Thursday, April 30, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

More X-Men

I guess the major news items coming out from this movie, are its infamous internet leak where the only consolation are some few minutes of missing footage, plus some unfinished special effects, and its rumoured six different codas after the end credits roll. I won't know what the illegal downloadable version looks like, and neither am I interested to find out, but the six codas reek of the time of how the comic book industry shot itself in the foot with the variant covers just to get the fanboys to buy them all. I don't suppose this will cause anyone to want to sit through this bland and mediocre film so many times just for a few extra seconds as well.

One can just see this film coming, because of how popular the Wolverine character is amongst the X-Men titles, and having its own standalone title in the comics is the stamp of approval from fans. They too took to Hugh Jackman's portrayal like fish to water, and what better than to reward the loyal fanbase by digging into Wolverine's troubled past, which has plenty of richness for a cinematic outing, if distilled right. As for the other rumoured Origin film focused on Magneto, I won't be holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

While Hugh Jackman continues his angst-ridden portrayal of the beloved character, he's ultimately let down by a terribly uninteresting spin and weak direction by Gavin Hood. Hood is no Bryan Singer or even Brett Ratner for juicing up the last installment of the X-franchise into an all-out whackfest, choosing instead to straddle the line between character drama and action, both at which he fails. The drama just drags on seemingly like forever with pretty much boring dialogue, while the action sequences are cliché, bland and everything you would have seen before already, what with military vehicles, snipers, sword-fights, guns, and those claws. In fact, the trailer pretty much spoils it for you, save for one climatic fight sequence which I admit to being nothing short of exciting, and thankfully kept under wraps.

But it's an incredibly long crawl to that, which scribes David Benioff and Skip Woods would have to take responsibility for. Memorable scenes are terribly few, though the opening montage was a nice spin on trying to establish the brotherly bonds between Jackman's Logan and Liev Schreiber's Victor Creed aka Sabretooth. Choosing to make them half-brothers was a nice attempt at some mature, dramatic exploration into Cain and Abel, brothers turned enemies dilemma, but what it degenerated into was some weak excuse just to pit those two same-type fighters together.

Then there's the subscription to the mantra of loading the film with more mutants to automatically mean a better movie. Not. Granted that the dwelling on the backstory with his involvement in Team X led by William Stryker (Danny Huston), which gives rise to an opportunity to showcase The Blob (Kevin Durand), Bolt (Dominic Monaghan), Agent Zero (Daniel Henny), but only done so rather haphazardly, and there's nothing in the “Team” about the way they operate – just one demonstration of their powers after another. Having Ryan Reynolds play Deadpool was an excellent choice I feel, but the character's only inserted, like the other fan idol Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), just because the filmmakers can as a one-up against the X-men film franchise, and they suffer from cardboard characterization. Too many characters not handled deftly, only equates to mediocre posers who look the part, exhibit the inherent powers, but serve no purpose.

Which led me to feel that the filmmakers had little love for the character Wolverine as well. That all important Weapon X sequence where he gets intimately acquainted with the adamantium element, was done double quick time, and you wonder if it's a mockery of the immense pain, both physical and emotional, that Logan had to go through, character-wise. As already mentioned in so many instances, characterization goes down the drain in this film, as you can tell Hood just can't wait to get all characters onto the next bland action sequence.

For those new to the Wolverine character, or didn't know much about his history, then this film will serve up some questions that may pique interest to dig up those back issue comics. At most, this film serves up to be an introduction to the X-Men film franchise, with again, some key characters in their youthful stage introduced here (keep your eyes open now). There is plenty of room left open for a Wolverine sequel given one of the end codas here with Logan being in Japan (in a scene very meaningless if you have absolutely no background knowledge) that serves to be yet another important milestone in his life, but hopefully, the mistakes learnt here won't get repeated in any potential sequels.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Star Trek

The New Old Enterprise

This is what GV's Blockbuster Surprise Screening turned out to be!

My adventures with the original William Shatner-led Enterprise crew had been confined to the cinematic movies of Star Trek, plus sporadic episodes from the original television series. I grew up more with Patrick Stewart's Captain Jean-Luc Picard commanding the Next Generation on board the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D in exploring strange new worlds and civilizations, as well as every movie made following that crew. It's quite unfortunate that Nemesis didn't fare too well at the box office, and hence it took this long (some 7 years!) before another Star Trek movie got made.

In between we had other spin off series like Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, all which somehow didn't appeal to me, and their ability to cross over to the cinematic screen was, I guess, suspect. Then the question of how and where does one even begin in making another mass appeal movie, which by now has a whole wealth of content, and canonical ones at that. Imagine an established franchise with fans worldwide, some practically religious followers, and convince them that what you're making, and a reboot at that (horrors!) would be the right way forward?

But I got to take my hat off to J.J. Abrams, and especially to the scribes of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman for really having the balls, and the smarts, to do what they did. It's a reboot all right, but a really clever way to jump-start a legacy without making a mockery of its rich history, providing an acceptable (though not never seen before) method relying on stuff that science fiction is made up of. Of course I won't tell you what it is, you'll have to find out yourself, suffice to say that it made everything fall in place, with the involvement of Leonard Nimoy, and the background of the Romulan villain played to stereotypical perfection by Eric Bana.

At its core, with this reboot, it allowed for the film to establish the paralleled and troubled background of the ship's Captain and First Officer, James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) and Vulcan Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), and with all solid partnerships and friendships, they too don't begin seeing eye to eye. It's a little bit curious though that this version of Star Trek has forgone its television roots for the cinematic debut first, and even though both Pine and Quinto came from TV, I don't expect to see this particular film spin off a television franchise of its own (though I'm secretly hoping so!). If anything, there should be an ongoing series (if box office receipts permit) for the cinema instead of the gogglebox.

It takes a while to showcase these individual characters at the top of the Enterprise command, before we get to see the rest of the familiar crew, now replaced with fresh faces, like John Cho as Sulu, Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, Anton Yelchin as Mr Chekov, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, and Simon Pegg as Scotty, whom fans will have to wait until the mid way point to see his very limited, though memorable appearance on the deck of the ship. Since it's an "origin" film of sorts, we get more acquainted to Spock, who now demonstrates more emotions rather than cold logic from the Nimoy era, and Kirk still rolling with the punches as the action-hero man, still defiant and often unorthodox in his approach to the mission at hand. Fans itching to witness what James T. Kirk is reputedly famous for, you'll finally get to see that in his Starfleet Academy days here.

The pacing of the film was as energetic as that of its younger cast, and what is a 126 minutes movie did feel as if it's under 90 minutes, where it begins with a bang from the get go, and never decelerated from its warp speed. Abrams kept the pace very fluid, balancing emotional scenes with the more action-packed ones, though I feel there would be some passing pre-mature judgement that Star Trek is never about the action. That's true here as well (except probably when you're faced with Kirk hanging on a ledge of some sorts no less than 3 times), in case you're wondering about the trailer's bells and whistles. The sound design was excellent as well, as you really get to experience that silence of space each time the vast void comes to fill up the entire screen.

Non-fans might find some reason to scoff at Star Trek being a bit stiff, but this version makes it all sexy again. There's a wonderful story that doesn't pander to the audience nor disrespect its rich history, perfectly fused moments of humour, adequate action, and that core story of how the Enterprise crew got together for its maiden mission, and primed for more when the end credits roll. It's just nostalgic to see the good 'ol USS Enterprise NCC-1701 given a facelift by Industrial Light and Magic, and taking flight under maximum warp again!

Definitely highly recommended, for fans who will be smiling from ear to ear when spotting little gizmos and easter eggs from knowledge of hindsight, and non-fans alike, who would likely be converted and inspired to go dig through the video archives for the original missions. If I may have the audacity of saying so, Gene Roddenberry might have been mighty proud with this effort!

See You Again!

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Ramen Girl

Go Away

Just like how Brittany Murphy's Abby finds it almost impossible to make that perfect bowl of ramen because her lack of heart translated to a bland broth, so too does the film suffer from the same lack of feeling in order to transcend yet another Westernized production of Eastern exoticness, this time in the form of food. Murphy tried her best to become adorable, but I would like to think that feminist everywhere would likely be up in arms against her whiny character whose life had fallen apart just because her boyfriend had dumped her in one of the most happening capital cities in the world, Japan.

It's quite random for her to find her calling in learning to make ramen from master chef Maezumi (played by Toshiyuki Nishida), who is playing his role according to formula as the mean-spirited man who can't understand his new protege. It's a little bit bewildered in the sense that the film made a conscious decision not to allow proper communication between master and student, thereby leaving some room for chicken-and-duck-talk gags which run out of steam midway.

Many subplots get thrown around like crowding your bowl of noodle with too much unnecessary ingredients, The Ramen Girl has a number of characters, most notable being the short appearance of Tsutomu Yamazaki of the recent Departures and The Climber's High fame, whose sheer presence lifts the movie up a little bit. Otherwise, you're more than likely to endure this mess for the real deal at a Japanese restaurant near you.

You can read my review of The Ramen Girl at by clicking on the logo below.


Sunday, April 26, 2009


Blind Men Shooting

It sure took a long time for this film to debut here, and if memory serves me right, it took almost a year, and the DVD has already been released. If not for a press screening already held, I would have thought that the film would be one of those that are difficult to pass by the censors and required some lengthy debate as to the merits for its theatrical release. That's because it deals with the current topic of terrorism in an unflinching manner, with the hijacking of religion to further the terrorists' extremist and violent ends being told in a style yet unseen from films such as The Kingdom, Syriana, The Siege and Body of Lies, to name but a few films dealing with the topic.

I am a keen admirer of Don Cheadle's film performance, especially in dramatic roles, and here he plays Samir Horn, a devout Muslim and US citizen caught up in a web of intrigue and international terrorism acts. We see how he employs his skills of bomb-making, honed from his US Special Operations days as an officer, and seemingly looks like a rogue, US domestic terrorist aiding foreign groups in their operations to harm the world. But there's more than meets the eye to Samir, and here's where Cheadle excels in putting that level of ambiguity into a role that raises moral questions about doing something for the “greater good”, no matter the costs.

Chasing him around the world are FBI counter-terrorism agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough), who are clearly like fish out of water when operating outside their legal jurisdictions. Unfortunately for the two actors, their roles here as the downright good guys are always a step or two behind the terrorist cells, which in some ways mirror that in real life. Without good intelligence, you're always reactive, and it takes a lot to be on top of the game, especially when tactics employed are normally innovatively discharged. We get to see a number of “no-brainer” tactics that the cells employ which are effective if you think about it, which makes it all the more dangerous should they be used because they actually can be.

But the most dangerous game to be playing from the side of the good guys, is the refusal to share intelligence or to combine resource, drawing lines in the sand and setting up turfs. The bickering between agencies all point to missing out on the bigger picture on one hand, while on the other the need for confidentiality also brings up operational sensitivity in order not to jeopardise any current missions, and this need to know service also stems from being overly cautious of any internal moles that would betray efforts in progress. In some ways, this is like Infernal Affairs being played all over again.

I suppose that without the balanced view and very verbatim statements made toward the end renouncing violence and misguided teachings, this film would probably not be given the green light. But it did, and presented a very though provoking thinking man's action thriller set in this age of cloak and dagger terrorism. Sure it has some loopholes and the unnecessary (and unavoidable) collateral damage, but watch this for the performance all round and an engaging storyline that might not keep you guessing all the way once the cat is out of the bag, but does enough.

17 Again

Basketball Again

The plot element is nothing new, and we've seen enough of body swaps, or younger folks wishing they can't grow up fast enough, or older ones reminiscing the old days, wondering if a change in decisions then would have resulted in a different life, hopefully for the better, now. However, such formula makes for a good box office reason to continue production, especially when you get to cast the “It” person of the moment (think Jennnifer Garner with 13 Going on 30), hitting the new generation with a star from their cohort. So it's yet another Zac Efron vehicle for him to shine in, and he's actually quite good at it, outside of the High School Musical series, about time now.

While Efron's star is shining brightly, being able to marquee this film on his own with a relatively low key cast, if you're from my generation then you can't help but to notice how fickle fame can be, and how Matthew Perry, once an integral part of the Friends team, has faded away since the television series bowed out of the tube. He shares the same role of Mike O'Donnell with Efron, playing the older version who's a little grouchier, a tad fatter and was just hoping to relive his past glory days. As proverbial Fate would have it, his wishes are heard, confirmed, and granted.

Now most films in the same genre would find the character either doing things they've missed out on, or to make grave changes so that it would impact their personal lives for the better. What I enjoyed about this film was its conscious departure from such a formula after the transformation took place, with an emphasis more on the family rather than the self, that ultimately Mike still has to answer to his estranged wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann), and kids Alex (Sterling Knight) and Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg). Being his kids age again allows for some bonding at their level, with comedic doses coming from forgetting his secret identity and crossing the line in “nagging” mode, or seemingly trying to reinforce the notion of his preference for MILFs, and force his daughter's raging hormones off him (he's Zac Efron for crying out loud!)

More comedy comes courtesy of Mike's best friend and total nerd Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon), whose unlimited bankroll allows Mike to become the coolest kid on the block with some outrageous toys, and living in a house befitting a nerd king, being littered with collectibles, notably Star Wars. Fanboys will probably have a field day here with multiple instances of Lucas-worship, and especially with the subplot of Ned trying his very best to woo principal Jane Masterson (Melora Hardin) who finds it increasingly hard to stick to her mantra of not dating her student's parents.

17 Again is a surprisingly decent flick which has an excellent pop soundtrack to go along. And without a doubt it benefitted from the casting of Efron, who will ensure that his legion of female fans will continue to flock to the theatres in show of their support for their idol. They should collectively hope that he will mature with his pretty boy looks and not grow up to look like Chandler Bing (sorry Matt!)

The International

Here's How You Stab Someone

The trailer had set up The International as some big-bang espionage thriller, made all the more sexier since it's released in the middle of this financial meltdown we're all experiencing, asking where have all the money gone, with banks collapsing left, right and centre, or on the brink of doing so if tons of public funds are not injected into the rabbit hole of the system that hasn't really bottomed out yet. But then again, watching or theorizing if the premise is remotely possible, since it involves a corrupt bank gone rogue in some misguided vision to make more profits, or to gain control of debt in third world economies, might not sit well with an audience already in doom and gloom, given some moral ambiguity all around, and the half-baked ending too.

I have enjoyed a number of Clive Owen films, especially those that he's the smarty-pants, able to whip up roadblocks for his adversary. It's a departure for him here, and for fans I guess as well, with his Louis Salinger, an ex-Scotland Yard and current US Department of Justice agent, being quite the loser and always one step behind the bad guys. He can operate an Uzi, but needs more practice at a target range. Investigations wise, he's as frustrated as anyone caught up in office politics and the drawing of jurisdictions, and has a shady past he's not proud of.

Which somehow adds to the credibility of the character. A super-agent would have spotted the assassin based on simple memory recollection, but here, he's flawed, which makes him all the more believable. Naomi Watts too as his tag-team partner Eleanor Whitman seems more at home behind the office desk, though sad enough her character's the proverbial Flower Vase, decorative and nice to look at, but offering nothing much in terms of character and story development, other than to cover the rear of Salinger in the office boardroom.

Basically the film offered some thinking points, and makes you wonder if any large corporations, if without proper governance, could be susceptible to a moral rot from within, controlled by the few at the apex of the organization, making dubious decisions to proliferate arms and motivate political takeovers – with coups and assassinations being but tools of the trade, and all these need money, which banks have loads of in their vaults. And bringing down banks isn't easy because of the multiple stakeholders being involved, from the humble depositors, to states and nations.

In terms of production values, this Tom Tykwer film doesn't scrimp, jet-setting the cast throughout Europe – Italy, Luxembourg, Germany and Turkey – in living up to its namesake. The musical score is also notable for its perfectly crafted tune to keep you at the edge of your seat, only for the narrative to fizzle out unfortunately.

The International had an intriguing premise, but failed to live up to it. The ending too was a letdown, despite the realization that things must happen outside the established system, almost suggesting vigilantism, but alas something more pragmatic was presented, and running out of steam, the film just abruptly aborts itself. Too bad for local audiences as well, because we've traded one intense shootout sequence at the famed Guggenheim Museum for the censored version to cater for a PG audience. Clive Owen movies got no respect these days by distributors here.

Singapore International Film Festival 2009 Coverage Index Page

Beetle, The
Call If You Need Me
Dada's Dance
Letters to the President
Malaysian Gods
Sell Out!
Story of Mr Sorry, The
Wackness, The
Xiao Shu's Going Home

Amos Gitai Retrospect
Free Zone
One Day, You'll Understand
Promised Land

Singapore Panorama
Big Road, A
Brother No. 2
This Too Shall Pass
White Days

Q&A Sessions
Brother No. 2 with director Jason Lai and producer Eunice Lau. Moderated by Leonard Lai.
Call Me If You Need Me with director James Lee, Lead Actor Sunny Pang. Moderated by Tan Pin Pin.
Dada's Dance with director Zhang Yuan and Lead actress Li Xinyun. (Audio Only)
Promised Land with Amos Gitai. Moderated by Tan Pin Pin. (Audio only)
This Too Shall Pass with director Ang Aik Heng and documentary subject's daughter Ellen Lee. Moderated by Leonard Lai.
Sell Out! with director Yeo Joon Han and Cast members Peter Davis, Jerrica Lai and Lee Szu Hung. Moderated by Zhang Wenjie.
White Days with director Looi Wan Ping and Cast members Chris Yeo, Vel Ng and Daniel Hui. Moderated by Zhang Wenjie.
Xiao Shu's Going Home with director Hao Yifeng.

In Conversation With
Amir Muhammad
Amos Gitai, moderated by Ben Slater.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

[SIFF09] The Wackness


One of the films that have gotten the “festival rating” for a one-off screening, it's easy to see why The Wackness would not have normally passed the censors who are likely to say No for the heavy drug use throughout the film, as is the language, and perhaps one line that might have gravely, though implied and indirectly insulted a religious figure too. After all, it's set in 1994 New York City, and has a teenage drug peddler being the central figure in which the story unfolds around.

In this coming-of-age film written and directed by Jonathan Levine (who gave us Mandy Lane), Josh Peck stars as Luke Shapiro, a drug dealer who distributes his stash through an ingenious method of pretending to sell “fesh and delcious ice” around his neighbourhood. We learn that he's a little “wack”, and nobody could blame him, coming from a home where his parents bicker everyday, ,and facing the possibility of being evicted from their apartment too. With the world on his shoulders and his wait to graduate into college, he seeks help from psychotherapist Dr. Jeffrey Squires, played by Ben Kingsley.

It's a very strange relationship that these two have forged. For starters, they are doctor and patient, and because of Squires' willingness to accept payment in drugs to feed his addiction, they become businessman and client. And from their hanging out with each other, they too become friends outside the treatment room. And to complicate matters, Luke starts to develop an infatuation with Squire's step-daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), with Squires being really against it because of Luke's summer occupation of choice, and Luke's mission (with Squires' encouragement and direction) to get laid in order to lift up his depressing spirits.

Thematically, I'd like to look at the exploration of romantic love between the couples in the film, where it looks at a new, budding romance between Luke and Stephanie, and maturing ones such as that between Luke's parents which is fraught with quarrels and disagreements, and the one between Squires and his wife Kristin (Famke Janssen), which suffers from indifference. Each couple has their unique problems to deal with, and I suppose those who are unmarried will identify the puppy love easily, while keeping an eye for potential problems in the future facing older couples should that spark between them be lost.

Levine fuses a number of comedic situations effortlessly into the film, and has a respectable selection of classic hip-hop tunes from the 90s era such as those by the Notorious B.I.G. even. Josh Peck and Ben Kingsley share some superb chemistry together on screen that makes their character interaction a joy to pay attention to, and veteran Kingsley often steals the thunder from his younger co-star for that boundless energy given to his character, and it's quite unlike any other role that I've seen him in before. Fans of Mary-Kate Olsen would be disappointed though with a very limited screen time from their idol, but it's not as if her druggie hippie character was anything worthwhile to sit up and take note.

As a coming of age story, this film works thanks primarily to its casting, and the hallucinatory-like quality that Levine had employed to push the narrative forward. Humour as always, never fails to make the right connections with the audience, especially if effectively done and delivered.

[SIFF09] Call If You Need Me Q&A

Here's the complete Q&A Session after the screening, with (from Left to Right) lead actor Sunny Pang, director James Lee, and moderated by Tan Pin Pin.

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3

[SIFF09] Call If You Need Me


It's an open secret that James Lee gets a lot of love from the Singapore International Film Festival, having almost all, if not all I believe, of his works screened at past editions. Last year we had a rare glimpse of a commercial horror project, Histeria, and this year Lee goes back to his festival art house roots with Call If You Need Me, a gangster based film tackling the usual themes of Brotherhood and Loyalty that are staple of Hong Kong crime dramas, but without much blazing shootout action.

It's an atmospheric family piece if you will, where blood runs thicker than water in episodes that we'll see unfold in Or Kia (played by Singapore's indie hero Sunny Pang) leaving his village for the big city of Kuala Lumpur, where he looks up his cousin Ah Soon (played by Malaysian musician Pete Teo) who runs a local racket of profit sharing from debt collecting from the bigger fish. In fact, what seemed like a family gathering of relatives soon pave way toward something more sinister, where underlings form part of the family table, and cocktail drugs get passed around as recreational dessert.

Watching the first act, I can't help but to think of Tarantino's Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield talking about Royale with Cheese and foot massages whilst on their way to a hit job. Here, Lee has his characters talking like your everyday Joe with everyday worries, hopes and their hobbies, bitching about how comic book creators sell out by prolonging their material through the stuffing their stories with incredible characters. Or characters breaking out into talking about boxing, or even football betting odds. Curiously enough, Lee also put in a lot of hungry people in the film, probably as a metaphor that they're craving something in life, but are not going to get it as easy as a 2-minute instant noodle, or to buy it off the streets from hawkers.

Between the 2 acts, I very much prefer the first half to the second, because the second departed from the warm and cozy environment that the cousins are used to, and propel them forward given that their racket together had yielded results, and results meant promotions. Since it's family, Ah Soon hands over his operations to Or Kia, and we see a development of their characters for the worst, and not having both on screen together meant some of the fun dissipating, especially when Ah Soon starts to mope, brood and become exasperated because of his missing wife. And like all gangster movies, personal and business doesn't mix, and a handful of characters had made the business component very clear.

It's nice to see how James Lee tackles the issues of corruption in the city indirectly. One scene I thought which was brilliant, was how he confirms a cafe meeting with a high-ranking police officer and the hoodlums. The bribery taking place is not so subtle, yet enough to bring out awareness that the man hiding behind the shades was an officer of the law, through an implied remark of a game found in an iPhone. Folks arrested are also easily let off the hook through the usage of an underaged fall guy, with the corrupt contacts fully condoning such practice. I guess there would be some reference of such practices that Lee would probably be aware of, to have incorporated this in the film.

Those looking for a violent, action-packed movie need be reminded that this is a James Lee movie. Guns are brandied around, but rarely used. Instead, the characters rely heavily on a lot of swearing in a myriad of languages, and plenty of cigarette smoke to get their points across. Violence happens off screen, so you don't get to see much. But that's not what you should be looking out for in the movie. The key component that worked is the excellent chemistry that Sunny Pang and Pete Teo share in the movie, as cousins who are more like brothers, and lighting up the screen each time they share the same frame. There is word that James will be working with Sunny again, this time in a commercial action film, and I secretly wish that Pang and Teo could be reunited again for the big screen.

[SIFF09] $9.99

Polling Life

Personally I dig stop-motion animation, for the simple conscious fact that there's a lot of blood and sweat going on behind the scenes just to get an object to move. You can imagine what it takes to get a character to move an arm, and you extrapolate that effort into a feature length film with a lot more things happening concurrently on screen, and you're likely to appreciate this artform a lot more, with new found respect for it.

$9.99 is an amazing piece of stop-motion animation coupled with a tremendously engaging story made up of multiple narrative threads, and a myriad of characters attempting to tackle their respective problems in life. It begins with a bang literally, where a homeless man (Geoffrey Rush) with a gun in hand, asks Jim Peck (Anthony LaPaglia) for a cigarette and a light, before launching into some really clever moments about manipulation. It's an excellent start to jolt you into realizing that this film isn't just another walk in the park, and as it plays on, you'd discover its brilliance in its commentary about life, as seen from the experiences of the residents in an apartment block.

We have a family of three, with Jim who might just need his karma checked for encountering really antagonizing moments involving death, and his two sons Dave (Samuel Johnson) and Lenny (Ben Mendelsohn), the former being unemployed and is found to be central to the narrative, and the latter being a Repo-man finding himself falling, and obsessing over the love by new neighbour and supermodel Tanita (Leeanna Walsman), who has a fetish for a hairless body. Then there's a lonely old man who finds the world constantly passing him by with nobody interested in hearing him talk a bit (well, because he's long-winded as well), finding a companion in an angel, whom he asks incessantly about Heaven. Then there's a boy who has a friend in his piggy bank, and a couple on the verge of being married having to fall out because one of them refuses to grow up.

The “$9.99” comes from the price of a catalog of books, one of which touts to hold The Meaning of Life which Dave buys. Unfortunately, the characters here seem to be caught up in living their own lives and falling victim to respective challenges life presents itself, and so every effort that Dave wants to share gets spurned, and we the audience, unfortunately, don't get to hear if there are any insights to that. But of course we all know that there's no silver bullet, and the characters here, though the course of this emotionally moving film, learn of that meaning as it applies in their own, with the old man determined to take a more proactive approach, to a connection between a father and a son, to love found and running parallel to that, a love broken because of sacrifices that one has to make, or the lack thereof, and the maturing of a young child.

I guess nobody scoffs at animation, especially one that targets the mature audience – check out that Dr Manhattan moment. I've new found respect for stop-motion animation, and for the filmmakers involved in producing this fine piece of work. The attention to detail is incredible, never at any moment hinting that they had cut some corners and compromised quality. The score too is as beautiful as it is memorable. Definitely highly recommended, and easily one of the few films I thoroughly enjoyed in the festival lineup.

Friday, April 24, 2009

[SIFF09] Amos Gitai Retrospect: Kippur (Asian Premiere)

Rag-Tag Team

While it's easy to set expectations and think that this could be a Saving Private Ryan / Black Hawk Down type of film (since the synopsis does reveal a chopper going down), this is after all an Amos Gitai film, and I feel this is more Apocalypse Now with The Thin Red Line sensibilities, though with none of Terrence Malick's visual poetry.

Based on Gitai's own experience of joining a helicopter rescue crew during the war of Kippur in 1967, he creates the character of Sergeant Weinraub (Liron Levo, also seen in Amos Gitai's Disengagement) and it's through his eyes that the story unfolds. The film is curiously bookend by some graphic, artistic (literally, since it involves an incredibly huge canvas and lots of paint) sex, where Weinraub pounds his girlfriend in an extended scene in the beginning, before the outbreak of war with the attack by Egypt and Syria interrupting his moment of passion, and he picks up friend and officer Lt Ruso (Tomer Russo) as they drive back to camp to join their unit.

Along the way they meet a number of characters who flit into and out of the story, and soon find themselves in a camp that they could get to, and volunteering to join a makeshift, hastily assembled helicopter unit to fly to the warzone in order to pick up wounded survivors, kind of like a flying ambulance tasked for rescue missions. We learn a thing or two about emergency evacuations, as well as the policy of not transporting the dead in time-critical missions as these, taking only survivors and sticking to their mission objectives.

If one does not know that Gitai is at the helm of the film, one could expect an out-and-out war movie, since the scenario painted provides plenty of avenue for such. There are flights into the frontline, and in carrying out their mission, Getai litters the screen with plenty of dismembered bodies up close enough to churn your stomach. There are moments where some action is called for, but these are few and far between since our soldiers are unarmed. For those with Gitai sensibilities, then you'll probably note his preference for long takes, and there was one incredibly long sequence involving a traffic jam and narrow roads, when Weinraub and Ruso are rushing back en route to their camp. Otherwise, most of the shots during war involve tight helicopter interiors, or helicopter overhead views, but through narrow windows, capturing scores of tanks in vast, muddy landscapes ravaged by tracks that had gone past, that you can imagine the scale of the invasion with.

Unlike other war films that preach the negative aspects of war, this felt more of a documentary of sorts, since after all it's based upon the director's own experience. Scenes are delivered as a matter-of-fact, sometimes devoid of emotion too as the soldiers go about doing the business, and the plenty of landscape shots are just that and could easily have been representative of news reels back then. Not your conventional war movie, and definitely worthwhile only when the troops hit the ground, and not flying high and far away from the action.

[SIFF09] This Too Shall Pass Q&A

Here's the complete Q&A session with (Left to Right) Ellen Lee (daughter of documentary subject Uncle Lee) and director Ang Aik Heng, moderated by Leonard Lai.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

[SIFF09] This Too Shall Pass (World Premiere)

Uncle Lee

While Sell Out! had comedic segments on death, dealing with the desire to film those whose life is about to expire for a reality show, This Too Shall Pass was quite uncanny in that it resembled that kind of film being made, albeit for different reasons, and minus the outright comedy.

It takes a more sombre look at death, and the preparation for the inevitable that will one day involve ourselves, and how we deal with it becomes one of the themes of this 61 minute documentary. The original rationale for such a documentary to be made, never mind if it involves the unabashed airing of dirty family linen in public, actually stemmed from a more personal and selfish grounds if you will, with the subject, an elderly man suffering from nose cancer, with support from his daughters, decided to record down his last wishes, especially when it comes to the distribution of his assets and his estate.

This only because of the wanting to avoid any arguments with his estranged son whom he pre-empts might create a fuss in the future, hence the need to document and film down his wishes. Uncle Lee, whom we will follow all the way to his deathbed, through director Ang Aik Heng's lens, has some words of wisdom to impart, as does his eldest daughter subsequently in deciding and revealing why they had sought help to have this documentary of their family's private moments recorded.

Filmed from October 2006 to January 2007, Ang transforms himself from stranger of the family to a valued member of sorts, having to gain the trust of all the family members, especially Uncle Lee's, to speak to him, and into the camera. Slowly but surely we observe how little nuggets of information by Uncle Lee, some even privy from his own family, get told quite candidly. We follow him through his 2nd round of radio therapy treatment, which takes some 35 days and comes with some jarring side effects, and for those who have no knowledge of the pain one goes through as a cancer patient, then this film would serve to open your eyes.

I suppose there will always be someone amongst the audience who would be in the shoes of a family member being tasked to become the primary caregiver of an elderly in the family. With our aging population, problems that come with it become very real, and will strike close to home, and I can't help but to wonder, quite morbidly, how I would have to make major adjustments should such a time come. These are some real societal problems that could happen to any household, especially when it boils down to the ugly scenario of squabbling over monetary issues.

You'll feel some emotional pangs when watching the film, especially toward the end, and I'm sure you would also have a mental run down of the decision you will make should you be in the same shoes some time, especially when it deals with the dilemma of debating whether it be best to pull the plug to end the suffering, or to persevere on in artificially prolonging one's life, even though you're somewhat certain of the immense physical pain that comes with it. And I admire how Ang stays a respectable distance when the situation calls for it, preferring not to intrude further into personal space as already graciously granted by the family.

It's a heartfelt local documentary that I recommend, and going by the lineup at the Singapore Panorama during this year's SIFF, it seems the documentaries are the ones that are blazing a trail for local film offerings.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

[SIFF09] Brother No. 2 Q&A

Here's the complete coverage of the Q&A with director Jason Lai and producer Eunice Lau, moderated by Leonard Lai.

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[SIFF09] Brother No. 2


Like James Leong and Lynn Lee's Passabe, Jason Lai's documentary Brother No. 2 touches on similar themes of reconciliation, but not just after atrocities committed in a village, but an entire nation with almost 2 million perishing under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the late 70s. It's genocide that the world had turned its back on when it happened, only to wake up in recent times, and to pursue justice against humanity after some 30 years.

How does one find peace after you experience a tragedy, with injustice committed against you? You'll either seek revenge at whatever the costs, or to forgive and move on, which is an extremely hard act to follow as you'll have to put aside a basic human response to get back at others who have done you wrong. But that's what Soy Sen, the anchor for director Lai's film, and others have chosen to do, despite having experience first hand, or fall victims to under the harsh Khmer regime.

Soy Sen is a survivor of the Kraing Ta Chan Prison, where one of the prison chiefs had ordered the killing of his father, to which he witnessed, but is presented the dilemma when Soy himself learns that his life had been spared by the very same man. How does one then seek an answer and a closure when your survival to this very day had been owed to the very same perpetrator of an act, which they had keenly subscribed to given the revolutionary times, and deep rooted sense that they did no wrong?

It's an interesting and powerful documentary not just for that intriguing subject in Soy Sen whom the filmmakers found, but on the general attitudes of the Cambodian people on the whole looking for peace through reconciliation, living amongst those who have done extreme wrong. There are different ways an individual would seek closure, and the film presented a religious aspect to it, being a predominantly Buddhist nation. I'm unsure you can label doing so means to rely on it like an emotional crutch or to hide behind spiritual teachings, but the film presented some very interesting insights into beliefs like Karma and Reincarnation, and a mentality that one's suffering now is due to negativity from the past, and one's punishment for wrong doing will come in the next life, therefore normalizing tempers for an immediate, often irrational, reaction.

A fine balance in presenting both the micro and macro aspects of the tragedy, Brother No. 2 makes for a good introduction to the historical background through the use of simple, but effective animation, and to have interviews from both sides of the coin. What could be a coup for the production was the interview with the number 2 man (hence the title) after the deceased Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, and getting him to open up and speak about his policies, beliefs and ideology. Music by local band Lunarin also provided some wonderful tracks that pepper the film throughout.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

[SIFF09] Sell Out! Q&A

Here's the Q&A session with (Left to Right): Peter Davis, Director Yeo Joon Han, Jerrica Lai and Lee Szu Hung, and moderated by SIFF festival director Zhang Wenjie.

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[SIFF09] Sell Out!

FONY Execs

My personal measure of an excellent comedy, is whether or not it reduces me to tears that roll uncontrollably coupled with some really deep-felt hearty laughter. While I'd like to pride myself with a good sense of humour, it does take some effort to really elicit that kind of a reaction from me, and Sell Out! does that by the bucketload, and through a variety of methods ranging from slapstick to the wry, from the staring-in-your-face obvious to the wink-wink-insider-jokes too.

Yeo Joon Han dug deep into his plethora of talent, wearing the hats for producing, writing, editing, directing and, check this out - writing the songs (lyrics and music composition) as well! And the songs are a definite highlight of the film, while not so much a musical per-se, but does have characters breaking into song to move the narrative forward. And in true, witty nature, look out for that moment that calls for YOUR participation! Jack Neo may feel threatened that Joon Han's Money song easily rivals those he oft feature in his Money No Enough series, but my personal fan-favourite amongst the tunes would be "You're Not My Type", with Jerrica Lai and Peter Davis delivering a duet that has to be experienced with proper sound on the big screen for its wonderful accompanying visuals that capture character emotions just perfectly.

From the get go, Joon Han delivers every step of the way, all the way to the final frame, without condescending nor making the audience feel stupid. Rather, he turned the tables on himself first, in self-deprecating fashion to introduce himself as an arty-farty director and pokes fun at question-and-answer, art and commercial films, and you'll even be treated to a screening of his award winning short with some really innane dialogue. From that point on with your attention arrested, Joon Han throws every subject into the narrative almost effortlessly, with themes that are easily identifiable, but always keeping an eye out to ensure that the fun factor in every scene is never lost.

Sell Out! boasts some superb "mo-lei-tau" scenes coming in from the blind side to tickle that funny bone of yours, capturing little things that irritate in life and provide a fun spin to them, from pop culture to SMS reality shows, and who would know that Death could be so funny as well. There's a really brilliant scene in the film alongside a deathbed that encompassed plenty, and makes it all the more worthwhile for repeated viewings just to catch every possible punchline from that scene. Those paying close attention during the film will be richly rewarded with plenty of funny nuances that we would immediately guffaw at, and sly subtitles also have a life of their own, to hilarious effect.

But it's not always all fun and games, and that's why this film is such the gem that it is. There's a clear commentary about doing work with heart, and wanting to be appreciated for a job well done, versus gritting your teeth and doing something that betrays your moral conscience. There's also a sharp underlying critique on modern society in general, and on corporate governance (or the lack thereof!) since what more could you expect from a conglomerate that calls itself FONY and has a one-liner, though succinctly easy to understand mission statement, to "make money", which is after all, the basic reasons for corporations to exist.

The cast too are gutsy enough to trust the debut feature filmmaker, lending their vocals and performing the songs many themselves. I'd like to think that this could have also been a romance, with Eric Tan (Peter Davis) the honest and un-business savvy engineer with his 8-in-1 Super Soya Maker, being infatuated with Rafflesia Pong (Jerrica Lai) the ruthless, uncompromising go-getter who cannot wait to show her rival, the hot pan-Asian Hanna Edwards Leong (Hannah Lo) a thing or two about the ratings game. Then we have the scene stealers with Kee Thuan Chye and Lim Teik Leong as the Smoking and Forgetful CEOs respectfully, encompassing what we dread and probably hate most about corporate bosses who think they can get away with anything in the name of profits. There are some wonderful characterization amongst the leads, with an ensemble supporting cast to add colour, which reminded me of Citizen Dog when the man in the street joins in for a chorus about Money.

Rarely has a film captured so much in under 120 minutes and making sense of it all through well-placed humour. As such, Sell Out! has my firm vote as a personal favourite and the best of the Festival thus far, being the breath of fresh air amongst many stuffy entries that had misplaced artistic merits, alienating themselves from audiences who feel that in depressing times, we can't help but reject yet another self-indulgent movie. Sell OUt! has nothing of that, and has set itself as a contender for my year end roundup of the best offerings in 2009. If it was left up to me, I'd give this film both the Best Film and Best Director prizes at the Silver Screen Awards at the SIFF. The commercial release is due soon on May 7 on both sides of the Causeway, so whatever you do, please make Sell Out! your must watch(! - I must exclaim this) movie this year!

Join the Facebook group here! And get the soundtrack from the shops while waiting for it to hit the screens! Support good storytelling, and enjoy a great film!

[SIFF09] Xiao Shu's Going Home Q&A

Here's the complete Q&A session with Director Hao Yifeng.

Left: Director Hao Yifeng

[SIFF09] Xiao Shu's Going Home (World Premiere)


The wayward Chinese youths in a village becomes the subject for director Hao Yifeng in his film Xiao Shu's Going Home, which is bookend by the titular character's arrival and departure both physically and in his mental maturing, and the little things that happened in his life when he hangs out with 2 good for nothing peers who spend their idle time breaking into homes, and steal for a living.

It addresses the kind of problems over here similar to latch key children, where the kids are left on their own devices without parental/adult supervision and are doing as they please. As small time hustlers, they invite themselves into unoccupied homes, and party away, taking what would be antiques and selling them for profit. For the first half of the film, we see them operating as a gang, with Bai Tiao (Yang Sen) the unofficial leader, also trying his luck at wooing a mobile phone salesgirl Xiao Jing (Hao Ying), while at the same time engaging in adultery with a married woman.

As for Ma Hou (Tang Xiong) the Bruce Lee fan, he serves only as a catalyst for something inexplicable when the law comes down hard, and got conveniently forgotten when the second half of the show seemed to return to its titular character, focusing on his relationship with Mei Fang (Wu Shan) where it's all up to romance to steer our protagonist back to the right path when the negative influences in his life are no longer omni-present.

The film looks a little raw as I presume it's shot on video, and the acting a little stilted at times in the various episodes that got played out. It deals with a waking-up call of sorts for youths always on the lookout for the easy way, and sometimes in what would be harmless shenanigans on one hand, may easily build into something worse given a sense of false courage being developed. What I didn't like was the ending, which was not unexpected, but was a little too morbid for my liking.

The complaints about city life echoed by the characters could have been sentiments shared by director Hao, as they were pretty much no holds barred. He paints a sad picture with the village boys all growing up with big city ambitions of getting rich fast and without much effort, and balances this up with Xiao Shu being the city boy who's yearning for the quieter, supposedly easier village life compared to mugging in Beijing as a student.

However, only those parallels were drawn, while the rest of the film was like a direct representation of the youths it portrayed, being wandering and aimless without clear direction.

Monday, April 20, 2009

[SIFF09] White Days Q&A

Here's the Q&A session that was conducted right after the screening. From Left to Right, moderator and SIFF Festival Director Zhang Wenjie, White Days director Looi Wan Ping, and cast Chris Yeo, Vel Ng and Daniel Hui.

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[SIFF09] White Days


Between today's local film offering, A Big Road which is in the Asian Feature Film Competition, and White Days which is more of an experimental feature, putting these two side by side makes the latter seem like a masterpiece. And the irony here is that it's raw, unscripted, is shot in black and white and like all most independent filmmakers here, enjoy liberal use of the still camera coupled with long takes. That, compared to what would seem as more polished production values in the former.

The film tells the story, or more like a snapshot in the lives of its three protagonists - Chris Yeo, Vel Ng and Daniel Hui, in what would be art imitating life, with some fictional elements thrown in as Daniel would admit in a Q&A later, about being "depressed" throughout the film, walking around aimlessly leaving flowers on the roadside, or burying himself in a book, as negative reactions toward a friend's passing. Fans of Daniel Hui the director will also spot (or more accurately, hear) one of his short films being used in this one.

These disaffected youths spend the entire film searching for something, but I think they all realize is that the baseline they could fall back on is always their friendship with one another. Nevermind if they don't necessarily subscribe to the view points of their friends, but their comfort in ribbing one another, makes light of the gravity of their own unhappy situations. While Vel harbours the thought of leaving her translator job to go to Taiwan, just because she's inspired by Tsai Ming-liang films, Chris seems to want to bring his friends over to Jerusalem after a trip there, for them to touch base with God, and spends a good part preaching his brand of comical gospel and on the meaning of life. This, and the sharing of his dream for a job which pays good, is near home, and has plenty of opportunities to interact with hot chicks.

White Days is a heavy talkie movie, and while it worked with compelling monologue/dialogue in certain scenes, just like how ramblingly interesting that would be in a Tarantino film, sometimes it felt like there was a need to reign in the actors rather than to allow them too much freedom to go on like, forever, with topics floating in piece meal fashion. Editing could be tighter if not for that long take technique employed to try and get natural action/reaction.

For instance, sentences and talks could have been shortened as some bits did drag out too long sometimes no thanks to repetition, and because it's basically unscripted, you can sense from time to time the actors tend to go way out of point like friends having a field day just chilling and talking about everything under the sun. More engaging topics would have been appreciated, and there are expected gems along the way, just like the cockroach topic, which is as irreverent as it is genuinely funny!

Acting wise, everyone was bordering on the giggly, and Vel Ng was probably guilty of that most of the time, sometimes being a little too self-conscious about the camera. Outdoor scene also had curious bystanders wondering what these folks are up to, but captured wonderfully how life just passes you by nonchalantly, with millions of folks out there just conducting their everyday lives in individual silos, reinforcing the need for communication and friendship, and reaching out.

I'm still waiting to watch the rest of the local offerings, but so far White Days had relatively impressed with its raw quality. Watch for that Exit sign above the open window of the apartment, which I felt had always emphasized to the characters that there's a whole new world out there waiting for the characters to explore, rather than spending time indoors and moping around.

[SIFF09] A Big Road (World Premiere)

Watching a Balloon Float

The man in the Citibank diner advertisement would probably tear his remaining hair out at A Big Road since it is a true blue "arty-farty" film, and his dinner date probably got the reaction right as well. I had held out getting tickets for this world premiere, and if Kan Lume's Female Games was screening instead, no prizes where I would have put my dollars at. But that film was withdrawn, and the buzz for this was building, and I had to check out what it's about, no?

Of late we have a number of Singaporean filmmakers who have ventured overseas and made feature length films, from Science Fiction (Gene Generation) to Drama (Slam!) and even documentaries to tie in world sporting events like the Olympics with efforts like Mad About English and Boomtown Beijing, and also not forgetting my favourite filmmaking duo of James Leong and Lynn Lee who have made gems like Homeless FC and Aki Ra's Boys, with their latest film ready some time end of this year, so that's something to look forward to. Alec Tok would be a name to add to this list of growing filmmakers spreading their wings abroad with this debut effort.

A Big Road chronicles three women in Shanghai, and from the get go at the lengthy prologue at the Shanghai Railway Station, it screams art, requiring plenty of getting used to with its focus-out-of-focus shots within the frame, cuing you into certain points, yet inevitably raising questions just what was going on. I tried hard to concentrate, then let go to follow the flow, but tried as I did, I just couldn't grasp what the intent and meaning was, if any.

The scenes floated from one to another, relying a chock load on your own imagination to fill the pieces in between. We see a lady dressed in a white coat drifting around in a voyeuristic fashion as if in limbo in our world, whose point of view consists of specific colours on people, and is probably the chorus to this artificial play as we see what she wants us to see. Which also includes two feuding families at a dinner table, a particular Mrs Zhao purchasing a new born baby girl from poor villagers, and Xiao Fang (Liu Hongli) the kept woman who's sold by her own mother for profit.

While you can see immediate parallels in the plight of women whatever their ages being sold for money, one can't stop wondering what Alec's intent was, and it's always curious when a man crafts woman-centric stories and scenes especially when they fail to resonate and get the intended emotions through. It's one thing sticking a camera and letting it record on a long, extended take, but another if wanting to communicate emotions. Time was felt heavily, and sad to say no time was properly invested to develop and establish characters as they came and go in a generic, blur fashion.

The mid-point was especially amusing when some folks decided to use it as a break to answer phones / visit the toilet / stretch their legs. It reaffirms that girls do take an extremely long time to dress up, putting on and putting off, looking at oneself at the mirror preening, and this went on for some 10 minutes. From then on the film switches gears even when the engine's not ready to shift up, with a flurry of scenes coming and going involving a man wanting to break off an engagement (check out that Tak-Giu T-Shirt, Jacen!), and decided to go all Man by dealing with a Father's love, with flashbacks from his death bed, which turned out to be emotionally dry. Characters were crying, but the damage was done and you'd just don't care except to wonder when the brakes will be pulled, though one still had a mahjong scene to navigate through.

A Big Road may be too wide (in the number of issues it wanted to showcase perhaps) and too long, and without clear directions, is risking alienating an audience from it and losing them. That Citibank diner guy would have new found friends.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

[SIFF09] Breathless (Ddongpari)

Watch Your Mouth

Unfortunately some technical issues marred the supposedly powerful introduction where violence get unleashed by all characters on screen both physically and verbally. Clearly played from a DVD screener with the "Showbox" watermark, the audio was left silent for the good part of some verbal barrage, which to the prudish might seem like music to their ears.

If there's one thing I learnt / have reinforced after the movie, is how ubiquitous the Korean swear word which sounds phonetically like "shee-bal" can actually be. It's more versatile than the English language's F-word, and the Korean one can be used to describe a whole host of bodily parts both male and female, with colourful adjectives strung together as well. Either that, or the person subtitling the show has some really colourful imagination to tag some appropriate swear words of his/her own liking, in order to spice up the dialogue for non-Korean speaking audiences.

Breathless is almost like a one-man effort, with Yang Ik-June wearing a number of hats in producing, writing, directing and starring in the lead role of Song-hoon, a violent gangster who doesn't have to think twice when deciding to lay hands on his victims, and insulting them concurrently with his foul mouth. He's a debt collector in a small outfit which he co-founded, but finds more pleasure in being a field agent, bringing along underlings whom he can abuse as well, and show the ropes to, in teaching the essence of collecting money, and to show no mercy to those who cannot pay up.

Most of the violence happen off screen, though the aftermath is seldom shielded in order to elicit a response from the audience. It actually makes for a great 3D movie with objects flying all around and at the screen, from furniture, to fists, and even spit, and I enjoyed the many unintentionally comedic moments that Ik-June effortlessly paints into his narrative despite the very negative elements of violence and language that pepper throughout, and almost every character was left tainted by dishing out, or be at the receiving end of bad signs or an uncouth mouth.

I suppose the question here is, and the issue that Ik-June could have wanted to address, is that of violence, and domestic violence even, if a circumstances of a tragedy would lead to impressionistic youths turning to violence as a means of release and addressing their emotions. Or more directly, if being brought up in a violent environment would lead to the nurturing of violent tempers, given the lack of proper role models, and being unable to break out from the vicious circle as that painted in the film.

Breathless may seem a little too long as it had attempted to give each character equal opportunity to shine, from the schoolgirl that Song-hoon befriends, to his boss, a young boy whom he takes as his own, and his mother, coupled with a protege in the making. It's quite the complete story serving as a cautionary tale and a statement of the never-ending cycle, but would have benefitted from tightening up the pace a little and could have gone under 2 hours. That said however, it did result in enough apathy given toward the characters here, given the anti-heroic stance they're all under, and you'll buy into its story of redemption toward the last act, and the fortification of the positive relationships that Song-hoon had, through his own violent ways, brought together.

[SIFF09] Dada's Dance Q&A

My apologies for the bad video (until I find the time to downsample and edit), but until then, hey, the audio works fine!

Stage Appearance

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[SIFF09] Dada's Dance (达达)

Oozing Sensuality

When Li Xinyun comes on screen the very first minute, you could almost hear a collective gasp amongst the audience. She looks like a cross between Vicky Zhao and Shu Qi, more the latter thanks to those bee-stung lips that assisted her titular character very much in dripping sensuality in almost every frame she's in. Helping too are a fitting tank top and a short pair of shorts to accentuate her fair limbs.

Yes I may sound like a dirty old man, but that's precisely how the male population in Dada's neighbourhood feel every morning when she turns up the temperature around her estate. For her mum's potential suitor, Dada offers a very powerful, visual distraction, and to her neighbour Zhao Ye (Li Xiaofeng), nothing beats peeping at Dada going about the household chores in the morning, thanks to her self-designed dance she grooves in to the tune of Remedios.

Director Zhang Yuan, with inputs from his leads Li Xinyun and Li Xiaofeng, had crafted incredible teenage characters who are somewhat lost, and perpetually looking for something to hold on to, and to make sense of life with. And I guess more so from the former since the movie's titular character is played by her, hence instilling some sense of personal ownership in coming up with a memorable character who lingers long after the end credits roll. To a certain extent, I feel that had succeded, and also because of the rouge like charisma Dada exudes, that bad girl whom everyone likes to gossip about, but whose genuine niceness is only seen by those whom she opens up to.

For the most parts, the story's a road trip movie, with the duo Dada and boyfriend (or so he wishes) Zhao Ye going to an unnamed town to search for the Dada's biological mother. Insert comedic situations, red herrings, and little filler scenes about going through public records and the seeking of help from the police, it's a search for that unattainable needle in the haystack, but that's what this film is about. The search for something that cannot be grasped, and being always on the look out for anything that would provide that sense of satisfaction and happiness, without which will lead to some self-discontent with life as it is.

For Dada, it's a search for her biological mom because she's unhappy with her mom's choice of companion (to be fair to her mom, Dada didn't voice this out), and probably didn't like not told about being adopted. This despite her mom always treating her just like her own. And there's the search for love too, especially for a man she constantly turns away. Her life is one on the path of destruction, before that reconciliatory effort with both mom and Zhao Ye come calling. Granted there was a turning point in the film that provided that wake up call, but it did suggest that here's one woman who will take her chances, though answering to and facing the music in an attempt to turn her life over.

The cinematography here is wondrous with beautiful scenery aplenty, be it the cramped quarters of the working class, the vast outdoors or the opulence of rich folks. And more importantly, to me at least, the score by Andrea Guerra also provided an added dimension to this Chinese film. Dada's Dance may not be perfect, but it does have moments which engage, and as mentioned, her dance just lingers effortlessly, and I'm grooving to it already as I write this! Lalalalala.....


For those who wanna try their hand at sashaying like Dada, perhaps Remedios would put you in the same mood!

[SIFF09] In Conversation With Amos Gitai

Here's the complete seminar session, moderated by Ben Slater:

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[SIFF09] Amos Gitai Retrospect: Disengagement (Asian Premiere)

Take Me Away

For an Amos Gitai film, I thought this had the most impactive prologue amongst those that I've watched to date, which succinctly sums up the political themes that his films often explore. While it might have thrust you right into the thick of (in)action, you'll soon realize that he has a tremendous ability to gift wrap his points amongst the most mundane and ordinary.

A Dutch-Palestinian lady gets chatted up by a French Israeli man on a train. They share a cigarette moment, and soon realize that they have a lot more in common than they initially realized. The two strangers's chance meeting soon turn into lust/love at first sight, probably a nod in the direction that even amongst what would be perceived as the most irreconcilable groups of people, can find common ground and understanding, and kiss and make up. Only that there are those in the world like the authorities wielding some power, could make unreasonable demands to try and derail peace efforts, like that train soldier who might have stepped out of his boundary in asserting and demanding that he be listened to and complied with.

Alas the movie failed to keep the pace with its wonderful opening, and for the most parts the build up to the finale sagged heavily under very dire straits stemming from an uninteresting plot which failed to capitalize on the Israeli man Uli (Liron Levo) whom we got introduced, but shifted its attention to the more illustrious Juliette Binoche's Ana, Uli's half sister whom he is meeting in France because of their father's demise, and to discover just what his will entailed. The story found it necessary to go through an entire backstory for nothing, only for us to know little red herring nuggets of information such as Ana's estranged relationship with her separated husband whom we do not see on screen, and that slightly incestuous (well, not exactly) temptations that both Uli and Ana go through, with the latter being the temptress.

It tried to address issues like staying with someone who you don't love, only out of convenience, which Ana confessed to be doing, because she's a lazy soul. But in fact her character flits into mood swings one end to the other, that it's not tough to understand how unappealing she can get, good looker or not. Things start to pick up slightly midway through the film when the actual seed of the story was sown, with the reading of the deceased's will, having to instruct Ana to travel to Gaza to pass on her dad's inheritance to her abandoned daughter Dana (Dana Ivgy) in person.

So begins a road trip for the siblings, which is convenient anyway because Uli was beginning to fade away like a side show, and his return to Israel gives him a chock load of things to do, since he's a police officer, and have been given orders, together with the army, to clear Gaza of its Israeli settlers since Israel has pulled out of the Gaza Strip. Ordering your fellow men off their plot of land and homes are never easy, and this story arc provides that “action packed”moment in Disengagement. The other thread would be of course Ana's quest in locating her daughter, like finding a needle in the perennial haystack, made more difficult because she doesn't speak the language of her countrymen. The story arcs tangent off at this point, but you know there'll definitely be moments for a collision course later in the film.

Through Uli's eyes we see how their evacuation operation gets carried out, having to be compassionate, yet stern in a thankless job that involves ejecting by any means possible the settlers who are protesting their rights. One involves grabbing the people and forcing them onto chartered buses to take them back to the mainland, and on the other having heavy machinery either bulldoze everything insight, or the utilization of cranes to literally lift homes off the soil. One can imagine if one is forced away from your home at the snap of a finger, and that is definitely something difficult to swallow.

Disengagement unfortunately is like a self-fulling prophecy, having the middle portion starkly dragging against the powerful prologue and finale. If only it could find a better gel to stick both ends together in a more engaging fashion.
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