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, 2003

From Korean director Park Chan-wook, who also brought you the far quieter The Handmaiden, comes a movie that is positively terrifying. Its premise alone is enough for any sentient human being to shudder. On his daughter's birthday, the good-for-nothing Oh Dae-su (played by Choic Min-sik) gets drunk and is arrested by the police. A friend eventually bails him out and, while he is making a phone call, Oh Dae-su disappears. Not knowing why, he is held in the same room for 15 years for no apparent reason. Until, one day, he is released. That's all that can be revealed about this winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004 without giving away too much. All we can add here is the way we recommend Oldboy to people admitting to not having seen it yet: “Watch Oldboy. You're welcome. We're sorry.” A crazy, twisted film that goes to extremes. A cult classic and a statement.

Genre: Action, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Byeong-ok Kim, Choi Min-sik, Dae-han Ji, Dae-yeon Lee, Han Jae-duk, Hye-jeong Kang, Ji Dae-han, Ji-tae Yu, Jin-Seo Yoon, Jin-seo Yun, Kang Hye-jeong, Kang Hye-jung, Kim Byeong-Ok, Kim Byung-ok, Kim Su-hyun, Kwang-rok Oh, Lee Dae-yeon, Lee Seung-shin, Lee Young-hee, Min-sik Choi, Oh Dal-su, Oh Gwang-rok, Oh Kwang-rok, Oh Tae-kyung, Park Jae-Woong, Park Myung-shin, Seo Myeong-Seok, Seung-Shin Lee, Syd Lim, Yoo Il-han, Yoo Ji-tae, Yoo Yeon-seok, Yoon Jin-seo, Yoon Jin-yul

Director: Chan-wook Park, Park Chan-wook

Rating: R

Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray is the kind of film that you come away from being more honest with yourself. That effect is thanks to the contagious directness of its protagonist: Delphine (Marie Rivière), a newly single young French woman whose summer vacation plans have just been unceremoniously upturned after the friend she was going away with takes off with a man instead. Now at a loose end, the indecisive Delphine meanders between her home in Paris and several gorgeous holiday spots, but that old saying — “wherever you go, there you are” — proves true. Neither the beaches of Cherbourg and Biarritz nor the lofty beauty of an Alps resort can soothe her restlessness or give her what she’s looking for, probably because she doesn’t quite know what that is herself.

Delphine’s is an achingly familiar search for anyone who’s ever felt like they’ve drifted off of life’s path, but blessedly, the conversation-driven Green Ray doesn’t leave us wallowing in that despair. That’s partly thanks to its final moments — which rank among cinema’s most stunning — but mostly because Rivière, who improvised much of her incisive dialogue, puts into words things that so many have felt but few would admit. In that sense, The Green Ray feels as much like a miracle as its last shot does.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Béatrice Romand, Carita Holmström, María Luisa García, Marie Rivière, Rosette, Vincent Gauthier

Director: Éric Rohmer

The tragic irony of war — that, if battling soldiers had been born in any other time or place, they may well have been friends with each other — takes center stage in this brilliant drama set in WWII-era Java. It's a theme best encapsulated by Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto in his film debut), the bushido code-following commandant of a Japanese POW camp: “How wonderful it would have been if we could have invited all of you to a gathering under our cherry trees,” he muses to the titular British Lieutenant Lawrence (Tom Conti), one of his prisoners.

Lawrence is the camp’s mediator, and not just because he’s fluent in Japanese; in the culture clash microcosm that is the camp, he is uniquely understanding of his captors’ way of life. That earns him special privileges of sorts from the camp’s often brutal enforcer (Takeshi Kitano), but this pales in comparison to the instant partiality with which the charismatic Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) enjoys, courtesy of a smitten yet deeply repressed and tormented Yonoi. This psychosexual undercurrent bubbles furiously throughout Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, deepening its (already poignant) lamentations about war’s humanity-stripping effect and the self-imposed prisons that are honor and shame.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alistair Browning, Arthur Ranford, Colin Francis, Daisuke Iijima, David Bowie, Grant Bridger, Hideo Murota, Hiroshi Mikami, Jack Thompson, Johnny Ohkura, Kan Mikami, Rokkō Toura, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ryūnosuke Kaneda, Takashi Naito, Takeshi Kitano, Tamio Ishikura, Tom Conti, Yūji Honma, Yūya Uchida

Director: Nagisa Ōshima

Rating: R

Éric Rohmer movies are what you watch when you want to experience the thrill of someone putting into words something you might never have been able to express yourself. The magic of his characters is that they’re breezily candid, even if that honesty doesn’t protect them from committing the same contradictory foibles we all do. Pauline at the Beach is a dazzling example of that quality; it may even be more honest than usual, because it also tells a truth about its characters that they’re not even aware of themselves.

The most perceptive character is actually the youngest: 15-year-old Pauline (Amanda Langlet), who’s vacationing with her older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle). Having never fallen in love herself, Pauline receives a thorough education in the matter by observing the love triangle that Marion becomes entangled in with needy Pierre (Pascal Greggory) and predatory Henri (Féodor Atkine). Though the adults give the film its brilliantly articulate philosophical meditations on love — ranging from the idealistic to the dispassionate — their actions often fall short of their words. Shot through Pauline’s keen eyes, Rohmer’s film wryly reveals the decisive role that delusion and unchecked ego play in so many grown-up lives — ironically making the self-aware and measured teenager the most mature of all.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Amanda Langlet, Arielle Dombasle, Féodor Atkine, Pascal Greggory, Rosette, Simon de La Brosse

Director: Éric Rohmer

Rating: R

Set in the small town of Åmål, western Sweden, the debut feature by Lukas Moodysson (We Are the Best), is itself a metonymy for the bigger questions of life. It's playful and dead serious at the same time, in the way it portrays teenager Agnes, who, after two years of living in Åmål, still hasn't made any friends that would attend her birthday party. Instead, she spends her time typing away on her computer, poetic diaries and love confessions to a girl from school named Elin. She's the popular one and therefore, out of reach. The amount of tension and escalating ambivalence the film conjures with just a simple narrative decision—a bet, a kiss, an apology—is palpable throughout the 86 minutes of its runtime. A perfect capsule of lesbian desire and first love, Show Me Love is a gem of a movie; one that would make you think Close was a tad overrated. Oh, and don't forget to add the titular song by Swedish pop star Robyn to your Spotify favorites.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alexandra Dahlström, Bo Lyckman, Erica Carlson, Jill Ung, Josefine Nyberg, Maria Hedborg, Mathias Rust, Ralph Carlsson, Rebecka Liljeberg, Stefan Horberg

Director: Lukas Moodysson

Rating: Not Rated

As time goes by, the youth doesn’t recognize how connected they are to previous tragedies, more so when it comes to war. Some even say that they have no part in it. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s later years have been preoccupied in countering this idea. Casting Blossoms to the Sky is the first of Obayashi’s anti-war trilogy, with the film inviting its audience to follow a journalist rediscovering the city of Nagaoka after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. There’s a certain dreamlike approach to the way the various war stories are weaved together, with vibrant frames, simple CGI, and prominent green screen that grants some distance between the audience and the actual wartime reality, but it’s no less potent as Reiko interviews those that remember the scars of the past, and the rituals, practices, and art they’ve taken up in response. Casting Blossoms is a depressing story about war and disaster, one that is a tough one to watch. But it never forgets the humanity, the kindness and love that allowed Japan to recover, the very qualities we must protect and remember in ourselves.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, War

Actor: Akira Emoto, Bengal, Chōei Takahashi, Hirona Yamazaki, Hiroshi Inuzuka, Kanae Katsuno, Koji Ishikawa, Mansaku Ikeuchi, Masahiro Takashima, Masao Kusakari, Masayuki Yui, Mayuu Kusakari, Minami Inomata, Misako Renbutsu, Naoyuki Morita, Natsuki Harada, Saki Terashima, Seina Suzuki, Shiho Fujimura, Shirô Namiki, Sumiko Fuji, Takahito Hosoyamada, Takashi Sasano, Takehiro Murata, Takuro Atsuki, Tomoko Hoshino, Tōru Shinagawa, Toshie Negishi, Toshinori Omi, Toshio Kakei, Tsurutaro Kataoka, Yasuko Matsuyuki, Yuto Kobayashi

Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi

“It is better to live miserable than to die happy,” or so says one of the characters in Jia Zhangke’s anthology film A Touch of Sin. On its surface, the “sin” referenced in the title might pertain to the acts of murder that the four protagonists commit, but in the context of China’s rapidly changing capitalist landscape (a theme explored in the director’s other pictures), it reveals itself as a malady shared by Chinese laborers treated as dispensable resources by the powers-that-be. Murder, then, is explored as an extremity, the effectual breaking point of people no longer able to contain the injustice within themselves. Beneath the splatters of blood is a plea for empathy and understanding, at once remorseful and full of conviction.

Genre: Action, Crime, Drama

Actor: Baoqiang Wang, Han Dong, Jiang Wu, Jin Zhang, Li Meng, Lu Liu, Luo Lanshan, Qiang Wang, Wang Baoqiang, Wang Hongwei, Wang Qiang, Zhang Jiayi, Zhang Jin, Zhao Tao

Director: Jia Zhangke

Human Capital is a rich and absorbing tale of two families tied together by love, money and a hit-and-run accident. One family is wealthy, the other struggling to get by in the days after the 2008 economic meltdown. Human Capital dexterously contrasts the social calculations the characters make about who can afford to step outside the lines of law and morality. The story is told from different perspectives, a device that serves to give the tale and the characters greater depth. In Italian with English subtitles.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alessandro Betti, Bebo Storti, Elettra Dallimore-Mallaby, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Fabrizio Gifuni, Federica Fracassi, Franco Pinelli, Fulvio Milani, Gigio Alberti, Giovanni Anzaldo, Guglielmo Pinelli, Isabelle Tanakil, Luca Toracca, Luigi Lo Cascio, Matilde Gioli, Paolo Pierobon, Pia Engleberth, Saman Anthony, Silvia Cohen, Silvia Degrandi, Stella Maris, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Valeria Bruni‑Tedeschi, Valeria Golino, Vincent Nemeth

Director: Paolo Virzì

Rating: Not Rated

While best known for 1977 cult horror classic House, Nobuhiko Obayashi first dreamed of adapting Hanagatami, a 1937 novella by Kazuo Dan, and it was only until the later end of his life that he got to fulfill that dream. It’s possibly the reason why Hanagatami feels like a surreal set of memories, with Karatsu’s seaside portrayed with theatrical sets and back projection, with scenes flipped and unflipped ever so often, with Bach looped and mixed with dissonant chords and children singing. And as the teenagers of Karatsu try to cling to their innocence despite the looming possibility of death, Obayashi remembers the lives cut short, not in nostalgia, but in an anxious bid for us to remember humanity’s biggest failure.

Genre: Drama, Romance, War

Actor: Hirona Yamazaki, Honoka Yahagi, Kayoko Shiraishi, Keishi Nagatsuka, Kiyotaka Nanbara, Masahiro Takashima, Mugi Kadowaki, Shinnosuke Ikehata, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Shunsuke Kubozuka, Takahito Hosoyamada, Takako Tokiwa, Takao Ito, Takehiro Murata, Tetsuya Takeda, Tokio Emoto, Tōru Shinagawa, Toshie Negishi, Tsurutaro Kataoka, Wakaba Irie, Yuriko Ono

Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi

Audition is not for the faint of heart. It's shockingly violent and deeply unsettling, filled with sights and sounds that will haunt you for days on end. But there is grace to its terror; it's profound and artistic in ways that elevate it from generic horror fare.

On a deeper level, Audition is about the destructive power of abuse, trauma, and loneliness, about how a society that neglects to recognize this eventually suffers from it. The revenge plot isn't merely individual, as well, but a representation of the female subconscious: tired of objectification, eager for redress. And everything about the way the film is made, from the shaky camera and titled frames to the dramatic shadows and eerie lighting, reflects that imbalance. 

Audition may be chilling and gruesome, but it's also smart and important, a psychosexual thriller that captures female anger well before it became the rage. 

Genre: Drama, Horror

Actor: Eihi Shiina, Fumiyo Kohinata, Jun Kunimura, Kanji Tsuda, Ken Mitsuishi, Kimiko Tachibana, Miyuki Matsuda, Ren Osugi, Renji Ishibashi, Ryo Ishibashi, Shigeru Saiki, Tatsuo Endō, Tetsu Sawaki, Toshie Negishi, Yuriko Hirooka

Director: Takashi Miike

Rating: R

, 1998

Despite being remade, parodied, and absorbed into pop culture over the years, the original Ring defiantly marches to the beat of its own drum. Focused entirely on building a slow-burn mystery instead of dispensing scares, the film provides ample space for a number of interpretations: on the spread of technology, the erasure of traditional beliefs, or even motherhood. It's all relentlessly quiet and extremely creepy, the tension building with the same energy as ghost stories told around a campfire. And while famous for its eerie images and the rules surrounding its cursed videotape, Ringu also serves as a reminder that great horror should compel the audience to keep on watching, even if they already know exactly what awaits them if they do.

Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Daisuke Ban, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hiroyuki Watanabe, Hitomi Satô, Katsumi Muramatsu, Kiriko Shimizu, Masako, Miki Nakatani, Miwako Kaji, Nanako Matsushima, Rie Ino'o, Rikiya Ôtaka, Yôichi Numata, Yôko Ôshima, Yûko Takeuchi, Yûrei Yanagi, Yutaka Matsushige

Director: Hideo Nakata

We Are the Best! is one movie that may be overlooked largely by viewers, though it perfectly captures counterculture, and relates to the misfit young and old. The movie is an adaptation of Moodysson's wife Coco's graphic novel "Never Goodnight". Set in Stockholm, Sweden in 1982, Klara (Mira Grosin) and her best friend Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) are junior high teenage girls who believe in their heart that punk rock is alive and well. With both of their home lives not so pleasant, the girls spend their time at the local youth center while taking up the time slot in the band room to get revenge on the local metal band. That's when they find themselves starting a punk band without even knowing how to play an instrument. We Are the Best! is a fun and deeply sincere exploration of adventure, friendship, love, and betrayal in adolescence.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Music

Actor: Ann-Sofie Rase, David Dencik, Emrik Ekholm, Felix Sandman, Johan Liljemark, Lena Carlsson, Liv LeMoyne, Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Peter Eriksson, Sofi Ahlström Helleday

Director: Lukas Moodysson

Rating: Not Rated

, 1987

While marked as a comedy, Zegen isn’t the kind of film that would make you laugh freely– it is, after all, a film that mocks the real-life sex trafficking of impoverished Japanese women during both world wars. This makes it a challenging film to watch, especially to viewers outside the country. But to Shohei Imamura’s credit, the butt of the joke isn’t on the women being sold, but rather, on the titular pimp Iheiji Muraoka, the delusions and lies he told himself and others, and the twisted nationalism he uses to exploit his ladies. Zegen is based on Muraoka’s supposedly true autobiography, but Imamura uses the text to mirror the follies (and consequences) of imperialism.

Genre: Comedy, History

Actor: Hiroyuki Konishi, Ken Ogata, Ko Chun-Hsiung, Mitsuko Baisho, Norihei Miki, Sanshô Shinsui, Shino Ikenami, Taiji Tonoyama, Tetta Sugimoto

Director: Shōhei Imamura

This Norwegian documentary in English is about Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion who became a chess grandmaster at age 13. It might be tough to believe but Magnus' ascension was slowed down significantly by many crises in self-confidence and difficulty to cope with the pressure at a young age. With home footage and interviews with everyone from his adversaries to the champion himself, Magnus the movie tries to be a complete portrait of the prodigy. Yet, crucial aspects are missing, such as an explanation for a sudden change in character, and perhaps more importantly, explanations of Magnus' genius in chess. His techniques and approaches are mostly attributed to intuition, but the movie fails to explain how that intuition is reflected in the game.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Garry Kasparov, Magnus Carlsen, Viswanathan Anand

Director: Benjamin Ree

In this raw, psychedelic drama, an American drug dealer living in Tokyo with his sister is killed at a night club. His spirit continues to float above the city and past, present, and future are woven together to complete the tale of his life. Taking a page from the Tibetan book of the dead, the film aims to explore one answer to life's most epic question: What happens when we die? Definitely not for the faint of heart, there is drug use, gore, and challenging themes throughout the movie. Its unique cinematography also captures Tokyo quite well.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Cyril Roy, Ed Spear, Emiko Takeuchi, Emily Alyn Lind, Janice Béliveau-Sicotte, Jesse Kuhn, Masato Tanno, Nathaniel Brown, Nobu Imai, Olly Alexander, Paz de la Huerta, Sakiko Fukuhara, Sara Stockbridge

Director: Gaspar Noé

Rating: Not Rated