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July 31, 2011

Coffee Break

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Herbert Marshall and Jean Arthur in If You Could Only Cook (William A. Seiter - 1935)

Posted by peter at 08:04 AM

July 28, 2011

Bodyguards and Assassins

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Shi yue wei cheng
Teddy Chan - 2009
Indomina Releasing Region 1 DVD

Finally making its way as a stateside DVD is Teddy Chan's labor of love. Ten years of preparations and false starts culminated in wins for Chan and his film for the 2010 Hong Kong Film Awards. It's a good film, definitely, although I think John Woo's Red Cliff II was the better of the competition. The film is being sold for western audiences primarily for the martial arts angle, and the film is one of the wave of films that both features the resurgence of Donnie Yen as the prime Chinese language action star of the past couple of years, and of Chinese language action films steeped in recreating historical events.

The film takes place over the course of four days in Hong Kong in 1906. Sun Yat-sen, taking refuge in Japan, has come to Hong Kong to meet with several fellow revolutionaries. As Hong Kong was a British colony at the time, this was not considered part of imperial China, where Sun was considered an outlaw. The assassins, employed by the Emperor, are in Hong Kong to kill Sun, while the bodyguards, a disorganized assortment of students, workers, and others interested in bringing democracy to China attempt to protect Sun during his visit of several hours.

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The bodyguards actually supply an elaborate decoy, traveling the streets of central Hong Kong, while Sun is having a meeting. The film is about those involved on both sides, with the fateful day providing a long action sequence. Most of the film centers on a newspaper publisher who quietly helps fund Sun although he attempts to officially keep his distance. Circumstances bring both him and his son into the action. The mistress of the publisher is the former wife of a small time gambler who acts as an informer for the assassins. Those involved do so out of either idealism or personal motivation, or a combination of reasons.

As the film was made in Shanhai, and employs a cast and crew from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, comparisons with the dreams of China in 1906 and the present day reality are unavoidable. Chan doesn't address these disparities directly, letting the viewer draw their own conclusions. Putting political and philosophical questions aside, the film is impressive for the huge city street set where most of the action takes place, with hundreds of extras milling crowded streets.

While Donnie Yen is the nominal star, the film is more of ensemble piece, with better known actors such as Simon Yam, Leon Lai and the almost ubiquitous Eric Tsang providing supporting performances. The film is stolen be two newcomers, Li Yuchun as the teenage daughter of Yam, who takes to fighting the assassins to avenge her father, and the almost seven foot tall former NBA player, Mengke Bateer, playing a street vendor whose height and strength provide most of the comic relief for the film. Li, at least in this film, isn't obviously pretty, going through the film wearing an aviator's cap, but the combination of her attitude and youth are reminiscent of when Zhang Ziyi was "discovered" by audiences in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Pretty in a more conventional way is Zhou Yun as the daughter of a photographer. The object of infatuation by a household servant played by Nicholas Tse, the courtship between the two, while having little direct bearing on a main narrative is one of the most affecting parts of the film. Tse, a Cantopop star, has a large facial scar, making his character appear less desirable due to both class and physical appearance. Zhou, seen sitting in the previous shots, gets up to reveal an obvious limp. It's a nice scene of love of two people looking beyond the kinds of barriers that might one from refusing the other.

Although most of Bodyguards and Assassins is classical filmmaking in the best sense, Chan does allow for some visual play. The opening titles are made of abstract images, wrought iron railings and staircases superimposed on each other. Near the end, when Leon Lai pursues the lead assassin with his glasses off, there are several out of focus point of view shots. Chan also has an unexpected version of the "Odessa Steps" sequence from Eisenstein's Potemkin. For sheer visceral impact, the moment to watch with the biggest bang is Donnie Yen running towards a galloping horse.

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Posted by peter at 08:04 AM

July 26, 2011

The Clone Returns Home

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Kuron wa kokyo wo mezasu
Kanji Nakajima - 2008
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

This is the first time I've even seen a DVD cover with the following statement, "Warning: Contains Significant Amounts of Philosophy". I'm not quite sure what to make of that, but what is certain is that The Clone Returns Home is a marked departure from the samurai dramas that make up the main stock of AnimEigo's releases to date. Not only is the film a relatively recent production that takes place in a contemporary setting, but the science fiction setup is a far cry from palace intrigue in old Edo.

This is a science fiction film, but one that shares some of the same concerns as Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris and Duncan Jones' Moon. The basic premise is that an astronaut allows himself to be completely cloned, should he be in a situation where he dies during his latest mission. The doctors supporting this first legal attempt at human cloning explain the benefits in the most humanist terms possible. The astronaut, on an unexplained solo flight, is killed, with a clone created to take his place. What is not planned for is that the clone has suppressed memories of his own that come to the forefront, and that the spirit of the astronaut may possibly have come back to earth.

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Nakajima's theme of identity is literally doubled by not only being a story about clones, but of twin brothers. The boy, Kohei, who loves to try and fool his mother, unsuccessfully, by claiming to be his brother Noboru, is the one who grows up to be the astronaut. Several times throughout the film, there is a close up of Kohei's hand, with a large scar between the wrist and the knuckles. It is an important visual clue. With his "return" to Earth, Kohei questions his decision. There is a subplot involving an older scientist who was responsible for most of the cloning science, who used it for cloning a beloved grand-daughter. The scientist brings up the concept of where a person's soul goes when the original body is destroyed.

The science fiction elements are limited to a short scene of Kohei in space, and some computer imagining of the cloning process. Most of the film is concerned the act and meaning of memory. Nakajima contrasts the sterile, sparse contemporary settings with flashbacks taking place in a classic Japanese style house with sliding doors, in a remote, rural setting. Throughout the film, Nakajima is concerned with both the physical and emotional isolation of his characters, where even the most basic family units, mother and son, husband and wife, and brothers, come apart. Even when the home of childhood represents the closest ideal, it provides no escape from some of the darker aspects of life.

Normally I don't bother with "Making of . . ." supplements. What makes this a bit more interesting is that it documents some of the process of making a film over the course of several months, but also the actors discuss their challenges in making the film. Nakajima and star Mitsuhiro Oikawa both talk about eliminating the mannerisms of the celebrity nicknamed Michee. There is also a cute moment when actress Eri Ishida leaves aside her role as the mother to play with the Tsukamoto twins. In turn, we also see Nakajima working on the most dramatic scene with young Ryo Tsukamoto who has to perform in a potentially dangerous creek. As usual with AnimEigo's DVD releases, this film comes with colored subtitles, including a special explanatory title to inform the viewer of color coding for each twin's dialogue. My own hope is that The Clone Returns Home does well enough to encourage AnimEigo to include other types of releases in addition to their many classic films of shoguns and swords.

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Posted by peter at 08:18 AM

July 24, 2011

Coffee Break

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Philippe Garrel in Emergency Kisses (Philippe Garrel - 1989)

Posted by peter at 07:54 AM

July 21, 2011

Accident

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Yi ngoi
Soi Cheang - 2009
Rose Entertainment & Media Region 3 DVD

A crucial scene in Accident takes place during a solar eclipse. Much of the drama of the film is based on what is seen, as well as unseen. The eclipse also acts as a visual symbol for the main character's understanding of what has been going on around him. The film is about the act of seeing, of understanding what one sees. To that end, many of the shots are not clear. What the viewer sees are reflections on glass, people partially seen through glass, people in shadows and rain. Even when the sun comes out, there is still uncertainty about what one is seeing, who we are looking at, and what, if any, relationship they may have with each other.

Richie Jen plays a man called Brain who leads a three person team in staging elaborate accidents that serve as cover for murders. Things begin to go sour for the team when the eldest member of the group, an older man known as Uncle, shows signs of forgetfulness. A staged accident held on one very dark, rainy night gets out of control when a bus crashes onto the scene, killing a member of Brain's team. The bus crash may be an accident, but Brain is certain that he's being played by a competitor, possibly someone from an insurance company.

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Whether intentionally or not, Accident seems to have been inspired at least partially by Francis Ford Coppola"s The Conversation. Much of the film is devoted to Brain watching and listening, trying to make sense of what he sees and hears, gradually enveloped in increasing paranoia. There is also the unavoidable comparison to Rear Window, in content, but not style. Unlike James Stewart, who managed to put two and two together from the vantage point of his apartment, Richie Jen's attempts at adding up what he sees and hears reveal some unexpected answers. Brain's sense of isolation is also emphasized by his memories of his wife, who died in a car crash. Brain keeps his wife's damaged watch, with the time stopped at the moment of that accident. Brain's memory of his wife informs his current occupation, affording the illusion of being in control of life and death.

The first accident shown in the film involves among other things, a car with a flat tire on a street with heavy traffic, water spilled from a truck, and an errant banner hung improperly. The setup is so elaborate that the viewer is primed to be uncertain about what follows. Cheang plays on the assumption of the audience regarding the veracity of what the main protagonist may be seeing, and that what is seen by the protagonist is understood as revealing the truth about a situation.

There is some delight in watching Brain and his crew set up an accident, throwing around different ideas, and coming up with a plan involving a rainy night and a loose wire on streetcar tracks. The timing and the multiple steps involved make the staged murders from James Cain novels look simple minded. The murders are made of a complex series of causes and effects, death as staged by Rube Goldberg. Yet what Cheang is more interested in is how the efforts of confusion and secrecy undo Brain and his team, so much so that absolutely nothing appears to be coincidental, and everything has some sinister motivation. Even though Accident was produced by Johnnie To, and has some of To's crew on this film, including supporting actor Lam Suet, there is not the optimism that is usually found in To's films. In a To film, the protagonist usually finds a way to redeem himself at the very end. In Accident, even the best of intentions have tragic consequences.

Posted by peter at 08:29 AM

July 19, 2011

Women in Prison Triple Feature

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Chained Heat
Paul Nicholas - 1983

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Jungle Warriors/Euer Weg fuhrt durch die Holle
Ernst R. von Theumer - 1984

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Red Heat/Unschuld hinter Gittern
Robert Collector - 1985
Panik House Entertainment All Region DVD

The regulars who check out this blog are pretty smart about cinema. They not only know the difference between King Vidor and Charles Vidor, but also don't confuse Andrew Lau with Andy Lau. And most cinephiles know that some movies simply aren't made to undergo the kind of analysis given to a film like Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach or even The Big Combo. Some movies are made simply to make money, pure and simple. Maybe not a lot of money, but enough to pay the rent, and live in relative comfort between jobs. So the main concern of the people involved with these films was to produce a movie that could deliver the goods for audiences around the world, back in the day before studio productions got the idea to dominate multiplex screens, squeezing out the small time companies.

You want an auteur? How about producer Ernst R. von Theumer? Not only did Herr v. Theumer have a hand in production of all three films, but also had a say in the direction and writing, if not always credited. There's nothing in English about the Germany based Ernst R. von Theumer, but you'll have to admit that the posters for a couple of his earlier films, Operation Jamaica and Ballad of a Gunman are quite eye catching. The guy has been doing low budget exploitation and genre films for a couple of decades and could well be worth a little further investigation.

Most of the women in prison films, and variations of the genre follow certain conventions. The main character is usually the good good girl who finds herself behind bars almost always by accident, or as Curly Howard would say, "I'm a victim of circumstances". The good good girl is aided by the good bad girl, often a career criminal of some sort with a code of honor. The chief nemesis is the bad bad girl, someone who loves to make life hell for other people, and the ruler of her own little roost. There is also the warden, who makes life miserable for everybody, supposedly for their own good. What is provided here are some of the highlights of the films, plus a convenient "cinephile's alibi" for those who might need a convenient explanation for those who are near and dear, or to assuage guilt over putting off viewing that Criterion Collection DVD that remains unopened.

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Chained Heat is the story of good good girl, Linda Blair, sent to prison for making Roller Boogie, for accidental vehicular homicide. Blair is taken under the wing of repeat offender Sharon Hughes. One nice thing about seeing a movie like Chained Heat is that it forces me to do some research on the cast an crew. Unsubstantiated, but darn interesting, is the meme that Hughes was the inspiration for the song, "Little Red Corvette". Anyways, the bad bad girl is Sybil Danning, who peddles drugs from within the prison, leads a gang of nasty girls, and lusts after Blair. As it turns out, the people running the prison are even worse. John Vernon is the evil prison warden who videotapes his hot tub rendezvous with select prisoners. Stella Stevens is the captain of the prison guards who actually runs the drug ring with Henry Silva, who happens to be two-timing Stella with Sybil Danning. As if that wasn't enough, Danning has a rivalry with Tamara Dobson, a Vassar educated perp who keeps "her sisters" in line.

As far as Women in Prison movies go, Chained Heat has a lot more nudity than the Roger Corman productions that came out about ten years earlier. Compared to the WiP films of Jesse Franco, Chained Heat might even be considered quite restrained. The high points include a shower scene, and an appearance by former Russ Meyer muse, Edy Willams. The down side is that seeing more of a partially undressed John Vernon that I would ever want to in any lifetime. You want to see Stella Stevens nude? Get thee to The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Best line, from amateur porn videographer John Vernon, "Don't call me Warden. Call me Fellini.".

Cinephile's Alibi: Cinematography by Mac Ahlberg. The name may not mean too much now, but as a director, Ahlberg's I, a Woman was the film that helped beat the distinction between porno and art house films over forty years ago. Lots of big, deep shadows and some Argento like point of view camera work. The DVD supplements include recent interviews with Danning and Stevens saying how much they liked Linda Blair and working with director Paul Nicolas, and how much fun they had making the film.

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The real punishment in Jungle Warriors is the theme song, alternately croaked and screeched, by Marina Arcangeli. I don't know if this film was planned with an alternate English language title, but the song lyrics are about giving "heat, it's within reach". Apparently the real drama was in the making of the film with original director Billy Fine, producer of Chained Heat given the heave-ho by producer Ernst von Theumer, and a drug addled Dennis Hopper replaced by a less addled Marjoe Gortner.

A gaggle of fashion models, the kind more likely to appear in a K-Mart catalogue than the pages of Vogue, are trapped in the Central America jungle when their plane is shot down by portly drug lord Paul Smith. Living in a huge old fort, Smith, with very loving sister Sybil Danning, run a massive cocaine operation, with their private army led by Woody Strode. In the meantime, mafioso John Vernon, with nephew Alex Cord, shows up in the jungle to make an offer to Smith that he hopefully can't refuse. Feds are on the case trying to trap Smith, with an undercover agent among the models. Nina Van Pallandt gets top billing here, but the best part of the film is watching John Vernon ham it up. I also like to think of the scene where Woody Strode kills Alex Cord with a bow and arrow as Strode's belated revenge on behalf of John Ford for Cord's starring in the 1966 remake of Stagecoach. Best line, from Vernon surveying the remote jungle paradise, "Do you get television here?".

Cinephile's Alibi: Cinematography by Nicholas von Sternberg. Of course the big tragedy of cinema history is that Josef von Sternberg never got to make a Women in Prison pic. But think of this film as a son's tribute to his father. There is a small display of sapphic affection like in Morocco, a jungle setting like Anahatan, some kinkiness to equal The Scarlet Empress, and women in exotic settings like Shanghai Express. Sybil Danning is even photographed to look sort of like Marlene Dietrich. Too bad Cesar Romero never thought to blow up Dietrich with a hand grenade in The Devil is a Woman.

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Red Heat takes place in a parallel universe where everyone in East Germany speaks perfect, if heavily accented, English. Unlike all the complications of Chained Heat, most of the story revolves around the good good girl, Linda Blair, and the bad bad girl, Sylvia Kristel. Blair goes to Germany to be with her fiance. After a disagreement, she accidentally sees a female scientist, kidnapped by a couple of men. Taking no chances, Blair is also grabbed, and the two women are in an East German prison. Sylvia Kristel is a prisoner who seems to have the run of the joint, with assist from two nasty women with tattooed faces. Not only is Kristal the lover of the woman who officially is in charge of the prison, but she also hosts orgies with her girlfriends at night.

For those who couldn't possibly get enough nude Linda Blair in Chained Heat, there's a shower scene here. The best line is from Sylvia Kristal when threatening Blair: "I've murdered three people at least. The first one was my step-father. He ate my pet snake.".

Cinephile's alibi: Soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Coming in between Hollywood projects Vision Quest and Legend.

All three films have voice-over introductions by Mr. Skin, proprietor of a website bearing his name. I only found out about the website by accident when I absentmindedly googled the words "Margaret Rutherford nude". The main point of this DVD package is see movies with reasonably attractive women in various states of undress. These three movies succeed in varying degrees, especially when they don't let the story get in the way.

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An additional note: Check out the remarkable filmography of Monica Teuber, who, in addition to serving as producer on all three films, has a small role in Red Heat.

Posted by peter at 08:26 AM | Comments (2)

July 17, 2011

Coffee Break

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Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer in Together Again (Charles Vidor - 1944)

Posted by peter at 08:38 AM

July 14, 2011

"A queer illness"

Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera
Siu Leung Li - 2003
Hong Kong University Press

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The Love Eterne/Liang Shan Bo yu Zhu Ying Tai
Li Han=hsiang - 1963
IVL Region 3 DVD

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Dream of the Red Chamber/Jin yu liang yuan hong lou meng
Li Han-hsiang - 1977
IVL Region 3 DVD

If there is any kind of English language overview about women playing the part of men in Hong Kong action films, I have yet to find it. The roles I am thinking of generally involve a woman who is in a situation temporarily forcing her to disguise herself. Probably the best known example in Chinese history and art is Mulan, the female general, even the subject of a Disney cartoon feature. My earliest exposure to this particular role was seeing Maggie Cheung briefly disguised as a young man in Dragon Inn, and one of the first Hong Kong films to feature a female action heroine, Come Drink with Me starring Cheng Pei-pei.

An inquiry with a female professor who has written about Chinese language films didn't answer my question. Instead, I was referred to writings about lesbian representation in Chinese language films. The upside was that in turn I was directed to some more good films I might not have seen. One of the books also referred to Siu Leung Li's book, Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera. Even though nothing specific about women playing the part of men in Hong Kong films has been answered, I feel like I'm starting to connect a few dots between some traditions in Chinese opera and Hong Kong film.

My problem with Li's book is that too much of it is queer theory, and not enough is history. What I have been able to glean for my particular purposes is that the earliest known examples of female actors performing male roles took place during the Third Century. There were acting troupes that were all female and well as some that were both male and female. Even in the mixed troupes, female actors would sometimes play the lead male role. While nothing is stated, I have to assume that the inspiration for the Shaw Brothers to start the process of story lines involving women disguised as men came from certain strands of Chinese opera.

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One of the stories the Li refers to, "The Butterfly Lovers", has been retold multiple times in different on stage and film. Essentially, a young woman with scholarly ambitions convinces her parents to allow her to go to school disguised as a young man. The girl's desire to study is described by her father as, "a queer illness". Perhaps unintended but the line also adds to the reading of the film, as do some other lines and scenes, particularly one suggesting same sex marriage. Adding to the confusion, at least for western viewers, is that the students are played by a mix of female and male actors. While at school, she make friends with another young scholar. The young women hides her romantic feelings, and manages to also hide her true identity over a three year period. Still pretending to be a young man, she arranges to have her friend become engaged to the "twin sister" at home. The young woman discover her parents have arranged marriage to another man. The young scholar, meanwhile, has died prematurely, discovering that the truth about his friend but also heartbroken that they can not marry. On the night of her arranged marriage, the young woman stops at the tomb of her would-be love. The tomb opens and the young woman jumps in. Two butterflies emerge, flying away together.

The story has been staged and filmed traditionally with two women in the lead roles. As such, it lends itself to multiple readings as simultaneously a love story between two men, two women, and a man and a woman. While the main role is of a woman who disguises herself as a man, the other lead is that of a male. One of the most famous film versions is The Love Eterne, written and directed by Li Han-hsiang. There is no way one can watch this film and not mistake Betty Loh Ti and Ivy Ling Po for two women, even when they are suppose to be appearing as two men. Ling not only became a major star, with a significant female fan base, but appeared in other films of the Huangmeixi Opera genre, in male roles.

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Li Han-hsiang not only was the one to create the genre with Diau Charn in 1958, but he also closed it almost twenty years with Dream of the Red Chamber. The two stars, Sylvia Chang and Brigitte Lin, would be better known internationally for their work with younger, frequently western educated filmmakers. Chang would also be known as a respected writer and director. Tsui Hark would make use of Lin's peculiar beauty in such films as Peking Opera Blues and Swordman II. Of the films I've seen her in, Brigitte Lin has never appeared more feminine than in Dream of the Red Chamber, where she plays the male lead. Lin first appears prancing with a pinwheel in hand. Again, there is the stage tradition of a woman playing the part of a young male scholar. Not only does Lin look more feminine here, but she acts more feminine, especially when the young scholar has emotional outbursts. There is also a female actor, Niu Niu, who plays the small role of a male actor visiting the mansion where the film takes place.

The scene with Niu Niu is of interest in that it discusses the standing of actors in "classical" Chinese society. As the character puts it, an actor's status was above that of musicians and prostitutes, but less than a dog. Seeing The Love Eterne and Dream of the Red Chamber together, both beautifully restored on DVD, one also notices Li Han-hsiang's use of lateral tracking shots, usually from right to left, as well as his astute use of studio sets blending both the artificial and the natural elements. Interestingly, both films were made as competing productions, with Li's version of The Love Eterne totally displacing Cathay Studios production, directed by Li's mentor. At the time Li made Dream of the Red Chamber, there was another version being filmed starring the woman Li had made a star, Ivy Ling Po.

What probably aided the popularity of the Huanmeixi films is that the subject was romantic love versus arranged marriages, or couplings dictated by social roles. Having films with two female leads could be seen as a way for some to enjoy a film about same sex love at a time when such issues were not yet addressed by Chinese language filmmakers, even if events turn out tragically for the lovers. John Woo, no stranger to homoerotic interpretations of his films, turned the concept of the woman disguised as a man around in Red Cliff. In Woo's film, Vickie Zhou, a member of a royal family, infiltrates an enemy camp as a soldier. Disguised as a man, she becomes emotionally close to a good hearted, if naive, soldier. The relationship is doomed sexually, socially and politically. Zhou's own career brings the idea of woman disguised as men back to its classic beginning as she also played the title role of Mulan.

The DVD supplements to The Love Eterne and Dream of the Red Chamber also include discussions from several Shaw Brothers veterans that assist in putting the Huangmeixi films in context in regards to Chinese language films. It should also be noted that while Shaw Brothers was based in Hong Kong, where the dominant dialogue was Cantonese, the films were released in Mandarin and were hugely popular in Taiwan. What is needed is more English language material to understand how some of the gender issues raised in the films, both in subject matter and presentation, were understood within their original time and for the intended audience, rather than the filters of contemporary western culture.

Posted by peter at 08:09 AM

July 12, 2011

Dragnet Girl

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Hijosen no onna
Yasujiro Ozu - 1933
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

One of the more striking moments in Dragnet Girl is of interest both for what is seen, as well as what is not seen. Tokiko, the girlfriend of small time gangster Joji, confronts the woman she perceives of as being a romantic rival, Kazuko. In a previous shot, the camera follows the lower legs and feet of the two women. Tokiko is in western style clothing, a stylish dress and leather shoes, with the lowerpart of her legs exposed. Kazuko is in a traditional kimono that covers her entire legs, wearing thick sandals. Tokiko is about to threaten Kazuko while the two are out on the Yokohama street. Instead we see Tokiko walking up to Kazuko, followed by a shot of the two women's lower legs against each other. Ozu cuts to a shot of Kazuko touching her cheek. We never see if Tokiko has kissed Kazuko although it is suggested by something Tokiko says later that suggests a definite attraction to the other woman.

While there are visual and narrative elements to Dragnet Girl that link the film to those more characteristic of what is known as an Ozu film, there is also plenty to make this different. Unlike the middle class families in the films with the interchangeable seasonal titles, where Setsuko Hara sacrifices her happiness so that Chishu Ryu is guaranteed a good nights sleep, this is a film about gangsters, loafers and other lowlifes. Joji, a former boxer, makes some money doing some unseen criminal activities, and lives with Tokiko, an office girl, coveted by the boss's son. A young boxer, Hiroshi, decides to follow Joji in a life of crime, concerning older sister Kazuko, a record store clerk. Aside from being Ozu's only film with a girl and a gun, people dance to jazz in a night club, waste their days playing pool, drink copious amount of alcohol, and get laid, in other words, the kind of stuff that doesn't happen in a film like Tokyo Story.

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There are also several (gasp) traveling shots, as the camera follows a row of typewriters in an office, tracks through the nightclub from the nightclub musicians to the dancing couples, or follows the lower legs and feet of people walking, or running, in the street. One very unusual shot is of the reflection of the rounded back of an exterior car light while the car is moving, so what is seen is a distorted view of Yokohama. There are also the kinds of shots that are more commonly associated with Ozu, such as the montage of the row of men's hats on a series of pegs, the wall clock, and other office artifacts. While perhaps not as pronounced as in some of his later films that Paul Schrader would characterize as looking at the world from a tatami mat, the characters are often filmed with the camera facing upwards.

What Dragnet Girl also shares with later, more well-known Ozu films is the emphasis on the female character. Tokiko is hardly demure, in fact the boss's son says he admires her for her frankness. The film might possibly be read as a critique of some aspects of the westernization of Japan. Certainly one might see this as the case of the stylish bad girl versus the more traditional good girl, who both in dress and actions would be considered more Japanese. Yet, Kazuko works at a record store filled with the RCA Victor logo of the dog listening to the gramophone. Joji is in a booth listening to what is presumably western classical music. It's the kind of moment of confusing cultural refinement with moral high ground that would later be upended by Robert Aldrich in Kiss Me Deadly.

In fact lots of western signs are visible. The boxing club name is in English. On the wall is a poster for The Champ. A small poster featuring Jack Dempsey is visible, as well as a French poster for All Quiet on the Western Front. The very Japanese Kazuko almost seems like the foreigner in the otherwise almost thoroughly western milieu of suits, evening dresses, coffee and cigarettes. It should be noted that this is a silent movie, and that the DVD version here is silent, the Dolby tag at preceding the film notwithstanding. Not even a music track, much less the sound effects or narrator that may have accompanied the film back in 1933. I mention this as it means that what we can see is not quite the film that Ozu had made, presented as originally intended. At the very least, Dragnet Girl is an eye opener for those who think of Ozu films as domestic dramas of people who are overly polite each other, with nary a moment of spontaneity. Here's an Ozu film with demonstrative expressions of love, where Joji tells Tokiko to "leap at me", and leap she does.

Posted by peter at 08:54 AM | Comments (1)

July 10, 2011

Coffee Break

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Masayoshi Nogami and Noriko Tatsumi in Slave Widow (Mamoru Watanabe - 1967)

Posted by peter at 08:09 AM

July 07, 2011

Clash

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Bay Rong
Le Thanh Son - 2009
J-Bics Region 3 DVD

In terms of action film, is Vietnam the new Hong Kong? I would guess that it would be if Johnny Tri Nguyen had his way. Relegated to stunt work and small supporting roles in Hollywood film, Nguyen has served as star, producer and co-writer of a couple of Vietnamese productions which have attracted some international attention. Clash has some of the feel of the down and dirty films from the late Eighties and early Nineties, when Tsui Hark and John Woo made their presence known initially to a handful of cinephiles and genre cultists.

The setup, a small band of gangsters known to each other only with pseudonyms provided by the gang leader, will of course remind some of Reservoir Dogs, which in turn should remind those familiar with Hong Kong cinema of Ringo Lam's City on Fire. The heist, of a laptop computer in the hands of French criminals operating in Saigon, is only part of the story. There is the short, comic gangster, the guy who's secretly affiliated with another gang, and the undercover cop. In a sign of the changing times, this gang is led by a woman her calls herself Phoenix.

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The main narrative is about Phoenix, who leads the gang on behalf of the elegant, opera loving, white suited Black Dragon. In return for doing several "missions" for Black Dragon, Phoenix will get back her kidnapped young daughter. Black Dragon is presented as someone who sees the world as a board game in which he controls the players. Nguyen, known by the nick name of White Tiger, falls in love with Phoenix, with the two attempting to get back Phoenix's child after the planned heist goes awry.

Much of the film is as much a showcase for the lean and leggy Ngo Thanh Van. Even more than her previous film with Nguyen, The Rebel, Ngo demonstrates her way with guns and martial arts moves. One of the high points in the film is Nguyen and Ngo dancing a tango, while simultaneously casing the French thugs in an attempt to discover which of two briefcases has the laptop they are after. In most of Clash, Ngo wears form fitting shirts and jeans, while at the scene in the Saigon Sheraton, she wears a low cut, long red dress, with the camera focused on her legs as she emerges from her car. Well known in her native country as a pop singer, Ngo is exactly the example to bring up to those who bemoan Hollywood's lack of capable female action stars.

Hollywood has proven unwilling or unable for the most part in dealing with Asian action stars. Still, it might be nice if Johnny Nguyen was given a featured role in an English language film. The gap between Nguyen's Vietnamese filmography and what he has done so far in some very high profile Hollywood films is quite wide. The one weakness of Clash is that Nguyen needs to work with a director with greater visual flair than Le Thanh Son. Nguyen was somewhat better served by director "Charlie" Nyugen on The Rebel. One hopes that as Vietnamese action films, and Vietnamese films in general, become more visible, that there will be the equivalent to a Tsui or a Woo, yet to be discovered.

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Posted by peter at 09:24 AM

July 05, 2011

Bullets over Summer

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Baau lit ying ging
Wilson Yip - 1999
Mei Ah Region 0 DVD

Well, yes, it seems most appropriate to see any movie titled Bullets over Summer at this time of year. But as it turns out, the film isn't as action packed as the English title might suggest. I'm not sure what the Chinese title means, although an attempt with translation of the individual words from Pinyin to English suggests something along the lines of "Carefully looking for the right person while eating pork buns". A good part of the film is devoted to the two main characters, undercover cops, and their surveillance of a suspected gun dealer.

The basic setup of Wilson Yip's film is the Hong Kong version of that Seventies Hollywood staple, the buddy film. Louis Koo and Francis Ng are close in spirit to James Caan and Alan Arkin in Freebie and the Bean in that both have tensions between each other, but share something of the same antipathy towards parts of the police force they are part of, and a sense of unity when actually fighting crime. Francis Ng's Mike is the more diligent of the pair, seeming to function like a mechanism too tightly wound. Louis Koo's Brian is the laid back womanizer, informing Mike with his flat drawl that he's rather finish his ice cream before checking on a holdup in progress.

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Looking to keep tabs on a gun dealer, which will in turn lead to the capture of a criminal gang, Brian and Mike seek an apartment from which to view their suspect. The two convince the proverbial little old lady, referred to as Granny, to let them stay in her run down apartment, primarily near the balcony, for a couple of weeks. Granny is both high strung and a bit addled, as she seemingly confuses Mike and Brian with her own children, yet the three become a kind of impromptu family. The family is extended with the inclusion of the sister of a snitch, and the pregnant woman who runs a neighborhood laundry service. The criminal investigation is resolved by coincidence rather than detection, but that doesn't seem to be Yip's main concern.

As one of the screenwriters, Matthew Chow explains: "The miraculous point of Bullets over Summer is that most of the time, we would set a target and a theme before we write a script, but this time we didn't. When the movie was finished, someone commented the characters are so lonely, they are all being abandoned. I then realized that Helena (Law Lan) was abandoned, same for Michelle (Saram), she had to sleep on the street; and Francis Ng's character was an orphan, the pregnant woman was also abandoned by her husband, even the story was being ignored. It seemed to reveal that I need to be cherished therefore in my imaginative world; the characters are all being discarded and ignored. Additionally, Wilson treasures family very much, he introduced a new perspective towards family into the movie."

It is Law Lan who was cited for her performance as Granny. How many movies has Miss Law actually made? Obviously, more scholarship is required, but the fact that Miss Law is still active speaks for the greater appreciation within the Chinese language film industries for some of its oldest actors.

When Bullets over Summer returns to action film mode, it is a jolting moment. It's as if for almost an hour we've been lulled by the comedy and drama of this mismatched family, only to watch Brian and Mike bring out the guns. Characters chase each other through stairways and dark alleys in a hot and humid night. The only misstep in the film is giving Mike an incurable disease which allows him to do the wrong thing as a policeman, even if his motivation is admirable. Still, of the films I have seen by Wilson Yip, I prefer the modest virtues of Bullets over Summer to the antics of the popular, if overpraised, Ip Man.

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Posted by peter at 08:43 AM | Comments (3)

July 03, 2011

Coffee Break

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Jack Lemmon in Phffft (Mark Robson - 1954)

Posted by peter at 08:14 AM | Comments (1)

July 01, 2011

Buddha Mountain

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Guan yin shan
Li Yu - 2011
Guosi Culture All Region DVD

I overlooked that when I ordered my DVD of Buddha Mountain, that although it was a region free version, it also did not have English subtitles. Rather than getting upset, I decided to watch the DVD anyways, to see what I could get out of watching a film without knowing what people were saying, missing details of the narrative. It's not the first time I've watched a film in another language without subtitles. I even have a couple of Japanese DVDs with no subtitles, although they happen to be historically based, about the Buddhist priest, Nichiren, a story with which I have much familiarity. There was also the Thai film, Somtum, with had enough English making that film fairly easy to follow.

One advantage of seeing a movie in a language not spoken or understood is that it forces the viewer to try and pay more attention to what is happening on the screen. The best moments in Buddha Mountain are dialogue free. Most involve Fan Bingbing. In one scene, Fan, seeking to avenge her fat friend who was beaten by a gang of young thugs, confronts the gang leader. Taking a glass bottle, she breaks it on her forehead, blood seeping down her face. If that wasn't enough to let the gang know that she means business, she grabs one of the gang girls, locking lips with her, effectively forcing the gang to sheepishly apologize for messing with the wrong person.

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There are several scenes of Fan, with Berlin Chen and Fei Long, traveling on the open air cars of freight trains. Close ups of Fan show her long hair whipping across her face. One very dreamlike image is of Fan and Chen lying together in an identified outdoor space, about to be engulfed by water. There is a hazy image of their hands entwined. No dialogue is needed to follow the opening scene with Fan, singing in a bar, losing control of her microphone, which injures one unlucky patron in a sensitive area.

The story is about the three friends, living marginal existences, moving into the spare rooms of a retired opera singer, played by Sylvia Chang. Fan and Chen have left broken families, while Chang is mourning the death of her son. As memorial, she keeps the damaged car her son was driving. After a few contentious encounters, the three friends and the opera singer find solace in each other. A scene with the car brought back totally repaired might be to obviously symbolic. The car is also the means by which the four go to the Buddha Mountain of the title.

The film is shot entirely with a handheld camera. Even though the camera moves, with only a few relatively still shots, even when the camera pans back and forth between characters, it has none of the obtrusiveness that seems to plague many other films that rely on this same visual tact. One of the nicest shots is a tilt up following the source of a mountainside waterfall.

The film was primarily shot in the city of Chendu, in Sichuan Province. At one point, the characters observe an urban area destroyed by the earthquake of 2008. While the magnitude of destruction is something beyond what a handful of people can repair, the group works to restore a small Buddhist shrine. Buddha Mountain is an intimate film. Li Yu's message would be that even in the face of problems that seem overwhelming, even the smallest kindnesses are meaningful.

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Posted by peter at 08:39 AM