Eastern Films From Around The Globe By Jesse Nelson, Sarah Feuquay & Ann Gavaghan. By the time Hong Kong Cinema gained firm footing in America (the exact moment Jackie Chan started shilling for Mountain Dew), things looked bleak for Hong Kong film lovers...
By the time Hong Kong Cinema gained firm footing in America (the exact moment Jackie Chan started shilling for Mountain Dew), things looked bleak for Hong Kong film lovers. Between the emigration of some of HK’s most notable directors, the involvement of the Triads in the film industry, and the Handover of HK to China, it appeared that the party would soon be over.
Luckily, Hong Kong cinema survived these trials relatively unscathed. For proof of this, three CdC writers visited film fests in around the globe in search of a taste of HK Cinema. Jesse Nelson took to the streets of Montreal for the annual FantAsia Festival where he got a feel for the overall state of Asian Cinema. Meanwhile, Sarah Feuquay took the subway over to Manhattan’s Expect The Unexpected fest for features from the most prolific studio in HK today. Not to be outdone, Ann Gavaghan traveled to Hong Kong itself for the Hong Kong Film Festival to see films fresh out of the oven. The reports of the death of HK Cinema have been greatly exaggerated...
Part One: Montreal’s Fantasia Fest
Every summer Montreal plays host to the FantAsia Festival. It may lack the prestige of Cannes and Venice, but it boasts the coolest programming of any festival around. Specializing in Asian films, the fest hosts Horror, Fantasy, Action, and Comedy films from around the globe. Running for a lean nineteen days (down from past years), this year’s fest presented over fifty feature films and a bevy of shorts.
The festival brought out the stars; Malcolm McDowell, Terry Jones, Jerry Stiller, Lau Ching-Wan, and the makers of Wisconsin Death Trip, The Nameless and Ricky 6 among others. For the first time the festival ran in conjunction with the Just For Laughs comedy film fest, bringing a less serious tone to some of the evening’s programs with films like Attack the Gas Station and The Independent.
With so many of these films rarely screened to the North American public, FantAsia is a treat for lovers of fringe cinema. I tried to attend every movie playing in the ten days I was there. If I could have stayed for the whole festival without straining my eyesight or losing my job, I would have. The sheer excitement of seeing them with a thousand people in an overcrowded theatre on a giant screen with a deafening sound system is incomparable!
This year’s cinematic stew was as wild as it was sublime. New films from festival faves such as Alex De La Iglesia (The Day of the Beast) and Takashi Miike (Fudoh: A New Generation) were only part of the fun. Festival-goers were also treated to brand new Anime, two classic Godzilla films, a score of new Japanese films, vintage Italian Zombie movies and even some brand new American fare such as The Convent , The Independent, andmaking its world premiere at the festivalRicky 6.
Wisdom of Crocodiles
My first film of FantAsia 2000 was a vampire film of a different sort. A British film by Hong Kong director Po-Chih Leong, Wisdom of Crocodiles stars Jude Law as a vampire who must first make a woman fall in love with him before he can drain her of her blood. Wisdom of Crocodiles is in the vein (pun intended) of recent “artsy” vampire movies such as Nadja and The Addiction, but with more substance and much more mainstream (no black and white or pixilated scenes) style. Director Leong infuses the film with mood, elevating Wisdom of Crocodiles above generic expectations and into a dark statement of love and life in an egocentric age.
Bullets Over Summer
Hong Kong action films often have a kinetic opening followed by a ton of exposition, peppered with action scenes that lead up to an explosive climax. Wilson Yip’s Bullets Over Summer follows a story arc but plops a tediously unfunny comedy into the middle of the film, trying patience and wasting time before the final action blow-out. Not only is the comedy unfunny, it helps propel a plot line that turns out to be pointless by the end! Bullets Over Summer is a useless entry into an overcrowded genre.
The fact that producers of the film promised that they were presenting their Blade Runner-esque cyber-porn uncensored for the first time was a misnomer. The Shu Lea Cheang film was not only optically censored (a traditional Japanese trait), but it was hardly pornographic! True, there was sex, but it was interrupted every ten seconds by either a place card presenting some useless factoid or a “trippy” computer animation sequence. I.K.U. is everything that porno should not bedull, frustrating and unsexy. For the rest of the festival, the mention of the film was greeted by more moans than those on the soundtrack of the film.
Legend of the Sacred Stone
Although this Taiwanese film is amazing to behold in small chunks, it is nearly impossible to stomach in one sitting. While the notion of an all-marionette and CGI period piece sounds amazing, it suffers from an utterly confusing plot and indistinguishable characters (one person does all the voices). Worse than that, Chris Huang’s Legend of the Sacred Stone is extremely dull! It is certainly worth a look just to see the amazing puppetry and sets, but I was itching for a fast forward button while sitting in the theatre.
Only the second Hong Kong movie I saw at the festival and the only one I really liked. Gordon Chan’s film starts up with rogue CIA agents blowing an airplane right out of the sky. From there, the movie never stops. Elaborate shootouts or chase sequences fill just about every other scene of the film.
The story involves some sort of computer chip that the antagonists have been implanting in giant computer networks all over the world. Once they get the program right, they will be able to infiltrate all of the computers. Of course the heroes get blamed for the mess and have to clear their names while ducking the bulletsand there are plenty of them.
A beautiful, traditional Thai ghost story Nang Nak boasts few scares-it really isn’t that type of ghost story. The narrative concerns a young man (Mak) sent off to battle leaving his pregnant wife, Nak at home. Yes, the whole Mak and Nak thing becomes very tedious. Upon his return, he resumes life where he left it except, unknown to him, his wife and child died during the birth. Of course, the rest of the village is aware that he is living with ghosts but anyone who mentions it to Mak winds up dead! A very sad film with some nice cinematography, Nonzee Nimibutr’s film has an incredible soundscape that adds to the lush atmosphere on screen.
Blood: The Last Vampire
A visually stunning and quite fun anime that has the distinction of being the first fully-digital Japanese film, even though almost the entire film is in English and evidently will be released subtitled in Japan! A girl-who may or may not be a vampire ála Blade-has to infiltrate a high school and hack some nasty vampires to pieces. Despite the enjoyable nature of the film, it lacks any sort of story or character development, which only makes the 48 minute running time that much more frustrating. Don’t fret, however, because you can buy the book and the Japanese Playstation 2 game to get all the info that the film leaves out. I only wish I were kidding. Somehow, Hiroyuki Kitakubo’s anime won second place in the Best Feature Film Asian section.
The film plays like an episode of “The X-Files” directed by Darron Arnofsky or Twin Peaks at its darkest, most inexplicable extreme. A town is cursed by a spiraling shape resulting in obsessions with all things swirlinghair, fingerprints, snail shells, washing machines, and even soft-serve ice cream. Terrific pacing and creepy cinematography make Uzumaki completely bizarre, captivating, and ultimately unsettling.
Dead or Alive
I love Takashi Miike, director of Dead or Alive and of 1996’s Fudoh (which is available on tape domestically from Media Blasters). Dead or Alive is a flawed, overlong film that, despite its serious tone, is a satire of Japanese crime films. It sports the most furious first reel of film I have ever seen with over-the-top scenes that would cause the heads of the MPAA board to explode. See a guy jerking off a dog so that it can screw a woman for a porn film, a woman bathing in a pool of her own shit, and a hooker arguing with her boss while she has a mouth full of semen! Did I mention the ending? Possibly the greatest climax ever recorded on film, the scene also made me decide that this film is a satire. Unfortunately, this ending ruins the rest of the film, making the audience feel like a bunch of chumps as Miike makes viewers the butt of an elaborate joke.
Attack the Gas Station
Time to root for the bad guys as four unlikely heroes decide to rob a gas station for the second time simply because they are bored. Picture Dog Day Afternoon as a Korean comedy with four extremely likable robbers getting into one ridiculous scenario after another. Of course, Kim Sang-jin’s film only works if you can get past the fact that most of the time you are laughing at these guys robbing and beating people. Despite the nature of the film, its heart is really in the right place, which goes a long way. Don’t be surprised if you find this infectious film remade someday into an American teen comedy.
Running Out of Time
Although this film was popular with festival-goers, winning first place in the Best Feature Film Asian section, I found it to just be an average Hong Kong movie. The film concerns a bad guy (I guess he is a bad guy, although there seems to be no prior history of the character being bad) who finds out he has a few weeks left to live. Instead of dying peacefully, he decides to create an intricate plot involving a Police Negotiator, who happens to be bored with his job. Although director Johnnie To usually delivers the goods, the film never really seems to take off and instead delves into useless subplots and dead end action scenes ultimately leaving me very indifferent.
The eagerly anticipated new film from Hideo Nakata, director of the Asian box office smash, The Ring (see CdC #13), Chaos is a finely crafted kidnapping thriller with plenty of twists and turns. Unfortunately, these are somewhat confusing due to the movie’s structure. Like any good thriller, it does not reveal anything the audience doesn’t need to know until they need to know it. However, in this case the revelations are presented in flashbacks that appear out of nowhere. Without giving anything away, the nature of the scheme makes the flashbacks even more confusing. Certainly, Chaos is a good film, but nothing that Blood Simple didn’t do better.
Ringo Lam has brought us some of the greatest action films in the history of Hong Kong cinema, but unfortunately, he veers from that arena to present an uneven (though not completely ineffective) thriller. The biggest disappointment about The Victim is that it starts out as a supernatural thriller with our hero seemingly possessed by a spirit, but that story line quickly becomes muddled and is eventually dropped all together! Star Lau Ching-Wan was in attendance and told the audience that the original ending actually came back to the supernatural storyline but all involved voted to change it. Either you want to make a horror movie or you don’t, make up your mind!
The first Indian film I have ever seen, I was very pleasantly surprised by The Terrorist. The story concerns a beautiful young woman who has been raised to kill in the name of her terrorist organization and to hopefully become a martyr someday like her brother. When it comes time for her to begin training for her destiny (that will kill her, a VIP, and many others in a crowded ceremony), she begins to find that maybe she isn’t as convicted as she thought. Santosh Sivan’s film is a slow, beautiful film and a nice change of pace from the rest of the festival. The Terrorist was one of my favorites and is actually scheduled for video release in the U.S. for late 2000.
The Black House
An almost completely worthless Japanese thriller from the same studio that produced The Ring series, Yoshimitsu Morita’s The Black House never really goes anywhere despite a promising premise. An insurance investigator is researching a claim for members of a family that seemingly hurt themselves and each other for insurance money. Quite honestly, I made a conscious effort to sleep during the last third of this, but I know I didn’t miss anything.
While the premise of this Japanese film didn’t appeal to me all, it ended up taking me completely by surprise. A young woman, who was gang-raped several years earlier, is suddenly confronted at her apartment by one of her attackers only to find out that the rest of her attackers will be arriving over the next couple of days. She tries unsuccessful to escape from the first attacker and ends up brutally killing him and storing him in an industrial freezer that she buys for just that purpose. Obviously, we are dealing with a rape/revenge film here, but it is Citizen Kane compared to the exploitation classic, I Spit On Your Grave. Director Takashi Ishii incites real emotion for the woman, whose killing spree is not so much about revenge as it is healing a wound that apparently can’t be healed otherwise. The further she falls into her madness, the more you know that she is never coming back, not unlike Polanski’s Repulsion or Abel Ferrara’s Ms. .45. Freeze Me is a beautiful and sad film that must be seen.
Juliet In Love
Wilson Yip’s Juliet In Love stars Francis Ng as Jordon, a small-time bookie who owes a lot of cash to local gangster On (Simon Yam). Despite Jordon’s financial woes, he’s kind enough to escort restaurant hostess Judy (Sandra Ng) to the hospital after her grandfather falls ill. This makes Jordon late for a meeting with On. His tardiness earns him a good thrashing. Now in hospital himself, Jordon strikes up a friendship with Judy.
When On expects Jordon to work off his debt by caring for his illegitimate child, Jordon asks Judy to help-not realizing that her past makes caring for this child especially painful. Juliet In Love is far more intelligent than your standard romance weepy, due primarily to the quirky nature of Matt Chow’s screenplay and the excellent cast. Francis Ng proves why he’s the most versatile actor working in Hong Kong today, as his portrayal of Jordon is both bittersweet and swaggering. Sandra Ng, meanwhile, continues to show that she can handle drama as well as the broad comedic roles that made her a star. - JN
Part Two: Subway Cinema
Lau Ching-Wan has the best eyebrows ever: bold but not over powering. They’ve got just enough arc to make him look intriguing at all times. Combine those brows with his great comic timing and smooth delivery-no girl has a chance. You can only see him being noble, charming, and funny while wearing aviator sunglasses before having to cry out, “I give up! Take me now, Lau!”
Lau Ching-Wan’s eyebrows, and the rest of this Cantonese cutie were prominently featured in the first annual Expect the Unexpected Film Festival that ran over the weekend of September 15th at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives. Expect the Unexpected was the first of many events sponsored by Subway Cinema, a New York City based organization devoted to giving State-side exposure to Asian directors and production companies as well as Asian-American filmmakers and artists. Expect the Unexpected was three days devoted entirely to the smarter-than-average HK films produced by Milkyway Productions.
Kicking off the proceedings was the festival’s namesake, Expect the Unexpected. Star Lau Ching-Wan is at his tough, charming best in this film as the rebel cop, Sam. With his by-the-book partner, Ken (Simon Yam), the duo rid a perpetually rainy Hong Kong of a gang of toughs. Director Patrick Yau makes sure to include the usual assemblage of cop characters; Ben, the wizened veteran, Jackie, the young wacky womanizer, and Ruby, the girl. Only Sam, with his devil-may-care attitude, has the edge that allows him to ply criminals with a hot meal and pack of black market cigarettes to get the confession no one could. Donning his leather jacket, he dashes through crowded neon streets and busts down doors to save the girl. And all the women in the audience just melt...
Casting off his leather coat, Lau Ching-Wan dons an array of tight shirts as he attempts to deal with a mid-life career crisis while perched on the lower rung of a Triad gang in Wai Ka-Fai’s Too Many Ways to be No. 1. Released in 1997, this film mastered temporal action before Run Lola Run was a techno twinkle in Tom Twyer’s eye. Too Many Ways is the deadpan tale of Kau (Lau Ching-Wan), a questionable career criminal. He’s given several choices and an enigmatic palm-reading to find a new career path after fifteen years of petty thievery. Too Many Ways relies on blood, action, and lots of physical comedy to keep the audience in check as the film’s narrative shifts backwards and forwards in time. The upside-down fight sequences are the jewel of the film, creating a reality where chaos literally turns the world on its head. Lau Ching-Wan’s draw in this movie goes beyond his shirts to the loyalty he shows to his friends (and prostitutes). Kau spends a lot of time looking confused and lost, knotting his eyebrows into an irresistible display.
Three other Milkyway/Lau Ching-Wan gems lit up the silver screen at Expect the Unexpected. Johnnie To’s Running Out of Time has Lau Ching-Wan as a maverick cop, (as usual), pitted against pop superstar Andy Lau as a terminally ill criminal mastermind. The mildly convoluted plot line of A Hero Never Dies sees another pop singer, Leon Lai, reprising his hitman character from Wong Kar Wai’s masterpiece, Fallen Angels. This Johnnie To film also features Lau Ching-Wan wearing a cowboy hat. Lastly, The Longest Night is director Patrick Yau’s neo-noir romp about hitmen, wherein Lau Ching-Wan is a menacingly attractive assassin with a bald head and bowling bag.
Aside from cultivating a virtually irresistible star, Milkyway productions made a giant leap in revolutionizing the Hong Kong Action Film. Johnnie To’s The Mission is one of the few Milkyway films without Lau Ching-Wan. The film recreates the ensemble action film in its most divine form.
Within minutes of its opening, The Mission smacks the audience in the face with a kick-ass title card backed by the strains of its Moog instrumental soundtrack, eliminating any doubt that this will be a typical action film. Clocking in at much less than ninety minutes, the film is a study of minimalism and an exercise in elegant style. The assembled team of five hitmen manages to convey their characters’ histories and secret emotions with sparse lines of dialogue.
After an assassination attempt on their boss, Mr. Hung, the group is placed in charge of trailing Mr. Hung everywhere, until he figures out who is trying to whack him. The Mission spans an ocean of emotional intensity from moments of child-like camaraderie, cold-hearted professionalism, and nerve-racking ardor.
The amazing mall shoot-out of The Mission is more than enough reason to see this film. It is action sequence as art with pacing so incredible and involving that one’s heart will beat along with each edit. Director Johnny To contrasts the flurry of frantic gunshots against the silence as each man waits, unaware of his enemies’ location. They strain to hear the fall of a body or creak of a footstep, all against the background of a pale, serene shopping mall. It is ballet for the bloodthirsty.
Lest one believe only the men of Milkyway can beat you down and leave you bloody, Expect the Unexpected also showcased Spacked Out, a sort of Hong Kong Girls Town. Anything but charming, Spacked Out is the story of four teenage delinquents from the furthest reaches of the New Territories. The girls dabble in petty theft, carry knives, and are continually getting in trouble at school for their actions. While the film’s gritty suburbia was a nice change of pace from the glossy Asian pop stars in smart suits, Spacked Out is a little too proud of being abstract. When Cookie (Debbie Tam) goes to a back-alley hospital-inexplicably full of fruit and wind-up babies-for a gratuitously gory abortion, it’s obvious that director Lawrence Ah Mon has gone too far. I’m all for documenting horror, but not when it’s shock for shock’s sake. In the end the film does manage to redeem itself as Cookie and an older girl, Ah Yee (Vanesia Chu), forge a delicate new sisterhood. - SF
Part Three: From the Horse’s Mouth
Still need an Asian film fix? The Hong Kong Film Festival features a wide array of movies from all over Asia, not to mention the best selection of HK films at any festival in the world. I’d already seen most of the local product at this year’s festival, but there were a bunch of Asian films that made my trip especially worthwhile. Festival programmers should keep a lookout for these movies, and festival-goers should bug programmers to schedule them, because that’s about the only chance you’ll ever have to see them. If these are ever released on video, DVD, or VCD, it looks like it’s going to be without subtitles.
Forget Ready to Rumble. The best wrestling movie of the past year (if not all time) comes from South Korea! Director Kim Jee-Won (The Quiet Family) has created a wonderful screwball comedy about the transformation of a salaryman (Sang Kang-ho) who goes from loser to wrestling anti-hero, complete with tiger mask and concealed props. The film succeeds due to the gangly Sang Kang-ho who studied wrestling for three months before the start of shooting. Not only does he have the moves down, he’s also proves to be a masterful physical comedian, wriggling helplessly in headlock after headlock. The best scene of the film is clearly the dream sequence, where Sang finds himself inside the ring dressed as a Korean Elvis, unexpectedly forced to take on his nemesis while wearing a white sequined jumpsuit. (An unsubtitled VCD of Foul King is available, and since so many of the jokes aren’t based on language, it might be worth a purchase.)
The repressive little city-state of Singapore is currently home to a burgeoning indie film scene, and the best film to emerge from that so far is Eating Air. Not bothering to give its protagonists names other than Boy and Girl, it’s the story of Boy (Benjamin Heng), a motorcycle-riding layabout. He’s a punk with a need for speed and an aversion to growing up. He enjoys tooling around on his bike and hanging out with his friends, including the Singlish (Singapore-English) spouting Bull (Joseph Cheong). And then Boy spots Girl (Alvina Tong) working in a copy shop, employed by a gossipy know-it-all of a boss. Needless to say, Boy is instantly smitten. Will she buy into his motorcycle bad boy act, or will she see him for what he really is? Eating Air is a great portrayal of puppy love, with a fantastic Singapore garage rock soundtrack, and lots and lots of motorbike action to boot. First-time directors Kelvin Tong and Jasmine Ng should be pleased with what they’ve done.
Japan has two great Kurosawas of film: Akira Kurosawa and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Kiyoshi is a master at creating slow, sick, psychological thrillers with completely ambiguous endings. If you haven’t heard of him, then Charisma might be a good place to start learning about his work. Like most of Kurosawa’s films, Charisma moves at a deliberate pacethose looking for shoot-outs and action should go elsewhere. What he does provide are slow thrills and a rising sense of unease, as everyone in the film is less than likeable and more than crazy. The characters in Charisma are all motivated to act by a tree, which has a mysterious effect on the community that surrounds it. Some people insist that the tree is poisoning the humans in the area, while others treat it as a sacred object. The only thing the groups have in common is the mentally disturbed policeman, played by Koji Yashuko, to whom they confide their feelings, but even he isn’t immune to the lure of the tree, as Kurosawa’s shocking ending proves.
The films of Japanese director Sabu are usually frustrating to watch. Dangan Runner (released by Shooting Gallery Films as Non-Stop), Postman Blues and Unlucky Monkey always seem to be lacking just one small element that would elevate them to greatness. His films are satisfying, but after watching them, I feel as if he had just tried a little bit harder to come up with a tight plot, instead of creating a ‘yakuza cool’ atmosphere, then his films might really be great, instead of crazy Japanese cinema cult favorites. That’s the reason why I love “Monday” so muchthe cool is there (a silent, gorgeous gangster moll, the shootout in the bathroom, an insane dance scene) but the plot comes together from beginning to end. Monday is a slap-happy drunken fun house ride of a weekend. Frequent Sabu collaborator Tsutsumi Shinichi stars as a thirty-something salaryman who attends a funeral on a Friday afternoon and makes the corpse (played by pretty boy Tadanobu Asano) explode. In his utter shock, he ends up going to a bar to try and drown his sorrows in alcohol, leading to a weekend of murder, lust, and an absolutely amazing dance sequence that’s just dressing for a fantastical anti-gun message. Look for Sabu to show up as a member of a SWAT team.
If only all the quirky crime films that have been produced since the success of Pulp Fiction could be as good as this Thai export, directed by Pen-ek Ratanarueng. After becoming a casualty of the Asian economic crisis, Tum (Lulita Punyopas) contemplates suicide. Before she can do anything, however, she discovers a box at her door containing one million baht. Torn about whether to keep the money or turn it in, she gets nary a chance to decide before the gangsters who mistakenly placed the cash at her door come to reclaim it. This sets off a string of consequences that end up with more and more corpses accumulating in her apartment. Making things even worse is the nosy downstairs lady neighbor who is convinced that her man is cheating on her with Tum. - AG