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September 28, 2009

Triangle

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Tie Saam Gok
Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnny To - 2007
Magnolia Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I'm not sure of the English language title is the best choice for this film, but it does have double meaning being about three losers who plan a heist, and the three directors who made this film. Basically, three men who vaguely know each other discuss robbing a jewelry store in a small, downstairs bar. A man stumbles in, apparently drunk. Overhearing the men, he gives them his card which turns out to be a clue to a cache more valuable than they imagine. The stranger turns out to be a well known businessman who is reported dead according to television reports that next morning. The trio succeeds in digging the treasure, and of course this is when their trouble really begins.

While the three segments of Triangle segue into each other without interruption, the differing directorial styles are identifiable. The first part, by Tsui Hark, is something of a return to form after the more extravagant Seven Swords. A wonderful moment is when the thieves are moving the crate with the treasure on a portable table through the streets of Hong Kong. Turning their back to observe the police cars that they think are after them, the table starts rolling on its own down the street. The scene of the men chasing after the table is the stuff of silent classic comedy, but it's funny nonetheless. There is something about the way Tsui films the streets of Hong Kong, including areas recognizable from Johnny To's Sparrow, where he is much more in his element after the special effect laden efforts. That Sparrow might be recalled is also due to the casting of Simon Yam. Just wearing glasses is enough to make Yam almost unrecognizable as the seemingly weak husband of Kelly Lin. The relationship of Yam, Lin and her lover lover, played by George Lam, echoes the theme of the triangle. The three parts are notable for how some of the relationships shift in each segment.

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The second part, directed by Ringo Lam, is the most different stylistically from To or Tsui, in that much of his segment is made of stationary shots. The emphasis is on Yam's discovery of his wife's infidelity, and that fellow thief, Louis Koo, might have acted as an informer. A fair amount of this segment also involves cell phone photography, with pictures of callers popping up, as well as the saved image of Yam's deceased first wife. There is a moment when Yam uses his phone to film Kelly Lin dancing by herself. Ringo Lam is hardly the first director one thinks of for romantic moments, but there is a moment of poignancy in between the shootings, stabbings and other forms of bodily harm.

Johnny To's segment is thematically familiar to Exiled, where the thieves have to decide if the monetary value of their treasure is as important as simply staying alive. To regular Lam Suet appears as an oddball character who seems to have made a career for himself, setting up exposed nails in boards to flatten the tires of drivers, and then selling tires at inflated prices. The main characters all gather for a final shootout that takes place in a dark field at night. What makes this segment interesting is that towards the end of the shootout, the film is virtually dialogue free.

The filmmakers used their own screenwriters for each segment, filming after viewing what had been done previously. Tsui did the first segment being the one to originate the story as well as inviting To and Lam to collaborate. Is anyone aware of any other film produced in this manner? There have been plenty of films with multiple directors making short films united by a common theme or genre. Triangle has somewhat more in common with the mini-series that has more than one director but usually those are unified by the same screenplay writer. In the long view, Triangle should probably be considered not much more than an intriguing footnote in the careers of its three directors. The place the film had a Cannes was rightly "a certain regard".

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Posted by peter at 12:32 AM | Comments (1)

September 27, 2009

Coffee Break

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Naoki Tanaka and Akiko Yagi in All about Our House (Koki Mitani - 2001)

Posted by peter at 12:21 AM

September 24, 2009

The Beauty Remains

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Mei ren yi jiu
Ann Hu - 2005
Emerging Pictures Region 1 DVD

Does anyone have updated information on Ann Hu? Not to be confused with Hong Kong's Ann Hui, Ann Hu was one of the first filmmakers from mainland China to study in the U.S., first business, and then film. Her debut film, Shadow Magic, about the introduction of film and filmmaking in China, was picked up by Sony Classics after playing at Sundance. There isn't much to be found online, with even a brief interview on Youtube providing little of substance. The Beauty Remains seems to have slipped under the radar, playing a couple of film festivals and a brief run in New York City.

Less than ninety minutes, Hu's film seems more epic, not because of what is seen, but because of the events not seen. Taking place in the city of Qing Dao in 1948, the story of sibling rivalry serves as the story of China on the verge of change as Mao's army takes over the entire country. A young woman, Fei, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, has been summoned to the mansion of her recently deceased father. The man's only other child, Ying, explains that Fei is to officially be part of the family again in accordance to her father's wishes. Fei vacillates between her identity as her mother's daughter, and her goal of studying medicine, and the reawakening of her envy of Ying, her childhood friend when both lived at the mansion. Fei finds that the real reason for Ying's sisterly affections is less than familial, giving Fei motivation to begin a relationship with Ying's lover, Huang.

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Just as characters motivations are often veiled, and less than clear, Fei and Ying are often filmed in shadows, or with cloth of some kind draped, obscuring the action. When Fei spies on Ying and Huang making love, it is through the crack of an open door. There are also scenes where the action is washed out in bright light. The narrative is primarily based on Fei's memories, and Hu recreates how memories are often not clear at all, but hazy glimpses of the past.

Several critics I respect did not like The Beauty Remains. I can understand some of the fault finding. The influence of Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love is not hard to detect. On the other hand, if someone is going to imitate another filmmaker, think of everyone who tried to ape Scorsese or Tarantino. There were also complaints about Fei's off screen narration, especially a line, "I am drawn to her like a leaf falls to the ground", referring to her feelings about Ying. Most teenage girls, and probably some teenage boys, would find the words to be the height of poetic expression. Maybe I like The Beauty Remains because a little bit of creative lighting and use of color goes a long way with me.

What is also unusual about The Beauty Remains is that the screenplay was originally written in English, by Michael Eldridge and Beth Schacter, and translated to Mandarin. Much of the production crew was American talent. One of the producers, also appearing in a small role was Lisa Lu. It probably is less than coincidental that the actress playing Ying, Vivian Wu, had acted with Lu previously. Wu's filmography, including work in American television and forays into film production indicate that she has studied the pioneering Lisa Lu's career path. Zhou Xun is familiar to those who have watched more than a couple of Chinese movies in the past few years. Without seeming to put much effort, Zhou appears in The Beauty Remains about ten years younger than her actual age. Even though Ann Hu did not write the screenplay, The Beauty Remains is not too removed from her own experience growing up during China's Cultural Revolution: "That revolution made me realize that human weaknesses are so close to the surface. Human beings are such a complex, weak and confused group of people. Only the strongest can survive the temptation of evil."

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Posted by peter at 12:40 AM

September 22, 2009

My Beautiful Days

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24
Im Jong-jae - 2002
YA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Not a whole lot happens in My Beautiful Days. That could be why the film ultimately charmed me. There are a few dramatic moments, but the film is like a quiet pause for the most part, like the life of Joon, the main character, who is trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. The original title refers to Joon's age. He is currently marking time by doing by doing his mandatory military service as a security officer at a government building. Joon's schedule is loose enough that he also works part-time at a laundry run by a man also named Joon. Other than showing up at work, Joon's existence is aimless.

Joon is conducting an affair with an older married woman, Mi-yeong, begins tentatively to pursue a former girlfriend, Eun-ji, after meeting her by chance, and attempts to pursue Eun-ji's younger sister, Hyun-ji. Joon is so uncertain about himself that his own feelings about the women are unclear. If Joon's feelings for Hyun are the strongest, it may be because she challenges Joon by virtually taking command of the time they spend together, watching a Bruce Lee movie, or running against each other. The one time Joon acts with real deliberation is on behalf of his boss, the laundry owner, bringing out the older man's passion for art that had been dormant for many years.

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Joon has a recurring dream about a deer showing up at night at the parking lot of the office building where he works. The origin of the dream is in a story handed down by senior guards to their juniors, as one young man leaves, another tells the story, prefacing it with the disclaimer that the original guard, the source of the story, may not have really seen a deer. The symbolism of the dream in open to interpretation, or at least I would think that this is a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmaker. Joon is himself vague about his own direction in life that when he does finally have some sense of purpose, it come about by the actions taken by those in his life. The deer could possibly symbolize not only the elusiveness of love, but of dreams themselves.

Aside from the dream sequence, My Beautiful Days is a simple film, told without any dazzling techniques. There is nothing that I could find about Im except that this was his second film as a director. Better known are some of the cast, Bang Eun-jin who starred in the thriller 301, 302, and Kim Min-sun, who made her debut in Momento Mori. As best as I can tell, this is the only movie with the exquisitely beautiful Pyeon Eun-jeong. What happened, and why can't I find any information on her. Pyeon seems to have joined that small sorority of screen beauties that only appeared with perhaps just one role, like Sandra Majani in Patrice Leconte's Perfume of Yvonne. I'm not certain why the film was given the English title of My Beautiful Days, although the change from 24 was done to avoid confusion with the television series. Perhaps because the film just glides along without much demonstration of effort, there is a sense of satisfaction at the end of the film, similar to Joon's as he bicycles alone on the night time street.

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Posted by peter at 12:08 AM

September 20, 2009

Coffee Break

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Gunnel Lindblom in The Girls (Mai Zetterling - 1968)

Posted by peter at 12:24 AM

September 17, 2009

My Mexican Shivah

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Morirse esta en Hebreo
Alejandro Springall - 2007
Emerging Pictures Region 1 DVD

I finally saw Go for Zucker a couple of months ago. Like My Mexican Shivah the bulk of the film takes place during the shivah, the traditional Jewish one week mourning period, with family members uncomfortably getting together, and life disrupting all plans. Both films examine in varying degrees the differences in Jewish and national identities. What strikes me as somewhat odd is that, discounting Woody Allen's films which really don't announce themselves as being about Jewish identity as a subject, there has been nothing in contemporary Hollywood cinema that I can recall since Sidney Lumet's Bye Bye Braverman (1968) and Jan Kadar's The Angel Levine (1970) that was was not a period film. There seems to be a timidity over the past fifty years in the U.S. entertainment industry so that television as shifted from the obviousness of The Goldbergs to the Jewishness that dares not speak its name of Seinfeld, and even Adam Sandler, who I find funnier with his "Hanukkah Song" than most of his films, wastes an opportunity with Eight Crazy Nights. But I digress . . .

The cultural clash in My Mexican Shivah is presented in the opening scene with a formally dressed mariachi band playing Klezmer music for a group of actors dining on stage. The actors are all older people well into their Sixties or Seventies. One of the men, Moishe, dances exuberantly until he suddenly falls to the floor, dead. The majority of the film takes place within the apartment of his daughter, with relatives and friends crowding in to participate in the mourning ritual or show up briefly to pay their respects. Observing the activities are two angels, two grandfatherly types, that is, if your grandfather came from the shtetl, writing notes on Moishe's credits and debits, for eventual judgement on his life.

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A chevreman, a funeral coordinator, tries to police the family in maintaining the rules, such as covering of pictures and mirrors, and what foods are eaten, as well as the prayer rituals. Helping are two maids unfamiliar with anyone or anything Jewish, learning the rules of Kosher food preparation and serving using colored plates. During the family prayers, one of the maids offers her own prayers to an altar that is a hodge podge of Mexican Catholic and Jewish artifacts, a large Star of David in close proximity to the Virgin Mary. Among the quests at the house is a non-observant man whose presence causes discomfort for some of the other men, as well as Moishe's Catholic mistress who conducts her own memorial service at a church. Like Go for Zucker, the main drama is between battling relatives, as well as two very different cousins who rediscover each other, and are mutually attracted, in spite and because of their differences.

Beyond whatever ethnic humor is to be gleaned from the title, as well as some of the events, in My Mexican Shivah, are some very universal concerns. Acting as a comic Greek chorus, the Yiddish conversing angels, Aleph and Bet frame the main theme of how one chooses to evaluate the life of another, how that person is to be remembered. Some of the conflicts are in regards to the spirit and letter of religious belief. At one point, the daughter who is acting as hostess for the shivah throws out some food because kosher laws were disregarded, calling mixed food and preparation a sin. One of the maids remarks that throwing out the food is a sin. Alejandro Springall has affection for all of the characters, so that one could say neither woman is wrong, even their reasons are at cross purposes. For the characters in My Mexican Shivah, it is whatever can be vaguely recognized as what is similar in purpose or need that brings people together that is of greater value than any real or imagined differences.

Although I was not familiar with Alejandro Springall's name, I found I was familiar with some of his other work with John Sayles and Guillermo del Toro. A name that might be more recognizable for some is that of The Klezmatics, the band that provides most of the music for the film. The basis for the film is a story by Ilan Stavans. The English language title suggests a one note joke, but the film is both sweeter, sadder, and more substantial.

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Posted by peter at 12:10 AM

September 15, 2009

Tone

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Piak Poster - 1970
Phanthamitr Region 0 DVD

If one depended on IBDb for the history of world cinema, one would be unaware that Piak Poster was considered one of the top Thai filmmakers of the 1970s. Seen almost forty years after it was produced, Tone is might be of greater interest in its attempt to bridge some of the traditional elements of Thai movies with those of the Hollywood films of the same same time. Even if some of the uses of technique might have been considered cliche by western viewers, Tone is a display of how relatively quickly western popular culture became globalized.

The narrative is virtual Thai formula. Honest and simple youngish man, Tone, leaves his rural village and goes to Bangkok to study, I'm not making this up, Interior Decorating. Staying at the house of his new best friend, Aod, he soon locks horns with Aod's voluptuous and spoiled sister, Dang. Of course the two finally admit that they love each other. Dang realizes her feelings for Tone after he rescues her from the gangster who is cahoots with a lout from Tone's home village. There are a couple of attempted rapes, fist fights, and shootings, in short, the stuff that the local audience wanted, or at least what Thai producers assumed was expected by the audience.

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The best part of Tone is the title sequence, of psychedelic, polarized colors, and the singing of Thailand's top rock band, The Impossibles. If they weren't singing in Thai, one could easily mistake them for a Bubblegum rock band, maybe not as good as The Monkees, but more credible than the 1910 Fruitgum Company. The song performed during the title sequence is about getting ready for summer vacation, while the second is about riding a train. If either song had been performed in English, it would have found a cozy home on Woodstock era AM radio. There is another band that performs in the film during a party sequence, doing reasonable high school band cover versions of The Beatles' "Birthday", Crazy Elephant's "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'", and surprisingly well, Booker T and the MGs' "Time is Tight". Tone may not have been any more an accurate depiction of its era than anything released from American-International Pictures, but it shows Thai youth doing the hippy hippy shake shake in Nehru shirts, love beads and miniskirts.

More traditional Thai popular music comes in the form of the shy country girl, Kularb, a childhood friend of Tone. There is also a "love song" performed by the film's comic character, Song, a skinny, older guy missing his front teeth. Song has the good looks of Gabby Hayes combined with the machismo of Franklin Pangborn. In an effort to be timely, some of the characters refer to the Apollo moon landing that took place in August 1969, which took place a year prior to the release of Tone in Thailand. Piak also acknowledges the still new freedom accorded filmmakers after the U.S. initiated their rating system with a, ahem, brief shot of Aod's cheeks while getting caught putting on his tighty whities by sister Dang. It is a cleverly composed shot with Dang seen entering the room on the right side of the frame, while a mirrored image of Aod is on the left side. Whatever one might think of, comparing Tone with films released in the U.S. or Europe, the film was innovative enough to be a major hit during a time when Thai productions were not in favor with the home audience.

While it was never intentional, there is also what might be considered an inside joke in Tone. Conspicuous in its size is a poster in Dang's bedroom of Petula Clark in Francis Ford Coppola's Finian's Rainbow. Piak Poster served as the Second Unit Director for Chatrichalerm Yukol's epic, Suriyothai. When released in the U.S., Prince Chatri's film was presented by old UCLA pal, Francis Ford Coppola. Karma? Maybe. Coincidence? Maybe not.

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The print quality is uneven, and the subtitles indicate a tenuous understanding of English, but for those interested, Tone is available from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at 12:08 AM | Comments (1)

September 13, 2009

Coffee Break

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Asier Hormaza and Itziar Ituno in The End of the Night (Patxi Barko - 2003)

Posted by peter at 12:27 AM

September 10, 2009

Wagon Master

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John Ford - 1950
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Wagon Master is one of the handful of sound era John Ford films that I was never able to see until its DVD debut. Reputedly Ford's favorite of his own films, I don't think it's a great film, but it is certainly beautifully photographed in black and white, and often fun to watch. In addition to members of the John Ford stock company, there's the square dance, a moment to sing "Shall We Gather at the River", the bashful courtship between a young man more comfortable handling a gun or a wild horse, and a young woman who is in some ways more worldly. There is enough familiarity with Ford's work that parts of Wagon Master might appear to be by the numbers.

What I didn't expect was a higher level of violence. I can't think of any other Ford film that had a pre-title sequence. Wagon Master begins with the completion of a stick up by Uncle Shiloh and his gang. Upon exiting, a clerk attempts to shoot the fleeing outlaws. Wounded in the shoulder, Uncle Shiloh turns around and admonishes the would-be hero, "You shouldn't have done that", and his gang shoots back, ignoring pleas of mercy. Charles Kemper's Uncle Shiloh Clegg is one of Ford's best villains, knowing how to ingratiate himself with present or future victims. His sons have none of his charm, needing constant reigning in. Among the gang are Hank Worden, an idiot savant in The Searchers, but here, just an idiot, and James Arness, an oversized, hulking menace, just a year away from being cast by Howard Hawks as an intellectual carrot from outer space. In another scene, one of the Clegg sons is dragged away to be whipped after trying to rape a Navaho maiden. It's the kind of scene that might have been played with whipping off screen a few years earlier. As a smaller, more personal film, the more graphic violence may have been Ford's way of dealing with some of the changes taking place in Hollywood filmmaking following World War II, particularly those films dealing with contemporary characters.

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By the same token, I can't recall a Ford film with as much sexual tension as Wagon Master. Not even Mogambo, with the teaming of Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly fighting over Clark Gable, comes close. There is something more palpable between the easy going Ben Johnson and the often smoldering Joanne Dru than I've been aware of in other Ford films. In one scene, Dru accidentally tosses her bath water onto Johnson. The sight of Dru from the shoulders up is enough to suggest that she was nude underneath. There's a playfulness between Dru and Johnson that leads up to their final bonding that seems more genuine than the more heavy handed courtships of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, for example.

That the film is about Mormons seems more like a plot device to create humor out of Ward Bond's attempts to keep from swearing, or broach the truth about Joanne Dru and her medicine show partners to his fellow travelers. Likewise, Jane Darwell seems overly beatific with her constant smile, used for broad laughs when she blows her tuneless horn, but truly funny when she cackles in reaction to Johnson's claim that he only shoots snakes. What is best about Wagon Master are the faces of the characters, the way they are photographed, both in the framing and use of shadows. In this regard, I would not think of the film as simply another John Ford film, but almost as a rediscovered family album.

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Posted by peter at 12:06 AM | Comments (3)

September 08, 2009

Sorum

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Yun Jong-chan - 2001
Tartan Asia Extreme Region 1 DVD

As one who spends a large portion of my time thinking about, writing about, and simply watching films, I realize that part of my life is outside of mainstream existence. I felt even more apart by the simple fact that news that had meant something to me was not even mentioned in any of the "entertainment" news from sources like Yahoo or Huffington Post. The news I received was through the informal alliance of other people who write about films. Most disturbing was the murder of Nika Bohinc and Alexis Tioseco at their home in The Philippines. I've been a sometime reader of Criticine since my own deeper explorations into Thai cinema in 2006. More about Nika and Alexis, and arguably, what the deeper purpose of writing about film should be can be found at Girish Shambu's site. It was through my Facebook connection with Catherine Grant that I learned about the death of Keith Waterhouse. This was significant for me as one who generally likes the British films of the early Sixties, the so-called "Kitchen Sink" period. It was through Todd Brown and his site, Twitch that I found out about the untimely death of Korean actress Jang Jin-young.

Jang made two films with writer-director Yun Jong-chan. I had seen the second, Blue Swallow, knowing nothing about it, but taking advantage of a very brief period when I was able to buy subtitled Korean, Hong Kong and Chinese DVDs in Thailand from some local entrepreneurs. The biography of Park Kyeong-Won, one of Korea's pioneer female aviators, the film starts off as a Hawksian adventure about a young woman who demonstrates her ability to be one of the guys with her flying skills and sense of adventure, before shifting to a much darker film about the relationship between Koreans and Japanese in the years before World War II. Because of the controversial aspects of Park's life, Blue Swallow was a box office failure in Korea, although those who have seen the film agree on the quality of Jang's performance.

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Yun first film with Jang, also is directorial debut, Sorum is more easily available for western viewers. The film has several of the elements of several Asian horror movies - the dilapidated apartment building that is inches away from condemnation, the mysterious neighbors, the rumored death of a child by a former resident, the protagonist who moves into the building because there is no available money for anything better. Yun goes against some of the genre expectations by keeping most of the violence off screen. The viewer is aware indirectly of what has occurred by a couple of scenes that suggest some very confused memories comprised of brief, subjective shots. Also, the closest Sorum comes to having any ghosts appear in the film is in the dreams of one of the characters dreaming about her deceased husband. The creepiness is created by a few flickering lights, objects that seem to fall down on their own, and a soundtrack of creaking doors and stairs, faint lullabies heard from an unknown source, and rainfall so dense it is if one can hear every drop.

Jang appears as Sun-yeong, a woman working a late night shift at the loneliest 7-11 in Seoul. Yong-hyun (Kim Meong-min), a taxi driver has just moved into the same building and same floor. The two become connected in ways unexpected following Yong-hyun's first late night purchase of a candy bar. Yong-hyun first becomes learns about the violent death of the previous tenant in his apartment from another neighbor, a failed publisher who is writing a novel. It is the death that has taken place in the building that serves as a connection for the Fifth floor residents, as well as wedge that causes more violence. Yong-hyun thinks his apartment is a cheap refuge from his own past, only to find his life entwined with that of his neighbors, who find themselves unable to leave. While less explicit in this regard compared to films inspired by Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, or Robert Wise's version of Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House, the building that Yong-hyun and Sun-yeong live in serves as another character in Sorum.

Yun often keeps his distance from his characters, with several scenes composed of static medium or long shots. Only in a few scenes are there close-ups, in some of the most dramatic moments. The display of technique is saved for a couple of flashbacks of past incidences remembered or possibly imagined. Yun will even undermine how a scene is expected to be filmed as when Yong-hyun sees Sun-yeong in the distance, and his head completely blocks her out of the shot. The sense of isolation, the distance of the characters from each other, and from the audience, is also emphasized by the absence of people, either barely seen in the distance in the streets of Seoul, or pointedly not scene, as when Yong-hyun and Sun-yeong are in a rural village that has served as a film set. The effect is one where the attempt to be close with another person is an invitation to tragedy, and far from truly being alone, we bring with us our own ghosts.

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Posted by peter at 01:00 PM

September 06, 2009

Coffee Break

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Eva Marie Saint and Sam Shepard in Don't Come Knocking (Wim Wenders - 2005)

Posted by peter at 12:52 AM | Comments (1)

September 03, 2009

Spirited Killer

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Plook Mun Kuen Ma Kah 4
Towatchai Ladloy - 1994
BCI Region 1 DVD

The only reason to see Spirited Killer is for the film debut of Panom Yeerum. Almost twelve years later, this eighteen year old actor would be know throughout the world as Tony Jaa. There isn't really much to see, except that one gets a glimpse of the athletic ability that would be showcased in Ong Bak. The man Panom is seen dueling with is his teacher, Panna Rittikrai.

Ong Bak 2 is scheduled for a VOD release near the end of this month, to be followed by a theatrical release in October. To see both films is something of a study in contrasts in the changes made in the Thai industry in the past fifteen years. Spirited Killer was made on a much lower budget, and was made primarily for a Thai audience, perhaps seen in some neighboring Asian countries. There isn't much of a story - a doctor, a practitioner of black magic, performs a prayer ritual, and offers a handful of people a special concoction that will change their lives. From the lay person's point of view, the people have been poisoned, but the doctor insists that they've achieved immortality. The doctor proves to be expert at boxing and sword-fighting, but one witness gets away. The doctor is chased away by some angry villagers, seemingly lost in a river after being stabbed multiple times. Five years later, a stranger appears, primarily glaring at everyone, before getting down to business with his sword. A group of Japanese students show up, in search of some rare relics, but are in the film mostly to provide lame comic relief. The villagers and the students try to find a way to defeat the mystery man causing havoc in the remote community. Spirited Killer has some of the same weaknesses of Thai films made in the past few years. This is a film that frankly was made for an unsophisticated audience that was looking for lots of action, a some dumb laughs.

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The future Tony Jaa is showcased at about the forty-one minute mark. Even back in 1994 it was obvious that this young man had a special relationship with gravity. I'm probably not the only one who considers martial arts movies as musicals for guys who wouldn't be caught dead watching watching a musical. That may be exaggerating a bit, but those who carefully read the credits or know a thing or two about the craft of filmmaking know that the fights are choreographed. And in a couple of shots in this smeary transfer, one can see just Tony Jaa taking flight with a couple of leaps, somersaulting in midair. That Tony is able to do his stunts without wires makes him more fantastic to watch.

While this is not a musical, there is a musical number where one of the actresses breaks out in song, but no dance. Maybe had the lyrics been translated, I might have understood the meaning of this song in the early part of the film. It would perhaps be helpful if the actress who plays the character Fah could be identified. Nonetheless, this interlude is one of the few bright spots in a film that has a negligible plot about an unstoppable killer, and alleged comedy mostly involving a mute named Mute and a short, stocky man with an electric fan.

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Posted by peter at 12:03 AM

September 01, 2009

Don't Touch the White Woman

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Touche pas a la Femme Blanche
Marco Ferreri - 1974
Koch Lorber Region 1 DVD

While I am not going to the Telluride Film Festival this year, I thought it time to see again a film that played at Telluride in 1974. While I didn't feel any great wave of nostalgia for Don't Touch the White Woman, the version screened at Telluride was without subtitles. What little I understood had more to do with my familiarity regarding General Custer and Little Big Horn than what the characters were actually saying to each other. Seeing the film for the first time in thirty-five years, even with English subtitles, I wondered why I bothered.

Marco Ferreri's film was made after the more commercially successful La Grande Bouffe, the black comedy about a group of men who commit suicide by gorging on food until they've stuffed themselves to death. One of the several reasons why I am certain that Don't Touch the White Woman never received U.S. distribution is because its allegory was already dated by the time it was released in France in January 1974. Seeing the film again, my own feeling is that Ferreri was primarily addressing a smug audience that considered itself too intellectual to bother seeing an actual western, or even consider one of the more recently released revisionist westerns from Hollywood.

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Ferreri's version of Custer and Little Big Horn was to film it in the middle of then contemporary Paris, at Les Halles which was undergoing reconstruction and was essential a very large hole. The French and Italian actors are in 19th Century costume. While there is a brief mention of Algeria, Ferreri reminds the viewer repeatedly that he is comparing the U.S. governments treatment of Native Americans with U.S. military action in Viet-Nam with portraits of Richard Nixon visible whenever possible. Ferreri's own revision comes in the form of the famously blond Custer portrayed by the dark haired Marcello Mastroianni. Competition as America's top Indian fighter comes in the form of an equally vain and buffoonish Buffalo Bill, played by Michel Piccoli. Catherine Deneuve's role as the woman Custer falls in love with is mostly decorative. At the time that I saw Don't Touch the White Woman the first time, the draft had ended and U.S. troops had a reduced presence in Viet-Nam, and Richard Nixon had resigned less than a month ago. Ferreri's film might stand as a lesson on the fragility of making a film that depends on timeliness in making its points.

What bothers me about Don't Touch the White Woman thirty-five years later is how unnecessary it was in criticizing the U.S. government or Hollywood films. Using the "Garryowen" march seems like a cheap shot, particularly at John Ford, who once stated in an interview that, on film, he had killed more Indians than Chivington. Even Ford owned up to an often glossed over aspect of U.S. history, in part with The Searchers, and more directly with Cheyenne Autumn, especially in a scene where a soldier compares the rounding up of the Native Americans with the actions of the Cossacks in his native Poland. One didn't need to look to deeply into more recent films that could be read as allegories about the U.S. in Viet-Nam, Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, and the more direct Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue. The My Lai massacre would have been fresh enough in the Fall of 1970 when Nelson and Penn has their films released. However avant garde Don't Touch the White Woman may have been when originally conceived, the message was dead even before the messenger.

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Posted by peter at 01:33 PM