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May 20, 2018

Coffee Break

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Gord Rand and Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg - 2015)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:59 AM

May 15, 2018

Hong Kong Horror Cinema

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Edited by Gary Bettinson and Daniel Martin
Edinburgh University Press - 2018

Probably the most helpful part of Hong Kong Horror Cinema is that a couple of the contributors explain how the creatures referred to as vampires, jiangshi, are misnamed in English. Rather than being vampires or zombies as is understood in most western horror films, they might be better named as hopping corpses. Hopping because rigor mortis limits the ability of these living dead to bending the knees a bit and extending their arms outwards.

As for the genre itself, as some of the authors suggest, it may have to go through some twists, turns and transformations in order to survive, much as what had been known as Hong Kong cinema has mostly morphed into a part of mainland China cinema. This change has not always been voluntary, the results of political and commercial forces.

While there is some discussion of older films inspired by folklore and ghost stories, more is devoted to specific films, particularly within the context of what may be implied about the state of Hong Kong at the time of production. Among the films, Fruit Chan's Dumplings and Herman Yau's The Untold Story examine the role of food in Hong Kong as well as anxiety about the impending changeover that took place in 1997. The violent and darkly funny Dream Home is dissected for how it plays with the viewer's sympathy towards actress Josie Ho's portrayal of a serial killer trapped not by the law but by unpredictable economics. Juno Mak's elegiac Rigor Mortis is a revival of sorts of the hopping corpse film made famous by Ricky Lau's Mr. Vampire.

Chapters are devoted to The Bride with White Hair, the two Detective Dee films by Tsui Hark, and the several film versions of the White Snake legend. Perspectives vary regarding pan-Asian horror, be it the portmanteau films such as Three . . . Extremes, or the work of the Pang Brothers, with The Eye, partially filmed in Thailand, starring Malaysian actress Angelica Lee. As part of the look at pan-Asian horror is how, for better or worse, those films have been labeled as part of "Asia Extreme", often consumed by viewers who don't bother to distinguish the cultural differences within these films.

Beyond considerations of genre, Hong Kong Horror Cinema is worth considering for what says about some of the rules of filmmaking imposed by mainland China. Definitely, we will no longer see anything like the spate of idiosyncratic and often deliberately risible films like Human Lanterns or Black Magic as produced by the Shaw Brothers primarily in the 70s and 80s. My own guess is that we may see a meager handful of films with hopping corpses, or a female ghost, but these new films will not be nearly as entertaining.

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Mr. Vampire poster

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:04 AM

May 13, 2018

Coffee Break

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Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl (David Fincher - 2014)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:05 AM

May 06, 2018

Coffee Break

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Sam Rockwell and Keira Knightly in Laggies (Lynn Shelton - 2014)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:15 AM

May 04, 2018

Legend of the Mountain

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Shan zhong zhuan qi
King Hu - 1979
Kino Classics BD Region A

Even the larger widescreen televisions most people would have at home don't seem appropriate for viewing Legend of the Mountain. This is made most clear in several shots with characters seen from a distance, as well as the many panoramic shots within forests and along fields dominated by the sky. My first exposure to King Hu was with his most famous film, A Touch of Zen, presented as part of the New York Film Festival in 1976, seen on the famously big screen of the Ziegfeld Theater.

Unlike A Touch of Zen, or most of Hu's other films, Legend of the Mountain is not a martial arts story, with only a few short scenes of action. Taken from a story from Pu Songling, the story takes place in 11th Century China. Qingyun, getting by as a copyist of documents, takes the job of reproducing a Buddhist sutra on behalf of a temple. Qingyun is directed to a remote location to do his work in peace. The story is one of several legends revolved around scholars who fall in love with female ghosts. The sutra is said to give one power over the spirits of the dead, either for good or evil. Hu would revisit this material, also from Pu Songling, with his final film, Painted Skin.

The supplements to the blu-ray help in explaining how King Hu deliberately chose to make a film that was a departure in style and content. At over three hours, the leisurely pace imitates Qingyun's meandering hike to the location where he is to copy the sutras. On his way, Qingyun glimpses a woman playing a flute who appears to disappear at will. Even when he gets set up to do his work, Qingyun is distracted by two mother and daughter pairs, Taoist and Buddhist priests, and an old retainer with protruding teeth. Whatever thoughts Ho has about dismissing the supernatural are forgotten by the end of the film.

With frequent montages of animals and lotus ponds, only the natural world is to be trusted. Close-ups of spider webs indicate that even in nature there is treachery, a hint of what is to happen to Qingyun. The film was shot in Korea, where Hu was able to take advantage of the still well preserved old temples and stone buildings.

Shih Chun, the toothy star of several King Hu films, plays Qingyun. While virtually retired from acting, it seems less than coincidental that Shih returned to acting for an appearance in Hsiao-Hsien Hou's The Assassin, another period film that went against audience expectations. Hsu Feng, an actress who frequently worked with Hu, plays Melody, a young woman whose designs on Qingyun turn out to be less than harmonious. Hsu, who later turned to film production including Farewell, My Concubine, was largely responsible for financing the restoration of this film. The still very active Sylvia Chang plays Cloud, Melody's rival for the affections of Qingyun.

The blu-ray comes with an essay by Grady Hendrix that discusses the film primarily within the context of Hu's other work. Travis Crawford's visual essay also discusses Legend of the Mountain as part of Hu's career, also covering some of the changes in the Hong Kong film industry, where Hu got his start, initially as an actor. An interview with Tony Rayns was ported over from the recent British Eureka release. Taken from a 4K scan, this is the complete version of the film as intended by King Hu.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:44 AM

May 02, 2018

Moon Child

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El Nino de la Luna
Augusti Villaronga - 1989
Cult Epics BD Regions ABC/Region 0 DVD two disc set

Augusti Villaronga's film was inspired by a 1923 novel by Aleister Crowley. Cinematically, Crowley is better known for his influence on the films by Kenneth Anger, usually depicting ancient and esoteric religious rituals. And it is possible that my own reaction to Moon Child is deeply subjective, but it helps to have some knowledge of the origins of the story. The title character is a young Spanish boy who claims to be the fulfillment of a prophesy, that he is to lead a tribe in a remote part of Africa. The trope of the white savior is markedly archaic at this time. Villaronga incorporates personal themes of otherness into his work, sexually as a gay filmmaker, and politically with his father's memories of the Spanish Civil War. Even for a fantasy, the racial element of the premise provides a challenge in appreciating Villaronga's film on its own terms.

The film takes place in what appears to be Spain in the 1930s. David, on the cusp of adolescence, has been told be a mysterious woman that he is the Moon Child, and his destiny is in Africa. David is suspected of having psychic abilities, and is taken by Victoria, distinguished by her Louise Brooks style bob, to an institute run by a severe directress. The unnamed institute appears to be run fascists based on style of clothing worn. Among the test subjects at the institute, Edgar and Georgina are chosen to mate to create a perfect being. Overhearing that the test subjects are to be murdered, David plans his escape. What follows are events that straddle the line between prophesy fulfillment and coincidence.

A recent video interview with Villaronga is included here, helping put Moon Child in the context of the filmmaker's intentions. Younger viewers may have trouble with some of the obviously dated special effects, suggesting that Villaronga's ambitions outweighed the some of tools available to him at the time. The film features an original scored by Dead Can Dance, primarily instrumental, with only a small amount of Lisa Gerrard's signature vocals. That score can also be heard as a standalone supplement. Additionally, Villaronga cast Gerrard in the role of Georgina, more unusual as Gerrard is not an actress, nor does she speak Spanish. Gerrard was fearless here, by turns loopy and wide-eyed, and unafraid to be completely nude. Victoria was portrayed by Maribel Martin, more widely seen in several Spanish horror classics including The Blood-Spattered Bride and The House that Screamed. Lucia Bose, the star of several Italian and Spanish classics in the early 1950s, appears here as the directress.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:53 AM