Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New Asian Film Blog Up and Going

I just wanted to let people know that a friend and long time Asian film fan has a blog going called Eyes Wide Screen. Mike has written professionally about Asian films and brings a unique perspective to the subject. So take a look and let him know what you think.

Eyes Wide Screen

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sylvia Chang

Currently Thailand is hosting the 5th World Film Festival of Bangkok and as part of that there is a tribute to Taiwanese actress and director Sylvia Chang. They are showing six of her films in which she appeared or directed and last night I had the pleasure of catching the Shaw Brothers film Dream of the Red Chamber on the big screen. I am not really a fan of the Huangmei Opera films, but I love this one with its lush ornate sets, melodic tunes and gut crunching emotions. Oh, and it also stars Brigitte Lin and Sylvia Chang. Ok - that is mainly why I love this film. This was the only Shaw film that either of them ever appeared in and in their pristine youth they dazzle in their close-ups. I have occasionally thought what a shame it was that the Shaws didn’t sign Brigitte up after her success in Taiwan in the early 70’s – she would have been a perfect successor to Lily Ho after she retired in 1974 - think of the great films she might have appeared in. The print has not been restored but for the most part it was in excellent condition and they claimed that this film has not been shown since its release in 1977 but I am not sure about that.

But of course the big thrill for me was that Sylvia was in attendance looking absolutely radiant and still adorable in her fifties. I came to Sylvia a bit later than I did some of my other favorite Hong Kong actresses as she rarely appeared in action films which were what I devoured when I first discovered Hong Kong cinema back in the mid-90’s. Later on though I delved into other genres and first came across this elfin cutie as the beleaguered and set upon third leg in the Aces Go Places series – a quick witted foil to Sam Hui and Karl Maka. Other films were to follow and I began to realize what a fine actress she was as she easily shuttled between comedy and drama – and she is in two of my favorite Hong Kong romances - 8 Taels of Gold where she teams up improbably with Sammo Hung to create a poignant and bittersweet drama of unrequited love and of course the magnificent Shanghai Blues.

In her Q&A she mentioned that very early on she became curious about the workings of film behind the camera and grew increasingly interested in writing and directing. Her first directing gig, Once Upon a Time, was in 1981 at the age of 28 but I have never had the chance to see it. But she didn’t really hit her stride as a director until the late 1990’s with Tempting Heart, Princess D and 20:30:40.

At an early point in the film the print broke down but this turned out to be a good thing because it gave director Yonfan (Last Romance, Bishonen, Peony Pavilion, Colour Blossoms) who has come with Sylvia an opportunity to talk about the film. He mentioned that this was Sylvia’s first chance to see the movie on screen because as soon as the shoot was over she had to go to Korea for a year to work on King Hu’s Legend of the Mountain and its run was over by the time she returned. When asked why the Shaw’s chose these two actresses who were not part of their studio stable Yonfan just gushed that it was because they were the two most beautiful and popular actresses around at the time – a point I certainly question regarding Sylvia who had only made a handful of films at this point – it wasn’t really until Aces before she became a popular actress. In her Q&A Sylvia confirmed something that I had read about the film – that initially she was suppose to be cast as the male figure and Brigitte as the female but right before shooting began the director Li Han-hsiang changed his mind and threw Sylvia into a bit of a panic. The final scenes of her crying for her love took eleven days to film and her eyes became so swollen that she had to go to an eye doctor. More oddly she said that the director had offered the actresses the chance to sing themselves – probably a good thing they declined – though Sylvia actually has a good singing voice and has released a few CDs – one that I picked up and quite enjoyed until it went bad on me.

She was as one would expect completely gracious and stuck around for autographs and chitchat. In one of those strange co-incidences I had come across the picture above in Hong Kong a few weeks back in a little open air shop below Hollywood Road and had bought it – so I got my first autograph since I was about ten years old collecting signatures of baseball players. Now I just need to get Brigitte to autograph it as well some day!

Today I went to see 20:30:40 and realized that I had forgotten how much I liked this tale of relationships at various stages of life and that even though the nature of relationships change as one gets older they never get any easier. Much to my surprise she and Yonfan did an introduction and then sat through it – but no Q&A.

The other films being shown in this tribute are:

Tempting Heart
Forever and Ever
In Between (co-directed by Yonfan)
Siao Yu

Btw – here is another picture of the Ninja Vending Machine that I scanned in.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Still Catching Up on Pusan

Here are a couple more short reviews from the films I saw in Busan. As I slowly roll these out they will likely get shorter and shorter because in truth they are fading fast from my memory. The final review will probably be down to “I think I liked this”. I do attempt to take a few notes while watching the film, but even in the light my penmanship is a thing of horror – you would need a cryptographer of ancient languages to decipher my writing in the dark.

Kamen Rider: The Next

Director: Ryuta Tasaki

If you had a line-up of the Kamen Rider, Ultraman, Zebraman and the Powder Puff Girls I am not sure I could have picked out the Kamen Rider before seeing this film. The character has been around for ages I believe in a television series and other incarnations but it is just one of those things that skipped under my radar. Still I thought this might be fun and it was in a Saturday morning kiddie TV kind of way and I was half expecting to see pop ups like “Wham”, “Crunch” and “Bang” appear on the screen – though I don’t recall any flashes of naked female breasts or having a woman seductively rub her private parts in any of my childhood morning viewing. If only. The producers assume the viewer has some previous knowledge of this Japanese superhero as well as having seen the first film, Kamen Rider: The Movie. I hadn’t and so it took me a few minutes to realize that the timid and ignored high school teacher Takeshi (Masaya Kikawada) was in fact The Kamen Rider. It also took me a while to understand why these guys in weird insect like costumes kept appearing to try and beat him up. They are the Shockers and seemingly Takeshi was once part of their union and they don’t appreciate the fact that he now wants to teach science to kids who think he is a wimp. The Shockers are also trying to take over the world by spreading minute nano robots among the populace turning them into creatures the Shockers can control. They are led by the very cool and very hot Chainsaw Lizard (Rie Mashiko) who keeps trying to remove various body parts from the Kamen Rider when she isn’t coming on to him like a Mae West wannabe.

In another parallel thread, the female pop singer Chiharu (Erika Mori) isn’t returning the calls of her good friend Kotomi (Miku Ishida) who just happens to be one of Takeshi’s students. He gets involved in Kotomi’s life and if he weren’t a super hero one might suspect that he has more in mind than being a good teacher as she is more than a bit cute. Kotomoi is also surprisingly nonplussed about her teacher suddenly turning into a jumping punching costumed super hero – must happen in Japan all the time. Chiharu is having some issues – a video song that is rumored to kill her fans and a ghost that wants her face – and this is putting her on edge and not acting very sociable. But mainly what the film has going for it is some fairly solid fight scenes with loads of flips and somersaults occurring on a regular basis, the fun insect costumes and a need to have something happen every few minutes to keep the kids from dozing off. I know I didn’t.


Director: Izuru Kumasaka

This small independent Japanese film has a surprisingly quiet life affirming message setting down roots among the melancholy and solitude that permeates it. Revelations about life can happen anywhere it seems – in this case in a rundown old fashioned love motel that is owned by the taciturn middle aged Tsuyako (Lily) who seems to get through each day only as a means to get to the next. The film tracks a few other women who cross her path over a few days. The blonde haired Mika (Hikari Kajiwara) is a thirteen year old girl drifting sullenly through her life unable to deal with the fact that her father left her mother and has now settled down with another woman and had children with her and no time for Mika. She notices the odd sight of young children making their way into the love motel and decides to follow them inside. She goes with them onto the elevator where they tell her they are going to Asyl, a liberated zone in the city. It takes her to the rooftop where she comes upon a garden and playground where anyone is welcome. She decides to stay for the night and later is grumpily invited by Tsuyako to have something to eat.

Thirty-something Tsuki is frantic – she has lost her notebook where she monitors how many steps she has taken each day for the past many years. The loss though serves to liberate her and that day she begins a conversation with her neighbor Tsuyako who she has ignored for many years due to her profession. Tsuki is married but always alone and she asks Tsuyako if she can work for free at the love motel. She too discovers Asyl. The final character to enter the film is Marika (Chiharu Sachi Jinno) a young woman who brings a different man with her to the love motel each day. She is equally annoyed and fascinated by this grim woman who runs the hotel and begins to poke her nose into her background and the past of both of them spills out. Slowly paced and often static – one lengthy conversation takes place entirely in the pitch black – the film takes you into unexpected subtle emotional places with some small wonderful discoveries if you are willing to go with it.

Dai Nipponjin

Director: Hitosi Matumoto

Among my many failings is apparently a lack of appreciation for a type of Japanese comedy that has been breaking out like a small rash over the past couple of years. These totally absurd dead pan parodies are so straight-faced that even Buster Keaton might not realize he is being nudged in the funny bone. Set in the real world they present ludicrous and inherently comical situations with complete seriousness and just expect the audience to get it. A few other films of this ilk are Ski Jumping Pairs, Executive Koala Bear and Calamari Wrestler and I have to admit to not liking any of them (though all of them do have moments of utter hilarity). But that is almost beside the point because all of these films have a loyal fan base and Dai Nipponjin generally received rave reviews when it snuck in under the tent at prestigious festivals like Cannes, Toronto and Pusan. But they are not my cup of soup and I don’t plan on going into rehab to correct that any time soon. So it is almost unfair of me to review this – it would be like me reviewing a vegetarian restaurant where my first line would be “The vegetables would have been so much better next to a big chicken breast”. So I will just give the basics here.

Being a super hero isn’t what it used to be in Japan as this mockumentary points out. Once idolized in the country, they are now considered nuisances with signs around the neighborhood telling them to stop breaking things, to quiet down and to move out – and the occasional rock is thrown through their windows. Even their TV ratings have withered and their battles against the bad guys are shown on the late late show after the Shopping Show. Dai Sato (played by the director who is a famous manzai comic on TV) initially first appears as a poor middle aged schmuck with not much of a social life and it is a mystery as to why a journalist is doing a documentary about him and is following him wherever he goes. He tells the reporter that he makes about $5,000 a month and that he is separated from his wife and misses his little daughter. This goes on for about 10-15 minutes to test the audience’s patience before Dai Sato gets a phone call from the Defense Ministry and tells the reporter that it is time for him to go to work.

Work being a super hero when he is called in to save the country from disaster at the hands and feet of various bizarre gigantic baddies that trod the country and destroy property like Godzilla on a sleepy day. But to battle them he needs to become Dai Nipponjin – a giant in blue underwear with hair that stands straight up and who uses a club to beat down the bad guys. Using electricity to increase his size he goes forth like a bored salaryman to make a paycheck and do battle against bad mannered baddies with various characteristics such as the comb over to hide their bald heads, that smell badly, that have giant heads like Jay Leno and one that throws his eyeball like a lasso. Japan seemingly has an endless supply of baddies. Dai has an agent as well who seems to be living much better than he does and who does her best to get him corporate sponsorship in the forms of their logo’s on his body when he fights. The best part of the film are certainly these many battles set usually among wonderful detailed city landscapes in which model buildings get knocked over – but even these began to tire me after a while. Between these silly fights were endless wry and dry interviews and conversations – much of this just felt like a skit that didn’t know how to die – sort of like Dai Nipponjin.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ninja Vending Machines!

Do you see anything slightly suspicious in this picture? Now I know what I want for Christmas!

International Herald Tribune Article

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Shadows in the Palace - Film Review

Director: Kim Mi-jung
113 minutes

“Shadows in the Palace” is a terrific fast paced conspiratorial page turner that refuses to take a breath. Occurring in the period of the Joseon Dynasty, this palace potboiler is full of enough twists, turns and red herrings to keep most viewers off balance and perplexed. What makes it especially fascinating is the feminist milieu in which the plot unfolds – a secret world behind the gates of the royal palace in which ambitious women grasp desperately for power and for survival and murder is only one of many options available to them. In fact, nearly the entire cast is female with only a few small roles for the opposite sex. The director is female as well, but her debut entry is not a delicate tale of polite manners and subtle intrigue – it is historical pulp with mangled bodies piling up like a layer cake and stocked with gruesome torture scenes that are not for the squeamish. In a disappointing year so far for Korean film, this is one of the more enjoyable films that is let down only by the unnecessary introduction of some supernatural elements towards the end.

The palace is simmering dangerously as a sly power play develops between the Queen and one of the King’s concubines. As the queen has been unable to bear the King an heir, he is on the verge of naming the son of one of his concubines, Hee-bin (Yoon Se-ah), to be his successor. This would of course greatly elevate Hee-bin’s influence and prestige within the court and the Queen and the Queen Mother are pulling various levers to be sure this doesn’t happen. Other women on the side of Hee-bin though are doing everything they can to make sure it does happen. Into this unsettled atmosphere the body of a maid is found hanging from a rope in her room. Everyone wants it to be called a suicide, but the female nurse Chun-ryung (Park Jin-hee) who performs the autopsy isn’t so sure.

Like an historical Kay Scarpetta (the character from the Patricia Cornwell series), Chun-ryung notices various forensic clues that seem to indicate that this was murder – but who would want to murder a maid. As she stubbornly investigates it turns out that many people in fact might have reason to do so and it somehow seems tied to the contest for succession. As Chun-ryung frantically claws through the evidence and avoids attempts on her life (and is tortured to boot), she realizes that menstrual cycles may reveal the answers. Surrounding all of this is the fascinating and at times astonishingly cruel workings of the palace in which the female help must keep their virtue or be harshly disciplined and everyone is in fear for their standing and their lives. Production values are excellent with great period detail and apparently (according to Variety) many of the sets from King and Clown were used. It is interesting that a film like this went to a female director – hard to imagine that happening in the states these days.

No Borders, No Limits - Nikkatsu Action Cinema

By Mark Schilling
154 pages

This is just a heads up for fans of older Japanese films to be on the lookout for this book. It covers a period and genre of films that hasn’t received much attention outside of Japan and has very little written about it in English. From the late 1950’s to the early 70’s Nikkatsu produced boat loads of action films full of tough guys, beautiful dames, jazzy scores and hard edged dialogue. During the peak years over 100 films were coming out a year, but by the mid 60’s the entire Japanese film industry went into decline and the Nikkatsu action films began a slow fade as well. It had a short rejuvenation in the early 1970’s with a move to a more hip rock action genre with the Stray Cat series but by 1973 the company had switched over completely to their pink film content.

Schilling is a well-known expert on Japanese film with his current job reviewing films for the Japan Times, his programming involvement in the Udine Far East Film Festival and two previous books. He clearly shows affection for these films as well as an extensive knowledge of them and the actors and directors responsible for them. He first wrote this book as an accompaniment to a Nikkatsu Action Retrospective at Udine and has now expanded it for publication. The book is broken down into five sections – a history of Nikkatsu, the major actors, the major actresses, a few of the lesser billed actors and a few of the main directors. There are also a generous amount of color poster images strewn throughout the book. It is well written and easy to get through and to someone like me who knew absolutely nothing about this period very informative. As nice as this is, I would have appreciated it even more if Schilling had added three more sections for the uninformed – one with reviews of a number of his favorite films, another comparing Nikkatsu action films to the action films the other companies were producing – what made the Nikkatsu films unique - and thirdly a helpful listing of which of these films are currently available with English subtitles.

This third point of course points out the frustration of reading a book like this – as far as I know very few of these films are available with subtitles – a number of the Seijun Suzuki films certainly and a small smattering of some of the others such as Black Tight Killers. One positive though is that this may be changing. Currently some of the films that showed at the Udine Retro are slowly making their way around the United States thanks to the endeavors of Subway Cinema’s Marc Walkow and Nikkatsu is hoping to find a distributor in the states to take a package of these films. That would be delicious.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Review of My DNA Says I Love You - Taiwan

Director: Robin Lee

Coming from the female director of The Shoe Fairy this sophomore effort has to be seen as a step back and a bit of a disappointment. As a debut, The Shoe Fairy was remarkably original and creative with its fairy tale set in modern day Taiwan amidst a magical fanciful world of surreal colors and animated objects. My DNA is a much more conventional romantic comedy that never quite clicks on the romantic part of that formula. There are certainly some amusing moments primarily derived from an adorable performance from Terri Kwan as a lovely single woman with more neurotic ticks than a group therapy meeting. Every scene she is in takes on an eccentric charm that is nearly irresistible (at least to guys as both me and my male friend were pretty much in love by the end of the film), but even this doesn’t save the film from an overall sitcom feel. At the end it goes badly off the tracks when it introduces some CGI mold creatures that take the film out of reality into a totally silly and at odds with the rest of the film detour.

Two friends Marlene (Yu Nan) and Gigi (Terri Kwan) work for a biotech firm that is trying to find drugs that can change your DNA to improve your looks and your behavior. Their biggest seller is an anti-fat pill that will attack your fat gene and keep you slim. Marlene is secretly taking the drug because she was once fat and has horrible nightmares of becoming that way again and so losing her boyfriend. Since he is away on business almost all the time one might wonder why she cares, but even an absent boyfriend is better than none. Gigi on the other hand goes through boyfriends like we do Kleenex with a cold. The reason being is that she has an obsession with cleanliness and finding even a few hairs in the shower or grunge in the kitchen will send her into hysterics and out the door. When she literally runs into an old boyfriend, she realizes that she cares for him but his casual attention to dust and food under the couch is driving her nuts. Luckily, the company has come up with a drug that will suppress her clean gene – but it turns out to have side effects that make her even nuttier. The basic point the director seems to be making in the film is that women too often feel the need to change who they are to find love – in this case to absurd lengths. In the end just be yourself and find a man who loves you like that. Fat chance.

My rating for this film: 6.0

Review of 881 - Singapore

Director: Royston Tan

This joyous colorful celebration of what is termed the “Getai” musical scene in Singapore comes at perhaps unexpected hands. In his previous two features – both numbered titles as well – “15” and “4:30”, Tan delved into the grim social fabric of Singapore that the authorities pretend doesn’t exist in the well-mannered and controlled nation state. Though both films did well on the film festival circuit, neither were commercial hits as they strayed far too much into artistic hopelessness. 881 is an entirely different animal as it explodes with music, sentiment, fantasy and raucous insult comedy. And it was a huge success at the box office. In Singapore (and other Chinese communities) during the seventh month of each year it commemorates the Hungry Ghosts who come to visit from the afterlife with offerings of food and entertainment. A constant series of stage shows (Getai) are held to appease the ghosts and the front row is left empty for them to sit in. The songs performed are Hokkien pop and the artists who practice all year for this month long festival rush from stage to stage often dressed in wonderfully campy outlandish outfits in hope that they can get a chance to sing. The most famous of these male singers was Chen Jin Lang, who had over 1,000 costumes and who passed away in 2006 at the age of forty-five. Tan was finishing off his script at the time and in part made the film a tribute to this singer by using his songs – lovely ballads of heartbreak and hope.

In the very first minute of the film the audience is introduced to Little Papaya (Mindee Ong) and Big Papaya (Yeo Yann Yann) by the narrator of the film (who we learn later is a mute) – two girls born into different circumstances and with a different ending awaiting them – but what they have in common is a desire to become Getai singers. They meet at a Chen Jin Lang concert and under the tutelage of the humorously coarse kindhearted Auntie Ling (Liu Ling Ling) they form a duo called the Papaya Sisters (the title 881 comes from the numbers sounding like papaya in Hokkien). Their enthusiasm though is far greater than their talent and so Auntie Ling turns to her twin sister the Getai Goddess (also played by Liu Ling Ling as a sort of a campy musical Asia the Invincible) to give them the magical power of Getai. She bestows it upon them but warns them that they can never fall in love with anything but Getai or bad tidings will come their way.

The two friends become more and more successful on the circuit with their marvelous costumes that constantly delight and the beautiful songs – but they begin to run into the nefarious Durian Sisters (played by MTV VJs May and Choy) who prefer English to Hokkien and techno up the songs. As they tangle with each other in order to make the next show, the Durian Sisters aren’t above a trip, a push or throwing metal stars ninja style at the Papaya Sisters. Finally a face off of musical numbers is called – the newspapers call it the Battle of the Fruity Sisters – and an extravaganza of songs is held to beat the other down – but Little Papaya is sick and getting sicker and in a crushing scene she only prays to just get through one more year of song.

This is simply a marvelously old fashioned film suffused with songs that break out on stage or off – some joyful, others tragic – with a caustic comic underpinning that constantly keeps the film on the go and constantly entertaining. By the end it is also surprisingly sad and moving.

My rating for this film: 8.0


Song 1:

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Goodbye to Busan

The fest is over and I am sitting in the Hong Kong airport waiting for a plane. This was my first trip to the Pusan International Film Festival and to Korea as well. I have to admit to coming away with more impressions of the festival than I do of the country. When you watch some 12 films over 4 days it doesn't really leave you much time to explore the surroundings. Next time I will definitely leave myself more of an opportunity to look around. Certainly everything was very positive - easy to get around - took the train back to Seoul to at least see a little of the countryside - everyone was very nice and I even ate a fair amount of the local food (and I admit that Korean is far from my favorite). Eating the food is a bit of a culinary experience. I went with a Korean friend to dinner and she spoke one sentence to the waitress and so I was a bit surprised when some 25 side dishes landed on our table. She must have just told her - bring everything - let's see what he will eat! I had no idea what any of these dishes were but most were actually pretty good and spicy. One other snap impression of Korea is that it is not a real bargain if you have US dollars - the dollar has fallen here like a wayward lady and people kind of look down on it now. Thank you George Bush.

I came away with a lot of impressions of the festival though - all of them good. Just the size of it is mind boggling for someone who helps put on a small festival every year. There are of course loads of films - but also many special events, seminars, parties, the film market, celebrations, celebrities and so forth. I heard that the festival hires some 200 people to make it work - some for the entire year and many others for a few months - and they work insane hours. My friend who was hired for two months worked an average of about 16 hours a day and would often have meetings at midnight. I think I will try and keep our festival nice and small! It all works like clockwork though and the hundreds of volunteers are everywhere to help you out - and some incredibly cute ones I have to say! On my last day I discovered the video room - where if you have a market pass you can sit in a booth and watch on dvd any film in the festival. If I had heard about this earlier I would have been stuck there like gum for the entire fest because there were still so many films I didn't get to see that I wanted to. I also met some really nice folks - the Variety reviewers Derek Elley and Russell Edwards, Mark Schilling who has a new book coming out on Nikkatsu action films that I got a copy of, Stephen Cremins from the Udine Festival and a bunch more - all of them very passionate about film and great to talk to.

Over the next whatever days I will endeavor to get up short reviews of all the films I watched over the last couple days - here are in theory the ones coming up - 881 (Singapore), Mukhsin (Malaysia), Funuke Show Some Love You Losers (Japan), Kamen Masked Rider: The Next (Japan), Asyl (Japan), Dai Nipponjai (Japan), Shadows in the Palace (Korea), My DNA Says I Love You (Taiwan) and Sukiyaki Western Django (Japan).

In the meantime, I wanted to fullfill two past promises:

A link to YTSL's magazine piece on the great Photo Shop Man in Hong Kong.

and some pictures I took of the Walk of Stars in Hong Kong with a few of those exciting hand prints!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Busan Continued

The festival is beginning to wind down and people are walking around with a glazed look of too many late nights on their faces. The parties have continued with three to four being given each night, but I pretty much hit the wall on those since it feels like all they do is shift the guests and food from one venue to another. The weather has brightened up considerably though and I had a chance to take a long romantic walk along the beach with myself! I also wandered the back streets of the area where the festival activity is going on – the Haeundae area – and found it charmingly littered with gobs of small bars and love motels. This felt more like the Busan that you often come across in Korean films where it seems to usually be depicted as a tough hard drinking city where getting smacked on the head is the norm. People have told me that the best lodging bargains in Korea are the love motels where you can get a nice room with internet, wide screen TV, room service, a DVD library and player all for about $60 a day. And the beds vibrate. What more could you want?

I have checked out another six films over the past two days and will get reviews up over the next few days – some good stuff for the most part. Here is the first one I saw.

Sky of Love

Director: Natsuki Imai
129 minutes

If pain collected in your body like fat cells do, I think much of it would have come from that first love in your life. When you watch a film like this one and you are past the age where boy bands mean very much all you can think to yourself is thank god I never have to go through that ever again. Yet there is a certain purity in that pain that is never the same no matter how many relationships you go through in life. First love is a subject that Japan takes seriously in their movies and they churn them out fairly regularly with a well tested formula of innocence and tragedy awaiting the viewer. These films are quite popular around Asia and I have noticed many of them showing up in theaters in Hong Kong and around Southeast Asia. First love hurts everywhere, but the Japanese seem to have gotten it down better than anyone.

Sky of Love hits you with a lethal combination of cuteness and tragedy that is hard not to fall victim to. I assume the audience around me at the Pusan Market was a fairly hardened jaded one, but sniffling was heard from every corner and everyone seemed to wait until the end credits were over so that they had time to compose themselves a little bit before facing the lights in the lobby. I told the TBS representative (producer of the film) that the film had everyone in tears and she says “I know, we should have had Kleenex available for people”.

It begins in the present like a lot of these films seem to with the female character Mika (Yui Aragaki) looking back and having an internal narration with herself along the lines of how much her life was affected by the love of one man. Steady yourself for a flashback – some seven years in this case back to the first year in high school. Mika is your typical film school girl – the adorable girl next door type with a dewy complexion, bright eyes and a smile that radiates. During summer break she begins getting calls on her cell phone from an unknown student who refuses to reveal his identity, but rather than this giving her the creeps and calling the cops she begins a summer full of conversations with him and sort of falls in love. When he finally comes forward she realizes he is Hiro (Haruma Miura), a blonde haired, earring wearing kid from the wrong side of the tracks – a thug as she tells her friends. But he wins her over with a water hose rainbow and the two fall in love. In truth he is a totally sweet kid and he tells her that he wishes he was the sky so that he could always watch over her. Well love never comes easy in these films and the young couple is hit with just about everything the screenwriters could think of other than alien possession. To some degree it is almost too contrived – I mean how much bad luck can you have – but for this kind of film more is better and the theater full of sniffles was the best indicator that it worked.

According to Variety the film is based on a cell phone novel of some 11 million readers. Now what on earth exactly is a cell phone book?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Busan - Day One of Viewing

It turned out that the sun only made a brief appearance yesterday – like one of the celebrities at the many parties thrown here who come for a minute of flashbulb exposure and then quickly disappear. The rains then returned for the remainder of the day and the city still lies uncomfortably sullen under a sky that looks like a dull secondhand gray suit. The view pictured here is from my hotel room – because of a friend I was lucky enough to end up at this place after first in my typical nonchalant manner picking a hotel off of the internet. I figured how big could Busan be and any hotel would do. It turns out that Busan stretches on forever and I somehow managed to pick a hotel so far away from the action that I felt like I needed to bring along my passport to get in to see a film. Also the fact that I had to wake up the night manager in what seemed to be a completely deserted hotel to check in made me wonder – “what do you want?”, “To check in”, “Here?”, “Yes”, “Tonight?”, Er… yes” - if I had made a wise decision. The minibar was stocked with a rusty can of nuts with water dripping down on it and the air conditioner seemed reluctant to work. Not exactly the end of the world, but it sure feels good being at this hotel.

The Busan Film Festival of course has a typical line-up of films, but what makes it a bit special in terms of festivals is what they call the market. During the last four days of the festival the buyers and sellers of films gather around and eye each other warily like praying mantises waiting for a moment of weakness. They do much of this very politely of course at the huge number of parties thrown every night that seem inordinately populated by middle aged men with young lovely women attached to them. People come to talk, stare and eat though not necessarily in that order as every party has a long line for the food as people rush to stock up on the free booze and eats. I am not too far behind though a little slow afoot. Of these people who are here for business, few of them actually bother with seeing any movies – nearly everyone I ask whether they have seen anything replies not yet but maybe later in the fest. Because of being involved in the New York Asian Film Festival I am fortunate enough to be able to get in to see the market screenings – shows open only those registered in the market – it is rather lovely being able to simply walk into any of the many films screening at a nine-screen multiplex here and take a comfy seat in a near empty theater. Yesterday I caught three of these with my Subway colleague Goran and we had a great time.

I promised I would give short reviews of what I see and here they are all lined up like pretty milk maids.

Crows – Episode 0

Director: Takashi Miike
138 minutes

Miike continues to make more films than I write reviews it seems – he has two of his films playing here at the fest and they couldn’t be more different – one a Japanese western and this film based on a popular Manga. It takes place in a boy’s high school called Suzuran where the graffiti is omnipresent and the teachers barely visible - these students are the worst of the worst – called crows. The only thing that counts here is surviving and getting to the top of the food chain. There are assorted gangs of boys who all want to be number one – to rule Suzuran – but that doesn’t come easy and as one student says near the end – “you can’t win here – all you do is fight and fight – and then you graduate”. But in the meantime, fighting is the only thing on the curriculum.

Leading the pack is Tamoe – a soft eyed gentle looking kid with the punch of a mule and a love for a good fight – and his crew and every challenge is met with a vicious kick or a hard elbow. Into this mix comes Genji, a transfer student with something to prove to his yakuza father – if he can tame Suzuran, he can inherit his father’s gang some day. With the help of a low ranking yakuza he begins to form alliances with other gangs in hopes of getting enough numbers to take on Tamoe. When he does the challenge is put forth and the rumble is on and hundreds break heads in the pouring rain.

Set a bit in a Manga world where every punch is thunderously loud and every character is either totally cool or off-beat strange, Miike has created an enormously entertaining piece of energetic filmmaking that crackles like punk rock but never takes itself seriously. Even with all the head banging going on, it is almost family fare as there are really no bad guys in this comic world, no one gets killed (though there are plenty of bruises and cuts) and by the end you like all the characters in the film who beneath their tough exterior are basically all softies at heart. Filmed with Miike’s usual flair and panache for visuals, it moves with a wonderful sleekness from scene to scene and rarely slows down. Certainly not Miike’s best, but one of his most fun films.


Director: Kenta Fukasuku
90 minutes

Kenta Fukasuku isn’t usually a name that brings happy thoughts to Asian film fans with his misbegotten sequel to Battle Royale and his cheesy (though admittedly somewhat entertaining) follow-up on the classic yo-yo girl action films of the 1980’s – Yo Yo Girl Cop. So one approaches his films with caution and a fast exit strategy – so both Goran and I were taken aback at how much we enjoyed this outing – we sat there just lapping up the lunacy on the screen. Mind you, this is total B genre film making – a women in peril film set out in the hinterlands of Japan – but there isn’t a wasted moment in the film as it grabs your B film sensibilities from the get go and never lets go.

Two young cuties are getting out of Tokyo for a while to regroup – Shiyori to recover from a broken heart and the seemingly airheaded Aiko to take a break from her many boyfriends. What could be better than a few days at one of Japan’s many hot springs to ease away the worries? Of course you may want to do a little more research the next time and not choose a hot spring where the entire village is full of limping men with really bad teeth who like to take an occasional leg from a nubile young woman as a sacrifice. See – they use to be loggers once upon a time and to stop their women folk from leaving when they went away to work they would cut off one of their legs in a ritualistic ceremony. Got to keep your women one-legged and pregnant for a happy home. So when these two show up from Tokyo, the inn keeper eyes their limbs with delight and reminds them to clean their legs carefully. And if that isn’t enough there is also a psychotic one-eyed female walking around with an arsenal of ever larger sharp scissors repeating “snip snip snip” to the girls and eying up Aiko like a pork chop.

Shiyori hears a cell phone ringing in her closet and upon answering it a frantic male voice screams at her to leave the place before they take her leg and suddenly the lights go off and the chase is on. Fortunately, the men at birth all have one of their ankle ligaments cut to keep them from leaving the village and so they are a little slow afoot as Shiyori tries to elude them and their axes. Aiko has her own problems with the crazy woman chasing after her with her scissors dressed in a pink Lolita outfit and a cute bow in her hair – the duel between them - one with a giant – and I mean giant pair of scissors and Aiko with a power saw is classic. Little Aiko turns out to be as tough as steel. For those discerning fans that can enjoy an insane fun romp such as this, I would definitely keep it on your radar after it is released in December.

Nami- The Actress (a.k.a. The Brutal Hopelessness of Love)

Director: Takeshi Ishii
115 minutes

There isn’t much to say about this latest straight to video production from Ishii who seems to jump around the exploitation genre with the occasional bit of serious fare (Freeze Me, Gonin) but more often with trashy and sometimes entertaining films like The Black Angel series, The Flower and Snake films and such. He gives a certain audience what they want – lots of nudity and perversion. Nudity is especially abundant in this film with actress Mai Kitajima displaying her high voltage charms in a series of lasciviously escalating encounters with men. There is a story of sorts surrounding all the flesh – a famous actress Nami is being interviewed about her films and her life and in flashbacks she lays her soul and body bare. It becomes obvious though that all is not what it seems as her film life and her real life seem to mesh and her grasp on reality is fragile at best. But in between her confessions, she manages to have sex a lot – in a number of costumes, positions and locations. It has its moments as Ishii can certainly use light effectively and Mai is an appealing actress, but at the end of the day it doesn’t amount to much and feels like one of Ishii’s less interesting forays into the world of female sexual psychology.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

In Busan

So I left Hong Kong yesterday to fly into Incheon Airport - about 40 miles outside of Seoul - and then bused it over to Gimpo Airport where I took a plane to Busan. Last night was mainly wet as a storm is apparently on its way and the Koreans are almost embarrassed by the rare bad weather this time of year. This morning though the sun is shining and I hope to see a few films if possible. First though I wanted to clear my table by the two films I saw in Hong Kong.

The Sun Also Rises

Directed by Jiang Wen
China, 2007
115 minutes

This latest offering from Jian Wen is a pure sensory cinematic experience with startling and imaginative imagery, a triumphal soundtrack from Joe Hisaishi, photogenic landscapes and crisp uncluttered cinematography. On these levels the film is like taking a luxurious bath and allowing it to simply wash over you. The film is less successful though in creating a narrative and characters that affect you on an emotional level. Part of the reason for this is the manner in which Jiang has chosen to present his story – in four distinct segments that differ in mood and look. They are connected to some degree but to what extent is never made completely clear and one is almost sure to come out of the theater wondering exactly what the ending signified. Another issue is that the characters never feel to be real flesh and blood but instead closer to symbols or metaphors for the tales he is telling as the segments seem to break down into the literary forms of a fairy tale, a morality play, a parable and myth.

The first three segments all take place in 1976 – the last year of the Cultural Revolution – but rather than presenting another dour film full of personal sacrifice and pain, Jiang’s film is full of whimsy, absurdity, humor and fantasy with the Cultural Revolution only appearing around the edges. The first segment takes place near the forest where a mother (Zhou Yun) and her eighteen year old son (Jaycee Chan looking from certain angles very much like his father Jackie) live by themselves. The story takes on the trimmings of a fairy tale with talking birds, stone huts built into the earth (with a picture of Linda Lin-dai on the hearth), lambs falling from trees, a missing father and motherly magical powers. The transition to the second segment is a thing of such perfection that you almost want the film to stop so that you can savor the moment – a song strummed on guitar starts up and the camera pans from the river to the player – a professor (Anthony Wong doing another great bit here) sitting on the steps smiling and singing and then the camera goes inside to six female bakers kneading dough and dancing to the song. After cutting himself, he meets a nurse who seems to be coming on to him. She is like a sex gun with a hair trigger ready to explode and Joan Chen now in her fifties burns a hole in the screen with her sexual posturing that nears parody.

In the third segment a character from the second played by Jiang Wen is sent out to the countryside for re-education purposes and it turns out that this is where the character played by Jaycee Chan lives and the story begins immediately where the first segment left off. This has a Lady Chatterly echo to it as the man begins to hunt every day with a pack of boys and his big gun leaving his lonely wife to fend for herself. The final segment goes back to 1958 and takes on a mystical tone with two women riding camels across the vast empty desert – they turn out to be the mother in the first segment and the wife in the third – both are looking for the men in their lives. But rather than tying the first three segments together into a neat little package, this final segment only adds to the elusive surrealistic nature of the film and the viewer is left perhaps perplexed and yet likely satiated with imagery and sounds that fill your head with ornate pleasure.

My rating for this film: 7.5

The Detective

Oxide Pang and his brother have of late churned out so many horror films that it comes as a bit of a surprise to see this very solid and atmospheric tale in which they follow all the basic rules of film noir. Tam (Aaron Kwok) is a low rent detective with a cluttered office, a fan that doesn’t work and a case load that wouldn’t fill a tea cup. He works the mean streets of Bangkok – in particular in Chinatown (which conveniently allows all the characters to speak Cantonese!) where everyone seems to have something to hide. Not too particular about what cases he takes as long as there is money on the table he accepts a job from a casual acquaintance named Lung (played by one of my favorites, Shing Fui-on who has been off the screen for the past couple of years after getting and beating cancer and it is a delight seeing him again).

Lung tells him that a woman is trying to kill him but he doesn’t know why or who she is and all he has is a photo of her. He then foams at the mouth bringing back lovely memories of him in Blue Jean Monster. Tam begins looking for her but soon realizes that something is amiss as every lead ends up with a dead body waiting for him and then it appears that he may be next on this list of corpses. He begins to tie the bodies together into a possible conspiracy but still hasn’t been able to locate the woman in the picture – how does she fit into this puzzle? Will he find out before he is dead?

The film primarily lives on the tense atmosphere that Pang creates - utilizing a soundtrack that would normally be associated with a horror film to keep the viewer constantly on edge and setting it often at night as Tam doggedly chases clues down dark ominous alleys and every seamy lonely hallway in Bangkok. In the end the plot never quite lives up to its potential and it comes in for a lazy soft landing as if Oxide and his co-writers just couldn’t come up with an ending that had any punch and so settled for squishy and sentimental instead. But it reeks lovingly of noir with all the usual suspects in place – the persistent detective who muddles through, the femme fatale ala Laura in a photo, the frantic car chase, the attempts on his life, a seduction scene (served up with gusto by Jo Koo), the dead bodies steadily piling up, the police buddy who gets him out of jams and the constant danger of the night. It only needed a cameo by Elisha Cook Jr. to be complete.

My rating for this film: 7.0