Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thirst

Who says vampires can't get it on? Not me, and certainly not Park Chan-wook, Korean auteur extraordinaire (The Revenge Trilogy, JSA, Three ... Extremes). He's also jettisoned the whole fang thing, but otherwise the standard lore is in place (the blood is the life, no sunshine, superhuman strength, etc.). And yet this one element, sex, opens things up considerably, plot-wise, making for a more intimate, complex and unpredictable story of a man, a woman, and their sexual/vampiric relationship.

The man in question, a Catholic priest named Sang-hyun (Korean superstar Song Kang-ho), volunteers to become infected with an ebola-like virus as part of a drug trial in Africa. Sang-hyun (get it? Sang is French for blood) is inadvertently transfused with some vampire blood that keeps the virus at bay, but, of course, makes him a vampire in the process. In keeping with convention, Sang-hyun's genesis involves a heightening of the senses, but this time out, that extends into his pants. Yes, in addition to a newfound thirst for blood, he discovers he's also got a hankerin' for some good old fashioned poontang. This leads him to pretty yet troubled Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) who becomes his first girlfriend (although she's married to someone else ... ). However, Sang-hyun never fully abandons his moral nature, and his inner conflict, reminiscent of Louis from Interview with the Vampire, makes his character that much more compelling.

What I found most striking about Thirst was the way the film defied my expectations. I've seen a lot of vampire films, but this one kept me off balance throughout. Park Chan-wook takes the "rules" of vampirism (clearly borrowing from Anne Rice) and turns them sideways, defying audience expectations while working within the parameters of the genre. As I say, he brings human sexuality into the mix (thus eliminating the need for the penetrating fang), and we all know how complicated things can get when that happens. The line between human and vampire is blurred to the point where genre predictability is all but obliterated.

Thirst won the jury prize at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival last Spring, the second Cannes award for Park Chan-wook (he got one for Oldboy in 2004).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Total Film's 60 Greatest Movie Books

Guess who made the list? Asia Shock is #23.

A particular kick, as this is my favorite Brit mag. I even went to the considerable expense of securing a subscription. I also enjoy sending them insulting emails castigating their staff for occasional mistakes regarding Asian film. Being British, this is no doubt the reason for their warm embrace.

Anyhow, thank you, Total Film!

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

Kim Ji-woon does it again (see previous post). This time out, the genre-hopping Korean director serves up a heapin' helpin' of what I would call "kim chee ramen western." Yes, in an affectionate nod to the Dollars Trilogy of Sergio Leone, Kim delivers a fast-paced, wildly exotic horse opera set in Manchuria in the 1930s filled with gun-slinging Chinese outlaws, opium-smoking prairie prostitutes, marauding Korean bandits, thieves, psychos and revolutionaries ... oh, and the Japanese Imperial Army, all in constant motion via motorcycles, trains, trucks, jeeps and, of course, horses. Lots of horses.

At the center of it all is the irrepressible Song Kang-ho (The Host, The Quiet Family, The Foul King, Thirst, JSA, Secret Sunshine, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Memories of Murder, etc. etc.) as Yoon Tae-goo, The Weird. While robbing a train he comes into possession of a treasure map (which becomes the operative MacGuffin of the piece). He's a two-pistol shooter, greasing, hmm, maybe 100 guys throughout the picture? 200? (The mortality rate in this movie is off the chart.) Then there's Jeong Woo-seong as The Good (a bounty hunter named Park Do-won), doing a slick Korean version of Clint Eastwood. And finally we have Lee Byeong-heon as The (very) Bad Park Chang-yi, channeling a sinister Alain Delon by way of Prince (trust me, it works -- you've just gotta see it). These guys go round and round, winding up in a three-way standoff similar to their original counterparts in the film's namesake. Along the way we get many an homage to the Leone trilogy including a scene involving metal plating used as a bullet-proof vest, as well as a bit where someone's hat is shot off, then continually shot out of reach.

Kim Ji-woon was also influenced by Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992). "I wasn't particularly aiming to make the Western genre popular in Asia," he told an interviewer at Cannes last Spring. "It's enough that I can revive the Manchurian Western genre in Korea."

There's so much lead flying through the air in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, it could pass as a weather condition. Some might feel the action sequences go on a bit; that all depends on how you feel about action sequences. Fortunately, Kim's are the best in the business: Inventive, thrilling, outrageous. My advice is don't fight it, just sit back, relax, and let the madness sweep over you. As contemporary Korean westerns go, you really can't do better.

EDIT: I recently purchased this DVD of the film. It's the shits. Terrible, blurry transfer. Clearly somebody downloaded a low-res, compressed version, pressed it on disk and distributed it to vendors who don't bother to check out their foreign titles. DO NOT BUY THIS DISK.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Bittersweet Life

Korean director Kim Ji-woon is one bad mutha ... [**Shut yo mouth!**] Only talkin' 'bout Kim! The guy defined family-based black comedy with The Quiet Family (1998). Then he went all freaky deaky K-horror on your ass in A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). And here, in 2005's A Bittersweet Life, he proves he can make operatic gangster pictures with the best of 'em.

Lee Byeong-heon (JSA, Three ... Extremes) stars as Sun-woo, a suave mob enforcer who finds himself on the shit list not only of a rival gang, but that of his own boss. (The latter tends to happen when the boss asks you to look after his hot young girlfriend, even when you don't make a move.) Before long our boy finds himself being beaten, stabbed, shot, even buried alive. This doesn't sit well with him, his thoughts turning to revenge. To do the job right, he's going to need more than the standard array of melee weapons commonly used by Korean gangsters -- he'll need firepower and lots of it. Sun-woo's quest for guns takes him on a bizarre odyssey, the film's only comedic set piece, featuring one of the goofiest looking guys in Korean cinema, Oh Dai-soo (Oldboy, A Bloody Aria).

A Bittersweet Life hits all the right notes. Slick urban settings mask what is essentially a cruel tale of bushido similar to Japanese films like The Secret of the Urn or, indeed, Cruel Tales of Bushido: A trustworthy retainer is subjected to the whims of a capricious lord and made to suffer for being nothing less than a paragon of loyalty. Blend this with Korean cinema's uniquely kinetic flair for screen violence and you've got one hell of an exciting picture. Lee Byeong-heon is on fire, one minute pouncing like a jungle cat, the next blasting away like some Peckinpah anti-hero.

I picked up A Bittersweet Life on a region-2 Tartan Asia Extreme disk back when Tartan was still a UK entity. It can still be had as a Japanese import, but let's hope the new US-based Tartan Palisades label decides to release it here. If you like Asian gangster films, you'll definitely want this on in the collection.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Inugami Family

Nobody loves a good murder mystery more than me. My all-time favorite is The Last of Sheila, and until recently I've never seen anything to rival it. But now I've seen The Inugami Family, and I have to say this Kon Ichikawa film from 1976 comes damn close. For one thing, like Sheila, it features a double denouement (a convincing-yet-fake one, then the real one). I love that! The film is masterful in its misdirection, seemingly assuring you you've figured it out, only to confound you time and again. This is the essence of a great mystery, and you get it in spades in The Inugami Family.

Adapted from a novel by popular mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo, the story kicks off with the death of a wealthy patriarch and the dark doings that follow hard upon. Before his will is even read, one of his lawyers is murdered with a poison cigarette. And once the peculiar contents of the diabolical document are read out, the bodies really start to stack up. There are gruesome shocks and surprises around every corner in this wonderfully creepy whodunit extending to decapitation, horrible facial disfigurement, mistaken identity, incest, infanticide, rape, torture, kidnapping and, of course, murder. Wrap it up, I'll take it!

Obviously, this being a mystery, I don't want to give any more away than I have to, so this blog entry will have to end here. A region-3 copy of the film can be found here. Otherwise, if you've yet to commit to a region-free DVD player, you're left to wonder ...

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tora-san

So what's Tora-san, a bumbling traveling salesman, doing on a blog called Asia Shock? What's so shocking about him? Well it may come as something of a shock to those new to the film series (an amazing 48 installments from 1969 to 1996) just how hilarious, multi-dimensional and downright grok-worthy this low-level yakuza huckster really is.

I'd seen a Tora-san film years ago, when my awareness of Japan and Japanese film was still somewhat green, and I confess I just didn't get it. I wondered what all the fuss was about (Tora-san is a national treasure in Japan). I believe I characterized the series as "tepid" in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades (a sin for which I've been chastised by fellow Japanese film nerd D. Trull). But sitting down with the new box set from AnimEigo (films 1 - 4) provided a what-was-I-thinking? experience unlike any in recent memory. I fucking LOVE Tora-san!

A number of elements combine to create the unique and, sure, I'll say it, heart-warming Tora-san experience. First off, there's the performance of the films' star, Kiyoshi Atsumi (1928 - 1996). Vacillating wildly between street-wise scammer, moony schoolboy, angry drunk, lighthearted drifter, caustic upbraider, foul-mouthed joker, kind-hearted caretaker, weepy penitent, violent hothead, and forlorn loner, Atsumi deftly blends the strands into a complex yet seamless and fully-realized character. When he's not getting up to this or that wacky scheme, he's falling for some beauty who considers him charming yet ultimately just a friend. Then there's his family and an odd assortment of neighborhood characters, all endlessly sympathetic yet wary of their fractious friend. These folks reside in Shibamata in Katsushita, Tokyo, a nostalgic locality centered on a Buddhist temple, and it is the dumpling shop run by his aunt and uncle which serves as Tora-san's home base between sojourns (for he invariably wears out his welcome and winds up hitting the road).

Based on a TV series, the first film was an instant hit, featuring a guest appearance by the legendary Takashi Shimura (Seven Samurai, Ikiru). The guest star thing became a feature of the series; eventually, everyone who was anyone in Japanese film turned up in a Tora-san picture including the great Toshiro Mifune (he's in #38). The second film in the series features the prolific character actor Eijiro Tono, as well as Tsutomu Yamazaki (whom you'll remember from Tampopo and High and Low). In the third installment, look for Bokuzen Hidari, that ubiquitous, rubber-faced old man you've seen in so many Japanese films. In addition, Shochiku contract actor and Ozu's go-to guy Chishu Ryu has a recurring role as the head priest at the local temple, forever castigating Tora-san for his shortcomings.

My advice to anyone who digs Japanese film is to go pick up this box set. It's great, features informative liner notes, and the sales will encourage AnimEigo to keep putting out more. Like the old saying goes, they just don't make 'em like this anymore, and in these uncertain times, you never know when stuff like this will poof out of existence.

Abayo!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Onimasa

In terms of volume, Hideo Gosha was far from an impressive filmmaker. With a mere 24 films to his name over the course of three decades, he would seem something of an underachiever compared with his contemporaries. But then you see his films, and realize that quality so outstrips quantity as to lift him to the upper echelons of the Japanese filmmaker elite. His 1960s samurai films alone stand among the finest in the genre. In the 70s he turned to yakuza films; in the 80s he specialized in what could best be described as "women's pictures," centering as they did on geisha, yakuza wives, serving girls and lady assassins.

Onimasa (1982) is the first of Gosha's 80s films, and for those familiar only with his earlier genre outings, it might come as something of a shock. There is no tension like we feel in Three Outlaw Samurai and Sword of the Beast; gone is the bold, sprawling action of The Secret of the Urn, Goyokin and Tenchu; nowhere do we find the labyrinthine intrigue of Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron and Hunter in the Dark. With Onimasa we move from exterior to interior, to an intimate portrait of behind-closed-doors life in a small-time yakuza gang.

The primary figures, under whose skin we will get in all the depth that 2 1/2 hours affords, are boss Onimasa (Tatsuya Nakadai), his wife Uta (Shima Iwashita), and Onimasa's adopted daughter Matsue (Masako Natsume). There's also Onimasa's natural-born daughter Hanako (Kaori Tagasugi), who figures in the story more as a spoiled princess MacGuffin than a viable character. The story moves from 1918 through the 20s and 30s, during which time we observe internecine conflicts, gang rivalries, an outbreak of typhoid fever, a railway strike and a somewhat disturbing dogfight (is it fake or not?). The leisurely pace and exaggerated performances, particularly from Nakadai, take some getting used to and may not be to everyone's liking. However, the film has a lot to offer and, according to AnimEigo (who recently released Onimasa on DVD), it's "considered in Japan to be Hideo Gosha's best-known film."

The supporting cast features Isao Natsuyagi (Samurai Wolf, G.I. Samurai) and Koji Yakusho (Dora-Heita, Kamikaze Taxi), two excellent actors whom I discuss at length in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades. There's also the inevitable Tetsuro Tamba (he was in everything). And, of course, you can't go wrong with luminaries like Shima Iwashita and Tatsuya Nakadai. While Nakadai's performance here is unusual, it tends to grow on you, so by the time of the grande finale (a Gosha specialty), you're behind him 100%.

Onimasa won the prestigious Blue Ribbon award for Best Actress and the Japan Academy Prize for Best Art Direction.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Classic Chambara in NYC

If you're in the New York City area and dissatisfied with the current crop of sequels, remakes and sequels of remakes at your local cineplex, might I suggest something wholly other and altogether subarashi (fantastic)? Starting December 11th, The Japan Society will be presenting a new series, The Double-Edged Sword: The Chambara Films of Shintaro Katsu and Raizo Ichikawa. Opening night, it's Samurai Vendetta starring both Katsu and Raizo (a fine film, reviewed for your convenience in my latest book, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades). The film will be introduced by series curator Chris D., author of Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, with a reception and book signing to follow.