February 12, 2013

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While the first quarter of the year has generally been a quiet time for Hollywood’s coffers, the rest of the world has been packing them in to their local multiplexes. Two of the bigger recent international successes are receiving limited U.S. releases, China’s Lost in Thailand (2012) and Korea’s The Berlin File (2013). Lost in Thailand has already become the highest grossing film in China’s history after only two months in release. An amiable odd couple road movie made for a reported $4.8 million, it has made an astounding $215 million domestically, and snuck into a NYC theater in time for the Chinese New Year. The Berlin File was more groomed for success, with a relatively large $10 million funding four big stars in an international spy thriller, with the talented director Ryoo Seung-wan (The Unjust) at the helm. It had the third highest opening weekend on record in Korea (from 2/1 – 2/3), and arrives stateside in a limited release this Friday.

Ryoo has ranged through many genres, from the male weepie Crying Fist (2005) to the amped up action of City of Violence (2006) to the savage corruption drama The Unjust (2010), but he applies his sharp social criticism and pulsating rhythmic sense to all of them.  His characters are either economically disadvantaged or on the make, the action arising from their guilt or underclass rage. Ryoo wrote and directed The Berlin File, but it’s the first that feels like a purely commercial venture – an impersonal technical exercise set to capitalize on the success of the first Korean spy blockbuster, Shiri (1999). It’s a cold war nostalgia piece that swaps the U.S. and Russia for South and North Korea (Ryoo too clearly tips his hand with a close-up of a John le Carre novel). Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo) is a North Korean agent in Berlin who gets stranded in an arms deal gone bad. Suspected of being a double agent, DPRK spook Myung-soo  (the director’s brother Ryoo Seung-bum) is sent to test Jong-seong and his wife’s loyalty.  All are under investigation by South Korean intelligence chief Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu), who tries to puzzle out their movements with the help of the CIA.

Ryoo Seung-wan’s  script gets bogged down in plot mechanic minutiae, with almost an hour of stop-start exposition before the nut of the conflict becomes clear. Part of the problem is in trying to make the film English friendly. His stars are visibly strained when they are asked to speak the language, and the Anglo actors he has hired to play Mossad and CIA agents are a couple of smirking stiffs. This throws off the ping-pong beats of his usual scene-building, and doesn’t pick up again until the movie gets monolingual. Then Ryoo is able to display his prodigious talent – including a crisply shot  apartment shootout that ends with Jong-seong wrapped up in electrical cords and bouncing through space like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. Ha plays him with blank professionalism, trained within an inch of his life, while Ryoo Seung-bum gets to have all the fun as grinning sociopath Myung-soo, gleefully torturing his way through Berlin. This is no jingoistic anti-North Korean job though, since Ryoo again displays his disgust for his own government as well, the South a craven profit machine, betraying its principles as quickly as any DPRK agent. With tensions at the DMZ ratcheting up due to the reported North Korean nuclear test, though, it will be interesting to see if the film gets any blowback.

Lost in Thailand has no such claim to current events, although it has become something of an event in itself. It re-teams  the comedy duo of Xu Zheng and Wang Baoqiang from their 2010 hit Lost On Journey. Xu is the white-collar straight man, an impeccably groomed account manager for a scientific research firm, who is desperate to run the account for their new “petroleum enhancer”. In order to close the deal, he has to track down his boss, who is on retreat in Thailand. With no first-class seats available, he is forced to fly in coach, where he meets Wang. With his shaggy bowl cut, disturbingly childlike naivete and fighting skill, Wang is an unholy mix of Jerry Lewis and Mo from the Three Stooges. Xu and Wang have hit on a team up of high and low class that clearly appeals to vast swathes of the Chinese population, comparable to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’ appeal in the 40s and 50sAlthough the film has been frequently compared to The Hangover, there is little of that film’s macho gross-out.

Like Lewis, Wang is a force of chaos, constantly destroying Xu’s plans, usually through his ignorance of technology. He pours water on a computer, tosses a flash drive out a window, and deletes the map to the boss’s temple. He’s a retrograde force, one the film condescendingly positions to be pitied, although of course his simple truths have much to teach the work-obsessed Xu. The film is much more fun when Wang is destroying than when Xu is learning, whether it’s giving a literally backbreaking massage or kicking gangsters in the face, but the film covers all its demographic bases, so we get maudlin scenes of a weepy Xu calling his estranged wife as well. Despite all the cliches, Xu and Wang have a prickly income inequality love-hate rapport that generates enough laughs to make me want to see more. And with those grosses, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to work on their schtick.


June 28, 2011


If you’re suffering from the summer blockbuster blues, there’s no greater pick-me-up than the New York Asian Film Festival, an invigorating potpourri of the finest in creative Eastern bloodletting. It marks its tenth decadent year with 45 features from nine different countries, unspooling at the Film Society of Lincoln Center from July 1st – 14th. 11 of those films are co-presented with Japan Cuts, the NYAFF’s more studious (if no less ambitious) five-year-old sister festival, held at Japan Society from July 7th – 22nd. Including the 21 other titles in Japan Cuts, there are 66 Asian movies hitting screens in July, most of which will never receive distribution in the United States (although many will be obtainable at Asian DVD retailers).

Surveys of national cinemas are usually funded by state organizations (i.e. Rendezvous With French Cinema at Lincoln Center is “supported by” the French embassy’s Cultural Services department), turning them into bland diplomatic exercises. The movies selected veer toward middlbrow arthouse or sophisticated-seeming romantic comedies – presenting how these countries want to be seen. The NYAFF and Japan Cuts buck this trend by culling movies from every genre and budget size, from popular hits (Reign of Assassins) to 4 1/2 hour indie experiments (Heaven’s Story).

NYAFF is funded by a gaggle of cultural services and corporate sponsors (scroll to the bottom of the home page to see which ones) but beholden to none, while Japan Cuts is underwritten by The Japan Foundation, a government-created cultural exchange entity that became an independent administrative institution in 2003. These benefactors continue to give ace programmers Grady Hendrix (NYAFF) and Samuel Jamier (Japan Cuts) space to select titles both lowbrow and high, sketching a more wide-ranging portrait of Asia than you’ll likely read in the newspaper.

It’s impossible to cover everything on display (including a great Tsui Hark mini-retro), but most of the revelations in this year’s slate came in the NYAFF sidebar, “Sea of Revenge: New Korean Thrillers”, so I’ll focus there. Park Chan-wook re-invented the ax murder in his wildly popular vengeance trilogy, but it wasn’t until the runaway success of Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008) that a new cycle of revenge films got kicked off in Korea. The only inkling we’ve received stateside of this wave was the release of Kim Jee-Woon’s fantastical sadism duel,  I Saw the Devil (2010, Magnolia Pictures), earlier this year. The titles in the sidebar are perversely pessimistic thrillers that repeatedly take aim at Korea’s governmental institutions. It is no coincidence that the cycle began in 2008, the year which ushered in our continuing economic crisis (almost all the others landed in 2010).

The Chaser stars the plump and harried Kim Yun-Seok as Jung-Hoa dirty ex-cop who runs a second-rate prostitution ring that is bleeding cash. Two of his girls have fled, and another has quit, so he forces a feverish Mi-Jin (Seo Young-hee) out on a job. Then he notices the address, which is the same location where he sent the two girls who disappeared. His vestigial detective instincts kick in, and he begins a frenzied investigation into the john, Ji Young-Min (Ha Jung-Woo)who is soon revealed to be a mild-mannered serial killer.

The tone begins as grimly comic noir, as Jung-Ho’s short-tempered capitalist pursues the mystery out of base self-interest. He initially believes Ji has merely sold his whores, and becomes a P.I. only to save his business. When the extent of Ji’s crimes become clear, his focus sharpens and his defensive cynicism falls away. He literally runs down clues through the streets of Seoul as Na’s jittery camera struggles to keep up. The pace relentlessly carries the film through its operatically tragic conclusion. The few moments of humor are reserved for the incompetent police force, who are occupied by a protestor who threw shit in the mayor’s face (hapless Keystone Korean Kops are a recurring presence in the series). Hoarding its resources into handling that PR fiasco, sad-sack Jung-Ho is tasked with being a hero, a role he is ill-suited to execute.

Na followed this up with The Yellow Sea, NYAFF’s closing night film and a selection in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section. It’s bigger and bloodier but equally swift and despairing as his boffo debut. He takes on the phenomenon of the “joseonjok“, Chinese citizens of Korean ancestry who illegally sneak back into Korea to get work. Na reverses the actor polarities from The Chaser: this time Ha Jung-Woo plays the beaten down anti-hero (Gu-nam) and Kim Yun Seok is the  mercilessly violent Chinese gang boss Myung-Ga. Gu-nam borrowed 60,000 yuan to get his wife a visa to work across the border, and he hasn’t heard from her since. Hassled by loan sharks and fraying at the seams beneath a stoic stone-face, Myung-Ga offers him a mountain of cash if he kills a man in Korea – while also giving Gu-nam the opportunity to track down his wife.

In the opening voice-over, Gu-nam speaks of his childhood. In his village, a dog infected with rabies killed its mother. Later he saw it wobble toward him and die from malnourishment. The village elders ate the corpse, and the disease spread throughout town. It is an original sin of a sort, his people cursed because of the desperation brought on by poverty. Gu-nam spends the film in atonement for this sin, enduring unspeakable physical abasements, although there is no transcendence on the other side.

With terse efficiency, Na depicts the Gu-nam’s journey across the Yellow Sea in a junk ship, hiding in a hull with the other illegals, dumped like netted lobsters on the Korean coastline. The scenes in which Gu-nam cases his mark’s home are object lessons in creating tension through narrative withholding, as we are restricted to his POV as he wordlessly pieces together the routines of the building. The aftermath of the murder opens up the narrative scope, as the POV expands from Gu-nam up to the corporate and criminal leaders who ordered the hit. He becomes merely part of a tapestry of corruption.

The cops, as in The Chaser, are comically inept, this time to a Keatonian level. In Gun-nam’s escape after the killing, he evades hundreds of police offers on foot, carrying a knife. The scene, with police cars flipping past him and baton-wielding ninnies yelling at him to stop, is a direct descendent of the Keystone Kops. It’s a spectacularly sarcastic scene, one with echoes throughout, including a cowardly local cop who accidentally shoots his partner. There is no faith in official institutions – everyone is on the take or just stupid.

I should also note the heavy use of blade violence [the following has been updated after a colleague alerted me to South Korea’s gun laws]. There are no guns in this movie – everyone gets stabbed or bludgeoned by an axe-handle, mostly by Myung-Ga – and there are some epic battles here. With South Korea’s highly restrictive ownership laws, even the underworld has trouble obtaining firearms. Without shoot-outs, each death becomes more personal, because you have to get close and smell the sweat of your opponent before taking their life. It is a ritual bloodletting to rid the world of the infection of humanity. Somehow this is getting released by 20th Century Fox, release date unknown.

The other major director in the sidebar is Ryoo Seung-Wan, a cheerier exponent of vengeance whose films have a pulsating rhythm. Represented by City of Violence (2006), The Unjust (2010) and Troubleshooter (2010, which he produced but did not direct), Ryoo churns out sleekly absorbing actioners with more self-reflexive panache than Na. City of Violence pits childhood friends against one another, pivoting on shady real estate deals (two years before the crash!), climaxing in fight scenes of comic-book abstraction. Clearly influenced by the ironic japery of Kill Bill, its centerpiece blowout is an exuberantly over-the-top homage to The Warriors. With The Unjust  he gets serious(er). A twisty, multi-layered corruption drama, it squares off a power-hungry detective and a power-hungrier prosecutor as the entire Korean justice system is jauntily sketched out as on the make. The detective, Captain Choi (Hwang Jung-Min), is tasked to frame a fall guy for the murder of a young girl, after the main suspect was unjustly killed by the police. The prosecutor (Ryoo Seung-Bum, the director’s brother) finds out, and thus begins an escalating game of blackmail that spreads throughout the city. Ryoo finds expressive uses for the slow zoom, moving from micro crimes to macro institutional corruption in one shot.

Kwok Hyeok-Jae helmed Troubleshooter (2010) which Ryoo produced and co-wrote. A hectic menage of the Bourne films and Hitchock’s The Wrong Man (or less hyperbolically, The Fugitive), it frames P.I. Tae-Sik (Sol Kyung-Gu) for murder, and he has to outrun the cops and prove his innocence before he gets his head blown off. Set to a backbeat of corruption news on his car radio, he dons disguises and endures betrayals with a breezy disregard. The busy visuals, a lot of screens within screens and flash editing, is tiresome after a while, but Sol is an amiable and ably physical performer, and the pace never flags. As for the other entries, The Man From Nowhere is a passably diverting Eastwood gloss, and I didn’t have time to watch Bedevilled.

Japan Cuts is studded with gems of its own, although the spurting bodily fluids they elicit comes from the tear ducts rather than the jugular. The most ambitious is Heavens Story, a four and a half hour labor of love for director Takahisa Zeze, the former “King of Pink” (Pink films are the softcore porn of Japan). An independent project that took him five years to make, it follows a group of characters dealing with the aftermath of a series brutal murders. It reminded me most strongly of Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka (2000) a similarly epic reckoning with grief, although their approaches are much different. Aoyama’s B&W long take naturalism is a far cry from Zeze’s blunt symbolism, but both reach to evoke the stasis induced by unutterable emotional pain, that netherworld between grieving and living. Zeze’s clumsy DV framings often fail to reach the heights he’s groping for, but there are plenty of striking images that blaze through, including an existential death match in an abandoned mining town, and the magical closing Kabuki performance that offers an escape from the cycles of violence. Another, more assured multi-character tale is Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City (2010), which documents the decline of an industrial port town in intersecting vignettes. Its highly detailed soundscape of clanging bells and alarm clocks seem to be counting down to the city’s demise.

One of the biggest surprises is Masahiro Kobayashi’s Haru’s Journey, a gentle drama about aging starring the legendary old lion Tatsuya Nakadai (High and Low, Ran et. al.). Kobayashi had been a maker of challenging festival films, including Bashing (2005) and the remarkable endurance test that is The Rebirth (2007). But here is his ode to Tokyo Story, a mainstream melodrama about Nakadai and his granddaughter, asking each of his siblings if he can live with them, and repeatedly being rejected. It’s a showcase for Nakadai, who is charmingly irascible throughout, his demeanor embodied in his lame leg, giving him a herky-jerky walk that is a warning to fellow pedestrians.  Kobayashi’s visuals are calmly controlled, often using extreme long shots to evoke this family’s emotional distance, proving he can handle melodrama with aplomb. Haru’s Journey is a lovely and bittersweet, anchored by Nakadai’s resolutely unsentimental performance.

Another unexpected departure is A Boy and His Samurai (2010), in which NYAFF and Japan Cuts regular Yoshihiro Nakamura diverts from his comic-paranoiac mode (as in the punk rock apocalypse of Fish Story (2009)) into a sweetly satisfying family film. Yusa is an overworked single mother whose child, Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki), is suddenly visited by an inadvertently time-traveling samurai named Kajima (played by Japanese TV heartthrob Ryo Nishikido). Without a clue how to live in the modern age, Kajima stays inside and becomes a super-dedicated housemaid, and eventually a world-class pastry chef.  With its gentle fish-out-of-water humor and its unassuming investigation of gender politics, it’s a preposterously entertaining  and intelligent movie.  It’s all wonderfully absurd, and put across with conviction by the engaging cast, especially the cherubic Fuku Suzuki, who just might be the cutest kid on screen since Jackie Cooper.

Considering the evidence on display, Asian cinema is as resourceful and inventive as ever, with an especially vibrant genre scene happening in Korea.  With I Saw the Devil pushing the revenge genre toward self-reflexiveness and closer to parody, the last stage in any stylistic cycle, it’s possible the next creative spurt has already started elsewhere. Maybe the exploitation action movies of the Phillippines and Thailand (like this year’s wondrously chaotic BKO: Bangkok Knockout) are hiding even more treasures.  I’ll have to wait until the next NYAFF and Japan Cuts to see what develops.


June 21, 2011

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The evil geniuses over at Hong Kong’s Milkyway Image productions (above, looking evil) have begun their takeover of the Mainland.   Johnnie To (seated) and his long time co-director and screenwriter Wai Ka-fai (flashing the horns) have had their last decade of gangster sagas (Election, Triad Election, Exiled, et. al.) banned or censored in China. So in an effort to expand their audience, they are making two Chinese co-productions, both romantic dramas, back-to-back. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart was released in March of this year (and is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray), and Romancing in Thin Air recently wrapped production in Yunan province, and should open early in 2012.

Regarding Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Johnnie To told the South China Morning Post that, “we believe in our ability to bring our own style of filmmaking to audiences up there.” But then went on to hedge that, “It’s not exactly the kind of film that could best bring our skills to play – but if we were to do something else, like a police thriller, we would have to attend to a lot of potential problems with the censors.” A director, like any artist, is also a full-time hustler, and has to follow the money in order to get their work made. With Hong Kong’s film industry in an across the board decline and the Mainland still flush with cash, Milkway Image is making artistic concessions to keep afloat. The strange thing about To’s comment is that they’ve made superb romantic comedies before, including the smash hit Needing You in 2001 and the wonderful cult item My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (’02). Their skills certainly play well in that genre, although it’s clearly not where his creative interests lie right now. In the downtime between the Chinese super-productions, he shot a low-budget HK thriller starring Lau Ching-wan, Life Without Principle, whose release date is unknown.

Even with all the concessions to Chinese censors, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is an impeccably constructed and eccentric comedy. The plot concerns a love triangle set during the 2008 financial meltdown, in which a spunky stock market analyst (Gao Yuanyuan) is torn between the wooing styles of a suave investment banker (Louis Koo) and an earnestly charming alcoholic architect (Daniel Wu). To sets up their dynamic in an exchange of point-of-view shots in the opening scene in Hong Kong. Gao wedges herself onto a bus during a morning commute, while Koo cruises by in his luxury convertible. Gao has moved from Suzhou in the north, and tries to teach herself Cantonese during the ride (the majority of the film is in Mandarin, another concession to Chinese audiences). Koo pulls up next to the bus at a stoplight, and eyes her through the window, with Gao briefly accepting his gaze.  This establishes the central visual motif, of looking, and physically communicating, through panes of glass.

Gao gives up her seat to a pregnant woman, who then turns out to be the wife of her ex-boyfriend. The wife then panics at Gao’s presence, and her ex urges her to leave the bus before his wife gets hysterical. She leaves, jittery and angry, and trips and falls in the middle of the street. This is where a bearded and homeless looking Wu steps in, directing traffic around her while helping to pick up her papers. Koo, who had followed her off the bus, loses her in the scrum, and Wu starts a flirtation that secures a date the following week. This sequence cements Koo as distant and voyeuristic, and Wu as selfless to the point of masochism.

To extends the motif of looking/looked-at the following business day, when Koo notices that Gao works in the skyscraper across the street a few floors above him. To get her attention, he makes a smiley face collage out of post-it notes on his window, and once he attracts her glance, he does a mini-magic act and pantomimes where to meet her for some coffee. Enraptured by his bravado, and by how he breaks the spell of their mutual voyeurism, she agrees to their date. However, another woman on a lower floor also saw Koo’s performance, and she intercepts him before his rendezvous with Gao. This interloper is revealed in one of the final counter-shots in the sequence, the perfect punchline to reveal how much POV shots can hide. Gao and Wu learn the effects of this perspectival narcissim, when both are stood up for dates (Gao by Koo, and Wu by Gao).

The triangle goes through some convoluted twists and turns over its 115 minute running time (including a mandated trip to China), and the narrative convulsions can be tiresome. But when the material strains credulity, To and Ka Fai’s staging and composition never fails them. After Gao’s company goes bankrupt, Wu’s architecture firm takes over his space, and in order to finally win Gao’s hand, he puts on a skyscraper magic show of his own, with more elaborate effects (he’s in the middle distance in the image below). It is the only way Wu can wrest  screen space away from the image-savvy Koo.


To and Ka-fai are wise enough to leave both Wu and Koo as ambiguous figures. Neither is a simple good guy or douche, as is the norm in romantic comedies. Wu is gentle and understanding, but also exhibits neediness and passivity. Koo is charismatic and handsome, but also an arrogant philanderer. Both men obsess over one-upping the other, until their love is transformed into escalating bouts of childish violence. It seems Gao might be better off alone. In the end, she makes her choice between the two sods while once again looking out a skyscraper window, but this time the only thing she can see is her reflection.


April 26, 2011

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The Tribeca Film Festival still exists. Having succeeded in its intent to help revitalize the economy of lower Manhattan after 9/11, the festival has spread out across the city, and has maintained its commerce-over-art stance. As a business venture it seems like an unqualified success, and has gained a little more respect as a market for distributors along the way. But as for the films themselves, it’s always been a bit of an embarrassment. Heavy on celebrity directorial debuts (this year: Billy Corgan and Vera Farmiga) and slumming stars in sub-Sundance “indies”, the movies are essentially waiting lines for the after-parties. With a festival this huge, there is always something to be salvaged, usually in the shorts or genre programs. But in recent years I haven’t been willing  to pay the price (Steve Dollar in GreenCine and Matt Singer and Stephen Saito at IFC News are two doing such yeoman’s work). The only title in TFF’s program I was aching to see was Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), and as it was already available on DVD and Blu-Ray in Asia, I watched it at home instead of braving the beautiful crowds.

Detective Dee is the 50th film produced by Tsui Hark’s Film Workshop company, and has been hailed as a return to form by no less a Hark expert than Subway Cinema guru Grady Hendrix. A madcap mixture of Sherlock Holmes, steampunk, martial arts and historical melodrama, it’ll be sure to top any gargantuan Hollywood entertainment this year for most invention per square inch of screen space. It hearkens back to Hark’s salad days of Shanghai Blues (1984) and Peking Opera Blues (1986)  hyperkinetic magpie films that combined the classical art forms of his youth with high (and low)-flying action. Detective Dee is subdued by comparison, but still manages to pack in a trilogy’s worth of twists and turns. After his failed attempt to ape Johnnie To’s sleek geometrical violence in the omnibus film Triangle (2007), it’s an unmitigated delight to see him return to his wild pseudo-historical mode – “nationalism on speed”, as Stephen Teo described it in Hong Kong: The Extra Dimensions.

Detective Dee is based on the Tang Dynasty official Di Renjie, who was immortalized in an 18th Century Chinese detective novel entitled The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. The Dutch diplomat and writer Robert Van Gulick translated it into English, and then modeled his own crime series on the character of Judge Dee, which ran from 1946 – 1967. From 2004 – 2007, the CCTV network of China ran a drama series based on the stories of his life, entitled Amazing Detective Di Renjie, which stimulated the interest for the big screen adaptation.

It is A.D. 690, and Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is about to be coronated as Empress, the first and only female ruler of China. However! Two of her subjects burst into flames while working on the erection of a 66-story high Buddha statue. On the advice of the Imperial Chaplain (who appears as a talking deer, naturally), the Empress releases the legendary Detective Dee (Andy Lau) from prison, who had been jailed for opposing her rise to the throne. Dee was close to the Empress’ husband, the Emperor, who died under suspicious circumstances. Assisted by the albino swordsman Minister Pei (Deng Chao) and the Empress’ security officer Jing’er (starlet Li Bingbing), Dee uncovers an intricate conspiracy that relies on phosphorous emitting beetles and a face-morphing doctor named Donkey Wang.

Jumping from setpiece to setpiece, Tsui never lets the pace flag, although the set design shifts from the brilliantly gothic “Phantom Bazaar”, a foggy netherworld of rotting wood and noxious swamp, to the cartoon-y CG of the group shots outside the Empress’ mansion. In the first edition of Planet Hong Kong (2000), David Bordwell described Hark’s style as, “an exercise in extremes – manic knockabout, brutal violence, sentiment, irony, in-jokes. Period detail jostles superhero fantasy, lush costumes are swathed in fake fog, dazzling special effects are compromised by banal wirework. This is the man who told his scriptwriters to make something new happen every three minutes.” It is exhilarating and exhausting, inventive and chintzy. Even Sammo Hung’s fight choreography in Detective Dee swings from extremes – there is the “banal wirework” that Bordwell complains about, but also a strikingly original fight scene set in the Phantom Bazaar. The Imperial Chaplain shows up as a spectre in a brass-mask, a malevolent monster from a Peking Opera, perhaps. Filmed in menacing low light, the three investigators pin down the shape-shifter, only to have it wriggle away and morph into more nightmarish forms, from Opera villain to a glowing stingray-like beast, and then ultimately into a Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion death-bird.

That I had to conceive of such phrases speaks to the child-like joys present in Detective Dee. It’s the kind of serial style adventure that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have been attempting to recapture for decades. Dee lacks their polish, but makes up for it with its delirious imagination and complete lack of self-consciousness – an eager-to-please delight that would slot right in next to a screening of The Adventures of Captain Marvel or Daredevils of the Red Circle. There is no higher compliment.


February 22, 2011

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In its 11th year, the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, which runs February 18th – March 4th, is as staunchly idiosyncratic as ever. The slate is chosen by the venerable magazine’s contributors and editors, with an assist from the Asian genre aficionados at Subway Cinema, who are co-presenting three features. Pulling from brows both high and low, they open with the historical excavations of Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew and close with the horror kicks of James Wan’s Insidious and the  morbid comedy of John Landis’ Burke and Hare. In between lies an entire range of obscure festival titles (El Sicario), forgotten repertory gems (Fassbinder’s I Only Want You to Love Me, Peter Yates’ Robbery) and the latest philosophical doc from Werner Herzog, the 3D Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog’s film is one of the few with U.S. theatrical distribution (from IFC Films), so for many of these titles this series is the only opportunity to see them on the big screen.

I’ve seen five films in the program so far, and Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew stands out. As Tony Rayns reported in CinemaScope, Jia was commissioned to make a film about Shanghai for that city’s World Expo in April 2010. As with his last documentary feature,  24 City (2008), Jia uses personal histories to explicate the wider story of his country, from the communist revolution through the introduction and explosion of capitalism. 24 City focused on the industrial city of Chengdu, in which the lifeblood of the town, Factory 420, was being torn down to build a gigantic condominium complex. In the midst of the documentary interviews he introduces a fictional story about the factory, starring Joan Chen.

I Wish I Knew deals with a wider canvas, examining the Shanghainese diaspora created by the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. Jia talks to survivors in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose entire lives were uprooted or destroyed, nationalists and communists both. Woven in between these interviews are wordless shots of actress Zhao Tao, Jia’s frequent collaborator, strolling through the ruins of old Shanghai, as skyscrapers get erected all around her. This is an extension of the Joan Chen sequence in 24 City, but also of Jia’s entire corpus, extraordinary documents of living history in which China’s economic miracle inevitably buries and denies the history of the country. From Platform on, Jia has been trying to capture the last breaths of bulldozed and drowned neighborhoods and memories  before they disappear under steel and glass.

The people Jia interviews are natural storytellers. There is Yang Xiaofo, whose father, leader of the Chinese Civil Rights Alliance, was assassinated upon the order of Chiang Kai-Shek. Yang remembers the days when he and his dad would stroll down Nanjing Road and look for coffee shops. Jia then takes his camera and strolls down the modern-day strip, slowly weaving his way through a cafe, until  he settles upon Zhang Yuansun. Zhang informs us his father was a hugely popular Peking Opera performer, and owned a yacht.  But during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards declared him a reactionary, ending his career and forcing him to live in poverty. Then Zhang attends a senior dance, twirling to Dick Haymes’ “I Wish I Knew”.

There is an endless list of lost fathers. The most devastating is the story of Wang Peimin, whose dad was executed by firing squad by the KMT weeks before her birth. She has photos of him shortly before his death, handled by impossibly young-looking guards, and with a beatific look on his face, defiantly proud. And despite all of the impossible trials of their youth, all of the subjects share this  stubborn refusal to give up on life, and Jia honors their incredible perseverance. Zhao Tao wanders through the rubble-strewn streets of their past, now abandoned by the city, as the film itself tries to inscribe these spaces back into history. The film is currently without U.S. distribution, but there is a Region 3, English subtitled DVD available at outlets including YesAsia.


Cave of Forgotten Dreams was the hottest ticket, as seeing Werner Herzog’s mischievous mug in three dimensions is apparently too provocative to miss. I even spied David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in attendance, which hopefully means an extended blog post from them both looms in the future. But of course the main pull was seeing the 32,000 year old paintings that cover the interior of France’s Chauvet cave, which the government rarely opens to non-specialists. The spectacle of these ancient masterpieces can be overwhelming, especially the ingenious way in which they were adapted to the undulating surfaces of the walls. Many compositions were arranged in circular groups that lead the eye around the crevasses, imparting a sense of motion. This kinetic aspect appears in the figures themselves, as Herzog notes a bison drawn with eight legs, conveying an idea of speed, which he describes as “proto-cinema”, but which is more proto-Futurism, which is still pretty mind-blowing. The 3D image gives a wondrous sense of depth and curvaceousness inside the cave, but the large segments of interviews with scientists and researchers are a drag in the format. Herzog’s patented mystical madman commentary is pushing into self-parody, but in this case the footage alone is worth the price of admission.



The Silence (2010) is a heavy-handed but refreshingly downbeat police procedural from Germany, directed with precision by Baran Bo Odar. A little girl is murdered in the same spot as another child was 23 years earlier, and a jowly retired detective with his burnt-out former partner try to link the two cases. The characters are thinly drawn, but the actors are superbly worn-down, committing completely to the ornately doom-laden scenario.

Sodankyla Forever (2010): this is only part one of four segments from Peter von Bagh’s history of  the Midnight Sun Festival in Finland, but it makes me want to watch the whole thing. Each section culls from the voluminous director interviews von Bagh has conducted over the years.This section focuses on a variety of directors’ experiences of war, with a lot of emphasis on Eastern Europe, with many pointed comments from Milos Forman, Jerzy Skolimowski and Ivan Passer, who all attended the same boarding school with Vaclav Havel. There was also a striking exchange between Krystof Zanussi and Dusan Makavajev as they discuss their refusal to attend a screening of Battleship Potemkin (those who celebrate it haven’t lived through its philosophy). Also, plenty of prime Sam Fuller.

I Only Want You to Love Me (1976): this little-seen Rainer Werner Fassbinder TV movie is an occasionally entrancing exercise in style. The narrative is a failed allegory about a kid who can never please his parents, and so in his marriage he constantly buys his wife presents, running up their credit and driving them into poverty. It’s poised between absurdism and realism but never settles into a coherent tone. He builds a house for his parents, and they forget about it two weeks later, a blackly comic sequence. But then the rest of the film is a starkly realist portrait of a working class family sliding into the poorhouse. It’s held together by Fassbinder’s dynamic compositions, lots of angled mirrors, smoked glass and foreground/background interaction, but in the end it feels like a test case for his future triumphs.


Unknown (2011): This is not a part of Film Comment Selects, but Jaume Collet-Serra’s sleekly beguiling thriller certainly belongs with that ragtag group. Following up the cold precision of his ace horror flick Orphan, Serra again churns out a film of with strong compositional lines and an entertainingly ridiculous scenario. What stands out this time is his tactile sense of place, a multi-cultural Berlin of five-star hotels and seedy flop-houses. It’s a huge improvement on its model, Taken, the previous Liam Neeson Euro-sploitation outing, which was directed by Pierre Morel. While that film took place in a world of Eastern-European stereotypes and chopped its action sequences to bits, here the city still seethes with racial tension (a taxi dispatcher blames the city’s perceived decline on immigrants), but Neeson is assisted in his quest by a Bosnian cab driver (played convincingly by Diane Kruger) and her African immigrant pal named Biko (a nod to South African activist Steve Biko, played by Clint Dyer). As with Orphan, its actions sequences are concise bits of legible brutality . Bruno Ganz steals the movie as a proud former Stasi member who aids Neeson in his quest for identity. In what is surely to be one of the finest scenes of the year, Frank Langella swings by to cradle Ganz in his arms, as they discuss how to die with dignity.


December 29, 2009


After a lengthy hold-out, I’ve galloped into the loving arms of Blu-Ray. It’s the right time to jump in, as the studios are (rather desperately) pushing the format hard, cutting prices across the board. You can pick up a player for around $150, with many library titles on sale for $10 (most new releases are set at $25). Starting in 2010, Warner Brothers will release every new theatrical release exclusively in “Blu-Ray combo packs”, which will contain the high-def disc along with the standard-def DVD (forcing consumers to buy the Blu-Ray and push them to upgrade). With HDTV prices finally starting to come down as well, Blu-Ray is finally a financially feasible option for cash-strapped cinephiles like myself.

I ended up purchasing a PS3 to pair with my Panasonic plasma in order to sate my long-suppressed video-gaming urges, as well as for its stellar Blu-Ray playback and new Netflix streaming capability. I flirted with the idea of an all-region player, as recommended by the folks at DVD Beaver, but wasn’t convinced there were enough region-locked releases to justify it, especially considering that the excellent Masters of Cinema series is region-free, as are all of the Hong Kong releases.  So while I’m missing out on gems like ITV’s The Red Shoes, I console myself with games like Metal Gear Solid, Netflix, and the rush of new domestic releases (Criterion’s forthcoming Days of Heaven and Bigger Than Life Blu-rays are especially tempting).

After dipping into some of the sales (I picked up The Searchers and Robocop on the cheap), I decided to check in on my favorite production company, Milkyway Image. Johnnie To’s stalwart outfit has been churning out inventive genre pieces since 1996, the kind of work Hollywood has forgotten how to make (aside from flukes like Armored). I sampled two of their recent releases on Blu (available at HK retailers like YesAsia).

Soi Cheang’s Accident premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and it’s a sleek paranoid thriller in the vein of Coppola’s The Conversation. The central gimmick has the obsessive-compulsive Brain (Louis Koo) lead a group of assassins (including Milkyway axiom Lam Suet) on murders that are staged to look like accidents. They build elaborate traps for their marks to waltz into, and their hands are clean. It’s the perfect setup for producer Johnnie To’s penchant for displaying process, the small details that build up to a murder, as he also shows off in Vengeance. I’m not familiar with Cheang’s work (he’s known most for his gangster film Dog Bite Dog), but he is adept with the Milkyway house style, which favors underplayed acting, minimal exposition, and a smooth delineation of space.

After Cheang sets up the group’s unerring precision in a bravura Rube Goldberg murder, he starts to expose the paranoia that drives Brain. His first action is to pick up a cigarette butt that “Uncle” (Fung Shui-Fan) leaves at the scene of their crime. He’s determined to erase any trace of their presence. When their next job goes tragically wrong, he becomes convinced it was the result of a conspiracy led by an insurance agent (Richie Ren). He then embarks upon an elaborate wire tapping scheme, moving into a unit underneath Ren’s apartment and listening to his every waking (and napping) moment. He even sketches the floor plan of his nemesis’ apartment on his ceiling.

Cheung , along with screenwriters Szeto Kam-Yuen and Tang Lik-Kei, withhold enough information to keep the truth of the matter ambiguous. Brain is either a canny chess-player – seeing many moves ahead – or an untreated paranoid schizophrenic – creating antagonistic worlds in his strained noggin. Louis Koo is perfect for the role, a blank slate of wiry tension and a football-field sized forehead that could contain multitudes of tortured grey matter. Cheung uses the motif of a solar eclipse to express the obfuscation of his mind’s eye, working multiple variations on the idea until the literally gut-wrenching climax.

Johnnie To’s latest film, Vengeancewas released last week on DVD and Blu-Ray by MegaStar (IFC has the film’s U.S. rights, with no release date as of yet), and it feels like a stand-in for the Le Cercle Rouge remake he never got off the ground. To’s love of Jean-Pierre Melville has never been so close to the surface. His protagonist, the mummified cool of Johnny Hallyday, is named Costello, just like Alain Delon in Le Samourai, and maintains his near-silent devotion to revenge, this time after the slaughter of his daughter’s family. But Johnnie To is also adept at wonderful scenes of hanging around, the interstitial moments between battles that To veins with humor and pathos. He surrounds Hallyday with his stellar repertory crew (Suet, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka-tung are the killers Hallyday hires to help him, while Simon Yam is the flamboyant villain), and has them enact their usual honor-among-thieves routine, which I could watch until the end of time. Anthony Wong has perfected a resigned weariness that plays beautifully off of Suet’s overeager child and Lam Ka-tung’s suave clotheshorse.

Set in Macau and starring a French rock star, it continues To’s interest in cross-cultural exchange, and is perhaps a nod to his increased visibility in the Western world. The film mixes English, French, and Cantonese, and the issue of (mis)communication becomes a major theme. This is established early on, when his daughter (Sylvie Testud), unable to speak, uses a French newspaper to get her thoughts across (later there is a bravura shootout set among composted newspapers). Then he has to bridge the language gap with Anthony Wong’s gang, in which he switches to English. The final act of the film charts his communication with himself, as he loses his memory and tries to trigger it again with a series of note-covered Polaroids. The final shoot-out is a brilliant encapsulation of the evolution of this theme, as he chases a target whose facial features he repeatedly forgets. It is a scene of constant self-communication and negotiation, as he checks and re-checks the bodies of the assailants in his way. There is also a minor motif of eye-holes and eclipses, similar to those in Accident, images related to the opening-up and closing-off of sight – just another few layers of meaning to To’s incredibly dense revenge drama. The image on both releases is phenomenal, the shimmering pastel blues of Accident and the deep blacks of Vengeance rendered with depth and incredible sharpness. They have my strongest recommendation.