Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Detective

Every now and then a movie comes along with a twist ending so unexpected and exhilarating, it elicits an involuntary "Wow!" The problem, however, is just how to write about such a film in a way that will capture your interest without ruining that "wow" moment. Fortunately for you, I have a bit of experience in this area ...

The film is Oxide Pang's The Detective (2007), a seemingly by-the-book noir set in the seedy Chinatown of Bangkok. Hong Kong film star Aaron Kwok (The Storm Riders, After This Our Exile) plays Chan, the classic destitute gumshoe who takes a case that turns out to be far more than he'd bargained for. He's hired by a strange man who claims a woman is trying to kill him. Interesting. In the standard formula, a woman hires the detective, and later turns out to be the femme fatale (The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown). Here the woman at the heart of the mystery is established as a murderous creature right up front. Or is she? Getting to the bottom of of it all will involve digging through layer after layer of intricate backstory as we follow a corpse-strewn path to that final "wow" revelation.

Occasionally the story loses momentum, but only temporarily, nothing detrimental. At one point, mystery fans will feel sure that the whole thing is going to wrap up leaving gaping plot holes unresolved. But therein lies the genius of the film: The ending sows up everything so perfectly and unexpectedly, well, I won't belabor the point.

If you're wondering why we're in Bangkok, yet everyone is speaking Cantonese, it's due to the unique style of twin Pang Brothers, Oxide and Danny. Hong Kong natives, they relocated to Thailand and started making films a dozen years ago. Oxide goes solo here, and the film is closer in feel to Bangkok Dangerous (1999) than the more slick and effects-laden The Eye (2002). This being Thailand, there are elephants and durian on hand. The dingy back streets of Bangkok's Chinatown (hmm, Chinatown -- wonder if that was a conscious reference?) lend a gritty, exotic feel to the proceedings, although the by-now-tiresome washed-out palette tends to drain away some of the vibrance of the setting. In any case, it's all a heady concoction of old tropes and new innovations sure to dazzle fans of the mystery thriller.

So hopefully I've succeeded in whetting your appetite for a little Southeast Asian Noir. Like the durian, it's funky and pungent, but for the discriminating cinematic gourmand, delicious and uniquely satisfying.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Red Angel

Anyone interested in World War II really owes it to himself to check out some Japanese WWII pictures. It's quite a different perspective from the losing side, and while there were plenty of films made with a hurray-for-us-anyway-we-did-our-best sensibility, the ones I find most compelling are those that strip away the heroics and patriotism and examine the reality of war. Such films include Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition trilogy, Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp and Yasuzo Masumura's Red Angel (1966). While less well-known than the others, Red Angel nevertheless stands alongside these classics in terms of its virtuosity and shocking veracity.

The angel of the piece is an army nurse, Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao), shipped off to Manchuria to work in field hospitals in 1939. Her first day on the job, she's raped by one of the patients. He turns up later on a table with a hole in his belly and, despite his despicable act, Nurse Nishi takes pity on him, lobbying for extra care even though he's a goner. Yes, she's a sweetheart, a loving, giving woman whose compassion for the men she encounters extends above an beyond the call of duty. I don't want to give too much away, but suffice to say you will never forget this movie or the character of Sakura Nishi.

Red Angel doesn't shy away from controversial wartime issues including the harsh realities of triage, comfort women, drug addiction, rape and disease. The film deals frankly with amputation (complete with an extended bone-sawing sequence) as well as the fate of the limbless survivors; according to one armless man (Yusuke Kawazu, right), guys like him would never see their families again (due to the Japanese government's policy of stashing multiple amputees away in convalescent hospitals so as not to expose the dark verities of war). The special care Nurse Nishi provides this poor unfortunate makes Florence Nightengale look like a candy striper.

Director Yasuzo Masumura was attracted to the dark side of human nature (one reason he's a personal favorite); it is an ever-present component of such wildly divergent yet consistently excellent films as Giants and Toys and Black Test Car (corporate espionage); Manji (lesbian love); Blind Beast (ero-guro); A Lustful Man (Edo-period sexcapade); and Yakuza Soldier (Shintaro Katsu as a drafted thug). Masumura studied film in Rome at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia and AD'd under Kenji Mizoguchi. He liked working with Ayako Wakao, casting her in Manji, A Lustful Man, and yakuza flick Afraid to Die.

Back when I acquired Red Angel, it was only available overseas on a region-2 disk. Fortunately for you, the good folks at Fantoma have released it here, along with Blind Beast, Manji, Giants and Toys and Black Test Car. I can't recommend these pictures enough. It kills me to think of all the other Masumura films never released on DVD, but what can you do? Well, you can blog about it and hope the manufacturers take notice.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bad Guy

Having enjoyed a number of films from controversial Korean director Kim Ki-duk (The Isle, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, Samaritan Girl, 3-Iron, The Bow -- well, actually, I didn't enjoy The Bow), I thought I'd go back and see one I missed, 2001's Bad Guy. I'd initially avoided it because of the storyline: A pimp forces a woman into prostitution. Yawn. However, we're talking Kim Ki-duk here, and it occurred to me that I'd probably underestimated his ability to take a simple story and fill it with nuance and complex emotion. I was right.

So you've got Han-ki (Jo Jae-hyeon), a fearsome tough guy who never says a word (a recurring motif in Kim's films). In his case, it could have something to do with that big, ugly scar across his throat -- sliced vocal cords? (In point of fact, he does say something eventually, but I won't say what.) He takes one look at pretty college student Seon-hwa (Seo Won) and it's all over: Love at first site. However, he's a violent dude with a gangster past, and the best he can think of is to grab her, on the street, in front of her boyfriend and a throng of bystanders, and plant an extended, angry kiss on her lips. Needless to say, this doesn't go down well with anyone, least of all a group of passing soldiers, who insist he apologize to the young lady. Their way of insisting involves beating the shit out of him, but our bad guy ain't talking. Seon-hwa spits in his face and everyone disperses. But does this incident dampen Han-ki's ardour? Not a bit of it. It rather stiffens his resolve.

Han-ki eventually gains total control of Seon-hwa, through a series of machinations I leave to you to discover. And eventually, a relationship of sorts develops between them, even as he watches her turn tricks through a one-way mirror, at one point with one of his own henchmen. It's a strange, dark tale of obsession and degradation, and whether you consider it a misogynist fantasy or a genuine love story, there's no denying Kim's ability to suck you in and hold you, riveted, until the final frame.