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

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Last of HKIFF

One thing I couldn’t help but notice while walking about Hong Kong and riding the MTR was the lack of celebrity advertising posted around the city. No smiling Gillian advising us to lose much needed weight, no gigantic Edison billboard in Tsimshatsui peering down imploring us to buy an expensive watch, no sign of skinny Cecelia anywhere. But not only are those three missing from action but they seem to have at least temporarily put a halt to celebrity hawking of products. It’s as if all the advertisers are waiting to see if any more shoes drop or pictures appear before committing to anyone. At least the idol pictured to the left will always be in fashion and if anyone is into Mao paraphernalia like I am there is a little street off of Hollywood that has loads of cool corny Mao stuff from his Little Red Book to Mao alarm clocks. I wonder if they wake you up with an exhortation to kill the bourgeoisie. I prefer my Mao glass coasters. I think the street is called Ladder Street (?) and if you look carefully you may also come across some old black and white pictures of Linda Lin Dai, Connie Chan and Ivy Ling Po. Old Communists must have a soft spot for them.

Here are thankfully my final three mini-reviews of what I saw at HKIFF. Honestly, I am as tired of writing about them as you are of reading them and I want to get on to some other films that I have brewing. So I’ll be as brief as a George Bush moment of truth.

Lawrence Lau (a.k.a Lawrence Ah Mon) is one of the very few maverick non-commercial directors in Hong Kong. In a film industry that sneers at pretensions, artistry and box office failures, the independent Lau has somehow managed to carve out a career over a twenty-year period though admittedly that has only totaled fourteen films – Wong Jing used to do that in a year. Very few of these have met any success at the box office and most have disappeared in a flash. After his 1995 film One and a Half quickly slid into obscurity it took him five years before he was able to make another – but he seems to have returned in 2000 with renewed energy and since then has done perhaps his best work – Spacked Out, Gimme Gimme, My Name is Fame, City Without Baseball and Besieged City. His films are often very local and don’t travel well – and his best films dig into the black unseen heart of Hong Kong exposing alienated teenage gangs or the seamy red light district. Using almost all non-professional actors Lau has directed three powerful films about growing up in a frighteningly unfriendly uncaring world – Gangs (1988), Spacked Out (2000) and Besieged City (2008). Gimme Gimme (2001) took a gentler look at Hong Kong teenagers. Besieged City was one of two films from Lau presented at HKIFF. City Without Baseball was the other. Here are quick clips on both.

If one tracks the trajectory of his disaffected youth films from Gangs to Spacked Out to Besieged City, it becomes clear that Lau has not grown soft or optimistic over the years. Besieged City is like Spacked Out on crack – a ferocious downbeat look at unwanted youth caught in the violent fissures of society. Unlike the girl oriented Spacked Out, the youths growing up in these ugly impersonal tenement projects don’t even have each other to depend on. This is a social cluster fuck – parents that only pay attention to you when they are smacking you, a school system that is a dangerous minefield and friends who turn on you like wild dogs if they have to. Deng has learned to stay invisible to survive school but this doesn’t help him when one afternoon outside school he is taken captive by a punk gang who tell him that his younger brother has killed someone and stolen a cache of drugs. They tell Deng that he had better find out where the drugs are or he will be killed. His soft spoken innocent young brother had left home a few years before after one too many slaps from dad and had joined a young co-ed street gang that spent their days sleeping, screwing, stealing and snorting anything that is in powder form. As Deng tracks down other members of the gang to question them, the story of his brother’s descent into hell and criminality is revealed but it also seems possible that his brother isn’t responsible for the murder. Deng hopes to get to the bottom of this mystery and save his brother and redeem himself before he becomes one more statistic. The film is a hard riveting punch to the gut – visceral and depressing without a light at the end of this black black tunnel.

My rating for this film: 7.5

City Without Baseball is a very different affair. Lau and his scriptwriter/producer Scud take a unique and curious look at baseball in Hong Kong. Unknown to just about everyone, Hong Kong has a baseball team that competes in international competitions such as the Asian Games and acquit themselves with some honor if not a great deal of success. Wanting to tell their story – one of noble perseverance in the face of anonymity – Scud and Lau build a story around them and in most cases actually use the real ballplayers to fill the roles of themselves. It is an interesting little oddball film that feels very undisciplined and unfocused jumping around from character to character with at times no discernable purpose – but to some degree that is the charm of the film. It centers for the most part on three characters – the new coach hired from Taiwan, the star pitcher and a rookie – and their love affairs off the field. In fact very little of the film actually takes place on the field until the end when it shows some clips of their real games at the Asian Games when they played teams like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (they have baseball teams too!). It never quite works as a whole but there are a number of rewarding scenes that are either amusing or slightly rueful. The film has received a certain amount of notoriety for its many nude scenes – but not as is the norm of women but of full frontal male nudity. So for those who complain that they don’t get to see enough male nudity, this one is for you. Some of it may seem reasonable – guys in the locker room – but two scenes of a guy running naked on a beach for absolutely no reason are honestly exploitation of another kind. Rumor has it that the male nudity was added because some buyers were interested in marketing the film to gay audiences. This may also explain a late rather clumsy gay subplot that is brought into the narrative.

My rating for this film: 6.0

And now for a drum roll – the final film from HKIFF.

Help Me Eros
Director: Lee Kang-sheng
Country: Taiwan
Year: 2007

In his introduction to the film, director Lee Kang-shen spoke of Beetle Nut Girls – a phenomenon that had until now escaped me. Apparently, in Taiwan there are these small stands dotted along the highways of the country in order to serve caffeinated delights to truckers on long hauls. These are all manned so to speak by women who due to fierce competition have over time become lovelier and began wearing less and less clothes. At least in the film, they often wear provocative outfits that play to men’s sexual fantasies such as that of a nurse or schoolgirl. Their entrance only enhances this image – a slide down a stripper’s pole and a cleavage display as they stick their head into the vehicle. So who wants to go on a road trip next summer with me?

Lee Kang-sheng is best known to art movie goers as the main actor in many of Tsai Ming-liang’s films and Tsai’s cinematic influence seems very apparent in this work. If one were to watch lots of the art films coming out of Taiwan, one would have to wonder if the entire country was in a state of deep funk. The films often ache with ennui, listlessness and unstated sorrow. This film certainly falls into this genre though there is a sly tongue in cheek humor constantly at play that makes it quite palatable and makes one wonder if Lee is almost poking fun at this type of film. The screen is awash in startling imagery that often delights, but it never quite adds up to much other than a visual feast. If Lee is trying to make some point here about the human condition, I confess to missing it. His mentor Tsai uses many of the same tools in his films, but they always leave you pondering life when you leave the theater. Honestly, I left mainly thinking about Beetle Nut Girls.

The film begins with some graphic imagery of a fish being sliced into pieces from tail to head but leaving the fish alive as its mouth and eyes move in spasmodic helpless motions. As the film progresses you realize that this is a symbol for the main character, Ah Jie (Lee Kang-sheng) whose soul is dead but he keeps going through the motions of being alive. Once quite wealthy, Ah Jie has lost all his money in the stock market, but still lives in his spacious repossessed apartment. Here he grows marijuana that he takes liberally on a daily basis. The apartment is above a few Beetlenut stands and he gets to know a few of the women – having an affair with one and a threesome with two others. Not even this though is able to shake him out of his complete surrender to life. A side story follows a large woman who works at a suicide phone center that Ah Jie often calls. Her life isn’t much better as she is married to a chef whose cooking has made her heavy and who doesn’t bother to hide his affair with a young male stud. She buys a tubful of eels that she finally crawls into and pleasures herself with. Everything here is shot with an artistic eye that satisfies on one level but seems near masturbation on another – the sex is strenuous, gorgeous and acrobatic shot in cool light, the design of the apartment is out of a magazine, the ladies out of a naughty Vogue layout – but it’s hard to see what the point of the film is other than giving us a visual buzz – but that it does in spades.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

One More from HKIFF

I am still trying to catch up with what I saw at HKIFF. I ended up seeing a lot fewer films than I had planned on due to issues with plane reservations, meeting up with friends, acute hunger and a day outing to Shek-O. In total I think I watched thirteen films – had tickets to twenty-one – and walked out of a couple of films at Filmart (sales market) that I guess it’s not fair to report on. The first three days in particular felt like a celluloid wasteland - I didn’t see anything very interesting at Filmart and only Slingshot at the festival. And as I mentioned earlier An Empress and the Warriors simply made me feel sad and nostalgic for when Hong Kong made thrilling wuxia films. So it came as a happy jolt when I watched Sorrows of the Forbidden City. It made everything else I had come upon feel trivial and slight by comparison. Of course, it was made in 1948.

Sorrows of the Forbidden City
Director: Zhu Shilin
Country: Hong Kong
Year: 1948

One of the most valuable aspects of the HKIFF is that every year they select a director from the past to pay homage to thus allowing film fans to see works that are simply impossible to see otherwise. This year they had a 29-film retrospective of the films of Zhu Shilin. Only four of them had English subtitles, but after seeing Sorrows I am kicking myself constantly for not having caught any more of this program.

Zhu began his filmmaking career at the end of the silent film period in the early 1930’s in what was then the center of Chinese film, Shanghai. From what I can gather most of his films were contemporary upper class dramas and comedies that explored relationships, marriage, the role of women, the division between old and new and people’s insecure footing in society. After WW II he was forced to move to Hong Kong where he took up reins again as a top director. He continued making films into the 1960’s – generally working for leftist film companies – and during his life he directed over eighty films of which two are listed among the Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures as announced by the HK Film Awards – Sorrows of the Forbidden City and Festival Moon (1953). During these years he worked with many of the top Chinese actresses – Ruan Lingyu, Zhou Xuan, Hsia Moon, Butterfly Wu, Li Lihua and Betty Lo Ti.

Sorrows of the Forbidden City is a powerful and tragic tale of the final years of the Qing dynasty in which the young Emperor Kuang-hsu is trying to push China into modernizing but is rebuffed at every turn by the Empress Dowager. It is absolutely gripping drama. Though all shot on sound stages, it takes on an epic nature in which one mistake after another sets China on its calamitous journey through the 20th century. The Emperor is nudged by his favorite concubine to grow a backbone and defy the Dowager, but he is simply paralyzed to act forcefully because of filial loyalty (though she was his aunt, she had appointed him as the Emperor at an age of four) – and he has to watch helplessly as foreigners encroach on his land and force the royal family to leave Beijing. The Emperor was to die mysteriously in 1908 at the age of 37 having become for all purposes a prisoner in his own palace and being unable to change the course of history. The Qing dynasty was to come to an end four years later after having ruled since 1644. The Dowager died shortly after Kuang-hsu in 1908.

This intimate portrayal of the imperial court with its historical implications is just great old-fashioned filmmaking with every scene having a purpose in either driving the narrative or developing characters. What I think really surprised me most about the film was just how good the acting was by the three main protagonists – the diffident Emperor, the tyrannical Dowager and the soft, principled concubine – they are all multi-faceted strong performances. In particular the concubine stands out – the actress was perhaps a tad too old to play a newly added concubine but her striking classical features are riveting. I was later to discover that the actress was Zhou Xuan, one of China’s legendary singers and actresses of the 30’s and 40’s. Her most famous role was in the 1937 Street Angel and she was to die in 1957 after having had her heart broken one too many times. Her life is the stuff of movies. Here is some information about her.

Some twenty years after the film was made it re-emerged into the news when it was picked out for strong criticism by Mao during the Cultural Revolution.

I expect there are legal reasons why the film prints that the HK Film Archives have aren’t put on to DVD but it is a shame that Zhu Shilin’s films aren’t easily available with English sub-titles. I did see one internet company selling a DVD for Sorrows but it didn’t seem to have subs.

This was my favorite film at the festival. And it’s sixty years old.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

More from HKIFF

Here are five more of the films I came across at HKIFF. The details are quickly fading from my memory so these are just chicken nugget reviews – barely filling with zero taste. Just don’t ask what went into them.

Just Do It
Directors: CHEN Yin-Jung, Michelle CHU, SHAO Yu-Hsia
Year: 2007

Not that I want to be cruel to this small innocuous film, but one has to wonder how it got invited to a prestigious film festival like the Hong Kong International Film Festival. I suppose a festival such as this feels obligated to support young Chinese directors, but I suspect that its theme of female empowerment drove a politically correct decision more than a film one. Three directors contribute short films about individual women in Taiwan.

The first one is a satiric look at women having to mold themselves to what men perceive as the ideal woman. Jolie’s parents try for years to have a child – using every sexual position one can do without physical harm – and once they are able to conceive they find they have a girl with superpowers on their hands. As Jolie grows up she realizes that her super strength scares off men and so attempts to become the perfect little woman by hiding her powers. I am not sure whether the second story was really a documentary or a mock one – but it follows a young woman who has just left her husband after a few years of marriage. Purportedly, the woman had been the film subject of this documentarian for years and so the film is able to crisscross the present with flashback moments of her past as she learns to stand up on her own again. The final piece is a woman in search of an orgasm. A young woman spends hours at the beach with her surfer boyfriend until he describes that catching a wave is like having an orgasm. From that point on she becomes hooked in hopes that she find that perfect wave and ride it to a climax. Men be damned, who needs them.

Director: WANG Jing
Year: 2007

This very authentic slice of life look at students in a small north China town is perhaps too slowly paced and overly long at 140 minutes, but it still manages to intriguingly pull the viewer into lives that are in truth fairly ordinary – showing that little dramas are all around us if we look for them. For a few weeks the film follows the lives of a handful of sixteen- year old students into the classroom and into their homes but primarily explores their interactions with one another. As we peek into their lives we see friendships begun and ended, school gangs formed and fought and romances yearned for and acted on. Surrounding the lives of these students is the crass outside world of grown-ups where the kids are witness to corruption, class status, economic blues and little hope. At the end of the film nothing very much has changed – no great dramas have unfolded – the students are just that much closer to being what and where their parents are. This is the début film from female Chinese director Wang Jing.

Open City
South Korea
Director: Lee Sang-gi
Year: 2008

This debut from director Lee Sang-gi begins promisingly as a sleek, fast moving policier, but like so many Korean films of late feels the need to excessively pile on the melodrama to such an extent that it brings the whole film down like a house of wet cards. I have to confess that I am finding myself more and more annoyed with the current crop of Korean films and their slavish addiction to absurd attempts to create overwrought tragedy (the cow incident in Le Grande Chef was pretty much the final straw). One mother isn’t enough for this film so at the end it has to throw another one on the bonfire of melodrama. There is enough tragedy in the final fifteen minutes of this film to fill a volume of Shakespeare but unfortunately none of it hits home. It only makes you roll your eyes in exasperation.

Cho Dae-young (Kim Myung-min) is a tough hard hitting cop that can tear a gang of toughs apart in five minutes without batting an eyelid. He very reluctantly joins the pickpocketing division – why reluctantly – well because his mother was a top pickpocket and spent much of her life in prison and when Cho’s sister discovered this she collapsed and became an epileptic. Now mom is out and has diabetes (often seen grasping for little cubes of sugar) but Cho will have nothing to do with her. A new girl is in town – Baek Jang-mi (the hotter than a burning house Son Ye-jin) – and she has formed a new gang of pickpockets but is looking for a territory to call her own. She once was an apprentice to Cho’s mother and helps her buy a restaurant. Cho and Baek come together like comets – he can’t keep his hands off her, she can’t keep her hands out of his pockets – and though he knows she is a master pickpocket he begins to fall for her. Other pickpocket gangs aren’t too happy with her intruding into their area and things get nasty – very nasty. But it is at this point where things begin to fall apart in the film as there is a rush to the end with one tragedy falling on top of another to ill effect. The film has some solid swift action scenes, a good dog-eyed performance from Kim and Son Ye-jin is a dazzling treat on the senses (though perhaps not exactly a convincing pickpocket), but the script needed someone to simply say enough is enough guys – this is getting stupid.

Wrestling with a Memory (a.k.a. Gachi Boy)
Director: KOIZUMI Norihiro
Year: 2008

Here is another audience feel good film that is hard to resist even though it has one plot turn that may make some of us groan with its familiarity. The film manages to rise above it though with surprising poignancy among the many laughs and silliness. Ryoichi shows up one day to join a “professional” wrestling team at Hokkaido University – but this isn’t your legitimate college wrestling – this is one strictly put on for show in which the students wear outlandish costumes and choreograph all the routines ahead of time. It is all about fun and entertainment and they perform at fairs and on the street. They accept the highly enthusiastic but extremely skinny Ryoichi (played by a Jim Varney look-alike, Ryuta Sato) because he is reputed to be one of the smartest kids in school having passed the lawyer bar exams even before graduating. Thus it is surprising to them that he can’t seem to remember the routines even though he writes everything down in a notebook and takes Polaroid’s of everything.

I didn’t see it coming but perhaps it should have been obvious – but it turns out that he suffers from the 50 First Date syndrome – he had an accident and wakes up every day having forgotten anything that happened since his mishap. He keeps the notebook and pictures at his bedside to let him know what has happened in his life since then and doesn’t let on to anyone what his true condition is. At this juncture in the film I have to admit that I nearly decided to make my way to the exit because I just saw an impending flood of teary melodrama coming my way – but the film handles it with great dexterity – keeping it generally quite amusing, but with some heartfelt rueful moments in which Ryoichi reflects on his life with dark sadness as he realizes he has no future, only a past to remember and cherish. There is no Adam Sandler showing up in his life. Sato impresses greatly as he takes his character and slowly gives him depth and great humanity.

He realizes that wrestling is somehow keeping him going – not that he remembers it but that he can feel the bruises that it causes. Then the villains show up – a couple punk arrogant chiseled body wrestlers in blond hair who decide to first put him up on a pedestal by allowing him to win some matches and then knock him off it by humiliating him in the ring. Not so fast, as he refuses to go down in a match that is brutal and exhilarating. Much of the film hits a lot of commercial and obvious marks – the goofy group of wrestlers, the father who can’t face his son anymore, the girl he has a crush on and his rejection – day after day after day - and his redemption at the end – but it is done with such a sweet nature that it just doesn’t matter – it works. Or to quote the Mark Schilling review in the Japan Times, “You’ll come out of the theater ready to put a headlock on life”.

Old Fish
Director: Gao Qunshu
Year: 2008

Nearing retirement an elderly long time cop is affectionately called “Old Fish” by everyone in town. He has a nagging wife and an underachieving son in the army that he worries about, but what he loves is his time away from them all ice fishing on the river near his city of Harbin. Recently, as the town has begun to develop it has discovered many land mines and bombs left behind by the Japanese and due to his experience in the war Old Fish is the man they turn to to defuse them. He does so in a matter of fact way – in one case simply putting the bomb on his bicycle basket and riding to the river and tossing it on the ice where it explodes.

Things take a dangerous turn though when someone begins leaving bombs in places that will kill people if they explode. Having no one trained in bomb disposal skills and the nearest one in another city, the police supervisor asks Old Fish if he can try. Not really feeling capable Old Fish initially refuses but when there is no other alternative and the timer bomb is set to explode in fifteen minutes he steps in to disable it. He feels great relief until another bomb shows up, and then another and another and he realizes that his luck will have to run out at some point. All of this plays out in a very understated manner with moments of nervous humor intertwined. Old Fish is in many ways a comical figure, but in truth a very heroic one. Though quite enjoyable, the film refuses to ratchet up the drama and tension in the way that we have come to expect – it very much stays at the same level throughout simply showing Old Fish doing what has to be done. There is also a taste of political convenience about the film where all the cops are gentle, friendly and honest (a point is made several times that they always pay shop owners what they may take from them to help dismantle the bombs) and all citizens are treated with respect. Clearly, this wasn’t set in Tibet.