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October 31, 2010

Coffee Break

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Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker - 1970)

Posted by peter at 05:16 AM

October 28, 2010

They Came from Beyond Hollywood!!!

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Rehan in The Living Corpse (Khwaja Sarfraz - 1967)

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Alka Noopur in Purana Mandir (Shyam Ramsay and Tulsi Ramsay - 1984)

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Ajay Agarwal in Purana Mandir

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Jay Manahlo and Vhong Navarro in Gagamboy (Erik Matti - 2004)

Posted by peter at 05:59 AM | Comments (1)

October 26, 2010

The Discarnates

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Ijintachi tono natsu
Nobuhiko Obayashi - 1988
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

As in his other films, Nobuhiko Obayashi employs some cheap special effects for The Discarnates. Unlike the other films I have seen, it is used only in a few key moments. Unlike Obayashi's films which seem to be aimed primarily at an audience in the age range of his teen protagonists, this is the Obayashi film about and for adults. The English language title is a giveaway regarding the subject matter. This is a ghost story to be sure. Unlike House, where Obayashi threw everything at the audience, including the kitchen sink, in The Discarnates much is withheld until the last possible moment.

The film is less about ghosts than about love, loss and regret. Hidemi, a television writer, feels a sense of dislocation when his friend, Ichiro, announces his intentions towards Hidemi's ex-wife. Hidemi lives in what is, for reasons never explained, a virtually empty apartment building. The only other tenant, a fairly attractive woman, comes to Hidemi's door to offer champagne and possible friendship. Hidemi curtly turns her away. That feeling of psychological and physical alienation becomes more pronounced when, doing research for a new show, Hidemi, finds himself alone in what is suppose to be an abandoned subway tunnel. Running out of the subway station, Hidemi takes a walk in his childhood neighborhood of Asakusa. While strolling in the neighborhood, Hidemi encounters a man who looks like his father, first sitting in a theater where a magician performs an old fashioned show, and is coaxed in coming to the man's apartment where he lives with a woman who resembles Hidemi's mother. The pair speak to Hidemi in very familiar terms. Hidemi returns to visit the two people, not certain if they are in fact the parents who died twenty-eight years ago.

This new sense of belonging allows Hidemi to open up to his neighbor, Kei. Hidemi and Kei find solace in each other, although Kei also suggests that she has some secrets of her own that she would prefer not to share. Gradually, Hidemi finds that his visits with his parents may come with a price, but in the meantime his attitude is that he doesn't care if they are ghosts or monsters. "They could be zombies for all I care."

Part of the soundtrack consists of Puccini's "O mio babbino caro". As frequently as the song is heard, the message of the film questions the notion of dying for love. More problematic is a scene of Hidemi and Kei conversing, with Carmen Comes Home playing on television in the background. Is what was intended by Obayashi a comic counterpoint regarding those who work in the entertainment industry, self-deluded about their art, and out of place in their environment? How much of the film is autobiographical, I can not say, although the film adapted from Taichi Yamada's novel, titled in English, Strangers. It is worth noting that Yamada's early career was as a writer for film and television, and that his first credits were writing for Keisuke Kinoshita, the director of Carmen Comes Home, who was working in television during the mid Sixties. This may be a simplistic interpretation, but the scene of the magic show, complete with the rabbit coming out of the hat, may be Yamada and Obayahsi's way of showing the seductive power of illusion. The ghosts in The Discarnates may not be real, but the feelings engendered can not be denied. For the characters in the film, it is as difficult to let go of the past as it is to embrace the present. At its conclusion, The Discarnates is never scary, but it is achingly sad.

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Nobuhiko Obayashi

Posted by peter at 07:55 AM

October 24, 2010

Coffee Break

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Luana Anders and Peter Brocco in The Killing Kind (Curtis Harrington - 1973)

Posted by peter at 12:35 AM

October 22, 2010

D'Anothers

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Joyce Bernal - 2005
Star Cinema Region 0 DVD

If one didn't pay attention to the credits, one might think D'Anothers was directed by a guy. This is a film with some of the kind of raunchy humor involving food, farting, and pants wetting that might be aimed for an audience of teenage boys of all ages. Most of the comedy is frankly broad or low brow, but some of it is actually pretty funny. This is a Filipino film made for the home audience, but I suspect that if some smart producer invited Joyce Bernal to make something in the vein of of a Scary Movie or The Hangover, she would be more than capable of delivering the goods.

The film's main character is a variation of the kind of of role often associated with Bob Hope, the perpetual coward who even seems afraid of his own shadow. What makes this film even more deeply Filipino in certain respects is that Vhong Navarro portrays a scaredy cat named Jesus Resurreccion. With a name like that, D'Anothers goes into certain theological areas I'm not really capable of addressing. In this case, young Jesus inherits a mansion full of ghosts that are his past relatives. The plot involves a key which allows these ghosts to pass from being house bound to go "into the light", or turn into cockroaches. The ghosts have been waiting for Jesus, whom all signs point to being "The One". For someone with only a slight knowledge of Filipino culture, D'Anothers simply works when not trying to think about some of the thornier implication of the material.

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It's a motley crew of ghosts, including a headless priest, and midget, and a young tough who would rather stay earthbound to be near is beloved, a now mature woman who runs the little sari-sari store down the road. Jesus also has to contend with supporting his very large aunt and her two punk sons. Learning that he has inherited the mansion, Jesus hopes to sell the place with the hopes of buying the approval of his girlfriend's parents. Goaded to prove he is not a coward, Jesus is frightened by all manner of spookiness in a fake haunted house with costumed creatures. With nothing left to lose after being dumped by the girlfriend, Jesus virtually hurls himself into the mansion with its residents possessing temporal corporeality.

The film was probably designed to be something of a lark for Bernal, and screenwriters Adolfo Alix, Jr. and Raymond Lee, not only spoofing conventions of Filipino movies, and other horror films, but some other films as well. The title should be a giveaway, referring The Others. One unexpected bit has the oversized aunt of Jesus posing as an eye patch wearing nurse, with the whistling in the soundtrack making sure one thinks of Kill Bill. Bernal takes a break from the story for an extended dance number that's a bit of Bollywood and a breakdancing face off, including an amusingly silly song, "The Chicken Dance", that does nothing to add to the narrative, but is a reminder of Bernal's skill as a editor. Even though the dance number is composed mostly of some very short shots, the combination of the compositions and the editing appears more seamless and ultimately more visually coherent than visual hodgepodge from the likes of Rob Marshall.

This is the first film I've seen by Joyce Bernal. The chronicler of Filipino cinema, Noel Vera, considers her worthy of being a National Artist. There is very little critical writing about Bernal in English, even by those who claim to champion female filmmakers. Even if one doesn't take the time to give Bernal the same kind of attention given to someone like Nancy Meyers, the sheer number of films made since moving from editor to director is impressive. For those paying attention to Asian cinema, Bernal's films frequently represent The Philippines at the Udine (Italy) Far East Film Festival. In any case, this is a filmmaker I need to make of point of revisiting.

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Posted by peter at 06:45 AM | Comments (4)

October 20, 2010

Visits: Hungry Ghost Anthology

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"1413"

Low Ngai Yuen, James Lee, Ng Tian Hann, Ho Yu-hang - 2004
Tidepoint Pictures Region 1 DVD

Visits is one of those films that is better understood by watching the "Making of" supplement. Unlike the usual documentation of the director and actor going through the motions of creating a shot, we get to see the four directors discuss the making of their short films, and the producer, Lina Tan, discuss the inspiration and context for the work. The inspiration is the Hungry Ghost Festival. The context is a Chinese language film for the ethnic Chinese, a significant minority, in the primarily Muslim country of Malaysia. From skimming a couple of the reviews of the film, a western viewer, especially one who views Asian film with little awareness of cultural difference, tends to dismiss Visits as falling short of the expectations created by films in more artistically liberal countries such as Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand. What might be more explicitly shown or stated in these other countries has to be suggested in Malaysia in keeping with what is allowed for a general audience. The equivalent to the PG-13 rating was only introduced about two years ago. For western critics, Visits has been dismissed at least in part due to cultural misunderstandings.

What was interesting for me was how two pairs of stories seemed to segue into each other, with the first story, "1413", about the intense friendship between two high school girls followed by another story about friendship between women, "Waiting for Them", with its more obvious lesbian theme. The third story, about a film student attempting to document a ghost beckoning ritual in "Nodding Scoop", was followed by "Anybody Home?" a story primarily told in the form of shots from surveillance cameras in an apartment and the hidden cameras positioned in a woman's apartment. As the work of four different filmmakers, like many omnibus productions, there is an uneven quality with the best of the shorts being from the two most accomplished directors, the relatively internationally regarded James Lee, and Low Ngai Yuen.

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"Waiting for Them"

While the filmmakers note that the film was shot on digital video, with a small budget, further research has indicated that Visits was the inaugural feature for a Malaysian theater chain with theaters specializing in art and independent films, done in conjunction with the local production company Red Films. Even though Visits had made the round of film festivals, mostly on the strength of Lee's involvement, I have to assume that the production costs were kept down to recoup costs from a mostly local audience. The star of Lee's film mentions working during the day while filming at night, suggesting that within Malaysia there are only a handful of full-time professional actors. The biggest name in Visits is the pan-Asian star, Carmen Soo.

The limited budget also meant that the number of actors is small. Most of the time, only two or three actors are onscreen. Kuala Lampur is depopulated, with a virtually empty hospital, restaurant, office and street among the settings. In a strange way this works to the overall film's advantage making the film take place in an other worldly environment, and adding to the general sense of unease.

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"Nodding Scoop"

Low's film relies the most on some of the familiar tropes of horror films, with a long haired young woman haunting her friend, suffering from amnesia. The two first seen following an assumed suicide pact, having fallen from a tall building. There is a scene with a priest doing some form of exorcism when the amnesiac girl reports seeing a ghost, with the priest not clearly Buddhist or any specified faith. As in James Lee's film, ghosts sometimes appear not for haunting, but for reconciliation with others, or as a means of finding peace within themselves.

Lee's film is about the friendship between two women, Sam and Anne. Anne is distraught over the ending of her relationship with another woman, conveyed through a phone conversation with Sam. The two plan to talk more over the phone later that night. Anne never answers her phone. Sam's boyfriend shows up, they talk, but they do not sleep together, with Sam offering a guest bedroom. The next night, Sam finds Anne walking alone, and picks her up. In Sam's apartment, Anne expresses her appreciation for Sam's continued friendship, even when something was revealed about Anne. It is never stated what that something is, although one can guess, especially when Sam describes to her boyfriend, Anne's relationship as "complicated". Anne goes to the guest room where she finds a ghost in the closet. One might argue that more is being read into this than intended. Or Lee is using some visual signals for a love that dare not speak its name in a Muslim country. Lee has reportedly revisited some of the elements in "Waiting for Them" with his first 35mm feature, Histeria.

The "Nodding Scoop" is a large ladle that is rigged with a small bucket, a wig, and some cloth. The wigged scoop appears to look like a small, reclusive long haired ghost, with the head nodding back and forth. Hoping to scare viewers, and scare up a career, Ng Tian Hann's budding filmmaker finds himself over his head with a possibly real ghosts as well as two rival female assistants. Ho Yu-Hang's film similarly is about a male seemingly in control of a situation, only to discover that his voyeurism comes with a heavy price. The security guard of an apartment building, he sets up cameras to follow the life of an attractive female tenant. Watching her from a television screen is soon replaced by spending time in her apartment, sleeping on her bed, smelling her bra, and discovering more than he would have wanted to know. "Anybody Home?" is overlong, but is finally worth watching for the scene of a distraught Jackie Lim, illuminated by a barely clasped flashlight.

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"Anybody Home?"

Posted by peter at 12:44 AM

October 18, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010- The Schedule

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This year, I felt bold enough to make a few suggestions for films to be shown at this years Starz Denver Film Festival. With the surging interest of 3D movies, I suggested Takashi Shimizu's new movie, as the film festival would be perfect to showcase a 3D movie from Japan. That film was shown last September in Venice. I though maybe some old school 3D films might be worth considering, an idea suggested a couple month prior to this retrospective. I also suggested a new Thai documentary, Baby Arabia, about a group of Muslim musicians who combine the sounds of the Middle East with Thailand's luk-tung traditions. That film was shown at Seattle's Dragon and Tigers series. Maybe I'm just too hip for Denver.

Certainly, being a film festival programmer isn't always easy for a variety of reasons, as indicated by the series of interviews conducted by Michael Guillen with Toronto International Film Festival's Kate Lawrie Van de Ven, Colin Geddes, and Diana Sanchez. And with any selection of films in a festival of this size, my own questions concern which films should be covered. To what extent do I write about the films that interest me, and to what extent do I cover films that might be more representative of what is offered at this film festival. I know that Uncle Boonmee and Poetry are two films I most want to see, but I would hardly among the first to weigh in on either work. In the case of Uncle Boonmee, my only advantages are that I have seen Apichatpong's other films, and have some personal experience with Thailand and Thai culture. It should be noted that both Uncle Boonmee and Poetry have U.S. distribution, but with boutique companies, meaning that both films will be seen more widely on DVD than theatrically. I feel less compelled to write about something like Black Swan or 127 Hours because these are films assured fairly wide theatrical release, but am not ruling anything out with DVD screeners and critic's screenings to augment what I see at the festival.

The listed films indicate, at least for me, no general change in programming. Like last year, there is an emphasis on films from Mexico and Iran. There are a few shorts, but Asian cinema gets short shrift again, with only the two aforementioned titles, plus the anime, Summer Wars from Japan. There are, again, several films that I have read about from other film festivals, including Marilyn Ferdinand's take on several intriguing films that recently played in Chicago, that won't be coming to Denver, at least not as part of the festival.

Some of the films that have struck my interest are a new film by Hans Petter Moland, a new Argentinan film starring Ricardo Darin (who else?) and an Italian language film, The Smell of Lemons, the debut feature by Joel Stangle. I may also see Blue Valentine simply to see what it currently takes to put the MPAA's panties in a bunch. I may also have to see some film as screeners where possible - Uncle Boonmee is pitted twice against Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte which is frustrating as both films seem to be complimentary, covering some of the same ideas from different cultures and philosophies. One of the events I will attend is the Stan Brakhage Award to P. Adams Sitney. I was a student of Sitney's at NYU, and learned a bit not only about so-called experimental films but also about looking at film and art in general, especially linking some of Stan Brakhage's work with the paintings of J.M.W Turner and Clyfford Still. The schedule also looks like it has several blank spaces for additional screenings and possible late minute additions.

Comments are open for those who wish to make suggestions about films you think I should cover on this site.

Posted by peter at 02:23 AM | Comments (4)

October 17, 2010

Coffee Break

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Kunika Lal in Bandh Darwaza (Shyam Ramsay and Tulsi Ramsay - 1990)

Posted by peter at 04:39 AM

October 15, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - A New Venue

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I was going to have this be part of my coverage of the Starz Denver Film Festival schedule, to be announced after Midnight (U.S. Mountain Time), October 18. The festival runs from November 3 through the 14th. What was originally conceived of as a couple of little paragraphs on the new screening space grew, which is why this is posted separately from the upcoming post with the schedule.

Sometimes the ongoing saga of the Denver Film Society can be as interesting, and sometimes more so, than any movies they are presenting, whether as part of the annual film festival, or part of their regular programming. The photo above is of the cafe/lobby area of a small three screen theater that was known as The Neighborhood Flix. Started by three young entrepreneurs, the theater lasted about a year, primarily showing second run arty films plus a couple of first run films that the other theaters hadn't booked. After being shuttered for well over a year, the theater will be the new home for Denver Film Society's regular programming, and will also have screenings during the film festival. I am hoping that the cafe/lobby area are restored or if somehow possible, improved, but it is much nicer than the space in the Starz Theater, a former AMC multiplex with smallish screens, not always comfortable seating, and not always the best sight lines.

The new theater only has three screens, down one from the four that are usually used for the regular programming. From an artistic sense, yes, more screens means more movies, but as the lone audience member for Tony Manero, I can sympathize from an economic standpoint. The theaters are small, but the screens as I recall were bigger, or seemed bigger, with very comfortable seats. For someone going to the theater as part of the festival, there is also the attraction of actually having somewhere to go between films. The theater is not visible from Denver's busiest street, Colfax Avenue, but is nestled across from the town's largest independent bookstore, The Tattered Cover, and to the rear of the beloved independent record store, Twist and Shout. I can think of a couple of cinephile friends and acquaintances who would adore the idea of choosing between a bookstore and a record store to fritter away time between films. Also a plus are the many restaurants in the area that are open until late at night, unlike at the Starz location which offered a choice between a pizza place and a limited menu restaurant, often closed in the early evening.

Having the film festival, or at least part of it, on Colfax is something of a return to the film festival roots when the first festival screened films at the Ogden Theater, about a mile to the west. At that time, the festival programming was a bit more, um, eclectic, with such films as The Road Warrior, where I got to ask director George Miller what kind of car he happened to drive. Just a couple of blocks away, where a Walgreen's stands was the location of The Aladdin Theater, where the film festival presented Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's Our Hitler. The cinematic connections don't end there with a location near Denver's East High School (alumni include Don Cheadle, Pam Grier, an Oscar winner - Hattie McDaniel, Douglas Fairbanks, the Denver Post's film critic - the lovely Lisa Kennedy, and me). One of the houses in the neighborhood was reputed to have been the home of the young Doug Fairbanks. I was hoping to nail the exact location when Doug Jr. visited Denver in the early Eighties, but no such luck. The only downside, at least for myself, with the new location, is a longer bus ride.

Posted by peter at 01:25 AM | Comments (1)

October 13, 2010

Seeding of a Ghost

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Zhong gui
Chuan Yang - 1983
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

A recently posted article explains the status of ghost stories and horror films in Chinese language cinema. Given that Hong Kong now frequently looks to the mainland for financial support as well as an audience for their filmmaking efforts, one can expect even fewer films that dwell on the fantastic. That impact could well reach some other Asian countries as well, such as Thailand, where fewer ghost stories, a staple of that country's cinema, are made, in view of viability in a pan-Asian market.

Seeding of a Ghost may well serve as a record of what was once permissible in for filmmakers in Hong Kong. One of the handful of horror films produced by the Shaw Brothers, there is not only the mix of black magic, Buddhism, and a generous amount of grue, but copious scenes of nudity and simulated sex. For some viewers, this film will be provide everything they will want to know about Maria Yuen and Mi Tien. The film was directed by Richard Yeung Kuen under one of his several pen names.

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Chow, a cab driver, accidentally runs over a grave robber attempting to flee a small band of men chasing after him. Looking under the wheel of his cab, the grave robber seemingly has disappeared. Popping up in the back seat of the cab, the grave robber explains that he knows black magic. Even with Chow aiding in the shaman's escape, Chau is informed that he has brought bad luck to himself and his family, proving once again that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We later see that Chow is married to Irene, a dealer at a casino. A gambler, Ming, has his eye on Irene. Giving her a large tip, Irene spend some of the money on gifts for Chow. The couple seems to be in love, but Ming's increasing generosity tips the scales in his favor, with Irene engaged in an affair. Things go awry when a couple of punks challenge Ming to a road race, and finding Irene alone after a tiff with her lover, kidnap, rape and murder the woman. Chow mysteriously gets a phone message from his dead wife, on his cab phone, which leads him to the scene of the crime. Seeking revenge against his wife's lover, and the men who killed Irene, Chow finds the shaman again. After this, a modicum of suspension of disbelief gives way to total lapses of even a thread of logical storytelling.

This is a horror movie more yucky than scary. Probably the most frightening thing in the film for most people would be the exploding toilet. Chow and the shaman perform a ceremony that reanimates Irene's desiccated body. There's a bit of zombie canoodling, followed by zombie and dead guy's spirit mid-air sex. Irene's spirit shows up to upset Ming's domestic bliss, including the possession of his wife. A band of Buddhist/Taoist monks fight the shaman to exorcize Ming's wife, mostly hurling fire balls back and forth until the shaman's hut burns down. Ming's wife is pregnant with the offspring of zombie Irene, hence the seeding, although how this is achieved is anyone's guess. In what seems like the next day, Ming's wife gives birth to a tentacled monster that is out to kill everyone. The ending suggests that the monster isn't dead, even when the rest of the cast has been shoved off this mortal coil.

There is very little in English on Seeding of a Ghost that I was able to find aside from a few reviews posted online in the past few years. HK Cinemagic mentions that the film had censorship problems in Hong Kong but there is no elaboration or provided sources. A couple of the postings mention that the film may have been intended as a followup to the two Black Magic films, even though the cast and crew were different. What is indicated is that between the nudity and the necrophilia, this film is an extreme anomaly even among the more unusual films from the Shaw Brothers.

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Posted by peter at 04:49 AM | Comments (2)

October 11, 2010

Samurai Vendetta

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Hakuoki
Kazuo Mori - 1959
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

The original title, Hakuoki translates as "Chronicle of Cherry Blossoms". It is a more accurate title than Samurai Vendetta which suggests a film with more swordplay. Not that there isn't any of this type of action, but the heart of the film is mostly concerned with the overcomplicated and sometimes contradictory rules of samurai life at the beginning of the 18th Century. The film is about lives so formalized that by the end of the film there is no question as to why Shintaro Katsu's character prefers to be a ronin, a masterless samurai, rather than accept one of several invitations to be part of a clan.

The supreme example of samurai code of honor has been The 47 Ronin, a story filmed multiple times with differing emphasis and interpretations. Samurai Vendetta takes two of the samurai from The 47 Ronin, and makes them the main characters, in a narrative taking place prior to the classic story. Katsu and Raizo Ichikawa are members of rival clans, who also find themselves rivals in love. Even though Katsu's relationship with Chitose Maki remains that of a courtly gentleman, before and after Maki marries Ishikawa, it becomes the subject of rumor primarily stoked in order to create a confrontation between the two men. The personal loyalty of the three main characters remains consistent in spite of the outside forces, including not only the rules of conduct but how those rules are perceived by others.


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One scene that show the absurdity of Shogun law involves the treatment of animals. People flee in a panic when a lone dog is on the loose in the streets. Dogs were protected from any kind of harm that they are known as "Noble Dogs". Kazuo Mori cuts from the main story to depict men hung upside down and beaten, crucified and beheaded for their treatment of dogs. The unintended consequence of such a law causes Chitose Maki to find herself attacked by several dogs without the legal means of defending herself. That such a law exists is less surprising in an environment regarding all aspects of life, with a convoluted class structure. That wild dogs can run free serves as a reminder of the basic set up for The 47 Ronin where rank allows abusive behavior without legal recourse.

The casting of the lead players seems to reflect some odd decision making at Daiei Studios. Raizo Ichikawa was called the "James Dean of Japan", and had obvious, matinee idol good looks. Although he didn't have as big a range of type of films at Daiei, Ichikawa was probably seen as that studios equivalent to Toho's tall, brooding and equally young Tatsuya Nakadai. Shintaro Katsu was never conventionally handsome, yet someone at Daiei tried to make him a star. It wasn't until a year later, playing the conniving blind masseuse, and soon after that, the iconic Zatoichi, that Katsu achieved genuine popularity, based on his acting ability, and a face more suitable for a character actor than a romantic lead. Is there more to Chitose Maki than this entry at IMDb? Maki's filmography suggests that someone at Daiei had high hopes for this actress to begin with before letting the contract lapse with smaller roles.

Kazuo Mori uses a few stylistic flourishes of interest. A couple of times a split screen is used, with one shot wiping away the other. There's an artificiality of some of the lighting, exteriors being shot within the studio with dramatically colored cycloramas providing the backdrop. In one scene, Raizo Ishikawa allows himself to be cut by his sword wielding brother-in-law. In a close-up of the wounded Ishikawa, the color shifts to purple. One of the duels is filmed like a Busby Berkeley musical with the camera providing a bird's eye view of the action. It may strain credulity to see a one armed, immobile, samurai fight a gang while lying in the snow, but that's exactly what happens here. Samurai Vendetta suggests that just when you think you've seen almost everything possible in a samurai film, you find out you haven't.

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Posted by peter at 06:42 AM | Comments (1)

October 10, 2010

Coffee Break

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Charlene Choi in Diary (Oxide Pang - 2006)

Posted by peter at 04:53 AM | Comments (2)

October 07, 2010

Wisit Walks Away

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Citizen Dog

Since I named this blog after the column by Herman G. Weinberg (minus the brandy and cigars), that I use to read in the old "Take One" magazine, the time has come for a Weinberg style rant about the state of Cinema.

In the documentary, It's All True, Orson Welles demonstrated that he would and could make an unmistakably Orson Welles movie, even with the least resources available. Welles, like most film directors, would have be dragged from the studio kicking and screaming, than never make another movie. The only director I am aware of to have walked away from filmmaking is Brian Hutton, who is remembered primarily for being Clint Eastwood's director-for-hire on Where Eagles Dare and Kelly's Heroes. A somewhat more reliable source than IMDb states that Hutton left film to concentrate on real estate interests, while the IMDb story that Hutton became a plumber is another example of legend being accepted as fact.

Today marks the general release of Wisit Sasanatieng's film, Red Eagle in Thailand. Not only is this Wisit's latest film, but it could be his last as noted by the Thailand based film journalist, Wise Kwai. There are several reasons why this news has been received indifferently by the majority of film journalists. But imagine, if you will, if Wong Kar-wai decided after In the Mood for Love that he was no longer in the mood to make another film, or if Paul Thomas Anderson declared following There Will be Blood that there will be no more Paul Thomas Anderson movies. Imagine if Martin Scorsese declared after Raging Bull that he was tired from raging at the studio suits and their lack of imagination or sense of film history.

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Dang Birely and the Young Gangsters

How dare I compare a one-shot director from some little Asian country with St. Martin? Wisit's first big screen credit for writing the screenplay for Dang Birely and the Young Gangsters, a film that owed a lot to Mean Streets. (And let's not forget that Scorsese was in turn inspired by Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni.) Directed by Nonzee Nimibutr, Dang Birely was a huge hit in Thailand, marking the beginning of a Thai "New Wave". The comparison to Scorsese doesn't end there as Wisit's films are informed by his love for older films in general, but especially older Thai films. One of the the things that marked the criticism of Tears of the Black Tiger was the cultural misunderstanding, that Wisit was inspired not only by Hollywood and Italian westerns, but that Thailand also had its own tradition of action films, mostly unseen and unknown by most film journalists.

The saga of the distribution problems of Tears of the Black Tiger were of no help. For myself, Wisit's film was one I bought as the edited British DVD when it became clear that the Weinstein Brothers had no intention of releasing the film in the U.S. following the ballyhoo at Cannes. Even when that film did get a somewhat decent release in the U.S., it seems like the damage was irreversible. Wisit's second film, Citizen Dog, released to critical acclaim in Thailand, received a DVD release in the U.S. by a small company. His third film, The Unseeable, written by horror specialist Kongkiat Khomsiri, seemed to live up to its English language title. As muted in color and tone as the first two films are loud and colorful, The Unseeable came and went in Thai theaters. I came to late to see this film with English subtitles when I lived in Thailand, waiting for an imported DVD.

Unfortunately, critic love is not the same as box office love. The reviews by serious film critics and the various festival screenings do not make up for the fact that Wisit's films have been financial failures in Thailand. There have been a slew of projects that have been announced, that have not been done, and may never be realized. Unknown at this time are the compromises that probably were required to make Red Eagle. I hope to see Wisit's new film some day, some way. I've done what homework I could, seeing the last of the films that provided Wisit's inspiration.

That Thai companies have generally discontinued releasing DVDs with English subtitles has helped compound the problem for film scholarship. Not only are there only a handful of older films available for those who are not fluent in Thai, but even recently released films are not easy to see. Wisit returned the favor by writing the screenplay for the critically acclaimed Slice, released earlier this year. In spite of critical accolades in Thailand, and a large number of nominations for Thailand's equivalent to the Oscar, Slice is currently only available as a Thai DVD with no subtitles. Given the seemingly insatiable market for horror films, one would have thought Magnet or Lionsgate would have pounced on Slice for the U.S. DVD market. As far as seeing a subtitled version of Red Eagle, since I can't be at my favorite theater in Chiang Mai, I'll probably have to hope something is available from Hong Kong or Malaysia next year.

This is a conspicuous month as Wisit will also be visible at the Pusan International Film Festival with his contribution to the omnibus film Camellia. Bringing things to something of a full circle, Wisit's short film continues the adventures of Iron Pussy, Michael Shaowanasai's drag parody of Thai movie star Petchara Chaowarat. Not only was Petchara frequently paired onscreen with the original "Red Eagle", Mitr Chaibancha, but "Iron Pussy" was first introduced on film in a feature co-directed by Michael Shaowanasai and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Ten years ago, Wisit's debut film was the first Thai film to compete at Cannes, while Apichatpong's was the first Thai film to win the top prize. Even if Wisit is exiting a career in filmmaking, he is not leaving quietly.

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The Unseeable

Posted by peter at 03:46 AM | Comments (3)

October 05, 2010

Kuroneko

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Yabu no naka no kuroneko
Kaneto Shindo - 1968
Eureka! Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD

Just recently, I found out that Kaneto Shindo is the second oldest active filmmaker. Just a couple of years younger than that prolific late bloomer, Manoel de Oliveira, Shindo has made a new film, Post Card, scheduled to premiere later this month at the Tokyo International Film Festival. That Shindo had just completed his latest, and reportedly last film not only says something about his physical health but the fact that when younger directors have been forcibly retired, he still had a way of remaining commercially viable. For those reasons, Kaneto Shindo should probably get a major reevaluation of his work. Only a handful of films in Shindo's filmography are known to western cinephiles, with Onibaba, the title that is most famous. I might be proven wrong about this, but I think there has been a prejudice regarding some of Shindo's films based on the English language titles, The Lost Sex and Operation Negligee as examples, rather than examining the films themselves, by such school marmish cultural gatekeepers as Donald Richie and Joan Mellen. As more films slowly become available on DVD, one discovers more riches when the films are allowed to speak for themselves.

I first saw Onibaba on the giant screen of the New Yorker theater. The scene with the woman unable to remove the mask from her face was one of the most intense viewing experiences I've ever had. And yes, I saw the film because it was a certified classic, but anyone who knows me also knows that I'll take the time to see a good, and even not so good, horror movie. I suspect that some of the people who have seen Kuroneko would not be caught dead watching a kaibyo movie that was advertised as such. At least Doug Cummings of Masters of Cinema has no problem connecting Kuroneko with The Ghost Cat of Otoma Pond. I bring this up because even if one doesn't know, or even care, about the historical aspects of samurai era Japan, Kuroneko has enough genre elements to be enjoyed on a purely visceral level.

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On a tangential level, Kuroneko illustrates the Buddhist concept of hunger. The opening scene shows a group of fifteen foot soldiers emerging from a forest to drink water from an irrigation ditch surrounding a hut. The soldiers lower their heads into the water, the sound of them slurping amplified. One of the soldiers walks into the hut and discovers two women, Yone and her daughter-in-law, Shige. While the first soldier grabs food from a boiling pot, the other soldiers walk in and begin to pick at other available food, before putting their hands on the two women. While the rape of the women is mostly offscreen, Shindo cuts to close ups of two of the soldiers still eating, one with grains of rice scattered around his mouth and shirt. The visual suggestion is that the sex is as sloppy as the eating. The appearance of the soldiers suggest that they are of the lowest rank and act in the only way they know how to exert some modicum of power over those who are weaker than them. The women are left in the hut, which is set on fire. This opening scene sets up the rest of the film where distinction between the need for food and sex is minimal.

The women return as ghosts who appear at night, seeking revenge on unsuspecting samurai. Yone's son is introduced in a scene, fighting another man in a swampy area, with Shindo blurring the difference between men and animals, with the two soldiers hair like messy lion manes. The son, Gintoki, considered a hero for returning with the head of an enemy general, is assigned to kill the "monster" that has attacked several samurai. The rest of the film is about a family divided by simply by corporeality, but by their vows to others. While Yone and Shige have promised to suck the blood of their victims, Gintoki has promised his samurai chief to eliminate the "monster". The women have also promised not to reveal who or what they are. Shige and Gintoki reunite briefly for seven nights. At one point Gintoki tells Shige, whose vampiric character has been revealed, that she "is good enough to eat", and "I'll chew you up and make you part of me."

For those who require some kind of intellectual justification for watching any film, one can view Kuroneko as being part of the tradition of Bakeneko stories from Japan. There are also bits of Noh and Kabuki incorporated into the set designs and the acting. One could even spend time discussing the film as an examination of class in feudal Japan. But the real pleasure of Kuroneko is watching ghosts that can gracefully do slow motion leaps in the air, backward somersaults, and lunge at the necks of their victims.

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Posted by peter at 08:26 AM | Comments (1)

October 03, 2010

Coffee Break

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Dick Miller, Julian Burton and Paul Horn in A Bucket of Blood (Roger Corman - 1959)

Posted by peter at 04:42 AM

October 01, 2010

David and Bathsheba

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Henry King - 1951
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

I could understand why Henry King may have taken the job of directing this film. If one acknowledges that the auteur theory can apply to a director who may not have originated the film, the thematic elements connect David and Bathsheba to King's other films. As noted previously, in The White Sister and Song of Bernadette, the main characters, both woman, set aside earthly desires to devote themselves to religious commitment. David and Bathsheba arguably flips that around to be primarily about a man who knowingly breaks with his religious commitments in favor of matters of the heart.

Thematic concerns aside, David and Bathsheba is not one of King's better films, even though it is one of his better known films. Part of the problem, at least for me is watching a movie set in biblical times with actors who don't look the part. How Darryl Zanuck came to the conclusion that Gregory Peck "looked biblical" is beyond me. I never was able to buy Peck as the journalist passing for Jewish in Gentleman's Agreement. What did strike me as interesting was Peck's phrasing in reciting "The Lord's Prayer", especially in the context of someone who was hardly living what could could be described as a righteous life.

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I'm not sure if Bathsheba looked anything like Susan Hayward. On the other hand, Rule Number One of my imaginary Michael Powell book of film theory states that Technicolor was invented to film redheaded women. And who's going to argue with gorgeous close ups of Hayward, almost painterly as lit by cinematographer Leon Shamroy. The film is strongest when it is just Peck and Hayward on the screen, less so when it aims to be more epic. Not very convincing on a historical level, but entertaining to watch just the same is an uncredited Gwen Verdon performing an Egyptian inspired, but very contemporary hoochie coochie dance.

Andrew Sarris consigned Henry King to "Subjects for Further Research" in his American Cinema. I haven't read the one English language critical study on King, but the scarcity of online material indicates that King is still ripe for further investigation. Hampering this is that there are only a couple of his silent films readily available to view, and even a substantial number of King's films made since 1930 are unavailable. Even with 20th Century-Fox celebrating the 75th anniversary of when Darryl Zanuck took over the studio founded by William Fox, no new DVDs are issued of the work from the director who spent the longest time with the studio. Perhaps there is not enough interest to make the availability commercially viable, yet in terms of the history of a studio, Henry King should be given the same consideration as John Ford. One would hope that King's films with Will Rogers, especially the first film version of State Fair be released. A more ideal situation would package King's nostalgic look back at America past, Margie, I'd Climb the Highest Mountain and Wait 'Til the Sun Shines, Nellie, among other films. Somehow, the name of Rock Hudson isn't enough to coax Universal to release of DVD of This Earth is Mine, Henry King's sole venture outside his home studio, late in his career. Henry King's last few films are uneven - certainly The Sun Also Rises suffers from having a great cast, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn and Ava Gardner, all too old for their respective roles. My one attempt at watching Tender is the Night had me giving after half an hour, watching a wide screen film in a pan-and-scan version. Seeing the older films on DVD for my first time still gave me the sense that Henry King was being unfairly judged on the basis of a handful of later films. Considering the number of films he made, and the lack of critical writing, Henry King is an example of the need for greater film scholarship regarding American cinema beyond the more familiar and conventionally regarded filmmakers.

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Posted by peter at 07:38 AM