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.

http://subwaycinemanews.com/

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.

Ok.

Asia-Pol
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

8 comments:

Glenn, kenixfan said...

Great description of Bangkok's streets! Thailand is on my list of places-to-see after Hong Kong in August; maybe next year?

After being disappointed with Wang-Yu yet again in Sword of Swords, I don't know if I can watch any more of his films -- he's boring! Maybe I should sell my unopened copy of The Assassin? I sort of want to see Asia-Pol based on all the other elements you described.

I've seen Trek 3 times already. HUGE fan of the original crew but have never seen a spin-off so take that for what it's worth. Quinto ROCKED Spock! (or should that be Quinto's Spock Rocked?)

Gene Generation has been out at Best Buy here for a few months now -- under $20 new, I think.

(Thanks for the link btw!)

Brian said...

Hey - co-incidentally I was reading your Blog earlier on (A Pessimist is Never Disappointed) and saw your lackluster opinion of Sword of Swords. I've actually never been a big fan of Wang-Yu's - some of his post-Shaw films are actually more fun I think than his Shaw work. He helps give Asia-Pol a dirge like quality with his stone faced performance. I recall liking The Asssasin but I think I saw it years ago in a bootleg copy and long before I had seen a zillion other wuxia films - not sure how it would match up now. I am glad you are more than making up for the Shaw films I promised and never delivered on. I should go into politics. And thanks for the link to Durian Dave's site in another review - not sure how I missed that all this time but its amazing. I'll have to add it to this blog.

Gene Generation would have to be under $2 to make it a buy - unless Bai Ling's breasts in motion is something you just have to see!

Anonymous said...

We'll miss you this year at the fest Brian!

In years past, I partially relied on your reviews to decide which flick to check out, I guess this time, I will just have to see which ones of Grady's blurbs will pique my interest.

Hope you'll be back of 2010.

YTSL said...

Geez... no post for ages and then a post that could have been divided up into several posts -- it's so long and covers such a range of topics!!!

Re Bangkok during monsoon season: haha, Hong Kong minus sun (in March/April) doesn't sound so bad any more!

Seriously though, your description of flooded streets brought back memories of Zanzibar Stone Town where, as I prepared to wade into the flood waters, I was told: "Beware of live electric wires in the water. You might get electrocuted." You can bet I tried not to wade about in the flood waters after that!

As for "Star Trek": Watched it last night - loved it! TV-wise, I actually prefer "Star Trek: The Next Generation" but the film spin-offs had too much Data for me while what I wanted, like with this 2009 film, was one in which even the supporting members of the ensemble got opportunities to shine. (Spock rules -- in whatever incarnation -- but really enjoyed seeing the young version of Chekhov too!)

Steve said...

I remember quite liking Asia-Pol, but then I'm a big fan of 60's spy films that don't have Mike Myers. IIRC, I esp. enjoyed its great visuals and was glad it had better than average (for a SB film) comedy.

IMO Original Star Trek is the the best because characters actually went out and did things instead of standing around talking and talking.

Brian said...

YTSL - have never watched any of the Star Trek spinoff tv shows though saw Picard in one of the films. Not sure I want to go down that road as I could spend much of the rest of my life catching up on them. But the Original series is a lot of fun to see in the order they were broadcast - up to episode 8 so far and no sign of Chekhov. Favorite scene so far - Uhara doing a song/patter number showing her sexy playful side that I don't ever recall seeing on another episode. In real life apparently Nichelle Nichols hated William Shatner with a passion as did about everyone else on the Good Ship Enterprise.

Steve - comedy? Asia-Pol? It felt way too serious to me with Wang-Yu doing his typical dour performance.

Steve said...

I must be thinking of Interpol WRT the comedy.

stanshan said...

Brian! Great reviews and insight and glad to see you're still updating the site (despite no longer in Brooklyn). We all missed you at this year's festival. Hope you'll pop around NYC one day or if I'm ever by your neck of the jungle to catch up on good times.

Best,

Julio (subway volunteer)