Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fulltime Killer

Way back in 2001, Johnnie To made this fine Hong Kong actioner. OK, so the title's not so hot, but such is the power and talent of this filmmaker, and his cool-ass cast, that despite zero character development I was immediately sucked in.

Andy Lau is electrifying as the grinning psychopath Tok, an up-and-comer in the realm of world-class hitmen. Leading the field is the mysterious Japanese loner Ito (Takashi Sorimachi), and we get to see the handiwork of both men in elaborate set pieces that open the film. I'm no gun nut, but the use of firearms and various other incendiary devices in this film transcends standard action movie tropes, approaching something like fine art.

Also of interest to me was the blend of languages and locations. We run all over Asia, from Kuala Lumpur to Macau to Tokyo to Hong Kong to Singapore. If you're like me, and use foreign films for vicarious sight-seeing, you won't be disappointed here.

Tok is Chinese but speaks fluent Japanese, as does the two killers' mutual love interest Chin (Kelly Lin), who's actually from Taiwan. In situations where Chinese or Japanese don't apply, English is the default, and we hear quite a lot of it. I'm a language guy, so it's interesting to me to analyze just why various members of the all-Asian cast would be speaking English to one another. For example, the Hong Kong cops (like Simon Yam) speak it as a legacy from colonial days, whereas other characters do it because they simply don't speak the other's native tongue.

Anyhow, this combination of action, travelogue, and linguistic melange makes for a perfect trifecta of Asian entertainment. Good old Johnnie To -- haven't seen a stinker yet!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

R.I.P. Ric Menello

Yesterday I lost a good friend, Ric Menello. I only ever met up with him three times, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, but we'd been obsessive email pals for years, ever since my first book came out in 2005. He read it and reached out to me, and I will be forever in his debt; the guy was a walking film encyclopedia, and I learned enough from him to cover several film history courses. He was a rare friend, a wonderful guy.

Ric initially made his name in the 80s, directing influential videos for Def Jam artists such as the Beastie Boys (You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party), LL Cool J (Going Back to Cali) and Danzig (Mother). More recently he collaborated with James Gray on the scripts for We Own the Night and Two Lovers (Gray was so gracious as to give him a writing credit for the latter film). As so often happens, things were looking up for Ric; 2013 was to be his year. But a dickie ticker said otherwise.

Ric and I really bonded over Japanese film. He knew everything about classic Hollywood and Eurofilm, but Japan was his particular passion. He was a big Hideo Gosha booster, and was forever enthralled by Masaki Kobayashi. I recall pining with him for the lost Kobayashi film I Will Buy You (about corruption in professional baseball), and how excited we were when we learned that Criterion will be releasing it on disk in April. We shared so many obscure yet passionate fascinations in the realm of Japanese cinema. We both were big fans of character actors like Makoto Sato and Kei Sato (no relation). We gossiped about what really went on between Hibari Misora and Kinnosuke Nakamura. We beamed with joy at the success of Tatsuya Nakadai's protegee, Koji Yakusho. It was a fucking two-man Japanese film nerd convention!

BTW, I was sitting next to Ric when I saw Tatsuya Nakadai live at the Film Forum -- one of the best nights of my life. I'll never forget it: Ric was at the head of the line outside when we got there, in front of Vernon Dobtcheff (I inadvertently insulted him by assuming he was John Neville). We got in first and sat in the front row, just a few feet from the venerable Nakadai. Ric told me to go say hi to Teruyo Nogami, Akira Kurosawa's script girl, which I did. What a night.
Anyhow, what do you say when you lose someone? You can never put into words what you feel and felt, all the thoughts and interactions you shared. So I'll throw it to someone else, someone I never met but who seems to have a handle on late-era Menello. Long live the Mayor of Flatbush!