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January 29, 2009

Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection - Disc 4

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Goodbye, South, Goodbye/Nan guo zai jan, nan guo
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1996

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Flowers of Shanghai/Hai shang hua
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1998
Both Sino All Region DVDs

Goodbye, South, Goodbye was made in 1996 but made me think of some American films made more than twenty years ago. Along with film critic Jeffrey M. Anderson, I was reminded of Mean Streets, with small time hoods in big time trouble. Much of Goodbye, South, Goodbye is devoted to Hou's characters traveling from place to place, much like the "road" movies that appeared after the success of Easy Rider.

The film follow two young men, brothers Gao and Flat Head, usually known as Flatty, and Flatty's girl friend, Pretzel. In order to pay off a debt created by Pretzel, and to set themselves up financially, a scheme is set up when it is known that some family property is to be sold. Not only does the scheme fail but the trio are in hot water with the police, some Taipei gangsters and a politician. As a film about contemporary Taiwan, Hou's film is also in part about the anxiety felt during the time that mainland China was transforming itself as a financial power and was a year away from taking back Hong Kong.

Hou begins this film as an opposite of Dust in the Wind, with a point of view shot from a train going away from its point of origin. The three main characters are introduced while inside the train, Flatty and Pretzel playing with each other while Gao looks ahead. Hou also has an extended traveling shot of the trio on motorcycles while facing the camera, as well as an extended shot of the three barely seen past the windshield of a car driven by Gao. The motorcycle ride could also be seen as a reference to Good Men, Good Women and the scene where Annie Shizuka Inoh's television is glimpsed with a scene from Ozu's Late Spring with Setsuko Hara on a bicycle.

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Unlike Ozu's films, there is an extraordinary amount of camera movement in Goodbye, South, Goodbye. Like a Scorsese film there is a rock music score, though both contemporary and original. Lim Giong, who played Flatty, wrote and performed the mostly techno soundtrack. One of the songs won the "Golden Horse" award, high honor among Chinese language films. Goodbye, South, Goodbye is the film to watch for those who assume Hou's films are too rarefied, plus the soundtrack kicks ass.

I am not sure if I can much of substance to what has been written about Flowers of Shanghai. For those who know, or have seen Hou's work, this is probably the best known film, or at least the most widely seen until the recent Flight of the Red Balloon. Viewed after seven other films in chronological order, it is also arguably the least like Hou's other films save for the stringent visual style. The entire film takes place in interior settings, mostly dimly lit, so while the outside world is sometimes referred to in conversation, it is as if there was no other world than that of the small group of Shanghai brothels, known as Flower Houses.

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My own sense is that aside from the subject matter, the confusion regarding love and money, and the messy relationships between men and women, what interested Hou was the opportunity to make a film within the limited settings, emphasizing the closed in spaces with equally limited camera work. I am certain Hou also was attracted to the opportunity of working with a pan-Asian cast topped by Tony Leung Chiu Wai at his most self-effacing. The structure of the film is mostly in small vignettes that fade to black at the conclusion. While much of the film's reputation rests on its formal qualities, what is of real interest is the interaction of the characters whether it is the patrons playing a drinking game, or the women trying to manipulate the patrons.

Certainly one of the benefits of seeing eight films by Hou in a short time is to get a better grasps of the elements the different films share, and also the differences. It may be comforting to some to know that they may not be the only one to fall asleep viewing one of Hou's films with their deliberate, unhurried pacing. While the DVD versions of the eight films are letterbox formatted, with the noted exception of The Puppetmaster, the collection is currently the only way to see the four earlier films. There are no extras as in some of the now out of print DVDs. It should also be noted that previous Hou collections have sold out and command high prices among collectors.

The Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection is available from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at 12:48 AM

January 27, 2009

Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection - Disc 3

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The Puppetmaster/Xi meng ren sheng
Hou Hsiao-hsien -1993

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Good Men, Good Women/Hao nan hao nu
Hou Hsiao-hsien -1995
both Sino All Region DVD

The third and fourth discs of the Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection have the earliest films previously available on DVD individually. The films are also the ones that have been covered well by other writers. Not in the collection are the two films made after Dust in the Wind. Currently unavailable are Daughter of the Nile (1987) and A City of Sadness, the latter key in Hou's interest in the political and cultural history of Taiwan. It is worth noting for those interested in Hou's earliest films that two, Cheerful Wind and Green, Green Grass of Home have DVD versions available.

The Puppetmaster in this collection is again the full screen version. At the website "DVD Beaver", someone at Fox Lorber claimed that the full screen version was the only copy available for transfer. Evidently, this seems to have been the only version available for Sino. Some of the shots suffer due to the cropping on the sides, yet even in its less than perfect presentation, The Puppetmaster is one of Hou's most involving films. On the surface, it would seem that the elements that would be detrimental have little effect in making this film quite watchable.

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The story of puppetmaster and actor Li Tien-lu (seen above), the film is also the story about Japan's occupation of Taiwan up through World War II. Through Li, Hou explores the conflict between the Chinese identity of many of the Taiwanese residents and the political and cultural demands of Japan that were effected beginning in 1895. In one early scene, the men in Li's family are forced to cut off their pigtails by government edict. In a later scene, Li's position as a performing artist entails his creating a puppet show that is propaganda on behalf of the Japanese military forces. Hou cuts between scene of the real 82 year old Li telling his story to the camera, and re-enacted scenes from Li's life. Simply watching the octogenarian tells his own story is enthralling.

Just as one is riveted by Li speaking for himself, so Hou succeeds in letting the scenes play out, mostly with little or no camera movement. At one point in Li's story, he is living in a brothel, in love with one of the women of the house. The delicate lighting which barely illuminates the faces of the characters is one of the painterly aspects of The Puppetmaster. In one scene, the actor playing Li is sitting at a table reading, while we hear the voice of a woman offering herself to Li while his lover is away. While the camera does not move, the scene achieves a comic peak in the tension between a man seemingly content to be alone, and the voice of a woman who does not give up easily. To describe what Hou does as minimalism is missing the point. The Puppetmaster is the work of a filmmaker who is confident enough in himself and his material to tell a story as simply as possible.

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Hou cuts between past and present in Good Men, Good Women. The connections between past and present are more abstract. Annie Shizuka Inoh plays two parts, as the actress Liang Ching who finds herself looking back at events in her life from a few years ago, and as the resistance fighter Chiang Bi-Yu, whose book was the basis for part of the film. Liang portrays Chiang in the film within the film, titled Good Men, Good Women. The present is in color while the past is in black and white.

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Although the contrast between past and present is something of a continuation with what Hou had done with The Puppetmaster, the connections to be made seem vague outside of the casting of the lead actress in her two roles. That both women are in love with men who died young, and by violent means, seems trivialized when one is a former resistance fighter who fought Japanese authority in World War II in the Forties and is deemed a Communist sympathizer in the Fifties for that same reason, while the contemporary man is an unsuccessful small time gangster.

Good Men, Good Women does not work as a total piece, but there are several moments that stand out. Most successful are the contemporary scenes of Annie Shizuka Inoh padding around her apartment in the opening scene, and scenes with Jack Kao as her lover, dancing in front of him, or the two making love in front of a mirror. The flashback to the young, naive resistance fighters joining forces with the mainland fighters is illustrative of the cultural and language barriers that have existed between people collectively known as Chinese. It could also be that Good Men, Good Women was not intended to fit past and present in an obvious way, but rather that Hou is showing that the past is not part of a continuum but a series of tenuously connected fragments.

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The Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection is available from HK Flix, along with Cheerful Wind and Green, Green Grass of Home.

Posted by peter at 04:27 PM | Comments (1)

January 25, 2009

Coffee Break

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Alan Hale (Sr.) in Destination Tokyo (Delmer Daves - 1943)

Posted by peter at 12:41 AM | Comments (1)

January 22, 2009

Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection - Disc 2

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A Time to Live and a Time to Die/Tong nien wang shi
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1985

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Dust in the Wind/Lian lian feng chen
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1986
Both Sino All Region DVD

A Time to Live and a Time to Die is a somewhat autobiographical story of Hou's youth. The film is about a family, and the generational differences between the elders who grew up in mainland China and those who have known Taiwan for all or most of their lives. Some aspects of the film are very specific to the history of China and Taiwan and may be lost on some film viewers. This is the story about the dissolution of a family as well as the shifts in national identity.

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The father, a teacher, has assumed that his taking a position in Taiwan would be temporary, four years at the most. The grandmother, increasingly senile, forgets where she is and frequently goes on a walk to mainland China, often to be returned home by a rickshaw driver. Against the dreams of a return to a China that no longer exists, the younger generation makes sense out of living in a country that claims to be the true China, that still has vestiges of years of Japanese influence as well as creeping Westernization.

Like most of Hou's other films, A Time to Live and a Time to Die is filmed using medium or long shots. The only time a close-up is used is in a panning shot of the faces of the children when they realize that their tubercular father has died. Death could be seen as a metaphor for the change of Taiwanese identity from one where the country is thought of as temporary home until return to the mainland is possible, to that where Taiwan is considered home.

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Most of the film is from the point of view of Ah-ha-gu, Hou's screen alter ego. Introduced as a mischievous boy who gets into trouble with his mother for stealing money, Ah-ha-gu grows into a young man who still has a penchant for getting into trouble. He is doted on by his grandmother who wants to send him back to mainland China, a place distant both geographically and emotionally. Unlike a western film that seeks to develop an identification between the viewer and the characters, Hou's deliberately distances the viewers from the characters and their activities. As indicated in the title, death is a significant part of the narrative, not so much as end of life as much as a reminder of how life in all of its aspects is transitory.

As indicated in the title, Dust in the Wind also explores the transitory nature of life, albeit more lightly than A Time to Live and a Time to Die. Very loosely, the film is about two teenagers, Huen and Wan, coming together and drifting apart. Living in a small mining town, occupational and educational opportunities are limited. Moving to Taipei, Huen finds a job with a tailor. Wan leaves his job as a printer's assistant to work as a delivery driver until he gets drafted. No matter what may be intended, peoples' lives seem to be continually determined by forces outside themselves.

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Again Hou's viewpoint is one of detachment. The most humorous moment in the film takes place offscreen when the popping is heard of a firecracker mistaken for a candle. In another scene, Wan meets Huen at a train station, and is barely seen fighting with a man as the two are mostly hidden by one of the station columns. Even the feelings between Huen and Wan seem to be hidden, or are not made obvious as a more traditionally made film.

The opening shot begins in darkness until it is revealed that it is the point of view shot from the front of a train. Unlike a film such as Fritz Lang's Human Desire which focuses on the tracks as if to indicate the that the fate of the characters is predetermined, Hou's camera looks straight ahead. It is as if to say that perhaps one's direction in life is fated, yet the only choice is to look ahead to the future.

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The Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection is available from HK Flix where you can find other fine classics.

Posted by peter at 12:50 AM

January 20, 2009

Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection - Disc 1

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The Boys from Fengkuei/Feng gui lai de ren
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1983

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A Summer at Grandpa's/Dong dong de jia qi
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1984
Both Sino All Region DVD

I am slowly working my way through four discs containing eight films by Hou Hsiao-hsien. The earlier films have not been made available by any U.S. company. While not a definitive collection, this "Ultimate Collection" does provide a solid overview of Hou's career from 1983 through 1998 when he had begun to establish an international reputation.

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In an early scene in The Boys from Fengkuei, Ah-Ching and his friends sneak into a movie theater and find Rocco and his Brothers is playing, English dubbed with Chinese subtitles. While Hou's film has some similarities with Visconti's, especially in the story about small town young men in the big city, Hou's film may be closer in spirit to Fellini's I Vitelloni. Both films are about young men with no jobs, no ambitions and no particular place to go, with one of them coming to realize that there is a limit to how long one can waste one's life.

The Boys from Fengkuei is noted as being the first of Hou's film to clearly bear the style of long takes, often with a static camera observing the activity from a distance. While the influence of Yasujiro Ozu is periodically evident, Hou also makes use of some crane shots so that we can see several of the characters who are also neighbors, climbing up and down the apartment stairs or walking across the building's exterior passageway. It may also be worth noting that one of Hou's admirers is Jim Jarmusch, and that most likely unknown to each other, Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise, released in 1984, shares similar subject and the determination to minimize the dramatic in favor of letting any kind of narrative concerns slowly reveal themselves.

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The use of classical music, notably by Bach, gives The Boys from Fengkuei an elegiac feel. Even if Summer is not over, the music indicates that this is Ah-Ching's last summer with his friends. With nothing to do but hang out or get in fights with other young men, Ah-Ching and two friends go to a larger city in the hopes of getting some kind of work, essentially biding their time before mandatory military duty. Ah-Ching flashes back to a happier summer with his father, who has since become incapacitated by a baseball fracturing the front of his skull. For Ah-Ching, the future is as uncertain as the space blankly stared out by his father.

The alternative English language title, All the Youthful Days, could perhaps be judged fairer in describing the story. Part of what instigates Ah-Ching's newfound sense of seriousness is his encounters with the women his age, all with a greater sense of purpose to their lives. In a greater sense, Hou's film is about the conflicts of ideals with the practical realities of contemporary Taiwan for those whose futures are limited. The film ends with a wistful goodbye both to Summer and to youthful irresponsibility.

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Summer a Grandpa's is an extension of some of the same themes of Boys from Fengkuei. The focus is on two young children, a boy, Tung-tung, and his sister, Ting-ting. A sense of sadness pervades the film from the beginning, as the set-up is that the siblings are sent to their grandparents in the country while their severely ill mother is being hospitalized. A reversal of sorts of Boys from Fengkuei, the big city children learn some life lessons in a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else. There is what may be a deliberate echo from To Kill a Mockingbird in which Ting-ting is saved from an accident by a retarded woman, described as mad by the other children, a distaff version of Boo Radley.

Lighter in tone, there is one wonderfully comic scene. Tung-tung and the boys swim naked in a nearby river. Ting-ting is told to leave, informed that viewing the boys will cause germs to grow on her eyes. Her revenge is to gather up the boys' clothing and have it float down the river. The scene provides a humorous counterpoint to the other scenes in which men determine the lives of the female characters.

The visual influence of Ozu is most obvious in a montage of nighttime shots. In terms of the story, one can also see the similarity with the juxtapositions of generations and geography. There is also the conflict of family ties versus the sense that the presence of family members within the household as an imposition. Unlike the characters portrayed by Chishu Ryu, Koo Chuen as Grandpa, the small town's doctor, uses an exterior indifference to mask his own sense of humanity. Also to be mentioned is that one of the cast members is fellow Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang, who also composed the music for this film.

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The Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection is available from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at 03:37 PM | Comments (2)

January 18, 2009

Coffee Break

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Jutta Lampe and Rainer Delventhal in Sisters, or the Balance of Happiness (Margarethe von Trotta - 1979)

Posted by peter at 12:44 AM

January 17, 2009

Award Bond

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"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in."

Here we are in awards season, when my thoughts concerning Kate Winslet's Golden Globes are interrupted with the news that I have been awarded a Dardos. I was named a winner by Marilyn Ferdinand, the last woman in the Chicago metro area to hold me in anything resembling esteem since Carla Haimowitz dumped me almost thirty eight years ago.

Not to be confused with Zardoz. with Sean Connery fighting the future in a fur loin cloth, or Garbo's, a Denver restaurant named after a reclusive actress, the Dardos are suppose to be some kind of darts. Tuff Darts!, sez me.

According to the rules: "The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."

Dardos winners must do the following:

1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person who has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.

I'm the type of guy who maybe to be detriment shares the (Groucho) Marxian philosophy that I wouldn't join a club that would have me for a member. There are five other people I would argue are at least, if not more deserving, of the Dardos Award.

1. Emma Rowley of All about My Movies. Did you know that Janet Maslin, longtime film critic for the New York Times, has her degree in Math? It may be less than coincidental that Ms. Rowley is also a Math (or as the British say, Maths) major. Emma is smart and funny, and as my favorite young blogger is deserving of encouragement.

2. Noel Vera of Critic after Dark is to Filipino cinema what Andrew Sarris is to English language film. His writings are valuable reminders that there is worthwhile stuff that is often overlooked while too many people writing about film trod the familiar paths. I recommend seeing at least one film from Noel's 100 Best Filipino Films, especially those who have sworn to see more foreign films this year.

3. Michael Guillen of The Evening Class might be the Larry King of film bloggers. Only smarter, and without a dozen or so ex-wives. That is to say, Michael likes talking to people and they like talking to Michael. It's not unusual for a filmmaker to declare that a new insight into their work has resulted from one of Michael's interviews. Mr. Guillen other great contribution is, of course, the cultural rescue of Speedy Gonzales.

4. Nathaniel R. of Film Experience is generously listing links of others constantly. I'm not planning to watch the Academy Awards this year either, but I'm not going to miss Nathaniel's coverage which will undoubtedly be more fun. Speaking of awards, if you haven't read the article, a link here discusses the Indian co-director of Slumdog Millionaire and her contributions to the making of that film.

5. CelineJulie of Limitless Cinema writes about an amazing variety of films from his home in Bangkok, Thailand. Additionally, his blog takes a more personal turn in discussing the shifting political landscape in Thailand, as well as responses to world events. His choices of films and questions posed in his polls reflect a individual view of the world. Not only is film covered, but also Thai theater and art.

I have deliberately chosen to name some bloggers based outside the U.S. in order to send the concept of fraternity among bloggers around the world as much as possible. There is no point to this if there are limits based language, geography, gender, or flesh tones.

I better watch myself before I get too preachy. As a joker once said, "Why so serious?"

Posted by peter at 12:18 AM | Comments (5)

January 14, 2009

Gutterballs

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Ryan Nicholson - 2008
TLA Releasing Region 1 DVD

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TLA's vampire

The best part about Gutterballs DVD isn't the movie. For me, the trailers to TLA's "Danger after Dark" were the highlight. I don't know what film the above vampire is from but as soon as I find out, it's on my impossibly long list of films I want to see. Certainly, Storm, which Michael Guillen had written about previously, is one I want to catch. The Pakistani zombie story, Hell's Ground also looks like fun. The compilation trailer is as good as the one for the late, great, Tartan Asia Extreme, where dozens of great moments are taken out of context, strung together, and you want to see . . . everything!

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Storm
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Hell's Ground

Well, maybe not quite everything. And that's the problem I had with Gutterballs. I was with someone last Summer who reacted with extreme anger and hostility when I began watching The Free Will, the study of a rapist and the consequences of his actions. From her point of view, the depiction of rape constituted an endorsement of the act. I didn't feel that way, and made of point of having a female film critic review the extra DVD I received as a means of knowing if generalizations could be made based on gender.

Gutterballs tries to play it both ways, critical of rape, yet using it as a convenient plot point to let the audience get a good view of Candice Lewald's breasts. What is suppose to pass as social commentary is a rivalry between four fratboy types who are bowling against a team of outsiders which includes a young black man. The rivalry is escalated when the black man, played by Nathan Witte, comes to the defense of the transexual friend of a trio of girls. Lewald is raped as revenge for the humiliation of the lead frat boy.

As might be inferred from the title, Gutterballs takes place in a bowling alley. In the manner of slasher films from Eighties, the kids are dispatched, one or two at a time, by a killer wearing a bowling ball bag on his head. Unlike those films of past times, Gutterballs is more sexually explicit and much more violent. As far as creating gory special effects, Ryan Nicholson has proven himself to be quite talented. It could also be that someone like myself was never the intended audience for a film like this, with its extended scenes of mutilation and carnage. I did admittedly find a scene involving a profanity spewing machine that waxes bowling balls funny. One may want to compare Gutterballs to Tokyo Gore Police. Both films are works by men who established themselves in creating horrific make-up and special effects body parts for other filmmakers. While Tokyo Gore Police has moments of artistry plus the advantage of Eihi Shiina, in both films, copious geysers of blood frequently substitute for effective story-telling.

Posted by peter at 12:45 AM

January 12, 2009

Sparrow

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Man Jeuk
Johnny To - 2008
Universe Entertainment Region 3 DVD

I'm more interested in the Golden Horse awards, than I am in Golden Globes. Also, when year end lists appear, it's the films without U.S. distributors that strike my curiosity. And yes, my reaction to Sparrow was the same as that of Andrew Grant.

This story about pickpockets in Hong Kong is unlike the adrenaline fueled films that may come to mind when mentioning Johnny To. The film appears to be gently meandering along seemingly aimlessly, like lead pickpocket Simon Yam, moseying along on his bicycle, looking for the easiest and most profitable marks. The relaxed feeling is emphasized by the cool jazz score. No one is in a particular rush to get anywhere, except for Kelly Lin, who can't run very fast in high heels. Some of the streets are as steep as those to be found in San Francisco. Most of Sparrow takes place within the urban spaces of Hong Kong. The several shots of birds in cages is another reminder of the limited space that the characters call home. Characters find themselves trapped on rooftops, alleys and cul-de-sacs. This use of space has its comedic highlight when Yam and his gang crowd in an elevator with Lin and two men carrying a large glass aquarium.

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None of the on-screen criminals can compare with To, who plays his own kind of con game with the audience. Yam and his gang encounter Kelly Lin, at what appear to be chance meetings, individually. To never reveals very much so that it is uncertain about who is gaming who. Wherever Lin shows up, several black suited guys also appear, although it is initially unclear who they are or how they figure in the proceedings. In extending the game analogy, To slowly shows his cards one at a time rather than quickly revealing his hand.

The technical displays of Exiled are played down for a simpler visual style. The simplicity is devious. Even when the camera is observing the action, the narrative is propelled as much by what is not seen, be it hidden motivations, mistaken identities, or the subtle sleight of hand. What Sparrow also has in common with Exiled is a story about a group of men whose lives are disrupted by the presence of a woman, but just as the new film diverges visually, so it also is gentler with the characters, leaving everyone alive, perhaps a bit wiser.

In the DVD supplement, To discusses being inspired by Jacques Demy's Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and originally envisioning Sparrow as a musical. Simon Yam almost dances his way out of his dump of an apartment in the film's first scene. The grand set piece could well be called "The Umbrellas of Hong Kong". Credit To for further undoing genre expectations by having the final confrontation between Yam and his gang against their rivals as a slow motion stroll in the rain. Replacing the bullet ballet is choreographed movement of umbrellas, hand movements, razors cutting cloth, and splashes of water. It could well be that in its inventiveness, Sparrow has been denied a U.S. release by refusing to be an Asian film defined by martial arts or gunplay. It could well be that Sparrow is Johnny To's most personal film to date with To as a sparrow, not as a pickpocket referred to in Hong Kong slang, but as an uncaged bird who chooses to fly his own way.

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Posted by peter at 12:03 AM | Comments (3)

January 11, 2009

Coffee Break

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Makiko Esumi in Maborosi (Hirokazu Kore-eda - 1995)

Posted by peter at 12:26 AM

January 08, 2009

Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

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The Pang Brothers - 2008
Lionsgate Region 1 DVD

The Pang Brothers remake of their 1999 version of Bangkok Dangerous is not as good as the original, but neither is it as bad as some critics have have it. Perhaps making an English language film takes away a layer of the exotic that would be ascribed to work that was either largely in Thai or Cantonese. The Pangs are due auteurist consideration because of their consistent visual style and themes.

What is usually ignored is that the Pangs are Hong Kong filmmakers who primarily work in Thailand. This point is brought up because, as the Pangs are outsiders based on language and culture, their films are about outsiders. The main characters in the Pang films may be from another country, be differently abled, or simply find themselves, as in Re-Cycle as strangers in a strange land. In the original Bangkok Dangerous, the hitman is deaf, but his deafness works on his behalf so that he is not distracted by the sound of his gun. He is also from the country, and he and his friends are considered marginal even within the Thai underworld. The remake has Cage as the foreigner in Thailand, hired to do a job, but separated by culture and language.

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With his hair dyed black, Cage sometimes appears like a ghost, or a cadaver. Early in the film, in part of his off screen narration, Cage's character, Joe, mentions disappearing like a ghost. The suggestion is that Joe is already dead, emotionally and morally, if not literally. This would also be fitting as part of the Pangs' other films which are frequently ghost stories. It is Joe's renewed sense of humanity that is his ultimate undoing. This is somewhat parallel to The Eye in which the blind woman is "cured", only to see a world more terrible than imagined.

As a switch from the first Bangkok Dangerous, Charlie Yeung portrays a deaf-mute pharmacist. While this allows the Pangs to again explore the dilemma of characters who are unable to communicate with each other, the scenes with Cage work against the film in presenting a tourist's view of Bangkok. We are to believe that Joe, a world traveler, would find Thai food too spicy, causing him to break out in a sweat. The scene with Cage and Yeung making friends with an elephant also feels contrived. What does work is a scene where Yeung hands Cage a note declaring her feelings for him while the two are walking in a deserted park at night. We see Yeung in close-up, absorbed in infatuation, while we see Cage taking on two would be muggers in the background. Yeung cannot hear what is going on and is completely unaware of what has happened behind her until she feels the splash of blood on her jacket. While the scene is a reworking of a similar scene from the first version, it is one of the few moments in the new Bangkok Dangerous that is perfectly realized.

Parts of the new Bangkok Dangerous look like they were filmed in the attempt to give the film international appeal. While this is understandable considering the higher financial stakes, it also forces compromise on filmmakers, often denying them the ability to make the kind of films that initially garnered attention. Even the Pangs disorienting visual style has been toned down considerably. While the first Bangkok Dangerous was down and dirty, the new film too often emphasizes the exotic side of Bangkok, and not enough of the dangerous.

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Posted by peter at 12:16 AM | Comments (2)

January 06, 2009

Smart Money

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Alfred E. Green - 1931
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Don't let the second billing fool you. James Cagney shares the screen with star Edward G. Robinson for about the same amount of time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have their late night chat in Heat. Release two films after their defining star turns in Public Enemy and Little Caesar. I suspect Jack Warner shoehorned Cagney into what is no more than a supporting role to generate some box office heat. To describe Alfred E. Green's direction as pedestrian would to generous for Smart Money.

Being a long time fan of Warner Brothers movies from the Thirties and Forties, I would think of Smart Money as an example of the studio style in the making, as well as concurrent proof that auteur theory or not, having the right director makes the difference. Consider that most of the writing pool of John Bright, Kubec Glasmon, Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Jackson not only were nominated for "Best Writing" in 1931, but Glasmon and Bright were competing against themselves for Public Enemy. That the latter film has remained popular has as much to do with William Wellman's energy as Cagney's way with a grapefruit. One could also compare how Glasmon and Bright fare with Roy Del Ruth (Taxi!) or Mervyn LeRoy (Three on a Match to imagine how much better Smart Money could have been, not to mention Howard Hawks (The Crowd Roars).

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Four men on a screenplay does not guarantee that a film will still make any sense. Robinson plays a small town barber who seems to be lucky at gambling. He also hosts a game in the back of his shop. His friends persuade him to try his luck against the big money in the big city (stock shot of New York City). The basic plot involves Robinson being suckered into a game against a big time gambler who takes Robinson for all he's got. Robinson tries his luck again a few months later, wins everything back, and goes on to develop a reputation for being the best of a bunch of guys with names like Hickory Short, Sleepy Sam and Deep River. Robinson goes to open a casino of his own which the city fathers want to close down. Eventually, Robinson's weakness for bottled blondes is the catalyst for his downfall.

The blondes in this case are forgotten names Margaret Livingston, Evalyn Knapp and Noel Francis. Robinson's preference for blondes could well have been that of Bright and Glasmon as they also wrote another Cagney vehicle, Blonde Crazy which also featured Francis. The story might collapse under closer examination, the blondes shine less brightly that studio peers Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell. What ages less well is the casual racism towards the black characters,where Robinson rubs the head of John Larkin for good luck, and a Sleepy Sam addresses his servant as "Stupid", repeated by Robinson.

The scenes with Robinson and Cagney are nothing more than amiable. In comparison with those films that had Cagney playing against Humphrey Bogart, or Bogart on screen with Robinson, the scenes with Robinson together with Cagney lack brio. Only one scene, with Cagney bursting into a hotel room with a gun suggests that the pair should been in a different, better film. One the plus side is a short appearance by Boris Karloff, towering over Robinson, as a luckless gambler, a bad sport named Sport. The scene isn't entirely enough to redeem Smart Money, but out of context, there is a chuckle to be had seeing Little Caesar face off with Frankenstein.

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Posted by peter at 12:17 AM | Comments (3)

January 04, 2009

Coffee Break

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Ghosts before Breakfast (Hans Richter - 1928)

Posted by peter at 12:43 AM

January 02, 2009

Princess Yang Kwei-Fei

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Yokihi
Kenji Mizoguchi - 1955
Films sans Frontieres Region 2 DVD

I first saw Princess Yang Kwei-Fei in a 16mm print at NYU, roughly a year before I became a Buddhist. While the story is not specifically Buddhist, it is mentioned in one of the writings of the Buddhist priest, Nichiren. As this letter, known as the "New Year's Gosho" is read at every meeting held on New Year's Day, when Yang Kwei-Fei is mentioned, I always think back to Kenji Mizoguchi's film.

Nichiren's reference to Yang is part of his explanation of the innate Buddhism of all people. One can further read this as simply the potential for greatness or value of people or things from humble or ordinary sources. Where one could give a Buddhist interpretation to Mizoguchi's films is in his exploration of the lives of women of lower social status, demonstrating their worthiness both as the protagonists of his films, and in their relationships with other people, especially those deemed more respect worthy due to social ranking. Mizoguchi's version of the story of Yang has been reworked so that it reflects those interests of the filmmaker. A deeper scholarship regarding Mizoguchi's thoughts on retelling the story of Princess Yang would be desirable based also on the fact that Mizoguchi was a convert to a form of Nichiren Buddhism, and was probably familiar with the "New Year's Gosho". What writing there is, at least in English, regarding Mizoguchi and Buddhism, suggests a need for more than passing acknowledgement. What is known is that producer Masaichi Nagata was also a Nichiren Buddhist practitioner, and played in a key role in Mizoguchi's conversion. Mizoguchi's own interest could be based not only on retelling a classic story, but that his own life as one of an esteemed filmmaker of humble origin.

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I probably would have been better off to some extent getting the Masters of Cinema DVD because the supplemental material is in English. Still, the English subtitles on this French DVD, as well as the movie itself, is an improvement over the New Yorker taped version. As revised by Mizoguchi, the story could almost describe some of his other films - a selfless woman acts on behalf of benefitting other family members, only to lose everything. Kwei-Fei allows herself to be introduced to the Emperor because it could enable her status conscious cousins to become part of the court. Wealth and position are presented as traps in two key scenes. Dressed as commoners, the emperor and Kwei-Fei walk the streets during a holiday, with Kwei-Fei introducing the emperor to street cuisine. Later that night, Kwei-Fei dances while the emperor joins the street musicians by playing the lute. In another scene, Kwei-Fei witness the emperor distressed that his edict regarding members of the court interfering with politics is understood to mean death for a court lady who had requested a position for a relative. In Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, power and position need to be coupled with humility. The Yang family, and those who attained position through their relationship with Kwei-Fei, are destroyed due to their insatiable greed. Kwei-Fei allows herself to be executed, the mutual love and loyalty with the emperor to great to allow her to leave the court in spite of her attempts to exile herself from the court. Even though Kwei-Fei has done nothing herself, her existence is viewed as the catalyst that created the chaos.

Because Princess Yang Kwei-Fei was a coproduction with Chinese producer Run Run Shaw, the film has some notable differences to other Mizoguchi films. This was the first of two films Mizoguchi shot in color. Also, there are crowd scenes, teeming with extras, such as the previously mentioned street festival scene and a later scene with the emperor's army. What stands out, as in other films by Mizoguchi are the more intimate moments, Machiko Kyo as Kwei-Fei taking a bath, or observing a young girl, a palace cook, who reminds her of herself prior to meeting the emperor, or the scene with Masayuki Mori as the emperor discovering a shadowed Kyo, or plaintively looking up the statue of his late wife.

Bosley Crowther's 1956 review in the New York Times, described the film as " . . . a beautiful thing to look at but a bewildering and tedious thing to sit through." Even now, there are critics, such as Tony Rayns (who also introduces the film on the MofC DVD), who are generally dismissive of Princess Yang Kwe-Fei. Run Run Shaw did a new version of the story under the title, Yang Kwei Fei, in 1962, with the English language title of The Magnificent Concubine. For myself, I had first seen the film with little previous knowledge of Mizoguchi, having only seen Sansho the Bailiff. While repeated viewings have been initiated in large part because of the significants of the story, what I have since learned about Mizoguchi's conversion to Buddhism indicates, at least for me, some greater research.

Posted by peter at 12:21 AM

January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

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Edward G. Robinson and Miriam Hopkins in Barbary Coast (Howard Hawks - 1935)

Posted by peter at 12:55 AM