October 24, 2006


MEMORIES OF MATSUKO I've seen a bunch of movies recently and thought I'd just get all the reviewing out of the way in a manner that doesn't slow down your life.

NIGHTMARE DETECTIVE - people are mixed on Shinya Tsukamoto's most mainstream movie to date. I thought it was one of three great movies I saw at Pusan. It's the X-FILES meets NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET with great remake potential and a lot more humor than I had anticipated. Who would've thought that Tsukamoto could become the Soderbergh of Japan?

THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME - absolutely fantastic. Limited animation, but a great story. If you've got any tolerance for high school tales then this flick's for you. Why aren't American teen movies this good?

MEMORIES OF MATSUKO - it's CITIZEN KANE meets MOULIN ROUGE from the director of KAMIKAZE GIRLS and I haven't seen a better film all year.

DORM - this Thai ghost story is better than most and has some nice character development as well as an emotionally murky and dark plot. But I could do without the final reel that wraps up every single loose end while playing inspirational muzak.

BRAVE STORY - Fuji TV's big budget animated film is perfectly fine. It looks pretty, it's well-animated, the story is reasonably engaging, but there was a real "been there, done that" feel to it.

YO YO GIRL COP - is it possible that a movie with lesbian schoolgirl suicide bombers can be boring? Yes.

PAVILION SALAMANDRE - every now and then a movie from another planet lands in my DVD player. Not bizarre like FUNKY FOREST but a definite result of looking at the world via the ninth dimension. Is it good? Is it bad? Can't tell. But it's definitely unique and weaves a loopy hypno-spell all its own.

October 24, 2006 at 09:03 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (2)

October 20, 2006


IN THE MOOD FOR GORE A long time ago, Subway Cinema held a retro celebrating Hong Kong horror movies called IN THE MOOD FOR GORE. We took it very seriously and watched an awful lot of flicks before picking 11 movies that we screened for a week around Halloween:


Oddly enough, the flops were the classics like DR. LAMB and UNTOLD STORY, while everything else got a great turn-out. The most disturbing moment was hearing the audience split their sides laughing during RED TO KILL a movie I take way too seriously.

And the most fun was having a kid who'd driven 3 hours for the festival come out of the theater during ETERNAL EVIL OF ASIA, passing out and have a seizure (it might have been another movie, but I'm pretty sure it was EEOA). Being the nice guys we are we took him to the ER then let him sleep on our couch so he didn't die on his drive home.

You can read all the reviews for these movies (and boy are they long) over on the IN THE MOOD FOR GORE site, and don't miss the FOLLOW THAT ACTOR feature. It's fun!

October 20, 2006 at 01:50 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

October 19, 2006


Over the years, I've had to watch a lot of movies. A LOT of movies. Including many that I wouldn't give the time of day to unless someone was paying me to watch them. Below are shorter and longer reviews of some of the cheap flicks I've sat through from Hong Kong in the past. I love cheap movies and some of these have been a lot of fun (KILLERS FROM BEIJING) but some have been real dogs (X-COP GIRLS). Let my suffering be your purchasing guide. Enjoy.

Directed by: Cheung Bing-chan
Starring: Anthony Wong, Carrie Ng, Li Fei

In today's content-starved HK film industry with Anthony Wong available for the price of a good dinette set every half-coherent student film can secure a release. And they all star Anthony Wong: BARONESS, THE LEGENDARY TAI FEI, STORY OF PROSTITUTES. And X-COP GIRLS: the story of Anthony Wong and his hatchet-faced partner enjoying a series of meals and light snacks in Mainland China.

Joining them for this epic dining experience is Lily's friend, Ling, who invites her friend Wendy Wu (Carrie Ng - slumming) to their sit-down dinners. Wendy helps Anthony find his prey, Tong Hak, a smuggler of five and dime antiques who has been led into trouble because he told his subordinates not to smuggle counterfeit money in his chintzy teapots but they just won't listen! All of this is of ancillary interest to the main plot which involves eating. In the first 41 minutes Ling, Lily, Anthony, and Wendy put away 6 sit-down dinners and one snack.

Eventually the plot hoists itself up from the table and lumbers into action for three spiffy fights. Wendy Wu gathers her heavily armed yaya sisterhood for an assault on a cargo yard previously seen in an homage to the successful children's video, MAKE WAY FOR FORKLIFTS. Much of the action unfolds in a room loaded with cardboard boxes where Tong Hak endlessly quizzes his employee, John.

"John, when will we ship the stuff to Afghanistan?"
"John, are they at packaging shop or the container site?"
"The packaging shop."

Couple this with many, many cutaways to Tong Hak's henchies nudging each other and exchanging meaningful looks. What do they want? Do they have to go to the bathroom? We're never sure, but what cares have we for narrative in a movie this strange? Although the editor, Chang Kwok-kuen, does all the heavy lifting here, the movie seems to be suffering from a fatal mix up in which the good footage was sent to the incinerator and the trimmed ''junk'' was sent to the lab to be edited into a movie.

Directed by: Kong Yuek-shing
Starring: Anthony Wong, Cheung Yee-tung, Chan Chiu-chiu

This formless flick is an accidental art film split into two parts, an abstract relational drama where no one relates, and a slice-of-life junior triad picture with Anthony Wong at its loosely packed center. Three locations - a dance club where everyone is fevering, a streetside restaurant, and Jack's apartment - are used throughout. Jack has decided to pay his debts by pimping, under the guidance of "live and let live" Mike (Samuel Leung - el cheapo Sam Lee of the New Millennium) and his first girls are the interchangeable Coco and Bobo whose names don't even appear in the subtitles until the last fifteen minutes. The girls take to the hooker's life like ducks to water and follow Jack around his apartment like attention-starved cats trying to initiate group sex. Jack seems uninterested.

"The girls are goods," says Anthony Wong as Uncle Tony, a bike shop owning vulgarian introduced in a close-up crotch shot while picking at his own bulge. To him the triads are a service industry and he runs his like a corporate management specialist: paying Mike's debts, transferring him to Mongkok, dispensing advice and discussing social problems. He has a relationship of sorts with an older prostitute who hangs out at the dance club dispensing hardboiled aphorisms and listening to Wong's wooing words ("Lily, where did you buy my underwear?")

The assistant director of FALLEN ANGELS, Kong Yuek-shing films the apartment and the inevitable sex scenes (very few of these) like an Iron Maiden video aspiring to artistic impenetrability. But his sweltering street scenes of young guys in tight beefy-t's guzzling Thai iced coffee and trying to cool down in a sweltering Hong Kong heat wave while they pick at each other and manage their business has a nature documentary feel to them.

The strangest figures in the flick are Coco and Bobo who seem to reflect back what someone thinks they are. They service 20-30 customers a day and come away raring for more sex with Jack. They rarely eat, prowl his apartment in lingerie, and, most disconcertingly, call him "Daddy". Their final betrayal comes from nowhere and seems totally amoral which is the only novelty in this strange, perplexing, somewhat fascinating addition to the pimps and chickens genre.

Directed by: Chin Man-kei
Starring: Samuel Leung, Sophie Ngan

A greasy-food-fueled nightmare after watching KILLER SNAKES on late-night TV this is one of the dirtiest movies from Hong Kong in a long time. Samuel Leung (him again) plays a relentless masturbator who douses himself with baby oil and lives in grampy's herb shop. Grampy, in a perverse bit of logic, won't teach Sammy how to be an herb doctor because Sammy is too pervy for him. Which is weird when you think about it: "Grandson, you are worthless and I could teach you a useful trade but forget about it. You're worthless."

Eventually Gramps is killed by a POV camera shot and Sammy takes over the family business, getting his mitts into the forbidden medicine chest and using a combination of aphrodisiacs and poisons to take his revenge on a world that done wronged him.

A gooey, sweaty movie dripping with fluids this flick sports an agreeably sleazy tone for the first hour, like a glistening hamburger dropped in the dirt. The last half-hour is sadly traditional, but come on! It's worth sticking around for the ridiculous fake erection that Sam sports throughout half the running time. Poor guy. With a freakish appendage like that no wonder he's got problems.

Directed by: Soi Cheang
Starring: Poon Mei-kei, Chan Chin-pang, Cheung Tat-ming, Carrie Ng, Hui Siu-hung, Chan Kwok-bong

If ambition and good intentions counted for anything, DIAMOND HILL would be the best movie of 2000. With a cast consisting of Carrie Ng, Milkyway alums Maggie Poon (SPACKED OUT) and Hui Siu-hung, and comedian Alfred Cheung you won't find a movie with better actors doing better work than in this icy-fingered ghost story. Alfred Cheung Tat-ming does Oscar-worthy work, his home videos rivaling Takeshi Kaneshiro's FALLEN ANGELS tapes for poignant laughs. Carrie Ng plays a mother whose daughter may as well be another country; when they interact, Ng wears the tense expression of someone trying to understand complicated instructions in a foreign language. Maggie Poon is Carrie's daughter, whose entire life is a dark, strange ride and whose whisper can send chills down your spine.

The first urban gothic from Hong Kong, DIAMOND HILL is made with all the technical precision of THE SIXTH SENSE. Tremendously accomplished it spends so much time in flashbacks that eventually the present day seems more like a flash forward. The beauty of the film is its unexpectedness, and I would hate to ruin the experience for anyone so I'll limit my plot comments. In fact, I'll cut them out completely except to say that just when you figure out where this movie is going it cuts across lanes and veers off into the night leaving the image of Maggie Poon, legs pumping, racing down the middle of the nighttime streets in her school uniform imprinted on your retinas.

Upon its release, this movie barely made HK$7,000 and more's the pity. The VCD seems to have been filmed off a stained tv screen, but it features readable English and Chinese subs. The grotty VCD transfer ultimately aids its cause, creating a story barely seen out of the corner of your eye. DIAMOND HILL has its problems, so don't let my praise get your hopes up too high. It's ultimately a small movie, but it's about people who're defying logic, reason, biology, and every form of common sense to remake the world into somewhere they can live. That's certainly a taller order than TOKYO RAIDERS tried to fill.

As a note, director Soi Cheang has gone on to make HORROR HOTLINE...BIG HEAD MONSTER, HOME SWEET HOME and DOG BITE DOG. To my mind, however, DIAMOND HILL remains his best film.

Directed by: Leung Hung-wa
Starring: Michael Wong, Kathy Chau, Gabriel Harrison, Jason Chu

I had fun because somebody obviously loves this movie, most likely its writer/director/producer Leung Hung-wa (who also wrote and produced TAXI HUNTER. What does that say about a person when TAXI HUNTER is their career high?). Somehow, Leung managed to convince Kathy Chau to come back to the silver screen following a two year absence (Chau's last performance was in the terrific CHEAP KILLERS, and she probably had the good sense to quit while she was ahead). Not only that, but Leung managed to get Michael Wong (a Bad Movie Omen if there ever was one) AND Jason Chu (Y&D 1-5, STORMRIDERS, THE BLADE) to come onboard for this flick, as well. This guy must be one smooth talker, or one bad boy.

The plot follows five orphans with "powerful" names: WIND, DRAGON, and two others that I would guess are FIRE and MICHAEL EISNER, but I can't be sure. There's also Six Days (Kathy Chau) who comes out of prison after murdering a loan shark who murdered her dad (yes, it's one of those "righteous sociopath" movies). She hooks back up with her gang of orphans and they decide that they're going to get $8 million HK dollars by hassling people for a week. They take cabs and swipe the cabbie's wallets, they pick pockets and rob people placing bets at the Jockey Club, while a bad guitar riff plays. These kids are BAD to the BONE! One of them even has the audacity to wear a Bon Jovi shirt and then strut around town as if he owned it! And after Kathy Chau gets a few thousand from a business lady in a pink Chanel knock-off suit she bumps her head. She gets the money and SHE STILL BUMPS HER HEAD! Lock up your sons!

Michael Wong, meanwhile, plays Vodka - a cop who shot another cop while drunk. He and his boss have a beautiful scene, right out of the "Scenes for Young Actors Workbook" where his boss offers some desultory advice on going to court. Frankly, if he's going to defend himself against charges of drinking on the job I suggest he change that name. Kathy beds Michael (Ugh!) and we get to see how chunky he's gotten over the past couple of years. Method acting, or chocolate chip cookies?

The orphan kids also run afoul of a Falun Gong-esque cult called the Wanqui (pronounced "Wankey") Group that seems to be some kind of consciousness-raising seminar for Klansmen. One of the orphans kills the brother of the cult leader and the Wanq-ers get pretty miffed. This death is a cinematic first, as it represents the first time someone has been killed by a flashback. The guy gets beaten with a pipe, gets in his car, drives ten miles, talks to his brother, has a flashback to getting beaten with a pipe and then black goo squirts from the back of his head and he drops to the floor. Talk about your ninja death touch!

At this point, one is wondering who's dumber: the actors for being in this movie, or the characters in the movie for thinking they can raise $8 million is 6 days by being annoying. If you guessed the characters, you're right! They only raise one million in six days so to make up the rest they kidnap a millionaire, and while waiting for the ransom money to arrive they have a pool party at his house. Awesome! They smoke cigarettes, drink red wine, and talk with their mouths full. They're young. They're dangerous. Do I smell a franchise?

No. The whole movie ends with betrayal and a mass knifing using some of the longest kitchen knives known to man. I mean, these knives go in your back, protrude three inches out your front and into another person and then protrude out THEIR front as well.

The general ineptitude of the whole affair is magnificently entertaining: A GAME OF NO RULE, indeed, has no rules. This movie is produced by Bad Boy Film Culture, Ltd. and really tries hard to be edgy, daring different, and high octane. However, by the end, I felt as if I was being surrounded and menaced by a bunch of soft toys. Irritating? Yes. Scary? No. In fact, by the time I walked out of the theatre the scariest thing I could think of was being trapped in an apartment with these five intensely irritating actors. And as I'd already experienced the cinematic equivalent, and survived, I had no fear. In fact, I went into the nearest deli, and bought a bottle of water, using a dollar, two dimes, AND A CANADIAN NICKEL. With this five cent stake to start me I know that I can make my eight million in four days.

Directed by: Michael Wong
Starring: Michael Wong, Simon Loui, Moses Chan, Cecilia Yip

The greatest show on earth is watching a celebrity implode as they direct/produce/star in a vehicle with "special meaning"; disintegrating into black holes of hubris. But many of these projects start from a crumb of talent. Michael Fitzgerald Wong starts his dream project with none. God love him.

Playing Hong Kong detective, Miles Ma, Wong keeps trying to draw people into long, improvised scenes done in English. They are very frightened. Early on he traps fellow cop, CK (Moses Chan), in a meandering improv about work and who's going to fly his helicopter now that his wife is dead. Michael Wong might as well be talking about fish for dinner with all the emotion he puts into his voice. Moses Chan seems relieved when he leaves, although his later framing and attempted destruction of Miles could be because he's been driven insane by this kind of actory behavior.

The other main character, Miles' love interest, Janis Wong (Cecilia Yip), is left in the dust when Wong improvises a fight between the two of them, doing both voices, convinces himself that he's wrong, and storms off to a bar where he guzzles apple juice leaving Yip uttering a very confused "oh..." in his wake. Michael/Miles loves improvising and since he is the directer, producer, star and writer of this movie it's improvising he gets. When characters leave a scene Michael Wong looks wistfully after them. "I wish we could have improv-ed for longer," he seems to be thinking. And don't worry your pretty little heads: Michael is able to take on his production tasks with no discernible impact on his acting. He could've been "Special Assistant to Ms. Yip's Hair Stylist" and turn in the exact same desultory performance.

Plotwise, Miles Ma mostly spends his time reading the same article in a magazine over and over again, eventually venturing forth and cracking a pirate VCD ring. Driven insane by extended improv, CK frames Ma for the rape and attempted murder of a prostitute and the movie swiftly revolves around DNA evidence. Miles' partner, Tommy, hits the street to sniff out some clues, questioning a fruit vendor and a man getting off a bus. Neither of them know anything about DNA. Eventually the forces of good are defeated by the forces of evil and Michael Wong gets out of jail. One would think of this as a totally bad thing until one realizes there is no longer capital punishment in Hong Kong and at least out on the street Michael might get hit by a bus.

If one artifact from our civilization can be saved let's hope it's this one. While Jet Li is starring in FEARLESS and Jackie Chan is using RUSH HOUR 3 as a showcase the fact that Michael Wong's Hollywood calling card is MILES APART will prove to future generations that, yes, we did have a sense of humor.

Directed by: Vincent Wan and Lam Kin-lung
Starring: Vincent Wan and Carrie Ng (which is all you really need to know)

It's not just the white people...
Vincent Wan (Ben Hon of YOUNG & DANGEROUS fame) has his own white elephant: THE WARNING TIME, which he co-directed, wrote and starred in. An entry in the "just got outta jail" genre, THE WARNING TIME eschews the genre's obligatory docudrama approach, attacking its material from an oblique angle. It uses a gaggle of credit card scamming teens as the entrance ramp into Vincent Wan's life-on-ice angst, then abandons said teens once the Vincent Wan/Carrie Ng engine is purring, returning to them briefly for a downbeat epilogue.

The movie rapidly drops any pretense of exploring Wan's psyche when it smells blood: Carrie Ng. Which is fortunate because Carrie Ng is the only thing onscreen with a pulse. Predictably, she lays waste to all she comes in contact with. The teeny tiny teen actors lay in the wreckage of their own pitiable talent, wheels spinning, smoke billowing up when their scenes come into contact with hers.

Packed tight with more talent than it deserves (Vincent Wan; Carrie Ng; Roy Cheung and Tommy Wong as a pair of barstool muppets; Yu Rong-guang as Brother Sik who marries Carrie while Vincent's in the slammer and then inexplicably hires Vinnie as his driver) there's no hiding the low budget: cars blow up offscreen and when some production values appear (in the form of two coked-up ballroom dancers) the camera tends to give them more than enough time to strut their stuff. More than enough.

A randy soundtrack and some visual sass makes this a cut above standard bottom of the barrel cut rate fare, and the movie has long been a dream of Wan's. The VCD looks like it was filmed off a bus station TV which is too bad, because at times it's almost able to convince you that it's really worth watching.

Directed by: Tony Leung
Starring: Blackie Ko, Joey Meng, Anthony Wong, Michael Tse

Brick, Mo, and Blondie wanted to knock off the triads but they didn't count on Anthony Wong urinating on them. Then he upchucked on their shirts. Drooled a little, blew his nose, and starting throwing up again. A science project in putridity, running like a tap at both ends, Anthony Wong gets off the fast bus of his career to lend a little snot power to this quickie remake of Japan's GONIN.

RETURN TO DARK trades in Takashi Ishii's "any which way but straight" perversity for a fistful of action movie riffs. The Japanese influence on Hong Kong movies was bound to end this way: with all-out appropriation, and it's interesting that what the director chose to lose were the gay relationships, assuming that Hong Kongers may not be ready for dueling gay couples on opposite sides of a bag of money, smoking hogleg pistols in hand (although Clarence Fok's CHEAP KILLERS suggests otherwise).

Anthony and his mop-up boys trundle about for twenty minutes before remembering the plot and then they break into triad headquarters and find millions in the safe instead of the expected thousands. In their giddiness they forget all the rules of robbery (don't quit your job, don't flash the cash, and never brag about it) and bring down the wrath of triad enforcers, Blackie Ko and Joey Meng, two peroxide blonde lovebirds who do couples bathing in vats of red wine. My goodness! Ko is playing the Takeshi Kitano role from GONIN and acts circles around everyone else in the movie, although his entire face seems paralyzed. Which is most likely a totally tasteless impersonation of Takeshi Kitano's facial injury. Meng likes to collect sticks and sea shells and make them into picture frames (seriously - it says so in his online bio).

In a neat joke on its probable fate, the pic ends in a movie theatre showing the crampingly bad Michael Wong/Kathy Chau vehicle, A GAME OF NO RULE. There're five people in the audience and none of them are there to see RETURN TO DARK. They've probably already returned it to Blockbuster.

TAKE TOP (2000) VCD TAKE TOP (2000)
Directed by: Ng Doi-yung
Starring: Tommy Wong, Vincent Wan, Samuel Leung, Anthony Wong

With Tommy Wong, Vincent Wan and Samuel Leung in the cast and Anthony Wong playing a stoned pot of simmering evil this is MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, triad style. A gambling ship provides the backdrop for this slasher flick/triad drama that plays out like a bad dream with a weird, loopy logic all its own.

Saying more would ruin what plot there is, but one has to admit that seeing TAKE TOP is a unique experience. You don't keep watching because it's good, but because you have no clue as to what's going to happen next. It's not a bad movie, but it certainly isn't good. Filmed in black and white and with a voice-over by Ed McMahon it would be a cult classic. As it is it's just a cult.

Directed by: Bosco Lam
Starring: Wong Git, Gigi Lai, Sonny Chiba

Never has a movie been so fraught. Ominous music, grimly canted camera angles, and a main character, Fun Li, with the mope-topped haircut of the gloomiest of goth rockers. Wong Jing acolyte, Bosco Lam, filmed this odd drama about alcoholism and infanticide in snowiest Korea, and the ice-encrusted landscapes match the chill in its heart. It’s not a swordplay flick, but a Lifetime movie for the sword-slinging set.

Fun Li is a sloppy wastrel, a drunk who spends most of his wedding day gazing at the bottom of an upturned jug. His wife, Cher (Gigi Lai, looking psychotic) isn’t happy about this, and neither is his dad, a magisterial Sonny Chiba. Marriage, as usual, doesn’t turn out to be the magic cure for alcoholism, and Fun spends his days and nights in Ancient Chinese Nightclub, flicking chopsticks at a saucy dancing girl who can apparently cook wine in her cleavage. He won’t come home, he won’t sober up, he won’t even respect his dad (billed as "Mr. Chiba").

Dad shows up and, as per the tenets of tough love, drags Fun home by his hair. Hair pulling seems to work, and Fun vows to change his ways. Everyone is thrilled to no end, except terminally unhappy Cher. Inconsolable, she takes a horseback ride and meets Kim Mo-Hon, a spiky-haired Korean who plays a big drum. Their exchange is wordless. Intimate. Then he punches her horse in the head. Bloods spatters her face. Ah, romance.

From there things get complicated for no other reason than feature films need to run 90 minutes these days. Not to worry: Bosco Lam is ambitious, and LEGEND OF THE FLYING SWORDSMAN comes across like THE BLADE, only without the style or the swordfights.


An interesting look into what pampered acting-school graduates think constitutes THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. This shot-on-video Hong Kong remake is supposed to evoke soul-chilling terror in the woods, but it mostly evokes a skull-splitting headache. A full-screen VCD, shot in synch sound with absolutely no subtitles whatsoever, the most star power it can muster up is a TEMPTING HEART mouse pad, which conveys more presence and authority than everyone else in the cast put together.   

The plot concerns a young lady who dreams that she is stuck in the woods and can’t move. She calls her friend on the phone to talk about it. They call their friend on the phone. The two friends meet in the park and decide to call a third friend on the phone. The three of them meet in the park. They talk, then they go home and call each other on the phone, again. This goes on for quite some time until they finally decide that, for the sake of the audiences’ patience, they better get their hineys into the woods.

This being Hong Kong, the "woods" are never very far from safety railings or concrete abutments, and the kids even take their cell phones with them which takes a little of the edge off of being lost. Being bad actors, the most they can manage in the "fear for your life" department is some lethargic shuffling. Finally the ultimate terror shows its face: it is them. The audience will understand and run screaming. One of the young ladies, Cherry, goes missing. The movie ends.

Don’t forget that through this all runs Simon Loui who appears in five scenes. Is he someone’s dad? A concerned bystander? Trying to stop this movie from being made? We never know, but by the time NEW DEAD PROJECT 2 rolls around he’s taken a hike. 

NEW DEAD PROJECT 2 is more of the same. The kids seem to be upset about the disappearance of Cherry, but it’s hard to tell. They might just be worried about their cel phone bills. Suddenly Cherry shows up (it's that kind of movie), just in time for another trip back into the "woods" (read: large park). Vanishing seems to have done nothing for her acting.

In the park the actors get to scream at one another, run around in circles, stab one another with twigs, and finally come out unscathed, just in time for Simon Loui to show up and furrow his brow meaningfully.

Anyone who’s ever argued that Hong Kong movies are more kinetic, more exciting and more fun than movies from other countries should watch NEW DEAD PROJECT immediately.

Directed by: Albert Mak
Starring: Roy Cheung, Ruby Wong, Lam Suet, Simon Loui

The influence of Milkyway Image on the HKSAR film industry generates a weird (WEIRD) ripple effect with this postmortem comedy that runs hot, cold, colder, hot, odd, warm, and then cold all over again. Roy Cheung reprises his pimp-on-the-town role from THE MISSION, playing Young, a genius gambler and professional boot-licker, who supplies women and a fourth hand at cards for after-dinner, all-male get-togethers.

A poker party goes awry, resulting in Roy's clients getting dead. Heaven (portrayed as a police line-up crossed with an expensive downtown boutique) won't let them in so they go to Roy's place. He, logically, wants nothing to do with these losers.

These ghosts are big bores who prove to be totally inept at ghosting. Lam Suet is thrilled with his new role as a ghost, Louis Yuen is bored, and Simon Loui is anxious. Defeated mopes, when thieves break into Roy’s home they just sit and watch them strip it bare. When he comes home they confess that they’re upset to lose the tv. Now what’re they going to do all day?

Meanwhile, Roy falls in love with Carman (Ruby Wong) a woman who likes Teletubbies, Wong Jing films and borscht, although you’d never guess it to look at her. While the romance proves a little thick going, it’s the unscripted fun of these five good actors set loose in this stinky funhouse of a movie that provides the yucks. Featuring an annoying all-synthesiser score I still can't tell if I liked it.

MAN WANTED 3 (2000) DVD MAN WANTED 3 (2000)
Directed by: Sam Ho
Starring: Simon Yam, Allen Ting, Simon Loui, Danny Lee

MAN WANTED 3 has nothing in common with MAN WANTED 1 or 2, and a lot in common with a PSA telling kids not to use credit cards to pay off other credit cards.

Simon Yam plays John Paul, author of a significant portion of the New Testament and one of the two Eagles of Mongkok (the other one is dead), zazzing about in his Ferrari and telling cops with loans to pay up or else. He drinks nightly lemon coffees tenderly poured by the dead other-Eagle-of-Mongkok’s gal, Mui, and he lovingly brings her over-the-counter tummy medicine that she is inexplicably unable to buy for herself.

Tung is a triad wannabe with the disconcerting ability to waggle his eyebrows independently of each other, who gets taken on by Brother Windy when he saves his hide from Alien (Simon Loui in impacted Terminator mode) by sucking down two bottles of warm VSOP cognac. Tung thinks Brother Windy’s going to make him a star, but instead he winds up peddling knock-off Prada in a night market.

Tung, Ekin hairdo aflutter in the night winds, also goes to nightschool where he falls for teacher, lethargic Ms. Ho, and runs into trouble with Kit who’s been taken on by Alien and who is Mui’s son! Relax: absolutely everyone in this movie will wind up discovering they are a blood relative by the end.

Things spend 87 minutes building to a hopefully-satirical John Woo climax, with plenty of stops for PSAs on the dangers of hemp, a little pathos, a little "the kid’s alright", and lots of scenes of Simon Yam screeching in at the last minute in his Ferrari to sort everyone out.

With a cinematic feel for deserted neon cityscapes, this flick makes the most of its b-list material with a winning bad guy performance (Simon Loui looks like a really mean, newly-hatched chicken), some nicely-choreographed action, and enough father-son subtext to fuel a dozen Shaolin style kung fu flicks.

In a neat bit of self-referential feedback, Simon and Alien’s boss is played by Brother Ko, Simon Yam’s boss in THE MISSION, causing some scenes around the conference table to feel like out-takes from the aforementioned film.

As an added bonus, Simon Yam continues to mystically turn in flawless work in flawed movies and his scenes with Simon Loui actually look like acting. "You should know me," he hisses to Alien at one point, "Don’t turn on my nerve." Yeah. What he said.

Directed by: Lau Bo-yin
Starring: Patrick Tam, Chin Kar-lok, Michael Tong, Samuel Leung

The meisterwerk of StormRiders Management Co. this is a guys with guns movie that manages to be traditional and innovative at the same time. Attacking its material like it was Shakespeare it spotlights four ex-PLA soldiers recruited for a job in Hong Kong and it rapidly becomes LONG ARM OF THE LAW Y2K version.

Patrick Tam is terrific as the team leader, and for those who like their Chin Kar-lok straight up this is a full meal in and of itself. Ho Ka-kui has been away from the screen for a long time and he makes a dazzling return here playing a sleazy village chief.

The action is cut-rate, but by the time it boils over in a COOLIE KILLER inspired final shoot-out lit only by the red glow from the family shrine you'll feel more than satisfied. THE BLOOD RULES erred by biting off more than the low budget could chew. KILLERS hits the mark. High class entertainment? Weeeell, maybe not. But if Hong Kong had drive-ins this is what would be onscreen.

Directed by: Sam Ho
Starring: Billy Lau, Anthony Ngan, Diana Pan-dang, Emily Kwan, Hui Shiu-hung

In 2000, the light romantic comedy became Hong Kong’s genre du jour – star-studded cotton candy dreams like NEEDING YOU, OKINAWA RENDEZVOUS, AND I HATE YOU SO continued the trend from 1999, epitomized by such kissy-faced bliss as FLY ME TO POLARIS, and FASCINATION AMOUR. Then, like a blop of mustard on the tip of your nose, comes HONG KONG HAPPY MAN.

Lewd, crude and totally irredeemable, HONG KONG HAPPY MAN is not a date movie. It’s the kind of movie that guys, single for far too long, watch when their minds have warped, but not yet snapped. Exerting a hypnotic pull on the unwary viewers’ eyeballs it is a flat-out, low-down sex farce (although its producers probably can’t spell "farce"), that hijacks the standard tropes of the romantic comedy genre for its own lowbrow purposes.

Whatever happened to Just Talk Advertising comapny? The parents of the current staff created brilliant masterpieces of advertising for life-enhancing products like diarrhea pills, Loser’s Condoms, and the tentpole of their company: Green Grass Vegetable Water. Their children are another story entirely: eyes magnetically drawn to every woman’s bust, noses hemorrhaging alarmingly at every tight caboose that walks by, these kids are no kings, but trash! And their clients are taking the work, en masse, to rival All Blood Advertising.

And so they should. Nonsee, Wai, Fan, and their receptionist in heat, Toto, are a bunch of losers with the work ethic of chimps, barely kept in line by swift kicks to the nuts administered by boss, KY (Hui Shiu-hung). At the bottom of their game, Client Wong comes to the Just Talk agency to bid his old pal, KY, sayonara. As he leaves, he spots downloaded porn on a laptop, specifically he spots the girl it features. She is sportive, energetic, and has a healthy smile. She’ll make the perfect Green Grass Vegetable Water spokesmodel.

Find me this girl! He commands, and thus the plot is launched. Tracking her down requires a trip to Thailand, which thrills our dirty birds to no end: "All Thai girls are wild, sexy, easy to find," crows one. With the help of ex-kick boxer, and straight arrow, Rocky, our hapless crew of horny toads loads up on condoms and sets off. Oddly enough, Wai is especially eager to go, despite the fact that his wife is Diana Pan Dang, grade-z Hong Kong sexpot, here wearing an octopus on her head and a tight leotard strapped around her assets.

Once in Thailand, the guys want to find massage girls, Toto wants to seduce Rocky, Pearl (the topless Grail of their noble quest) wants to stay away from advertising, Rocky wants to stay away from Toto, Diana Pan Dang and her galpal Winnie arrive to save Wai from the temptations of infidelity, and the degraded grotesquerie hits the fan, and then splatters all over the wall. Like a horrible car wreck, it’s hard to look away.

The stunned viewer, ambushed by this mind-twisting display of vulgarity, is left with this moral echoing in their skull: "Thai guys are dirty, but Hong Kong guys are even dirtier."

Starring: Anthony Wong, Simon Loui, Chan Chin-fuk
Directed By: Zeng Wai-man

Meet the Spirit Saucer: an upside down ashtray that drives men bananas. A Satanic Speak N’Spell that operates like the Western Ouija board, this is the first I’ve seen of it in a movie, and wouldn’t you know it? A bunch of kids have got one on a camping trip and they’re monkeying around with it. Wouldn’t you know it? Their campfire attacks them and before we know it they’re BBQ.

Segue to Mr. Chueng, King of Tutors, who’s using their death as a word problem in caloric consumption. A little macabre, but okay. Cheung is about to get married to his girlfriend of ten years, but he’s only got eyes for rare steak and his teaching assistant, Miss Fanny, when he’s not fending off the "won’t take no for an answer" advances of racy students, Joyce and Amy. Well, wouldn’t you know it but during an intense Dance Dance Revolution session Joyce and Amy find a Spirit Saucer behind the Playstation. It’s especially chatty, and they can’t resist. First it’s the answers to the questions on their Chinese history exam (take that, King of Tutors!), then it’s Mark 6 numbers, then revenge on Ted, the ex-boyfriend.

Angry that Cheung has rejected their nubile bods for that of "bulky girl" Miss Fanny, Amy and Joyce use the Spirit Saucer to lure Cheung over to their house one night. Big mistake. The reason Cheung’s so weird? Lots of child abuse, murdering his dad, and a mom who may or may not still be alive. One look at the Spirit Saucer sets him off, and with the Casio keyboard set on Bossa Nova Cheung turns their house into the condo that dripped blood.

Enter Anthony Wong, a police officer who’ll only eat dinner while sitting on the toilet, who does a Columbo on Cheung, driving him further over the edge in an attempt to ensnare him. Over the edge Cheung goes, indeed, prompting a prostitute to murmur at one point, "You’re so unhygenic." But Anthony Wong is more so.

This expertly-constructed little horror flick takes some time to warm up but has plenty of low-key charms once its engine’s running: Simon Loui as a priest, Anthony Wong’s weird and wonderful performance, the ghost of a dead dad who shows up to offer relationship tips like, "Women are inferior. Kill her quick."

It’s movies like this that shine a little light into the darkness and help us learn the hard truths of life: you can’t be King of Tutors if you’re also busy being King of Maniacs.

October 19, 2006 at 01:03 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (4)

October 18, 2006


DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS It's October which means that everyone and their dog is engaged in some kind of lame SPOOK-tacular stunt to celebrate this pagan, devil-worshipping, hell-born holiday. Never one to let lameness pass me by, I'm celebrating Halloween on Kaiju SPOOK-down with reviews of horror movies. Some of you may have seen these before. Some of them may be old news. But here they are, all in one place and ready for you to SPOOK them. And when I say "SPOOK" I mean "read". And, just a note, but this is more of an essay about these movies than a review. If you're in it for the plot, then bail out now because I'm giving away the endings. Which is no great loss.

The years 1993 and 1994 were Hong Kong’s highwater mark for a certain style of bleak horror. The opening shot was Billy Tsang and Danny Lee’s DOCTOR LAMB and Simon Yam’s ON THE WATERFRONT - a masterpiece of a movie crafted around a totally unrestrained actorly leap into the void. No movie will make you feel more like you’ve just crawled through the sewers. It’s the first of its kind, and while its intensity and bloodshed is trumped by later films, it has the wild hallmark of true originality. You watch it and feel the floor break out from under the film makers as they crash through into unexplored depths of sleaze.

The grime kept coming with RUN AND KILL, and continued until Bloody Billy Tsang burnt out his dark light with his masterpiece RED TO KILL.

The neglected crown jewels of this period, however, are the Darkness movies: DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS, BROTHER OF DARKNESS, and DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS 2.

For Billy Tsang, BROTHER OF DARKNESS was a respite. A by-the-book Confucian nightmare full of castration angst with a finale in blood, it’s his gulp of breath after the unrestrained fury of RUN AND KILL and before he closed himself up into the claustrophobic apocalypse of RED TO KILL, an end-times slasher flick where armageddon is seen in the violation of women’s bodies. After RED TO KILL, Bloody Billy sank into a series of banal high-end rip offs from which he has yet to emerge.

Daughter But Ivan Lai Kai-ming’s DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS 1 & 2 craft a singular directorial vision of a hellish Chinese society chewing off its own legs and eating its young. DofD 1&2 are true feminist horror flicks, not in the New Age empowerment sense of "Thelma and Louise" or the male fantasy of SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT, but in the sense that the movie forces a feminist reading on the viewer. You cannot see these films as anything other than a brutal critique of the treatment of Chinese women. And a deserved one. In a country where boys are so consistently over-valued and the worth of women is so consistently undermined DofD 1&2 seem more like timely statements than hysterical exploitation.

Ivan Lai’s Darkness films are rejoinders to all the round-eye “tut-tut”-ing about Hong Kong filmmakers’ lack of political consciousness. What Westerners consider a “political consciousness” is really just pro-democracy good feelings (Zhang Yimou pretty much called it for what it was when he withdrew from the Cannes film festival several years ago). Ivan Lai’s Darkness films are bloody, gore-strewn consciousness raising classes for women, Asian and Caucasian, something the West hates as much as the East. Lai is political, it’s just not the politics that a group of entrenched male honkies (most film critics) feel comfortable with.

DoD 1 is a bloody re-telling of Cinderella, set in a nation of perverts, peeping toms, and petty thugs. The kick off happens in grand guignol fashion when Anthony Wong (playing the local PSB captain as a lewd Columbo) shows up at the site of a family home, family wiped out and home smeared in blood. Flashbacks ensue when he catches young survivor, Fong, and her boyfriend, Kip, trying to cover up the murder. After some “no, I did it” shenanigans, Anthony Wong cuts through the crap and plonks down Fong to tell the whole story. The horror is quickly revealed to be not the slaughter of the family unit, but the hideous abuse that the family unit enacted and hid from the world.


Papa (a gleeful Ho Ka-kui) is a rapacious, peanut shell wearing shrimper, and mom, son, and sis are all just different settings on the shrew-o-meter. Papa spies on and rapes Fong, repeatedly, and in response to people who claim these rapes are played for laughs, only a cold-hearted bastard could laugh at them the way they’re shot and edited. Throughout the movie the constant violations of privacy, the way everyone is in everyone’s business, evolves from light-hearted (Anthony Wong spying on Fong and Kip having sex from a neighbour’s balcony, or the local AIDS cure being sold by a group of village busybodies) to homocidal (Ho’s spying on Fong, his constant attempts to strip her of her privacy) and finally the spying is used as evidence of the person being spied on’s complicity in the spying. When Fong tries to call out Dad as a peeper the whole family runs to his defense:

Mama: He’s your papa. How will he peep at you?
Brother: Bitch, admit you want to be peeped at.
Papa: Your mom is here. How will I peep at you?

Fong is raped by her daddy. More than once. And even when her family sees it happening they look the other way. The final indignity is an allnight torture/sex fest her dad plans for her on her birthday. Maybe no one likes DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS because it answers the question of who did it: daddy did it, over and over again, and that’s why he gets it in the neck. But the structure of the movie is a no-win situation for Fong. After watching indignity after indignity piled on her head, the final bloodbath feels like a cathartic release, but the viewer still knows it’s a flashback, told from a police station, and that no matter how hard Kip begs for it, Fong will be the one executed for her crimes. The final execution is where the movie's two divergent tones meet: sexual vaudeville mingles with gutcruncher politics, striking a deeply unsettling note.

Despite the much ado made over the relentless sexual gore of the movie, the most chilling moment occurs with everyone clothed, and no karo syrup in sight. When Fong returns to her family’s home on her birthday night she walks right into the House of Pain living room her Daddy has ready for her. But before she enters there’s a shot of her standing outside the front door and unlocking it, returning home like on any other night. If you look, in the background, there is an almost identically-dressed young woman mirroring her entrance at the next house down in the row of bleak little homes. In a movie this cheap, that’s not an accident, that’s planned. And the implications of this little directorial touch echo back and forth throughout the entire movie. The domestic hell of Fong’s family is bad enough. But imagine a country where every house hides the same sickness? It’s not an anomaly. It’s a contagion.

Daughter_of_darkness DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS 2 sees much of the same cast return to make the same point, although the sequel manages to be less claustraphobic and more optimistic, downright sunny in comparision to its predecessor. This time Sau Yan, our Daughter of Darkness, sits the investigating cop down in a cemetary, “Comrade,” she says,”let me tell you a story.” This story’s all about arranged marriage, venereal disease, and a battle between two nuclear families: good new family, and old evil family.

This time around the bad family is a gang of kidnapping hillbilly perverts, set in opposition to Sau Yan’s new family (in utero baby and Ben Ng) and led by demented patriarch, Ho Ka Kui. They hold Sau Yan hostage, rape and torture her, and get it in the final stab down at her hands. Making the family someone else’s family opens up the movie and removes the incest onus so present in DoD 1, settling for gang rape as the crime du jour. The discovery of the butchered family is played straighter in this film as well, the cast devoid now of Anthony Wong’s manic comic performance. Perhaps weighed down by gloom, Ivan Lai decides to have Sau Yan kill herself rather than be arrested and executed for her crimes. There’s no yellow brick road, but humanity is certainly given some more play here, and even the investigating PSB officer can’t believe that Sau Yan committed any murders at all.

DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS 2 is most impressive for its desire to show everything. At one point, a virile young man has been procured to impregnate Sau Yan for her impotent husband (Ben Ng, who’s made a career playing degraded, impotent hunks). The arrangement is made, and at this point most movies would cut to the aftermath leaving the audience to imagine a beautiful night of lovemaking. Not so for Ivan Lai. He films a grueling  realtime sex scene: stud and wife going at it painfully and awkwardly while she holds her husband’s hand. The clincher comes later in the movie when Sau Yan, informed she is pregnant after being raped, takes matters in hand and performs an abortion on herself in the shower, while Ben Ng cluelessly waits in the other room. Now it’s one thing to talk about abortion rights and wrongs, and it’s another to watch someone use a coathanger to do it themselves. It’s a scene the viewer won’t be able to flush from their brains, and one that says more about back alley abortion than any fifty Lifetime movies.

It’s in this relentless desire to show every humiliation, every wound, every degradation in the lives of a bunch of people you may pass on the street and not think twice about, that Ivan Lai distinguishes his directorial vision. His protagonists work in sweatshops or rundown police stations full of quacking ducks. They steal money, go gaga over cheap imported dolls, and sell fake herbal remedies, desiring nothing more in life than to get married and have a family. The problem is, they often get what they want, not realizing that in one way or another it will kill them. Ultimately, like any good PSA, Ivan Lai’s DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS films revolve around the desire not to tell. Secrets are toxic, but they are what holds hearth and home together, and clamming up is too often equated with character. As an arrested gambler complains to Anthony Wong at the begining of DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS 1 “We are righteous men. We won’t tell on anybody.” To Ivan Lai, this is the most horrifying thing of all.

October 18, 2006 at 01:22 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (3)

October 17, 2006


Director Billy Tang Hin-sing says hi to Grady It's October which means that everyone and their dog is engaged in some kind of lame SPOOK-tacular stunt to celebrate this pagan, devil-worshipping, hell-born holiday. Never one to let lameness pass me by, I'm celebrating Halloween on Kaiju SPOOK-down with reviews of horror movies. Some of you may have seen these before. Some of them may be old news. But here they are, all in one place and ready for you to SPOOK them. And when I say "SPOOK" I mean "read". And, just a note, but this is more of an essay about these movies than a review. If you're in it for the plot, then bail out now because I'm giving away the endings.

Maybe he was having a nervous breakdown, otherwise how do you explain it? Starting as a competent yet hardly exciting director, Billy Tang Hin-sing appeared out of nowhere to direct a trilogy of pure urban terror unrivalled in its apocalyptic ferocity, and then went back to journeyman directing, seemingly with no regrets. His eight movies in the last four years show not the slightest hint of the gleeful perversity or rigidly deployed stylistics of his earlier work. His urban trilogy happened at a time of seeming political stasis in the HKSAR. People who could secure foreign passports had done so, and the rest had adopted a “wait and see” attitude towards the future. Unemployment was down, the economy was good, and Billy Tang was the black lizard at the base of the brain whispering, “Maybe this won’t work out, after all”.

The director of DOCTOR LAMB, RUN AND KILL (a scorched earth capitalist nightmare of urban living gone amock), and RED TO KILL (a cinematic transcription of the apocalypse with the HKSAR’s urban landscape standing in for the mind of a maniac) came from nowhere and went back to nowhere when he was done. These three movies are his living legacy, movies no one else could have made in any other country, at any other time.

After appearing in a martial arts movie called SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS in 1974, Billy Tang Hin-sing remained below English-speaker radar, presumably production managing and assistant directing his way around the film industry before his directorial debut in the generally forgettable Jet Li Goes America movie DRAGON FIGHT in 1988.

Rather than going on to direct another movie he again sunk out of sight, which leads one to believe that his directorial debut did not inspire confidence among investors. Four years later, Danny Lee and Kent Cheung Jat-si teamed up to film the true crime biopic of Lam Go-wan, a taxi driving serial killer. This was the first film for Kent Cheung’s new film production company, a company that went south three films later, sending Cheung into an economic hole that took him years to crawl out of. But that’s in the future. In 1992, Lee and Cheung brought on Billy Tang as a co-director (with Danny Lee) of their sleazie cheapie, and category III history was made.

DOCTOR LAMB DVD cover Much has been said about DOCTOR LAMB and it doesn’t need to be repeated here. However, it should be noted that it’s not the mutilations inflicted on his victims, or the depredations of the main character (a beautifully out-of-control Simon Yam) that shock the Western viewer, as much as it is the fact that Lam Go-wan was butchering prostitutes in a tiny three room apartment he shared with his entire extended family and everyone was so desperate not to ask questions that they never even noticed. The physical closeness of the Lam family was in direct contrast to the enormous emotional gulf that existed between them.

DOCTOR LAMB’s wild variations in tone are par for the course in HKSAR movies: slapstick comedy, police procedural, gory Shaw Brothers shocker. But like tuning into a distant radio station there is a dark place way down the dial we reach in some of Simon Yam’s solo set pieces that is more Billy Tang’s world than co-director Lee’s. The cop squad slapstick, the brutal interrogations, the shifting time frame - these tropes are all revisited in Danny Lee’s later works.

Lee, quite clearly, left the rough stuff up to Bloody Billy. These two men’s dueling visions - one a conflicted but dedicated believer in an ordered universe represented through dogged police work, the other a nihilist just begining to entertain his fascination with the violation of the human spirit - are locked into a directly oppostional relationship throughout the film. And the final scene with Lee and Yam makes it clear who wins: Danny Lee gazes into the abyss, only to find that the abyss is out at a discotheque and can't be reached. All a believer like Lee can do is walk away in disgusted defeat while Yam gibbers in his cell.


Lifting Kent Cheung and Simon Yam from DOCTOR LAMB, Bloody Billy’s urban nightmare came into sharper focus in the bluntly-titled RUN AND KILL the following year. Cheung plays the HKSAR everyman, making money, working hard, supporting his family: his adorable daughter, Pinky, and a wife who’s fed up with him and who humiliatingly strays from the marriage bed just long enough to pull someone else back into it with her. Cheung (also named Cheung in the film) reeling from her betrayal gets drunk and accidentally hires someone to kill her, pays them a deposit, passes out, and wakes up remembering nothing. The film comes on like a perky urban comedy, but by twenty minutes in all hell is breaking loose. A gang breaks into his house and via a series of high impact falls and two cleveage shots wife and lover are dead and Fatty Cheung’s life is spiraling out of control. From there he runs. Dashing desperately from one bad situation to another he comes to the end of the line with Fung, Simon Yam’s Vietnam veteran given to spontaneous nosebleeds and who slits throats like most of us wash our hands.

Bloody Billy wears his politics on his sleeve in RUN AND KILL. The site of Cheung’s deal with the devil is a trendy Lan Kwai Fong joint named 1997. The Hong Kongers in this film are out-of-control capitalists, buying and selling human life like so many tanks of propane. But Yam’s Fung is a different breed. He’s a nightmare Mainlander, straight out of the PRC’s blood-soaked past. He was in Vietnam, which is where committed revolutionaries (often the children of Communist party officials) went to fight against American imperialism during the confusion of the Cultural Revolution. They went unofficially and many were slaughtered, including Fung’s brother. Cheung believes in money, prosperity, and family. Fung believes in revenge, commitment to principles, and family. It’s nothing less than the PRC/HK cultural divide that dukes it out in RUN AND KILL. Later in the film a character comes on like Hong Kong, crying “I am only the middleman. I have done nothing. Why it’s a mess now?” A few seconds later she’s hitting the floor as bullets fly, paralyzed with fear.

Bloody Billy is a master of camerawork, and in RUN AND KILL he starts sharpening his chops. The film opens with a fixed, immobile camera, many conversations taking place in long, tightly-framed takes. This dead-on framing breaks into handheld hysteria and wild panning during the home invasion that leaves Cheung’s wife dead, the scene ending with an elegant fade out. In this third film he is already experimenting with geometric framing, lining up his characters in relationship to their environment. Movie screens, louvred windows, and doorways are used to carve up the frame into squares, rectangles and grids, a kind of cubist composition that will bear fruit in his next film.

Geography is all important to Bloody Billy in RUN AND KILL Nowhere is safe, the spirit of war infests every corner of the seemingly peaceful HKSAR: murder happens in homes, in movie theatres, in bars, and in factories. Over the movie hangs the ghost of Vietnam - it’s the conflict that shaped Fung’s character, it’s the place gang members go into hiding, and a Vietnamese refugee camp is a crucial location in the film.  Like fog, the murderous past of the PRC and Vietnam seep into every crack, filling up the empty spaces we thought of as safe. Characters run from the HKSAR to the PRC and back again. Doesn’t matter. Their sins follow them wherever they go.

“We have nothing in Hong Kong. Just lives.” one character says to Cheung. It takes the loss of everything he owns to make Cheung realize that despite all his materialist trappings, that’s all he has too.

Next up for Bloody Billy was the well-made but anticlimactic “Brother of Darkeness”. It contained his standard sense of workmanship, and marked the first time he worked with Money Lo and Lily Chung. Dealing with his normal theme of stress impacting on a family from within and without  it was little more than a gulp of fresh air before, nine months later, RED TO KILL was ripped from his brain. A traumatic story of the life of the mentally retarded in the HKSAR, RED TO KILL is celluloid shock treatment. A high-impact collision of fancy ideas and viscera.

Derek Yee first ground this territory through his camera in his first film, THE LUNATICS, in 1986 THE LUNATICS was a case of a socially engaged, concerned mind examining the fears of people living close to the mentally ill, the lack of money and understanding among higher ups in the Welfare Department, the thankless churn of social work, and the often tortured lives of the mentally ill themselves.Yee ended his movie with a note of hope,a recognition that concerned individuals will always step forward to fill the gap. 10 years later situations had hardly improved, the stigma of mental illness kept the mentally ill from being treated as human beings, and the system was handling a heavier case load worse. In 1984 audiences got the concerned social activist. In 1994, when the colony was prosperous and secure, they got the fevered, unhinged mind of Bloody Billy Tang. His is  an intellect with teeth, and rather than addressing fears, he exploited them.

RED TO KILLIn RED TO KILL, the HKSAR’s urban crudscape is kaledoscopically refracted through the camera lens into a Caligari nightmare of square-cut corridors teeming with the uncared for dregs of the HKSAR’s mental health system. Undiagnosed schizophrenics, the paranoid working class, and the mentally retarded, all warehoused in hulking concrete monoliths, their caretakers overloaded, underpaid and crazier than their charges.

The first ten minutes serve as a billboard that you’re now leaving moral territory, a double-barreled blast of moviemaking brio and twitchy homocidal impulse that no written description can ever really prepare you for. In one corner is a mother, eyes slit tight with paranoia, clutching her retarded kid and threatening to jump. In the other corner, in the same building, a woman in red is stalked by a jerking, sweating psychopath. With muscles ripped and rope-sized veins throbbing with venom he captures, kills and rapes her with the assistance of a squeaky toy. The music - Tangerine Dream synths, deep water sonar pings, raspy breathing - and the variable camera speeds clue us in early: we’re in mental territory. From here on in it’s a psychological free-for-all.

Billy Tang’s sickest and most subtle jokes are in this movie, as well as his most impressive cinematography. His brilliant mise en scene, sick joke shock edits, and precise geometric framing are all deployed to full effect. During a court scene, the passing of hours is depicted by two graceful blinks of the accused’s eyes. The plot often becomes secondary to the style, with the prowling camera and wide angle lenses taking in the triangulations of violated flesh in shockingly abstract arrangements that serve as their own statements. Humanity becomes a debatable point in this movie as the actors and the scenery serve the same agenda with much the same effect.

The plot involves a socially isolated social worker, Cheung Ka-lok (Money Lo), who takes responsibility for a retarded young woman, Ming Ming (Lily Chung), placing her in the Social Welfare Department Sheltered Workshop and Hostel, a light industry factory and dormitory located in a crumbling housing block. The first half of the movie is LEAN ON ME-inspired inspiration as Director Chan (Ben Ng), and Cheung help Ming Ming adjust to her new life in the hostel. She makes friends, learns to dance, jumps up and down, etc. But at night, the halls of the complex belong to the bogeyman, who whimpers and stumbles from floor to floor, dragging his over-muscled bulk behind him, searching for women dressed in red on which to vent his endless supply of homicidal energy. The other residents have formed a vigilante group to patrol their halls and they are starting to blame the mentally ill hostel residents for the crimes. As tensions build, humans arguing over their living arrangements and flinging groundless accusations back and forth, the bogeyman snuffles around just outside the light, picking off anyone stupid enough to stray after dark.

Cheung and Ming Ming become soul sisters, Cheung seeing something of her younger self in Ming Ming. And then the trap snaps shut. Ming Ming keeps blithely putting herself in the path of danger, and when it finally catches up with her there’s a nauseatinfg inevitability to it. From there on, it’s a bloody battle between Cheung and the rapist over Ming Ming’s heart. The rapist claims he wants to start a family with Ming Ming and marry her. Cheung knows Ming Ming can’t cope with this and she fights tooth and claw to keep it from happening. It’s like a traditional face-off between a suitor and his potential mother-in-law, and this triangle blurs the line between sex and mutilation so often that it quickly becomes irrelevant. By the end, sex and mutilation are one and the same.

Adding further complications to this bloody triangle is Billy’s Tang’s portrayal of the mentally retarded. He acknowledges their generally unacknowledged sexuality - most of them are, physically, adults. Few movies give the sexuality, self-mutilation, pain, horror, and genuine humiliation that can often go along with mental illness such centerstage attention. The welfare system is portrayed as being in a never ending state of flux: room mates are missing, the dead are carted about, people leave and never come back home, living situations are constantly adjusted and readjusted. Ming Ming is an adult in this film, and when the transient, joyless world of the welfare system is her only other option it makes the siren call of her tormentor that much more seductive.

Cheung’s motives are made just as suspect as the rapist's. Does she really care about Ming Ming or is she just looking for a human-sized pet to expend her mothering impulse on? Cheung’s and the rapist’s oppositional, yet equally violent, natures are furthered dileneated in the final showdown: the rapist walking through avalanches of soccer balls wearing a lycra Olympic outfit, swinging a sledgehammer, Cheung coming at him with an iron and fake flowers. It’s like watching a mother fight with a suitor over her daughter’s heart. Unfortunately, a translation problem in the subtitles has Cheung called a “bastard” over and over when in fact she’s being called a “bitch”, the traditional name for a woman who just won’t let a man have his way.

As for the actors, they launch into their deranged characterizations with adrenalized gusto. The rapist’s body turns out to be the movie’s greatest special effect as he turns into a blood-streaked killing machine. And Lily Chung turns in the performance of a lifetime. In terms of self-directed loathing, Ming Ming makes Carrie look restrained. By the time she takes a razor blade to her crotch the line between acting and being is crossed and she doesn’t look back once, off in a land of mondo brutality.

RED TO KILL is a movie that may have burned out its director. If ever a film plumbed the depths of darkness and horror and actually hit bottom, RED TO KILL is it. This is a movie that spirals down and down until it passes the point of no return. And then it doesn’t. The characters end up spinning out of control, dead, or locked in their own painful private worlds without comfort, or healing. Bloody Billy went on to direct a lot of workmanlike dreck, never again to reach the heights (or depths) of this urban trilogy during the course of which he mapped out the dark heart of the HKSAR. His later horror films like HAUNTED KARAOKE are fun, but his attitude towards horror is now distinctly slapstick and shows no sign of returning to darker waters. It’s too bad really. The world has lost a seriously disturbed director with a singular vision.

Billy Tang Hin-sing crafted a world where personal relations are poisonous, where families are more likely to do harm than anything else, where all distinction between sex and violence has been lost, and where his characters, traumatized by existence, run around sweating and crying out their pain, looking for all the world like candles melting down to a wick of pure hurt and hatred. We may have lost Bloody Billy, but his three films live on, and they’re just as upsetting to watch now as they ever were.

October 17, 2006 at 01:40 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (4)

October 13, 2006


TO SIR, WITH LOVE posterIt's October which means that everyone and their dog is engaged in some kind of lame SPOOK-tacular stunt to celebrate this pagan, devil-worshipping, hell-born holiday. Never one to let lameness pass me by, I'm celebrating Halloween on Kaiju SPOOK-down with reviews of horror movies. Some of you may have seen these before. Some of them may be old news. But here they are, all in one place and ready for you to SPOOK them. And when I say "SPOOK" I mean "read".

Who'd have thought that the best slasher pic to come along in a while would hail from Korea? But TO SIR, WITH LOVE is a super-sized serving of stalking, slashing, POV camera shots while someone breathes heavily on the soundtrack, gory stabbings and faceless killers...basically all the ingredients that made MY BLOODY VALENTINE, BLACK CHRISTMAS, FRIDAY THE 13th, and a million other movies clog up the video racks in the early 80's, twisting children for life and causing them to grow up and attend horror conventions.

With shout-outs to SLEEPAWAY CAMP and a fistful of other almost-forgettable slasher flicks it's impossible to mistake TO SIR, WITH LOVE for anything but what it is: the kind of movie you watch after a few beers or some "grass" at the midnight showing.

Now, to qualify an earlier comment, when I say "best slasher pic" I mean exactly that: best slasher pic. This is not a movie that's going to win any awards. It's got ambition, and you can feel the cast and crew chomping at the metaphorical bit (when they're not chomping on razor blades) to make a movie that's better than what's in the script, but it's all for nought. By the time the credits roll, reason and logic have gone out the window and what you're left with is a most excellent horror flick that has no pretensions to any greater goal than to sit comfortably in the video store between TICKS and TOURIST TRAP.

best slasher picThe set-up is red-blooded and raw, the kind of thing that B-list pictures like this can chew happily. A gang of elementary school students come to visit their ailing teacher Ms. Park. Confined to a wheelchair and given the odd sponge bath by Mi-Ja, another of her old students, Ms. Park is facing the end of her life. We know this because she coughs a lot and hallucinates. In an attempt to give her closure, Mi-Ja has invited her classmates to come visit the old gal so she can see how she touched their lives and made them better people. They arrive in ones and twos and bow to Ms. Park, thanking her for teaching them, as she tears up and pats their heads with trembling hands.

It could be the beginning of a sweet, sentimental TV drama except for a few little twists. Like the fact that Ms. Park abused most of these students, humiliating them in class and laughing at their pathetic attempts to curry her favor. Today they're cripples, bulimics, plastic surgery addicts, drunks, and generally the most self-loathing crew of extreme masochists I've seen since I attended the last Log Cabin Republicans meeting. And there's the fact that Ms. Park has a deformed son she keeps in the basement. And the fact that someone starts murdering house guests with school supplies.

There's plenty of stupid on display. The first couple of murders happen as characters line up politely, take a number and leave the house to go have a cigarette on the nearby beach before getting dispatched with a razor blade in an orderly fashion, one by one. And the ending defies logic, reason, common sense and most of the laws of Western Minneapolis.

But the over-the-top characterizations and back stories and the constant sense of menace result in a WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? vibe that permeates the first few reels like a bad smell. And by the time you get to the killings (which don't actually start until well past the half hour mark) you're already really enjoying this gallery of nutjobs and poor attitudes.

While the cinematography is sharp and nicely composed (there are a few shocks you actually won't see coming thanks to clever framing) occasionally it over-reaches, like an early scene where the camera zooms in and out over and over like it's on speed until you start to feel seasick.

The camerawork gets downright funky and experimental at times, which kicks up the fun meter another notch and the murders are the nastiest I've seen since ART OF THE DEVIL 2 despite being relatively brief.

TEACHING MS. TINGLE was a movie that tried to go in this direction, but no other film that I can think of eviscerates teachers and teaching as hard or as nastily as TO SIR, WITH LOVE. And, as staples and thumbs go into eyes, razor blades go down throats and geometry compasses are put to all kinds of ugly uses it made me think back on my high school days nostalgically and say to myself, "Yep, that's about how it was."

(Read another take on TO SIR, WITH LOVE over on KoreanFilm.org)

October 13, 2006 at 01:59 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (3)

October 12, 2006


Derek Elley reviews Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest movie, RETRIBUTION in Variety. Starring Koji Yakusho as a cop who's starting to suspect that he may be the target of his own investigation into a string of bizarre serial killings. RETRIBUTION follows the largely dismissed LOFT and if Elley is to be believed, it's a doozy.

"...a modern-day ghost story/serial-killer mystery that blends the helmer's typical ingredients of guilt, suggestion and waking madness in largely successful doses."

But let's hear from Elley in free verse. Cue the bongos:

Takes this simple premise of a cop who may or may not be a murderer
And then skews it.

The ghost-woman appears to climb out of his bedroom wall
During an earthquake tremor.

Seems to resolve itself two-thirds of the way through.
Springs the first of two major twists

The occasional ear-splitting wail the ghost-woman summons up,
A sense of the spirit-world pressing against the real world,
Like a face against a window pane.

Never sticks to the ribs.
Classily made.
Lucid colors.
Chiaroscuro lighting.
Gentle dread.
Bubbling away.

Gone, baby, gone.

October 12, 2006 at 11:32 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

October 06, 2006


New THE HOST poster"Is it good? Is it good? Everyone says it's great. Did you see it? How was it? Is it any good?"

That's pretty much what happens when you mention Bong Joon-Ho's THE HOST in polite company. So, to answer the question: yes, it's everything you've heard. It's really that good. Not the movie I expected, but much better than I would have ever thought possible.

The CGI has been fixed after Cannes and, except for a couple of shots at the end where they apparently ran out of money and had to resort to some older, weaker CGI shots, it's visually impeccable. I'm not sure what THE HOST means (not sure what THE DEPARTED means either - the two movies could swap titles with no discernible difference) but watching this flick I was grateful for the return of Song Kang-Ho, the return of Bong Joon-Ho, more Bae Doo-Na, and some intensely strong work from a fistful of Korean character actors.

Man, this family hates each other. Song Kang-Ho is a semi-retarded adult who sleeps all day and steals bites of the customer's food at the Han River snack shack his dad owns (Byun Hee-Bong with a mouthful of rotten teeth). His sister is an emotionally locked-down Olympic archer (Bae Doo-Na) and his brother is a student radical turned failed salaryman who's desperate to hold onto a job, any job (Park Hae-Il) and he'll punch people until they give him one.

The focus of the family is Hyun-Seo, Song Kang-Ho's bratty daughter who nevertheless is the apple of everyone's eye. Until a monsterous anus with teeth on legs lurches out of the river and eats her. Convinced that she's still alive, the four are forced into uncomfortable proximity with one another as they hunt down this BFM (Big F++king Monster) with all the tools at their disposal: a couple of shotguns, a box of change, some street signs and a few molotov cocktails.

With a minimum of care and attention, Bong Joon-Ho has made probably the most realistic monster movie to ever hit the screen. It makes you wonder how rotten so many other directors are that they've never had these ideas before because they are all so real there's a forehead-slapping "of course" quality to them. There're international implications to the monster, military responses, government contractors swarming around like flies, but all of this is somewhere else, with dribs and drabs of it bleeding into our perception because Bong's movie is firmly locked into what happens to this family as they get eaten up by the government buereacracy.

The set-pieces are startling. I haven't jumped during a movie since god-knows-when and I jumped twice in this one. And the initial monster attack is so different from what you were expecting that you actually experience actual emotions during a special effects set piece.

The only drawback to the movie is that I was expecting a "Yeah! Rock On!" kind of ending. I wanted one. If any characters deserved the much-derided Hollywood ending, it was these guys. And I didn't get one. Bong Joon-Ho isn't interested in making blockbusters or having the audience walk away pumping their fists in the air. Which is too bad because the people he makes movies about are the kind of people you actually want to cheer on. He just makes it hard for you to do that, and that's what makes him so good.


October 6, 2006 at 11:21 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (15)


Matt Damon is small in THE DEPARTEDYou know what? Matt Damon is smaller than I thought. I've always imagined him as a pretty buff regular sized guy but in THE DEPARTED he looks like a little tiny bobble-head doll. Every time they cut to a close up of him I expected the camera to pull back to reveal that he's attached to someone's dashboard as they drive down the Mass Turnpike, his big bobble-head just bobbling away.

And you know something else? Bad Cantonese is identifiable in any movie, no matter how little Cantonese you actually speak. There's a scene in THE DEPARTED, Martin Scorsese's remake of Hong Kong's, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, where some Chinese guys bust out some Cantonese and it sounds bad. Even to my untrained ears it was like listening to trained seals who're hooked on phonics trying to communicate with humans.

A friend in Hong Kong says that the Canto-speakers who watch it are wetting their pants trying to hold the laughter in and that makes me feel good. As a mono-lingual person it's nice to know that I can at least sort of, kind of, spot someone who's making a hash of a language I've heard almost every day for ten years. I wish learning a language was as easy as Antonio Banderas makes it in THE 13TH WARRIOR where they're all just sitting around a campfire one night and he just listens reeeeally hard, squints a little, and suddenly he's speaking Danish. Or whatever it is the other cast members were speaking. Cantonese?

So how is THE DEPARTED? Well, you can read a million panting reviews with the only dissenters being J. Hoberman at the Village Voice (who hasn't been fired...yet) and David Edelstein from New York Magazine (who compares it unfavorably to the original). But you know what gets my goat? A lot of the reviews say, "Closely patterned on the 2002 Hong Kong thriller..." (New York Mag) "“Infernal Affairs” on which this pic is loosely based..." (Compuserv) and the name INFERNAL AFFAIRS doesn't appear until way down in the closing credits of THE DEPARTED.

Lots of articles mention that the screenwriter and Scorsese never saw INFERNAL AFFAIRS (or maybe just Scorsese never saw it? The story changes depending on the article). And then in the press kit, Martin Scorsese says "INFERNAL AFFAIRS is a very good example of why I love Hong Kong cinema but THE DEPARTED is not a remake of that film. It was inspired by INFERNAL AFFAIRS." Um, no. It's a remake. And although it spends the first hour looking as different as possible by the time we get into the second hour everything from blocking to stage business is being swiped from the HK original.

Jack Nicholson shouldn't have been cast. Booooring THE DEPARTED is Scorsese's best movie in years, probably since CASINO, but it's not a patch on the original.

It's rare that two different directors will take on the same piece of material and deliver almost identical interpretations of it, and THE DEPARTED really exposes some interesting truths. Describe the plot of a Martin Scorsese movie, quick! You can't do it. Because his movies don't have plots, they have characters. RAGING BULL is about Jake LaMotta. TAXI DRIVER is about Travis Bickle. GOODFELLAS is about Ray Liotta. KING OF COMEDY is about Rupert Pupkin. The necessary narrative engine of GANGS OF NEW YORK was welded onto that movie so awkwardly that it wound up sinking the ship because Scorsese just doesn't care about narrative. He likes people. He's a great filmmaker, and he gets amazing performances out of people, but a storyteller he's not. So what happens when you hand him one of the tightest scripts ever written?

At two-and-a-half hours, Scorsese wrings every ounce of acting-juice he can out of this script, gives scenes to Leo and Matt and Jack, lets his actors really chow down, hell he even saves the hideous therapist/girlfriend angle from the original and nearly makes it work. But what you realize is that for all the acting, INFERNAL AFFAIRS is about the story, it's about the plot, and if you can't keep that plot moving then you sink. Adding an exhausting 50 minutes to the original, by the time THE DEPARTED reached the finish line the audience was laughing at people getting shot in the head. I've never seen anyone laugh at the end of INFERNAL AFFAIRS but THE DEPARTED becomes so over-the-top and grotesque that you have to laugh. In fact, you feel like Scorsese doesn't see souls at stake but instead wants you to laugh at all the silly bloodshed, which is a bit weird coming from Scorsese.

THE DEPARTED poster So can we do bullet points?

- much longer than INFERNAL AFFAIRS
- a lot of fun
- the love interest is much better than in INFERNAL AFFAIRS
- Jack Nicholson shouldn't have been cast. Booooring.
- Really great first hour. Boggy second hour and a half.
- Not much religion. Which is weird since INFERNAL AFFAIRS is intensely religious.
- Key set-pieces (the drug buy; both rooftop showdowns) are here but so many little details are missing that they don't carry the suspense that they did in the original.
- Suspense isn't the issue, actually. Matt Damon's character is clearly identified as the bad guy about a third of the way into the movie.
- The competing daddies angle is gone.
- Martin Sheen is great. Why isn't he in movies anymore?
- Alec Baldwin is funny.
- Marky Mark is really good at profanity.
- Can someone make a Marky Mark/Alec Baldwin/Martin Sheen movie where they all cuss a lot?
- Is Leo better than little Tony? Is Matt better than Andy? It doesn't really matter because they're all giving completely different performances. All good in their own way. Gold stars for everyone.
- The look is nice. Much grittier and more realistic than INFERNAL AFFAIRS.
- Details, details, details. For all the fabled Scorsese-obsession over details how come the bloody cell phone isn't in an evidence bag? And how is the blood still fresh and wet hours after it was taken from the scene of the crime.

See THE DEPARTED. Enjoy THE DEPARTED. Because, gratifyingly, it's not going to steal any of the original's thunder. THE DEPARTED is a great Martin Scorsese movie. But INFERNAL AFFAIRS is just a great movie, period.

October 6, 2006 at 10:30 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (41)

October 02, 2006


Paprika I'm being a big, wet girl for admitting this, but halfway through the credit sequence for PAPRIKA, the new animated film from Satoshi Kon (PERFECT BLUE, TOKYO GODFATHERS), I got choked up. I wasn't near tears because anything sad was happening, but because I was happy.

After a brief opening scene PAPRIKA launches into a credits sequence where its main character floats through nighttime Tokyo and I haven't seen a piece of film that's sharper or smarter in a long time and it really got to me.

Because he's an animator, and has to draw every sigh, every piece of garbage, every blink of an eye, Satoshi Kon scrutinizes real life more closely than most directors and he doesn't take anything for granted. When he shows you a woman out by herself in a big city late at night he's condensing everything real about that situation into three short minutes, putting it under high pressure and tweaking it with animation to kick it slightly off-center. He pulls reality so tightly that when he plays it, it sings.

It's too bad that PAPRIKA is basically a sci-fi flick, because this is a movie that would appeal to a far wider audience than sci-fi fans or anime heads. It's a movie that, if David Cronenberg had made it (and he couldn't, so it doesn't matter), would be getting Oscar nominations and earning raves in the dailies. If it wasn't for all the talk of DC Minis and giant robots, naked dreamgods, and psychotherapy machines this would be the perfect date movie.

Dr. Chiba, a coolly efficient, angular woman who's a pro at negotiating the chess game that is corporate science, is one of the team working on the DC Mini and the psychotherapy machine. These little gadgets allow a psychotherapist to enter their patients' dreams, deciphering the subconscious codes that program us, dredging up forgotten traumas and guiding scarred people towards happy resolutions. It's lucid dreaming with your hand held by a counsellor who wants you to be whole.

Unfortunately a version of the DC Mini has been stolen and someone (referred to throughout as "a terrorist") is using it to plant a delusional psychotic's dream into everyone's heads. Techies suddenly start to sprout Grant Morrison nonsense poetry and throw themselves off rooftops and from high windows, if they don't die they fall into a vegetative state where their brian slowly decays as the nasty, unreal parade of dolls and forgotten toys that started in a madman's brain marches through their grey matter, pulling their dreams, one by one, into a collective dreaming that will spill over into reality when it recruits enough dreamers.

The animation is precise, far more detailed and careful than anything coming out of Japan save for movies from Studio Ghibli and 4C, and the voice acting and subtitles are spot-on. While the story does tend to spin out of control and into a rut (is it dream? is it reality? no, it's a dream. wait! no! it's reality again) for about 15 minutes around the one hour mark, Kon's interest in people and his commitment to telling a story where things actually change and the status quo isn't magically restored at the last minute with a wave of the directorial wand elevate PAPRIKA far above standard issue sci-fi. The only place he shies away from reality is in the lack of genitals on his giant dream gods, although I suppose a ten storey wang swinging around might be a little distracting during the climax of the film.


Kon doesn't go for typical dream imagery, and it's refreshing to see a director who's looking for new ways to do something that's been done a million times before (ever since THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI in 1920). But where he really shines is in the depiction of two much-maligned groups: working women and fatties. On the fatty front, one of the movie's most idealistic, capable and intelligent characters, Tokita, is introduced to us stuck in an elevator. A series of standard issue fat jokes follow and despite how well they're executed they still stick out like sore thumbs and had me depressed at the easy potshots Kon was taking. But as the movie proceeds it becomes clear that Kon is putting in these stereotypical fat jokes to debunk them. Takita's idealism and optimism become the backbone of the movie and by the end he's not just a moving mountain of suet but a human being who earns his title of genius.

And the entire flick is practically an anthem for working woman, doing far more for the professional gal than Melanie Griffith did in WORKING GIRL. Dr. Chiba comes across as efficient and a bit harsh, like she's deliberately scoured herself of emotions in order to combat the myth of women as more emotional than men, totally sterilizing her feelings in the process. She's balanced by Paprika, her in-dream avatar that guides patients through their traumas like the coolest, cutest anime gal you've never seen. Round and soft where Dr. Chiba is hard and angular, warmly colored where Dr. Chiba has the pallor of a corpse, Paprika starts to break your heart every time she shows up. This is the better part of Dr. Chiba, the way she wishes she could be in public, and the way she probably hasn't been since elementary school. Kon doesn't make a big deal out of it, but it's clear that he's saying something about what women have to do to themselves in order to compete in the workplace - to one degree or another - and it's enough to shake even the blindest individual.

Kon also gets into some business about the queers, and he's on thinner ice here. A couple of gay relationships show up in the film and while they're used no more pruriently than a hetero affair would be used in a thriller, there is a difference in the way homo and hetero affairs are perceived and I wish he had been slightly more attuned to this.

Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble (one boring 15 minute stretch and some lack of sensitivity) compared to a movie that's a straight-up rush of creativity and emotional honesty. It's a movie that manages to dissect the state of the world completely and totally, and you don't even realize that's what it's done until you're walking out of the theater. If I was some kind of freakish mutant with three hands PAPRIKA would get all three thumbs up.

(PAPRIKA will play this month at the New York Film Festival. Fortunately, the rights are held by Sony Pictures which means that PAPRIKA will get a limited theatrical release in 2007.)

Read the Variety review.

Read the Screendaily review.

Read the Twitch review.

October 2, 2006 at 11:49 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (3)

September 27, 2006


promo art for DRAGON TIGER GATE

Did you ever date someone who was dumb? Like, really dumb? Their politics were all wrong, their opinions were annoying, their deeply held beliefs were as sound as a styrofoam cup and every time they opened their mouth it just hurt your head? But they were drop-dead gorgeous and had the sexual appetite of a love-starved lynx. And because they were so good looking, and because they did things in the bedroom that you’d only ever read about, you kept coming back, again and again, despite your better judgement. It was shallow, it was selfish, it was wrong...but it felt gooood.

That’s DRAGON TIGER GATE. Stupid and shallow but really, really hot and crammed with hard bodied action.

Based on Tony Wong’s long-running 70’s comic book, DRAGON TIGER GATE is the BATMAN FOREVER of Hong Kong action movies, only better looking and you get more fighting: it gives comic books a bad name.

The plot is as disposable as a Kleenex. Dragon Tiger Gate is a super-righteous martial arts school run by Hong Kong legend, Yuen Wah. Top student is Tiger, played by Nic Tse who once again demonstrates that he is cooler than Jesus.

Donnie YenWhile dining out in an enormous restaurant that looks like it was built by investors who wanted people to fight in it (enormous, under-decorated, multi-leveled banquet halls full of breakaway walls and tables), Tiger gets into some nonsense over a plaque that has great sentimental value to a bunch of gangsters. Someone must fight! Enter Donnie Yen, playing Dragon, an enforcer for one of the crime gangs who seems to have been promoted through the ranks due to some seriously impressive hair. No matter how hard he kicks, or how fast he punches, one of his bangs is constantly draped photogenically over his right eye like he’s some kind of kung fu Veronica Lake.

As we learn in the first of what are to become an endless series of flashbacks, Dragon and Tiger were brothers but they were separated at an early age because they spent more time than was healthy combing each others' hair. Now, the two of them are on different sides of the law but by the time the movie ends they will have been brought together by their martial arts skills, their devotion to righteousness and their love of hair care. Both of these man-boys sport long, flowing locks with supernaturally long bangs hanging down to their chins.

Fun fact: Donnie Yen does the action choreography in this movie, and he is also the co-producer which probably explains why he, as a 43 year old man, is playing a character in his early 20’s. Hollywood lesson of the day: if the producer wants to play a character 20 years younger than himself, then the producer will be playing a character 20 years younger than himself.

Tiger and gang (he has a gang, but they’re a fun gang of pals, not an evil gang of criminals like Donnie Yen’s crew) head on over to another “fight in me” restaurant, followed by director Wilson Yip’s camera that gets there by vaulting over rooftops, flipping around doors, slinking through walls and tiptoeing behind other patrons dining in private sushi rooms. This is one acrobatic camera and its athletic antics are endlessly inventive and you never get tired of them, unlike the plot, which the filmmakers get tired of right about...NOW.

Unfortunately, Dragon shows up at the restaurant to get back the plaque. Fortunately, he turns out to be a righteous guy and he has half of the medallion that Nic Tse’s Tiger has, proving they’re brothers. Unfortunately, he punches Tiger to take back the plaque. Fortunately, he doesn’t hit him too hard because he has a grudging respect for Tiger. Unfortunately, another bad guy in his gang has drugged Tiger’s gang so the fight isn’t fair. Fortunately, Dragon gets angry about this and beats up his own gang. Unfortunately, this winds up upsetting all the other patrons. Fortunately, one of the patrons is Turbo, played by Shawn Yue, who is instantly identifiable as a lead character in this movie because he obviously spends way too much time on his hair. Unfortunately, it turns out the plaque was a gift to Dragon’s boss from a guy named Shibumi. Fortunately, like I said, by this point director Wilson Yip is as tired of the plot as we are and he basically abandons it letting brief, pointless dialogue scenes serve as place-fillers between the action, which is plenteous.


While Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s previous movie, the hardcore SHA PO LANG, built up its doomed story brick by blood-soaked brick and saved almost all its action until a remorseless final reel, DRAGON TIGER GATE scatters action scenes liberally across the entire movie. And they’re good. Fists fly, bad guys get blown about by supernatural fist power, poses are struck, choppers are bent out of shape, gangs of henchmen bought on sale rush up and down hallways and staircases.

It’s all wire-fu, and Nic Tse and Shawn Yue aren’t martial artists, but Donnie Yen has spent his career developing a style of action choreography that’s like some kind of disgusting, eminently watchable chameleon. It sucks up every fight style it sees and replicates it, eating up screen space like a true showman, with combatants’ feet barely touching the floor while they unleash an arsenal of moves from muay thai, wu shu, and professional wrestling.

But between the fight scenes you get nothing, except for some gorgeous photography (every scene is bathed in a warm, golden light as if the actors were rotisserie chickens under a heat lamp) and some deliriously bad drama nuggets, including the best romantic scene in a swimming pool since Elizabeth Berkley swam laps with Kyle MacLachlan in SHOWGIRLS. Donnie Yen’s Dragon is beloved by Rosa, an evil girl in his gang whom he once saved. How did he save her? The rescue gets referred to so often that I expected something dramatic, but when the inevitable flashback finally rolled around it turns out she was just stuck in a tree. Now she’s been sent to kill him in a swimming pool, but it’s her birthday and she wants nookie instead. But Donnie doesn’t do nookie so she asks him to give her a tattoo real quick. Whipping out traditional tattooing needles, Donnie/Dragon goes to work on her back, probably planning to do a “Kick Me” sign, but instead settling for an SS lightning bolt. She’ll never get that off. He probably told her it was a pretty, pretty unicorn but every time she goes to the pool she’ll wonder why people stare.

Towards the end of the movie we suddenly meet the bad guy, a fellow in black armor named Shibumi, which sounds like a popular 70’s  board game for the whole family. (“Shibumi!” “Aw, mom, you won again?!?”) Shibumi is played by the voice of Louis Koo and by a series of interchangeable stuntmen stalking around in a crappy set of black armor that looks like Darth Vader’s footie pajamas. What is Shibumi so mad about? Why does he want to beat up everyone? His hair. One glance at his wiry, unmanageable locks and you know that every time Donnie, Nic or Shawn’s silky tresses blow seductively in the breeze it just kills him. Some people have great hair and some people don’t, but it would help if the people with good hair didn’t stand around on breezy rooftops or strut around with a technician towing a high pressure air hose who constantly makes them look like they’re in a shampoo commercial. Which is exactly what Shawn, Nic and Donnie do. When Shibumi busts into the Dragon Tiger Gate to beat people up it’s as if he’s convinced that they’ve got a bottle of Pantene’s secret formula hidden somewhere and he’s going to have it or his name isn’t ...Shibumi!  (“Yay! I won! I won!”)

hair care jealousyThis reason (hair care jealousy) for going after the Dragon Tiger Gate kids is as good as the reason the movie offers (still not sure what that is) and if you need a plot that’s any more solid than that to go between your fight scenes then this isn’t the movie for you. If you are going to watch DRAGON TIGER GATE may I suggest drinking? You and your pals can make a great game out of this movie. Here’s how to play:

1)    Whenever the film pauses to give a panting close-up to a Nokia product or to demonstrate how it works, take a drink.

2)    Whenever a cast member stands on the roof of a building, or sits on the railing of a high balcony, take a drink.

If you’re not falling down and/or passed out by the end of the first thirty minutes then you’re an alcoholic. So to make it challenging for you:

3)    Every time you get bored waiting for the ridiculous plot and posing to come to an end so you can see another gorgeously photographed scene of people hitting and kicking each other, take a drink. In fact, take five.

DRAGON TIGER GATE is all the bad relationships I wish I’d had, and all the animalistic physical action I longed for as a teenager, rolled up into one package. It should be sold in a brown paper wrapper, and you should not let your girlfriend, wife, husband or boyfriend find your DTG stash. Because it’s dirty. And it’s wrong. And it’s good. But in all the wrong ways, obviously. But that’s okay. You’re just going to watch it. You’d never marry it. Honestly.

September 27, 2006 at 08:30 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (23)

September 26, 2006


Over on LoveHKFilm they've got a review up for Lau Ching-wan's MY NAME IS FAME. Not only is it a good review (the movie sounds a little like Derek Yee's showbiz comedy, VIVA EROTICA), but the movie stars Lau Ching-wan and is directed by the awesome Lawrence Ah Mon (aka Lawrence Lau) who made classics like SPACKED OUT, GANGS and QUEEN OF TEMPLE STREET.

September 26, 2006 at 12:42 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 20, 2006


FEARLESS comes out this Friday and here's the previous review on Kaiju Shakedown. And you can also read a fistful of reviews from a bunch of other folks.

September 20, 2006 at 02:10 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (3)

September 18, 2006


COPS VS. THUGS (1975) After body slamming his way into the Japanese consciousness with his five BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY movies, Kinji Fukasaku decided to show the other side of the coin. He’d already mapped the geography of the modern day yakuza so now he needed to show things from the cops’ point of view. The result is two corruption-flavored poison pills - COPS VS. THUGS (1975) and YAKUZA GRAVEYARD (1976) - and both movies show the police as so morally compromised and rife with corruption that they may as well be the yakuza.

If you thought Abel Ferrara’s BAD LIEUTENANT touched the bottom of the long dark well of corrupt cop movies then Fukasaku’s two police flicks will show you that you merely reached the top of the layer of scum on the bottom of that particular pond. There’s a lot of digging through ooze you can do before you actually reach the lower depths.

COPS VS. THUGS is by far the more satisfying film with Kurashima cop, Kuno (Bunta Sugawara from the BATTLES series) maintaining a comfy truce with the yakuza via his sworn friendship with Ken (Hiroko Matsukata, also from the BATTLES series), a yakuza who actually appears to have an IQ. As tensions escalate between Ken’s Ohara family and the rival Kawade, Kuno steps up to the plate to help wipe out the Kawade organization.

YAKUZA GRAVEYARD sees new Osaka cop on the block, Kuroiwa (Tetsuya Watari, Suzuki Seijun’s TOKYO DRIFTER) go from being a two-fisted reformer to becoming a sworn brother of bullet-headed, ultraviolent yakuza, Iwata, who uses Kuroiwa’s death wish to enlist him in the Yamashiro family rolls as they take on the Nishida clan. Unfortunately, the Nishida’s are being supported by the police department and any attempt to take them on is liable to be met with insane levels of police-sponsored violence.

YAKUZA GRAVEYARD (1976)Outwardly the two flicks are carbon copies but in the details they distinguish themselves and which you prefer has more to do with you than any particular lack of quality in the movies. Both are shot through with eye-popping, apparently accidental frame compositions and both contain enough acting horsepower to wipe out the competition.

I prefer Bunta Sugawara’s Kuno (COPS VS. THUGS) to Tetsuya Watari’s Kuroiwa (YAKUZA GRAVEYARD). Kuno starts the movie a corrupt bastard and ends it the same way. He believes that the best way to police the yakuza is to become a yakuza and he delivers witnesses to them, looks the other way when they gun down their rivals, and breaks the law on a regular basis. Kuroiwa, on the other hand, starts out as the new cop in town who gets up the noses of his accomodationist new bosses by aggressively going after the yakuza, even the ones his department has promised to protect. Left out in the cold by his fellow cops he winds up looking like a refugee from a Euro arthouse film, lying on the floor of his filthy bedroom, laying any piece of tail that comes with trouble attached, and fueling up on tall brown bottles of Kirin Ichiban until he decides to swap sides and become a yakuza himself. His change in allegiance doesn’t seem particularly well-motivated and besides, he’s declaring that Iwata is his sworn brother and Iwata isn't a patch on the hyper-intelligent, dangerously handsome Ken from COPS VS. THUGS.

For your dollar, COPS VS THUGS has the far more believable storyline, but YAKUZA GRAVEYARD is the winner for far-out setpieces: drug induced freak-outs, enormous fights, so many drive-by shootings it starts to feel like a night out in Compton. Both movies are out on new discs from Kino and both of them look good. So light up a pack of cigarettes, crack open a Kirin and get ready to rumble as Fukasaku makes the point that cops, yakuza, politicians and the press are all just gangs fighting it out in the streets.

(Note: Kino's discs contain great transfers and the original trailers for the movies, but not much else)

September 18, 2006 at 02:08 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 13, 2006


YAKUZA PAPERS (aka BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY) box set Between 1973 and 1974, Kinji Fukasaku unleashed his five film YAKUZA PAPERS (aka BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY) series like a pack of rabid dogs and, like Hiroshima’s ruined Genbaku Dome (a shot of which closes every installment in the series) these movies are a shattered, shattering, smoldering ruin that looms large over Japan’s filmscape, saying everything there is to be said about the yakuza movie.

It’s a 634 minute movie, split into five parts, that teaches an alternate history of post-War Japan: one where honor died in one mushroom cloud and humanity died in the other. It’s the story of a country built on greasy whorehouse handshakes and backroom deals; a country where politicians need criminal muscle to get out the vote and then need said muscle to stand far, far away when the press photographers come calling; a country where who you pay off is more important than who you are.

It’s a grand, glorious gun opera and the best way to see it is all at once, one movie after the other smacking you in the head like a hammer. When you pick yourself up off the floor you’ll be bloodied and bruised and your skull will be splitting open with all the plotlines, characters, sub-plots, gang names and knotty alliances you’re having to keep straight, but your nerves’ll be buzzing. To sound like a snotty English major, it’s like reading Shakespeare’s "War of the Roses" cycle all in one sitting. You start doing it because you’ve perversely decided it’s good for you. You finish doing it because the project takes on a life of its own. You could stop after one, but by the time you finish the second you’re too far in to turn back and when you get to the third you’re out of control: you have to know what happens next.

Fukasaku dedicated his early directing career to overturning the myth of the noble yakuza which was carved into celluloid during the 1960’s in hundreds of movies that saw Takakura Ken (or a reasonable facsimile) reassert the ideals of chivalry and honor by hacking apart dozens of dishonorable opponents from a rival gang like so many roast chickens. A young director with a lot to prove, Fukasaku read the memoirs of Kozo Mino, a Hiroshima gang boss, and then hit the streets with a cast of dozens and the goal of proving that honor was like old gum: something you scraped off the bottom of your shoe. The club he’d use to kill this myth was BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR OR HUMANITY (1973).

Widescreen was the industry standard in Japan at the time but rather than using it to depict epic vistas, Fukasaku dropped his cameraman into crowded black markets and hellhole bars where the only light came from bare bulbs shaded with sheets of old newspapers. This movie isn’t so much handheld as hand-tossed with the camera whirling around, zooming dangerously, and turning on its side. Starting in 1949 it focuses on Shozo Hirono (shark-faced Bunta Sugawara) a soldier returned from the war who winds up joining the Yamamori family with a bunch of brothers and rising through the ranks.

A lot has been made about how confusing these movies are, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hermetic, closed-off world than THE YAKUZA PAPERS. It has its own cosmology, its own particular gods and demons, and it plays like a soap opera for men full of sweaty faces seen in close-ups, terse conversations, sudden votes, cigarettes ground out in anger, and opportune phone calls. But it’s also a series that’s as alive as Frankenstein’s monster freshly juiced up on lightning. The first movie starts with a lingering pan across the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, moves on to two impromptu arm removals complete with high pressure blood sprays, a rape committed by drunk GIs and the violence inches up from there until the delirious finale that makes the massacre at the end of THE GODFATHER look like an understatement. And the confusion is part of the fun. Just hang on and don't sweat the small stuff. It'll all get worked out by the end.

Shot one year after THE GODFATHER, which was a causative factor in studio Toei greenlighting Fukasaku’s film, the differences couldn’t be starker and they’re all summed up in the opening scene of BATTLES. THE GODFATHER begins with its shot of Marlon Brando hovering in the murk of his study and moves on to a complicated wedding scene that outlines the characters' relationship to each other. In BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY, Marlon Brando is replaced with the A-bomb before the movie moves into a complicated scene set at a black market that outlines the players for us, but these aren’t presented primarily as people with emotional connections but as wild dogs fighting over the scraps fallen off their masters’ table and their connections are economic, not social.

BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY was a hit, and Fukasaku made two more installments in 1973 and two more in 1974. But, again, unlike THE GODFATHER which traces the rise and fall of Michael Corleone, Fukasaku is painting a broader picture that ignores people in favor of portraying power. You don’t have to understand which family is fighting which to get a feel for the map that's being drawn. This is a movie concerned with history, not with feelings. Feelings happen, but they’re a by-product of power plays, not the focus of the movie.

BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY 2: DEATHMATCH IN HIROSHIMA turns Bunta Sugawara into a supporting character in the story of a young thug, Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), who falls in love with his boss’ niece and gets his long-delayed wish to be a kamikaze pilot granted when he’s turned into a trained attack dog by said boss while a scarily-tanned Sonny Chiba, hand surgically attached to his crotch, struts the streets and kills at random. The mood is more psychological and the yakuza family conflicts are much reduced and easier to follow.

This flick also features one of the few lead roles by a woman and it’s easy to see why there aren’t more of them in these films. Dropped into the blood-slimed power struggles, Meiko Kaji (LADY SNOWBLOOD), howls like a flayed cat dropped in salt water. She ends the movie doubled over in psychic pain with scalding tears being pulled our of her eyes by fishhooks and except for a few bit players we won’t see women in the series again.

But that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of characters to sink your teeth into. To use that word again, this is a line-up that’s downright Shakespearean. The great villain of the piece is the treacherous Boss Yamamori who’s as liable to burst into tears as order a hit, and he’s matched in ruthless cunning only by his plump, cheerful wife. Sonny Chiba literally rips the scenery to shreds in his role as Otomo and Hiroko Matsukata as a tubercular bad guy with a good heart in the final two films holds your eyeballs like glue.

The greatest weakness of the first movie is also its greatest strength: Bunta Sugawara’s Hirono is the main character and his double-breasted purple suit is the center of gravity around which the rest of the cast revolves. But he doesn’t rise to the top. By the end of the first movie he’s fallen totally out of favor in the gang.

Relegated to supporting status in BATTELS WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY 2: DEATHMATCH IN HIROSHIMA, Hirono’s slowly making his comeback because, as he drolly puts it, “I know a lot of people.” In BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY 3: PROXY WAR, the most compelling of the five movies, he gets a tragic comeuppance that makes you yearn for the villain of the piece to be punished. Gang wars are brought to a sudden halt by a suddenly rejuvenated police force in BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY 4: POLICE TACTICS and then things come to a realistic but somewhat anticlimactic conclusion in BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY 5: FINAL CHAPTER as Kinya Kitaoji returns as a totally different character, Matsumura, a young, sweat-less android who wants to transition the yakuza from street gangs to political action groups that make their money more legitimately.

Watching all five movies is an exhausting ride but it’s worth it. If you go in expecting a typical movie narrative, forget it. Go get a hotdog instead. The idea of setting up heroes and villains and then having the hero triumph in the last reel is thrown in the trash like a prom night baby. These movies are charting a social movement, from back alley fighters to the men whose back alley deals built Japan, powered industry and charted the course of politics. Personal stories aren’t all resolved, because they’re never all resolved in real life and besides, the real story on Fukasaku’s mind is where power went in postwar Japan. And that story runs in tracks that needs the blood of people for axle grease, but it doesn’t so much need people. If you're looking for something that provides traditional narrative satisfaction then you're in the wrong place.

Despite the size and scope of Fukasaku's achievement it's the details that make these movies come alive and keeps them from becoming stale history lessons. In a later scene in the series, Bunta Sugawara is cooling his heels in a jailhouse corridor when an old enemy is brought by on his way to court. They sit on the bench together for a few minutes, chatting about how they came to this point. Behind them snow blows in through a broken window and these two once-great gang bosses curl their toes in pain: they used to have the police in their pockets, but now they’re only issued slippers to wear in the heart of winter. It’s a telling, tiny detail of what happened to power in Japan. It went from the personal power built on fists, to corporate power wielded by men in comfortable offices. And the people who put them there can’t even keep their feet warm. And after five movies and gallons of bloodshed, that's the point Fukasaku is making.

(Buy yourself the box set of THE YAKUZA PAPERS and treat yourself to a day of movies that'll blow your teeth out.)

September 13, 2006 at 02:01 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (12)

September 11, 2006


Hana I feel sorry for the people who run Twitch, I really do. They are Canadians.

This means that they are mostly married homosexuals who are forced to recycle everything they throw away, usually in two languages, and this takes up so much time that it keeps them from eating as many beaver tails or as much poutine as they want. Which they really shouldn't be eating because they have no water, only beer, and they're already looking a little porky.

The only way they can escape the flabby hells that are their own bodies are to get high on medical marijuana and recite the capitals of all the European countries from memory because they were forced to take geography in elementary school and no matter how many times they're hit in the head by hockey pucks (hockey being one of the two sports you're allowed to play in Canada) they can't forget this useless knowledge, even if they hit themselves in the head with a curling (the other one) stone.

But once a year I do feel a little jealous for them because they get to go to the Toronto Film Festival and see a lot of movies. Despite the fact that the midnight screening of the BORAT movie ended after 40 minutes when the projectionist broke the projector (probably because the instructions weren't in French with a Montreal accent) there are still a lot of good movies playing up there.

HANA, the samurai deconstruction film from Kore-eda, has been widely ignored, but Opus suggests that this might be because there is more comedy and less samurai action than we've gotten used to thanks to Yoji Yamada's justifiably famous deconstructions TWILIGHT SAMURIA and THE HIDDEN BLADE.

Jade Warriors Todd, the so-called leader of Twitch, weighs in on JADE WARRIOR, a Finnish wu xia movie shot in China. He gives it a good review, but I've seen Todd and I know that all of his artificial limbs are paid for by socialized medicine and without that government check that providing him with the fiberglass legs he needs he'd never get out of his house. Some people want the government to do all their hard work for them. Some people like Canadians.

Then Todd stumps on over to Johnnie To's EXILED and gives it a glowing review. What's with this guy? Another good review? What's he so happy about? "...reminiscent of Takeshi Kitano's SONATINE...", "...sheer inventiveness and style.", "...the most vital, muscular figure in Hong Kong cinema today ..." All of these big words are impressive but I know that Todd is required by law to use them on a regular basis in order to justify his free education at the hands of the Canadian government and to make people from other countries feel inferior.

Well I don't. See your EXILED. See you HANA. Watch your HOST. I don't care. Because my flag doesn't have a big dumb leaf on it and that makes all the difference.

September 11, 2006 at 01:01 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (16)

September 08, 2006


an 84 minute mess called THE PROTECTOR TOM YUM GOONG is from the same team that brought us ONG BAK - Panna Rittikrai, Prachya Pinkaew and Tony Jaa - but the most important credit of all is missing: the editors who turned a 109 minute so-so movie called TOM YUM GOONG into an 84 minute mess called THE PROTECTOR.

TOM YUM GOONG is not a very good movie, and some re-editing could have helped it tremendously, but after having 15 minutes stripped out by T1, its international sales agent, and a further 10 minutes removed by The Weinstein Company it is totally incomprehensible.

The movie itself is the kind of thing that you have to see twice to truly appreciate the depths of ridiculosity to which it sinks. A waitress in a greasy spoon Chinese restaurant says, "There's a door in the back that goes to a VIP room but we aren't allowed in." Said door is opened, leading to a four story bar/restaurant designed around an atrium and with a full service kitchen full of exotic animals up top.

The action choreography isn't as sharp as it could be. Tony Jaa is a terrific physical fighter but the choreography in this movie doesn't serve him as well as the choreography in ONG BAK where the focus was on one-on-one match-ups. Here the focus is more on one-against-many fights and while there's a great warehouse scene up front (where would action movies be without warehouses?), the rightfully classic one-take, four minute fight in the VIP room, and a few nice bits here and there, the climactic action scene is a let-down.

a 109 minute so-so movie called TOM YUM GOONGSure, you wonder where they got so many giants. And sure, it's fun to see someone bodyslam a baby elephant. But when waves of baddies assault Jaa only to have their joints popped and crushed into bone powder all 80 of them obligingly line up and come at him one at a time. It's like watching a chiropractor clear out his waiting room on a busy day. It doesn't help that Tony Jaa holds the screen with all the magnetism of a chartered accountant. In person, Jaa is a very charming individual but so far that charisma hasn't been successfully translated onscreen.

By the time the movie has been re-edited by two different sets of editors from two different companies it is a mess. A perfectly fine new score has been added, as well as a couple of harmless tracks by the RZA, including a dirty R&B bump n'grind number over the sexy scene in the giant jacuzzi full of mud. Why anyone would set a seduction scene in a mud bath is a mystery to me. Has anyone watched this scene and gotten turned on as the oily mud clings to the faces and necks of the actors? I had to reach down my own throat and manually suppress my gag reflex when an actress in hoochie mama lingerie started dirty dancing while waist deep this nasty muck.

If this movie was already begging for its life, the new edit drives a stake right through its heart. Pivotal characters appear and disappear for no reason, without explanation. Fight scenes are trimmed, throwing them off balance. Dramatic build-ups are removed causing scenes to come out of nowhere and to end with all the grace of a channel being changed. A good deal of the movie is still in Thai but what dubbing there is is sporadic and doesn't always make much sense, especially with Mum Jokmok, whose English line-readings are allowed to stay for some of his dialogue while the rest sounds like plummy, mid-80's martial arts dubbing. My biggest question is: did anyone watch this movie before it was released? And if they did, were they drunk?

The worst thing about this movie are the reviews which dismiss it as junk but then say that martial arts and action fans will still love it. How desperate for a fix do they think we are? ONG BAK was no great shakes but it's THE SEVENTH SEAL compared to THE PROTECTOR, which is going to be the most widely released Thai film in North America. And that's enough to give you a headache all weekend long.

September 8, 2006 at 09:24 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (6)

September 07, 2006



EXILED, the new movie from Johnnie To, and the supposed sequel to THE MISSION, gets reviewed by Variety and ScreenDaily after premiering at the Venice Film Festival and they're raves. Well, ScreenDaily is not quite a rave but we'll get to that. Derek Elley writes about EXILED for Variety saying:

"Strongly recalling some of his late '90s work, like THE MISSION and A HERO NEVER DIES Johnnie To's "Exiled" plays like a lazy-day, Mexican-set Western that happens to take place in Macau...In a mixed East Asian bag at Venice, it was by far the most popular pic...And at least one sequence -- a blackly humorous moment when both groups unknowlingly converge in an operating room where a doctor's performing surgery -- may become a classic."

Dan Fainaru reviews for ScreenDaily, saying:

Less concerned than ever to tell an actual story, and more interested in exploring the possibilities of cinematic language, Johnnie To's latest gang war epic is probably his most eccentric foray yet into the genre...The result is an orgy of unchained violence in which a small group of professional hitmen join forces against the rest of the world, with the police looking the other way...Initially it would seem futile to try and discern any sense from this fierce bloodshed, but its increasingly unreal nature seems to metaphorically reflect the state of the world we live in..."

ScreenDaily sometimes seems to encourage a more philosophical and less aesthetic contemplation of Hong Kong movies, but I wish they'd gotten Shelley Kraicer to review this one. He brings a terrific grounding in Chinese film to his reviews, and there's something slightly off about this review. Maybe it's the focus on violence which seems misplaced (sort of like pointing out all the music in a Bollywood movie) or maybe it's the odd use of words that don't quite fit ("Cameraman Chang Siu Keung helps the director summon up an apotheosis of mayhem...destined to bawl over all To’s regular fans.") or maybe it's the strange sentences like this one:

"At times both confusing and enigmatic, Exiled stands as much a chance at festivals and on arthouse circuits as it does in midnight multiplex slots, where patrons may better appreciate how To deploys the tools of his trade."

Why would a midnight audience appreciate the "tools of To's trade" better than an arthouse or festival crowd? And who shows midnight movies these days?

It's a positive review but it was just...weird.

September 7, 2006 at 10:23 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 06, 2006


Satoshi Kon's PAPRIKA Satoshi Kon's PAPRIKA premiered at the Venice Film Festival, earning a five minute standing ovation at the end.

You can read ScreenDaily's glowing review ("If John Tenniel, the original illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, had been reincarnated as an anime director then he might have produced something like this...one of the more refreshingly original animation titles we are likely to see this year.") which even takes the time to throw a brick at poor old Goro Miyazaki's EARTHSEA ("On the evidence here it’s easy to see why his work, rather than the more conventional Tales Of Earthsea – directed by Hiyaki Miyazaki’s son Goro – made it into the main competition at Venice.")

Then, Aaron Gerow reviews EVERYONE BUT JAPAN SINKS for Daily Yomiuri giving it three out of five stars ("...flushes the blockbuster's conception of Japan--and not a small amount of good taste and propriety--down the drain...often clumsily made, the acting substandard (especially by the non-Japanese actors), and the jokes and pathos wear thin, but even its dash of satire feels like a fresh sea breeze, one that may keep you afloat in these often uncritical times.")

September 6, 2006 at 10:14 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 01, 2006


Jason Gray reviews the Fuji TV noodle bonanza, UDON, over on his blog. Mood: generally positive.

September 1, 2006 at 11:20 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 23, 2006


KILL ZONE DVD coverOkay, so not many people really like SHA PO LANG's new title, KILL ZONE, and some people may not like the name of the Weinstein Company's new line of Asian movies, Dragon Dynasty ("Dragon Dynasty. May I take your order, please?"), but after making a lot of noise about how they're committed to releasing top notch DVDs of Asian action movies and hiring Brian White from Hong Kong Legends to oversee Dragon Dynasty's DVD post-production, the real question about the KILL ZONE dvd is: does it suck?

The short answer: no. SHA PO LANG is not the world's greatest movie, but it was a very well-made, solid action flick with three dazzling action sequences that hit at a time when a lot of fans had written off the genre and figured Hong Kong couldn't do action anymore. To my mind, it's a B-list title, but a really well done one; more of a great hamburger than an excellent steak. It was also the movie that saved director Wilson Yip from vanishing down a rabbit hole of crummy films, made Wu Jing a bad guy and gave Sammo Hung his best performance in longer than I care to remember. And the KILL ZONE DVD is as good of a treatment as this movie can get.

So let's break it down:

KILL ZONE uses the same HD transfer as the Hong Kong disc, but it's a very nice one with strong blacks and super-saturated colors. This movie can't look any better. KILL ZONE is an anamorphic 16:9 disc, however, which the Hong Kong disc was not (if I remember correctly).

Sounds the same to me. Which is to say that it sounds good. There's an English dub track in addition to the original soundtrack and it's nicely cheesy, sounding like one guy in a sound booth doing all the voices.

Sha Po LangSubtitles
The subs between the two discs are almost exactly the same. The timing and the translation were exactly the same everywhere I checked except for one punctuation change. According to Brian White there are probably a few timing and spelling changes here and there, but his team used the Hong Kong subtitle file as a starting place and so the changes are probably not too drastic. No characters are suddenly named "Larry" or "Don" and all the extras are subtitled.

There's been some backing and forthing on the extras available on the KILL ZONE DVD but what they've wound up with is a solid selection of features. The biggest and best are two exhausting, and exhaustive, looks at shooting the Donnie Yen vs. Wu Jing alley fight and the Sammo vs. Donnie nightclub fight. These are long, behind-the-scenes dissections of the two fights and they cover every square inch, showing the actors arguing, rehearsing, getting exhausted, and finally busting out the champagne at the end.

There's a Bey Logan/Donnie Yen audio commentary over these two features and Donnie talks about absolutely everything. He may not be anyone you want to go on a car trip with, but he's very clear, precise and revealing about what goes into shooting a fight scene.

Then there are individual interviews with Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Sammo Hung, Wilson Yip and Wu Jing. Sammo is refreshingly frank ("To be honest, my character didn't have that much to do. It was pretty easy."); Simon pitches a new movie for himself (and reveals that while his brother is a police officer they don't talk about work and he learns about cops from movies); Wu Jing is hilariously self-effacing (revealing that he had no idea he was starring in his first movie until after shooting began); and Wilson Yip talks about why he made the movie and discusses what the prequel will probably look like.

But Donnie Yen doesn't do himself any favors. The guy's head is as big as the Goodyear blimp and it's infuriating that he's such an obviously talented action star that he can't be ignored. Throughout his commentary and interviews he refers to the movie as his own film, giving the impression that he made editing, script and cinematography decisions himself and he's patronizing towards the other actors, talking about what a legend Sammo is out of one side of his mouth while calling him slow and difficult to make look good out of the other. The honesty is appreciated, and he's got lots of interesting things to say, but his confidence comes across as arrogance and stands in stark contrast to the humility and graciousness of the rest of the cast.

The "Making of" featurette is the same as the one on the Hong Kong DVD.

There's also a trailer gallery.

Finally, there's an audio commentary from Bey Logan that runs during the film and it's perfectly serviceable. Logan doesn't have a lot of production information to add to the mix but he's good at giving bios on different actors and locations. If you want to know who that guy is over on the side of the screen or where they found that alley then click on over to the commentary track. Chances are, Logan'll tell you.

Sha Po LangDesign and Packaging
KILL ZONE has rejected the black and red design of the SHA PO LANG promotional materials for a black and desaturated blue tones but it looks far better than the frugly Photoshopped monstrosities that graced the covers of most of the previous Miramax Asian action DVDs. The layout is clear and, despite being a little hyphen heavy, the blurb on the back is simple and does a good job of selling the film. The cover features a blurb from Variety, which is a classy touch, but no mention that this was an official selection of the Toronto Film Festival. I personally preferred some of the pitch black posters of SHA PO LANG to the cover of KILL ZONE but this is hardly embarrasing and it sells the movie well, and that's the point.

If you liked SHA PO LANG and can get over the title change then this is indeed the "Ultimate" edition of the movie that it claims to be. For a straight-forward action flick this is an exhaustive disc and while I wish the "Making of" featurette was more interesting (dealing more with concepts and promoting the movie than documenting the production) it was something that was shot previously and couldn't be changed. The interviews are surprisingly informative and interesting and the two behind-the-scene featurettes are some of the best I've seen.

The Weinsteins have a lousy reputation for their treatment of Asian movies on DVD and rightly so. They have constantly re-edited, re-scored, re-titled, and generally savaged classic movies from Asian filmmakers with all the grace and refinement of a dog going after a dropped drumstick. But KILL ZONE is a step in the right direction. Actually, it's a bit more than that and it puts me in a weird position. I'm used to ignoring whatever these guys do, but if KILL ZONE is an example of their plans for their library of Asian action movies then I'm actually looking forward to their upcoming titles. (You can see some of them here. It looks like POLICE STORY, BORN TO FIGHT, THE PROTECTOR, SEVEN SWORDS and some Shaw Brothers films are coming up next).

For me there was one telling detail in this whole package that really told the tale. When you pop in the disc, the default mode is the original Cantonese soundtrack rather than the English dub track. That may be a tiny detail, but I'm glad that these discs are worried about getting the tiny details right.

August 23, 2006 at 12:43 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (45)

August 06, 2006


K_otokosore_poster_s_1Darcy turns in his review of THE HOST over on KoreanFilm.org and it's one of the best takes on the movie I've seen yet, boiling down what everyone's been talking about into language that those of us  who haven't seen the film yet can easily understand.

If understanding hurts your head, then check out this trailer for, well I'm not quite sure what the title is. But it looks good.

August 6, 2006 at 03:23 PM in Reviews, Trailers | Permalink | Comments (2)

July 20, 2006


MIAMI VICE posterIt's definitely not as bad as I thought it would be. I'm talking, of course, about Michael Mann's MIAMI VICE remake which stars the odd trio of Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell and Gong Li. The shoot was troubled, Colin was hiding gallons of hard liquor in his stomach and also possibly mountains of narcotics in his nose, Gong Li looked silly in the photos and plus, come on, it's MIAMI VICE.

But I'll tell you a secret.

I love MIAMI VICE. A lot. When I was growing up it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen - its heavy MTV playlist rotation, its scalding neon, its kewl attitude...it blew my eyelids right off. I remember in the third or so season there was an episode where Sonny was busting up a snuff film ring and then he found out that the girl who was set to be the star victim in the next movie was doing it voluntarily because she had a terminal illness and wanted to send the money back to her family. Frustrated, Sonny broke up the producer's house with a baseball bat and then stalked off down a dark, neon-smeared alley, sunk in a funk of moral relativity. This blew my young mind. How could something this good be on television?

And it had cool music. And no one had socks. And, in a world of pretty television people, Edward James Olmos' crater face was downright shocking, and to an acne-smeared teenager it was a warning: your skin really could get that bad for the rest of your life if you picked at it. This was heavy stuff.

So here comes Michael Mann's MIAMI VICE feature film and it's such a completely faithful remake of the TV show that it's a failure as a movie. The whole two hour and twenty minute movie feels like Episode Three in Season Two of a great new VICE revamp. Unfortunately, that makes it a weak movie. Jamie Foxx might be good, but I couldn't tell because like the TV show, Tubbs is second fiddle. Maybe third. Colin Farrell does a spot-on Don Johnson imitation and his hair looks like Johnson's signature 'do if it had run away off his head, spent some time living off the grid in a jungle, and then come back years later looking like sasquatch.

Gong LiAnd Gong Li? She's fine - she fits in perfectly with the rogue's gallery of able supporting actors. She looks good, and with her make-up scraped off she looks younger than she's looked in a while. Her Spanish sounds great, but her English gets a little stiff at times. And apparently one of the woes of being an international drug lord is that you can't buy clothes that fit. In one scene you see her bra and it's cutting into her back like a razor blade going through a marshmallow. And in a lot of the scenes she's obviously wearing a girdle and there's the occasional skirt that won't zip up all the way. But, you know, the wages of sin, I guess. Later, after she's been liberated by Sonny's love she's allowed to wear some more casual, loosely-fitting outfits but by that point she and Colin are cooing to each other in sexy talk which is kind of tough to take.

Gong Li and Colin FarrellNow, Gong Li can dance, which surprised me, but she still can't add a lick of dignity or feeling to a scene where she does Colin Farrell in the back of an SUV and then gazes into his eyes and purrs, "Hola, chico." And her tough woman dialogue ("I know where to find the best mojito.") sounds like the worst TV writing ever. But as long as the movie lets her be a middle-aged, single, Hong Kong investment banker type who's into money and maybe some mullet action, she turns in some good work.

MIAMI VICE always had great guest stars, and Gong Li joins the ranks of Wesley Snipes, Willie Nelson and Julia Roberts in MIAMI VICE's great guest stars gallery and she acquits herself just fine. But overall this flick is hurting for three reasons: 1) no story, 2) no sense of humor, 3) no theme song. I expected to hear the good o'l MIAMI VICE theme song blaring out like there was no tomorrow, at least once. But nope, never happened. You do get "In the Air Tonight" over the closing credits but otherwise: no pop hits + no theme song + no awesome clothes = no fun.

July 20, 2006 at 10:18 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (20)

June 23, 2006


Shusuke Kaneko, director of LEFT HAND OF GOD, RIGHT HAND OF THE DEVILRyugangi reports that Shusuke Kaneko (the kaiju savant behind the revived GAMERA series in the late 90's) now has a release date for his gore film, LEFT HAND OF GOD, RIGHT HAND OF THE DEVIL. It's hitting Japanese screens on July 22.

The film is a supernatural slasher flick with oodles of gore, but no dead, wet girls with long black hair, and it's based on a tres bizarro manga by Umezu Kazuo. The movie manages to perfectly capture the mundane psychosis of Kazuo's source material. It's shot in a very simple style, with long, intricate set pieces of murder and mayhem that feel like budget bin Dario Argento, and the gore is generously ladled on with a free hand.

But after a rocky and somewhat threadbare start, the movie enters MARRONIER territory, dishing out the kind of imagery you might find inside a little girl's skull: frills and lace and dolls and pretty picture books.

Driven by a dreamlike logic it ends with the perfect set-up for a sequel and I'm game for one. It's weird, it's lopsided and wonky, and it comes complete with sugar and spice and decapitated heads.

June 23, 2006 at 12:31 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 23, 2006


The first major review for Bong Joon-Ho's monster movie, THE HOST, is up on Variety from Derek Elley and it starts with, "On almost every level, there's never quite been a monster movie like "The Host." and gets dreamier and more full of lust from there. Elley seems to not quite believe what he's seen, muttering "...could stand tightening...could be tightened" over and over again like those people they pull out of mine disasters who mutter, "So dark...so...dark," until they're sedated. He reaches what is known as a critic's money shot when he favorably compares the film to a late-70's/early 80's horror movie (Larry Cohen's Q in this case) and it's basically impossible to read the review and not see the love oozing from your monitor.

Happy reading.

Also, Manohla Dargis from the New York Times weighs in briefly ("...the best film I've seen to date at this year's festival.")

And Mike D'Angelo (late of TIME OUT NEW YORK, now over at NERVE) wears his "I love THE HOST" t-shirt, too ("The Host makes comparatively grown-up summer flicks like War of the Worlds and Batman Begins look downright sunny by comparison.")

(There's a thread that discusses the rough cut of THE HOST shown to the Cannes selection committee which may explain why it wasn't selected over at KoreanFilm.org)

May 23, 2006 at 07:58 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

May 22, 2006


BRUCE LEE & I region 3 DVD coverIn 1973, when Bruce Lee died on the bed of his alleged mistress, Betty Ting Pei, he had only completed four movies and shot a fair amount of a fifth, GAME OF DEATH. But after his death he would be responsible for a gob-smacking number of films - there were at least seven Bruce Lee clones churning out dozens of documentaries, unofficial sequels, and knock-off films for a full decade after he was in the ground. A veritable tidal wave of Brucesploitation would swamp the world like a flood of filth but by far the strangest and sleaziest was Betty Ting Pei's contribution to the genre: BRUCE LEE & I.

Made by Shaw Brothers, who had no love for Bruce since he had been working for their increasingly successful rival, Golden Harvest, and starring Danny Lee as Bruce Lee and Betty Ting Pei as Betty Ting Pei, BRUCE LEE & I supposedly tells the true story of how Bruce really died. It was a project initiated by Betty Ting Pei and it is a stunning combination of sleaze and sanctimony.

Shot in eye-searing Shaw style where no sofa is complete unless its radium green upholstery clashes with its interplanetary purple throw pillows and the arterial blood red shag carpeting on the wall behind it, BRUCE LEE & I is a mod graveyard for everyone's innocence. Reject your received notions about Bruce and Betty because the real story is stranger than you think.

The flick kicks off when Bruce shows up at Betty's apartment that fateful night and they make love, sweet love. Bruce Lee is a martial artist so powerful that he can turn invisible and pleasure Betty telepathically, causing her nude body double to writhe and moan like an alley cat in heat, even when he's not in the room. Then, like magic, he materializes on top of her, a towel carefully arranged so that no one catches a peak of eye-blasting man ass, and he tokes up, pops pills, and turns invisible again, sending Brillo-haired Betty into paroxysms of pleasure. She goes to take a shower but, the second her back is turned, Bruce dies. Now Betty is an outcast. The world hates her. Women in the supermarket lurk by the evaporated milk and call her a witch. Mechanics stops rubbing greasy rags over their faces and run out into the streets to jeer her.

Finally she takes refuge in alcohol, guzzling brandy at a gay bar called The Back Door. With its padded walls, and carpet-sample decor, The Back Door is a place for Betty to destroy her brain cells with alcohol the way she destroyed Bruce Lee with lust, until the leather-vested bartender confronts her with reality like a glass of week-old VSOP cognac in the face: even gay bars have to close sometime. Go home, Betty. Go home.

But on her way out the front door of The Back Door a gang of Bruce Lee look-a-likes wearing tight jeans accost her. Not only do they have pictures of nunchakus on the backs of their t-shirts, but they have real nunchakus in their hands and they want to kill Betty for killing Bruce! But the bartender is a man of iron will and determination and he clears the bar, locking he and Betty inside. And then he makes a crucial mistake. Pouring a glass of the strong stuff he asks Betty, What...what really happened?

BRUCE LEE & IBetty was just a simple girl going to high school and dreaming of the movies. But because she was really a 30 year old woman pretending to be a 16 year old student the other kids rejected her and she had to fight them! But fighting gets her expelled. Loitering in the only place she knows, the local movie theater, she's approached by a sleazy guy who says he's a producer and he takes her upstairs to his office where he gets her drunk and takes nude photos of her. Betty's problem, as she later explains, is that she's so hot no one can see her as an actress...they can only see her as a porno actress!

In a surprising twist, it turns out that this sleazeball really is a producer and he tries to use Betty on a porn shoot taking place upstairs from the movie theater. Betty is horrified but he shows her the nude photos he took of her and explains that he'll blackmail her unless she does it. Appalled, Betty runs home and tries to kill herself, but before she can do it a talking candle appears and tells her that she is intended for great things and that she will one day meet a man, a man who sleeps on a trampoline, a man named Bruce Lee.

Time passes, outfits change, and we're introduced to a song that will repeat throughout the movie with a catchy chorus that goes, "My hairstyle is unchanged for you..." And, indeed, the one thing Betty will not change for the rest of the movie is her hairstyle which is unfortunate because her head looks like someone glued Brillo pads to it.

In short order, Danny Lee shows up playing Bruce Lee at the height of his fame. As the talking candle promised, he does sleep on a trampoline, but despite his best efforts, Betty will not sleep on it with him. Bruce is also suffering from intense headaches that make him clutch his wig while the camera spins around sympathetically. As anyone can see, the headaches are caused by his pants which are too tight. Rarely has a movie been made with more male cameltoe than BRUCE LEE & I - Danny Lee's bifurcated scrotum gets so much screentime that it deserves above-the-title billing. But here's the real tragedy of Bruce Lee...he couldn't take off his pants. No matter what happens in this movie, Bruce Lee's tight trousers stay on. Crowbars, blowtorches, dynamite, nothing can pry the denim from his thighs. Even when Betty finally gives in and decides to put the "tramp" in "trampoline" with Bruce, they have pillow fights, they cuddle, they bounce, they roll around and giggle, her pants come off but...his pants stay on. Didn't anyone notice that his pants were killing him? Didn't someone stop and say, "Hey, this guy can't get any blood to his torso because his pants are too tight." The tightness of his trousers will eventually kill Bruce Lee but no one cared, and that's the tragedy.

There is a happy ending to this movie. It turns out that Bruce didn't die during drug-crazed lovemaking but while getting ready to make Betty the happiest woman in the world by getting her a part in GAME OF DEATH. He died on her bed because he was standing near it while she was in the shower washing her unchanging hairstyle. And here we all thought she was a mercenary gold-digger just out to shake Bruce Lee's corpse until some more money fell out, when all along she was just a misunderstood gal whose only crime was that she loved too much.

Back in the present, in The Back Door, the bartender looks like he wishes he'd never asked Betty what really happened since she shows no signs of shutting up. He gives a short, philosophical speech about how Betty has suffered more than anyone and that people should just leave her alone, and then he throws her out on the street and locks the door behind her. The last time we see Betty she is wandering on a highway that spirals up, and up, and up...to heaven. And there she, and Bruce, and the talking candle will finally be reunited and Bruce Lee

Can finally take off.

His pants.

(A Region 3 DVD of BRUCE LEE & I is available, as is an all-region, English-subtitled VCD)

May 22, 2006 at 12:23 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (8)

April 12, 2006


The first review of Mamoru Oshii's TACHIGUISHI RETSUDEN is out in Daily Yomiuri and while it's awful short, it's awful sweet, giving it 3 1/2 stars out of five. We also have the trailer to the director of GHOST IN THE SHELL's fast food grifter flick.

April 12, 2006 at 08:25 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 08, 2006


Takashi Miike's IMPRINTTakashi Miike's IMPRINT is the installment in Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series famous for not being aired in the US, although Showtime's minions aren't hesitating to walk the flick around the film festival circuit. It just screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and I think the best way to describe it is as MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA with dead babies.

An American played by Billy Drago ("Charmed", "The X Files", HILLS HAVE EYES remake) visits an old timey Japanese whorehouse located on an island surrounded by the bloated, floating corpses of pregnant women. Like most people in movies who go to whorehouses he's not looking for a good time, rather he's searching for his lost lady love Komomo who, for some reason, took up a job as a prostitute while waiting for him to return to Japan and marry her. I'd have recommended she take in washing or maybe work in the food industry, but different strokes for different folks.

Drago can't find Kobopbop and so, invoking the "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with" principle, he holes up overnight with a deformed prostitute whose face looks like a kindergarten art project. She tells him the deep dark secret behind Kowowo's death (yep, she's dead) but he demands to know the truth. Rather than yelling that he can't handle the truth, scarface then tells him the "real" story behind his honey's death. But it turns out that that's a lie, too, and there's yet another story to be told, this one involving buck-toothed hand puppets, mutiple abortions, dead babies floating downstream, and incest. There's also a midget with a leprous nose and a rooster on his head.

Takashi Miike's IMPRINTTaken straight with no chaser, IMPRINT is a lumpy and somewhat unsatisfying flick. The English language dialogue is hooked on phonics, Drago's acting is as broad as the Mississippi, and the story doesn't really have a point besides "prostitution and incest suck" and I think most people take those as givens. But if you look at this as a send-up of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA it starts to make sense. The gorgeous visuals (and they are gorgeous - torture has never looked so fashionable), the heavily-accented and poorly delivered line readings by non-native English speakers, the idea of a Western man sitting down to force a geisha/hooker to tell him "the Truth" about her life, all of this is taken directly from GEISHA and it's an artbomb planted in the heart of the original book.

The trouble with Miike is that he's so busy dispensing gruesome visuals and stylish characters that you start to not only wonder what it all means but you wonder if he even knows what it all means and then you wonder if that matters. Miike seems to put his id right up onscreen and I don't think he's so much a deliberate provocateur, as some folks have cast him, but an unconscious serial offender. IMPRINT ultimately dissolves into a series of shocks, some of which are silly and some of which are disgusting, but there's something to it even if Miike isn't able to fully drag it out into the open.

Maybe it's the gleefully twisted idea that Billy Drago is supposed to be playing Arthur Golden who sits down to get the memories of a geisha but, instead of a polite tale of rape and prostitution seen through a rose-colored lens and ready-made for American consumption, he gets a harrowing story about abortion, hatred, lies, incest, torture and rubber fetuses that not only answers the question of "What's under all that hair piled up on Japanese lady's heads?" but is, ultimately, unshowable to the very Americans who are supposed to watch it.

I like to think that Miike, fully aware of his status as the pet Japanese filmmaker on "Masters of Horror" made a movie that deliberately bites the hand that signed his check. "Make us movie about pretty pretty geisha girl. You make it crazy, Miike, so American fanboy post on internet," say the American producers. And Miike says, "No problem." And he gives them geisha. And he gives them pretty. And he gives them crazy. And he gives them dead baby, too. Uh-oh.

April 8, 2006 at 09:10 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack


A sharp-eyed reader passes along two more ELECTION 2 reviews, one in Variety and one in Screendaily. I'm not sure what to say about them except "here they are". Variety generally assesses movies more than it reviews them, and Screendaily seemed to like the film but felt it dragged at the start. I'm never sure about that kind of comment, though. I've said it a few times in reviews myself and it is one of those weird things: if it drags at the start but you still like the movie doesn't that render the dragging comment irrelevant as a criticism?

I guess for me Johnnie To has hit that level as a director where thinking about whether I like his movies or not is sort of beside the point. Like Tsui Hark, until recently, the guy can obviously make a movie and their quality is irrefutable. The more interesting issue is trying to figure out why he's making a particular movie, how he's doing it, and what he's trying to say with it. To me, thumbs up/thumbs down reviews are irrelevant. Of course, that's what I said about Tsui Hark until he made SEVEN SWORDS, so what do I know?

April 8, 2006 at 03:45 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 07, 2006


Black Night posterJust when you thought it was safe to go use the bathroom, along comes BLACK NIGHT to tell you that if you don't slip on the soap, drown in the tub, suffocate in the shower curtain, or get electrocuted by a lamp you could still hit your head on the toilet. Three part movies have always been with us and ever since Applause released THREE they've gotten even more popular, what with THREE...EXTREMES and the new Tsui Hark/Ringo Lam/Johnnie To "jigsaw" flick rumored to be in the works. BLACK NIGHT has a Hong Kong section ("Next Door" by Patrick Leung), a Japanese section ("Dark Hole" by Takahiko Akiyama) and a Thai section ("The Lost Memory" by Thanit Jitnukul).

Watching its world premiere at the Hong Kong Film Festival I was deeply impressed. I thought I had seen poor movies before, but I had never really considered the notion that three directors, working really hard, could make a bad movie three times worse. It's obvious, really, but I think you need to see this concept in action to really get it.

Patrick Leung's segment kicks things off and at first I only noticed how bad its story was. But, after watching the next two segments I realized that at least Leung's had looked good and moved briskly, qualities the next two segs lacked. Lots of accidents happen in the home, but Leung has to orchestrate one of the most complicated, silliest household accidents I've ever seen in order to make his movie work. I guess directors really are smarter than you or me because how else could they think of these things? When I walk into my home I'm instantly on guard against a million little things that could go wrong and kill me. But for Leung, he needs to orchestrate a symphony of stupidity involving a shower curtain, a full bathtub, running water, a locked door, a marble, a pair of handcuffs and a tile wall in order to get his plot engine to turn over.

Black NightBut I came to miss his slick visuals when we moved on to "Dark Hole" which I was hoping would be a little bit naughty. No such luck. Shot on an old VHS tape the director found in the glove compartment of his car and video toastered until it begged for mercy, "Dark Hole" is about a childhood friend of a little girl who has grown up to be a monster. The monster lives in the water, and at this point I was detecting a theme: wetness! Draggy and repetitive I kept checking my watch waiting for the monster to show up and when it did I was excited to see that it showed up in the quickest reveal shot in the world, lasting approximately .0005 seconds, which was understandable when I realized that the monster looked like a rubber boot with tentacles glued to the bottom.

At this point, the guy sitting in front of me cracked open a bottle of red wine and began to guzzle it. There isn't enough wine in the world to get you through BLACK NIGHT, but at least he had something to take the edge off when he rolled into "The Lost Memory". It's hard to believe that the guy who directed BANG RAJAN has sunk so low, but life is full of surprises. Some kind of silly hootenanny about child abductions (I think), a car accident, head trauma and, of course, water, none of it made any sense until I realized it was stealing liberally from THE SIXTH SENSE at which point I yawned a little and rolled over in my sleep. Least among its sins, and certainly one of its more entertaining moments, was when we finally see the hot stud who is the object of desire for the film's two nubile young starlets. This guy looked like the kind of middle-aged gentleman you might see going through the trash cans outside your house on recylcing day, or maybe working a toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike. At least there was laughter.

Patrick Leung and several of the actors were on hand for the screening and I felt a little uncomfortable as waves of inappropriate laughter regularly rippled through the audience. But then I considered that these were the people who had cranked out this lousy flick hoping to use it to part me from my money. And I started laughing, too.

April 7, 2006 at 01:20 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

April 06, 2006


Daniel Wu's directorial debut, HEAVENLY KINGS, a mockumentary about the Cantopop industry

The worst-kept secret in Hong Kong has been the identity of the movie listed in the catalogue as "Film Surprise". Not only did everyone pretty much know within ten minutes that this was Daniel Wu's directorial debut, HEAVENLY KINGS, a mockumentary about the Cantopop industry, but everyone seemed to hear it from Wu himself. When paparazzi got into the apartment across the way to take photos of him with his girlfriend, Wu supposedly blocked his own windows with HEAVENLY KINGS posters and for a while there was a rumor going around that if you went to sleep with your windows open Daniel Wu would creep in and whisper the release date in your ear.

Wu is a master manipulator of the Hong Kong media, and a regular on CHISEEN, a PUNK'D style show on Hong Kong television. When HEAVENLY KINGS was being made there was a war of words between Wu and bandmember Terence regarding the use of some concert footage but the press smelt something funny and suspected it was a stunt to generate publicity for the film and after seeing the movie I believe it was a stunt as well. If you read the Alive blog you'll see all kinds of tasty tidbits thrown out like chum for the carnivorous media to feed on and there's something refreshing in the completely fabricated nature of Alive.

HEAVENLY KINGS is shot on digital video and features talking head interviews with Jacky Cheung, Miriam Yeung, Karen Mok and other Cantopop celebs, intercut with animated dream sequences, real documentary footage and staged footage. Supposedly an expose of Alive it actually is more satisfying as a guided tour through the Cantopop caverns. The four boys of alive are Conroy (Josie Ho's husband), Terence (who once had a career in Taiwan), Daniel and Andrew Lin. From their roots as a no-talent bunch of slackers looking to cash in, to the finale when they are a Real Live Band the film follows them through contract negotiations, the hiring of professional fans, some tired but still amusing stylist jokes, a Near Disaster in Taiwan and back again.

More of a smile-inducer than a laugh-generator, the local audience sucked down the in jokes and the familiar faces with great gusto but someone who's not personally invested in the Cantopop industry will probably just find it a pleasant time-waster. The biggest problem with the movie is Daniel Wu's direction. He's certainly assured and the flick is well-made so that makes it even more frustrating that it has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. At times it comes off as a real documentary as people like Nic Tse talk to the camera and plead for more cooperation amongst artists. Then it'll send itself up with a scene of Andrew bitching about Daniel. Then we wind up with a completely sentimental ending about how much the bandmembers like each other. It's as if they wanted to do a SPINAL TAP type movie but then lost their nerve because they couldn't bring themselves to do anything to actually injure the brand name Alive since it does provide them with a nice income.

If you're going to send yourself up, you have to be merciless, and Daniel Wu seems too personally invested in his friends and bandmates to give them the total skewering that would make this movie work outside of Cantopop friendly circles. Surprisingly, the best actor in the bunch turns out to be Andrew (yay Andrew! I love you!) who is also the only one who seems to be playing a role. Vain, petty and somewhat bone-headed his onscreen Andrew provides most of the the big laughs whereas the other three guys have their moments but none of them seems to have a handle on grabbing a "type" and playing it to the hilt the way Andrew does.

Overall, you could do worse if you've got 90 minutes or so to spare, and if you're familiar with the music it's a fun little stroll through a nicely appointed petting zoo. It's fine. Buy when you're promised a satire, "fine" just doesn't cut it.

April 6, 2006 at 01:01 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 05, 2006


Election 2

Remember in BLUE VELVET when Kyle MacLachlan comes home from his date with Laura Dern only to encounter a battered, naked and brutalized Isabella Rossellini staggering out of the dark, barely able to speak? Whenever I think of Hong Kong these days I think of it as Isabella Rossellini in that scene.

Hong Kong has Disney screwing them on one end and without universal sufferage they've got China screwing them on the other. In recent weeks the new Chief Executive has given interviews dismissing critics of his new budget in language that one normally only heard in China back in the 70's and the UN has issued a blanket condemnation of Hong Kong's human rights situation which has been dismissed out of hand by the local government. Hong Kong seems to be screaming as loud as it can and everyone in power is just patting it on the head as they lead it to the slaughterhouse. Who would have thought that the person to make a movie about this would be Johnnie To? But that's exactly what ELECTION 2 is: a savage, funny, pitch black vivisection of Hong Kong politics.

Picking up two years after the last election in the Wo Sing triad, we find our triads sitting pretty on a mountain of money. Lok (Simon Yam) has, like Caesar, brought two years of pax triadica and even the Uncles (the retired brothers who sit around playing cards all day and whose approval is crucial) have been able to spring for new sweaters, shoes, fancier cigars and some nice hair products. Jimmy (Louis Koo) is building a logistics center in China that will be his giant step from well-heeled bootleg VCD mogul to legitimate businessman. Jet (Nick Cheung) is mostly in hiding, popping out every now and then to rub someone out for Lok, but otherwise cooling his heels in a nearly-bare apartment with ambition curdling in him like poison.

Now the new election is coming and, as we all know, elections bring out the worst in Lok (as the movie reminds us in a tribute to the original's infamous fishing scene). When we left him at the end of ELECTION, it was evident that Simon Yam's Lok wasn't the cool, peace-loving big brother he appeared to be, but a bloody maniac and now his sick desire to hang onto the chairmanship for two more years causes his insanity to bleed out of his pores like greasy sweat. China's Security Bureau has a hand in all this, as well, and they seem to be the sickos who are standing just offstage in the shadows, pulling the strings.

Johnnie To is currently shooting ELECTION 2Unlike ELECTION, which at least built sympathy for Lok's team until it pulled a switcheroo in the last third, ELECTION 2 has no sympathy for anyone. The characters are soaked in gore up to their elbows and none of them has an ounce of pity or humanity left in the burned out little piles of ash that were once their souls. This would make for tough going, but fortunately To has the violence set to simmer in the first half of the film - you know something awful is going to happen but it's not happening yet. As the players position their pieces the tension gets so thick you can barely breathe and when the violence does come - and believe me, it does - you don't know whether to be sick or relieved.

Nick Cheung doesn't get a cool moment in this film the way he did in ELECTION, but he still manages to demonstrate that there's a terrific actor beneath all that schtick just crying to get out. This movie's revelation is Mark Cheng. At one time a standard fixture of the Hong Kong movie scene in flicks like PEKING OPERA BLUES, RAPED BY AN ANGEL and CHINESE TORTURE CHAMBER 2 he's only been in one film since 2000 and it's like having your long-lost cousin come through the door when he gets out of the car in ELECTION 2 and makes his grand entrance. Playing a professional sadist running a Gitmo-style torture camp with a continually updated bill for services rendered scrolling through his head, he's a welcome relief and his unwillingness to betray those who're paying his bills comes across like the highest moral fibre in a film where everyone betrays everyone else at least twice.

As bleak as an alcoholic clown at a children's birthday party, ELECTION 2, like Louis Koo, holds itself in check until its ending when things, remarkably and unexpectedly, get even more horrible and depressing. The image of Hong Kongers eating their young at China's command is the kind of thing that'll stick in your brain for a long time to come. Nevertheless, I imagine it's going to do quite well in Hong Kong. As the film launched itself at the throat of the PRC and said the things that everyone in Hong Kong is thinking the packed audience at last night's screening burst into cheering, wild applause, foot stomping and laughter and just on that basis alone I imagine the box office here will be brisk.

I don't want to give the impression that the movie is solely concerned with political points, but watching it with the current events unfolding as they are, with June 4th on the horizon, and with a hometown audience who lapped up the political jokes like warm milk, it's hard not to focus on them. But, really, the politics are merely one of the lingering tastes you're left with. There's also violence, black humor, good acting, very very dark photography, and more violence. And did I mention violence? More compact, tightly structured, and darker than ELECTION, ELECTION 2 is the year's nastiest, bravest, most accomplished movie, doing in two hours what a million strident DV docs about human rights could never accomplish. He'd rather die than admit it, but I get the feeling that Johnnie To loves his hometown and that this is his way finding where the guy who attacked it lives, and wading into his living room with a baseball bat in hand to settle a few scores.

April 5, 2006 at 12:01 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

March 29, 2006


The most anticipated Hong Kong movie of 2006, FEARLESSThe most anticipated Hong Kong movie of 2006, FEARLESS features Jet Li (issuing a well-timed statement that this would be his last wu shu movie), Michelle Yeoh, director Ronny Yu (THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR) and Yuen Wo-ping's action choreography and it seemed like an unbeatable brigade of badness, and not the kind of "badness" that smells funny but the kind of "badness" that Michael Jackson sings about. Right before it was released 40 minutes and Michelle Yeoh were cut from the film, but it went on to open big at the box office across Asia and people jumped up and down and cheered.

But is it any good? Well, yes and no. Good and bad are relative terms when talking about movies, so maybe it would be more accurate to say that FEARLESS is a red-blooded, full-on, go-for-broke throwback to Hong Kong moviemaking of the early 90's. This was the era when Jackie Chan was making DRUNKEN MASTER 2, Jet Li was making ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA and Ronny Yu had turned in THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR. For a few years Hong Kong seemed to wield an unbeatable fighting stance. It was making populist cinema that satisfied audiences - men, women, Westerner and Chinese - carried deeper resonance, was technically accomplished and profoundly entertaining. Not every movie was perfect, and some were misbegotten creatures that still slither and stink in the slimy sewers to this day, but the ones that got it on and banged the gong just right made some of the sweetest music in the world.

FEARLESS is one of those movies with a limp. Technically it can't be beat. The fight scenes throw down so hard you can't get up again, and the camerawork and technical credits are as slick as you want them to be. Jet Li has turned into a much better actor since UNLEASHED and while his performance is a bit theatrical it's also pretty magnetic, like watching footage of Henry Irving or any of the other great Victorian melodrama actors, stalking the boards and giving you goosebumps. The story is the life of martial arts hero Hua Yuanjia, a Chinese martial artist around the turn of the century who defeated a lot of foreign fighters and made Chinese people proud until, the story goes, he was poisoned by the Japanese and died. FEARLESS adds some backstory: Hua was an arrogant champion who killed a rival, went into seclusion in Thailand, learned to love the earth, and came back as an even bigger badass just when China needed him most.

But the downside of early 90's Hong Kong cinema is apparent in FEARLESS as well. From the whiny child actors, to the substitution of half-baked sentimental indicators for actual emotions, to the frustrating way the director finds it necessary to pander to the lowest common denominator just when the film's built up enough emotional capital to make a different choice, FEARLESS reminds the viewer again and again that Hong Kong cinema ran hot and cold, even at its best. Hua Yuanjia's grandkid is suing Jet Li and the film because he says it makes his dad look bad, but I don't know what movie he was watching - in FEARLESS Hua is practically a saint. In fact, he's St. Francis of Assisi, complete with a dissolute upbringing, an incident with a beggar, and a spiritual awakening in a foreign country. Then he sort of turns into Jesus with a public crucifixion. And underneath the weight of this kind of baggage, FEARLESS sags and cracks like an ancient train porter carrying a 500 lb trunk.

Ronny Yu is so focused on his aerial tracking shots and his massive sets that he missed a dozen different chances to give his supporting characters some shading. Nathan Jones and Shido Nakamura play Hua's two biggest opponents at the end, and while they're both shown to be jolly fellows who value good sportsmanship, they're little more than foils against which Jet Li unleashes a barrage of fortune cookie banalities. To squander an actor like Shido Nakamura (PING PONG, NEIGHBOUR NO. 13, and a bunch of Kabuki) in a role like this should earn the director at least a ticket and maybe a little time in movie jail where he can consider what he's done and vow to do better next time. Ronny Yu is not some kind of great auteur, but he has a distinctive style and BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR was a fortuitous fusion of his talents with a story that played to his strengths and pushed him out of his comfort zone. FEARLESS, unfortunately, is like wet paper, and unlikely to push anyone anywhere. Ronny Yu goes for the easy score again and again, whether it's Thai peasants taking some time to "feel the wind" which I at first thought meant that dinner had left them a little gassy, to the poisoning of Hua at the end.

Ultimately this is a refreshing throwback to the early 90's in Hong Kong, but it ain't no ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA. It's almost a FONG SAI YUK, however, and these days that's more than enough.

March 29, 2006 at 12:01 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

February 22, 2006


Reviews! It's like you've seen the movie, only you don't have to waste the time. Read Variety's review of VALLEY OF THE WOLVES: IRAQ and LoveHKFilm's review of MCDULL THE ALUMNI and you too can have an opinion about them.

February 22, 2006 at 07:40 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

February 15, 2006


INVISIBLE WAVES preems at BerlinThe long-awaited collaboration between Tadanobu Asano, Christopher Doyle and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang from LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE is out and playing the festivals and it's been reviewed by Variety.

You can get to the trailers for the flick here on Twitch.

February 15, 2006 at 10:54 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

February 13, 2006


KRASUE VALENTINEThe Phii Krasue is a uniquely disgusting Thai ghost which consists of a flying head with all of its internal organs dangling below it like some kind of gory pinata.

If you happen to be dating a Phii Krasue and don't know what to do on Valentine's Day then take your floating cranium lady love to see KRASUE VALENTINE.

If you're worried whether it'll be appropriate or not then check out WiseKwai's review. He seems to think it will be. And then, instead of arguing afterwards, you and your Phii Krasue can just make out.

February 13, 2006 at 09:09 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

February 08, 2006


Gary Busey and Billy Zane in an anti-American Turkish action movie about the War in Iraq? I always knew there was something wrong with that guy, ever since he snapped at Kate Winslet in TITANIC. This movie has kicked up a mini-dust storm on the dusty old blogosphere, and so now we cut through the hype with this review from Oge with full descriptions of the scenes most liable to cause offense. Oge originally posted this to a list serv and generously agreed to let us repost it here (profanity removed as per Variety rules):

I have to admit, this sh*t was pretty entertaining. I also have to say though that watching MUNICH (which came out recently here, coinciding with the Hamas rout) and this around the same time was definately bizarre, and not really because of any direct point involving Jewdom. Billy Zane takes his cue from those neo-Nazi guys in those B action movies, dressed in a safari hat and jacket with a thin purplish-blue scarf around his neck and all, provoking civil war while pretending to prevent it etc.

As far as the anti-Semitism, there's this hilarious scene where our hero is in a fancy smancy hotel for shady influential evil people in Northern Iraq and demands that the hotel be evacuated, and the camera catches an Orthodox Jew with locks, black robe and hat shuffling out the door. Besides that there's the "Tel Aviv" (Among New York and London) written on iced lunch boxes carrying the much talked about human organs that they're harvesting from unfortunate wedding goers. That Garey Busey (who is so right for this) is Jewish only comes up later and implicity when Billy Zane argues about how his people are more chosen than Busey's. All this might have something to do with the whole grudge story about Israel commandos training the Kurds in Iraq for an independent Kurdistan...last year a couple Turkish newspapers claimed that our foreign minister leaked their part of the story to Seymour Hersh because the government was pissed off that Israel was simply ignoring their concerns. But overall, the anti-Semitism in the movie is pretty much overshadowed by Crazy Motherf*cking Christian Guy. There's a long scene where the camera pans across Christ on a cross in front of which Billy Zane is praying and going on about how his blood will flow through Babylon or something.

Despite a couple of solidly campy scenes--like when they seemingly run out of American actors and
impersonate American soldiers with local talent, and when they show a woman with a broken Turkish-English accent ripping off the clothes off of an Iraqi and throwing him on a human pyramid, thumbs up, as the camera zooms out in order to capture the imitation of the infamous real-life photo, and like when Busey flips out at a guy for killing all the captives because he needs them alive for their organs, yelling, "They're not animals, they're human beings damn it!"--at the end of the day, it's really not a so-bad-its-good movie. It does in fact stay within some sort of logical boundaries in order to work as propaganda.

"They gave the mountains to the Kurds, the desert to the Arabs, and the oil to themselves" complains a Turkmen Iraqi. A group of soldiers wait outside of a wedding party and once the people start firing into the air, the commander smiles and says, "Now they're terrorists...let's go in." An American soldier is killed when he says he will report the guy who just mowed down a truck full of wedding guests, one of his last sentences being, "they may be terrorists, but they're people too damn it!" A lot of air time is given to a Sheikh who lectures a woman when she says she wants to be a suicide bomber and besides the whole Islam forbids it line, he wisely notes, "they may die, but others will die too, damn it." There's also a scene with Islamic terrorists videotaping the beheading procession of a  Western hostage where they're going on about cleansing Iraq from Americans and Jews and what have you when the same Sheikh comes in all what-the-f*ck-is-going-on-here like and verbally bitch slaps them into humiliation, releases the hostage, and gives the long samurai blade that was being pointed at the hostage's neck to the hostage and tells him to behead one of the terrorists. The journalist then drops the blade and weeps at the Sheikh's feet. They did manage to include an interesting action scene in which a gun battle ensues right at the epicenter of a suicide bombing. Although the bomber was a guy whose son was killed by an American soldier, the emphasis in the scene is on the blown up limbs and wriggling torsos of the bystanders amidst which a couple of rogue Turkish special ops people and American soldiers try to take each other out.

Of course, what is intentionally ironic about the movie is that for a film motivated by nationalism it has an awful lot of Kurdish dialogue. At one point, when two Turkish guys are under fire and ducking for cover, one of them yells, "goddamn Kurds" to which the other responds "dude, I'm a Kurd" to which the first guy says, "yeah, but you're different."

February 8, 2006 at 01:08 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (98)

February 06, 2006


VOLCANO HIGHKim Tae-Kyun, the director of the Korean martial arts eye candy movie, VOLCANO HIGH, has a new film out and Darcy Paquet reviews it briefly over on his site.

It's called A MILLIONAIRE'S FIRST LOVE and it's about a rich high school kid who has to move to the country where he learns about life and love.

Between taking insulin injections, Darcy weighs in that it's not much to look at but has one great performance at its core.

February 6, 2006 at 04:39 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

February 01, 2006



After the flop of THE RISING, Aamir Khan (LAGAAN) returns to the screen with RANG DE BASANTI which looks like it might be one of the biggest Bollywood hits in a long time. The numbers are trickling in slowly, but Box Office Mojo is reporting that it earned US$5.5 million on its opening weekend worldwide.

The film is stirring up plenty of controversy which is bizarre for those who watched the trailer and listened to the pre-release hype. It looked like a coming of age movie about a gang of college kids who are rounded up by a documentary filmmaker who's doing a doc on her grandfather's colonial memories and needs some actors for the historical reenactments. The trailers put the focus squarely on buff chests, flawless skin and healthy hair. Well, apparently the movie has all that, plus political assassination, cops taking the old baton to protesters, and plenty of corruption. Some reviews have called it "frightening" and a "lynching" while others have called it "...a crazy piece of mainstream art."

February 1, 2006 at 09:22 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 30, 2006


THE BLOSSOMING OF MAXIMO OLIVEROS is a Filipino film about a 12-year old cross-dresser who lives in the slums and is in love with a cop. As queasy-making as it sounds, it's been getting good reviews and a lot of attention, and just played at Sundance where Variety's Dennis Harvey reviewed it.

January 30, 2006 at 09:27 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)


Koki Mitani's hotel farce, ECSTASY HOTEL, starring Koji Yakusho is still going strong in Japan and Mark Schilling gives it a glowing review in the Japan Times.

January 30, 2006 at 09:20 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 20, 2006


The PromiseSo I promised a special review on Friday and here it is. I just stumbled across a place selling shiny, new, English-subtitled DVDs of THE PROMISE and it took me all of two seconds to snap one up. It took me considerably longer to get through the movie itself, though, not because it's particularly bad but because it's definitely the kind of thing that'd be overwhelming on the big screen, but a little bit hard to sit through without squirming on the small.

The most notable thing about THE PROMISE is that it's absolutely gorgeous. I'd add it to CASSHERN as an almost entirely-digital film that manages to create a whole new world through the director's sheer will to over design. The colors pop, the costumes crackle, and the sets (or at least what you can see of them behind the costumes) are what we've come to expect from Chinese period movies: enormous interior sets with very little furniture constructed on cavernous soundstages.

The flick starts out with the titular promise: Cecilia Cheung is a starving ragamuffin looting the bodies of dead soldiers on a lightly smoking battlefield. Suddenly a fairy appears and grants her one of those wish/curses that are so popular in fairy tales: Cecilia will be totally hot and get everything she wants but she can't find true love - in fact, all of her boyfriends will die tragically - until time runs backwards and the dead come back to life. Fast forward a bit and Hiroyuki Sanada, who is the Master of the Crimson Armor, is defeating 20,000 barbarians with a bunch of slaves, some silly styrofoam weapons, and a whole lot of scheming. The fastest slave (and the only one who survives the attack of the barbarian bulls) is Kunlun (Jang Dong-Kun) becomes his personal slave and the two set out to save the King from an attack by the Duke, Nic Tse. On the way, Hiroyuki gets wounded and has to send Jang Dong-Kun ahead disguised in his armor and the poor guy screws everything up: he kills the king, saves the girl (Cecilia Cheung) and then jumps off a cliff. And the hijinx are only just beginning!

The PromiseWhat happens next is probably the least important part of this movie since Chen Kaige has traded story for spectacle. The story is pasted together like something a couple of kids are making up in the backseat of the car on a long road trip, "And then they put her in a giant birdcage, and then the fairy appeared, and then they ran so fast that time went backwards..." but what Chen's focused on is how things look, and they look gooood. The sets, with their anomalous cherry blossom trees, giant gilded bird cages, and hanging prisons, feels like the old BATMAN tv show from the 60's on a big budget and in China. The actors (Nic Tse in particular) change hairstyles and costumes every five minutes like clockwork, and if I learned one thing from this movie it's that daggers will be very in next season: you can hide them in a necklace, in a chair, or in a fan. Nothing is too stylish or too small to hide a dagger! And a dagger tells the world, "Hey, I'm dangerous and sleek. But it's only because I'm hurting on the inside."

There are some staggering set pieces in this movie: a battle between Snow Wolf, an Edward Scissorhands look-a-like, and Nic Tse; the second rescue of Cecilia Cheung from the palace; Nic Tse's human chair. But the whole movie feels like Chen Kaige wasn't making it for humans from the planet Earth, but for fashion forward aliens from the planet Drag Queen. Every actor prances and minces like they're auditioning for a role in PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT PART 2, and if it's not Hiroyuki Sanada's fussy little mannerisms, or the King's pageboy bob, it'll be Nic Tse with his big pimp walking sticks (one of which features a golden thumbs up sign to signify his pleasure) that sends you over the edge.

Larded with special effects, THE PROMISE actually has some good action direction (in a Ching Siu-tung, "Everybody fly now" kind of way) courtesy of Dion Lam, but you have to dig through layers of flab to see them. Out of everyone Jang Dong-Kun (TAE GUK GI; NOWHERE TO HIDE) gets the Best Actor award for managing to take things absolutely seriously, even while running at five million miles an hour like a very silly Road Runner. He's able to sell the silliness, and by the fifth time he turned on the super speed I had quit giggling. Hiroyuki Sanada also grows on you, and his performance slowly morphs from campy prancing and moustache stroking, to a grumpy version of John Malkovich in DANGEROUS LIASONS, to an actual real live performance by the end. Nic Tse is...well, there's not much to say about what he's doing here. He's obviously been abducted by aliens and is beaming his performance in from some very weird, very distant place. Cecilia Cheung is the movie's biggest liability in the acting department. Despite some nice moments, she's mostly drowning and floundering. She doesn't seem used to holding her performance together in the face of this kind of gargantuan epic movie and for the most part she's either posing like Brigitte Lin in ASHES OF TIME or swishing her robes like Maggie Cheung in ASHES OF TIME.

The most surprising thing about this movie is how Chen Kaige approaches it with absolutely no seriousness whatsoever. The scene where Jang Dong-Kun kills the King and save Cecilia is one of the silliest, most anachronistic things I've ever seen outside of a Stephen Chow movie, featuring a striptease, a bitchy king, and a big gold thumbs up from Nic Tse at the end. Throughout the film, Hiroyuki Sanada is constantly undermining his own performance by doing an imitation of the Cowardly Lion in the WIZARD OF OZ, and Nic Tse is like one big, long wink to the camera. It's a breath of fresh air to see an epic with so little reverence for its material that it can barely take itself seriously, but on the downside how are we supposed to sit still and listen to the story if the storytellers are too busy cracking each other up?

January 20, 2006 at 07:50 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (36)

January 17, 2006


ZINDA was 2 hours of a high school production of OLDBOY ZINDA, for those of you who just tuned in, is Bollywood's remake of Korea's OLDBOY that stars Sanjay Dutt and has the critics panting and the original producers of OLDBOY seeing red. The producers say they are pursuing their legal options, the critics say ZINDA is stylish and powerful, but what is ZINDA really? Don't get up - I've already seen it for you.

It's not like Bollywood remakes are ever as good as the originals so what did I expect? But feel a little sorry for me when I tell you that sitting through ZINDA was sufficient punishment for any sins I may have committed in a previous life. ZINDA was 2 hours of a high school production of OLDBOY, and not the high school production done by the talented and exciting kids at Phillips Exeter Academy, but more like the one done by these kids up  there on the right. It was shoddy, dispiriting and dismal.

Shot-for-shot this was an inferior remake of OLDBOY with every bit of conviction, story-telling brio, heart or soul scrubbed away and nothing but soulless hucksterism left in its place. Sanjay Gupta directs with the committment and attention to detail of a man who has a cab waiting for him downstairs and who still hasn't taken a shower and needed to be at the airport five minutes ago. Bringing all of his sub-hack skills to the table, Gupta manages to tell the entire story of OLDBOY but miss the point entirely. I'm not a big fan of OLDBOY in the first place, so for me this was like having rabid weasels stuffed down my shirt: painful and irritating.

So what are the differences? First of all, Gupta seemed to feel that samurai sword fighting was an essential piece of the movie that Park Chan-Wook had missed. I have mixed feelings about this. Maybe it could work - SAMURAI OLDBOY? - but since ZINDA featured actors who wielded samurai swords the way bored 8 year olds on Halloween wield their lightsabers after an exhausting night out dressed as Anakin Skywalker I guess the jury is still out on that one. On the other hand, the scene of Sanjay Dutt teaching himself samurai skills off the television made me laugh, and laugh, and I still smile a little on the inside when I think about it.

The abduction of Sanjay is handled very differently from OLDBOY. Gupta feels it's important to start off with Sanjay drunk, like Choi Min-Shik in OLDBOY, but then he needs to show us that actually Sanjay, for complicated reasons we never really learn, is merely pretending to be drunk. To me this made him even more obnoxious and gives drunk people a bad name. Then, after some truly excruciating scenes with Sanjay's best pal, Sanjay is abducted (we later learn that he is knocked unconscious after being shot with a crossbow by a guy in a party boat) but he is abducted in true Bollywood style. No subtlety here: his wife is running out to the dock where Sanjay is painting to tell him that she's pregnant when suddenly...he's gone. She has taken her eyes off of him for exactly 3 seconds of screen time but poof! He's gone. Vanished. Truly, Sanjay Dutt is the ninja.

Sanjay Dutt's wig at a young ageAnother change that baffled me was that the hatch in Sanjay's door where he's imprisoned is larger than it was in OLDBOY. Did Gupta feel that we needed to see more of Sanjay's face? Maybe he's right, but I'd like to weigh in right now with a hearty: no. In fact, I feel like a step in the right direction might have been to see less of Sanjay in ZINDA. Sanjay sleepwalks through this movie with all the intensity of a man who was just awakened rudely from a particularly satisfying nap. His kung fu fighting skills are out of the Chuck Norris School of Hitting and the poor guy can barely lift his leg above his knee when he delivers a devastating karate kick. Putting him in an action movie at this age was an act of extreme perversity (he visibly gets exhausted during the one-take hammer fight in the hallway - which lacks the point of the original) and as if that wasn't bad enough he's saddled with a wig that looks like it might wake up at any moment and scamper off into the woods.

All of the sexual content of OLDBOY is missing which largely robs the movie of its purpose and ZINDA has, of course, a happy ending. OLDBOY had a happy ending too...for pervs, but ZINDA comes to a genuinely happy conclusion. However, the most painful facet of the multi-faceted torture that is ZINDA (and trust me, it was hard to pick just one) is the cinematography. In a misguided attempt to give the movie style everything was shot in a blue haze that looks like a film printing accident. If the movie was art directed well, or lit well maybe this blue haze would look sharp and exciting, but as it is it just starves your eyes. By the second hour I was feeling like Sanjay Dutt: forced to wear a silly wig and live for 14 years on fried shrimp dumplings.

Zinda comes back from the lab To lower the lights and bring out the emotion stool, like Judy Garland at a concert in Las Vegas, ZINDA does make me very, very sad. Bollywood has always made its fair share of garbage like this, make no mistake about it. But rarely has the junk gotten this much praise. Is Bollywood abandoning what made it special (gorgeous musical numbers, a gift for family melodrama, huge rambling movies that allows epic stories plenty of time to unfold) in order to churn out soulless knock-offs from overseas? Everyone who's praising ZINDA is parading their ignorance on an international stage. It's only because India is such an insular film community (which is mostly a good thing) that a movie this bad, and this obviously a rip-off from another country, could garner any attention at all.

It's a sad day for Bollywood, and I'm going to have to go watch TEESRI MANZIL again to make myself feel better. You can let yourself out, can't you? And shut the lights off, too. It's over.

Don't forget Lara Dutta's in Zinda too!

January 17, 2006 at 09:56 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (10)

December 30, 2005


Those wacky reviewersWhere do they get all their wacky opinions? How did they get their jobs? Why are they so wacky?


But here's another installment of THOSE WACKY REVIEWERS!

Jeff Lau's JOURNEY TO THE WEST meets EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS flick A CHINESE TALL STORY has just come out (this is the movie that made Charlene Choi ugly) and those wacky reviewers are kicking it around like a ten cent soccer ball. "It falls rather short. Heck, it misses the branch, drops to the ground, and lands flat on its face." Ouch!

"The humor is somewhat unrefined and many scenes are downright weird." Yikes!

The whole is a bombastic fantasy mess, but some charm does exist in there. Somewhere." Zing!

The Hollywood Reporter continues in its role as the internet's self-elected contrarians with their review of the greatly-loved ELECTION. It's old news, but let's just mull over their assessment once more as they call Johnnie To's incisive film "A repellant movie filled with gratuitous violence..."

Variety summarizes THE PROMISE as  "...a mixed bag of near-risible storylines, second-rate CG effects, some fabulous set pieces, somewhat cartoonish martial arts fighting and difficult international casting."

Then Screen Daily says that the widely reviled THE PROMISE is Chen Kaige's "most enjoyable movie in years" and predicts that it will do HERO-sized business in the US and that its success in China "...is assured given its rich fantasy elements and the fact that it has been submitted as China’s Oscar entry." And people say that I make speculative leaps...

But what else do you expect from THOSE WACKY REVIEWERS?

December 30, 2005 at 10:02 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (2)

December 29, 2005


Official poster for Johnnie To's ELECTIONJohnnie To hates the triads. Hong Kong's secret criminal fraternities are street gangs and protection rackets existing in a smokescreen of tradition and ritual that they use to obscure their motives from the police, average citizens and, ultimately, themselves. Originally established four hundred years ago to overthrow the foreign Manchu rulers, the triads have existed secretly ever since: underground societies of brothers bound by oaths of loyalty and dedicated to restoring the strength of China. These days they are underground societies bound together by illegal businesses and profit margins dedicated to little more than boosting their bank accounts. Their image as a band of brothers fighting the good fight has been celebrated in pulp fiction and in Hong Kong movies, but it doesn't exist in real life. In real life they're just thugs, fighting over territories and new drug dealerships like hungry dogs.

Hong Kong's film industry has made dozens of triad movies that glorify these crooks, but Johnnie To is interested in what's left when you pick away the legend and ELECTION is a slap in the face to anyone who buys the line about a global conspiracy of righteous criminals. While GOODFELLAS was supposed to be a warts-and-all look at the mafia, compared to ELECTION it's a kiddie film that makes it all-too-plain that its director has fallen under the sway of the cool waves radiating off his subjects; he's bought their BS in a way Johnnie To hasn't for a minute.

The plot is blood simple: Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Kar-fai) are up for chairman of Wo Sing in this year's election. Lok is a reasonable businessman who values harmony, Big D is a stupid bonehead who values yelling. I'm not going to tell you what happens, but things come down to a fight over a ceremonial baton: the 100 year old symbol of Wo Sing's leadership. It's been hidden in China for safe-keeping and whoever holds it will be the guy with the leverage. With the bigwigs taken off the field by the cops, the election results comes down to a bunch of small potatoes racing after the baton and fighting over it as it passes from one bloody hand to another.

No one is who they seem, and there are moments in the middle of the movie when you'll be lost in a quicksand of competing motives and hidden agendas, but just keep breathing and don't think too hard. Go with it, as they say in Lamaze. Kudos go to Lam Suet (as a loyal soldier with an ugly head), Eddie Cheng (as a stuttering mountain of mild-mannered righteousness) and Nick Cheung (yep, the most annoying actor in Hong Kong rocks this movie hard) but the real revelation is Simon Yam. Tony Leung's flashy performance has earned the most kudos but to me he seemed in danger of going wildly over the top every time he appeared onscreen. Simon Yam's portrayal of a locked-down businessman with the heart of a monster is an actor's master class in keeping the stone face but letting revelatory moments shine through like a lighthouse, broadcasting what's lurking beneath the placid surface to the world. Late in the movie, he picks up the baton for the first time and his face lights up from within, like some kind of radioactive jack o'lantern that just crawled out of hell. It's gorgeous for those of us who like our evil hot.

Shot mostly in broad daylight, and with some scenes of violence that are almost unbearable to watch, ELECTION isn't a movie that I think will have any kind of mainstream appeal in the US. It's so bleak and unrelenting, and so dedicated to overturning a romanticized portrait of organized crime that's alien to Westerners, that I can't imagine general audiences getting all shook up over it. But presented the right way, I think this could be a critical hit because his message is sadly universal.

In the world according to Johnnie To, we're all animals. Triad members are merely the animals with the freshest blood on their muzzles.

December 29, 2005 at 09:32 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (4)


DRAGON SQUAD is a dour, joyless, slambang action ride

Executive produced by Steven Seagal and with its sense of fun surgically removed, DRAGON SQUAD is a dour, joyless, slambang action ride that provided me with more laughs per second than KUNG FU HUSTLE. The plot is about 5 kids (the Dragon Squad!) from different agencies (CIA, SAS, INTERPOL, MIA, PDA, ASPCA) who come to Hong Kong to deliver evidence in a trial against Panther Chien, a bad guy. But Panther gets abducted by a group of mercenaries and the disgraced kids are left in the care of Sammo Hung.

Try these motivations on for size and try not to giggle. The Dragon Squad wants to capture Panther Chien because they want to restore their good name. Within the Squad, Shawn Yue wants to make his sick brother proud of him, Eva Huang (KUNG FU HUSTLE) is an undercover cop who once fell in love with her target and now she needs closure so she can love again, Lawrence Chou Vanness Wu who's the new kid and is recording everything with a video camera in order to get at "the truth," is one of a quartet of kids who lost their dads in a police shootout years ago and she wants to make her dead father proud, while sniper Xia Yu is nursing a crush on Eva Huang but he's too shy to tell her. Sammo Hung not only needs to reconcile with his daughter who hates him for being a workaholic, but he also wants to get back at one of the mercenaries, Ko, who killed his officers in a robbery bust gone wrong. But Simon Yam blames Sammo Hung for the death of his men for acting without orders, and Ko blames Sammo Hung for the death of his criminals that day. Meanwhile, Petros (Michael Biehn from THE TERMINATOR) is not only in love with Panther Chien's brother's ex-girlfriend, Lee Bing-bing, but his brother was killed by Panther years ago on that exact same shootout! The mercenaries want to kill Panther and his brother, Tiger, who betrayed them and wow! I'm out of breath.

If a movie with these kind of over-motivated, under-developed characters doesn't grab you right off the bat, then just wait until you hear about the wall-to-wall action. Its arteries hardened with whip pans, smash zooms, freeze-frames and flashbacks, with portentous titles flashed on the screen like "Hidden Character, Veiled Strength" the action scenes are DOA. Playing fast and loose with time and space, characters are on the third floor of a parking garage one minute, and down on the street the next. A woman ducks around a corner and two seconds later she's managed to rig the entire area with complicated booby traps, some of which involved 200 foot long cables and treetop pulley systems.

But if you go in knowing how bad this movie is (and it's bad) you can get by on the jokes. The Dragon Squad keep returning to a shooting gallery for some reason to prove some hazy, difficult to understand point, and here's a slo-mo jogging sequence that might have you wetting your pants with laughter. Every cliche you've ever seen in an action movie (character dying in slow motion while Cantopop plays, guy electrocuted to death, dead body falls out window with chain around ankle and dangles, fellow killed in movie theater in sync with onscreen gunshot) is on full, risible display.

Simon Yam must have shot his scenes while on lunch break from ELECTION, and he's barely in the movie. Sammo Hung, Michael Biehn and Maggie Q all survive with their dignity somewhat intact. The rest? They get to the end of this flick with whatever dignity they had in tatters.

Daniel Lee (WHAT PRICE SURVIVAL? BLACK MASK) was once one of Hong Kong's most promising stylists, but now the world has caught up with him and rendered whatever talents he once had totally redundant. Lie down, Daniel, let them shovel dirt on you. It's over.

December 29, 2005 at 09:31 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (3)

December 13, 2005


Jackie Chan's first foray into CGI, THE MYTHFor years Jackie Chan held out against using computer effects, claiming that audiences wanted to see what he could do, and that CGI leveled the playing field too much. Once you could paint anything you wanted onscreen with pixels then Jackie Chan wasn’t so special anymore. But in the past few years as the wear and tear of the years has reduced his joints to dust, Chan has embraced digital effects. At first it was just to erase cables, but in THE MYTH he’s using CGI to create sets and execute stunts and while most directors could stand to embrace change and catch up with the times, I wish Jackie Chan hadn’t. Because every time the movie goes to CGI it starts to suck hard, which is unfortunate, because this is the best Jackie Chan movie to come out in a long time.

The plot is the kind of character and location-heavy muddle that Chan’s once sharp script instincts have been reduced to lately. We’ve got Jackie playing an archeologist in modern day Hong Kong, India and China, then we’ve got Jackie playing a Qin Dynasty general in China and Korea. There’s a bunch of twaddle about levitating meteor rocks, holy men and immortality but you can pretty much tune all this out so it’s nothing more than a dull, comforting roar of white noise. Without a plot how does the movie work? The same way Jackie’s movies always work: on Jackie’s charisma and the action scenes. The action comes flying at the audience fast and furious and while some of it is a little creaky there’re some setpieces that’ll give you that old time brain buzz. If Chan isn’t as fast as he once was, he still understands the way the human body works like nobody’s business and he can deliver an action sequence that’s stunningly creative. Most notably there’s a factory fight in THE MYTH that’s right up there with anything he’s ever done. However you don’t find yourself gasping at the speed of the combat, or its brutality, but at how Jackie reduces his cast to a bunch of infinitely flexible props, a human jungle gym for him to climb around on.

But the finale of the movie takes place in an all-CGI environment and, to be honest, it stinks. The simple frission generated by Jackie bending around a few bodies in an earlier reel is replaced by the empty spectacle of Jackie floating around with a bunch of guys in front of a green screen. They’re supposed to be suspended over a bottomless pit and Jackie tries to throw in a couple of gags from ARMOUR OF GOD 2: OPERATION CONDOR but without the real threat of physical danger these stunts are just empty gestures, not cortex-stimulating brushes with death. When a stuntman staggered to the edge of a high platform in OPERATION CONDOR, pulling himself back just in time, your skin prickled because this was a real person saving themselves from real danger through sheer physical skill. When the same thing happens in THE MYTH it’s just a guy a couple of feet off the ground, clipped into a harness, with some folks in green raincoats standing around him. Nothing prickles here.

And that’s too bad because THE MYTH, for all its stupidity, works. Jackie Chan has rescued lots of his movies with a tragic ending, and THE MYTH has one in spades. People forget that for all his comedy, many of Jackie’s movies end on a strangely disaffected note. POLICE STORY 2 and 3 end with downbeat finales, with POLICE STORY 3 going for flat-out political discontent. DRUNKEN MASTER 2 plays Jackie’s brain damage for laughs, but that doesn’t change the fact that he ends the movie severely mentally impaired. And don’t get me started on PROJECT A, ARMOUR OF GOD 2: OPERATION CONDOR or POLICE STORY which all have deeply depressing endings with their main characters either about to die or go insane. THE MYTH returns to that grand old dark tradition with Jackie abandoned, rejected by those close to him, with those he cares about either missing or dead, sitting all alone in an empty mansion. The final 20 minutes of THE MYTH contain so much tragedy that it adds a retrospective weight to the previous fluffy plot line.

But then there’s that CGI. Undermining everything that Jackie is good at, negating the risks he takes, devaluing his skills. Jackie, please, this is one time where you should stick to your stubborn guns and reject the changing times.

Stay stuck in the past, Jackie. It’s where you matter most.

(You can pick which version of THE MYTH to order here, read the Variety review or Twitch review )

December 13, 2005 at 08:40 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (3)

December 06, 2005


Soi Cheang's HOME SWEET HOMESlipping into theaters (and now onto DVD) with barely a ripple, Soi Cheang's HOME SWEET HOME continues Soi Cheang's chronicling of the black and twisted souls of the Hong Kong bourgeoisie.

His first movie, DIAMOND HILL was a stunning DV gothic about lost kids and lost souls, then he made HORROR HOTLINE...BIG HEAD MONSTER which was a great horror flick with Francis Ng as a soul-sick DJ that fell apart at the end when the movie devolved into a shot-by-shot remake of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. NEW BLOOD was a muted, alienated urban horror flick that owed a little too much to the J-horror craze crawling around the continent at the time, but the follow-up LOVE BATTLEFIELD was an exceptional film about young love bumping into heavily armed Mainland criminals. Now comes HOME SWEET HOME which returns to the squatters at the heart of DIAMOND HILL and, while wildly uneven, it's worth your notice.

Shu Qi and Alex Fong move into a housing estate in Hong Kong, built on the bulldozed remains of a squatter community. These shanty-towns dotted Hong Kong for a long time, but when the government decided to develop the land and lease it to development companies, the result were near-riots as hundreds of tenants were cleared out by the police and their homes and possessions were leveled. Gleaming housing estates sprung up in their place and Shu Qi and Alex Fong are the eager beaver yuppies who snap up an apartment.

They're barely settled when their brat goes missing, abducted by a monster who lives in the ducts. What follows is a mommy versus mommy battle with some truly sick twists along the way. Unfortunately, Soi Cheang seems distracted and dilutes the power of the ideas behind the screenplay with numerous digressions and wandering plot lines. The worst offender is the revelation at the one hour mark that Shu Qi and Alex Fong own a dog that seems to understand the basic principles behind elevator operation. The elevator knowledge isn't the shocking thing here, what's shocking is that the dog exists at all since it hasn't even been hinted at previously. Major characters vanish with their fates left unresolved and, most disappointingly, Shu Qi has mental problems that are hinted at several times but nothing is ever made of them. She comes so close to going bonkers that you really want to see her cut loose and go psycho (a la Anita Yuen in the under-rated TIL DEATH DO US PART) but, alas, it's not to be.

The movie is strongest when it drops the plodding police procedural plot and leaves behind the standard issue horror movie tropes and embraces Soi Cheang's favorite thing: sick group dynamics. There's some great near-STEPFORD WIVES moments at the beginning of the movie but, again, nothing ever comes of them. The acting style is uniformly crazed but Karena Lam as the mom-ster manages to turn in a really great performance and almost single-handedly saves the movie from sinking without a trace.

The idea of a Phantom of the Housing Estate who embodies Hong Kong's paved-over past is so electrifying that parts of HOME SWEET HOME spark with high voltage. But that leaves the rest of it looking that much dimmer and drearier.

December 6, 2005 at 11:22 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)


Just because so few people have seen it, here's a review of Soi Cheang's DIAMOND HILL that I wrote a long time ago for YesAsia.

If ambition and good intentions counted for anything, DIAMOND HILL would be the best movie of 2000. With a cast consisting of Carrie Ng, Milkyway alums Maggie Poon (SPACKED OUT) and Hui Siu-hung, and comedian Cheung Tat-ming you won't find a movie with better actors doing better work than in this icy-fingered ghost story. Cheung Tat-ming delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, his home videos rivaling Takeshi Kaneshiro's FALLEN ANGELS tapes for poignant laughs. Carrie Ng plays a mother whose daughter may as well be another country; when they interact, Ng wears the tense expression of someone trying to understand complicated instructions in a foreign language. Maggie Poon is Carrie's daughter, whose entire life is a dark, strange ride and whose whisper can send chills down your spine.

The first urban gothic from Hong Kong, DIAMOND HILL is made with all the technical precision of THE SIXTH SENSE. Tremendously accomplished it spends so much time in flashbacks that eventually the present day seems more like a flash forward. The beauty of the film is its unexpectedness, and I would hate to ruin the experience for anyone so I'll limit my plot comments. In fact, I'll cut them out completely except to say that just when you figure out where this movie is going it cuts across lanes and veers off into the night leaving the image of Maggie Poon, legs pumping, racing down the middle of the nightime streets in her school uniform, imprinted on your retinas.

Upon its release, this movie barely made HK$7,000 and more's the pity. The VCD seems to have been filmed off a stained tv screen, but it features readable English and Chinese subs. The grotty transfer ultimately aids its cause, creating a story barely seen out of the corner of your eye. DIAMOND HILL has its problems, so don't let my praise get your hopes up too high. It's ultimately a small movie, but it's about people who're defying logic, reason, biology, and every form of common sense to remake the world into somewhere they can live. Five years later it's still a movie whose ambitions outstrip movies with ten times the budget and it's worth discovering for yourself.

December 6, 2005 at 11:21 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 29, 2005


Pinkyviolence There is no forbidden fruit more intoxicating than Japanese female exploitation flicks from the '60s and '70s. Just thinking about them gets me dizzy. From the deep-dipped visual fireworks of FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: JAILHOUSE 41, to the soul-abrading CARMEN FROM KAWACHI by the incomparable Suzuki Seijun, these movies find freedom in the razor-blade stares, eyeliner-caked eyes, and outrageously shocking short shorts of their lead actresses.

When I heard about Panik House’s PINKY VIOLENCE COLLECTION it sounded like the best idea I’d heard in a long time.

I tremble just thinking about a DVD box set packed with everything I think of when I think of '60s Japanese girl gang pictures: zazzy zooms, topless catfights, classroom knifings, vengeance castration in the hot pink back room of a go-go joint. You know, the usual. But the four movies here are a lot more stylistically conservative than one would think, definitely not in the same league as FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: JAILHOUSE 41, and two of them are only so-so. Two phenomenal flicks out of four isn’t bad but when you’re dealing with a pink vinyl box called THE PINKY VIOLENCE COLLECTION, that may not be quite good enough. Fortunately, the two movies that deliver deliver like UPS: fast and sexy.

Starting with a scream, TERRIFYING GIRLS’ HIGH SCHOOL – LYNCH LAW CLASSROOM is a high school end times chronicle that opens with death by blood donation and ends with a full scale riot featuring plenteous teargas-smogged schoolgirl on riot cop action. Directed by Norifumi Suzuki who also directed the “not my cup of tea” SEX & FURY, this flick is a high school drama gone deeply wrong. The “School of Hope” is a stained humping post for the perverted old men who hand out the diplomas, but the student-run Disciplinary Committee is the real danger. These gimlet-eyed upper grade women are murderers, torturers, closet lesbians, and literally bloodthirsty guardians of school spirit. But their sins come back to haunt them and everything can only be resolved by revolutionary action. An intoxicating brew of '60s sleaze and solidarity this is the best movie in the box and will reward every one of your viewing minutes ten-fold.

Giving TERRIFYING GIRLS’ HIGH SCHOOL – LYNCH LAW CLASSROOM a run for its money as the leader of the pack is CRIMINAL WOMAN – KILLING MELODY which doesn’t feature many melodies but does feature heaps of killing, and one tuff criminal woman who dishes it out. It's also so similar to Park Chan-Wook’s SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE that if Japanese movies hadn’t been banned in Korea until recently I would have suspected that Park crafted his recent critic-tickling flick as a modern day response to Atsushi Mihori’s 1973 revenger.

Gorgon-eyed Reiko Ike goes to prison for trying to take out the boss of Oba Industries because he killed her dad whom she didn’t like anyways, but still he’s her dad, you know, so she's gotta make the effort. She gets caught and sent to prison, meets some co-conspirators, gets out wearing natty fashions and with her hair in a fierce ‘do and then teams up with her gal pals to turn the crank on her precision revenge machine, oiled and greased with the sweaty juices of her black, black heart.

Sound familiar?

Unlike Park’s movie, which puts the focus firmly on a thoughtful examination of whether revenge is worthwhile or not, director Mihori declares revenge the worthiest of endeavors practically from the first frame and spends the rest of the movie pressing the pedal to the metal. The one thematic concern he slows down to linger over is endurance: endurance of torture, making sure your hate endures long incarceration, and enduring one of the longest, grottiest knife fights in the history of women-in-prison movies. It all winds up being an unlikely whiff of girl power and far more narratively satisfying than LYNCH LAW CLASSROOM, while being stylistically more sedate. But it’s got plenty of pretty poison for every viewer.

Historically the first of Toei’s pinky violence films, DELINQUENT GIRL BOSS – WORTHLESS TO CONFESS is a by-the-numbers film that has a hypno-center that keeps you watching despite your better judgement. It could be the movie’s finely-tuned sense of melodrama, or its relentless piling up of incidents leading to an inevitable bloodbath, but I think it’s lead actress Reiko Oshida’s unbeatable charisma that keeps this movie watchable. A long-limbed, lopsided Amazon, Oshida carries this entire movie around on her broad shoulders and doesn’t show the strain for a minute.

Coming out of reform school and settling in with the estranged father of one of the really bad girls she bunked with, Oshida comes across as fresh as a flower no matter how many times she’s on the wrong end of the pounding fists of yakuza thugs. In its last third this stingy movie finally cuts loose with the action and makes up for the relatively sedate pace of the previous reels. Full disclosure: I did shed a tear during the touching reunion of the reformatory school girls at the end as they get ready to slice and dice the knuckle-draggers who’ve made their lives a living hell. It was like reading a really good “American Girls” book only with more violence.

GIRL BOSS GUERILLA has the opposite problem: a rad beginning but an ass-dragging end. The insanely intense Miki Sugimoto is the leader of the Red Helmets, a female bike gang that heads for the supposedly soft-touch paradise of Kyoto. Once there they discover that Kyoto already has a girl bike gang of its own and outrageous insults and drawn-out catfights ensue.

Unfortunately, just as things are settling into a satisfying groove, director Norifumi Suzuki decides that what we want to see is these two gangs make peace. And worse than that, he saddles Miki with a boyfriend. This punch-drunk lug is a loser boxer looking for his big break and, as in DELINQUENT GIRL BOSS – WORTHLESS TO CONFESS, the addition of a bit of man meat only serves to make our female barracudas sluggish and boring.

Towards the end, Suzuki ditches the love story trappings for gruesome torture, but it’s too late. By that point I was totally off the movie thanks to the lame-o love story and I struggled through to the end out of a sense of duty. I love you, Miki. I hate you, Boxer Man.

Each of the movies come with bios and audio commentaries from a variety of Japanese film loving round eyes, like journalist Andy Klein, some of the folks at Panik House and Chris D. of the American Cinematheque. These guys are all delighted to be watching these movies, and are entertaining talkers, but the amount of information they convey isn’t great, and most of it is already covered in the disc’s bio info. I also have to say that Chris D and I parted ways when I was dipping in and out of his audio commentary for Norifumi Suzuki’s SEX & FURY and, during a scene when star Reiko Ike had been tied up topless and was being severely beaten, I heard him say, “It’s amazing how Reiko Ike keeps her dignity in these movies.” Dude, what planet are you on? There’s all kinds of different ways to watch these films, but I don’t need to defend my enjoyment of them by pretending that the half-naked, tortured actresses are somehow monuments to female empowerment. At times they can be, but in a movie like SEX & FURY which uses every opportunity to strip and mutilate its lead actresses I just don’t see it.

Anyways, crawling off my soapbox, the commentaries are fine, but you’re here for the movies.

Packed in pinky vinyl and with extensive liner notes (aggressively formatted so that they look like pages out of the late, unlamented “Raygun” magazine) written by Chris D, the PINKY VIOLENCE COLLECTION may not be something you wanna show your mama but it’s worth owning. 

THE PINKY VIOLENCE COLLECTION from Panik House Entertainment has been delayed until Dec. 6 but sources deep within the company confirm that nothing can stop this barrage of vintage 60’s sleaze from spilling out onto the world on the 6th. The Box is complete, now it just needs to be opened.

(And check out the price over at Amazon! The set is marked around $100 but they’ve got it for just over $50. Go, go Cyber Monday!)

November 29, 2005 at 07:22 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

November 21, 2005


Michael Berry's Speaking in ImagesMichael Berry is a translator and an assistant professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Already you have enough info to write him off as an irrelevant egghead, composing knotty sentences full of big words that absolutely no one can understand, like some kind of deviant, academic demon.

It just ain't so.

He's just written a book "Speaking in Images" that is the best book of interviews with Chinese directors that I've ever read. Well, at least since Miles Wood wrote "Cine East". The best thing English-speakers can read about Asian film are interviews. Academic and historical articles are all well and good, but for the monolingual amongst us there's nothing more valuable than interviews with these filmmakers because there's no other way to know what it is they're trying to say with their movies. And the problem is that there just aren't enough good books of interviews.

But "Speaking in Images" goes a long way to rectifying that. While I wish Berry had ranged a little further afield in his selection of interview subjects, the interviews with Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Ang Lee are the best I've ever read. Clocking in at 20 - 40 pages each, these interviews can get bitchy and mean, and the directors are pretty blunt about which of their films they can't stand to watch, and they dish up plenty of behind-the-scenes gossip.

Split into three sections - Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong - the book covers the following filmmakers:

Mainland China


Hong Kong

While I want to see more emphasis on the mainstream directors, these interviews are still pretty great and I found myself absorbed by the Wu Nien-Jen interview, which I really had zero interest in.

You can buy the book here and that's about it.

Also, in case you're interested, here's two other books of interviews with Asian filmmakers that I think are invaluable. Feel free to add in other books you like.

CINE EAST by Miles Wood

November 21, 2005 at 05:33 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 18, 2005


Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi KitanoJapanese film critic, Casio Abe, has just made his book on Takeshi Kitano available in English. Called "Beat Takeshi vs. Takeshi Kitano" this sexy-looking paperback approaches Kitano's career by contrasting his television career and public image (Beat Takeshi) with his image as a film director and film actor (Takeshi Kitano).

Really exhaustive, Abe's book is also a little exhausting. Full of details, it is also full of passages like the following: "As if to recall VIOLENT COP, which was so much of a 'walking film', SONATINE begins with a scene of Murakawa and Ken walking side by side down the street. However, one gets a completely different impression here than from VIOLENT COP. As I suggested earlier, VIOLENT COP's walking scenes completely strip bare the body of the actor Beat Takeshi. Walking is part of the propulsive force that drives VIOLENT COP forward. In SONATINE, on the other hand, the effect of the initial walking scene could be summarized as 'floating'. In this opening scene, the frame of the film cuts of Murakawa and Ken's feet so that they lie outside the audience's field of vision. This eliminates the sense of power we get from the scenes in VIOLENT COP where the characters tread firmly on the earth."

This can get to be a little much at times, unless you're someone who grooves on Film Studies.

On the other hand, the book is filled with excerpts from Kitano interviews and lots of minor details that fill out the picture of the director who doesn't have nearly enough written about him in English. Flipping through the book you can find enough of this to graze on for a few hours at least. So if you're a Kitano head, and you want more details, this one's for you. For the uninitiated, however, you probably won't get much out of it.

You can buy the book here or read what the good folks at Office Kitano (the fansite) have to say about it here.

November 18, 2005 at 05:18 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 17, 2005


Lots of Japanese movies are based on books, and while that’s not so surprising, what is sort of odd is how many of these books are getting released in English. Often without fanfare and without much publicity. One day you're walking through a bookstore, minding your own business, and suddenly there's BATTLE ROYALE the novel, or RING in hardback.

So are they any good?

RING – RING is a much better book than it is a movie. Koji Suzuki was a stay-at-home dad, writing the occasional book on child rearing while his wife taught high school history. Suddenly, out of the blue he got the idea for RING and knocked the novel out in about 3 months. Writers talk about inspiration taking them by surprise, but Suzuki’s unease with what was crawling out of his subconscious is evident on every page. Much more detailed than the movie, with every meal, nap and conversation his characters have meticulously noted, RING the book is all the better for being grounded in minutely, almost mind-numbingly, observed reality. The major difference for readers is that the book's protagonist is a man, not a woman, and his companion in mystery-solving is a possibly-unbalanced pal from college. Published in the US by a company called Vertical this is a really handsome hardback (and it's not too bad a softcover, either). Vertical may not have a big staff, but RING sports a hypno-cover by celeb cover designer, Chip Kidd, and the translation is impeccable.

SPIRAL – as if in reaction to the illogic and madness of RING, this sequel is determined to explain things. What things? Everything. This sequel to RING has absolutely nothing to do with the movie version, RING 2, and reads more like a bizarre journal article in LANCET or the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE. Think a Halloween episode of “ER” or “Quincy” and you're going in the right direction. SPIRAL takes place immediately after RING, with a medical examiner trying to figure out exactly how someone can die from viewing a videotape. The book is determined to come up with a plausible explanation for how the Ring virus works and I’ll be darned if they don’t manage to pull it off. Received wisdom says that the inexplicable is scarier than what we can explain, but the more ooky biology they get into in SPIRAL the worse the situation seems to be. The book’s a fast ride, and a brainy one, but it’s just as compelling as RING and I frankly enjoyed it more since the story was all new to me.

BATTLE ROYALE – if Vertical is a “how to” for publishing Japanese books in the US, then Viz provides us with a “please don't” in BATTLE ROYALE. A first novel by Koushun Takami, BATTLE ROYALE was a hit in Japan even before Kinji Fukasaku adapted it into his film of the same name. Unfortunately, the book is lousy. Clocking in at 616 pages, it covers the same ground as the movie except for a few minor differences. The main difference is that the novel is set in an alternate history version of Japan in which Japan is an authoritarian empire that won World War II. There still isn’t a reasonable explanation for what result the government wants from its “Program” that pits ninth graders against one another in a death-match, but whereas Fukasaku left the motives behind while he raced pell mell towards the finish line, letting emotional intensity cover up the cracks in logic, BATTLE ROYALE the novel is written in the kind of meticulous, overly-descriptive language common to online fan fiction. The book is so lumpily written, and so laborious to read that the experience rapidly becomes unpleasant and it isn’t helped by how badly it’s printed or translated. Spelling and grammar mistakes abound, and even a grammar dunce like me was distracted by blatant misuses of the English language. In an effort to, I assume, fill as few pages as possible, Viz has used extremely tight margins, and starts chapters at the top of the page which does even more damage to your already-endangered reading pleasure. And, if you were wondering what fills these 616 pages, then you'll be unhappy to know that it's mostly backstory. Gobs of backstory. More backstory than any of these two-dimensional characters could possibly warrant.

OUT – this is one of my favorite Japanese movies, and it has never gotten enough attention. When Subway showed it in the 2002 New York Asian Film Festival, audiences were small but they loved it deeply. There were even a couple of Hollywood producers and directors who were going after remake rights but they wound up being denied. Nothing was heard, and then Kodansha brought out a hardcover version of the book: a deep, dark, kind of sick noir by Natsuo Kirino. The book did okay, but not great and while it popped up here and there it seemed destined for obscurity. And then Vintage released a paperback version of OUT and it took off. Press everywhere, and it became a word of mouth hit. Nowadays I see women reading it on the subway and I hear women recommending it to their friends in Starbucks. People pass it along as a gift, always followed by the caveat “This is really good, but a little dark” and it seems to have taken on a new life as a darker, more downbeat alternative to chick lit faves. Kirino is one of Japan’s most popular mystery writers and OUT is a great book that, unfortunately, has a lousy ending. The story of four middle-aged women wrestling with debt, kids, husbands and life while working crummy jobs at a box lunch factory, it’s a deeply detailed, deep dark look at crime down at the bottom of the pond where the scum-eaters dwell, but the last 30 pages takes a wrong turn into head-trip land with a bunch of "I rape you, you rape me" mumbo jumbo. But until then, this impressive slab of a book (in a great translation) is a skeevy, dark story.

November 17, 2005 at 05:29 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 01, 2005


If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at allPlease. Somebody. Make it stop. SIGAW (The Echo) is a new horror movie from the Philippines, which landed on my doorstep a while back and I held off on reviewing it because, as my mama always said, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. I wanted to like this movie - I really, really did. Besides the fact that the folks who made it send me a DVD for free, it's got some things going for it. The cinematography is dark, dank and damp and the sound design is unusually good for low budget feature. It's also got something on its mind (the evils of family life) which puts it in the small percentile of horror movies that want to be about something more than simple shocks.

Marvin has scrimped and saved and finally moved away from home into the only apartment he can afford: a one-bedroom fallout shelter in bleakville. His new building is so dank that mold grows on your shoulders while you wait for the elevator and the oppresive atmosphere isn't helped by the constantly fighting family down the hall. There's also the battered wife who keeps knocking on strangers' doors asking them to look after her daughter while her abusive husband bounces her off the walls.

Things are not, of course, as they seem and before long Marvin finds himself embroiled in one of those hellish real estate scenarios that afflict so many people who buy new homes in movies: can't move, but got a ghost haunting me.

Except for a couple of bits of really awkward acting here and there (and they're thankfully bits - few and far between) SIGAW is a decent, solid movie. The problem is, if it had come out in 1998, before THE RING, it would have rocked your socks. Coming out seven years later it feels like a retread. A tired retread. Ghostly little kids - check. Female spooks with long black hair - check. Growing feeling of dread - check. Cranky elevators - check. Clutching hands coming around doorframes - check.

Horror movies often attract first time filmmakers because it doesn't take a big budget to induce shivery chills. You just need to be a dab hand with the editing to do that. And horror movies are marketable everywhere. But don't any of these directors want to be original? I mean, after THE RING, THE RING TWO, THE RING VIRUS, NIGHTMARE, REC, SCISSORS, JU-ON 1 & 2, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, DARK WATER, KAKASHI, THE PHONE, SHUTTER, UNBORN BUT FORGOTTEN, INTO THE MIRROR, WICKED GHOST, SHIKOKU, ONE MISSED CALL, HORROR HOTLINE...BIG HEAD MONSTER, PULSE, R-POINT, THREE EXTREMES and on and on, this whole "long-haired-dead-wet-chick" trope is dead. Done. Finished.

Try telling that to first time filmmakers, however. Over on Stauffen.de you can see a trailer for KIDAN which has, naturally, a possessed kid and a spooky looking woman with long black hair (who looks exactly like the VCD cover art for SHIKOKU) and a trailer for PRAY and BOOTH which promise more of the same. My local Blockbuster features dozens of DVDs of Japanese TV series featuring tales of the spookernatural loaded with all the stale visual tropes of J-horror movies. More J-horror is coming down the turnpike. When will this stop? Must we destroy the planet to save ourselves from this flood J-horror knock-off movies?

My question to all filmmakers is: don't you want to be original? Doesn't it bother your creative sensibilities that you're humping the corpse of a trend that flatlined years ago? There can be good J-horror styled movies, and some of the movies listed above are movies I like, but it's over. It's done. Nail shut the coffin and shovel on the dirt. Bring flowers once a year and trim the weeds, but don't make another J-horror movie. There's no surer way to put your audience to sleep in 2005 than to include a shot of a dead-wet-long-haired-girl-in-a-white-dress - it's a Pavlovian response. We can't help it.

I can't recommend SIGAW. I wish I could. The filmmakers seem like nice people, they put a lot of hard work into their movie, and there's a lot of quality on display in the production values. But at the end of the day, all their hard work is in service to a creatively bankrupt idea. J-horror is dead. Someone, anyone, please get it to lay down and stop moving.

November 1, 2005 at 09:38 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)


THE TIGER BLADE: better than TOM YUM GOONG?WiseKwai has reviews up for two new Thai movies: THE TIGER BLADE (which he says is better than TOM YUM GOONG and has the catchy slogan, "When kick ass cops can't get the job done, bring in kick ass magic.") and AHIMSA: STOP TO RUN which is about a guy whose karma, embodied as a dude in a red track suit, comes back to hit him in the head, a lot. AHIMSA is from RS Film, the folks who did the superfun, superstupid BANGKOK LOCO last year, which played at this year's Toronto Film Festival. There's an AHIMSA trailer here and a TIGER BLADE trailer here. (RS are the folks releasing the upcoming gross Thai black magic flick NECROMANCER which has a trailer here).

If you like your Southeast Asian film a little more upscale, then keep your eyes on CritiCine, a new site that covers Southeast Asian movies from a more smarter bigger IQ perspective. Or, as Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (who is interviewed extensively by the site here) puts it: they're nerds.

November 1, 2005 at 09:35 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (3)

October 26, 2005


Johnnie To's ELECTION has opened strong in Hong KongJohnnie To's ELECTION has opened strong in Hong Kong (beating out the latest Andy Lau romance, ALL ABOUT LOVE - and ELECTION is a Category III movie...unheard of! Andy beaten by Cat III?!?), to a tidal wave of praise in all the usual places and in some unexpected ones, like Canada's newsmagazine MacLeans.

The AP is saying that it's a savvy criticism of democracy in Hong Kong and they even use some of the exact same sentences as MacLeans (see the sentence "delicately mixing scenes of intense camaraderie, extreme violence and unabashedly Machiavellian moves" - the MacLeans article came out first, but the AP article may have been on the wire first - someone's cribbing from someone here). Variety's review of the flick is here.

Adam Hartzell gives glowing reviews to GRAIN IN EAR and WEDDING CAMPAIGN over at KoreanFilm.org. And on the discussion board there's some speculation about D-WAR (the "Korean dinosaurs destroy the world" flick) looking for a US distributor and has been pushed back to Summer 2006. Also, get ready for a newly-buff Rain's highly-anticipated TV drama, THIS DAMNED LOVE, where he plays a mixed martial arts fighter who finds love. It starts to air on October 31st.

Mark Schilling in the Japan Times reviews two new samurai films: NAGURIMONO: LOVE AND KILL and SEMI SHIGURE. NAGURIMONO is a samurai flick produced by the folks who produce the Pride Fighting Championships: mixed martial arts ultimate fighting events. The movie is basically a platform for their fighters to take a lunge at the big screen. SEMI SHIGURE is a less bloody, less body-throwing, throating-locking take on the samurai's life, based on a novel by Shuhei Fujisawa whose books formed the basis for TWILIGHT SAMURAI and THE HIDDEN BLADE.

Midnight Eye has a review up of the latest samurai epic, YEAR ONE IN THE NORTH, a Ken Watanabe starring flick directed by Isao Yukisada, who did GO and CRYING OUT LOVE IN THE CENTER OF THE WORLD. There's also a review of ELI ELI LEMA SABACHTANI? directed by Shinji Aoyama (EUREKA) and starring Tadanobu Asano, about a post-apocalyptic world where noise rock might be humanity's last hope.

Over in Thailand, Wisekwai, has a less-than-impressed review of the first English-language movie produced in Thailand since 1941, THE KINGMAKER. It's produced by David Winters, a Brit who was once a child actor (just like P's Paul Spurrier, another Brit who's worked in Thailand). He's also got a full look at the TSUNAMI DIGITAL SHORT FILMS, which include new works from Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

And finally, the controversy over Sri Lanka's FORSAKEN LAND has taken another turn as the anti-war film wins the "Best Film" award at the 3rd World Film Festival of Bangkok. Congratulations to the much-threatened director, Vimukthi Jayasundara.

October 26, 2005 at 09:26 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (2)

October 21, 2005


God! Let the door open for the sacred fertilizationIf you've ever wondered what a manzai/disco human sexuality class would look like, D.K. Hollywood has cleared it up for you with WE ARE THE SPERM CELLS a show running at the Theater for the New City in Manhattan through this Sunday. D.K. Hollywood is the brainchild of Japanese 80's TV star, Daisuke Koshikawa, a comedian who gave up TV for independent theater. He and the cast of 10 (including one very sexy midget) have saved their own money to come to NYC and perform and their determination is just like the determination of the human sperm.

As the program says: "The sperm cells that land on a woman's belly will not give up their mission of fertilization. As they race towards her womb, they join forces while fighting off fatal enemies such as Kleenex, Body Soap and White Blood Cells. Could they accomplish their mission within the limited time? This is a spectacular, heart-warming battle adventure in the world of 60 microns."

Performed in Japanese with occassional, English-language voiceover that is absolutely priceless ("If you fall into the anus, you will lose all self-respect.") this is a slightly-too-long dance/theater spectacle bringing war movie conventions to the life and death struggle of the lonely sperm cell. The actors are ferocious in their commitment to be totally ridiculous, and during a manzai sequence towards the end they were cracking each other up.

You can read more about the show here (this is an encore engagement for D.K. Hollywood in NYC).

I leave you with the last cry of the last sperm, begging the universe for justice:
"God, why do we always have to be runabout by this cruel fate by the name of Love?
We are born for some one's new life and go only for the destination.
We neither fight nor hurt anyone.
Now, I date to go forward for our colleagues who got tired, hurt, lost the dream and ended their life being caught in the torrent called destiny.
This glorious misfortune ejaculated on the belly. Le me accomplish my destiny by giving the birth of your child.
God! Let the door open for the sacred fertilization."

October 21, 2005 at 12:53 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 10, 2005


Korean 'let's kill the president' movie THE PRESIDENT'S LAST BANGIn 1971, President Park Chun-Hee rescinded the Korean constitution and assumed the powers of a dictator. In 1979, Kim Jae-Gyu, his Chief of Intelligence, assassinated him during a dinner party at a Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) safehouse. THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG is a blow-by-blow account of the president’s last night, his brain getting blown out, and what happens before dawn as the pieces of the power puzzle are reassembled into a new government. It’s all a kinky, historical thrill ride with teeth.

Despite being the leaders of their nation, the president and his cabinet are more concerned with what’s in their pants than with what’s happening in their country, and they have all the prejudices, stubbornness, and blindness to the facts around them as any group of old dudes in power. By the time Kim Jae-Gyu blows away President Park you don’t know if he’s pulling the trigger because he believes in democracy, or because he’s been driven crazy by stress-related constipation. And that’s the sick genius of this movie: it makes the political personal. This isn’t a sanctimonious, animatronic Hall of Presidents but a orgasmatronic political whorehouse.

The camera slides and glides all over the shadowy set, insinuating itself into conversations and then slipping back into the murky darkness on little cat feet.

Baek Yoon-Shik (the kidnapped CEO from SAVE THE GREEN PLANET) turns in a phenomenal performance as Kim Jae-Gyu, the tormented, dying Chief of Intelligence. He’s not a very likeable guy to be the hero of a movie, and with his eyes constantly fixed on some kind of tortured Hell Dimension that only he can see, and his mouth continually spewing morbid non-sequitor transmissions from the bowels of his fevered brain, it’s hard to get a handle on him, but if he’s anything he’s deeply watchable, a change agent on crystal constantly throwing a wrench in the works.

The big acting surprise in the movie, though, is Han Suk-Gyu as a foul-mouthed, inherently decent, bubble-blowing bully boy bodyguard who doles out punishment in the basement and struggles to grab glory wherever it presents itself upstairs in the moonlight. Normally Han Suk-Gyu is a matinee idol, but here he comes across as a character actor, attacking his role in an incandescent blaze of profanity.

The only problem with this movie is an ending that lets the audience down. I suppose it’s what happened historically, but all this suffering and bloodshed for this?!? The movie takes such pains to present history as drama and not as a gallery exhibition that when history pokes its grizzled old nose into the finale and wraps everything up for us it’s bone jarring. But once you get over your initial revulsion for the change of gears you’ll walk out of the theater thinking that history pretty much sucks. Too bad we’re living in it.

October 10, 2005 at 10:34 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

October 05, 2005



It's a crazy mixed-up world we live in, and loving someone is an invitation to trouble. Open up your heart, and you're letting in killer comedian gatekeepers, thousands of identical souls that turn into flying head sperm things, the chance that mushrooms may grow out of your face while you sleep, Master Hot and his eternally lost assistant, elephants with tasty fins and poisonous eyebrows, Arata (PING PONG) tending a bar for dead people that only exists in the dreams of their lovers, and Excalibur, King Arthur's DNA splitting sword. Once you realize that this is all true, YAJI AND KITA: THE MIDNIGHT PILGRIMS is actually a reasonable film. If you have trouble with any of these concepts, then this movie will spin your head right off.

The directorial debut of Kudo Kankuro (who wrote PING PONG and GO) YAJI AND KITA: THE MIDNIGHT PILGRIMS is based on the 1958 film, YAJIKITA DOCHU SUGOROKU about two samurai, Yaji and Kita, who go on a pilgrimage to Ise Temple to get away from their wives for a little while. YAJI AND KITA tells the exact same story, except it's a anachronism-drunk musical about the gay samurai, Yaji and Kita, who are going to Ise Temple because Kita is hooked on drugs and Yaji wants to help him get the monkey off his back. Their journey starts in a dream about Death Tetris and the movie is clotted with dreams, trances, drug-induced fantasies, and imaginary sequences. Give up trying to keep it straight as to which world you're looking at because you won't be able to tell the difference. Yaji and Kita kick off their journey with a musical number celebrating their exciting trip where they won't have to deal with any women because they're, "BORN...BORN TO BE GAY!" then they hop on board a giant motorcycle (right out of EASY RIDER) and roar off to Ise, before getting pulled by a traffic cop who sends them back to the Edo Era. And this is the reality part of the movie.

A knockabout comedy, heavily influenced by Monty Python and unhealthily obsessed with drugs, stand-up comedians, singing and stupidity, YAJI AND KITA: THE MIDNIGHT PILGRIMS is one of those flicks that makes the serious amongst us get headaches. The acting style is broad one second, before switching back and becoming lethally underplayed, and the fantasy sequences sometimes feel like something you dreamed just last night, but they sometimes look like something you've never thought of (and in the case of a painful scrotum-stretching scene, something you've never wanted to think of) but there's a method to all this madness.

Stick with this movie, because everything winds up making a funny kind of sense. There's a third act dive into seriousness (in a metaphysical, "I'm trapped in a bathhouse in limbo" kind of way) and while you may not quite follow exactly what's going on at every second (there were several times when I was laughing but not quite sure what I was laughing at) that's the message of this movie, delivered with reality-shattering skills: the world's a mess, but at least we've got each other.


October 5, 2005 at 02:29 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 30, 2005


ShinobiMark Schilling gives a glowing review to the Japanese flick, SHINOBI, that gets released this weekend over at the Japan Times. It's about a lady ninja, death stares, and, well, more ninjas.

Check out the J-pop-a-riffic trailer here. It makes it look like the unofficial sequel to Ching Siu-tung's SWORDSMAN 2 and EAST IS RED.

While you're there, check out this goth-rockin' trailer for the fantasy samurai flick ASHURAJO NO HITOMI which is based, of all things, on a stage play.

If you're in need of a burst of pure estrogen, the trailer for the just-released NANA will get your glands pumping.

September 30, 2005 at 06:41 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (4)


THE WAR WITHIN While most critics were busy humping David Cronenberg's leg this week (and last - and expect more humping before the end of the year) the first, and best, serious American movie about terrorism has crept up on us unnoticed. THE WAR WITHIN is a digital film with a lousy title and some great acting (Sarita Choudhury and Nandana Sen - from BLACK - as well as co-writer and star, Ayad Akhtar) and it's being universally ignored/dismissed/protested by thin-skinned Western critics who would prefer their commentaries on violence to come courtesy of Aragorn, son of Arathorn.

As a thriller, WAR WITHIN is top-notch,or, as the New York Times puts it, it's "...a thriller with wartime overtones, rather than a character study that thrills." The cinematography is great for a digital movie (although the transfer goes all staticky in the darker scenes) and the sense of narrative is dead-on. The less you know about this movie the better, but suffice it to say it's about a fundamentalist Muslim suicide bomber who goes to a Western country to blow himself up. It's loosely  based on the account of a Palestinian suicide bomber who boarded a bus, had a last minute change of heart, told the other passengers what he was about to do, got off the bus and detonated himself in a field.

It's not a perfect movie, but since terrorism is the biggest thing to hit America in the past 5 years, and since no American movies have seriously dealt with the subject before, this movie is worth your while. Some people may not like it, others may love it, but your $10 won't be wasted.

It's funny, but other countries have been making movies about terrorism for a long time (check out Thailand's OKAY BAYTONG and India's DIL SE for two great ones) where they give equal time to both sides, refusing to demonize the enemy. But here's a sample of the reviews in the US for THE WAR WITHIN (and, once again, that title - please - could it be any worse?):

The New York Post sez: "CHILLINGLY realistic but deeply repellent, "The War Within" is a film that should not have been made. It puts us in the shoes of a Pakistani who wants to bomb Grand Central Terminal. But I don't want to be in those shoes. I want those shoes on his feet — and those feet chained to a wall at Gitmo. "

Some guy named Tony Medley says: "Based on pure entertainment value, this does hold the viewer’s interest. But because of its disgraceful point of view, I can’t recommend it." Then he goes on to say it's like making a movie about a sympathetic Nazi.

Mike Atkinson at the Village Voice dismisses it as wearing "...clichés like concrete boots" although I'm not sure how something that's never been depicted in American cinema before can already be a cliche. His point seems to be that the movie isn't radical enough.

James Bowman over at the New York Sun gets the most ridiculous, claiming that: "...the filmmakers stop just short of advocating suicide bombing themselves," and that it's "...crude anti-American propaganda."

I don't want this to turn into a political debate, but as a thriller, and a thriller that takes terrorism seriously, THE WAR WITHIN can't be beat. You shouldn't miss it.

September 30, 2005 at 06:39 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (14)

September 27, 2005


Ha Ji-Won stars as Namsoon in THE DUELISTDirector Lee Myung-se's latest movie, THE DUELIST, is a whirl of movement, a ballet of bloodshed and a candy-colored carnival of clashing characters  but it is most definitely not an action movie: it's a romance. Marketed as a period action flick like HERO or CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, it's releasing its audiences divided into warring factions: heart-on-their-sleeve romantics who sob softly, overwhelmed by what they've just seen, and baffled and underwhelmed adrenaline junkies shaking their heads and wanting to know why the action looks so good but leaves their thrill buttons unpressed.

The story is simplicity itself: Namsoon is a young cop in the Joseon Dynasty whose precinct winds up unraveling a knotty counterfeiting case that turns out to be a political plot to destabilize Korea's economy. During the course of her duties, she crosses paths with Sad Eyes, a King of the Vampires-looking henchman for the baddies. He barely says a single word in the entire movie, but gazing out from behind his bangs like an animal peering out through the bars in his cage; he becomes the movie's emotional center. Anyone who's attuned to motion picture cliches will know that Namsoon and Sad Eyes will fall for each other, but they're on opposite sides of the law and everything will end in tragedy. But Lee Myung-se embraces cliches because they give him a place to stand while he deconstructs the world. He likes to pick them up and bang them against the wall until their rust, barnacles, and familiarity falls off like dust and the kernel of what makes them resonate is exposed.

On a lot of levels, Director Lee's previous film NOWHERE TO HIDE offered nothing new from the standpoint of narrative, the story was blood simple: cops chase a crook. But he's not happy with movies unless he's stripping them down to first principles and reinventing the wheel and NOWHERE TO HIDE became a movie about motion. The movie became an essay on the addiction of adrenaline and the way the thrill of the hunt reduced human beings to nothing more than action junkies. (I blather a lot more about this in this review, if anyone's interested).

THE DUELISTSo reject your assumptions, jettison your baggage, and forget every other movie you've ever seen when you walk into THE DUELIST. There are barely 10 pages of dialogue in the whole film, because Lee isn't happy with his points unless he's written them in sweat and blood, muscle and sinew. Every shift in emotion, mood, and thought is conveyed visually, zapped into your brain via your eyes at 24 frames per second.

This mutagenic masterpiece isn't happy unless it's at least two or three different movies at once: it wants to be a romance told with action and it samples a dozen different genres like a DJ at the turntables. In Korean, the title means DETECTIVE and the scenes of stake-outs, raids, buy-and-bust operations, interrogations, and even a scene of the angry cop turning in his badge are all there, but given a "Flintstones" charm by transporting the story back in time 400 years. A full third of what you see onscreen isn't even real. There are conversations played out where characters wish they could say things they'll never utter, there are ghosts, fables and folktales and alternate courses of action all thrown up onscreen as if they exist. Director Lee's movies are governed by his dreams and to him the line between reality and fantasy isn't just thin, it's invisible.

Kicking off in an enormous marketplace riot, THE DUELIST has a sneaky agenda up its sleeve: it wants to break your heart. Early summertime scenes of slapstick humor, Keystone Kops kollisions, and Namsoon striding around with a sneer on her face and her sleeves rolled up like Jeon Ji-Hyun in MY SASSY GIRL are buried like a corpse beneath a layer of snow as the movie turns serious and the price of violence is exposed. These guys are engaged in a deadly game, and while the first half of the film puts the focus fully on the "game" part of that phrase, the second half brings home the "deadly."

Gang Dong-Won plays Sad Eyes in THE DUELISTWhat pulls you through the movie is the movement. Drunk on tango classes and sword lessons, Ha Ji-Won (Namsoon) and Gang Dong-Won (Sad Eyes) whirl and twist around one another as if they're falling in love for the first time. And in a way, they are. The bitter bite of the movie comes from the assertion that these two kids, who by all rights should be humping in a field somewhere, have been betrayed by the older generation. Namsoon's mentor, Ahn (played by Korean legend, Ahn Sung-Ki), has taught her how to fight, but that's it. He's sent her out into life equipped with a hammer, and to her every problem looks like a nail. How to relate to another human being without hitting them is beyond her grasp. Sad Eyes is just as crippled. Trained by his surrogate father to be nothing more than a killing machine, and not even told his name, he only knows killing. If he can't make something bleed, then he's not interested.

The two of them stalk each other for the first half of the movie, and they love it. For the first time in their lives someone is watching them. Namsoon is following Sad Eyes and he revels in the attention. And Sad Eyes toys with Namsoon and she loves it, too, because she's finally found a playmate. Of course, they're playing with swords and that's their inherent tragedy: these are kids who were never given any toys but loaded guns.

Director Lee likes to show action, not consequences, and THE DUELIST forces the viewer to re-evaluate how they watch movies. Traditional scenes of action and romance aren't given the time and weight we're used to, scenes begin and end both faster and slower than we expect, what catches Director Lee's eye is how people move and what that says about their souls, not how cool it is to show a badass with a sword. His presence hovers over this movie like a deity, and the further you can wriggle into his head the greater the reward. He's impatient with finicky narrative details and hurtles over them at full speed, leaving half-awake viewers shaking their heads and dazedly eating his dust. He's as much a character in THE DUELIST as Namsoon and Sad Eyes, and for viewers who like to start from a familiar point, he's the bad guy. There's not a convention of moviemaking, from how to shoot a love scene to how a plot unfolds, that he doesn't question and undermine.

But if you can tune into his wavelength, this kind of intervention feels human and benevolent. The story ends in tragedy but Lee Myung-se uses his directorial prerogative to wrest a happy ending out of the jaws of defeat and allow his characters a final, spectral pas de deux, before the credits roll and their world ends. It's the kindest moment in movies this year, and for a director who thinks that Korean cinema is currently obsessed with violence and brutality, it feels like a third alternative, and maybe even a manifesto for a return to romance.

September 27, 2005 at 06:17 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (10)

September 22, 2005


Jackie Chan and Stanley Tong's The MythReviews are in for Jackie Chan and Stanley Tong's recent collaboration and they seem to agree that it's close, but no cigar.

Elizabeth Ng at The Star says it's "basically an empty promise". You can read the full review here.

Variety seems dismissive but states that the flick "ranks far above such previous botched Chan-Tong adventures as "Jackie Chan's Police Strike" and "Rumble in the Bronx," and that it marks one of Stanley Tong's rare foray into period movies. It's actually his only "foray". You can read the full review here.

There's also some more favorable review on the Asian Cinema Discussion board over at the Mobius Home Video Forum.

September 22, 2005 at 10:06 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (6)

September 20, 2005


HELLO YASOTHORN, the TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER-looking comedy by ONG BAK's "Dirty Balls", Mum Jokmok, is out and ThaiFilm.org has a review.

It's mixed. They say that on the one hand it is "adequately entertaining" but on the other it's full of "slapping the head, kicking in the butts, and foul cussing" and it's "predictable". Then again, it could be "...fairly entertaining if you can look past all these flaws."

September 20, 2005 at 08:58 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)

September 18, 2005


SEVEN SWORDS is clearly a movie about the US invasion of IraqTsui Hark has made the most interesting movie so far about the insurgency in Iraq, and I'm surprised no one else is talking about it. SEVEN SWORDS is so clearly a movie about the US invasion of Iraq, and a celebration of the insurgents who are fighting back, that I'd be surprised if it could even get an American distribution deal. I'm not trying to suddenly make this movie unmarketable, but I really did think that there's no way to argue that 7 SWORDS is about anything else.

Check this out for a plot: the Emperor is worried about weapons of mass destruction (ie, martial arts) being used against him and so he declares that no one but his soldiers can study martial arts. He sends his army, clad in clunky body armor and wielding exotic weapons, out into the rocky, inhospitable desert to conduct raids on villages where it's rumored martial artists lurk. There's massive collateral damage as the baddies wipe out women and children along with the insurgents. Then, out of the mountains of Tora Bora...oops, I mean Mount Tian, come seven swordsmen who are pure of heart and soul. They engage with the superior invading forces and beat them through a combination of super skills and booby traps. Later they have to hide refugees in mountain caves and the Emperor's army bombard them with artillery. Within the ranks of the insurgents there are people from the previous dynasty who served as the Emperor's torturers, now making an uneasy peace with their former victims as they fight back against the invaders, there are collaborators, traitors, and foreign fighters. Maybe there's too much Newsweek in my diet, but this sounds so much like the situation in Iraq that I can't imagine Tsui didn't intend parallels.

But maybe all this is just some fever dream fantasy I concocted to keep myself occupied while watching 7 SWORDS, because there wasn't a lot onscreen to do it for me. It's not a bad movie, but it's a deeply unsatisfying one. With 7 SWORDS and seven swordsmen to wield them you'd think that Tsui would have his hands full trying to keep the characters straight but instead the movie is really about: a) an old horse; b) a Korean slave; c) a kid who has to learn to stand up for himself d) a village that has to learn not to be too judgemental and it isn't until we get past those four plot points that we get to e) seven swordsmen.

The original cut was 4 hours long, and I'd be interested to see it, but so much of what I did see had a "been there, seen that" vibe that I'm not sure two more hours will help. The bad guy, Fire Wind (no indigestion jokes, please), is played with relish, and mustard, and sauerkraut and all the gooey fixins' by Sun Honglei, and he's a blast, but the other actors are not so tasty. Leon Lai plays a guy who sounds like a fortune cookie every time he opens his mouth. Donnie Yen does strong dark and silent. Lau Kar-leung is poorly dubbed and he's barely onscreen in the second half of the movie. Xiong Xin-xin reprises his clubfoot role from ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 2. Everyone else is interchangeable. Even the climactic action scene is thrilling until you remember that it was done bigger (and better?) back at the end of ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 2 (with Donnie Yen as well, no less). 

The 4 hour version may not make a better movie but it could go a long way towards explaining the geography. Much is made of the advance of Fire Wind's army on the peaceful village ("Eek! They're 300 hundred miles away!"), but suddenly it turns out that the village is a four hour pony ride from the bad guy's giant fortress. Fast ponies, I guess. Even after the villagers flee, it still doesn't take more than a couple of hours to get back to Fort Bad Guy from wherever they are, which is weak tea from a director who's always had a firm grip on the spatial relationships in his movies.

The one person who should be lobbying to keep the 4 hour version out of stores is Michael Wong. Hong Kong's favorite white man has a decent cameo as The Duke, but less is always more with the good Mr. Wong and another 10 minutes of his role may ruin the magic.

September 18, 2005 at 11:21 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (11)


Eli Roth's HOSTELIt's not an Asian movie, but I went to see Eli Roth's HOSTEL last night - his follow-up horror movie to CABIN FEVER - and the smell of Takashi Miike filled the theater. Claiming that he felt the US had ceded its duty to make disturbing horror movies to directors from Japan and South Korea, Roth said that SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and a Thai website were his two direct inspirations for this exceedingly graphic, exceedingly gory, but deeply satisfying flick about Americans backpacking in Europe who discover that there're worse things to get than crabs.

Takashi Miike himself has a cameo in the movie as a businessman coming out of a sick art exhibit, earning a round of applause from the depraved Canadian audience. During the Q&A after the film when the cast was asked what movies had ever disturbed them, the two male leads instantly replied, "Ichi the Killer" and "Visitor Q". Of course the female lead's answer "Herbie: Fully Loaded" only showed that maybe America hasn't entirely left making disturbing movies up to Japan, after all.

September 18, 2005 at 11:20 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 17, 2005


Sammi Cheng in EVERLASTING REGRETIn which Sammi Cheng cries three times; a name is dropped; the Cultural Revolution doesn't look nearly as bad as you expected; and everyone is thoroughly confused.

Stanley Kwan could be Hong Kong's best director of women after Wong Kar-wai. He knows how to make them look good, he knows how to get their best performances out of them, and he knows how to convince them to go beyond their comfort zones. Even so, after he basically reinvented Maggie Cheung with CENTRE STAGE, showed Anita Mui's tragic side in ROUGE, and gave us an unexpected Chow Yung-fat, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Elaine Jin in LOVE UNTO WASTE (and even did wonders for Chingmy Yau in HOLD YOU TIGHT), even after all this it still seemed like an iffy proposition that he could pull the same thing off with Sammi Cheng in EVERLASTING REGRET. As stories about Sammi's erratic behavior came off the set everyone thought that either she'd shine like a star in this flick, or crash and burn. When Mainland Chinese pressure was brought to bear and the order came down that the movie had to be slightly altered to pass muster, it seemed that maybe Stanley Kwan had hit it out of the park with a movie that was too close to history for comfort.

No such thing. Set in Shanghai from the 40's to the 80's and following Sammi Cheng as Qiyao, a woman whose heartlessness and selfishness cause her to alienate everyone who loves her, EVERLASTING REGRET looks real pretty, but even if my life depended on it I couldn't tell you what went on.

Sammi Cheng isn't exactly bad in this movie, but she doesn't really do a whole lot of anything. I guess the problem with making a movie about a woman whose emotions are closed off and kept hidden is that it doesn't give the audience a lot to look at, especially in a movie that's shot almost entirely in close ups. The credits say that William Chang (Wong Kar-wai's constant collaborator) is the production designer here, but I wouldn't know since the camera rarely drops below the actors' neckline.

Tony Leung Kar-fai more than earns his paycheck as the one performer who really stands out, playing a photographer who loves Qiyao from afar but winds up a broken wreck. There's some life from the other actors but every time one of them appears you find yourself missing them once they leave. Couldn't the movie follow the life of Qiyao's friend, Lili (Su Yan, a Mainland TV actress), who seems to actually do things and displays actual emotions? But no, we're stuck with Sammi and the movie rapidly devolves into a series of Mainland Chinese art film cliches: here's the scene of two Chinese people sitting at a table and staring off in opposite directions; here's the man in a sweater vest staring out the window and smoking a cigarette; here's the scene at a Shanghai nightclub with pretty dresses; here's the wife breaking something; here's the stolen kiss in the hallway. The only thing the movie misses is a tearful farewell in a train station, but maybe that will be on the director's cut DVD.

Sammi's performance is so tamped down that in the three scenes where she demonstrates actual emotions she seems completely over the top. The first time she feels an emotion she's so upset by it that she bangs her head against a wall and collapses to the floor sobbing; the second time she screams like a banshee; the third time she's a squirming, squalling wreck. For a movie that plays mostly on mute this is a very painful experience.

The biggest problem with the flick is that it makes no sense. Just as Tsui Hark's SEVEN SWORDS plays fast and loose with geography, EVERLASTING REGRET gets loosey-goosey with chronology. At the start of the film, Qiyao hooks up with Officer Li. The characters comment that they've been involved for about a year. Then, suddenly, she's signing a lease on an apartment he's gotten for her and the date on the contract is 1956. Seeing that the movie started out with a bunch of gangsters hanging around a gaudy dancehall, sticking guns in each others' stomachs after a hard night at the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant I thought the movie had to start in the post-War/pre-Revolution years (sometime between 1945 and 1949). But if that's the case then how can she be involved with Officer Li for one year and at the end of that year sign a contract dated 1956? I don't think that there were a whole lot of Miss Shanghai pageants after the Communist Revolution in 1949. Were they hanging out in dog years?

This turns out to be one of the least confusing things that happen. As the movie progresses, questions rapidly outstrip answers and the whole "When did she get the aparment?" conundrum starts looking downright obvious. It pains me to admit it, but I couldn't understand almost anything that happened in the second hour of the film. I thought it was just me until, on the way out of the theater, I saw Gavin Smith. Gavin in the editor of FILM COMMENT magazine, which is the flagship publication of the big brain cinema set, and if anyone's going to know what's going on in a movie it's got to be Gavin and his whirling neurons. But even he was confused about an awful lot of plot details. Kudos to Stanley Kwan for baffling someone who has to be the smartest film guy in the US, and if that was his goal then he totally scored.

Watching EVERLASTING REGRET is like going to a dog convention where the dogs do all the talking. It's interesting, and certainly watchable, but you can't make heads or tails of what's going on. And somehow I don't think that's the point.

September 17, 2005 at 07:11 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 16, 2005


Watermelons are everywhere (and people are doing everything with them, from juicing to humping them)I have to confess: I've never seen a Tsai Ming-liang film before. It's a horrible thing to have to say, like hearing the waiter at a steakhouse admit he's allergic to red meat. On the one hand this positions me as an ignoramus. On the other hand it positions me as an ignoramos who's going into THE WAYWARD CLOUD free of preconceptions. The movie has earned almost universal pans, and no one likes to talk about it much, but maybe it's just a sign of the final death throes of my tiny mind that I liked it a lot.

The story is minimal. Taiwan is gripped in a heat wave, water is a precious commodity, watermelons are everywhere (and people are doing everything with them, from juicing to humping them) and a guy and a gal living in the same apartment block fall for each other. According to other reviewers, these are the same couple from WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? and they went their separate ways at the end of that earlier film. Okay. That's neat.

Anyways, the guy is an actor in porn movies and he obviously doesn't want the gal to find out what he does for a living. Their lives turn into a game of cat and mouse up and down the stairwells and through the corridors (he's currently shooting a porno with a Japanese actress upstairs) as he virtually does backflips to keep his day job secret. Some things to know about this movie: the shots are long, the scenes are long, no one talks much and everything is broken up with cheapo musical numbers set to 50's Mandopop.

The Wayward Cloud is the most scathing denunciation of pornographyThis doesn't sound very promising, and the musical numbers are pretty pointless (except one that an older actress bursts into right after getting the stud's money shot squirted onto her face - it's the keeper of the bunch) but this flick that starts out as a quiet visual comedy evolves into the most strident anti-pornography movie I've ever seen. Variety's review (here) says the last scene of the movie is the most misogynist of director Tsai Ming-liang's career. Uh, sorry, but it's actually most scathing denunciation of pornography (damn dirty pornography!) I've ever seen. Which just goes to show that there's a lot of room to read things into this flick.

Folks made a big stink about the blow job scene in BROWN BUNNY between Vincent Gallo and Chloe Sevigny. Please. If you haven't sat through the deeply upsetting sausage gobbling in THE WAYWARD CLOUD, well, you ain't seen nothing yet.

September 16, 2005 at 10:26 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (5)



Takashi Miike had lost it as far as I was concerned. GOZU was full of chewy morsels but we've already got David Lynch for that kind of thing. ZEBRAMAN is a movie I wanted to like so badly that my ears bled, but at the end of the movie I checked myself and, nope, not amazed. But THE GREAT YOKAI WAR joins HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS, ICHI THE KILLER and AUDITION as the Miike movies I'll alwasy love, no matter what he does next. After stumbling out of the Midnight Madness screening last night I wanted to fly over to Japan and give him a hug. But first I wanted to enjoy a frosty can of Kirin Ichiban beer which is marketed relentlessly throughout the movie.

Family film that it is, GYW kicks off with Takashi (kid kommando thespian, Ryunosuke Kamiki) having a nightmare about an incinerated Tokyo. Then a slinky demoness with a beehive comes dangerously close to some peeky cheeky action out the back of her mini skirt, followed by the birth of a goo-covered, flayed, talking cow fetus and a promise of the apocalypse. The fact that children in Japan can sleep at all is something of a miracle.

Takashi gets elected the Kirin Rider in a dumpy village where one half of his broken home is hiding out, trying to get over the trauma of his parents' divorce. Each year there's a little village celebration and some kid gets selected as Kirin Rider (I assume "Kirin" either means "dragon" or "giant corporate logo" in Japanese) and it mostly means the rugrat gets some nasty-looking azuki beans to eat and a hand towel. In Takashi's case it means he has to go to Goblin Mountain, get the Goblin Sword and stop evil, fascist wizard, Kato, from starting a war. Oops, too late. War's already broken out.

Blah, blah. Been here. Done that. Bought the t-shirt. But GYW attacks its material with all the stops pulled out, and its war, for all its CGI and ridiculous declarations, is something you can feel in your guts. The evil wizard Kato is a part-therapist/part-madman who's declared war on humanity in the name of...garbage. All the things we've thrown out, all the broken junk we've dumped, all the shoes we toss when they get too small or go out of style, all of it has souls. Unwittingly we've perpetrated a holocaust, and now Kato is holding us accountable. It's a little bit like that Ikea commercial about the lamp thrown out in the rain, only minus the joke. You have to admit it: the evil wizard has a point.

The yokai are goblins out of folktalesThe yokai are goblins out of folktales and in an age of Digimon and Dragonball; what's more neglected than a bunch of crummy old folkstory characters? Kato captures the mostly harmless  funky-looking yokai and unleashes all their rage at humanity that they've kept bottled up inside and it come volcanoing out, ripping the creaky old yokai apart and turning the pieces into vicious mechanical monsters.

By the end of the flick a homicidal city has been unleashed, Takachi has had to slaughter his cuddly best friend, adults have demonstrated they are morally bankrupt, and the yokai have gone to war. Seeded throughout this mix-o-matic madness are jokes, sudden breaks to celebrate the azuki bean in song and to warn kids not to try particularly dangerous stunts at home, some of the darkest black humor to cast a shade across the screen (an elderly village cop tries to shoot one of the mechanical monsters and instead plugs its helpless human victim right between the eyes), and the funniest product placement for Kirin Ichiban beer I've ever seen. If Miike doesn't deserve an Oscar for this one he at least deserves an Addy (the Oscar of the advertising industry).

When GYW was first announced it was claimed that it would be Japan's answer to LORD OF THE RINGS and the Harry Potter movies - not quite. The movie is too weird, too Miike, to capture the imaginations of millions. But he delivers a short, sharp shock to the system in the final scene that perfectly captures the elegiac sadness that Peter Jackson tried to reach at the conclusion of LOTR but failed to pull off. Every quest has an ending and no childhood lasts forever; Miike lets his movie extend beyond its climax and it's one of the saddest things I've ever seen. Amidst the imagination of mass destruction at the heart of this movie that sweeps up the film into a burning fusion of ridiculous ideas, be very still and quiet. That sound you hear is a child's heart breaking.

September 16, 2005 at 10:23 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (2)

August 31, 2005


Initial D claimed Hong Kong's number one spot for 2005 in a mere four daysI don't like cars, I don't like sports and I don't like jocks, but I do like INITIAL D. Directed by the INFERNAL AFFAIRS team and based on a super-popular manga (but not the spin-off anime), this sleek good-time summer movie roared past the competition, claimed Hong Kong's number one spot for 2005 in a mere four days, and left the competition all over Asia choking on its dust.

Jay Chou (in a coma, but a cool coma) is Takumi, the accidental racing god of Mt. Akina: a tofu delivery boy who uses his supernatural racing skills to make it home as soon as possible so he won't get beaten up by his drunk dad, Anthony Wong. Working in a gas station by day, and delivering tofu by night, he doesn't even notice the various racing legends he leaves slowly spinning in his wake as he breezes by them every night.

Eventually, actors from Shawn Yue to Edison Chen and Jordan Chan show up demanding a race, and Jay does the right thing and beats the stuffing out of them in several displays of drifting that you know are CGI enhanced but are still kewl enough to make your nerves hum, even if they're humming against your better judgement.

Anthony Wong and Kenny Bee are on hand to provide some acting gravitas, and while they're both pretty cartoonish they bring their thing and shake their moneymakers with panache. Any movie that let's Anthony Wong start a story about the birth of a legend with "Four years ago, my hemorrhoids were killing me..." is a movie that's knows how to handle Anthony Wong.

Like the upcoming MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, INITIAL D is set in Japan with a Chinese cast playing Japanese characters. The one Japanese cast member is Anne Suzuki (KAMIKAZE GIRLS, A TASTE OF TEA) who winds up as cross-cultural road kill. The directors spent a great deal of time finding the most annoying voice artist in Hong Kong to dub Ms. Suzuki's Cantonese and if you plug up your ears you can tell she's bringing her A game to the part (okay, maybe her B game, but still...) but are you willing to plug your ears for the entire movie? Ms. Suzuki's plotline is also treated like a second class citizen in the movie, and the way her entire character arc is dispensed with in the final scene is so perfunctory that it takes your breath away.

While it sounds like I'm dissing INITIAL D, there's no dis here. This is perfect popcorn entertainment. It actually provides thrills and a story, the actors are all minding their P's and Q's and consequently they add a lot to the movie (even Chapman To is an asset, not a liability) (and you won't feel like slapping Edison Chen once. Honest). The directors have a whole lotta love for their source material, and they never commit the crime of blowing the movie's events into earth-shattering proportions, instead they find the drama that's native to their small stage: this is always a movie about amateur car racing on the same strip of rural road. But they squeeze, and they wring, and they manage to fill a bucket with every single drop of entertainment value they can get out of that micro-concept.

Challenging? No, of course not. But summer's for fun flicks, not weighty ones. And INITIAL D is as breezy and light as air.

August 31, 2005 at 10:41 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (2)


Well, not my review, but Derek Elley's from Variety. It's one of the first Western industry reviews of SYMPATHY and it pretty much echoes what we've all been hearing: it's more like SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE than OLDBOY, and it's somewhat more restrained in its violence. Elley does add that Lee Yeong-Ae (the female lead in JSA) doesn't have the gravitas necessary to make her central role all that it could be, which is something I wondered about from the time it was announced that she was starring in this one.

So Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance Trilogy is finished. For all its ups and downs, I have to agree with Elley that this is one of the most original film trilogies to come out in a long time, and when the whole world is wrapped up in eye-for-and-eye politics it couldn't hit at a better time. Your mileage may vary.

August 31, 2005 at 10:32 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 30, 2005


What happened to Cory Yuen in Transporter 2?Cory Yuen, what happened to your "e"? You used to be one of Hong Kong's most talented action directors, but somehow all this foolishness of Yuen Woo-ping becoming Yuen Wo-ping and Zhang Ziyi becoming Ziyi Zhang in Hollywood, you've dropped the "e" in Corey and with it, at least temporarily, you've dropped your talent.

The only reason to see TRANSPORTER 2 is Cory Yuen's action choreography, but in almost every single case, director Louis Leterrier shoots and edits it so poorly that it's a Hollywood jumble of mis-cuts and motion blurs. And this from the man who brought us Yuen Wo-ping's masterful work in UNLEASHED, shooting it in a manner that rested just on the line between Hong Kong and Hollywood action photography. Cory Yuen don't get no respect.

The plot involves Amber Valleta and Matthew Modine teaming up to have a dimbulb brat, which Frank (Jeremy Statham), the titular Transporter, drives to school. The kid gets kidnapped by Euro-trash and Amber Valleta implores Frank to bring him back. The two of them are bonded and in close up you can see why: both of them sport the most damaged skin seen onscreen in quite some time. Ms. Valleta's haggard, tired epidermis with its dry patches, sun damage and age spots matches Mr. Statham's grizzled, unshaven surface-of-the-moon skin so well that they could only be kindred spirits.

There's a big set-up involving the martial arts skills of the baddie but his ultimate showdown with Mr. Statham consists of rolling around on the floor of one of the creakiest CGI jets ever given the OK by an overworked director.

But there is one scene in this movie that contains so much nutty visual poetry that one suspects Cory Yuen went off and shot and edited it himself. One little scene that trumps almost every other action movie out there today. It's a scene with a firehose and you can save $10 and see it in its entirety here.

Otherwise, stay home and hope that Cory Yuen goes back to being the inimitable Corey Yuen soon.

August 30, 2005 at 11:33 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 12, 2005


Harry_webAin't It Cool has what seems to be the first review for TOM YUM GOONG, the new Tony Jaa movie that's a follow-up to ONG BAK.

The review isn't very good, but that's okay. If it was good it wouldn't be on Ain't It Cool.

There's also an exhausting and exhaustive review of Tsui Hark's SEVEN SWORDS up as well.

August 12, 2005 at 02:02 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (2)

July 22, 2005


The Wu Jing message boards have the first review of Tsui Hark's SEVEN SWORDS and it's as negative as you'd expect the first reviews for this movie to be. Critics, huh? They're always complaining about something.

One thing that's weird is I didn't think the movie was being screened until Venice?

(Thanks to the Wu Jing fansite)

July 22, 2005 at 08:12 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (4)

May 27, 2005


SHA PO LANGEveryone's buzzing about SHA PO LANG, the Wilson Yip-directed Donnie Yen/Simon Yam/Wu Jing/Sammo Hung action film from Hong Kong. It's getting bought and sold, it won't be released in theaters until later this year, the stills look hot, the trailer rocks, the print caught on fire at Cannes but we've all been hurt before. So the question is: is it any good?

Yeah, it's pretty good. This is my favorite Hong Kong movie of 2005 so far, and it delivers on everything it promises, but it doesn't do it the way you're expecting. The first half of the movie feels like Johnnie To's THE LONGEST NITE: dark and dank, claustrophobic corrupt cop action. Things get coiled tighter and tighter until the hand-to-hand action begins to erupt in the final third like a lanced boil, leaving walls, ceilings and floors coated in swathes of black blood and littered with broken arms.

Things get jumping with a man-to-man grudge match getting established between cop, Simon Yam, and triad boss, Sammo Hung, many years in the past. Both actors use their first few minutes to put the bits in their mouthes and just go, working themselves up into great performances. Simon Yam can give a good performance in his sleep, but Sammo delivers the best acting I've ever seen him do. He looks like he just wandered over from the set of HBO's OZ - he's a mass of knotted muscles covered with jailhouse tats, looking like a mobile, pissed off refrigerator.

The movie jumps forward to the present, and proceeds to unfold over Father's Day night. Uh-oh, it's symbolism! Of course there is - it's a Wilson Yip movie. Yam's retiring and he wants to take down Sammo before he goes. His squad is being taken over by Donnie Yen, but that happens in the morning. Right now, he's got one long night to settle scores. I don't want to give too much away, because it's a fun movie, but expect Wilson Yip at his finest.

Director Yip has never met an ending that he couldn't ruin and, to my mind, only BIO-ZOMBIE has a decent finale. But SHA PO LANG gets to stand next to it as a movie that holds up well all the way through. Being a Wilson Yip film there's plenty of off-kilter characterization and little digressions, some of which border on the cutesy, but he never crosses the line so far that he can't come right back. It's the his most controlled, best-sustained movie to date.

Donnie Yen, despite a few weird little Donnie Yen poses, actually acts for the first time ever. He turns in a performance! And it's a good one! Usually I feel that Yen is always thinking about how he'll look in the frame, and he seems to be projecting a pose more than he's inhabiting a character, but he actually manages to act in SPL, and I was pleasantly surprised. I take back all the mean things I ever said about him.

The stand-outs here are Sammo Hung, however, who turns out to be the movie's dark heart, and Wu Jing. Playing a hired hitman with a Kid N Play haircut and with about one line of dialogue, Wu Jing does it all with his body and turns in a gonzo performance. Camera tricks and "cool" action get left in the wastebasket and Wu Jing is allowed to deliver his stuff, piping hot and as fast as he can. And that's fast. The fight between he and Donnie Yen doesn't look like anything I've ever seen before: they made a lot of it up as they went along and it's full of mistakes, missed blows, and a lot of strategy. It's interesting to see two people fighting and thinking about what they're going to do next - I would never have noticed there was a difference between that and delivering choreography before, but now that I've seen what "real" fighting looks like, I want to see more. There's something alive and calculating in their eyes that felt brand new.

Is SHA PO LANG the second coming? No, but it's the best action movie to come out of Hong Kong in a long time, and it's okay to get excited about it. You wouldn't be burned.

May 27, 2005 at 08:15 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

May 16, 2005


You have to hand it to some US movie reviewers: they're clinging to their cultural supremacy as hard as they can. The latest tactic: ew! Asians are violent and violence is nasty. The Hollywood Reporter gives a silly review to Johnnie To's ELECTION where there's no context given to the director's previous work (would anyone review some white director who's as prolific and accomplished as To is without mentioning the guy's previous work?) and there's that Manohla Dargis-brand "cover your eyes! the Asians are assaulting our moral sensibilities with their violence" form of phoney baloney shock and horror on display. YAWN.

Ain't It Cool reviews ELECTION as well, and while their review isn't much better, at least it drops this faux-outrage that's been infesting the precious reviews of the elderly folks who just don't get that rock n'roll the kids seem to be listening to. Dern noise!

(Thanks to Monkey Peaches)

May 16, 2005 at 06:39 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

May 12, 2005

DANNY THE DOG (aka Unleashed)

and UNLEASHED star Jet LiAn unleashed Westie... It's good. That's about all anyone wants to know: is it KISS OF THE DRAGON again? Is it ROMEO IS BLEEDING? Or is it an actual, real life good movie?

Let me be the one who says it: it's a good movie. Bob Hoskins is terrific, but not very original. Morgan Freeman needs to do something new or retire. But Jet Li actually turns in a performance and it carries the movie.

The action is very Hong Kong in that combatants exchange multiple blows in each shot, rather than things getting chopped and spliced and CGI-ed every which way. There's problems aplenty, and a great "This is my happening and it freaks me out!" moment in an underground gladiator club, but overall this is one of the best action movies to hit the screen in a long time.

May 12, 2005 at 03:13 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 31, 2005

Eye 10

Pang Brothers' Eye 10 aka Eye Infinity The latest horror effort from the spookily identical Pang Brothers is not garnering any online hype or reviews for a simple reason: it's not very good. EYE 10 (or EYE INFINITY as the directors have ominously named it) is one of those "callow Hong Kong teenagers go to Thailand on vacation, encounter ghosts, return to Hong Kong variously deader and wiser, try to get rid of ghosts, die in twist ending" movies.

There's a great sequence in an underground pedestrian walkway, and a nice segment with some hungry ghosts, but overall it's a disjointed messy film that zings out dozens of vignettes with only one or two cool ideas among them, sort of like a batch of chocolate chip cookies featuring only three chocolate chips. It's a jokey, disappointing closer to the EYE trilogy, that was always a little half-baked to begin with.

March 31, 2005 at 11:16 PM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 23, 2005

"House of Fury" review

HOUSE OF FURYHOUSE OF FURY, directed by and starring Stephen Fung, is the kind of movie Hong Kong used to knock off without event thinking. In the late 80's this was the kind of hard-hitting, emotionally alive, shamelessly mainstream crowdpleaser that HK directors could release without even getting out of bed. These days it's an event.

Anthony Wong stars as an embarrassing dad who gets kidnapped and his kids (Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung) have to rescue him. Wu Ma is there, as is Daniel Wu (his presence in every movie is now required by law) and Michael Wong plays an evil guy who's bald and in a wheelchair sort of like Christopher Reeve gone bad. Josie Ho does her by-now trademarked silent killer lady thing, and the action is by Yuen Wo-ping. It's a lot more reminiscent of his ruff stuff TIGER CAGE days, rather than his more recent, more elegant choreography.

But is it any good? Yes -- there's wall to wall action, the storyline is actually funny and original (until the plot mechanics overwhelm it in the last third -- leaving you with just the action), and there's even a cute little pig for those who require such things.

Two questions: can Anthony Wong be bad in a movie? Playing a painfully awkward dad he dishes out the action and the pathos by the heaping handful, and one wonders what it would take to get a bad performance out of this guy. Question two: Charlene or Gillian? The Twins (Hong Kong's ubiquitous pop duo who are not only not twins but who aren't even related) are both in HOUSE OF FURY but Charlene just has to look fresh and unblemished, while Gillian gets to throw down on the kung fu (watch for her stunt doubles -- there's a great shot that could be Gillian except for the hairy, muscular forearm of some guy down in the front of the frame). I used to favor Charlene with her great big pumpkin head, but my allegiances have wandered over to Gillian with this flick. Her cuteness zips along at mach 5 while her butt-kicking is so completely ferocious that it might make fluffy puppies cry.

March 23, 2005 at 01:42 AM in Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack