Monday, October 30, 2006

Operation Undercover (Wo Hu)

"Wo Hu" literally translates to "Crouching Tiger" (yeah yeah, one half of that famous Chinese proverb/movie of the same title), which refers to hidden talents, agendas and the likes. In yet another Hong Kong triad movie produced by the infamous Wong Jing, Operation Undercover (the less stylish English title) tells the story of how Hong Kong's police sent a rumoured thousand undercover cops to infiltrate the triads at all levels, leading to numerous high profiled arrests of triad members.

But no, this story doesn't begin and end just like that. It's actually a misnomer of a plot device, and you're not going to see thousands of similar Tony Leung/Andy Lau characters invading the screen. In fact, this movie is anything but pitting mole against mole. While the story may seem to be familiar, with the theme of the discovery and realization of bad hats in any organization, and those whose hearts and intentions are pure, the delivery, although stylistically looking similar to Infernal Affairs with its strained blue hues, actually excelled, very much dependent on the ensemble cast.

It's great to see Miu Kiu Wai back on the big screen after a long hiatus. In fact, this film had a number of actors whom we haven't seen for a while. With Wai playing a police superintendent, the rest make up the triads. I haven't seen Julian Cheung take on a bad guy role before, even though his scheming character here is nothing to shout about. Regular insane character actor Francis Ng returns to his mould, although his performance here surpassed the recent Exiled and On the Edge. A welcome return is Jordan Chan, famed for his dynamic pairing with Ekin Cheng in the Young and Dangerous franchise, playing a hen-pecked and muddled gangster chief, and rounding up the triad organization at the top, is Eric Tsang, probably in a role we're so familiar with given his Infernal Affairs connection. Shawn Yue cameos too as an assassin with few words.

Given the slew of movies in the same genre, you might balk at this one, given the low level publicity muscle, and probable thoughts of it emulating Election or Infernal Affairs. But the filmmakers perhaps realized the inevitable comparisons, and have early in the movie, given subtle jibes at those other movies, as a reminder that hey, we're from the same genre, but we're not emulating anyone, although the themes and plots might be threading the same ground. It doesn't take the typical microscopic look at the life of undercovers, but adopts a macroscopic view instead. Suggestions were provided as to how undercover cops lead their lives, and how much license they are given to walk on the wrong side of the law. Sadly this potentially interesting aspect wasn't looked into much, and came more of an afterthought following a surprising revelation.

The usual scheming and double crossings surface rather fast and furious in the second half of the movie, and it's quite puzzling to wonder why a bit part mushy romance was thrown in to upset the pace. While the subplot might be used to gain some sympathy for the characters involved, it could have been a darker film should this aspect not be explored, and it's quite unnecessary at times. My guess would be actually for the actress to make some kind of debut performance and sharing the credits with a rather stellar cast. Or perhaps to highlight the point again that some gangsters do have hearts (of gold) as well.

The finale, if wrapped up earlier, could have made the movie feel more compact and satisfying. However, it chose to end abruptly, and leaving things so open, there is room for a possible sequel. I won't hold my breath for that to happen though.

An Inconvenient Truth

Heal The World

"You can't make somebody understand something if their salary depends upon them not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair

Now if there's a story that's terrifying, An Inconvenient Truth is more horrifying that the recent slew of horror and disaster films out there, because, if you buy the message, this is true, and what's happening right here right now. We can't escape the consequences if we continue doing what we do to harm Nature, but yet we still have the power and ability to make a difference.

Sounds simplistic? Well, maybe. Then again, cynicism will not help any bit. An Inconvenient Truth is a documentary, touching on the very issues of our survival and existence on this only planet we call Earth, the only one we can call home. Al Gore, used to be the next president of the United States, or could be if going by popular vote, brings to us, on the big screen with the assistance of director Davis Guggenheim, an issue he holds dearly, as seen in his relentless crusade around the world, to spread the message that the Earth is sending out SOSes, and we need to respond.

The issue of global warming, and the cranky weather and natural disasters we are facing of late, is nothing new. But perhaps, in about 100 minutes, here is something, a presentation that hits home, that summarizes succinctly all the cause and effects, the whys and the how tos. Filled with charts, facts and figures, and lively animation, these are but some of the techniques Gore uses in his slideshow presentation to ring home the message. In fact, I would say it's an excellent package put together for presentation, and anyone could take away a tip or two, on effective public speaking.

To some, the documentary is a no-brainer to put together, as most of it focuses on Gore delivering his message, as if you were there listening to him from the stage floor. True, the setup might not be impressive, but the message is too engaging for you to realize that it might be a little bit lazy in the filmmaking aspects. Having said that, it's precisely jazzier styles were not adopted to keep the attention on the message instead.

And keep to the message it does, with just little time on the outside of what Gore does on his travels, some little glimpses into his family life, life before, during and after the close-call year 2000 presidential elections. You do wonder though, about the what-ifs, should he had won the elections, and what difference he would have made on these issues when in the White House.

It is clear that modern civilization has an increasing negative impact on the environment, and with the mega developing countries seeking its path to economic equity, one would only shudder at how much more damage could be done, and the devastating after effects. Politics usually steer clear of issues like these, and instead, picks and chooses battles with a higher confidence of success. It's sad, but true.

The funniest part about this, and I'd bet during any screening, is whether anyone will buy into what was being delivered. There are tips handed out during the end credits, on how individuals like you and me could help do our part to save the environment. They aren't huge projects, but very simple ones. And no prizes for guessing there are many uninterested, heading straight for the door when the credits start to roll.

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." - Mark Twain

Watch this, and let's do our part!

Visit the official website at for more information.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

[Japanese Film Fest] Linda Linda Linda

Introducing The All Girl Band!

The closing film of this year's Japanese Film Festival, I was half expecting it to end with a rousing and wild finale, given its similarities to last year's commercial release Swing Girls, which also set its story with characters involved in putting up a musical performance. However, it didn't quite live up to expectation, but nonetheless the journey was still pleasing to the eyes (ahem).

Unlike Swing Girls where the characters had no idea how to play with the jazz band instruments, the group in Linda Linda Linda have been jamming in their own rock band, so they have some prior experience. Save for their lead singer, who was hastily recruited, and turned out to be a Korean (you'd recognize her from The Host), from the school's Korea-Japan foreign student exchange programme.

So begins the frantic pace of finalizing the composition of the group - lead vocalist Son (Bae Du-Na), drummer Kyoko (Aki Maeda), guitarist Kei (Yu Kashii, last seen in Death Note), and bassist Nozomi (Shiori Sekine), and the independent as well as combined practice and training sessions. The songs were as catchy as the lyrics were inane (well, if the English subtitles were to be trusted), taken from Japanese pink rock band The Blue Hearts. Naturally you'll need the element of adversity, and it comes in the form of a lack of venues to practice before their big day performance during the school's rock festival.

As per formula, you'll always have the misfits put together and then bonding just in time for their show. It's no different for Linda Linda Linda, as ultimately it's still a feel good movie. It follows the same technique in teasing the audience on the group's performing ability as they improve day by day, in not showing you their performing of the songs in full, and builds up anticipation for that bring-the-house-down finale. However, it lacked certain deftness in resolving the multiple minor subplots (like romance) it opened, preferring to leave them unresolved or open ended.

And when the final performance did come on, it's too little too late, with its lack of oomph in delivery, cutting short on the promised 3 song medley. It's a pity though, as the journey to the destination really hinted on a big-bang adrenaline filled ending.

[Japanese Film Fest] Dead Run (Shisso)

Essentially the movie tells of the story of the central character, Shuji (Yuga Tegoshi), and his ultimate downfall from grace. However, with the way the narrative is set up, you'll most likely be bewildered as to how the movie is going to develop and which direction it's going to take. It's quite messy with its many ideas thrown in at multiple points, each may or may not providing the resolution you're seeking.

In fact, it has so many ideas (since it's adapted from a novel), that it's almost like watching an incident laden life of a young boy growing up into a teenager, examining and observing his interactions with unexpected members of society, ranging from small town gangsters, to big town Yakuzas, from gangster molls to his own female peer in Eri (Hanae Kan), who shares the same passion for running as Shuji does.

There are quite a number of characters introduced to facilitate this, and more often than not, you only get to know of their background in a rather slow revelation. The movie takes its time to develop the characters and their backgrounds - so don't be expecting the conventional approach. It's a pity though, that some characters become throwaway ones, even after significant screentime had been dedicated featuring them. Of importance is the character of a priest, Father Yuichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), which had a rather rich background story developed and set up as the "Boo Radley" of the movie. Given the screentime devoted, I was rather puzzled when it turned out that he too became a disappearing act in the middle portion, before returning for a bit part in the finale.

Like most of the other movies shown during the festival, this one also had a segment of its setting in a classroom, and has its fair share of featuring children in lead roles, albeit up to the one-third mark where the more adult actors took over. And lead actor Yuga Tegoshi did an excellent job in his Shuji - a confused boy, utterly moulded by the environment around him, his loneliness stemmed from a disappearing family, and his quest to seek companionship bringing him to Osaka and Tokyo.

What finally redeemed the movie was its last third, where it got its act back together, and realized its direction towards its final push to end the movie. It's a full circle tale after all, with a message never to judge a book by its cover, or to judge a character based on hearsay. And what finally hit you, assisting you in sitting through the convoluted storyline, is the excellent piano musical score done by SENS.

p.s. at one point in time the projection seemed to have tilted downwards, cutting off the bottom half where the subtitles are. Thankfully there was just one (inconsequential) line of dialogue uttered, and was fixed before anything major happened in the story.

p.p.s. I thought at one point it had a scene somewhat similar to Sepet, with the handphone bit!

[Japanese Film Fest] The Professor and His Beloved Equation (Hakase No Aishita Sushiki)

The Feel Good Factor

This is a very beautiful movie.

If Mathematics was never your choice subject in school, with the way the subject is presented in this movie, I'm sure it'll win some new fans over. The last time I can remember where Maths was used as a central plot device was in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, but here, it gains a lot more mileage than that Hollywood movie.

I enjoyed the method in which Maths was written into the script, into the characters, and given a life of its own. It revived interest in things like perfect numbers, prime numbers, pi, the imaginary number, and Euler's famous equation. Even if you're clueless about the concepts of these terms, the movie will succinctly introduce them in a highly enjoyable manner. I'm actually quite in awe how complex terms can be weaved so simply into the entire narrative, and made it all work together so well.

Borrowing a similar plot device to Memento, a Maths professor suffers from current memory loss, and can only remember events up until his accident. Everything else that is current lasts only 80 minutes, which is why he relies on little notes and his blackboards to remind himself of important current information each time he comes back to square one. A housekeeper is hired to look after him, and despite the trying times and unique circumstances, both of them manage to strike a deep friendship, through the help of mathematics - one who inspires, and the other who admires. The friendship develops further as the housekeeper's 10 year old son, nicknamed by the Professor "Root" for his square head, comes into the picture, and three of their lives become intertwined.

There are many touching moments in the movie, and almost everything revolved around mathematics, food, and even baseball! But you'd come to understand that the movie goes beyond that, and clearly the message is in the philosophy of maths itself, using concepts and applying it to real life, to living life. As such, it made the mathematical concepts introduced here quite accessible and easy to understand.

The formation of friendships is core to the story, and the antagonist is none other than a jealous sister-in-law trying to break up what seemed to be going good for everyone involved. I sort of paralleled it to real life, in a not-too-recent episode which I and a few friends personally encountered, and the subsequent treatment we suffered. It makes you wonder how sometimes, even though with honest and sincere intentions, and out of the earnestness in valuing a friendship, you're demonized.

It's quite uncanny, but all 3 characters in the professor, the housekeeper and her son are all quite lovable, both in character and in presentation. The cinematography is brilliant too, bringing out the best in the landscapes of the town that they live in, in a picturesque like fashion.

I liked the simplicity of the movie, and the feel good factor that exudes from it. It's very beautiful and poetic to watch, given its even and comfortable pace, and it's definitely one of my favourite movies of the year, and my choice as the best film during this festival! The last time I had such a feeling watching a movie was last year's Be With You (not to be confused with Eric Khoo's Be With Me). This is a must-watch if you have the opportunity!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

[Japanese Film Fest] Kamome Diner (Kamome Shokudo)

The Movie Poster

This is Naoko Ogigami's third feature film, and the first Japanese film to be shot entirely in Finland, land of the midnight sun. As I mentioned in some other postings, cinema allows you to be transported to fantasy worlds, and of course in a more realistic sense, going to countries we have yet to set foot upon.

The movie is set around a Japanese diner in Finland, and its owner, Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi). The story revolves around the diner, as well as the friendships that Sachie develops, with customer and crew. The food, "soul foods" as in the menu, can make anyone salivate and feel hunger pangs, especially when the movie was screened into dinner time.

Pretty nothing much happens in Kamome Diner, except that there are plenty of people flitting in and out of the eatery. It's like watching a television series with episodes strung together, each putting the focus and theme on guest characters of the show, how they interact with the established leads. We are introduced to Sachie's first customer, a Finnish teenager who enjoys Japanese anime, and from there, one thing leads to another, as Sachie meets up with Midori (Hairi Katagiri), also another Japanese who left Japan to seek her fortunes in a strange land.

The customers in the diner is set up in the story such that it's directly proportionate to the friendships established by Sachie. It's like a vicious circle being broken, with the seizing of opportunities and the chance of befriending a customer, comes the breaking down of hesitation that others have about something that is new, something less seen, something different. And as it grows, so too does the number of friendships being formed, nurtured and developed, akin to the care put into the creation of recipes and the cooking of food.

By the end of it, everyone had undergone changes in their lives for the better, through subtle interactions, lessons learnt, and all these in a rather mundane manner of living life, in normal day to day activities.

The cast is a mix of Japanese and Finnish, and the dialogue too a mix of languages. But given its themes of friendship, belief, keeping the faith and being positive just about everything, it's ultimately a feel good movie, with plenty of subtleties, a dash of humour, and generous servings of well intentions.


After the screening, we had an opportunity to meet up with director Naoko Ogigami, who was in attendance to present both her movies for the day. It was a relatively small group who stayed back, about 20 of us, including the SFS crew, and we were treated to a snack of Japanese rice cakes and tea, which was a very nice gesture, given the significance of the food in the movie, as well as the fact that it was already close to dinner time.

I won't be covering anything significant about the Q&A, except to add that Naoko is extremely shy and soft-spoken, and actually let slip that she doesn't really like to direct (!), and prefers writing instead. Her movies so far have not been shot in the capital Tokyo, and she revealed candidly that she was afraid of the Yakuza. I suppose they probably could intimidate any film crew on set with the obligatory requirement of paying protection money?

In any case, almost everyone acknowledged that given the male dominated film industry in Japan, it was refreshing to have a female perspective in the industry, as to the films made and stories told.

The Q&A lasted about an hour, and ended without much fanfare. Discussions were launched into her inspirations, her background, and of course the actress Masako Motai, who will be in her next film as well, currently still under development.

[Japanese Film Fest] Yoshino's Barber Shop (Barber Yoshino)

It's a Fad I Tell You!

In the village of Kaminoe, it's idyllic, quiet, everything looks quite normal. Except when you realize a quirky trait amongst the little boys - all of them are sporting this bowled hairstyle! And I mean ALL the boys! At first it looks quite cute, and the movie too, until suddenly, you start to question if this is something taken to the extreme. With the arrival of a new kid from the outside, sporting totally hip, dyed hair, herein lies the perfect catalyst for impending change, or is it?

On the surface, it may look like a children's story, with the group of boys befriending this new kid, and having a sort of peer effect on him to get his hairstyle changed to fit in, of course much to his reluctance. On the other hand, this individual's appearance in town made the boys rethink their norms of maintaining their hairstyles, no thanks to one of their moms, the matronly looking Yoshiko (Masako Motai), whose barber shop dishes out the standard hairstyle for all the boys in the village.

But like a recent Chinese movie Little Red Flowers, Yoshino's Barber Shop works at a deeper level as well. While children and folks not wishing to use their noodle can still enjoy the saccharine sweet storyline, episodes and admire the cinematography, those who wish to delve just a little bit deeper, will find a social commentary from writer-director Naoko Ogigami, on traditions and customs that we hold on too, despite their irrelevance in today's society. When questioned and challenged, those who hold these traditions dear, will nonetheless find it preposterous for someone else, especially from the younger generation, to question those customs. Sometimes when things are done in rote, or for the sake of doing, the rationales behind the festivals and tradition, will be lost in the hullabaloo of celebrations.

At times the movie did feel a bit slow moving, but it provided the space for additional, deeper thoughts. The finale was complete with wicked, dark humour, but it addressed the desires of youth quite aptly, with their wanting to be cool, and innate streak of rebellion inside to always want to challenge the norms, as that equates to being cool.

If you enjoy movies with kids playing the leads, then Yoshino's Barber Shop will rank up there with Little Red Flowers, in tackling similar adult themes in what seems to be a made for children's movie.

Friday, October 27, 2006

[Japanese Film Fest] The All-Out Nine - Field of Nightmares (Gyakkyo Nine)

All Out!

After yesterday's relatively boring selection, this sports comedy served up a pleasant surprise. The crowd was larger than I expected for the paid portion of the festival starting from today, and hey, it's not bad that The All-Out Nine was on widescreen at the National Museum Gallery Theatre.

Adapted from manga, The All-Out Nine - Field of Nightmares, set its tone for madcap humour right from the onset, with a big looming black object flying on screen towards Earth, in the spirit of Star Wars. We're introduced to the lead character Toshi Fukutsu (Tetsuji Tamayama), the "All-Out" school's baseball team captain, as he pleads with his principal, in kung-fu fashion, not to shut down the team for its lack of honours.

I'm unsure if the manga carried the same tone in its presentation, but the look and feel of the movie borrowed a huge leaf from Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer (SS), with its wacky crew of sub-par players, in a team called "All-Out" (like SS's town of Pig-Sty), and within the crew, there's always the obligatory pudgy guy and resident babe. In fact, most characters here are cardboard characters, one dimensional and most of the time inserted and appearing just for laughs, like the baseball team coach, whose experience is in Sepak Takraw, and who look and sounds more like a motivational speaker rather than a sports coach. His appearance was damn hilarious, and irrelevant as well.

The running theme through the story is on Adversity, and how, through an indomitable spirit, challenges, no matter how impossible (and they are) can probably be overcome. And these implausible challenges come fast and furious, and at times don't make much sense. Then again, you remember this is a farcical movie anyway, with many moments filled with extreme animation and special effects, making it look very manga like, especially with those gigantic overhanging words of wisdom.

But unlike SS which builds the moments to a crescendo of a finale, The All-Out Nine seemed to be doing it in reverse. It had a brilliant start and middle with your senses assaulted with different humour ranging from verbal to the slapstick, but somehow lost its steam halfway. At some points you know what the filmmakers are going to pull out of the humour hat, but if compared to SS, you'll see without a doubt which one is relatively superior. Somehow the story didn't allow for many opponents to be presented, and the final game was dragged out for too long, with tiring ideas.

Nonetheless, this film is meant to be light and campy, and I feel made a good start to the second half of the festival. More to come tomorrow, with director Ogigami Naoko in attendance for her films Yoshino's Barber Shop and Kamone Diner. If my luck holds, then expect pics and a podcast of sorts!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

[Japanese Film Fest] Dixieland Daimyo (Jazz Daimyo)

My initial reaction was, this sure is one strange movie. Set in the late 19th century and after the end of the American Civil War, three slaves decided to make their way back to Africa, but en route, found themselves on the shores of Japan after a shipwreck. From then on, it's a weird mix of Japanese shogun intrigue and jazz music fused into a somewhat nonsensical end.

The introduction needed a little getting used to, since the Americans were clearly speaking in English, but had their speech dubbed over with voices speaking Japanese. Subtitles and intertitles became Japanese at certain points of the story, although English subtitles were used when they had their voices dubbed. So it's listening to two concurrent language tracks, and reading the English subtitles.

The storyline and its characters were peculiar as well. Essentially, it's about the chancing upon a group of gaijins who bring along their musical instruments and talent for jazz (well, actually not quite. They only know one song, and it's played ad nausem after plenty of practice), and sharing their passion for music with the native Japanese. And it all turned out to be one huge STOMP-like ensemble performance and a trance like rave party, which seemed pretty out of place given the development of the storyline.

Actually, what storyline? The "intrigue in the palace" styled story isn't inspiring, and for most parts it just bores. There are some characters which had potential to be something more, like the martial arts skilled princess, but given its runtime of less than 90 minutes, it's already hard pressed to get any more character development.

So that leaves the finale, which looks like an extended music video. But what I thought was interesting, was the way how the portrayal of "leaving society" was handled, with the jazz performance, and the depiction of turmoil and inevitable changes happening above their performing grounds. There were murmurings around me about how absurd it all is, but I thought it was quite neatly done, and brought its own message across in a very non-conventional way.

Today's session marks the end of the free screenings from the Japanese Film Fest, and the end of the use of the 166mm film projector. From tomorrow, the sessions are the paid ones, so am curious to see what's the turnout gonna be like. In any case, the highlight will be director Ogigami Naoko gracing the screenings of Yoshino's Barber Shop and Kamome Diner on Saturday, and I'm really looking forward to Linda Linda Linda.

The coverage continues. More to come!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Almost Weekly Wednesday Midnight Bulletin #5

This week's another one of those insane week with multiple movies making their premieres. With the opening of more screens and more venues available, this should only spell well for cinema goers if the chains continue their respective exclusive showcases to differentiate their cinema halls from others. The selection is wide, but here's the lowdown on this week's worthy picks!

Flick of the Week
An Inconvenient Truth gets my vote for Flick of the Week. I'm still stuck with my commitment to reviewing the movies at the Japanese Film Festival (now on at the National Museum Gallery Theatre), so I haven't had the chance to preview this documentary. But it nonetheless gets my vote as a must see this week, tackling an important crucial theme of global warming. Helmed by The Ex-Almost US President Al Gore, I suspect that the movie will linger in our minds for some time, however it'll be duly forgotten in due course. Such is the state of affairs, and if any of you made life changing decisions, let me know!

The US Coast Guard gets the Top Gun treatment, and testosterone gets smeared on the big screen with macho men sweating it on on the high seas. The Guardian marks the comeback of Kevin Costner in an heroic role, and given the dearth of heroic movies these days, this is one welcome change. One of those tribute movies to uniformed groups, it's formula, with Bryan Adams contributing yet another theme song to a movie.

You know, the hype gets to you, the marketing budget bursting to promote it everywhere, but it's all because of the need to cover up a really weak product. The Sinking of Japan, touted as probably the mother of all disaster movies, is a disaster in itself. Don't waste your time, or your money. But yes, the slick advertising campaign will most likely get to you. Don't say you've not been warned!

With so many movies opening, it isn't difficult to locate another turkey. Directed by Oxide Pang, one half of the Pang brothers who had a mixture of hits and misses with their horror movies. In Diary, they take a detour into psychological thrillers. Charlene Choi, the lead actress and one half of Hong Kong Pop Duo Twins, takes a plunge into a very different role here, and given that this is possible her showcase, it's a must watch for her fans. Otherwise, it's a tad too experimental and repetitive, with a storyline that borrows quite a bit from easily identifiable contemporary movies.

OK, so this one ain't that bad, that's why it's the last of the DUD trilogy for the week. If you approach The OH in Ohio as you hope to expect it to be as good as The 40 Year Old Virgin, then prepare to be disappointed. Otherwise this movie does have its moments, but I still think the queen of on-screen orgasm still belongs to Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.

Acquired Tastes

Days of Glory was one of the movies in the recently concluded French Film Festival for 2006, and it makes it commercial debut this week. Before you go "not another war movie again", this one is slightly different, as it looks at mercenaries fighting for change, and a chance to be recognized in a land that does not love them back, for all the blood and sweat they shed to reclaim France from the Axis Powers during WWII. Compelling.

I would watch DOA (or Dead on Arrival), based on the video game, just to see if Devon Aoki gets to look good on screen. 2 Fast 2 Furious managed to make her look fugly, and she looked like she could use some colour in Sin City. Don't hold your breaths as this is a definite chick flick, and probably strictly for the game fans.

The last acquired taste will be Operation Undercover, following straight from the heels of last week's Exiled. Hong Kong Triad movies seem to be on a resurgence, so it will be interesting to see what's the differentiating factor in this one.

See you at the movies!

[Japanese Film Fest] Free and Easy Special Version (Tsuribaka Nisshi Supesharu)

The sudden heavy downpour in the late evening made me think that the turnout today might be less than the previous days, but I was wrong. A sizable crowd soon built up and the theatre was about 70% packed for the screening this evening.

The screening started with a call for understanding from the organizers. You see, the print they obtained from Japan is widescreen (scoped), but the projector unfortunately didn't have the proper lenses to show it in its original aspect ratio. So the result was a relatively squashed picture, which looked quite hilarious as limbs were anatomically impossibly short. It's a surprise though that none in the audience decided to walk out, which was good since you can basically sit through it once you get used to the wrong screening ratio.

The Free and Easy series is based on a popular Japanese manga, and the slew of movies starting from 1988 attests to its longevity. Co-written by Yoji Yamada and starring Toshiyuki Nishida (from the Gakko movies), Free and Easy Special Edition continues the comedy and melodrama about two good friends who are avid anglers. The movie fortunately doesn't require you to know much of the background or what had transpired in earlier movies. It's pretty much stand alone, and you'll get the hang of the character dynamics after a while.

As a bit of a limited background of the movie based on only this installment, Densuke Hamasaki (Toshiyuki Nishida) and Ichinosuke Suzuki (Rentako Mikuni) are 2 fishing buddies. They take angling quite seriously, so much so that like football fans who swear that football is better then sex, these two men too, swear in the same language for fishing. However, both of them work in the same construction company, with Suzuki being the CEO, and Hamasaki, the lowly average office worker, and to avoid gossip of nepotism etc, they keep their private and public lives very much separate, hence bringing about opportunities for some laughter in this comedy drama.

The movie plays out like a typical television drama, and this installment seemed like two episodes spliced into one. The first story focused on an arranged matchmaking story with the spotlight on the younger actors, in a typical plot consisting of boy-meets-girl-too-shy-to-approach-arrange-special-meeting-they-like-each-other-but-there's-a-third-party cliche. Much of the drama belongs to this segment. On the other story, some comedic relief kicks in as a mistaken affair between Hamasaki's wife Michiko (Miyoko Asada) and Suzuki brings about some disharmony to the Hamasaki household, especially when Densuke is finding it difficult to sleep with his wife (lol).

The pacing of the movie is a bit slow, and given its television look and feel, does seem to be trying at times as you can't wait to decipher what's going to happen next. Given the improper screening, I couldn't quite determine fairly how the actors performed, but suffice to say that there are moments of exaggeration, and the plot at times do seem a bit contrived. But it provided decent entertainment in less than 2 hours, on a rainy weekday evening.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

[Japanese Film Fest] Kikujiro (Kikujirô No Natsu)

So Who's the Childish One Now?

The last Kitano Takeshi movie for the day, Kikujiro is very much unlike the previous two movies. If anyone would think that Takeshi is only famous for, and can make only violent movies, then this one would make you do an about turn. Even the narrative style is quite different from the limited few of his movies I've been exposed to. Being PG rated (Hana-Bi was NC16), the queue of those expected to watch this film was again snaking, even though most of the (free) tickets were already snapped up.

The story centers on the deep friendship which develops between a quirky, mean and uncouth middle-aged man, and a young boy. It doesn't start off rosy, as Kikujiro (played by Takeshi himself) gets assigned, against his wishes, chaperon duties to assist and ensure that the young boy Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) gets to find his mother. So begins a road trip of sorts, with the duo encountering a host of situations and characters (aren't road trips all like that?)

The movie can be seen as two distinct halves, with the first half in my opinion the more superior portion of the film. It centers upon the journey, on the quest to seek out Masao's mother in another county. We get to follow our mismatched duo through various escapades through their hitchhiking adventures, with one involving racing amongst cyclists (in a betting game), which is one of my favourite moments in the story. Everything else afterwards in this half is built up from that one incident, adding much to the comedic aspects that actually, although predictably, bring on some genuine laughs.

The second half is perhaps what disappoints, with its introduction of over the top characters in 2 biker gang type guys, and a farmer. Here, the sequence of events sticks out unconvincingly, even though it's possibly trying to tug at your heartstrings and bring back memories of the days of childhood, where you have adults engaging in children's games, just to keep the children entertained. The play acting with strangers take its toil as it wore on, and became a bit of a drag with repetitive childish scenes of play acting. Takeshi isn't adorable, try as he might, and some may cringe at his "act cute" moments. Somehow Yusuke Sekiguchi, who plays Masao, doesn't seem to act cute at all, and I thought it was kind of mirroring real life - imagine between a baby and an adult, who's the one playing the fool most of the time in their interactions with each other?

Nonetheless, Kikujiro is still an admirable story on friendship, amongst the unlikeliest of couples, with Kikujiro cutting a father like figure to Masao's little child. Come to think of it, it's like a road trip movie between father and son, and the braving of odds to cement some credible ties by the time the end credits come rolling.

[Japanese Film Fest] Fireworks (Hana-Bi)

Going for the Kill!

One of my earliest Kitano movies that I remember vividly was Brother, a movie set in the USA, where he went and set up a Yakuza gang of his own, and introduced his own brand of violence to gain turf. It was upon a recommendation of a friend that I went to watch it (and guess what, my friend didn't have the opportunity to do so!), and since then I was curious about his movies, albeit the more violent ones.

Hana-Bi is in this tradition of Kitano movies, either him playing a cop, or swinging on the side of the gangsters. Here, he stars as detective Nishi, a tough-as-nails no nonsense cop who lets his fists do the talking right from the start of the movie. However, his tough exterior is but a shell covering his soft hearted interior, and this is portrayed so well throughout his non-verbal interactions with his lovely wife.

And that, in fact, is the crux of the movie, violence notwithstanding. Between his cop buddy and his wife, it is obvious where should one's priority lie. But being the cop devoted to duty as well, Nishi has to be persuaded by his cop buddy to look after his ailing wife instead. Needless to say, things go wrong during the stakeout, and Nishi inevitably feels responsible.

Winner of multiple film festival awards including the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Film Festival, we follow Nishi in his one man crusade, and the narrative style is distinctively Takeshi. With flashbacks and the non linear narrative presented as a matter of fact, these are but some of the numerous classic moments in the movie, along with his editing style and facial closeups which shows his slight twitches now and then.

Nishi is a cop whose bite is very much worse than his bark, given that he doesn't speak much to begin with. And the violence being so in-your-face, it's a wonder how Takeshi could balance stoic silent moments, with noisy action, all in one movie. As the story progresses, we see how his single-minded devotion to his wife made him go against all odds just to spend some quality time with her, though somehow, in a weird sense, those scenes didn't manage to do much for me. Instead I was reminded of the beach scene in his latest movie Takeshis, because of the lust to see blood on screen, and I think that particular scene is a knock on the head for people like me, who always yearn for more blood.

This movie also allowed Takeshi to showcase his paintings, and they are beautiful to look at. It's very humbling to think that Takeshi is one heck of a talented person, being able to act, direct, produce, write, paint, edit, is versed in drama, action, comedy, the list goes on. And it's no wonder that for this screening, and the one after, there is a long queue snaking just to get (free) tickets, and those patient enough to be on the waiting list, mulling along the museum hallway just crossing their fingers to gain entry.

[Japanese Film Fest] Kids Return (Kidzu Ritan)

Morons Having It Good

Today is the Director-In-Focus day, with 3 movies by writer-director-producer-comedian-etc Kitano Takeshi. And the three movies are all quite different in nature, with this one being one of Kitano's directorial efforts without being in front of the camera, Hana-bi being the violent movies he's come to be famous for, and Kikujiro at the other end, being non-violent but full of heartwarming fun.

Kids Return is a semi-autobiographical movie, and you can see shades of Kitano, reel or real, in some of the characters. Primarily, it focuses on the lives of two slacker best of friends, Masaru (Ken Kaneko) and Shinji (Masanobu Ando), who play truant frequently, and are ever threatened with expulsion from school. They have no aim in life, and are drifting and wasting their time and youth away, acting up as the ruffians and bullies in school.

Two events change their lives though. One is a run in with a boxer, who inspires them to pick up boxing so that they could get a rematch of sorts. The other is the Yakuza, represented by a group who frequents the same diner they go to. From then on, the movie picks up, as we follow the very different paths these two buddies take. I kinda like the way the movie presented this aspect of life - that even amongst the best of buddies, there will come a point in time where your ideals and aspirations take you down different paths. But although your lifestyle might have changed, at the end of the day, when you get together, you're still the best of friends. This is very true, that you never really left each other, and the door is forever open for you to catch up from where you left off. Different paths, different lives, parallel outcomes.

The movie's very easy to follow with its straight forward narrative, as we follow the timid Shinji in his path towards glory in the boxing ring, and observe from the side the decisions that the brash Masaru make which allows him to rise amongst the gangster ranks. More screen time is devoted to Shinji's though, as at certain points, it looked as if it was the Japanese version of Rocky Balboa. Punctuating the movie isn't The Eye of the Tiger, but Kids Return has a catchy enough soundtrack courtesy of Joe Hisaishi, who frequently scores Takeshi's movies.

The movie however, doesn't just bore you with these two friends, as there are enough side characters from the same school, like the disillusioned teachers, and fellow students turned comedians, and one, a sales failure turned taxi driver, to add some layers to the story. But ultimately, it's life as it goes full circle, and it makes you wonder whether good guidance is always that important factor to break the negative lifestyle anyone is living in.

Oh, and did I mention this movie had one of the more memorable movie props - a puppet with a makeshift dick made out of a flashlight and two bulbs taped together. You gotta see it to believe!

The Visitor Interviews Yasmin Ahmad

In case you do not know, the Tokyo International Film Festival is running a retrospect of Yasmin Ahmad's films - Rabun, Sepet, Gubra, and they are hosting the world premiere of her latest movie, Mukhsin!

Prior to Yasmin's leaving for the film festival soon with the two leads, here's an interview that my good friend from across the Causeway, The Visitor conducted, and currently posted on Twitch. You can read the interview posting from this link.

Oh, and if you wanna keep abreast of the happening Malaysian Film Industry, then you must keep your tabs on The Visitor's blog - The Seventh Art!

Go read!

Monday, October 23, 2006

[Japanese Film Fest] Scarred Angels (Kizu Darake No Tenshi)

Scarred Angels DVD Cover

Scarred Angels left me scarred, as to what it is trying to say.

It's based on a television series from the 1970s of the same title, and because I hadn't existed yet, I couldn't tell if it stuck close to the series, or revamped it for the modern times. The synopsis looked interesting enough, but I wasn't prepared at how much more is covered in the movie, that made it seem like it's heading nowhere.

Sure, the crutch here is the theme of friendship, and looking at the movie, the relationship between the main protagonists, Ace Intelligence Agency private detective Mitsuru (Etsushi Toyokawa) and his partner Hisashi (Kuroudo Maki), is nothing short of the buddy-buddy friendship of many detective stories out there. But wait, this movie is nothing to do with investigations or crime.

Instead, down and out Mitsuru, working on possibly one of his last assignments, chances upon a dying mob boss, and makes a reluctant promise to delivery his son to his ex-wife. The first half of the movie dwells on this mission, done road trip style where the three characters play off one another's shortcomings in illicit some laughs. Most of the jokes, few and far between, fall flat, and imagine this, there's a scene that looked like Nacho Libre gone totally wrong.

Scarred Angels became a victim of trying to squeeze too much material into too short a time, thus exhibiting an obvious lost in focus and direction. Perhaps in trying to demystify or debunk rumours that Mitsuru and Hisashi aren't gay, an unconvincing, boring, uneventful hint of a romance with a beautician gets thrown into the fray. Not that I'm complaining about the eye candy, but really, it's more of a distraction from the main plot, and when issues finally get resolved, the open ended relationship continued to chug along and added to an unnecessary run time of close to 2 hours.

I can't think of any scene that is memorable, or worth raving about. Character wise too, there is nothing that stands out. It's kind of plain and evenly keeled, with little ups and downs, with nary a character development, or anything in the movie that will cause you to silently applaud.

We've just passed the 1/3 mark of the festival, and so far I have only thoroughly enjoyed one show - Robocon. Hope things do pick up from here, and tomorrow, Kitano Takeshi movies will be featured the entire day. Hope they don't disappoint!

From Local to Global: Royston Tan and Kelvin Tong Joint Interview

Royston and Kelvin

It is indeed rare to have two of our more prominent local filmmakers come together to share their candid thoughts on the local filmmaking scene, as well as their source of inspiration for their craft.

From Local to Global, a film seminar held some time last week at The National Library's The Pod, you can click on the movieXclusive logo below to read the entire proceedings:

Sunday, October 22, 2006

[Japanese Film Fest] A Class To Remember IV: Fifteen (15-Sai: Gakko IV)

I'm not too sure why Gakko III wasn't selected for the festival. It could be that it was too much of the same with its teacher-student-school trinity. Or probably the subject matter wasn't diverse enough for it to be differentiated for an audience already seen the first two, and still being fresh in the minds.

And Gakko IV - Fifteen, is very much different from the first two Gakko movies, in that it is not set within the confines of a school compound. Rather, this movie has legs, given that it's a road movie, and has its protagonist, 15 (obviously) year old Daisuke (Yuta Kanai) running away from home to go on the road, in search of a 7000 year old Cedar tree in Yakushima island.

Road trips stick to a formula, that you will encounter strange, quirky people along the way (that's what makes it interesting), and somehow have your lives touching each other's because Fate would only have it that way. You have the usual unfriendly bunch, and portrayals of those whom you will also like to meet up with, should you embark on a road trip yourself. Thumbing and hitchhiking his way, with little money and possession, Daisuke totally hates school, and this is something that any teenager could identify with.

But don't forget, Life, or living Life, is probably the best school there is. Throughout his journey, Daisuke meets up with people whom he will affect (for the better), and vice versa. The most memorable, and probably having the longest screentime devoted, will be his meeting with a woman trucker (Rei Asami), who, out of pity and curiosity, brings Daisuke home to provide him with temporal shelter and food. How Daisuke affected her family, with his bonding and bringing out the reclusive son, somehow worked wonders and cemented the theme of friendship in this story.

At the end of the day, personal relationships get healed, and one of the most touching moments was the expected run in with his family, especially his dad, at the end of the unannounced journey. That scene alone, with its relatively quiet moments, with subtle gestures, and almost muted feelings of regret, is very powerful indeed. That scene alone, is a worthy finale, and worthwhile in investing time to watching this.

[Japanese Film Fest] A Class To Remember II: The Learning Circle (Gakko II)

Our Favourite Teacher Returns, Or is it...

Gakko II, or The Learning Circle, is not a sequel to Gakko in the strictest sense. While Toshiyuki Nishida returns in this Yoji Yamada directed movie, he is not the same respected teacher that was introduced to us and we fell in love with in the original movie. The school's different too. Here, he plays teacher Ryu, and teaching in the Ryubetsu Handicapped High School, a school for the intellectually and mentally challenged.

It's a very different look and feel from the original. While it had fewer key characters to focus on, it didn't mean that the story would be less rich than the first. In fact, in terms of content and depth of the story, this one is a notch better than the first.

There are a few plot points running concurrently. Two boys from the school, Yuya (Hiroshi Kanbe) and Takashi (Hidetaka Yoshioka), leaving and embarking on a journey of bonding, bringing out the best in each other, and having to fend for themselves while being out in the strange world. There's also a look at a new teacher's inability to handle the highly volatile Yuya (yes, this kid literally shits and pisses in his pants), and of Ryu's road trip in search of our missing students.

The first movie had its premise look episodic with its different compartments for different characters, rarely crossing the line between one sub plot to another. Here, this constraint disappears as we venture into the vast outdoors with the characters, and even at one point, up into the air. And something to note, that Toshiyuki Nishida's Ryu isn't the infallible sensei as we would expect him to be (though I miss his nose picking teacher in the first), as he grapples with having to find a solution to handling his family problems, and the difficulty in connecting with his estranged daughter.

Oh, and is that Ayumi Hamasaki who opened the film in a less than 5 minute appearance as the daughter Ryu?

[Japanese Film Fest] A Class To Remember (Gakko)

Seize The Day!

Today's film selections are all on Yamada Yoji's Gakko (School) series, with the first, second and fourth film being showcased. Watching the movies, it is without a doubt, telling stories steeped in the theme of friendship.

Gakko tells a simple heartwarming story of a group of students and their teacher, in one of the public night schools in Japan providing them education at the Junior High level. With night schools, you know that the students are working adults, and the narrative takes its time to dwell on the characters' backgrounds, and their interactions with the teacher, how he helped them in their times of need, or simply being the beacon of hope for them.

The first act does exactly that, and given its premise, I thought it was a dead-serious episode of Mind Your Language, minus the slapstick humour. There are hilarious moments, but nothing that tickles your funny bone until you cry tears of laughter. It was one of the more standard techniques used, with the premise set during the class' graduation, and the final assignment being an essay documenting their thoughts about graduation. You have a diverse group of students, ranging from an elderly immigrant restaurant operator from Korea, a delinquent teenager, and a sleepy-head, amongst others, as flashbacks provide necessary background information on how they got to the class, forming the basis of an introduction to the characters.

In the second act, it is a departure from memorable moments, to one of remembrance and tribute to a fellow student who had passed on. And it is this portion which lent a certain gravitas to the story, with plenty of heartfelt scenes about how an old man challenges incredible odds against his gaining an education. If I were an elderly man, then perhaps this character's never say die attitude, would have rubbed off onto me.

The flute soundtrack/score was beautiful, and repetitive enough to make it stick to your mind after the movie ends. Cinematography again is simple, and you wonder if the zen inspired minimalist look and feel is opted for Gakko.

You can't help but to notice a stark difference between this movie, and the slew of Hollywood contemporaries belonging to similar genres. While Gakko is quiet contemplation and reflection for the most parts, its recent peers are more flashy, more colourful and lively. The students too are portrayed differently. Contemporaries would lap at them about having serious issues that prevented them from excelling in school or have this "Me Against The World" mentality, but the Gakko students, while they have issues, are portrayed in a more positive light in terms of attitudes towards learning and life in general.

However, the films all agree on something, that an inspirational teacher is all it takes to whip a class of misfits to shape.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

[Japanese Film Fest] Robocon (Robokon)

3 Guys and A Lazy Girl

Robocon is today's third movie, and the most satisfying one of the day's selection. Written and directed by Tomoyuki Furumaya, this movie's premise allowed for a sneak peek into one of Japan's many robotic competitions.

The pretty Masami Nagasawa (last seen in Crying Out Love at the Center of the World) stars as lazy girl Satomi, who got assigned a stint, against her wishes, at her school's Robot Club. However, it's not the premiere club that she got assigned to, but the "B" team where the team members are hardly cooperative, made up of a motley bunch of losers. There's the ineffective soft spoken captain of the team, the genius arrogant designer, and a technician who dropped out but decided to join them again when the team had inexplicably entered the Nationals through a technicality. Her role in the team? She's the designated driver, the operator of the machine, needing to learn how to be one with the robot through the use of the remote control.

In the spirit of the theme of this year's film festival, naturally a whole section of the movie has put focus on how this group of students undergo boot camp - in a training regime at a beach resort - to build camaraderie, trust and friendship as they spend their off hours in designing and fine tuning their prototype YET-13, into Boxhund, their entry for the finals. It's like a coming of age movie, with the characters developing skill sets, and in the further discovery of their strengths and weaknesses, combined with their willingness to change for the better, not just for themselves, but for the team.

Although the narrative's pretty straightforward, it managed to create a sense of tension and a highly charged environment as our team challenges their competition through various round robin stages, and it is this part of the film that showcased the innovation and ideas of some of the robots, their wacky designs, and various functionalities. It's not easy just to build the robot, but how to maintain it through various stages, to think on your feet to solve technological challenges and the need for maintenance under time limit. Also, it takes a lot of with to try and outplay the competition, and every stage of the competition, just brings about the right amount of challenges, strategies, and how they are overcome. You'll also come to appreciate many of the rules put in place for the competition, and probably will pique your interest to learn a lot more.

This is a highly recommended film, and I suspect it is already amongst the movies that I'll come to enjoy from the festival.

[Japanese Film Fest] Space Pirate Captain Harlock: Arcadia of My Youth (Waga Seishun No Arukyadia)

It's Harlock, not Hardcock!

The second movie for the festival is another anime, albeit an older one, belonging to the 80s. I vaguely remember watching the series on television as I recall the familiarity of the pirate motif spaceship. But maybe I remembered wrong, as there are plenty of such space aged cartoons in those days, like Macross, Gundam, and the likes.

The introduction already put me off, with a really repetitive Phantom Harlock flying his red biplane and monotonous introduction of his name, over and over again. The plot takes some getting used to, with the bombastic names as we follow this rogue pilot/pirate in his quest to duel with Commander Zeda of the Illmidus alien race.

Watching this early 80s animation brings about the obvious comparisons and observation of how advanced animated movies have become. It's obviously 2-D drawings here, and plenty of details which were not possible to be included. Things like background characters having continuity presence issues (varying numbers amongst a crowd in a constant setting), and objects appearing and disappearing for the same reason that drawing by hand, takes up time, and yet draws attention to themselves. And having to draw many, well, sometimes animators do become lazy. This is most unlike today's computer generated graphics where crowd and objects are rendered with a click of the button, and possibly given some artificial intelligence along the way so that they can seem to "act" independently.

Space battles have become a dime a dozen, and watching this film today, sadly, the battles are not as exciting as it should have been, with its numerous laser cannon scenes. Some scenes were repeated by showing stock clips over and over again, and brings back fond memories of how, as a kid, you tend to see past these shortcomings, and enjoy the animation for what it is. In today's standards, this will be judged more like stemming from the indifference from the animators, and the lack of pride and professionalism.

The characters here are typical of Japanese anime, with weird coloured hairdos, and quite surprisingly, this movie loads up on the melodramatics and exaggerated dialogue. Compared with anime of today, there has been vast improvement in story pacing, setting, and character design.

While there were families and kids watching Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, and this one, it wasn't unexpected that this anime too had its fair share of walk outs, probably because of the hard-to-grasp storyline for toddlers, or the insane need to read subtitles and then explaining to the kids what some of the imaginary words meant.

P.S. somehow the screening was marred by the speakers set to maximum volume. The dialogue and musical fanfare just got drilled through your ears into your head and probably gave everyone a splitting headache watching it. The first boo-boo for the festival, and I really hope it's the last.

[Japanese Film Fest] Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

This Chick Has Moves To Kill!

The Japanese Film Festival for this year opened with an anime from the wildly popular Final Fantasy series. No, not that atrocity from the USA which premiered almost 5 years ago - the US somehow likes to remake Asian movies, but adds its own 2 cents worth to classics until they become almost unrecognizable, apart from its name. Take Godzilla for instance, that US Godzilla is NOT Godzilla. Doesn't look, move, or act like the big lizard.

If I recall correctly, this movie was recently released on DVD here, and follows the events after those that transpired from the computer game. Back during school days, I had many classmates spending their time with the games and having a field day discussing tactics. My limited knowledge of the game and characters, was just on the lead character Cloud, with his HUGE sword like weapon, which can be combined and combined some more to increase its size and functionality.

Given its heavy and rich history, watching this movie without any prior knowledge will leave you with two options - be totally confused about the plot as it contains plenty of references that cannot be covered in under two hours, or forget about those and concentrate on what is currently the present, and to admire the aesthetics of the graphics.

In a nutshell, the plot contained elements like strange viruses, the recluse hero, a multi-national corporation plundering earth for its minerals to generate power, and those who are against some environmentally unfriendly ways to make profits, super soldiers and their search for a mystical "mother", and moments which parallel Harry Potter and sequences involving his Voldermort. While the opening credits allowed you to enjoy the excellent songs featured in the soundtrack, and endless showing off of Cloud and his custom built bike, credit must be given to attempts to bring an audience up to speed with a quick summary of what had transpired in the games.

So if you don't get it, don't fret, you can click on this link, which will arm you with the necessary background knowledge to enjoy this movie, the only one with a repeat screening, scheduled for this coming Tuesday night.

Despite its slow introduction and confusing plot, you might opt for the second way to appreciate the movie, and that's the graphics. I will not quibble, they are beautifully rendered. Character movement is extremely fluid, and there are enough moments during battles which are filled with tension, and things kept open ended most times in deciding who will turn out victorious. However, although the action is slick, they are too fast, and if you should blink, you'll probably miss the combo executions that the characters inflict on each other. To slow it down would mean the forgoing of pace, but to keep it as it is, well, depends on your mind's ability to decode images seen by the eye in record time.

Keeping to the theme of friendship, this movie has its share of chest-thumping moments were camaraderie comes alive. However, I would still go for the fact that only true-blue fans will come to enjoy this movie, as primarily, this is made for them.

[Japanese Film Fest] 21 Oct - 29 Oct

The next week or so I'll be attending the Japanese Film Festival, now on at the National Museum. Would be able to catch almost every movie save for 1, because of work commitments.

The selection of movies can be found here, with the Director-In-Focus being Kitano Takeshi, and the Director-In-Attendance is Ogigami Naoko, as two of her features, Yoshino's Barber Shop and Kamome Diner, will be featured. Yamada Yoji's signature series Gakko will be featured tomorrow, with A Class To Remember I, II and IV being screened.

But this is not to say that this week's commercial releases will be ignored. Do check back for the usual, but do expect a more dedicated focus on the Japanese Film Festival movies. Some of them are free too, and no doubt this is the only fest here (I think) that has free screenings for the public. Totally Awesome.

And yes, given this year's theme is on Friendship, if you happen to see me around, why not say hi and we can do lunch / dinner / tea during the breaks?

See you there!

Friday, October 20, 2006

The OH in Ohio

Cock Tease Alert

The OH here refers to the female orgasm, and while some like to tout this as the female version of last year's hit comedy The 40-Year Old Virgin, I would beg to differ. Written and directed by Billy Kent, the only probably reason for the link between the two films is that both starred Paul Rudd, but of course, playing different characters.

Appealing to obviously different groups, The Oh in Ohio, while it has its rib tickling moments, is nowhere as hilariously insane as The 40 Year Old Virgin. Parker Posey is no Steve Carrell, even though their characters have their lack of sex being something in common. Posey's character Priscilla Chase is one of the most gorgeous woman of her time, but unfortunately for her as she finds out, she had never had an orgasm, even though her husband, Jack (Paul Rudd) has one of the more impressive guns around town, as ascertained by his student Kristen (Mischa Barton, from the OC).

While Virgin had its focus trained on that one man who hasn't got laid, OH in Ohio sets its sights on how the Chase husband and wife settle their differences. To her, her frigidity was identified as a cause for her lack of the big-O, but for him, it's a different story altogether as it's a direct impact on his big fat male ego in being unable to satisfy his wife. From then on, the story tangents off in two separate directions, with Priscilla and her quest to cum, and Jack on his journey of self-assurance.

Part of the fun here belonged to the expanded cast, like Heather Graham has the lesbian sex shop owner, and Liza Minnelli as a sex guru, in what could probably be one of the most hilarious scenes in the movie. Danny DeVito, I thought he uttered one line from Batman Returns, was probably the most underdeveloped character as Wayne the Pool Guy, though he played an important role as advisor and confidante. However, the rest are pretty much throw away characters. Mischa Barton's role too was nothing more than a cock-tease.

To bring on more laughs, there were senseless scenes on the (ove)reliance on devices, sexual and otherwise, though that was counter-balanced with some pretty raunchy-witty dialogue.

My only gripe is that The OH In Ohio ended in an anti-climax. Just as you thought the lead characters had built up and developed, and are expecting some fireworks between them, it ended off with quite a limp, leaving you just as unsatisfied as Priscilla was prior to her transformation.

Diary (Mon Seung)

Never Mess With Angry Chicks

Diary is the new offering from the Pang Brothers, starring Charlene Choi, Shawn Yue and Isabella Leong. It's a psychological thriller, which is a departure from their usual horror films, but I thought that given it's their first attempt at this genre, then director Oxide Pang probably couldn't be faulted for wanting to explain everything, instead of letting audiences figure out stuff for themselves.

In my opinion, despite some hit moments like the soundtrack and the initial premise in Diary, it's filled with more misses instead. With the need to explain and reveal, the lazier narrative method was employed, and that is to repeat scenes with different interpretations. This in itself may seem ok, but repeating it more than twice does get tiring. With that, it suggested that the idea is extremely simple, and through repetition, it's actually stretching what possibly is a short film idea, into a feature length one without any addition in depth of character or plot points. There are also some out of the place scenes and plot devices, which unfortunately, brought on more laughs rather than the intended effect to mystify and baffle audiences.

Without a doubt, this movie belongs to Charlene Choi in her own departure from those cute and pretty young thing roles handed to her. But I thought Isabella was the more attractive babe in this flick. Really beautiful, and I'm tempted to pop in my Isabella DVD right now to check out her breakthrough performance, some say.

To read my alternate review of the movie, you can click at the movieXclusive logo below:

And for obvious reasons, spoiler thoughts are only contained below, read on if you don't mind what's in the movie that's still bugging me:


The movie borrowed heavily plot ideas from Memento - with the diary and varied interpretations of entries, from Audition for its kidnap-torture scenes, and more importantly, Fight Club for its Tyler Durden moments.

And that I thought was most important, what worked for Fight Club obviously didn't work for Diary. It worked for the former because it made sense. But adapting it and twisting it so that it wouldn't be an exact copy, is just plain wrong. Imagine how illogical Fight Club would be, if instead of Edward Norton's Narrator being Tyler Durden, the situation is reversed, ceteris paribus - all other things being equal.

I feel that it's always wrong to mislead the audience on to believing something, then pull the rug from underneath the feet not with something that can be logically explained, but with something quite illogical. We're not talking about spirits here, as obviously anything goes for that, but with psychological mystery thrillers, some form of logical explanation has to follow.

It's trying too hard to come out with the twist, but this part of the Prestige just lacks finesse and fair play, akin to a character waking up from a dream just as the show is about to end, telling you that everything that has transpired was just imaginary, but worse, revealing to you that he/she is actually somebody else. It just stinks of desperation in trying to be different and acting too smart.


However, for fans of Charlene Choi, this is one movie you might not want to miss in order to see your favourite idol in a different light. And for fans of the Pang Brothers to watch yet another of their offering.

Exiled (Fong Juk)

Mexican Standoff #54326

Johnny To has returned with yet another HK gangland movie following his Election movies, and with the casting of the usual suspects in lead roles, it might, to some, become quite tiresome after a while. Not that the actors are bad in their roles, but perhaps with too much familiarity too soon, it may become difficult to tell one apart from the other, or at least character wise.

Nick Cheung plays Wo, a man exiled for his misdeed against Boss Fay (Simon Yam), and who has returned and settled down in Macau with is wife (Josie Ho) and infant child. Sent to finish Wo off is Anthony Wong's Blaze, and Fat (Suet Lam). However, standing in their way is Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung), who will not let their buddy go down without a fight. In truth, all of them were buddies once, and having some sent on a mission to finish off another, this broke down their relationship, becoming a decision of forsaking personal friendship for the call of duty.

And it is precisely the themes of brotherhood, loyalty and honour that make this film a worthwhile watch, despite its cliches in characters and familiar actors taking on the roles. You can probably think of no better other. Would you defy orders and give up your mission, thus transforming from hunter to prey, or would you seek a compromise in order to save your own skin? Triad life is always black and white - if you're not with somebody, then you're against him. Told in two distinct acts, it's almost like watching a Japanese "ronin" movie, given how the storyline developed, and the issues and dilemma faced by our merry men.

The film is quite 80-ish in presentation and storyline, and filled with plenty of beautifully choreographed poetic violence and gunplay, reminiscent of how John Woo would do his, but minus the doves and nursery rhymes and music. There are enough tension filled moments with its numerous mexican standoffs, which to me are the highlights of the movie. The excellent stringed soundtrack playing in the background building tension during the calm moments, before erupting into a free-for-all, all-man-for-himself, who-shot-first pumping of lead into the air, keeping you guessing who will emerge unscathed. The pace is deliberately slow most times, in order to build up to the chaotic crescendos of blazing guns. And to some it might be a tad frustrating with many "poser" moments where the ensemble cast stand around, shades on, with a gun in one hand and a cigarette in the other, for good measure. They make good posters, but to the impatient, they'll scream to have things move on.

There are plenty of supporting characters like Cheung Siu-Fai as a middleman broker, Gordon Lam as an upcoming gangland boss, and Ritchie Ren's take as a sharpshooting cop. Again their familiar faces lend some weight to their roles, it doesn't add more depth as compared to the leads. Simon Yam is again the crazed and charismatic leader of the mob, with Francis Ng taking on a more subdued role together with Anthony Wong, who actually had the best role amongst the offering as the man faced with the colossal task of deciding where his loyalties lie.

Unlike Election with its political undertones, Exiled in my opinion steered quite clear and is what it is, a good old fashioned HK triad picture with heavy focus on friendship and brotherhood. Perhaps the only observatory comment made is the ineffectiveness of the police, more due to cowardice rather than corruption.

The Prestige

I'm Too Sexy For This Trick!

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. Christopher Nolan can do no wrong.

Teaming up again with his Batman Begins cast of Christian Bale and Michael Caine, and joined with the Scoop team consisting of X-Men's Wolverinie Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson, the stellar (eye candy) cast already set tongues wagging as to whether they'll be able to live up to the hype of Nolan's long awaited movie directly challenging the other picture about Victorian magicians, The Illusionist.

The Prestige is the third act of any magic trick, with the first and second acts being the Pledge and the Turn. And this movie lives up to its namesake to a T. The way the movie plays out, it's like a huge magic trick, with the audience waiting to see how it unfolds, getting the suspicion on how it's done, but yet sitting through it thorough engaged to discover how everything will be revealed and resolved. It tells the story of how two magicians, fellow apprentices turned unfortunate rivals, plod down the slow path of jealous obsession, revenge, and the deliberate attempts to go at lengths to steal each other's ideas, to go one up against the other, a fight in romance, life and the long held passionate drive to discredit each other. There are perfect explanations of the value of secrets, and how secrets can sometimes be used as tools for deceit.

What I thought was valuable in the movie was the reinforcement of the notion of how "magic" actually worked. Besides the better understanding of the common body of scientific knowledge, things like having pretty assistants to distract, and having planted staff amongst the audience, somehow made me a sceptic to tricks and illusions, and try harder to spot at which stage had things undergone a sleight of hand. More importantly, it introduced me to the notion and importance of a loyal engineer behind the scenes who designs elaborate contraptions solely for the magician's use, and how having disloyal staff can indeed be detrimental to any leaks of secrets.

And Michael Caine took on this engineering role as Cutter, responsible for assisting Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) with loyalty and conviction that they could, as a team, beat Christian Bale's Alfred Borden. I thought the cast in general were superb, with Christian Bale leading the charge. Hugh Jackman too showed that he could play a dark character, as the two leads tackled their characters' theme of sacrifice, arrogance, and ultimately redemption, especially for Rupert Angier. I thought he did what he did towards the end was a kind of penance to what happened in the beginning, hoping to kill two birds with a single stone, to exact the sweetest revenge he could possibly muster. What also was intriguing about the two lead characters was that there is no right or wrong, no hero or villain. It's always a shade of grey in what they do, and for Alfred Borden, I felt it's more for survival and the provision for family, which is a strong subplot running through the film. I just have to mention though, that Scarlett Johansson being Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive, gets to play a flower vase role here as a magician's assistant, though her role as the pawn between the rivals added a little gravitas.

The atmosphere was set up great, and so were the costumes and sets. The soundtrack was hauntingly mesmerizing, capturing the look and mood appropriately. Look out too for David Bowie's appearance as a Russian scientist!

I was floored by the deftness of how Nolan weaved and juxtaposed the non linear narrative so flawlessly. While the usual techniques is to use placeholders, or flashback sequences, colours etc, here, time is so fluid, but yet the audience will know precisely which era they're in, without being explicitly told, or working too much of the noodle. You just know, and it's just that feeling of being totally transparent with time. Even though the movie clocked in at slightly more than 2 hours, you don't feel its length at all.

At the end of the movie, one quote popped into mind: Misdirection - what the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes. Quite apt to describe how things work out during the movie, or to describe in general, Nolan 's films so far. That added richness to lift the movie to a superior plane. Do yourself a favour, if there's one movie you absolutely must watch this week, then Prestige must be your natural choice. It's smart in delivery and slick in presentation. There is none other.

P.S. Is it just me, or are notebooks a common feature in Nolan's movies?

How Much For Your Adamantium Claws?

My Summer of Love

A Fag After A Shag

My Summer of Love, as the title implies, is about a romance during the summer holidays. Perhaps one of the draws of this movie in release now in Singapore, is indirectly from the popularity of The Devil Wears Prada, with Emily Blunt playing the role of an uncooperative, bullying colleague to Anne Hathaway's Andrea. Yet another GLBT movie to hit our shores (somehow I think lesbian love films make it here more frequently than gay ones?), this movie, based on a novel written by Helen Cross, and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, has won the BAFTA award for Best British Film, amongst other movie awards.

The protagonist is Mona (Nathalie Press), a young orphaned girl on the verge of losing her brother Phil (Paddy Considine) to his rediscovery of Christianity. They own a bar, but with his turn for the supposed better, he has converted their joint to a meeting place for his cell group of reborn Christians. Lonely, she chances upon Tamsin (Emily Blunt), a girl back from boarding school for the holidays, and the two soon strike up a fast friendship.

It makes you wonder how one develops feelings for members of the same sex, or if such harbouring of feelings is innate in the first place. Mona becomes the surrogate sister of Tamsin, who is a typical poor pitiful rich girl looking for thrills, who had lost her own sister, and found a substitute in Mona. Coming from families who seemingly don't care for them, their hanging out together draws them closer to each other.

Much of the movie shows this development of friendship into something more, of the forging of friendship amongst lonely people, and devotes much screen time to this. However, there is another side observation on a separate theme, and that's of religion. I found that this film bold in its depiction of the hypocrisy amongst men who assume they have godly powers over mere mortals, and how their bigoted views often seem misguided. It doesn't mince its message on speaking in tongues, or having the Lord speak through oneself in the judgement of others.

Of course it's always tough being the good and holy person, given sinners are we all, but there are plenty of scenes in this movie that probably suggests that there is always a veil of hypocrisy surrounding those who use the name of the Lord in vain. Through Phil, we see how hard he tries to be accepted back to society, how hard he tries to imagine that he has changed for the better because of his devotion to religious cause, and how easy it is to fall back into the path which totally contradicts every well-meaning effort trying to change oneself.

On a lighter note, there is a little hint of mystery that nags you throughout the film about possible deception. And with the twist revealed at the end, it somehow makes your blood boil a bit, never mind if you don't swing for the same side. Perhaps sometimes, it's always best to heed advice from blood which is always thicker than water, or stick to the notion that summer flings should always begin and end as the season comes and goes.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Sinking of Japan (Nihon Chinbotsu)

This Movie Got No Tomorrow

This disaster flick is a remake of a 1973 movie of the same title, based on a novel by Sakyo Komatsu. Japan is located right alongside the Pacific Ring of Fire (active volcanoes) and also along the edges of plate tectonics, whose shifting will cause earthquakes and tsunamis (a Japanese term in itself for tidal wave). Naturally, this makes a natural premise for a disaster picture, what with Hollywood having a field day with films like Armageddon, Deep Impact, and more recently, The Day After Tomorrow, which tackles how global warming becomes the catalyst for natural disasters gone bonkers around the world.

But I'll have to say this: The Sinking of Japan makes all the films mentioned earlier, look like classics. This disaster movie IS a disaster, and a massive one at that. Having to look at my watch every 10-15 minutes is a signal that the movie doesn't engage, and feels than it had over-clocked its runtime.

The special effects are gorgeous to look at. From satellite styled outer space pictures, to the vivid recreation of every conceivable natural disaster that can strike the land of the rising sun, the effects are the star of the show. However, having spectacular computer generated graphics does not in itself make a movie palatable, as too much of a good thing just plain bores.

If you had seen the trailer where you're enticed by the effects and specific scenes of chaos and mayhem, then yes, in fact those scenes are just that. There are no details, and everything is seen from afar, in a God-like mode. Things happen just like that on screen, with nary an attempt to try and delve deeper to look at issues up close. It's akin to Godzilla knocking over buildings, and it's as if there are no humans or loss of lives through that single act. Morbid as it might sound, show us the victims! A populous nation like Japan doesn't just suffer disaster after disaster with an extremely low fatality count, not when the filmmakers unleash mayhem in such an epic scale.

Trying to weave a romance into the movie, it stood out like a sore thumb. There are many characters in the movie, but each one of them lacking real characteristics, or humanity, and look like wandering zombies, without expression, without emotion, and definitely very stiff and unconvincing. Heroes become stuck in generic control rooms issuing statements, instructions and form policies, and react to incidents like it was a computer game, all settled with a push of a button. These are characters that you don't give a hoot about.

If I may just use The Day After Tomorrow as a comparison, while there are terrific effects, there is at least an attempt to provide a microscopic view of the entire disaster from different individual's point of views. And infused within are plenty of action sequences, big ones like the disasters themselves, and small ones with the focus on the triumph of the human spirit, that makes it relatively compelling.

Unfortunately for The Sinking of Japan, this movie should preferably be one to sink and tank, and hopefully undergo a short and quick death at the local box office to make way for better stuff.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Almost Weekly Wednesday Midnight Bulletin #4

For those who can't get enough of Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive, Scarlett Johansson stars in not one, but two movies premiering this week! And not to forget that Scoop is still playing in theatres!

Flick of the Week
Death Note will be my recommended alternative to the heavyweight blockbuster for the week. Adapted from the best selling Japanese manga, the premise alone should interest anyone with that innate desire to play god. A sequel is already done, so watch this first!

In my books, Christopher Nolan has done no wrong so far, producing top notch works from the memorable (heh) Memento, and handling my favourite DC character, Batman, almost perfectly in Batman Begins. Christian Bale and Michael Caine return in The Prestige, and are joined by Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson (both of who are in Scoop). Set during Victorian England about two magicians, this movie should be all set to top the box office, if the trailer is to be believed.

Acquired Tastes
Yet another Scarlett Johansson movie making its debut here this week, Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia really sucks your patience. While the trailer looked rather straightforward, the actual plot is anything but. Having eye candy casts help to tide over the confusion.

My Summer of Love is another movie targetted at the GLBT community, but hey, if I can enjoy Kinky Boots, I sure can enjoy this. What's more, it stars Emily Blunt from The Devil Wears Prada. Nuff said!

HK triad movies have become almost clones of one another, and now with Johnny To contributing Exiled after his recent Election series, it does make you wonder how this one will measure up, given the same recognizable cast members taking on roles they already are so familiar with.

Oh, and did I mention that Cathay Cineplexes has already rolled out cheaper ticket prices? You can check it out from this link. Not a lot cheaper, with tickets now ranging from S$6.50 to S$9 (about 50c cheaper across the board), but a discount is a discount, what with prices on the ever increase. You'd probably guess which theatre chain I'll be flocking to for my fixes.

See you at the movies!

[Cine.SG] Singapore Standard Time / Diminishing Memories

Singapore Standard Time Poster

"What is lost in the need for speed." - Joycelyn Khoo, director Singapore Standard Time

Perhaps that's what summed up the basic premise of the two movies presented in today's Cine.SG screening. Both documentaries, Singapore Standard Time is a short produced as a final year project at NTU, while Diminishing Memories is a medium length film by filmmaker Eng Yee Peng, depicting her memories of a bygone era, when farms and the kampung life was thriving at Lim Chu Kang, an area all too familiar now by army personnel.

As a short, Singapore Standard Time surprisingly contained many minute and seemingly disparate sequences focusing on different aspects of our modern day lives, like the obsession with 4D, a look at entrepreneurship, and a pretty stark commentary on our local arts scene. However, all these have a relation to time, and our attitudes of wanting things done yesterday. Running vis-a-vis throughout the short is the segment on our trees in this garden city, making comparisons that while our city can be engineered to be clean and green, civil society is much, much more difficult to social engineer.

It's a slick documentary short, and I'd say the awesome animated introduction is worth the price of the admission ticket. Real top notch stuff there. Containing many interviews with recognizable faces as well as strangers on the streets, this documentary took me by surprise with its silent, measured barbs.

On the flip side, Diminishing Memories was relatively serious, heartwarming, and extremely touching. Singapore isn't large, geographically speaking, but I'm certain each area in our island has its own distinct personality. And the personality of early Lim Chu Kang (LCK), and its transformation, is vividly captured by director Eng Yee Peng beautifully, as she experienced it herself while growing up. With interviews and countless anecdotes by family members, and of those who had lived in the village days of the past, this documentary offered us a memorable trip down memory lane as to how fast things in our society have progressed, and how the kampung lifestyle could very much be envied by city dwellers - the slower pace of life, the genuine neighbourliness, the living of life instead of the rat race.

Lim Chu Kang VS Choa Chu Kang VS Yio Chu Kang

Complete with family photos, stills, animation, and even an old 16mm movie clip, it is without a doubt that you can feel that this is a very personal film, and yet be touched by the sincerity of Yee Peng's passion for LCK. Recounting childhood (diminishing) memories, we see how urbanization and relocation (without much choice) have an effect on the kampung folks, and how they adapt, successfully or otherwise, to change.

I believe this documentary has done wonders for LCK, and for a new generation of Singaporeans who have never experienced first hand the village lifestyle, or cannot imagine that Singapore once had villages on the mainland, a new medium apart from textbooks and archived photographs is now here, in the form of this film, to see and hear the experience of those who have lived in the bygone era, and their reminiscence of life as it used to be.

I think Singapore made documentaries about Singapore are rare, and Diminishing Memories is a valued film that deserves a place in our film archives for its preservation of lives that once were, of a lifestyle now almost forgotten.

You can read more about Diminishing Memories here, or read the transcript of the entire movie here.

The filmmakers were in attendance for a short Q&A session after the screening.
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