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

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