in the set. The picture and audio quality on Haze and Killing is immaculate, aided by the digital format of the source material. Haze is grainy but reflects the camera technology of the time when used in such a dark setting. The Adventure of Denchu Kozo looks a bit washed out and faded in places and is quite soft but it was shot on 8mm on a minuscule budget so I imagine this is as good as it ever looked. The audio on the film is solid too.
Here is everything included in the set:


BLURAY DISC 1
– Killing feature (80 min)
– Audio Commentary by Tom Mes
– Interview with Shinya Tsukamoto
– Trailer

BLURAY DISC 2
– The Adventures of Denchu Kozo (45min)
– Haze (48min)
– Audio commentaries on both films by Tom Mes

Mes’ commentaries are excellent. He has a great knowledge of Tsukamoto’s work, so has much to add, and I found his potted history of Japan on the Killing track particularly fascinating. The interview with Tsukamoto is great too. He’s a passionate filmmaker and comes across as quite approachable and honest about his work.

An excellent package then, that comes highly recommended.

Overall Rating: 4 / 5

Check out more of David’s reviews at Blueprint: Review

Movie Vault: Iron Monkey

Director: Woo-Ping Yuen
Screenplay: Tan Cheung, Tai-Mok Lau, Elsa Tang, Hark Tsui, Richard Epcar (dubbed version)
Starring: Rongguang Yu, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, Sze-Man Tsang, Shun-Yee Yuen, James Wong
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 90 min
Year: 1993
BBFC Certificate: 12

Yesterday I reviewed a martial arts film from the vaults of Shaw Brothers, a studio whose work I’m only now starting to work through but today I’m revisiting one of my personal favourite martial arts movies that I watched repeatedly in my burgeoning years as a fan of the genre. That film is Woo-Ping Yuen’s acclaimed 1993 classic Iron Monkey. I say acclaimed, but the film tanked in Hong Kong and China. It only gained respect when it reached American shores much later and managed to crack the top 10 of the US box office. Some of the interviews included in this new Blu-Ray release from Eureka claim it reached number one, but I can’t find any evidence of this.

Regardless of its place in the box office rankings, the film certainly picked up some great reviews, which is rare for a straight up action movie of its type. The American release was in 2001 (it was 1993 in Hong Kong) so it rode the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and martial arts filled US releases such as The Matrix. Those two films mentioned are linked to Iron Monkey not simply through the action scenes though. The fight choreographer on both titles was none other than Woo-Ping Yuen, the director and action director of Iron Monkey. His name cropped up in most of the big action movies of the time, from Kill Bill to Kung Fu Hustle but he’d been in the Hong Kong industry since the 60s, starting off as an actor before moving into stunt work, choreography and directing. His first two features that did see him in the director’s chair were none other than Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, the films that made Jackie Chan a star, so he had a great reputation from early in his career. I believe Iron Monkey is one of his best films, although I’m huge fan of Magnificent Butcher and Drunken Master, so it’s hard to pick a favourite. As you’d imagine then, I snapped up the chance to review this new release of the action classic.

Iron Monkey tells a Robin Hood story of sorts, with the titular masked character robbing from rich corrupt officials and sharing the takings among the hard-done-by villagers who are particularly suffering due to a recent flood. Governor Cheng (James Wong, who’s actually a respected composer of Hong Kong soundtracks) is not happy about his ill-gotten funds being regularly snatched so is keen to capture Iron Monkey, particularly as the region’s inspector is due to visit soon. Heading his security team is the amiable General Fox (Shun-Yee Yuen) who camps out on the rooftops at night hoping to catch the outlaw. Only the audience and the beautiful nurse (and skilled martial artist) Miss Orchid (Jean Wang) know the true identity of Iron Monkey. He is in fact Dr. Yang (Rongguang Yu), a respected local that no one would suspect of being a master thief.

The authorities seem to have no hope of stopping Iron Monkey until Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) and his son, the later-to-be legendary Wong Fei-Hong (Sze-Man Tsang) come to town. Kei-Ying is captured by Fox, who thinks he could be Iron Monkey after demonstrating his considerable skills at kung-fu. When the true outlaw appears and Kei-Ying puts up a good fight, Governor Cheng decides to use him to capture his enemy. As an added ‘incentive’ though, Cheng takes Fei-Hong prisoner and gives Kei-Ying 1 week to bring him Iron Monkey or his son will remain captive. Further complicating matters, Kei-Ying crosses paths with Yang and the two form a friendship, particularly after the doctor puts up Fei-Hong when he falls ill in prison. As the deadline and visit from the inspector draws ever near, we wonder where Kei-Ying’s allegiances may lie.

My synopsis possibly makes it all sound rather complicated and I can remember thinking it was slightly confusing when I first watched it. All these years later though, after not seeing it for a while, I find it a clearly told and enjoyably fast moving story that’s more than just an excuse to mount a string of fight scenes. It’s certainly more engaging than many martial arts movie plots, even if it isn’t entirely original or unpredictable.

Lets not kid ourselves here though. A film like this is famous for its fight scenes and boy do these deliver. What Woo-Ping Yuen does brilliantly here is build on each set piece. The first couple of fights scenes are decent, but nothing all that exceptional. But then the next is better and the next better than that, and the next even better etc. By the finale you can’t imagine what can be done to keep you impressed, but your jaw will drop at the final showdown which culminates in a three way fight stood on tall poles standing out of a blazing inferno!

The fights are clearly wire-assisted and often sped up a little, which has irked some martial arts purists, but they’re nothing less than sensational in my eyes. Due to these techniques, there’s no attempt at realism in the action, but that’s not a problem as the film sticks to its guns in this style and it only adds to the amazement of watching this hugely entertaining romp. There’s no CGI assistance, so there’s still a physical aspect to all the action, which is something many modern blockbusters have lost, to their detriment. It’s clear that most of the actors are skilled in martial arts too and it’s a joy to behold their talents on screen. A particular standout, beyond the obvious skills of Donnie Yen, is the young Sze-Man Tsang, a teenage actress playing the role of the young boy (and Chinese folk legend) Wong Fei-Hong. She’s incredibly good, delivering some stunning moves with bags of charisma.

It’s some of the smaller physical moments that really set the film ahead of the competition though. One of my favourite scenes is where Yang and Miss Orchid see their prescriptions blow around the room after a draft wafts in and proceed to use their graceful martial arts skills to pick them up before they hit the ground. It’s beautifully done and it’s the little details that impress, such as Yang giving his jacket a little flick to grab the last paper and when Miss Orchid back-kicks the stool back in place in an immeasurably cool fashion.

Away from the choreography, the performances are rather broad, but that’s a given for films from Hong Kong during this era. It might take a little time to adjust to this style if you’re not accustomed to it, but there’s fun to be had in the mugging and over the top, largely dubbed line deliveries. Looking past the hamminess, there’s skill to be seen though. The relationship between Yang and Kei-Ying is particularly well handled, mixing respect with a playful rivalry (Kei-Ying is also a doctor). Yang’s relationship with Miss Orchid is sensitively portrayed too, particularly after you learn their background later on in the film.

It’s a nicely shot film too. There’s a slightly low budget look to it when compared to its Western contemporaries, but this is largely due to the artificiality of the lighting which is very attractive, despite its lack of naturalism. The production design isn’t as lavish as it could be, but does the trick, with a strong use of colour to go along with the bold, stage-like lighting.

You could argue that the film has its flaws and the OTT nature of it all won’t appeal to everyone, but I couldn’t care less. As an action movie it’s phenomenal. It’s constantly upping its game in the fight scenes and maintains a solid balance of drama, comedy and storytelling to keep it all flowing. It’s one of my all time favourite martial arts films and films in general for that matter, so comes with the very highest recommendation.

Iron Monkey is out on 18th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. The transfer is great although the higher definition image means it’s easier to spot the wires in certain shots! You get a variety of audio options, which cover all the bases. I listened to the 5.1 Cantonese track and it came through nicely.

You get plenty of special features too:
– Original Cantonese mono audio track (also available in 5.1 presentation)
– Mandarin audio track
– 5.1 English audio track
– Isolated Music & Effects track
– Interview with Donnie Yen (20 mins)
– Interview with producer Tsui Hark (25 mins)
– Interview with Yu Rong-kwong (27 mins)
– Interview with stuntwoman and actress Li Fai (25 mins)
– Interview with actress Angie Tsang (20 mins)
– Iron Fist (16 mins) A behind-the-scenes look at the action choreography of Iron Monkey
– Shadow Boxing (8 mins) a featurette on Hong Kong action choreography featuring Alex Yip
– Footage of Li Fai and Angie Tsang competing at the 2003 Wu Shu Championships
– Original theatrical trailer
– A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay on the film (First print run only)

A lot of the interviews have previously been released on DVD versions of the film, so there’s not a lot of new material for double dippers, but it’s still great to have them included here again as they’re substantial and fairly engrossing. The disc is sadly missing the commentary which some previous versions featured, but plenty of ground is covered in the interviews. I enjoyed the ‘Shadow Boxing’ featurette too as it works like a simple but effective mini-masterclass in shooting and editing action sequences.

Rating 5 / 5

Check out more of David’s reviews at Blueprint: Review

A.C. Film Club #51 – Snowpiercer

It’s a change of pace on this episode as we celebrate the UK release of Bong Joon-Ho’s english language debut Snowpiercer with Em from Verbal Diorama

We look at it’s problematic distribution to the UK, the clashes with Harvey Weinstein aswell as the deeper themes at play throughout the film.

Further Viewing

The Wandering Earth
Sunshine
Event Horizon
Train To Busan
The Bullet Train
Duet
Children of Men

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Top Asian Cinema: The Next 50

To celebrate our first twenty five episodes we released a list counting down our top 50 asian cinema and now having recorded episode fifty we thought why not make that list a full 100.

Once again out picks were less about choosing the most critically aclaimed or important films but instead the films which we personally enjoyed the most.

Here’s what we added to the list.

The Countdown

50. Abicus – Small Enough To Jail
49. The Calamari Wrestler
48. Sunny
47. The World of Kanako
46. Kwaidan
45. Redline
44. Crying Fist
43. Brighter Summer Day
42. The Boxer From Shantung
41. Onibaba
40. Fulltime Killer
39. Shaolin Soccer
38. Pom Poko
37. The Farewell
36. Chocolate
35. Tolong! Awek Aku Pontianak
34. Summer Wars
33. The Act of Killing
32. Tetsuo The Iron Man
31. Marlina The Murder In Four Acts
30. Magnificent Warriors
29. Red Cliff
28. Girlz Und Panzer Du Movie
27. The Last Reel
26. The Street Fighter
25. Shutter
24. Tiger On The Beat
23. The Assassin
22. Patlabor: The Movie
21. The Machine Girl
20. Porco Rosso
19. Tokyo Tribe
18. Save The Green Planet
17. Diary
16. Fist of Legend
15. Bad Genius
14. Lust, Caution
13. Farewell My Concubine
12. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
11. Centre Stage
10. Fearless
9. Rogue
8. Tokyo Godfathers
7. Dragon Inn
6. Godzilla Vs. Gigan
5. The Wailing
4. Kiki’s Delivery Service
3. Mother
2. 13 Assassins
1. The Mermaid

Full list also on Letterboxd

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That Moment In

David’s Top 25 Asian Cinema

As we are celebrating 50 episodes with our top 50 asian cinema we put it out to the rest of the team here at the Asian Cinema Film Club to share thier own top 25 lists.
First up is David who you will no doubt know already from movie vault reviews while he can also be found writing about film for Blueprint: Review.

25 – Ninja Scroll
24 – Fist of Fury (a.k.a The Chinese Connection)
23 – Memories
22 – Iron Monkey
21 – Grave of the Fireflies
20 – Memories of Murder
19 – Akira
18 – Magnificent Butcher
17 – Kwaidan
16 – The Killer
15 – The Sword of Doom
14 – After Life
13 – The Ballard of Narayama
12 – The Raid: Redemption
11 – Drunken Master
10 – Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
9 – Hero
8 – The Vengeance Trilogy (Sorry couldn’t pick a favourite!)
7 – Sansho the Bailiff (a.k.a. Sanshô dayû)
6 – A Brighter Summer Day
5 – Late Spring
4 – Harakiri
3 – Yojimbo
2 – In The Mood For Love
1 – Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

A.C. Film Club #50 – Seven Samurai


What better way to mark such a milestone than checking out Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai which would not only be remade in the west as The Magnificent Seven but also layed the foundations for many of the action movie tropes so commonplace now.

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Note: Sorry for any audio issues due to a synch issue.

Further Viewing

Rashomon
Yojimbo
High and Lo
Samurai 7

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Further Viewing

 

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A.C. Film Club #45 – Tetsuo: The Iron Man + Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer

On this episode we check out a double feature from one of our most requested directors Shinya Tsukamoto as we look at look at the cult favourites Tetsuo: The Iron Man in which after running over a metal fetishist a saleryman finds himself cursed with a disease which is slowly turning his skin metal. We also look at it’s big budget sequel Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer which this time sees a saleryman trying to get his son back from a gang of skinhead while his body becomes a living weapon.

We also look at Takashi Miike‘s First Love, Mary and the Witches Flower, Stephen gets nostaligic for British fast food and much more!!

Further Viewing

The Machine Girl
The Whispering Star
964 Pinocchio Aka Screams of Blasphemy
Rubber’s Lover
Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts

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A.C. Film Club #44 – Mother

With Bong Joon-Ho fresh off his historic win at the Oscars on this episode we look at one of the more overlooked titles in his filmography “Mother” in which Kim Hye-ja play the widowed mother who sets out to clear her mentally handicaped son’s name when he is arrested for the murder of a young girl.

We also look at what his Oscar win could potentially mean for Asian cinema, look at the upcoming Godzilla Monopoly and Arrow’s Gamera Boxset plus much more!!

Further Viewing

Memories of Murder
Crush and Blush
Our Town
Spider Forest

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A.C. Film Club #43 – Tokyo Drifter

On this episode we look at the cinema of cool with Seijun Suzuki’s “Tokyo Drifter”. A film which along with “Branded to Kill” saw him blacklisted by Nikkatsu as he set out to create somthing alot more diffrent than the typical Yakuza fare he’d previously been associated with as here enforcer Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo is forced to become a drifter when his boss disolves the gang and a real estate scam orchestred by thier rivals sees him soon having to evade the hitman “Viper” Tatsuzo in a yakuza movie quite unlike anything which came before and certainly after it.

Recorded on Oscar night we discuss the chances of “Parasite” claiming the top prize aswell as Stephen Chow’s “Love on Delivery”, the K-Pop factory and much more!!

Further Viewing

Detective Bureau 2-3 Go To Hell Bastards
Youth of the Beast
Branded To Kill
Pistol Opera
Giants and Toys
Tokyo Olympiad
Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss

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