February 28, 2013
Muay Thai Warrior
Nopporn Watin - 2010
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD
Hopefully the generic English language title given to this film won't be too big an obstacle. Yes, there is Muay Thai fighting, and even a few elephants, but you won't find Tony Jaa here, nor is the film from the same studio. While there is a fair share of boxing and sword fighting, Muay Thai Warrior is more of a historical action film, similar to such Thai films as Chatrichalerm Yukol's series of films about King Naresuan, or Tanit Jitnukul's two Bang Rajan films. Nopporn's film can also be viewed as something of a compliment to Prince Chatri's films with King Naresuan here in a small, but vital role.
The film is inspired by the life of Yamada Nagamasa. The factual aspects of the film seem to begin and end there, with the story being no more historically accurate than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. No matter. It seems that a group of Japanese are out to create disorder in Siam, disguised as the hated Hongsawadee, people of present day Myanmar. A member of a voluntary group of mercenaries sworn to protect King Naresuan, Yamada is almost killed uncovering the identity of the Japanese. Rescued, and taken to a small village, Yamada learns Muay Thai boxing, and eventually becomes a member of King Naresuan's personal army.
For western audiences, the main points of interest will be the martial arts. Yamada attempts to show off his samurai skills once he's recovered from his wounds, only to be immediately knocked out. The village's resident Buddhist monk, Phra Khru, teaches the Japanese Yamada Muay Thai boxing with the wish that Yamada combine the best of his skills from both countries. The second half of the film has the action set pieces with Yamada fighting the Hongsawadee, and later, an army of masked Japanese ninja. Blood spurts, sprays and gushes throughout.
What struck me was how much Muay Thai Warrior is a Thai film for Thai audiences. Not that non-Thai could not find things to enjoy, but there is much emphasis on nationalist values of loyalty to King, country and Buddha. Some of the attitudes of characters are understood best within the cultural context of the film.
The Japanese actor, Seigi Ozeki, plays Yamada, doing some first person narration in Japanese, but also speaking Thai. For those who know Thai cinema, the real star is Sorapong Chatree as the Buddhist monk. There might even be a law requiring Sarapong to star in at least one movie a year, preferably something historical, with big action scenes. The baddest of bad guys are bald, while the good guys have some very ornate hair styles.
This is a handsomely produced film. Nopporn loves to film people and buildings in silhouette. Statues of Buddha also figure prominently here. The martial arts scenes are filmed well enough to follow the action, without excessive editing or emphasis on slow motion. The most visually satisfying scenes are those of Thai culture, preparation of food, a dance performance, and a scene of Yamada relaxing, playing his flute with an elephant by his side.
February 26, 2013
Focus on Japanese Cinema - 2013
Having a short festival devoted to Japanese film just two days after the death of Donald Richie was purely coincidental. There would probably not be a festival such as this without his books that introduced most westerners to Japanese film. Richie has his own brief connection to the Denver Film Society, having presented Akira Kurosawa's No Regrets for Our Youth as part of the Denver International Film Festival, about twenty years ago. Considering how rare it is to see Japanese movies, classic or contemporary, in Denver, this third Focus, at the society's Sie theater, has struck a pretty good balance of unfamiliar films by acknowledged masters as well as films by some younger filmmakers.
The series began with Kaneto Shindo's final film, Postcard (Ichimai no hagaki). A look at how World War II affected two men and their respective families, veers from impassioned passionate anti-war drama, to broad comedy, to a sweet, and sunny ending. There is an element of autobiography with one of the families eking out a living as wheat farmers. There is a remarkable scene with a group of sixty sailors, about to board a ship for the Philippines. We never see the ship, only the sailors as a group emerging in and out of the darkness. There are no scenes of battle, but actress Shinobu Ohtake, as the woman widowed twice by war, makes the horrors of war palpable with her performance.
Hanezu (Hanezu no tsuki) was my first opportunity to see a film by Naomi Kawase. It's the kind of film that defies easy description being part documentary, visual poem, and drama. Filmed in Nara Prefecture, the film alternates between past, the World War II era, and the present, with two stories about love gone bad, Repeated several times is part of a poem referring to a mythical time when the mountains rivaled each other for love. Concurrently in the contemporary portion is the very real excavation project of Japan's oldest capital. The title refers to a shade of red, which figures at several points throughout the film.
Programmer Brit Withey seemed a bit apologetic for including Japan's biggest hit of last year, Thermae Romae in the program. Based on the manga by Mari Yamazaki, the film was certainly a crowd pleaser. Mostly about a bathhouse designer from Imperial Rome who unexpectedly gets sucked in a whirlpool that leads to present day Japan, the film is an enjoyable mix of screwball comedy and romance. As the Roman Lucius, Hiroshi Abe gamely is seen nude in several scenes, while Aya Ueta as Mami, the aspiring young manga artist, is the perfect comic foil. One of the delightful anachronisms is the periodic appearance of Walter Roberts lip synching as a less than attentive Pavorotti stand-in. Not surprisingly, a sequel is in the works.
Also manga based was Sion Sono's Himizu. The film was a last minute substitute for The Land of Hope. For myself, I simply liked the opportunity to see a film by Sono on the big screen. Sono rewrote the screenplay to incorporate scenes of the effects of the disasters that hit northern Japan in March 2011. The physical ruptures of the country play against the ruptures of the respective families of the fourteen year old Sumida and Keiko. Thematically, the film is consistent with Sono's past portraits of disaffected youth. It is also an admittedly difficult film to watch with scenes of children brutalized emotionally, if not always physically, by their parents. Unexpected was the heart wrenching extended traveling shot with the young actors Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido running towards the camera, with Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" on the soundtrack.
Shohei Imamura's documentary, A Man Vanishes (Ningen Johatsu) is a study of truth, reality and memory. The film begins as simply as a documentary about an office worker who has seemingly disappeared with no trace. Produced in conjunction with the Art Theater Guild, there are several avant-garde moments, notably involving a medium who claims to speak on behalf of the missing man. It is eventually revealed that the missing man has had a history of embezzlement, and that his relationships with his fiancee and her sister may have been complicated by infidelities. The man was last seen in northern Japan, and a scene of Imamura and the fiancee in a snowy locale made me think of Seicho Matsumoto's Zero Focus, a 1959 novel about a woman who seeks her newly wed husband who has disappeared in snow country. The man disappeared in 1963, and Imamura made his film in 1965. It may be coincidental, but it is tantalizing to think that there may be some connections here.
I wasn't able to cover all of this festival. Spread over two parts, Kyoshi Kurosawa's 300 minute Penance was programmed too late for someone dependent on limited public transportation after Midnight. I am certain that like most other Kurosawa films, this will get a DVD release in the near future. Blizzard conditions kept me from seeing two other Imamura documentaries, Karayuki-San: The Making of a Prostitute and In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers. Sorry, but I just don't have it in me to stand in the snow and wind for an hour and a half bus ride each way.
Considering the meager attendance of most of these films, I have to wonder about future programming. Are Denver area audiences only interested in coming out for familiar classics that can just as easily be seen with DVD player and a subscription to Netflix? For myself, I'm satisfied to have taken advantage of seeing a few more films that previously I could only read about.
Posted by peter at 08:07 AM
February 24, 2013
Shelley Winters and Ronald Colman in A Double Life (George Cukor - 1947)
Posted by peter at 08:33 AM
February 21, 2013
A Simple Life
Ann Hui - 2011
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD
A Simple Life is the work of a filmmaker so confident in her actors and material that she allows herself to step back as an almost casual observer. I wouldn't call the filmmaking austere, as much as stripped down to the essentials. It could well be that A Simple Life gained another Best Director win, her fourth, for Ann Hui because she eschewed anything that smacked of obvious style or technique. The deceptively casual cinematography is by Nelson Yu, his third collaboration with Hui.
Although the story is from producer Roger Lee's own life, and his relationship with his long-time family maid, elements are similar to an earlier Hui film, Summer Snow from 1995, in which a woman cares for her father-in-law, suffering from Alzheimer's disease. While Ann Hui did not originate the film, and was brought in by producer-star Andy Lau, it still can be considered a personal film for its thematic concerns. In an additional case of serendipity, A Simple Life and Summer Snow both won the Hong Kong Film Awards for film, director, actor and actress.
The story goes against the grain of what seems to be demanded nowadays. A family maid gets a stroke, spends the rest of her days in a nursing home, and is looked after by the movie producer who she helped raise. What is observed is that in the beginning, the producer, Roger, is rather oblivious while Ah Tao prepares and serves his meal and tends to his apartment. Several minutes are devoted to shots of a traditional dinner being prepared with the camera focused on the large frying pan. A scene near the end, which a Hollywood director would probably overlay with a loud, schmalzy score, is played out in silence with Roger, tending to Ah Tao for the last time, straightens out the socks she wear to stay warm.
Which is not to say that A Simple Life is devoid of humor. There is the banter between Roger and Ah Tao, teasing each other about being too picky to have gotten married. There's also a production meeting with Tsui Hark playing himself, yelling at Roger, "I was making movies when you were in short pants!". Roger takes Ah Tao to the premiere of his latest production, sparked by cameo appearances by producer Raymond Chow, director Stanley Kwan, and actress Angela Baby, among others. There is also a running joke about Roger's every day outfit of a blue jacket and shirt which cause him to be confused with an air-conditioner repairman and a cabbie.
One of the more interesting choices is that most of the film takes place in the Sham Shui Po district of Hong Kong. It's an area of old apartment buildings with aging air conditioners sticking out of the walls, and inexpensive restaurants. Hui's love of Hong Kong and interest in the more marginalized residents was explored in two previous films taking place in relatively remote Tin Shui Wai district, most notably in The Way We Are.
After an absence from acting for almost ten years, Deanie Ip's performance as Ah Tao brought several awards, beginning with Best Actress at Venice, in September 2011. After a career of primarily comic supporting roles, Ip played a woman about ten years older than her real age, who tries to assert as much independence as possible in the face of failing health. This is the kind of role that a lesser actor would play for easy sentimentality or cheap laughs. A Simple Life is about difficult choices, compromises, and loving someone as much for their faults, rather than in spite of them.
Posted by peter at 08:30 AM
February 19, 2013
Aleksandr Vartanov - 2011
Artsploitation Films Region 1 DVD
While Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Vartanov acknowledges the influence of Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, and Artsploitation's Travis Crawford sees the influence of Lindsay Anderson's If . . , what I also saw was the studied experimentation of Ingmar Bergman's Persona with elements of opening montage of that film, some of the framing of shots (through a glass darkly, indeed), as well as some the elliptical narrative passages. That the film is also in black and white also makes the work appear closer to the kind of work that appeared from European filmmakers in the the Sixties.
I wish there were English language credits to the soundtrack, a mix of composers and types of music, parts which also recalls the kind of music used in films during that era, breaking away from the more classical influences. This would be music that was frequently atonal. This is the kind of music associated with modernist composers like Krzysztof Penderecki or Ingmar Bergman collaborator, Lars Johan Werle.
Bullet Collector is also much more brutal than its forebears. The fourteen year old boy at the center of the film, nameless, is immediately linked to blood, his own and of others. He is first seen cutting himself, he gets spontaneous bloody noses, and daubs himself as a kind of war paint. Not very big or strong, with an almost girlish face, he gets beat up by a bigger kid in school for money, and in turn beats up an even smaller, younger boy, He may, or may not, be part of a gang of thugs, the Bullet Collectors, who have a rivalry with the Wood Borers. Even when the boy tries to do something seemingly decent, like intervening when he sees a larger man (a pimp? a john?) pummeling a woman (a prostitute?) on the streets, the woman strikes back at the boy for interfering with "her business".
Unlike the teen rebels of the earlier films, the boy of Bullet Collector is completely adrift, with only the most tenuous connections to his family and other people, with no interests other than to collect bullets, tokens of death that might be real but are more likely imagined. Where the bullets are very much real is in the reformatory, pegged correctly by the boy as a prison with machine gun carrying guards. The boy, with two smaller and weaker boys, attempt an escape from a hell with a hierarchy even worse than parents, teachers and other schoolboys.
Mention should be made that the DVD includes a deleted scene of the boy, alone, wandering through what I assume is a part of Moscow. There is also a booklet that includes an analysis of the film by Travis Crawford, as well as his interview with Vartanov. I would hesitate to use words like "retro" or "throwback", but Bullet Collector kept reminding me of the time when filmmakers made movies about angry (very) young men, and there was as much rebellion on the screens as in the streets.
Posted by peter at 08:15 AM
February 17, 2013
Oscar Levant and Joan Crawford in Humoresque (Jean Negulesco - 1946)
Posted by peter at 08:08 AM
February 14, 2013
Tau ban no hoi
Ann Hui - 1982
Edko Films Region 3 DVD
A little more than thirty years after its initial release, is it possible for Boat People to be considered objectively? This question is raised because a variety of political aspects to the film, a reading or misreading of the film and of Ann Hui's intentions, may have derailed the anticipated commercial and critical viability outside of Asia, in turn causing Hui to be less known or even unknown by those claiming to champion female filmmakers.
This is a film that in 2005 was considered by the Hong Kong Film Association to be the eighth best Chinese language movie in the past one hundred years. At the time of its initial release, this was the film that brought Hui her first awards as a director. In the west, Boat People was pulled from competition at Cannes, and reviewed negatively by Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman in the Village Voice when the film played at the New York Film Festival. An explanation for the controversy was presented by Harlan Kennedy in Film Comment, in October 1983. Kennedy's optimism regarding Ann Hui's career turned out to be unrealized as only a small number of films would receive even a DVD release outside of Asia. Even the award winning and critically acclaimed A Simple Life was given only a token theatrical release. With the changes in the Hong Kong film industry, Hui has experienced moments of uncertainty regarding the viability of her career.
The original title translates as "Run towards the angry sea". I would assume that there is something of Hui in the main character, a Japanese photojournalist, Akutagawa, in Vietnam, 1978, as Hui's own filmmaking career began as a documentarian. Janet Maslin wrote about the "manipulation of material" by Hui, but manipulation is also the subject of the film. Akutagawa is used to provide the world with the image of Vietnam that the government wants to present. Getting involved with a family that lives on the margins of Danang, Akutagawa uses his contacts to attempt to provide a more truthful documentation of life in Vietnam. One of Akutagawa's connections is a woman who served as a mistress to men in power in Vietnam - French, American and Vietnamese. Hui would be able to attest to how documentaries would be no more or less objective or truthful than commercial narrative films.
Setting aside the politics and historical context, what Boat People is more concerned with is the question of the role of the professional observer. Akutagawa's dilemma is more heightened by his particular circumstance, where any pretense of objectivity evaporates as he becomes more involved in the lives of Cam Nuong and her family. And while the origins of the film are to be found in Ann Hui's very real interest in the lives of her characters, there is also the more universal question of a journalist's choices, both professional and personal, in situations where, let's call it human decency, call for intervention in the lives of others. What makes Boat People remain intriguing is that there are no easy answers, nor do the characters have any choices that are free of compromise.
Boat People has also gained interest as being the film that kickstarted Andy Lau's career. At the time, Lau was an unknown actor in his second film, brought to the attention of Ann Hui by Boat People star George Lam and Chow Yun-Fat. It was Chow who Hui wanted to cast in the role of small time thief To Minh. Lau character is also the secret lover to the mistress, played by Cora Miao. Chow would work with Ann Hui in her following film, Love in a Fallen City, opposite Miao. Boat People star George Lam would reunite with Cora Miao in Sylvia Chang's film, Passion. As an actress, Chang starred in Ann Hui's debut feature, The Secret.
Posted by peter at 07:15 AM
February 12, 2013
Jealousy is My Middle Name
Jiltuneun naui him
Park Chanok - 2002
Myung Films DVD
The photographer caught in the middle of the affections between her editor and a young writer, Seongkun, looks like she barely brushes her hair. When she wakes up from a night of heavy drinking, her hair is in even greater disarray. One evening spent embracing her would-be suitor, the young Wonsang, on a couch in her apartment, the floor in front of them is strewn with beer bottles. Messiness is one of the operative words here to describe the state of relationships and peoples lives in Park Chanok's film.
The main narrative is about Wonsang working on overcoming a broken relationship, dealing with his feelings for Seongkun, and trying to maintain his distance with Hye-ok,the flirtatious daughter of his landlord. Wonsang also finds himself emotionally seduced by his editor, Yunshik, acting as chauffeur or drinking buddy as the moment requires. The three work at a small literary magazine, where Wonsang's choice of authors is occasionally questioned in front of the rest of the staff by Yunshik. (Saul Bellow and Marquerite Duras are mentioned in this context.) In addition to this main triangle, is Yunshik discovered with Seongkun at a hotel lobby by his father-in-law.
Wonsang attempts to cover up for Yunshik's infidelity. Again there's messiness of relationships, which is harder to clean than the floor of Wonsang's spartan apartment, or a few drops of urine that miss the toilet bowl.
Martin Scorsese mentions Jealousy is My Middle Name in his preface to the book, Virtual Hallyu, about recent Korean cinema. He describes the film as, "subtle and emotionally complex". What may be somewhat unusual a choice for a female filmmaker is to make a film about relationships primarily from the point of view of a male character. Wonsang is in a transitional state, not yet graduated from university, a life that seems in suspension between various possibilities. Seongkun makes the transition from veterinarian to photographer as easily as one might change coats, the only constant being a sense of maintaining emotional independence. For Yunshik, being the editor of a literary magazine is provides little consolation for an unrealized life as a writer, instead serving as justification for constant womanizing. At various junctures, these three betray each other and undermine themselves.
Park's film somewhat resembles those made by Hong Sang-soo, especially with the constant bonding over drinks, and various infidelities that take place. Park worked as an assistant to Hong on The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. The character of Yunshik has been noted as being modeled after Hong. An interview with Hong suggests that the relationship between the two filmmakers may have spilled over from being professional colleagues.
The title translates as "Jealousy empowers me". I'm not certain if anyone is actually empowered as much as that jealousy acts as misguided motivation for some of the actions taken. Unlike a Hong film where there is the suggestion that the couplings could be viable if the guys would just settle down, the relationships in Park's film seem based solely on immediate needs and convenience. Seongkun looks even older than her claimed five year seniority over Wonsang. Hye-ok's intellectual and physical world is limited to looking after her father and brother, and her small knitting shop. When she steps into Wonsang's apartment, which is essentially a second floor addition to Hye-ok's house, she asks why Wonsang has so many books. Every family portrayed is dysfunctional in some degree. Even when there is enough self-knowledge to inform the best course of action, Park's characters choose the comfort of failing themselves.
Posted by peter at 08:00 AM
February 10, 2013
Susan Hayward and Bill Williams in Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman - 1946)
Posted by peter at 08:29 AM
February 07, 2013
Choi Dong-hoon - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD
Who doesn't like caper movies, especially when they are done well? The Thieves confidently takes from past films with the theft of a diamond from a casino, with the added perks of some of the latest technology plus a couple of old school scams, adding the undercover cop to the mix. This is somewhat familiar territory to anyone who's seen Bob le Flambeur, which arguably set the scene for this kind of story, as well as the two versions of Ocean's Eleven. What Choi also adds is a pan-Asian cast, that is also a mixed gendered team, where the women do more than provide eye candy.
The film hops between Korea, Hong Kong and Macau, where the grand theft takes place. The Korean gang has their own inner tensions, with two formal partners, now rivals, getting together with a Chinese gang. Cultural animosity is set aside, but the newly formed confederacy finds themselves caught between an unknown criminal mastermind as well as the police. Even after the heist, which takes place about midway, are a series of unexpected twists and turns.
There's even some time for a cross cultural romance between the two oldest members of the team, played by Simon Yam and Kim Hae-suk. The two seem weary of their lives of crime. The two pretend to be a married couple with a taste for high stakes gambling, but it is the gamble they take on each other that is unexpectedly affecting.
Even though the film is suppose to be an ensemble piece, it belongs mostly to two actresses, Gianna Jun and Kim Hye-su. Both actresses, like the rest of the cast, did their own stunts, but Jun and Kim had among the most physically demanding roles. Jun is the thief Yenicall, known for her skills breaking and entering while suspended from wires. Jun is also seen in the shortest skirts, and body fitting outfits. In one of the film's several comic scenes, Yenicall finds being the sexiest team member can only get her so far when a man targeted for seduction turns out to be gay. Kim plays Pepsee, a recently paroled safe cracker who's been involved with the two rival Korean gang leaders. A heist gone wrong, with Pepsee caught in the middle is played out in flashbacks.
The film threatens to sprawl out of control with one of the several sub-plots during the second half, only to wrap things up in a not quite neat circle. The Korean title more accurately translates as "The Professionals". One action set piece follows another that during the few moments when the characters have to stop to catch a breath, it's also welcome relief for the viewer.
Posted by peter at 08:44 AM
February 05, 2013
Hur Jin-Ho - 2012
Well Go Entertainment USA BD A
I'm certain that Asian audiences and those who follow celebrity news may have found it less than coincidental that a film about sexual intrigue and scandal would star Cecilia Cheung and Zhang Ziyi. Be that as it may, Cheung is luminous while Zhang is markedly subdued in this new variation based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos. 18th Century France is replaced by 1931 Shanghai, so that there is constant pushing and pulling between Shanghai's status as an international, and cosmopolitan city, but also a Chinese city where certain traditions and cultural values hold sway. Also, politically, Shanghai is now controlled by Japan, where acts of nationalism disrupt the cause suspicion between people.
Most interesting to me is how flexible the essential story is for adaptation to film, both in when and where the story takes place. This isn't even the first Asian adaptation. I would recommend E J-Young's The Untold Scandal, from 2003, which takes place in 18th Century Korea. Rather than royalty, we have a wealthy playboy, Yifan, and two youngish widows, the business woman, Jieyu, and the virtuous, philanthropic Fenyu. Gamesmanship and seduction are played out, with the hint of a possible happy ending for the two most innocent characters. The name may have a Chinese meaning I am unaware of, but I am certain that screenwriter Yan Geling intended a phonetic joke by having the young girl named Beibei.
In the supplemental "Making of , , ,", one of the producers mentions that Leslie Cheung was the original choice to play Yifan. One can only imagine how well that might have worked. Jang Dong-gun goes against type here, playing a mustached man of fashion, and in no way heroic. The extent of his charm is in the opening scene where Yifan is woken by a mistress who come to his house. The woman finds another woman in Yifan's bed. The two woman fight it out about their claims on Yifan, while he nonchalantly sips his morning coffee.
I wish there had been more supplementary footage devoted to Lisa Lu. In a supporting role as Yifan's grandmother, Lu is quite spry, and still active at age 86. I couldn't watch her without thinking about the history she carries with her of a career that began in Hollywood, mostly in television series guest shots, in 1958. It's also with her history that in her performance, it is fitting that Lu plays a matriarch who's probably seen and done almost everything in life, and can anticipate what those around her will do, even before they know themselves.
Hur Jin-ho is a curious choice to have directed this Chinese-Korean production. Hur's best known film, Christmas in August is a sweet story about unrealized love between a young parking attendant and a single middle aged man who keeps his terminal illness a secret. Maybe because Dangerous Liaisons is a much bigger production, it's harder to have a similar sense of passion or intimacy. Much of the drama is carried by the spectacular costumes and set designs. There are moments when everything comes together as near the end, with Jieyu receiving and wearing a posthumous gift, a white dress from Yifan, white in Chinese culture being the color associated with death.
Posted by peter at 07:52 AM
February 03, 2013
Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet in Carnage (Roman Polanski - 2011)