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December 31, 2006

My Best of 2006

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The above shot is not an outtake from Dreamgirls. It is a frame from Kinky Boots, a film that my significant other chose from a selection offered by one of the independent DVD vendors here in Chiang Mai. The film was better than I expected, and is worth seeing because it was no fluke that Chiwetel Ejiofor was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. One goal for 2007 is to learn how to pronounce his name properly. Aside from starring in Kinky Boots, Ejiofor co-starred with Clive Owen in two of the best movies of the year, another reason to pay more attention. Those two films were Children of Men and The Inside Man.

In my list last year, I had expressed concern about The Departed, another one of the better films of 2006. I had also anticipated that The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros would make the news. While the film never received the distribution in the U.S. that it deserved, it is the Philippines first entry as a Foreign Language Film nominee. My list reflects what I saw, did not see, and for various reasons, could not see:

Best film seen in a theater: Children of Men. Had I not been in Berlin at the time, I would have had to wait for the DVD release probably. Of the several films examining the state of the contemporary world and the "war on terror", this was the most deeply realized. Alfonso Cuaron made a big budget film of actual substance. I especially loved Michael Caine's performance, representing the idealism of the late 1960s.

The Departed comes in a close second. I think Martin Scorcese's reworking of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs was best appreciated by those who actually saw the film that was the basis of William Monahan's screenplay. What we saw was not a shot for shot remake, or a simple transposing of narrative elements. Scorsese has been an inspiration to Hong Kong filmmakers. With The Departed, Scorcese returns the compliment. The only flaw is the over-reliance on some too familiar rock songs, although I'm certain The Human Beinz appreciate the royalty checks.

Best new film seen on DVD: The Inside Man. It's sometimes hard for me to convince my significant other to see films in a theater, and this was one of those films that I didn't see until its DVD release. As it turned out, my significant other liked it too. One of Spike Lee's most entertaining films, where common decency outweighs individual needs, and brings three very different people with conflicting agendas together.

Best old film seen in a theater: This was a significant year for me seeing silent films, particularly in attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The film that was a complete surprise for me was Au Bonheur des Dames by Julien Duvivier, an example of how sophisticated silent story telling had become before the talkies took over.

Best old film seen on DVD: Violent Summer. I especially like how Valerio Zurlini uses music to comment on the action. The DVD is a welcomed example of a filmmaker due for a more complete re-evaluation.

Runner-up: Plunder of the Sun. Thanks to the fine folks at the John Wayne estate, a couple of films produced by Wayne, directed by John Farrow, are now on DVD. Long before Harrison Ford went searching for the lost ark, Glenn Ford played a wise-cracking insurance adjuster in search of buried treasure in Mexico. Plunder of the Sun is a treasure of a film that deserves greater appreciation for both Ford and Farrow.

Best "popcorn" film: Casino Royale. A terrific opening sequence, followed by an amazing action set piece. If Casino Royale isn't as good as the Connery Bond films, it was still better than most of the junk that opened in wide release.

Best soundtrack that came with a movie: Marie Antoinette.

And a "Tony" to Michelle Rodriguez for her performance in BloodRayne. Rodriguez' urban elocution was a hilarious reminder of Tony Curtis in The Black Shield of Falworth. With all of her troubles, I hope Ms. Rodriguez has a much better 2007.

I also wish a Happy New Year to everyone who has checked in for "Coffee Coffee and more Coffee".

Posted by peter at 12:31 AM | Comments (1)

December 30, 2006

Brothers of the Head

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Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe - 2006
Pacific Marketing & Entertainment Region 3 DVD

It may be one of several jokes of Brothers of the Head that the film is from the team of Fulton and Pepe, best known previously for documenting other filmmakers, most famously Terry Gilliam. Their newest film is a fake documentary that owes some of its spirit to Gilliam as well as Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap and Tod Browning's Freaks. There is also a fake, uncompleted film credited to the very real Ken Russell, who appears as himself, as well as an appearance by Brothers author Brian Aldiss portrayed by actor James Greene. The songs are by Clive Langer, who also composed the songs for the sorely under-appreciated valentine to rock music, Still Crazy. Former Buzzcock Pete Shelley also contributed to the original music. Giving the various elements of rock documentary, comedy and horror a sense of visual unity is cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, the real hero of Dogme. The film spins from dramatic to comic to what was once called experimental film, and back again, yet remains of one piece.

The story concerns the very brief rise and fall of a rock band created around two conjoined twin brothers. The head is the Anglicized name of the remote part of England the twins are from. The band is the creation of rock entreprenuer Zak Bedderwick with brother Tom studiously learning how to play guitar, while brother Barry becomes the reluctant, and ultimately defiant, voice of the band. The narrative can be interpreted as a variation of the Frankenstein story in that what begins as someone else's creation takes on an unexpected life and consciousness of its own.

Watching a rock band self-destruct on screen is nothing new. Watching Luke and Harry Treadaway, two real-life twins, is fascinating in how easily they function while joined at the chest. With arms sometimes wrapped around each other, the two run, perform somersaults, and sing and dance while Harry plays guitar. The two function so smoothly together that every act of coordination seems strangely natural. It's those magic moments of the brothers by themselves that provide a bit cinematic wonder to Brothers of the Head, while the story of the rise and fall of a rock band is pretty much the same old song.

Posted by peter at 01:39 AM

December 29, 2006

Running Wild

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Ya-soo
Kim Sung-su - 2006
J-Bics Region 3 DVD

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Running Wild is more proof that some of the most stylish action films are currently made in Korea. The narrative is a familiar story of a well-intentioned prosecutor and a volatile cop joining forces to bring down the mob. The film is made with such visual flair that whatever lack of originality is in the story is compensated for brisk pacing that barely relaxes in the two hour running time. The Korean title translates as "Beautiful Beast", which is more evocative a reference to the angry cop who propels the narrative.

The film dives into the action with a chase scene, the pursuer on a motorcycle, the pursued in a car, going the wrong way on a busy one-way street. The film alternates between the cop, Jang, the prosecutor, Oh, and a mob boss, Yoo. The concept of family is explored - one scene shows Yoo having dinner with his wife and children, cut with a scene of Yoo with his crime family. Jang's family is fractured by a younger brother involved with the mob and their mother hospitalized in critical condition. Oh is told by his wife she wants a divorce because Oh is married to his job. The characters on both sides of the law are undone by their particular codes of honor. With corruption in the upper spheres of government, the line between cop and criminal is eliminated.

The mob boss, Yoo, is hides his criminal activity under the most obvious displays of respectablilty, declaring his new found faith in Christianity on television, and getting elected to a government position. As long as the status quo is not challenged, perception is reality. Most of Running Wild was filmed using a blue filter which emphasises the pessimism of the film. Using contemporary film-making techniques and classic story elements, Running Wild can be seen as another example of a young Korean filmmaker remaking film noir. This is the debut directorial effort of Kim Sung-su, not to be confused with the same named director of Musa the Warrior. If there is a flaw to this film, it is that in making a film critical about appearance versus reality, Kim has made a film where more often than not, style trumps substance.

Posted by peter at 12:11 AM

December 26, 2006

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

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Ken Loach - 2006
J-Bics Region 3 DVD

Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes last May, The Wind that Shakes the Barley seems to have been forgotten at the end of the year. The film's critical fortunes may revive when it gets a somewhat overdue release in the U.S. but the newest film from Ken Loach should have been released earlier. That the memory of the Cannes win would be much fresher is one reason. The other argument for an earlier stateside release is because of the themes explored in the film.

One can argue about the parallels between Ireland in the 1920s with present day Iraq, Afghanistan, West Bank and Gaza Strip, or even the present day U.S. and England. While V for Vendetta and Children of Men look at the present through a fictional future, Loach looks back at a past that remains contentious and not clearly understood. Just as a look at Ireland, The Wind that Shakes the Barley also can be viewed as a companion piece to Loach's Hidden Agenda, a contemporary examination of the British occupation of Northern Ireland.

One example of the contemporary parallels is early on the film. A group of British soldiers demands that several young men, about the same age as the soldiers, stand against a wall to be questioned. One of the young Irishmen response to questioning in Gaellic causing the soldiers frustration at his refusal to answer in the language the soldiers understand. The soldiers establish a sense of control by beating the Irish youth to death. Later, refusing to accept that some women may not have the information they seek, the British soldiers burn down a house and humiliate a young woman by shearing off her hair. For some of the soldiers, fighting the Irish is simply a continuation to the battles fought in "The Great War". Some of the younger soldiers seem bewildered by their mission much as many young soldiers in future wars.

Anyone who has seen previous films by Loach can anticipate where his sympathies lie. Loach and writer Paul Laverty may be against the British presence in Ireland, but they also show how divided the Irish were (and are) in not only dealing with the British but each other. In one scene there is an argument about a shop owner who exploits the poverty of his customers, but also has supplied guns on behalf of the rebellion. The film concludes by showing that the Irish who accepted the treaty with Britain being as brutal as the occupation army they had previous fought, distinguishable only by the change of uniform. As in Loach's other films, the real enemy is the one who profits from war, and Civil War is never, ever civil.

Posted by peter at 12:18 AM | Comments (1)

December 25, 2006

James Brown: 1933 - 2006

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For one year, from the Fall of 1965 through Spring of 1966, I went to a junior high school made up primarily of African-American students. I had moved from Evanston, Illinois to Denver, Colorado, and for the first time in my life heard the music of James Brown. Even though I was exposed to "soul music", it was primarily Motown. My first exposure was a song called "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag". Not only was the music of James Brown extremely popular, but most of the guys tried to dance like James Brown, while some tried to dress like James Brown. At least a couple of guys had made it their goal to be one of the Famous Flames. It is for those reasons that with some affection I call my school of that time, "James Brown Junior High".

While the film Ski Party was never intended to be taken seriously, the scene with James Brown is wonderfully absurd. A little white girl comes up to state that she has all of James Brown's records! This is followed by a performance by James and the dancing flames doing "I Got You (I Feel Good)" before disappearing back into the snow. In the context of the film, and the context of the times, it's something of a non sequitur. If Ski Party is to be remembered at all, it is for this moment of black soul that provides an extreme contrast to one of the whitest movies ever made.

Posted by peter at 07:42 AM

December 23, 2006

Coming April 23: The William Shakespeare Blog-a-thon!

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As the lyrics go, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare". I propose a blog-a-thon devoted to possibly the greatest film writer of them all.

The IMDb lists 662 films either based or inspired by the Bard, but there are a few more unlisted. There are no restrictions as long as the film(s) or actors are in some way Shakespearean. I would say, "Let me count the ways", but the choices are limited to the imagination of whomever chooses to contribute.

Consider that there is Shakespeare filmed by Akira Kurosaw, Roger Corman, and Abel Ferrara. Perhaps your midsummer's night dream features James Cagney, Helen Mirren or Michelle Pfeiffer. Is the greatest Romeo Leslie, Laurence,Leonard or Leonardo?

There is also Gay Shakespeare, Sci-Fi Shakespeare, Gangster Shakespeare, Musical Shakespeare, Cowboy Shakespeare, Dogme Shakespeare, Troma Shakespeare, and Atomic Shakespeare.

I haven't even mentioned some of the more obvious films and filmmakers one could write about for this blog-a-thon. With the variety of choices, you don't need a double life to write about Shakespeare and film. Feel free in your choices, in other words, as you like it.

Posted by peter at 12:05 AM | Comments (13)

December 22, 2006

Kon-Fai-Bin

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Kon-Fai-Bin/Tabunfire/Fire Warriors/Dynamite Warrior
Chalerm Wongpim - 2006
Sahamongkol Films International 35mm Film

I have no idea what the film, known in Thai as Kon-Fai-Bin will be called when it released in the U.S. in May. To be on the safe side, I have listed all of the titles used to refer to this film. This is the big Thai release for this week, and sadly, it doesn't live up to the promise of the posters or preview.

This could be described as a Thai Western, one that is very much stamped by a filmmaker under the influence of Sergio Leone. Dan Chupong's character of Jone Bang Fai is like a more youthful version of the "man with no name", albeit one who can rocket surf and beat his foes with Muay Thai boxing. The story. taking place in the 1920s, basically involves a young British educated lord who sees his opportunity to get rich by replacing the traditional agricultural tool, cattle, with the new intention, the tractor. In order to create a demand for this expensive product, the lord enlists cattle rustlers. Jone Bang Fai gets involved in the battle between the cattlemen and the rustlers while seeking the man who killed his parents.

Where the film departs from Western tradition (refering primarily to the genre), is that the story also involves wizards, men with the spirits of animals, and demonic possession, common staples of Thai film. The martial arts is presented in noisy, bone-crunching glory. Some of the wire work is so obvious that digitally disguising it seems almost besides the point. For U.S. audiences Kon-Fai-Bin may be a letdown after the far more delirious genre bending of Tears of the Black Tiger gets its overdue release. Even among martial arts films, Kon-Fai-Bin lacks the panache of Ong-Bak or the benefit of Tony Jaa's charisma. For all of the fireworks, Kon-Fai-Bin finally fizzles out.

Posted by peter at 05:32 AM | Comments (1)

December 21, 2006

Romy Schneider: Two Early Films

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Madchen in Uniform
Geza Von Radvanyi - 1958
Galileo Medien AG Region 2 DVD

For reasons I can't even articulate to myself, I miss Romy Schneider. What I do know is that as overwhelmed as I was by the exhibits at the Berlin Film Musem, nothing touched me like the small section devoted to Schneider's career. I was mesmerized by excerpts from the "Sissi" series, when the teenaged Schneider became a major star in Germany. I knew I couldn't leave the Film Museum without buying the Romy Schneider box set which includes five of her films, two from the late Fifties, when Schneider was transitioning to more adult role, and two from the Seventies, as well as her final film. What is significantly missing from this set are any of the films made during the peak of her stardom in the early Sixties, when her vivacity and knowing intelligence were showcased by Orson Welles, Otto Preminger and Clive Donner. I know that what I miss most about Romy Schneider is her smile.

I have not seen the 1931 version of Madchen in Uniform. While the original film looks back at the German culture that preceded World War I, the second version clearly was made with the girls' school representing Germany fueled by misquided ideals. The lesbian signifiers may be obvious, Lilli Palmer's teacher wears relatively short hair and a tie, while student Schneider, portraying Romeo, is ever eager to kiss a variety of Juliets. More emphasized is the concept of the German molded by discipline and order, and the role of the German woman to be wife and mother of soldiers. Director Geza von Radvanyi directed what could be best described as "a well-made movie". Color is used for dramatic purposes - Palmer's purple hat is striking against the gray and black uniforms of the students and teachers. The film certainly alerted Europe, if not the world, that Romy Schneider, at age 20, was ready for more challenging films.

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Ein Engel auf Erden
Geza Von Radvanyi - 1959
Galileo Medien AG Region 2 DVD

The screen credit for directing Ein Engel auf Erden goes to someone named Argyle Nissot. No one has explanation for this one-time psuedonym, even though Geza von Radvanyi is credited for presenting the film. Almost as strange is seeing the normally dark-haired Romy Schneider as a blonde. Schneider plays the part of an angel who is disguised as the stewardess who has been pining for race car driver Henri Vidal. Vidal, in turn, has been dumped at the altar by devilish Michele Mercier. In a case of life following art, Mercier actually married a race car driver. The silly story line and the use of color, especially the eye-popping reds, suggest the kind of trifles MGM produced in the Fifties that were directed by Charles Walters. Some of the visual and verbal gags would have been too risque for MGM at that time. One bit involves a manniquin of Schneider, stripped down to bra and panties. Because this is the German dubbed version of a French-German co-production, one isn't able to enjoy the voice of the young Jean-Paul Belmondo as Vidal's best friend. The word "frothy" comes to mind as an appropriate adjective. While the film may have lacked the artistic challenges that Schneider sought, it did enable her to transition from German stardom to a wider European base.

As if to anticipate some of Schneider's personal life, both films have characters who almost commit suicide in the name of thwarted love. Men are not reliable, while women are competitors, with only an older woman mentor to be trusted. If these two early films starring Romy Schneider are any indication, they hint at an actress who seemed to know that her best chance for artistic and personal survival were to follow her own path.

Posted by peter at 05:10 AM | Comments (1)

December 19, 2006

Bloody Tie

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Sasaeng Gyeoldan
Ho Choi - 2006
J-BICS Region 3 DVD

Bloody Tie synthesises an eclectic mix of American film and music black. Black both as in "film noir" and in "blacksploitation". This is like a Quentin Tarantino film without a lot of the pretense from a Korean filmmaker who should be better known stateside.

The appropriation of Black American music is heralded by the wah-wah pedal guitar score at the beginning, the kind of music made me think back to the glory days of Black Caesar and The Mack. The film closes with Korean rap music, another reminder of global culture and that what comes around, goes around, and around and back in a continuous dialogue. This should not be surprising considering how many of the rap artists of today have been inspired by the "black" films of the early Seventies, some of which were reworkings of film noir from the Fifties. With a narrative that recalls the Hong Kong films of John Woo, Bloody Tie could also be seen as an almost parallel companion piece to The Departed.

The film centers primarily on the relationship between Lee (Ryu Seung-beom on the right), a drug dealer who fancies himself a venture capitalist, and Doh (Hwang Jeong-min on the left), a rogue cop who allows Lee to continue his occupation in exchange for information on other dealers and cash payments. How the film recalls classic film noir is the exposure of all of the characters as corrupted, from the small-time pusher to the higher levels of government. In this respect, it is especially fitting that one of the most shocking moments in Bloody Tie is reminiscent of a similar moment in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat. The concept of family also proves to be corrupting and corruptible, Lee's uncle is presented as both a former drug addict and dealer, while Doh lives with the wife of his dead partner. Like the classic noir films, everyone has his or her price.

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Visually the film is indebted to Martin Scorsese who has famously cribbed from so many older filmmakers. There is also some split-screen work which recalls Brian De Palma. As in the above scene, there are shots (literally) from unusual angles. While Scorsese and De Palma's movies of the early Seventies incorporated obvious tributes to the old masters who inspired them, one could look at Bloody Tie as a Korean homage to the American "film generation".

Posted by peter at 12:28 AM | Comments (2)

December 16, 2006

Home for Hanukkah

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I haven't been posting for the better part of this week because I was sick.

Really.

It was something I ate.

I now have to learn to live my life without some of the things I love. Wasabi is one. Hot Thai chili sauce is another.

My stay at Ram Chiang Mai Hospital had one small perk. There was a channel devoted to English language movies, albeit with Thai subtitles. I did get to see a couple of films I hadn't seen before only to find that I didn't miss that much. As much as I usually like Kirk Douglas and am glad he's living as fully as possible, there was only so much of It Runs in the Family that I could watch before wishing I saw Spartacus for fourth or fifth time. After Cheaper by the Dozen 2 concluded, I was wondering how I ever thought that Steve Martin was ever funny. Bandidas sounded great on paper, Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz in a female buddy western produced by Luc Besson. I love both actresses, neither holds a candle, or a six-shooter, to Raquel Tejada Welch as Hannie Caulder. Only Goal! by Danny Cannon, a film about British footballers, proved most watchable. It wasn't up there with This Sporting Life, but it wasn't a total time-waster either.

I'll post something more substantial as soon as possible.

Posted by peter at 07:25 AM | Comments (1)

December 11, 2006

The Banquet

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Ye Yan
Feng Xiaogang - 2006
Media Asia Region 3 DVD

Is it possible for a film to be too beautiful? There is much to admire about The Banquet, the color, the cinematography, and the score by Tan Dun immediately come to mind. There is much attention to detail, especially with close-ups of hands. While some of the plot elements are similar to Hamlet, as has been mentioned by others, The Banquet also owes quite a bit to Zhang Yimou's Hero with its swordsplay as well as court intrigue. That the film is also made from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon template is made official by the presence of Zhang Ziyi.

There are echoes of other films and filmmakers as well, with nods in the direction of Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles, not surprising considering their respective ties to Shakespeare. In a scene recalling Citizen Kane the emperor stands applauding alone for a moment until his courtiers join him. Blood spurts everywhere, rendering parts of the screen like a Jackson Pollack painting.

Feng emphasizes the balletic aspect of sword fighting. So much of the action is seen in slow motion, whether it's knights galloping in battle, or with overhead shots of flowing, billowing robes. This is great looking stuff, but Feng seems unaware of the concept that there may be too much of a good thing. Better are the scenes involving masked actors in white, a visual conceit that may be from 10th Century China, but also appears modern.

While Hamlet has been cited, Zhang Ziyi's character is closer to a more powerful Lady Macbeth. The Prince is more of a supporting player in this reworking of the story. Zhang's Empress Wan, more like Lady Macbeth than Gertrude, discovers that she loves power more than she loves either of her husbands and schemes her way to consolidate her position on the throne. With her top billing, The Banquet also serves as a metaphor for Zhang's ascent as the leading Chinese actress.

Posted by peter at 05:08 AM | Comments (1)

December 07, 2006

Headless Hero 2

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Phii hua khaat 2
Komsan Treepong - 2004
Pranakorn Films Region 0 DVD

Going to a DVD/VCD rental store is something of an adventure. As I can't read Thai, I need to pick up every cover to see if there is an available title in English or a title transliterated into Western characters, plus see if the film has English subtitles. Even when I get a film that is of generally unknown quality, it is not that big a gamble when you consider that my rental cost is about half a U.S. dollar.

My sense of adventure led me to renting the DVD for a film titled Headless Hero 2. My research has not uncovered a first Headless Hero film making me wonder if somebody had the idea of selling a sequel that lacked the prequel. In any event, this is one strange, and sometimes hilarious film that merges the Thai tradition of ghost stories, with the film tradition of lesser Abbott and Costello vehicles that combined horror with slapstick.

The film begins with a couple of incompetent would be grave robbers who uncover the tomb of the Headless Corpse. Awaken from his sleep, Headless does something to one of the robbers that is best left to proctologists. The film is full of sight gags such as this with amateur rectal exams accounting for much of the humor. Headless is frequently seen with his head and body in two separate places, and one shot shown during the credit sequence at the end involves oral sex, the head giving head as it were. By some standards, this may all sound pretty tasteless, but Headless Hero 2 can inspire belly laughs when it is not simply being dumb.

The biggest problem with the film is that after a very promising beginning, the film jumps to the present-day story which turns out to be an elaborate set-up for the return of Headless. Most of the time we are watching a couple of guys who are trying to get the attention of a couple of rich girls. One of the guys is the grandson of the man who defeated Headless twenty-five years ago. The grandson invokes a magic spell that brings about a prank loving ghost. A good part of the film is devoted to the ghost creating embarrassing situations, pulling chairs from under people, causing food to fly, kind of like many of the sight gags we've all seen in other comedies involving ghosts. One of the staples of Thai humor involves a short, chubby transvestite who wants to be known as "Marilyn". She is kind of funny to see in a blonde wig with the white dress. The filmmakers also deemed her disposable as she dies in a way both gory and unnecessary to the narrative.

What works in this film is the sight of Headless, played by Toe Rae Chermyim when he bears his fangs, cackles with insane laughter, fights off guys with Thai boxing moves, or surfs through the woods on a flying log. For all of its deficiencies, there are things in Headless Horseman 2 I have never seen on film, and in some cases hope to never see again.

Posted by peter at 01:54 AM | Comments (1)

December 06, 2006

Contemporary Asian Cinema

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Poster for the Singaporean film Xiaohai bu ben/I not Stupid by Jack Neo (2002).

Contemporary Asian Cinema: Popular Culture in a Global Frame
edited by Anne Tereska Ciecko
Berg Publishers 2006

There are two glaring problems with Contemporary Asian Cinema. First, there are no film stills. Second, there is no listing of films that may be available on DVD or, the format of choice here in Thailand, VCD. As far as the lack of illustrations go, my attitude is that film stills at the very least give me some glimpse of the film, or a filmmaker's style. This is especially useful if the film may not be easily available in any format. A list of films that are available on tape or disc format would provide a great service to those both casually and seriously interested in seeing any of the films listed, rather than forcing film scholars to engage in time-consuming detective work, especially for those films only available though Asian sources.

The book overall does provide information on the intertwining histories of filmmaking and politics, and discusses films in countries usually overlooked in any talk of "world cinema". The other main theme mentioned by several of the writers is that the concept of so-called art cinema is as artificial as the assumption that films made primarily as popular entertainment are solely influenced by Hollywood. Films using the neo-realist template are no more or less authentic expressions of Asian culture than the recent films influcnced by Spielberg or Scorsese. Most amazing of all is to read about filmmaking in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, two countries off the map of most film scholars.

The other great value to Asian Contemporary Cinema is the examination of the diversity of Asian culture. In addition to the different ethnic groups in the various countries that have influenced filmmaking in terms of subject matter and language used, there is discussion about the concept of a national cinema, how it is created, maintained and preserved. Add to that the idea of global or transnational filmmaking that may or may not include the participation of Hollywood.

Ideally, someone will send a copy of this book to Dan Glickman of the MPAA as a holiday gift. Even if one does not subscribe to the politics of a given nation, the book helps clarify the reasoning behind quotas that limit the number of Hollywood films in some Asian countries. If it true that only three percent of the films seen on U.S. screens are from other countries, perhaps a greater sense of fair play should be considered. One of Glickman's lobbying efforts on behalf of Hollywood resulted in Korea lowering the number of days Korean theaters showed Korean films. How this will affect an industry that has become quite significant in the past few years has yet to be seen. Considering that Hollywood has been remaking films from Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, and that some films are made as vehicles to sell remake rights, Glickman may want to shift gears to encourage Asian filmmaking. Without The Ring, Infernal Affairs or My Sassy Girl to remake, Hollywood may be forced to do the unthinkable, create relatively original films.

By the way, while The Departed and Borat have yet to get theatrical release here, I did spot DVDs for sale from one enterprising street vendor here in Chiang Mai.

Posted by peter at 08:30 AM | Comments (3)

December 05, 2006

Petition to Save Thai Cinema

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Poster for Thon (Tone) directed by Piak Poster - 1970


Today is a national holiday, the 79th birthday of the King of Thailand. It is also a good day to make others aware of a petition to preserve Thai film that is linked at the Thai Cinema website. You can also click here to directly access the petition.

One might think with a filmmaker in the Royal Family, that the issues regarding film preservation and creating a national databank would have been resolved. What I've have discovered is that I could have had an easier time seeing older Thai films in France. In terms of getting information on older Thai films, IMDb is at this time very inadequate.

I am hoping that a lot more people sign the petition so that it is understood that the preservation of Thai film is of importance globally, and not just of a few people in Thailand. Among those who have already signed are filmmakers Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thai film critic Kong Rithdee of the Bangkok Post, film critic and fellow blogger Noel Vera, and Thai film scholar Anchalee Chaiworaporn. I encourage readers to not only sign the petition but to pass the information on to others.

As one would say in Thailand, "Kup Kun Ka" (Thank You).

Posted by peter at 10:00 AM

December 04, 2006

Legend of Sudsakorn

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Kaisorn Buranasing - 2006
Mono Films 35mm Film

One of the most popular films that recently opened is Sudsakorn, based on the epic poem by Sunthorn Phu. With CGI techonology, the filmmakers are able to do what was best done as an animated film thirty years ago. For Western audiences, Kaisorn Buranasing's work shows the influence primarily of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, particularly in the battle sequences. While the intent of the film may be to create a film praising filial duty, the villains of Sudsakorn steal the film from young Charlie Trairat.

Simply based on their laughter, the villains are having the most fun. The chief villain, Usalen, portrayed by Phanudet Watthanasuchat, and an old man known as the Naked Fakir, cackle and chortle throughout the film. The best scenes involve monsters identified as "giant butterflies". These flying creatures resemble the female vampires from Van Helsing only with colorful wings and body markings, and longer fangs. Almost as much fun is watching Charlie Trairat outwit the Fakir and the "giant butterfly" with his magic stick and his steed, a combination horse and dragon. Mention should also be made of Penanee Sungkorn as Sudsakorn's mermaid mother, discretely topless in her scenes.

It may be significant that Sudsakorn is has opened at this time. This year marks the Sixtieth anniversary of current King of Thailand, and this film, as well as the forthcoming two-part epic Naresuan by Chatrichalerm Yukol have agendas that extend beyond entertainment. For the Western viewer, aside from getting an abridged portion of a national epic, Sudsakorn provides a contrast in how a film made for a general audience can be both similar and different from its Western equivalent. In terms of age coupled with his magical abilities, Sudsakorn might be likened to a Thai Harry Potter. Unlike the Harry Potter films, the violence and partial nudity push the PG-13 envelope.

Posted by peter at 08:15 AM

December 01, 2006

The Film Critic Blog-a-thon: Paul Schrader

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Paul Schrader's book, Transcendental Style in Film appeared at just the right time for me. In September of 1973, two important events happened - I began my graduate Cinema Studies at New York University and I also converted to Nichiren Buddhism. While there were other books that looked into the spiritual component of films and filmmakers, Schrader's examination of the films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer forced me to look at film in a way I had not done previously. There is a letter, a "gosho" by the Buddhist priest Nichiren, titled "The Opening of the Eyes". For me, Schrader's book was equally eye opening.

Several months after I had begun my Buddhist practice, the film The Human Revolution opened in New York City. For me, the biggest problem with the film is that the depiction of the enlightenment was not convincing, using hightened color and the chorus as part of the audio component. It was later, in reading Schrader that my discontent with the film was articulated with what Schrader described as "over-abundant means", the conveyance of faith frequent associated with that in the films by Cecil B. De Mille. Similar employment of the De Mille model can also be seen in two films about Nichiren - Nichiren: Man of Many Miracles and Nichiren, two films currently available on Japanese DVD. My argument against the two Human Revolution films is primarily that the film-makers relied on the techniques used in Judeo-Christian epics for Buddhist subject matter.

On a more personal level, Paul Schrader was gracious enough to meet with me to discuss his book. This took place the day after he had introduced a couple of Yakuza films at the Museum of Modern Art, and was transitioning from film critic to screenwriter. I don't remember much of our discussion except that it took place at the Algonquin Hotel, and we briefly discussed whether John Ford or Howard Hawks was more Buddhist. Soon after that discussion, I wrote a paper detailing my ideas on film and Buddhism for my semiotics class.

Among the things I have gleaned from Transcendental Style has been a deeper appreciation of Bresson and Ozu. Schrader's discussion of Ozu's framing from the point of view of someone on a tatami mat has probably played a role in my own photography. The book articulated the schism I felt not only with films that were about Buddhism, but with other films that had religious subject matter. With about thirty years of film going since meeting Schrader and writing my essay, I have found that the films that best expressed Buddhist concepts were not specifically about Buddhist subjects, nor necessarily made my filmmakers who identified as Buddhist.

At a time when film companies are jumping on the faith based bandwagon, courting a "Christian" audience, Schrader's book might be considered more timely in framing discussions on how faith is conveyed in film. If Schrader's book has one weakness, it is that it does read like an academic thesis. The chapter on Bresson is dated, having been written prior to the release of Bresson's last three films. These are minor quibbles as what Schrader has done is create a more critical way of looking at films about faith.

Additionally, no serious discussion of Schrader's work as a screenwriter or director can be made without having read Transcendental Style in Film. I have disagreements with Schrader's film canon published in "Film Comment", in particular his comparison of life and art having a beginning, middle and end. I want to remind Schrader of Godard's comment of "Yes, but not necessarily in that order." In general I prefer the films Schrader wrote for Martin Scorsese to his own directorial efforts. For the record, my favorite Schrader directed films are American Gigolo, Cat People and Light of Day. As idiosyncratic as it may be to others, of the books on film I have owned over the years, my first edition copy of Transcendental Style in Film is one of the few I truly treasure.

For other blog-a-thon links, click on Andy Horbal's site No More Marriages! at the right.

Posted by peter at 08:50 AM | Comments (14)