SINGAPORE - The movies reviewed this week are Under The Open Sky and Oslo.
Under The Open Sky (M18)
127 minutes, opens June 3, 4 stars
People are so conditioned by movie tropes as audiences that one keeps expecting the ex-convict main character to break his promise to never again unsheathe his sword.
There are thugs raiding his village, his puppy has been kidnapped or a toddler targeted for assassination has been thrust into his care, so a man has to do what a man has to do.
Nothing of the sort happens in this realistic drama about a gangster released from jail after serving a 13-year sentence for murder.
Instead of one climactic burst of violence, the pay-offs here are small, but no less substantial. You will find yourself cheering for Mikami (Koji Yakusho), who is trying his best to get by in a Japan that has little use for a middle-aged man with a prison record.
Mikami has been a member of the yakuza for much of his life. "No more yakuza, no more crime" is his motto upon his latest release. He hopes that by finding his birth mother, who gave him away because she was unmarried, he might find emotional closure.
Reality show producer Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano) is sent to interview the older man because his boss sees potential for a ratings-grabbing, tear-jerking crowd-pleaser.
Adapted from Ryuzo Saki's novel Mibuncho (Inmate Files) and directed by Miwa Nishikawa - who trained with acclaimed humanist director Hirokazu Kore-eda (the Oscar-nominated drama Shoplifters, 2018) - the story explores Mikami's plight with compassion and a degree of dry humour. His attempts at relearning driving are strong laugh-cringe moments.
Nishikawa turns her camera on society as much as she does on Mikami, showing the toothless, honour-free face of the yakuza today and the vampiric nature of reality television.
Nor does she make Mikami cuddly or anti-heroic. He is an average exasperated human caught in a system that beats him up because he is too young to be retired, too old to learn new skills and too poor to live without financial aid.
113 minutes, now showing on HBO Go and HBO, 2 stars
Talk about bad timing. This movie about a historic 1990s agreement that secured Palestinian and Israeli cooperation landed on HBO a few days ago, just as gunfire in East Jerusalem was proving that the dream of peace is as far away today as it was when the deal was signed.
Even if one were to avoid judging this account of the Oslo Accords by what was in this morning's paper, its centrist approach raises another problem. It is a stance that feels too safe, even misguided, given the weight of world opinion today.
Biopics of powerful people in smoky rooms hammering out epoch-making deals can make for great cinema. There is the drama of argument, the power of the intellects on display and the thrill of seeing historical figures walking and talking.
There is some of that here, but the film, adapted for the screen from a Tony Award-winning play of the same name, suffers from a couple of handicaps. The Oslo Accords do not carry the same historical weight as, say, the Cuban missile crisis or the Nuremberg trials for Nazi officials. So its key figures, for example Yossi Bellin, Israel's deputy foreign minister, or Ahmed Qurei, minister of finance of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, lack the fame factor.
As a stab at relatability, the film is at first centred on two Europeans, the Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul (English actress Ruth Wilson) and her husband Terje Rod-Larsen (Irish actor Andrew Scott), both of whom helped bring the two sides to the table and also created the atmosphere of collegiality needed to break down walls. And, as the film shows, credit is also due to the chef's waffles and expensive whisky.
That focus on the pair thankfully decreases by midway. The rest of the film is part-explainer (about the importance of Jerusalem and the West Bank, for instance) and part-courtroom drama. But the accusation and counter-accusation style gets wearying - it is a bit like watching an acrimonious Twitter thread.
Also, has no one got the memo about the overused yellow filter for "hot" countries? This production takes it to the extreme, with scenes set in the Middle East looking as if they were filmed through a jar of chrysanthemum tea.
108 minutes, opens June 3, not reviewed
This South Korean crime thriller pits a team of criminal engineers against the nation's oil pipeline. There is money flowing under their feet - if they can find a way to tap it. Seo In-guk and Lee Soo-hyuk star in the movie.
The Dark And The Wicked (NC16)
95 minutes, opens June 3, not reviewed
In this work of horror starring Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr and Julie Oliver-Touchstone, a funeral on a farm reunites family members, who soon discover that they are to be part of mourning rituals rarely seen in the outside world.