Friday, October 19, 2012

Dream Home

As you can imagine, Hong Kong high-rise apartments tend to be rather spendy. We're talking millions of HK dollars for a few hundred square feet. A luxury flat is to die for, and in the case of Dream Home, that's literally the case.

Man oh man, I have not seen a film with this level of graphic violence in quite awhile. Folks are shot, stabbed, strangled, bludgeoned, impaled, dismembered, disemboweled, suffocated (one chick is even dispatched via toilet bowl), all with a stylistic verve and pace that makes you squirm with a kind of sick fascination (or is it just me?). Here is ultraviolence done right; timing, camera angle, special effects -- everything comes together in a kind of gruesome harmony. A blood-spattered tour de force!

The story is somewhat less well-executed. It's told in flashbacks, intercut with the real-time killing spree of one woman, pretty Sheung Cheng-lai (Josie Ho). The flashbacks jump back and forth to scenes throughout Cheng's life, from her childhood living in a rundown apartment building (from which she and her family are eventually driven out to make way for high-rise construction) to the present. As a child, little Cheng had a grandpa who always wanted a place by the harbor, and the girl vows to make that happen some day. This promise becomes an obsession throughout her life and, when thwarted, turns her into a homicidal maelstrom of creative, tool belt-oriented violence in the very apartment she'd tried so hard to acquire. 

Here's the rub: The indignities Cheng has suffered don't quite compensate, story-wise, for her rampage. Look, I get it; Cheng represents the oppressed working class, taking sweet revenge on those privileged bastards in the towers: the golf club-toting business man, the drug-addled libertines, the spoiled housewives. Perhaps if Cheng had been shown being personally victimized and violated by such types, the story would have worked better; traditionally, in films of this sort, she would have had far more heinous things done to her to bring about such a transformation. As it is, we spend so much time with her in the flashbacks, seeing her as a nice, normal person, that the sudden shift into special ops-style killing machine -- well, it's a bit of a *clank*.

Don't get me wrong, this doesn't ruin the film or anything -- just a weakness which may or may not be my own personal niggle. Other than that, it's a great picture that offers much more than just a lot of blood and entrails and a guy getting killed with a bong (you'll see). There is a dark humor that runs through the piece, as well as social commentary and topical relevance (the film came out in 2010 and is very aware of it's moment in light of the then-recent global economic downturn).

Star Josie Ho was also a producer on the film, her first outing as such. She was reportedly interested in doing a horror picture (as it is the perennial cash cow of film genres). She took one look at the legendary The Story of Rikki (see my review in Asia Shock) and decided that was the direction she wanted to go in. The influence is not undetectable …

Dream Home is one of those films that's been sitting in my to-watch pile for some time -- the kind you finally screen and slap yourself for not watching sooner. And don't think I've spoiled it for you; there's lot's of stuff I've (deliberately) not mentioned, and a lovely twist ending I'm sure you'll enjoy. So put on your best blood-resistant raincoat, get some popcorn, and get ready to get your gore on! 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Eleven Samurai

Eichi Kudo's Eleven Samurai rounds out his we're-gonna-get-that-motherfucker samurai trilogy quite nicely. If you liked The Thirteen Assassins and/or The Great Killing, you're gonna love this. Everything is tightened up; where Thirteen Assassins was a bit process-driven and Great Killing somewhat chaotic, here he's got it just right. Pace, tension, carnage -- everything is in perfect balance.

As with the previous films, this is an affair of vengeance. A heinous personage in a position of power has done something awful, and it's down to a small group of highly skilled individuals to make it right. In this case, the culprit is the shogun's brother, a fella named Lord Nariatsu (the irrepressible Kantaro Suga, also the baddie in Thirteen Assassins). Jesus, is this guy wicked (one hapless lord takes an arrow in the eyeball for his trouble). Any chance Nariatsu will lose his head at the end of 100 minutes?

I should pause to praise the look of this film. The B&W cinematography is truly awesome. Something about the Japanese architectural aesthetic blends so perfectly with black-and-white photography -- oh go read In Praise of Shadows already ...

But the cast! To die for. Clearly word was getting around about this Kudo guy. Kotaro Satomi, the main young dude of the other two films, is back, albeit in a tiny role. Also returning is Toei chambara stalwart Ryutaro Otomo (he was the bad guy in Great Killing, but here he's the standup samurai retainer who, because of bushido, has to defend his scumbag lord to the bitter end).

The central revenger, Hayato Sengoku, is portrayed by one of my favorite Japanese actors, Isao Natsuyagi. With his downturned crescent mouth and huge ears, you wonder, "What's this guy gonna give me?" but the sheer presence of the man puts him over the top, makes him a star. I've written about him before (please buy and read my books!). Samurai Wolf, Shogun's Samurai, Bandits vs Samurai Squadron, go check him out, the guy rocks.

And then there's Ko Nishimura, reprising his role in Thirteen Assassins, as a badass master swordsman. Nishimura appeared with Isao Natsuyagi in Samurai Wolf 2, don't you know (don't get me started on Ko Nishimura -- I could go all day). And let's not forget Junko "Quick-Draw Okatsu" Miyazono who was also the blind woman in Samurai Wolf.

Oh, and Kei Sato!

Look, if you're reading this and you haven't seen this picture, you owe it to yourself. It's really quite an excellent samurai film. There was a time I thought Eichi Kudo overrated; I came around. And this, as far as I'm concerned, is his magnum opus. But don't trust me -- just ask Paghat the Ratgirl.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Wakeful Nights

I don't normally review comedies here, because, well you know, the whole Asia Shock thing -- comedies by and large aren't all that shocking. But this one is! Wakeful Nights (Nezu no ban aka A Hardest Night, 2005) features, among other things, the filthiest song I've ever heard in my life (and that's saying something). It has all the elements I like: Black comedy, bawdy gags, a great cast, lovely scenic locations and rakugo.

In case you didn't hit the link on rakugo, it's a traditional Japanese theatrical form that goes back with kabuki and bunraku. It's essentially a comedic monologue, very stripped down (the performer has two props, a folding fan and a hand towel, which he uses to represent a wide range of objects). In Wakeful Nights, rakugo stays mainly in the background; an old master of the art dies, and the members of his troupe hold a wake. This is followed by more wakes, as other members of the group proceed to expire (hence the pun on "wakeful" in the title).

Hats off to my friend David Rowe-Caplan who translated this (and many another) film for Animeigo. He's the guy who comes up with all that onscreen gloss to explicate linguistic difficulties in the subtitles. He sure had his hands full on this project. He told me it was the hardest subtitling job he's ever had to do because of all the Japanese puns he had to explain. Add to that the fact that the puns are mostly obscene, and you begin to understand his conundrum; it's hard enough to get across subtle shades of meaning, but how do you subtly explain a pussy joke?

And there's a ton of pussy jokes on offer. And dick jokes. And shit jokes. The stuff people say in this film is as outrageous as the stuff they do. Be warned, however, it starts off a little slow with an extended death bed scene (albeit brightened by a last request for one final gander at a "honey pot" … ).

The ensemble cast is pitch-perfect. If you've seen a lot of Beat Takeshi films, you'll recognize baggy-eyed Ittoku Kishibe as the son of the rakugo master (nice to see him in something other than a dour, underworld persona). Then there's Kiichi Nakai -- he was the country bumpkin ronin who somehow wins the battle of Toba-Fushimi single-handedly in When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003, see my review in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades). Then of course there's Hiroyuki Nagato who plays the old master. He's been kicking around since the 50s, appearing in films like The Warped Ones, Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman, Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron and over 100 more.

Wakeful Nights is also notable for being the directorial debut of Masahiko Tsugawa, grandson of legendary silent film director Masahiro Makino and prolific actor in his own right. He got his start in sun tribe films like Crazed Fruit and The Sun's Burial and has been working consistently ever since (he played Shingen Takeda in samurai epic Heaven and Earth -- see my review in Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves).

So my advice to you is absolutely check out Wakeful Nights. If you're like me and have a somewhat sick sense of humor I guarantee by the end you'll be howling!