Full transparency: all Blu-rays and DVDs reviewed were provided by Kino Lorber, Arrow Video, and Dekanalog.
Welcome to another eclectic edition of “Physical Media Isn’t Dead, It Just Smells Funny.” Kino Lorber puts out a “meat and potatoes” doc about the struggle and value of fighting for and keeping an arts mecca alive in a faded industry town in the form of Museum Town. Dekanalog, a partner of Vinegar Syndrome, does the Lord’s work and graces us with an existential coming-of-age critique of modern life in the big city with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s underrated Air Doll. My pick of the month comes from Arrow Video with their release of the delightfully grindhouse-y Golden Harvest x Shaw Brothers collaboration called One-Armed Boxer.
I decided to kick off the month with some of the lesser known titles in my stable. As always, I hope you see something that calls out to you and widens your world even just a little bit.
I reviewed Hirokazu Kore-eda’s brilliant and affecting After Life not too long ago on here and one of the things I love bringing up about Kore-eda’s work is his innate ability to weave the joy and melancholy of those seeking comfort and recognition in worlds that largely seem at odds or at best apathetic to their plight. Air Doll stands as the most harrowing but affirming example of that ethos. A life-sized air doll designed for sex (played with such studied and well-executed physicality by the great Bae Doona) lives her unanimated life being “cared for” and penetrated by her owner. One day, for no particular reason at all, she comes to life and begins her journey towards self-actualization, exploring the infinite possibilities of life by getting a job, interacting and falling in love with other human beings by day, and then returning to her life of servitude before her master returns home at night.
It has all the tropes you expect from a “born yesterday” narrative, as well as a bit of the fetishization that comes pre-packaged with it as well. Yet it doesn’t dwell on those moments as much as it does the bittersweet moments that come with not knowing the dangers and pleasures of the world. There’s one scene in particular where Bae Doona cuts herself and begins to lose air as her co-worker and crush looks on in terror, only for the scene to evolve into something sweet and sensual as he presses his lips to her body to save her life and inflate her. That scene encapsulates so much of what I love about this movie. It’s true to how life interweaves the pleasures and pains of the world and the relief of being “seen” by another person who cares for you. Despite being an underrated Kore-eda film, it’s one that captures the magic I find in all his work.
The home release comes with a fantastic essay titled “Full With Emptiness” written by Joel Neville Anderson; a Q&A with filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda and actors Bae Doona, Arata Iura, and Itsuji Itao at the Japanese premiere; footage from the world premiere at the 62nd Annual Cannes Film Festival; and some behind-the-scenes footage. You can purchase Air Doll from Dekanalog through Vinegar Syndrome’s website.
Kino Lorber has put out an always-timely movie about the never-ending war and handshake between art and commerce in Museum Town, a documentary directed by Jennifer Trainer about the MASS MoCA art gallery in North Adams, Massachusetts, and its 30-plus-year journey from a shuttered cloth printing and electrical factory that buoyed North Adams’ economy to the “modern art mecca” its become known as today. The film (narrated by Meryl Streep) is not so much a look at what it takes to get such a large ambitious project off the ground and the famous and influential faces that have passed through its industrial walls, but also how art intersects with politics and the almighty dollar.
North Adams isn’t that dissimilar from any rural industrial town where the industry dried up and left residents in an economic depression and with a lack of cultural vibrancy. The film explores how the people behind the Mass MoCA struggled to raise the money necessary and convince those in power to see how much of a boon a venue like this (mind you, a venue that already exists and represents a piece of North Adams heritage) would be for the town while bringing together the real opinions of residents who have their own thoughts on such a venue. It’s a movie relevant to a lot of cities struggling to find affordable venues for their artists to showcase their work while also making the case that art drives commerce, even though to politicians it would make more sense for commerce to drive commerce. If it were up to me, this film would be screened for every arts council and city chair member across the United States to illustrate that preestablished infrastructure and the lifeblood of artists and patrons can be the saving grace for a struggling economy… even if it’s very, very, very hard work.
You can pick up Museum Town from Kino Lorber.
For my first pick of the month, we have the return of the kings to the round-up: the Shaw Brothers’ collaboration with their sister/rival/cousin? studio, Golden Harvest, the insanely fun One-Armed Boxer. Starring Shaw Brothers superstar Jimmy Wang Yu (funnily enough, also the star of One-Armed Swordsman), Wang’s character Yu Tian Long is the star, but overly confident, pupil of his martial arts school. He makes an enemy out of a crime syndicate in a chance encounter which dooms his school–and one of his arms–to annihilation. He must seek special training (and what I think is a magic potion?) to avenge his school, all while battling his way through a cartoonish cavalcade of discipline experts with only a set of five fingers at his disposal. And those fingers seek DEATH.
It’s worth mentioning the Golden Harvest of it all due to Raymond Chow, a former producer at Shaw Bros. who left the studio to start Golden Harvest (whose films have their own incredible pedigree that I hope get more HD releases in the coming years), which would lessen the creative restrictions imposed on Shaw Bros. films. And you can see it on full display here. This is without a doubt the most grindhouse-infused of all the Shaw Brothers films, from an always-fan-favorite trope of having a bunch of caricatured martial arts experts (including a yoga master… you can see where this is going) be the gauntlet our hero has to persevere through; less of a focus on the graceful choreography you might see in a Venom Mob or Lau Kar Leung production; and a bigger focus on just VIOLENCE. Also, the theme from Shaft is just straight-up in this movie. It opens it. It makes a reprise later on. It rocked my world. In those ways, this film reminds me more of the Street Fighter and Sister Street Fighter movies out of Japan (which is funny when you consider that the karate expert and man responsible for Long’s arm is made to look like a DEMON–ahhh, racism) than something coming out of Hong Kong. Albeit still with the story structures and expanse of a Shaw Bros. production. It’s a hell of a good time if you love a tiny serving of schlock and vibrancy in your martial arts movie. Does not disappoint.
As with all Arrow Video releases as of late, it welcomingly comes with so many special features that it’s easier to link to the product page than to list them all here, but it’s worth noting that a booklet featuring terrific essays by David West and Simon Abrams detailing the career and influence of Jimmy Wang Yu and the impact of the film itself only come in the first pressing of the film.
So, don’t hesitate to pick up One-Armed Boxer from Arrow Video.
Join me in couple of weeks when I will have titles from Criterion, another title or two from Kino Lorber and, the mail system willing, some other great distributors.
Created in a dark room after being exposed to images from infinite worlds, Aja Essex seeks to engender thought, conversation, and possibility through film. Co-founder of Establishing Shot as well as co-founder and co-operator of Bloomington’s own Cicada Cinema, she has always aimed to spotlight the underseen, underscreened, and underappreciated. She hosts, edits, and produces the IU Cinema podcast, Footage Not Found, with the same haphazard but enthusiastic zeal as her writing. She loves getting lost in a song and despite her namesake being her favorite Steely Dan album, she has probably listened to Countdown to Ecstasy more.