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‘Yakiniku Dragon’ is a joy juggling too many parts

May 05,2018
Sometimes, letting someone go is the hardest thing to do.

The boisterous Japanese-Korean family that populates writer-director Chong Wishing’s latest film, “Yakiniku Dragon,” which premiered on Thursday as the opening film of the Jeonju International Film Festival in North Jeolla, are a case in point. They weep over deaths, struggle to hold onto unfaithful spouses and turn farewells into pitched battles over who can wring the most emotion out of the moment.

In a tumbledown village on the outskirts of Osaka, the family runs a tripe restaurant. Constant reminders of Japan’s post-war economic boom zoom in from overhead as planes land at the nearby Kansai airport, but patriarch Ryukichi (Kim Sang-ho) and his clan don’t see much of the world outside the tin roofs and dirt roads of their neighborhood.

It’s a time and people that Chong, a third-generation Japanese-Korean himself, explored before in “Blood and Bones” (2004), which he wrote. The only practical difference in the settings is the earlier film’s use of fishcakes instead of grilled innards as the eatery’s specialty.

“Blood and Bones” served up a taut examination of hatred, honing in on the way a single character can weaken and demean those around him. It was a shocking, compact bruiser of a film, and its focused approach made it memorable.

In “Yakiniku Dragon,” Chong seems to have trouble saying goodbye to the fruits of his own creativity. The antics of its ensemble are lively and their dialogue is a joy, but it’s wasted on a poorly-paced story that’s juggling too many moving parts.

Far too many of the film’s numerous subplots take place in a vacuum with the camera swinging back - days, months, who knows - to a family that seems otherwise unchanged.

It’s a drag to determine whether daughter Mika’s (Nanami Sakuraba) love affair, son Tokio’s (Ooe Shinpei) problems with bullies or their father’s missing arm are important as Chong drops storylines and picks them up again at random.

The longer “Yakiniku Dragon” goes on, the less context a viewer can expect. In one scene, a couple flirts for the first time, and the next time the two appear, they’re engaged. A major character suddenly commits suicide, seemingly as a means to inject sadness into all the playful quarreling.

The sparkling humor of “Yakiniku Dragon” saves it from being a slog, but its many individual stories would have been better served if they were each their own short film. As inconsistent as it is, though, Chong’s latest is worth checking out - just expect some frustrations along the way.

BY JAMES CONSTANT [jamesconstant1@gmail.com]