Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Dramas - A.J. Hakari ""

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - A.J. Hakari

A.J. Hakari runs CINESLICE( and can be found on twitter here:

The Bad Sleep Well (1960) -- Times aren't good for Dairyu Construction and the Public Corporation. Rumors of rigged project biddings, big kickbacks, and other shady dealings are leaking out, with the press jumping on news of every new arrest or board member's suicide. But little do the companies know that their downfall is the result of unassuming Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), whose motives reach far beyond just wanting to climb up the ladder of business. For the longest time, I'd only known Akira Kurosawa through his admittedly amazing samurai pictures, so it was a shock to see him pull off an amazing modern-day drama with The Bad Sleep Well. Moral conflict is the name of the game here, which Kurosawa explores from the POVs of both the story's haves and have-nots. Nishi's ruthless quest for revenge is juxtaposed with the equally unmerciful ways his targets try to stay in business; he's the "good guy," but even he starts losing his humanity the closer he gets to fulfilling his ultimate objective. The Bad Sleep Well is mired in emotional complexity, an absorbing tragedy whose power comes from its dead-on performances and depiction of the corporate world as a place where everyone -- pure at heart or not -- can lose their souls very easily.

Battles Without Honor & Humanity (1973) -- Once the glamorized subject of old Hollywood thrillers, the gangster lifestyle took a much darker turn in the movies when the '70s rolled around, with filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku helping lead the charge with Battles Without Honor & Humanity. This first chapter in the five-film "Yakuza Papers" saga follows Shozo (Bunta Sugawara) as he rises through the underworld ranks in Hiroshima one year after World War II. Battles comes equipped with a frenetic style that reflects the chaotic, volatile world in which Shozo tries to eek out an existence. The first ten minutes alone are comprised of brutal beatings, an attempted rape, and no less than two sliced-off arms, and the viciousness only gets worse from there. Through dizzying cinematography, an expansive cast of characters, and jarring outbursts of violence, Fukasaku turns in quite the effective lesson on how the life of a mafia thug isn't worth getting attached to (if you even live that long). I almost prefer the film's first sequel, Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (if only for its incredible Sonny Chiba performance), but it wouldn't be where it was without Battles Without Honor & Humanity setting the stage.

Blood Wedding (1981) -- I'm among those cranks who's sad to have seen the art of dance in cinema been relegated to having twentysomething chunkheads launch themselves into hip hop-induced seizures in recent years. Fortunately, the artsy-fartsy snob inside me will always have a film like Blood Wedding to capture this craft in a compellingly minimalist fashion. Director Carlos Saura depicts the hard work and dedication that a company of dancers puts into rehearsing a performance of Federico Garcia Lorca's "Blood Wedding." Led by choreographer Antonio Gades, the performers arrive at the theater, warm up, don their costumes, and proceed to bring the story of an affair between a bride-to-be and her married lover to life with loads of fiery emotion. Of course, one person's cultural pleasure is another's equivalent of pulling teeth, so it goes without saying that Blood Wedding isn't for everyone. I can't tell you how faithful Gades and his dancers were to Lorca's original play, but what I can say is that the show they put on is simple, intense, and beautiful to take in. Saura sees to it that little stands between his audience and the pleasure of seeing art unfold in passionate motion.

Memento Mori (1999) -- The second and most controversial chapter of Korea's "Ghost School" series, Memento Mori walks a fine line between horror and drama. At an all-girls high school, student Min-ah (Min-sun Kim) discovers a diary detailing the growing love between two of her classmates. One of the pair takes her life one fateful day, only for her to come back and settle some unfinished business with us mortals. Although the finale is a Carrie-esque nightmare that becomes a little silly for its own good, Memento Mori is a completely engrossing alternative to the legions of tactless Ringu wannabes giving Asian horror a bad rep. The writing/directing team of Tae-yong Kim and Kyu-dong Min had the foresight to abandon all exploitative pretenses and coax out the plot's most tragic qualities without overdoing the melodrama -- all in their very first movie, to boot. Memento Mori is more somber and sensitive than outright scary, but it's a film that dares to be different and executes some rather mature themes for what's ostensibly "just" a horror story.

Time Out (2001) -- Sticking it to your boss, your co-workers, and a society that would prefer you to be a good little drone is a fantasy that films like Office Space and Falling Down tapped into magnificently. But reality is much more grim, as Time Out find itself firmly entrenched in the world of one man who's just about given up. Aurelien Recoing plays Vincent, a middle-aged man who's lost his job but fabricates a fantasy for his family about working for the United Nations. His lies eventually lead to him scamming money from his relatives, after which his carefully-constructed illusion starts to crumble. Time Out could almost be seen as a continuation of Glengarry Glen Ross, a story in which a man struggles to maintain normalcy after being unceremoniously booted from the work force. There's an especially powerful scene in which Vincent stops by an office building in Switzerland and walks around for a disturbing amount of time just blending in with the staff. It's a quiet film, but Time Out speaks volumes nevertheless, an urban nightmare about a poor guy's delusional quest to maintain the status quo.

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