Monday, March 31, 2008

[SIFF08] An Interview with ENG Yee Peng, Director of Diminishing Memories II

This year's Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF), into its 21st edition, runs from 4th to 14th April, and features an unprecedented 13 local feature films and documentaries in a Singapore Panorama section.

ENG Yee Peng had made a documentary about her village hometown, Lim Chu Kang, that had to make way for progress and development in the area. Her first documentary, Diminishing Memories, charts a lifestyle in Singapore no more, and collates fond memories of a life bygone. The follow up to that documentary will now make its World Premiere at the SIFF, and I take the opportunity to talk to Yee Peng about her new film:

Stefan: Hi Yee Peng, I have a slew of initial questions for you. The last time I watched Diminishing Memories on the big screen was in 2006. Will an audience be required to watch the original film first to jog their memories (no pun intended :), or will the new movie cover some background as well? How different is Diminishing Memories II from the original Diminishing Memories? Is it an entirely new documentary altogether, with a vastly different direction and content covered? Or is it an update of the first movie with new interviews included?

Yee Peng: Diminishing Memories I and II are independent films of their own, which means you do not need to watch Part One to understand what Part Two is about. However, only by watching both Part One and Part Two will it make a complete story. Hence, it is cruel to the audience if they only watch either one of the parts. In order to make Diminishing Memories II independent from Part One, it does have a very brief background of what Lim Chu Kang was like. The content of Part Two is entirely new with new interviews and new interviewees - the current residents of Lim Chu Kang. What makes Parts One and Two become a whole is the personal journey of the director. The director’s journey continues from Part One. You see, the mental and emotional state of Part One is a 9-year old little girl who was forced to leave her blissful childhood spent in a kampong (village) environment. In Part Two, the director’s mental and emotional state is that of a 29-year old woman. With new interviewees in Part Two, you will also get to see new content focusing on the government’s new development plan to turn Lim Chu Kang into an agriculture-cum-entertainment attraction.

S: Although the mental and emotional state of part one was of a younger you, what was included in the documentary was a very keen observation of the rapid industrialization of our city state, set against a micro backdrop of the particular agricultural area, Lim Chu Kang, that you grew up in. Some environments had to go in the name of development, and you had material - from your personal photographic archives and precious memories of its inhabitants - captured for posterity. What are the key differences if you were to look back at Diminishing Memories Part One, through the eyes of today's you?

YP: In Part One, I allowed myself to indulge in the very fond memories of my childhood - the 9 year old. By the end of Part One, I got frustrated with myself as I couldn’t remember as much as I thought I did, or wished for. I wanted to hold on to my lost childhood even more so. I was afraid of letting go. In Part One, I was reliving what I had lost but the story was incomplete as I haven’t come to my resolution. In Part Two, I am no longer reliving my childhood. It was just me - the 29 year-old Yee Peng. I realized I had to come to terms with what I had lost ultimately. By the way, if you have watched both Parts One and Two of Diminishing Memories, you would have noticed the great difference in the tone of my narration voice. It was deliberate and it’s part of the delivery.

S: I guess we have to watch the film to find out! I have to admit that the last time I had not been to Lim Chu Kang in recent years, and I am unaware of the attractions now available to the public. Do you feel that there will be possible room for a Diminishing Memories Part Three for reflection on this new development plan, to examine whether these attractions had met their objectives, again especially valuable coming from someone has charted the growth of the area?

YP: I must say, I can see Diminishing Memories Part Three even before I started filming Part Two. There is indeed potential for it. However, I do not wish to produce Part Three because it would have meant that something about Lim Chu Kang must have bugged me again! I believe there are other important voices that ought to be heard too.

S: Well, it could be a neat trilogy if Part Three somehow does come about! There are currently only a small handful of documentarians in Singapore. What made you want to become one, instead of making a narrative feature film?

YP: Because there are enough people making narrative feature films and I want to be different so I make documentaries! No, just kidding, haha! I always liked things that are ‘real’. Real feelings, real people, real stories that make a true voice. I like intimacy and rawness. So I do have a liking to making documentaries more so than fiction films at the moment and I haven’t got enough of making documentaries yet. Documentaries are challenging because you can only ‘control’ the interviewees to a certain extent; you can’t control what they are going to say like an actor in a fiction film. Also, depending on the subject matter, the director might not know where the story is leading to until the end of filming. And most of the time, we will only find its story structure in the editing room. We build story structures and write scripts during the post-production stage as compared to what should already have been done in the pre-production stage for fiction films. I like challenges and a small amount of 'unpredictablity'.

S: Do you see yourself making a narrative feature some time down the road? Any upcoming projects in the near future you could share with us?

YP: Yes, I can see myself making a narrative (fiction) feature in the very far future. I do have an interest in making fiction films one day even though I would like to concentrate on making documentaries at the moment. I am interested to combine both genres ultimately. Expect nothing from me in the near future as the projects will come when they do. Thanks for your interest though.

S: And I'll be asking all filmmakers in this interview series the same last question, what do you currently feel about the Singapore film industry (if we can already start to call it so!) at this point in time, given that the SIFF has finally enough material to come up with a Singapore Panorama section, with an unprecedented vast spectrum of 13 features and documentaries making their respective premieres in Singapore?

YP: I think we can call it an industry when people working in it can start to make a living solely out of it. From what I know with people making independent films at the moment, most of them need to earn their bread and butter elsewhere ‘outside’ independent filmmaking.  Most of the time, they need to take time off to rest and make a living before they could start their next film again. So this year you see many films made by Singaporean filmmakers, this is no doubt a very good sign but the question is also, how many of us can continue making films on a very regular basis in the long-run. If we can start to make a living, we can continue this path and there shall be opportunities for all of us to grow.


Related Links
Click here to visit the Official Movie Website of Diminishing Memories II.
Click here for instructions on how to purchase a copy of Diminishing Memories I.

There will be 2 screenings of Diminishing Memories II at this year's SIFF. The first screening is on 8 April Tuesday 9:15pm and the second is on 12 April Saturday 4:15pm at Sinema Old School. Tickets are still available!

Book your tickets now by clicking on these links:
8 April Screening
12 April Screening

The SIFF Singapore Filmmakers Interview Series
Kan Lume, Writer-Director of Dreams From The Third World
HAN Yew Kwang, Writer-Director of 18 Grams of Love
ENG Yee Peng, Director of Diminishing Memories II
Sherman ONG, Screenwriter-Director of Hashi
James LEONG and Lynn LEE, Directors of Homeless FC
Lionel CHOK, Producer of To Speak
Harman HUSSIN, Director of Road to Mecca

[Perspectives Film Festival] Lion City

One Whirlwind Romance

The inaugural Perspectives Film Festival kicked off tonight with the opening film Lion City, recognized as the first Singapore-made Chinese film. I missed the opportunity back in 2005 to watch this during the Screen Singapore film festival, so in no way would I pass up this rare opportunity to witness this gem of a movie this time around.

For those apprehensive with watching a film from the past, perhaps I can offer my two cents at what could interest you, especially for a "modern" piece such as Lion City. I like old films shot in Singapore, whether or not they are dramatic ones like this, or action ones such as They Call Her... Cleopatra Wong, or even Saint Jack, because they have in them something that is extremely valuable - the moving images of Singapore of the past, sans gleaming skyscrapers, and an environment totally unfamiliar with today's generation. Instead of relying on photographs, films also allow you to get into the psyche of the characters of the time, their attitudes toward issues and universal themes which may still be similar to some faced today.

The first few minutes of Lion City are worth their weight in gold. Shots of Merdeka Bridge (now Nicoll Highway) where stone lions stand guard, will be familiar to the older generation, as are buses with those old-styled strap handles, and of course, jukeboxes pepper coffee shops back in the days of old. There's also a panoramic shot of Singapore City Centre, and I had to use the Fullerton Hotel (then the General Post Office) to orientate myself to the surroundings, peppered by bumboats which no longer crowd the Singapore River, and wherefore art thou Skyscrapers? Not to forget too about the shots of our ports and habour, and Mount Faber being a romantic spot up until this day!

Made in 1960, this movie seemed to also serve a purpose at introducing this young nation to the world, with certain scenes sticking out quite prominently, what with talk about Unions, Elections, and in establishing the identity of the country with the 1.5 million population size, an old map of Singapore where Tuas and Jurong Island don't exist, and the sharing of the profile of its inhabitants, a multi-racial mix of Chinese, Malays, Indians, and in a comedic nature, plenty of other European nationalities as well. The National Anthem Majulah Singapura was also sung, though this sort of mixed up the timeline a little - OK I'm being lazy here in not researching this properly, but I thought that the Anthem didn't exist until after 1965, which is at least 5 years after this movie was made, so should the Malaysian one be sung instead?

Anyway in retrospect, Lion City actually became a very charming film when watched today, chiefly because in being unintentionally funny with stilted acting by today's standards, it brought about a sense of recognition of how far we have improved (for the better I think!) in film production. At its core, it's a romantic tale about a rich man Shao Ming who falls for the daughter of a worker in his factory, Fung Ling, and goes all out to try and woo her. And when I say all out, I really mean all out, and in whirlwind fashion to say the least! You can't help to chuckle at, and at the same time, having your goosebumps raised because of the extremely cheesy dialogue where the lovers whisper sweet nothings, with poetry thrown in for good measure too!

But besides our main pair of lovers, there are other couples in the story too which serve as a contrast between the idealic / true love that Fung Ling and Shao Ming experience, such as that of Fung Ling's brother Zhi Xiong with a bargirl Daisy, and his relationship with Xiao Zhen, however both of which were rudimentary glossed over for the most parts. And the other negative relationship involved yet another rich man, and a girl whom he impregnates and tries to shirk responsibility, hence providing avenue for Fung Ling's mom to be wary of Shao Ming's intentions.

The HDB flat also served as an important setting where a "kampung" like spirit was still active in the early days of the flat dwellers. I thought this can be seen at the extremely easy ways characters come into and out of each other's homes, unlike today's environment of closed and bolted doors, though in this manner, the film looked somewhat like a stage play in the HDB flat setting, with characters coming in from the sides, and exiting the scene through the same. Like Singapore's fast-tracked development, almost everyone seemed to be in a rush to go from place to place, and the short scenes provided some amusement because it was as if folks dropped by, only to leave less than a minute later. To move the plot forward, there were plenty of undeniably super-coincidental scenes too, with characters needed appearing at the doorstep as if summoned from backstage.

But it's not all studio-ed settings with fake backdrops decorating the set. The movie does take us on a simple road trip to the great outdoors, and I had probably not seen the Causeway in that light before, though I remember the trishaw rides in Muar, where I have relatives from the maternal side residing in, and visits up North to Muar back in those days, always had the inevitable trishaw ride!

Lion City does look decently preserved, though there were some noticeable, but minute skips that didn't mar the enjoyment of the movie. Hopefully this film will be restored (if not already so) in time to come, and for future generations to take a look at what the environment and life was like in the early years, just before Independence!


Kudos to the Perspectives Film Festival Team in having organize a film festival from scratch. I have no experience in running a festival, but going by today's experience as a member of the audience, it is in my humble opinion, well run (or at least I don't see any major hiccups) and the subtitles were accurate too. For the other films in the Malay language, subtitles are provided in both English and Mandarin, which will allow the older generation to relive and enjoy the movies this time round too. Having to conceptualize the festival from naught I believe is no mean feat, and what more, to go subtitle all these movies in 2 languages too. From today's experience, I would say Great Job!

Don't forget, this Friday's screening will be outdoors, with the screening of P. Ramlee's Seniman Bujang Lapok and admission is FREE, being held outdoors to promote greater communal bonding and involvement, especially across generations.

Other films in the lineup the next few days include Hussein Haniff's Hang Jebat, Salleh Ghani’s Tun Fatimah and B. N. Rao’s Sumpah Pontianak.

What's the cost you say?
It's only S$7 per paid screening, and concession rates are available. All indoor screenings will be held at the National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre (one of my choice screening locations in Singapore).

For more details of the programme, and ticketing information, head on down to the Official Festival Website by clicking on the logo below!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

[SIFF08] An Interview with HAN Yew Kwang, Writer-Director of 18 Grams of Love

This year's Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF), into its 21st edition, runs from 4th to 14th April, and features an unprecedented 13 local feature films and documentaries in a Singapore Panorama section.

Back in 2006, HAN Yew Kwang released a wacky comedy called Unarmed Combat which combined armed wrestling and the fantasies of a middle aged married man. And who could forget that wonderful theme song too? His latest movie, 18 Grams of Love, shot in High Definition, has been making it’s award winning rounds in the festival circuit overseas, and now is due back on home soil for the local premiere. I've caught up with writer-director Yew Kwang for a short interview:

Stefan: I've seen the trailer for 18 Grams of Love (18g), and I'm sold! With the movie billed as "A Delightful Comedy", and your earlier debut movie Unarmed Combat being a comedy as well, do you feel that comedy is a genre you would like to develop your craft in? Not to forget that you did make a contemplative and moving dramatic short with The Call Home, but there were the others in the comedy genre like Pinball and Tie Nan, the short film version of Unarmed Combat.

Yew Kwang: Yes, at the moment, comedy is still the genre I really enjoy making films in. I love doing different forms of comedy, be it romance, horror, satirical although I think action comedy is out of my range. I hope to make a couple more creative, quirky, feel-good and touching romance comedies where I can make people laugh and touch them at the same time. Most importantly, I think the general audience can relate to comedies easily.

Stefan: Some would suggest that comedies are difficult to deliver because amongst those in the same audience, each will have different thresholds to having their funny bones tickled. Do you face any such undue pressure when you craft your stories, or worry from time to time that what you deem as funny, might not be appreciated by the audience?

Yew Kwang: Yes, it is difficult to make everybody laugh at same jokes. Some people didn't find Unarmed Combat funny. 18g is not the laugh-out-loud kind of comedy, but I hope the audience will find the overall situation and story funny.

It feels great when the audience laughs but if they don't, I will work on it and make my next comedy better. I tell myself I can't be worried about the audience not appreciating the humour, because once I am worried, I can't make people laugh. Most importantly, I think I must also find my own comedy funny. I am curious to discover if one day, the audience finds my comedy funny but I don't, whether that will be a terrible feeling? If so I probably won't be making that comedy in the first place.

Hopefully, I can create a brand of humour of my own which audiences will warm to and gradually like, just like Stephen Chow's "wu li tou" style of jokes, Michael Hui's visual jokes, or Woody Allen's neurotic gestures. I think it will take time but hopefully I can achieve that one day.

S: With the two feature films to date, both are romantic comedies and you seem to have crafted your stories around married people with desires. In Unarmed Combat, the male protagonist Metal harbours a secret desire for Marilyn Lee's Ping Mei. In 18g, the married wives start responding to the love letters they get. What serves as your inspiration to these unfortunate souls who aren't contended with the lives they lead? You seem to have some keen insights and observations on these infidelity type issues to have them as central themes in your movies.

YK: I am always intrigued by this "infidelity" thingy. We all love different kinds of food, drinks, movies, clothes, cars, etc… how can a person love just one person throughout his/her life? It takes a lot of "discipline" for one to remain faithful. When we quarrel with our partners, we tend to think of the bad things he/she has said or done to us. We seldom think of the good things. These are issues in modern relationships which are worth exploring. Romantic comedies allow me to touch on all these. The good thing is the most important aspects of a good romantic comedy, such as the cast and the script, are things that a filmmaker can really "control". This is unlike action, horror or sci-fi etc, where you really need lots of technical support to make a good film.

S: You have worked with established actors in your feature films. What was the experience like working with the cast of Adam Chen, Alaric Tay, Magdalene See and especially Yeo Yann Yann, hot off her previous feature film 881?

YK: I love working with established actors. As for Adam, Alaric, Magdalene and Yann Yann, I auditioned them myself by acting with them. I will improvise and say things differently from the script and see how they react. The experience is very fun. I wrote 18g myself so I thought I have already known all the characters inside out but they never fail to come up with new things, new questions and new suggestions about their roles. Adam is our Mr Calm as he always brought about some sort of calming effect to the set. Alaric is a crazy fellow which is why he played his role very well. Magdalene is a surprise! I think most audiences will be impressed by her acting range in 18g. I knew Yann Yann in 1998 when we worked on television's Channel 8 sitcom "The Right Frequency". She acted as Sharon Au's sister and I was the writer of the show. So, it has been 10 years since we last worked together. What can I say about her? She is every director's dream actress.

S: 18 Grams of Love has won 2 awards at the 13th Lyon Asian Film Festival, and now has its only screening at SIFF sold out. Many have been asking if there is any chance of a commercial theatrical release. After all, Unarmed Combat did enjoy a theatrical run at the cinemas here.

YK: 18g won 3 awards so far. We won the Public Award at the Ofensiva international Film Festival in Poland. The fact that having 2 out of 3 awards being voted by an audience, we are confident that this film will appeal to the audience. Yes, there are interested distributors and exhibitors who want to bring 18g to the big screen. The thing now is we need to transfer 18g from HD to 35mm print. This requires a bit of cash. We are now in the process of talking to interested parties and raising funds for the transfer. Well, we try our very best!

S: I hope that becomes a reality, especially for those who didn't manage to secure a ticket for the SIFF screening! One of the most distinct elements from Unarmed Combat was its catchy theme song. Will there be yet another out-of-this-world, hummable ear-worm for 18g? Is it the same one as in the trailer?

YK: The audience's ears get a rest this time. Not more bugging theme music but there are a few prominent music pieces in 18g. I work with a very talented composer Neil Lim on 18g. He created a few whimsical pieces which I find very pleasant. The one in the trailer is the "loudest", the rest are quirky and sweet. Hope the audience will like them as much as I do.

S: Moving onto your future projects, can you provide us some updates to Taller Than Yao Ming (TTYM), and what the plans are for the feature length version of Pinball?

YK: We have dropped out of the TTYM project last August. Originally, my partners and I wanted to start a company last year. But we didn't do so when we did TTYM. So once the production got delayed, it was not doing us well financially because I was the only one getting paid during the script development stage. At around July 2007, the production date was still not fixed and we also needed to start on Folks Jump Over The Wall (TV series) production soon so we opted out after submitting the first draft to Raintree (a local production house). I think things might have been different if we signed as a production company with Raintree, then we could have requested for a production house fee to keep the team going. Pinball has been put into the KIV cabinet as it is really too personal. It is really hard to get people to invest in Pinball. I am planning to do a more commercial film this year. Hope the deal will go through and then I will announce my plan.

S: Hope to hear about that upcoming project soon! And I'll be asking all filmmakers in this interview series the same last question, what do you currently feel about the Singapore film industry (if we can already start to call it so!) at this point in time, given that the SIFF has finally enough material to come up with a Singapore Panorama section, with an unprecedented vast spectrum of 13 features and documentaries making their respective premieres in Singapore?

YK: I think the local commercial films are getting more successful commercially and the local indie films are getting more indie. The gap is widening and I feel that the industry is slowly dividing into two. Yes, there are more films, but the difference in terms of marketing power, box office and style between commercial and indie films are so, so, so big. Can't exactly tell what will be the consequence but I am looking forward to see more 250-500K indie films being made with stories that the general audience can relate to. Films that are in the mould of Amelie, Shall We Dance (Japanese version) and Thank You For Smoking, entertaining yet stylish indie films that will probably do well in both festivals & commercial theatres. Yes, those films definitely have a bigger budget but I do believe we are capable of doing something close to that.

S: Thank you for sharing your thoughts Yew Kwang. I look forward to the premiere of 18 Grams of Love at the SIFF!

18 Grams of Love has SOLD OUT its only screening at the SIFF. Keep your fingers crossed for a theatrical screening!

The SIFF Singapore Filmmakers Interview Series
Kan Lume, Writer-Director of Dreams From The Third World
HAN Yew Kwang, Writer-Director of 18 Grams of Love
ENG Yee Peng, Director of Diminishing Memories II
Sherman ONG, Screenwriter-Director of Hashi
James LEONG and Lynn LEE, Directors of Homeless FC
Lionel CHOK, Producer of To Speak
Harman HUSSIN, Director of Road to Mecca

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Becoming Jane

Love Triangle

Julian Jarrold gave us Kinky Boots in 2005, and now helms something I thought of as more solemn in tone with the biographical tale of literary legend Jane Austen in Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy in yet another period dramatic piece since Atonement. Here, they play star crossed lovers who get embroiled with the rigidity of class, honour and reputation back in Old England, with him being a legal student, and she, a budding novelist, where at the time isn't a career choice (if at all) for a female.

Sounds like Pride and Prejudice? Yes. If the movie is to be believed, then the love and life of Jane Austen served very much as the basis and seed for the premise of that novel of hers, and for an audience, probably ample opportunity to soak in the scenes that ring a bell, and compare Hathaway's performance as Austen to Keira Knightley's performance as her created character Elizabeth Bennet. The two characters couldn't be more alike, with one being almost an autobiographical account of the life she's facing as a single woman of marriageable age, and what more, being wooed by a Mr Darcy equivalent in Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy).

Also, the tale moved along quite similarly to that of Miss Potter, which tells of the story of the creator of Peter Rabbit, where we're plunged headlong into the critical crossroads of their professional life as well. Or like that of Finding Neverland, yet another adaptation of the life and times of JM Barrie, who gave us Peter Pan where inspiration is as chronicled in the movie. Could there be more biographical movies about writers on their way to screens soon?

I thought Anne Hathaway finally got a meatier, more mature role here, and what more, starring as a legend too in Jane Austen. However, I can't deny that her faux pas English accent was found somewhat wanting and proved to be a distraction of sorts. She did manage, though, to bring out the pain that Jane had to go through in having to hold out on love, find it, lose it, like the adage says, better to have loved once and lost than never at all. James McAvoy's performance here is a notch below that which he delivered in Atonement, probably because it's something that has already been done to death (not another Mr Darcy clone!).

The last 10 minutes was a kick too in seeing how visibly aged the characters become, thanks to wonderful make up. Other than that, sit tight for a romantic drama which as I mentioned, had much ado about Pride and Prejudice, that at times you might lapse into thinking it is that movie that you're watching.

For those who want to find out more about the life of Jane Austen, click on this link to the Wiki site.

Charlie Bartlett

Toilet Therapy

You have Ferris Bueller, and Van Wilder, and now we have Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin). But unlike the other two high school dudes with natural chemistry, Bartlett got to work hard at it, stemmed from his personal issues which manifest itself as a want to get himself catapulted to the top of the popularity charts. Being from a rich household, he finds himself like a fish out of water in a public school after being thrown out of just about every private school out there for his shenanigans.

And of course, things don't get any better after a disastrous day at school with the school bully, and giving the first wrong impressions to Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr), whom he has to convince later when Bartlett begins to develop affections for Gardner's daughter and fellow schoolmate Susan (Kat Dennings). So beings a power struggle of sorts within the school compound, and for the girl both care about.

Some have billed Charlie Bartlett as a Juno follow up, but I would like to beg to differ. Sure, they're both dealing with high school kids who fast talks, but when compared to Juno, Charlie Bartlett would probably get his butt kicked real hard. Not to say that Charlie Bartlett is a bad film, but Juno offered a lot more pizzazz, attitude and charm that Bartlett seemed to be lacking. However, there are still enjoyable moments with Bartlett that most school kids who aim to be Mr or Ms Popular, would probably identify with.

And the scenes where Charlie becomes Agony Uncle and sets up shop dispensing useful advice, as well as controlled drugs, take the cake in the movie, as he discovers his niche market, and milked them for all it's worth. Anton Yelchin has this very sly demeanour and offers much of a devilish attitude from beneath that wimpy surface, though I can't really say that as Charlie Bartlett it will be his defining role. I look forward to his involvement as Chekov in JJ Abrams' upcoming reboot of the Star Trek movie though.

The soundtrack is unlikely to be memorable (for a teen movie! The Horror!) though one can take consolation with Hope Davis' portrayal as Charlie's neurotic mother Marilyn, which did seem like a distant cousin to Annette Benning's role in Running With Scissors. And Robert Downey Jr with a bottle in hand did seem like reliving his past on screen, and I'd bet his Tony Stark in Iron Man, would also seem like a stroll down memory lane for him too. The best parts of the story for his Principal Gardner of course involves his one to one challenges with Bartlett, as do any school principal with their school's #1 rascal, so there's nothing new though to offer there.

I had expected a lot from Charlie Bartlett, and we all know what expectations can do, especially when the movie doesn't seem to hit the mark set. Enjoyable, but not the greatest we've seen in the shenanigans department.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Not Those Set of Pearlies

Vagina Dentata the au naturel chastity belt. It's easy to make this into a B-grade porno movie, but here, Teeth reined itself in with self-control and to all the horny men out there, to just watch out. Hard Candy was something of a similar precautionary tale, but Teeth ramped up the "fun" factor in dishing out what an audience would expect, with full blown visuals to boot (except for the fact of having to see those set of teeth in action).

Don't expect too high a erm head count though, haha! To read my review of Teeth at, click on the logo below:


Thursday, March 27, 2008

[SIFF08] An Interview with Kan Lume, Writer-Director of Dreams From The Third World

This year’s Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF), into its 21st edition, runs from 4th to 14th April, and features an unprecedented 13 local feature films and documentaries in a Singapore Panorama section.

One of Singapore’s more prolific independent directors, Kan Lume, will debut his latest movie, Dreams From The Third World, in a World Premiere, and I’ve managed to catch up with him for an interview prior to the start of the Festival.

Stefan: Your feature films to date, The Art of Flirting, Solos and Dreams From The Third World, have made it consistently into the official selection of the SIFF, and I feel that's quite an achievement in itself. While the first two were not world premieres (yes, we all regret that Solos had a Jury-only screening), how does it feel now to have your latest movie, make its World Premiere on home ground?

Kan Lume: It's very timely for "Dreams" to have its world premiere at SIFF. Solos was pulled from its World Premiere screening and this feels like a restoration. Furthermore, when Solos was announced at last year's SIFF press conference, someone mentioned how lucky I was to have another film so soon after The Art of Flirting. Now, having three consecutive feature films at SIFF, it validates beyond luck my principles and process of making films in this region. The "World Premiere" status is significant because it shows the importance I place on SIFF as the festival that is instrumental in my development as a filmmaker. I would also like to stress that Dreams From the Third World is a highly flawed film. I do not expect many people to like it. However, even though it shows how far short I am as a professional filmmaker, it also shows certain areas of growth for me.

S: In the local independent film scene, it's rare (and I think you might be the first!) in recent years to find a filmmaker churn consistently, one feature film after another, and you've done so with 3 feature films in 3 years (2006-2008). We've spoken in 2006 about your future film plans then, and it looks like you have really achieved what you had set out to do. Could you tell us about the sweat, blood and tears (if any!) that you've experienced with this consistency?

KL: I've observed that established film industries around the world all start with good and bad films being produced until a critical mass is achieved. That is why at this early stage of my career, I push myself to make films constantly. Furthermore, many of these pioneer filmmakers broke traditions and mindsets. I've taken great delight in doing things that people tell me cannot be done. With The Art of Flirting, I set out to prove to myself that it was possible to make an award-winning feature (80 min) film with next to nothing. With Solos, I set out to polarize an audience over a Singaporean-made movie. With Dreams From The Third World, I wanted to incorporate metaphysical elements into a film. I'm satisfied with the results. Goals play an important role because the temptation is to get overwhelmed by ambition, get impatient and give up. Many Singaporean independent filmmakers are either too perfectionistic or are afraid to be disliked, which is why compared to our South East Asian counterparts, were are producing so few independent narrative films. I am a fool in a sense, because I believe in growth through failure, which causes me to produce a lot of flawed films. I just hope that I can produce a bona fide masterpiece someday. I admire the Malaysian and Philippines New Wave Filmmakers. Some of them started out same time as me and are on to their 5th film!!

S: Yes, I do recall that many eyebrows were raised when the audience learnt how much it actually cost to make The Art of Flirting! With The Art of Flirting being an extremely talky-piece, and Solos went to the other side of the spectrum in being an almost dialogue-less film, what could an audience expect from "Dreams"?

KL: Dreams from the Third World transcends language altogether. It brings the viewer into the realms of reality, fantasy and dreams, and allows them to see the sharp contrasts between each. It is about a dreamer who is caught between his fantasies and reality. It portrays to a small degree what being an artist is like in this part of the world. In the film, although not explicitly said, money is king and economic development is top priority. Although there is wealth everywhere you look, it remains on the facade, with people struggling under the weight of progress. Our protagonist is an idealist. He loses his job, his dignity, cannot fit into society and tries to carve out his own niche by giving his wife the most typical excuse - he is an artist! A filmmaker to be more precise. What good can art do to his life? It doesn't feed him nor save his marriage. It leads him to abandon his values and become a hypocrite. Eventually, he comes to the end of himself and finds solace in nature. Nature does not judge him. What I can say is, it isn't going to be comfortable spending 90 minutes in the shoes of a loser. Furthermore, there are no stars in the film except Marilyn (Lee), so it is going to be a tough film to watch!

S: I hope that doesn't mirror your current dilemma with filmmaking in our little island state, and the constant difficulties and challenges that indie filmmakers like yourself face most of the time? Could you elaborate a little more on the metaphysical aspects in Dreams From The Third World, if it dived deeper into your subconscious, and how it served as a restoration to Solos?

KL: "Dreams" was never meant to happen. My third film was meant to be a profit making film. However, I found myself unable to turn out an original script with global sensibilities - a script that had international distribution potential. I came face to face with my limitations as a filmmaker and had to force myself to back away and reexamine my goals. Although I attended one year of film school, I have never been formally trained in scriptwriting nor directing. "Dreams" is a film that expresses that frustration and self-doubt. It also demonstrates the difficulty of pursuing the craft in our tiny country. The women in the film each represents different challenges to the artist. I express the feeling of being unwanted in this country. The longer I stay here, the greater the danger of losing my childlike sense of hope and turning cynical. Although there are many brilliant self-taught filmmakers in the world, I feel that all that I can learn on my own living in this environment is reaching its end. I am at a crossroads now that every filmmaker in Singapore faces, which is, do I make independent "art-signature" films for the rest of my career? Or do I make the jump to commercial profit-making filmmaking? And if I decide to make commercial films, do I even have what it takes? It takes a certain ability and conformity to be able to make good commercial films. Do I have the talent for it? Independent films do not have to be judged according to popularity and is usually judged according to awards. But commercial filmmaking is a popularity contest. If I persist in my goal of wanting to make commercial films, I may need to study filmmaking again, possibly in the States. But again I come back to the question, "do I really have what it takes?" "Dreams" is a prophetic dream that I released to answer my own question of whether I have a future doing this. The answer lies in where I see the protagonist go in the end. Does he disappear forever? Or does he receive answers about what to do next. But for now, my profit-making dreams have to be put on hold. For now, I release a dream into the world that few will understand and even fewer will hear of. But if I succeed in my quest to make internationally distributed films, this little watched film will bear testament to an important crossroads in my career.

S: Well, profitable movies in recent local context to date have been numerous comedies, a horror and a musical. Do you see yourself going into those genres, or as I remember, you did mention something about making an action film too? Your last statement rang a bell with regards to Marilyn Lee. I recall in an earlier interview we had that The Art of Flirting would serve in a similar context for her, in being a showcase film for her talent. She has gone on to act in other local indie movies, and now you have casted her again in your latest film. Perhaps you can share with us her character in Dreams From The Third World, and how was the experience like working with the two leads - Rodney Olivero and Marilyn Lee - whom you've collaborated with in an earlier short film 5 Steps To Becoming An Actor?

KL: I would love to do an exploitation action splatter movie however there are many constraints that I face. I cannot find a pyrotechnic or prosthetics expert with the level of artistry required to make the film. I might have to do it myself. Whether commercial films or art-signature films, there are always limitations. But a big difference is that in commercial films, the budgets are significantly bigger and can solve some of those problems. In art-signature films, you often have to make do with what you have or else not make the film at all! At times, I don't know which is the better alternative. For example, in "Dreams" I was looking for an established actress who was willing to take off her clothes but there were none. I could either give up on the film, or make the film using those around me who were willing and enthusiastic.

By the way, it wasn't Rodney in the lead, but Leon Yong, a relative unknown. (Stefan - Oops, that was my bad!) The two actresses are Marilyn Lee and Edgealle S. Dreams From The Third World is a film I shot with a two-man crew. I operated the camera, recorded the sound and had an assistant carry the tripod for me. It wasn't my intention to make the film this way. In fact I was in talks with a music composer, a digital cinematographer, a production designer, and a well-known actress, all at the top of their game. However, I wanted to make the film without a script. I had reference films for them to watch, namely my two short films 5 Steps To Becoming An Actor and Love At Keong Saik. I wanted to make a feature film out of those two short films. Ultimately, I was not able to fully convince my actress to take the leap of faith with me. She was not motivated to work in a free fall fashion and I eventually let her go. At that point, I was not going to proceed with making the movie because my story was created around that actress. I had to call off the shoot and my collaborators went on to work on other things. A week later, I suddenly had the inspiration to make a film without stars, and go wherever my inspiration would take me. I decided to make use of Leon Yong as my lead, who was willing to do just about anything I asked him to. As for actress, I decided upon a newbie with no prior acting experience to act in a major role, simply because she was willing and available.

Marilyn came into the picture because I wanted her elegance as a counterpoint to what I knew would be a raw, sexy performance by the newbie. Once the three actors were in place, I knew what the film would roughly be about. The locations remained the same, but once these three characters inhabited the locations, the story took on a completely different path. Marilyn has a definite quality she brings to her character that cannot be created. She brings a certain glamour and classiness that few can imitate. She also knows my working style and is able to adapt to it. By the time I decided I was going ahead with this new story, my collaborators were already engaged in other projects. I decided to go ahead and shoot it on my own. The film ended up being reflective of my feelings towards filmmaking in Singapore.

S: I note that with your features, they somehow evolved from your shorts. The Art of Flirting was the feature length version of I, Promise, and Untitled was the seed for Solos. As you mentioned you had originally intended to make a feature film out of 5 Steps To Becoming An Actor and Love At Keong Saik. I'm going to tangent off for a bit here - do you feel that it is necessary for local filmmakers to hone their craft and ideas with short films first, before jumping in to make their feature, even though, as you have demonstrated, it is possible to make an acclaimed feature with an extremely small budget?

KL: I'm not an immensely talented director and so I make use of short films to inform me of what works and what does not. Every director, based on his upbringing and personality, has certain themes they deal with very well and storytelling style they tend towards. The short film is a platform for me to discover these things about myself. In an environment with so much scarcity such as ours, there are only certain genres in fiction filmmaking that one can tackle effectively without big budgets. Therefore I find myself returning to certain genres, regardless of the length of the film. I am still interested in exploring other genres and styles and I will do so with more experience and when resources become available. I am certain that no two filmmaker's journey are alike. There are filmmakers who can express themselves fully with short films and I admire that.

Obviously, there is no better way to learn filmmaking than repeatedly making films. Short films can act as the cheapest, easiest and least risky way for filmmakers to learn their craft.

After the experience of three features, the best advice I can give to beginner filmmakers is to never compare yourself with others. You must only compete with yourself. If you achieve your goals with each film, there will be tremendous satisfaction. There will always be someone in a more favorable position than you. You can never control such circumstances, but one thing you can do consistently is to push your limits to the fullest with each film. That is the key to longevity. The fastest way to burn out is to compare and compete with others.

S: Very sound advice there! And I'll be asking all filmmakers in this interview series the same last question, what do you currently feel about the Singapore film industry (if we can already start to call it so!) at this point in time, given that the SIFF has finally enough material to come up with a Singapore Panorama section, with an unprecedented vast spectrum of 13 features and documentaries making their respective premieres in Singapore?

KL: When I stated with great enthusiasm in 2005/6 about a sudden wave of locals films, some people gave me a look of disbelief. Now nobody doubts it.

S: Yes I recall that I too was somewhat apprehensive though eager that the wave does come about, and come about sooner! I recall that you were passionate about the emergence and movement of films from this region. Would you like to elaborate on that a little?

KL: I have travelled to various festivals and have witnessed in these last three years the rise of importance of South East Asian independent films. The films currently coming from Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand are particularly special. They reflect the environment they are crafted in and speak in a new cinematic language. Economy, beauty in poverty, simplicity, unpretentious, meditative, spiritually vibrant, racially radical, these are some of the words that spring to mind. This current movement will stand the test of time and go down in the history books as an important era in filmmaking in this region. The next phrase in this movement will be the intellectuals in these countries choosing to do filmmaking over medicine, law or engineering, and thereby giving the films credibility and much needed intelligence. Like the French New Wave filmmakers who were all thinkers, philosophers, writers, critics. This movement will last for a further 8 to 10 years, after which greed will completely destroy the integrity of the movement. Thus history will repeat itself.

S: Thanks a lot for your time Kan Lume. I guess we've got to watch Dreams From The Third World to find out more about your feelings toward filmmaking in Singapore! Check out the trailer below!

There will be 2 screenings of Dreams From The Third World at this year's SIFF. The first screening on 6 April is already SOLD OUT but tickets are still available for the second session on 12 April (Saturday) 11am at the National Museum Gallery Theatre is still available (but selling fast!)

Book your tickets now by clicking on this link!

The SIFF Singapore Filmmakers Interview Series
Kan Lume, Writer-Director of Dreams From The Third World
HAN Yew Kwang, Writer-Director of 18 Grams of Love
ENG Yee Peng, Director of Diminishing Memories II
Sherman ONG, Screenwriter-Director of Hashi
James LEONG and Lynn LEE, Directors of Homeless FC
Lionel CHOK, Producer of To Speak
Harman HUSSIN, Director of Road to Mecca

The Bucket List

No Such Kodak Moment

From morbid time to time, I'd wonder what my own bucket list will be, when I'm given a certain number of months left to live. Will I have things to accomplish being totally selfish for personal glory, or will the list consists of things that're more charitable toward others? It's easy to to have the former I suppose, and easily quantifiable goals such as travel the world and the likes, but I'm beginning to appreciate the meaningfulness of making a difference in the lives of others, especially so since I think I haven't done anything in that respect.

Two of Hollywood's veteran actors, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, team up as two unlikely characters turned friends when they find themselves holed up in the same hospital room seeking treatment for their terminal illness. And they cannot be more different of course. One's a family man, earning his keep in a modest job, whose source of entertainment is trivia. The other's a billionaire, having a personal assistant attend to his every whim and fancy, and having generally a mightier-than-thou attitude toward everyone, unleashing caustic remarks toward others for the heck of it.

Through their interaction, they soon find common ground in having an obstacle in their lives to overcome, and that's whether to sit around and mope, hoping for a miracle cure, or to go out there and do things that they've always craved to do, of course with money never being an issue because one of them's a loaded man. So off they go on the adventure of their lives, visiting exotic countries, and taking risks that they don't normally accept. It's easy though to diss their list as implausible to mimic because frankly speaking, one does really need a lot of cash to accomplish exactly what they did. Needless to say, both Nicolson and Freeman are such strong actors, that you really wonder if they're really acting their roles, or are genuinely enjoying themselves as they feed off each other's energy as they have fun with the taskings.

But if you take a step back and examine the list, they are in fact quite modest statements, which the characters themselves joke about as being quite lame and without balls. It depends on how one interprets those statements I guess. A majestic view can be a view from the highest of moutains or from the depths of oceans, or it can be, in simpler terms, like one of the most beautiful evening skies I've witnessed in a long while when walking to the cinema.

And to top it all, it's again a reminder, like all films dealing with death as a subject matter, to live your life to the fullest every day, and not let it go to waste. Some of us are so busy trying to figure out our purpose in life that we fail to live it, and some, never taking a step back and appreciate what we already have, until it's too late. For now, my bucket list will look something like this: Witness the Aurora Borealis, trek around the world on a modest budget, race in an F1 car, and hey, I share one with the charactes too - kiss the most beautiful girl in the world. Some of course could stay impossible dreams, but that's what makes it a bucket list, right? The last chance to go all out and complete the taskings. What's yours?

[Reminder] Perspectives Film Festival

Friends, don't forget, the Perspectives Film Festival, an inaugural film festival jointly presented by NTU Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information and the National Museum of Singapore, begins next Monday!

This 5-day long event will feature some of the first, classic films produced in Singapore, highlighting the glorious past of our local film history, bringing back fond memories and inspiring the next wave of Singapore’s media stars. The highlight of the festival will be the screening of Lion City, which is arguably the first Chinese-language film to be made in Singapore. The last time this movie was screened was back in 2005 during the Screen Singapore festival, and unfortunately I had missed the screening then. Opportunity presents itself again this time round!

Other films in the lineup include Seniman Bujang Lapok, a film made by P. Ramlee, Hussein Haniff's Hang Jebat, Salleh Ghani’s Tun Fatimah and B. N. Rao’s Sumpah Pontianak which I have watched and reviewed here back in 2005, and here's a picture of Pontianak star Maria Menado.

Another first for the classics mentioned, all films will come with Chinese subtitles, as the organizers - all full time students btw, in a course where students conceptualize, manage, fundraise, promote and run an actual ticketed film festival - try to reach out to the older Chinese population in Singapore who cannot read English subtitles. On the last night, the screening of Seniman Bujang Lapok will be Free and held outdoors too, to promote greater communal bonding and involvement, especially across generations.

What's the cost you say?
It's only S$7 per paid screening, and concession rates are available. All indoor screenings will be held at the National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre (one of my choice screening locations in Singapore).

For more details of the programme, and ticketing information, head on down to the Official Festival Website!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


I Boo You Not

Someone remind me what's the point of a remake again? A dearth of ideas? Thinking that one can do the job better? Don't laugh but one of the better Asian horror I've seen (probably amongst the first few too in recent years) was the Thai movie Shutter, which played on the plot device of spirit photography, those strange streaks of blurs that cover weird angles in a photograph, and with a vivid imagination, you can even make out faces of people you know, or know not.

There are remakes which challenge on the technical fronts - having to recreate scenes shot by shot, or those helmed by master directors in the hopes of injecting some depth into characterization and story. Some filmmakers even choose to remake their own films with a different cast (Funny Games anyone?), and the list goes on. But one thing's for sure, I seriously hope that the number of Asian horror remakes start to dwindle, given that the westernized versions pale in comparison to their Asian originals, and Shutter happens to be one of them.

OK, so perhaps half the fun was eliminated when you know just about every plot twist and turn, character motivation, and probably even what dialogue will come out of the actor's mouths (so I jest). But in all earnestness, I reckon that this remake will appeal more to those who have not seen the original. It's easy to be thoroughly bored because you know just what's about to come, and can eliminate red herrings, as well as spot the now-so-obviously subtle hints that the characters try to hide unsuccessfully.

Also, you can bet your last dollar that Hollywood will again go over the top in trying to explain everything verbatim, as well as attempting to up the ante with the finale, but in doing so, tried too hard. I do not deny that it was much needed tension too little too late toward the end, but really, it added nothing to the plot besides succeeding in making you squirm. Technically this remade version boasts nicer production values, but lacked the edginess that the original had to offer, well, because the directing duo of Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom were rookies then, and lacked certain horrific charm and soul (pardon the pun). In fact, there was one critical scene which the Thai version had which boasted some ingenuity in a tracking shot, but one which the remake had chickened out to do, opting instead for cheap CG and unnecessary cut-shots.

So the remade had blinked first, and didn't offer any really frightening moments to genuinely scare. Somehow I thought it was rather subtly pre-occupied with sex, given that you have a great looking cast with Joshua Jackson as Benjamin Shaw the photographer, and his newly wedded wife Jane Shaw, played by Rachael Taylor. For some reason, Japan gets automatically associated with Asian horror, and that's where this remake was set in, maybe because the director - Masayuki Ochiai - is Japanese too.

But the final straw which I found really disturbing, was the lack of acknowledgement that this is a remake. There's nothing in the opening credits to inform the audience that it is one (the original Thai directors given only producers credits), and probably tried to pass off as an original story. Recommended of course to those who have not seen the original (even then I'd suggest you only watch the Thai version). Those who have, are advised to steer clear.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Drillbit Taylor

Chicken Wing Protection

This review is brought to you courtesy of Richard, who got selected as part of a test audience, and graciously pulled me along for a trip into the unknown. It could've been Son of Rambow (his choice), Iron Man, Indiana Jones (my choice in wishful thinking), or even Wanted, but it turned out to be Drillbit Taylor, which was one of the choices we toyed with, but thought that all Summer based movies should have less of a chance in being screened.

I think it's obvious to note by now that Team Apatow is on a roll in recent years with their brand of comedy, which is probably a much needed injection, personally, to the genre after Mike Myers left us hanging when he delivered his Goldmember. Out and out comedies of late have been touching on the usual material like teenage sexcapades and loads of deliberate spoofs of pop culture and movie genres, which Apatow and team also dabbles in, but somehow it hinged on the simple things that mattered, such as the timing of punchlines.

In most parts, Drillbit Taylor seemed like Superbad all over again, right down to the characters that inhabit the movie. You have the usual nerds in trouble, and more so, with a Laurel and Hardy style in pairing someone chubby with a motor-mouth, and the skinny, silent type. Coming from well-to-do families, good friends Ryan (Troy Gentile) and Wade (Nate Hartley) are into their first day of high school, where given their nerdy behaviour, are instant fodder for the resident school bullies.

Despite the refreshing unknowns having the meatier and more interesting roles, Owen Wilson stars as the titular character, a homeless and aimless drifter who showers at public baths and makes money from asking for donations on the streets. In fact, Owen Wilson is just being, Owen Wilson, with all the smart wisecracks spewed when imparting self-defense knowledge to his employers, the children, in a bid to not give them the fish, but to teach them to fish, i.e. defend themselves from bullies. Naturally he's no black ops person, and there's little wonder how his methods turn out to be backfiring most of the time.

Which is in fact a pity. There are some genuinely funny moments, but these stem from scenes where Wilson was not a part of, because his story got entrenched into some romance with impossibility looming over the horizon, But the funnier scenes are also mostly a throwback to similar material already experienced in Superbad, minus the sexually implicit / explicit scenes of course, with the banter between Ryan and Wade, and the little snarky comments that Ryan makes, which you probably have to pay attention to as they come quite fast and furious.

Other than that, Drillbit Taylor is pretty formulaic in how the story develops and concludes, which is an exercise in the value and treasuring of friendship, camaraderie, and having some backbone to stand up to those who have an inkling of stepping all over you. Oh, and Owen Wilson's nose really was quite prominently crooked in the movie, I can't help but to gawk at it!

[SIFF08] Exclusive Look at Kan Lume's Dreams From The Third World

This year's Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF), into its 21st edition, runs from 4th to 14th April, and features an unprecedented 13 local feature films and documentaries in a Singapore Panorama section.

One of Singapore's more prolific independent directors, Kan Lume, will debut his latest movie, Dreams From The Third World, in a World Premiere, and as you can see on the left, that's the first look at the movie's poster. The trailer is up on YouTube and you can view it at the bottom of this post.

I will be bringing you the usual reviews from the slate of movies featured under the Singapore Panorama section, as well as some interviews with selected filmmakers soon. First up will be an interview piece with Kan Lume himself. Watch for it!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Grace is Gone

Let's Go

John Cusack is one of the character actors I admire. And in Grace is Gone, it centers upon his ability to bring you into his character's world. He really transformed himself into the role of Stanley Philipps with his thick glasses, walking with an instep, and that little hunch and a paunch, and delivers probably one of his finer touches in disappearing into a character that's so everyday average Joe. He's a salaryman earning his keep while watching over his two girls while Mrs Grace Philipps (Dana Lynne Gilhooley) is a career soldier who gets her tour of duty in Iraq.

The crux of the entire story laid on the premise of Stanley trying to find the appropriate moment to tell his children about the unfortunate demise of their mother, while at the same time fighting hard to accept the bitter truth that the woman he loves is gone. More so of course when it is revealed later some things that can no longer be reversed in time, which makes it all the more sad, and regrettable.

But we also learn more about Stanley through the eyes of his children, when they throw the occassional tantrum, or have issues to deal with. Shelan O'Keefe as Heidi the older daughter, is a remarkable actress, lending some gravitas to her role when it called for it, and holds her own opposite Cusack very well. Gracie Bednarczyk as younger daughter Dawn I guess was just being herself, injecting much needed effervescence to counter the heavy drama that circulates throughout the movie.

Besides some expected and really moving scenes in the movie, some from plot devices, while others from the characters themselves, writer-director James C. Strouse also managed to sneak in a comment or two about War and Truth, which is what we make it up to be, most of the time. Alessandro Nivola also turned in a rather short but nice performance behind that heavily bearded appearance as the brother of Stanley and the children's uncle.

If I need another plus point to recommend Grace is Gone, then it will be the score by Clint Eastwood (yes, what a surprise when the end credits rolled), punctuating the story neatly when it called for it. All in all, a story without any major plot twists (since the title already said it all), simple yet effective, and hinged very much on excellent acting to bring the characters to life.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Prolific Filmmakers

Michel Gondry's movies came into my radar in 2004 with his excellent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which became my movie of the year. Unfortunately though, local distributors didn't think that Science of Sleep can pull in a decent crowd, so that got to sit on DVD shelves instead. But I guess with Jack Black's name attached to this project, billed a comedy, confidence is relatively higher that Be Kind Rewind could rake in some profits.

However, the movie is not so much a comedy as it is made out to be. Instead, what I felt about and from the movie, is to go make one of my own. Serious. Low or no budget doesn't mean bad quality, so long as you put your heart and soul into doing something that you believe in earnestly, and along the way, to have fun while at it. What's more, you can even build a community of like-minded people around your product, and I thought that it was a great social glue in having to pour blood sweat and tears into making some of the most insanely creative and innovative shorts / spoofs of popular films that you have out there. Fact is, after watching Be Kind Rewind, I thought the short that my friends and I did some 2.5 years back, was a kind of testament to this spirit.

Mos Def plays Mike, a video store clerk who gets entrusted with Be Kind Rewind Video Store when its owner, Elroy Fletcher, goes on a business trip to learn more about the DVD business, and to save his old shop from demolition. Of course, here comes Jack Black as Jerry, Mike's best friend and strange social activist, to want Mike's help in taking out a power station. Things naturally go awry, and Jerry turns into a human magnet, and accidentally demagnetizes all the video tapes in the store. So what happens when a loyal customer Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), who has the ear of Elroy, and with Mike knowing his job hangs in the balance, comes to the shop to get her fix? They make their own, in record time, to bluff their way through.

So begins the endless amount of spoofs (ok, I counted about 11 from the end credit roll) of movies from Lion King to Robocop, Ghostbusters to King Kong, but don't expect anything more than a minute being recreated for the screen. Having to shoot the movies in record time means they have to create them from scratch and with as little budget as possible, which leads to insanely creative methods to get the job done. You have to tip your hats off to Michel Gondry for coming up with the crazy spoofs in an extremely low tech way, but somehow it inspires as it sincerely comes from deep down inside the heart. There's even a term used in the movie for this movie-making technique, called "Sweded", and I suspect however, despite what the end credits say about the sweded movies being available on the official web site, we're gonna see it on the DVD instead.

But it's not all about spoofs and comedy as I mentioned. There's a nice touch of comparison between a DVD and a VHS video store, how one becomes the dominant medium over the other in this contemporary age, and how the marketing and sales operations of one store differs from another, kind of like the old one screen cinemas had given way to the newer, smaller screened multi-plexes. Jazz fans will be in for a treat too, as it gets weaved unobtrusively into the entire narrative.

In essence, this is not so much as a laugh out loud comedy, but a reminder that our imagination knows no bounds, and when coupled with tenacity, aspiring filmmakers out there need to look no further than Be Kind Rewind to provide that initial catalyst to kick start those creative juices within you. I know I'll be working hard on my screenplay after this!


I'm the MVP

Will Ferrell continues with sports theme comedies with Semi-Pro, a throwback to the 70s where the American Basketball Association (ABA) is merged in part with the National Basketball Association (NBA) which we are all quite familiar with. With his Talladega Nights on Nascar racing and Blades of Glory on figure ice-skating, if I were to rank his latest effort amongst the three, unfortunately it will be ranked the last.

Talladega Nights really cracked me up, and there were many moments where I laughed until my tears became uncontrollable - that's the personal gauge I use for comedies just in case you want to know. With Blades of Glory, it gets a little tired with his selfish character trying to go one up against his closest rival, which sort of degenerated into dramatic fare of brotherhood and friendship. With Semi-Pro, he continues with this character trait of cockiness (yes, it does get very tired after a while) as owner-coach-player of a fictional ABA team known as the Flint Tropics.

As the story goes, the ABA is into its final season because of the impending merger with the NBA, and the top 4 teams will get absorbed into the NBA, while the rest will have to be dissolved. So it's up to Ferrell's Jackie Moon to motivate his team, and to wheel and deal with the operational aspects of the game like boosting dwindling attendances and designing gimmicks, to keep their hopes alive. Having an incompetent team, save for star player Clarence "Coffee" Black (Andre Benjamin from Outkast), means that realistically they're no-hopers for the top 4 spots, at least not until Jackie trades a washing machine (don't ask) for an NBA player Monix (Woody Harrelson), who comes in to impart some of his elite knowledge of the game, despite being unpopular at first, even posing as a threat to Moon's coaching methods.

Actually, I thought that comedy was quite secondary in Semi-Pro. What it did have however are attention to detail on the differences between the ABA and the NBA leagues, starting with the multi-colored ball used. Half-time entertainment, courtesy of Jackie Moon, seemed very tired, with the best bits already included in the trailer. Other than that, the movie's quite bogged down by Harrelson's role in holding a candle for an ex-flame, which unfortunately didn't get past the censors scissors.

But credit be given though to 2 things in the movie. One, a scene where the major players are seated around a table gambling, and involving a revolver, which does take a heck of its own sweet time to get to the point and deliver its punchline which somewhat fizzled. The other, is the totally inane song Love Me Sexy, which you can watch the music video here. Without these two elements, Semi-Pro really deserves to be relegated.

Love Me Sexy by Jackie Moon
Come on girl,’s me Jackie Moon.
Don’t gimme that look, that’s right, let’s get sweaty, let’s get real sweaty
I’m talkin’ rainforest sweaty, I’m talkin’ swamp sweaty.
Let’s fill the bathtub full of sweat…alright.

Baby who wants to love me sexy
Baby are you ready to lick me sexy
Take off your shoes and suck me sexy
Baby we’re naked and we’re humpin’ sexy

I wanna do a little thing with you
I wanna do a little thing with you
When I say love me you say sexy
Love me sexy
Back it on up and show and prove
That lovin’ me sexy is the thing to do
Your body says love me your mind says sexy
Love me sexy

Baby who wants to love me sexy
Baby are you ready to lick me sexy
Take off your shoes and suck me sexy
Baby we’re naked and we’re humpin’ sexy

That’s right girl, let me whisper in your ear
Baby wake up, we’re naked and we’re humpin’ sexy
Who wants to love me sexy?
Is it you? Or is it you?
Are you ready to lick me sexy?
Is it you? Or is it you?
Take off your shoes and suck me sexy
Is it you? Or is it you?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

An Empress and the Warriors (江山美人 / Jiang Shan Mei Ren)

Eat Your Heart Out Hua Mulan!

I guess a new Hong Kong trend is emerging. I recall that as a kid, there was the Mr Vampire movie, which spawned a slew of Chinese vampire movies in its wake. Then there was John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, which gave birth to a whole lot of brotherhood-amongst-thieves themed films. And then there was Once Upon A Time in China, which brought about a renaissance in martial arts movies based on historical or beloved fictional folk heroes. These days, we're living in the Warring period era, where we have a fixation with armour, and more armour, thanks to movies like The Myth, Battle of Wits, The Warlords, Curse of the Golden Flower, and more to come with Battle of Red Cliff, and Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon.

An Empress and The Warriors continue this trend, based on the state of Yan which is under constant warring with the state of Zhao. The titular characters here are Yen Feier (Kelly Chen) who becomes empress after the assassination of her Emperor father, and because of the unhappiness of rival generals over the appointment of Donnie Yen's General Muyong Xuehu as heir to the throne. So he refuses to partake in any more political schemes, and throws his support behind his childhood friend and unrequited love of his life, whose relationship with her is made even more complex as he has to train her to become a warrior, ala Mulan, in montage style.

And no thanks to her scheming cousin Wu Ba (Guo Xiao-Dong) who tries his very best in sowing discord amongst the court / generals, in order to see his ambition of sitting on the throne through. Another assassination attempt on the life of Feier, and we're introduced to the other Warrior from the title, Duan Lan-Quan (Leon Lai), who in actual fact looks like and lives like an Eastern Robin Hood, on a set that looks a complete rip off from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The inevitable romantic tangle between single beautiful princess and good looking doctor begins, and begs the question whether she still remembers her pledge to put country first.

In truth, there are many elements here from the Robin Hood folklore, besides the set, with the bows and arrows, ambush cum assault which was thankfully well done in keeping up the tempo, and a fight sequence atop floating logs that drew inspiration from Robin vs Little John. The romantic angle though was quite unnatural and unfortunately felt very forced, and bogged down the entire movie, with Feier in a dilemma choosing between two potential beaus, and each of them having reason to hold a candle for her. I was half expecting Bryan Adams to come belting out his hit single, but we're treated to a duet by the two leads (who are singers by the way), in what I believe could have a chance to top the mando-pop charts.

Action wise, you've got to leave it to Donnie Yen to deliver the goods. Alas, there's nothing too different here with the war battle sequences, as it again borrows heavily from its peers, in particular, Stanley Tong's The Myth (in fact, too much and too direct a reference), and cut down one too many horses (none were harmed of course). Yen did seem rather stiff under all that heavy metal, and there isn't any single fight sequence that stood out during battles, except perhaps for that token same-screen sharing scene with Leon Lai, or that flight into the forest (yet another nod in the direction of A Touch of Zen).

All that's left of this movie that's worth mentioning, are the beautiful, intricately designed suits of armour, so much so that even Leon Lai has a full suit just to aesthetically please the movie's poster, and the cinematography, credit due to Zhao Xiao-Ding, who also lensed House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower.

An Empress and the Warriors turned out to be a movie that's neither here nor there - a weak romance and a weak war action movie, and its storyline, which at times confounds because of its implausibilities in character motivation and loopholes, all add up to making this an average movie at best.

Fatal Move (奪帥 / Duo Shuai)

The Censors Got Us!

Written and directed by Dennis Law, Fatal Move was originally conceived as the prequel/sequel to 2005's SPL, which had Donnie Yen and Simon Yam pit their skills on the side of the law against triad members played by Sammo Hung and Wu Jing. SPL had an interesting concept to begin with, but I guess with the ending as it was (a cop out in my opinion), a successful sequel with an interlocking storyline with the surviving characters would prove challenging. A prequel on the other hand might not be as engaging, as if we were to see the rise of Sammo's character to triad boss status, it would ring too much a bell with Infernal Affairs 2.

So Fatal Move offers a completely new storyline, albeit with most of the SPL main cast coming back for another go. Donnie Yen is absent (I'll see him in action later with The Empress and The Warriors), and Simon Yam crosses over the fence to star as the brother of Sammo's triad boss character Lin Ho Lung. However, Yam's Lin Ho Tung seems to be having a walk in the park (and in fact he really did!), as is Lin Ho Lung, because those itching to see some serious butt-kicking action by Sammo Hung, will have to wait until the last 10 minutes of the movie. There are plenty of Milkyway regulars here, with Lam Suet, Cheung Siu-Fai and Maggie Siu on hand to lend their heavyweight support to appeal to Westerners here who are familiar with their works, and Danny Lee returns after a long hiatus to play, what else, a cop yet again.

The storyline is nothing to wow over, and most times seemed to be running on a railway track, completely fixed and one-way, chugging along almost endlessly, without a destination in sight. Character motivations were unclear, and Tien Niu as Lung's wife Soso really let it all rip in a melodramatic monologue that contains a lot more story in her words than all the dialogue put together in the movie. It's about the self-destruction of a triad gang from internal strife from the greed of man, but its central theme was touched upon in a rather haphazard, messy manner that you'd wonder if the sub-plots were just bookends for the action sequences.

However, despite its title, Fatal Move is severely lacking in compelling action scenes. You have the tired car chases, and it seems that there was little effort in trying to milk what Wu Jing and Sammo Hung could do. They're martial arts exponents, but get to handle guns most of the time, and this does not exploit the skills they are trained with, which you can probably employ anyone to take over their place. Most of the fighting sequences were courtesy of Wu Jing, who's especially mean with his lopsided blue-dyed hairdo and an extremely sharp sword, but given no competent exponent character-wise to spar with him, it all boiled down to a one-sided affair. Seriously I'm a fan of his and I think it's about high time he takes over the starring role mantle for Chinese action movie stars, instead of getting bogged down playing side show villains.

What gets compensated for the uninspiring action sequences, was blood and gore done in CGI. I'm placing my bets that Herman Yau, as director of photography here, would have added some of his own pointers in this aspect, and the camera does linger on in some of the more violent and gory aspects, such as pumping continuous lead into a body, and various forms of decapitations involving limbs and fingers, right down to a castration. The much touted fight between Sammo Hung and Wu Jing was the main draw for me I have to admit, but if you were to put SPL and this side by side, Wu Jing vs Donnie Yen had a lot more intensity and slick moves compared to Wu Jing vs Sammo Hung.

But alas despite the M18 rating here, the movie was still subjected to multiple edits (originally rated R21 uncut, but no thanks of course to money-making distributors), and most of the gory bits couldn't escape the censor's scissors. What made it unforgivable, was that the much awaited duel too became victim, and for that, with the insipid storyline and relatively generic action, I would have to recommend that this be skipped at the cinemas, and rent the DVD if you're really interested.
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