‘Still the Water’

On the Japanese island of Amami Ōshima, a tattooed body is washed ashore. So begins a tender, Zen-like drama as two teenagers look to find their place with each other and in the wider world.

A suitably morose Kaito (Nijirô Murakami – Isle of Dogs, Natsumi’s Firefly) discovers the unidentified body as he struggles to deal with the separation of his parents. Girlfriend Kyoto (Junko Abe – Remember to Breathe, The Voice of Sin) is also dealing with separation issues as her mother, an island shaman, is approaching death.

Quiet, nuanced, understated, writer/director Naomi Kawase (Sweet Bean, The Mourning Forest) slowly and poetically peals back the poignancy of her coming-of-age story set in a natural world of great coastal beauty.

Rating: 64%


Spectacular, bloody battle scenes abound as Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, Dersu Uzala) transposes King Lear to medieval Japan and the world of the Samurai.

Ageing warlord Lord Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai – Kagemusha, Harakiri) divides his kingdom between three sons. But in voicing his scepticism of the plan, the youngest – Saburo (Daisuke Ryû – Kagemusha, Agitator) – is banished. As foreseen by Saburo, his two older brothers conspire to reduce even further the power and reach of their father as well as each other. War and confrontation is an inevitable consequence.

With power a corrupting influence, so the brothers and their courtiers plot and manipulate and Kurosawa’s expressionist vision results in a sweeping visual epic. It’s a glorious feast of storytelling, part battle scene after battle scene, part heavily-stylised Kabuki. It’s a magisterial telling of ‘ran’ (Japanese for chaos) and Shakespeare’s great tragedy of a play.

Nominated for 4 Oscars in 1986 including best director and cinematographer, won 1 for best costume design (Emi Wada).

Rating: 80%

‘Drive My Car’

Confronting painful truths from the past, writer Haruki Murikami’s short story is intimately adapted for the screen by Takamasa Oe and director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (Asako I & II, Happy Hour).

Languid and layered in its telling, renowned theatre actor and director Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima – Samurai’s Promise, Going Home) must come to terms with the sudden death of his unfaithful wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima – Norwegian Wood, Godzilla: Final Wars). Part of the process is accepting a residency in Hiroshima to direct an international cast in Uncle Vanya: Kafuku’s much in-demand unconventional approach includes casting actors performing their roles in their native tongue. As rehearsals unfold, so home truths and realisations dawn on Kafuku as he interacts with cast members and, importantly, the driver Misaki (Tôko Miura – She Likes That, Girl in the Sun), hired to transport him around Hiroshima.

For Kafuku, Chekhov is terrifying. When you say his lines, it drags out the real you. At almost three hours, Drive My Car slowly and intensely peels back much of the real Kafuku. The result is a beautiful, engrossing resonance of a narrative.

Nominated for 4 Oscars in 2022 including best film, director, adapted screenplay, won best foreign language film.

Rating: 86%


A stunningly shot black and white melodrama, this early Akira Kurosawa (Ran, Throne of Blood) remains a visual and rhythmic masterpiece.

As three men take shelter from the torrential rain in the broken-down gatehouse to the Rashomon temple, so two recount to the third the trial they had witnessed earlier that day. The rape of a bride (Machiko Kyô – Gate of Hell, The Teahouse of the August Moon) and the murder of her samurai husband are recalled from the perspectives of a bandit, the bride herself, the samurai’s ghost and a woodcutter.

With cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, Kurosawa explores new ways, through deceptive framing and lighting design, to tell the seeming same story from four different perspectives. It’s masterful in its telling -and introduced to a wider, international audience not only his own work, but that of star Toshirô Mifune (Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood) as the bandit, Tajômaru.

Nominated for 2 Oscars – one for best art direction in 1953, won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1952. Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Rating: 87%

‘Wife of a Spy’

On the cusp of entering the Secord World War, Japan is divided. Tradition and outward looking-modernisation are at odds as Satoko (Yu Aoi – Journey to the Shore, Birds Without Names), the wife of a successful fabric merchant, discovers her husband Yusaku (Issey Takahashi – Blank 13, Kill Bill) is a subversive.

An uneasy melodrama develops as an initially suspicious and jealous Satoko discovers more and more, convinced Yusaku is having an affair. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Journey to the Shore,Tokyo Sonata) threads into the narrative romance, politics and Hitchcockian spy thriller, an approach that won him the Best Director Silver Lion at the 2020 Venice Film Festival.

Rating: 61%

‘Tokyo Story’

Regarded by many critics as one of the greatest films ever made, Tokyo Story is a deceptively simple tale of two ageing parents visiting their adult children in Tokyo. Travelling more than 24 hours by train, on arrival they find their children too busy to spend much time with them.

Shot in a muted black and white to reduce contrasts, it’s a universal tale elegantly told. Director Yasujiro Ozu (Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon) was a master of filmmaking, interested in telling the story without sentimentality or emotional baggage. The camera remains static, usually at three feet from the floor – the eye level of a Japanese person seated on a tatami mat. More often than not, a room is seen first before characters arrive. The old couple (Chisyu Ryu, Chiyeko Higashiyama) accept their lot without any emotion, struggling with the oppressive city heat. Much of the film is shot indoors and the couple choose to end the city sojourn early. Taken ill on the return journey, the mother dies as they arrive home. Now the children must find the time to travel.

A timeless nuanced social commentary, Ozu’s staged, matter-of-fact telling works beautifully as the old Hirayama couple – and the old way of life – come to terms with change.

Rating: 93%

‘Ramen Shop’

Gentle and unassuming, Ramen Shop involves Masato (Takumi Saitoh – 13 Assassins, Blank 13) leaving Japan to travel to Singapore as he looks to find out more about the early life of his now deceased parents.

On the death of his father, Masato leaves the family ramen shop in the hands of an uncle and heads to Singapore. The place of his birth, he looks to embark on a culinary journey and understand home truths about the past. Food has always been an important part of Masato’s life yet his loving Chinese mother, who died when he was young, was a mystery. With support from food blog writer, Miki (Seiko Matsuda – Tombstone of the Fireflies, Armageddon), he uncovers long-kept family secrets.

Director Eric Khoo (Tatsumi, Be With Me), credited with the revivial of the Singapore film industry over the last 30 years, touches upon the complex history of Singapore and Japan. But Ramen Shop is more a celebration of food and the cultural role it plays in bringing people together. Sadly, nostaglia wins out in a film that, whilst sweet and easy to watch, could have benefitted with more balancing sour.

Rating: 50%

‘Tokyo Sonata’

A slow-moving domestic drama as an ordinary Tokyo family fall apart when the father (Teruyuki Kagawa – Tsurugidake: Ten no ki, Yureru) loses his executive job – and, in shame, fails to tell his wife and two sons.

Leaving the house everyday at the same time, dressed for the office, Ryûhei Sasaki spends his time looking for work, sitting in the local library and eating at the free food vendors alongside the homeless and many other men in the same position. Returning home each night, tempers are frayed with his eldest, Takashi, spending less and less time with the family and schoolboy Kenji desperate to take piano lessons. It is for Megumi (Koizumi Kyoko – Hanging Garden, Before We Vanish) to play the peacemaker as the family struggle to communicate with each other.

Delicate and gentle, capturing a sense of time and place but with an undercurrent of dread, each family member experiences a personal catharsis. With a change of pace from director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Journey to the Shore, To the Ends of the Earth) with the Megumi ‘moment’, Tokyo Sonata does lose its focus and teeters on the edge of ill-conceived melodrama. But the narrative is drawn back to the centre to facilitate a conclusion to a drama of the everyday.

Rating: 61%

‘Journey to the Shore’

A lonely piano teacher, Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu – Like Asura, Villain) lost her husband three years earlier. Yet, when he returns, she is not overly surprised to see him – even though Yusuke (Asano Tadanobu – Thor, Battleship) explains he drowned at sea. Instead, she agrees to go on a journey with him.

It’s a journey of love and death, of meeting people who helped Yusuke return to Mizuki. Some are, like him, between life and death. Journey to the Shore is a ghost story – of sorts. It’s a love story – of sorts, as Yusuke uses the opportunity to tell his wife more of himself than when alive. It’s also a worldly road trip as the couple travel by bus, train or taxi to their destinations.

It’s all rather delicate – but also somewhat baffling and rambling in a narrative seemingly focussing on the acceptance of death. Light, throwaway and somewhat forgetable from director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata, Wife of a Spy).

Rating: 44%

Best of Year (2018 – Film)

The final list of the year – the top 10 films, and, to my mind, it’s something of a stunner, with non-English language films dominant. And just failing to make the top 10 were a number of much praised indie films – including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, The Florida Project and Lean on Pete. Last year’s Oscar winner for best film, The Shape of Water, just missed out on the top 10, as did my only animation for the year, Isle of Dogs.

My top 10 films of the year:
10: The Rider
9: BPM (Beats Per Minute)
8: Loveless
7: 1945
6: The Favourite
5: Roma
4: Custody
3: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
2: Shoplifters
1: Foxtrot

The final film I saw at the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival slipped into 10th spot – an intense indie film of bravura performances beautifully controlled by director Chloe Zhao.

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival (essentially the runner up for the Palme d’Or), BPM is a powerful, lyrical, emotional narrative that resonates on a much wider political level than its ACT UP AIDS awareness setting.

In Loveless, director Andrey Zvyagintsev continues to comment on contemporary Russian society as a Leningrad couple look to divorce. Their 12 year-old son, caught in the vindictive and argumentative maelstrom, disappears in the stark yet rivetingly sincere feature from the director who is responsible for the equally devastating Leviathan.

In seventh spot, a film that was completely under the radar and barely received commercial distribution. But this black and white story of two Jews returning to a small Hungarian village days after the end of World War II is a picaresque narrative of startling beauty and powerful commentary.

One of the favourites in the current Oscar race, The Favourite is a ribald delight as the English court of Queen Anne is the setting for the locking of horns by three women in an attempt to win the royal favour.

Another Oscar favourite (and odds-on to win the foreign language film nod) is another black and white beauty. Roma by Alfonso Cuarón is the gorgeously shot year in the life of Cleo, a maid to a middle-class family living in Mexico City in the 1970s.

Devastating and disturbing, debut director Xavier Legrand’s claustrophobic tour de force is no easy watch, but with superb performances from a relatively small cast, Custody is heart-wrenching in its pain, fear and anger.

The runner-up for best film of the year is Shoplifters, the Palme d’Or winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a deft, emotionally delicate feature from socially conscious filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda.

But my favourite film of 2018 is the Israeli film, Foxtrot, a sublime mix of intense drama interspersed with flashes of surreal brilliance. It’s bold, it’s imaginative, it’s powerful – an appropriate follow-up from director Samuel Maoz and his visceral debut feature film, Lebanon.