Friday, August 30, 2013

Off Topic for a Minute

In fact way off topic. A break from movie talk. One thing that always amuses me when I go back home to the USA and meet up with various people is how they think I have been roughing it in the Third World of Thailand. I think they still have images in their mind of rickshaw riders, pestilence, poverty and worst of all no fast food. I assure them that living in Bangkok as an ex-pat is as easy as pie. If anything it's too easy. Too soft with everything here that you could want including yes the fast food of McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Carl's, Subway, Swensons and KFC. America isn't going to destroy the word with the Bomb but with saturated fats.

The one thing in particular that the Thai's have mastered is the mall. That ubiquitous locale of so many Hollywood teen movies in the 80's and 90's. But malls in the USA are a boring shadow of what they are here where they have become a lovely oasis of air-conditioned comfort with luxurious shops, a myriad of restaurants and often entertainment. Thai's in Bangkok migrate to the malls in hordes on the weekends and there seems to be a never ending appetite for more of them that are fancier than the last. There are new ones being built all over the city.

My favorite is Terminal 21 which is not far from where I live right on the edge of Farangland. There must be about 40 restaurants in the place, most of them Japanese but Mexican, Western, Chinese, Korean, Indian and others as well. Even a Thai restaurant or two. It also has a Food Court where you can choose a decent meal for about 60 baht or $2. But down in the basement is where the Thai's really love to go because that is where the sweets are. Mounds of them. Just looking can cause a facial outbreak. Here are some pictures that I took a few months ago. I was actually there yesterday and I thought I saw that Mr. Donut now had a weird concoction of sushi on top of donuts. Just how you want your fresh sushi I would guess. Maybe it was a bad dream I had. Back to movies tomorrow.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai
Director:  Milan Luthria

Music:  Pritam
Year:  2010

Duration: 135 minutes


Coming to town this week in Bolly Bangkok is the sequel to the above film, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Again. So I thought it would probably make sense for me to watch the first one and I was able to track it down. I am glad I did because now I can save a few hours of my life and about 200 baht ($6) by skipping out on the new one like an unpaid debt. Anytime you see a film title beginning with the words Once Upon a Time it instills in you certain expectations of a quality film with previous titles such as Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, the Once Upon a Time in China series and even the Once Upon a Time in Triad Society films were pretty darn good. It should be hallowed ground. But Once Upon a Time in Mumbai is much more like well-ploughed unfertile ground that had me wondering how on earth this became a “Super Hit” at the box office. When I then later perused some reviews of the sequel and literally every one of them painfully trashed it I thought I would give myself a break by not seeing it. So sorry, I have no review of the new film but there are plenty of them online. But I do have a fairly negative review of the first film and there are not a lot of those it seems.

This is a gangster film that moves at the pace of an old fashioned pen pal correspondence in which the dialogue is both so turgid and faux poetic that you feel like these gangsters should be writing commercials for hair products. Do Mumbai gangsters really constantly talk in aphorisms, metaphors and similes? Their thug followers must have to go to night school to understand them and their girlfriends must want to just slap their faces at times and ask them to speak like a human being.  But this is the sort of dialogue that Bollywood has always thrived on and if it were not for the fact that these were uneducated nasty criminals I would be all for it, but in a gangster film? Really? Maybe in Mumbai gangsters have to read the great Bengali poets to climb the ladder. What, you can’t quote Rabindranath Tagore when you are extorting a businessman? Back to peddling drugs on the street till you can. But though the dialogue struck me as absurd the real problem in this poorly structured crime drama is that there is very little crime, very little mayhem, very little action and absolutely no tension. Basically nothing happens. It is a crime film that you can take mom and dad to and then take a nap. I kept praying for Joe Pesci to show up and hammer somebody.

I gather from the reviews that the story is based loosely on the lives of two real gangsters back in the seventies, Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim. The filmmakers go out of their way to deny this in a notice upfront that can be translated roughly to “Please don’t kill me for this movie. I have a wife, children and many servants to feed”. Haji died back in the 90’s but Dawood is very much alive though in hiding.  You can find biographies of both of these men in Wikipedia and it makes for interesting reading. More so than this film. Haji was big into Bollywood films, financing them and on a friendly basis with many of the stars and in fact he married an actress. Ibrahim was more into money and violence.

A young boy metaphorically washes ashore in Bombay (as it was called back then) from his hometown of Madras. He quickly gains the nickname of Sultan, Sultan Mizra and like a flash he goes from a boy smuggling things in his mouth to becoming the biggest smuggler in the city. He is not just a smuggler, he is a Superstar Smuggler loved by all but the police and probably some of them as well for his charitable ways. If he were doing this now he would be able to host his own reality show, Celebrity Smuggler. Played by Ajay Devgn (who somehow managed to lose an “a” in his last name since I tuned out of Bollywood for a while. There is a reward if anyone can find it) in his typical solemn glassy eyed manner in which every expression change seems to physically hurt him. I am sure it has been said many times that Ajay has a strong resemblance to Huckleberry Hound but in truth Huckleberry is a little more expressive. Ajay stares a lot. But he does so with a steely menace that must work well with cocktail waitresses working for tips. Where is my Manhattan? Sultan likes the movies; especially ones starring Rihana (Kangana Renaut) who he romances (i.e. stalks) with a piece of guava that he forces the vendor to raise the price to 400 rupees or else he would continue to spout bad dialogue to him. He wanted to impress Rihana with how much he spent on her. Wow. 400 rupees. That is almost $8 these days. Maybe more back then and at any rate it works. Maybe I will try that with a durian some day.

On the other side of the ledger is an up and coming psychopath Shoaib Khan (Emraan Hashmi) who gets in the good graces of Sultan by taking a few whacks from a shovel to his head that barely faze him. Totally off the charts crazy, he still manages to romance the lovely good girl Mumtaz (Prachi Desai) with a song and some stolen jewelry. She is clearly in need of some serious counseling for loving this guy who is about as charmless and graceless as a sleazy rattlesnake. As he moves up the chain of command you know that eventually he will be going for the number one spot. We know this, everyone in the audience knows this but Sultan is perhaps too busy working on his opus as he dashes about town in his white linen suits and his white Mercedes to notice and when it comes, wow! No not really. More like a oh, ok. End of movie.

My rating for this film: 4/10
The Trailer:

The Song Parda which is a neat little retro number.

which reminded me of this classic Helen song from Caravan that also evokes Monica.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Yuppie Fantasia

The Yuppie Fantasia
Director: Gordon Chan

Year: 1989


There are films that have fine pedigrees that for various reasons over time fade from memory so that now few have heard of and fewer have ever seen it. I would bury Yuppie Fantasia deeply into that ignominious category of bargain bin DVD’s even though at the time it was released it was a box office hit. In particular, this is the sort of film that Western fans of Hong Kong films generally avoid like a contagious disease. This romantic comedy deserves better with a terrific cast and an amusing script. First you have Gordon Chan making his directorial debut. After beginning in the comedy genre, including a number of Stephen Chow films - Fight Back to School I and II, King of Beggars, he began making his reputation in action films with some terrific ones – Jet Li’s Fist of Legend and Beast Cops being two of his best. His first two films though starred Lawrence Cheng, whose popularity as such as it was has always been a minor mystery to me. An actor nearly devoid of charisma or looks, he was I suppose something of a Hong Kong Everyman. Bespectacled, slightly nerdy, always on the other side of a sharp stick or a sharper rebuke, he in his mild way represented the emasculated Hong Kong male much more than a finger twitching star like Chow Yun Fat or a romantic brooder like Leslie Cheung. This screen persona has done him well as he has appeared in nearly seventy films since 1980 up to the present day. He only directed four films but two are favorites of mine, the Chingmy Yau vehicle She Starts Fires and the noirish Murder. He also produced The Yuppie Fantasia so obviously gives himself the starring role in this solid effort.


Some other talent on the screen is Hong Kong’s first lady of comedy back then, Do Do Cheng. The two Chengs appeared in a number of films together. Do Do was a master (or mistress) of the reaction shot and could in the blink of an eye turn into pure perfect shrew with a slew of insults that could make you curl up in a fetus position and pretend to disappear. Throw in a few nubile female stars like Cherie Chung in a surprisingly back-seat role, Elizabeth Lee still fresh off the farm looking innocent and vulnerable and Sibelle Hu playing very much against type as a wallflower wife. Manfred Wong, one of Hong Kong films major producers back then (the Young and Dangerous series) as well as a bit actor in innumerable films, shows up as one of Lawrence Cheng’s cheating friends. Kirk Wong, Alfred Cheung (also a scriptwriter for this effort), Paul Chun Pui and Vivian Chow pop in for cameos. All in all this is a quality effort with talent on both sides of the camera.


It’s that seven year itch time in the marriage between Leung (Lawrence Cheng) and his wife Ann (Do Do) but though often irritated with one another Leung is not straying from the reservation as both his friends Q Tai (Manfred) and Pierre (Peter Lai) are doing with younger paramours. Marriage for Leung and Ann has entered that contractual stage where sex is a commodity and the major bargaining chip in the relationship. Leung says to himself and the audience “My wife would be the best woman in the world provided all other women dropped dead”. He nearly begs his FX trader wife to take her eyes off the green computer screen and have a little “see-saw” with him. Ok she grudgingly agrees but no more than 10 minutes. When he moans a little she hits him with the “you never need ten minutes anyway so why are you complaining” zinger. An arrow straight to a man’s heart and other regions even when true.


Frustrations and mistaken intentions drive them into a legal separation with divorce scheduled three years away.  The pain of separation is made oh so much easier when Leung literally bumps into Cherie Chung back at the advertising agency where he works. She turns out to be his new demanding boss and they soon occupy a closet together for an uncomfortable night of doing their best to stay out of each other’s way. Another woman comes Leung’s way as well – his old girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Lee) when he was fifteen years old who is on the rebound from her married boyfriend. She moves in and they share the same bed. But little else as this is your typical innocent harmless family fare where you can be pretty sure marriage will win the day. Leung says of Jenny with total honesty “her strong suit was 36-24-36”. I could add to that, but others might disagree. A few funny parodies take place, Leung with matchstick in mouth doing The Killer by placing hidden condoms around his apartment to be handy from any place and a Mr. Boo moment that you see coming from miles away but is still satisfying primarily because you get it.


My Rating: 6.5

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Elizabeth Lee Photos Continued

Here are some more photos that I got a few years back in Hong Kong of Elizabeth Lee. Almost done with those I have of her.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Return Engagement

Return Engagement
Director:  Joe Cheung

Year: 1990

Ah, how nice it is to be back in the welcoming arms of Hong Kong guns and blood actioners in which machine guns never run out of bullets, gunshot wounds are treated like pesky mosquito bites and mercy is a human quality that has long been forsaken. Back in the late 1980’s Hong Kong began making a shift from martial arts action films to something that was much more real to Hong Kong audiences; cops and criminal operatic bloodbaths that played out on the mean streets of the city. This genre reached its apogee with John Woo and Chow Yun Fat taking it to high melodramatic art with The Killer, Hard Boiled and The Better Tomorrow films.  But there were plenty of others that fed off the cinematic bloodlust that these films created and though far from high art, they can be good fun as you watch incredulously as armies of men are mowed down unceremoniously like standing duck pins.

Director Joe Cheung had already gone down this path with Flaming Brothers in 1987 which starred Chow Yun Fat and Alan Tang and he was to make another terrific one after Return Engagement called Pom Pom and Hot Hot in 1992. It has perhaps one of the worst English titles ever for a bullet ballet film but it is filled with some of the most imaginative gunplay in any film. The action was choreographed by Stephen Tung Wai as he does in this film. The shootouts in this one are not as clever or as fancy as those in Pom Pom but there sure are a lot of them. I think within the first 10 minutes of the movie the filmmakers indulge us in three different bloody encounters. There is then admittedly a lengthy pause in the bloodletting but they are just saving their budget for a climax that litters the highway with a body count that could have filled the Super Bowl. Say what you want about Hong Kong but they come prepared to a funeral for anything.

It begins in Canada where Brother Lung (Alan Tang) is seeking revenge for his brother who has been killed and hung publicly from a tree by the Mafia who seem intent on making Chinese restaurants switch their fare from dim sum to pizza. They must really hate fortune cookies. Lung’s wife played by Carrie Ng, apparently on a coffee break from another film, wants to go to Hong Kong with their baby girl, Gaga, to keep her out of danger. Lung does a Lone Wolf and Cub selection process and Gaga picks the bullets and has to stay while Ng gets ready to leave. She doesn’t make it as the Mafia gun her down. Lung gets his revenge and has to go to jail while Gaga goes to Hong Kong with one of his men. But over the years he loses track of her and after being released he goes to HK to search for her.

This brings him into contact with a small hostess bar owner (Elizabeth Lee) and a friend of his daughter’s Little Lung (May Lo). As he searches for his daughter, he becomes close to both women but in this world getting close to anyone is a sure recipe for disappointment and tragedy. Young thug on the make Pang (Simon Yam in his grinning vicious acting days) takes a dislike to all three of them and this leads to a whole lot of mayhem and dying. Andy Lau shows up for a small but active role as a gunman from Canada who comes over to help Lung take care of what needs taking care of. Also popping in are David Wu as a Karaoke heartthrob, Dennis Chan as a hotel manager, Ku Feng as an old time Triad boss and Melvin Wong as a cop who has a few lines and then must have been off to another film.  One clearly senses that a few of these actors were in and out in a day or two. Those were the days when they were all doing multiple films at the same time. Nothing really special here but some solid action with a good melodramatic core makes it an easy enjoyable watch. And Elizabeth Lee is lovely though there isn’t enough of her but she must have considered this good training for her role a few years later in Love to Kill.


My Rating: 6.5