Tuesday, September 30, 2008

October's World Cinema Series Is...

A Programme of the National Museum Cinémathèque
Co-presented with the Singapore Film Society

Date: Tue 14 Oct 2008
Time: 7.30pm
Venue: Gallery Theatre, Basement, National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Road, Singapore 178897

S$8 for public/ S$6.40 concession price for students, seniors aged 60 and above NSF, and National Museum Members and Volunteers / Free admission for Singapore Film Society members

Enquiries: 6332 3659 / 6332 5642
Website: www.nationalmuseum.sg
Nearest MRT Station: Dhoby Ghaut

Ashes and Diamonds / Popiól i diament
Dir: Andrzej Wajda
1958/ Poland/ 103 min/ 35mm / Rating to be advised

In Polish with English subtitles

Regarded as the greatest in Andrzej Wajda’s wartime trilogy, Ashes and Diamonds (the final piece concluding A Generation and Kanal) remains as one of Eastern European cinema’s finest achievements.

Based on the novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewskim, the film takes place in a small Polish town on 8 May 1945, the day Germany officially surrendered and ended World War II. Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) are two young Polish Nationalist Army soldiers who have been assigned to assassinate communist Commissar Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski). Their mission fails – killing instead, two civilian cement plant workers. They are given a second chance in the town's leading hotel where Maciek meets and falls in love with Krystyna, a beautiful barmaid who gives him a glimpse of what his life could be.

Gorgeously photographed by Jerzy Wojcik and brilliantly performed (particularly Zbigniew Cybulski, in a star making performance), Ashes and Diamonds masterfully interweaves the fate of a nation with that of one man, resulting in one of
the most important Polish films of all time.

Monday, September 29, 2008

My Magic


There's plenty of buzz overseas surrounding Eric Khoo's latest movie My Magic, which has recently been selected as Singapore's official entry to the 2009 Oscars in the foreign language film category, hence the rush to have it screened this month to qualify. While his previous effort Be With Me was disqualified on a technicality in the same category (they really timed the amount of English or lack thereof in the film!), this time round Eric has crafted a movie in Tamil as the story tells of the love-hate relationship between an Indian father and son.

I don't recall any recent Tamil feature films being made in Singapore, save perhaps for the segment in Wee Li Lin's Gone Shopping, and in the upcoming Salawati, so this marks a first that race and language didn't become barriers, but celebrated that a filmmaker can transcend these issues or capitalize on what is uniquely Singapore given that universal themes apply anywhere. For a father-son story, the last which I enjoyed was Patrick Tam's After This Our Exile, but of course this is a different story and setting altogether.

In the spirit of magic, the film sets up The Pledge, where a down and out man Francis (Bosco Francis) opens the film with repetitive drinking, without any money to pay and picks up a fight at a bar. He wanders around in his drunken state and stumbles home each night, expecting his young son (Jathisweran giving an excellent performance here) to pick up after him. The son naturally resents his noisy father, whom he thinks is good for nothing, having to fend for himself in school, touting his services completing homework for peers for a fee. This kid has got plenty of growing up to do, and despite his young age, you can feel and sense his maturity despite his small, mild-mannered frame.

The Turn comes when Francis realizes that should he continue his wayward behaviour, he would be losing his son, and in order to step up his role as a father and sole caregiver, he has to find meaningful work within his abilities, and here it becomes a showcase for Francis to demonstrate some of the much touted Bizarre Magic, where he sells his act to a paying club owner. We get to see the more gentle tricks like the renowned "Flaming Wallet" and simple ones like disappearing acts, before we go into dangerous ones like fire eating, and the slight dalliance into torture porn territory like Hostel, when demands get higher and riskier for bigger economic returns, selling his soul for the physical pleasures of man, exemplified by the Chinese bosses of the club.

For the Prestige, you must be nuts to think I were to reveal it. Suffice to say that the movie is not about magic tricks per se, or being too bizarre that it alienates its audience or make you go into deep ponder. Mee Pok Man has such moments, as does 12 Storeys with the incessant chatter of the old lady, but as Eric Khoo professed, this is a simple story, and I'd like to think of it as that too, so much so that a potential subplot that could have developed deeply with Francis showing kindness to a stranger (Grace Kalaiselvi) didn't go beyond my understanding that a fresh friendship has been struck.

Much of the magic here, came from the performance and chemistry between Bosco Francis and Jathisweran as father and son. Francis is not always uncaring or drunken, and the story does provide room to show a rare sober state that the son would probably have enjoyed such presence a lot more. Their home is sparse yet cluttered in pockets around, in parallel to the seemingly empty interactions the characters engage in, but yet having insurmountable complexities in the relationship between them. And I suppose it's typical of Asian fathers to be somewhat reserved in their expression of love and care to their children, as per Francis' hard and punishing work away from the view of his son, understanding his need to provide and never one proud to exclaim his efforts when he coughs out wads of dough.

There are some nice cameos and supporting appearances here, some of whom are Eric Khoo movie regulars. Seet Keng Yew, who played a shy security guard in Be With Me admiring his unattainable love from afar, plays Big Boss, silent almost throughout the movie, but hiding some intense masochistic tendencies. Blink and you'll miss him, Lim Poh Huat who starred opposite Seet, cameos here as a cleaner in a club. But the one supporting role that caught my attention, was Sunny Pang. While he has starred in previous local independent productions like Perth and Lucky 7 with speaking lines, here he silences himself, and lets his hands do the talking. That one-hand-wooden-rod-twirl probably affirmed my belief that his film-in-production Knife, would be one heck of a movie to keep tabs on, and I hope that it does get made soon.

Making its rounds in the overseas festival circuit, the largest of all being Cannes where it becomes Singapore's first competitive entry for the Palme d'Or, the film will also makes its debut at the Tokyo International Film Festival next month. With a little bit of luck I may just bump into lead actor and real life magician Bosco Francis as he's scheduled to make an appearance there, and bring you some of the lowdown on how the screening went over at the land of the rising sun.

If you're still curious about Eric Khoo films but are apprehensive about the art house essence, My Magic will surprise you at how simple and accessible it is, yet retaining its quality to resonate and move. You don't need big action or big drama, all you need is plenty of heart, and this film has loads of it. Recommended stuff!


Q&A Session to follow!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Love Is

Woody Allen seems to have a riot of a time making movies outside of New York, and truth be told, I find them pretty enjoyable, though some would argue I should revisit his earlier films to understand what's great. Then again, his "muse" Scarlett Johansson and a more contemporary cast are an interesting mix to gain a fresh following from a new generation of audiences like myself, lapping it up on Allen's wit, narrative creativity and candy eye cast.

The reason why Barcelona was chosen, and hence in the title, was because the City had sponsored Allen to make his movie there. I guess if Uniquely Singapore would do so, this could have been Vicky Cristina Singapore. Then again, I suspect some boardroom terms and conditions might have made it very pro-tourism video like. Of some of the earlier co-productions I have seen with the Lion City's money pumped in, you can't help but feel that shots of our landmarks almost always come across as something made for corporate videos, and relied plenty on those tracking shots, or worse, dug out from archives.

But in the hands of maestros, this feeling somehow doesn't even come into the picture. Landmarks become just another non-intrusive backdrop, or worked carefully that they become essential to the story without drawing attention to themselves. I guess we could all learn from this film how to do reward a city that graciously allows itself to be filmed and filmed using some of its investment.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is so titled because it is a tale of the two titular best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) who spend their summer vacation in the Catalan city. It's an exploration of contemporary relationships using two characters whose view on love comes from total opposites. For Vicky, it's all built on the foundation of commitment, of being very structured and organized about it. For Cristina, a failed short filmmaker by her own standards, it's to take the bull by the horns, and to grab relationship opportunities in a rather cavalier manner.

In a test of their resolve, they meet newly minted star Javier Bardem who plays Juan Antonio, a suave, witty and sweet talking painter who audaciously suggests that they travel with him, and thereafter sleep with him. For Vicky it is near impossible given that she's on the verge of getting married and a definite contradiction of her principles, but to Cristina, it is a plus point in have a complete stranger come up and telling them honestly what he wants to do with them. So begins the exploration of love and relationships in 3 acts.

The start is a bit slow as Vicky gets to have a spanner thrown in her plans, that once you've tasted the forbidden fruit, you'll likely be clamouring for more. It's a wake up call and examination of a life that she thinks she wants to have, versus one that she probably would like to have and enjoy it a lot more. It's the classic tussle between freedom, and being shackled, of conforming to the idea that being successful means a good career with an equally career-successful husband, in an artificially created lifestyle involving small talk with colleagues/friends and the likes.

Cristina's dalliance with Juan Antonio shows how their carefree attitudes and bohemian lifestyles might attract and inspire each other to greater heights and the pursuit of new dreams and skills, though I welcomed the arrival of Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) somewhere at the halfway point, feisty and temperamental ex-wife of Juan Antonio, as she stirs the pot a lot more, and truly the three of them engage in quite a parasitical lifestyle, feeding off one another's energy, sexual and otherwise.

All the cast members perform up to expectations, though I reckon that Scarlett haters will continue to loathe her presence here. Javier Bardem does an about turn from his extremely dead serious role in No Country for Old Men, and here he's quite the Casanova in his pursuit of women. It doesn't have plenty of big moments and never lapses into melodrama. Events get presented as is, without the need to exaggerate, and it's always a plus point to have a dash of humour added as well in Allen's signature style. It might seem fresh and breezy on the outside, but underneath its veneer is some serious study into human romantic relationships that you'll be left pondering for some time after the end credits roll.

Closing The Ring

Say Aah

Never make promises you can't fulfill, otherwise you'll find that nagging feeling coming back to haunt you, and it can be quite uncomfortable, unless of course it doesn't bother you as far as integrity and trustworthiness are concerned. Then again there's the living a lie, of not being true to yourself, which sometimes can be tricky when it deals with affairs of the heart, where ignorance may be bliss.

Closing the Ring throws its hat into the WWII era inspired romance stories, where boys turn into men, and have to leave their lady love behind at home while they ship off to the warfront. With events that unfold across two different continents, and unfolding between two different timelines with the necessary flash backs, flash forwards, and nicely edited transitions, the movie isn't that bad although the story might be at times cliched.

Jack (Gregory Smith), Chuck (David Alpay) and Teddy (Stephen Amell) are three buddies who join the air force, and are training to be pilots, navigators and gunners, whatever it takes to bring them to the skies. Mischa Barton stars as young Ethel Ann who's the flower amongst the group, but only having romantic feelings for Teddy, whom she married in secret before the trio got shipped away to join the war.

That's the arc of the past, where we see how their relationship with one another hold up during mankind's darkest hour. The arc of the present has Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer take up the senior roles of Ethel Ann and Jack respectively, and on the other side of the continent in Northern Ireland, we follow Michael Quinlan (Pete Postlethwaite) and Jimmy Reilly (Martin McCann), where the latter is a simple minded teen helping the former fireman dig around Black Mountain in search of something of value.

I guess by now you can piece together a little bit of what could possibly happen, and added to the fray is the IRA's struggle for independence in 1991. Characters interact by crossing continents, mysteries and confirmation of what happened during those faithful and pivotal moments in WWII get revealed and explained, and feelings slowly get revealed, demolishing some long held denial and unawareness. Although given what would transpire, you wonder if it's remotely possible to pine for someone for so long, or to lock away your heart so cruelly that you shut off affections even for your own child.

It's still an enjoyable movie, though not exactly a great one but it does get to its point quickly. You might find yourself being a step ahead of the characters and piece together all the information provided way in advance, but still, if you'd enjoyed movies like Atonement and Evening, then you wouldn't find this that bad at all. Oh, and the English subtitles did help in deciphering some thick Irish accent.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)

Go Go Go!

I just love a good 'ol cops and robbers movie, and Elite Squad shows that it indeed is a generous cut above the rest, and along the way had snagged the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival. If you’re in for some gritty looking no holds barred movie that reflects the dangerous occupation of honest cops making a living in what’s technically a war zone with the criminals, then look no further than this movie.

The movie works itself on many levels, having its narrative flow giving equal opportunity to each of its subject matter. On the surface, it looks very much like Hollywood’s SWAT, but only much better, with its induction and training program where rookies get groomed from the mediocre to the cream of the crop in their attempts to join the BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, or Special Police Operations Battalion), and on another level it tells of the friendship between two newcomers to the police force, where they’re face with 3 options in an organization where corruption Is rampant – join in, turn a blind eye, or wage war. An additional level which held the movie throughout its different subplots is that of the headache when it comes to management succession.

When you’re doing a good job, you find it difficult to either let go, or if you’ve come to terms with the inevitable of leaving the job that you like, finding someone appropriate to take over. It’s like a father who intrinsically almost always disapproves of their daughter’s boyfriends. Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) has this dilemma, being the leader of the crack Alpha team, he found that for the good of his family he has to leave the highly dangerous job where death is just around the corner each time they go on their missions. But in order to do so, and to ensure his men have someone able and competent to step up and replace him, he has to find new blood.

Thus the story of two rookies, Neto (Caio Junqueira) and Andre Matias (Andre Ramiro), who are best of friends, but whose characters are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Neto’s a hothead and acts on impulse, qualities not befitting of team players, but you cannot discount his courage. Andre’s a lot more calculative and restraint, but in dwelling too much on decision making, might not be able to act decisively. These were the two options best left for Nascimento, given the rest are either corrupt or inept to have made it through the tough training.

Between Neto and Andre, the latter has a lot more pathos crafted into his character, such as his ambition in being a lawyer after his uniformed stint, and this character was also based loosely on the consultant for the movie. What I particularly liked his character was how he subconsciously turned into the stereotypical view the citizens have of the cops – of being violent, unreasonable and corrupt, that save for the latter, he unwittingly becomes transformed into that mold, a disillusioned turn against his idealistic viewpoint of what a cop stands for, of becoming one of many misunderstood, honest cops.

The BOPE are no angels, and are quite heavy handed in their ways, though one could also argue that extreme methods and operations are totally justifiable when in a “war zone” dealing with criminals armed to the teeth who have no hesitation to shoot first and to kill. Simon Yam might have left a memorable impression with his repetitive bitch slapping of a gangster at an arcade in PTU, but here, such slapping gets ten times worse with the hairdryer effect too. The BOPE officers knows no gentle negotiation techniques, with arsenals such as the use of deadly force, interrogation through the use of incessant slaps and the plastic bag for suffocation, and if the suspect still doesn’t crack, there’s still the good old broomstick shoved into the rear.

Action junkies would find that Elite Squad has no lack of set action pieces, though you might find yourself clamouring for more. These guys are highly trained and bears no qualms in exercising deadly force with no remorse, and when their skull end knives emblem comes rolling around, criminals flee in fear. Given that this is set in the gritty streets of Rio de Janeiro, the shaky cam seems impossible not to be utilized, so if you’re those who feel nauseous at the erratic movement of the camera, you might want to take the necessary precautions.

For me, it’s not often always to have a movie like this work on all fronts, from acting to action to a tightly designed and layered narrative. If I were to recommend a movie about cops, then Elite Squad would join the ranks of personal favourites like PTU and Heat. Highly recommended!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Road Less Travelled @ Sinema Old School

This is one of the local films that I've not gotten down to watch, and I guess not many have seen it too.

You'll be glad to know that Sinema Old School is screening it, so if F1 is not your cup of tea, then perhaps you might want to check it out!

The Magic of Bosco Francis

Call it a bad case of procrastination on my end, but I guess it's better late than never. Mr Bosco Francis, accomplished magician and star of Eric Khoo's latest movie My Magic, had graciously accepted my request for an interview given his busy schedule. Here it is, one that I've conducted through online email because the fault was mine in not being able to meet up with him in person, but hopefully, I will be able to eventually do so when we converge in Tokyo next month when My Magic screens in competition in the Winds of Asia-Middle East section of the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Q: What was your reaction like when director Eric Khoo approached you and wanted to make a film with you in the starring role?
Bosco Francis (BF): Well I have known Eric for more than 10 years. I use to drink with him on and off over the years. During these sessions he would always tell his friends to look into my eyes. He would say, ëI see something in his eyes.í I always tell him, ëwhat do you see in my eyes. My eyes are my eyes. What is there in my eyes?í He has always mentioned that he wants to do a movie on me. However when he first mooted the idea two years ago, I was elated. Many years ago, I have always thought of doing a movie but not in Singapore. I was thinking of making it in India, where I met with one flimmaker and have met a few actors and actresses who were not that popular yet. So I was thinking at that time that it will nice to make a movie and see yourself on the big screen. Now the dream has been fulfilled beyond my imgination.

Q: You're a seasoned performer. How different is it when performing in front of a live audience, and performing for the camera, not being able to get immediate reaction/feedback from an audience, but having to trust the director and crew that you're on the right track?
BF: Yes, being a seasoned performer is an added advantage in making a movie. However it is totally different from being an actor. I am a performer; I have control over the situation. If my routine does not go down well with the audience, I could go back and redefine it or change it completely. In the case of acting, I am given a script and I have to follow closely to what the script says. What is even more difficult is that I cannot see the expression on myself to that particular environment which the script requires me to do. However Eric is a man of foresight and vision. He has picked me and that in itself shows trust and confidence that deep inside, I will be able to deliver and meet his requirements. Eric did mention about making the movie two years ago but nothing did materialize till the third quarter of last year. It was not an easy decision for Eric to make. I believe that he took the decision against odds; including budget constraints to make the movie. The original plot for the movie was discussed and changed several times over the days that followed. I never knew at any point of time during and after the shooting if I am on the right track. I left it in the good hands of Eric. I only asked him, how well I did, and just a few days prior to the results of the Cannes Film Festival 2008. He replied that it is one of his favorite movies. It was only then, I did get my satisfaction that I wanted to accomplish. It never crossed my mind that the movie would go international and I did not even have any clue about the Cannes Film Festival as I was not connected to the film industry at that time.

Q: I haven't seen the movie, but I heard it contains a fair bit of illusions, some which border on pain. Were the illusions in the movie from your existing repertoire of magic, or did you have to come up with fresh illusions for it?
BF: The movie is about the difficulties the parents go through in life to bring their children up and ensure that they have a bright future. We donít often get to see or visualize the mental stress that the parents go through, however we are able to see the physical stress that the parents go through in bringing up the children. Believe it or not, I did not know the direction where we were going during the first three days of the shoot. It was only after that, I picked up the direction and decided to convert all the mental stress to physical pain so that the audience can see, visualize and associate the amount of suffering I endure to make a reasonable income for my son's future. The illusions in the movie are known as bizarre magic. Most of the illusions were mooted by me. Some of the illusions even though I know they can be done, but I have never attempted them at all. I decided to go ahead with them because I believe and use the power of the mind, which I call ëMind over Matter.í I have trained myself to endure all the pain that you see in the movie. Some of the illusions are in my repertoire and some of them are new ones.

Q: Perhaps for the uninitiated in the world of magic, could you elaborate the concept of "Bizarre Magic" so that we could understand its distinction?
BF: There many kinds of magic, one of which is Bizarre magic. It is a kind of magic that makes people squirm or twitch. In India the magician would sit his grandson on a stool, then he would take a skewer, pull out his grandson's tongue and pierce the skewer right through his tongue, apparently with no harm done to his grandson. He could perform this act several times a day without any harm to his grandson. This is what is called bizarre magic. However I do the same act for real because if you examine my tongue you will see a hole right through. In my case there is damage done but I use mind to control my body. It is called Mind over Matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.

Q: Is the movie semi/autobiographical in any way?
BF: Well the story touched partly on my real life story. I have my son who is grown up now and is independent. He hates me for being a cruel father when he was young. Yes I did punish him for his wrong doing. I believe any father would have done that at that time. I also believe that no father would beat their children for no reason. He refused to accept me as the father and did not communicate with me for many years, despite the fact that many persons, including relatives calling upon him to mend the relationship. Eric knowing my life history decided to do the movie. The movie had now brought him back to communicate with me again.

My Magic opens today at GV Plaza and GV Vivocity.

Lean More about The Amazing Bosco here!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

All The Boys Love Mandy Lane

I'm Sitting Next To Mandy!

All the boys love Mandy Lane, and the way she is portrayed by Amber Heard, who wouldn't? She's blonde, she's demure, she's so hot that the camera in the movie's introduction to the character, lingered on her T&As. She's a fine athlete though we don't really get to know what kind of grades she's getting. Every boy in school wants to talk to her, and every one of them wants to get into her pants, earning bragging rights to be the first amongst everyone else to have conquered probably the last bastion of virginity in school. People would do silly things like dying for her too.

In typical slasher flick formula, a group of students, Mandy included, organized themselves for a getaway in a secluded ranch, where a ranch hand Garth (Anson Mount) provides that element of question as to who amongst the group will be the hunter, and who will fall as prey. Like how the formula warns against decadent teenage lifestyles, such as the unwritten rules of having the non-virgin being dispatched first and the likes, you're constantly kept guessing as everyone in the group, save for our goody-two-shoes Mandy, get sloshed in a flood of sin, with the smoking of weed, snorting of coke, being highly sexually charged and active, and downing alcohol as if it was water.

It does take quite a while for the first person to fall, and you probably won't feel much for the characters that had to kick the bucket in the most violent of deaths, which get shown quite graphically, only to pull back at the last minute through visual tricks and edits the filmmakers use. But for slasher flick fans, it's a long ride to get to this stage, and frankly speaking given that the characters all don't appeal to you (i.e. you couldn't care less if they live or die), the movie does seem to coast along the tried and tested, until its last act.

Surprisingly, the narrative decided to reveal its boogeyman quite early on in the film, which provided some perplexing questions. Again for those familiar with the genre, there'll always be a thought niggling in your mind in disbelief that the plot would be so straight forward. Granted as mentioned, the payload comes at the finale, which I thought had two meanings, depending on which concept you subscribe to. First, following reality that the most perverse amongst us tend to be the one most disconnected, and second, punishment coming from someone who doesn't see eye to eye on immoral lifestyles, and want to put a deadly stop to it.

I did see the revelation coming, but for the longest time had decided not to believe my gut feeling in the hopes that it would develop into something that will genuinely blow my mind. It's not perfect, but it did have its moments with the following of recent trends in the slasher genre that bad guys don't have to necessarily finish last. Nothing fanciful here, but it still worked to a certain degree. And kudos to both the casting director in putting Amber Heard in the titular role, and for the actress to pull off one of the more memorable lead characters in such a genre flick.

Painted Skin (画皮 / Wa Pei)

I'm Foxy

Based upon the classic literature of Liao Zai, Painted Skin is an adaptation of one of the stories that dwell on fox spirits. If you're someone expecting either a supernatural spook fest, or an amalgamation of ghosts and kung fu, you might be disappointed to find out that it's actually a romance through and through, with complicated relationships all around that you can weave a complex web of love and lust amongst the players involved.

Chen Kun plays Wang Sheng, a general whose army recently overrun the camp of a group of barbarians. In their battle, he rescues a beautiful girl from the grasp of the enemy, and brings her home out of pity and suggestive lust, given that she looks like Zhou Xun. OK, so Zhou Xun plays Xiao Wei, who unknowing to everyone else, is a fox spirit (touted always as beautiful beings in their human form) with an appetite for human hearts in order to maintain her beauty and youth.

Thus begins a tussle for General Wang's heart by both Xiao Wei and Vicky Zhao's Pei Rong, who is the dutiful and demure wife of Wang Sheng. Pei Rong is indeed wary and beginning to suspect Xiao Wei's supernatural abilities when a spate of killings surface with her arrival, but with no proof, Xiao Wei starts to sow discord between the man and wife in order to try and become the new Mrs Wang. It's quite an interesting attempt through the characters to tell of the varying degrees and types of love, one of possession in Xiao Wei's ruthless means to reach her objective, and one of sacrificing for the love and well being of the other half, as established through Pei Rong's selfless courage.

But that's not all. Throw in Donnie Yen as an ex-general Pang Yong, who also shares the hots for Pei Rong, and one time rival of Wang Sheng for her affections, a bumbling lowly ghostbuster Xia Bin (Sun Li) who is in possession of a fabled mythical weapon (opportunity to show off some special effects here, and quite a sight to behold too in its temporal usage) and denying her affections for Pang Yong, and Qi Yuwu as a lizard spirit whose infatuation with Xiao Wei ensures that she gets her fair share of food without the need to get her hands dirty. Connected the dots yet?

Fans of Donnie Yen will probably be a tad disappointed by his limited screen appearance, and for the most parts he's either playing the joker, where his jokes will likely be lost in translation, going by the English subtitles that didn't manage to truly capture the essence of his lines, and the remaining screen time having to see him execute some action, but nothing groundbreaking and not seen before. We know what Donnie Yen can do, and perhaps in seeking some form of redemption, the story has a flashback scene where he dons armor yet again (anyone remember the dismal result of An Empress And Her Warriors) and does battle in a scene which Jackie Chan has already stamped his authority on in The Myth.

One could have expected that Gordon Chan is familiar with shooting decent action sequences, but you don't really get a lot of that in Painted Skin, save for some generic rooftop chase in the night, and a be all and end all finale where no punches got pulled, though it really got marred by all the tight shots that all you'd probably get to see is a blur. The narrative also got a little choppy in the mid section, and you do feel that a huge chunk of detail got summarized to keep it running generously under two hours, with subplots dropped that I suspect involved the growing affection and admiration between Pang Yong and Xia Bin, in order not to distract the audience from the main love triangle of Pang Yong, Xiao Wei and Pei Rong.

All in all, this is recommended for Zhou Xun's face off with Zhao Wei, especially with the former playing the temptress role to perfection. The last where we saw two prominent Chinese actresses square off was between Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li in Memoirs of a Geisha. Otherwise, Painted Skin held a lot of promise, but didn't deliver that level of oomph in its final product, lapsing into mediocrity throughout.

It's Coming...

24th October 2008

Watch for it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Chaser (Chugyeogja)


The Chaser become a box office hit in South Korea earlier this year, and as the byline on the poster goes, it's highly acclaimed, and it shocked moviegoers. I won't dispute either claim though, because it reaffirmed that there are quality crime thrillers coming out from their film industry after dismal efforts like Typhoon or Fate. The DVD has already been out in the shops overseas and I was tempted to get it just to experience what the fuss is about. Finally being released here this week, The Chaser boasts plenty of nail biting sequences, and scenes that would work the heart despite having most of its violence done off screen.

The protagonist happens to be quite an unsavoury character Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok), an ex-cop turned pimp who's running into some severe manpower issues when his girls start to disappear from their work. A pattern he noticed though is a peculiar caller, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo) being the last customer serviced, and unwittingly he had sent one of his girls, Mi-kin (Seo Yeong-hie) to meet up with him for business. Smelling a rat, and thinking that the caller might be a human trafficker of sorts, he tries to spring a trap, but Murphy's Law kicks in, and hence begin the cat and mouse game.

In some ways the movie reminded me of the Hollywood movie (and now Hong Kong remake) Cellular, where a female in distress tries hard to contact the outside world for help, and those on the outside trying to work their way in to locate that needle in a haystack. What surprised me though, is that the film adapted a strategy used by Confessions of Pain in showing the hand of the serial killer very early on in the film, but unlike the Hong Kong movie, The Chaser somehow pulled it off through pacing done correctly, and managed to sustain interest and attention all the way to the end. The title might suggest pursuit, but it's not always having characters on the run, with nicely punctuated moments of human drama to provide a level of humanity, or inhumanity, to its characters.

Kim Yun-seok as Joong-ho starts off as an uncaring boss whose priority is money, and thinks the world revolves around riches. His motivation for getting into the sex trade never really gets explained, though one can suspect that his hot headed temperament would have made it extremely difficult for him to function as a cop, or to gain support from his superiors when he goes berserk. There's still some good in him though through his redemption, when he starts to realize just how much of a jerk he had become, and goes all out to look for his staff when the police all but knock on the wrong doors.

The Chaser also became a commentary of the inefficiencies of the police force, of the huge disparity in quality between seasoned investigators, and beat cops. It's also bogged down by the usual bureaucratic nonsense of covering the backsides of superiors or situations that put the department under bad light, and questions certain situations when investigations are carried out only for various avenues of politicking. What's more of a shocker here is, despite that which we've seen on investigation integrity in Memories of Murder, that fabricating of evidence still is a norm, where superiors tell their underlings that it is perfectly OK to cook up a story to fill in some blanks in reports, or when legwork turn out to be unfruitful, and in extracting confessions.

Granted the movie paces itself against the clock given that suspects have to be released 12 hours after an arrest without a warrant, it makes for some excellent race against the clock moments, especially with the villain overtly taunting the cops with red herrings and mocked insanity, which actor Ha Jung-woo does a fine job with. Investigations get carried out in both the orthodox, proper way involving the authorities, and one working outside the system, where you'd be put in a spot to cheer the vigilantism and absence of red tape, which even the cops support, and mock the ineptness of policing with one hand tied behind the back.

If you're one who's easily worked up through injustices put on screen, then you might want to keep your temper in check when sitting through The Chaser, as the last act will almost inevitably make you feel exasperated, and seethe with rage at the developments in the narrative. It might not be as good as the excellent Memories of Murder, but this stylish package comes close. Recommended!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Black Swindler (Eiga: Kurosagi)

I guess not only Hollywood is keeping an eye for potential comic book series or graphic novels to turn into movies, and for Japan, this had already been something ongoing given its rich manga culture with immense material to tap upon, with the latest and most popular here being the Death Note movies which had even spawned its own movie spin off L: Change The World, albeit to varying result. And the rule of thumb of course is to snag a heartthrob in your leading role, and you more or less have it made. In today's screening, Tomohisa Tamashita's popularity in the titular role got measured by the audible shrieks and wistful sighs each time he comes on screen, even in the nerdiest of disguises.

Tomohisa Yamashita plays Kurosaki, a man whose family was destroyed by swindlers, hence his deep hatred for the group. He follows in the steps of Bruce Wayne, though more focused in his vigilantism, targetting only con artists in a bid to do his own Robin Hood work, conning them back and reimbursing the respective victims. There are various categories of conmen, such as white for those out for riches, red for those out to steal hearts, and black for those who con other con artists.

For someone who hasn't read the manga, or followed the television series, this movie was quite a challenge for me to follow. Granted there was an origin flashback worked into it, but it served to confuse the current entanglement with its chief villain Ishigaki Tetsu, played by Naoto Takenaka, whom most will recognize as the sensei character in Waterboys or Swing Girls. Being a standalone movie, it tells of the dispicable acts that Ishigaki commits, in creating bankruptcy fraud, and how Kurosaki has him set in his sights for some black swindling, with a hunter after an extremely cunning prey.

Those without background knowledge will find adequate scenes in which a lot of questions will be asked. For starters, almost all the female characters here were treated second class, and not enough, despite its slightly more than 2 hours runtime, being focused on them. They come and go, and frankly speaking, could be done without as they don't hurt the plot an iota. Next, and I'm guessing here, is the love-hate relationship that Kurosaki has for his informer/con-master Katsuragi. While they exchange frequent notes on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, it's hardly linked to, nor presents itself as a proper metaphor on the issue of trust which they're harping on, either that or the essence of it got lost in translation.

Scenes such as those mentioned, which require a lot more background knowledge, tend to overindulge themselves, hence alienating severely first time visitors to The Black Swindler's role. Some like Bayside Shakedown obviously makes it easy for non-fans/series followers to grasp and enjoy the ride, but The Black Swindler seems to have stamped itself strictly for those in the know only (or fans of Tomohisa Tamashita). Unless of course we decide to pick up the pieces from the established television series.

My Mighty Princess

We Can Fight

Korean writer-director Kwak Jae-young seems to have a knack or a preference to craft romantic comedies for the mass market, and so far have been delivering hits like My Sassy Girl, to my recent personal favourite of his with Cyborg, She. Strong female characters up against wimpy men also becomes staple in his stories, together with some touching, bittersweet moments that work their way into the plot.

However, I'm more inclined to say that My Mighty Princess rates slightly above the disastrous Japanese movie Shaolin Girl, both of which feature female characters gifted in the field of martial arts, exploiting their skills in daily life, as well as in sports, coupled with special effects and elaborate wire work (here courtesy of stunt people from Hong Kong). But while Shaolin Girl suffered from a self-destructive storyline, My Mighty Princess fared better, but still had too much squeezed into it and became quite incoherent, flip-flopping from one subplot to the next

It had identifiable elements from movies like Kung Fu Hustle (the meeting of the martial arts masters where they demonstrate their distinct skills), Shaolin Soccer (for the dexterity of Kung Fu used in sports), and even borrowed the legendary weapon from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon with its Green Destiny Sword, complete with weapon nuances. Granted though its duality, in being a martial arts movie with swordsmen and swordswomen roaming Korea, served as a highlight, but somehow the gel wasn't done correctly, and it seemed like two movies spliced side by side.

Kung Fu aside, the romantic plots here also turn out to be quite messy. We have teenager and heroine Sohwi (Shin Min-A) in love with hunky Junmo (GUn), a hockey player in school, and mean biker. However, this infatuation is only one sided, because Junmo happens to have the hots for, check this out, older women in uniform. Though there was a very short explanation for this, it's one of those blink and you miss moments inserted through flashback, that might leave you quite perplexed should you not be able to connect the dots properly.

Then you have Ilyong (On Ju-wan) who is a childhood friend from the same brotherhood/fraternity of martial artists as Sohwi. Being the two youngest and most promising of their cohort, their curiosity one night will spark perhaps one of the rare moments where you actually start to feel for these two characters, outside of their slapstick like, and rather blah moments, where they get to exercise their skills. Cliche after cliche get pounded on the screen, to a point where you can be a step ahead in guessing what would happen next.

The opportunity for redemption came at the last act, which played on the notion of having to subdue someone you love, and forced by conscious circumstances to do so. Being also of a martial arts genre, you'll know what theme will be tapped on as well in order to end the movie. But execution wise was quite clumsy, with repetitive scenes of the same thing - dialogue, fighting moves, and effects, that it quickly became a bore, and threw all opportunity for a powerful emotional core away in a flash, which was quite a pity.

It seemed that Kwak lacked the courage to have ended this movie in a dark manner, and lapsed into unnecessary fluff that made it all look very cartoony. Then again, this movie was probably not meant to be taken seriously to begin with, and I was expecting too much. But knowing what Kwak Jae-young is capable of, perhaps my expectation was justified, though I should stick to his Japanese effort, and as I mentioned one of my personal favourites, for the time being.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The House Bunny

We're Zeta!

Anna Faris IS The House Bunny, and she totally carries this movie on her shoulders, perfecting the art of playing the blonde bimbo with plenty of heart underneath those artificially enhanced boobs. Now this is a comedy, unlike the lazy and poorly made spoof-a-minute junk such as Disaster Movie trying to milk laughter from uninteresting premise and recycled jokes. Faris probably did right by jumping camp and getting herself this stint, as it comes with a decent though cliched story, but with dialogue that's razor sharp from all angles, you'd better be paying close attention to grab and appreciate them all!

If I'm a chick, I'll pledge Zeta too. So nice.

You can read my review of The House Bunny at movieXclusive.com by clicking on the logo below.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

[Youth in Chinese Films After 49] Thirteen Princess Trees (十三棵泡桐)

One wonders how this film would turn out should it not be censored to a certain degree, given that films about juvenile delinquency got the general frown from the Chinese censors, to avoid glamourizing non-socially accepted behaviour about disaffected youths and their open sexuality. Based on the novel Blade vs Blade by He Dacao, this film is reported toned down in its adaptation, and the narrative is compellingly telling of this shortcoming.

Directed by Lu Yue, who was cinematographer on a number of Zhang Yimou movies, Thirteen Princess Trees is the name of a fictional school where the story of a group of teenagers unfolds. Think of it like Volcano High, or any other made-up schools in films such as that in Crows Zero with delinquent youths dominating the landscape, minus the fantastical fight sequences of course. Premise-wise, it could even be like Singapore’s very own The Days, but the film opens with a tense hostage situation, before flashing back in timeline.

We have Feng (Liu Xin) the tomboy with a penchant for knives, and the story takes on her point of view as the central character caught up in the thick of the action. Amongst those in her clique are A-Li (Chen Keliang), a rich kid under the wing of protection by gang leader Taotao (Duan Bowen), whom Feng is infatuated with, being on the receiving end of mixed signals, putting their relationship on and off in wash-rinse-repeat sequence. Things take a change when new student Bao (Zhao Mengqiao) joins their class, and takes an instant liking for the spunky Feng.

It’s an examination of the love triangle between the parties involved, and you can probably identify with the aloofness of cool kid Taotao, the pining for the unattainable from Feng’s confused state when she rejects Taotao’s advances, and also from the advances of the very direct Bao, who tries really hard with in his incessant pursuit to obtain her approval of acceptance. As to who wins in this battle of hearts, that’s actually not as important as the more interesting angle of having some power play when Taotao gets hooked up with the new form teacher.

As mentioned, here’s where the censorship comes into play. While we do not see any shenanigans performed on screen by that of the forbidden relationship between teacher and student, Lu Yue managed to get around this through elements of suggestion, and the fine acting by the cast in telling a lot more that’s going behind the scenes, than what can actually be shown. The power of suggestion here broke through, and just a single ogle, a glance, or a twitch of an eye, could reinforce plenty.

Naturally it would be much more oblique should things be told in a more verbatim fashion, but I guess this would challenge filmmakers to be more creative and innovative in putting their narrative forward. There are certain points in time though that you’d feel some pathos were probably left hanging, or not thoroughly explored because doing so would mean to irk the censor board perhaps.

Unlike The Days, there is a relatively stronger presence and existence of authority, but not always in positive light. We see the form teacher and her uneasy ability to assert her instructions on the students without resorting to or condoning violence, and a somewhat corruption of her moral authority with the canoodling with the rogue of the classroom for some r-e-s-p-e-c-t. Feng’s father (Shang Hui) is a policeman who while on one hand is top notch at his job, but is somewhat of a failure in the bringing up of his daughter, again with the use of fists. Perhaps it’s a not so subtle veil on how authoritarian figures are not as well received, especially when hands are raised, and no effort got spared for some condemnation.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 19th Tokyo International Film Festival, Thirteen Princess Trees still has plenty to offer despite going back to the drawing board and toning down scenes, resulting at times to obvious narrative breakage. The use of actors not well known also helped to provide an edge to characterization, and I guess the soundtrack was also quite peculiar with the repetitive playing of “Nan Er Dang Zhi Qiang” and “Xiao Ao Jiang Hu” over the school’s PA speakers, akin to alluding that it’s quite the cowboy town within the fictional school grounds.

My Best Friend's Girl

Get Your Own Girl!

Back in 2005, Will Smith starred as Hitch, the romance doctor who volunteers his service through close referrals, to help luckless and clueless guys woo the woman of their dreams. His consultancy reaps big rewards, and audiences lapped it all up, with the provision of perhaps some pointers that could be put to good use. Now in My Best Friend's Girl, it takes a twist to this Hitch character, and Dane Cook becomes the Anti-Hitch. The objective is slightly different - you should already be hooked up with your lady love, but when the relationship seems to come to a cool off or a standstill, you engage Tank (Cook) to be the arsehole who will make your loved one appreciate you a lot more, and get back into your arms.

He prides himself with achieving results in 10 steps, and most of the comedy stemmed from his being a total date/dick from hell, and if you're to employ his techniques, then you're likely to earn a reputation for being the biggest arse out there, though sometimes the brashness, directness will also be likely be attractive to those who like to hang out with bad boys. So while Tank does what he does best, his best friend Dustin (Jason Biggs) decided to engage his services, in order to help get Alexis (Kate Hudson) toward him, by providing some push factors, making her realize that nice guys like him don't come too easy. In the spirit of Murphy where things will go wrong, the rule of thumb will ensure that the helper will fall in love with his/her mark.

It sort of reversed some roles here, where the women now subscribe to the philosophy of also sowing their wild oats, before they decide to settle down. For Alexis, she seemed to be missing out on a lot of fun since she rarely goes out on dates, so once convinced, it is at Dustin's expense. Which again puts Jason Biggs into a stereotypical role of a loser who doesn't get any, stemmed from his popularity that went all the way back to American Pie. Kate Hudson continues her role as the ditzy blonde to perfection, and while not exactly a role to showcase her acting chops, she does make a fine on screen couple with Dane Cook, and this show looked tailor made for him.

Dane Cook doesn't get a lot of lead roles, but I feel that all that might change real soon given his revelation here. From flicks like Employee of the Month, Dan in Real Life, to Good Luck Chuck opposite Jessica Alba, he seems on track to become a romantic leading man, even though it's on the romantic comedy track. He continues his ladies man role and extends it to here, and with permission by the filmmakers to adlib and improvise his lines, needless to say he steals the spotlight from everyone here, and has room to stretch his acting chops as well. Watch out for some truly hilarious moments in scenes from his character's workplace, where his career as a customer service tele-operator (also from hell) just cracked me up.

And Alec Baldwin couldn't not be mentioned. Once a leading man of sorts, his career on the big screen gets relegated to support roles, from Elizabethtown to this role here as Tank's dad Professor Turner, who's still an active Casanova made easy when being around young and nubile students, though a character that isn't something not done before, such as Ben Stiller's dad in The Heartbreak Kid.

What worked for My Best Friend's Girl is the tussle between the good guy and the bad guy as they pull no punches in wooing the opposite sex. We don't see much of this tussle personified and go up against each other in the same film very often, and here we perhaps get to examine what probably works, and what doesn't, and that whichever school you subscribe to, it's again not about how much you're giving to try and make someone happy, but whether you're giving the right thing that the other party needs.

It's somewhat refreshing in its treatment of the approach to relationships here, and the M18 version screened meant that it was edited in so bad a way that a huge chunk of a scene got unceremoniously dumped on the cutting room floor. It's not the sexy bits (nah, Kate Hudson still kept it rather PG) nor the incessant cursing, but rather perhaps (I'm guessing from what came before and after a jarring you-won't-miss-it cut) some offensive fun poked at a religious girl out on a date with Tank, that couldn't escape the scissors, or required a higher rating.

And to think that 2 Live Crew's Pop That Pussy blaring out loud would have been more offensive. Still, this comes recommended for those who need your staple romantic comedy.

[Youth in Chinese Films After 49] The Orphan (Ren Hai Gu Hong)

As a fan of Bruce Lee, I've seen his landmark movies countless of times, from The Big Boss right up until Game of Death. However, he's appeared in non martial arts roles before, and I wouldn’t have missed the festival’s screening of The Orphan for the world, being projected in 35mm glory from the Hong Kong Film Archives, though with some colour correction irregularities that had the film sitting in a lab for 30 years. But that’s another story altogether.

The first few minutes already got my interest piqued, not because my idol had appeared, but for its documentary value in seeing Hong Kong in the 60s, fronted by an almost unrecognizable harbour front. Outdoor shots though were few and far between throughout the movie, and for a 60s movie like the locally made Lion City, one chief reason besides nostalgia, is to gawk at how advanced a city has progressed through the lens of a movie camera. I thought something of value here, which I wasn’t aware, was how even Dragon Dance has evolved – it wasn’t as if the entire dragon piece was stitched together in one seamless fabric, but was rather quite fragmented, with sections of the head to the body connected by rope, looking as if it was a really nasty and mean looking creature with protruding skeletal structure. Interesting.

The story wasn’t something to shout about, largely centered upon a director of an orphanage school, Ho Si-Kei (played by Ng Cho-fan, who also wrote the story), who had lost his family during the war, where the daughter and wife perished from a collapsing wall, and the son and nanny disappeared, whereabouts unknown. While he may have lost his family, in return he got a new one through his care of the many orphans in the school.

It’s not that difficult to see that the film was intended to address some of society’s ills and indifference, especially to youth and youth crimes. There was lengthy discourse between characters about what affluent society should do to attempt to arrest the root of juvenile delinquency, and of society at large shirking responsibility in the pursuit of wealth. The wealthy, though stereotyped, get to be put on the spot, and probably reflected what the working class’s perception of their unwillingness to lend a hand. In fact, they don’t really redeem themselves even in the end, probably largely reflecting on their reliance on the good Samaritans to do what is right, and to combat juvenile crime single handedly.

That got personified through Ho Si-Kei, and at times you can feel his loneliness at such an uphill battle. He got brushed aside by wealthy families who probably alluded his presence to asking for donations, he has difficulty in trying to attract and retain teaching staff – it isn’t easy trying to teach and inspire wayward youths – and actually becomes the sole decision maker in the running of the school, as if lacking administrators. In all, a one man show, and for someone who prides himself at teaching and obtaining results, the last act has him in shock when a surprising discovery turns out to be sort of a slap in the face for all he stood for.

Besides a short sub-plot about possible romance between him and a fellow teacher, the star of the show is undoubtedly Bruce Lee as Ah Sam, a petty thief fashioned after Oliver Twist, whose inclination for thievery stemmed from a need to belong to a larger family, where he’s doing not so bad in terms of hierarchy (No 3 in the gang). And you’d have a chance to discover that he’s quite the dancer too with his mean cha-cha moves, linked to delinquent lifestyles to be frowned upon at that era.

While he’s usually stoic and a man of few words in his more renowned movies, here he’s got plenty to talk about in presenting himself as a street corner gangster, and it’s really rare to see him being really loose with his mouth where swear words fly, and I don’t really recall his lighting up of cigarettes in those movies too. There were two sides of his character here, the filial one in front of his nanny, and the real, confused him when out there in the real world.

Given storytelling techniques of the past not being too refined or subtle (the music usually lets the cat out of the bag), you would just know the big important secret when both Ah Sam and Director Ho cross paths. Although the final act might seem a little messy and hastily reconciled, the fun factor in the movie still belongs to Bruce Lee in a role that is not often seen by contemporary fans of his, and for that, like the other movies in his filmography, should be seen more widely when opportunity presents itself again.

Disaster Movie

Utterly Disastrous

I guess the title already tells you everything you need to know about the movie. It is without a doubt a total disaster. I still find it quite amazing that writer directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer still managed to get funds to have their films made, after equally disastrous unfunny comedies such as Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans (OK, I shall unabashedly say that I enjoyed Date Movie), because while it's spoof after spoof, it certainly isn't cheap trying to replicate certain stuff, even if done laced with loads of cheese, or swede-d.

Should there be a story linking everything little crazy thing together, then it would be Cloverfield, where a group of friends Will (Matt Lanter, whose left year I found strangely out of alignment with his right?), Calvin (G. Thang), Juney (Crista Flanagan), Lisa (Kimberly Kardashian) and the Enchanted Princess (Nicole Parker) journey to save Amy (Vanessa Minnillo) before getting themselves out of the city to escape some unknown and best forgotten natural calamity, where the threat of mankind is raining cows.

The only merit I would give the filmmakers is how they went ballistic and stretched their imagination to milk every possible opportunity to script in some other movie, be it borrowing characters or premise. You'd probably lose count at the something-new-at-every-minute strategy, and frankly speaking, they're at best some skits which for the life of me, are totally unfunny. Nada, zilch, nothing to laugh about. I guess even kids will find the juvenile humour here a total turn off.

Which is not strange, considering that even jokes were borrowed, and relied too heavily on the usual toilet humour, which is already so tired. While there are comedies which can be original, the pedigree of Friedberg and Seltzer, coming as scriptwriters for Scary Movie(s), would by now reinforce that they make poor stories and jokes from their lack of innovation. Being able to string together countless of movies is one thing, but making a genuine and workable comedy is another. Not having an established cast to star in your movie might stem from a modest budget to work with, but I'm likely to think that everyone approached, save for the relative no-names here, would not want to touch this even with a ten foot pole, just in case it really stinks and stain their filmography.

I think it's even time for me to put a foot down and say No to Friedberg and Seltzer. The powers that be should really dry up the credit line that fuel their productions, and given some belt-tightening in the economy, hopefully this should be soon.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

[Youth in Chinese Films After 49] Shi Qi (十七)

Mother and Son

One of the youngest film directors in China today, Joe Chow was in attendance during all the earlier screenings of directors-in-attendance Xiao Jiang and Xie Dong, and finally we get to see his debut feature film Shi Qi.

Joe was present to introduce his film to us, and told us of a few nuggets to take note of. There were some miraculous natural coincidences that heppened in the movie that dealt with the words "Shi Qi". One was in some stone markings which resembled the words in the title, which was captured in the film and used during the opening credits - just pay attention to the stone on the left hand side of the screen. Second was that during filming, the words also appeared as clouds in the sky. While this didn't make it to the movie, he had photographs to prove it did. Also, the little girl who lip synched through the recently concluded Beijing Olympics and caused a stir, was in the movie as well, serving as a cameo, way before she was chosen for that Olympian task.

But he didn't add that he had a cameo too as a tourist in the movie. See if you can spot him when you watch the film!


Watching the movies in the festival to date, it's quite amazing how the first or early films of the directors in attendance are of immense quality, and whilst Joe Chow may be the youngest in the country currently,
his Shi Qi definitely stood out as if it was a movie made by an assured veteran at the helm. Set amongst the She minority tribe, this film is essentially a mother and son story which I felt I haven't seen much of (usually father-son), and with the casting of Joan Chen, it's no doubt that her star factor would have helped piqued curiosity about this film.

At its core, it's about the said relationship between titular character Shi Qi (Sam Chow) who at the onset we see is at odds with his mother's perhaps stiffling upbringing, and one made complicated by Shi Qi being abandoned to foster parents when he was a toddler, and reclaimed by Mom when he was 10. To add fuel to the resentment, his foster parents have adopted his childhood friend Tian Yi (Vision Wei) instead, and watching him grow up with opportunities that could've been his own, just leaves a bad taste as he's stuck rooted in the village by Mom, and can't express his frustrations other than to rely on his talent for woodcarving.

Sam Chow breathes inner frustration in his role as the teenager yearning to see the world outside, and the deep profound unhappiness he festers toward his Mom. It's easy for teenagers to identify with this, given the living under the thumb and watchful eyes of a parent whom you know you're the center of the world to her. And when parents get in the way and in the process causing you to miss opportunities, you'd sure would raise a ruckus. So while living a sheltered life, Shi Qi decides to leave the village, even though he doesn't exactly know how.

What shone in the movie is the getting down to basics instead of trying to bite off more than it can chew, and through that sincere exploration of the relationship between mother and son, you're likely to see some parallels perhaps that would ring a bell on your own, at how sometimes we hurt the ones we love most without even realizing it. For the mom, her taking care of her son would seem to mean having him always by her side, though understood that she has lost him once, and would pain her if it happened again, thus her desperation in holding him back through some really adorable, and unworkable antics. And to the son fast growing up, his lack of acknowledgement toward his mom's good intentions, and his frequent brushing of her aside, would touch the hearts and make one feel guilty if one had done this insensitive act from time to time.

Joe Chow managed to bring out the anxieties of both characters in their road trip on foot over a period of two days, where they had to trek the picturesque mountainous road from village to the nearest town where the city bus plies. Along the way, this reaching out and connection come to a role play of sorts, with each character taking turns to lead, or to try and turn the tables on each other, finding something to connect, or to bridge an understanding. The movie relied tremendously on the chemistry between the two actors to pull this off, and they were excellent par none. The score was hauntingly beautiful, and the film also captured the seldom heard, and dying art of the She tribe songs and music, which added a documentary like dimension to the film.

Audiences here would likely be familiar with Joan Chen, especially when she had graced the screen in a number of local releases. Despite similar mother roles in movies such as The Leap Years, The Home Song Stories and even Saving Face which I enjoyed, she brings to the table different qualities in those motherly roles, but I dare say her performance in Shi Qi ranked the best amongst all. She truly brought out the adage that a mother's love knows no bounds, and I guess without a doubt, you'll see a lot of the general motherhood qualities here put under the spotlight, that will make you think through some of the things you would have taken for granted. Not to mention too the amount of nuances she put in the role, that would likely demand a repeat viewing (I smiled ear to ear when she quickly put her fingers to her ear when they retracted after touching a hot pot).

While it's a small movie in the sense that it doesn't have big set sequences, it's nonetheless one that packs a powerful emotional punch, and captured plenty of heartfelt emotions and sincerity in its story, that it is difficult not to fall in love with it as well. I especially liked the ending, which was sweet, and reinforcing the fact that blood runs really thick, with both characters emerging stronger.


Left: Joe Chow; Right: Liu Hui

What follows is an extract of the discussion between director Joe Chow and the audience, moderated by Liu Hui, Associate Professor in Shenzhen University School of Mass Communication, and naturally, some spoiler warnings should be in place:

Liu Hui (LH): How did you manage to engage Joan Chen for your movie?
Joe Chow (JC): I have to admit we were lucky and didn't think that we'd be able to secure her services. I am a fan of hers, and am also a Shanghainese. It was in Jasmine Woman that I thought that she had come a long way, and had a wishful thinking that she could be the mom in my film as well. Initially we approached Liu Xiao Qing, but she had requested for some changes to the story. Then we tried to approach Joan Chen when she was in town for the promotion of The Sun Also Rises, but she was busy and we only managed to pass her the script when she was on the flight back to the US. I got a call from her once she landed, and she liked the story and accepted it. It was so surreal!

LH: What about the locations that you've used?
JC: It's a story that could have happened anywhere. It was in Zejiang in 2006 that it was decided to film there because I realized there was a minority group called the She tribe ("She Nation" as subtitled in the movie) and there were plenty of beautiful scenery to shoot in. The tribe's music also captivated me, and it's something that's going to be extinct because only a few people amongst the tribe members know it now. So I also thought that the film could function as an archive for it. The songs are constructed using 8 characters per line, and up to 4 lines.

Some other information that Joe shared:
Joe revealed that the film was about giving the people you love what they want, not what you think they want. People are selfish by nature, and just the act of giving may not be sufficient. He also shared that he's currently working on a script for a romantic comedy, and in response to how much Joan Chen was paid to make this movie, he confirmed that it was a modest amount given their budget probably couldn't have paid what it shoud be, and she accepted it because it was also a project that she would like to work on.

The story in the beginning was different, and the locales became a major influence and elements being incorporated into the story. He had wanted to explore the what ifs when a young child gets kidnapped/given away, and years later, the real parents, now complete strangers, turn up and claim them back. Some of the interactions between mother and son resembled some of his own experiences, and he had intended to dedicate this film to all the mothers, and as an ode for his own mom as well when he can "remind" her not to be too stifling, that he had already made a film for/about her!

Q: Why wasn't there any development in having the woodcarving reflect his inner feelings?
JC: Actually there is, if you notice, he was always carving the figure of a bird, and finally, he gave it away to somebody else. So his desire to leave and fly away, has somewhat dissipated.


7 Years

Looking at the filmography of Alexandre Aja, he's becoming dangerously close to being branded as a director who specializes in remakes of films that can allow him to amplify the original gore factor, and one who hopefully doesn't position himself, intentionally or otherwise, such that audiences would come to expect a twist in every single one of his movies.

While I'd enjoy his Haute Tension and his version and update of The Hills Have Eyes, he seemed to have reined himself in with Mirrors, where allowance for violent excesses was minimized and allocated to creating mood and tension, which succeeded as the movie went along, and plodded forward during many moments in the beginning when Kiefer Sutherland's Ben Carson began probing the mystery of his workplace. You can just about sense Aja's glee when it came to scenes that called for gore, and at times succumbed to cheap scares which were rather successful.

However, Aja can't decide if this was going to be an all out spiritual spook fest, or a monster movie, and that confusion resulted in an actual schizophrenia, where one ending is insufficient, and you'd need two endings in order to provide for some bang for the buck. It's as if it ran on multiple fronts which could be delinked from one another, and if not for the characters' relationships, it could well be a series of shorts pasted together with the mirrors being running motifs where spirits reside in, and can determine life or death, with a concept quite refreshing, but again, unoriginal since it's a Hollywood adaptation.

While Aja might seem to want to tread back to familiar territory at every opportunity at gore, Keifer Sutherland too can't seem to break too far away from his cop related roles for the big screen, save for lending his voice in Phone Booth, his recent The Sentinel and this one still had his character come from the force. Perhaps it's lazy casting on the filmmakers' part in getting someone already familiar with the territory so that audiences can immediate latch onto his Jack Bauer persona, and have it plain sailing from there. And no matter how Sutherland tries to provide a new dimension to his mentally pained ex-cop, he just can't shake Bauer off, which became as niggling as the persistent spirits that call out for his attention.

And that familiarity didn't just stop with the director and the lead actor, as it extended toward the supporting appearance by Amy Smart, though in a not so surprising role of being here just to shed her clothes. I thought she could be a decent actress without having to resort to such "tricks", but I guess filmmakers from Crank to Mirrors still haven't got enough of her Road Trip stint. Again, very dangerous ground to tread on for the mentioned - one for gory remakes, one for cop roles, and one a naked flower vase.

Granted there were some fine moments courtesy of special effects, with misbehaving mirror images and the way characters get dispatched - slow, painful and plenty of blood - but those looking for occasionally fine scary moments may find them in Mirrors. I've not seen the original 2003 Korean movie Into the Mirror which this movie is based upon, but given the cheeky finale, I just might be interested to check out the Korean version. For now, I'd start to think about those palm prints left behind in mirrors as they will never look the same again.

[Youth in Chinese Films After 49] Shining Red Star (闪闪的红星)

This probably marks the first time I'm consciously watching a propaganda film, and while it's amazingly cheesy by today's standards in terms of filmmaking techniques, I'd shudder to think the number of children who would have grown up weaned on this, and having the lead character of Pan Dongzi as their role model, immersing young impressionable minds into ideologies far beyond their grasp to discern. But for that era in the 1970s during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, I guess you don't have much choice anyhow.

Shining Red Star refers to that motif adorning the cap of the Red Army soldiers, who as we are told, the liberators of poor peasants who were constantly exploited by rich (and also fat) capitalist bastards. The sounds of gunfire are welcomed amongst the villagers, as it signals a tide of change sweeping through the country, or fair treatment to all under the Communist ideology. And to think it really is quite strange where everyone has this permanent smile on their face, being elated when war draws close to their residence.

The story tells of the adventures of village boy Pan Dongzi, whom we see from the onset as very pro-liberation, and lights up the screen easily with his cherubic likable face, making it easy for him to become the marquee matinee star amongst children. We follow the boy from 1932 when he was 7 years old, up until his 13 years of age, where at each step, or misstep of the Red Army or Chairman Mao's strategy, this boy would act as a mouthpiece for policies and communist ideologies, spinning and rousing everyone's spirit to remember the promise of better times to come.

Then again, he's also there to impart some virtues to the young, such as courage, selflessness, sacrifice and sharing for the common good, and while these are positive values, they do not come without a spin for party politics. Everyone sing praises of the Red Army and Party, and exalt Chairman Mao to demi-god like status, with history lessons (such as where the Chairman was born) thrown in for good measure as well. As a member of the Children's Corp, they are told to pledge obedience and always to come to the defence of the Red political power. Capitalists, and the KMT whom they are fighting against as personified by Hu Han-san the evil landlord of Liuxi village, always get made to look stupid, inept, and just about every negative connotation you can think of. And I can't help but to laugh each time Dongzi's friend shows him the thumbs up sign when he earns brownie points for preaching or doing something that is agreeable to their virtues.

The film is billed as important because it records the ideology of that era, of the necessity, and probably willingness, to conform and literally sing the same tune, where guns not necessarily mean victory, but hardcore spirit and belief will. And it's quite disturbing to see how everyone's smile and actions were quite artificial, weird and mechanical, with acting skills a zilch, save for the child actor perhaps.

It actually contains a proper narrative as told through a child's eyes, where we see how Dongzi grows and gets laden with responsibilities to fulfil before finally being a cadre member, but that aside, you can actually see how powerful this tool can be when harnessing new recruits, and starting them young. If thou shalt have no other idol, then it really would be no wonder nor doubt as to the impact that this child character, and that of the movie have when setting mindsets.

Friday, September 19, 2008

[Youth in Chinese Films After 49] One Summer With You (与你同在的夏天)

Don't Look Back In Anger

While the movie might seem poetically quiet throughout, it actually started off with quite a bang. Instantly I'd thought of the impact of such guilt, of having to live with the feeling of what ifs, whether talking a little longer, or not being hesitant, would have granted those few precious moments to have averted such an undesirable outcome. But we weren't given any luxury of time to dwell on it, where we dive straight into the mid 80s era of a small city of Guizhou, touching upon the first love story of two teenagers.

We see Li Ming Xin (Jiang Yan), a top student, bear witness to the escape of Sun Hong Wei (Xu Tao) from a prank that he played on a teacher. That prank cumulated in the dropping out of school for the latter, since he's making no headway in furthering his education, and he joins the workforce as the postman for his town, where Ming Xin's household falls into his jurisdiction. An infatuation from far now becomes a chance for him to get up close and personal.

I felt the film was about opportunities. Despite the number of hurdles you have to leap to get to your desired goal, the chance was presented, and it's all up to you to make that effort. Ming Xin is a tough nut to crack given her well executed cold shoulder treatments, which can get exasperating if not for the most determined to persevere. While we root for Hong Wei to succeed, we know very well from the onset that a relationship that is based on deceit and lies, and the holding back due to selfish reasons, will likely not succeed, because of the lost of honesty, nevermind if first loves can be all sweet and innocent, since the latter feeling gets lost in selfish acts.

That naturally takes its toil on Hong Wei, as try as he might to connect, that niggling feeling of letting someone down, never dissipates. His rationale stemmed from fear of losing the girl of his dreams again to opportunity, of a better education, and a better life, one that he would probably not have, given his stunted educational track. With the socio-historical background as shared by director Xie Dong when he introduced the film to put it in context, opportunities to get a better life and to leave the rural area for the big city, comes in the form of academic results to bring you to the doorsteps of large city universities.

While Hong wei is satisfied with his lot of being a postman of a small town and no doubt having not much of a choice to change his fate, his lady love has other ambitions, and wants to fly off and escape. Hers come from an opportunity not only to run and chase that dream of a better education, but to run away from her frustration of having to bear witness to her parent's estranged relationship, especially of her mother's infidelity. I felt that for her, relationships are probably transcient, but it took a sorry episode of her father running after a train, for her to realize at that instant, the love and fear that Hong Wei had for her, echoing his sentiments quite vividly.

Despite a love that got consummated in the rain, and it was one terribly rainy summer where scenes get drenched by, or we see the aftermath of wet grounds after a heavy downpour, there were also plenty of shots of railroad tracks, about the inevitable road ahead, where events transpire uniformly toward a fixed destination as set up by the introduction, where change is ineffective, and at most, Hong Wei's selfish act can only temporarily halt Ming Xin's flight, but the path to a fixed destination has already been set. And even if director Xie Dong had thrown in a surprise in his narrative to try and derail expectations, I felt that it still showed the lingering of love that once was.

Filled with plenty of beautiful rural landscapes brought out by the cinematography, and a selection of wonderful songs, attention to detail was never spared in this production, and I found it rather amusing at the sight where the teenagers needed to hide their alcohol in hot water flasks to escape detection. You might think they're drinking hot beverage, but it's actually cool beer. And One Summer With You does this masking of its underlying currents really well, with the innocence of first love paving the way for a look at an era of bountiful opportunities.


Left: Xie Dong; Right: Maggie Lee

Director Xie Dong was in attendance at today's screening, for a Q&A session with the audience moderated by Maggie Lee, Asia Head Reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter. What follows is an extract of the discussion, and naturally, some massive spoiler warnings should be in place:

Maggie Lee (ML): The whole atmosphere represented in the film is very vivid and detailed. Did you draw on any personal experience?
Xie Dong (XD): Definitely. The film is based on my impression of that era. There are some personal experiences in the movie, but the story is fictional. I started the creative process with a few keywords, like first love, summer, village and a list of favourite songs, together with a plot involving a letter and a postman.

Xie Dong also explained the process of getting the songs selected for the film, where it was an all-inclusive effort from crew members where they got together and voted for their favourite songs. Naturally there were rights issues to be discussed and they had a hard time trying to persuade producers and investors to put money in the film.

Q: Could you talk about the accident in the movie, was it the character's imagination, or fantasy?
XD: The original story had the accident and Ming Xin died, and during the editing process which was start-stop while getting funds to finish the film, I was still thinking about the ending, and making changes, so it was alternating from dying, and just going far away. The last scene became the wishful thinking of everyone, and instead of feeling sad about the ending, I hope to have left some space for the audience. This question comes up every time! If I had ended it with the accident scene, then the audience will leave the film with a heavy heart. So I decided to give the young man some hope by having the car move further away to the horizon, akin to a farewell to youth.

Q: Could you talk about the selection of your actors and how it was like working with them?
XD: All four leads were first time actors, and they were found on the streets in a more than two months search. The main actress was a student at a performing arts academy, while the main actor was a DJ. We had given them an immersion programme where they spent 2 months in the area as shown in the film, in order to feel the atmosphere and to know what's it like living in the 80s. I even had to take away the lead actor's mobile phone!

Xie Dong also shared that at the time when he made the movie, he was but a new director and wasn't really confident and was quite worried working with veteran and experienced technical crew. But they were excellent and they taught him a lot. Xie Dong also commented the decision to have a non linear narrative, because he wanted to reflect and stress the theme of memory where the structure of recollection is different.

Q: How did you get acclaimed director Tian Zhuangzhuang to be your producer?
XD: I guess I'm lucky since he's a great director, and an influential one as well. We likened him to be the Godfather to the 6th generation of new filmmakers as he helped a lot of filmmakers find funds to have their films made. I had sent him both of my scripts, and he liked both of them, so that's how I got to work with him as a producer of my films.

Q: What was the reaction of the current Chinese generation to your film which moves at a poetic pace?
XD: It wasn't screened commercially as there was no theatrical release for it, and only screened once at a University, where reactions were generally of interest to find out more about the era of the time. Rather this film was screened overseas at various festivals, and for some reason, many people thought I had made the film with the Korean and Japanese markets in mind! It will be screened commercially in Japan later this year.

Q: Could you elaborate on that water dunking scene?
XD: It ties in with the follow up flashback scene where Ming Xin realizes the first time where Hong Wei took notice for her, which tied in with the revenge prank he pulled off on the teacher. The other reason would be none other than the boys bullying the girls.

Xie Dong then went on to explain about how certain dynamics were achieved by having to try and craft the actor to fall for the actress in order to capture some genuine emotions, which was similar to probably what Naomi Kawase did with her Shara, and what Tatsuaki Matsue tried to capture as well in his documentary. The last scene where the guy was crying, was actually shot on the last day where it easily reflected the feelings the boy had.

The director also provided some additional social-historical context of the era, where competition was fierce for University places, otherwise it would mean a life of factory work or the other option available was to join the military. Although more choices are available today, there is still societal and parental pressure in getting a place in prestigious universities and good jobs. He also likened his working with acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, who's like family, though many a times he's like a research student, and over the years he had studied film as well as worked in various roles in the film industry.

He also shed some of his personal insights to the character of Hong Wei, that while it might be cruel to be holding back an important letter, and clearly wrong, most people do things by following their hearts without thinking of the law or consequences, and of course that action of Hong Wei was important to the film for creating dramatic tension.

Q: What's your dream and what kind of director do you hope to become in the future?
XD: I share similar sentiments with director Xiao Jiang about the difficulties in making this type of movies, where the focus these days seem to be on commercial success. I had plans to make 3 films, and have now made 2 of them around the themes of love and family. I have other projects and a genre film coming up. However I'm aware that I won't want to make a film and can't find and audience for it, and am watching the market carefully.
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