Friday, September 17, 2010

Snakes and Earrings

A young woman's quest for a forked tongue leads to a dangerous love triangle where pain is associated with pleasure, sex is meted out with violence and the desire to possess another culminates in murder. Director Ninagawa Yukio's film version of Kanehara Hitomi's Hebi ni Piasu is a faithful adaptation of the book which won its young author the Akutagawa Prize for literature in 2003, but there's just not enough  material in a  novella about the existential plight of an overindulgent teen  to make for a compelling movie.

Saw this movie approximately a month ago and picked up the book not long after that-- not that I was particularly interested in the book, I distinctly remember passing it up a year or two ago, but then I decided to read it anyway  in hopes of gaining more insight on the story and doing a better review. Turns out reading the book was wholly unnecessary because what you see in the movie is pretty much all there is. The book is grossly overrated, in the same way that I think Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby is undeserving of its international success. If you're the type who's new to this kind of literature then I guess Snakes and Earrings can also shock and impress, but my vote still goes to Kirino Natsuo. 

 *   *   *

Nineteen year-old Lui (Yoshitaka Yuriko) is beautiful, bored and listless. Wandering around the streets of Tokyo at night, she gets invited by a foreigner to step into a club where she meets a heavily pierced and tattooed punk named Ama (Kora Kengo), who shows her his forked tongue. Finding herself inexplicably fascinated with the idea of having a serpentine tongue, Lui spends the night with Ama and immediately moves in with him after resolving to have her own tongue split to match his. Ama introduces Lui to Shiba (ARATA), a tattoo artist and a piercing professional, to get her started on the process by having her tongue pierced.

Not satisfied with just getting a 14g stud clamped in her tongue, Lui decides to push herself further by getting a dragon and a kirin tattooed on her back. She commissions Shiba to design it for her and pays for his services through sexual favors. She carries on an affair with Shiba whilst continuing to come home to Ama, all the while being bored and unhappy with the "normal" life she's been leading. Caught in a whirlwind of angst and despair, Lui  finds herself unable to choose between a man who claims to love her enough to kill for her and one who claims to be so enamored as to be tempted to put an end to her, that is, until one act of violence  becomes the deciding factor in the said stalemate...

Set in contemporary Japan, Snakes and Earrings offers a bleak and trite view of the world as seen through the eyes of a wayward teen, as she immerses herself in what she perceives to be a dark and intriguing subculture. It's a movie that touches on a number topics such as body modification, sado-masochism, possession and nihilism but fails to fully explore any one of these themes, particularly because the main character's sense of aimlessness prevails over everything in it. There's a certain affectation to its narration, the pacing is slow and the turn of events inconsequential; this is one film that banks on showcasing an alternative lifestyle, both for its novelty and its ability to shock those who abide by the norm, the drawback to this is that because there's little or no explanation of its characters' motivations, its alleged honest and brutal depiction of today's times comes off more as an artifice than an actual reflection of the problems that beset today's youth.

"I want to be part of an underground world where the sun doesn't shine, there are no love songs, and the sound of children's laughter is never, ever heard."

Self-absorbed and fickle, its protagonist, Lui, endeavors to become a part of Tokyo's seedy underbelly for unexplained reasons. Her slow and steady path towards self-destruction leads her to expose herself to excruciating pain and/or danger by enjoying the thrill of having casual sex with multiple partners. She's a 21st century wildchild who belongs to a new breed of rebels without a cause, one who's desperately trying to feel alive, one who's fighting the languor taking hold of her system. Reading about her exploits in a 118-paged novella is one thing, but seeing her vacuous life unfold onscreen is a whole other finicky ordeal.

The main problem with this movie is that it has a female lead that is running on empty-- she fails to garner sympathy or elicit understanding, mainly because she herself admits that she's depressed and disgruntled over nothing. There's nothing to be fixed, no solution to be found, because there's no problem to begin with. All her choices are made out of caprice; her adventures, all meaningless and pointless exercises designed to distract her from her self-imposed misery. In this regard, Snakes and Earrings is no different from any post-modern literature or cinematic feature about troubled teens or anguished adults who seem to have lost their footing. It captures the alienation and early disaffection of a new generation, offering a cocktail of sex, tattoos and alcohol in lieu of the prototypical combination of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. What makes it such a forgettable venture is that it does absolutely nothing in providing any insight as to the cause or design behind this ennui, neither does it break new ground in terms of its genre, given the sheer volume of films available on how hard it is to be a kid growing up in today's society.

Told in roman à clef by a beautiful and nubile author whose face appears in full color as an endsheet to the book, it's no surprise that this fantastical account of a person's immersion into an oft misunderstood and grossly misrepresented segment of society gained so much acclaim and attention despite its meager content. It's because people will always be drawn to the unknown, the bizarre, and Kanehara Hitomi's Snakes and Earrings offers a hefty dose of a world wherein a  person can claim to love a man without bothering to know his name, where teeth yanked out of someone's mouth is offered as a love token, and where the urge to kill is strongest during the act of intercourse. It's a fascinating and disturbing world for those who wish to witness it vicariously, unfortunately, while some choice words may prove to be adequate to describe a certain event or emotion on the written page, the same cannot be said of the material once it is brought to the big screen.

From its near silent opening where Tokyo is seen through Lui's vacant eyes to the angst-filled monologue devoid of any emotional impact, this movie makes the viewer feel more like a detached observer than a would-be confidante. The screenplay is bogged down by the hapless musings of a young woman who's offensively naked of any depth or substance-- on paper it reads like an adolescent's fatalistic tirade, one that discusses the acute feeling of helplessness that envelops her to the point of  wanting to die so as to be rid of all this suffering; on screen, what the viewer sees is an inordinate amount of moping, interrupted only by harried sex with mild bondage, followed by an incomprehensible resort to binge-drinking. Verily, what might capture the imagination or tickle one's fancy while reading the book might not have the same effect  visually because a line or two of text on an abstract concept does not necessarily translate well onscreen especially when the message or thought behind it is ambiguous and illusory.

Underwhelming as a whole and at times agonizingly insular as told from a lost child's limited perspective, director  Ninagawa Yukio's latest cinematic feature doesn't have the same emotional draw as his previous works-- it doesn't have the palpable tragedy of Waru Iemon nor the quiet complexity and  absorbing characterization of Ao no Honō. Chances are, it would probably be best remembered as the movie where Yoshitaka Yuriko artistically bared it all and yet somehow still managed to look dull and unappealing. The young actress just doesn't appear to have the range or perhaps the experience from which to make something out of this poorly written role. She puts on what most would consider a brave performance but she doesn't go beyond portraying Lui as this plastique, soulless doll. More often than not, she sounds and looks like a  spoiled and whiny brat instead of a tormented, world-weary individual. Furthermore, she's rather flat and unconvincing when it comes to the more erotic elements of the story, but then again, it's no easy feat to visually interpret the masochistic tendencies of a person who gets aroused by a needle stuck through her tongue as the book would have you believe:

"The next moment there was a clamping sound and shivers much greater than those of an orgasm shot through my entire body. Goosebumps ran up my arms and my body went into a slight spasm. My stomach tightened and for some reason so did my crotch, where I felt an ecstatic, tingling sensation."

Again, it's easier to make use of words to describe a particular sensation but bringing something like that from page to screen requires an actress to convey so much more than just drawing tears in her eyes with an expression that  looks like a half-wince-half-grin, the same goes for most of the sexual encounters in this movie. ARATA does slightly better, playing Shiba with a calm facade to mask the cruel temperament of his character. Soft-spoken and yet still menacing with delusions of being a god in his own right, he does well in balancing the severity of having a face full of piercings and a body like a canvas with his seemingly aloof and professional stance as a tattoo artist. Kora Kengo on the other hand plays Ama to dopey perfection. He's a misfit by way of looks and yet conventional in his everyday living; he's sweet and excitable, prone to violence and yet still naive when it comes to weighing the consequences of his actions. Watching the movie, it's quite clear that all three actors performed to the best of their abilities, the only catch is that none of them was ever able to rise above the shortcomings of the material that they were working with. As such, all three characters remain strangers up till the end of the movie, ultimately making this viewing experience a hollow and senseless journey. 
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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Asian Drama Trade/Giveaway

As some of you may already know, I'm disposing copies of dramas that I've acquired through the years. I've gone and dug up a few more titles and updated the list I previously posted, so feel free to check them out and see if you might be interested to get a few of them off my hands.

All the dramas listed below are in avi format unless otherwise specified and there's only one copy of each because I'm not in the business of doing any distro. They're available for either trade or adoption which means you either swap for them or just request them from me for free. Preference will be given to those who live in Metro Manila, while those who live abroad will have to make special arrangements regarding the transfer of the discs. Why am I getting rid of them, you say? Well, there's just simply too many of them and I'm not in a position to re-watch these dramas, so it might be better to have someone else enjoy them. For any questions or concerns, you can contact me here.
Japanese Dramas

  • Anna-san no Omame
  • Attack No. 1
  • Attention Please
  • Ace wo Nerae
  • Blackjack ni Yoroshiku
  • Bloody Monday 1 & 2
  • Boku dake no Madonna
  • Boss
  • Byakkotai 2007  
  • Code Blue 2
  • Chuusingura 1/47
  • Dance Drill
  • Dragon Zakura
  • Fuma no Kojiro
  • Galileo
  • Giragira
  • Gokusen 2 and  3
  • Hanazakari no Kimitachi e
  • Hagetaka
  • Innocent Love
  • Jotei
  • Hanayome to Papa
  • Hotaru no Hikari
  • Long Love Letter
  • Minami-kun no Koibito
  • Muri na Renai
  • My Boss, My Hero
  • One Liter of Tears
  • One Pound Gospel
  • Orthros no Inu
  • Osen
  • Prisoner
  • Proposal Daisakusen
  • Regatta
  • Ryusei no Kizuna
  • Satomi Hakkenden
  • Taiyou no Uta
  • Tatta Hitotsu no Koi
  • Tokujo Kabachi!
  • Ushi ni Negai wo
  • Yamada Taro Monogatari
  • Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge
  • Yasuko to Kenji
  • Yukan Club 

Korean Dramas
  • Air City
  • A Star's Lover
  • Beethoven Virus
  • Brilliant Legacy (a.k.a. Shining Inheritance)
  • Cain and Abel
  • Crazy for You
  • Dalja's Spring
  • East of Eden
  • Evasive Inquiry Agency (DVD Format)
  • Fantasy Couple
  • Goong S (a.k.a. Prince Hours)
  • Jumong
  • Kingdom of the Wind
  • Miss Kim's Million Dollar Quest
  • My Sweet Seoul
  • On Air (DVD Format)
  • Prosecutor Princess
  • Que Sera Sera
  • Resurrection (DVD Format)
  • Robbers
  • Something About 1%
  • Snow Queen
  • Strongest Chil Woo
  • Taereung's National Village
  • The Lobbyist
  • Time Between Dog and Wolf (DVD format)
  • Triple
  • War of Money (DVD Format)
  • Yi-San

Taiwanese Dramas
  • Fated to Love You 1-19 (RandomFansubs has the rest up on youtube)
  • Hot Shot
  • It Started with a Kiss 1-8 (incomplete)
  • Mean Girl Ah Chu
  • Romance in the Rain
  • Why Why Love

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Sunday, September 05, 2010


Power, greed, lust and envy---this movie had all the ingredients of a Shakespearean tragedy but all it amounted to was a costume melodrama that came with a pop-rock soundtrack, capped off by a  perfunctory ending that's so silly, it's not even worth mentioning. Imagine Edmond Dantès heartbroken and depressed, walking away without exacting revenge on his enemies, if you will. Imagine Alexander Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo adapted on screen by a Walt Disney company...oh wait, right, that happened already.

It's feudal Japan, the Heian period. The House of Hatakeyama is about to be divided as a conflict erupts between two brothers...

Born the second son of the Hatakeyama family, Naomitsu  (Oguri Shun) had long accepted the fact that his  rank in life was lower than that of his older brother Nobutsuna, (Ikeuchi Hiroyuki), who's the heir and future leader of the family. As a child, he knew better than to challenge his brother's authority, he knew early on that his duty was to serve his family with utmost loyalty. As a grown up, he sought neither power nor glory; to him, happiness meant living a life of obscurity and having enough freedom to do as he pleased.

Naomistu went  about his life oblivious to politics, he couldn't be made to care about wealth or be bothered to find out how much influence he could wield. He was blind to the malicious intent and ambition of others around him, and so when the shogun (Kenichi Hagiwara) unexpectedly  issued a decree declaring the marriage to his betrothed Ako (Shibamoto Yuki) a condition precedent to obtaining the title of  provincial deputy, Naomitsu failed to anticipate the trouble that the said edict would bring on to his family.

The shogun's announcement set off a major controversy, leaving Naomitsu at a loss as to how to allay his older brother's fear of being deposed of his position as head of the clan. He sincerely tells Nobutsuna that he's not interested in obtaining gold or the status of deputy. But all is for naught as the latter's mind is slowly filled with lies told by their adopted brother, Sakuramaru  (Tanaka Kei), who's already made his own bid to acquire the power and position held by the Hatakeyama family. Playing Iago to Nobutsuna's Othello, Sakuramaru incites the insecure older brother to betray his only brother; forcing Naomitsu to flee with Ako into the woods where they come across the bandit Tajomaru (Matsukata Hiroki).

Drawing inspiration from Akutagawa Ryunosuke's short story In a Grove, writers Ichikawa Shinichi and Yamamoto Mataichiro's Tajomaru stands as a brave yet clumsy attempt at doing a fresh and innovative take on the original story. What the screenplay does is, it fills in the events that occurred prior and  subsequent to the discovery of the body in the woods and runs [amok] with it-- thereby producing an alternate account of what transpired whilst providing a backstory to the now legendary bandit from which this movie takes its name.

As a period piece, Tajomaru excels in enticing viewers with its grand scale and lavish production, unfortunately, the plot and execution of it all makes it more of a drab assembly of clichés and contrivances than a brilliant reinvention of a classic tale. For while the original material concerned itself with seven varying accounts told in the course of a murder investigation, Tajomaru merely makes use of certain elements in the literary piece and reproduces key scenes in the Akira Kurosawa adaptation, Rashomon, to create a spin-off with a storyline that can be found in no less than a dozen samurai epic films. The fact that it's unoriginal is not even the main issue, the problem lies in its  lukewarm rendering of classic themes such as love, betrayal and revenge, and its writers' seeming inability to recognize when to stop introducing twists so ludicrous and fanciful that it makes the whole thing unintentionally laughable.  

Tajomaru gives its viewers the initial impression that it's a throwback to sword-fighting films of old; it briefly introduces the characters and their motivations, hints at an impending conflict, and generally sets the stage for its hero to fall to the depths of despair in order to subsequently rise up to reclaim his honor and dignity. Its first forty minutes is pure cinematic gold given that it has all the hallmarks of an enduring tragedy wherein a simple misunderstanding breaks the tenuous equilibrium that exists within a family.  That being said, it's set up  rather nicely, as the movie opens with a simple voice over, laced with a melancholy that only comes with narrating things past. It's complimented by breathtaking cinematography that captures the changing of the seasons, for as spring slowly gives way to fall, two brothers are seen to compete to gain one woman's hand in marriage, furthermore, a trusted servant reveals himself to be the snake that he is. Its overall look and tenor evokes that of a Shakespearean tragedy, but sadly, the extent of its hook ends in the setting of its lush landscape and intricately designed costume pieces, because  beneath all that style and gloss is a story that never really managed to make sense of what genre it wanted to belong to, such that its focus kept on shifting every quarter of the film.

The movie is layered with conflict-- it has a virtual blitzkrieg of dramatic events that would lead anyone to believe and anticipate that the protagonist would eventually be given the means and opportunity to seek revenge under a new identity. That in itself would have sufficed, the rub is that as one dramatic event was followed by another, the more far-fetched the story became and the less satisfying was the outcome. There were too many elements in it alien to the story; the pop-rock Robin Hood-esque montage and rap sequence negate the tone and gravity established in the first half of the film, while a last-minute twist merely serves as an overture to a nonsensical trip to hell and back, which was mere padding  for the story. And it literally is a trip to "hell" and back. 

The inclusion of a modern track in the middle of the film would not have been so out of place if this movie had the same flighty humor as director Nakano Hiroyuki's Red Shadow: Akakage or the "ninja-splatter punk" style of Kitamura Ryuhei's Azumi where a freakishly made-up Odagiri Jo played a bishonen assassin. But Tajomaru is not the type of movie to fall under any of the aforementioned category. It presents itself to be more than what it actually is---it's supposed to be this serious film based on a classic story but in reality, all it is, is a melodramatic film that's so turgid, one can't wait for the closing credits to roll on screen. 

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of this movie is that it has a hero that's content to just pander and coast along without any predetermined goal, direction or zeal. Naomitsu does not have the grit and heart typical of heroes  in this genre, he's easily disheartened and weak without his lady love. He's no Edmond Dantès or Crisostomo Ibarra, that's for sure, as he spends a good amount of the movie looking hurt, betrayed and intensely sissyfied despite the dreadlocks and the fur overcoat. Oguri Shun tries hard to lend credence to such a pathetic character, looking exaggeratedly forlorn and wistful, and at times mad with rage and comically homicidal. He sobs, he snarls in anger, looks dejected and even throws his head back to wail at the sky and survives  what appears to be at least a 12-ft jump before finally deciding take action against the enemy. There's very little character development in this production, so the rest of the cast can't be expected to do any better-- Ikeuchi Hiroyuki plays Nobutsuna with a permanent look of dissatisfaction on his face, showing no hint of affection or consideration for his younger brother contrary to the portrayal of his child version; Shibamoto Yuki looks resplendent in colorful silk robes but her turn as the defiled and self-sacrificing Ako makes for one beleaguered heroine that serves no purpose but to turn this movie's hero into a whimpering idiot. And even though Tanaka Kei gets to play a marvelous villain, the conclusion to the sword fight and his dying words in the end only emphasize how unbelievably moronic this movie turned out to be.

So if you're planning on watching this, be sure to remember the following:  (1) lower your expectations;  (2) have a good laugh; and (3) be done with it. Don't lament having wasted your time and money on it. 
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