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


Dr. Stan Glick said...

Some thoughts with regard to "Blood: The Last Vampire." Chris Nahon, the director is French, not American. He directed "Kiss of the Dragon" with Jet Li, which was pretty decent. I think the "low budget and cheesy" look was deliberate and intended to convey a '70s action movie feel. I caught a pre-release screening of "Blood" in NY last week. It's due to hit theaters in the U.S. on July 10th. I thought it was good fun and would rate it a bit higher than you, 7.5 or 8. My own review will be online soon.

WiseKwai said...

I'd like to see Blood. Better get on it before Transformers takes up all the screens.

I'm still in disbelief about how entirely lame the World Comedy Film Festival was. Hardly anybody watched those films. Besides you. And me. And a couple other people. There was what, maybe a dozen for Singh is Kinng?

There was little regard for the actual films or the talent behind them.

All that matters is that a handful of imported actors and comedians -- few of which I'd ever heard of -- will return back to their respective lands with great things to say about Thailand after being bowed and scraped to and wined and dined for a week.

Brian said...

WK - when are they going to come to us and let us program and run a festival! I agree with Lekha on your site that first and foremost festivals should be about the films unless you are Cannes. That was always the aim of the NYAFF - all the rest was just crap we had to do to get publicity. Though in truth I can't speak to the quality of the films in the fest since I only saw 2 of them - but I am bewildered by all the extaneous costly stuff that they surrounded the films with. Just clueless. But you can speak to this better than I since you are much more in touch with the local film scene. How do you get Thais to go see these movies? Is it an impossible task? I saw ads on TV for this fest and it was showing at 2 ultra-popular theaters and still no one shows up. I honestly think they would have actually gotten more people if they had showed it at one of the small Lido/Siam theaters but that would not have fit into their airs of granduer. But still a handful of people says something to me about the desire of Thai's to see non-blockbuster foreign films. I wonder how the French Fest will do? Not well I expect.

SG - thanks for the correction and the info. If this does well in NYC I'll be shocked but still nice that someone is giving it a go.

YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

Getting the film fest equivalent of itchy hands? Yes, I really think you should explore getting involved with organising/programming a film fest in Bangkok!

Brian said...

Ha! Not a chance. I can't begin to tell you how happy I am not to be doing NYAFF this year. Its like an elephant off my chest. Lau Ching-wan deciding not to come last minute would have killed me if I was in NYC. From what I have witnessed it would be worse here. None of the fests that I have attended get much of an audience and barely any Thai audience. So you put your heart and soul into a fest and the only people to show up are ex-pats. It would be soul killing. And because the cost of tickets is so cheap ($3) there is no way to finance your fest thru sales - meaning you have to probably get govt. sponsorship which is another nightmare I am sure. So no thanks!

WiseKwai said...

Festival programming in Thailand is a rough business. Can't blame you for not wanting to put your hat in the ring.

The French Film Festival, now in its sixth year, is well attended, thanks to an enthusiastic turnout by the French community and other expat film lovers.

It's the same for the recent Italian Film Fest. The two screenings I attended were packed.

The European Union's fest and the Japanese fest also do well, but are also mostly attended by expats.

What motivates Thai people to see movies? I don't think anyone knows the answer to that question.

Huge billboards along all the highways, on the buses and the Skytrain, full-page newspaper ads, TV spots and blaring plasma-screen monitors in cinema lobbies seem to help. Some dancing girls and a magic show can't hurt. They hammer home the idea the film is a "must see".

I saw Up late Sunday at the same multiplex as the World Comedy fest and was blown away by the size of the crowd. It was in one of the bigger halls, and was at least 50% full. The whole back section was booked. Nobody sits close.

Film festivals, no matter how well they're promoted, are a tough sell. The timings are too random. Not like the saturation of the new releases. Folks just show up and want to see a movie. Given the choice between a Pixar cartoon and a classic Russian comedy, they're going to go with the one they've heard about the most.

There is a hard-core of die-hard moviegoers in Thailand. It's a small group, though anyone can join. Welcome to the club.

Arivind Abraham said...


I remember you were one of the bloggers who managed to catch S'kali back in 2006.

Here is a trailer for one of 2 movies we have been working on for the past year:

eliza bennet said...

Sing is Kinng is not a fave although I love Akshay who is not really a good action actor in comparison to East Asian actors but he is the best in India that's for sure - and he has great comic timing. He is also very easy on the eyes.

Can you believe Katrina is dating Salman Khan?

YTSL said...

Ouch re Lau Ching-wan's cancellation. Though it'd have been a bigger ouch if you had decided to fly back to New York to attend the NYAFF in large part because you would meet him there!