Monday, 31 March 2014

Just watched: Cold Eyes

A recent bout of flu left me stuck on a sofa for two days and, as usual, when I’m ill I like to watch Korean variety shows. I rewatched a bunch of old Running Man episodes, and my eye was caught by episodes 151 and 152. The guests included Jung Woo Sung and Han Hyo Joo, and they were both so funny that I wanted to see the film they were promoting. This was perhaps the first time that an appearance on a game show has made me want to watch something!

This 2013 film is about a high-tech surveillance police department on the trail of a deadly gang of criminals. Han Hyo Joo is the newcomer to the team but, unlike too many cop shows, she is not there for comic relief or to annoy her old-fashioned bosses with her clever techniques. Instead, she’s good at her job and she fits into the team just fine.

Jung Woo Sung, meanwhile, is the criminal mastermind who is behind these meticulously planned and violent crimes. The acting is great. Han Hyo Joo is totally believable as the cop with a photographic memory and Jung Woo Sung impresses as the impassive killer that they have to track down.

The film throws everything into the mix, car chases, martial arts, gun fights, forensic science and even some comedy, too. It’s amazing that it all flows together and nothing seems forced. It's a lot of fun from start to finish. I shall definitely have to track down the original version: Eye In The Sky, a Hong Kong film made in 2007.

Meanwhile, if you can find episode 151 of Running Man, take a look. Jung Woo Sung is just as intense in a variety show as he is in a big-budget movie.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

My Top 13 Japanese albums

To be specific: albums that were released in Japan. A couple of things to note: I have not carried out a comprehensive search throughout all Japanese modern music to find the best thirteen albums. It is just the result of my somewhat random ramble through the world of J-pop.This is why some big names are missing (Southern All-Stars and Utada Hiraku, for example) and there’s not much before the year 2000. And I know thirteen is an strange number for a chart (lucky I’m not superstitious), but after this I couldn’t think of anything else that could compete. All of these albums have, at one time or another, lived in my mp3 player for months at a time on high rotation. Bless them all.

13. Comeback My Daughters “Outta Here” (2011)

This blend of easy-going guitar driven pop is charming and catchy in all the right places.

By the way, if I had to recommend one video from this page, it would be this one...

12. Zerii “No need” (2001)

This was their second album and it was to be their finest hour. Well, just over half an hour, anyway. Mind you, I haven’t heard their first album: This isn’t the easiest band to find on the internet. To do so, you need to search for ゼリ→ otherwise you get a load of links to pages about jelly. It’s a blistering punk blast, with occasional overtones of ska.

11. Dragon Ash “Harvest” (2003)

Mixing rock and rap is notoriously difficult. Either the rap is clumsy or the rock is plodding and dull. Not here. Dragon Ash nail this perfectly, drifting from stomping balls-out anthems to quiet, thoughtful musings. And, sometimes, both at the same time.

10. Hitomi Yaida “Candlize” (2001)

Hitomi Yaida was one of the very first Japanese artists I discovered. She can always be relied on for great singles, but this was the time when it all came together for a whole CD: her second album has no weak tracks and is awesome pop goodness from start to finish.

9. Kokia “moment” (2011)

I once read an article or blog post about Kokia saying that your favourite album of hers would probably be the first one you heard. Well, that’s true in this case. Maybe it was the shock of such a great voice matched with those songs that enchanted me. Whatever, no other album of hers has had the same effect on me. This is a glorious celebration of her voice.

8. Missile Girl Scoot “Fiesta” (2000)

While researching this list, I noticed that this CD was on sale on Amazon at a mere $52. I mean, it’s great, but is it $52-worth of great?

This metal-rap-punk-ska hybrid hit the ground running with their debut album. A searing blend of two female vocalists (yes, they’re both female) over some grunge riffs, ska rhythms and irresistible songs.

7. Specialthanks “Seven Lovers” (2011)

Honestly, this is exactly the kind of band I always wished existed. A super-cute female lead singer backed with some joyous punk-pop. There really is nothing else to add.

6. Girls Generation “Girls Generation II: Girls and Peace” (2012)

I think the problem I have with Girls Generation is that I always expect every release to be a slice of pop genius, which it rarely is, although I usually like it. This album is the one time that Girls’ Generation matched my expectations. Light, frothy and fun, it is an undeniably adorable collection of great pop choons.

5. James Iha “Linda Linda Linda OST” (2005)

James Iha’s contribution to the soundtrack of the film Linda Linda Linda was pivotal to it’s atmosphere. The sense of motionlessness that somehow heightened the sense of nostalgia. Like the sound of a distant band practice echoing down school corridors, his ambient pieces are beautiful and also somehow hypnotic.

4. Veltpunch “Black Album” (2010)

This tangle of guitars and choruses was my album of the year not so long ago. It remains a favourite of mine. It's awkward, experimental feel means I never get tired of it.

3. Faye Wong “Sing and Play” (1998)

This was recorded at the height of Faye Wong's infatuation with the Scottish band Cocteau Twins. Faye Wong’s voice is at her most ethereal, riding through spell-binding choruses on swooping walls of synthesisers. (Sorry about the lapse into bad poetry, but that’s the sort of thing this music will do to you.)

2. Bump of Chicken “Orbital Period” (2007)

Bump Of Chicken’s obsession with astronomy reaches an artistic peak with this album. It is perhaps their most gentle album, with many of the songs beginning with a phrase picked out on acoustic guitar before growing into a life-affirming crescendo.

1. Supercar “Highvision” (2002)

It wasn’t until I moved to London in 1998 that I really discovered Japanese culture. Without the internet, there was really no way for J-pop to reach me in my suburban commuter-belt town. However, I’d always been kind of fascinated by it, ever since my brother came back from a holiday there during the 1980s and said it was the closest you could get to leaving the planet.

This album sounds like how I imagined Japan in those early years. Sleek, futuristic, minimalist. Now I know Japan a little better, I realise that's quite unlike the real thing, but when I listen to “Highvision” I’m taken back to that futuristic idea of Japan where driverless taxis glide past and couples wearing space-age clothes speed upwards in transparent elevators to the hyper-restaurant on the 110th floor. Bliss.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Just watched: Liar Game Reborn

With no episode of The Genius this week, I found myself digging this 2012 film out of an old hard drive as a kind of substitute. Of course, The Genius was based on Liar Game so, as substitutes go, it's a pretty good one.

The story concerns Akiyama (an ex con-man and expert in games, probabilities, and psychology) who, despite his criminal record, is now lecturing at a University! The previous female lead role, Kanzaki Nao, is not around so instead there is another innocent, well-meaning woman to fill that role: Shinomiya Yu.

Comparing the two (Liar Game and The Genius) gives a good lesson on the difference between a drama and an unscripted variety show. What works in one may not work in another. The Genius can rely on returning contestants to build up empathy with the audience over a number of weeks. The characters in Liar Game are just stereotypes: their purpose is to act as pieces pushed around as the game progresses.

On the other hand, Liar Game can really get into the mechanics of a particular game, and set up particular situations for dramatic effect. No one in The Genius would throw away all of their tokens, as Akiyama does in Liar Game: Reborn, and still be able to manipulate the game.

In a way, Liar Game has been surpassed by its variety-show child. After five years since its first episode, the desolate landscapes and neon lighting seem a bit old fashioned. And after seeing the emotions and reactions of various players on The Genius, watching Liar Game's pouting genius sulk in the corner is a bit underwhelming.

But the film was entertaining, and there was a moment halfway through the film where I absolutely couldn't see a way for Akiyama to win. In that sense, the film was much better than I was expecting. But at the same time, I hope the series has finally run its course.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Just watched: After Life

This film, directed by Koreeda Hirokazu and released in 1998, is as quiet and contemplative as you’d expect from Koreeda. It is set in a building were the recently deceased come. Here, they are expected to choose one memory from their life that will be re-enacted and filmed. They can take this into heaven as their only memory of their life.

The cast is a mix of actors and real people reminiscing about their lives, which gives the film a realistic, unscripted feel. The setting is interesting, too: an institutional building that’s clearly seen better days. Paint peels from the walls, and the architecture and furniture have a 1940s feel to them. This adds to a sense of the film not happening in any particular time.

The location of the building, too, is kept vague. In one scene, one of the characters walks from the building to a nearby modern Japanese town, giving the impression that this place is more in our world than in the next.

There is a story line: an unrequited love between two of the people working in the building, but it’s kind of lost amongst the various stories being told by the recently departed. It seems to me that they are the main focus of this film. These ordinary people with their fascinating stories are really what this film is about.