Friday, March 30, 2007

One Last Movie in Asia

At least for now my Asian sojourn is over and I am back in the U.S.A. The timing works out well – spring is here and today was a glorious sunny nippy day, baseball is about to begin and the Red Sox signed a Japanese pitcher who is suppose to have some magic pitch that even physics can’t explain and Georgetown is in the Final Four again at the NCAA. And taxes are due. But right before I headed to the airport to catch my plane, I caught this Thai film in the local multiplex on its opening day. A good way to end the trip.

For now I am going to keep the Blog active as I will be visiting family for a while.

Alone (Fadd), Thailand, 2007

Monday, March 26, 2007

More 2006 Korean Film Reviews!!!!!

I have been doing my best to catch up on Korean films from 2006, but still have a long ways to go before I could even think of putting together a Top 10 list. Here are some almost pain free reviews of five Korean films from 2006 that show that even if the year wasn’t a remarkable one overall for Korean cinema it was certainly diverse with films that range from foxes that want to be human, to humans that want to be Cyborgs, to humans that want to be someone else. And of course gangsters that are barely human.

The Fox Family (Korea, 2006)

Cruel Winter Blues (Korea, 2006)

I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK (Korea, 2006)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Udon (Japan, 2006)

After watching the film I can’t say I was hungry – in fact I felt full – but it put me in the mood to take some pictures of outdoor food vendors in Bangkok and on my walk back to the hotel I took some pictures. A month ago a hotel here received a lot of unfavorable publicity when it was learned that they were putting together one meal for food snobs that cost about $25,000 per person – talk about conspicuous consumption. As one fellow was quoted in the paper – “everyone here knows that the best food in Thailand can be found on the street” and Thai’s do in fact love getting their food from the little food vendors who usually specialize in a dish or two. A Thai once told me that as long as you have 25 baht (60 cents) in your pocket you will never go hungry in Thailand.

Food Picts 1

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

An Answer to a Question

Back in September I posted a rather mocking phony Q & A with President Bush (at the end of The Host review) in which I asked him why in the face of this being the battle of Civilizations of our Time he was asking no sacrifice from the American people other than the soldiers. I was being sarcastic and unfair as I have just learned. I apologize. It turns out that in January Jim Lehrer from PBS asked Bush the same question. His answer was inspiring and it shames me that I doubted his sincerity.

"Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night".

Wow. I had no idea I was giving so much to my country. In fact, the other night I was watching the Iraq war news on CNN and during a commercial break I got up to get something to drink and really badly stubbed my toe on an insurgent bedpost. It hurt for a good fifteen minutes. Now I know it was at least in the service of my country. I wonder if I can get a Purple Heart? Thanks George for making me feel a part of this. There I was feeling sorry for the soldiers we sent in harms way without proper training for urban guerilla war, without proper equipment, without a battle plan and now we learn without proper care at home. Well neither did my toe.

I almost wish this was 100 years ago when you could drag a man out on his lawn and horsewhip him. God does he deserve one. And then put him up at a hospital room at Walter Reed where he can lay with the garbage and the cockroaches. This man has no shame. The one thing that puzzles me is how he still receives approval ratings around 29% in polls. Who are these 29%? Has inbreeding really made such inroads in America? Does he have to have anal sex with Dick Cheney in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue at noon for these people to disaprove of his performance?

On to another subject. Traveling around Asia one can't help but come into constant contact with complete asshole foreigners - they are everywhere. A small instance happened today that annoyed me so much. I went into an internet cafe and some very imposingly large falang was giving the tiny femaleThai cashier total shit for charging him a whole 5 baht too much - that's about 15 cents - and giving her grief for her poor English. Can't we just shoot people like that? Sadly he was an American - most times I come across wankers like this abroad they tend to be British or German. And almost always soccer fans!

And a lesson to be learned. A Swiss man in Thailand was found guilty for defacing some pictures of the King while in a drunken state. He faces a possible 75 years in jail. So while in Thailand the next time you are drunk and feeling like doing something stupid - kill someone - it will be a lot less time in jail for you.

Korean Horror – Three Short Reviews

The production of horror films continues to chug along in Korea even though their popularity seems to have ebbed back in 2003 when A Tale of Two Sisters was the last pure horror film to have cracked the Top 10 at the Korean box office. But nevertheless, not only are films in this genre still a constant presence, but these three offerings from 2006 all inject the old chestnut of a long haired female ghost into the proceedings – whether real or imagined is intentionally not always clear. By now this all too familiar spectral figure is often greeted by jaded audiences with a roll of their eyes and a snicker as if to say “oh no, not again”. One might then wonder why filmmakers continue to rely on such an over used convention rather than searching for something different to elicit frights and chills. Though there are long haired female ghosts in Korean folklore, the current popularity of this creepy figure can be traced to The Ring from Japan – so not only are Korean filmmakers accused of a lack of originality but also of being derivative of another country’s work – one by the way that ruled Korea for most of the first half of the 20th century. Still I think the directors use this convention to go elsewhere other than just horror. They sometimes have other interests in mind.

The proliferation of the revengeful female ghost figure in film is an interesting social phenomenon – is the subtext here that in Asian society women have little power in life and so have to wait until death to exert it? Perhaps – but what I find enjoyable about these types of Korean horror films – as opposed to ones that focus on psychosis such as H (2002), Tell Me Something (1999), Say Yes (2001) and To Sir with Love (2006) – is that the ghost is almost used as a contrivance to explore social ills or family dysfunction. Whether in films that focus on social outcasts - Momento Mori (1999), Voice (2005), Bunshinsaba (2004) – condemn war -R-Point (2004) - or unveil breakdowns in the family structure - Phone (2002), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Acacia (2003), Red Shoes (2005), The Wig (2005) and Cello (2005) - the ghost figure is used primarily to highlight these issues (and create a little carnage along the way of course).

Thus many of these films are more melodrama than horror – more about relationships among the living than with the dead - with the elements of horror often pushed to the background. I think this tends to frustrate horror aficionados who find these films much too tame and convoluted for their taste, but it is actually one of the reasons that I have very much enjoyed some of them – Phone, A Tale of Two Sisters, Red Shoes, Momento Mori and Voice. I often don’t find these films very scary, but often I find them moving and very sad. The back stories for these are usually fraught with pathos and are painful little tales of human transgressions and injustices that are ripe with tragedy and potential revenge. All three of these films fall into this category very neatly – melodrama with horror gnawing on the corners waiting to make an entrance.

A.P.T. (Apartment)2006

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Asia Shock - A Book Review

Asia Shock – Horror and Dark Cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand

By Patrick Galloway
201 pages
Soft Cover

One of my personal irks over the past few years is the manner in which Asian cinema is often portrayed in the West as one of harsh fantastic extremes. Year’s back the image of Asian film in the west was primarily action based – kung fu and samurai films – but now it is slowly becoming one of eye-slicing horror, graphic violence, flying swordsmen and sadistic glee. This is primarily due to the fact that U.S. film distributors focus on these types of films while generally ignoring anything else coming out of Asia (Tartan’s Asian Extreme series being the best example). Like all film industries the ones in Asia are extremely diverse with nearly every genre being covered and yet how many comedies, dramas and romances have made it to distributor shores in the West? Not many. I suppose there is a commercial reason for this, but it is rather a shame that films like “My Sassy Girl”, "Hana and Alice" and “Please Teach Me English” can’t find an audience because no distributor is willing to take a chance*. They seem to be willing to produce remakes of some of these – “Il Mare” to “Lake House” – but reluctant to show the originals. Somehow I can’t help but wonder if there is a racial subtext here – can they see Asians killing each other but not loving one another? How far is this from Fu Manchu?

So I was immediately put off by the title of this new book from Patrick Galloway (who previously wrote the splendid “Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook”) as yet another instance of ghettoizing Asian cinema. This feeling wasn’t alleviated much in his introduction where he tries to make the case that because of their culture, religion, belief in the supernatural and violent history, Asians are much more receptive to the dark violent side of film than Westerners. Perhaps – I am not knowledgeable enough on these subjects to concur or reject his argument – but certainly if you look at the box office results in Asia the types of films that do well are generally not ones of extremes. In fact, I would guess that many of the more extreme films reviewed in the book did very badly at the box office – so in truth how receptive are most Asians to this type of fare? The one thing I would agree on is that Asian films often do not feel the need to have happy endings as Hollywood almost mandates and it is almost inconceivable to think of a film like “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” being a hit in the U.S. as it was in Korea. I would be interested in reading more on this subject of culture and film in Asia if anyone has any recommendations.

Putting these reservations aside though, the reviews are terrifically written - enthusiastic, informative, engaging, entertaining and just fun to read. There are 41 lengthy reviews – 3 to 4 pages each – and 17 capsule reviews. What was surprising to me was how many of these films I had seen (41 of 58) since I don’t consider myself a fan of extreme/shock films at all. Part of the reason for this is that many of these films don’t really strike me as extreme – I was expecting all “Guinea Pig”/”Men Behind the Sun” type titles – but in fact many of the films felt very mainstream – i.e. “A Tale of Two Sisters”, “Inner Senses”, “Nang Nak”, “Tell Me Something”, “The Eye”, “The Ring” and so forth. I also generally agree with his choices – Galloway states in his introduction that his criteria was just not the shock value but also one of quality – and I think nearly all the films he reviews positively (only some of the capsule reviews are negative) deserve it. And as he says “Wild Zero” is a boring film! God was it ever. Galloway has a real flair for making the films sound interesting and a must see – there were a number of films I have already seen that his review made me want to see again. So as politically uneasy as I am with the concept, it is certainly a legitimate one (and likely a very marketable one!) to write about and he does a great job with the individual films. I just wish someone would write a great book on Asian comedies!
* - recenlty Viz a small US distributor with ties back to Japan has picked up and released some of my favorite Japanese films - Ping Pong, Linda Linda Linda and Taste of Tea - so hopefully some of these great films will make it to a store near you.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Bodyguard 2 (Thailand, 2007)

I saw this film at the Paragon Mall – one of those very high class malls filled with designer shops and lovely sales women. Though the place is quite crowded, I rarely see anyone actually ever buying anything in this place – it is just way too expensive for most Thai’s (and me). It does have a Famous Amos cookie place though in the basement that I make much too much use of. The cinema is quite a piece of layered cake as well – one of the nicest I have ever seen. They put up great displays of films – here are some pictures.

Also for no real reason other than I took them – here are a few pictures of Phnom Penh from a week ago. It’s an interesting place though one perhaps hard to recommend to most tourists. My first and to some degree lasting impression of the place is that it needs a really good dusting and a paint job, but its fascination lies in how it feels like walking through time to what many major Asian cities were like 40-years ago before skyscrapers dominated skylines and fancy malls were everywhere. It is a city of small shops, decrepit apartment buildings, broad streets crowded with thousands upon thousands of motorcycles, crumbling sidewalks that are used as parking spots, fruit vendors and so many bustling people. This was so different from when I was there seven years ago and there was no electricity – no traffic lights (though they still treat these as a courtesy rather than a rule) – no restaurants – and very little work. The city is really coming alive and it’s great to see it after all those terrible years of turmoil and genocide.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Sanney is Back and other misc. links and tidbits

There are times you just want to get out of your chair and cheer and this is one of those times! I read on YTSL's blog that the webmaster of the old Hong Kong Entertainment site has put up a blog. No one in the Hong Kong film internet world was more loved than Sanney and his site. He was sidelined with illness for a while - but he is back! Please go check in with him.

The House Where Words Gather

The only two Asian films I have seen over the past week were two very solid Korean movies out on DVD - "No Mercy for the Rude" and "A Dirty Carnival". Both were terrific films that were ensconced in a pretty violent shell of a narrative but within had strong elements of drama and pathos. Both films also portray characters that are savage and unmerciful, yet still manage to be very smypathetic to the audience. Between the two of them there were was more slicing and dicing than in a sushi bar.

No Mercy stars the always fascinating to watch Shin Ha-gyun who mezmerized so in "Save the Green Planet" and always manages to catch the off-beat side of his characters. He has these furtive fugitive eyes that hold so much potential chaos within. Here he plays a hired killer who would prefer to be a Matador but who still has the opportunity to utilize his knives to great effect - but only on the rude and avericious. He is also a mute - not because he can't speak but because he is too embarrassed to do so. A woman of fallen character and an abandoned child enter his life to form a very peculiar but working nuclear family. Full of blood, dark humor and whimsy, this very stylish film kept me on edge and fascinated from the start.

A Dirty Carnival treads very familiar ground in its exposition of the rise of a young hoodlum from lowly status to a big boss and then his descent down. What makes the film so interesting is how it fleshes him out to be someone you can understand so well and in fact care for even through his violent rise. He is a guy who cares for his mom and siblings, is loyal to his friends and is still in love with the girl he was too shy to approach in high school - but he is tired of being a lowly sub-boss and the only way up is to step over those ahead of you. But it all comes full circle in this tragic tale. At over two hours it could and should have been trimmed, but still manages to hold your attention throughout.

Here is a historical tidbit I came across in the Herald Tribune's book review of a new book called "Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World". Maybe everyone already knows this but it had escaped me. Back in the early 1970's during the heart of the Cold War, the Soviet Union approached the United States and told them they wanted to nuke China and was it all right with the U.S. At the time there was a huge amount of friction between the USSR and China and the USSR believed that Mao was certifiably insane after he had launched the Cultural Revolution and his bizarre economic plans that had killed millions of people through starvation. So they wanted to preemptively bomb China and no doubt thought they would get a sympathetic reception from Nixon who was virulently anti-Communist and one of those "Who Lost China" accusers. Instead Nixon warned the USSR against doing so and not much later he visited China and began relations with them. And the world has and will never be the same.

Here is a blog from a real fanatic Bollywood viewer - it kills me that I just don't seem to have time to watch many these days. It's called Beth Loves Bollywood.

I learned about this site on Teleport City which has a review of a Bollywood film called Commando that sounds like a must for fans of bad movies and Disco Dancer.

Another Asian blog I just came across is called "The Golden Rock" and is full of links and news and other good stuff. Can there be too many blogs/sites regarding Asian films? Hopefully not.

Some Top 10 lists are out. Darcy the webmaster from the incredibly valuable lists his top Korean films from 2006 here - just go down a bit. Clearly I have a lot of viewing ahead of me as I have only seen four of these - Ad Lib Night, The Host, A Dirty Carnival and Host & Guest. Lately I have noticed some comments on various forums that were fairly negative regarding The Host. Can I just say thank goodness people are finally coming to their senses! Easily the most over hyped over praised film in eons.

And a little bit ago YTSL gave her Top 10 HK films from 2006. Again I have much viewing to catch up on as I have only seen four of these - Fearless, Dog Bite Dog, The Heavenly Kings and Isabella.

One more historical tidbit - of a more recent vintage - also come across in the Herald Tribune. We all recall the term Axis of Evil - no, not Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton - but Iraq, Iran and North Korea. This was a term that Bushie used in his State of the Union back in 2002 to group these three countries together and condemn them. The origin of this term is rather a fascinating and repugnant look at how government policy is formed. Initially in the address Bushie was primarly only bashing Iraq when someone suggested that this was too one-sided and we should widen the list to water it down. Then someone came up with the term Axis of Evil that brought on memories of another Axis - Germany, Italy and Japan in WWII. Cool Bushie said - and he called up Condeleeza to come up with two other countries to fill it out. She thought Iran and North Korea would fill the bill. Now at the time it turns out that Iran was actually trying very much to help us out in Afghanistan and had been very sympathetic after 9/11. Perhaps this was an opportunity to build relations? Naw. We need a third country for that term and so in they went. We attacked the first member of this axis and surprise surprise - the other two quickly went into let's develop a nuclear weapon mode. And the world may never be the same again. It's like having foreign policy made by the Bowery Boys.

And I just came across this sad news that happened a bit ago - the Korean actress Jeong Da-bin committed suicide. She was so adorably cute in "He Was Cool".