Monday, October 30, 2006

Angkor Wat and Thai Films


After some five days of walking around the wonders of Angkor Wat and surrounding areas, I returned to Bangkok and almost immediately rushed off to the multiplexes to catch up on two Thai films before they vanish from the screens. Both were enjoyably entertaining even though nothing that will likely long remain in my head. Not so with Angkor Wat and before I get to those films I just want to urge each and everyone of you to make a side trip to Siem Reap the next time you are in Asia or if you are already there.

I had been there some seven years ago when they were still clearing landmines from the fields and there weren’t any good hotels or restaurants. There also weren’t many tourists and I often had some of the sites all to myself. Cows were still grazing on the grass at Angkor Wat and riding on the backs of motorcycles was practically the only way to get around. All that has changed and the area is now very tourist friendly with loads of hotels, bars, eateries and your chances of stepping on a landmine are about equal to mine of dating Hsu Chi. This has of course brought a huge increase in tourists – busloads from Korea and Japan especially seem to dominate (but along with this are of course Japanese and Korean restaurants) – but it is still very manageable and not overly crowded – especially in the outer sites.

There are some 72 different historical sites around the area from the huge and splendid to some small ones with not much remaining. These magnificent temples (Buddhist and Hindi) were all built during the Khmer Empire which spanned from the 9th to the 15th centuries and they will often take your breath away with their symmetrical clean design, mounted stone splendor and intricate detailed craftsmanship. You just marvel at how these were built and wonder at what cost. At night after many hours of trekking about in hot weather you gladly retire to one of the many bars offering shade and cold Angkor beer. Everywhere you go you are pursued by small eager adorable children trying their very best to sell you postcards, books, shawls and sodas with the most astonishingly good English. One small cutie even gave me her email address after I bought her an ice cream cone! This is a country still recovering from years of nightmares – the US incursion and bombing, the Khmer Rouge, the occupation of the Vietnamese – but I have rarely come across such friendly outgoing waving people and I was at times overwhelmed by the resilience of the human spirit and the smiles of the children. As for a hotel I can easily recommend the small very friendly Indochine Pavillion and for food the Indian restaurant called Little India was delicious and had tasty icy lime juices to guzzle.

Back to the movies. Thailand is still ga-ga over horror films and there are no signs that this is letting up any time soon. A large percentage of their films fall into this genre and many of the foreign films they show are of this nature as well. I am not sure quite where this fascination comes from but nearly all the shows I have been to have been full of Thai’s jumping at every scary moment. Also, in the theaters right now is the very anticipated new film, “The Unseeable”, from Wisit Sasanatieng (Tears of the Black Tigers and Citizen Dog) and this too is a horror film. It is strangely only playing late at night with its first showing of each day at 10 p.m. but I expect to get to it very soon.

Victim (Pee Kon Pen)

http://brns.com/thaifilms/pages/thai88.html

The Passion (Ammahit)

http://brns.com/thaifilms/pages/thai89.html

Sunday, October 22, 2006

World Film Festival of Bangkok - Final Report


By being involved in the New York Asian Film Festival I know how hard it can be to fill seats for a festival with limited resources. There are certain films where you know that even if the tickets were free along with a coke and popcorn it would still be a struggle. Hell, if we had thrown in a blind date with Aishwarya Rai, I still don’t think anyone would have come to the Ram Gopal Varma films. But how much harder would it be I wonder if the prints we showed were all sub-titled in Italian. That is basically what this fest has going against it. All the prints are sub-titled in English and nothing else. Good for me. Not so good for the population of Bangkok. So the small target market are farangs and English speaking Thai’s who are interested in foreign art films and that might explain why of the seven films I have seen the audience has been somewhere between 30 and 60 people. Most of them are in fact farangs with a smattering of Thai’s. Rather odd and almost pointless it seems to me, but not being experienced with international film festivals I don’t know if this is the norm or not.

It is also a festival that seems devoid of personality – all the films are being shown in huge multiplexes with very little presence from the people behind the event. There are no introductions, no program books and no one there if things go wrong with the screenings – like starting the film literally just as they let people in or showing one of the short films two times! Probably the only thing the NYAFF has going for it are Grady’s frantic and excitable introductions and the fact that we are all there to be pelted by the angry crowds if need be. The folks behind the programming here are also of the old school of festival programming – back when a film had to be slower than a hot day at the beach to be considered “worthy”. Not that these films are bad – I have enjoyed nearly all of them but after watching three of these back to back to back as I did the other day I felt like I could have used a shot of adrenaline to the heart. Here are some very brief comments on what I have seen the last few days.

Climates

This is from the renowned Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan who won the Grand Prix three years ago in Cannes for “Uzak” and won the Fipresci Award this year at Cannes for this film. Now honestly I have no idea what the Fipresci Award is for but I assume it is of merit. I also admit to knowing absolutely nothing about Turkish films as this was my first one and I have no idea if this is in any way representative of them (I hope to convince a friend to begin a blog on Turkish films so that I can learn more about them). I came away with a few broad impressions of the film – it feels very European to me – in particular Italian or French with its slow calm intimate exploration of a souring relationship and everyone in Turkey seems to spend an enormous amount of time drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes!

It is beautifully shot (in HD video) with some stunning landscapes but primarily in stark close-up’s with the faces of the actors practically imploding on the screen. A relationship between a middle aged professor (played by the director) and his younger TV actress girlfriend (played by the director’s wife, Ebru Ceylan) is dissected and laid bare with a particular focus on the male psyche. The film begins in the summer with the two of them on a long needed holiday to the seashore, but this is a relationship clearly in trouble weighed down and sinking with a past indiscretion as the obvious culprit. But it is deeper than just that and by the time the holiday is over so are they and they return to their separate lives in Istanbul, where the man again takes up with his previous indiscretion. In a scene that was really surprising to me (as I had assumed that Turkey might have some strict censorship rules around sexual content – the Ministry of Education just censored out a picture of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” from school textbooks), the couple engages in some very rough and revealing sex (at which time a number of folks walked out) and the viewer begins to rework their assumptions about this guy. He can’t shake his former girlfriend out of his system though and follows her to a TV shoot into the snowy east of Turkey where neither of them can really express what they want or really seem to know what they need.

The film is very slow and in truth very little happens but it has such a sense of blemished reality to it that you feel like you are almost a voyeur. It is an honest and intriguing portrait of a man who is seemingly fairly solid and mature but at his core somehow very hollow and incomplete. The film has been picked up for US distribution by Zietgist Films.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

This latest film from director Tsai Ming-Liang is a return to his very minimalist style after the rather outrageous, offensive and I thought quite wonderful “The Wayward Cloud”. In a film almost deplete of dialogue except as background noise, he painstakingly etches a melancholy scene of urban loneliness, longing and our need for human contact. Full of long static takes in which I sometimes felt I could take a coffee break and not miss much, the story inches along like an earthworm but still manages to build in its wake an overriding sense of empathy and poignant fragility. The ending is perhaps absurd and rather cinematic but touching and hopeful.

The urban setting is not his usual Taipei, but Tsai instead shifts it to the impoverished backstreets of Kuala Lumpur. This may seem like an odd choice for the director, but Tsai is actually from Malaysia and on a trip back last year he felt inspired to make a film there. Using a series of short wordless shifting scenes, Tsai gradually depicts a group of disparate characters in a desolate and loveless landscape. A homeless Chinese foreigner (played by his usual actor of choice, Lee Kang-Sheng) is set upon and beaten by a group of conmen and left damaged in the streets. He is spotted by a group of poor Bangladesh workers who have found a used mattress in the garbage and they take both discarded items back to their barely functional apartments. Rawang (Norman Atun) nurses Hsiao back to health – washing his body, standing him upright to urinate – and a suspected sexual wanting begins to possibly surface.

In another parallel thread, a waitress (Chen Shiang-Chyi) has to care for the paralyzed son (also played by Lee) of the owner of the place where she works and she too in similar fashion to Rawang has to wash him down and in one instance is shown by the mother how to jerk him off. The three of them slowly close this circle and their distance apart in their desperate desire to simply feel something other than isolation. Though I admit to at times feeling frustrated by the glacial pacing of the film, it pays off finally and the film received a very nice hand of applause at the end. Though the settings of the film are little more than an abandoned building, a cesspool, dark alleys and patchwork apartments, Tsai and the cinematographer do wonders as they lavish this world with stunning and striking visuals – at times there are some truly beautiful shots such as the older mother looking at herself in an aging mirror, a butterfly landing on a bare back or a dream like scene of people encased in gasmasks (because of the smoke from fires in Indonesia) eerily standing outside a store watching an Indian music video on TV. There are moments of sly humor as well – two of the characters trying to make love with those gasmasks on and frantically trying to kiss and breathe at the same time. Funny on one level, but it is also an urgent cry for love. As is this film.

Isabella

I had previously seen “Isabella” on DVD and thought it enjoyable but a bit derivative. On this second viewing though it picked up some true resonance for me and left me feeling rather wistful and rueful by the end. In my review of Edmund Pang’s last film, “AV”, I stated that as entertaining as his films could be it felt to me as though he was sliding by on his wit and cleverness and that I thought he needed to aim for something with more depth. I assume he read my review and this is his answer. That was sarcasm by the way. In “Isabella” Pang for the most part plays it straight without indulging in parody or slight of hand and gives the audience a melancholy tinged look at a mildly corrupt and empty man coming to terms with what he has become over time. It works nicely because of the natural slow rhythm of the narrative and two finely honed performances.

The one obvious criticism that can be aimed at this work is that it often seems overwhelmingly influenced by the style of Wong Kar-wai. These influences appear everywhere from the musical choices, the lighting, the camera angles, the mood and the pacing. Wong Kar-wai casts a giant creative shadow over Hong Kong and his enormous international stature must make it difficult for any young director to escape his influence – especially for those that are attempting to make “serious” artistic films. It feels that when Pang decided to move in this direction with a more personal story he turned to Wong as an inspiration – whether intended or not. Even with this aura wafting through the film though, it still maintains enough of its own identity with a wry sense of humor, affection for its protagonists and its gentle humanity.

Pang replaces Wong’s 1960’s Hong Kong with the old sections of Macau and in similar fashion he uses this backdrop to create an intimate mood of melancholy, nostalgia and decay. Filming on its winding narrow cobblestone streets and within decrepit paint peeling apartments, Pang infuses his sets with various shades of omnipresent greens and natural light. One night Shing comes face to face with his past when a young girl, Bik-yan, follows him into a bar and hits him over the head with a bottle. Thinking that he had slept with and paid for her the previous night, Shing attempts to silence the underage girl but is truly taken aback when she declares that she is his daughter from a past relationship and that her mother has recently died. The guilt he still feels for having long ago abandoned his girlfriend at the abortion clinic as a teenager comes to the surface and he takes Bik-yan into his apartment and his life. He is a cop and as he admits to her not a completely honest one and he may have to soon take a fall. With the Handover to China looming it is perhaps an opportunity for him (and Macau) to start over again. As their relationship and affection for one another grows he starts to examine his life.

With only a skeleton of a plot, this slowly paced and gently told story nearly becomes a mood piece set to music, colors and shadows. Pang injects moments of humor into the film such as Bik-yan putting off all Shing's’s girlfriends with lies and tough talk or him teaching her the proper way to hit someone with a bottle (you need follow through). Both actors – the usually comic Chapman To and the fresh faced and long- legged Isabella Leung – give fine understated performances - something that Pang seems very able to elicit from his actors. Though I believe the film didn’t do nearly as well at the box office as some of his previous work – in particular “Men Suddenly in Black” - I hope Pang continues to push in this direction and that he will eventually establish his own identity.

Silence Will Speak

I gave this new Thai film some forty minutes of my life and felt that was enough of a sacrifice for art. I felt some guilt at walking out of a film from a young filmmaker, but there are times you want to make a show of protest – but I did it silently in homage to the film! This felt (and may be) like a student project and not a very good one – abstract and pretentious and badly shot on video. It has zero dialogue and when there was a fifteen minute continuous static take of a man making an origami bird in a traffic jam I knew I was in trouble. It didn’t get any better. Maybe this director will be the next Tsai Ming-liang with his minimalistic style, but I will wait until then I think.

12:08 East of Bucharest

This Romanian film from director Corneliu Porumboiu is a slyly amusing deadpan look at the state of the country sixteen years after the revolution forced Ceausescu to leave power and brought an end to Communism. The “12:08” of the title refers to the time of day that Ceausescu announced he was leaving and the “East of Bucharest” refers to the location of the film. It is an unnamed small sized city that is unrelentingly drab and gray in the dull winter light. The anniversary of that day in 1989 – 12/23 – is being seized upon by a TV talk show host to ask the question whether this city participated in the revolution or whether it only celebrated the revolution that took place elsewhere in Romania.

His supposed guests all take a hike on the day of the show and so he has to quickly replace them with a school teacher who enjoys his drinking and an old man who use to play Santa Claus. The teacher tells how he and three other co-workers began the revolution in the town by going to the Communist headquarters to protest and getting into a fight with security, but soon calls start coming in saying he was actually drunk on the day and nowhere near the place. The old man begins his story of the day by talking about his now dead wife and the fight they had and the flowers he bought her – and the talk show host sinks lower and lower. It is quite funny in a gentle low key way, but one senses that behind the humor the director is asking his audience “where did the revolution go?” The final caller simply telephones to tell them that it is snowing outside – big lovely flakes and they should enjoy them now because by tomorrow they will turn to mud and this seems like an apt metaphor for the revolution.

Sugarless

This is another independent debut work from a young Thai director that was shot on video, but there is actually a story attached to it. Now this film very likely will never show up in the multiplexes here or ever be released on DVD because of its somewhat sordid depiction of Bangkok and its offsetting urban fairy tale search for true love. Let’s just say that the “happy ending” of this one won’t be found in Cinderella.

Long ago Withit came from the countryside to look for his girlfriend who had left for Bangkok seven years previously and disappeared. He assumes she went into prostitution and so he becomes a taxi cab driver in hopes that one day he will pick her up and so nightly he trawls along the streets where they work. He is thirty-five years old though and needs to find a wife. So when he reads a letter in the Lonely Hearts section of the newspaper from Beau asking for a good man to take care of her and her education he replies. With just a few lies. He tells her that he is a wealthy owner of a chili paste factory and is looking for his true love. After a period of time, they agree to finally meet in the park on New Year’s Eve.

But Withit isn’t the only one with a few fabrications to answer for. Beau isn’t a first year student at university but in fact is a male transvestite who has been selling his body since he was a teenager. When asked by one customer why he does this, Beau tells him that when his customers orgasm he is truly happy. But he wants love and so enters into this correspondence with a man and sends a picture of a woman to him. On the day they are to meet Beau beams with happiness and it never really occurs to him that Withit might be somewhat disappointed.

But they never are able to find each in the large park and both go back to their lonely lives thinking they have been jilted. Later that night the cab driver picks up Beau working the streets and they go for a little ride. While the film first picks up with Withit it is fairly light and sets the viewer up for a sweet romance, but at the halfway point when it switches its narrative to Beau the story sobers up quickly as it follows his rather dismal life. It is a strange but intriguing film of sad people looking for love in all the wrong places.

Monday, October 16, 2006

World Film Festival of Bangkok

Well anybody who is anybody is in Pusan right now ploughing through the multitude of offerings at the Pusan Film market and Pusan Film Festival. Follow this by reading Grady's blog at:

http://www.kaijushakedown.com/

Then there is me. I stumbled across this much smaller and less prestigious festival here in Thailand. It has caused a bit of a ruckus of sorts because most of the film people here apparently can't even understand why it exists. They don't think that Thailand needs two international film festivals and they already have the grander Bangkok International Film Festival in January. I say the more the merrier - there are certainly enough films being produced in the world today to support two festivals I would guess. Look at New York City that has a few fests pretty much every weekend it seems. The folks at the BIFF claim that they will be bigger than Pusan within five years, but somehow I doubt it. I just don't think Thailand has the film culture to support a giant film festival, but they do get loads of money to put on the shindig - last year 10 million dollars. It sounds kind of like wrestling federations but the WFFB says they are all about the films, while the BIFF is all about celebrity. I hate to say it but celebrity will always win that battle.

At any rate they have some decent offerings that can be found here:

http://www.worldfilmbkk.com/index.php

Interestingly, I could not find an American film within the bunch. "The Banquet" was the opening film, but I already saw that in Malaysia. I picked up tickets today to see "Isabella" (HK) which I already saw on DVD but have wanted to see again and this will be perfect, "Sanctuary Rhapsody" - a Thai premiere, "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" the new one from Tsai Ming Liang, "Climate" - which I believe will be my virgin Turkish film, "Silence will Speak", another Thai premiere, "12:08 East of Bucharest" and "The Caiman" from Italy. Wow - two totally non-Asian films!

Today I checked out a series of Thai shorts that had a theme around them of peace and conflict.

http://www.worldfilmbkk.com/films/schgroup.php?cid=05&schid=293

Thailand has been troubled greatly over the past few years with a conflict in their south in which Muslims have been seeking more autonomy and often using violence as their means. A number of the short films addressed this issue. "Dream Team" for example is a story about a new friendship created by their mutual interest in the Liverpool football team between a young Muslim man and a Buddhist novice monk - but in the end the Muslim leaves to join the fray. A documentary "Wat Na Proe School" shows how a small village with a mix of both religions has made an effort to learn how to live together and to protect each other from extremists from both sides. "Weight of a Gun" was perhaps the most creative film from a technical slant - a jittery black and white shot film about paranoia and fear. The most enjoyable film by far though was the comic "Hamburger Boy" which has four school boys and their classmates receieving an assignment to put together a menu and cook it in class. The boys decide to cook a hamburger because no one in their rural town has had one. When the dog eats the bun, they have to get creative. A very sweet film and director Siwadol Rathee might be someone to keep an eye on.

The fest ends with a showing of "Battleship Potemkin" on the 23rd, but I will happily be on my way to Angkor Wat to meet up with another Asian film crazy fan! We may even find time to visit a couple of those old ruins! But before that I should have some follow-ups on the films I see here. Who needs Pusan!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Singapore Cinema by Raphael Millet


Singapore Cinema

By Raphael Millet
2006
151 pages
Hard Cover

Thanks to this work from Raphael Millet, a large veil of obscurity has been lifted from the films and film industry of this small city state tucked away at the end of the Malay peninsula. My guess is that when most people even bother to think about Singapore’s film industry they think of it only in terms of the recent spate of small films that have achieved some international exposure over the past five years. In fact as this book makes clear Singapore once had a thriving rich film industry with a large audience base, well known production companies and their own gallery of stars and directors.

There is to some degree a large crossover between Singapore cinema and Malaysian cinema since Singapore was once part of Malaysia until it became independent in 1965, but the writer defines Singapore cinema as films that were produced by companies that were housed in that city even though most of the talent came from outside of the city as well as much of the actual shooting. The growth and development of Singapore cinema had of course an enormous impact on the cinema of another city to its north – Hong Kong. Indeed one could speculate that without Singapore, the Hong Kong film industry would have been a very different animal. Three Singapore companies that first were in the exhibition and distribution business with theater chains around Malaysia eventually went into film production in order to supply themselves with a steady stream of films. These were the Shaw Brothers, Cathay and Kong Ngee (a major producer of Cantonese films in the 1960’s with their stable of stars such as Patrick Tse and Connie Chan). The films that these companies produced for a Chinese audience are not really the subject of this book though – those he considers as Hong Kong films – but before moving into Hong Kong film both Shaw and Cathay for a number of years made films for their local Malay audiences.

These local films have an interesting parentage – financed by Chinese owners, the acting talent was primarily Malay and some Indonesians, the language of the films was Malay and many of the directors were Indian or Filipino. Their marketing area was Malaysia and Indonesia, while the overseas Chinese living in these countries were basically ignored in these films and few films were made for that audience – though Chinese films were continuously imported from Hong Kong or Taiwan for them to see. This was the basic arrangement until 1965 whereupon Malay films began being made in Kuala Lumpur and the films that began to be made in Singapore were made for the 70% Chinese audience in the city.

I sighed in relief when I read the author’s introduction, “This work is not an academic dissertation. Nor is it loaded with gender, postcolonial, post-structuralist or modernist analyses”. Thank god. Instead it is simply a very well-researched and well-written narrative of the history of Singapore cinema. The book is divided into six sections – “Early Days 1902 – 1945”, “The Studio Era 1947 – 1972”, “Decay and Oblivion 1973 – 1986”, “From Survival to Revival 1987 – 2005”. These sections are followed by a filmography of many films with some credits and a summary if he knows it. Many of the early films like everywhere else have been lost for good and are impossible to see. The final section is a page on how to find and watch some of these films. There are also many pictures included which is always a big plus for me! I purchased it in the Kinokuniya Book store in the KLCC mall in Kuala Lumpur for 85 Ringits ($23), but it is available on the Internet as well. It is a great addition to the steady flow of books on Asian cinema and one I highly recommend.

Below I have a short timeline of some of the key events in Singapore cinema gathered from this book – to get more detail, please buy the book.

1902 – The first public screening of a film in Singapore by a Parsi exhibitor.

1904 – The Paris Cinema became the first legitimate cinema hall

1925 – Runme Shaw moves to Singapore to open the distribution business of the family films being produced in Shanghai

1926 – The first film is shot in Singapore and produced by Liu Peh Jing. It was called “Xin Ke” and was about Chinese immigrants in the city. It was one of the last films shot using the Chinese language and Chinese actors for decades.

1927 – Run Run Shaw joined his brother and they formed the Hai Seng Company – they soon opened their first theater – by the end of the 30’s they owned 139 theaters in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indochina

1934 – “Leila Mujnun” was released and is considered the genesis of the Malay focused films for the next 35 years. It was directed by B.S. Rajhans – brought from India which began a tradition of Indian directors for years to come. It also began a well used theme of films about lovers in different social strata and their difficulties. It had a number of other Indian film influences as well such as songs and dances. Most of the actors came from the “bangsawan” (Malay opera) world.

1935 – Cathay (then called Associated Theaters) entered the exhibition business and began to build and buy theaters around the region.

1938 – The Shaw’s begin producing Malay films and made eight features between this year and the advent of WWII. They initially employed Chinese directors from the Mainland but did not have a lot of success with them as they didn’t understand the Malay culture.

1939 – The Cathay building goes up – used as the logo in their HK and Malay films.

1941 – The Japanese occupy Singapore and Malaysia and most film production comes to a stop.

1946 - The first film after the end of the war was produced and directed by B.S. Rajhans – “Seruan Merdeka” for an independent company. It was unsuccessful though because the theater chains owned by Shaw and Cathay would not show it – a major reason that no independent film scene ever really took off in these years.

1947 – Shaw formed Malay Film Productions which became their arm for making Malay films. By the time they closed in 1968 they had made about 160 Malay films. B.S. Rajhans became their in-house director and made their first7 films.

1953 – The Cathay-Keris production company was formed by Loke Wan Tho and another successful theater owner, Ho Ah Loke. Under this name they begin producing Malay films. They too were to use Indian directors at first.

1955 – P. Ramlee directs his first film, Penarek Becha, and this multi-talented singer, songwriter and actor begins a trend of a slow shift from Indian to Malay directors.

1955 – Cathay forms MP&GI in Hong Kong to make Chinese films. Kong Ngee at the time was a distributor and exhibitor of Chinese films in Singapore and decided to also get into the production game by forming a company in Hong Kong to make films in Cantonese.

1957 – The first of the Pontianak series produced by Keris-Cathay and directed by B.N. Rao. This Malay version of a female vampire has endured over the decades and was the subject of a big hit in Malaysia in 2004. The first few in the series starred Maria Menado, an Indonesian actress, and this brought her much fame.

1958 – Orang Minyak (Oily Man) – cult horror film directed by L. Krishnan for Keris-Cathay. Other Orang films were to follow and many years later The Shaw Brothers were to make their own version in Hong Kong.

1960 – Merdeka Studio set up in Kuala Lumpur by Ho Ah Loke. This was the beginning of the shift away from Singapore to Malaysia for Malay films. The Shaws were later to buy it and kept producing Malay films until the late 70’s.

1961 – Shaw opens their studio in Hong Kong

1966 – The first in a series of Singapore like Bond films were made – starring Jefri Zain in “Gerak Kilat”. Two of the sequels were shot by none other than Lo Wei!

1968 – Shaw closes their studio in Singapore

1972 – Cathay closed down their studio in Singapore

1973 – First independent film made in the decade – “Ring of Fury”, a kung fu film starring Peter Chong. It was banned though in Singapore due to its portrayal of gangsters and supposed advocacy of vigilantism. From this point on films produced in Singapore were targeted at the Chinese audience.

1977 – Filipino producer Bobby Suarez begins a series of B action films made in Singapore and Malaysia– the most famous being “They Call Her . . . Cleopatra Wong” – starring the lovely 19-year old Marrie Lee from Singapore. This though was the death knell for Singapore films and nothing else was made in Singapore until the early 90’s.

1991 – “Medium Rare” was the first local film made in Singapore since Cleopatra Wong, but it starred an American and was directed by a Brit.

1995 – Eric Khoo makes the seminal “Mee Pok Man” and this begins the revival of the Singapore film industry. He follows this up with “12 Storeys” (1997) and “Be with Me” (2005). He also helped produce films that brought forth other film talent – Jack Neo and Roystan Tan.

1998 – The comedy “Money No Enough” starred Jack Neo and became the biggest box-office hit in Singapore history. Other similar films were to follow – “That One No Enough” (directed by Neo).

2002 – “I Not Stupid” directed by Neo receives a fair amount of international exposure. “Homerun” in 2003 did the same.

2003 – Another young director, Roystan Tan, receives much international publicity for his film “15” that delves into the dark side of Singapore.

2005 – “The Maid” a horror film is directed by Kelvin Tong and is picked up by US distributors.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Don - the CD



Knock knock knock, “Yes, who is it?”; “Don”

When I first heard that the classic 1978 Bollywood film, “Don” was being remade it made my heart sink a bit, but after listening to the soundtrack I have hopes that it won’t be a complete travesty. The music is playful with an intentional nod to the original. Not only does it incorporate two of the songs into the soundtrack, but gives the whole sound a slick 70’s groove that has echoes of disco, funk and Bond wafting through it.

Remaking classics is dangerous business and it’s hard to think of any that come close to the original – maybe “King Kong”? Or what about “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”! “Don” in particular will be a tough one to better. From what I have read, this version will be updated with lots of stunts, higher velocity action and loads of hi-tech gadgets – but that rather misses the point of “Don”. “Don” was all about being cool without even realizing it and so provided the viewer with an onslaught of enormous pleasure from the initial “Superfly” beats and the exploding briefcase to the chaotic head spinning kung fu finale. It also starred the two coolest actors in Indian film history – Amitabh Bachchan in his double role as the ruthless crime lord and also as the beetle nut chewing simpleton who has to impersonate him – and Zeenat Aman as the kung fu kicking femme fatale. And as an added bonus, Helen makes an appearance when she tries to seduce Don in order to set him up. How to seduce a man? By singing and dancing to the lilting undulating tune of “Ye Mere Dil” of course!

This one shifts its locale from India to Malaysia as evidenced by the Petronas Towers in the picture above, but much of the basic plot apparently remains the same. This is definitely no cheap rip-off though by any means as it brings in some of the top talent in the film business. At the helm is Farhan Akhtar who rushed to fame in his debut film, “Dil Chahta Hai”, but stumbled with his follow-up film, “Lakshya”, about a military conflict between India and Pakistan. So there is definitely nothing in his short filmography to make one overly confident that he can handle this sort of film, but “DCH” did show a casual irreverent streak that may do him well here. Standing in for Amitabh is the second coolest male actor in Indian history (O.k. maybe the third after Shammi), Shahrukh Khan. This may not be his typical romantic role of late, but in his earlier films he was more action oriented and “Main Hoon Na” of a few years ago showed that he can fake action as well as most! Let’s face it – no current actress can replace Zeenat Aman, but if I had had to choose one for her role from the current crop of actresses it probably would have been the sexy vivacious Priyanka Chopra and that is who in fact they got. She spent months in martial arts training for the film. Of course, I just thought of Mallika Sherawat who impressed in her short action role in Jackie Chan’s “The Myth”, but Priyanka is a better actress I believe. Rounding out two of the other roles is Isha Koppikar (the item girl in “Company”) as Don’s girlfriend and Kareena Kapoor takes on the big challenge of stepping into the dancing shoes of Helen. The film is opening world wide on October 20th and I sure hope that it appears wherever I happen to be.

From the CD soundtrack ( Music: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy; Lyrics: Javed Akhtar) it appears that the film will have six songs – the CD has added two mixes as well – and I like them all.

It begins with “Main Hoon Don” that starts out simply with a catchy funky guitar riff and then it slowly builds to a full orchestral sound that is reminiscent of some of the big brassy Bond themes in the Roger Moore films.

Next is a techno driven re-do of “Ye Mera Dil” that was originally sung by Asha Bhosle and is now sung by Sunidhi Chauhan. The arrangement is a bit busy at times, but this is such a great tune that it still works and the vocals are fine. I can’t wait to see Kareena dance to it.

“Mourya Re” is the most traditional song of the bunch – a percussive driven beat and great vocals by Shankar and one envisions some fast-footed choreography around it.

Taken again from the original is the next song “Khaike Paan Banaraswala” and for me it is the high point of the soundtrack – extremely playful and rhythmic with some vocals contributed by Shahrukh but primarily sung by Udit Narayan.

Sounding as if it could have fit into “Disco Dancer” is “Aaj Ki Raat” with its beginning drum beat that then surrenders to the synthesizer and velvet vocals – I can see the spangles and hot pants now!

The final number “Don the Theme” is interestingly an instrumental other than the words uttered at the beginning of this review – it is a great piece of music that takes in various influences and goes from Curtis Mayfield funk to Bond.

Most of the time I admit to wanting remakes of classic films to fail – unless you can do better what is really the point? But I hope that this is a good one and different enough not to really compare it to the original. But somehow you know that it will never match up on the most basic level with the original – the total fun factor – that I would guess was as much accidental as intentional – that kind of thing just can’t be planned.

Oddly – or perhaps not - is that another classic Amitabh film is being remade – “Sholay” and Amitabh is in it as the villain! Once a film industry begins cannibalizing its own you know that it is in the middle of a creative crisis and that is certainly the case with Bollywood at the moment. Up until now they were primarily remaking Hollywood films by the bushel full but have now turned on their own. Not a good sign.

P.S. – I picked up a few DVDs and CDs of Indian films while in Little India in Kuala Lumpur. I had looked around till I finally found a store that looked like it was selling legitimate copies though for fairly inexpensive prices - $5 for the DVDs and $3 for the CDs – except for Don which went for $10. As it turns out, none of the DVDs could play and the CDs other than Don skip quite a bit – so be warned of cheap prices in Little India! But they did give me a free poster of Aishwarya!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Hong Kong Tidbits

Here is some news/gossip about a few of our favorite HK stars that was reported in a Malaysian newspaper.

It seems that Ekin Cheng is now dating Yoyo Mung after his breakup with Gigi Leung a few months back. So its been from Maggie Siu to Gigi to Yoyo for Ekin - getting better all the time. Gigi is wasting no time either, but has reached out for something entirely different - a Frenchman called Sly. Somehow being with a Frenchman called Sly feels very temporary - so she should be on the open market fairly soon I would guess.

And Cecelia Cheung is hands off material as well - it appears that she and Nick Tse got married in the Philippines a few weeks ago though they haven't officially announced it yet but Nick did sort of confirm it when surrounded by the hordes from press. It is rumored that she may be with child. If that is so it is perhaps possible that she may be visible again in a few months. No one has been able to spot her since she got her weight down to 11 ounces and one has to wonder how a ceremony was performed.

Stephen Chow is having problems with yet another female protege of his. You may recall that there was a nasty falling apart between him and Eva Huang (Kung Fu Hustle). This time his starlet, Zhang Yuqi, for his next film "Yangtze River 7" went off and had surgery to remove her double eyelids and this pissed Chow off as she lost her natural looks for the film. So she may be replaced even though she offered to have the surgery reversed. Can't he just use cgi to make them double again?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Quick Update

Here is just a very quick update on my doings so that this blog doesn't get too rusty. I was off in the Malaysian rain forest of Taman Negara doing battle with leeches, bats, monkeys, boars, snakes and lizards - not to mention over priced beer and what felt like a mile long canopy bridge a few hundred feet in the air! Not really my thing but a real nice break from urban sprawl. For those who like just a touch of adventure without really roughing it I recommend trying it out if you ever land up in Malaysia.

Now I am back in Kuala Lumpur for a bit and have checked out two films - The Banquet and Rob-B-Hood. Both get my thumbs up though two films could hardly be more different.

R-B-H is Jackie light - very light - it's like a Disney family film with important moral lessons to boot (such as don't gamble, steal or be mean to your girlfriend!) - but it's quite entertaining at times. It is primarily a comedy with some totally corny and perhaps unneccessary melodrama and of course it contains the required action scenes that Jackie fans need a fix of. The action is more acrobatics than fighting and in truth nothing that comes close to his older stuff but hopefully no one is expecting that anymore. There are four action set pieces and all are solid- a few highlights stood out for me - Jackie hopping from one air conditioner to another in a high rise building to work his way down and a run-away baby carriage in traffic were great fun. And perhaps more from a sentimental side, the appearance of Yuen Biao in a nice role was a huge boost. I actually teared up seeing him in action again.

The film is extremely predicatable if you have seen any of the films it was based on - three crooks ending up with a baby on their hands - or even if you haven't - lots of baby poop, adorable baby expressions, making faces at the baby to stop it from crying, the baby in dangerous situations and of course three hard hearts being melted by the baby. It's all there, but a fairly funny script and energetic performances make it all very palatable as does a slew of familiar actors - look especially for a great cameo from Daniel Wu and Nicholas Tse as armoured truck drivers. In fact, the film has a real ensemble feel to it as Jackie gives lots of time to many other actors - two other sentimental favorites being Michael Hui as one of the crooks and his wife played by Teresa Carpio - and Louis Koo as the third member of their merry band hasn't been so convivial in a long time. Not only does Daniel Wu show up, but the three other "Heavenly Kings" pop up as well - Andrew Lin, Terence Yin and Conroy Chan. Other familiar faces are Charlene Choi, Cherry Ying and Ken Lo. It all adds up to a bit of a silly party.

If you broke it down by percentages it would be about 70% comedy, 15% melodrama and 15% action. After the grim New Police Story, Jackie just sets out to have a good time and take his audience with him. For those looking for old fashioned Jackie action - well keep looking because it's not here.

Rating: 7.0

The Banquet is getting scorched it seems by the critics but I am not sure I quite understand their comparing it unfavorably to the recent wuxia films like "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers". Those films were built around the action set pieces, while at its heart The Banquet is a serious drama (based as everyone probably knows on Hamlet) with a few action set pieces nibbling around the corners. The action is quite lovely, but clearly they are going more for art than adreneline and at times they reminded me of the action in the Korean film "Duelist" in which they came closer to dance than to fighting. Admittedly, the pacing of the film is at times dirge like and the mood is solemn with no attempts at any light moments but I found the court intrigue and multiple betrayals quite involving and eventually by the end rather tragic. Mainly though I suppose one will come away simply awed by the beauty of the film with their incredibly ornate sets and costumes. It does seem as if all these epic recent Chinese films - and throw in "The Promise" as well are definitely trying to out do each other in their granduer and The Banquet has upped the ante once again.

The big difference of course from Hamlet is that the mother character is played by Zhang Ziyi and Zhang Ziyi is by most standards a hottie - somehow Gertrude never struck me as a hottie - so this and the fact that having Zhang play the character forces the filmmakers to shift the focus of the film from the son (played by Daniel Wu) to mom.

Rating: 8.0

I may try and do longer reviews on these two films when I have my computer again - but then I may not!