Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Sometimes you see a movie and it feels ... slight. It just doesn't seem to make much of an impression. Something in the way it was filmed, the themes, the characters, all strike you as somewhat wanting. So you shrug and go on about your business.

But then you notice you keep thinking about it. Images come back to you, character's faces, bits of dialog, a moment, a gesture. You find yourself going over it in your head, parsing it, making connections, finally getting it. It dawns on you that this film was far better than you registered while watching it, so understated yet intimate was the subject matter, so low-key and subtle the presentation.

And so we have Kokoro (1955), adapted from the acclaimed novel by Soseki Natsume and directed by Kon Ichikawa. The film stars Masayuki Mori (Rashomon, Ugetsu) as a depressed man whose central secret, the cause of his misery (and that of his long-suffering wife, played by Michiyo Aratama) forms the core of the story. Of course we eventually learn all about it through exposition and flashbacks. Without giving too much away, it involves a love triangle and a tragic choice, leading to years of desolation and inner turmoil. Eventually what meager scab that's managed to grow over the wound is picked open by a young student (Shoji Yasui, who would go on to play the unforgettable deserter/monk Mizushima in Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp) who befriends the tortured older man and only wants to help. No good deed goes unpunished ...

Kokoro (which translates roughly as "the heart of things") is one of those quietly devastating films particular to certain cultures (I'm thinking Japanese, but Scandinavian is right in there as well). In form and content it is quite different from the kind of film normally discussed on this blog, yet in its themes of misery and self-destruction it is ultimately as harrowing as any of the more outre outings on offer here. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

King of Comedy

It's been awhile since I saw a Stephen Chow movie, so I threw this one on last night. It's also been awhile since I burst forth with barking blasts of uncontrollable laughter -- what a great feeling. Chow is funny on his own, but what really knocks his comedy out of the park is a combo of the people he surrounds himself with, comedic compatriots like Ng Man Tat and Tin Kai Man who form a loose troupe from film to film, and the broad nature of the gags, bordering on, if not spilling wholly over into, outrageous gross-out humor. A bar hostess forced to entertain a particularly repellent male customer is a funny pretense; ah! He's got roaches in his hair and a worm crawling out his ear! Or how about the tender love scene between Chow and Karen Mok wherein a big glob of runny snot hangs perilously out of his nose over her face? OK, it's puerile, but nobody laughs more deliriously than an 8-year-old, and sometimes a fella needs to laugh like that. Sue me.

Also on hand is smoking hot Celia Cheung. More recently, Ms. Cheung found unwanted publicity when "candid" photos of her and a number of other HK actresses made their way from singer/actor Edison Chen's hard drive to the internet. Oh, and don't blink or you'll miss a walk-on cameo from Jackie Chan. He plays a stuntman (ha ha). The premise of the movie is that Chow is a "background artist" trying to worm his way into a more substantive role on a film shoot (a la Ricky Gervais in Extras).

If you're new to Stephen Chow, I recommend starting with Shaolin Soccer, his masterpiece. Then move on to The God of Cookery, King of Comedy and From Beijing With Love. Only then check out the somewhat more jaded Kung Fu Hustle. Then you can move on to the 50+ films he's been in since the early 80s (like Royal Tramp and God of Gamblers 2). Chow is one of a kind, a national treasure, and everyone should have at least a couple of his films in their collection.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Perhaps you, like me, hate film titles that consist of abstract numbers and/or letters. I don't mean something like 1941 or K9 or D.O.A. -- with those, you have a frame of reference. I mean combos that mean nothing outside the context of the story (which you haven't seen yet) rendering them utterly meaningless and thus unlikely to provoke any interest whatsoever (9? U-571? THX-1138? I'm intrigued!).

In the case of PTU (2003) we're talking Police Tactical Unit, and before you say, "Oh no, not a Hong Kong S.W.A.T. flick" let me reassure you: The cops in this film may wear quasi-military uniforms, but they're no black-clad stormtroopers repelling down the sides of buildings. Led by cooly menacing Mike (Simon Lam), they're merely one more gang in this tale of rivalry and retribution on the mean streets of gangster-ridden HK. They're not above beating and torture to get information, they lie to their superiors, falsify reports, cut deals with local drug lords -- in effect, they're just like real cops. And the gangsters are no slouches either. The kingpins, with names like Bald Head and Eyeball, are as nasty as they wanna be, certainly up to the sadistic standards of any self-respecting Hong Kong triad boss.

What makes PTU really great, though, is the way the story is told. This is a Johnnie To film, and Johnnie To, while he's been around awhile, has emerged in recent years as among the most intriguing genre directors of Hong Kong's post-colonial period. His films are finely crafted, they move, they pop with a stylistic frisson that raises the cinematic bar. PTU, for example, is interesting on just about every level. It's gorgeous to look at; the lighting, framing and use of negative space transform the dark city streets into an absorbing moving tableaux. Some shots linger just to let you soak in the mise-en-scene (like one where three cops are waiting outside a building -- the color, the way the frame is broken up, it's just tasty). Plotting and characterization are quirky and unpredictable; Sergeant Lo (Lam Suet) is the tough head of the organized crime unit, bullying triad members in a restaurant, only to get jumped by them around the corner. His gun is taken in the fracas, his subsequent search for his missing manhood providing the forward thrust of the narrative (a la Kurosawa's Stray Dog). Mike helps in the search, and suspicious CID inspector Cheng (Ruby Wong) knows something is up. Everything ends with a twist and you'll love it.

I'm not alone in my appreciation for PTU; the film has spawned half a dozen sequels with no end in sight. So nevermind the crap title, check out PTU, a very well-made and engaging piece of Hong Kong cinema that will most likely get you hooked on Johhnie To. Next stop, Triad Election ...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Destiny's Son at the Japan Society

I wrote about this film years ago in Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves. I said, "The feel of Destiny's Son is like a haiku. Lyrical, minimalist, it is a beautiful film, infused with the Japanese aesthetic qualities of tranquility, introspection and reverence for nature ... A deep Zen calm surrounds and interpenetrates the people and settings of the film; even the violence and treachery are subsumed in it, making these elements somehow more and less disturbing simultaneously." I'm inclined to agree.

Anyhow, The New York Japan Society will be showing it February 19th and I encourage all my NYC homies to get on over there and see it. Director Kenji Misumi made a lot of chambara pictures with the legendary Raizo Ichikawa (above), but only one like this -- a true gem.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


K-horror meets art house in this majestic masterpiece of the macabre from 2007. Sibling directors Jeong Beom-sik and Jeong Sik spin a haunting yarn of serial murder, unnatural love and supernatural retribution set in a Seoul hospital circa 1942. The membrane separating life and death is wafer-thin in this house of pain, all rich mahogany hues and dark shadows, and nothing is what it seems. If you love having your expectations defied, if you savor a confounding plot twist, if you're up for a rousing game of "who's the ghost?" (as well as "who's about to become one?"), well, here you go.

Three stories entwine and inform one another: An intern (Jin Goo) falls in love with the frozen corpse of his arranged fiance (Yeo Ji); A young girl (Ko Joo-yeon) survives a car accident that kills her mother and potential step-father (Park Ji-ah, David McInnis), only to be haunted by their ghosts; and husband-and-wife doctors (Kong Ho-seok, Kim Bo-kyeong) try to determine why one of them doesn't cast a shadow. Meanwhile, someone is brutally mutilating Japanese soldiers in the vicinity and an intrepid army cop (ubiquitous character actor Kim Eung-soo) wants to know who. Oh, and I did mention ghosts, right? Yes, there are ghosts. The kind that don't just float there looking wispy, but rather tend to grab your ass and pull you right through the morgue tray door!

There is one issue, however, namely a certain slow-as-molasses-in-January element. Not all the way through, mind you, just now and then, but increasingly during the third act. Epitaph is, after all, the Jeong brothers' film debut, and their beginner status is apparent in the way they're just a bit too in love with a suspenseful scene, dragging it out until all suspense is drained and the audience is left with a mounting "get on with it!" annoyance. Fortunately, there's enough talent on display here to warrant optimism for future films (and, as I say, the majority of this one moves along just fine).

Hats off to 12-year-old Ko Joo-yeon (above) for a show-stealing performance unlike any I've seen since little Eun Seo-woo ran off with it in K-horror classic Phone (2002). Ko's adult contemporaries are no slouches either, raising the overall prestige of the picture with their understated yet intense portrayals.

So yeah, absolutely see this film. The Jeong brothers have arrived, and from the looks of it we can expect exciting things from them in the years to come.