Friday, August 27, 2010

Crying Fist

Korean fight picture. So you know it's gonna be brutal. Not that the Korean people are indigenously any more brutal than anyone else. However, between the Japanese, Americans, Russians and their own various home-grown military dictatorships, these people were brutalized for the better part of the twentieth century, and that kind of thing doesn't just go away. Fortunately South Korean filmmakers have been sublimating this brutality into their work over the last decade or so, creating something like a national catharsis. Don't get me wrong, they also crank out their share of sicky-sweet, sentimental fare. The cumulative result is a national cinema that offers a broader emotional range than its neighbors to the north and south.

So yeah, Crying Fist (2004). I didn't get a chance to see it when I was writing Asia Shock, so it's not included in my profile of the great Choi Min-sik, one of the picture's two stars (the other being Ryoo Seung-beom). No one who's seen Oldboy (2003) is likely to ever forget Choi Min-sik, Korea's own Lawrence Olivier/Robert DeNiro/Gerard Depardieu. If you check the years, you'll shrewdly deduce that Choi was still down at his fighting weight from the Oldboy shoot when he made this film (he's been much pudgier on other outings). That said, he's still 42, not a good age to be staging a boxing comeback as his character, Kang Tae-shik, plans to do in the film, particularly when he's been making his living on the street as a human punching bag. Literally. For 10,000 won (roughly $8.50) you can wail away (he supplies the boxing gloves). Yep, he's pretty down and out, and this daily abuse isn't helping his head -- he's starting to show signs of brain damage.

Then there's the parallel story of Yoo Sang-hwan (Ryoo Seung-beom). He's a petty criminal with natty dreads and a beard who finds himself in the slammer (minus the hair) after a mugging goes horribly awry. The prison population soon learns that he's nobody's bitch after he chews off a guy's ear Tyson-style on his first day. He's immediately recruited into the boxing team where perhaps his natural talent for violence can be honed and refined -- see where this is going? Of course Yoo and Kang are on a collision course, but just how they meet I'll leave for you to discover.

While I'm not particularly drawn to the genre, I thought this was a great boxing film. Gritty, bloody, populated with a fascinating array of urban losers and grimy locations -- you can almost smell the garbage and B.O. The supporting cast is great, featuring Oh Dai-soo (A Bloody Aria), Nah Moon-hee (The Quiet Family) and the diminutive character actor Ki Joo-bong (he's been in everything -- one of those "oh yeah, that guy" guys).

Style-wise, Crying Fist changes up on you -- it gradually shifts from elliptical jump-cut indy at the beginning to a more conventional ending, but it all works out. I have one minor complaint, but it concerns the ending, so I'll have to sit on it. I'll wait 'til you see it and then I'll tell you ...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Invisible Target

Man, what a kickass flick! I realize that isn't a terribly scholarly pronouncement, but this ain't that kind of film. This is balls out action, everything's on the table: Urban crime thrills, martial arts, parkour, shit blowing up, gang fights, a seemingly unlimited supply of plate glass to fling people through, and of course guns, lots of guns. Shame about the crap title (how can a target be invisible? And what does that have to do with the price of rice?).

Boiled down to its essence, it's a cops and robbers picture. An elite criminal gang blows up an armored van, inadvertently killing the fiance of police detective Chan Chun (Nicholas Tse). Six months later, the tragedy has turned him into something of a rogue I-just-don't-care-anymore cop. When he isn't moping around the apartment, he's blowing a stake-out by chasing after the perp through the streets of Hong Kong in a dizzying free-running sequence. Then there's Carson Fong (Shawn Yue). He's another detective, more of a slick dick, but just as explosive and high-kicking. Rounding out the inevitable trio is straight-laced rookie Wai King Ho (Jaycee "Son of Jackie" Chan). On the other end of the equation is that group of baddies I mentioned earlier, led by Tien Yeng Seng (Jacky Wu, one of the toughest movie mofos I've seen in quite some time).

This film had me involuntarily laughing and whooping, delighted as an eight-year-old completely lost in the fun. If you've got a drop of testosterone in you, you'll likely do the same. Invisible Target (2007) is the perfect synthesis of Hollywood and Hong Kong action, with a little Parisian flair thrown in. The fight sequences are breathtaking -- fast and tight, they raise the bar considerably on what you usually get in this kind of film, even employing a touch of wire fu. Like I say, everything's on the table and director Benny Chan is on his game.

"That's all very well and good, Pat," I hear you saying, "but what's so shocking?" Well frankly, considering the bad title and generic box art, I wasn't expecting much. What's shocking is how damn good it is! Jackie Chan's kid acquits himself admirably; Nicholas Tse shows what a shape-shifter of an actor he is (in comparison to the character he played in The Beast Stalker); Shawn Yue and Jacky Wu are just plain awesome. While I'm not big on the historical epics coming out of Hong Kong of late, these crime flicks are just getting better and better. Of course I miss the more quirky, crazy, fried vibe of HK films of the 80s and 90s. Luckily there's a ton of those on disk when I need them; this new stuff, while more streamlined and Hollywood-influenced, well, I'm still liking what I'm seeing. Keep 'em coming, Benny Chan!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Nagisa Oshima Pt. 2

Warning: DVD manufacturers often use the box set as a way to get you to buy sucky movies. Case in point: Criterion's Eclipse label box set Oshima's Outlaw Sixties. Of the five films on offer here, only one (or maybe two) really warrants a look in. So let me save you a little money by reviewing the rest of them (for more see Nagisa Oshima Pt. 1) as well as one more that Criterion really ought to release.

Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968)

This kooky bit of piffle comes as close to a typical Sixties romp as Oshima is likely to get. The misleadingly-titled film stars real life pop group The Folk Crusaders as three decidedly sober students who fall victim to a couple of South Korean soldiers. The latter have deserted, not wanting to fight in Viet Nam, and have entered Japan illegally. They steal the clothes of two of the students and assume their identities. So far, so good. But then things get sillier and sillier until, about halfway through, the whole movie starts all over again; after about ten minutes of the exact same opening sequence, things finally get going in a slightly different direction. This film further fed my suspicion that Oshima was interested in not only provoking his audience, but actually alienating if not downright annoying them. This extends to showing the three young guys ridiculing the famous Eddie Adams photo of the summary execution of a Vietcong soldier. Redeeming features: Kei Sato (as one of the deserters) and Fumio Watanabe doing an OTT dastardly character (it's fun to watch him playing it for laughs for once). But really, this film was a waste of my time.

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967)

Another study in driving the audience up the wall. A buxom young lass (Keiko Sakurai) wanders around looking for a man, any man, to have sex with. A gaunt, haunted-looking man (Kei Sato) wants someone to kill him. Elsewhere, a young guy longs to shoot a gun, a rotund monster of a man likes to stab people, an old man spends a long time repairing a gun, a group of heavily armed men prepare for a gun battle, most of the main characters are held against their will, and for the first hour nothing happens. The girl seduces several men to no avail; Kei Sato jumps in front of every brandished weapon -- nobody will kill him; the gang war never comes off. It's all talking and no action. Once again, Oshima is, well there's no other term for it: He's fucking with us. Finally things kick off, and the remaining forty minutes are an explosion of general mayhem, the various main characters befriending a young, caucasian psycho sniper character similar to the one in Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (although Bogdanovich's film came out a year later -- go figure) for a grand finale shoot out with the cops. To its credit, the film's B&W photography and avant garde production design are visually stunning and the performances are great. So if you're up for an hour of stultifying, Waiting for Godot-style existential nothingness followed by a lot of shooting and killing, this is your movie.

The Ceremony (1971)

This was the other film, along with Boy (1969), recommended to me as among Oshima's best. I'd have to agree, but it's far more uneven than Boy and, in Audie Bock's phrase, "discouragingly complex." The story concerns the Sakuradas, a wealthy, provincial family that, over the course of roughly 25 years (from the immediate post-war period to the "present") completely disintegrates. Narratively, we're dropped into the story with no explanations, and forced to catch up as best we can through flashbacks. "The Ceremony" isn't any one in particular, but rather a collective reference to the series of weddings and funerals we follow throughout the film; these events, and the increasingly outrageous behavior of their participants, serve as way stations on the family's ever-spiraling downward trajectory. What kind of outrageous behavior, you ask? Let's see, there are incestuous dalliances, corpse bothering, a wedding with no bride (during which a coup attempt occurs), someone is affixed to a tree with a samurai sword, a young man sexually assaults his grandfather -- is that outrageous enough for you? Bear in mind, however, that these scenes come at the price of interstitial longueurs. Yes, pacing is a problem here; overlong voice-overs, tedious conversations, vague, dark scenes where nothing much happens. The question I asked myself as a critic was, "Does it all even out? Are the interesting bits worth the slog?" I suppose so. I can't really say no. It's just a shame no one thought to cut 120 minutes down to 100; it would have improved the picture immeasurably. Those interested in post-war history and politics will find many passing references and subtle commentary woven into the story, and, once again, the cinematography is gorgeous and the performances are first rate.

So that's it for Oshima for awhile. Having now seen a dozen of his films, I think I've gotten a better handle on his oeuvre. Although he is, as Bock puts it, "almost impossible to pin down stylistically, except in terms of recurrent favorite symbols," there's no denying his films boast great strengths in terms of craft and performance. It's only the filmmaker's perversity that gets in the way. If I didn't hate the expression, I'd say Oshima's a little too smart for his own good. But maybe I don't have the right to be that condescending. I dunno, you tell me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Music

Meet Reiko (Noriko Kurosawa). She's young and sexy but a bit of a head case. Seems she can't hear music. Go ahead, put a radio up to her head -- she just can't hear it. Also, she can't experience sexual pleasure. Unless, of course, she's with a man who's impotent or on his death bed. Perhaps it all has something to do with being hot for her brother (whom she witnessed getting it on with their aunt)? She also has a scissor fixation. Hmm. And she dreams of a bull coming out of the sky with horns shaped like huge penises. Her psychiatrist is having a field day. But can he really get to the bottom of her problems?

Watching The Music (Ongaku, 1972), one of Yasuzo Masumura's better yet lesser-known flicks, made me realize how long it's been since I've seen an truly, wonderfully bizarre film. Masumura delivers the fucked-up, Freudian goods in this exploration of incest, necrophilia, rape, suicide, sexual dysfunction, and, of course, mental illness. Noriko Kurosawa is amazing, a one-woman encyclopedia of psychosexual neurosis, channeling a dozen conflicting impulses at once (in a near-perpetual state of undress). Quite frankly, she burns up the screen, making for far more compelling viewing than would have been the case with a less gifted and demonstrative actress.

However, the lovely Ms. Kurosawa (no relation) can't take all the credit for the murky, manipulative mind job that is The Music. The film is based on a novel by Yukio Mishima, himself a notable nut job (you'll recall he famously attempted to take over an army base in 1970 and, failing, subsequently committed a painfully protracted seppuku). Masumura directed Mishima in the not-great vanity picture Afraid to Die (1960); it wasn't Masumura's fault -- Mishima just wasn't much of an actor. The noted novelist was much better as a "human doll" in Kinji Fukasaku's Black Lizard (1968) and in the tiny role of a samurai who commits a spontaneous seppuku (!) in Hideo Gosha's Tenchu! (1969).

As for your being able to see The Music, well I won't lie to you, it ain't gonna be easy. It's not available commercially. I got a copy through back channels, so you're gonna have to know a collector to get a gander at this delightfully demented picture. But hey, things can change. Many's the time I've secured a hither-to hard-to-find film only to see it released commercially in the US a couple of years later. Who knows, maybe Fantoma will put it out? They've been doing great work carrying the Masumura torch, with half a dozen titles out to date. Perhaps we should all send them an email? If they get enough requests, they just might do it. That would be great, because this is a forgotten gem that really deserves to be seen.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Nagisa Oshima Pt. 1

Over the years, many a Japanese filmmaker has captured my attention, becoming the object of a protracted obsession: Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Beat Takeshi, Kenji Misumi, Yasuzo Masumura, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hideo Gosha, Kazuo Ikehiro, and on and on. Nagisa Oshima, however, was never one of them. I don't know why, the guy just never got under my skin. I liked Cruel Story of Youth, Realm of Passion and Taboo. The Realm of the Senses was alright. Didn't care for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Hated Violence at Noon. And yet, he is one of the Big Names, so in light of the recent Criterion box (Oshima's Outlaw Sixties), as well as a couple of suggestions from Peter Nellhaus, I decided to delve deeper into this filmmaker's oeuvre. Here's what I've come up with so far.

Pleasures of the Flesh (1965)

I really enjoyed this weird tale of a slightly insane young man who murders for love (unrequited), then is blackmailed into holding a small fortune for a crooked government official (just until the old guy gets out of prison). The young man, played compellingly by Katsuo (brother of Kinnosuke) Nakamura, decides fuck it, and uses the money to create a living fantasy of luxury and non-stop sex. Of course, this extended spree takes its toll, the man growing jaded and cruel. According to Audie Bock, the young man symbolizes Japan, newly rich and without a moral compass. (Oshima utilized symbolism quite a bit in his mid to late 60s films as we shall see.) I appreciated this careful-what-you-wish-for-you-might-get-it parable and found the plot and pace right on the money (not always a given with Oshima). So I give this one a thumbs up.

A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs (1967)

Criterion is using the alternative title Sing a Song of Sex, but that title is misleading. This isn't some light-hearted sex romp, but rather a somewhat dry tale of four male high school graduates and the perverse directions in which their misguided energies take them. Issues touched upon include rape fantasies (which may or may not come true), the death of a teacher (who may or may not have been murdered), peace rallies, an obsession with an older woman and, of course, singing. Lots of singing. If it isn't the incessant repetition of one particular Japanese bawdy song by the boys, it's folk songs, drinking songs, even a little Korean prostitute ditty evoking a motif common to several Oshima films of the period, that of Korean identity in post-war Japan. Also present is Oshima's singular flag imagery. This time out it's an alternative Japanese flag, with a black dot instead of a red one, symbolizing Oshima's regard for Japan as a dead nation (the black dot flag and Japan's treatment of Koreans is also featured prominently in Oshima's Death by Hanging). Too bad A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs unravels so badly in the third act. Either Oshima lost interest, or he decided to drive us all crazy -- this also happens in films of this period (see Violence at Noon). Worth a look if you're interested in Japan of the late 60s, but I couldn't really recommend it otherwise.

Boy (1969)

Based on real events, it's the story of an incredibly dysfunctional family of con artists who fake being hit by automobiles to extort money from the distraught drivers. Fumio Watanabe, one of Oshima's go-to actors, turns in another great performance as a truly despicable man, the father who forces his wife and young son to run out in traffic, risking their lives for payoffs so he can lounge around in hotels and eat. Oh, the eating. This guy is always eating. (Watanabe, in the photo up top, was a versatile actor with a bulbous nose, perhaps the Karl Malden of Japanese cinema? In the 70s he moved to Toei where he played heavies in such exploitation classics as Joy of Torture and Convent of the Sacred Beast.) Oshima's flag imagery is in full force here; this time, it's the standard Japanese flag, always in close proximity to the family, making me suspect it symbolizes some aspect of Japanese society with which the filmmaker has an issue (lassitude? Gluttony? Mistreatment of the young?). Bottom line: Awesome film, the best I've seen from Oshima and one that is rightly singled out as a classic. Young Tetsuo Abe, playing the eponymous 10-year-old, gives a devastating performance as the tough little guy who endures painful injuries, a life of uncertainty and all his father's cruelty and manipulation. This is the film Criterion should release.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Shogun Assassin

Back in 1980 a couple of guys decided to re-cut the second Lone Wolf and Cub film (Baby Cart at the River Styx), add a few scenes from the first film (Sword of Vengeance), change the storyline, replace the music and dub it in English. Now I'm a bit of a purist, me, and, to be blunt, I consider it a desecration. I said as much in my first book, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves. Nevertheless, the folks at Animeigo sent me a copy anyway. In blu-ray no less. And to tell you the truth, I'm glad they did. Not that it's changed my opinion of the film itself, but the extras are quite nice and the transfer does look gorgeous. Just so long as I don't have to hear that insufferable "voice of Daigoro" narration and Sandra Bernhard voicing lady ninjas.

Fortunately, the disk contains not one but two commentary tracks. One features folks involved in the 1980 production. The other has "film scholar" Ric Meyers talking non-stop while another guy, martial artist Steve Watson, tries periodically to comment on what's happening onscreen. Meyers used to write a column for the now-defunct Asian Cult Cinema and, to his credit, is full to overflowing with background information.

There's also a great interview with Samuel L. Jackson. Turns out his interest in samurai film goes way beyond voicing the animated Afro Samurai series. He's got a huge Asian film collection and is more than happy to tell you all about it. Between Jackson and Meyers, it's a genuine Japanese film nerd out!

And of course there are the standard Animeigo reference materials that always enhance their releases, providing historical and cultural background and making outfits like Media Blasters look like the fly-by-night hacks they are.

So even though I wouldn't personally recommend Shogun Assassin, I realize it's as close as some folks are going to come to watching a samurai film, and I can respect that it was a doorway for people back in the 80s to discover the real thing. The TV mini-series Shogun had a similar impact. I guess whatever gets people looking to the East has its merits. I'll leave it at that.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

They can't all be good Pt. 2

Bad choices. They're what holds us back in life. They impact our lives in adverse and unpredictable ways, wasting precious time and resources. I know because I've made some lately, in terms of my film viewing. So once again I must sully the pristine pages of my virtual salon with reviews of bad films. It's the only way to reclaim some vestige of value from an otherwise utterly unprofitable enterprise.

I wasn't expecting much from Tokyo Gore School (2009); it was sent to me by one of my PR contacts, so I figured I owed them a look. I thought it would be yet another OTT gross-out like the similarly-named Tokyo Gore Police or, perhaps, Robogeisha. Turns out there's precious little gore involved, the story revolving instead around an internet-based fighting game where high school kids target one another for fun and cash prizes. So we spend 109 minutes watching kids alternately staring at their cell phones and running after one another. Yawn. Occasionally we get a bit of philosophical rumination re: Japan's school bullying problem, as well as some half-hearted attempts at parkour, but these elements can't save this vacuous life-drainer.

So I turned to a master filmmaker, Yasuzo Masumura, for solace. I'm a great fan of his work and have made an effort recently to obtain as many of his titles as possible (I have over a dozen including Kisses, Giants and Toys, Black Test Car, Manji, Red Angel, Yakuza Soldier, A Lustful Man, Blind Beast and The Razor 2: The Snare). Masumura is one of those go-to guys, always great. Or not. I discovered that Masumura, In common with most of his contemporaries, wasn't perfect (go figure), and on occasion could make a clunker.

In this case, it's a film called Irezumi (which means tattoo) from 1966. It's a tale of a beautiful woman forced into tattooed sexual slavery. The sumptuous cinematography is provided by the great Kazuo Miyagawa, and the cast features Kei Sato and Masumura golden girl Ayako Wakao. The script, by Kaneto Shindo, has passages like this one, spoken by an evil tattoo artist: "The spider is moving. Painful, isn't it. The spider's embrace is strong. Look! Look in the mirror. On your back lives a golden orb-web spider. This joro spider will kill countless men and you will gorge on their corpses. In this creature I have infused the soul of my tattoo art. It's my whole life!" The problem with the film lies in the lack of development of the central character, Otsuya, the wronged woman with the big spider tattoo on her back. We never get a sense of who she really is -- it's as if Shindo and Masumura were captivated with the gothic trappings of the story and forgot to provide essential information that would have otherwise drawn us into the web they were spinning. Anyway, you check it out and see if you agree, but for me it was a dud.

So I turned to another big name from the 60s, Nagisa Oshima. While not a great fan of Oshima (he's always seemed to trade more on controversy than talent in my opinion), I've enjoyed films like Cruel Story of Youth, In the Realm of Passion and Taboo. However he's just as likely to make a crap film like Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence or Violence at Noon. The latter film, also from 1966, I saw the other day, still looking for a redeeming Japanese film experience. It started out promising, again with Kei Sato (this time as a rampaging serial killer). While the performances are great and there are some lovely, Nouvelle Vague-inspired jump cuts, the film dissolves halfway through into tedious, repetitive dialog that goes nowhere for what seems like hours. You're just waiting, hoping, praying for it to end. Really bad.

So there you have it, three more disappointments. I hate to sound like some old curmudgeon, but I have not choice. I write about film, it's what I do. So I think it best to report and keep on moving. Don't let my comments stop you from seeking out these films, though (with the exception of Tokyo Gore School). I could have my head up my ass (wouldn't be the first time). I look forward to your comments.