June 29, 2010

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The New York Asian Film Festival (June 25th – July 8th) is more essential than ever. With distribution companies shutting their doors to Asian cinemas of all types,  there are very few outlets to watch the continent’s resourceful, often brilliant genre cinema on the big screen. For nine years programmer Grady Hendrix and his crew have been filling the void, and for the past few has joined forces with the Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema (July 1 – 16th)  to provide the most eclectic and revelatory overview of Asian film in the U.S. It’s a heady mix of spectacle, grotesquerie, slapstick and resolute artistry. Every year you’ll see something you’d never seen the likes of before.

For me, this year’s edition surprised me with its Chinese slate, and specifically the skittish performances of actor Huang Bo, recepient of this year’s redundantly titled  Star Asia Rising Star Award. My knowledge of contemporary Chinese cinema doesn’t extend far beyond the arthouses and underground film clubs that show Jia Zhangke and the documentaries of Zhao Dayong. So getting exposed to Huang in the antic Crazy Racer and morbidly funny Cow expanded my limited horizons.

A squat, frog-faced actor with a quick smile and a quicker temper, Huang plays stubborn fools with a clumsiness and slack-jawed innocence reminiscent of Buster Keaton. Crazy Racer (the sequel to Crazy Stone (2006), which I haven’t seen) is a time-shifting crime-comedy in the Pulp Fiction mode, with Huang’s disgraced bike racer bumping into two bumbling assassins, a Thai drug dealer, the Chinese mob and beatings with a frozen fish. The twisty narrative is imaginative and cleanly executed, and director Ning Hao doesn’t bother dawdling over too much sentiment. Cow has Huang playing a similarly alienated character, but in a completely different context. His Niu-Er is a simple peasant caught up in the Sino-Japanese war. His village gets slaughtered, the only surviving creature a foreign cow donated to give milk to the Chinese troops. Navigating some dramatic tonal shifts, Huang manages to insert a violence into his pratfalls and a resignation in his stubbornness that keeps the film from descending into treacle. He elicits laughs that catch in your throat, inserting a jaggedness to the sentiment that makes the whole improbable set-up go down a lot smoother. Plus the cow is pretty good too.

Revelatory in another sense is SOPHIE’S REVENGE, which is a blatant Sex & the City knockoff produced by and starring Zhang Zhiyi. She plays the Carrie role with an overwhelming barrage of animal-themed hats and cow-eyed stares. While the cartoon-y stylization and wonderfully violent fantasy sequences take some of the sting out of the blatant consumerism of this day-glo contraption, the story suffers from an inert supporting cast and a story too cliched for even the Sex gals to endure. While no great shakes as a film – as a cultural object it’s fascinating, as it creates a photo-shopped super-rich city of chrome and flowers and whimsy where women are sexually independent and the rural poor exist only in the “arty” shots of the hunky photographer.

Moving to Hong Kong, the best film in the festival is the uncut version of John Woo’s RED CLIFF, but I’ve already written about it here at Morlocks and also at Moving Image Source, so I won’t spill more words on it. But I will recommend Gallants, a quirkily nostalgic martial arts film featuring oldsters Bruce Leung and Chen Kuan-Tai. Waiting for their near-ancient master to awake from a coma, Leung and Chen turn the gym into a restaurant, until a callow teen sparks a feud with the high-tech workout joint across town. It’s a pleasant and comfy piece of work, sliding into the normal revenge plot mode with tongue gently pressing against cheek.

Little Big Man, Jackie Chan’s diverting take-off on the series of swashbuckling origin stories (including Red Cliff), finds the cherubic 56 year old actor playing a coward. He plays dead during the heroic battles in order to stay alive, and captures a wounded opposing General after all the bodies fall. Failing to push its subversive premise very far, the film ends up celebrating the same kind of warrior ethos it is ostensibly parodying. But it features a few agile Chan fight scenes, and that should be enough.

The only Korean feature I was able to preview was the loopy romantic comedy, Castaway on the Moon, which is unable to sustain its whimsy past the one-hour mark, upon which it devolves into standard love story pabulum. Mr. Kim attempts suicide by jumping into the Han river, only to find himself on an isolated island. Not too upset to be cut off from society, he starts living off the land and communicating with a shut-in, Mrs. Kim, who watches him through a telescope at a high-rise apartment. There is some good obsessive work with black bean noodles, bird poop and the real utility of credit cards, but once the separated duo start communicating, invention flags and director Lee Hey-Jun gropes for cliche.

The Japan Cuts program tends to be more reserved and dramatic, leaving the madness to NYAFF, and this year is no exception. The main highlight for me has been Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother, an expertly staged family melodrama starring the superb Sayuri Yoshinaga and Tsurube Shofukutei. They play sister and brother, respectively, with the latter drinking himself into a debauched oblivion. Yamada, now 78, is in perfect control of the medium, setting up familial relations and foreshadowing events through composition and staging. Beginning with a quick montage of recent Japanese history (including clips from Yamada’s own 48-feature long Tora-san series), the film slowly unveils Tsurube as the inebriated black sheep of the family, upending a family wedding with the destructive power of his singing voice.

He prefaces this destruction with a quietly witty shot – a wine glass in the left foreground marking doom. Later, Tsurube’s knee juts up into the middle of the frame, another subtly amusing jibe at his need to be the center of attention. But this isn’t a comedy of reformation. Yamada never allows Tsurube to be judged so simplistically, eventually offering a subtle critique of the middle-class values that would attack his particular kind of independence. If you need more reasons to see it, David Bordwell is a fan and wrote about it briefly here.

The festival started on June 25th, but there’s plenty more to see. And while it’s likely you won’t catch them in cinemas again anytime soon, many will be available at your local Chinatown on DVD, and will be for sale at on-line retailers like YesAsia.


June 30, 2009


According to a recent report from the research group Screen Digest, DVD sales declined by 4.7% in 2008, and that Blu-Ray “barely made a dent in the missing revenue”. They conclude that the new format won’t spur “minimal sector growth” until 2010. It’s rapidly becoming clear that VOD (video on demand) will eventually become the dominant form of home entertainment. In a Wall Street Journal article about Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, it claims he is “is quickly trying to shift Netflix’s business — seeking to make more videos available online and cutting deals with electronics makers so consumers can play those movies on television sets.” Hastings sees the DVD by mail business to start declining in four years, and hence his deals to stream movies on the XBox and other set-top devices, like the Roku. Packaged discs will not disappear entirely, but will likely lose a large percentage of their market share.

The benefit to consumers in the short term…sales! I recently talked about my cherry-picking of Battleground from the demise of the Virgin Megastores in NYC, but this new downer of a report spurred me to check out what was left of DVD retailers in Manhattan. I waltzed into a small reseller on 14th Street, which was having a massive sale where you could purchase 2 discs for 10 dollars. I ended up with Wilson Yip’s Kill Zone (aka SPL)John Woo’s Hard BoiledThe Buster Keaton Collection from Columbia, and Gremlins 2 (a personal favorite)…all for a total of $20.

In a bit of serendipity, I had just seen HK action guru Wilson Yip’s latest film, Ip Man (2008) at the New York Asian Festival, always one of the highlights of the year (I also recommend Breathless and Crush and Blush). Viewing Kill Zone(2005) and Ip Man back to back was an education in action choreography. Yip can be crushingly conventional in terms of exposition and character development, but when the gloves come off he’s a real virtuoso. Utilizing the same fast-cutting, restlessly mobile camera techniques of recent Hollywood fare (two aspects of what David Bordwell calls “intensified continuity” (click on the link for more detail)), Yip manages to stage fight scenes of greater spatial coherence and physical impact than Hollywood counterparts like Paul Greengrass or J.J. Abrams. The stunning finale of the entertainingly overwrought policier Kill Zonea much ballyhooed showdown between Sammo Hung and star Donnie Yen, takes place in an empty night club, and the fight literally takes center stage.

Maintaining the quick editing pace, Yip still utlizes the classical setup of a long establishing shot (the two combatants face each other), a medium over-the-shoulder shot-countershot (exchanging blows), and then close-ups to emphasize emotional peaks (or in this case, kicks to the solarplexus). The key to this scene is that Yip does not cut in the middle of a gesture – every blow is landed and registered, and his adherence to the classical style keeps their movements oriented in the space. The stage setting alludes to their battle as a dance, as if Hung and Yen were Rogers and Astaire. I suppose they’re fighting it out to see who will lead the next dance.




Astaire’s routines were always filmed in long shot, with his whole body in the frame, and Yip nods to this technique, added with the camera movement required by the more amped up standards of intensified continuity. After the classically edited setup, Yip cuts to an extreme long shot that slowly tracks in to the flailing players as they toss each other to the floor, the dust kicking up like chalk. He also finds a clever way to make Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (based on ground submissions) look exciting. Yen flings the hefty Hung leftward to the ground, battling for the guard position. Yip, in a strikingly low angle at eye-level to the mat, tracks slowly with the duo as Yen eventually wins out and lands a series of rights. The sequence continues, and ramps up appreciably with small-scale wire work and a dramatic conclusion that wraps up one of the dramatic subplots (Hung’s nascent fatherhood). It’s a tour-de-force.

One excuse given as to why films like Taken or the Bourne series don’t have this same kind of coherence is that the actors aren’t as physically trained as martial arts pros like Hung and Yen, and necessarily need stunt doubles, necessitating even faster cuts and less spatial coherence. However, American action films don’t necessarily have to have nuanced fighting styles – just watch the series of haymakers Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston unload on each other in The Big Country (which can be seen in the video slideshow of Dennis Lim’s excellent history of fight choreography at Slate). It’s a stylistic choice, and right now Hollywood filmmakers are making the wrong one. I was initially thrilled by the Bourne series’ propulsive energy, but the more time that passes, the more its fractured editing seems like a dodge.

Ip Man continues Yip’s pattern. This more ambitious title, an bio-pic about Grandmaster Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee and popularized the Wing Chun style of martial arts (interestingly enough, Wong Kar-Wai’s next project is also a bio-pic about the Grandmaster). The film focuses on his life during the Occupation of China during the Second Sino-Japanese war. Grandmaster Ip Man (Donnie Yen) lives a quiet life with his family before the Japanese Imperialists destroy his small town and reduce his pals to coal miners. Ip Man then commences to beat the holy hell out of evey Japanese person in sight. Yip is not big on subtletly, and one of Japanese Genral Miura’s obsequious assistants tips over into racist stereotypes (big teeth, round glasses, into torture, etc.).

However, once more Yip brings the goods in the action sequences: crisp, elegant, and coherently orchestrated bouts of mayhem. Yen also exhibits a wider emotional range here, his stoic laid-backness tinged with regret and anger. He won’t win any awards, but it’s a solid, nuanced performance. In any case, these two works will have me work backwards into Yip’s career. Next up is Flash Point, the middleman between Kill Zone and Ip, and it promises more fluid Donnie Yen bone-breaking. Ah, the neverending riches of cinema.


May 12, 2009


The summer behemoths are upon us, and it’s impossible to look away. They leer at us from every billboard and fast food collector’s cup, daring us to ignore them and get shut out of the pop-culture conversation. They know we’ll cave, god bless their arrogant little hearts. So before I watch the shiny new Star Trek, and get sucked into the vortex of box office predictions and whiplash inducing action sequences, I wanted to put a kind word in for another blockbuster that has yet to reach our shores, John Woo’s epic two-parter, Red Cliff. Part 1 is already the highest-grossing film in China’s history, and the sequel came close. Released six months apart in July ’08 and January ’09, they’re a rousing adaptation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms , a historical novel detailing the end of the Han dynasty.

The production marks Woo’s triumphant return to Chinese cinema after a decade-plus in Hollywood. He set the template for 90s action films with his HK triumverate of The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990), and Hard Boiled (1992), and it’s hard to overstate his impact – everybody from Michael Bay to the Wachowski Bros. to Hype Williams lifted his highly choreographed pistol operatics.  His kinetic talents were generally wasted in the states, despite some individual flourishes in Face Off and Mission Impossible 2. An artistic breakthrough came with Windtalkers (2002), his most overlooked, and his best American film. There’s a narrative density here that looks forward to the intricate relationships of Red Cliff, laid over his matchless skill for choreographing large battle sequences. His concern with professional male relationships remains, as Nicholas Cage’s tetchy marine and Adam Beach’s Native American code writer test their loyalties and reach an uneasy alliance, just as Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung did in Hard Boiled. Only here it’s set against a shifting WWII backdrop and a far more disparate array of characters.

Red Cliff is an extension and near-perfection of this epic-intimate moviemaking, using the personal friendship/rivalry between Tony Leung (as Zhou Lou) and Takeshi Kaneshiro (as Zhuge Liang) as the fulcrum from which to leap into the massive tale of the war of the Three Kingdoms. The plot concerns the immature Han emperor giving license to a dictatorial general, Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang), to subdue the Western and Southern regions of the country, which were otherwise peaceful. Zhou Lou is the viceroy of the southern state, Wu, while Zhuge Liang is the military strategist for the kingdom of Xu, in the West. The two regions form an alliance in order to fend off Cao Cao. An interesting element introduced by Woo and his fellow screenwriters is that of parallels to modern counterinsurgency theory.

The head of Xu emphasizes protecting the civilian population at the expense of winning an initial battle, while Cao Cao’s imperial ambitions have him waging a pure counterterrorist operation – his only intent is killing and capturing his opponents, not winning hearts and minds. There is also commentary about Cao Cao’s overstretched and overworked army, some of whom just work for money (a nod to Blackwater, etc.) If one were to take a US-centric reading of the film, Cao Cao would represent U.S. military strategy under Gen. George Casey and Rumsfeld, and Zhou Lou and Zhuge Liang the strategy of Gen. Petraeus and Robert Gates. Judah Grunstein takes this tack at World Politics Review.

While to take the film as a straight-up allegory of U.S. policy would be overly simplistic, it certainly places paramount importance on military strategy generally. Kaneshiro’s character never engages in battle, but his ingenious war plans make him a major figure in the film. Red Cliff places great emphasis on this kind of tactical preparation, and every fight is preceded by thorough examinations of the battlefield and different modes of attack. It’s a very grounded vision for a historical epic, but it is also what gives the war scenes such lucidity – Woo makes them battles of the mind as much as of the body.

The script balances these two forces in the bodies of Kaneshiro (mind) and Leung (body). Leung is the gallant leader, expert swordsman and diplomat, while Kaneshiro always stands to the side, trying to predict Cao Cao’s every move. Woo consistently carves out different spaces for them on screen, separating them in dramatic symmetrical compositions like the ones below. Zhuge Liang and Zhou Lou are well aware throughout that after Cao Cao is defeated, their two nations will immediately be in competition – it is this kind of subtlety that adds richness and deviousness to their relationship.


Once the battle scenes begin, Woo’s old choreographic mastery comes to the fore. In an ingenius bit of visualization, Kaneshiro, perched high above, witnesses an infantry troop exercise. When massed, the camera cuts in to his POV, and his feathered wing fan flashes out before us to cover the troop formation in its exact dimensions.

Later, Kaneshiro is shown holding a small tortoise, which later proves to be the inspiration for a large operation where troops use their shields to form an improvised shell, decimating the opposing cavalry with devastating spear blows thrust from inside. These nature/war formation metaphors point to the importance of nature (topography, etc.) and the elements to any fight, and the final, incredibly bloody finale depends entirely upon the direction of the wind. This is a clever structure, a few visual notes emphasizing nature foreshadow the plot function (the wind) that will become so important later.

I’m only scratching the surface of this 4 1/2 hour work. I haven’t mentioned the atonal samisen jam, the wonderful performance by Wei Zhao as an impish princess who turns out to be a resourceful spy, the lively caricatures of Xu’s generals, and the ingenious way Zhuge Liang supplies 100,000 arrows (fog and scarecrows are involved). It’s surprising how rich the film turned out under less than ideal production circumstances. Famously, Chow Yun-Fat pulled out (he was to play Zhou You) before shooting began, and tragically, a stuntman died and six were injured during a particularly dangerous action sequence. Producer Terence Chang bemoaned his choice of special effects crews (which are, admittedly, subpar), and the script took years to write.

That a work of art was produced out of this is an incredible accomplishment, and hopefully Sony Pictures finds it in their hearts to release it stateside.  It was rumored that it would be released in a condensed, 2 1/2 hour version, but now even those murmurs have ceased. UPDATE:MAGNET FILMS (A SUBSIDIARY OF MAGNOLIA), HAS JUST PICKED UP RED CLIFF FOR DISTRIBUTION IN THE US. IT WILL RELEASE A CONDENSED 2 1/2 HOUR VERSION IN THEATERS (boo!), AND THE COMPLETE FILM ON DVD AND VOD).  In any case, the DVDs are readily available at a Chinatown near you, or at reputable e-tailers like HKFlix and YesAsia.