Review: ‘Yakuza Princess,’ starring Masumi, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Tsuyoshi Ihara

October 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Masumi in “Yakuza Princess” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Yakuza Princess”

Directed by Vicente Amorim

Japanese, Portuguese and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan and in Brazil, the action flick “Yakuza Princess” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people, black people and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A trinket shop worker, who was orphaned as a baby, finds out that she comes from a powerful Japanese crime family, and it’s her destiny to be a samurai-sword-wielding warrior.

Culture Audience: “Yakuza Princess” will appeal primarily to people who interested in violent action movies and don’t care if the plot is an idiotic mess.

Masumi and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in “Yakuza Princess” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

Japanese women rarely get to star in an action flick, so it’s a shame that “Yakuza Princess” is such mindless junk that isn’t even a worthy showcase for the female protagonist. The men in this incoherent movie actually get most of the screen time. The movie’s title character is more of a sidekick who’s in service of a story that cares more about what happens to a European stranger who ends up in Brazil and in Japan to look for a mysterious and rare sword. In other words, don’t be fooled into thinking that the “yakuza princess” is the only leading character in this horrible movie. It’s a “bait and switch” title where the female protagonist’s fate is largely decided by men.

Directed by Vicente Amorim, “Yakuza Princess,” is based on Danilo Beyruth’s graphic novel “Samurai Shiro,” which would have been a more accurate title for this movie because the film puts a lot of emphasis on a character named Shiro. Amorim co-wrote the “Yakuza Princess” screenplay with Fernando Toste, Kimi Lee and “Yakuza Princess” producer Tubaldini Shelling. Unfortunately, having four people write this movie’s screenplay just means that four people, instead of the usual one or two screenwriters, made a mess of the story.

In “Yakuza Princess,” so much screen time is given in the beginning to Shiro (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), viewers will start to wonder at what point they’re going to see the “yakuza princess” part of the movie. There’s a lot of scenes of Shiro getting into fights and trying to find out who he is and his purpose in life before significant time is spent on the identity of the “yakuza princess.” The men of the yakuza (the term used for Japanese mafia) also spend a lot of time fighting with each other before viewers see any of the “yakuza princess,” her fighting skills and her identity journey.

Shiro actually doesn’t have a name for the majority of the film because he’s a European stranger who has amnesia for most of the story. He wakes up strapped to a hospital bed in São Paulo, Brazil, with no idea of who he is and why he’s there. Shiro doesn’t waste time in breaking out of the hospital in his first of many bloody action scenes. He then spends most of the story looking for a rare samurai sword, which has a connection to a Japanese woman in her early 20s named Akemi (played by Masumi), who lives in São Paulo and works as a trinket shop employee.

Akemi is really a “yakuza princess,” who finds out that her immediate family members (her parents and older brother) were killed in a mass murder when she was a baby in Japan. She was kidnapped, and ended up spending most of her life in São Paulo. This isn’t spoiler information because this massacre and kidnapping are shown at the very beginning of the film.

Akemi’s family wasn’t an ordinary family. She came from a family called the Takikawa clan, which had an influential hold on a crime syndicate in Japan. There was a power struggle in the syndicate that resulted in her father’s enemies plotting the massacre to get him and his heirs out of the way so the enemies could take over. These foes know that someone saved Akemi from being murdered along with her family. Whoever kidnapped her did so to put Akemi into hiding under a new identity in São Paulo, which has a large Japanese community.

But here’s why “Yakuza Princess” is so moronic: Akemi is supposed to be shocked when she finds out that she comes from a crime family. And yet, the first scene of her in the movie shows Akemi getting trained in samurai sword fighting skills from a middle-aged man named Chiba (played by Toshiji Takeshima), who has told her that her grandfather brought her to Chiba when Akemi was 6 years old.

And then, when Chiba is training Akemi, Chiba says, “You have the vocation to become a great warrior, but to fulfill it, you must leave your grief and anger.” Akemi replies, “I’m trying.” Chiba then gives her a samurai sword and says, “Let discipline shape your mind. You and your sword must become one. Allow this principle to guide you in your journey. It’s what your grandfather wanted.”

Anyone with common sense can see that all this talk about being destined to be a warrior and Akemi having a grandparent who wanted her to have fight skills all add up to her having a family that wants her to get extensive training to defend herself for a good reason. It’s all pretty obvious, but Akemi is too simple-minded to figure it out. You’d think she’d be curious about why her grandafather wanted Akemi to have these fight skills, since she’s an orphan who’s not in touch with any of her biological family members.

But apparently, Akemi has to wait for Shiro to show up so he can help solve the mystery of her past. It’s all so very patriarchal. And just like a princess fairy tale where an ordinary young woman transforms into a princess during a milestone event, Akemi becomes an ass-kicking warrior on her 21st birthday. It happens when she’s celebrating her birthday by doing karaoke at a bar, and she’s sexually harasssed by a creep. The next thing you know, she’s doing high kicks and martial arts brawling until a cop breaks up the fight. He best friend Samara (played by Ndudzo Siba) also gets involved in the fray.

“Yakuza Princess” is one of those mind-numbing martial arts movies that thinks a bunch of fight scenes strung together are enough to make up for a flimsy plot. Unfortunately, none of the acting is very good either. Rhys Meyers has an “I don’t care, just give me my paycheck” attitude that seeps through his performance. Masumi is best known as a singer and makes her feature-film acting debut in “Yakuza Princess.” All it shows is that Masumi needs to take more acting lessons.

And the feuding villains who want Akemi dead because she’s the rightful heir to her father’s yakuza empire are all so forgettable and generic. There are some time-wasting scenes showing how a yakuza thug named Takeshi (played by Tsuyoshi Ihara) is competing with another yakuza thug named Kojiro (played by Eijiro Ozaki) to be the top-ranking henchman for their boss, who views this rivalry like watching two schoolboys squabbling. The inevitable torture and fight scenes involving these gangsters are absolutely soulless. And so is this entire movie.

Magnet Releasing released “Yakuza Princess” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Shine Your Eyes,’ starring OC Ukeje, Indira Nascimento, Paulo André, Ike Barry and Chukwudi Iwuji

August 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ike Barry and OC Ukeje in “Shine Your Eyes” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Shine Your Eyes”

Directed by Matias Mariani

English, Portuguese, Igbo, Hungarian and Chinese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Brazil and briefly in Nigeria, the drama “Shine You Eyes” has a predominantly African cast (and some Brazilians and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Nigerian man travels to Brazil to find his missing older brother, and he discovers some unsettling clues about his brother’s disappearance while experiencing culture shock and language barriers in Brazil.

Culture Audience: “Shine Your Eyes” will appeal primarily to people who like mysteries and psychological dramas with international characters.

OC Ukeje in “Shine Your Eyes” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

On the surface, “Shine Your Eyes” could be seen as an intriguing drama about a man looking for his missing brother. But beneath the surface are richly layered themes about sibling rivalry and family responsibilities, as well lines that can be blurred between being superstitious, being scientifically brilliant and being mentally ill. Directed by Matias Mariani, “Shine Your Eyes” moves along at a mostly languid pace that can be disarming in keeping people guessing on where the story is going, because what happens in the last 20 minutes of the film is like a jolt meant to shake up any predictable notion of how this movie will end.

The beginning of the movie opens in Nsukka, Nigeria, in 1988. Two brothers (played by Eresto Lusala and Ivo Daniel Nduaya Madu), who are close to each other in age (about 6 or 7 years old) are in a bedroom together. One brother talks about what it would be like if his own mouth was where his mind should be, and he commands his brother to imagine it. “This is the face of your Chi,” he tells his brother.

The movie then fast-forwards to São Paulo, Brazil, in 2019. A Nigerian musician named Amadi Igbomaeze (played by OC Ukeje) has just arrived in the city. Amadi goes to the Galeria Presidente shopping mall, where he his greeted by his uncle Chefe Ogboh (played by Ike Barry), who has a beauty supply store/salon in the mall.

Amadi isn’t in Brazil for a just a casual family visit. He’s on a mission to find his older brother Ikenna (played by Chukwudi Iwuji), who has disappeared. Ikenna has a fiancée in Nigeria who hasn’t heard from Ikenna for more than a year. Ikenna has seemed to have vanished into thin air, so Amadi is determined to find out what happened.

Throughout the movie, Amadi plays voice mail messages from his mother, who is never seen in the movie. However, the messages make it clear that Ikenna is considered the “favorite” child and the “star” of the family. It seems that Amadi has always felt as if he’s been in the shadow of his older brother, which brings some complications to the family dynamics and Amadi’s own emotions, since Amadi is now taken on an “alpha male” role of trying to find Ikenna.

Most of “Shine Your Eyes” follows Amadi’s deliberate step-by-step investigation, which leads to unexpected twists and turns . He’s worried, but not frantic. And while Amadi searches for his brother in various parts of São Paulo, he experiences some culture shock and language barriers (he speaks English, but not Portuguese) that could hinder his investigation.

Based on the last email communication that Ikenna sent to Amadi, Ikenna has recently started a new job as head professor of qualitative statistics at Covenant University in São Paulo. Amadi goes to the university website and sees Ikenna’s name, photo and title listed, along with other faculty members, such as the university’s provost and faculty overseer Miro Kuzko (played by Paulo André). But when Amadi goes to the address that Ikenna gave as his work address, Amadi finds out that it’s not a university but a public planning office.

The biggest clues to Ikenna’s disappearance are on the laptop computer that Ikenna left behind for repairs at a public computer cafe. Amadi happened to be using the same cafe when he noticed the computer behind the clerk’s counter, in a stack of other computers waiting to be repaired. Ikenna’s laptop computer has unique and distinctive stickers on it.

The clerk tells Amadi that the person who owned the computer left it there for repairs and never picked it up, so Amadi pays for the repairs and begins looking at everything he can on the computer. Somehow, Amadi has figured out the password to the computer, and he finds a treasure trove of email, photos and videos that lead him down various paths in the story. Amadi discovers that Ikenna has been leading a secret double life in Brazil, including fabricating stories about his background and using the alias Charlie.

Amadi also finds out that Ikenna had been dating one of the beauty salon employees named Emilia Nascimento (played by Indira Nascimento), who believes that Ikenna deliberately left and doesn’t want to be found. Because she thinks that Ikenna abandoned her and because Amadi looks a lot like his brother and has sibling rivalry issues with him, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what will happen with Amadi and Emilia.

“Shine Your Eyes” takes its time to uncover the different layers to the story, which shows different slices of life in Nigerian Igbo culture and Brazilian culture. “Shine Your Eyes” screenplay is credited to six people (director/producer Mariani,  Chika Anadu, Francine Barbosa, Júlia Murat, Maíra Bühler and Roberto Winter), but it doesn’t appear to have suffered from “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome. The middle of the film drags a bit, but the movie has some interesting subtexts that explore the contrasts of superstition and science, and how mental health might play a role in how people perceive themselves and others.

All of the actors in the cast do a perfectly fine job with their roles. Leonardo Bittencourt’s striking cinematography puts a lot of emphasis on high-rise buildings or tall heights in São Paulo. These camera angles give viewers a sense of Amadi’s culture shock of being in a big city like São Paulo that has numerous skyscrapers. Ultimately, the greatest strength of “Shine Your Eyes” is in how the movie goes beyond a typical “missing person” story and effectively conveys that people who try to run away from their families are often trying to run away from themselves.

Netflix premiered “Shine Your Eyes” on July 29, 2020.

Review: ‘Bacurau,’ starring Sônia Braga, Udo Kier and Bárbara Colen

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sonia Braga in "Bacurau"
Sônia Braga (center) in “Bacurau” (Photo by Victor Jucá)

“Bacurau”

Directed by Kleber Mendon​ç​a Filho and Juliano Dornelles

Portuguese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional, rural town of Bacurau, Brazil, this drama/thriller has a diverse cast of characters representing Brazilians, Europeans and Americans from several social classes.

Culture Clash: The citizens of Bacurau face various threats to their existence.

Culture Audience: “Bacurau” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse cinema about rural South American life that has brutal social commentary underneath some of its violent scenes.

Udo Kier and Sônia Braga in “Bacurau” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Bacurau” is a slow burn of a film that leads up to an intense and violent confrontation that is part Western pulp, part fierce social commentary on the evils of racist colonialism. The movie begins with the arrival of Teresa (played by Bárbara Colen) at her family hometown of Bacurau, a rural village that is so small that it sometimes can’t even be found on a map. She’s wearing a white medical overcoat, not because she’s a medical professional, but because she says it’s for her “protection.” It’s the first sign in the movie that there’s possible danger in Bacurau.

The village is mourning the death of Teresa’s 94-year-old grandmother Carmelita, who was Bacurau’s unofficial matriarch. During the funeral procession held outside, a middle-aged woman named Domingas (played by Sônia Braga) gets upset and curses Carmelita by calling her a “prick,” before she is led away. Why is Domingas so angry at this beloved dead woman who can’t defend herself?

For starters, Domingas is drunk at the funeral. She was a close friend of Carmelita’s, and they had some kind of falling out before she died. And one of the things that Domingas shouts during her funeral outburst is that she hopes that when she dies, she’ll get the kind of grand funeral that Carmelita is getting. Jealous much? Later, Domingas makes a public apology to the townspeople for her tantrum. Now that Carmelita is dead, Domingas has become the top-ranking woman on the town’s social ladder.

As Teresa settles back into the house of her father Plinio (played by Wilson Rabelo), who is Carmelita’s son, she gets reacquainted with a thuggish man named Pacote, also known as Acacio (played by Thomas Aquino), who’s part of a local group of gun-toting outlaws. Their leader is a guy named Lunga (played by Silvero Pereira), who’s gone into hiding because unnamed people are after him. Pacote is one of the few people who knows where Lunga is. And the news gets out to the village that the main highway in Brazil has been shut down and only motorcycles can pass through.

Meanwhile, as the feeling of impending doom slowly takes over the village, the movie takes a closer look at some of the main characters of the story. Teresa and Pacote become lovers, and she basically pledges to be a loyal ally to him and the gang if their lives are threatened. Lunga (who’s become sort of a folk hero in Bacurau) eventually shows up, and he doesn’t look like a typical gang leader who has a reputation for being a vicious killer. He’s a baby-faced guy with a mullet and he isn’t very tall, but what he lacks in a menacing physique, he makes up for with his fearless attitude.

Domingas is a lesbian madam of the town’s prostitutes, who make their money from the locals and some of the men who pass through the town. One of those men is Tony Junior (played by Thardelly Lima), a smarmy politician who has the nerve to show up for a “surprise” visit in a cavalcade of automobiles decorated with campaign slogans and with megaphones asking the villagers to vote for him. He’s brought supplies and books that he plans to distribute to the Bacurau residents, and he tells the camera crew that’s accompanied him to get ready to film this staged charity donation.

The villagers have been tipped off in advance that Tony is going to barrel through their town, so by the time he gets there, the streets are empty and the townspeople have barricaded themselves in their homes. Why are they so angry with him?

As Tony uses the megaphone in the middle of the street, they begin to curse at him and tell him to release the water that the village desperately needs. Tony’s response is to give politician-speak excuses that their requests will take time to go through the correct channels. Before he leaves Bacurau, Tony hires one of Domingas’ prostitutes (a young woman named Sandra, played by Thardelly Lima) to travel back with him. Domingas tells Tony that if anything happens to Sandra, Domingas will “feed his cock to the hens.”

Meanwhile, a drone is flying over parts of Bacurau, and it’s being controlled by a group of white Europeans and Americans, who are using the drone to spy on the locals and track their movements. The group of mostly tourists is led by a German named Michael (played by Udo Kier), who is very familiar with Bacurau.

Around this time, strange things start happening in Bacurau. A parked truck with a water tank ends up being shot with mysterious bullet holes, which have caused the tank to leak out much-needed water. Then, two motorcyclists—a man from São Paulo (played by Antonio Saboia) and a woman from Rio de Janeiro (played by Karine Teles)—arrive in the town wearing garish motorcycle outfits that make it obvious that they’re city dwellers who are showing off. The strangers say that they’re just passing through, but the residents of Bacurau are suspicious. It’s not long before it’s clear why the people of Bacurau don’t trust outsiders.

Although “Bacurau” won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival (in a tie with the French police-brutality drama “Les Misérables”), “Bacurau” is not a movie for everyone. There are many disturbing scenes in the film, which has a level of bloody violence that might be repulsive to some viewers. The murderous mayhem in the movie almost has a video-game quality to it, which is precisely one of the points that the film is trying to make with its underlying social messages. Even though modern technology is used by the movie’s villains, the lust for violence has been around as long as people have sought to conquer other human beings.

Kino Lorber released “Bacurau” in New York City on March 6, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada will expand to more cities in the subsequent weeks. “Bacurau” was originally released in Brazil in 2019.

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