Friday, April 30, 2010

Phobia

The omnibus horror film: Tales from the Crypt, Creepshow, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, etc. -- if you're a fan of this mulit-vignette format and have an interest in Asian cinema, you can't go far wrong with Phobia. Four Thai filmmakers weave a queasy quartet of compact shockers, each a mini gem of supernatural outfreakage. Unlike other collective Asian efforts such as Three ... Extremes, where stories and techniques vary wildly according to the whims of their respective directors, here unity of purpose underlies the divergent directorial styles of the participants, providing a more natural progression from tale to tale.

First off we have a bit of cell phone horror with Yongyoot Thongkongtoon's Happiness. (If you don't know what I mean by "cell phone horror," I suggest you check out the excellent 2002 K-horror film Phone). Then it's on to bullies 'n black magic with Tit for Tat, courtesy of Paween Purikitpanya. This second installment is probably the most disturbing (you decide), so the third, Banjong Pisanthanakun's In the Middle, wisely opts for a more comedic approach. A group of young guys are on a white water rafting trip and before you ask, no, there are no buggering rednecks on hand; the horrors these four young guys encounter are strictly of their own making ...

Last Flight, directed by Parkpoom Wongpoom, is by far the most claustrophobic, taking place as it does on a commercial airliner. It's also the only one to feature a vengeful female ghost, and before you say, "Oh no, not another one of those ... " well, just wait 'til you get a look at her. Not your daddy's Sadako ...

Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom co-directed the creepy, photography horror-oriented Shutter (2004) -- that would be the original Thai production, not the tepid Hollywood remake. For my money, theirs are the best vignettes in the bunch, but the others are certainly strong contenders. I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed Phobia; everything just clicks, making for a rip-roaring supernatural thrill ride with a very definite Thai flavor.

Phobia will be released on DVD May 10th in the UK from Icon Home Entertainment. Not sure about a US release date. But if you're in the States and reading this, surely you're a dedicated foreign film fanatic and already own a region-free player, yes? So no problem then.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Chambara gold this Saturday at Japan Society NYC

Hey New Yorkers, two of my all-time top sword films are playing this Saturday, April 24th at the Japan Society: The third installment in the Zatoichi series, New Tale of Zatoichi, and the fourth film in the so-called Sleepy Eyes of Death franchise, Sword of Seduction. The latter film in particular is my favorite in the 12-part series starring the incomparable Raizo Ichikawa.

Sword of Seduction was a make-or-break film for the series; box office hadn't been great and the Daiei studio execs tasked director Kazuo Ikehiro with turning things around or else. Fortunately, Ikehiro had the good sense to take a page (or two) of the more transgressive material contained in the original novel by Renzaburo Shibata to liven things up. And it worked. Sword of Seduction is the chambara equivalent of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll (with swords replacing electric guitars). You can read my drooling review of the film in Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves or in the booklet that accompanies AnimEigo's box set of the first four films.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Air Doll

Like many Westerners, I first became aware of the lovely and versatile Bae Doo-na as the spunky, one-woman anarchist revolution in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002). While researching Asia Shock, I learned she'd been discovered on the street by a talent scout in 1998 and had made her film debut in 1999 in the Korean Ringu adaptation, The Ring Virus. She went on to appear in a wide variety of films extending to black comedy and erotic romance. Ones I've seen include the aforementioned Ring Virus, the coming-of-age picture Take Care of My Cat (2001), the needlessly insipid girl rock flick Linda Linda Linda (2005) and giant monster blockbuster The Host (2006). I guess you could say I'm a fan. So when I heard that in her latest film outing she portrays a blow-up sex doll that comes to life, I was intrigued to say the least.

Far from some some trashy exploitation flick or campy romp, however, Air Doll (2009) turns out to be a multi-layered meditation on what it is to be a human being, told from the point of view of, yes, a newly self-aware blow-up doll. Somehow, she has developed a heart, and this allows her to walk the streets of Tokyo, delighting in the everyday, mundane miracles the rest of the population has long since forgotten. She gets a job at a local video rental place, learning about movies and gradually getting involved with a young guy who works there. The only person who doesn't seem to notice her transformation is her owner, a somewhat pathetic figure who carries on with the elaborate charade of pretending she's alive as he did before, even though now she is. Could it be because he too is "empty inside"? Elsewhere in the film, her living doll status barely raises an eyebrow; no one is particularly surprised that a blow-up doll has become alive. Upon cutting her arm at work one day and promptly deflating, her co-worker merely applies a bit of scotch tape and blows her back up. Problem solved.

Air Doll is the latest film from art house stalwart Hirokazu Kore-eda, who began his career making TV documentaries in the early 90s. In his feature films, dating from Maborosi (1995), Kore-eda's stylistic choice has been to apply a documentary approach to narrative fiction, whether it be the supernatural After Life (1998) or the more fact-based Nobody Knows (2004). More recently, Kore-eda tried his hand at period drama with the well-recieved neo-samurai film Hana (2006). Since Air Doll represents an immersion in all-out fantasy, one wonders in what direction Kore-eda will strike out next ... ?

I will say I found Air Doll to be one of Kore-eda's more absorbing films, not least due to the performance of the perfectly-cast Bae Doo-na (who won best actress awards at the 2009 Japan Academy Awards, Tokyo Sports Movie Awards and Takasaki Film Festival). The film takes a dark turn in the third act which required a measure of rumination, but I'm always up for some not-altogether-impenetrable ambiguity. In this case, it was a matter of taking the internal logic of the film to a certain extreme ... oh, you'll see.

As it happens, Air Doll was not Bae's first foray into Japanese cinema -- Linda Linda Linda was also a Japanese feature. When asked recently about the differences between filming in Korea and Japan, she said, "When an actress is shooting a nude or bed scene in Korea, there are very few staff members on set -- like only the director, cinematographer and boom mike operator. But my first scene [in Air Doll] was a nude scene and I was very surprised because there were so many staff members and I felt this is really different." No surprise, then -- "peeping" is something of an epidemic in the Land of the Rising Sun ...

Air Doll is playing April 30th at the San Francisco International Film Festival and will soon be available on DVD from Palisades Tartan.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Housemaid

Time Out film critic Wally Hammond, in reviewing The Housemaid (1960), remarked that its "hot-house Sirkian drama and Clouseau-like horror suspense makes for a notably delirious experience." I couldn't say it better or agree more. If your awareness of Korean cinema doesn't stretch back past the last couple of decades, you're in for a real treat with this tale of jealousy, greed, sexual obsession and rat poison.

Things start off rather staid, with a Leave-It-to-Beaver-ish family whose patriarch is the music teacher down at the local factory. The workers, all women, live in dorms at the facility and look forward to choir practice with their handsome teacher. A couple of the girls are, in fact, hot for teacher, one of them taking a job as the housemaid in his newly-expanded house. See where this is going? Maybe, but I bet you won't guess how far or to what end ...

I'll admit I was dubious at first. During the opening scenes, the performances seemed wooden and abrupt -- I wondered if this was going to be some formalist experiment in dramatic control. Man, was I wrong! Director Kim Ki-young was just setting me (and the characters) up for an impending cataclysm of emotional upheaval and self-destruction. Before long, the passion, tension and psychological torture ratchet up, reaching a crescendo of emotional chaos to match anything you may have seen in more recent Korean films.

Best of all, this is the first film discussed on this blog that you can actually see right now for free. You have to create an account, but so what? What's one more login/password? The Auteurs features a bunch of other free foreign/cult films and tons more for a nominal service charge, so my advice is: dive in. You certainly won't be sorry you did once you see The Housemaid.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Merantau Warrior

I was initially intrigued with Merantau Warrior (2009) for two reasons, namely 1) it's an Indonesian film (I don't get to see too many of those), and 2) it features the indigenous Sumatran fighting style known as silat. Silat is amazing to watch, one of the more dance-like of Asian martial arts incorporating lightening-quick, open-handed striking actions and body movements inspired by jungle animals. So far as my prerequisites were concerned, Merantau Warrior acquitted itself admirably: It presents gorgeous images of Indonesia and is an excellent showcase for silat. However, there are some problems ...

The sophomore effort of Welsh writer/director/producer Gareth Evans, the film features good production values and some stunning images of the natural beauty of the countryside. The story is fairly bare-bones: A young man (Iko Uwais) from a provincial village sets out on his merantau, a kind of walkabout or vision quest. In this case, his journey from home involves a bus trip to Jakarta where he soon finds himself protecting a pretty girl and an adorable waif from sleazy gangsters. Cue ever-escalating fight sequences.

The problem with Merantau Warrior is a common one in the martial arts genre: The fights are wild, but in between there's not much going on. The narrative pace slows to a crawl, the characters are ill-defined (and thus hard to care about), and the acting isn't great. Normally, this wouldn't be quite so damning, but this being Southeast Asia, any fan of martial arts movies will instantly be reminded of a little film called Ong Bak (2003) and a fella named Tony Jaa. The publicity materials for Merantau Warrior even reference Ong Bak, an unwise comparison. Perhaps if Ong Bak's director Prachya Pinkaew had helmed the picture ... Tony Jaa found out how much he needed Pinkaew when he decided to direct Ong Bak 2 (a film far more stultifying, by the way, than Merantau Warrior).

But perhaps I'm being too tough on this film. After all, I can think of a couple of Bruce Lee pictures that were fairly snoozable between the ass-kicking bits. I'm sure the target audience for Merantau Warrior will be less nit-picky and just enjoy the many exciting action sequences (featuring what looked to me like some very real injuries). So come for the fights and stay for the ... fights. As silat movies go, I've never seen better.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

House

I'd been wanting to see House ever since reading about it in Patrick Macias' Tokyoscope some ten years ago. He raved about it then, and critics have echoed his praise more recently as the film has enjoyed a revival on the festival circuit. So when I learned that it had been released on a region 2 Masters of Cinema disk (England's answer to the Criterion Collection), I snapped it up.

It's about seven high school girls who go for a stay in the country in the eponymous building. It's the residence of the aunt of one of the girls, a weird old spinster. The girls have fanciful names like Fantasy, Angel, Kung-fu and such, each corresponding to a theme (Melody plays music, Fantasy is imaginative, Kung-fu kicks ass, etc.). Are they up to the supernatural forces that await them in auntie's sinister dwelling?

Perhaps it's the result of a decade of self-hype, but I have to say I was disappointed. The film has a heady, giddy surreality to it, and it periodically pops with outrageous horror gags, but for the most part it just drags. The first half hour is particularly trying, a protracted wait state in which we spend an inordinate amount of time with the not-very-interesting lead character. The candy-colored imagery and non-stop 70s cheeseball music go from charming to annoying in short order, and it isn't until the arrival of a flying decapitated head (around the 35 minute mark) that things begin to pick up. And then they go right back down again. Tension invariably mounts (sort of) but at that point I was so disengaged that I couldn't really get back into it.

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi was a beginner, coming from advertising, and it shows. House is like an extended version of one of those crazy Japanese commercials (if you've been to Japan or seen them on YouTube, you know what I mean). That kind of thing works in 30 second chunks, but 88 minutes of it? Maybe I'm just jaded; I've seen a lot of Japanese movies. I can see how someone unfamiliar with Japanese cinema might find this film more of a hoot. And I'd recommend it to anyone interested in a fantasy/horror romp. The current critical reception certainly proves that my opinion is in the minority. But I gotta call 'em like I see 'em, and this flick just didn't do it for me.