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:

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.

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!

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:

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!