Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Another Happy New Year


Ah, the years fly by. Another year done and gone and I must admit to not being a better man for it. Just a year older. It was an interesting year to say the least, the best and the worst of times. Seeing Obama get elected still astonishes me even a few months after the election and I have to persuade myself at times that it really happened. Following the campaign totally consumed my time and emotions this year. As I traveled around from place to place the first thing I would do in a different hotel would be to check the air conditioner and then check to see if they had CNN on the TV. In a few hotels I got stuck having to watch Fox News which was always good for a laugh. Then of course the economy went south and so many of us were hurt in many ways. Fortunately, I was already unemployed! And not looking too hard.


I very much lost touch with what was going on in Asian films. Nothing very important happened from what I can gather. The various Asian forums are empty of much enthusiasm for anything new. The financial mess didn't help but even before that the film industries seemed to be catching their breath and holding back. The collapse of a few US distributors who focused on Asian films was the pop of another smaller bubble. Asian films for a while were being picked up like candy on Halloween for silly amounts and I never understood the economics of it. Apparently neither did the distributors. Asian films have come a long ways in popularity in the USA over the last 10 years but at the end of the day they still rest near the bottom of the viewing barrel - right above travelogues. Film people on both sides of the equation who think differently are just chasing after fool's gold.


My ambitions for the new year are slight. Stay solvent. Get back to Asia. I want to review more films as I have slacked off way too much in this regard but for the most part I want to review older films that are not being covered by a hundred other web sites out there. The fascination for new films and the hype that often surrounds them that some sites cater to has left me jaded because the films so rarely live up to the hype and those exciting breathless trailers. I'd rather dig into the past for a while.


I want to read a lot more. A friend recommended a biography of Neil Young called Shakey that I put on my Christmas list. Santa brought it to me. 738 pages. I can barely lift it. It's great so far but I am questioning whether I really need to know that much about Neil Young. I figure if someone wrote a biography about me it would run to around 5 pages. My love for Asian films would be covered in a paragraph. "In the mid-90's he walked by a HK film festival on 12th Street in New York City and he came to an abrupt halt after spotting a poster of The East is Red with a colorful messianic picture of Brigitte Lin spreading her arms outward. He went in to the theater and in a sense he never came out. Later he joined up with some fellows who wanted to put on Asian film festivals and he began to watch films from Korea, Japan, China, Thailand, Taiwan and anything else Asian. He liked those a lot too. Mainly because they were not afraid to draw their films outside the lines of conventional film making and film narrative. That and the beautiful actresses of course. His fascination began to wane a bit circa 2008 when many of the film companies began to draw within the lines in an attempt to sell their movies to Hollywood. The actresses are still beautiful, but there are no Brigitte Lin's out there."


Neil Young by the way is a rock and roll singer who has been around since the mid-60's and is still going strong today. Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and over 40 solo works. His quavering, plaintive voice has had a hold on me for decades. Except for the 80's where he really sucked. Sometimes acoustic, sometimes screeching electric he never fails to surprise you. Just to kill time I put together a top 5 albums and a top 10 songs:


Albums:

After the Gold Rush


Zuma


Everybody Knows This is Nowhere


Neil Young


Tonight's the Night

Songs:

Like a Hurricane (American Stars 'N Bars)


Sugar Mountain (only released on a Best of album Decade and in concert)


Cortez the Killer (Zuma)


See the Sky About to Rain (On the Beach)


Helpless (Deja Vu with Crosby Stills and Nash)


Cowgirl in the Sand (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere)


Broken Arrow (Buffalo Springfield Again)


Ohio (4 Way Street with CSN)


Living in War (Living in War)


I Believe in You (and pretty much every song in After the Gold Rush)

I want to get to Edinburgh but probably won't. My sudden desire stems from reading three of the Isabel Dalhousie novels by Alexander McCall Smith over my Christmas stay at my parents. I am not sure I really like these books that much as they parade themselves as mysteries but are really just about the philosophical musings of Isabel. But I really love the Edinburgh that the author describes. I was there years ago as one stop on my hitchhiking tour around the British Isles one summer and I recall being charmed even back then when few things charmed me much.


I need to get to Shanghai also just because I want to finally read the three mystery novels I have of the Inspector Chen series by Qiu Xiaolong. But I am holding off on them till I go - hopefully on a train from Hong Kong.

I had posted a comment on this blog about dropping out of the New York Asian Film Festival. Thirteen festivals and three million films felt like enough and it was time to move on. It just gives me more time to do the things that I want to do these days. Needless to say the festival will continue without me - stronger than ever I am sure and likely without as many of the sentimental films that I always fought for. It will give me many fewer opportunities to see and report on new films but as mentioned above that is fine with me.


Anyway enough about me. I wish all of you a great year and exciting times.

A few pictures:





Tien Niu





Vivian Chow - 1, 2, 3





Vivian Hsu - a little risque but I am just in the process of putting up everything I have left.





Wu Chien-lien





Yoyo Mung

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pictures and a Merry Christmas!


A Merry Christmas to one and all. It's cold back here in the good old USA and I hope I get some warm Asian weather in my stocking this year! Best wishes to everyone.






Sharon Yeung Pan Pan - 1, 2, 3






Saturday, December 20, 2008

Back to HK Actor Photos

I still have tons of these to get up so here are a few more.

Lily Chung

Liz Kong

Michelle Yeoh

Mona Fong

Nina Li

Pauline Chan - 1, 2

Pinky Cheung

Rain Lau

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ong Bak 2


Ong Bak 2
2008
Director: Tony Jaa
Thailand

After the well documented travails that accompanied the making of this film in which director/actor/action choreographer/producer Tony Jaa seemed to suffer a psychological and financial meltdown mid-production it finally hits the screens with a massive adrenaline driven jolt. This is manna for action junkies – continuous injections of eye opening ferocious poundings that will keep you hard and happy. Other than a throwaway cameo from Jaa’s good luck charm Mum Jokmok, there isn’t a light moment in the film – it is surly, mean and angry. Jaa appears to be discharging whatever inner demons he had with set pieces of brutal physical violence that never pauses for mercy. Yet the physical artistry on display is so breathtakingly astonishing and imaginative that the film never feels exploitive but instead almost becomes a beautiful hymn to the human form, its grace, its lack of fear, its agility and what it is capable of doing.

No doubt Jaa is trying to up the ante here from his two previous films – seemingly challenged to give the viewer even more of what they want and driving himself even harder. Watching this, it is no wonder that he had a mid-film mental pause and needed to refuel. He puts all his physical skills on screen with an astonishingly diverse display of martial arts from all over the world. He is almost rubbing it in, taunting all the other so-called martial art film actors with his ability to master so many forms. He leaves them in the dust. There is a plot here though it is minimal and very much in the tradition of hundreds of Shaw Brothers martial arts films. As a boy (seen through various flashbacks) Tien (Jaa) witnesses his father, a Lord, being betrayed and killed along with Tien’s mother. Tien escapes but is captured by a tribe of slave traders who are easily amused by tossing victims into a crocodile pit and betting on how long they survive. As Tien is fighting for his life, the traders are attacked by the Bandit King and run off. The Bandit King takes an immediate liking to the boy and tosses him a knife and tells him that if he kills the crocodile he lives. Hard love, but Tien is taken under the wing of the Bandit King and is trained in his village in myriad forms of styles of violence – from sword fighting, to wrestling, to muay thai to hopping from moving elephant to moving elephant where one slip would likely mean death. It is a global village of sorts and to paraphrase our new Secretary of State, it takes a village to teach you to kill in 100 different ways. Tien learns quickly.

Once he graduates, Tien decides it is time for some payback. First the slave traders (some drunken kung fu against that giant fellow who has an alarming resemblance to Richard “Jaws” Kiel and an assortment of others) and then on to the people who slaughtered his family. Revenge, pure and simple. It always works in these films. Keep it simple. And the action is a wonderful thing to witness – precise, fast, acrobatic (the fight on the elephant against Dan Chupong will raise the hairs on your arms) and always very vicious. The film smartly throws some great martial art talent against Jaa and his moves are often counterbalanced by his opponent in a dance like revelry of artists who love what they are putting on screen. All the villains are also eccentrically adorned in masks or head gear that simply make them very cool – again in that old fashioned Shaw Brothers manner.

The film only fails in the end – a shockingly sudden end just when you think you have many more broken bones to go – leaving one assuming that there will be a follow up but I have yet to see any such official announcement. It is interesting that Jaa decided to set this film in the past (1400’s if I recall) after his two successful contemporary films. I wonder whether this may hurt its international sales as it in no way resembles the opulence of the recent Chinese martial arts films but is placed in humid disheveled jungle with very little in the way of sets. But at the same time the period setting seems to have set Jaa free from polite constraints and civility – here it is all about exacting a pound of flesh in the most efficient brutal manner possible. If you appreciate this kind of action like I do you just want to curl up and purr as you bite your nails.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

More Pictures!

I hope to see Ong Bak 2 sometime this week but until then here are a few more photos of HK actors. I think I could probably write the review already - thin plot and great brutal action - just the way we like it!

Idy Chan - 1, 2

Irene Wan - 1, 2

Jade Leung

Jo Koo

Joey Wong - 1, 2

Karena Lam

Kelly Lam

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thursday, November 27, 2008

HK Photos Continue

Tons more to come.

Charlie Yeung

Chingmy Yau - 1, 2

Cynthia Khan

Diana Pang Dan - 1, 2

Do Do Cheng - 1, 2, 3

Ellen Chan - 1, 2

Monday, November 24, 2008

More Pictures from Hong Kong

The famous, the not so famous and the infamous.

Annie Wu

Brigitte Lin - 1, 2, 3

Carina Lau

Carrie Ng

Cecilia Cheung

Cecilia Yip - 1, 2

Saturday, November 22, 2008

OK - back to Asian film

Not that I have actually watched anything lately or even kept up with what is going on other than checking in on Grady's Kaiju Shakedown Blog. So I fall back on my old standby, photos. I realized I have about 1000 pictures that I long ago scanned and never got around to posting. So basically that is all I am going to do till I clean out the cupboards and hopefully by then I will be in the mood to start watching Asian films again! These are all pictures of older Hong Kong film actors that many of you may have long forgotten. Some of them were never very famous in the first place. But I liked them anyway.





















Anita Yuen - 1, 2

Thursday, November 06, 2008

OBAMA! OBAMA! OBAMA!

Now that the election is finally over I should have time to get back to watching Asian films again and occasionally update this very dormant blog. I have been really focused on this election for months - in reality I have been obsessed by it - and have spent much of every day watching CNN and have lived and died with every up and down movement in Obama's poll numbers. But he did it. We did it. I never thought I would see a black man elected President in my lifetime (and I hope I still have a ways to go) and am truly amazed and so proud that I did. The Boston Red Sox winning the World Series and now Obama - this has been a great century so far!

It feels like a very dark cloud has been lifted from our country and from the world. The past eight years have been a national disgrace and a national shame and I feared that our collective souls had been so withered that we might not rise to this occasion but we did and I feel great. I am not ashamed to say that I wept when the words "Obama is the President Elect" crossed the screen. It was a communal cathartic moment shared by millions around the globe. Maybe the world isn't a different place today but it sure feels that way. Go Obama!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

BKIFF


The Bangkok International Film Festival came to an all too sudden end on Tuesday. As usual I ended up seeing many fewer films than I had planned to. I just don't have the stamina any more to sit through multiple screenings. For one thing I like to digest a film for a while and let it work its way through me before I rush off to see another one. Instead of cramming all these films into a one-week schedule I would much prefer that it be stretched out over a longer period. Reportedly it did fairly well this year and I totally agree with the organizers that a film festival should primarily be about the films and though having celebrities adds to the publicity it's about the movies for most of us. Wise Kwai has loads of coverage of the festival plus a slew of reviews over on his blog. Not surprisingly, the link can be found in my link section! I only have one more film to cover.


Histeria
James Lee
Malaysia
2007

Though Lee was receiving much praise and film festival exposure for his Chinese language minimalist relationship dramas (Waiting for Love, Before We Fall in Love Again, Things We Do When We Fall in Love), these films were not exactly ringing up the cash register at the box office. So he has shifted gears - first with Breathing in Mud, a Malay family drama but even more so with Histeria, a very commercial and mainstream Malay language horror film that fits quite neatly into the Asian horror genre and is a quantum leap over any other Malay horror film I have come across (not all that many I admit!). There is nothing particularly new here - and in fact if not for the language difference it would be a nice addition to the Korean Girl's High School Horror series. Sometimes though simply setting the same story in a different country with its different traditions makes it intriguing and that was the case here for me.

As in the Korean horror series, the film is as interested in female high school cliques and group dynamics as it is in horror. Bonding and back stabbing come in equal parts and as the film progresses old tensions and cut throat schisms begin to appear in what had initially appeared to be a close-knit group of six friends. Studying and living at a prestigious girl's school, these six "friends" call themselves the Pink Ladies and generally consider themselves a cut above the others. They pull a prank by calling upon an evil spirit to come to them and then one of them pretends to have become possessed. This gets them detention for three days after all the other students have left for the holidays. The prank though rears its ugly head when it seems that they did in fact call an evil spirit back (kind of an Alien/Oily Maniac combo) and it is very angry. The girls are soon running and screaming for their lives when not be mutilated. It is all rather brainless fun and though I am sure for many the film is a sad step down for Lee, I'll take this any day over sitting through another one of his interminably opaque dramas.

Monday, September 29, 2008

BKIFF 2


Here are a few more short reviews of some films I have seen at the Bangkok International Film Festival.


Soi Cowboy
Director: Thomas Clay
2008
UK/Thailand

When this film made its surprise appearance at Cannes this year critics weighed in with mixed but intriguing reviews often alluding to the film’s apparent stylistic inspirations of Antonioni, Lynch and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Though I found the themes of the film interesting I thought its execution dull, its narrative lethargic but even worse its attitude smug. Soi Cowboy in Bangkok is what is politely referred to as an “Entertainment Complex”, but is in fact an ungainly group of go-go bars where Farangs (foreigners) go to ogle unclad Thai women swivel robotically around chromium poles. This is fantasy land for many foreigners where they can fool themselves into thinking that love comes at the end of a dollar bill. At a snail’s pace Director Clay details the relationship between a Farang who gives Jabba the Hutt a run for fitness and a small childlike pregnant Thai woman. Giving it a black and white documentary feel, it begins with the start of another typical day as the two wake up, eat breakfast, putter about and have nothing to say to each other. This couple has no common ground and two distinct agendas – his sex and companionship, hers security and money. This certainly strikes a note of truth as one does witness numerous pairings like this around Bangkok with seemingly little to say to one another. Yet Clay’s choice of actors – an enormously obese male and a tiny female who appear to be from different species felt smug, obvious and judgmental as did the general tenor of the film. It becomes near caricature as the camera revels at times in the Falang’s rolls of fatty tissue and his simpering clueless smile. At about the two-third’s mark the film takes a peculiar turn that simply makes no sense and feels like a contrived attempt to be arty, modernistic and “profound”. The couple visit temples in Ayutthaya and in a mystical moment they seem to evaporate or possibly change into another couple – from whence the film suddenly blossoms into color and moves into a parallel universe in which the actors play different characters in a Thai gangster drama. Up until this segue the film though rather monotonous with the camera often lingering interminably on nothing or painfully following for no reason an elderly woman walking down a hall with her walker still had at its core a sense of truth, reality and a rhythm that echoes the slow pace of living in Bangkok – but the final ludicrous section destroys all this in a flash.

For a much more positive look at this film, check out Wise Kwai’s review.

Those Three
Director: Naghi Nemati
2007
Iran

This Jack London like tale of survival in the frozen cold is in theory rather a tedious exercise of sameness and yet it managed to keep my eyes glued to the screen throughout. Three army recruits on exercise in the snowy west decide to desert and make for their hometowns. This is far from a sensible decision as they are in a cruel and unforgiving environment of blinding snow and freezing cold with no idea where to go. As they stubbornly trudge onward through deep rifts of snow, they attempt to reach civilization but find only more snow and a seed of hopelessness, doubt and fate creeps into their heads. The three men are inherently decent – loyal to one another and they slow down to assist a pregnant woman who has illegally crossed over the border. Only hints of their past are revealed but their character emerges in patches – Essi a bullnecked large man with little common sense but an overwhelming need to get home to his wife and children, Dariush the small bespectacled wise guy with black market cigarettes up every sleeve and Yousef the tough determined one who only came along to help his friend Essi. The majority of the film is simply them walking through the neverending snow with occasional conversations – but it is oddly compelling and poetic. Shot in what must have been incredibly tough conditions, the snow filled empty vistas are beautiful and frightening at the same time – dreamlike, harsh and eternal.

Days of Turquoise Sky
Director: Woo Ming-jin
2008
Malaysia

I was surprised when the director mentioned during the Q&A that this film had been made for television and had not been released theatrically. I thought it was a very assured work with a wonderfully lyrical, charming and laid back mood to it. A gentle coming of age film with more than a nostalgic feel to it (the director said it was quite autobiographical), it reminded me slightly in tenor to “Summer of 42”. Ali is a fifteen year old boy with a dead beat dad (Nam Ron who played the father in Breathing in Mud) and a weak left hook that he is constantly trying to improve. His best buddy is Hassan and the two of them mope around a lot or try to catch fish – Hassan with an attempted home made bomb that he learned how to make from MacGyver. When the new teacher Carol arrives – played by the stunning model Carmen Soo (who the director admitted he had a crush on in high school – she was a year younger) – Ali begins to take an interest in school but an even bigger interest in Carol’s boyfriend who turns out to be a total fraud. Meanwhile his dad is being courted by their spinster next door neighbor (played by Mislina Mustapha who was the mother in Breathing in Mud) and courted even more so by two debt collectors. Throw in a high school bully that Ali has to face down and a new school girl who eats Italian noodles at lunch time that Hassan falls for and you have a tender sweet tale of growing up in rural Malaysia.

12 Lotus
Director: Royston Tan
2008
Singapore

Let me just get to the punch line – I hated this film. So much so that I left the theater before Tan came on for the Q&A in concern that I might be tempted to say this. He has had an interesting directing career in Singapore – initially critically well received for his rough edged social commentaries (15, 4:30) on the lower social strata in Singapore that the government prefers to remain hidden. Then he surprisingly turned out the biggest commercial hit ever in Singapore with a musical story (881) about two singing sisters in the Getai entertainment world. Though this received mixed reviews, I very much liked this sentimental dramedy that felt very 1990ish Hong Kong to me. With 12 Lotus Tan returns to the world of the Getai musical but this time he is in a very milk curdling sour mood. It’s as if he combined his first few films with his last one to create a nasty hybrid that is relentingly downbeat. There is not a moment of humor, warmth or good will in this film – just abuse, rape, mental illness and tragedy. Lotus is the small daughter of a Getai musician and at the age of twelve he tells her that it is time for her to earn a living – she tells him that she wants to sing – and he beats her into being one – and once she (Mindee Ong) becomes successful he takes all of her money and gambles it away. But wait – love comes her way in the form of a handsome male singer – but wait – no – he is just setting her up to be gang raped by some men who pay him to deflower a virgin. After this trauma and his disappearing act, she cracks up and doesn’t leave her apartment for 20-years (now played by Liu Ling Ling) as she waits for her love to return. Don’t hold your breath waiting for redemption or a spark of happiness to come to this woman – just more misery comes her way. Other than the musical numbers (which I thought much weaker than in 881) this was torture to sit through and I noted many folks making their escape long before the credits came on. I only wish I had been one of them.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

BKIFF


The Bangkok International Film Festival has begun and runs from September 23rd to the 30th with about 65 features and 11 documentaries on display. The BKIFF has had more than its share of bumps in the road over the past few years in its goal of becoming one of the premier film festivals of Asia. Though buckets of money were poured into the budget it has never able to gain the respect of the festivals in Pusan, Hong Kong and Tokyo. For many industry professionals the BKIFF was looked on as one of the best boondoggles on the fest circuit with folks having their travel and hotel paid for by the fest and then they would happily jump down to Phuket after putting in a token appearance. These free spending ways came to a messy end last year amid a scandal that involved some shady dealings and million Baht bribes thrown around like candy on Halloween. The old cadre was thrown out (and some may face jail time) and a new group consisting of many folks who are real film people were brought in to run the festival. Though the budget is much smaller than in the past at around $900,000 it is still an enviable amount to many of us who help run film festivals. As a measure of comparison, the New York Film Festival showed some fifty films this year with a budget of just over $85,000. Note to any concerned parties – we are more than open to bribes coming our way but I can’t imagine for what in return.

A good chunk of this budget has been spent on two items of great value to filmgoers – tons of guest directors will be available for Q&A and the films actually have Thai subtitles! In the past Thai subtitles were not available and in truth the fest primarily became an event for ex-pat audiences and tourists. Having seen four films so far, I can see a much larger proportion of Thai’s in the audience than in the past. The NYAFF have had to create English subs on a few occasions and it is an arduous undertaking – so the effort that must have gone into subtitling all these films in multiple languages is truly mind-boggling.

Looking through the program it strikes me as a very eclectic one with a focus (as most film fests tend to do) on serious dramas and social commentaries – though it does have a Swedish vampire film and a German gay zombie film! The Asian focus is on films from Southeast Asia – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. China and Taiwan have a few as well but there is practically nothing from Japan, Korea or Hong Kong. Lately, I have become interested in films from these smaller Asian industries and so this suits me fine. The venues for the films are located in Central Mall that is likely a little larger than the town of Wasilia, Alaska and though as far as I know it hasn’t banned any books the festival did ban a documentary that dealt with child prostitution in Thailand. I have myself down for about fifteen films to see, but past experience has taught me that my eyes are generally bigger than my appetite. Here is what I have seen so far.

Breathing in Mud
Director: James Lee
Malaysia
2007

Breathing in the Mud is a curious turn for director James Lee who is known primarily for his opaque, slow moving (some would say tedious) relationship films that center entirely on Chinese living in Malaysia. Breathing is an intimate Malay family drama of infidelity and past bonds returning to complicate the present. Din is a reticent balding middle-aged man with a small taxi/driver instructor business and a mistress Liza (his secretary) on the side. He is married to Nina and has brought up two children with her, but when her first husband Meor and father of her son returns after a seven year absence it forces this family to face some hard questions – who does Nina really love, what rights does Meor have over the son and his wife from whom he had never been officially divorced. Meor and Din are childhood friends and Din only stepped in when Nina needed him financially. Din has to decide if this is the family he really wants or does he want to break this off and marry the charmingly cute Liza. There are no fireworks here – though a few low ranking gangsters get banged up a bit – just a slow mulling of what family means in the modern world.

Parking
Director: Mong-Hong Chung
Taiwan
2008

Showing in Cannes this year, this debut from Chung is a crackling good tale of one chaotic character building night in Taipei that jumps back and forth between black humor, pathos and everyman heroics. The director gathered some fine actors for this effort – Chang Chen, Jack Kao and Chapman To – and they are all terrific – as is the cinematography which is at times a little Wong Kar-wai like. An inability to conceive a baby has created a rift between Chen Mo (Chang Chen) and his wife and in an effort to reconcile he stops off to buy some cake for their dinner later that night. But when he leaves the shop he discovers that another car has double parked and has blocked him from leaving. An effort to find out who owns the car jumpstarts a series of encounters that brings him into contact with gangsters, pimps, prostitutes, one-armed barbers (Jack Kao), indebted tailors (Chapman To) and a little girl whose parents have died. In a sense though he really encounters himself – and discovers what he is made of during this small scale Odyssey of getting home to his waiting wife. This mood shifting film never lags and is constantly surprising and finally surprisingly poignant and in its way powerful.

Autumn (Sonbahar)
Director: Ozcan Alper
Turkey
2008

The very few Turkish films I have seen over the past few years are moody silent evocative pieces of cinema adorned with stunning cinematography and startlingly beautiful landscapes. Autumn certainly falls into this category and its melancholy weariness slowly works its way into your bones. University student Yusef (Onur Saylak) had been sentenced to jail for twelve years for his political activities – F-type prisoners – but is released after serving ten years because his lungs are shattered (though in true Turkish fashion he stubbornly refuses to stop smoking). The world has changed dramatically since his incarceration and his socialist political leanings are passé and his inspiration the Soviet Union has collapsed and taken up the capitalistic cudgel. He returns to his rural mountainous hometown near the Black Sea to live with his elderly mother in their small isolated stone house perched on the hillside of a mountain. It is late autumn with a stiff chill in the air and snow has already settled in the mountains above them. Yusef though is more ghost than human, unable to shake his past memories and is coming to terms with a life that seems to have come to nothing and has no future. A lost soul; a lost life. He finds solace in a Georgian prostitute in the nearby town – an ironic reminder of his lost ideals. She tells him “You went to jail for socialism. Are you crazy” to which he has no answer, only an empty look in his mournful eyes and a hollow cough. Haunting, beautiful and thoughtful, this film is another reason why I always seek out Turkish films in festivals.

The Shaft
Director: Zhang Chi
China
2008

This somewhat bland slice of life mining town tale feels too generic to have any real impact on the viewer. As detailed in so many Chinese films life in a mining town is dead end and depressing with few options. The director posits a family against this background and in three sections focuses on the daughter, the son and the father. Nothing overly dramatic really occurs – just the flow of life – the daughter is falsely accused of having an affair and leaves town, the son comes to terms with having to work in the mines and the father comes to terms with his retirement. In the final shot a bus is shown leaving town and as the camera pulls back it shows a road that is a near infinite series of twists and turns symbolizing I suppose the fact that life is never a straight line.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Bollywood - Girls with Guns


The dog days of summer has me in its grip, but fortunately not every one is as lazy as I am. Pete Y. (as he prefers to be credited) was kind enough to send me a terrific and unusual look at female action roles in the Indian Sub Continent. As he writes, this isn't a particularly popular genre in that film industry but there is still some of it out there for fans of this type of film. I have put it on my website and here is the link to it. I am soon off to Asia one more time, so this may be the last post for a while.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

More Hong Kong Movie Posters and Misc.


I haven’t watched any Asian films lately so here are ten more Hong Kong posters from that calendar I picked up. The thing that fascinates me about these posters from the 1950’s/1960’s is how it indicates just how varied Hong Kong film was back then. I have been of a mind set of late that films from that period and before (from any film industry) were just so much more interesting than what is coming out today.

Speaking of which – here is a head’s up to any New Yorkers that Film Forum has a month long series of French Noir Crime films going on. Both John Woo and Johnny To have mentioned how influenced they were by these films – in particular those from director Jean-Paul Melville and the series has four of his films – Bob Le Flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Cercle Rouge and Un Flic. Oddly, they don’t have Melville’s Le Samourai, but they probably felt it was overplayed. I recall seeing Bob Le Flambeur a number of years back and was just blown away by it. The only film in the series I have caught so far is Rififi (translated in the film to “rough and tumble” in a nightclub song). This is considered a milestone in French noir, but interestingly the director Jules Dassin was actually an American who had been forced out of the country during the McCarthy period when he was blacklisted and not allowed to work. He brought along his experience in American noir with Brute Force and Naked City and made one of the best heist films ever in Rififi. It was one of those films I had always meant to see but never had and was so glad I finally did.

I also finally dug into my pile of Ernst Lubitsch DVDs to watch. I decided to read his biography along with watching films and so it took me a while to get up to one of his films that I had a DVD of! Lubitsch was born in Berlin in 1892 and instead of joining his father in his tailoring business, he discovered a love for the theater. As an actor he appeared in numerous plays often in comedic roles. He eventually made the transition to film (which paid much more) first as an actor and then as a director in 1914. Because his father was of Russian birth, Lubitsch was fortunate enough not to be able to join the army during WWI and instead continued making films at home that were generally light comedies but also in some cases historical dramas.

The film I watched was I Don’t Want To Be a Man (1920) which already indicated his light touch and his interest in sexual politics that became much more refined over the years. The plot here made me think of Hong Kong’s He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (which weirdly I just noticed I compared to Lubitsch in my long ago review) with its cross-dressing romance – though my guess is Peter Chan never saw this film! In this one a young woman named Ossi finds the rules of behavior for her sex to be much too constricting and that her new Governor to be more of a disciplinarian than she can take. So she has a man’s suit made for her and goes out on the town dressed as a male. At a nightclub she runs into her Governor and the two get decidedly drunk – and begin trading heavy kisses. Later he realizes that his new friend is not only a woman but the girl he is supposed to look after. He says to her “And you allowed yourself to be kissed by me”, to which she replies “Well, didn’t you like the taste!” At which point they fall into an embrace and she declares that “I don’t want to be a man”. No mention of the peculiar fact that he thought he was kissing a man, but Germany was far ahead of the US at that point in portraying homosexuality in film. The author of Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise mentions another film made in 1919 titled Different from the Others that is about a gay man and the men he loves and loses.

Finally a few of you asked for me to put up some more pictures that my father took many years ago. We lived in Afghanistan from 1967 to 1971 and I have very fond memories of the place and the people. Two years after we left the King was overthrown in a coup and the country began its long descent into a hell that it is still stuck in. My father traveled around the country and took a lot of pictures of people and for me it’s very hard to look at them and not wonder what their fate was and whether they managed to stay alive in all the horrors that followed. Anyway, here are some 50 portraits of a people before they entered hell.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hong Kong Posters 3


This will do it for a while. I am off to visit family for a little bit. Ten more here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hong Kong Film Posters 2


Here are ten more from this calendar/book that I picked up at the HK Film Archives. I hope they do this every year!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hong Kong Movie Posters


It struck me that I have put up film posters from Japan, Thailand and Korea but not really from Hong Kong, my first and abiding love in Asian cinema. I also realized that I had picked up this amazing calendar from the HK Film Archives that has a poster for each day and a bit of information on each film. It's a real treasure and I hope it doesn't fall apart as I fear it will while being scanned! Anyway, here are 10 of them with more to come.


Also, over on the Subway Cinema Blog I put up a small review of a Thai film called Wonderful Town that has received all sorts of recognition on the film festival circuit. It may in truth be too slow to unfold for many but I loved its torpid pacing, exotic scenery and crisp cinematography. The final shot of two little girls playing in pink tutu's shot against a faraway blue sky was poetry and a little profound. You can find it here. While you are there you may want to read Grady's post on sharks further down. Why sharks? I really have no idea!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

NYAFF is Over!


It’s been a week since the NYAFF came to a close and I finally had the energy and ambition to pop my head into the sun today and see if the world was still there. In fact, I went over to the Japan Society for their final day of Japan Cuts and happily watched Sakuran and A Gentle Breeze in the Village. It was rather nice being able to just sit and watch a film without a worry on my mind. I enjoyed both films as well – Sakuran is mounds of colorful style that easily overcomes a fairly generic plot about a young girl sold to a Geisha house who swears to become the top of the hit parade. The colors just pop off the screen and the modernistic music is a pleasure to listen to. When I had heard way back that Anna Tsuchiya (Kamikaze Girls) had been cast as the spunky Geisha it sounded like an odd choice but the film isn’t really trying to be authentic – its pop sensibilities are very contemporary and she fits the role perfectly. I had seen Gentle Breeze on a screener before but I liked it even more on the big screen. As the title implies it is a gentle, lyrical and very affectionate look at life and friendships in tiny town Japan. Directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita of Linda, Linda, Linda fame he shows once again that he can find substance and understated emotion in a story in which the plot means much less than the mood and the characters who inhabit his world. Like Linda it is full of small scenes that don’t add up to much on their own but have a cumulative effect that leaves you happily misty eyed by the end.

So I should report that NYAFF 08 was a success for the most part – at least successful enough to likely ensure that there will be a NYAFF 09 unless we all come to our senses. Sometimes it feels like doing this for seven years is enough – but at the same time who else is going to bring these films to New York City? And it’s the only way I can think of to watch loads of near impossible to see Asian films for free! Really, all you Asian film fans out there should start your own festival if you want to see films – as long as you aren’t living in NYC! At the same time I am beginning to think that Asian film popularity in the US peaked a couple of years ago – I see it in our numbers, the lack of chatter on the Internet and the fact that a few Asian focused DVD distributors have gone belly up recently. Basically the only films we can guarantee to do well box office wise are Japanese films and Johnny To films – and Johnny doesn’t make enough films each year for us to fill up our schedule! If only. It almost killed me that my least liked film in the festival Dainipponjin sold out twice and the two King Naresuan films cried out for a bigger audience. I had my doubts that an American audience would come to see an epic six-hour Thai historical film, but I certainly thought NYC would have a lot more adventurous film goers than turned out. Kind of sad really because these are two of the best films I have seen in years and the people who came almost gave them all 9’s and 10’s on the ballot. On the other hand I hadn’t expected much of an audience for the quiet Love on Sunday films and I was right but it was really nice that more than a few people came up to me later in the fest and thanked me for bringing them to the festival.

I only had a chance to sit in and watch seven films – the King N. and Love on Sunday films just because I liked them so much – but I also finally saw three movies that I never got around to before – Mad Detective, Sparrow and Kala – and what do you know – my Subway comrades choose some good films without my help! Mad Detective is perhaps a bit outlandish but it is such pure To style that I fell in love with it and seeing Lau Ching-wan in a topnotch To film again made my toes tingle with joy. On the other hand I wasn’t as crazy about Sparrow as other folks who came out after the first screening raving about it. Perhaps that set my expectations too high – because though I liked it a lot I never quite bought into the mood that To was trying to set – it just felt a bit too frothy and forced to me – but it’s a film I really want to see again on DVD because in truth I am not sure I really understood everything that took place. I loved Kala – setting a film noir in Indonesia with supernatural touches was just classical to me on many levels. The locales, shadows and camera angles are right out of Maltese Falcon with a little Death Note thrown in. I’d love to see more films like this coming out of Indonesia.

By the way, this year we had our first Jury Award for Best Film and a few other awards that the jury came up with themselves. The jury consisted of five individuals who are either film critics, film authorities or film makers. This is what they decided on.

Winner - New York Asian Film Festival Grand Prize
SAD VACATION directed by Shinji Aoyama


Honorable Mention for Best Ensemble Cast
SPARROW
STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKES

Best Visual Achievement
Lee Myung-Se for M
Joko Anwar for KALA

Outstanding Achievement
Koji Wakamatsu for UNITED RED ARMY

Best Debut Feature
Ryo Nakajima for THIS WORLD OF OURS

We also had our usual Audience Award and it’s interesting to note how little intersection there is with the most popular films with the audience and those the jury picked. This year we are announcing the Top Five films out of the 43 films we showed. It was an extremely tight race with the winner just barely nudging out the 2nd and 3rd film.

1. Fine Totally Fine (my prediction in March when I saw this at HKIFF)
2. Always 2
3. King Naresuan 2
4. Public Enemy Returns
5. Sparrow

I should mention that we showed Always 1 as well just for those folks who missed it two years ago when it won our Audience Award. It wasn’t eligible this year but we accidentally gave out ballots and collected them – so out of curiosity I tallied them up – and guess what? It would have won again!

I don’t think I will be updating this Blog too much in the near future though you never know. I am pretty much Asian filmed-out and have been really wanting to watch some dozen Lubitsch films that I picked up recently. I watched To Be or Not to Be with Carole Lombard and thought why can’t Hollywood write smart witty sharp dialogue like that any more?

Thanks to all of you who showed up at NYAFF!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

NYAFF Update.


What a crazy week this has been! Frantic, rushed and totally chaotic but we finally put the schedule, the program, ticket sales and the program book to bed at 6.a.m. yesterday after a final flurry of changes, confirmations and write-ups. This has become a yearly tradition though – trek out to New Jersey and do an all-nighter to finalize the Program book. It is kind of fun – like a grown-up sleepover. As of my last blog post on the 30th I think we had 31 films in the fest and were looking for another 10 or so. Somehow we ended up at 43 films and 2 Korean short programs! Trying to cram them all into the schedule was a nightmare and unfortunately there are a number of films that don’t have great screening times – there just wasn’t room at the inn.

As I mentioned before we are doing these weekday matinee screenings for the first time and we know they will be a hard sell – I mean who isn’t working other than me? Hopefully, some folks will sneak out of work to attend - and in order to make it cheaper we are doing a Matinee Six Pack – buy six tickets for the price of four or even better we are offering a pass to all matinee shows for $99. That includes at last count about 19 different films. Not a bad deal. As long as you aren’t working!

So the films came in a tidal wave. We had lots of invites out but didn’t expect to get so many of them at the last minute and we find it hard to ever say no to a film we like. It got messy though – one film we were trying to get for weeks was finally approved by the distributor and then just a day before going to press they e-mailed us to let us know that – oops – the print will be in another fest at the same time and you can’t show it. Since it wasn’t a film I particularly liked I wasn’t much bothered but the other guys like it a lot (hint – it’s a HK film with a biblical sounding title). We also had an airline who led us to believe that they were going to sponsor the fest with some free tickets and at the last minute they said no. Sorry. Who are you guys? So we won’t have many guests this year I am afraid – the cost of airline tickets is insane.

So here in shorthand are some of these last films we added:

The Bodyguard 1 and 2 (Thailand) – these are just plain goofy action films that we have been trying to show for a while now – especially the first one going back three years but we never were able to. Magnolia has them now and they were kind enough to let us show them and to get us 35mm prints at their cost.

Action Boys – (Korea) – this was a great last minute find from Goran. It is a documentary that follows a number of stuntmen from going to stunt school to working on the sets of films like City of Violence and others. It is humorous, cruel and warm and a real tribute to these guys. I think a bunch of them are flying over on their own dime for the film and may perform a few of these stunts. This is a cool movie.

Arch Angels – (Japan) - major guilty pleasure of mine – school girl super heroines – need I say more?

Chanbara Beauty – (Japan) – another guilty pleasure (there are a few of these in the fest) - just check out the poster above to see why.

Dororo (Japan) – solid fantasy sword fighting film that is along the same lines as Shinobo.

Like a Dragon (Japan) – our second Miike film in the fest and we wanted another (Crows) that we couldn’t get. It’s basically one hot night in Shinjuko and everybody is irritable and after 10 billion yen in stolen money. Liked this a lot.

Love on Sunday 1 & 2 – Yay! – I really wanted to bring these over even though they are quiet films that may not get much of an audience – watched them again the other night to write up a small blurb and liked them just as much the second time. Last night I had this dream in which I was at an airport and got a call from the distributor saying we had to pull Love on Sunday from our fest - thus combining my fear of flying anxiety and my film fest anxiety into one shuddering puddle of sweat. I had to check this morning to see if the film was still on our schedule!

Sasori (Hong Kong) – didn’t see this but two of our members did and just grinned a lot when asked about it – I have no idea what to expect.

Shamo (Hong Kong) – I may be one of the few people to like this a lot – but I think it is just brutal fun.

X-Cross - man the trouble we went to get permission to show this film, but we all just like it a lot and would not take a No answer – two girls in peril in a town of cripples who want to sacrifice them and a Lolita goth psycho with a giant pair of scissors. It is nutty.

So clearly we went from a mildly serious fest to a total fanboy blow out in the last week! We just can’t help ourselves because behind the curtain that's what we are.

Someone in the comment section asked about Love on Sunday appearing on digital beta. There are actually a bunch that are this year but only because this was the only format that these films are available in for festivals. And most of them were shot in digital. The format of a film actually means a lot to us – there are two films (Mad Detective, Dororo) that we are showing in which the US distributor only had them on digibeta and we went to the original source to get 35mm prints at a fair amount of cost to us. Hopefully, the digital formats will look fine.

Go to our site to read about the films and hopefully buy a few tickets!
That’s all for now. I desperately need some sleep.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Odds and Ends


I have begun to realize that if I want to increase my readership to make the big money I need to post more often. I have set an ambitious goal of doubling my Blog traffic from five readers to ten by the end of the year and to do so I will post even when it is frivolous and mainly about me. When I went on a work hiatus some two years ago I fully expected that I would use all this extra time to really buckle down and do some in-depth writing for my site, but what I hadn’t taken into account was that in the past I wrote nearly all my reviews/biographies etc. while at work. Sorry JP Morgan. I had a great job. They sent my group all over the world to fix the profitability of our businesses - but it was the sort of job where we had to spend a lot of time waiting for data to come in. And so I filled that time with writing for my site. And going to the movies. But there was some structure around that and I now find myself with no discipline and find one excuse after another to put off writing and accessing my brain. It is so much easier to take a long walk in the park, watch the Boston Red Sox on TV or even read a book. But that is all going to change! Someday. But here are a couple updates anyway.

I just wanted to let anyone know who is interested that the Subway Cinema Blog has changed to a new location and a new format. As some of you may know we have weekly updates on what Asian films are playing in the NYC area. But we are hoping to go beyond this simple listing to include thoughts and essays on some of these films or whatever grabs our collective or individual attention Asian film wise. There are four of us who are planning to contribute on an occasional basis – me, the infamous Grady Hendrix from Kaiju Shakedown, Marc Walkow who knows more about Japanese films than anyone I know and who recently brought over the Nikkatsu action series and finally Goran T. who knows everything there is to know about the Korean film industry. How active we will be is a big question mark, but we hope to get millions of readers and make so much money from advertisers that Microsoft will buy us out. I just put up something on the Malaysian film Mukhsin which is now showing in NYC at MOMA. In truth, it is basically a lazy reworking of a review I did on the film after seeing it at Pusan. Subway was actually hoping to show all three films in the Orked Trilogy and the distributor seemed willing until they did a Judge Crater on us and disappeared. Now we know why. NYAFF or MOMA - not a tough decision! Anyway, the blog can be found at:

http://subwaycinemanews.com/

Don’t expect much right now, but it should get better. Or not.

And needless to say I have an update on NYAFF. May was a horrible month for us full of rejection and avoidance from the distributors and it created lots of angst. It was like dating again. We had been happily rolling along through April and then suddenly one film after another was denied us – and almost all for the same reason – Toronto. Everybody wants to take their film to Toronto and Toronto only shows North American premiers. I don’t get it – Toronto is a boring city in a boring country where people talk about nothing but the cold weather and the record snowfalls. And they expect you to feel sorry for them. Who wants to go to a film festival there? Apparently, everybody. And then all the distributors went to Cannes where they drank too much, got sun burnt and annoyed the French. What they didn’t do was to get back to us. But Cannes has ended and the clouds have rolled away and suddenly we have some more films in the program. Yay! Good ones too. Really.

Let’s begin with TOKYO GORE POLICE. This film takes crazy and bizarre to a totally new cream filled yummy level. For those with refined taste I seriously suggest that you stay far far away from this mayhem filled canvass of exploding heads and blood splattered disgusting violence. Because it would be way too much fun for you to take in at one sitting. You might give up Bergman films forever. Tokyo Gore Police falls into the same category as Machine Girl – they are such over the top splatter films that their purpose is not to freak you out but really to make you laugh in glee at the absurd extent to which the filmmakers will go just because they can. In Machine Girl, after a pacifist high school girl has her brother murdered and her arm severed by the Yakuza, she naturally attaches a machine gun to her stump and goes out seeking revenge. I mean who wouldn’t? I have read critics alluding to Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror in which the character played by Rose McGowan apparently does something similar with her leg – but needless to say we Brigitte Lin fans know that this same plot device was used for her in the 1984 film Pink Force Commando. I wonder whether there was an earlier film that did the same? But anyway, once Machine Girl has her weapon in place she becomes a viral killing machine – but heads aren’t just blown off – they are shot off layer by layer – the flesh, the skull, the mush until blood gushes out like a broken fire hydrant. Time after time after time - and oddly I never got tired of it. TGP is much more ambitious than Machine Girl – directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura who did the special effects for Machine Girl – it is laden with more in your face insanity than perhaps any movie ever. Starring Eihi Shiina, who was such a sweetie in Miike’s Audition, she plays Rucka, a cop who hunts down mutants – such as a gimp with razor blade sharp legs and my favorite character, a woman with an alligator vagina that does very bad things to men. This is a film you have to see to believe. The trailer is here. Proceed at your own peril.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zD59M5FYdI

A more normal sedate film that we finally got permission to show is Strawberry Shortcakes from Japan. I wrote about it a bit in my pervious post – it was named by a few folks over at the highly respected Midnight Eye as the best Japanese film of the year and it came in second in the reader’s poll. I don’t think I would go along with that but it is a compellingly harsh insight into the bleak single lives of four women in Tokyo that has some surprisingly explicit sex. The film is fortunately much better than the trailer!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Fexj7mZcH8

Looking at Midnight Eye made me want to pick my ten favorite films from Japan last year. Last year being very loosely defined as films I saw either last year or in preparation for our fest this year.

1. Memories of Matsuko - manages to be magical and to break your heart at the same time

2. Fine Totally Fine – a film about nothing much at all but it examines the small bits of our mundane lives with enormous humor and warmth.


3. Gachi Boy – a seemingly weak premise of a university student who wakes up each day with no memory of his life since an accident – but it works wonderfully well as it slowly moves its way from laughs to tears.


4. United Red Army – from the legendary director Wakamatsu about the rise and collapse of the leftist movement in Japan in the 1970’s. Absolutely fascinating and mesmerizing. Here is an interview from Midnight Eye with him.




5. Crows – from Miike as he dazzles with his usual kinetic flair. Basic brutal student warfare but Miike makes it a visual buffet treat.


6. X-Cross – this was so much fun I almost peed in my pants – two girls go on a quiet weekend in the country only too come across a town of psycho’s who very much want to sacrifice them. Ten minutes into the film it becomes a buzzsaw that never lets up.


7. Tokyo Gore Police – enough said already.


8. Funuke: Show Some Love You Losers – deadpan black comedy about a family that just hates each other and yet somehow sticks together to the end – the dead end.


9. Strawberry Shortcakes – how can a film with such a sweet title pack such a bitter punch?

There are just a bunch of films I’d like to throw into this final slot and I can’t make up my mind – many of them small relationship films that have enormous heart – Love on Sunday 1 & 2, Your Friends, This World of Ours, Sway, A Gentle Breeze in the Village, Adrift in Tokyo and Tokyo Tower. And this doesn’t even get to feel good films like Hula Girls, Always 2 or crazy fun films like Exte and Sukiyaki Western Django. Simply put – Japan rocks these days when it comes to movies. Sadly, nobody else really does.

And here is another film we just added and it’s not Japanese! It is Shadows in the Palace from Korea. I saw this at Pusan with Derek Elley from Variety and at the time he thought it was the best film he had seen in the festival. I pretty much agreed (though I was to see a few better films later on) though I had issues with the ending. It is a very unique film – directed by a female director – not a lot of those in Korea – with nearly all the characters being women who work inside the palace back in the olden days. When a servant turns up dead, the female coroner investigates a giant conspiracy and things get very dangerous and very gruesome. It shows to no one's surprise that women without men can be the most vicious creatures of all. I have come across some lackluster comments on the Internet but I thought this was a really solid film. Maybe my favorite Korean film in an admittedly not great year? The trailer is here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ri9Xhizt-ss


And more films are rushing in that I will get to early next week when we will finally put our program to bed. It hasn’t been easy this year for lots of reasons but I think in the end we have a pretty good line-up and a better mix than we usually do of the serious and the seriously psychotic. I wish we had a better mix of countries but a lot of that is out of our hands. I always respect what Udine does – no matter how bad a film year a country had they still show around ten of their movies – some quite honestly that I would never want to show and which I know would get miniscule audiences with us. They have the resources to do that – we don’t.

But what we are doing very quietly is significantly expanding the number of films we will be showing this year. It didn’t really start that way. Well, it did and it didn’t. After last year we decided to show films in two of the theaters at IFC – the big one and a smaller 120 seat one. That way we felt we could bring over a number of small good movies that would not attract a huge audience and show them in the smaller theater. There are always films we want to show that we know not a lot of people will come to – and we have to make a financial decision around it. There are only so many films we can afford to take a hit on or we will all be dipping into our 401K’s. You hate mixing film and commerce but there is no choice until some sugar daddy comes along some day. Every year we each go $10-15 thousand dollars in debt until we get our ticket sale revenue. It’s a scary feeling. One year I was out of pocket $25,000 and spent a lot of time nervously praying that people would come to the festival. Having the two theaters mysteriously fell through, but just a few weeks ago IFC came to us with a different financial structure that made it sensible for us to have as many screenings as we could squeeze in. So for the first time we will be having weekday afternoon screenings and to do so we are showing a lot of films and have been in a mad scramble this past week to find them. Whether anyone will actually come to these afternoon screenings is a big question mark for us.

I haven’t talked politics on this movie blog for a long while (thankfully I know) but I felt like doing so tonight. It hardly seems important any more to pile up on Bush. He is a beaten man whose legacy I believe will only get worse over time. But I want to take a second out to pat myself on the back for being such a political genius because no one else will. Back in December I was sitting around with my family – parents, brother and sister-in-law - having our usual after dinner discourse on the state of the world and the US election campaign when my brother asked me who I thought would win the Democratic and Republican nominations for President. After two minutes of thought and a swig of my coke, I replied Obama and McCain. Who would have thought? If only I had bet on them in Vegas I could stop working now. Wait – I have stopped working. Of course, Hillary is desperately doing her best to steal the nomination, but if that were to happen it would break the Democratic Party into pieces and be an enormously shameful act. Not that this will stop her from trying. For the general election I fear that in the end the American people will allow fear and racism to influence their decision and the country will vote for the cranky curmudgeon McCain who seems to get more and more confused about Iraq – but there is still a small part of me that is optimistic that we can rise above that – but then this is the country that voted for Bush. Twice.

The other bit of political news that makes me so very happy is the disclosures from Bush’s ex-Press Secretary regarding the lead up to the war. I was having arguments way back pre-war with a Republican pro-war colleague at the bank and I basically said exactly what McClellan wrote - that the WMD claims were phony, that the ties to Al-Qaida would prove to be a lie and that the real reason Bush was doing this was a strategic one to remake the middle east and to protect the oil supply. And that it would never work because the people in the White House had no clue about the culture of those countries and that you could never force our way of life on them. This back before we invaded and I know nothing – so when I hear people like McCain and Hillary making excuses that they trusted the President I want to throw something at them. And they want to argue that Obama lacks the experience to make good judgments? Good grief. So there. I am a genius in the wilderness of Asian movies.

And can I just say that the only people stupider than right wing nut case Michelle Malkin (who saw a terrorist plot in a Dunkin Donuts commercial!) are the people who watch or read her. Dunkin Donuts should be ashamed of themselves for giving in to blatant idiocy. I’ll be boycotting them for a long time to come. I am getting too fat anyway. But welcome to the world of McCarthyism when a foolish allegation is all you need to besmirch people with.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

New York Asian Film Festival Thoughts


After a month’s disappearing act, I thought it was time to write something up for this blog even if it was only to say that I don’t really have much to say! Since recently returning from a few months away in Asia I just haven’t had any time to write anything up – and besides that I have had the energy and motivation of low lying bacteria stuck in sludge. But here are some rambling random thoughts about some of the films we looked at for the New York Asian Film Festival this year. First, I need to say that it will be our greatest line-up ever – so buy lots of tickets. And that is completely objective!

Because of being away so much these past six months I wasn’t able to be as involved in the festival programming as in previous years and that alone should improve this year’s line-up considerably! But once I got back my colleagues did a Clockwork Orange on me by putting me in front of a television with my eyes propped open and forcing me to watch screeners until my eyes bled and I foamed at the mouth. I got occasional bathroom breaks but was allowed to only eat cold canned macaroni. That wasn’t the worst part though – the bad films were. I had to sit through films so inept and boring that I am sure my life force has diminished considerably. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you which films to avoid like a bad skin rash because there is sort of a silent agreement between film distributors and festival programmers not to go public with the criticism of their films. It’s just not considered good manners and of course it may come back to haunt you if they hear about it. But I will say that a lot of the stinkers were from Korea!

For those of us who were so excited to discover Korean cinema a few years back (Subway Cinema held one of the first festivals to solely focus on contemporary Korean films in 2001) it is hard to fathom how an industry has sunk into such a creative black hole so quickly. So many of the Korean films I have seen this year felt like a cookie cutter echo of some past good film. Bad scripts, unimaginative ideas, formulaic plots, pitiful melodrama and over acting make the films a chore to sit through. It’s as if their entire industry has lost its courage - but these things tend to go in cycles and I have no doubt that Korean films will come back with a bang within a few years. Still we have some good ones, saw but couldn't book some other solid ones and are still looking for more!

So let me make mention of some of the good films I have come across and not blogged about previously – some we may show in the festival but many we won’t be able to because life isn’t always fair. In fact, I just finished watching a low budget Japanese sci-fi genre film that was fun if not prime “A” meat. It is called The Chasing World directed by Issei Shibata. In it a large number of people with the surname Sato are mysteriously dying throughout Japan from freak accidents or unexplained suicides. Even though Sato is Tsubasa’s last name he has other worries on his mind – like getting away from some Yakuza who are chasing him all over Tokyo. Then just as he is about to get a pummeling he is suddenly transported to a parallel universe where the King of Japan is determined to kill all the Sato’s and wouldn’t you know it – if a person dies in one world, his double dies in the other. As if staying alive in one world isn’t enough to worry about. The King has his masked killers running down Sato’s all over and Tsubasa is soon running for his life – and that of his young sister’s – in both worlds.

For those who loved Always Sunset on Third Street, the chances are that you will like its sequel. Always 2 takes up right where the first one ended with the same lovable characters still living in the old neighborhood that is under the shadow of the newly built Tokyo Tower. The unkempt hack writer, Ryunosuke, is still in possession of the young boy, Junnosuke, and is pining for his love Hiromi, who is now working in a disreputable business to pay off her father’s loan. He thinks he can solve all of their problems by winning a book award with its sizable monetary prize and the whole neighborhood pitches in to help him. It hits all the same sweet sentimental notes as the first – beginning with a comic homage to Godzilla and ending up just where you want it to.

Japan had a good year with many charming or thoughtful films coming out of their mid-sized production companies. A perfect example of this is Adrift in Tokyo starring Joe Odagiri. It is one of those films that just slowly creeps up on you and wins you over with its straight-faced quirky charm. Odagiri plays a student slacker deeply in debt who has a tough looking collector constantly on his heels. One night though the collector offers him a deal seemingly too good to refuse – walk with him around Tokyo for a few days and he will pay off his debt. And that’s exactly what takes place as this disparate duo trek around the city talking, eating, bonding and meeting new people and old acquaintances. It is a sly comical rambling journey that gathers surprising poignancy as the end approaches. And playing in the background all the time are the jumbled streets and oddball denizens that make Tokyo so special.

As different from Adrift in Tokyo as one could imagine is the political and absorbing United Red Army. This is the sort of serious film that I would usually avoid if at all possible, but there was no getting out of this. And much to my surprise it turned out to be an absolutely fascinating examination of a highly controversial aspect of Japanese history – the rise and collapse of the radical leftist movement in Japan during the 1960’s and the 70’s. Directed by Wakamatsu Koji, legendary for his leftist politics and experimental pink films (Ecstasy of Angels, Go Go Second Time Virgin) he creates a sympathetic but very critical record of the radical movement through a mix of documentary and recreated scenes that takes them from their idealistic beginnings to their violent self-destructive finale. When the members begin to eat their own through self-criticism and group torture, it was all I could do to keep breathing. Just an amazing piece of work – and around three hours as well. So you get your money's worth!

Thinking about United Red Army made me realize that our festival this year has an unusual mix for us of commercial, cult and serious films. We tend to perhaps go over board for cult like films filled with aliens, zombies, exploding heads, severed arms, schoolgirls in short skirts and running kicks – now I am sure that we will still have some of that but we have also included fare like URA, another highly controversial Japanese documentary called Yasukuni (about the politics surrounding the shrine) that was practically not allowed to be shown in Japan for fear of the anger it would create, the two historical epic Thai films, King Naresuan I and II (I am so excited about getting these two!) and a small Japanese film called This World of Ours made by a twenty-three year old director for around $25,000. If this continues people might worry that we are growing up!

The disaffected youth film is practically a genre in Japan though they come in various forms from the absurdly comic (Cromartie High School) to bleak nihilism (Blue Spring). Along with the many dysfunctional family films (Hanging Gardens, Antenna, Visitor Q), one has to wonder what is going on with the family unit in Japan. This World of Ours leans towards the nihilistic corner of this genre but feels surprisingly fresh and edgy as it tracks the disintegrating lives of three teenagers over the course of a few days. It packs a big punch for such a small package and has won all sorts of awards.

By now it might sound like most of the good films came from Japan since our last festival and I’d have to say there is some truth to that – or perhaps it is better to say that they at least appealed to us more with their unique plots and looser structure. The Japanese mid-sized production companies seem willing to take chances and also are able to live on the proceeds of their lucrative video business. Korea on the other hand has no such profitable video/dvd ancillary business and so films need to survive on box office and international sales. This makes it extremely difficult for mid-range films to make any money and makes the companies very unwilling to take chances on anything but proven mainstream formulas - i.e. romantic comedies and gangster films. Hong Kong had some good films but they almost always seem to somehow be associated with Johnny To! Without him one has to wonder where Hong Kong film would be these days. China – well China is still something of a black hole for us – they apparently make over 200 films a year but I have no idea what happens to most of them. The ones that get into film festivals tend to be bleak social affairs that make you feel good for having stayed awake throughout. With the new censorship laws passed regarding subject matter – no explicit sex, no fear provoking elements, no nudity, no prostitution, no horror, no supernatural, no violence, no distortion of Chinese history and on and on - my guess is that Chinese films certainly aren’t going to get much more entertaining for some years!

So here are just a couple other Japanese films I want to make quick mention of though the chances of them showing up in the festival are small (but you never know!). Strawberry Shortcakes received some raves on Midnight Eye and it definitely lived up to those words of praise. I mistakenly went in thinking the film was going to be another female pop bonding story (which I love by the way), but I had to make a quick adjustment. It cuts sharply into the lives of four young single women in Tokyo and leaves their lonely rather sad lives open and raw. It wasn’t what I was expecting but it left its mark on me. A Gentle Breeze in the Village is a very different affair. From the director of Linda, Linda Linda, it is a whimsical, charming sleepy-eyed tale of a few children in a small rural village that seems on the edge of extinction. It is full of lyrical old fashioned amusing moments that may not in truth form much of a plot – but that’s not really the point here – it is about creating a mood and a loving sense of the everyday. We won’t be showing this but our friends at Japan Society will be including it in their Japan Cuts program that immediately follows our festival. Catch it if you can.

And finally here are three recent films from one of my favorite directors, Ryuichi Hiroki. For reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on, his films strike a visceral emotional chord in me. They deal with relationships, intimacy and friendship in a very natural though often painful manner – his characters always feel like real people in the midst of real life and as a viewer I find it very hard to distance myself from them. There is very little overt drama in his films and often the narratives are almost circular in nature – but beneath the surface there is so much going on with his characters that is more often shown in expressions rather than words. Hiroki revels in the still quiet sad moments. His films tend to not be very commercial as they either corrosively dissect human frailty (Vibrator, It’s Only Talk, M, Amant L) or gently probe youthful relationships (Girlfriend and these three films - Love on Sunday, Love on Sunday 2 and Your Friends). Hiroki made the Love on Sunday films as part of a series of films called “Break Through Films” sponsored by a satellite channel. The first one is teenage torment as a girl wants to tell her long time male friend that she loves him before she moves away the next day – but is unable to and watches him come on to another girl. The second film is sadder and deeper as it traverses around the edges of melodrama but never dives in. A young woman discovers that she has cancer and only has a few months to live – and so decides to visit the town where she grew up and to look up her first crush. It is underplayed to painful perfection as her illness only lurks in the background as she grapples with her feelings and her fate. Your Friends is quiet detached catharsis. It poignantly reflects on friendship and memories. Emi and Yuke become friends when they are children – one has a bum leg, the other a bum kidney – because as one explains they both walked at the same slow pace. In flashbacks, their friendship is traced over a period of five years and beyond and Hiroki is able with minimal strokes to pull us from a distance (literally and figuratively) into their circle of friendship and make us deeply care about them. It never panders to the audience but manages to be very touching and make you think about the friends that made up your life as you grew up.

So that’s it for now. We have a solid portion of our program in place but like the Marines we are always looking for a few more good films.
In case you haven't seen any of the PR yet - here are some of the other films we will be showing.
Accuracy of Death from Japan and starring a HK favorite, Takeshi Kaneshiro.
L: Change the World - the sequel to the Death Note films
Assembly - a big epic powerful Chinese war film and what happens afterwards
Sukiyaki Western Django - Miike at his Spaghetti Western weirdest
Mad Detective - yay - Lau Ching-wan back with Johnny To!
Dainipponjin - the sad state of super heroes in Japan
M - from our favorite Korean director, Lee Myung-se - Nowhere to Hide is still a fave of mine
The Rebel - kick ass action from Vietnam as they fight the imperialistic French swine.
Kala - noir from Indonesia - who would have thought? Cool film.
Fine, Total, Fine - my favorite film that I saw at the HKIFF - as funny as funny can be
Sparrow - more Johnny To - honestly I haven't even seen this yet! But it has to be good!
The Butcher - ditto - was in Asia when Subway grabbed this indie Korean film - suppose to be quite bloody and disgusting!
Sad Vacation - geez - another smart serious film from Aoyama Shinji - is Subway Cinema going through a midlife crisis?
Dog in a Sidecar - from Japan but I haven't a clue what it is about! I have turned into a total slacker.
That's all for now but lots more coming. Hopefully. Or we will have a lot of dark nights at the festival!

Monday, April 14, 2008

New Kids in Town (HK, 1990)


Here is another film in the series From Beneath the Living Room Table – Obscure and Forgotten HK Films. There does in fact seem to be a DVD available for New Kids in Town out there, but it is somewhat suspect. It was put out by Eastern Heroes and double billed with the odd sleazy choice of Escape from Brothel – so my guess is that it is not entirely legitimate.

New Kids in Town (a.k.a. New Killers in Town)
Director: Lau Ga-yung
Year: 1990
Hong Kong
Duration: 85 minutes

Due to the presence of Moon Lee and Sophia Crawford this film has usually been thrown into the Girls with Guns bucket, but it is in fact much more a generic action film with lots of punches and kicks thrown by both genders. It has a solid cast of B-action players who made their living with films like this – the aforementioned Moon and Sophia plus Chin Siu-ho, Karel Wong and Eddie Mahler – not to mention the presence of a legend – Lau Kar Leung who also takes on the action choreography chores. The action is up to the good standards of these types of films though often they felt somewhat abbreviated. On the plus side - one of the action scenes is rather impressive for its location (on the steps of the often pictured St. Paul’s in Macau) and the final fight between Lau and Maher displays some of Lau’s vaunted pole fighting ability and it is a pleasure to watch the master at work.

It has an underlying theme that spilled into many Hong Kong films in the run up to the Handover in 1997 – an implied suggestion that Hong Kong was vastly superior to Mainland China – but also in this case more dangerous. Two martial art brothers come to Hong Kong to live with their uncle (Lau Kar Leung) and their cousin Siu Fung (Moon Lee). Shing (Chin Siu-ho) is the quiet serious sort while his brother Ho (Lee Ga-sing) wants to party and says “tell Cherie Chung I am coming”. They both love Hong Kong till the trouble begins. It doesn’t take long and is over of all things a roller skating contest.

Yeung (Karel Wong) is the right hand man to the boss played by Eddie Maher with other underlings being Sophia Crawford and Cheung Kwok-leung. Maher who I believe was of mixed Asian/Caucasian parentage must have gotten tired of always being called a half breed or something worse in his roles, but that is again what he is referred to a few times in this film. Anyway, Yeung has a roller skating protégé under his eye and between his sheets and he wants to fix things so that she will win the next contest. Her only competition is Mimi, good friend to Siu Fung and by extension friends also to Shing and Ho. In a fracas in a disco Mimi’s hand is intentionally hurt and so Siu Fung has to stand in for her at the contest and we know from one of her earlier films (Nocturnal Demon) that Moon is a hell of a roller skater. This turns out to be closer to roller derby than roller skating as both girls with hockey stick in hand go after one another with Siu Fung's opponent ending up badly injured (or perhaps dead?).

This really pisses off Yeung who had earlier set an elderly man in a wheelchair on fire just because he could and he declares all out war on Siu Fung and her friends. Don’t villains have better things to do like extortion, drug dealing and pimping? I guess it was the slow season and the film happily descends into a series of fights – and an impressive jump off one of those very high bridges in Macau – the Taipa Bridge perhaps? For all of this, Lau Kar Leung is conveniently off in Singapore visiting relatives but he gets back to find out that his daughter is being held captive by Maher and his gang. This does not please him. This was an enjoyable B action film that needed just a bit more Moon in motion to have pushed it higher. The film also puts Crawford to poor use only giving her a brief scuffle with Moon.

My rating for this film: 6.5

Monday, April 07, 2008

From Beneath the Living Room Table – Obscure and Forgotten HK Films


Physical space in New York City apartments is a scarce resource. Every square inch tends to be treasured, guarded and utilized. If you are a collector it can get a little bit crowded in there. Much to my surprise, I have somehow managed to gather large amounts of DVDs over the past few years and need to squash them as best as possible into my limited space. As the collection has grown other things have had to be dispensed with – books, furniture, glasses, pots and pans and so on. I now use all the cabinets and drawers in my kitchen to store DVD’s. Who needs to cook in NYC anyway? Beneath my living room table lays the remnants of a past age. Tapes. Remember those bulky items that had to be rewound? For you kids out there, once upon a time there was no Internet to download or order movies and no DVDs in which to complain about anamorphic layering whatever that is.

If you were an Asian film fan, finding tapes of heard about films was a treasure hunt as you scoured through all the video stores in Chinatown in hopes of getting a score. You were thrilled to find any tape of the film no matter what generation it was or what the screen ratio was. I used to have a sizable collection of those as well before most were replaced by DVDs, but I still have tapes of a hundred or so movies that have yet to make it to a digital format – often for good reason as they are probably really really bad films but I hope a few of them may be undiscovered pleasures. I’d like to free up this valuable real estate so I am in the process of converting them all to DVD’s and after doing so will try to write up reviews on some of them just for posterity sakes. Perhaps a few may be available on the gray market, but at least as far as I know there is no legitimate digital version of these films out there. I am going to refer to these films as From Beneath the Living Room Table – Obscure and Forgotten HK Films. Here is the first one – an old fashioned low budget “girls with guns” film. For some odd reason this genre has gotten the short shrift in terms of getting on to DVD – a number of classic ones have never made it. This would not be one of them.

Brave Young Girls
Director: Kam Bo
Hong Kong
Year: 1990
Length: 86 minutes

This 1990 “Girls with Guns” flick has some great talent onboard, but never utilizes them as well as it should have. From the mid-1980’s to the early 90’s low budget production companies were spitting out these types of films by the handful but the vast majority of them had extremely generic storylines that were in place simply to support the action set pieces. In truth “Girls with Guns” fans could generally care less about plot and not much more about characterization – and forget about sets or design – just find a warehouse and have a fight. Action is what mattered and this is what these types of films are judged on – how many fights and how good was the action choreography. This one falls into mid-range territory with a number of decent fights but they tend to be shorter than one would like and the camera placement is surprisingly weak often showing the punches and kicks missing their intended targets by a good margin.

Through different paths four women find themselves banding together to take down the bad guys. Hong (Margaret Lee Tin-long) is part of a brother/sister robbery duo who have sneaked in from China and need money to pay for their mother’s treatment. In an attempted robbery the brother is killed by the police and Hong goes on the run. Li (Jo Jo Ngan Lai-yue) has just returned from school and dear mom (Pak Yan) and pop (Gam Bui) want her to make some money by becoming a hostess. Due to their gambling problem they are deeply in hock to Cheng Gai (Shing Fui-on). Cheng Gai is a nasty piece of work who runs girls, lends money and deals in drugs. When the girls cross him he doesn’t hesitate to punch them in the face or force them to drink urine (which his men happily supply). Li also goes on the run where she crosses paths and helps Hong avoid capture by the cops. She stays with her grandfather (veteran actor Cheung Hei), but her parents track her down and drag her back to work at a club run by Cheng Gai and his girlfriend (Betty Chan Pooi-kei). Hong eventually also begins working for Cheng Gai as a chicken in a one-woman brothel. Another prostitute Jenny (Ha Chi-chun) is a tough cookie who helps Li escape from the clutches of a horny client one night.

Into this social drama comes a Japanese female cop who is working with the HK cops to bring down Cheng Gai and his boss Reng Ga (Leung Kar-yan). This cop of course is played by the great Yukari Oshima. She doesn’t show up till the 45-minute mark but does so with an immediate fight with Cheng Gai and his gang and besides the pleasure of watching Yukari and her great kicks, the viewer is given the opportunity to see her fight Shing Fui-on – I don’t recall too many films showing his kung fu skills – for good reason! Yukari later enlists the brave young girls to work undercover for her – but they are soon captured and tied up. Yukari shows up to save the day and has a solid though much too quick fight with Dan Mintz and then a better one with Leung Kar-yan.

There are a couple other smaller fights along the way – one that opens the film but has no women involved. In a pointless but much appreciated cameo Kara Hui Ying-hung shows up to kick lots of butt and then walks off never to be seen again! I wanted more Kara! It is a solid fight though. One poorly used action actress is Ha Chi-chun who was a terrific but little known player – one of her best known roles is as a Viet Cong in Eastern Condors – she has great skills but only gets to use them in a small fight near the end. The action choreography is from James Ha who also plays one of the thugs who gets beaten up a few times. It is decent though clearly quickly shot film and Yukari has a few real good moments of acrobatic flips and falls and her trademark kick over her head move. All in all not a bad addition to this genre but it could have been lots better.

My rating for this film: 6.0