Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Best War Film You’ve Never Seen

One of the leading lights of South Korean cinema in the 1960s was a guy named Lee Man-hee. Lee was an extraordinary filmmaker who could work in various genres (thriller, action, melodrama), but his particular specialty was the war film. Like Japanese counterparts Masaki Kobayashi and Kihachi Okamoto, Lee was a veteran, having fought in the Korean War. He also had a particular affinity for soldiers, claiming that if he hadn’t become a filmmaker, he would probably have been a professional soldier. However, Lee was no propaganda-spewing ideologue; in common with his Japanese cohorts, his experience of the brutal calamity of large-scale warfare affected him deeply, and his war films are, in fact, anti-war films. 

The film that put Lee on the map, both critically and box office-wise, was 1963’s The Marines Who Never Returned. The story concerns the experience of a largely doomed (hence the title) regiment of South Korean marines and their experiences at the battle of Incheon in 1950.

The film fairly explodes off the screen in the opening battle sequence, shot purely from the POV of the marines as they attempt to infiltrate a factory held by the North Koreans. A mother and small daughter attempt to escape through the crossfire and the mother is struck down. The soldiers save the little girl, Yeong-hui, and she becomes their collective little sister and mascot. Yeong-hui is so sweet and lovable, at first you worry something terrible is going to happen to her in the service of melodrama. However, Lee is better than that; he doesn’t need to rely on such cheap tricks to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience. Depictions of the realities of battle provide all the gut-wrenching drama he requires.

The impact of the battle sequences is truly remarkable when one considers the period. Hollywood movies didn’t get this gritty and realistic until decades later, with the likes of The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan. Lee was clearly drawing on his experiences in war to direct the way men moved when shot, or how bombs and mortars could disrupt a trench line.

The grim realities of war are balanced by the sequences with Yeong-hui and the comedy gags provided by popular comedian Koo Bong-seo, here playing the joker of the regiment. Whether he’s spotting spies while taking a dump by the side of the road or conning U.S. soldiers out of beer and supplies, he never fails to get a laugh. Others in the squad include the usual assortment of types; the timid one, the cocky one, the pretty boy, the passionate vengeance-seeker, the gruff-yet-benign squad leader. Lee takes these stock elements and, through his unique treatment, makes us care.

I got a hold of this film as part of a Lee Man-hee box set available here (and elsewhere). It’s region 3, so you’ll need a region-free DVD player (you can get one here). Otherwise, I noticed  it’s on youtube here. Any way you want to play it, I heartily suggest this picture. It will change the way you think about the Korean war, Korean film, and war films in general.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Oldboy 2013

*Here there be spoilers*

How do you remake a film like Oldboy? As I noted in Asia Shock in 2006, it was already a plan in Hollywood back then. It took awhile, but it finally got made, albeit to little fanfare and critical ambivalence. What do I think? Well I’ll tell you …

In preparation for my own review, I re-watched Park Chan-wook’s original Oldboy (2003), before screening Spike Lee’s 2013 reboot. I have to give props to Lee, he was fairly faithful to the original. He knows good filmmaking when he sees it, and although there was the usual re-jiggering for a Western audience (less ambiguity, more over-the-topness), he had the good sense to keep the really important stuff (the dumplings, the one-on-dozens fight sequence, the incest); details that got left out at least received a cameo (the squid, the angel wings, the severed tongue).

As someone noted here, I predicted a square-jawed Hollywood name would play the role made immortal by the great Choi Min-sik, and I was right. You could do a lot worse than Josh Brolin, but he still didn’t deliver the manic energy of my personal casting choice, Gary Oldman (ironically, now too much of an old man for which there is no place, unlike Brolin … or something). The great Sharlto Copley effectively conveys the vengeful villain of the piece, although to an unnecessarily affected degree. Michael Imperioli of Sopranos fame is the unfortunate friend, and Lee’s homey Samuel L. Jackson is memorable (as always) as the guy who runs the private prison in which Brolin has been confined for 20 years (up from 15 in the original). Jackson gets a much different, and decidedly less brutal, torture scene than his Korean predecessor ...

The two biggest weaknesses of the 2013 Oldboy are 1) the ending, and 2) the absence of dark humor. Go back and watch the original; there’s a certain ironic smirk underlying the proceedings that is wholly lacking here. As for the ending, once again with a Hollywood adaptation of an extreme Asian title, there can be no ambiguity. In the original, we wonder whether a now-tongueless Oh dae-su can make it work with his lover/daughter; in the remake, Joe sends his lover/daughter a “forget me” letter and checks himself back into the private prison, ostensibly forever. The former ending conveys an existential meditation on love, loss and, albeit creepy, redemption; the latter is simply a guilt-ridden, Judeo-Christian cop-out (“I must do penance for my terrible sin!”).

But at this point I can see both sides of the coin. I realize most of my fellow Americans aren’t going to get these Asian films like I do, and so do the folks in Hollywood. So they soften and contour them in their remakes, make them less spicy and thus more palatable to meat-and-potatoes Americans. In any case, I found this one to be far better than the others, owing to the directorial prowess of Spike Lee and a great cast. Worth a look.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Wolves

I owe director Hideo Gosha an apology. For years I slagged off his film The Wolves (1971), regarding it as a low point in his career, a grim yakuza slog, tedious and boring and unworthy of his talents. I now realize I was wrong; I’d based my assessment on a shitty transfer and bad subtitles. Having recently obtained the superior AnimEigo version, I’ve rediscovered this amazing film, and to the late Gosha-san I offer a humble “gomen nasai.”

You’ve got to understand that back in the early 2000s when I was writing my first book, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves, TV technology wasn’t what it is today. Everybody didn’t have a big ol’ high-def, flat screen monitor for a TV. In fact, I was looking at a flat screen cathode ray job which was considered pretty cool back then (looks like shit now, of course). As it happens, that TV masked the flaws of the The Wolves disk I’d acquired, a cheap region-2 DVD from the UK which, looking at it now, was clearly burned from a video cassette (if you see the name Artsmagic anywhere on a DVD, stay away). “Murky” doesn’t begin to describe the look and, having now experienced the superior AnimEigo subtitles, I realize how bad the subs were as well. In short, I was sold a bill of goods and only now realize my mistake. I’m an idiot.

But the good news is that I got to rediscover something, always a redeeming experience. The Wolves is a slow burn, no doubt, but the cinematography, natural beauty of the location, excellent cast and sheer intensity of the drama make for an unforgettable and emotionally draining (in a good way) film experience. I won’t attempt a plot synopsis, as it’s all so very complicated. Suffice to say two yakuza organizations are at war, and there’s a lot of duplicity and treachery, and watch out for the two hit-ladies with knives in their parasols …

Tatsuya Nakadai is the anti-hero of the piece, his big, glassy eyeballs rolling around in anguish and disgust. Kunie Tanaka is great (as always) as the tortured yakuza soldier who’s been given a secret that eats him up inside. Isao Natsuyagi is the new boss of Nakadai’s gang, a questionable guy with a little pencil moustache. Kyoko Enami is the beautiful tattoo artist with secrets of her own. Real-life yakuza-turned-actor Noboru Ando is super cool as always. And of course The Inevitable Tetsuro Tamba is pulling all the strings. (This brief summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the film — you just gotta see it.)

The AnimEigo DVD, from 2008, is already out of print, so you’ll have to fork over to some third-party on Amazon or elsewhere. Poor AnimEigo; they’ve done such leal service to the samurai film cause, and now they’re struggling. I urge you to buy their stuff. Their Sleepy Eyes of Death boxes are awesome (featuring critical contributions from yours truly); Miyamoto Mushashi, Shinobi no Mono, even Tora-san. It’s all good. Get some!

Friday, August 1, 2014


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


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.