Friday, August 1, 2014

Snowpiercer

Despite a ridiculous premise, I was more than willing to give Snowpiercer the benefit of the doubt. I loved director Bong Joon-ho’s giant fish-monster movie The Host, as well as his atmospheric and absorbing psychological thriller Mother. But as so often happens to Korean directors when they get to Hollywood, the resulting film  doesn’t live up to prior Korea-based endeavors. Snowpiercer is a case in point.

The premise: Earth is a frozen white wasteland due to climate change and man’s fatally flawed efforts to avert it.  Now what’s left of mankind is living in a super train that continually circles the globe. A rigid class system is brutally enforced on the train, and, understandably, the folks back in third class are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. Revolution ensues and the long trek to the front of the train makes up the rest of the film. Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything for you because, frankly, there’s nothing to spoil. That’s the problem. There’s one or two minor plot twists, but nothing to write home about and certainly nothing rewarding enough for the slog.

I got the feeling that this started off as a much more interesting film, but fell victim to the inevitable production notes process, all the truly compelling bits gradually broken off, piece by piece. I’ve seen what Bong can do, I know what he’s capable of, and this truncated actioner falls somewhat short of the mark.

On the bright side, there is Song Kang-ho, and a decent conceit that allows us to understand him even though he delivers all his lines in Korean. Also on hand are John Hurt and Ed Harris, old school quality to balance the more light-weight leads Chris Evans and Jamie Bell.

If you’re looking for a decent Hollywood action film made by a Korean director, I’d recommend Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand (mit Ahnuld). And if you haven’t seen any of Bong Joon-ho’s Korean films, by all means, do.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Lone Wolf & Cub (TV)

Oh dear, it would appear I’ve abandoned my humble blog. Well, not really; if I watch an Asian film I feel to be blog-worthy, I’ll still write about it. Trouble is, I haven’t seen any lately. I was watching them fairly regularly for awhile when Netflix was paying me to, but after a year I was let go. Too bad, that was a sweet gig.

Also, there’s tennis. I’m an obsessive sort, you see, and for years was obsessed with Asian film, yielding three books and over 200 capsule reviews right here on this blog. But ever since I got the Tennis Channel on my dish, well, now I’m onto that and there’s not a lot of time for Asian film (although I still have tons of films I have yet to screen).

But I feel I owe you something, and I recall that awhile back I threw on some Lone Wolf & Cub. Not the movies, mind, but the 70s TV show starring Kinnosuke Nakamura (you can get disks at Kurotokagi). Not bad, really, although Nakamura is no Tomisaburo Wakayama when it comes to martial arts. He’s got the moody scowl and dangerous vibe down, though, and, like the six original theatrical releases, the TV episodes are loyal to the spirit of the original manga by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. (I should really go back and read those — I have the first 26 volumes … ).

So if you've seen the films and want more, go check out the TV show. I was informed some years ago that the average Japanese person, if they had any awareness of the saga, would be more aware of the TV show than the films (I believe it ran awhile).

Don’t give up on me, gentle reader, there will be more entries on this blog in the future — just don’t count on much ’til after Wimbledon.

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!