Friday, March 21, 2008

Hong Kong Viewings Continue

I am falling way behind on writing about what I have seen - mainly because I have no time really - so here is a little catch up before I forget what I have seen - but just short sweet reviews the way you like them.

Director: Tatsuya Ogishima
Year: 2008

Intriguing though not very high octave or high budget tale of a young man with the power of healing. It takes place in some nowheresville town in Japan where there seems little to do other than beat up on each other or eat avocado burgers at the Paradise Diner. Takeo (Hiroshi Tamaki) is a working class stiff with a predilection for violence and a hatred for his comatose father who beat him when he was a child. One day in the diner he spots a young innocent looking fellow named Asato (pop star Teppei Koike) use his telekinetic power to move the salt container. Takeo becomes friends with him and soon discovers that Asato can also heal injuries - but only by transferring them to his own body. Oddly, the town seems to be full of children constantly falling and getting cuts and bruised body parts and Asato begins taking them all onto his own. But he can also transfer these injuries to another person - and Takeo suggests his father is a prime candidate. Also, in the story is the waitress Shiho (my fave Chiaki Kuriyama) who wears a mask to cover a horrible scar over her mouth and Asato falls for her scar or no scar. But then Asato comes across a huge multi-car accident that may test even his God-like powers. Some interesting ideas in here - what are your limits for sacrifice - how much should you simply leave to fate - but there is a real lack of energy going on and the ending is almost too cheerful for its own good. And Chiaki wears a mask for much of the film!

Candy Rain
Director: Hung-I Chen
Year: 2008

Lesbianism has never looked so damn cute before. Sign me up. You may have heard of lipstick lesbianism, but this is more like Hello Kitty lesbianism - soft, fluffy and very sellable. Once this film begins making the rounds of the gay film festivals, I expect there will be a mass migration of lesbians to Taipei. Maybe Kawaii lesbianism? The film tells the stories of four lesbian couples and every one of them is so adorable you want to adopt them and pet them. No butch lesbians need apply. Filled with bright colors and a fabulous soundtrack of Chinese pop songs (Faye singing a few of them), the film is always visually attractive and easy on the eyes - but it doesn't have much punch to it or really have much to say other than lesbians are as sweet as candy - and have great sex. Maybe that's enough.

In the first story two girls come to Taipei and have a few relationship problems but their love (and great sex) keeps them together. In the second tale a nerdish lesbian sets up a blind date on the Internet and it turns out to be an older sophisticated (very hot) woman who is looking for love (and great sex). The third story (and the best by far) begins with loud moans - yes more great sex - between two women in love - but one of them has decided that she has to make her family happy by marrying - but promises her friend to come back to her in ten years. She doesn't make it even half that long before she has to return - remember the great sex. The final piece is a bit too cartoony for its own good - the character played by Karena Lam is a playgirl of sorts who whimsically goes from lover to lover leaving broken hearts behind and often getting beaten up for her troubles (all done in sweet comic style). Enjoyable for the visuals, its cuteness and an introduction to some young new actresses - but kind of lightweight. Happy to have seen it though.

Director: Brillante Mendoza
Year: 2007

I have been to Manila two times in my life - once on my own out of curiosity and once for work - I am never going back. It is a hellhole. It isn't just the poverty - you see that in many places but it is the sense of hopelessness that covers everything like thick dust. It is just a sad sad place that seems to have been left behind as much of the rest of Asia has rushed ahead over the past two decades. Slingshot is a journey into the darkest corners of this hell. This is rather a remarkable film as much for how it was made as for its content. Shot right in the middle of a Manila slum with a handheld camera often on the run, it explores this world with a group of criss-crossing characters who just try to get by every day in any way they can - scrimping for money, stealing, screwing, pleading - whatever gets them to the next day when they have to start all over again.

The film begins with a night raid by the cops and a scout runs ahead through the slum warning everyone that the cops are coming - in the dark deals are going down, illicit affairs are taking place, gays are screwing furtively in the alleyways, drugs being sniffed in the small cramped living spaces - it all comes spilling out as the cops roust everyone and collect them like garbage men. The next day everything is back to normal - the cops have been paid off by the politicians for expected votes. The camera frantically follows characters for the next few days and acts as a witness to it all. Ever present in the background are campaign posters from bright-eyed smiling politicians making false promises again and again and again. With very little plot and a host of different characters, this isn't so much a film as an indictment - but one that is riveting and tragic.

Fine, Totally Fine
Director: FUJITA Yosuke
Year: 2007

Simply hilarious. Sweet. Tender. Good natured. This may be the feel-good film of the year and it had me and the audience laughing constantly. I loved this film. And it ends perfectly with just the right amount of heart when a simple "arigato" says everything that has to be said and life is fine, totally fine. The plot is minimalistic - in fact there really isn't one to speak of - it is just a quirky take on life filled with a few lovable characters that just don't quite fit in - a little bit reminiscent of Taste of Tea. Teruo (the slightly portly and always bemused Yoshiyoshi Arakawa ) lives in a used bookstore with his father and is fascinated with horror and has a roomful of ghastly looking dolls and creatures - your typical horror geek. Though he takes it further with some fabulously funny pranks. He wants to build the ultimate Horror House - that will literally scare people to death. His friend and cohort in these pranks is Hisanobu (Yoshinori Okada), an amiable administrator in a hospital. Into their lives comes Akari (Yoshino Kimura) an accident prone very shy woman who can't seem to do anything right - but capture hearts. Not much happens - but the characters and the absurdities of life generate a sweet tasting never nasty mood filled with mirth and good feelings. See this if it ever comes your way.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Another Viewing in HK

After An Empress and the Warriors from the night before I needed a tonic to get my system moving again. So I decided to check out Shamo which is nearing the end of it's rather sordid theatrical run here in Hong Kong. The film has been kicking around for a while now looking for a release date like an alcoholic looking for one last drink on a lost weekend. This is never a good sign and sure enough upon entering theaters with it's head meekly bowed down it received a bruising critical beating much like the one the main character receives in the ring - or to prolong this comparison -the film was gang raped as was the character upon entering prison. Sounds appetizing so far, huh? One friend even told me that Shamo had almost turned her off Hong Kong films for good. So enter at your peril. As for me - to prove once and for all that my taste is questionable - I quite liked it.

The film leaks out of the same dark inner place that director Soi Cheang Pou-soi reached for in his previous film, the nihilistic Dog Bite Dog. Here he creates a savage manga inspired world where everyone is out for their pound of flesh and you can only get it by exploiting or being exploited - or to be more Zen like - either you are the punching bag or punching it. In some ways it reminds one of a leaner, smarter Story of Ricky - brutal but painstakingly stylish with eye-popping sets, lurid deep colors, Vogue moments of stillness, beautiful scornful women and lush cinematography. Pain and violence have rarely looked so chic. Based on a manga from Izo Hashimoto, it gnaws joyfully on its material.

Ryo (a taut Shawn Yue) is sent to juvenile prison for the little crime of knifing his parents to death while they ate breakfast and a picture of him in his school uniform covered in blood makes him infamous. He is welcomed to his new home with a beating, a group rape and an attempted suicide. His younger sister, Natsumi (Pei Pei) visits him in a pink fluffy Liberace outfit to tell him that he has ruined her life and she is leaving to become a prostitute. Even in prison he is considered a freak for his crime, but an older prisoner Kurokawa (Francis Ng being as great as ever) takes him under his wing and teaches him karate - life teaches him to become vicious - and he is soon crumbling his tormentors.

When he is released from prison he takes up a living as a gigolo and searches through every seamy red light district in Japan for his sister. He doesn't find her but he comes into contact with another prostitute, Megumi (a red hot Annie Liu) who wants a man who will look for three years for his sister - as she laments "no one ever looked for me". Getting nastier and more feral with each frame, Ryo decides that to have fame and money he needs to beat the champion of a type of Lethal Fighting and begins to train and work his way into the fight game. But don't expect your typical feel good underdog Rocky story - this is a slap happy monster who just wants more - but one senses that almost lost beneath his layers of anger, pain and psychosis is a speck of humanity and a will of iron that still makes you perversely root for him. And that perhaps somewhere down the road is some redemption for him and that's what makes the film more than just an exercise in pure glam-cool-violence style.

My rating for this film: 7.5

A Film Viewing in HK

I arrived in Hong Kong Monday evening for the HKIFF and within an hour I had checked into the Dorsett Hotel on Shanghai St. in Kowloon. I began to unpack my clothes when I realized that the room had no bureau, closet or shelves - just a bit of floor space for storage. Later that night when I laid down my feet were able to touch the wall opposite my bed and I knew I could officially call this my smallest hotel room ever. I long for the days when I used to stay at the Grand Hyatt where the bathroom was larger than my room at the Dorsett, but that was when I was a working lad - now the only cashflow coming my way is loose change I find on the street.

I had two options for my first night. A friend had been able to get me a ticket to a preview of the new Ching Siu-tung film - hopefully a return to the greatness of A Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman II - called An Empress and the Warriors. Another friend who is involved with the Asian Film Awards said he could get me a ticket to that and perhaps to the party afterwards. Tough call - the Awards last year were suppose to be the nearest thing to death without being shot in the head but it was still a chance to do some celebrity gawking - but I was here in Hong Kong to see movies and so went with An Empress. To my everlasting regret. My friend told me that Shu Qi was a presenter and was at the party. In a low cut gown. Looking really good. Maybe my last chance ever to drool at her feet.

As to the film . . . well the fact that the three main stars are Donny Yen, Kelly Chan and Leon Lai should have been a danger sign - perhaps the three most expressionless actors in Hong Kong - all in one movie - sometimes in the same scene - time basically implodes. They live up to their reputations - Donnie looks like he is suffering from constipation the whole time - desperately in search of a laxative - Leon is so bland he should be a white Republican (is there any other kind?) with one too many meals at the local country club - but Kelly to her credit works up two expressions in the film - one a Charlene Choi shy giggly imitation and the other a poker faced gaze that she must give to her maid when her blouses are wrinkled.

There is potential here that goes sadly by the wayside. The Yan Empire is being invaded by various kingdoms and after the King is killed in battle an internecine struggle brews between the nefarious nephew Wu Ba, the orphan bastard (as everyone calls him) General Muyong (Donnie Yen) and the daughter of the King, Yan Feier (Kelly). Muyong and Feier are allied on the side of good, but Wu Ba wants power at any cost. He hires a band of ninja types to assassinate Feier, but after she is hit with a poison dart she is saved by a hermit woodsman, Duan (Leon) - who has set up an elaborate three bedroom tree house deep in the woods where he tends to lambs, keeps bees for honey, discovers cures for illness, builds hot air balloons and is probably working on creating the Internet. It is his Shangri-la. He professes to be a man of peace who has forsaken war, but who has oddly boobytrapped the entire forest with deadly devices - perhaps just in case a hottie shows up one day being chased after by killers.

A romance blooms and a film dies - as it basically devolves into a glossy music video of embarrassing proportions. I turned to my friend and said "a song should break out right about now" and it does - a duet - then they get into the balloon and sail away into the sunset. But sadly they don't disappear forever. She has to come back for her people and a close-up. Picture Kelly looking stern and very cute in her armour. More women would wear armour if they looked that good. If the film had stayed with the basic premise it could have been a solid if far from inspiring addition to the wuxia genre - the action is well-done with feet firmly on the ground - a big battle scene is nicely staged - some smaller more intimate fights are fine - and a Donnie against about a thousand men fight is right out of a Chang Cheh film - but the forays into puppy love feel like they should be in another film - a very bad one.
Not to pile too heavily on Kelly, but the role is really one that should have been given to a younger actress - an actress who could have more realistically portrayed a young lady caught between blushing youth and the need to grow up quickly to save her people. Sadly, my friend and I tried to think of a current Hong Kong actress who would have been a better fit but couldn't really come up with one.
My rating for this film: 5.5

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Two More from Joy Sales/HKIFF

Here are two more VCDs from Fortune Star/Joy Sales. Both are early productions from Golden Harvest and are reasonably enjoyable action films. Below are two fast march reviews of the films.

A Man Called Tiger
Director: Lo Wei
Year: 1973

Lo Wei and Jimmy Wang Yu team up again with Golden Harvest for A Man Called Tiger. Lo Wei was becoming quite the jetsetter with The Tattooed Dragon (1973) taking place in Thailand, Slaughter in San Francisco (1974) being located in San Francisco (duh) and this one being set in Kyoto, Japan (though there is very little Japanese flavor on screen and much of the film could have been shot in Hong Kong). I have to backtrack on a comment I made for my review of The Tattooed Dragon in which I said these early Lo Wei films for Golden Harvest felt like a long ways from his work for the Shaw Brothers. A Man Called Tiger in fact could very easily be mistaken for a Shaw Brothers production – particularly mystery/espionage films like Interpol, Black Falcon or Madam Slender Plum. It has many of those contemporary setting Shaw calling cards – nightclubs, gangsters, easy women, musical numbers, gamblers, tight blue suits and a tight lipped protagonist.

In this case, the most tight lipped of actors – Jimmy Wang Yu who rarely cracks a smile in any of his films. He has always struck me as a Chinese Jean-Paul Belmondo without the Gallic charm or really charm of any sort – constantly sour, surly, grim and implacable and in nearly every film I have seen him in he is out for blood and he inevitably gets it – often by the bucket load. In this film he portrays Chin Fu who has come to Kyoto to find out who is responsible for the suicide of his father – supposedly due to losing all of his money gambling but Chin Fu knows his old man never gambled. He quickly mixes it up with the Shimizu gang when the chief enforcer (Han Ying Chieh – also doubling here as the action director) pushes around a young female singer Ayako (Okada Kawai) for “dues” owed to the gang. After smacking them around a few times he is invited by the gang boss to join them as his right hand man and Chin accepts as this gets him in on the inside.

He suspects that the people behind his father’s death are the Yamamoto gang – chief rivals to Shimizu and headed by the fish-eyed Yamamoto (Tein Feng). The film soon falls into a steady drumbeat of escalating fights and women falling for him – first his landlady, then Yamamoto’s girl (Maria Yi Yi – who had appeared in two Bruce Lee films but who married in 1974 and vanished from the jade screen) and a couple others who often make goo-goo eyes at him. It must be the blue suits. Near the end a big gambling powwow occurs with Lo Wei showing up with a giant cigar in one hand and a petite young babe in the other. Fast moving with a confusing amount of characters and missing fathers and a fight about every ten minutes makes this an enjoyable slick romp.

The VCD is widescreen, fairly clean picture, hard to read subs at times but overall not bad.

My rating for this film: 7.0

Devil’s Treasure
Director: Jeng Cheung-who (a.k.a. Jeong Chang Hwa and a few others)
Year: 1973

Part adventure film, part thriller, this Golden Harvest production slowly evolves into a much better film than initially anticipated as it ratchets up the tension and leaves the “so cool” factor behind. Directed by Korean born Jeng Cheung-woo who was responsible for such terrific action films as Broken Oath, The Skyhawk and King Boxer, there is a fair amount of action here with a few future stars, but purists might be annoyed to see dramatic actor O Chun Hung knock around Sammo Hung and Ing-Sik Whang (also Korean) – not only individually but even when they team up against him. Still, it’s always good to see Sammo early on in his career and not only does he have a fairly large role with a couple fights but was co-action choreographer as well. On the other hand, fans of Nora Miao may be disappointed to see her strictly in a non-action faithful wife and good mother role.

Wang Chun (O Chun Hung) establishes his tough guy credentials early on in the film when a gang of punks tries to coerce money out of him. He quickly knocks them about and sends them scuttling away on all fours – and then swims across the harbor to Hong Kong! Why? Just because he can. He is a professional diver and needs to pay off his dead father’s debts – so when two slimy characters in sunglasses and smirks show up and offer him what could well be a shady job he only hesitates for a minute before accepting it. They have him dive down to a Japanese ship sunk in WWII to find a box of gold bars and when they open it up all I could think was $1,000 an ounce! It made me feel greedy. Of course, now that the gang has the gold they want to get rid of Wang but he fully expects this and turns the tables on them – but just as he does a gang of four Japanese hoodlums show up to claim the gold and kill off everyone – Sammo and Whang being two of them - though behind his droopy moustache Sammo looks more like a used car salesman than a thug.

The resourceful Wang turns the tables on them as well and before he knows it he has all the gold and sets off for home and his waiting sweetheart, Yen Yen (Nora). Jump ahead six years and Wang has wisely left the country for some unnamed land – perhaps Canada or Australia – and married Yen Yen and procreated Shan Shan. Here he owns a vast farm and is a model citizen, but not so wisely he didn’t change his name and sure enough the Japanese gang shows up one day on his doorstep demanding the gold unless he wants to see his wife and daughter killed. This touches off a tense cross country chase as Wang and his family try to escape by car, on foot and by rail in a land that is totally barren of any other people. It makes for a decently entertaining brew of action and nerves though it at times is a bit frustrating when Wang constantly leaves various members of the gang alive when he has a chance to kill them. But then the movie would have been a lot shorter.

The VCD is widescreen. The interior and night scenes are almost impossible to see and there are a number of them. Probably 25% of the time the sub-titles are indecipherable.

My rating for this film: 6.5

Just as a note - I am off to HK to spend about a week at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. I have tickets for about 20 films and hopefully will get to at least most of them. I tend to get all movied out fairly quickly at festivals, but will do my best to see many of these. Most of my selections are not surprisingly Asian, but I have a few others as well. In my experience, internet access in HK is not as convenient as in most other places in Asia so I am not sure how often I will be able to report on the films. But if I can, I will.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Magic of Spell (Taiwan, 1986)

VCD release from Fortune Star/Joy Sales

Magic of Spell (or according to the print – Magic of Stell)
Directed by Chung Wu Ching
Year: 1986

Part kiddie kung fu film and part acid trip, Magic of Spell has gained a small cult status over the years even though no version was around with English sub-titles, but that has finally been remedied with this release from Joy Sales. Full of high voltage energy, bizarre fantasy, high flying stunts, cheesy special effects and dollops of silliness it is colorful fun for children and adults alike. It stars the diminutive dynamo Lin Hsiao Lan as Peach Boy – a period superhero of sorts based apparently on a Japanese folk tale called “Momotaro, The Peach Boy” (info from a Brian Camp review on IMDB). Because Lin only seems to have appeared in a handful of “B” Taiwanese films, she is one of the lesser known female action stars from this period, but for those who have seen her in films like Kung Fu Wonder Child, Magic Warriors or Heroic Fight she is certainly one of the most acrobatic and impressive to watch. Her athleticism is on full view here and as goofy as much of the action is in this film, the choreography and wire work is first class and always frantic.

The people in the small village where he lives love Peach Boy – he stays with his widowed mother (a nearly unrecognizable Cheng Pei-pei in old age makeup) and is a super hero do-gooder saving animals and drowning kids on a daily basis. On the other hand, a motley group of wizards and demons who simply call their organization Evil have it in for Peach Boy due to an earlier encounter that left many of them dead. The Elder of the group resembles a rotting tangerine and is in dire need of regeneration. The recipe for this is a thousand year old ginseng and that old standby, the blood of virgins. In this case the blood of prepubescent boys from the village that he needs to bathe in. There is perhaps something of a weird winking gay/pedophile subtext running through the film – one of the wizards minces about and worries about his well-coiffed hair and seemingly has forced sex with one of the good guys in the midst of a battle – and the ginseng is also a young boy that the Elder wants to devour. Even Peach Boy is something of a gender mystery – played by a female but one has to wonder if in fact the character is a girl pretending to be a boy after a bathing scene in which he is extremely reluctant to be seen by a man. In the end Peach Boy has to swallow a male to enhance his/her powers. Or maybe I am reading too much into all this!

After a few small action sequences, Peach Boy invades the hideout of the Evils – a cave of sorts – and a rather marvelous lengthy fight ensues. Peach Boy has been joined in his quest for vengeance by three friends – Dog Boy, Chicken Boy and Monkey Boy - all with fine martial arts abilities. Lots of bouncing off of walls, rock throwing, casting of spells, giant peach attacks, marathon kicks, sword fighting and so forth ensues for the entertainment of all. Though the good guys win to no one’s surprise, there are a few Bambi moments in the film that may sadden the hearts of the sentimental out there.

The VCD is quite decent for a VCD – good colors, widescreen and o.k. subtitles.

My rating for this film: 6.5

Here are some pictures of lobby cards for a Jade Leung flick – Green Hat

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Tattooed Dragon (Hong Kong, 1973)

Another release on VCD from Fortune Star/Joy Sales.

By 1973 both director Lo Wei and superstar Jimmy Wang Yu had moved away from the paternal embrace of the Shaw Brothers for other opportunities. By doing so they had also left behind the glossy Shaw look and their comparatively high budgets. This is fairly obvious in this very generic Golden Harvest kung fu production with little if any money spent on sets or costumes. It feels like light years from some of Wang Yu’s classic Shaw films such as The One-Armed Swordsman. Lo Wei by this time had been slotted into being a kung fu director – perhaps an awkward shift for him as his strength in the Shaw films had been fun sleek caper/spy films and costumed wuxia movies often starring Cheng Pei-pei. But his success with Bruce Lee and the sudden explosive popularity of kung fu films forced a number of directors to quickly take on this mantle. The low budget aspects of these films – putting actors into contemporary outdoor settings and letting them bash one another – also fit neatly into the cash strapped strategy of Golden Harvest in its start-up years.

For all the criticism Lo Wei has received over the years, the one thing that can’t be denied is that though his talents may be questioned he certainly seemed to recognize talent in others. Here he brings on two young actors who both went on to very successful careers. According to on-line filmographies this was the debut for Sylvia Chang who Lo Wei also used the next year in Slaughter in San Francisco. This Taiwanese actress soon broke loose of Lo Wei and began to shuttle back and forth between Hong Kong and Taiwanese productions. Sam Hui was still in the early stages of figuring out how to proceed with his career as Golden Harvest initially seemed intent on making him into a genial action comedy star with a bit of a bumpkin personality (here, Chinatown Capers, Back Alley Princess). Within a few short years of course he found his true comedic footing in the classic films with his two brothers, Michael and Ricky. In the early 1980’s both Sam and Sylvia found themselves working together again as two thirds of the equation in the Aces Go Places series.

This film begins with promise - a Leone like credit sequence overlaid with a Shaft type score and two quick fight sequences – before it slumps into a lengthy exposition that won’t make anyone’s pulse beat faster. Though not identified, the first fight sequence appears to take place among the splendid ruins of Ayuthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand. Here the Tattooed Dragon (Wang Yu) sets upon a gang of thieves who stole money from the Chinese Overseas Charity. The Tattooed Dragon named for a large tattoo on his back seems to be a kung fu Samaritan who goes around helping the downtrodden for no compensation – perhaps a trust baby. In the ensuing fight he is injured and makes his escape to a martial arts dojo. Here he is tracked down and again is injured and again runs away leaving the dojo members to fend for themselves – not exactly the stuff kung fu heroes are suppose to be made of.

This time he is taken in by Yang (Hui) a poor farmer who raises ducks and has a master plan to raise enough ducks to buy pigs and then raise enough pigs to buy cattle and then raise enough cattle to take over the world and marry his sweetheart Hsiang (Sylvia). She worries that by the time this plan works she will be an old maid. They tend to the Tattooed Dragon along with their friend Kun (Lee Kwan). When not tending to his ducks, Yang practices kickboxing. Coincidentally, the boss (James Tien) discovers that underneath the village where Yang lives are deposits of minerals and he develops an ingenious plan to take over the land. Knowing that Chinese men are all gambling addicts and will gamble until they lose everything, he installs a casino in town and sure enough all the men are lining up to play and forgetting their wives, children and work. Soon they are losing their land as well.
The Tattooed Dragon steps into this with both his gambling (he can tell what dice have been rolled through his acute hearing) and fighting skills and the final fight between him and the gang is actually fairly decent – though you can easily see that the stunt men slow down occasionally to allow Wang Yu the time to get into position for the next move. Tien gets extra credit for allowing himself to be set on fire and continuing to fight. Tien would go on to a solid career as the villain in many films to come. In the tradition of all townsfolk in movies, they stand around and allow the hero to do all the killing.

The VCD for this one had a reasonably clear clean picture – was widescreen – but the English subtitles were quite small and often blended in with the background.

Some lobby cards of the film that I picked up a while back in Hong Kong.

My rating for this film: 6.0