Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some Film Reviews

Hey - the New York Asian Film Festival begins this Friday! That means panic is setting in with my festival friends. Will anybody come, will the prints arrive, will the guests be gigantic pains, will we lose our shirts and so on. Ah, not to have to worry any more. I won't be able to make it but I hope some of you can as it looks loaded with cool movies and cooler guests. All that you could want to know is at the Subway site.

Director: Zeze Takahisa

I suppose saying that the timing of this film was fortuitous would be the same as congratulating a fellow on having his wife die while the funeral home was having a 50% off sale. But certainly watching this film in Bangkok a few days after a number of new cases of H1N1 were reported here and while much of the world treads softly in hopes that the flu breakout has been put on hold gave it a certain timely edge. And as in the real flu breakout, this film shows that in this high flying borderless global traffic jam, there is no place so remote that it can’t affect the entire world. Coming from Japan is particularly pungent with much of the population hiding under surgical face masks with the news of the flu striking many schools. The film was actually released in January in Japan before this latest scare but is now apparently being picked up around the world due perhaps to its prescient nature. Produced by TBS and distributed by Toho, it was a box office hit.

In the small city of Izumino, a man checks into a hospital where the young doctor Matsuoka (Tsumabuki Satoshi) diagnoses his illness as the common flu. A few days later the patient is back with blood gushing out of his nose and through his eyes and after some violent convulsions he quickly dies (though not before spitting blood on a few others). This contagious disease begins to spread around the town and the hospital is soon inundated with patients. Initially, the authorities suspect that it is a derivative of avian flu but the bodies are quickly piling up and the known treatments are ineffective. WHO sends an expert to combat the crisis, Eiko (Dan Rei), who coincidentally has a star crossed romantic history with Matsuoka. Her mission is to isolate the virus, find out where it came from and learn how to kill it. But it spreads at a terrifying speed and soon millions are affected and the fabric of Japanese society begins to collapse. Japan is quarantined by the rest of the world which is problematic of course since the whole point of the film is that diseases like this spread too quickly to be contained easily.

The film has many of the same characteristics as many of the movie soap dramas that Japan revels in – flat shooting style, a cutie actor who looks like he just got out of high school, loads of tiny mini dramas and tragedies interspersed throughout, way too many scenes shot in the rain and an acting style that shouted out “TV drama”. Kind of like Bayside Shakedown set in a hospital. But as with many in this film genre, it is fairly effective in hitting some emotional moments and it surprises the viewer with some unexpected demises that do indeed hurt. After watching the film I tried holding my breath all the way home on the Skytrain. I didn’t quite make it, but fortunately I was wearing some very loose boxer shorts and was able to reach down and pull them up over my face for the remainder of the ride.

Viewed at the Lido Theater in lovely downtown Bangkok.

Rating: 6.5/10

A few days before seeing this film I went to watch Blood: The Last Vampire fully expecting to see a Japanese movie based on the trailer and poster. What the hell, everyone spoke English, the director was American, the lead actress was Korean, the location was Japan, most of the supporting cast was Japanese and it certainly has a strong Japanese fantasy anime influence to it. Globalization. Not necessarily at its best perhaps. Did this get a US release? Felt kind of low budget and cheesy but it’s playing all over here. Not surprisingly I enjoyed watching a female demon killer dressed in a school girl uniform but after such fare as Machine Girl it felt rather tame and old fashioned.

Rating: 6/10

I only made it to two films at the World Comedy Film Festival. What really puzzles me as an ex-fest organizer is how a festival in its first year, with a four day run and not a lot of people attending could afford to fly in a jury (I ran into a Variety film critic who was part of the jury there) and could afford to fly a bunch of guests down to Phuket for a few days of sun and fun. Why does every fest have so much money to waste (I mean spend) when the NYAFF had to scrimp and save and fall back on our personal credit cards for years. Read much more about the festival on Wise Kwai’s Blog. Anyway – two films – one good, one just weird.

Friday 12 – Russia (2009) – an oddly unfunny black comedy that just never clicked for me. It just tried much too hard and fell so flat. A town is terrified by a serial killer who strikes every Friday night after midnight. The killer is a pimply faced reject who was tormented by a girl calling him names when he was a child and he wants to feel women convulse in his hands. A scowling demented cop is after him. A woman who calls herself the “Innocent Victim” goes out into the night to meet her fate. The characters all speak directly to the camera from time to time and though there is a speck of humor initially the film just ratchets up the absurdity as the film progresses leaving the viewer far behind.

Singh is Kinng – Indian (2008) – this zesty extremely good natured Bollywood outing managed to keep a silly smile on my face for nearly all of its two hour plus running time. From India to Egypt to Australia it is full of energy and good spirits and is just plain goofy fun. It is a basic Masala stew with everything in there that the director could fit into his budget – lots of action, music, corn ball comedy, pathos and of course romance. It wasn’t until about the one third mark that I realized that it was basically a remake of one of my favorite Jackie Chan films, Mr. Canton and Lady Rose (a.k.a. Miracles) with a few slight deviations. The star of Singh is Kinng, Akshay Kumar, has made no secret of his admiration of the Hong Kong star over the years and though he is no Jackie Chan when it comes to physical ability, Kumar gives it his best and is considered one of India’s top action stars.

Here he plays Happy Singh, a small town boy in the Punjab with no desire to go anywhere else. But though loved by all of the town he is also the bane of their existence as he has a habit of leaving behind a trail of accidental destruction wherever he goes. After one such outing in which he tries to catch a chicken and inadvertently destroys everything in his path, they come up with a plan to get rid of him. Down under one of the town’s long departed sons Lucky Singh has become a notorious gangster and the shame to this Sikh community is enormous. So they convince Happy along with his friend (Om Puri) to travel to Australia and bring Lucky back to the bosom of his family and away from his life of crime. No one really thinks Happy will be able to do this and as soon as he is out of sight the town breaks into a dancing celebration.

Through an odd mishap at the airport, the two board a plane for Egypt which of course gives them an opportunity to frolic among the pyramids along with scantily clothed women – all which must have made the Muslim Brotherhood delirious with joy. Here he meets a lovely Indian maiden Sonia (Katrina Kaif) who reminds me slightly of what an Indian Kennedy would look like with her load of teeth and a lean facial bone structure. Happy is smitten but has to move on to Australia where he is taken in by an older Indian woman who sells flowers. She gives him a rose for luck. She has a daughter coming to visit who thinks mom is still rich and the woman is distraught at the thought of her daughter finding out she is poor and her marriage prospects going down the drain. The rose brings Happy luck. Starting to sound a wee bit familiar now doesn’t it? He locates Lucky but during a shootout by a rival gang Lucky loses his ability to move or talk but the gang thinks he has appointed Happy as his successor. And if you have seen the Chan film you know the rest – with the deviation being that the daughter is none other than Sonia. I missed Anita Mui. Very funny on an idiot level and a big hit in India.

Rating: 7.5/10

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

2022 Tsunami

2022 Tsunami
Director: Toranong Sricher

It has been three months since I came to Bangkok and yesterday I finally saw my first Thai film of 2009. It has been that kind of year – just a dire and deadly debris of broad comedy, teen romances, annoying children and grubby horror that you would have to pay me to go and watch. And sadly no one has made me that offer. 2022 Tsunami at least made my ears prick up when I saw the trailer – Bangkok being wiped out by a gigantic wave. Totally cool. I looked for my apartment in hopes that it survives or that at least I do up on the twenty-second floor. I didn’t see it. In the end though, it wasn’t a cinematic reason that made me go see this film but instead a humanitarian one. This was a mission of mercy.

Last week the Bangkok Post reported that the director locked himself in his room and put a gun to his head because no one was going to his film and the critics were bashing it. Why he wondered is everyone going to see American crap like Terminator Salvation and Angels and Demons and no one is supporting Thai crap. It is a valid question. Apparently matters were not helped much by the fact that he initially used images of real people who died in the 2004 Tsunami to help market the film. Fortunately for the movie world, the director was persuaded not to end his life as it was a bad week to do so with David Carradine taking up all the Thai newspaper headlines (pictures of his hanging body included) and who would even notice his demise. It would be back page news. So I did the right thing and with at least four other people in attendance we paid our 100 baht ($3). But if through some chance of fate the director should come across this review I would advise him to stop reading right now. I don’t want to be held responsible for any rash action and at this point believe me no one is going to see your movie no matter what.

It is 2022 – where will you be you might be wondering in 13 years – living the good life perhaps - not likely - if you are in the United States you are probably dead because much of the country has been destroyed by hurricanes, most of Europe in under a mountain of snow and Asia is sinking under water. All of this is due to drastic climate changes that the human race has neglected to do much about. Director Toranong Sricher has a lot of social issues that he crams into this 90-minute slog – climate change, wealth distribution, corrupt politicians, over development of their beautiful islands and the spoiled spawn of the rich. All of these are pertinent issues in Thailand – especially painful to observe is the rape and pillage of one lovely island after another by greedy developers and sunburned tourists – but I tend to doubt if most people come to see a disaster film to be lectured to and much of this film feels like a class lecture by a horn rimmed professor. There is zero fun here. And worse, there is zero suspense and drama.

A group of hard bodied men and women headed by the elderly Doctor Siam track volcano/earthquake activity in the Gulf of Thailand and are on the lookout for signs that the next big one is coming. All of them were emotionally damaged by the 2004 Tsunami and they are dedicated to saving lives the next time. A dynamic Prime Minister keeps close tabs on their work and on three occasions has ordered evacuations of civilian populations due to their predictions but in none of the cases did anything happen. He is being hindered by a sleazy politician who seems to have crawled out of the gutter last week and to make sure we realize how corrupt he is the director shows him having sex with a young male prostitute two times. But his son is even worse – he is developing an island with a casino and lots of hot women that he rolls on the beach with while the poor locals just cluck their tongues when they aren’t getting beaten up.

None of this adds up to zilch because there isn’t even one character that feels much more than a stock hero or bad guy. When the PM lowers himself from a helicopter to save a busload of children caught by the tsunami it is all you can do not to laugh at how silly this is. But when he is later saved by a giant Buddha statue in the harbor it gets even cornier. The truly bad over-acting of most of the cast doesn’t help. One precious scene has one of the hard bodied cleavage showing science babes rush out on her boat to save Mai Tai. "Mai Tai, Mai Tai where are you". Who the hell is Mai Tai I wondered. Oh, the dolphin of course. She tells the dolphin to head for the hills before the tsunami came and sure enough it completely understands her (or is terrified by her acting) and so takes off like a dolphin out of hell. Now once the wave comes it gets mildly entertaining – oops there goes the Skytrain – but it is over much too quickly and is all shot from a distance so you never actually see anyone getting killed up close and personal (not even the bad guys). Weird, I wanted to see Shelly Winters drowning in an elevator or something similar. I wanted to see the fear in people’s eyes that would be in mine (because I have no doubt that when the warning comes I will say ya ya ya and go eat a green chicken curry).

My rating for this film: 3/10

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Sidewalks of Bangkok and Other Stuff

So much for watching loads of Shaw films during the month of May. I watched one and that took me three days to finish. The Bangkok heat along with the afternoon and evening bomb blast rainstorms have a way of sucking time and ambition right out of you. Yesterday I was having lunch in a small restaurant on a dusty side street when it began to fancifully rain while the sun was shining brightly, but suddenly the sky darkened like a Darth Vader scowl and a deluge hit that was frightening and delightful at the same time. Literally within a minute the street was flooded with waters over a foot high and I was stuck there for a couple hours sipping cokes and pondering life before it subsided. So without much of an Asian film focus, this will be another Blog hodgepodge of nothing much. Just filling more Internet space with stuff no one needs to read.

Talking of reading . . . such a great segue! I read the second novel in the Inspector Chen series by Qiu Xiaolong but I wasn’t as keen about A Loyal Character Dancer as I was with the first one. The author introduces a female US Marshall into the story, but she never felt like more than an awkward literary device to enable Chen to talk about Chinese culture and politics. Hopefully, the third novel will get back strictly to Chen and his main man Detective Yu. I am now reading Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson and wow. Not really sure what it is about yet – something to do with the CIA, Kennedy, Vietnam, loss of innocence and so on – but it is wonderful so far. In between I knocked off two Maigret crime novels – A Man’s Head and The Yellow Dog from writer Georges Simenon. For reasons unknown to me I have decided to read all of the Maigret books – some 76 of them I believe and with only 14 in the bag I have a long ways to go!

Ok – a small cultural diatribe that will lead ever so neatly into a slight discussion on a few Japanese films I have seen here. The sidewalks of Bangkok are silent sadists just waiting for a doodling victim – someone to eat up, to cripple or to humiliate – spit them out like half chewed broccoli. Overall Bangkok is a friendly Farang town that caters to tourism like an over the hill mistress to her benefactor, but the sidewalks here are the bane of many an ex-pat – obstacle courses that take the starch out of you. If it’s not the multitudes of food carts that can spring up anywhere, anytime and take up the sidewalk so that you have to walk in the street, it’s the motorcycles going the wrong way down the sidewalk, the blind beggars chanting their way forward, the sitting beggars and their cute prop children grabbing at your ankles and calling you papa, puddles that could water the Sahara, unattended sink holes fitted just to the right size to break your leg or swallow you up, vendors selling cheap trinkets or pirated clothes to budget tourists who fill their suitcases with this stuff, high tech drainage systems that take the rain from the roof and pour it onto the sidewalks from above (I test my ninja skills by trying to avoid getting dripped on), cable wires laid on top of the sidewalks as opposed to underneath, loose tiles, broken tiles, missing tiles, pimps handing out glossy brochures promising you the time of your life, Sikhs stopping you with the words “You are a lucky man” (doubtful if he has seen my financial portfolio of late) “and let me tell you how lucky by reading your fortune” and let us not forget the gigantic elephants that toil back and forth on certain streets by handlers looking for contributions. Believe me when I say that when you see an elephant coming straight at you on the sidewalk, there is nothing that can make you move much faster – traffic be damned.

So my plan is to take up Parkour and simply climb over Bangkok. I got this idea while watching K-20: Legend of the Mask from Japan. My fear of heights and a rather creaky body may be an impediment but I figure that after a few weeks of training the next time I see an elephant headed my way I just run at it – hit his trunk, flip over his body and land ever so neatly on the sidewalk. Hopefully, not in a hole or on a Sikh. K-20 is great kiddie fun for adults. An old-fashioned super hero more in the mold of DC comics than Marvel and based as it seems all Japanese films are on a Manga. The still very cute Takashi Kaneshiro plays a circus acrobat who is framed for being the criminal genius K-20. So when he escapes from jail he is determined to catch the real criminal and trains going over buildings in a Tokyo where WWII never happened. Corny and great fun – the kind of movie that made me wish I still ate popcorn. Bangkok is not a bad place to catch Japanese movies in a cinema. There are a couple non-mall theaters that bring really good foreign films and I saw K-20 that way as well as the first two installments in the three part 20th Century Boys. These are also based on a really popular Manga it seems and over all are pretty fanboy cool. Basic plot line is – as young boys a group of friends made up a story about the earth being taken over by an evil menace and when they are adults they realize that their childhood book is being followed to the letter - and it is up to them to stop the destruction of the world. The first film seemed to confuse a lot of viewers but I had no issues like that – it is just so overstuffed with plot threads, images, characters and jolting tonal mood changes that it may throw some – but it is enormously brazen and imaginative. Loved it. The second film picks up years later and felt more like a tablesetter for the final film in the series. It is not nearly as dynamic or visually adventurous – but it certainly made me want to see the next one.

In my past life in a world far far away, I was part of the New York Asian Film Festival before I came to my senses. I had to escape to Bangkok in order to do so – if I was still in NYC there would be no way out. I mention this because all three of these films and about a zillion others will be showing at this year’s festival which I will sadly have to miss. In years past I think I can honestly say I never lied about my opinion on this Blog about the films we were showing – if I didn’t like it – I just avoided writing about it! But I don’t have much to say this year because I have only seen a handful of them, but just by reading Grady’s highly impartial blurbs it sounds like a fun time for all – especially the guests. Lau Ching-wan! Can I rejoin just for one day? But what is really exciting is that there looks like a lot of diversity this year and loads of Hong Kong films. Who would have thought it possible but they seem to have put on the best fest yet – without me! Cause or Coincidence?

There still isn’t much up on the website but if you read through the various posts on the Subway news Blog you can piece much of the line-up together – and the trailer is up! That can be found right here.

Thanks to Wise Kwai for the heads up regarding the World Comedy Film Festival happening right here in Bangkok beginning on June 10th. Thai’s could use some laughs these days with their economy taking a nose dive but my guess is that as is the norm with festivals here the majority of the attendees will be foreigners. Some potentially interesting films from all over the galaxy – I have jotted down a wish list of nine films ranging from Iran to Estonia to Korea (Dachiman Lee). Estonia. Cool. Has anyone seen a film from there? I will have to see if my ambitions get thwarted again by laziness and rain. There is also a mini-Italian fest this weekend with 12 films at the Emporium.

Not too long ago there were numerous write-ups denoting Obama’s first 100-days in office. I give him an A+ myself. Whether his plans to revive the economy, fix health care and bring about world peace ever pan out is to be seen – but good grief – at least the guy is trying. Honestly, isn’t the world a much better place with Bush gone and Obama in office? I did an unscientific poll yesterday on the streets of Bangkok to see what others thought of him – I just wore an Obama t-shirt and over the day had at least 40 people chant his name as I walked by or give me a smiling thumbs up. Many of these people were from the Middle East. Maybe there is a chance for peace. Someday I expect to see Obama's face on the fifty dollar bill. What the heck did Grant do to deserve it?

Before I get to the official review on the Shaw Brothers film, here are some opinions on some non-Asian fare I have seen.

Star Trek – wonderful – I am not a Trekkie but I may be after going out and buying the first two seasons of the original series after seeing this movie. They are great so far.

Angels and Demons – if I had a Stupid Meter I think this film may rank at the very top. What was the point of this film, what was the plot, what was the motive? Absolute nonsense. I can’t believe Ron Howard could make such a dim-witted film with enough plot holes for all the demons from Hell to casually walk through. My favorite idiocy – SPOILER ALERT – is when our two heroes come face to face with the hired killer and even after killing anyone else in the film who even blinked in his direction, basically tells the pair that even though they can recognize him he won’t kill them because they are the stars of the movie and without Tom Hanks there can’t be a sequel. Yikes, this was bad.

The Gene Generation - Bai Ling shows her breasts in this incoherent sci-fi film about genetic something or another – and they look marvelous. Even on her stick figure stuck into some tight fitting leather and carrying guns as large as she is. Oh and Faye Dunaway has what must be the most embarrassing cameo in her life as a digital image. I understand that if you are making a home movie she is available to appear in it for a bus ticket and a platter of fruits.

JCVD – Van Damme plays himself in this wonderfully playful film in which he becomes a hostage in a bank robbery back in his home town of Brussels. If only Van Damme could have shown this charming vulnerable side in some of his myriad of low budget macho flicks, maybe he could have had that "A" Hollywood film he wants so badly. Totally enjoyable for any Van Damme fan or detractor.

Skins – Brit TV series about a group of young middle class students in University who imbibe in a lot of drugs and sex. The characters are basically annoying as hell but the terrific writing and good acting makes this a real good watch. Interestingly, one of the actors who has the least screen time (until the episode in Russia when he beds a Russian wench) is now the most famous - played by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire. Cassie as the mixed up eating disorder pill popping blonde will steal your heart. Primarily comic in attitude but with some unexpectedly moving moments as well.


Director: Akinori Matsuo
Year: 1967

The 1960’s was of course the time of the great espionage films – the Cold War was good for that if nothing else - not only the Bond flicks but also the Flint movies with James Coburn, the Harry Palmer series with Michael Caine, the Quiller films with George Segal, anything based on John LaCarre novels and of course the classic Modesty Blaise! But Asia-Pol seems most influenced by an American TV series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in which a secret police organization has been created by the United Nations to combat global crime. Their secret headquarters is through a back door in a New York City laundry. This film uses that particular device and others in an effort to jumpstart this film but it falls surprisingly short of being fun.

All the necessary elements seem to be in place – sleek cars and sleeker women, two big stars, jet setting travel, great location shooting, exploding golf balls and shoot outs – but it never really revels in any of this and is rather plodding in its way too talkie execution. Shoot me, but Lo Wei would have done a better job with this material. Instead the Shaw’s turned across the waters in a co-operative venture with Nikkatsu – using one of their directors (who was to do much better work in 1971 with The Lady Professional), a writer and one of Japan’s biggest action stars, Jo Shishido of the chipmunk cheeks. So in a sense this is more Nikkatsu than Shaw but it lacks the ferocity that Nikkatsu brought to their action films and one can only guess that the Shaws wanted a watered down version of a Nikkatsu film with one of their rising stars topping it.

Jimmy Wang Yu plays Yang Ming Xuan, born to Chinese parents in Hong Kong but ending up as an orphan in Japan. He is a topnotch agent in a pan-Asian police organization and he and his partner are investigating large amounts of gold being smuggled into Japan that could destabilize the economy. Everything leads to the always smirking George (Shishido) who is in charge of the Japan branch of an equally secret criminal organization called ADV. The advantage keeps going back and forth between Yang and George as they one up each other. Unfortunately for George he suffers from that disease so many screen villains seem to catch – he prefers gloating to simply killing Yang every time he has a chance. Bad for him. Good for Yang. It appears that Yang’s long lost Chinese father may be the head of ADV and so he goes to Hong Kong and later Macao to prove the charge false – ah the good old days of Pan Am and no airport security. In Hong Kong he meets up with a sister (the ever so demure Fang Ying) he didn’t know he had who is also trying to prove her father’s innocence.

From a 2009 perspective the location shooting is the best thing about the film as Yang drives all over Hong Kong (and a bit in Macau) in a city that is barely recognizable today.

Rating: 6/10

R.I.P. David Carradine