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Rak haeng Siam (2007)
Gentle, yet deeply moving
This is a gentle little film with a big heart. "I don't know why I have to learn piano," asks young Mew early in the film. "Maybe one day, you can use it to show someone how you feel." Flash forward to present day, teenage Mew is the handsome lead singer of a band asked to write a love song. Everyone thinks it's cake but he struggles, as he doesn't know what it feels like. Enter Tong, Mew's childhood-separated neighbor. They hit it off immediately, and melody of love now comes to Mew naturally as he writes one song after another expressing his feeling about Tong. It's a joy to watch Mew fearlessly fall in love. His magnetic smile especially blossoms at Tong's presence. You can feel how drawn he is to Tong, especially when he sings to him. Unfortunately their love is interfered by an external force. Without the feeling, Mew can no longer sing authentically. It is heartbreaking precisely because we saw how happy they were together.
I've focused on the romantic relationship, but I fully concur with the reviewer who said it is the integration of this and the family subplot that makes it more whole than most gay-themed movies. In fact, that subplot dominates the second half of the movie.
Music is not only a central theme but the gentle OST is also used to great effect throughout the movie. The main imperfection for me was Mario's acting as Tong. He basically sleepwalked throughout the film. I get that he is supposed to be unsure about his sexuality, but he looks monotonically bored in most of his scenes.
Yoru no pikunikku (2006)
Nice simple movie
This is a feel-good coming-of-age story, where the strenuous walk strips students of their outer shell and makes them come out with their secrets. The end result is a little uneven - at times great, other times sloppy. There is an impressive long take at the beginning gradually revealing the entire student body on an open field. But some scenes don't achieve the desired emotional effect due to the amateur cinematography, which is odd considering the aforementioned impressive shot. It's as if the film was shot by different people.
As often in Japanese movies, there are a number of eccentric characters, from the rock-n-roll guy who is miserable during the day but comes alive at night, to the brothers with moose masks. These provided comic relief and memorable characters.
It's a simple movie we can all relate to on some level. The comedy helps maintain the light mood, while the mysteries keep you intrigued. Recommended.
Refreshing update to the classic
I'm a big fan of the original Saint Seiya anime from the 80s as well as the 2000s Hades arc. This story is a solid addition to the legacy. Like the Hades arc, it's more modern than the original, but what sets it apart is the superior characterization. Characters here are deeper and more complex; I found myself caring about even those who appeared only briefly. My favorites, as with before, are the gold saints. Here they bear resemblance to their 20th century incarnations, nearly everyone more fleshed out, but there will be some pleasant surprises. For example, I was glad to see a dignified Cancer, while the Pisces saint is beyond cool.
One of the problems with SS was it started getting repetitive after a while. I'm happy to say not so with this story. It does draw many parallels to Kurumada's SS, making old fans feel warm and fuzzy. Yet, the story here is refreshing and unpredictable. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen for all 26 episodes.
The 2 minor imperfections are one, the series ends before the manga, leaving you hungry for more, and two, it does get just a little repetitive and formulaic with the way gold saints are introduced and their fate. All things considered, the solid story and execution are quite possibly the best we've seen in SS thus far.
Chi bi (2008)
Surprisingly good mega blockbuster from a seasoned Master
Admittedly, I had my doubts about Red Cliff. John Woo in the chair to make a historical war drama? That hasn't happened since... oh wait, it's never happened before. Then again, if Ang Lee could make a great movie about gay cowboys, I'm willing to see what John Woo can do outside his usual territory. That, and the film's steady high profile publicity over the past several years, made Red Cliff a must-see for me.
For Red Cliff, the biggest divergence from Woo's prime time classics such as The Killer is the subdued emotions. Most of Woo's classics were rather in-your-face in terms of melodrama, but not so in Red Cliff. While I loved his melodramas, I believe Red Cliff reveals a matured Woo with improved craftsmanship. Make no mistake: he has incorporated his signature themes of male bonding, loyalty, and sacrifice in Red Cliff--but in a much more subtle and understated manner.
Unquestionable, some viewers have loved Woo for his badass action sequences. But for me, I've always been a fan because of his memorable characters. To this point, I was pleased with Red Cliff's strong characters. The film has focused on making the central figures appealing by either embellishing them with an edgy factor or giving them some depth, and this is successful for the most part.
For me, the low point of the movie was the weak acting from Zhao Wei and Takeshi Kaneshiro -- not just compared to Tony Leung, but on any scale. Kaneshiro is an odd choice to play the historically glorified Zhuge Liang, while Zhao Wei's character seemed totally inconsequential.
The film also features some annoying cartoonish music, which seemed to be oddly misplaced in intense combat scenes.
Other than those few shortcomings, Red Cliff is a solid film that is both a mega blockbuster and quality film-making.
Great fusion of entertainment and quality content
Released amid a horde of Korean romantic comedies following the success of "My Sassy Girl", Singles--I found--was not simply another manufactured commodity. It broke some major clichés that are risky for any studio film to deviate from. There was realistic acting of genuine human behaviors underneath the surface of light-hearted humor, which may I add, is very funny! I would even consider this film to be a great painting of the common people. A lot of films take the escapist approach to deviate its content from real life; in my opinion that is a perfectly legitimate way to make films, and while Singles certainly has its share of over-the-top moments (which are highly enjoyable), I found it to resemble life more than most genre films. And, if art is to imitate life, then I consider Singles to be a successful work of art. It's great to see films incorporating both wild entertainment AND something meaningful that we can take away from.
The Velocity of Gary (1998)
A story with subtle poignancy, as charming as its weaknesses
What a pleasure it is to discover a little film which presents little pieces of your own life story. This is a film that I imagine many will question what the hell is the point. It feels like an exploratory independent film that doesn't try to be very clever or cool, just an ordinary story with plenty of room for randomness. As it fits in neither the energetic class of cinema characterized by Tarantino and Fellini, nor the understated class a la Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Gus Van Sant, it won't impress the entertainment seekers and may not work for the purists. That said, I personally liked it more than not.
The great Michelangelo Antonioni said that films are not to be understood; they are to be experienced. As a film VELOCITY may not score high, but viewing it was an experience which I will not forget soon. The scenes with the deaf boy in drag were simply poignant and memorable. I'll never forget the priceless look on his face when his wig was pulled away by the rascals. It was a look which captured a thousand unspoken words that few, if any, Hollywood star would be capable of replicating. His pursuit of Gary brings back traces of my own memory. For me, this character was the primary saving grace of the film; his "acting" was superb, so heart-felt that I'm not sure if it's acting or reality--probably a hybrid of both.
In summary, VELOCITY is a film where some fragments are better than the whole package. Whether or not you can enjoy the film probably depends on how much your life experience draws you to the characters.
Delivering socio-political commentary through entertainment, stylistically compromised to permit greater accessibility
In my opinion, BULWORTH at its core can be viewed as an artist trying to make a statement via his film, using the same approach as Charlie Chaplin's final speech in GREAT DICTATOR and Paul's reply to Jesus in Martin Scorsese's adaption of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF Christ. In GREAT DICTATOR, Charlie Chaplin was misidentified as Hitler, and he was given the opportunity to make a public speech to the world. Chaplin stepped up, cleared his throat, and delivered one of the unforgettable speeches in cinema about peace and freedom. In the case of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF Christ, Paul would rather bury the truth of Christ's existence, endorsing that "faith" in Jesus is more important than whether Jesus' resurrection really occurred. Both Chaplin and Scorsese had something which they felt compelled to communicate via their art, and although both deliveries felt contrived and unrealistic, this approach ensures that the point is understood by the audience.
Now, I am not here to discuss the merit of this "force-feed" approach (frankly, I think it's rather crude...), nor am I here to assess the merit of Warren Beatty's statement (OK, I admit it oversimplifies the situation...). I am merely pointing out that Bullworth takes the same approach as Chaplin and Scorsese did in making a personal commentary, in this case: the government (specifically, the democratic party) doesn't care about the people, and never will be able to, as long as corporate millionaires are influencing their decisions. In this respect, I believe that BULWORTH should not be critiqued on the basis of realism, but rather on its effectiveness in making the viewer contemplate about our current political environment. After all, at the core of every art, its purpose is to make people THINK, granted that from an artistic perspective, the artist value remains important (which BULWORTH has very little), but from a practical point of view, its maximum impact is what matters to the world.
In short, BULWORTH is a political commentary delivered in-your-face with typical annoying Hollywood conventions. I cringed at the few laughably unlikely scenarios which defy any sense of realism; at the same time I was entertained; in the end I was rooting for Senator Bulworth, and the film had its share of impact on me. Most of the time when a movie is as shamelessly contrived on the surface as BULWORTH, I wouldn't have anything nice to say about it. The saving grace of this film is its underlying heart. It could have been more subtle and more intelligent, but in the process of such elaboration BULWORTH would compromise its ability to reach a wider audience with an important message.
You yuan jing meng (2001)
Exquisitely composed, Expertly crafted, PEONY PAVILION is hypnotizingly graceful to the eye, undeniably seductive to the senses, and gently evocative to the mind. The acting is near perfect, and Joey Wong is easily at her best that I've ever seen. As a bonus, listen to Brigitte Lin's voice in the narration.
This film is perhaps most enjoyable as a visual art. The imagery is simply wonderful, and it is that which I remember the film for. I would have agreed with the comment from reviewer Hermes regarding Yonfan being a superior cinematographer than screenwriter, except the credits reveal that Yonfan was in fact not the cinematographer of this film.
Survive Style 5+ (2004)
Broadcasting the laws of life through deliberately wild entertainment
First, a brief advice for those who haven't seen the film: expect bizarreness, randomness, random bizarreness, exaggerated randomness, and exaggerated bizarreness. However, beyond the exaggerated random bizarreness, the film doth have meanings that we can take away. It has style and substance, albeit a lot of style. FINAL VERDICT: highly recommended if you don't mind bizarre exaggerated randomness.
The rest of my review provides an analysis of the meaning behind the lushly colorful sets and the exaggerated bizarreness. It will be most helpful to readers who have already viewed the film.
As first glance, "Survival Style 5+" would seem a totally bizarre film-going experience. Indeed, few movies can claim to feature the following exaggerated acts:
-a hot wife who visualizes a complete "speedy" internet commercial in her head, which uses olympic sprinters to compete in how "speedy" they can cum on the field by having sex.
-a dead wife who breathes fire to light her husband's cigarette.
-a middle-aged father who permanently turns into a bird by undergoing hypnosis.
-an executive who answers an "important" phone call from his wife during business hours; "What is it?" He asks, and then his face shows great concern as he repeats after his wife: "What, the bathroom lights are out!"
-an assassin asking a cooked broccoli what is its function in life.
These are just a few examples to gear up your expectations for the randomness in the film. However as the film progresses, it becomes evident that it has meanings more than meet the eye. Why when the man wants to kill his wife, he can never succeed, but as soon as he retracts the intention, she is really dead? Why when the same wife cooks a full meal for the man, he is not pleased, but at the end he is happy to accept a less full meal from her? Why does the woman in commercial business run after her lost recordings, only to stop before she reaches it with a sigh: "I'm so stupid?"
To me, this film illustrates the basic lessons learned in life through these wildly random events, and it all ties up at the end. The wife is not able to please the man with her cooking at first because she is feeding him what she wants to feed him, not what he wants to eat. Later, when she adjusts the food to his liking, both he and she are more satisfied. At first, the man is repeatedly killing his wife because he is a killer and that's what he is supposed to do. Even though he fails every time, he just repeats the same thing over and over again without thinking. He can never succeed killing her because the more we want something, the harder it seems to obtain. However when he finally has no intention of killing her any more, she is taken from him forever. How ironic. This incident also illustrates the inevitability of consequences from our actions: the man had hired a hit-man to kill his wife, and it comes back to haunt him. Therefore the man's action is responsible for his wife's death.
Furthermore, the woman in commercial business is a workaholic. She has no personal life, and her husband detests her work. On Christmas eve, she is running with all her strength to retrieve missing work. As she races past the holiday decorations and Santa on the street, it finally hit her: she has been living in vain; on this day of celebration, she has nothing to celebrate and no one to celebrate with. And what about the band of thieves? During a near-death situation, two of them finally come out with their feelings, reinforcing the notion that tragedy brings people closer. As for the bird dad, he didn't turn into a bird without a purpose. It is a statement about coming to terms with who we are and who our neighbors are; we need to co-exist with people who are different from us, and it begins with accepting who we are and who they are.
Although this review has concentrated on the film's meaning, I must take a moment to comment on the wildly imaginative visual style. This movie is a visual feast full of vibrant colors. Along the same style, the film definitely has its share of random, exaggerated situations. Why would the director take this exaggerated approach to illustrate the lessons of life, you might ask. The answer lies in the commercial expert Yoko's reply to her boss' criticism about the offbeat nature of her presentation: "You have to make something entertaining. Otherwise, people will not watch it," she says. Her bosses are pressing her to make another dull and straight-forward presentation; they think that spoon-feeding the audience is the only way for the us to grasp their intended meaning. Well, I am confident that most people who see this film will agree that Yoko's offbeat commercials would be more effective than any boring standard commercial. By taking the same offbeat, exaggerated approach to make this film, the director is trusting our ability to grasp the essence of his intentions, and we should be thankful for such filmmakers who have enough faith in their audience to take chances with a deliberately creative offering.
Match Point (2005)
Woody Allen, you did not disappoint me. Bravo
Walking into "Match Point" as my first Woody Allen experience proves that I have a long way ahead in exploring cinematic excellence. Here Allen deftly plays with our expectations. At various points, the film appeared to be falling into conventional traps; for example, when the attraction between Nola and Chris became unbearably evident, but one of them was afraid to be seen together, I suspected the story to branch into the "forbidden love" territory a la "Brokeback Mountain." But not so! Or, when Chris was reluctant to accept an office job, I thought perhaps this film would explore his unhappiness with the business world, and where his heart really belonged, as a conventional film is expected to do after establishing the character's reluctance. My foreshadowing was off, and I'm glad that the seemingly conventional plot was nothing more than a warm up for the dark, haunting side of the human experience that is often overlooked because the truth hurts. If you have not seen this film, here is a word of warning to set the right expectation: do NOT expect to walk away charmed, and do expect "Match Point" to explore psychologically frightening territories. The story progresses through several phases, and Allen demonstrates that he refuses to give in to popular expectations. Nevertheless, keep in mind that Allen stated in an interview that he was not aiming for a depressive tone -- merely a realistic one, not that it isn't funny occasionally!
"Match Point" is my first Woody Allen experience, and I would rate it as a daring and powerful effort that transcends the limitations of popular cinema; I would not have expected any less from the legendary director.
Taiyô wo nusunda otoko (1979)
Entirely nihilistic filmgoing experience
After being held hostage by a dissatisfied citizen, a high school teacher--who is a hopeless bum with no mission in life whatsoever--follows a similar path to express his dissatisfaction: by building an atomic bomb in his apartment. In the end he blows everything up.
What we have here is a totally nihilistic filmgoing experience. The message seems to be that society has fostered dissatisfied citizens who sense no purpose in life. In fact their only sense of achievement can be felt through destruction. Some fingers are pointed to Mr. Big Brother aka the conservative government, which has oppressed the wants of some people, for example by keeping the Rolling Stones out of the country because the band symbolized drugs.
I think (I hope) anyone can see that the main character here is a nut, albeit a highly dangerous one since he could blow up Tokyo with a little ball. The point is that once the sense of purpose in life is lost, all hell breaks loose.
About Love (2005)
Love comes in various shapes
Recently, we have noticed an increasing trend in multinational productions featuring short films by several directors. For example, we have Three, Three Extremes, Eros, and the BMW Films. Actually such practice was not uncommon in Europe in the 60s; the difference is that Asian directors were overlooked back then (with the possible exception of Japanese directors), and are now usually at the forefront of these films.
ABOUT LOVE is a 3-part romantic film featuring the talent of China, Japan, and Taiwan -- although the names would not be as famous as the directors of Three Extremes. In each short film, there is a He and a She, and one is always Japanese, the other Chinese. All 3 are highly evocative, although each part evokes distinct emotions.
The first short film is an upbeat fairytale from Ten Shimoyama (St. John's Wort). In Tokyo, the story begins with a woman Michiko receiving a phone call from Tecchan, while going through her daily wandering in the midst of 20 million people. It has been 1320 hours since her boyfriend failed to return, and her boyfriend just ended their 3-year relationship with a 4 second phone call. She finds comfort from a Chinese student (Chen Bo-lin of BLUE GATE CROSSING) who posts drawings on her door, drawings of her gradually recovering. This part is short and sweet, filled with the wonderful nightscape of Chen Bo-lin riding through Tokyo in solitude. The super evocative music perfectly complements the imagery.
One word to describe part 1: Fairytale. [10/10]
The second segment actually precedes the first part in terms of time line. In Taipei, unable to sleep, a woman spends all night pounding nails into a bookshelf to release her frustration. She calls Tecchan (whose voice we hear in part 1) on the phone to come over. She doesn't speak Japanese, while his Chinese proficiency is probably 5%, but that doesn't stop them from attempting to communicate. In the hands of Yee Chin-yen (dir: BLUE GATES CROSSING), this part has a more experimental style, featuring super lengthy takes and not-so-smooth cuts. The style, along with the emotionally unstable and disillusioned protagonist, are bordering Wong Kar Wai territory. The most memorable scene from the movie can be found in this segment: in a 3-minute scene, he tries to deliver her a message in Chinese. They go back and forth decoding the exact message, full of repetition, but she knows that he is just trying to make her feel better; he is helping her to keep the last inch of hope alive. The result is both hilarious (esp if you know the Chinese language) and heartfelt. For those who have seen BLUE GATES CROSSING, it's the equivalent of the lengthy chair-pushing scene, but here the repetition is even more striking.
This segment illustrates the impossibility to let go, and what one can do to fill the emptiness. The main characters' complexity are also the strongest here. Feelings of loss, missing, incomplete, dependency, vulnerability, longing are inevitable. [9/10] (I took off one point for his not only frustrating, but also irritating attempt at speaking Chinese. It goes beyond believable sometimes)
Our last stop is Shanghai. The life of working class girl YunYun has been lacking, until the arrival of a Japanese teacher. Instead of going to school, she is working as cashier at her home store, and studying at home. At some point, he stole her heart, but he is too busy fulfilling his dream (for which he came to Shanghai) to notice. His ex-girlfriend also waited for him, but she realized it was only his dream, not hers. For YunYun, love hurts. One year later, he returns to Shanghai, to finally discover the true love that he missed. And yet, the walls of YunYun's family residence has been crumbled, the neighborhood nonexistent. In the midst of 10+ million people, how can he find this girl whose heart he melted, and finally grant her the comfort of being in his arms?
One word summary for segment 3: poignant. [8/10]
3 flavors of love, 3 unforgettable experiences. Romance doesn't get much better than ABOUT LOVE.
Portugal S.A. (2004)
Relevant and entertaining
Having never previously viewed a Portuguese film, I was curious about this particular new production due to its famed director (who apparently was a pioneer of Brazil's New Wave movement). Like the recent hit SYRIANA, Portugal SA may be hailed as a political thriller, exposing the dark side of politicians and their ties to corporate bosses. It explores about 10 major characters, all of whom know each other very well. They are highly influential in their career, and are lifelong friends. A bitter businessman comes along, takes in one of the guys, and the dilemma of "to double cross or not to double cross" begins. There is also a priest, who is sort of like the chief adviser to the group of influential characters, who secretly reads and narrates Machiavelli's "The Prince"--a text frowned upon by the church. But indeed, this film illustrates that some concepts from "The Prince" are very much alive in politics and abroad today, and hints that they may be essential for success. Although the government and situations depicted are Portuguese, I think the ideas are relevant beyond national scope. Bravo to Guy Guerra for undertaking this risky project.
Abstract, Imaginative, and Memorable
I was mighty excited to discover that AVALON was directed by the guy responsible for GHOST IN THE SHELL, which is my most-want-to-see movie due to its spiritual soundtrack and Matrix-inspiring concept. It has been said that one should first check out GHOST before AVALON to taste the style of the filmmaker. Well, I dived right into AVALON as my first encounter with Mamoru Oshii. The result is a visually appealing albeit mighty ambiguous treat.
AVALON is ambiguous even by Japanese standards, but that's what makes it interesting. The theme is reality vs illusion, and also technology's impact on reality. In the future, reality becomes more boring and isolated, and individuals turn to an advanced virtual reality video game called Avalon that is capable of providing an exciting world. The video game is designed to consume the players' lives. More dangerously, the game can directly alter the player's reality. For example, if a player gets lost in the game, he becomes brain dead in real life (this is explained in the prologue text). To make the film stand out visually, a special film stock was used, and the effect is unmistakable from the first minute. Now, Unlike The Matrix for example, here we are not sure which world is real or not. One straightforward theory is that the players exist in reality and the game is virtual; however, it is possible that the players exist inside another virtual reality game; or better yet, it's even possible that the players are illusion, but the game they play leads them to reality! One of the film's lines summarizes the struggle for truth: "Why does it matter? You have no way of confirming anyway." Indeed, even in real life one can argue there is no way to be sure if we exist in reality or not.
There is a sharp contrast between the characters' futuristic real world and our current world. Our world is still full of human interactions and a sense of community, while their world is hopeless isolation that depends on technology for survival.
More about the film: The music is absolutely fantastic. The cast is mostly Polish. And the lighting is probably the most impressive I have EVER seen.
I thought of CASSHERN while seeing this one, so I put in that movie for a brief comparison. I must say that I enjoy CASSHERN's futuristic visuals a heck lot more, while AVALON's ambiguity makes it more memorable.
In conclusion, I back the recommendation of one reviewer: stay, if you are looking for an experience; go, if you are looking for a story.
Mei ren cao (2003)
Love and Fate
"Fate is fate whether or not it binds you to another person. Likewise, Love is love whether or not it binds you to another person."
According to China.Org.Cn, "This heart-wrenching film, The Foliage, is to date, the most touching love story to hit the Chinese box office." While this movie is not bad, the above description is grossly exaggerated. The Foliage is a decent recount of life when young Chinese intellectuals were required to move to the countryside for re-education. Shu Qi aficionados and those who can identify with pre-commercialized Mainland China will probably discover the most fondness here.
This movie offers a thought-provoking take on fate. It reinforces the notion that we are all connected in a big web, and Anyone has the power to alter his/her life or someone else's life, whether intentional or not. To make this point unmistakable, the filmmaker concludes the film with the tip of an iceberg to an ALTERNATIVE fate of the story, caused by a slight difference in one character's action. Who can say what the outcome of the story will be in this alternative fate?
As a side note, the story takes place in south China's Yunnan province, and the entire cast seems to speak either the local dialect or the Beijing-accent Mandarin, except for our lead actress Shu Qi. Coming from Taiwan, her Mandarin has an unmistakable Taiwanese flavor, and the film does not try to disguise her accent or explain why it is out of place with the rest of the characters.
Hao nan hao nu (1995)
Deliberate minimalism from an uncompromising master
This movie achieved substantial impact on me, in a good way. Firstly, it's the first Hou Hsiou Hsien film that I have been able to sit through in its entirety. As much as I claim to admire film as art, I will not ever consider giving FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI another attempt. Secondly, I now see Hou Hsiou Hsien as one of the most respectable craftsman in cinema, even more admirable than Zhang Yimou from China or my personal favorite, Wong Kar Wai from HK, and I'll give my reasons. Zhang and Wong take risks with their creations, but they are relatively easy to grasp, and even have some entertainment values. For example, Zhang's TO LIVE is an emotionally heavy drama that spans several generations before, during, and after Cultural Revolution. Even if one doesn't have taste for art films, one could enjoy its sheer melodrama. In the case of Wong, his Chungking Express has a huge cult following. It has a sweet touch of spontaneity that makes it watchable to anyone, although the disconnected storytelling could throw some people off.
So Zhang can do intense drama, and Wong can direct spontaneous acting. Hou Hsiou Hsien (or his colleagues Tsai Ming Liang and Edward Yang), however, is of a different breed. His films (that I've seen anyway) are casual but deliberately never ever strive to be interesting. For example, there's no moody music, showy cinematography, or thought-provoking dialogue to spice things up while you watch a 2-minute long take of people walking. Everything is just as indifferent as it is and nothing more; then it's up to us to give it a meaning -- that is the essence of MINIMALISM which define Hou's body of work. Minimalist cinema is by far the most difficult to grasp and sit through (since "nothing happens," some will understandably accuse), and many viewers detest it with a passion. Whether this style is actually effective I do not know, "all I know is this: once I was blind and now I can see." Good Men Good Women is an eye opener for me.
In recent years, several well-noted Chinese art house filmmakers have upgraded to generously budgeted blockbusters: Ang Lee with Crouching Tiger, Zhang Yimou with Hero and Flying Dagger, He Ping with Warriors of Heaven & Earth, Fruit Chan with Three Extremes: Dumpling, not to forget Cheng Kaige's special effects fantasy extravaganza The Promise on the way, followed by Wong Kar Wai reportedly to film an American feature The Lady from Shanghai with Nicole Kidman, and words of Hou's Taiwanese colleague Edward Yang to direct an animation produced by Jackie Chan. In such a relaxing trend, will Hou Hsiou Hsien have any surprises for us, or will he continue to explore Taiwan in minimalist glory?
Keep Your Distance (2005)
Superior character-driven independent showcase
I'll begin by saying that this is the best American movie I have seen in 2005, which may not say much since I try to steer my viewing habits to things of greater merit than mind-numbingly insulting garbage that comes out of Hollywood these days. Other outstanding American films of the year so far include SIN CITY and CRASH.
KEEP YOUR DISTANCE is hailed as a mystery thriller, which is somewhat misleading considering the mystery is secondary to the primary focus of studying the characters' psychology in modern society by looking at their public and private lives.
The spontaneous, down-to-earth performances is the film's greatest asset. No moment stands out as showy, as popular blockbusters would try to impress us with badass personalities, or as experimental art films would consciously pile layers upon layers of subtleties. This type of independent film has the perfect balance in the spectrum, in my humble opinion, which another review has mentioned that it "tries" to look like mainstream, and I'll just add that it offers more depth. In little moments like Melody's spontaneous yet helpless laughter in response to David Dailey's awkward line "I've been there (Chicago)," it's obvious that the film isn't trying to sell its stars, cool characters, or edge-of-your-seat action. All it's doing, is offering a realistic character study, taking in issues that have become central to society only recently, for example the drive for workaholism and its consequences on personal life, the long term devastation of marrying the wrong person, as well as maintaining the right distance in relationships, as the title suggests. If art is to imitate real life, then KEEP YOUR DISTANCE is an outstanding work of art.
Several themes gradually unfold in parallel situations, such as the parallel between the Lentz scandal and David Dailey's own problems, and common dissatisfaction in the relationship of Melody and Sean paralleling that of David and Susan. In Melody's case, marrying the wrong man phased out her trust for everything. When she checks into a hotel room, she routinely looks under the bed and behind the shower curtain, as if not doing so will jeopardize her security. Such insecurity distances her from her new boyfriend Sean, who has a habit of spying, and even sets up a secret camera overlooking his band mates. As a side note, I think Sean probably inherited this habit from his wealthy father, whom we see paying people to keep an eye on other people. As for David, his wife Susan has been calling the shots since their marriage. They have had a lot of luck, and all can be attributed to her initiatives. David finally realizes that their marriage isn't about two people, but about one person, which cannot be sustained.
The ending is a bit of a letdown because the solution to the mystery is not earth-shakingly complicated. However, this is in tune with the rest of the film's down-to-earth approach, which still manages to play out impressively captivating (and in my opinion is a case of simplicity bearing superiority).
Inevitably, this kind of character study film will always trigger criticism for being boring or "nothing happens" (case in point: THE LIMEY, another personal favorite). In my opinion, such accusation is a lame move generally coming from viewers that have been trapped in mainstream blockbusterland. Needless to say, many such viewers are handicapped by short attention span and lack of exposure to the other end of the spectrum (namely films bearing more complexity, originality, sophistication, depth, boldness, and imagination).
KEEP YOUR DISTANCE is a fine film because it aims to impress us by delivering elements fundamental to the art: strong performances, interesting storytelling, and thorough characterization. Most mainstream blockbusters cannot touch a genuine independent showcase like this one because there's hardly any substance underneath their star power and high tech tricks.
Gong woo (2004)
Great throwback to HK cinema's golden age, unfairly dismissed
The general consensus among HK cinema followers is that Jiang Hu suffers from this and that, so I expected it to be mediocre. Truth is, it turned out to be the most delightful surprise in many years. Right from the start, the bar scenes are filled with energy and dazzling lighting effects, maximizing the cinematic excitement. The film's retrospective score and set design evoke the old Chinese city which was previous achieved to perfection only by Wong Kar Wai's IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Jiang Hu's director seems to have learned more than a few tricks from Kar Wai, from utilizing well-placed retrospective songs to capturing the moment for maximum mood. This is to say, Jiang Hu is an outstanding work of art that captures the essence of triad life-cycle and blood brotherhood.
Watching Jiang Hu is like experiencing the 21th century Chinese update of The Godfather or any number of European and Italian American gangster classics in the 60s/70s. In our jiang hu, Loyalty is at stake. Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung, two of HK's finest, reprise their boss-follower roles from AS TEARS GO BY, complete with Jacky's impulsiveness and Andy's more calm personality. Their pure friendship from years ago is turning pale as Jacky's ambition pull him towards the dark side.
While Jacky favors violence as primary resort, Andy Lau's character is more of a pacifist. I find his peaceful resolution approach representative of Buddhist ideology in some manner. When warned that Jacky may turn against him, Andy responds: "I am not worried. If my death is what it takes to make Jacky realize the meaning of blood brothers, then so be it." Andy has reached the top of the game, where money and fame have lost their meaning. He only wishes to change his old friend for the better before time runs out. But Andy does not shove this idea down Jacky's throat; he shows Jacky the way through demonstrations of sophistication and wit, instead of blood and force. In the end, after leaving his words, Andy walks away from the table. Whether Jacky accepts his invitation to recover their brotherly bonding is up to Jacky.
Some viewers have pointed out the lack of brutality/blood. This ties back to Andy's philosophy that success can be achieved without blood, as he expresses many times in the movie. It is a central theme to the story.
Another criticism is about the two intertwined story lines - some think it's confusing. However, let's not forget this kind of narrative structure is featured prominently in Godfather Part II, considered a classic. In that movie, 2 parallel story lines, involving the present day Michael and previous accounts of Vito Corleone, switch back and forth throughout the movie -- very similar to the style of Jiang Hu. I personally think Jiang Hu's approach is even superior to Coppola's classic, since here the parallelism is much stronger (and perhaps more meaningful).
Jiang Hu is the third masterpiece I saw in 2004 (the other two being GONG FU and 2046), a fairly kind year for HK cinema. The film is a bit showy at times, but above all, Jiang Hu is more than a standard gangster flick; its artistic passion yields a touch of timelessness which I suspect will outendure many genre classics. As I write this review in October 2005, no HK film I have seen this year comes close to exhibiting Jiang Hu's rare quality to honor the integrity of the medium.
Sud pralad (2004)
"Greed is our downfall"
"Greed is our downfall. I was watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The woman won a lot of money but wouldn't stop playing. She lost and only got 30.000 Baht."
"The tiger trails you like a shadow. His spirit is starving and lonesome. I see you are his prey and his companion."
The experimental creator of "Mysterious Object at Noon" is back with another abstract gem, "Tropical Malady." This time we have a 2-parter connected by common themes and metaphors, a la Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express, equally casual but much slowly paced here. The first part of the film is set in everyday world. A gay soldier pursues a young country boy. The boy is most likely not gay, but he returns the attraction most of the time, probably because he is attracted to the soldier on another level (e.g. he is fascinated by the soldier's uniform). One day, while the soldier is flipping through the boy's photo album, suddenly the movie blacks out -- enter part 2, a story inspired by legends that parallels part 1, but from an alternative angle that makes it challenging to detect the patterns. Set in the dark tropical forest, the soldier relentlessly hunts a tiger ghost spirit for love, fear, or both (foreshadowed by a shooting computer game played by the boy who later appears as the tiger spirit). The tiger is fascinated by the soldier's sound device. The soldier is warned that he must either kill the tiger or be devoured by it.
Part 1 and part 2 are both about desire and pursuit, and essentially follow the same path. In both, the soldier makes great effort to pursue his passion, but it leads him nowhere. He is incompatible with the partner of his desire, so it cannot be satisfied in the case of a straight boy or a tiger. The soldier can be classified as greedy, and it will be his downfall. The 'fairytale-esque' romance in part 1 seems almost Utopian, but it's an illusion that cannot be sustained. In the end he will be consumed by his desires.
This is a powerful and challenging film with 2 segments, each providing a distinctive context to view the same patterns. With only 2 or 3 lines of dialogue in the second part of more than 65 minutes, it's a highly sensual and contemplative experience, where every drop of water, wind gently brushing the leaves, and sound of birds singing contributes to your senses. You can literally smell the mud in the fresh rainforest.
The photography is undeniably beautiful. The last shot of the film is sheer poetry that will take your breath away.
Zui hou de ai, zui chu de ai (2003)
A man's Rebirth
Somewhere in Shanghai, a young woman has an illness. She won't live much longer, and the clock is ticking. She wishes time would stop so she can enjoy more of her limited days with sister and father.
Elsewhere in Shanghai, a business man has arrived from Japan. Depressed and hopeless, his life has stopped cold, even though he is physically alive. He wishes time would start again so he can find meaning in his days ahead.
Inevitably, those 2 cross fate in Shanghai, and they compliment each other. The man finds meaning in life after all, and the woman's last days are filled with joy to last through eternity.
All this is fairly formulaic of course, but it's not without some nice moments. There is a scene when a Japanese manager points ahead and says "where those skyscrapers are, they used to be wild fields." Then they drive through more wild fields, and one cannot help but feel their numbered existence. How long before all the little fields are crushed by modern arrangements? It may not be the movie's central theme, but I found it worth pondering.
In the same scene, the manager and the business man (our depressed protagonist) drive through an area with trees on the side. We only see the lower part of the trees, which appears as lifeless and colorless as the business man. At the end, after his transformation, he returns to the street, and the trees are light green, the road ahead looking bright.
The only major problem with this movie experience on the current DVD is that half of the dialogue is in English, spoken badly by Asian actors, and there is no Subtitle in these scenes. Another shortcoming that I found in this 2 hour movie is that there are only 4 or 5 somewhat major characters. It gets a bit repetitive when they're in every scene, and the movie's second half completely focuses on one relationship.
Xia nü (1971)
Mood-driven journey to spiritual enlightenment
To think that I used to accuse King Hu of doing injustice to the wuxia genre with boring storytelling and slow action, I must have been on crack at the time--as his best works completely transcend elements of conventional film-making. In A TOUCH OF ZEN, It's not the story or the action that stands out; although they are part of the system, they are secondary to the theme of spiritual enlightenment, which is what counts in Buddhist philosophy. When the abbot confronts the East Chamber agent, the art of combat is strictly utilized by the abbot to guide the agent to "put down his sword, and attain peace with Buddha." There is a haunting sight when the bookworm scholar is amused by his tactic which fooled the agents. He thinks he has reached the peak of perfection, but then he sees dead bodies lying around who have suffered from his tactic, and the only thing on his mind is a woman whom he lusts. As book-smart as he is, he still suffers from worldly affair like everyone else. Only at the end when he accepts Buddha is he able to live in peace.
Aside from the philosophical points, ZEN also scores strongly in establishing mood, suspense, and fascinating visuals. The Jiang Hu in this film feels incredibly authentic, and the rich mise-en-scene is refreshing compared to the limited Shaw Bros studio offerings. I loved the photography throughout; it beautifully captures the spiritual wonder of ancient Orient. In framing still shots, King Hu chiefly employs medium and medium close-ups, mounting his camera at an upward angle so we can always see beyond the characters, perhaps to suggest existence of higher wisdom.
One observation I would like to propose is that although ZEN is probably a milestone in Chinese cinema, it would be a minor masterpiece compared to the best works from 60s Japan. The lush photography and haunting images from KWAIDAN come to mind as a comparison. No doubt, King Hu also learned a few tricks from the likes of Kurosawa, such as pointing his camera at the sun which occurs frequently in ZEN.
Faa yeung nin wa (2000)
Kar Wai takes art to the next level
Despite the vividly beautiful images and depth in the wonderful performances, no matter how much and how hard I try, I cannot get into this movie. I attribute my lack of interest to my lack of experience in love's "missed moment" (which is a crucial theme) and in 60s Hong Kong immigrant life in general. I feel more connected to Kar Wai's contemporary HK setting and in his one period wuxia pian.
Hua Yang Nian Hua is a movie worth taking the risk to check out even if you don't like art-house cinema. I regard it highly, even if it doesn't strike a personal chord with me.
Dung che sai duk (1994)
Life-stoppingly rich, soul-penetratingly haunting
Without a doubt, Ashes of Time is the most special film I have ever seen. It is also the most artistic, which naturally means it is more challenging than entertaining. Indeed, I was not comfortable watching it for the first time, but I was so mesmerized that now it has become the movie I have revisited the most. Nevertheless, Ashes is still a very difficult piece to sit through in its entirety. In my opinion, due to its disjointed storytelling, it is a film where parts are better than the whole, and those parts simply take my breath away.
Interestingly enough, the most breathtaking and spellbinding film to me is not one I so much "like" or enjoy, but is one that I cherish for its evocative artistry. This majestic collection of disjointed heartbreaking tales is complemented to perfection by unrivaled and unforgettable imagery, music, and performances that penetrate the soul.
Every human being has a story behind the surface
My beef with film in general is that the media tends to depict minor characters as more or less pre-programmed. I always thought that even the minor characters still have a life of their own, and to have them on the screen for a few seconds is somehow not doing them justice; that is to say, I wished a movie would flesh out the characters more, allowing us to see their complex life past a brief encounter with the "main" characters.
Having watched "Crash," I realize it's a real wish-come-true for me. Not that it's the first time a network of events has connected strangers to each other in a film, but it does so well in bringing the characters to life. The story explores racial issues with understanding, not with judgment (this quality is similar to the critically acclaimed "Do the Right Thing"). The major characters explored range from hypocrites and spoiled brats to misinformed immigrants, none of which ultimately lacks compassion, but they are also not immune from ignorance, selfishness, and making mistakes, which lead to their suffering as well as others' suffering. Characters develop gradually as the plot progresses, reinforcing the VERY IMPORTANT notion that human beings are complex creatures that cannot be understood by first impression. Characters will surprise us as we learn more about them. For example, just when we think we know all about a cop who demonstrates contempt for a minority group (which would probably be the typical one-dimensional character in a less respectable work), we learn that his father was pro-minority and had worked diligently alongside that minority group for 30 years before losing his job due to affirmative action adversely impacting his father, a white male. Do we have the right to condemn this cop for being bitter towards a group who contributed to his father's misfortune? The same cop, with unconditional bravery, later saves a Black woman whom he had sexually harassed before. What was racing through his mind when he put his life aside, racing against time to pull her out of a crashed car that could explode any minute?
This film isn't simply about redemption either; people don't necessarily get rewarded when they achieve something worthwhile (which is sad but realistic). It's trying to tell us HOW different racial groups struggle to fit in the melting pot known as America, and WHY their interactions create barriers with each other. No solution is proposed, as no artist could replace a problem as intense as racial bitterness in a universe surrounded by ignorance and self-interest, and recognizing and reducing these unhealthy qualities is probably the purpose of creating and distributing this film. The only suggestive gesture by the filmmaker is several scenes of slightly stylized lighting and editing to reflect spirituality or enlightenment, a sign that perhaps these qualities can transform people into appreciating diversity.
With the modern world supposedly bringing diverse people closer, "Crash" is a gem that depicts racial struggle as an inevitable course, and this inevitability is reinforced by the ending scene of an accident easily resulting in racist name calling, especially when the racist in this scene has been a victim of racism previously. Perhaps the biggest reward for me comes from the fact that there is no main character, and whether locksmith or district attorney of the largest city in the west coast, they are afforded equal characterization. Therefore we have the rare opportunity to look into the lives of passers-by beyond their introduction to understand how they fit in this highly complex melting pot by a network of events--events that may be unpleasant and yet valuable lessons.
One Inexplicable Decision
Rope tells the tale of two disillusioned young fellows who, convinced that they are somehow superior human beings, decide to practice the art of murder on a fellow student whom they perceive as inferior, for the thrill. If we ignore the first 10 minutes, we will see that there is tremendous potential for suspense during the entire movie, in which we merely hear the two fellows talk about their murder, but we never see it. Finally, there is a great sequence when James Stewart approaches the coffin to see what's in it, but any suspense cannot really be upheld at this point given the first 10 minutes, because we have been shown the murder in the opening scene -- which I have no idea why Mr. Hitch decided to go that route. I can only imagine a lot more suspense and intensity if the viewer was not entirely sure what to expect when Stewart lifts up the wooden coffin.
Rope was not a big hit when it came out. It is not as polished as some of Hitch's later masterpieces that I have seen, but it's still worth a look, if only to witness the impressive long takes (which motivated me to check it out).