July 17, 2015
EIGA SAI is the yearly the Japanese film festival presented by the Japan Foundation in cooperation with the Embassy of Japan. (Here were my reviews of previous Eiga Sai film festivals I was able to attend the last three years: 2014, 2013, and 2012.)
This year is already the 17th year of the festival and it is once again held for FREE at the Shangri-La Plaza Mall. The theme this year is “Tasteful Japan” as it features many films about Japan cuisine as featured in films released last year, 2014. Ten films were featured this year, and I was able to watch three of them.
1. Thermae Romae II
(Terumae Romae II)
A baths architect from ancient Rome named Lucius. Given several challenges by the emperor, he gained perfect inspiration via his accidental time-travels to present day Japan, including heated spas, wooden bathtubs or water parks for children. At the same time though, Lucius gets involved in political intrigue involving the emperor's pacifist stand, the senators who want to continue Rome's expansion and the man chosen by the emperor to succeed him.
This is a sequel to a hit comedy film released in 2012, based on a hit manga.I have not seen the first Thermae Romae film, so this one was really very funny and original for me. Although the premise of time travel through the water was in itself preposterous, this film never took itself seriously and was just having a lot of fun. I know it may offend some people, but I found the part where Lucius thought slaves were the mechanisms behind the modern baths, like the massage chairs, toilet air vents or the bubble machine. They covered a lot of bathing issues too. I cannot imagine what other bath jokes they did in the first film -- have to see that too.
The Roman-inspired sets and the cast of thousands was very impressive for a comedy film. Tall and well-built Abe Hiroshi played Lucius as the deadpan straight guy so well, with his various facial expressions for awe and amazement. Aya Ueto was very cute as the modern Japanese history buff girl who helps Lucius out of tight spots. It was funny how Lucius could not take the hint that she likes him. For foreigners, it was very good exposure to Japanese bathing culture. We also got a peek behind the scenes of Sumo wrestling as well. As directed by Hideki Takeuchi, this film was both interesting and hilarious, though the action did tend to bog down when politics gets in the way. 7/10.
2, Wood Job!
((Ujjobu) Kamisari nânâ nichijô)
Hirano is a slacker did not pass his university entrance examinations. Drunk and despondent, he sees a pretty girl on the cover of a magazine about forestry, and impulsively takes the next train going to that very training facility for foresters hoping to meet her. His soft city ways did not match the hard life in the countryside and forests, especially since he had to live with a tough macho lumberjack mentor. Eventually he does get to meet the girl in the magazine, who turns out to be a local school teacher. When the time comes that Hirano could go back to the city, what will he decide to do?
Frankly, this film was pleasant and funny, but it is just OK for me. The story was predictable from the beginning. Director Shinobu Yaguchi is known for his big 2001 hit "Waterboys" about teenage boys taking up synchronized swimming, I had seen another film of his, "Happy Flight" (2008), which was a very funny film all about the ins and outs of airline industry. "Wood Job" is a mix of those two films, a comedy about a nobody becoming somebody set within a very in-depth depiction of the forestry industry in rural Japan.
Like "Happy Flight" it was very interesting to see the life and training to become a good lumberjack and the pride they had for their work. I liked the cultural education as well about how they live in the countryside and their traditions. The lead actor Shota Sometani can be charming at times. But a lot of times, he can be pretty annoying too. No doubt though that a pretty girl like Masami Nagasawa can lure this city boy to venture to the countryside. The film has the right heart, but it was occasionally messy in the delivery of its story. I will confess that it was quite difficult to watch actual trees being cut down in the course of this film, particularly that majestic old tree in the climactic festival scene. 6/10.
3. A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story
(Bushi no kondate)
In the 18th century in feudal Japan, there were samurai families whose sole duty was to be chefs to the ruling class. The Funaki family was such a family. Yasunobu Funaki was training to be a warrior when he was forced to train as samurai chef instead when his eldest brother died. His father, the head chef Dennai Funaki, pleads with Haru, the young handmaid and talented cook of a high-ranking concubine, to marry his son and teach him how to cook well.
I was absolutely riveted to the film by director Yuzo Asahara from the first frame to the last, the two hour plus running time hardly bothered me. Occasionally the pace of the film will dip, especially when political intrigue entered the scene in the second act. However, the whole time the glorious Aya Ueto was there on the screen as Haru, she was totally mesmerizing. I believed her mastery in the kitchen, her feisty spirit, her loyalty and nobility to family and duty. Kengo Kôra was also very good as Yasunobu, the conflicted son and husband, warrior and cook. Their chemistry really came to fore in the final act when only hearts of stone would not be moved. Toshiyuki Nishida and Kimiko Yo also deserve special mention with their dignified portrayal of Yasunobu's honorable parents, Dennai and Mitsu Funaki.
I have to say this is one of the most beautiful Japanese films I have ever seen. The cinematography was so vibrant, clean and flawless. The whole look of the film with its tempered color palette exuded elegance and old time charm and esthetics. The production design and costume design were so meticulous with intricate period detail. The numerous scenes showing the exotic culinary offerings of Japan, specifically the Kaga cuisine that the Funaki family actively preserved and promoted, were very delectable and mouthwatering. As with other Japanese films, the details about their unique cultural heritage, like respect of duty, honor and filial piety, were so vividly portrayed. Though I am not sure about their accuracy, but the English subtitles read like poetry to me. 9/10.
The run of the Eiga Sai film festival in Shangri-La Mall ends on Sunday, July 19. After that, these films will have showings in Abreeza Mall Cinema 2 in Davao City (from July 24-26), the UP Film Institute (from Aug. 12-15) and finally in Ayala Center Cinema 4 in Cebu City (from Aug. 19-23).