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December 30, 2010

My Best of 2010

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William Powell in The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg - 1928)

A year ago at this time, I was reading Catherine Russell's book on Mikio Naruse. My intention was to be a little more knowledgeable about Naruse prior to seeing the six films he made that are currently available on English subtitled DVD. As it turned out, Naruse was the featured filmmaker when the Denver Film Society had a Japanese Film Festival last Spring. Most of the the festival films were familiar titles, already on DVD. But I did get to see a couple films not on DVD. One of the Naruse films was Lightning. The other is my -

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Classic movie seen for the first time ever and in a theater: Yearning. I got to see this twice. Another collaboration of Mikio Naruse with Hideko Takamine. And while I'm glad to know that several Naruse silent films will be made available this coming Spring, between Yearning, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and Catherine Russell's descriptions, plus some Youtube glimpses, I want to see more late period Naruse.

Updated December 31. I had just found out through a Japanese Facebook friend that Hideko Takamine had died of cancer on December 28. In addition to Yearning, I have previously written about Twenty-four Eyes and Carmen comes Home. Only a small sample of her work is available on subtitled DVDs. I feel incredibly blessed that I did have the opportunity to see even one film in a theater, the way it was meant to be seen.

Classic movies newly available on DVD: The three Josef von Sterberg silent films from Criterion wowed me more than his better known, and more popular work with Marlene Dietrich. Now that I've seen Underworld, I can't look at Rio Bravo in quite the same way. How come no one told me before that Evelyn Brent and Betty Compson were really hot? I like the bonus of having two sets of music tracks to choose from. Now if only we could get the Chaplin estate to release The Seagull, von Sternberg's film that was mysteriously shelved by the producer, the "Little Tramp" himself, assuming there is still a decent print in some vault.

Also: Tomu Uchida's five film series of Miyamoto Musashi. These films are suppose to be lesser Uchida films by those who've had the opportunity to see more of his work. I don't care. I liked these films, and am appreciative that I could finally see some of his films after reading about him over thirty years ago. Normally when handed a series of films, I write about the entire set at once. These films are so good that I wrote about each film separately. Just having something by one of the pioneers of Japanese cinema available on English subtitled DVDs would be enough reason to be thrilled, but AnimEigo's colored subtitles and extras make it even better.

Best soundtrack that came with a movie: Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. I never realized how much I missed Ian Drury, or at least hearing "Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick" after so many years. A frequently funny and moving film, showing the talents of Andy Serkis without the CGI enhancements.

Also: Soul Kitchen. Music has played an important part of Fatih Akin's films. Here we have a mix of Kool and the Gang, Artie Shaw, Quincy Jones, Ruth Brown and Roger (of the Rubber Band) among others. Not on the soundtrack is The Doors' song of the same name, though.

David Amram Award for Best Soundtrack by a "Classical" composer: John Adams for I am Love.

And, yeah, there were a couple of films I saw theatrically that make my "Best" list:

Poetry and When We Leave. I saw both of these films in 2010, and I'm not going to wait until 2011, when they get their conventional theatrical releases to put them on a list. Based on varying platforms for film release, I am not going to abide by 20th Century standards. That said, both films start out fairly quietly, building up to devastating endings. If you haven't seen one or both films, there should be much more in print and online this Spring. I saw both of these films last November at the Starz International Film Festival, where I also saw . . .

The Best Movie without a Distributor: God's Land. Preston Miller loves Yasujiro Ozu, or at least Ozu films. Filmed mostly over a an extended period of weekends, this is one of the few films where there is only a few moments of camera movement, and every shot is so well composed and thought out, with all of the motion within the frame. And if you want to complain about the fact that some of the people involved in the film are Facebook acquaintances, all I can say is you have your Social Network and I've got mine.

Posted by peter at 08:05 AM | Comments (2)

December 28, 2010

The Millionaire Chase

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Diao jin gui
Umetsugu Inoue - 1969
IVL Region 3 DVD

Of the many filmmakers and actors who died this year, the one that won't be mentioned at the Oscars or any award shows, or most articles, will be Umetsugu Inoue. He wasn't a Hollywood director, but he did love Hollywood movies. I wrote a belated notice regarding his death, including an anecdote regarding the origins of The Millionaire Chase. The basic premise is similar to How to Marry a Millionaire, with three women who intend to marry wealthy husbands. Both films even star a woman named Betty, Grable in the Hollywood film, Betty Ting Pei in the Hong Kong production. While from the perspective of western cinema, The Millionaire Chase may seem hopelessly out of touch with the times, based on the requirements of the Shaw Brothers, what Inoue had done with this film was reconfigure elements from several films by Jean Negulesco.

Love and money figure into Negulesco films including The Best of Everything and It's a Woman's World. Both filmmakers had stories that revolved around three woman, usually friends, but sometimes rivals. In Negulesco's case, romance also involved exotic, in his case European settings. In The Millionaire Chase the idea of foreign travel was distinctly Asian, with the Hong Kong characters traveling to Tapei, Tokyo and Bangkok. The big difference is that while Inoue's films were relatively big budget by Shaw Brothers standards, the difference with the lush production values of 20th Century Fox are quite obvious, especially in the studio sets. Both Inoue's musical comedies, like the Fox films by Negulesco, are generally lighthearted fare, more likely to elicit a smile than any more serious response.

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Inoue's film is about three showgirls played by Lily Ho, Betty Ting Pei, and Chin Ping. Lily Ho is in love with show biz quy, Peter Chen Ho, Inoue's usual leading man. Peter Chen Ho is in love with a married woman, a favored singer. When the woman reveals that her husband is joining the pair on their romantic trip and performing tour around southeast Asia, Peter Chen Ho decides taking the trio as a way to distract the woman's husband. Betty Ting Pei falls in love with a gemologist, while Chin Ping gets the hiccups from the sight of a handsome waiter, who jobless, seems to have the means to travel to the same cities as the women. Being a film for a Hong Kong audience primarily, the comedy is broader than what might be found in a equivalent Hollywood movie, with some moments closer to Frank Tashlin, also at the Fox studios at the time of Negulesco. One thing is certain, Jean Negulesco never had a pie fight in any of his movies.

Between what little is available in English, and the few films I've seen indicates that there is much more to know about Inoue. Until it was yanked from Youtube, a clip from his 1962 version of Black Lizard was available. Starring Machiko Kyo, what was seen resembled a musical number, with Kyo holding her pursuers at bay with a gun, changing from a gown to a man's suit complete with fedora, and escaping into the night, a scene of canted angles and giant shadows. What is relatively available for English speaking audiences are the Shaw Brothers films made over a period of about five years, but only on Region 3 DVDs. Inoue's Japanese films, at least those officially available, might be found on Japanese DVDs without subtitles.

With only the Hong Kong films being the most easily accessible, providing a decent overview of Inoue's career is impossible. Not only was his first Shaw Brothers production, Hong Kong Nocturne a remake of one of his Japanese musicals, but Inoue would virtually remake his Hong Kong films. One of his later films with Lily Ho is titled We Love Millionaires. Although I wouldn't count on it, with the popularity of the first set of Eclipse DVDs of Nikkatsu Studios films from the Fifties and early Sixties, possibly one of Inoue's films starring Yujiro Ishihara, such as The Man who Causes a Storm might be included. More definitive scholarship is also required to determine how many movies Inoue actually made, with fifty-nine titles listed on IMDb, but other articles mentioning credits to over 100 films. Even if the final tally is at the low end, Inoue directed more feature films than Arthur Penn and Blake Edwards combined. What also makes the legacy of the Shaw Brothers films more remarkable is that Inoue never learned to speak Chinese.

Posted by peter at 09:54 AM

December 26, 2010

Coffee Break

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Betty Compson in The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg - 1928)

Posted by peter at 06:28 AM

December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

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Ken Ogata in Vengeance is Mine (Shohei Imamura - 1979)

Posted by peter at 09:01 AM

December 23, 2010

Map of the Sound of Tokyo

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Isabel Coixet - 2009
IFC Films Region 1 DVD

Death, or at least the thought of mortality, is never far away in Isabel Coixet's films. The premise of a young woman who toils at a fish market secretly working as a killer for hire seems improbable, and the gender reversal twist of having the hit woman fall for her victim does little to disguise what is still a well worn narrative setup. None of this kept me from liking Map of the Sounds of Tokyo anyways.

There is an underdeveloped subplot involving the young woman, Ryu, and the film's narrator, who is unnamed. The narrator records sounds professionally, and is entranced by the slurping Ryu makes eating ramen, claiming it is the same sound his mother made. There are indications that the narrator, a much older man, has been recording Ryu from a distance. We never know whether the narrator is motivated by his own obsession with Ryu, or has other reasons for his secret recordings.

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Coixet's film is more about the fascination Europeans have for Japan, and the fascination Japanese have for things European, especially anything French. David, from Barcelona, the would be victim, has sex with Ryu in a love hotel called La Bastille. Their chosen room is decked out to resemble a subway car that appears to be running across the Seine. While David and Ryu make love, "La Vie en Rose" is on the soundtrack, but song in Japanese by Hibari Misora. Geographic considerations put aside, Coixet, a Spanish filmmaker who most often works in English language productions, also makes films about loners and outsiders. In this respect, Map of the Sound of Tokyo is similar Coixet's previous film, Elegy, with the emotionally repressed Ryu not unlike the aging academic, with the two characters finding love with strangers from foreign shores. Coixet's own fascination with Japan is made clear at her own website.

Food plays a key role in the film. The opening shot depicts nyortaimori, with tables of businessmen picking off sushi from nearly nude women. It is at this dinner that one of the businessmen, Nagara, receives the call that sets the plot in motion. The narrator and Ryu meet at The Ramen Museum. It is also at a small restaurant that David breaks the ice with Ryu, precisely because he does not slurp his ramen.

With some of the sexual content, Rinko Kikuchi's performance harkens back to the role that gained her international attention in Babel. In the scenes of intimacy, I was also reminded of Sergi Lopez in An Affair of Love. Is it possible that those were the films Coixet was thinking of in casting her leads? In discussing the film, Coixet has stated: "I was also influenced by the fascination I feel for contemporary Japanese culture and the atmosphere I find in the novels of Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto as well as by my unconcealed addiction to wasabi and the almost tangible vibrations emanating from Tokyo during the night: a mixture of expectation, mystery, darkness and tenderness that leaves an indelible mark." By coincidence, Kikuchi stars in the film adaptation of Murakami's Norwegian Wood. I had just seen Elegy a couple of days ago. That film had an added emotion heft watching Dennis Hopper as a dying poet. Some of the critical response to Map of the Sound of Tokyo has been complaints that the film is only surface deep, although admittedly an attractive surface. Maybe the best way to appreciate the film is to regard like some Japanese dining where it is less about what is being served, and more about the presentation of the meal.

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Posted by peter at 08:20 AM

December 21, 2010

Meat Grinder

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Cheuuat gaawn chim
Tiwa Moeithaisong - 2009
My Way Films Region 3 DVD

While it remains without a U.S. distributor, those inclined in the San Francisco area were able to see Meat Grinder as part of a series of horror films under the collective title of "Go to Hell for the Holidays". As exploitation ready as the English title is, the film may be so artistic in its, ahem, execution, that it virtually neutralizes the horror. Tiwa not only directed his film, but served as his own cinematographer and editor. It is also worth noting that Tiwa's other credit for last year was cinematography for the Muay Thai movie, Raging Phoenix, the best part of that film.

Even in Thailand, the release of Meat Grinder was almost as tortured as what Mai Charoenpura does to her victims. According to Bangkok based Wise Kwai, Meat Grinder was almost banned for allegedly making all street noodle vendors appear suspect. My own theory is that certain people in power in Thailand were more concerned about a scene where the title character, Buss, is caught in a riot. A large mob of people are chased down a street by soldiers. Tiwa pointedly has all of the civilians wearing white shirts, rather than red or yellow shirts that have been used to designate political affiliations in Thailand. And there is never any explanation as to why the soldiers are chasing the people. But I would think that even if it wasn't admitted by anyone who was part of any Thai cultural agency, there would be discomfort regarding the depiction of civil unrest, almost anticipating events that occurred following the release of Meat Grinder. According the Wise Kwai, Meat Grinder takes place in the 1970s, with the riot victims being students. Perhaps I am not being very observant as the Thailand I see in the film wasn't markedly different from the place I visited four years ago.

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The scene of the riot is important not simply as a dramatic device to bring Buss together with a young man, Attapon. Meat Grinder might be understood as a critique of power, and not just that of one country or culture. While the civilian populace is threatened by the power of the army, working at the behest of the government, on a more personal level, Meat Grinder also looks at expressions of male power and sense of privilege. The idea of the use and abuse of power is also echoed in a couple scenes with the police, where guilt is assumed unless innocence is proven. Through a series of flashbacks, it is understood that Buss has been in an abusive relationship with her husband, and perhaps her step-father. A trio of thugs attempt to force Buss to pay off her husband's gambling debts. There is are scenes also of Buss punished by her mother, with Buss repeating the punishment on her own daughter. Seemingly the one honorable man in her life, Attapon shows that like the other men Buss has known, he is incapable of fidelity. The contempt Buss has for men is best shown in the beginning when she cuts off the leg of a victim right at the knee, and flings the detached appendage back in his face.

Tiwa switches between black and white and color, with most of the flashbacks in monochrome. At one point we see young Buss in a flashback, the only color being a real bucket of blood poured over her. The wide strips of plastic that divide the space where the meat is prepared is covered with flecks of blood. Meat Grinder is visually full of rough surfaces. The blades appear all orange with rust. With the exception of the gleaming white shirts of the riot scene, everything else in Meat Grinder looks worn and dirty. Often Tiwa uses extreme close ups, or frames people in such a way that the sex and violence are not clearly visible. Using a Thai pop song titled "Fascination" during one of the scenes of dismemberment, and music that sounds very much like that used for Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, Tiwa's plays against the notion of a romantic past. While some of the gorier elements, as well as the vigilante sense of justice, recalls Sweeney Todd, the disposal of the victims should also remind some of Alfred Hitchcock's television version of Lamb for the Slaughter, with its police detectives unknowingly eating the victim.

Between the performance of the star, and the look of the the film, it is little surprise that Meat Grinder received Subhanahongsa Award nomination for Best Actress for Mai and Best Art Direction, the Thai equivalent to Oscar nominations. Along with Slice, still sadly unavailable as a subtitled DVD, Meat Grinder appears to be one of the last of a series of artistically expressive Thai horror films. This may be the effect of the unevenly applied new film ratings coupled with the fact that several films have been deemed unacceptable for Thai audiences, even with a restriction for adults only. There is still the periodic horror film, but little that has earned significant critical acclaim, with English language DVD availability not always certain. Meat Grinder has been marketed, not unexpectedly, for gorehounds, but offers more that the spectacle of lopped of fingers and slashed throats. Hopefully the multi hyphenate Tiwa will be able to make the kind of film that will force the serious critical community to pay attention to his talents.

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Posted by peter at 08:36 AM

December 19, 2010

Coffee Break

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Ty Hardin and Connie Stevens in Palms Springs Weekend (Norman Taurog - 1963)

Posted by peter at 05:15 AM

December 16, 2010

Edo Porn

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Hokusai manga
Kaneto Shindo - 1981
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Several times in this biographical film, Hokusai's rival, Utamaro is mentioned. It was enough to make me wish I could see Kenji Mizoguchi's film, Utamaro and His Five Women again again after almost thirty years. Mizoguchi does a better job in conveying the importance of Utamaro, and the film works doubly as an argument about artistic freedom, both in the artist's own time, as well as in the immediate years of post World War II Japan. Shindo's film takes advantage of the then new freedoms afforded filmmakers, yet there is no clear sense as to the importance of Hokusai.

It could also be that Shindo made the film for an audience familiar enough with Hokusai that his importance and facts regarding his life would already be assumed. The first half or so of the film is of Hokusai trying to establish himself as an artist, infatuated with the betel nut chewing beauty, Onao. To what extent this is a historical character, I wouldn't know, but Onao appears to be the most liberated woman of 19th Century Japan, not only comfortable in disrobing for Hokusai, but coming and going at will, and occasionally choosing her lovers. In contrast, the depiction of Hokusai creating his most famous painting, of Mount Fuji and the ocean waves, is so brief that within the context of the film, it appears incidental to the story of a guy who liked to paint pictures of naked young women.

Two women have important roles in the narrative. The elusive Onao remains in Hokusai's mind as his most perfect muse. Hokusai's daughter, Oei, in contrast, remains with Hokusai throughout his life, acting as his assistant, supporter, and on occasion is his most severe critic.

Setting aside biographical considerations, Hokusai Manga (I dislike the English language title) is substantially about the idea of men possessing women, as the idealized sexual companion, or at least possessing the idealized image of a woman. One of the key scenes is of Hokusai's father pursuing Onao in his house. The father's house is full of mirrors. While the father is able to catch multiple reflections of Onao, the woman herself remains beyond his grasp. One of the themes of the film is about the reproduction of images, with the paintings of Utamaro and Hokusai representing early versions of art, especially erotic art, made available in multiple reproductions, for purchase at relatively affordable prices by a larger public.

Concurrent with this, is the idea of the artist as celebrity. Utamaro, a minor character in Shindo's film, is discussed by others, the most well known popular artist at the beginning of the film. Hokusai's celebrity is highlighted with a crowd gathering to see him paint on a grain of rice, followed by his painting of a giant ink portrait with a brush that resembles an oversized broom. Fame does not necessarily mean fortune, as Hokusai is seen living quite modestly through the end of his life. Even when the artwork sells, there is self-doubt regarding artistic abilities.

Shindo's early filmmaking career was in part as assistant to Mizoguchi. Later, Shindo made a documentary about Mizoguchi, in 1975. Mizoguchi's film, as mentioned, about Utamaro was about artistic expression and government regulations and restrictions, with the period setting used to comment on being an artist in post World War II Japan. Shindo's film might in turn be thought of as a response to Mizoguchi's film with the past used to comment on the present as well. In this case, the use of erotic content may be understood as being both a cause and effect of economic necessity, at a time when the Japanese film industry had virtually collapsed, and one major studio, Nikkatsu, had committed itself entirely to the genre called "Roman Porno". Unavailable at this time for comparison is another Shindo biographical film made twelve years later, with some similar themes, Bokuto Kidan, discussed by Acquarello.

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Shindo plays very loosely with some of the chronology of Hokusai's life, so that a scene about the creation of one his his most famous pictures takes place much later in life on film. Inspired by the female divers he sees on a beach, Hokusai convinces his new muse, a young woman also named Onao, to pose with a small octopus. The film eventually becomes a fantasy of the aroused young woman, with tentacles groping around her nude body. The mood becomes unintentionally comic when the two octopi are seen, even though they do resemble the creatures in Hokusai's painting.

In keeping with the idea of reproduced images, Shindo has some of his actors appear as "twins" of characters from Hokusai's past. Most significant is Kanako Higuchi, who plays the part of two very different women, both named Onao. In the title role, Ken Ogata seems smaller than he appears in some of his appearances, such as Vengeance is Mine. Furanki Sakai appears as Hokusai's father by adoption, while Jo Shishido has a small part as one of Hokusai's friends, the author Jyuppensha Ikku. Hokusai Manga proved to be a breakthrough role for Yuko Tanaka as Oei, the first of several prize winning performances.

Posted by peter at 08:50 AM

December 14, 2010

Vampire Circus

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Robert Young - 1971
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

Some of the thoughts I had while watching Vampire Circus weren't unique. Addressed in the documentary supplement are the sexual elements of the film. Vampire films have always been the most erotically charged of the horror genre, but what goes on Vampire Circus pushes what was previously suggested to its most explicit, and then some. The film might be said to be a culmination of the then recent changes in film ratings that allowed for greater depictions of sex and violence, along with changes in the Hammer production house that brought in younger directors behind the camera, and newer actors as their stars.

The opening scene of sex between the vampire, Count Mitterhaus, and his still human lover, Anna, is unmistakably animal lust. The nudity and the sensuality set the very literal stage for the circus, where some of the performers shift between human and animal form, and in one case a blend of the two, but also where the creatures of this "circus of night" seduce women and children. The children, both boys and young girls, are shown as vampire victims, suggesting a form of pedophilia. The decadence of Count Mitterhaus is also indicated by his almost effete, lace trimmed shirt. There are also some moments of sado-masochism, especially when the trapped Anna is whipped by the town's men.

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What no one in the documentary talks about is the name of the town, Schtettel. How did it escape notice that the town name sounds like shtetl, the Yiddish word for town, but more significantly, usually a Jewish ghetto. The similarity of Schtettel with a shtetl is that the town in Vampire Circus has been forced to be cut off from the outside world due to a curse by Count Mitterhaus that has caused unexplained death and disease for fifteen years. The name Mitterhaus seems to have been created combining a French legal term with the German word for house.

The film title is self explanatory. One of the vampires is the cousin of Count Mitterhaus, appearing as a panther, or as the dark stranger with eyes for the mayor's plump daughter. The circus mysteriously comes to town to fulfill revenge on behalf of Count Mitterhaus, and bring the count back to life. The more interesting aspects to the film are circus related, twin acrobats who literally fly through the air, a tiger woman who performs a sexual dance too avant-garde for the 19th Century setting of the story, and a "mirror of life" that allows select few to pass into another dimension. The limitations of the budget are most pointed in the scenes of the "mirror of life", where the special effects are largely created through editing and sound effects. While it would have been impossible to do something along the lines of Terry Gilliam's Doctor Parnassus, Vampire Circus could have created more of a sense of wonder had there been the kind of effects Jean Cocteau was able to create for Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus.

Still, for what it is, I can understand the affection some have for Vampire Circus. While there is the strong tug for the traditional vampire tale, Robert Young, a former documentarian who made his narrative film debut here, attempts to push the genre in terms of some of the more familiar themes, as well as with an unusual story. It would have been nice had the documentary about the making of Vampire Circus included Young, as well as some of the actors such as John Moulder Brown. Adrienne Corri and Domini Blythe, several whom are still not only alive but still professionally active. Only Dave Prowse is seen here, talking about how he first tried to make his way as a Hammer monster. Best known nowadays for being the guy underneath Darth Vader's costume in the Star Wars films, Prowse is more visible wearing little more than a loin cloth as the circus strong man. On the other hand, Joe Dante talking about movies is almost as entertaining as his own films. Others bringing their insights are film critic Tim Lucas and author Philip Nutman. Dante may have summed it up best by suggesting that Vampire Circus wasn't quite the film that the filmmakers had hoped to make, but it is worth seeing for tensions between genre traditions and new filmmaking freedoms.

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Posted by peter at 01:56 PM

December 12, 2010

Coffee Break

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Idris Elba and Gerard Butler in Rocknrolla (Guy Ritchie - 2008)

Posted by peter at 10:42 AM

December 09, 2010

Ong Bak Ass Kicking Giveaway

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It's been a while since there's been a contest here at Coffee Coffee and more Coffee.

Why one now? For those who haven't heard, Ong Bak 3 is now available for U.S. viewers through VOD, Amazon.com, Xbox Marketplace, Playstation Network. You want to see it on the big screen? Those living in select locations will have that opportunity on January 14, 2011!

And the prize is a five, yes FIVE, DVD package from Magnet Releasing of mostly Thai kickassery (is that a word?) with a side order of Hong Kong action. In addition to the original Ong Bak, there's Ong Bak II, Dynamite Warrior, Chocolate (no, not the one with Juliette Binoche), and Exiled. And you know what else? I have written about each of these movies on this site.

So what do you have to do to win this terrific set of DVDs? Answer one question. Just one. Not the hardest question in the world, but a little research is required.

The question is: Of the five movies listed above, which one did I see theatrically in its country of origin?

Aside from being the first person to answer correctly, I have to limit this contest to U.S. residents, and total strangers. I don't want to show favoritism towards any blogging or social network friends, even though I've enjoyed providing some of you with DVDs in the past.

Enter your answer in the comments section. As soon as there is the first correct answer, the comments section will be closed.

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And here's a preview of some of the action.

Posted by peter at 09:21 AM | Comments (3)

December 07, 2010

Love in a Fallen City

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Qing cheng zhi lian
Ann Hui - 1984
IVL Region 3 DVD

As they walked farther, the mountains got taller. Either it was the wind blowing in the trees, or it was the moving shadow of a cloud, but somehow the greenish yellow lower slopes slowly darkened. Looking more closely. you saw that it wasn't the wind and it wasn't the clouds but the sun moving slowly over the mountain crest, blanketing the lower slope in a giant blue shadow. Up on the mountain, smoke rose from burning houses - white on the shaded slopes, black on the sunlit slopes - while the sun kept moving slowly over the mountain crest.
Eileen Chang translated by Karen S. Kingsbury

I've only recently been aware of the Chinese writer Eileen Chang, both in films that she has written, and films based on her writings. Chang might be best known currently as the literary source for Ang Lee's film, Lust, Caution. Exploring things further for myself, I recently read the collection of short stories, Love in a Fallen City. The parts of Chang's writings that lend themselves most readily to film are some of the descriptive paragraphs regarding locations, the use of color, so that what I imagine are the kind of shots that are to my mind almost like abstract paintings, that may not advance the narrative, but are appreciated for their visual beauty.

In something of the same spirit, the best moment of Ann Hui's film is dialogue free. Chow Yun-Fat and Cora Miao return to their house, partially destroyed and ransacked following the first days of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. Miao looks on as Chow is seen scrubbing a floor clean. The shot says all that needs to be said about the changed dynamics between the two characters. What also makes the shot so powerful is that previous to this moment, Chow appears to have been the type of guy who never did anything resembling physical labor. It's at this moment that Chow's motives can no longer be questioned.

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The love is between a divorcee nearing thirty, Pai Liusu, and a businessman and reputed playboy, Fan Liuyuan. The two are brought together through mutual friends, primarily to fulfill social expectations based on Chinese traditions. To some extent they are opposites, he being the worldly, European educated man, she the self-identified country bumpkin from Shanghai. What initially ties them together is that they both feels themselves to be outsiders. Neither is quite sure of the other's intentions until the overwhelming cataclysm of war brings them together.

It's unfortunate that at this time, Love in a Fallen City is only available as a Region 3 DVD, because it presents a very different star than the one known for his action films. Not only does the film feature Chow Yun-Fat without guns, but this might be described as Chow Yun-Fat as Cary Grant. David Bordwell wrote a line about Chow being born to wear a tuxedo. I can't think of a contemporary actor who looks as comfortable in a formal tuxedo or a white suit, the way Chow appears in this film. As Fan, Chow looks like the kind of man whose idea of work is limited to a couple of phone calls or a few well chosen words to some trusted underlings. When, as Fan, he is scrubbing the floor, still in his suit, you can be certain the guy has nothing but love on his mind.

What may be the weakest part of Love in a Fallen City is that it is more faithful in reproducing Eileen Chang's dialogue, while giving her visual descriptions short shrift. The story has been remade as a mini-series, about which there is little available English language information. Even though Hui's film was a prestigious assignment by Shaw Brothers standards, there are too many moments where one senses that the film could have been improved by more money for more extras and bigger explosions, as well as more moments of purely visual story telling. The thought crossed my mind as to how different the film might also have been had Eileen Chang had written the screenplay, The DVD extras include a brief interview with Ann Hui, as well as fan Maggie Q gushing about how great Chow Yun-Fat looks in the film. Through production stills, I discovered that Stanley Kwan, later to direct his own adaptation of Chang, served as an assistant director. As for the actress who played Pai Liusu, Cora Miao retired from acting almost twenty years ago, which partially explains why she is not currently as well known as her some of her contemporaries. At a time when most Americans were unaware of Hong Kong cinema beyond martial arts movies, Miao made a couple of her final films with the American director who became her husband, Wayne Wang.

Posted by peter at 08:50 AM

December 05, 2010

Coffee Break

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The City (Willard Van Dyke and Ralph Steiner - 1939)

Posted by peter at 09:08 AM

December 03, 2010

Undercurrents

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Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Post Colonial Hong Kong
Helen Hok-Sze Leung - 2008
UBC Press

I had seen a handful of films from Hong Kong prior to my getting my first DVD player around Labor Day, 2001. After then, I started watching a fair number of film through my Netflix subscription. And I noticed that in several films, women were either disguised as young men, or might actually be playing a male role. The earliest example I came across was in my own viewing was Come Drink with Me starring Cheng Pei-Pei that was screened in Denver almost eight years ago. Other performances that stuck with me were Brigitte Lin in Swordsman II, and Maggie Cheung in New Dragon Inn, where in male garb she convincingly flirts with Lin. It was at the time that I saw Come Drink with Me that I began to wonder if there was a book, or at least something of substance in English, that addressed this particular aspect of Hong Kong martial arts films.

I'm still looking. But I may have found a couple of titles that may answer some of my questions. I have found a little bit of information also in Undercurrents. Helen Leung's book is partially about films, but is mostly about Hong Kong and Chinese culture, alternative sexuality, and how western culture is sometimes used to impose ideas or is a cause for misunderstanding other cultures. There are several different themes intersecting and intertwining. What I have learned is that the phenomena of females dressed as males is rooted in Chinese opera, more specifically from southern China which has had the largest influence on Hong Kong culture. I will be checking out a book on Chinese opera in the near future.

Part of my motivation on understanding this subject a bit more comes from an internet conversation regarding John Woo's Red Cliff. One of the subplots involves Vickie Zhou, a princess, disguising herself as a common foot soldier to spy on the enemy. As a young man, nicknamed Piggy, she develops friendship with another soldier at the enemy camp. Zhou never reveals her true identity, but she has fallen in love with the good hearted, unsophisticated soldier. The attraction between the two could be interpreted as either potentially heterosexual or homoerotic. Leung wrote her book prior to the release of Red Cliff, but her discussion of sublimated homosexuality in John Woo's Hong Kong films, citing The Killers, by both herself and others, offers different ways of reading Woo's other films as well.

Where Leung's book was helpful was in discussing certain aspects of Chinese culture which often are not understood properly. Among these aspects are the conferring of family membership to a non-family member, frequently a part of the gangster genre where men address each other as "brother". One other aspect is having a place at the dinner table, dinner as a family ritual, again signifying a family relationship, often assigned by a patriarchal character. Some of the nuances of "family" relationships are discussed in more detail in a chapter devoted to actor Leslie Cheung, whose own sexuality during his lifetime might be best described as an open secret.

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Chan Kwok-Chan in Let's Love Hong Hong (Yau Ching - 2002)

As in any reasonable good book about film, Leung made me interested in seeing other films. One film covered is Yau Ching'sLet's Love Hong Kong, about several Hong Kong women. One could easily transpose the story to any other large city. The film is about the inability to connect with other people, even in a large urban area. Some of the women share the same space. One young woman pursues another only to get rejected at the end. The film is loosely constructed, and with its title made me think a bit about Jacques Rivette's Out One. The title could have well been inspired by Paris Belongs to Us. The final shot of Chan Kwok-Chan, with the top of her turtleneck shirt covering her face, reminded me of a similar shot of Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows.

Spacked Out is not the kind of film one might expect from producer Johnny To. Following four high school age girls who are left to their own devices, the film is almost documentary style, until a night of partying with drugs takes a surrealistic turn. One of the girl has close cropped hair, and refers to one of the others as her lover, but the relationship they have appears to be based on emotional ties. Made in 2000, Laurence Au Mon's film takes place outside of Hong Kong in Tuen Mun, the location in turn emphasizing the marginal existence of the girls, and the sense of disconnection with their homes and families.

Beyond Our Ken seems to have been included for mention by Leung primarily for the exploration of female bonding. In this case it is two women, the former and current girlfriends of a young fire fighter named Ken, who conspire against him. Like his film Exodus, Pang Ho-Cheung has made a darkly funny film about men, women and hiccups. Sure, the title is a goofy pun, but Pang is a very good filmmaker who might be getting overdue recognition with his newest film, Dream Home getting U.S. distribution for next year. I've just seen three of his films so far, but they share traits of stories where appearances are deceiving. Pang's sense of framing and color mark him as a true visual stylist. The use of classical music by Mozart as well as an Italian pop song provide something of a European flavor to the film. No one is innocent in Pang's films, but the revelations of guilt make up part of the fun.

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Gillian Chung and Tao Hong in Beyond Our Ken (Pang Ho-Cheung - 2004)

Posted by peter at 08:13 AM | Comments (2)

December 01, 2010

Happy Wednesday!

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Miki Nakatani in Memories of Matsuko (Tetsuya Nakashima - 2006)

Posted by peter at 08:12 AM