Sunday, January 25, 2009

Quick takes #1

Berg Lee in Woo Ming Jin's The Elephant and the Sea (2007).

The Elephant and the Sea (Woo Ming Jin, 2007) - Malaysian drama by Woo Ming Jin. A fishing village is struck by an epidemic that causes people to get sick from eating fish. Ah Ngau is a fisherman who when he comes back to shore is told that his wife has died from the disease and that his house is quarantined. He gets to stay in a governement shelter and is later sent home with a box of donations from the public, nothing of use to Ah Ngau though except a shirt. For Ah Ngau life goes on as usual except now he has the freedom to experience new things.

Yun Ding lives by doing odd jobs with his friend Long Chai but when the disease claims the life of Long Chai, Yun Ding has to make it on his own. Yun Ding is like the opposite of Ah Ngau even though they both have to learn to deal with the situation they are suddenly in. While Ah Ngau has no use for donations, Yun Ding is hoping for, among other things, lucky numbers on a fish to bring him a better life.

My exposure to Malaysian cinema is very limited, I've actually only seen two Malaysian films before, Liew Seng Tat's Flower in the Pocket (2007) and Tan Chui Mui's Love Conquers All (2006) but what they have in common, in my opinion, is that even at their slow pace and almost plotless appearance they are full of life and enthusiasm for telling about the characters in the films and it is done in a naturalistic way without many embellishments or sentimentality. The Elephant and the Sea is no exception and maybe the most visually arresting of the three.

(Kim Ki-Duk, 2008) - Kim Ki-Duk's latest, starring Joe Odagiri and Lee Na-Yeong as two people connected through their dreams. When Jin dreams that he causes a car accident it's so real to him that he goes out in the middle of the night and drives to the place where it happened in his dream and he realises that it actually did happen but not with him behind the wheel. Following the police he finds out that it was a girl, Ran, who turns out to be a sleepwalker, acting out anything that Jin dreams about. Whenever Jin dreams about his ex-girlfriend who he still loves, Ran sleepwalks over to her ex-boyfriend whom she really hates and has sex with him. The solution for them is to take turns sleeping, which seems simple enough but they manage to mess it up which has bad consequences.

I'm not a big fan of Kim Ki-Duk and Dream didn't make me like his films more. It seems like a story that he could have done a lot with but it doesn't really go anywhere. Everything is explained very clearly within the first few minutes, then the rest of the time is spent watching two people trying not to sleep and that almost put me to sleep instead, I just didn't care. Too contrieved and emotionally lacking.

The Slit-Mouthed Woman
(Takuaki Hashiguchi, 2005) - A pink/J-horror combination directed by Takuaki Hashiguchi, not to be confused with Koji Shiraishi's Kuchisake onna from 2007, starring Eriko Sato and released on dvd in the US as Carved. Even though Hashiguchi's film looks (and most likely was) cheaper than Shiraishi's version of the urban legend I feel that it was the better of the two. You wouldn't expect from something that's supposed to be a film made to just show sex scenes but Hashiguchi manages to create some tension in some of the more scary scenes and the plot is enough for any J-horror rip-off in the wake of Ring and just about perfect for a 60-minute film.

Rough Cut (Jang Hun, 2008) - Another film with a Kim Ki-Duk connection, this time he's writing and producing and Jang Hun, Kim's assistant director on The Bow (2005), is directing. The story is about a film being made within the film and they're having trouble finding a co-star for the lead since he's been beating up and injuring actors during the fight scenes. What to do but hire a real gangster who doesn't mind not pulling punches for the role? Combining working as an actor with the duties of being head of a group of gangsters while the boss is doing time is easier said than done though. Rough Cut brings up the differences between being a real gangster and a tough guy in the movies but doesn't really go too far with it, most of it is an entertaining action film and even though it loses some steam towards the end it never gets too sappy unlike a lot of Korean films.

Dirty boxing in Jang Hun's Rough Cut (2008).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ploy (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2007)

Apinya Sakuljaroensuk and Pornwut Sarasin in Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Ploy (2007).

Last Life in the Universe (2003) became an instant favorite of mine when I first saw it about five years ago and it made Pen-Ek Ratanaruang the director I most looked forward to seeing new films from and he didn't disappoint with his next film, Invisible Waves (2006). Just like Last Life Invisible Waves was a collaboration between Pen-Ek, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and writer Prabda Yoon with a score by Hualampong Riddim and it maintained the dreamlike atmosphere of Last Life while being a completely different story. Two stories set in a universe in which Ploy (2007) also fits in.

Ploy takes place in a hotel in Thailand, Wit and Dang is a married couple who just returned from America to attend a relative's funeral and in the hotel bar young girl Ploy is waiting for her mother to arrive from Stockholm. Feeling restless Wit goes down to the bar to buy cigarettes and Ploy asks him for a light. They talk for a while and Wit finds out that Ploy's mother won't arrive for another few hours so he invites her to his room to rest there, something Dang isn't very happy about. When Ploy is taking a shower Dang urges Wit to kick her out but he won't and feelings of jealousy start to come over Dang. As a contrast to Wit and Dang's tired, passionless marriage, the bartender and a maid, presumably in the beginning of their relationship, are roleplaying and having sex in another room in the hotel.

It's not clear what is actually real and what's just dreams in the film, is Wit's ex really at the door and did Wit really leave the hotel together with Ploy or is it just Dang's jealousy that is taking shape in her dreams? Is Dang really abducted when she accepts an invitation to come to a stranger's apartment?

Ratanaruang manages to re-create the mood of Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves, mostly thanks to Riddim's score and that the look of the film is reminiscent to the previous two, especially the corridors of the hotel reminds me of the corridors of the cruise ship that Tadanobu Asano's character Kyoji Hamamura boards in Invisible Waves. The problem with Ploy is that it feels like it wants to say something but it doesn't really come up with anything. We do get closer to the characters than in Last Life and Invisible Waves but they don't really add anything. Sure, marriage gets old, you don't have sex as much after a while as you did in the beginning and sometimes the perceived lack of love makes you do the wrong thing or make the wrong decicions. But without knowing the characters' bagage, it's hard to make out if there is anything for them to worry about or if they are just crazy but maybe that's the point.

I had a really hard time with Ratanaruang's pre-Last Life films, all of them bored me to death and some reviewers are saying that Ploy is in a way a step back to the roots for Pen-Ek at the same time as it's a step forward, a natural evolvement in his filmmaking. I agree because Ploy also almost bored me to death and that Pen-Ek is taking a step back by copying the feel (which saves the film somewhat) of his previous two films but without someone else writing a script for him he just seems unable to come up with an interesting story or characters.

This World of Ours (Ryo Nakajima, 2007)

Ryo Nakajima's This World of Ours (2007).

I'm not sure what to think or feel about Ryo Nakajima's debut feature This World of Ours as it takes adolescence to such extremes that, to me, it becomes hard to relate to. It deals with the crushed hopes and dreams of some Japanese teenagers who struggle with their own and society's expectations of their futures. They feel bored with school, they want to make it on their own, is conforming and fitting in really the only way to success? Is it impossible for someone of common stature to really change or have an impact on society? This and the constant berating from teachers and nagging or indifferent parents and rejection from potential employers results in bullying, manipulating, gang rape and ultimately murder and terrorism. And that is why Nakajima almost loses me.

From all reports in media at least, the situation in Japan when it comes to the pressure to succeed that is placed on teenagers is much more extreme than here in Sweden, but having faced all these same problems of dropping out of school, being unsuccessful in finding a job for years and spending a lot of time thinking about what it is that I really want and how far one is willing to go to fit into society, gang rape and murder still never became parts of my life.

The things that redeem the film for me are the strong performances from the actors and that Nakajima doesn't spare his characters at all, there really is no romanticizing of the events in the film, all the characters have to face the cold, hard world and what they make of it is up to them. This World of Ours have been compared to Shunji Iwai's All About Lily Chou Chou (2001) on more than one occasion but the things written above makes me feel that Nakajima is a much more honest and talented filmmaker and, to me, his film is far, far superior to Iwai's.

I don't know what it is that Nakajima, a former hikikomori who started writing the script when he was 19 and spent the next four years making it, wants to say with the film. Does he just want to shed light on the situation, show how dark the world can get for young people who doesn't know how to deal with the pressure and expectations put upon them by society. Does he want them to compromise since the world won't change, get a job and fit in. My take, and probably the simplest one, comes from the most sensible character in the film. He says that, to him, death is not being able to live life your way but he also asks what's wrong with hard work. He has chosen to live life the way he wants to, travelling and making art, and he takes jobs in between to be able to do it. Maybe that is the best way to change the world for yourself. Completely giving up on your dreams and get a salary-man job is one way to fit in, but maybe it's possible to conform your dreams to fit into the frames of society and work hard to achieve them.

Ryo, the school bully in This World of Ours.

No matter what you believe in This World of Ours will make you feel something, it might be anger, disgust, despair or hope, there is no denying that it is a strong film with strong performances from someone who I hope will be making a lot more films in the future.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Chinese Hercules (Ta Huang, 1973)

Bolo Yeung in Chinese Hercules (1973).

"Bone cracking! Head crushing! Back snapping! Body breaking!" Bolo Yeung delivers in Chinese Hercules (1973). He's not the main character though and doesn't really get anything to do until the end of the film and the road there is pretty excruciating. The story is simple, Chan gets provoked into fighting his girlfriend's brother and accidentaly kills him causing him to flee town. He takes a job unloading ships at a pier but the boss is in business with the mob and when they demand that all the workers leave the pier so that they can use it to unload their own "special" goods trouble starts brewing. Some of the workers are killed by a musclebound mob henchman (Bolo Yeung) fights are breaking out and the foreman tells the workers that Chan is the only one that can help them, but Chan's guilt over killing a man has rendered him unable to fight. What will it take to make him fight again? Bolo Yeung busting some skulls is what it takes.

The problem with Chinese Hercules is that there is too much downtime between the fights, there are beatings in the film where one person is getting the crap kicked out of him by a group of others but the actual fights are few and far between until the long showdown between Bolo and Chan in the end. But it still manages to be a fairly entertaining film and it is well shot and the western-like theme helps build some tension for the fights. Chinese Hercules may not be the greatest martial arts film ever made but for some crazy Bolo madman action, you can't go wrong with it. According to Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Corey Yuen also have small roles as thugs, I missed them though.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Shinoda Double Feature: Assassination (1964) and Pale Flower (1964)

Masahiro Shinoda's Assassination (1964).

I recently watched two films by Masahiro Shinoda, Pale Flower and Assassination, both from 1964, and I can't say I fully grasped either one. In the case of Assassination I think it comes down to my lack of detailed knowledge in Japanese history as the film deals with specific events that have their basis in other events that took place before where the film picks up. The brief introduction at the start was of some help but not enough to fully appreciate the film, of more use is the booklet that comes with the dvd as it contains an essay about the film and some historical background. It's worth mentioning also that Shinoda's film isn't meant to be fully accurate in its depiction of history but is more of a psychological study of it's main character and the times in which it takes place. I don't feel that there is any use for me to try and retell the story here since I'll just mess it up so I'll just steal the description right off the box.

"The story of Assassination begins with the events of 1853 when "four black ships" - the foreign steamboats of Commander Matthew Perry - anchored at Edo Bay, sparking civil unrest and the major political maneuvering that saw the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. At a time when assassination had become a disturbing political tool, Shinoda's film follows Hachiro Kiyokawa (Tetsuro Tamba), an ambitious, masterless samurai whose allegiances drift dangerously between the Shogunate and the Emperor."

Ryo Ikebe and Mariko Kaga Pale Flower (1964).

You can tell that it is a Shinoda film just by looking at the images, and while it's a great looking film it just doesn't engage me. Maybe it's because of the complicated story, but I had the same problem with Pale Flower. It's pretty to look at but at the same time it feels a bit empty, despite everything that is going on. In neither film are the characters people I can relate too, even though the main character in Assassination is pained by the fact he is a farmer's son who has become a samurai and that he is not taken seriously and is denied further advancement in the ranks because of it and Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) in Pale Flower who has just been released from prison and is dealing with the changes in society and his gang, something that has worked in so many films before and after, but still Shinoda fails to bring me in. Both films have interesting stories and characters worth following so maybe it's just a case of Shinoda's style or the nihilistic tendencies in his characters that loses me, or, the most likely, Shinoda is just way over my head. I'll give him another try with Double Suicide (1969).

Saturday, January 3, 2009

4bia (Youngyooth Thongkonthun, Paween Purikitpanya, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Parkpoom Wongpoom, 2008)

Maneerat Kham-uan in the first segment of 4bia (2008).

Thai horror anthology consisting of four stories by different directors, among them the duo behind Shutter (2004) and Alone (2007), Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom. The other two are Paween Purikitpanya and Youngyooth Thongkonthun. The four stories all deliver different kind of scares, everything from Ring-like atmosphere, ghosts, psychological terror, bullying, black magic and gore.

The first part, Happiness, is about a girl, Pin, isolated in her apartment with a broken leg after a traffic accident. One night she starts recieving text messages on her phone from someone she doesn't know. It turns out that it's a guy and Pin gets curious. After a while the messages turns more and more menacing until she recieves one that says that the guy is standing outside her building. This is by far the scariest of the four tales and it does it purely through creating a creepy atmosphere and a great performance from Maneerat Kham-uan as the lonely girl, there is no dialogue except for the text messages. Happiness was directed by Youngyooth Thongkonthun.

Part two, Tit for Tat, was directed by Paween Purikitpanya. It deals with the bullying of a school boy by a group of delinquents. When he accidentaly causes them to get caught by the teachers smoking weed the abuse gets even worse. The boy decides to get back at his tormentors through black magic and he puts a curse on them. While Tit for Tat starts off good enough, the ending is ruined by the introduction of CG creatures that just look out of place and it turns into a case of showing too much. It is the goriest of the lot and has the most inventive deaths but it still skimps on both blood and scares.

The third part is directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun, one of the men behind Shutter and In the Middle is full of references to the director's earlier film, one character even spoils the ending for it. In the Middle is a ghost story set in the jungle where four guys have travelled for some river rafting. In their tent at night, they are telling ghost stories and one of them promises that if he dies he will come back and haunt the person sleeping in the middle. Take a guess what happens. At the same time as it is criticizing modern horror films for being all the same, the long haired female ghosts and what not, it does the exact same thing but with a guy as the ghost. While not being exactly scary, In the Middle is very enjoyable in an 80's B-horror kind of way, just like Shutter. Good fun.

The Last Fright is the weakest of the bunch. A flight attendant, Pim, is having an affair with a prince from another country. When the prince's wife is demanding her presence on a flight she is forced to go by her boss. On the plane, it turns out the princess knows all about the affair and she does her best to make Pim's life miserable. Pim decides to get back at her and manages to kill the princess and is then stuck with transporting her corpse back to her relatives on another flight. It turns out, though, that the princess is a restless spirit and she is not very happy with Pim. The Last Fright feels too predictable and overlong. Right from the start you know where it's going and the director, Parkpoom Wongpoom, fails to build any kind of suspense and because of that the frights don't really play out well. It does have a few moments that make you jump, but as a finale it fizzles.

4bia is still very entertaining and at times very scary. With the parts in a different order, building up an overall sense of horror, it might have worked better. But as is it's a great time for the first three quarters and then a drawn out letdown. Still recommended though as the best asian horror since Shutter.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Pink Double Feature: S&M Hunter (Shuji Kataoka, 1986) and New Tokyo Decadence - The Slave (Osamu Sato, 2007)

Shiro Shimomoto as S&M Hunter (1986), directed by Shuji Kataoka.

Just finished watching the first two releases by new company Pink Eiga, S&M Hunter and New Tokyo Decadence - The Slave. I think it's good with a company that's focusing on releasing some true pink films since Artsmagic seems to have given that up (are they out of business?) and Kino hasn't released any more roman pornos since the release of a few Masaru Konuma titles a little over a year ago. The pre-pink/roman pornos and pinky violence films that have been released in between by other companies haven't been much to root for. I don't know if UK-based Salvation Films are still releasing pink films either, they don't seem to have put any out in a while. So Pink Eiga is very much welcome.

Their first two films are very different, S&M Hunter is a pretty crazy sex comedy about the one eyed titular character who is hired by a man who hates women to free his boyfriend from a group of female delinquents. The man is recommended by the proprietor of an S&M establishment to hire the S&M Hunter since he's the world's foremost rope bondage master and can conquer any woman on earth with his rope skills. There is love in his violence. While this is going on, the group of women are taking turns raping the kidnapped boyfriend to turn him into women instead of men.

S&M Hunter isn't as extreme as a lot of reviews make it sound like, compared to a lot of other Japanese 80's sex cinema, it's pretty tame. Sure, the leader of the girl gang posing in full nazi uniform in front of a swastika flag before her showdown with S&M Hunter may offend some, but who'd really take anything seriously in a film like this? It's a pretty fun cheese flick with some questionable morals but as I said, who would take it seriously, especially now, 23 years after it was made.

New Tokyo Decadence - The Slave, made in 2007 by Osamu Sato, has a completely different story. Young Rina is a high school girl by day and works as a dominatrix by night. She's good at it since she's actually a masochist so she knows what her clients want. When she moves to the city she gets a job at a company where her boss quickly exposes her as a masochist and takes her on as his slave. She has to do whatever he says whenever he says it, no matter where they are. He is also allowed to have other women as long as they are not his slaves. It's not hard to figure out that their games will lead to jealousy. When a co-worker falls in love with Rina it gets even more complicated.

Rina is played by AV and pink film actress Rinako Hirasawa who made her pink film debut in Shinji Imaoka's Frog Song in 2005 and New Tokyo Decadence is based on her own experiences in the world of BDSM. I think New Tokyo is the film of the two that deserves the most attention but it has been placed in the shadow of S&M Hunter's crazy bondage super hero story, while New Tokyo is more of a drama where Rina finds out what it is that she really wants.

Rina's boss and her leg in Osamu Sato's New Tokyo Decadence - The Slave (2007).

The good thing with New Tokyo is that it doesn't feel as Sato is being judgmental towards his characters in any way. The s&m in the sex scenes never turns into just a gimmick for the film, and it doesn't cross over into abuse like in so many other films. There is no bad childhood or any other trauma to explain away Rina's masochistic behavior. Sato also creates some truly erotic scenes that takes place outside the bedroom without the actors shedding any clothes at all and as tired as it may sound, he makes you care about the characters. New Tokyo Decadence - The Slave is proof of the real talent that exists in the pink film world and I hope Pink Eiga will keep bringing it forth for a long time.

L - Change the World (Hideo Nakata, 2008)

L - Change the World (2008), directed by Hideo Nakata.

I watched the first 40 minutes of this a few months ago, when the Hong Kong dvd had just been released. It was impossible for me to get any further than that, all I did was to wish for every character in the film to just die. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I didn't watch another film for a few weeks after having tried this one, it was that bad. L - Change the World made me more scared of going near a tv than Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998) did, but a few days ago I mustered the courage to pop the disc in the player and finish it.

I actually kind of liked the first Death Note, it was silly but still had an entertaining story with the battle of wits between Light and L and there was always the shinigami, voiced by Shido Nakamura. The biggest drawback was the character of L, I don't care how close to the manga Kenichi Matsumoto played it, it was still one of the most annoying characters I've ever seen on screen. Death Note - The Last Name (Shusuke Kaneko, 2006) was a big step down from the first one but it was still almost endurable. So why did I even bother with a film named after and centered around a character that I can hardly stand? Well, I saw the first two so...

L - Change the World takes place after the two Death Note movies. L has 20-something days left to live after writing his name in the Death Note and burning it when he has to take care of a boy and a girl who together holds the key to the antidote to a deadly virus. They are also being chased by a scientist who wants to use the virus to "change the world" and her cohorts (the most uncharismatic villains I've seen in a film for a long time) is just in it for the money, wanting to sell the virus together with the antidote to the highest bidder. I think the story is one of the main flaws of the film. The character of L and his annoying mannerisms and the fact that some kid is the greatest crime fighter in the world worked better in the fantasy world of Death Note (Shusuke Kaneko, 2006) but, here in what is supposedly a real world, it is just too awkward to be taken seriously. The acting constantly bordering or crossing over into parody doesn't help either. What would have been needed for this to be somewhat entertaining is a new Light Yagami but no such luck.

This seems to be nothing but another cash in on the success of the Death Note films and to make a few more bucks off of the Matsuyama fans, but he alone cannot save this film. It could have been okay for an episode of a kids tv-show but as a film L - Change the World is a complete failure.