Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Miike's Harakiri

OK, there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen Takashi Miike’s remake of Harakiri (2011) by now, but plan to and don’t want to know how he handles it, stop reading right now, because the big problem I have with the film is the ending.

If you’ve seen the original 1962 version by Masaki Kobayashi, you know that this is a gut-wrenching tale of misery, degradation, cruelty and revenge. It’s also the ultimate fuck you to the whole idea of the honorable samurai. Sure, the central protagonist is a samurai, but he’s a ronin; the establishment samurai of the Ii clan, with whom he comes into contact, are a bunch of sadistic goons. The worst is Omodaka (Tetsuro Tamba in the original), who famously forces a young ronin to commit seppuku with a bamboo blade. (I figured Miike would have a field day with this scene, and, sure enough, he goes way over the top with it — hard to watch).

Turns out the young guy with the bamboo sword was the protagonist’s son-in-law, and he was attempting a “suicide bluff” (threaten suicide and hope for a “don’t do it, kid” speech and a couple of coins for your trouble), trying to get some money for medicine for his consumptive wife and child. As I’ve said, it all goes horribly wrong, and his wife’s dad, Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai in the original), is out for revenge.

When the moment comes, he takes on the entire Ii clan, slicing and dicing a bunch of them before going down in a flurry of cold steel. However, in the Miike version, he pulls out his son-in-law’s other bamboo sword and just runs around wacking guys in the head, doing little damage. I don’t know why Miike opted for this change; perhaps he wanted Tsugumo to appear more Christ-like. He does wind up doing the I’m-nailed-right-in pose as he’s finally skewered. But to effectively de-claw him with the bamboo sword is to deny the visceral sense of catharsis demanded by the story. It is supremely dissatisfying to see our hero doing the one-against-many battle with a non-sword. Totally ruined if for me.

Otherwise, the film is well made, and faithful to the sombre tone of the original. However, whenever a bamboo sword enters the picture, be it the overly torture-porny forced seppuku or the lame ending, well, I gotta say Miike kinda screwed it up.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mama

I realize this is a Hollywood flick, but it’s so beholden to J-horror that I believe it deserves inclusion in this humble blog o’ mine. Really, I must say this film is among the best East meets West horror films I’ve ever seen. Instead of just remaking an existing, contemporary Japanese horror film and dumbing it down for US audiences, here is an original ghost story that deeply embraces the principles of J-horror, principally a deep back story and a long-haired lady ghost. We see much more of the ghost here — hey, it’s Hollywood; we Americans like to get a good gander at our monsters. But the visual stylization, the weird way the ghost moves and sounds: pure J-horror.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (TV’s Jamie Lannister) plays a dual role as homicidal dad and hipster uncle of two little girls left alone in a cabin in the woods for five years. How did they survive? Who took care of them all that time? Why are they crawling around in the shadows like big bugs? All will become clear in time, once they move in with their uncle and his punk rocker girlfriend. There’s also a rich aunt in the offing who wants to get a hold of the girls; she doesn’t realize what a bad idea that is. Because Mama is very jealous …

I’d initially thought this was a Guillermo del Toro film, but he’s just the executive producer. The filmmaker is newcomer Andres Muschietti, and I’d say he’s one to watch. Mama is highly recommended for those looking for a thoughtful, well-made hybrid of Hollywood horror and Japanese jump-scare.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters

Caught this on the Sony Movie channel (if you don’t have a satellite dish, you probably don’t get that one … ). It was a slightly inferior experience, as it was dubbed — I prefer original language w/ subs. The actors they get to dub Chinese films are always so crappy, really diminishes the film. However, this being Tsui Hark, the action is so crazy you quickly get caught up in it, and the shortcomings seem less so.

So it’s the 17th century and you’ve got these four dudes, two younger, two older (the latter includes the ubiquitous fatty Lam Suet). They’re recruited by The Master, and old vampire hunter, to, well, hunt vampires. In the folklore of the film, you first become a zombie, then you convert to vampire once you’ve eaten human flesh. So when our quartet gets a job working for a rich man who embalms all his relatives and keeps ‘em around the house, it’s only a matter of time before they wind up becoming hopping zombies (there’s a whole thing with hopping and Chinese vampires — you gotta pin a little strip of paper with a prayer written on it to their foreheads to keep them still).

There’s also a very nasty vampire who keeps showing up and wreaking havoc. He apparently can’t see you if you’re soaking wet; that’s what’s saving the guy in the photo above. This vampire can fly (of course) and also has this poison smoke he can exhale on you. He likes to suck his victims blood from a distance, it pouring out of nose, eyes and mouth.

And of course there’s plenty of mind-bending stunts and wire fu. Tsui Hark is a master of the outrageous when it comes to period fantasy and martial arts. The action sequences are breathlessly paced and hugely entertaining. So I’d recommend Tsui Hark's Vampire Hunters, but would advise seeing it in its original Chinese language version.

Monday, January 20, 2014

47 Ronin

Despite the scathing piece in Variety (and elsewhere), I went to see 47 Ronin. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. Sure, it was a lord-o-the-rings, 21st century 3D hyper-cinema blow-out affair, but you gotta expect that. And as much as I hate holding those dumb glasses over my own dumb glasses, I had a good time.

Mind you, I’ve seen quite a few versions of this story (popularly known in Japan as the Chushingura). But with Tadanobu Asano as the hated villain Kira, and Hiroyuki Sanada as the heroic avenger Oishi, man, this is a modern day revision I can live with.

Of course, Keanu Reeves is a piece of wood, but who cares? His character doesn’t get in the way of the central storyline. In fact, he hasn’t been this much fun since The Matrix

I think critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky captured the zeitgeist: “A multi-colored downer fantasy which combines bursts of imagination with a bleak worldview, resulting in something that rarely feels mainstream.” Yeah, that’s it. The film follows the original 18th century story of bleak, dutiful revenge with a faithfulness I did not expect. Watching this film reminded me of the dismal sales of my own samurai film books: This stuff doesn’t work for Americans. There is a deep cynicism that permeates Japanese period cinema that I like, but my fellow citizens do not. Put me back in my cage.

So if you’re asking me not if I should check this movie out, but, more importantly, why I should check it out, I would say because, despite the animated dragons and shit, there is a dedication here, a respect for the centuries-old subject matter, and an effort to integrate top-notch Japanese actors into the proceedings. These elements alone make this film a worthwhile experience.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Wire Fu Fun

Been seeing a lot of cool stuff lately — Netflix keeps me busy with a plethora of new Asian releases. It’s just these damn winter doldrums that keep me from blogging more …

Badges of Fury (2013) is a total hoot, a frenetic buddy cop romp in the zany vein of 80s/90s Hong Kong cinema. Inside jokes, film references, and cameos abound, rewarding hardcore fans of the genre (for example, keep an eye out for Lam Suet as a cabbie).

The wire fu is off the hook, with fight sequences plunging down stairwells and busting through walls and windows. Jet Li, looking a bit rough these days, nevertheless delivers the goods (although it’s his decades-younger co-star Wen Zhang who gets the lion’s share of screen time). Buxom Ada Liu is worth a second look, and the whole “smile murders” thing is quite bizarre (a string of deaths wherein the victim dies with a goofy grin on his face). The breathless pace and old-school HK craziness will leave Asian film fans similarly grinning …

Sword of the Assassin (2011) is a Vietnamese period actioner, and a good one. Among the most expensive films to emerge from this war-torn country, the money wasn’t wasted; the film is visually stunning, with lavish, high-def vistas, meticulously crafted sets, beautiful costumes, and a top-notch cast. It’s such a treat to be blind-sided by people and places you’ve never known, enveloping you in well-worn dramatic tropes; the familiar and the unfamiliar combine to transport you to a new place you’ve always known (jeez, I’m getting kind of maudlin here, sorry).

As usual, since these were Netflix assignments, if you get their streaming service, these films will be available shortly. Hey, that’s pretty cool: If what I’ve written is of interest to you, just wait a couple of weeks and, with a push of a button, there it is. Enjoy!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Key of Life

Another good film with a shit title, Key of Life (2012) involves the intersection of an ace hit man, a suicidal loser and a meticulous magazine editor looking to get married (the latter is female). Things get interesting when the two guys wind up swapping identities, and the editor lady falls for one of them. Plot twists abound, and two hours just fly by. I don't want to give away too much, so I'll stop now, leaving you with a rather brief and unsatisfying blog post. Oh well. Just check it out (coming soon to Netflix).

Friday, November 29, 2013

Murderer

OK folks, here’s a Hong Kong shocker so disgusting I was literally jumping out of my chair (and by literally, I mean literally, not “almost” as the word has come to mean in the minds of many). There’s a jump scare just seconds into Murderer (2009) that's so repulsive, I almost (there, see the difference?) had to look away. Nevertheless, I was standing behind my chair and that’s saying summat … I’m no babe in the woods when it comes to shocking Asian cinema, so if this flick got under my skin, chances are it’s gonna mess with you as well.

Aaron Kwok plays Ling, an amnesiac cop who’s trying to figure out who’s framing him for a string of serial killings, as well as the horrendous near-murder of his partner (the latter lies jacked-up in the hospital for the majority of the film, having been done over with a power drill and tossed off the roof of an apartment building). It doesn’t help things when Ling discovers the power drill in question (the weapon of choice in all the murders) in the pump room of the apartment building, then notices his own (same model) is missing. As the film progresses, we find ourselves deeper and deeper in “is this guy just fucking nuts?” territory. When the denouement arrives, it's so outlandish, you’re really wondering whether this is all just a weird fantasy playing out in Ling’s head.

But man, the gory bits are truly disturbing. They could have just shown the long, black hair hanging out of the oven; we would have gotten that there's a head in there. We really didn’t need to see Ling open it and look inside to find the contents cooking … Meanwhile, Ling himself is no saint, and as the pressure and paranoia grows, he winds up doing some nasty things himself. The film is a moral quagmire, and nothing is as it seems. I love it!

As in the previous post, I award no points for originality of title. But in Murderer, I sense a yearning for the good old days of 80s/90s Category III madness. Director Roy Chow (Nightfall) is just getting started, and, I predict, is one to watch.  However, Murderer is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, so you might want to wait ’til after the movie to order that pizza …