Monday, August 31, 2009

Wearing Green - 31 Aug to 7 Sep

The inevitable call of duty to the nation.

Normal services will resume soon!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

[Japanese Film Festival] A Snake of June (Rokugatsu No Hebi)

Mushi Mushi

Written, directed and starring Shinya Tsukamoto, A Snake in June is a strange, twisted tale of voyeurism that somehow did things correctly enough to warrant an improvement to the quality of the victims' life! You read me right there, because the turmoil experienced somehow brought about some positive change, but not before an exercise in exploitation gets its proper dues paid on screen.

We're introduced to a soap operatic perfect couple, or so it seems, where they nary quarrel and go about doing their respective chores when at home, with the husband seemingly a cleanliness freak, because early in the story we always see him hovered over something to scrub. Everyone's wearing a smile, but there's something quite plasticky about the way they interact, almost devoid of genuine, sincere emotion, and definitely lacking in passion.

The wife, Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) is a short haired sassy-looking lass who works as a counsellor manning a help hotline. Talking someone out of suicide, she preaches about living life to the maximum, which somehow stinks of hypocrisy because of her acceptance of mediocrity in her own married life, which we learn she's yearning for something physical, and had to resort to pleasuring herself. And as if to teach her a lesson to walk the talk, she receives an anonymous package containing a cellphone, and photographs of her in various states of undress and compromising positions.

Blackmailed, the caller's purpose became something of her awakening to the truth, as Shinya Tsukamoto puts his character through micro-mini skirts, stank toilets as well as being soaked through plenty of rain, all in all to play up the missing component of Rinko's life, where she needed probing (pardon the pun) to fully explore and understand what she was missing in having to play out her wildest fantasy for someone unknown who's watching her from some hidden angle.

And when you thought that everything's fine and dandy when Rinko does to the T what she was blackmailed to do, the narrative shifted from her to her husband, and then on to a combination of the couple with the perpetrator who now seemed more like a benefactor in opening up closed doors and opportunities to their personal desires.

It's a strange tale indeed lensed throughout under blue monochrome, that balanced some exploitative moments with a story set to titillate and with the realization of the missing component to the jigsaw of domestic affairs.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

[Japanese Film Festival] Rampo Noir (Rampo Jigoku)

Close To A Joke

Rampo Noir consists of 4 short stories adapted from the works of novelist Edogawa Rampo, with each segment helmed by a different director. Starring arthouse regular Tadanobu Asano as almost different characters spanning across the shorts, this film, to put it mildly, should excite arthouse lovers since it stars one of their idols, but everyone else, unless you have spare capacity for the bizarre, would likely want to steer clear of this. For omnibus films, you'd come to expect varying standards and levels of enjoyment, and this film is no different.

The first short Mars Canal (Kasei No Unga) directed by Suguru Takeuchi is probably the weirdest of the lot, and the shortest, which consists of dizzying camera work and a non-linear narrative, if there is one anywhere to begin with. Asano stars in his birthday suit as he goes through an intense battle with a girl on a filthy floor, screaming, yelling, kicking, before he finds some peace by dropping himself into a pond of water. You heard me, and it is bewildering. I think if I were to film a toilet scene with a man pooping, that'll make a more interesting subject matter, and I'll throw in sound effects to boot too.

Mirror Hell (Kagami Jigoku) is probably the more palatable of the lot. Directed by Akio Jissoji), Asano plays detective Kogoro Akechi, who's called upon when a series of bizarre murders take place, all linking the victims with strange mirrors in their possession when they meet their demise. Their faces get considerably disfigured, though you don't get to see it verbatim save for a stylized sequence of what may look like acid chewing through flesh. It is here that the narrative moots the point, with reflections, about what is real and what is actually through the looking glass, and has very nice sets made up of full length mirrors that I always tend to look closely at to spot the camera crew. But the narrative will fizzle out in the end because it has to comply with arthouse sensibilities, and I felt it left everyone hanging midway without a proper resolution.

Caterpillar (Imomushi) by Hisayasu Sato plays with the caterpillar/butterfly motif. A war veteran, severely disfigured and without any limbs, is left at the mercies of his sadistic wife (Yukiko Okamoto) to take care of him, and is subject to her horniness and liking for S&M sexual torture. For starters you might think that the wife is nothing short of dutiful, responsible and full of love, having removed all traces of mirrors and reflective surfaces so that he won't feel depressed with how he looked (seriously, if you're in that kind of state, you don't need a mirror to know you're screwed), but there's nothing to protect him from the dangers from within - his own wife. There's probably no proper point to this other than an exercise on cruelty against the disabled, and a measure of how sick one can be in pushing the tolerance envelope.

The last short, Crawling Bugs (Mushi), tells of a man's obsession with a woman. Asano returns to star as a different character, this time a limo driver who is infatuated with his client, a beautiful actress (Tamaki Ogawa). This segment got convoluted no thanks to its repetitive and fragmented storyline, which treads once again on reality and perceived reality, what worked to its advantage here is the lush visuals filled with saturated pop colours. You might wonder if director Atsushi Kaneko was schizophrenic in its delivery of this messed up piece, which continues to baffle especially after your energy's sapped by the previous installments to care any more.

If there's a running, unifying theme here, then it'll be the idea of reality (as usual with an arthouse flick), and this shows in all the inter-titles used throughout the films, which is written in a mirror image. There's more visual style than solid substance here in driving the films, and I think a trip to the bookstore for the translated works of Rampo Noir might help in digesting some of these stories, and whether or not the filmmakers here had gone to extreme lengths in disfiguring the narrative of the source material. Recommended to those with a large bandwidth of attention.

[Japanese Film Festival] The Ghost Story of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan)

Don't Haunt Me When You're Gone

Arguably the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time, there's a certain staged feeling in the way the film got presented, probably because of its Kabuki roots, expanded to include some on location outdoor shoots. Otherwise the story could conveniently unfold on stage for all and sundry, given the limited number of characters involved in a pretty straightforward narrative. In fact, amongst all the films screened during this year's festival, this is the most conventional of the lot.

The main protagonist of the film is an anti-hero with enough reasons for anyone to dislike him from the onset. Iemon Tamiya (Shigeru Amachi) opens the film as a murderer, killing just because he got faced with a "No" answer to his desire of marrying Oiwa (Kazuko Wakasugi), and then cooks up an elaborate story just to gain her trust, which involves more murder and the pining of the blame to a criminal on the loose.

An ambitious man, he continues looking for a way to better his life and status as a lowly samurai, and sees the quickest way is to marry into a rich family by asking for the hand of Oume (Junko Ikeuchi) in marriage. The complication here is of course his wife whom we had seen him go to great lengths to well, win her over, and the only way to gain a shortcut to the higher class, is to bump her off through an accusation of adultery that he sets up with Takuetsu (Jun Otomo).

Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa, the film runs under 80 minutes, and the hauntings well placed only toward the last act where they come quite fast and furious. The bulk of the film gets stuck in setting up how repulsive Iemon is as a person, who will stop at nothing in order to fulfill his desires, never for once hesitating that his grand plan is nothing short of immoral. Being a significant role later, time is also devoted to how virtuous Oiwa is as a wife, bringing to life the mantra of for better or worse, and believing that one day her husband would make it good. Little does she know of course that she doesn't figure in his future plans at all.

Much of the horror comes from Iemon's guilt consciousness in constantly seeing visions of his disfigured wife and friend whom he had sent in the act of seduction. Stylistically the appearance of ghostly apparitions are done in old school fashion with plenty of make-up and lighting effects at play, especially since this is a revenge flick where the guilty gets punished because the spirits come back to settle their unfinished business, being wrongly accused and punished. Iemon is quite the fine swordsman that he is, and his swiftness with the sword would prove to be his downfall as he hacks and slashes at his ghostly visions.

Naturally the fun comes in the haunting of Iemon, but amongst the artistic presentation of the other films in this year's festival, The Ghost of Yotsuya stood out for its simplicity, and turned out to be very much enjoyable.

[Japanese Film Festival] Onibaba (鬼婆)

Having Fun

The film opens with a shot of the deep, dark hole in the ground of some tall grasslands, which serve as the dumping ground of an old woman (Nobuko Otawa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) when they kill off straggling soldiers who venture into their territory. Think of it as that infamous pit you see in 300. Set at a time during feudal Japan where two emperors squared off against each other, it is a time of impoverishment, and the men all out to serve either emperors, leaving the women to fend for themselves. These two though do it through murder, and gathering the weaponry of their victims, bartering them for food.

Lifestyle is sparse, consisting of a very rudimentary and routine lifestyle of hunting, eating and sleeping, until one day their son/husband Kichi's friend Hachi (Kei Sato) appears, and learnt that he had escaped while Kichi had likely perished. Now having a virile young man and a pretty lass left alone in the village slowly develops into passionate lust, with the girl scooting off at every opportunity to partake in the pleasures of the flesh. Which of course threatens the lifestyle of the old lady, needing able hands to assist in their continued sustenance.

Shot in black and white, this Kaneto Shindo film deals with the selfishness of humanity, where relations exists because of advantages to be gain, mutual or otherwise. Sexual gratification is one, and for the old lady, the confession's quite clear as to why she requires her daughter-in-law to continue what they had set out to do, rather than to spend too much time with Hachi. The first half of the film sets up the premise, and in some ways is kind of repetitive, and comical even, to see the lass run miles and miles as fast as she could, just to get laid, perchance seeing the probability of a new life with someone who had deserted from the war.

The second half came across with a touch of comedy, especially when the old lady, now exasperated and very nearly resigning to her fate, chances upon a scary Samurai general who hides his identity behind a sinister looking mask. She constantly probes him with questions while being forced to lead him out of the grasslands, and to everyone's surprise, I think the loudest laughter came from his reason why the need to wear a mask. Which of course doesn't exactly tell you so, and creates a sense of mystery shrouding its cursed origins.

This is not Jim Carrey's green mask that could help in granting its wearer unlimited powers of course, but set out to help the old woman do exactly what she needed, though with some expected results. Perhaps it's to say that one should learn to let go at times, and definitely not plot evil in case of karmic retribution. And with the parable of always looking carefully before you leap, leaving the finale open ended for that 50-50 speculation whether the glass is half full or empty.

Friday, August 28, 2009

[Japanese Film Festival] Strange Circus (Kimyô Na Sâkasu)

Watch and Learn

Compared to the previous film, the production values here just scream out at you with its opulence from the opening scene , from its colourful sets and gaudy characters leaping out with a compere introducing some characters and acts in a strange circus indeed. Written and directed by Sion Sono, I have only had one experience with his Noriko's Dinner Table, and had primed myself for yet another tale of the bizarre, and one that touches on his pet subject, the erosion of identity and values in a traditional Japanese family.

This one though, had Sick written all over it, especially with the premise Sion had started off with. We are painted the picture of a perfect, rich household of three, before dad Gozo (Fumie Nakashima) starts to hatch an evil idea of hiding his daughter Mitsuko (Rie Kuwana / Mai Takahashi playing different age groups) in a specially designed cello case with a peephole, which he puts in the master bedroom in order for Mitsuko to learn the art of making love. Needless to say, throw in child sexual abuse, and a mother Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki in a comeback role) who's just compelled to peep from the same case, and things are just not what they seem.

It gets even sicker through the complication of emotions and standing within the household, where Sayuri gets jealous with the attention that her child is getting from her husband, and a deadly tussle ensued, resulting in a guilt trip which Mitsuko, now assuming fully the role of a wife, starts to look at herself having the physical make up of a fully grown woman, taking the appearance of her mother. If you've made it to this point, that's great, since it's probably nothing more than a severely dysfunctional family being put on screen in an examination of taboo issues like incest.

Then Sion starts to turn things over our heads, with this seemingly one-track narrative being nothing more than the storyline of the paralyzed novelist Taeko (also played by Masumi Miyazaki), which makes one wonder if what we've seen thus far is but a figment of her imagination of yet another potential bestseller, or there's something more than meets the eye especially to her paralysis. Sion then begins to cut forwards and backwards a lot more, resulting in a tale that could go either way, depending on whether you're buying the story in the novel as a fantasy, or rooted in reality. The introduction of Taeko's androgynous assistant Yuji (Issei Ishida) also helped made this particular act stranger than usual, though you're likely to come off with a suspicion that he's got a lot more to do with Taeko than it seemed.

If you're comfortable enough with the inclusion on this act, then the last one that Sion throws at you, in an effort to gel this weird mother-daughter dynamics, will be the litmus test for each individual whether you like the film or not. To me, I thought it was fine, though confusion can arise because now all three arcs start to mash up against one another, and the lines between fantasy and reality will very much depend on which angle you prefer to adopt. I'd go for how sexual abuse will really warp a young, impressionable child's mind, and turn it into a long drawn out tale of mystery and revenge. Sion adds to the confusion through the use of perspectives, having different characters assume roles that we've seen before, and when you try to logically work things out, in comes the scenes of gore and torture for horror classification.

Don't be put off too early by Strange Circus, as there is enough material on hand to warrant multiple viewings just to test out the other hypotheses on who's actually who, and who actually did what. As mentioned, the production values are just great, though some scenes, or the thought of it since they happen off-screen, would make you nausea. Different layers being presented independently, then rolled together into one, makes Strange Circus quite a challenge to sit through, but with a satisfying payoff at the end.

[Japanese Film Festival] Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts (Kichiku Dai Enkai)

There are some shows that you feel are doing something weird for the sake of, and this feels like one of those films. It's easy to come up with something filled with continuous bore, I mean, gore, blood, mutilation of body parts and the likes just to elicit a shocking response from an audience, and probably to have some fun while at it during the production process with copious amounts of blood spraying, dripping and oozing around sets. This graduating film just seems like that.

Written, directed and edited by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts is supposedly based on a real incident known as the Asamo Sanso Incident in the 70s, where a group of left wing students had a stand off with the police in a lodge, and ultimately turned their violence inwards toward one another. In some ways the premise might seem like The Baader Meinhof Complex with its free love and violence to champion their cause, but this film had a lot more sadistic violence in store especially when the group start to hit the woods.

It opens with a man being released from prison, where his cellmate Aizawa tells him to visit his revolutionary group, currently held together by his girlfriend Masami (Sumiko Mikami). As with most groups, when a charismatic leader is in the slammer, the survival of the group will depend very much on the leadership ability of the interim leader, which Masami has failed in many ways, manipulating the group through threats and her not-so-hot body - well I guess if you're the only chick in the group, the rest will just make do. These are revolutionaries who are dedicated to their cause, but look more like lost sheep without a leader, partying away while awaiting the release of Aizawa.

Which doesn't happen, and provides the catalyst of a lot more gore to come in the film, from the disembowelling of the gut, right down to exploding heads, fondling of brain matter, castration, mutilation, decapitation and what have yous. Masami goes crazy with deep running distrust that someone in the group is a mole, and hence the very prolonged scenes of violence and torture, that seems to numb after a while when everyone gets into the act of self-preservation. Too much of a good (or bad) thing being repeated, just loses it and makes it seem like it's in for purely visual shock-reasons.

The sole redeeming grace for me in this film, is the awesome soundtrack, where the primary use of drum beats did seem suspiciously similar to Tan Dun's masterpiece in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Probably the only thing that kept me awake from snoozing in this film that fell flat.

Sintok Singapore Film Festival Tokyo

Between 5th to 13th September next month, if you're residing in Tokyo, Japan or are heading up there, and are curious to know what Singapore films are like, then here's your chance! The inaugural Sintok (Singapore-Tokyo that is) Singapore Film Festival Tokyo will be organized at the swanky Cinemart Roppongi and features a great selection of feature length and short films from our country, complete with Q&A sessions with either directors-in-attendance, or online via Skype.

The feature films include Brian Gothong Tan's Invisible Children (which I have yet to see! Though it will be screened on local television screens this weekend), Colin Goh & Woo Yen Yen's Singapore Dreaming, Wee Li-Lin's Gone Shopping, Royston Tan's 4:30, Tan Pin Pin's documentaries Moving House and Singapore Gaga, Boo Junfeng's short films, and the first three feature films of Eric Khoo - Mee Pok Man, 12 Storeys and Be With Me.

For those who want to know more about the festival,
Sintok is a non-profit film festival and the Organising Committee members and professional subtitle translators are all volunteers. Due to the economic climate, there're less and less opportunities for "minor films" to be shown in Japan while there are many films that deserve attention. This is our attempt to show films of different variety within our limited fund, time, person power and expertise.

For more information, such as screening schedule, guests list and ticketing details, click here to get to the Festival Website.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Final Destination 3D

Death By Escalator

If you're a fan of the franchise, you'd know the drill by now, and can probably mentally run through all the cliché moments you'll be expected to see being played out on screen once again. Start with a spectacular death-defying escape from certain demise, and because Death cannot accept those who cheated on him, hence begins that hunter-prey game where the Death's invisible hand starts to design some elaborate life-ending sequence for its victims, sometimes with some wickedly black humour thrown in.

Seriously though, Death has turned hip in the series, allowing a select group of survivors led by a prophetic messenger, if anything just to challenge himself to pick them off one by one through the simple rule of elimination in order of the premonition, dangling the carrot that whosoever can break any of his death traps, will be worthy of a second chance in life, not. One thing's for sure, an audience is not going to just walk in and expect great acting or high drama. All we want, simply and crudely put, is to see how brutal or comical death can result from sometimes the most ridiculous of set ups.

To top its predecessors, this installment had its introductory big scene set in stock car racing, which is the perfect avenue for 101 things to go wrong, and when they do, have thousands of potential victims to pick off from. While the very first movie had a spectacular, and some say too realistic for good taste in having witness from within a plane break up and explode upon take-off, this one had an adrenaline pumping race that got enhanced thanks to the latest gimmick in town, 3D.

And while some films are presented in 3D format without exploiting its 3D elements to the maximum, The Final Destination milked every single sequence that it could. From the get go you have objects darting around and flying toward you, be it huge tyres or mashed body insides, everything got hurled toward you from the screen, which I have to admit made me duck a couple of times, having deliberately chosen to sit up front so that the screen totally enveloped my field of vision. But there were still some sequences that looked quite cheaply done though, akin to the quality of those made for television movies due to a smaller budget devoted to effects. But for what it's worth as a 3D film, this is one of the better contemporary live action ones out there now.

One does not expect Oscar winning material in its storyline or acting, though the eye-candy cast made sitting through this film palatable, even if they're acting range comes with vast rooms for improvement. The film's relatively short, clocking under 90 minutes, and had enough cheat sheet deja-vu moments (which included the opening credits priming you on what to expect) to repeat itself for the sole purpose of bloating the runtime. It also ran out of steam in its final act, leading to a very convenient and rushed conclusion which was just probably director David R. Ellis' way of saying “I do not know how to end this”.

Will there be another Final Destination? Sure, if the writers can dream up of another shocker of an opening sequence to set the stage for more deathly carnage to happen. It's no-brainer, and if box office results this opening weekend prove to be stellar, then we should expect this franchise to develop some legs to keep going on. And on. But if that happens, this will be viewed in 3D, or naught.

[Japanese Film Festival] Manji (卍)


If I can make a Hollywood reference for Manji, I'd suggest it's a little bit like Closer, except that it's a lot more intense with its expressions of love and lust, and extremely manipulative characteristics built into its four lead characters, each faced with selfish desires and dilemmas, centred around things like blackmail, suicide pacts and adultery.

Housewife Sonoko Kakiuchi (Kyoko Kishida) narrates her tale to a stern looking man (A cop? A biographer? A shrink even?) who maintains his silence throughout that it seemed a little creepy. From nowhere in her account of her tale did this chap feature in it, so one can only wonder that he must be someone significant enough to warrant her to spill the beans to.

Being victims of art school gossip, Sonoko and Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao), the pretty daughter of a wealthy industrialist and a fellow student in Sonoko's school, decide to take one step forward in killing off malicious talk, and that is to play along to make it all seem real to quash delight in talking behind someone's back. A short trip to Nara later, and the duo seem to have clicked and hit it off like best pals with common interests.

Soon their friendship ventured into some crazed sexual obsession, especially when Mitsuko's model looks and figure drive Sonoko wild with envy and strange desire, paving the way for some lesbian moments. And as if their passion for each other isn't enough, soon they are joined by Kotaro (Riji Funakoshi), Sonoko's questioning husband, and Watanuki (Yusuke Kawazi) the clingy fiance of Mitsuko. Various threesome relationships soon start to form, with credit going to magic powder that contributed to blending reality and fantasy, and Sonoko and Watanuki engaging in a blood pact of sorts in a strange ritual to possess their object of desire in Mitsuko to themselves.

For all the characters' cunningness, especially in master manipulator Mitsuko and the equally shady Watanuki, I was half expecting some of its plot elements to venture into a more conventional, and material blackmail and ruin with contracts so casually signed and sealed (in blood), but I guess director-in-focus for the festival Yasuzo Masumura had other ideas, opting for the psychological and the emotional turmoil that each of the characters face. There's this tremendous trust-mistrust emotional ping-pong that the characters go through which will keep you constantly questioning and probing their intent and hidden agendas. To me the actual highlight is exactly these mind games the four characters play, the tussle to gain upper ground to fulfil their personal wants, brought to life excellently by the actors themselves who will keep you engaged all the way to the finale.

For those looking forward to its exploitative moments, this is not that film. Comparing it to its genre peers, Manji seemed a little tame, where sexual acts are mostly implied and nudity falling victim to strategic cover-ups. I suppose that the lip locks too didn't actually happen and had to rely on camera angles, and body doubles aptly used in the gazing of the naked flesh. But then, the largest sexual organ is firmly in top gear here, not as a stimulant but as a weapon in coming up with brainy, conniving schemes to gain the upper hand, which in itself is a horrific thought since we are all innately capable of falling prey to temptation enough to design plans that hurt.

The festival films thus far had steered clear of the more conventional thought of the themes presented, and clearly it's an eye opener as to how many more films could fit into the themes in an unorthodox way. One thing though, from last night's screening and today's, artists or artists wannabe have been shown as souls willing to engage in deviant acts in the name of their art, and more so too in satisfying their strange fetishes. I look forward to see what more is in store in the subsequent screenings!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Let's Rock This Joint!

If bad marketing can torpedo a film's chances at the box office, then Bandslam is one such unfortunate victim to fall prey to shoddy promotional efforts, where its High School Musical, kiddie-like trailer would have put off the non-Disney fans, and unfairly slapped on a juvenile perception on this film that had so much of a mature aspect and indie-spirit going for it, from its sensitively crafted characters to its eclectic choice of songs that just did wonders.

The gist of the film centers on its protagonist Will Burton (Gaelan Connell), who is the new kid in town, moving with his single mom Karen (Lisa Kudrow) to a new town to try and start things afresh. He broods a lot, and narrates his letter of the day to his idol David Bowie. Priding himself as a musical encyclopedia of sorts, his human studies classes will see him paired up with goth chick Sa5m (the 5 is silent), played by HSM alumni and Efron-less Vanessa Hudgens, and in his after-school hours, his good Samaritan turn and easy going nature sees him making friends with senior year Charlotte (Alyson Michalka). Not bad for a new kid actually to have been taken notice of by some of the hottest chicks in school.

Then there's Bandslam the competition, where Charlotte ropes Will in to be their manager, and he has to assemble a rag tag team of musicians, and basically be pushed to the forefront of making things happen, from recruitment, to song selection, demo tapes, website, the whole works. From a nobody before to having his school life all planned out for him, this of course leads to plenty of zero to hero moments that you would be familiar with especially if you're a fan of such genre from the Japanese. But director Todd Graff had injected the film with enough maturity to avoid being just another clone, and as such made this highly enjoyable from the get go.

But the strength of this movie laid in its portrayal of teenage relationships, be it parental where one's teenage life starts to fill up, leaving out one's parents who feel that you're abandoning them for more happening peers, or the platonic, which is often the catalyst for jealousy and misunderstandings. Then there's the romantic angle which is typically saccharine sweet, if not for well placed humour to break things up a little bit. Being a film primarily about contemporary teenagers who grapple with perennial issues like confidence, believing in oneself, identity crisis and the sense of belonging, this growing up tale also had enough backstory built into it that just led to a richer experience, without having the need to show everything explicitly.

However the film played down the typical stereotypes that come to plague the teenage movies, such as the blonde who has to be Ms Popular – in fact she's Ms Quirky here – or that Goth Chick who has to be Ms Emo. On the contrary, it shattered some of the stereotypes through excellent characterization that makes you look beyond their physical make up and come to understand the common concerns that you would have identified with (given old blokes like me who are way past the teenage years). The great looking leads (well, some geeks here are pleasing to the eye at least) also helped, and what more having real life singers and performers like Michalka, Hudgens and the other performing bands helped to lend some authenticity to the film's musical elements too. As the main, relatively unknown lead, Gaelan Connell held the ground firmly, and while his character had the weight-of-the-world-on-his-shoulders look, Connell was charismatic and likable to have made you want to root for him and his cause, without bringing in any irritation of smugness.

If you subscribe to the mantra of no music no life, then Bandslam is your film. Being a sucker for zero to hero type stories that I've weaned on from Japan, this film had those formulaic elements done right, and more, with its cast anchoring a solid emotional core and a finale that you'll find hard pressed not to groove to. Forget its marketing people, otherwise you'll be unfairly missing out on what I would shortlist for my end of the year top 10 list. Definitely highly recommended, and watch out for that surprise at the end which just summed the theme of hope in the film really nicely!

[Japanese Film Festival] The Blind Beast (Môjû)

Seeing Evil

Since this is partly a blog, if I may indulge in a personal story and experience involving a touchy feely blind man, that while watching this show somewhat reminded me of him. I was with a female friend minding own business at a train station near the West. I left her at the ticketing counter while I answered nature's call. When I returned, there was this blind man talking to her, and out from nowhere, a hand shot out and grabbed her arm. I wondered what the heck was going on of course, only for her to assure me that he was just asking for directions, and needed help.

I didn't buy his story naturally, and especially not when his hand started to roam along her arm. Suspicious and not liking this blind dude, I reached out and to my surprise had to exert considerable force to pry his grip on my friend’s arm, and he reached out for mine instead. He pleaded that he needed someone to guide him home, and from the address given, it wasn't that far away. So we decided to escort him rather than dumping him there, though along the way he had this iron-vice grip on my arm, as if punishing me for disallowing him the touch of my female friend. To cut it short, we let him be along his way at the foot of his block. I was left with an arm with fingernails dug right in, and a supposed neighbour told us that the blind man is a little crazed, and to ignore him. Who knows what we would have found should we have escorted him to his doorstep, probably find a studio like that in the film!

Which was nothing short of amazing, and I think many in the audiences gasped at the audacious sculptures of body parts handing from the walls, like a 3D police photo-fit containing limbs, facial features, and boobs of all shapes and sizes. Eiji Finakoshi plays the blind sculptor Michio, who is looking to transcend his art by seeking a muse with whom he can explore the female body, and together with his acute sense of touch, translate the intricacies and sensual female form to clay. The film opens with his visit to a photography exhibition featuring the model Aki (Mado Midori), and through her narration, there’s some strange connection being felt when Michio starts to fondle a sculpture of hers.

Almost like Psycho, Michio lives under the confines of his small house cum studio, under the close supervision of his mother (played by Noriko Sengoku), who go to great lengths in order to care for her disabled son, and that included conspiring with him to kidnap his Aki to become his new muse and inspiration to create that perfect artwork. And from that point on, it’s the relationship and dynamics between these three main characters within a constricted space that elevates this film with common sensibilities and rivalry that any layman can identify with.

As the proverbial “they” always say, trouble will brew when there are two women in the house. Aki’s presence is typical of a daughter-in-law who has trouble with both the son and his mother. There’s this constant tussle between the two women to vie for the guy’s attention, whose blindness is almost like a metaphor that we are always put in no good a position where we sometimes fail apply good sense and judgement, and allow emotions to take control. Here, Michio’s lust often gives Aki the advantage, who is constantly seeking some means of escaping her ordeal as a kidnapped victim of art. The actors here all put in top notch performances, especially Mako Midori in her role shifting from victim to perpetrator, from helplessness to the gaining of the upper hand, scheming in applying the divide and conquer strategy to wedge jealousy and suspicion between her captors.

The last act was a descent into the strange and weird when the Stockholm Syndrome kicked in and comes full of touchy-feely scenes, with Michio using sexual violence to finally overpower his muse, and of course had plenty to classify the film under gore and horror. In fact, when the last scenes were into their full swing, you can here the yelps of disbelief of the gory obvious that would unfold, especially when director Yasuzo Masumura, who drew upon this Rampo Edogawa story, never failed to remind you of the razor thin line between pleasure and pain. While at times comical with the words of expression used, there’s enough here that would make you squirm, and this descent into madness is likely to stick in your mind long after the end credits roll.

Nonetheless this film had impressed me with its huge, surreal artistic objects, and won me over with the middle act, which became the make-or-break. The last act seemed to be undoubtedly classifying this as a cult film for its shock value, though it does put out a statement of the lengths that some would go in order to achieve that level of artistic self-actualization, which comes with pain and sacrifice.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Glen Goei's THE BLUE MANSION Set to World Premiere at 14th Pusan International Film Festival

Singapore director Glen Goei’s upcoming film, The Blue Mansion has been selected to open in the "Window on Asian Cinema" at the 14th Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) this year. Glen’s first feature film That’s The Way I Like It/Forever Fever was one of Singapore's earlier films which had its world rights picked up by Miramax, and it's been a long 11 years since for his second feature film to hit the big screen.

With a cast of thespian talent from both Singapore and Malaysia, and backed by an international production crew which includes Larry Smith who was the Director of Photography on Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, I'm having quite high hopes for this film, possibly the final local film to be released this year in Singapore, scheduled for October 22nd. But for those who will be heading toward Pusan in early October, you're in luck to catch its World Premiere there!

Here's the synopsis:
THE BLUE MANSION is a quirky murder mystery about a wealthy Asian tycoon who dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances and returns as a ghost to try to uncover the secret of his death. Two eager detectives investigate the death chasing all leads and suspects, including the dead man's three children. The ghost witnesses his own funeral wake, attended by jealous relatives and business competitors as well as the police investigation that unveils hidden family secrets.

The trailer and a making-of clip are already available on YouTube, and you can view them here:


Making-of Clip

Get Your Family To Watch!

Related Links
Official Movie Website
Trailer on YouTube
Making-of Clip on YouTube

[Japanese Film Festival] House (Hausu)

One Trippy Ride

This is the opening film of this year's edition of the Japanese Film Festival, showcasing a total of 9 films from today until Sunday based upon the genres of Horror, Mystery and Supernatural. But whatever your experience with Japanese horror, nothing had prepared me for what I've seen in director Nobuhiko Obayashi's House, which is very unlike most, if not all of the horror films that I've seen come out from the land of the rising sun.

If I had not known that the story was by Obayashi's then 7 year old daughter, I would have wonder what magic mushrooms Obayashi could have consumed in order to dream up some of the craziest sequences ever for a horror movie. Scratch that. Make this a comedy instead, as you'd probably never hear anyone scream from the more “horrific” moments, perhaps only exclaim at how cliché this was, or how this film didn't outlast the test of time. Clearly for a film made in 1977, one couldn't expect the usual polished technical methods used to make the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up, and I really wonder how this film had been received back in its heyday.

The plot is extremely straightforward, but the journey to get to its first victim, comes complete with family melodrama complete with a Japanese-speaking Italian stepmother who probably spawned the Hindi movie staple of having wind blown everywhere on the heroine's body. It took a while for all its characters to be introduced, some throwaway of course, like the roadside watermelon seller. In fact, the introductory subplot about accepting a step-parent got shelved really early to make way for the Scooby-Doo-like adventures involving a haunted house, which of course is where all the juvenile fun was.

Visually, if you're unforgiving about the early beginnings of special effects, then you're likely to be finding fault with plenty. Otherwise, I suppose there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from on how effects have progressed over the last 30 years, and something like those shown, if made today, probably wouldn't get away with today's discerning audience. The soundtrack as well was a bit off, and I can't find a moment's silence where there wasn't a need for music drowning out the conversation, which was especially bad during the opening acts, and served as quite the distraction.

House served up an excuse to get a group of schoolgirls together on an excursion to one of their aunt's abode deep in some mountainous forest, and we learn about the aunt's unlucky love life through a flashback scene which I thought was pretty well done, in silent movie terms. Once the victims are trapped, then the craziness really began. With each of the characters given names like Fairy, Fantasy, Scholar, Kungfu, Sweet, Melody and Mac, they are nothing more than your band of caricatures who will live up to their namesakes. Fairy of course, if coming from a young girl, would be given to the heroine, while amongst the lot, Kungfu looked very much like the precursor to Street Fighter's Chun Li with her incredible short underpants, and butt-kicking moves, which don't look as threatening as they are laughable.

The horror elements get fused together with animation sometimes which sort of toned down the gory impact the film would have, from cannibalistic acts to psychological teasers. Then there are the unintentionally comedic elements, which involve camera tricks, repetition (some of which are truly ingenious though, I have to admit), and one couldn't get away with writing about the film, without making mention of that crazy white cat, which you would learn to keep your eyes peeled on for some of the craziest antics ever dreamt up for a cinematic feline.

Personally this has B written all over it. Liked it I did not, but enjoyed and appreciated the vast technical improvements in today's horror films I have. It's really different and it's not a horror film in the conventional sense, but if you're looking for inventiveness and ingenuity, then House should rank high up on the list of recommendations.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Turning Point (Laughing Gor 之 變節 / Laughing Gor Chi Bin Chit)

Bloody Traitor

It's not everyday that a character in a television series got so well liked by the general public, that a movie gets created for that character in order to allow fans one last hurrah, and dwell a little bit more on the background of the character. In true Hong Kong crime thriller style, the character of actor Michael Tse's Laughing Gor (or literally translated as Brother Laughing, a queer name for a gangster really) gets backed by its TVB television studio and Shaw Bros, and the result is this unfortunate telemovie made for the big screen, directed by Herman Yau.

The story here is nothing new, and the list of films to cite about undercover cops can go up to many miles long. Perhaps what this movie truly resembled in spirit would be Yau's own movie On The Edge starring Nick Cheung as an undercover who had completed his mission, and tries his best to assimilate his life back to normalcy, but facing challenging odds of discrimination. That film also starred Francis Ng and Anthony Wong, and deja-vu when watching this film is quite an understatement.

Set in the earlier days of Laughing before the events of television series E.U., it chronicles the life of a convenience store cashier who gets adopted by Anthony Wong's No. 1, and given the fad of sending your own thugs into the police force, he does the same with Laughing. On the side of the Law, Yuen Biao (good to see him in a supporting role) stars as Superintendent Sin, who eyes this young lad and grooms him into becoming a mole for the police force. Hence Laughing's career as a double agent begins, straddling the thin line of doing good and bad, reporting one to the other side, and vice versa.

What's interesting here is that the bad guys are fully aware of Laughing's status, and that No. 1 himself had been an ex-cop turned undercover, by the same superior. Hence he sees some similarities with Laughing, and tries his best to protect his man against that of his rival (Francis Ng), whose sister Karen (Fala Chen) Laughing falls for. The themes of trust, paranoia and betrayal go full steam ahead since nobody trusts anyone else, and even your most trusted man can betray you just to get ahead, or are listening to orders from the top (Eric Tsang, who was given a very un-Tsang like dubbed Mandarin voice).

And this sense of distrust permeates throughout the film, until it got a tad ridiculous with moles planted on opposite sides of the law, and on the same side, and with undercover cops so easily revealing themselves to their own uniformed folks, it soon became a strange little comedy, where everyone could be working for someone else, capable of switching loyalties at a whim. What made it worse was the narrative trying its best to confuse rather than hold you in suspense, with flash forwards and flashbacks taking their toil.

Somehow I felt that Herman Yau got to direct this with both hands shackled behind his back. Famed for his Cat III classics of violence and sex, there were glimpses of perhaps how far he could have gone should he not be tasked to ensure the appeal and accessibility for a wide spectrum of audience. There was the use of choppers, and a strikingly toned down punishment system where victims get wrapped in plastic and hung up like meat, before given a good whacking. Even the bevy of leggy beauties surrounding Anthony Wong fit the flower vase mold, and if Yau were to be given the green light, well I guess we all know what could happen.

The most powerful scenes and subplot that could be expanded here, involved choice to do the right thing given the circumstances presented, and of course for the greater good. There were two characters who are in stark contrasts with each other, each being in the same boat, but ultimately taking different paths in their lives, with different consequences. Laughter's story, if compared to that of Andy Lau's character in Infernal Affairs, seemed to emerge stronger with a better deal of sorts in convincingly arguing his case of transforming from triad to cop, but alas the twin distractions of Francis Ng doing what he's best, and Anthony Wong's androgynous look complete with lipstick, eyeliner and the mohawk, seemed to have stolen a lot of thunder.

Definitely for the fans of the series only, and those who do not mind Ng and Wong reprising the same old roles all over again.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

[6th Singapore Short Cuts] Week 2 - 4th Session

The final session for this year's edition of Singapore Short Cuts saw one film being withdrawn from the festival, and one rescreened so that the teenage actor could watch it outside of its initial grouping with the R21 rated films on the first day. As for Ikan Langka (Rare Fish), well it got selected for the Pusan International Film Festival as Warren Sin, program manager at the National Museum Cinematheque explained, so best of luck!

The Story of I
Dir: Syarah Mahmood and Team
2009 | 4:05 min | No dialogue | PG

This is one trippy ride following Little Red Riding Hood who got caught up in this inexplicable world, one which allows the animators to show off their vast range of techniques in one trippy ride. The narrative's nothing more than a vehicle that allows that, and seriously I think our local animators have a lot to give, from various works I've seen thus far. While our animated features just failed to engage, the short film scene is that saving grace that we're all not that bad nor far off from producing quality animated works. This is but the tip of the iceberg.

The Robber / 打抢
Dir: Eric Youwei Lin
2009 | 7 min | No dialogue | PG

The Robber tells of a face off between a young boy and an old bearded man in and around the latter's provision shop in an idyllic village. Centered around the misunderstanding of a misplaced currency note, it explodes into something deeply personal, with a treatment that leaps out of a martial arts epic over the theme of revenge, with an operatic feel thanks to its use of classical Chinese instruments in a dialogue-free narrative. Kept extremely simple and accessible, with very beautiful production values.

The Hunters of Xuan Wu / 玄武猎人
Dir: Matthew Bowyer
2008 | 6 min | English | PG

I laughed when the actors came on screen. No, it's not because they were looking funny, because they are acquaintances and friends of friends and have seen them acting on stage, and I was gladly surprised that they have key roles to play in this action short directed by Matthew Bowyer. It's a simple tale that has plenty of technicalities poured in to bring out that movie magic of hunters versus a mythical beast, which you don't get to see a lot of in order to maintain that aura of mystique.

Presented in black and white and shot in and around the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, there were plenty of camera shots and angles here for that adrenaline junkie in you, and slick editing provided that illusion that the humans were up against something massive to be conquered. One of the more technically brilliant films in this year's edition to bring about that sense of excitement, and comes with plenty of running.

Dir: Jeremy Sing
2009 | 6 min | Mandarin with English subtitles | G

Commissioned by the Singapore Men's Chorus back in 2008, Jeremy Sing's Mi is a simple piece set in the 80s showing the relationship between a mother and her child, and how sometimes one's orders cannot totally block off the other's will, as seen with the radio and music that permeates from the outside. During the Q&A Jeremy had explained that this film was to lead onto the stage performance by the chorus, and hence did feel like an introduction to something larger.

Within this short film there were primarily two key scenes, which I thought the first one stood out really well, with some nuances about a non-proficient English speaker trying her best to coach her son in English, making mistakes but never shying away from it because, frankly, they're left up to their own devices to ensure he gets a proper education. The sets that he chose, such as the window grille, is distinctly 80s fashion, as with the social issues of latch key children with the mom leaving her son behind at home alone, to shop at People's Park (how retro!)

Dreaming Kester
Dir: Martin Hong Cho Ann
2009 | 14 min | English | PG

I suppose this is what an idealistic youth's nightmare about living in Singapore would look like, where he has to trade a once carefree life of limited concerns beyond self, to one that has to comply and conform in a monotonous, straight laced environment of work and responsibility. Martin's protagonist, a likely mirror of his own fears of pushing that entry into adulthood, shows us the relatively exaggerated lifestyles of a very structured Singapore, where he's trying his best to fight against the National Adultist Board, a group of unsmiling, emotionless bunch who wear nametags, and can't wait to assimilate wild passion into the collective whole.

Clearly with production values from a school video project, the first thoughts of it was that the introduction and plot element of having a narrator talk directly with Kester, resembled that from Stranger Than Fiction, where the character reacts with disdain and disbelief. The narrative follows Kester in his fight against growing up, and to hold on to his childish ideals alongside a sidekick robot, where credit has to go to the successfully and cheesily done camera tricks. It included a number of time and spatial travel elements, before settling on getting down to its point about the inevitable, where memories are but markers in the passage of time.


A short Q&A session followed the screenings, and today's session is moderated by Warren Sin, who's the National Museum Cinematheque's curator for its film programmes.

LtoR: Warren Sin, Martin Hong Cho Ann, , Jeremy Sing, Syarah Mahmood

Part 1 of 4

Part 2 of 4

Part 3 of 4

Part 4 of 4


Coco Before Chanel (Coco Avant Chanel)


Directed by Anne Fontaine and based upon the book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, Coco Before Chanel is a biographical tale of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel set a timeline which is just that, before she founded the fashion empire. So for those who are more intrigued about the fashion world and the impact Chanel has on it, then this is not the movie you're looking for, as it firmly dwells on Coco as a person, and her romantic dalliances with two men who played significant roles in her life, be it in support of her daily sustenance, or inspiring and providing fuel for her desire to make a name for herself.

The film dedicated plenty of time in Coco's awakening toward the French high life of the time, since she became a voluntary kept mistress of rich playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who in a way had rescued her from poverty, and whose riches afforded to her provided that access to the slacker lifestyles of the rich and famous. The audience too get reminded time and again of how stifling a woman's place in high society was at the turn of the century, made worse by the restrictive clothing like corsets, frills, and lace from the neck right down to sweeping the floors. Coco's disdain and penchant for freedom led to bold designs that do not conform, starting from her hats which provided her some attention and notoriety even.

As Coco Chanel, Audrey Tautou epitomizes that level of elegance, vulnerability and rebellious streak to do things differently. Her petiteness and somewhat boyish cut figure probably suited the role really well as the initial designs by Coco were those inspired by menswear, though you only get glimpses of her design genius from short montages scattered throughout, and from some scenes which show her working at a tailor shop, but other than that you will gain very little from this bio-pic other than the messy love life that she got herself into, first with benefactor of sorts Etienne, who treated her nothing more than an object to bed in exchange for lodging, then Alessandro Nivola's Arthur “Boy”Capel, a businessman with whom she falls head over heels with. The romances do make you wonder about how careless the treatment of emotions are, where love and issues of marriage are quite trivially handled.

While Anne Fontaine nailed down the look of the film, the feel somehow was found to be lacking, as apart from the romantic angle, nothing else really rang through until the last act, which was a very hastily down finale to show the tremendous progress Coco had undergone once she had closed her heart, where she had broken through a society and introduced radical changes to an industry, from hats to influencing a lot more in the fashion world. How she did exactly that, is best left to another film because this one had little else other than repeated shots of scissors going through fabric.

Without a doubt the clothes here are the star of the show, from the fashions of societal norms in both directions of the rich-poor spectrum, to Coco Chanel's designs for her own with her menswear inspired pieces, and unfortunately, the glamour-chic pieces only making it through in a parting shot at the finale, since the founding of the business empire was grossly passed over deliberately. The opulently designed clothes of that era stand in stark contrast to the Chanel pieces, which celebrates sheer beauty and elegance in their simplicity, and probably from there, stamping its mark on the fashion industry.

Don't approach this film with an expectation that you would learn something of the beginnings of Chanel the brand and how it became the icon of today. In fact, it's more about the love and early life of its founder, who without her accomplishment and the name backing her, could have turned out to be nothing more than a generic, average, and perhaps even strange romantic picture. And of course, this is also for Audrey Tautou fans who'll lap up her look as Coco Chanel in those chic garbs.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Cove

Murder Ground

It saddens me to watch The Cove, because unless your heart is made of stone, it's unlikely not to become unaffected by it, when it shows how evil man can be. It also boggles the mind when you mull over whether the perpetrators know exactly what they're doing in committing such atrocities, that extinction of species boil down to those who are indifferent, inhumane, and corrupted by the smell of profits that highlights Man's propensity for destruction. To claim superiority over another by explanation of the preservation of culture, is bullshit at best, and it just shows how consciously ignorant we can sometimes get due to either lack of understanding, or just simply refusing to change incorrect mindsets.

I'm sure many of us will agree that dolphins are very beautiful water-based mammals, and the lucky few who have gotten to chance upon them in their natural habitat will attest to the fact that it's awe-inspiring to have seen them in action. From time to time we read about the heroic nature of our mammal counterparts in saving human lives, so what would warrant such untold cruelties toward those blessed by Nature with a smile and an extremely gentle, docile nature, or cursed as the filmmakers would say, because they are unable to project outwardly their feelings of pain, sadness and betrayal by humankind?

Director Louie Psihoyos had crafted an incredible documentary which isn't just another save-this-species film, or just another wildlife conservation flick. Somehow, The Cove stands above those that I've seen which have run along those lines, in that it contains footages that the team had managed to wrangle out in a quest for the truth. It contains scenes of murder most foul, which will start again in the month of September, unless people around the world make some noise beyond puppet worldwide organizations fueled by corrupt bureaucrats bent on smug thinking that half-baked nonsensical answers can keep the truth under wraps.

What also added that emotional weight to the film, is the inclusion of Richard O'Barry, who could be infamously credited with sparking the interest in dolphin-aquariums and shows around the world, simply because of his involvement in the Flipper television series, where he had responsibility in capturing and training 5 dolphins used for that successful series, and henceforth spawned an industry of sorts where dolphins are captured en masse by confusing them and leading them into man-made traps, then allowing trainers around the world to come and choose those with potential. Think of it like the slave trade which we have abhorred, but now transferred to the animal kingdom, with a murderous act of slaughtering thousands of those which don't make the theme-park cut. Who are we to decide those that cannot entertain, only deserves to be chopped up in cold blood for the supermarkets?

O'Barry is now an activist set on releasing every dolphin in captivity, but only because of a personal, profound loss of a dolphin in his arms that have jolted him into action. He's quite forthright in his interviews, and his transformation as explained is nothing less than heart-wrenching. His crusade led him to Taiji, Japan, which is the source of the trade, with over-zealous Japanese fishermen bordering on counter-surveillance, muscling in on local police influence, to try and keep O'Barry at bay from interrupting their profitable trade, and of course putting a dampener on O'Barry's search for redemption.

Most of the film then centered on the filmmakers and their assembling of a few good men and women with specific skill sets, such as free-diving and prop-making, acoustics experts to covert camera operations, in an attempt to expose the truth from The Cove, an area designed by natural geography and exploited by the fishermen to perform their most heinous acts. It's akin to a heist movie with intense preparation work and danger lurking around every corner, but the images obtained are nothing less than shocking – the indiscriminate slaughter without remorse and plenty of laughter, a very affecting sea waters filled with red from the bloodbath, and frenetic cries for help and unsuccessful flight from death. It'll make the most stoic of men, shed tears.

The film also had touched upon another aspect of how Man is offending Nature through our polluting ways, but Psihoyos deftly included that portion in because it's also related, but never letting it detract its focus from the main story. While dolphin meat doesn't appeal, being slyly packaged as something else is nothing less than cheating. Also, the high levels of mercury found in the meat not only endangers whoever is putting it on their dinner plate, but just emphasizes the entire polluted food chain with the fact that we are the #1 pollutants on this planet, and poisoning of marine life, or rapid consumption of food from the sea, is something that will impact us in time to come very soon, unless we wake up.

One of the world's most intelligent creatures getting slaughtered indiscriminately, and you can do something about it. Undoubtedly as a film this is very well made, and have received countless of accolades, but if audiences were to stop at this point then nothing will change and everything will be lost, starting from the efforts from the activists. This film is set to break into my top films of the year as well, but even that rings hollow.

What we can do, at the very least, is to vote with our wallet. Make some noise, talk about it, spread the word and get people go watch the film, and take affirmative action. With demand and attendances to sea-world-like or dolphin theme parks come crashing down because we choose not to patronize them, then demand for dolphins to perform at these locations will no longer be viable.

A couple of reminders - don't walk out of the cinema hall during the end credits, because there's one more scene at the end. And do visit the following sites:
Official Movie Website
to see what else you can do to help.

[6th Singapore Short Cuts] Week 2 - 3rd Session

The longest of the sessions for this edition, it also included the only documentary amongst the selection, which turned out to be very professionally done, with recognizable actors and a compelling tale against the Battle for Singapore.

Hush Baby
Dir: Tan Wei Keong
2009 | 3:40 min | English credits, no dialogue | PG

Like Ally McBeal's signature dancing baby, this one's the crying, bawling equivalent, and I'm quite amazed by its sound design because it's as realistic as it can get with the varying attention seeking noises, coupled with those when being pacified. There's also some pixilation techniques being combined with the animation, and I thought this would really look exceptionally gorgeous if it was done on 3D, since, even on a 2D presentation, it did make me duck a little when there was an object flying toward the screen.

Miss a Shot
Dir: Ghazi Alqudcy & Ezzam Rahman
2008 | 8 min | Malay with English subtitles | M18

Miss a Shot is inspired by a real incident which took place at a garden in Northern Singapore. Clearly shot on video, it had a lot of fun infused naturally, thanks to the leads who were clearly feeding off each other's energy, as a man and woman, strangers to boot, start flirting with each other unabashedly. In the Malay language, this film had plenty of naughty dialogues and subtitles with innuendos both obvious and subtle, though a little pity that it didn't end with a bang (pardon the pun if you please). Still, it's easily the most light-natured of the lot presented today.

Kissing Faces / 亲亲
Dir: Wesley Leon Aroozoo
2009 | 11 min | Mandarin with English subtitles | PG

The opening shot was video-like as well, where we see an aged, balding man frolicking in a resort background with a young nubile female. They seem happy with each other's company, though of course this is engineered because it's a cheap, sleazy looking karaoke production. Which the film did perfectly well to mimic. But the narrative is nothing like the perfect world that exists within those videos, where the protagonist, a karaoke hostess, is pretty depressed enough to be mulling in deep thought over a ride down Singapore's red light district area of Geylang. Visually though, the shots are very diverse and had plenty of night time scenes where the streets are draped in neon, against very vivid memories of a childhood long bygone. The depressing monologue does get a little too indulgent after a while, where we learn of the hostess' search for an escape and a reboot of her life.

Dir: Kirsten Tan
2009 | 13 min | No dialogue | PG

Kirsten Tan's shorts continue to challenge me, and I have to admit I'm still quite dense to be able to appreciate her message and intent. It's an abstract short done in black and white, and without dialogue, though it had nice cinematography but unfortunately little else. The film deals with a boy and the titular sink found smack at the beachhead during low tide, and one with a working faucet head as well. As the tide grows, the boy becomes an adult, and then an old man. Perhaps this was about the passage of time, or how it is inevitable that we age, but whatever the case is, abstract shorts are still not my cup of tea.

Black Friday
Dir: Idzwan Othman (Wan)
2009 | 20:06 min | English, Japanese, Malay with English subtitles | PG

Black Friday could possibly be my highlight of this session's offering. It recounts the dark day of Singapore's history with the fall of Singapore in WWII, and is loosely based on real life accounts of those who have lived through the period, be they the British, Japanese, the Malays who held their ground against the invading forces, or even from the perpetrators. I thought the presentation style was much like Nanking, where actors take up different roles based on their real life counterparts, in order to narrate their various accounts, complete with re-enactment and archived footage thrown in for good measure since it's a serious documentary. There are some simple animation included to provide for a more interesting narrative experience, and it worked just perfectly. The iconic, probably propaganda, photograph which has Caucasian and Asian soldiers posing quite cordially for the camera, would surely have piqued a lot of interests from the audience to want to find out more.


A short Q&A session followed the screenings, and today's session is moderated by Warren Sin, who's the National Museum Cinematheque's curator for its film programmes.

LtoR: Warren Sin, Tan Wei Keong, Wesley Leon Aroozoo, Ghazi Alqudcy & Ezzam Rahman, Idzwan Othman

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3


Friday, August 21, 2009

[First Look] James Cameron's Avatar

I suppose by now there are a number of you who might have gotten tickets to watch the exclusive 15 minutes preview of James Cameron's Avatar. Over here in Singapore the special screenings came in the form of lucky draws, and yours truly got the opportunity to watch it being projected on the big screen in 3D. Twice.

Let's get the 3D aspect out of the way first. Perhaps the effects have not been fully done up for this preview, or there are still areas for improvement. Cameron never shied away from technology and has almost constantly pushed the boundaries for that cinematic experience, but somehow the ones featured in this preview fell short of expectations, other than very nicely rendered flora, and nastily looking fauna.

I may be jumping the gun here, but the preview allowed for a deeper glimpse into the storyline, which to me seemed a lot more similar to Dances with Wolves, where the protagonist opts to go on a volunteer mission, and comes up close and personal with a different culture, with clashes of course, through which he learns more about self, with a romantic angle thrown in as well. It didn't help that the blue alien humanoids are skilled in the use of bows and poisoned arrows, and are garbed in what looked akin to Sioux outfits. As I said I may be wrong, but that's the impression gained from this preview.

In any case I'll launch into the specific scenes shown tonight, and for those who are spoiler tolerant, read on then:

James Cameron appears on screen and introduces the movie, checking with the audience that we have our 3D glasses available. He explains that there's no much of a spoiler in the scenes to come since they are all taken from the 1st half of the film, and welcomes us to the world of Avatar where beauty and danger awaits.

First Scene
It's a military styled briefing by the head of security inside a secure compound, where we learn of the excellent archery capabilities of the humanoids on the other side of the fence. Sam Worthington's Jake, a paralyzed marine veteran appears midway through the briefing in a wheelchair, in what should be the opening scene for his character.

Second Scene
This scene shows Sigourney Weaver opposite Sam Worthington, where she packs him into a capsule and prepares for a scientific process of brain mapping the humans into empty humanoid vessels, something akin to a brain transfer or copy, and thus an avatar of the alien humanoid is born. Not much gets explained here though, and my speculation is that human soldiers get their humanoid body equivalent through a mind transplant of sorts in order to infiltrate enemy territory in what could be spying missions. We see the avatars and the humanoids up close, which is about 8 foot tall, long limbs, blue skin and a tail. Jake becomes emotionally overwhelmed when he can finally feel his feet, and can't wait to be up and about again, breaking out of the facility.

Third Scene
Set in a jungle where the platoon (consisting of Worthington and Weaver's avatars) encounters some strange creatures, such as a cross between a rhino and a hammerhead shark, and a nasty panther hybrid with 6 legs, which provide for some intense and yet noisily constructed chase sequence.

Fourth Sceme
Jake is saved by an alien, who turned out like the warning in Scene 1, to be an excellent archer and female fighter. She takes down some numbers of creatures in order to save Jake, who ends up in a scene which enabled the filmmakers to show off their very colourful and beautifully rendered garden of eden equivalent.

Fifth Scene
The female humanoid speaks about sadness and has a conversation with Jake, where it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that there's the first sparks of love and romance sown in this scene. I swear though, if there's one more movie after this where Sam Worthington's character gets told “You Have A Strong Heart”, there should be someone out there who could make spoofs out of this particular line.

Sixth Scene
Replace Dances with Wolves' iconic buffalo scene, with something reminiscent of a typical cowboy movie where the hero tames a wild horse. Similarly, Jake gets to tame his own wild mode of transportation, a winged creature in which he must assimilate with his pigtail (Don't ask). Plenty of dragon-like winged creatures pepper the landscape in his short quest to find one, tame it, and take it out on their first flight together to seal the obedience.

Subsequent Montage
What happens here is a montage of large scaled attacks between the humanoids and the human military, where I feel will again be critical of the innate war-mongering nature that stains our humanity We see huge invasions, the participation of mechas (which I feel is slowly being overused by Hollywood), and a tender moment between two lovers, before the film title came up, and the preview session ended.

All in all I'm not too impressed by both the storyline and CGI, which offered nothing cutting edge, or not seen before. Hopefully James Cameron has a lot more tricks up his sleeve that were left out of his preview and continued to be kept under wraps for the movie's big day. One can only hope for the best since these 15 minutes hardly whetted any appetite.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Last House on the Left

Unhappy Family

Karmic retribution, or what goes around comes around. The odds for the logic of this film to work is like a million to one, where those who trespass against you, well, you will decide to trespass against them and return them the disfavour when they literally walk into the lion's den. Yours. With home territory advantage, it doesn't need rocket science to predict what would happen next.

This remake of the Wes Craven's 70s movie of the same name, had its entire premise unfortunately spoilt by the trailer designer, who had spelled out every major incident, twist and turn, including the climax of course. So if you're still in the dark about what the story's actually about, then skip the trailer altogether, though it'll still work if you're in the mood for a revenge flick that doesn't flinch from executing its payload. Well, actually most films of today are truly graphically realistic in nature, and not having seen the original will disallow me to compare which of the two had more a more satisfying gore factor, in case you're wondering.

In some ways the film resembled Taken in its base premise, as if issuing out a veiled warning to its teen demographic audience that Parents know best, and any deviation in hard-to-obtain-approval teenage plans, like taking the car for a spin, going out on your own with dubious friends, come complete with red flashing light warnings if you fail to stick to them, and exploit the situation through winging it on the blind side. The downside of course to such irresponsible behaviour, is the cautionary bad things that will happen to you mantra being repeated, and not every parent a trained covert black ops person, or a skilled doctor with superb anatomical knowledge to bail you out, and/or inflict maximum pain with minimal effort.

It's a tale of two halves which director Dennis Iliadis seemed to have helmed two separate films instead of one. The different generations of the Collingwood family get their respective focus in each half (with those not in focus conveniently parked aside), while that of Krug (Garret Dillahunt) and his merry gang go through a reversal of roles, in a sort of cause and effect manner where each action or inaction, resulted in an equivalent push back from the other side. Iliadis also did well in eliciting a response from the audience. One can hear a pin drop when a heinous crime against women is committed and shown on screen, and an opposite response of cheers ringing out when the perpetrator gets his just desserts when vigilante justice got served.

Amongst the horror-mystery-thriller remakes that are flooding the market these days, The Last House on the Left works because of Iliadis playing this straight and without frills, giving the film and its situation of trauma and desperation very much as close to what you would imagine should you get caught in a similar situation. The cast also helped, where the psychotic flip-flopped in bringing out their play-acting facade against their revolting acts of violence, where the meek really cowering, and the vengeful seething with rage. Perhaps the only wasteful character would be Riki Limehome's Sadie, girlfriend of Krug, who is only too eager to shed her clothes for no reason (except perhaps to flaunt her body for the screen), but of course I'm not complaining.

Sure there are some loopholes and genre conveniences like power outages and the perennial cell phones with no network coverage (I swear this in some 101 handbook somewhere for storywriters and filmmakers), and a final scene which looked more like wanting to end it all with a bang, but overlook those areas, and you may enjoy a thriller where vengeful parents are given the cinematic license to wage war without remorse in the protection of their children.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Scandal Makers (Kwasok Scandle)


It's little wonder how Scandal Makers turned out to be a blockbuster hit in South Korea. It doesn't have any offensive jokes that could put anyone off, relied on slickly crafted humourous situations that don't try too hard, and has characters that will endear and grow on you. It has some feel-good messages to impart without being preachy, and one would almost be surprised that this is a first time effort from writer-director Kang Hyeong-cheol.

Sure the premise may not be something that's new, and coming to mind is The Game Plan, where Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson finds his orderly, playboy life being abruptly interrupted by a kid claiming to be his daughter. Over here though, this Korean film upped Hollywood's ante by adding to the family tree complexity, and also to the magnitude of laughs. Hyeong-cheol's story has three generations living under the same roof, and it played out very nicely with little scenes that go to waste. I suppose with first time fearlessness, Hyeong-cheol provided the story with an air of freshness over a tried and tested formula about unexpected gate-crashing family members.

Nam Hyeon-soo (Cha Tae-hyun) is a radio DJ whose afternoon talk show gives him a new lease of life and popularity, especially with a single mother sharing her story on his show about her search for a long lost father. Bur his orderly, playboy lifestyle and bachelor pad get unceremoniously imposed upon when Hwang Jeong-nam (Park Bo-yeong) and her son Hwang Ki-dong (Hwang Seok-hyeon) come knocking on his door claiming to be his daugher, and grandson even! I think for any bachelor in the 30s (*ahem* like myself), this would either turn out to be a bad April Fool's Joke of mistaken identity, or horror-of-horrors, a tryst early in life that had gone totally wrong.

What more, with such a scandal – a swinging bachelor with a young adult daughter, who in turn is a single mom at a young age – it threatens Hyeon-soo's career and lifestyle, and so begins the comedy of keeping under wraps the situation, as well as to learn how to live and tolerate his new found family who have come from the village, where Hyeon-soo's only common ground with Jeong-nam, besides their talent for music, is their propensity to have early offspring.

A perfect dysfunctional family that serves up as a perfect scandalous story given the follies of youth. But this film is more about perceptions despite its title. We have a man who perceives himself as a major celebrity who would be ruined, as he has observed, should the paparazzi expose his childhood shenanigans. We have a daughter who perceives that it would be easy for her never-seen-before dad to accept her when she appears out of the blue with kid in tow. And the young kid too perceives that his crush (it's in this family's genes to start young) will only like him if he wears fancy clothes, rather than to rely on his musical talent.

While Cha Tae-hyun plays his selfish character, who through the course of the film learns something important about family, with aplomb, Park Bo-yeong's single mom role seemed to be too entrenched in her live-the-singing-dream subplot, and little is seen in the dynamics with her young son. In fact Hwang Seok-hyeon is the ultimate scene stealer here as the round-headed kid with curly hair, and his story-arc opposite Tae-hyun as grandfather and grandson is perhaps the best of the lot with plenty of laughs guaranteed. This kid just oozes charisma and charm, and from the moment he appears the magic got weaved and you'll find him totally endearing himself to you, the audience, with his smile-non-smile antics, and those crazy sleepwalking spells.

Scandal Makers is easy going fare that would appeal to a broad spectrum of audiences with its fine comedy and positive messages of love and enduring family ties that remind you of blood running thicker than water. Bring a date, take your whole family, and discover just why the South Koreans went ga-ga over this. It could be that kid Hwang Seok-hyeon, whose performance alone would justify the price of a movie ticket! Highly recommended!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...