Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Confucius (Kong Zi / 孔子 )

The Philosopher Extraordinaire

Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I had my expectations set on Confucius the film being a tale of the man himself, one of the greatest and earliest philosophers and thinkers that had vast influence over a number of ideologies today, including the system of ethical governance. The trailer had suggested that besides being a learned man, he's quite the military strategist as well, like a precursor to Zhuge Liang, which of course is way off the mark as far as I'm concerned.

It seems like director Hu Mei had been influenced by a number of war films set in Ancient China from Battle of Wits to Red Cliff, and had been inspired to do her own, even if it had to involve Confucius. Good thing though she didn't put the philosopher, played by Chow Yun-Fat, into a suit of armour, but rather, starts off the narrative focused on his ascension to enviable political positions starting with the Law Ministry, before being Acting Interior Minister for the state of Lu.

A tale of two parts, the first half danced along the narrative tread of political intrigue, with court official envy and being the favourite adviser of the ruler, laying the groundwork for some serious rivalry and treachery to be dished out, especially when a talk of alliance with another state goes awry, if not for a Plan B up in the sleeves to bail them out of trouble. But hold on, was Confucius ever a politician to begin with? I do not know, but it didn't matter much, as there were glimpses of how his mind ticked, with discussions of ideals and ideas with his disciples being some of the highlights that one would have come to the movie for.

The second half though, was a let down. Unappreciated and driven away, Confucius starts his self-exile, and together with a small group of dedicated disciples whom we know very little of save for their names and titles appearing on screen, and most given extremely limited screen time, they wander around the film from city to city, and very much echoed the sentiments of the viewer - when will they settle down and get themselves into some serious classroom teaching? It's a pity that this section of the film decided to focus on how frail and aged Confucius had become with the passing of time, but little more. Pacing seems a little hurried as well, especially when dealing with subplots involving his disciples, with resolution being only a few minutes after.

Even Zhou Xun's cannot save the show, as she's given a combined screen time of not more than 15 minutes thereabout to turn on her charm as the consort of a kingdom that Confucius and his disciples pass through. In other words, a flower-vase role that completely underutilized the talents of this wonderful actress. Chow Yun-Fat cuts an imposing figure of Confucius and probably had what it takes in the first section, before the weak storyline in the later half muted his performance as a senior citizen with major issues to address for himself and his disciples, the first being the basic theories of Maslow in getting food and shelter for his followers.

I figured I would have enjoyed a film about Confucius more if it had taken a more in depth look into his character, his inspiration, his influences (that goes just beyond the churning of learned disciples to execute their like-minded philosophies) and of course, having all these done more through the narrative scenes, rather than through inter-titles which tell a lot more than the film itself. I think one is better off digging out Confucius epics of old, than to watch this spruced by version with very fake looking CGI.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Men Who Stare at Goats

Here's Looking at You, Goat!

To say that The Men Who Stare at Goats is a quirky movie will be a gross understatement. There's a strong underlying anti-war message and the popular, contemporary enviromental reminder featured heavily in the narrative, topped by generous loads of humour and a great cast to boot. It has to be seen to be believed just how crazy Peter Straughan's screenplay based upon the book by Jon Ronson can be, and therein lies the fun in the willingness of director Grant Heslov to experiment with such a film.

And speaking of experiments, the film supposedly takes on a true account - I'm still standing on that side of the fence that the events portrayed are too insane to be true - that chronicles the attempts by the US Army to develop a contingent of super soldiers with psychic abilities, where wars can be avoided by the collective will of their super beings to avert conflict through mind tricks and will power, while spreading the message of hippie love over senseless hatred. Generously funded, most of the fun came from the series of flashbacks where we get front row seats to some of the most absurd training techniques used by an armed forces.

There are enough jokes and references to Star Wars, its Jedi Knights and power akin to The Force that makes it all the more side-splitting when there is Ewan McGregor in a leading role expressing cluelessness about what they all mean. If I may say so, there's a moment where he's supposed to scoff at with disbelief, but let out a quick smile at being aware of just what they're about. After all, the actor had played one of the greatest Jedi Knights there is in George Lucas' trilogy prequels of the space opera. It is precisely these kinds of "wink-wink" opportunities that will put an enlightened audience clearly in the driver's seat to enjoy what else the film has to offer.

Starring opposite Ewan McGregor's reporter role Bob Wilton, is George Clooney's super psychic Lyn Cassady who once had worked under the super soldier programme, and had risen to the top, until his retirement from the force. Clooney is simply superb in the role of a man who takes the absurd very seriously, being on one hand what looks like a serious case of delusion, and yet on the other have enough proof displayed that there's really more than meets the eye to his so-called abilities. Seeing Clooney for the first time in shoulder length hair with that clueless, dogged determination, is already well worth the ticket price.

Other notables in its star studded cast includes Jeff Bridges as Bill Django, the unorthodox founder of the New Earth Army techniques, whose bewildering concept of the new super soldier got accepted by the Army, which begins that journey of laughter where actual training is nothing short of hilarious. Kevin Spacey takes on the conniving role as an envious new recruit to the programme, and in some ways, there are some local parallels to how father figures get ousted unceremoniously from their pedestal of power when a protege decides to turn against the hand that had fed them. Spacey being Spacey, performs this role with aplomb.

There are enough random occurrences in the film that builds up the story and with each tells a little bit more about the characters, so while on one hand it's fun and laughter, on the other it calls for some patience as the characters wander through Iraq for Bob's search for his own destiny in life. What I had also enjoyed from the film is how it ties in with actual, reported attempts of non-lethal weapon research, and while I don't condone it, having to listen to Barney's theme song the whole day, is one cruel way to torture enemy combatants.

Be warned though that this may not be everyone's cup of tea, especially if you're adamant about having a structured narrative from beginning to end, or feel that a running joke (the Star Wars ones that is) cannot be carried out for far too long.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Just Another Pandora's Box (越光宝盒 / Yuet Gwong Bo Hup)

Return of the Twin

You'd probably know by now how adamant I am that the best and only way to enjoy a Hong Kong comedy, is to watch it in Cantonese, otherwise chances are a lot of jokes, especially the verbal ones, will likely be lost in translation. I had the chance to watch this during my recent trip to Hong Kong, but decided somehow to pass it up for other films. Needless to say one of the major interest why I decided to watch this film back in Singapore and compromise on having to sit through this in Mandarin (besides having a friend watch this as well), is no doubt fueled by Ronald Cheng and Charlene Choi coming out of the closet proclaiming an end to their secret union.

Gossipy news aside, I'm never convinced about singer Ronald Cheng's ability as an actor, though I had wondered how well he had fared being in a comedic leading role. I'm still not convinced actually that he's leading man material, despite having tickled my funny bone in the film, which I attribute more to writer-director Jeffrey Lau, who had gone to elicit laughs right from the get go, and had enough fuel from opening credits to plenty of sight gags, toilet humour, a string of cameo appearances, and enough of movie references here to keep you engaged throughout.

In essence, I liken Lau to Asia's version of Hollywood comedies as churned out by the Zucker siblings, where a film can stand on its own with enough craft in comedy, rather than the recent slew of relatively terrible Hollywood comedies that know nothing except to string together films of the same genre, and then poking fun at them en masse. Here though the idea is simple, and Red Cliff / Three Kingdoms form the basis and backdrop at which comedy finds its place. It's essentially a crazy little love story between an unnamed bandit (played by Ronald Cheng) who becomes Zhao Yun when the time travelling, titular Pandora's Box gets activated, and an immortal called Rose (Betty Sun) who is out to find The One true love, whom she believes to be Cheng's character.

So time travel drops them smack into the Battle of Red Cliff, and part of the fun here is to identify the whole slew of cameo appearances by China and Hong Kong actors, who seem not to mind the very bit roles (one scene or two) to lend a helping hand at boosting the film's star attraction. And these appearances come quite fast and furious, together with almost a laugh-a-minute comedy that Lau weaves into the narrative, most of which are genuinely funny, until it started to run out of steam and paid not too subtle comedic homage to Hollywood films like Titanic, The Matrix and King Kong even.

Needless to say the narrative itself is simplistic and delivered in a choppy manner, stringing together gag after gag, and the finale was quite off the mark with a sudden tribute paid to one of Lau's earlier and more famous works with Stephen Chow. Still, it did what it had set out to do, to help you relax and enjoy a rip-roaring time at the movies, so the objective's met and I've got little qualms about it since I honestly am admitting this was much better than expected, and had found myself laughing at some points with tears uncontrollable.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

[In Flight] How Bruce Lee Changed The World

I cannot partake in the launch of the Bruce Lee 7010 Spotlight Celebrations at the Hong Kong International Film Festival on Tuesday, which will be graced by Linda Lee and Shannon Lee, the wife and daughter of Bruce Lee respectively, and comes complete with film screenings of all his films, especially the earlier, non kung-fu ones, exhibitions, seminars and a newly launched publication whose cover is as above. But that doesn't mean that I cannot choose not to watch this when found hidden within the menus of the plane's inflight entertainment unit.

Written and directed by Steve Webb, How Bruce Lee Changed The World has been meticulously researched for the breath of Bruce Lee's work and influence around the world, and watching him in action again takes the cake, thanks to the fantastic sequences from his films and TV series like The Green Hornet even, complete with plenty of archival photos and footage of the man who would bring about a huge cultural impact for underdogs, and in general, for people around the world. Not only in the world of film, but being an influencer in things like dance as well!

Perhaps the most valuable amongst all the footage seen, to a fan like myself, will be the documentary ones with Bruce Lee showing what it takes to be an all round fighter working hard to maintain a tip top physique, as well as executing moves which will leave everyone doing a double take. It's quite unbelievable to see through the archival clips left, but Bruce Lee can do one-hand-two-fingered pushups repeatedly, floor someone with his famed one-inch punch, and mesmerize opponents with his lightning quick reflexes, leaving one grasping for the air, when he would have already delivered a lethal blow. You'd come to appreciate just how rare his talent is, and these film reels shown will likely make a fan out of any martial arts practitioner out there.

Containing scores of interviews with those who have been co-stars, students, peers and just about anyone who had worked with him before, even luminaries such as Golden Harvest's Raymong Wong, the film shares plenty of how the Bruce Lee influence shaped their respective lives, from being touched by his philosophy, approach to martial arts, or just about debunking stereotypes and the boosting of hopes for the downtrodden who have been inspired by his martial arts films where the character he plays seek justice, and is never shy to use his fists and weapons like the nunchaks when the situation calls for it.

From time to time I wonder just how Bruce Lee would have further developed himself as a fighter with his Jeet Kune Do, as well as the numerous kung-fu flicks that he would have brought to the table, if not for his unfortunate, early demise. One can only fantasize, otherwise this film is a fitting tribute of one of Asia's biggest action stars who's really the real deal. Now to really save up for that collector's edition box set that compiles The Big Boss right up to The Game of Death!

[HKIFF 2010 Review] Ice Kacang Puppy Love (初恋红豆冰) (World Premiere)

What's On TV?

My recollection of Malaysian singer Ah Niu, is his signature tune about a boy who's longing for a girl he fancies to look his way. Who would have thought that years later, Ah Niu's directorial debut on film is an effort that brings back plenty of nostalgia, and one wonders if this film has any references from his own past, and first love. Entitled Ice Kacang Puppy Love, the film boasts an impressive lineup of Malaysian / Malaysian born actors (much like Kelvin Tong's Kidnapper) and singers, which goes to show the tremendous amount of talent available just across the Causeway.

It's a whimsical romance that embarks on the slice of life in episodic fashion, with a kaleidoscope of events, characters, emotions and plenty of comedy to tell a tale of growing up and leaving one's comfort zone. It's a story of first loves for many of the characters in their formative years, where like the ice kacang dessert, contains plenty of sweetness which inevitably melts away, and the sheer number and variety of nuts and beans contained within which mirrors the vast amounts of different characters that get assembled, and set around an old fashioned coffeeshop, a sight unseen in Singapore these days for all our modernized, sterile venues for a morning cuppa.

One cannot even fathom the number of subplots that Ah Niu deftly handles in his film, giving each enough screen time to tell their own story, yet never crowding out or cannibalizing one another, with a tale for each of the ensemble lot of characters being featured, spanning two generations. It begins with the parents of Botak (Ah Niu), played by Tong Yoon Choy and Yap Chu Hock as his dad and mom respectively, offering a stall at their coffeeshop for one of their friends Yue Feng (Angela Chan), an abused woman separated from her husband (played by Eric Moo), and with her daughter in tow. Nicknamed Fighting Fish for her feisty character and her pet, Lee Sinje's character grows up to be the tomboy whose eyes can shoot darts (n an interesting observation, she played Hong Dou in The Drummer and behaves in a similar fashion; Hong Dou being a key ingredient in Ice Kacang) and is the object of affection of Botak, spending plenty of time painting her portraits in secret, and too shy to let his feelings be known.

So begins the puppy love one has for the other, but of course life is a bit more complicated than that, full of trials and tribulations to overcome, even if one lives in a small idyllic town. The supporting characters, played by Gary Chaw as chief troublemaker Ma Li Fan like a typical sam-seng-kia (ruffian), his silent sister Ma Li Bing (Fish Leong) who has the hots for Botak, charcoal seller Prince (Victor Wong) whom Botak's fat sister (Lim Ching Miau) admires, it's all primed for a web of messy love lives for each, fused with well timed comedy that hits plenty of right notes to put one in the mood for love.

But it's not all just about that emotion which gives us a dizzy spin, but about the bitterness that comes with it at times. And each character will soon learn that life isn't all that easy, and they have their respective challenges to overcome, such as Botak's perpetual inability to make that perfect, Dad-approved cuppa, which baffles him since it's the same coffee powder and the same milk used. It's likely to allude to the fact that attitudes play a large part in the making of who we are, and with environmental factors being put constant, it's all up to the individual whether we want to leave our comfort zones and do as we dream, or be held back by negativity, made worse by those with big mouths.

It's fairly expected that with a whole cast of talented singers and musicians, the music soundtrack and accompaniment for the film, is excellent par none, from the main theme to the romance track, there's enough here to pepper the film without making this a musical. The production sets are beautiful, and at once they put you back into the era of a simpler, laid back life, complete with plenty of childhood games like marbles (go li), fighting fish, and yes, even incidents such as the transmission of head lice, hence Botak's name.

Ah Niu has a pretty impressive film as his debut feature, and as mentioned, like a typical ice kacang, has plenty of something for every movie goer. It's a delightful film crafted beautifully like a veteran filmmaker, with wonderful cinematography to bring out that extra flavour of nostalgia. Stay tuned during the end credits for a small scene, and this is a film that I'll highly recommend. Now to sink my teeth into some cool ice kacang!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

[HKIFF 2010 Review] Slice (Cheun) (International Premiere)


The draw of this film personally is the involvement of Thai filmmaker Wisit Sasanatieng, who has of late been working on his Red Eagle film (am eagerly anticipating of course), but had managed to find time to pen down the story for Slice, a gory investigative thriller directed by Konkiat Komesiri who also wrote the screenplay from Wisit's story. From his past filmography in Muay Thai Chaiya and Art of the Devil 2/3, Konkiat successfully blends his experience from the previous films, and his Slice has clear influences from his horror and action background, more so the former when dealing with the gorier bits in the film.

The film opens with a pedophile in a hotel room being given his retribution, where a figure cloaked in a red hood begins to systematically stab and eventually slice off the offender's genitals, before shoving it up the backside and having the mangled body disposed off into the river in a big red suitcase. This seems to be the modus operandi of the serial killer, and it baffles the police, led by corrupt cop Papa Chin (Chatchai Plengpanich). His only lead is Tai (Arak Amornsupasiri), an ex-cop serving time in jail and doing Chin's dirty work while inside, who has a 20 year old dream of the same situation of a cloaked figure and a red suitcase, and gets temporary reprieve by Chin to perform some investigations outside for 15 days, a deadline given by a Minister whose son had fallen victim to Mr Slice.

The narrative though has surprisingly placed very little focus on the investigative drama it had set out to be. Instead, substantial time got devoted to the background and flashback to the past of the characters, dealing more with the friendship between Tai (the younger version played by Sikarin Polyong) and Nut (Artthapan Poolsawad), an outcast whom his peers deem fresh meat to be bullied, and encourages Tai to do the same. So on one hand, Tai can be Nut's best friend when they're alone, but when faced with peer pressure, do things that a true friend will possible not perform. And as if his life is already not miserable enough, Nut is also a sexually abused kid. So one can wonder what kind of effect such duality in friendship, and abuse would do to a person when growing up during the formative years.

Like most Thai thrillers, this one comes with the token twist, though one should already see it coming with the numerous clues that Konkiat drops along the way, and adopts in certain terms like the Hong Kong thriller Confession of Pain, the identity of the killer is actually a non-issue and gets dealt with in a matter of fact manner. I will liken the style of the story to be much like the 20th Century Boys trilogy, where the young ones are given a lot more airtime, and the solution to today's problems as faced by the characters, can be found in their past childhood. You'll feel a little pang of pain especially when all anyone wants, is to be a friend of somebody since no man is an island, but it is this outreach of wanting to belong, when being abused, will bring about some heavy heart.

The violence and gore here is graphic, bloody and brutal, though sometimes Konkiat had left things to the imagination to connect the final dots, with the mind after all being more sinister in conjuring up even more frightful imagery. Makeup is excellent, and in particular the part with a man struggling to hold up a terribly broken jaw. There are no good or bad characters here in the film as they all come with a shade of gray, and as mentioned while it offers little surprise, the revelation does leave one feeling a little icky, though the emotional resonance will likely ring through based on the usual horrific elements similar to how ghouls just refuse to leave their chosen someone alone.

Friday, March 26, 2010

[HKIFF 2010 Review] Gallants (打擂台 / Da Lui Toi) (World Premiere)

For Dignity!

Of all the films that I've watched so far, Gallants now gets my vote of being my personal favourite out of the festival, because it's witty, hilarious, intelligent, has plenty to offer fans of Hong Kong martial arts cinema of the yesteryears, great production values, and having action sequences that will just blow your mind away since it comes hard hitting and sans gimmicks, something which is sorely missed. If I can use one Cantonese word to describe the film, that word will unquestionable be Jheng (Awesome)!

Produced under Andy Lau's Focus Films with actor Lam Kar Tung on board as producer, directors Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok have a winner on their hands, as they exalt the spirit of what it means to never give up when the odds are stacked against you, and in some way live up that spirit of theirs when they had embarked to make this project which had clear risks. It will be extremely foolish to dismiss the film outright just because it has more elderly actors than youthful ones to draw the crowd, because as the adage goes, the oldest ginger is still the best, and this film is a testament to that. Look closely and you'll see the sheer amount of veteran, legendary talent even, assembled who hail from the Shaw Brothers kung fu film era, with even the opening credits with the silhouette fights, and the way characters are introduced, paying certain homage to an era bygone.

In essence, this purely Hong Kong film is an allegory of sorts to its peers in the market, where packaging and marketing are seen to be the be-all-and-end-all, rather than to rely on hard work to hone talent, or to compensate for the lack thereof. It tells of a people's indomitable spirit of not backing down, and to keep one's chin up in the face of tremendous competition, to work at what they are good at, and all will likely and hopefully be well.

As the story goes, we follow the adventures of Cheung (Wong You Nam), a lifelong loser who gets bullied from the get go in his life, and gets sent by his real estate company to a remote town to assist in acquiring leases from the townsfolk so that redevelopment works can start. Naturally he gets bullied, and gets rescued by the mysterious Tiger (Leung Siu-Lung), a disciple of the once great Master Ben Law (Teddy Robin) of the Gate of Law martial arts school, who has been in coma for the last 30 years. And it seems, like in Stephen Chow's Kung Fu, this small town hides a lot more martial arts exponents, such as Law's other disciple Dragon (Chen Kuan-Tai), who together with Tiger had tried their best to keep their Master's place alive by converting it to a Teahouse, while awaiting Ben's recovery.

Then there's Kwai (JJ Jia), the pretty lass who also hangs out at the Law's teahouse. Their collective backstory is something that got delivered through a fantastic animated sequence, and animation is something that gets peppered throughout the film as well when it gets down to fight sequences when deadly bone crunching blows get delivered. Since the film has in its plot the advent of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Open to seemingly promote the spirit of martial arts, as announced by rival and owner of a flashier sports club Master Pong (Chan Mai Wan), one will expect some spectacular kung fu action. The film more than delivers in this aspect, with the action choreographed by the renowned Yuen Tak, who cleverly did away with fancy wire-work, offering instead sparring sessions which are realistic and extremely riveting to watch, as the actors (most of whom have so many years of experience) put together some credible and exciting martial arts moves for the screen. Editing is also wonderfully done so that we get the best views at the front seats of a bout without the usual MTV-styled quick editing nonsense. I guarantee no matter how many martial arts films that you've seen, the ones here as choreographed will still blow your mind away.

Like a Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon itself, if you do not buy the first act, then wait for Teddy Robin, who single-handedly stole the show right out from everyone's noses. His comic timing is perfect, and the lines that he has, sheer wit, coupled with the fact that his character's disorientation after being out of action for so many years, is something that offers rip-roaring laughter. The directors, who co-wrote the story with Frankie Tam, breathe so much life into Master Law, that you can't help but on one hand be amazed by his crazy philosophy, and on the other just laugh at it, such as his proclaimed laws of combat in the order of Guts, Power and Skill, the rationale in his disciple recruitment strategy, and chiefly, that the reason to learn Kung Fu is to fight, not exercise – which has other, better alternatives. Robin, who also contributed to the movie's music, fills his character with so much youthful energy and exuberance, makes this one of his more memorable roles that he has tackled, and left everyone in the cinema crackling with glee each time he turns on his wit.

As the film explains early on, the boxing ring is a symbol of dignity and fame, and there can be only one victor and one loser. Clearly, Gallants is a winner in my books, and delivers knockout blow after knockout blow without relent. I had come with a mission to watch Hong Kong films, and this one clearly made my trip worthwhile many times over, coupled with so many hilarious moments to laugh along with. I hope it makes it to Singapore so that I can watch this on the big screen again, otherwise I'll patiently wait for its DVD release after it's done its theatrical and festival rounds. Highly recommended, without a doubt one of the best amongst the festival offerings if I may say so!

[HKIFF 2010 Stage Appearance / Q&A] Gallants (打擂台)

This evening marks the World Premiere of Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng's latest action-comedy Gallants, starring veterans of the old Hong Kong martial arts films as choreographed by the legendary Yuen Tak.

The Gala Premiere at UA Langham Place at Mongkok was graced by the presence of director Derek Kwok, producer Lam Kar Tung, Yuen Tak himself, as well as the youthful leads in JJ Jia, Wong You Nam and Jin Auyeung.

Red Carpet pictures to come!

Stage Appearance @ UA Langham Place Foyer

In Cinema Introduction

Then there's the Q&A session, which they are joined by Clement Cheng, Shaw Yin Yin and Teddy Robin! A pity though given the lack of a spotlight that the following videos may be dubious on the visual end, but hey, the audio's working fine, so here you go!

Q&A Part 1 of 2

Q&A Part 2 of 2

Thursday, March 25, 2010

[HKIFF 2010 Review] Red Dragonflies (World Premiere)


As explained by the writer-director Liao Jiekai during the post-screening Q&A, Red Dragonflies happens to be a personal film which started off with a discovery of a home video tape containing a part of his life that's bygone, of a period when he was growing up, taking part in his school's outdoor activity club of which a trek down an abandoned railway track has been recaptured, which has in essence formed the bulk of moving images in his debut feature film.

If I may, I'll classify Jiekai's film as something which has to be felt, where like Time Traveller, had used film to express and explore memories, of the desire and longing of a time where life was more carefree, where immediate concerns was about making through a situation with friends without incident, and preparations for examinations, shielded from other cynical real world issues.

In his quest that probes and hopes to recapture such moments in his life, I felt the filmmaker had invariably shared snapshots of what life in Singapore had meant at the time, which will bring back memories for some, such as those around my age, of the familiar scenes that got featured and a reminiscence of the past. For instance, the childhood games of Eagle Catching Chicken played at the corridors of a HDB flat, and better yet, the making of "love letters" done in communal, traditional style, complete with eager beaver children all bug eyed and wanting to devour the next piece that gets rolled off the charcoal stove.

It is precisely these moments that triumph over the narrative that takes place over two different timelines, the present and the past, told in flashbacks, of the characters Rachel (Ng Xuan Ming), Tienwei (Jason Hui) and Junjie (Thow Xin Wei), and their younger selves played by students Oon Yee Jeng, Yeo Shang Xuan and Ong Kuan Loong respectively. I happen to prefer the youthful trio's idyllic trek along the mentioned railway track which seems to go on forever, without a sense of urgency to need to complete a mission, but one which is of exploration through bashed vegetation, and camaraderie forged through rewards such as a nights off at a night market, savoring quintessential tea eggs.

Through their trek, we are reminded of the serenity of the rare remaining forests amidst out concrete jungle landscape, which contains seldom seen sights such as the small makeshift temple that lies hidden from public view. Even then, modern infrastructure are already threatening to creep into the sacredness of untouched lands, as seen by the backgrounds of road networks, and one wonders truly how scarcity is going to decide that this film will contain a record of such places first rarely seen nor experienced in real life, and then forgotten in the name of progress and the prioritization of land use as they anonymously disappear.

The narrative also playfully merges the timelines together that will tickle your mind or even frustrate, as we touch upon the notion of how we sometimes see ourselves, or the people we know, in total strangers. I always feel that way when I travel solo, where for the comfort of being amongst strangers, the thoughts of familiarity get projected onto others, especially when strangers superficially look similar to people we know, and we form presumptions on what their characters could be like, as part of amusement.

Like The Little Tigers' song of the same title Red Dragonflies, this film happened to be a walk down memory lane for me, for those wistful little moments that got wonderfully captured.

[HKFILMART 2010 Review] The Actresses

The Fairest of Them All

Director E. J-yong has embarked on quite an experiment with this mockumentary film. After all, we know each household and each film can only have one leading lady, and anything more will mean an expectation that claws will come out when disagreements fly. Here, he puts six actresses together in a film to share the limelight with one another, each being a star of their respective generation, coming together for a faux pas Vogue fashion pictorial shoot one Christmas eve. This means tremendous effort in massaging all the egos that get brought to the table, and done in an improvisational manner, scenes are laid out and the actresses are given a free rein to do as they please.

Starring Kim Ok-vin (straight after Thirst, which got referenced and with a “Song Kang-ho” making a call to her early in the film – we don't hear him though), Choi Ji-woo, Ko Hyeon-jeong, Yoon Yeo-jeong, Kim Min-hee and Lee Mi-sook, the opening scene focused on their coming together to the Vogue studio filled with tension and anxiety pangs, each agreeing to take up the offer of a joint photo spread based on the theme that they are collectively better than gems, and wondering who the other “competitors”will be, as they soon learn the collective group is drawn from different generations from those in the 20s right up to the 60s.

It's difficult to determine whether certain things that are said and done are actually occurring naturally, or masked under a veneer. After all, the actresses here are well, actresses, and it's anyone's guess if the emotions on display are genuine, or had gone through some internal cleansing before being let loose in front of the camera. Even during the makeup and wardrobe stage before the shoot proper, claws already get sharpened as they launch into smiles on one hand, and on the other come the bitching about things like plastic surgery, and comparisons abound with who's being perceived as granted preferential treatment over the others.

It's extremely tense for anyone having to manage everybody, and the Vogue editors and crew have to each tread very carefully lest anyone decides to walk out on them and cause a delay in their deadline. One should take note though of everything that's happening in the background as well, because while the action might be centered on the screen, the background also has a lot more to offer when reading the expressions of other actresses not involved in what's being the centre of attraction. Particularly interesting in the first half prior to the individual, eye-candy photography session, is how they launch into a tirade on their peers who only have to rely on their good looks, and without substance, to make it in their industry these days, and we also learn that having worked on projects together previously will help cement some informal alliance amongst the actresses against others not in the clique.

The second half though is where this film turns into a gem, even though it meant taking place predominantly around a dinner table with the group of 6 having a decent conversation about life, their industry and their own attitudes, aspirations and fears. It is this commentary at this point which provides some fascinating insights into the psyche of the Korean star system, and where you, for once, feel the actresses not just as actresses, but people with whom you can identify with, being the misunderstood lot that they are, with every move and especially mistakes made being amplified for public criticism. Yes while they may still be putting their acting cap on, there are some genuine emotions on display here which director E. J-yong had managed to capture

They come in as feisty adversaries, and walk away enlightened with valuable lessons and realization that we as the audience will hopefully take away as well. There may be another film made on the same premise and context, but this marks quite the bold step in putting more than enough women together under the same limelight to elicit a response, and what a response this had turned out to be!

[HKFILMART 2010 Review] Au Revoir Taipei / 一頁台北 (Asian Premiere)

We're Cool Like That

On the recommendation of a friend who had seen this earlier and gave it the thumbs up, I too decided to give this Taiwanese film the go ahead at the expense of a Hong Kong one (which is also somewhat of an ode to the city according to the synopsis) and I soon found myself enjoying this production written and directed by first-timer Arvin Chen, which in essence is a crime-caper-romantic-comedy, putting two broad genres together with remarkable ease.

The French words in the title alludes to our protagonist Kai (Jack Yao) in his pursuit of language excellence as his girlfriend has left for further studies in France. Dropping by a bookstore almost every night and treating it like a library, he soon gets the attention of the salesgirl Susie (Amber Kuo), who takes a liking toward Kai if not for his dedication and perseverance, and tries hard to strike up a conversation. The other narrative thread follows a local mafiaso Brother Bao (Frankie Kao) who is contemplating retirement, running a real estate company which serves as a front, managed by nephew Hong (Lawrence Ko) and his none too bright thuggish employees, all decked out in neon orange jackets.

With plenty of interweaving narratives containing other smaller subplots such as a cop's relationship with his estranged girlfriend, and that of Kai's friend Gao who is infatuated with his convenience co-worker Peach, Au Revoir Taipei unravels itself mainly over one crazy night over Hong and his gang's pursuit of what is believed to be a package of supreme value, handed over by Bao to Kai to traffick to Paris when the latter seeks the former's help for monetary assistance to get him overseas. The title in Mandarin also serves as a pun for a snapshot / slice of Taipei, with its night markets and inevitable establishing shot of Taipei 101 (soon to become an equivalent of what the Eiffel Tower means to Paris), and phonetically it's sounding like spending a night in the city.

The way the film is edited keeps the sprawling narrative threads always under control, and conjures up an experience of a whimsical budding romance against the more realistic elements of one turned sour because of being taken for granted, and another a failure to start because of the lack of basic courage. Much of the comedy comes from the bumbling idiots of henchmen under Hong, and bring genuine laughter for their various clueless antics. The finale offers no unexpected surprises, but it's the way that it gets delivered brings forth that sheer delight by the time the final scene unravels in a dreamy sequence.

Winner of the NETPAC/Asian Film Award at Berlin last month, Au Revoir Taipei is a definite crowd pleaser which can find a ready audience if given a chance to be released in Singapore with the language kept intact.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

[HKIFF 2010 Review] Love in a Puff (志明與春嬌 / Chi Ming Yu Chun Giu) (World Premiere)


I don't smoke, but I will tell you that from time to time my admiration of the smokers is that camaraderie formed given the gathering of like-minded (erm, addicted?) folks within Singapore's context of the yellow box, where they are permitted to light up and puff to their hearts' content in public (now with even stricter regulations it must be 5m away from an building entrance). It's an "us against the world", but that doesn't faze them at all. In need of a light? Well, someone at the box will gladly assist you. Need another stick but have smoked your last? Somebody else can offer you one. For free. And not to mention the many talk-cock-sing-song sessions that occur, where the yellow box has evolved into a bona fide grapevine for news, jokes and gossips to be traded. This yellow box bonding is much envied.

But of course that isn't reason enough to convert me, but it sure is reason enough for Hong Kong director Pang Ho-cheung to weave a romantic comedy based on this premise, and he does so with much aplomb in the opening scene being a direct result, that it just grabs you and holds your attention all the way until the end, with an astute sense and insightful capture of the essence and psyche of the modern day dating game. Being a young (though established) director, he combines the in-thing of today's technology, with SMS and doctored Facebook profile pictures into a commentary of sorts about the games people play when looking for love.

Hong Kong too has similar strict regulations in the areas where one can smoke, and these are all explained in the film. Ho uses them as a social background to weave the story of two characters - the English title is nowhere remotely close to the Chinese one, which is "Jimmy and Cherie", named after the two characters played by Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung, in a sort of Romeo and Juliet fashion and the likes. They meet at one of the smoking areas where they trade stories with folks from other parts of the neighbourhood, and soon become fast friends, hitting it off almost instantaneously after cosmetics salesgirl Cherie learns of the unfortunate infidelity of ad executive Jimmy's (soon to be ex) girlfriend, which provides enormous punctuations of laughter since she (and others not supposed to be in the loop) are sworn to secrecy.

Despite their age gap (in real life as well) which is made explicitly known in the narrative, both Shawn and Miriam (last seen on screen some 3 years ago with Hooked on You, another Hong Kong romantic comedy I dig) share a lovable, natural chemistry which is hallmark of any great romance, despite roadblocks placed in their way like current relationships gone sour, and the questioning of the What If when someone else who does seem more like one's soulmate comes along. Unravelling itself over seven consecutive days, we follow these two wonderfully crafted characters as they hit it off, and quietly root for them to come together, though it's no mean feat, almost reminiscent of anyone's experience in a relationship when the beginning phase seems pretty awesome, until expectations start settling in and the mind games start to creep in.

The jokes here are laugh a minute when the director gets his story to deliver punchline after punchline which worked almost all the time, and shows his unique knack at pace and knowing what works. Included are some documentary-reel like clips containing faux pas interviews with the characters which while a tangent from the main narrative, contains plenty of rip-roaring revelations that continue all the way until during the end credits (which contains those which don't exactly fit into the main narrative proper). The main theme from the soundtrack is also beautiful to listen to, and becomes instant earworm.

This is another winner from Pang Ho-cheung, and is definitely highly recommended. I think it'll make its way to Singapore despite the focus on the smokes (with some redeeming factors), but surely, this is one film that will lose out tremendously if dubbed in Mandarin, since the colourful, fast-and-furiously delivered-only-in-Cantonese swear phrases will lose their shine (the audience was just going nuts!). Oh and thanks to this film, I will also want to try out the dry-ice toilet bowl effect, nothing like taking a heavenly dump!

[HKIFF 2010 Red Carpet / Stage Appearance] Love in a Puff (志明與春嬌)

This evening marks the World Premiere of Pang Ho-cheung's latest romantic comedy Love in a Puff, starring Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung as two lovers who got to know each other from the common smoking corner where they get their regular nicotine fix.

The Gala Premiere at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre was graced by the presence of the director, as well as the two leads themselves. Other actors and directors also dropped by to lend their support, and you can check out who these are in the picture gallery below:

Red Carpet pictures to come!

The Stage Appearance by the director and his stars also happens to be one of the shortest yet:

[HKFILMART 2010 Review] The King of Fighters (Asian Premiere)


If there's one video game that I suck at big time, it will be The King of Fighters. Already I was struggling back then with mastering all the Street Fighter character moves, then this game came along, where one has to master 3 characters as a group and face them off either with some artificial intelligence (now programmed to be smarter at your neighbourhood video game store), or with another human challenger who finds it easy to cream me with one character in full energy left to spare.

Things have been relatively low key for the film version of the video game, and perhaps rightly so since it's not automatic that films from Japanese video games, manga and animation make that dignified live-action leap onto the silver screen, most falling short in the process – last year's disastrous Dragonball Evolution and the lacklustre Street Fighter Legend of Chun Li being very recent examples of the bad aftertaste left at the box office. Audience these days demand a lot more, and the in-built fan base no longer representing a ready market, but a base of high expectations that are difficult to meet even as they are aware some tweaks to characters and storylines are necessary for the change of medium. This Gordon Chan directed effort however, is expected to fall short given the extremely flimsy, cookie cutter storyline that reeks, and for an action film, the cardinal sin of having limited action, almost all of which are left to the last 30 minutes.

Maggie Q marquees this film as Mai Shianui, working undercover for Terry Bogard (David Leitch) of the CIA (I hear yawns already) to hook up with Iori Yagami (Will Yun Lee) who teaches her the background myth of having a necklace and a mirror combined to open a door to another dimension. There's a sword in the picture as well belonging to the Kusanagi clan, but one rumored to be lost, and required by chief villain Rugal Bernstein (Ray Park) in order to reign supreme in the King of Fighters MMORPG since he's stolen the other two items and tweaked the system so that his rules apply in the virtual world and is working to combine all dimensions and realms into one. That's basically it, with the heroes trying to convince the Kusanagi clan heir Kyo (Sean Faris who plays a half-Japanese, that explains his Caucasian looks) to cough out the legendary sword, and stop Rugal from destroying civilization.

What's neat is how Rita Augustine and Matthew Ryan Fischer managed to fuse the fantastical elements of the fights that nods at the Matrix experience, with combatants jacked in through bluetooth-like earpieces in order to fight in the virtual MMORPG dimension complete with superhuman powers from the game, though the fights during the first hour had just a very little glimpse of what the finale would promise. The King of Fighters then is a tournament where combatants rise in the ranks through each victory, though with the compromise now by Rugal, death in the dimension also means death in the real world.

What didn't work, happens to be a lot of things. For starters, we have the usual cardboard characters (OK, so this is based on a video game) with CIA agents, hokey Japanese philosophy talk, and just about every situation, setting and background of the characters being extremely contrived. As mentioned the first hour of the film is talk, talk and more talk on the usual genre themes like responsibility and destiny, Then you have heroes who are reluctant and blur, and how one gets transformed from zero to hero is absolutely baffling based on pep talks from memory. The quest for the Kusunagi sword also happens in the most roundabout fashion just to bloat the film's runtime, and amongst all the characters, Terry Bogard happens to be the most carelessly designed on screen with that out of place jacket and baseball cap (keeping to the game I know), with a really obnoxious, ignorant attitude, and a CIA dimwit a-hole to boot.

The fight sequences happened to be a mixed bag, though Hong Kong influences are clearly heavy in the way the fisticuffs are designed. Special effects inspired by the game are also limited, which is most unfortunate as the game is famed for the various combo-moves that the characters can execute, which is all but lost in the film version. Even then, whatever effects all seemed to be reserved for the extended battle sequence at the finale for an all-out duke out, and audiences will have to be patient with all the talk for the first hour before things start to get remotely interesting since all the money shots get concentrated toward the end.

Naturally movies of this nature will have an ending primed for sequels to continue where it left off especially when the box office response is positive, but my money's on the “Nay” list. If I have to compare, then this is ahead of Dragonball Evolution and The Legend of Chun Li, but only just. Strictly for the curious KOF game fanboy.

[HKFILMART 2010 Review] Caterpillar (Kyatapirâ)


Directed by Koji Wakamatsu, Caterpillar takes a clear and hard anti-war stance with its explicit warnings, vivid images of brutality and questioning of just what war means and will result in. Complete with archived documentary film reels that come from both news and propaganda, it tells the story of the effects of war through a husband and wife, where the former has returned from his tour of duty serving in the Emperor's Asia Pacific mission, complete with 3 highly decorated medals, a major tribute printed in the newspaper, but with the price of having lost all limbs, now left with just a torso and a head.

The film poses a few questions very early on about war itself. What good are commendations and medals when one is left limbless and at the mercy of others to feed, clothe, bathe you, and just about every other basic human function requires care given, as part of karmic retribution for having to survive a battle when countless of others get killed under one's hands. It's the ultimate torture for someone who once dish out punishment against helpless civilian victims, now unable to function normally, not even speak to express desires.

How can someone be hailed as a war hero, when being a hero in this sense meant the killing of others, like the twist in the adage that states not to die for your country, but to make the other poor bastard die for his instead. And if put under the context of the Japanese invasion of Asia as the film portrayed, how does rampaging, pillaging, raping and killing bring one honour or glory, especially in the senselessness of war that cannot be justified, what more being hailed as a god by many others, balanced by the ultimate mockery of sorts by being put on a pedestal like a caged animal in a zoo, since Tadashi Kurokawa (Keigo Kasuya) becomes the poster boy for his dedication and sacrifice in the name of the throne.

Tadashi aside, the film also takes on another more important and engrossing perspective through that of Tadashi's wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima, who got the Silver Bear for Best Actress at last month's Berlin Film Festival), intially shocked by the image of a husband who's more than a cripple, being maimed both physically and emotionally, and to balance that expectation set by society of the dutiful wife who will stand by her husband no matter the costs, and live the vows of being there for better or for worse. Keigo Kasuya may have the more technically challenging role of expressing himself through his eyes only, but Shinobu Terajima brings forth her character's development superbly, as one initially very reluctant and fearful of other's perception, to one who learns how to capitalize the turning of tables to dish out revenge long overdue, especially when she holds the upper hand in rewarding good behaviour brownie points to a sex-addicted husband (yeah, he can still function below the waist). In many ways, it's a close examination of the live of the Japanese woman during war, and societal pressures put on them at the time.

Like the insect, Tadashi spends much of his life eating, sleeping, and requesting for plenty of sex, that it becomes nothing more than a routine cycle to feel alive, until guilt pours over him when given a chance to reflect, and us as the audience as well, the atrocities committed by troops. The other interesting aspect of the film is how Wakamatsu includes elements of how simple living Japanese folk practise for that eventuality of an air strike and invasion of enemies troops on their soil, with civil defense type drills like bayonet fighting and fire fighting being pretty much the standard lessons learnt by the villagers. Bookend by archive footage and the telling of stark statistics of WWII, Caterpillar will stick to you long after the credits roll, and it certainly doesn't detract from its intended hard messages and fluff into a narrative butterfly.

[HKFILMART 2010 Review] Cut (International Premiere)

I have to admit I was enticed by the synopsis that mentioned the film was shot in one continuous take. The truth is most of it is, some 62 minutes worth of it, and that alone is reason enough if you buy into the gimmick. After all, you will have to put up with a curiously amateurish opening (done for a reason of course) that had some really deliberate bad acting just to get you into the mood for what's going to unravel, because the next action sequence won't turn up until half an hour later.

Set primarily within and around the confines of a mansion, I felt the story was nothing to shout about, being but a narrative piece that seemed secondary to the technical aspects of the film. Written and directed by Alexander Williams, ample time got devoted to introducing the group of 6 characters one by one, and there were some really uninteresting dialogue going on that had me switching off in some parts as they were really going on talking about uneventful back stories, suffice to know that they are in the home of someone else's uncle, and the introduction also allowed us to have a first hand look into all the rooms, nooks and crannies that will be useful come later in the film.

Basically, once we get past the introduction, things start to pick up. Suffice to say that our group somehow finds themselves terrorized by a group of clown face paint wearing thugs who are out for blood and will stop at nothing until everyone in the house is killed off. Equipped only with things found in the house and used as makeshift weapons, the narrative then unravels itself in real time as we are supposed to root for the individuals to get out of their predicament.

Taking place pretty much like a stage play, one must salute the technical brilliance of the film, having shot most of it in one single take, and you can imagine the kind of logistical nightmare that presents itself should any one part just failed to make the grade, or someone was to miss the cue. Sure there could be other films already made which employed similar techniques, but to me, it is still a marvel to wonder at the sheer determination for anyone wanting to pull such a film off, and the countless amounts of time and dedication that went on behind the scenes (some as seen during the end credits) to ensure things get worked out to perfection.

[HKFILMART 2010 Review] Primal (World Premiere)

Look Out!

Written, directed and produced by Josh Reed, Primal may seem like your typical violent monster / slasher flick, but in following formula the film did turn out to be rather enjoyable, if not cliché, but it worked. The opening scene some 12000 years ago gives us the premise where a caveman tries to communicate the presence of an unknown beast, only to be devoured very quickly before fast forwarding to today, with 6 travelling friends on a road trip to that exact same location for a camp and a hike.

The film takes the first 30 minutes to cue us in on the characters, given that with an ensemble, we expect certain molds to be adopted. For instance, there's always the ditzy, loud mouthed and slutty blonde (Krew Boylan) who's in the trip for some forest romp with studious looking boyfriend Chad (Lindsay Farris), who had enough when she starts to openly flirt with the alpha male of the group, Dace (Wil Traval), who's take away from the trip is the mysterious painting seen in the opening shot. Throw in the others like the group joker Warren (Damien Freeleagus), simple follower Kris (Rebekah Foord) and the one whom you know is more than meets the eye given the token phobia she must overcome at some point (Anja, played by Zoe Tuckwell-Smith), you have the requisite group for one heck of a monster attack.

I would liken the genre as an opportunity to study character dynamics and behaviours when placed under extremely stressful situations, such as the tendency for some to talk a lot without action, or to arrow others to perform various dirty-work What more, it gets interesting because the great unknown happens to be manifested into one of their own, so existential questions get called into the picture, especially when one gets transformed into a blood lusting beast with plenty of fang-like teeth replacing the human ones, extreme dexterity (an ability that varies its effectiveness from time to time) and a nasty violent temper, coupled with some nasty makeup to complete the revolting look set to strike fear.

There's the decision to play who lives and who dies, and as the audience you get roped in, based on past experience in similar genre films, to play guess who's next, as we listen in on all the bickering and disagreements, plus the warning signs that the characters themselves fail to heed. Of course these disagreements get chopped down to manageable size when the body count increases, and part of the guilty fun is to identify and apply genre cliches over the film and see if they still hold water. Most do.

For those into bloody gore, there are enough moments in Primal that are graphic enough to make you squirm, since the acts of violence are unflinching. The story gets built up quite nicely into the last hurrah, where unfortunately some really raw looking special effects set in a cave drew unnecessary attention to itself, and marred the experience of the crescendo carefully crafted.

[HKFILMART 2010 Review] Time Traveller (Toki Wo Kakeru Shôjo) (International Premiere)

Here We Go!

I had enjoyed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the 2006 animated version by filmmaker Mamoru Hosada, and no, this is not the live action version of the same story. Instead, this flim just continues to expand upon the universe of TGWLTT, making it the third titular character who had done just that. The original novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui had its protagonist Kasuko Yoshiyama going back through time accidentally and the discovery of romance with a time traveller. That version of the story has already been made into a number of films and drama series. Then comes Hosada's animated film version, which has a story centered around Kasuko's niece Makota Konno, who had for the most parts, used her limited powers for very trivial, hilarious reasons.

For this year's life action film Time Traveller, with the subtitle The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the protagonist is Kasuko's own daughter Akari (starring the same actress Riisa Naka who had voiced Makota Konno in the recent animated film), who gets sent on a mission by her mom, now Professor Kasuko (Narumi Yasuda), who had perfected a time travelling liquid to fulfil one last promise, but had met with an accident and fallen into a coma. Akari's mission is to go back to the year 1972 and to look for a certain Kazuo Fukamachi (Kanji Ishimaru), to deliver a message that only he would understand. But in true ditzy fashion, Akari got the year mixed up and arrives in 1974, two years late, and needing the help of filmmaker Ryota (Akiyoshi Nakao) whom she had literally fallen onto, for help.

Much of the story then centres on the mystery of how Kazuo doesn't seem to register on the radar of the community and neither on various official records, and worse of all, not even mom Kasuko, a teenager then (played by Anna Ishibashi), can recollect who this person is. Of course for audience in the know of the first story/film/manga, then this will come to no surprise, and part of the fun is to see how Akari can figure this out, and also her predicament of being in the wrong year to begin with, together with comical moments given that she has her handbag of modern day thingamajigs, and at times being particularly cloy in character.

Like in true Back to the Future style, the deliberate non-revelation of Akari's father before she jumps through time also provides some narrative tension, as the sweet 18 years old girl inevitably gets attracted to Ryota and perhaps his friend the cameraman Gotetsu (Munetaka Aoki) as well, with feelings suggested to be probably mutual, and hence one heck of a headache if you think about existentialism issues or the paradox of time with any time travel film. It can be a cruel process, and the main narrative arc here that deals with Akari's budding romance, is nothing short of an emotional sledgehammer that highlights the cruelty that is from time travelling, and it's not just plain never seeing the person again at their current age, but rather not being allowed to significantly influence historical events that makes it an extremely bittersweet film by the time the end credits come along. The note is sombre that live carries on, regardless of the many pitfalls that we experience and consider wanting to give up.

Unlike the anime, there's only one major leap here and the special effects are quite surprisingly kitsch, and at times raw even. The trick here for time travel is to down a vial of liquid, then wish hard. I suppose the magic with animation is that one can design just about almost anything, but with a film that has to utilize special effects, then there would be some constraints that will naturally be imposed, and the expectations that comes along with the using of SFX. Otherwise, its production values in creating the 70s era is excellent, despite knowing some shots were made relatively tight to avoid backgrounds giving the non-aligned time elements away.

Ultimately, I believe this to be a filmmaker's story, since it had the characters involve themselves with filmmaking, and dealt with how film itself can be an important imprint to lost memories, where images captured on film, if preserved properly, can probably last for posterity. It captures sight and sound forgotten, and helps jog memories of a time bygone, transmitting emotions even through the sheer power of imagery, even though it may be incomprehensible but to some. It has the same spirit as Be Kind Rewind, but done in a more powerful and emotional manner. For this reaffirmation, Time Traveller scores big time, and I wonder if we will have more stories from this TGWLTT universe.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

[HKIFF 2010 Review] Fire of Conscience (火龙 / For Long) (World Premiere)

Officer Down

Dante Lam is fast cementing his position in the Hong Kong film industry as one of the go-to directors for an action cop-thriller, with his previous films The Sniper and Beast Stalker, in collaboration with writer Ng Wai Lun doing just that, not to the penchant of tackling characters with plenty of emotional baggage straddling in between the grey moral areas, allowing the actors portraying them to be noticed for their dramatic chops.

The film opens with plenty of money shots for its opening montage, the first being a special effects laden time lapse shot of Leon Lai's Sergeant Manfred slowly growing older and looking more haggard, no thanks to his donning yet another unkempt bearded look. Then there's a Watchmen opening credits inspired series of black and white stills that freeze frames some really insane action moments which tell a little bit about the back-stories that we're soon going to get entrenched in as the narrative moves forward, thus while they don't make much sense now, they will get explained in due course, just to keep your suspense piqued.

As mentioned, characters with deep emotional baggage are probably going to be a staple in Dante Lam's films, and Sergeant Manfred is on the verge of throwing away his 27 years of veteran service by employing an unorthodox, hair shaving quirk after apprehending any pickpocket on the streets, bringing them to an eyewitness to his wife's murder. This of course leads to complaints about his heavy-handedness, and investigations by internal affairs of a needless, violent cop on the force, but it doesn't faze him as he goes on a determined search of his wife's killer.

Richie Jen on the other hand, as Inspector Kee, may look the gentleman, but he too has plenty of cards kept under his sleeve, coming from the Narcotics Bureau and wanting to work at the Crimes Unit. He takes to Sergeant Manfred on a typical night on duty where they both share similar, unflattering views of their superiors and top brass and how disconnected they can be when sitting atop the ivory tower detached from the men and happenings on the ground, and both men soon form a working partnership as they collaborate into the investigations of a hooker, where signs initially point to one of Manfred's subordinates (Liu Kai Chi).

Action wise, there are a number of huge gun battles here that will max out the sound system of the cinema, and Lam crafts plenty of chase sequences, gun play and moments enough that will make the action junkie in you go wild given the unflinching, graphic violence, especially when Lai's Manfred goes for broke. A critical battle scene takes place in a teahouse, and I think as ubiquitous a teahouse can get in Hong Kong, nothing beats having a standoff and a shootout in an HK action flick, this one upping the ante with massive grenade explosions, body count and a narrative moment which will make you go a baffling “hmm...” since it did stick out like a sore thumb, but fret not as all's set to be explained soon enough. The only letdown I had, which no thanks to promotional stills and the trailer is that of having Manfred and his team race down the busy streets on foot and carrying some heavy firepower, something set up to look strikingly similar to Michael Mann's Heat, but what an anti-climax it had turned out to be.

As with all testosterone charged action films, most of the female characters were completely relegated to nothing more than token support roles in order to provide that fuel for the guys' relentless drive to do what they have set out to, or is the source of their pain and probable bad judgement calls, save for Michelle Ye's May who plays that tough cookie policewoman who has this insatiable crush for Manfred, but gets to do most of his administrative dirty work. Vivian Hsu though goes back to being a flower vase as Kee's girlfriend Ellen, whom we learn more through other people's conversation about her inglorious past, and Vanessa Yeung an even smaller role as Manfred's wife whom we'll see in brief flashbacks.

Sure the storyline does involve yet another mole from within the force who's gone down the wrong path given and causing even more personal turmoil, but it is exactly how each character deals with their problems in opting for the easy way out, and the action sequences here that makes this an above average thriller. I would like it a lot more if not for that really contrived moment of having someone give birth in the middle of plenty of hullabaloo.

[HKIFF 2010 Red Carpet / Stage Appearance] Fire of Conscience (火龙)

This evening marks the World Premiere of Dante Lam's latest cop thriller Fire of Conscience, starring Leon Lai and Richie Jen as two police officers who subscribe to unorthodox methods, each having their own inner demons to do battle with as they collaborate in trying to solve the killing of a prostitute.

The Gala Premiere at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre was graced by the presence of the director, as well as the leads and supporting cast, making the fans go into a frenzy as they hung around the foyer, before making a stage appearance to introduce their respective characters to the audience.

Red Carpet pictures to come!

Stage Appearance:

[HKFILMART 2010 Review] The Secret Reunion (Ui-Hyeong-Je)

Where Are You?

The South Korean film Shiri marks the very first time I've seen a South Korean film, and was the last one which I saw Song Kang-ho play a role of an intelligence agent, and a supporting one at that. Fast forward till today, he is already an established actor who has taken on various roles in different genres, some times heroic, other times confused, some buffoony even. But one thing's for sure is the actor's charisma which defies any typecasting.

Here he plays Agent Lee Han-kyu of the National Intelligence Service, a bumbling one who's stagnated in his career which has them on the constant move and pitting their skills against the more cunning North Korean counterparts, who have infiltrated the South in order to carry out assassination orders by the North Korean leader on the many defectors from the communist state. Opening the film is a tense action sequence complete with high speed pursuits and spy versus spy stuff, with a group of sleeper cell assassins being activated through coded websites to take out Kim Jung-Il's second cousin, whose book published in the South is deemed as blasphemous.

Kang Dong-won plays Ji-won, a relatively new North Korean spy member who goes on that fateful mission under the watchful eyes of veteran assassin nicknamed Shadow (Jeon Gook-hwan), and because of his soft-hearted nature, he gets branded a traitor of the state for not willing to deliver killing blows to the enemies, and hence becomes a wanted man in his own country. And the mission proves to be a turning point for Agent Lee as well, with him being made the scapegoat of the botched operation and having to leave the agency in disgrace.

This pivotal event brings us forward 6 years later, where Lee is now a private investigator who specializes in finding runaway foreign brides, and the other being a foreman in a construction site. Soon the two once-adversaries meet, and strangely enough, the film then converts into a light comedy, since the both decide to lead a symbiotic relationship together, each wanting to be able to dish out some dirt on the other, so that they can redeem themselves and go back to the life they once knew. For Lee, it's the prospect of wanting to smash the sleeper cell that Ji-won belongs to in order to claim substantial reward money, and Ji-won to become the mole for the North Koreans since he's living in Lee's house and working as his PI agency employee, and to utilize Lee's experience to find his comrade-in-arms who disappeared since the botched mission, but little does both man know they no longer have active ties to their past.

Much of the mirth comers from each trying to second guess the other, and both actors put on fine performances as adversaries who will eventually find that inevitable path to friendship and trust. While Song Kang-ho is effervescent in his role of Lee in being bumbling but without being stupid, Kang Dong-won holds his own against his rival as the man whose good looks betrays the deadly skills he possesses in dispatching opponents, and fleshes out the more emotional of the two characters with aplomb. Their shared chemistry is what makes it believable that they have the potential to buddy up, although of course writer-director Jang Hun has other plans in order to spice up the plot in the final act to leave you guessing just who will be pushed over the edge based on their friendship, keeping in mind both potentially face treason for putting up the other silently.

All in, The Secret Reunion contains solid action sequences with themes on uneasy friendship and brotherhood, boosted by fine performances from the cast. The narrative may feel a little bit of sag in the middle act though, but ultimately, it gets the job done and its themes through.

[HKFILMART 2010 Review] Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle (Sik Gaek: Kimchi Jeon Jaeng)

The New Chef In Town

The first Le Grand Chef had that decapitation scene that will grab your attention and sit up straight, before director Jeon Yun-su brought us up and down the food chain through an intense battle of wills over the preparation of food that's a feast to the eyes on film. Here, the directorial reins of the follow up film got passed on to Baek Dong-hun, and the story though is more of a spin off rather than to continue from where we last left off. In fact, the events in the previous film hardly even warranted a whisper of familiarity, as our hero Sung-chan (Jin Ku, who takes over from Kim Kang-woo) is now a mobile vegetable seller, renowned more for his vege recommendation than for the the top chef he was.

In the first film, it was more of a fancy dress party in the kinds of food that got prepared for the screen, with the cuisine being more varied to suit almost all palates. Here, it focused on the ubiquitous Korean dish Kimchi, though simple, comprises of a range of variety from traditional, hand-me-down homemade recipes, to modernized variations at the other spectrum. It is because the Korean president, when on a trip to Japan, was presented a fusion Kimchi dish by the Japanese Prime Minister that was a point of contention, that he decided to launch a nationwide Kimchi contest to find the best that Korea has to offer.

So there goes the excuse to stage the next competition for the film, involving 3 weeks of competition with 3 themes to have Kimchi represent, involving 3 primary judges of which one is the designated joker of the group who always states the obvious and has some questionable table manners. Like the first film, we go through the creative preparation phase of searching for that X-factor ingredient before the cook-out involving close ups so vivid, that I strongly urge not to watch this on an empty stomach, as it doesn't just involve mainly vegetables, salt and red pepper. The variations of Kimchi here, one will find astounding.

The main rival for our hero is someone much closer to home, his step-sister Jang-eun (Kim Jeong-eun), who had returned from her renowned stint as the head chef of the Japanese prime minister's residence, in order to see to the destruction of her mother's legacy family restaurant known as the Chunyang-gak, because it holds plenty of bad memories of the place, which needless to say put her ties with her mother Sun-guem at a largely superficial level. Sung-chan of course is against that decision, and to protest against her, reluctantly enters the Kimchi battle so that in their private arrangement, he who wins get to decide the fate of Chunyang-gak.

Kim Kang-woo plays his character out this time with a lot more self-doubt, despite the help he gets from his girlfriend Jin-su (Wang Ji-Hye replacing Lee Ha-na). The story cleverly weaves in a new back-story flashing back on his growing up years, which involved issues with his mother and Kimchi, which are the demons he will have to overcome in order to emerge victorious, because he cooks with his heart and his mood of being fearful and filled with hatred inevitably has an impact on his food result. Kim Jeong-eun on the other hand handles the role of the antagonist void of warm and fuzzy human relations, being the cold, calculated and clinical chef that she is, out for a humbling lesson in EQ as she defiantly dukes it out with her step-brother.

As if mirroring yesterday's Asian Film Award results with Korean film Mother garnering Best Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Film, strong motherly love forms the main theme in his film, rather than something related to food in itself. There's a heavy “mom” flavour in the narrative that's stronger than all the ingredients from the subplots put together, and therein likes a lesson not to take our mothers for granted, which we sometimes do, and to reflect upon the little things they do for us silently in the background, and the unconditional love that every mother will inevitably have for their child.

In this aspect, this theme makes the film extremely easy for anyone to relate to, and easily this makes Le Grand Chef 2 a clear winner. I like, have enjoyed the gastronomical ride, will learn to appreciate the different variety of kimchi out there, and of course, this goes into my recommended list, despite some side show thug characters unceremoniously gatecrashing the show with some lacklustre, unfunny involvement especially with the head thug always having the penchant to speak in English with bad diction.

[HKFILMART 2010 Review] Centurion (International Premiere)

7 Warriors

I'd admit that the films of Neil Marshall's have been quite right up my alley, with a mishmash of genres all done with an excessively violent treatment, but it does go to show that relying too much on the usual will bring forth a stale feeling, that Marshall may not have anything more to offer other than to pepper his films with plenty of hacked limbs in a straight forward action adventure

Set in 117AD, Neil Marshall's story pits the Roman empire against the guerrilla Picts, who have halted the Roman invasion so much so that Rome decides on a last push. To the organized troops of Roman centurions, the Picts with their unorthodox techniques have the upper hand in a David and Goliath pattern, that it's up to Dominic West's General Virilus to lead an army, and with the help of Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) who has escaped from the Picts, to show them the way. That sets the premise of an otherwise ordinary film that's focused on its battle sequences, and has a very simple, two phase narrative to waltz through.

One of the draws here is of course Michael Fassbender's presence. Of 300 and Eden Lake fame, he brings forth a sense of vulnerability to a warrior's role, bent on trying to keep alive than to go all out to kill. He leads Virilus' surviving men of 6 to a rescue mission, before turning tails and having the next half of the film centered on their escape back to safe haven, all the while being tracked by Olga Kurylenko's Etain, a mute Pict scout who's an excellent tracker.

In some ways, the story had resembled like a distant cousin of the magnificent seven, where a rag tag team of surviving Roman centurions get cobbled together for a mission to rescue their beloved General. And I mean really rag tag since they have a cook amongst their ranks. It's an offensive maneuver first, before going all defensive because of the lack of skills, and numerical advantage and savagery that the Picts pose. Olga Kurylenko chews up her scenes even as she's more clothed than her previous films, and gets plenty of physical action (with weapons that is) to show she's no pushover for action sequences.

Strangely enough, a last minute romantic subplot gets thrown in which sort of spoils the film because it firmly roots itself as a finale plot development point, leaving little surprise for its hurried ending since you know just where and how the film would end. Like a typical Marshall film, there are tons of carefully crafted scenes that are bloody violent, such as smashing someone's head to a pulp against a tree or a full on ugly beheading. There's only one sequence that will stand out in the entire film, and that's a massive ambush against a full battalion of Roman soldiers, which is one-off and the only one done on grand scale, setting the scene for plenty of screen violence with unflinching decapitations of miscellaneous body parts.

Fans will find this an enjoyable action adventure, but it doesn't offer anything much nor new to win over new fans.

[HKFILMART 2010 Review] Space Battleship Yamato: Ressurection (Uchū Senkan Yamato: Fukkatsu Hen)

Yamato Space Cruiser

I think I'm a kid again in deciding to watch the Space Cruiser Yamato take to outer space in new missions from where it last left off some many, many years ago. Of late the interest in this Japanese Star Trek equivalent was piqued due to the fact that there will be a live action film due end of this year, starring Takuya Kimura as Kodai and Meisa Kuroki as Yuki. One cannot let a good space ship down of course, and until then, we have to make do with this continuing film of the space opera, which I liken to be something like Star Trek's The Next Generation.

Set in the Year 2220, Earth gets threatened by a black hole heading into the Milky Way and swallowing everything in its path, so the humans have decided to prevent an extinction, and to ditch the planet since a new surrogate one has been found in another star system. Civilian shuttle arks have been built for the mass emigration, but two waves have been attacked at the mid way mark and lives lost when an alien conspiracy is abound to want to ensure mankind is destroyed. So if you happen to be the former Science Officer aboard the Yamato, and now the Secretary of Science for Earth, you're inclined to get one of your ex-colleagues who's now a top notch maverick and hands-on Captain in his own right, Kodai (Koichi Yamadera), to lead the next mission. Kodai of course has his own agenda to want to do this, as his wife Yuki is assumed to have perished in the earlier mission, and daughter Miyuki (Ayumi Fujimura) is pinning the blame on Dad.

And what good is an awesome captain if he's not given the best possible ship in the fleet? The Yamato gets rebuilt (hence the title) because of the philosophy of never letting a good ship be forgotten and die off. After all, the Starship Enterprise has had its many variations and improvements over the years, and this new Yamato comes with an improved weapons system updated to face its current threat, such as a full complement of fighters and bombers on board, and a new transwave motion gun that can fire up to 6 charges before a recharge is required (and thus leaving the ship vulnerable). The ship can take plenty, and I mean plenty of damage, and long range warp drive also looks good on screen. I guarantee goosebumps when the Yamato gets launched into its first mission escorting civilian vessels to get to Planet Amare's moon, accompanied by its theme song for dramatic impact.

Like Star Trek TNG, this film provides that base introduction to the ship's new crew under the guidance of a new captain, though some of the old crew like Doctor Sado and the red robot Analyzer still feature in bit roles but outside of the battleship. It takes a while for the new crew to gel, each being a specialist in their field, and some have duo vocations. The story plays on the fact that the Yamato (just like the Enterprise) is a morale-boosting ship, and truly for fans, it's likely you'll feel that way as it takes on its multiple threats in its mission, one being the battle against the confrontational aliens bent on stopping the emigration programme, and another being caught in political intrigue as the Planet Amare, a member of the Star Union led by the war-like SUS, gets issued with a threat for it being friendly to a non-Union planet. And not to forget that black hole approach toward Planet Earth, which gives rise to a quick last minute reflection on environmental damage and the human failure to appreciate what Mother Earth has given us, and our continued exploitation and raping of the planet.

Being an animated film, it had the surprising feeling that it's quite pro-war. Disagreements get solved using force, and the Yamato being an essential part of the war-effort when driving away aggressors, in line with the adage that to maintain the peace it must be prepared for war and willing to dish out massive damage to enemies not willing to give the human race a fighting chance for survival. But before you go into a frenzy, do note that there's a large military influence in the source material, so there. The battle sequences are some of the best, almost resembling a Star Wars on Steroids, with planes and cannons going into overdrive, filling the screen in a sensory assault. While the design of the Yamato is largely unchanged, the alien ship designs are something to gawk at as well.

For those who cannot wait for the live action film, then perhaps this animated one will be able to whet your appetite for the time being, and prepare the groundwork for the next generation Yamato crew to take over with new adventures.

Monday, March 22, 2010

[4th AFA Press Conference] Zhang Yimou

Acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou was given the Award for Outstanding Contribution to Asian Cinema at this year's edition of the Asian Film Awards, and held a press conference right after the awards show to speak to members of the press. Although the first few questions seemed more interested in knowing and probing what his charitable pursuits are, the subsequent questions cut to the chase and allowed the director to talk at length about film, collaborative filmmaking and even 3D technology. Watch the conference to learn more! (In Mandarin only)

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3

[4th AFA] Results Live!

Best Film
Mother (South Korea)

Bodyguards and Assassins (Hong Kong / China)
City of Life and Death (China)
Lola (The Philippines)
No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti (Taiwan)
Parade (Japan)

Best Director
LU Chuan, City of Life and Death (China)

BONG Joon-ho, Mother (South Korea)
Asghar FARHADI, About Elly (Iran)
Brillante MENDOZA, Lola (The Philippines)
SONO Sion, Love Exposure (Japan)
Yonfan, Prince of Tears (Hong Kong / Taiwan)

Best Actor
WANG Xueqi, Bodyguards and Assassins (Hong Kong / China)

ASANO Tadanobu, Villon's Wife (Japan)
HUANG Bo, Cow (China)
MATSUMOTO Hitoshi, Symbol (Japan)
SONG Kang-ho, Thirst (South Korea)

Best Actress
KIM Hye-ja, Mother (South Korea)
BAE Doo-na, Air Doll (Japan)
LI Bingbing, The Message (China)
MATSU Takako, Villon's Wife (Japaan)
Sandrine PINNA , Yang Yang (Taiwan)

Best Newcomer
NG Meng Hui, At the End of Daybreak (Malaysia / Hong Kong / South Korea)
Sonam KAPOOR, Delhi 6 (India)
KIM Sae-ron, A Brand New Life (South Korea)
LI Yuchun, Bodyguards and Assassins (Hong Kong / China)
ZHU Xuan, Prince of Tears (Hong Kong / Taiwan)

Best Supporting Actor
Nicholas TSE, Bodyguards and Assassins (Hong Kong / China)

EITA, Dear Doctor (Japan)
HUANG Xiaoming, The Message (China)
TOU Chung-Hua, The Warrior and the Wolf (China)
WON Bin, Mother (South Korea)

Best Supporting Actress
WAI Ying-hung, At the End of Daybreak (Malaysia / Hong Kong / South Korea)

ANDO Sakura, A Crowd of Three (Japan)
HIROSUE Ryoko, Villon's Wife (Japan)
KIM Kkobbi, Breathless (South Korea)
YAN Ni, Cow (China)

Best Screenwriter
PARK Eun-kyo / BONG Joon-ho, Mother (South Korea)
Asghar FARHADI, About Elly (Iran)
HONG Sang-soo, Like You Know It All (South Korea)
PHAN Dang Di, Adrift (Vietnam)
WAI Ka-fai / AU Kin-yee, Written By (Hong Kong)

Best Cinematographer
CAO Yu, City of Life and Death (China)
CHENG Siu-keung, Vengeance (Hong Kong)
CHUNG Chung-hoon, Thirst (South Korea)
LY Thai Dzung, Adrift (Vietnam)
Jake POLLOCK, Yang Yang (Taiwan)

Best Production Designer
Alain-Pascal HOUSIAUX / Patrick DECHESNE / LEE Tian-Jue, Face (Taiwan)
HAYASHIDA Yuji, Yatterman (Japan)
Kenneth MAK, Bodyguards and Assassins (Hong Kong / China)
RYU Seong-hie, Thirst (South Korea)
XIAO Haihang / YANG Haoyu, The Message (China)

Best Composer
LO Ta-Yu, Vengeance (Hong Kong)
HOANG Ngoc Dai, Adrift (Vietnam)
JANG Yeong-gyu / LEE Byung-Hoon, Running Turtle (South Korea)
LIU Tong, City of Life and Death (China),
SAITO Kazuyoshi, Fish Story (Japan)

Best Editor
Lee CHATAMETIKOOL, Karaoke (Malaysia)
KONG Chi-leung / CHAN Chi-wai, Overheard (Hong Kong)
MOON Sae-kyung, Mother (South Korea)
Kats SERRAON, Lola (The Philippines)
TANG Hua / ZHANG Yifan / DU Yuan, Crazy Racer (China)

Best Visual Effects
YI Zeonhyoung, Thirst (South Korea)
FUJITA Takuya / NOZAKI Koji, Goemon (Japan)
WANG Jianxiong / Jimmy CHEN / LI Liping, Crazy Racer (China)
NG Yuen-fai / Chas CHAU Chi-shing / TAM Kai-kwan , The Storm Warriors (Hong Kong)
SESHITA Hiroyuki, Symbol (Japan)

Best Costume Designer
Tina KALIVAS / Vaughan ALEXANDER, Goemon (Japan)
Christian LACROIX / Anne DUNSFORD / WANG Chia-Hui, Face (Taiwan)
Dora NG, Bodyguards and Assassins (Hong Kong / China)
SHIM Hyun-soeb, The Sword with No Name (South Korea)
WADA Emi, The Warrior and the Wolf (China)

Outstanding Contribution to Asian Cinema - Zhang Yimou

Lifetime Achievement Award - Amitabh Bachchan

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