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April 29, 2014

Far East Film Festival - Day Five


Somehow I must have gotten sleep even though all I can remember is being kept awake by the sound of my own wheezing. My cold is abating with the help of lots of orange juice which fortunately for me is one of the beverage offerings at Teatro Nuovo. Anyways, I woke up in plenty of time to see a couple of morning screenings.

From the title, Personal Tailor (Si ren ding ahi) might seem like it's about clothing. The tailoring in this case is about a quartet who fashion fantasies for their clients, personifying the the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it." Among the day long fantasies are a chauffeur who thinks that if he's in a position of power, he would not be corrupt, unlike the men he has served, and a poor woman who is given the opportunity to play at being part of Beijing's nouveau riche. There is also the film director who has won scores of awards for his "vulgar" blockbuster movies, looking to get some high culture in his life, and make an art film.

Feng Xiaogang is better known for his serious epics like Aftershock and Back to 1942. I prefer the lighter works like If You are the One and A World without Thieves. While the lessons to be learned by the characters may not be revelatory, Feng has a way of consistently being affectionate about his characters, as much because, rather than in spite of, their foibles. I have to admit that the introductory fantasy, taking place in World War II, was a bit off-putting seeing Chinese actors dressed as Nazis. Some critics have also expressed discomfort at the final piece, where the quartet apologizes to nature for various forms of environmental damage. Even if Feng might not offer any immediate solution, he is clear-eyed enough to not let his audience off the hook. Through Feng's frequent star, Ge You, the question is raised on what anyone would really be willing to give up to make life better for others.

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Far lighter is College Confidential (Ai qing wu quan shun), more or less the Taiwanese version of Revenge of the Nerds. The campus queen and the college's biggest geek come together when the campus lake mysteriously is drained and the two bump into each in the mud. Legend has it that two people who might not otherwise come together will be together for life. For all of her efforts, Kiki seems to be unable to be free of the ironically named Lucky Wu, before discovering that there is more than just what meets her eye.

For me, one of the signs of a truly good comic actress is to not be afraid of looking foolish onscreen in scenes that would be very embarrassing in real life. As Kiki. Chen Yi-han is up to that task in the film's several slapstick moments, such as walking through campus with her head glued against that of Chen Bo-lin as Lucky. Director Lai Chun-yu also knows how to be simply, and effectively, poignant with a single shot. Lucky and Kiki search for a special hammer that when striking a bell on campus, will allow the two to go their separate ways. The hammer is found. Lai frames the shot so that we see Lucky in the foreground, with the knowledge that his relationship, such as it is, with Kiki, is about to end, while Kiki is seen in the background triumphantly running up a hill. As I've written before, sometimes all it takes to make a movie worth watching is that one shot where everything about it is right.

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Then again, not always. The one moment I really liked in the Malaysian film, The Journey was when the college aged Bee takes a black marker and draws a picture of her father and her fiancé riding on a motorbike. We see the drawing against the suspended electrical lines by the highway making for a very simple animated image. The Chinese Malaysian Bee in engaged to the British Benji. Bee's father, Chuan, has it in mind that he's going to personally invite classmates from fifty years ago to the wedding, and Benji drives Chuan through several scenic locations. The film is more interesting in its presentation Malaysia as a mix of Chinese and ethnic Malay cultures, and the old folks are certainly more fun to see than the soon to be wed couple.

Even though Benji learns a bit about Malaysian and Chinese culture, he's only a bit less of the insufferable twit that he was at the beginning of the film. The film is held together by Frankie Lee as Chuan, insistent on having a traditional wedding feast for his daughter in the face of a changing Malaysia that he doesn't recognize. The film by the singularly named Chiu, was released last January and has already set the record as the most financially successful local production. The one part that did strike me personally was when the actor playing Benji, Australian Ben Pfeifer, attempts to speak several Malay and Chinese words. My similar experience was with Thai, where on some of the few words I spoke, I could never get the intonation quite right.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:44 AM

April 28, 2014

Far East Film Festival - Day Four

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Josephine Siao in Nobody's Child

Another restored film to start the day: Nobody's Child (Kuer liulang ji). Released in February of 1960, Bu Wancang has a film that is quite different from other Hong Kong films I've seen from that era with its country settings. Aside from my interest in Hong Kong films from that time, the big draw was seeing Josephine Siao as a child star, eleven years old at the initial time of filming. Additionally, there is the "Denver connection" at work here, as Ms. Siao, received her Master's in Child Psychology from Regis University as part of her segue way from acting full-time.

Young Mei enjoys life on the small farm. Her absentee father, unseen for eight years, returns following an injury to his leg. It is then that Mei discovers that she was adopted by the woman she has called mother. An elderly street performer takes Mei under his wing, where the young girl learns to spin plates, sing and juggle. The street performer gets arrested for supposedly beating up to bigger and younger men, and Mei is left to travel and perform alone with a monkey and three dogs. She is temporarily adopted by another kindly woman who lives on a boat, acting as companion to the woman's bedridden daughter. The street performer is released from jail after two months, and Mei rejoins him for the itinerant. Disaster hits the pair when they are stuck in snow country, with the old street performer freezing to death. Young Mei is rescued by a family staying just long enough to say goodbye to the only kind paternal figure she has known, before hitting the road for the town she thinks of as home.

For those who only know Josephine Siao as Jet Li's mom from the two "Fong Sai Yuk" movies made a little more than thirty years later, here we can see that Siao has been a gifted physical performer well before she became a character actress. Lo Wei, latter to be best known for directing the pair of Bruce Lee movies that became international hits, is seen here as the "father" who pushes Mei out of the only home she has known. The digital restoration was from a 16 mm print, that show some deterioration in the beginning, from the Hong Kong Film Archive. The scenes in the snow were filmed in Hokkaido, Japan. Siao also sings three songs, one, about mothers, was a popular hit. Yeah, it's a tearjerker, but I can live with that.

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Brontosaurus Love poster

On a far more cheerful note comes Brontosaurus Love (Cinta Brontosaurus). As I understand it, the movie is more about the misadventures of Raditya Dika after he published his book of the same title. Playing himself, Dika finds himself thoroughly discouraged in looking for love, certain that no relationship can last more than six months. A chance meeting with Jessica looks to be the change needed, but as expected, the road to true love is never smooth. Indonesian films rarely get festival screenings stateside, but hopefully this very charming film will be an exception.

Much of that charm comes in the form of cutie-pie Eriska Rein whose Jessica matches Dika for some off-center humor, but also has a sense of awareness that Dika eventually gains by the end of the film. Among the comic moments are the first date at a French restaurant where Dika is finds the menu unpronounceable, followed by the pair eating instant noodles on the roof of a gas station. Dika is talked into selling the rights to his book to a director of horror movies. This allows for satire with a director whose pretensions are even more foolish than his series of movies involving zombie nurses.

Black Coal, Thin Ice poster

It's been noted by others that in Hitchcock's films, you sometimes can't tell whether two characters are trying to kill each other or kiss each other. There is such a moment in Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai ri yan huo) when the ex-cop played by Liao Fan is on a ferris wheel with mystery woman Gwei Lun-Mei one cold winter night. That the film has made its stateside debut at the Tribeca Film Festival suggests that it is being fast tracked for distribution rather than waiting for the usual Fall showcase. Certainly a film that begins with a shot of a dismembered arm on a coal conveyor belt is indication that officially sanctioned films from mainland China have moved quite a distance from the historical dramas that were the usual mainland fare.

One wonderful scene is of Liao visiting his ex-wife at her dance studio, and doing a joyful solo dance to a disco song, a scene of unexpected exuberance that reminded me of a similar moment in Bertolucci's Luna. There is also a moment where we just see the close up of hands, the rebuff of touching, and what appear to be hand signals. That this film won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival may set off unmatched expectations of what is onscreen, but there is enough going on to make this another film worth seeking out.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:30 AM

April 27, 2014

Far East Film Festival - Day Three


I've come down with a cold, which of course makes any serious viewing and writing more of a challenge. But I did make a point of stepping out to Boundless, Ferris Lin's documentary about Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To.

There is very little biography here. The most history would be a few mentions of To's beginnings working in television. Mostly this is an examination of To's working methods, with the camera following To's on the production of Romancing in Thin Air, clips of several past films, and interviews with To and several of his collaborators. One of To's admirers is Jia Zhangke, high praise from the person who may be the most important filmmaker in mainland China.

One of the more interesting aspects of To's career is that in the years preceding the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, To did not immigrate as many of his peers did, either temporarily or permanently. It was also relatively recently that To made films with mainland Chinese financing, modifying his work to satisfy Chinese censors.

The big revelation is how close To was to bankruptcy in the first few years following the handover. Some how, lack of funds did not keep To from directing at least two films a year in addition to producing films for others. Financially, it was The Mission from 1999 that helped get To's Milky Way Productions back on firm footing.

Cast and crew discuss how To set up a ten minute shot for Breaking News, and his use of locations shooting in Hong Kong. What is emphasized here is To's love of Hong Kong, especially in use of the older parts of the city, including a favorite restaurant.

To regular Lam Suet gives a touching account of encouraging To at his lowest emotional and financial point, when To was sleeping on a cot at the Milky Way office, getting To to wake up and start filming. One of To's most personal films, Sparrow, filmed in small parts over the course of three years, seems less of an anomaly in learning that To would occasionally make films with incomplete or non-existent scripts, more amazing based on the polish of the final work. The title of the documentary comes from one of To's favorite songs.

Today's screening was introduced by Far East Film Festival president Sabrina Baracetti, which was followed by a video greeting from Johnnie To, an attendee at several past festivals.

Following the screening of Boundless, I was able to meet Anchalee Chaiworaporn. Freelance film critic and historian, Anchalee might best be described as the leading ambassador for Thai cinema. I had first contacted her when I lived in Chiang Mai, purchasing a copy of the the Asiexpo publication Thai Cinema. We have corresponded on occasion since then, me with information on Thai films getting some kind of release in the U.S., Anchalee with the questions on older Hollywood films. It was through Anchalee that I was able to get the available DVDs from the Thai Film Archive. Anchalee is one of the advisors of the film festival, and due in no small part to her efforts, she has helped make Thailand more than a small blip in considering "World Cinema".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:58 PM

April 26, 2014

Far East Film Festival - Day Two

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Flame in the Valley

First screening of the day was the digitally restored Korean film, Flame in the Valley (Sambul) made in 1967. Furnished by the Korean Film Archive, the film provides a unique look at the Korean conflict, from the point of view of the women who populate a remote mountain village. All of the men have died or gone missing fighting for South Korea. The only man left is an elderly grandfather who constantly brays to be fed. The women, who eke out a minimal living, are not shy about expressing their sexual longings. A North Korean guerrilla hides near the village. He encounters one of the women, Jeom-rye. What initially appears as rape is quickly turned into something more consensual, as Jeom-rye and Kyu-bok create a clandestine relationship. Things get more dangerous when another widow, Sawol, blackmails Jeom-rye into sharing Kyu-bok.

Director Kim Su-yong begins with a couple of lateral shots establishing the bamboo forest that is eventually burned, and the rustic village where the women live. Had soldiers not appeared, one might think that the film took place in an earlier era, as nothing about the homes, clothing or way of life suggests the middle of the Twentieth century. The end of the film easily parallels activity in Vietnam and the concept of destroying a town in order to save it, as the women are helpless while a small band of soldiers burn the bamboo groves.

Soul poster

The Taiwanese film Soul (Shi hun) was submitted for Best Foreign Film Oscar last year. It's not the kind of film that the Academy would embrace, but this very arty thriller is worth watching. A man goes to visit his aging father in a remote mountain region, his sister also is there to visit. The sister is brutally murdered. When asked why by the father, the man states that the woman is unknown to him, and that the son is no longer in his own body, which is now host to this murderous stranger.

Chung Mong-Hong photographed as well as writing the screenplay and directing. The murders are played out almost elliptically with brief moments of blackness intercut with shots of moths, or insects on flowers. The father becomes complicit in covering up for his son. The son works at a Japanese restaurant in Taipei - the opening shots of fish being split open sets up the tone with imagery that suggests both the murders to come, and the split personality of the son.

The familiar name here is Jimmy Wang Yu as the father. As the reclusive father, this is a role that might surprise those more familiar with Wang during his days as an action star in martial arts movies such as The One-Armed Swordsman.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:44 AM

April 25, 2014

Far East Film Festival - Day One

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Unbeatable poster

First discovery, Teatro Nuovo is really a fairly close and easy walk from my hotel. Second, they serve very reasonable priced snacks there including bottled water and coffee. It was a bit more of a challenge to find where my reserved seat was, although it will be the same for the run of the festival. Unlike some of the past Far East Film Festivals, this one will be held entirely at Teatro Nuovo.

Hopefully that chronicler of Pinoy cinema, and virtual friend, Noel Vera, will forgive me for skipping out on an opportunity to see a restored version of Lino Brocka's Manilla in the Claws of the Night.

My first film of three today was Dante Lam's Unbeatable. I figured that with two films by Lam at this year's festival, I should at least see the one with Nick Cheung's performance that beat out Tony Leung (for The Grandmaster, for the recent Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Actor. Maybe not intentional, but the story line is something of a contemporary spin on King Vidor's The Champ, the film that won Wallace Beery his Oscar. Little Crystal Lee is the precocious young girl, and fortunately nowhere near as annoying as Jackie Cooper as Beery's son. I'm not sure what Lam intended with several of the dramatic moments taking place in the rain. There is also the use of the Simon and Garfunkel song, "Sounds of Silence" made odder by the often thundering soundtrack.

Cheung plays a washed up boxer whose career ended when he threw a fight. Now adrift in Macau, an old friend gets him a job at a gym leading housewives in exercises. Cheung is persuaded by the inexperienced Eddie Peng to train him for a Mix Msrtial Arts match where the winner gets a large purse, and the losers get a bruised ego as the least of their injuries. Cheung rents a room in the apartment of Miss Lee, who is tending after her very mentally unstable mother. While the domestic drama is the stuff that only happens in the movies, the fighting is realistic enough so that there is no underdog "going the distance". The big winner here is sentiment. Lam does provide a knowing wink at the homoerotic aspect of male contact sports.

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Aberdeen poster

Pang Ho -Cheung's Aberdeen was the official kick-off film for this year's festival. While retaining some of Pang's satirical edge, this is a mostly dramatic look at a Hong Kong family, in which acceptance of others is tied in with self acceptance. For a film partially financed by one of the major mainland Chinese studios, H. Brothers, there are still a few moments given to sex and nudity, in addition to a story that is specifically related to life in Hong Kong. Visually, Hong Kong is sometimes seen as a fantasy city in phosphorescent colors, with a highway sign for "all directions" as a recurring motif.

Pang's absurdist humor is presented with a mysterious cell phone that has "The Funeral March of the Marionettes", known better as the theme to Alfred Hitchcock's television anthology, as a ring tone, and discussions on the effect of eating noodles in creating wrinkles around the lips. Pang also takes a pointed look at sexism in the film industry, and convention notions of female beauty.

My favorite subplot involves the daughter of Louis Koo and Gigi Leung, a young girl with a pet lizard. There is an amusing bit where the daughter dreams of seeing her lizard reincarnated as a Japanese kaiju monster looking to return to the sea. Later, the lizard is imagined to be reincarnated as a very real beached whale that has lost its bearings. The whale provides a metaphor for the family members, each in their own way uncertain about their respective sense of direction.

Miyuki Oshima and Yoshiyoshi Arakawa in Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats

In the past few years, Far East Film Festival founders (pardon the alliteration) Sabrina Baracetti and Thomas Bertacche have gone from presenting Asian films, to founding a distribution company, Tucker Films, that has commercially brought several major Asian films to Italian theaters in addition to home video. That venture has been successful enough that Tucker Films was one of several European partners, along with England's Third Window Films, to produce the Japanese Fuku-Chan of Fukufuku Flats.

Fujita Yosuke's good natured comedy first is centered on a group of young men in their early thirties, two of them working as building painters, and all of them with limited prospects. Fukuda is a shy guy who would rather hang out at home rather than step out socially with his boisterous and earthy friend Shimmachi. The two guys are on the stocky side, yet nothing seems to get in Shmmachi's way, least of all his penchant for crude humor. Things change when Chiro reappears in Fukuda's life. As a junior high school student, Chiro was instrumental in a traumatic event that made Fukuda distrustful of women.

Yosuke took the unusual step of casting a female, Miyuki Oshima, as Fuku-chan. With her close cropped hair, most western audiences would easily not realize that the title role was taken by a woman. The reunion of Chiro and Fuku-chan, initially a way for Chiro to lighten her karmic load, takes an unexpected turn when the heavy set man becomes an unlikely muse for the would-be photographer. Along the way, Yosuke takes some potshots at the more pretentious aspects of Japan's art scene.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:08 PM

April 24, 2014

Far East Film Festival - The Day Before


I'm now in Udine, Italy for a film festival, one of several happening simultaneously. Most eyes will be on the events of Tribeca. But I am in Udine for one of the most significant festivals dedicated to Asian cinema outside of Asia. Part of it is because of my appreciation of Asian cinema, but also because this might be my only time to meet, even if briefly, a couple of people I've known online for a few years.

I first was aware of the Far East Film Festival when I lived in Thailand, and was following the Thai film scene through the writings of a couple of English language journalists there: Kong Rithdee and Wise Kwai. The festival president, and cofounder, Sabrina Baracetti, responded when I first read about the festival presentation of Asian musicals, and the corresponding book offered at the festival. Not only did I get the Asia Sings! book, but also the most recent film festival catalogue and a monograph on Ann Hui. A few years later, I returned the compliment by sending Sabrina a copy of the book Southeast Asian Cinema which included an essay I wrote.

I have also been corresponding with freelance film historian Anchalee Chaiworaporn, since buying a copy through her of the Asiexpo book on Thai cinema. Asiexpo published the book that includes my essay. We have since then written on occasion to each other both on Thai and Hollywood cinema. It was through Anchalee that I was able to purchase the DVDs available through the Thai Cinema Archives, which I wrote about a couple of years ago.

Here is the list of films to be presented at this year's festival. I am going as a "Black Dragon" which means that not only can I see everything at the festival, but I have a reserved seat. Not that I'm going to see everything - I don't have the capacity for that anymore, and with nine days, I'd prefer to pace myself. The festival is heavier of Chinese language films, with a greater emphasis on Hong Kong cinema that is more directed towards local concerns, as opposed to the Hong Kong films that have been designed for play in mainland China. Of the films scheduled, I have already seen The Raid II with a small, but no less enthusiastic, audience at my nearby Alamo Drafthouse theater. I know that the Korean film, The Attorney is to get a home video release soon, having seen a preview from one of the recent Well Go USA DVDs I reviewed recently.

Since everything is happening at one theater, I don't have to worry about having to choose between two or more films with conflicting schedules. On the other hand, if I miss a film, I might not ever have a chance to see it again. Since I'm not on anyone's payroll, I can see and write about what I want, so my film festival coverage will reflect my own personal interests which should include one documentary and a couple of the restored classics. Some, but certainly not all, of the newer films, will probably show up on home video in the US. My biggest challenge will probably be to wake up early enough to catch a couple of films scheduled for nine in the morning, especially the three hour Taiwanese baseball movie, Kano.

If things work out with my less than comprehensive grasp of technology, I might also post a few photos taken at the festival. With luck, Unbeatable will be more than the title of first film seen here at Udine.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:37 AM

April 22, 2014

Hallucination Strip

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Roma Drogata: a polizia non puo intervenire
Lucio Marcacinna - 1975
Raro Video BD Region A

Hallucination Strip is one of those odd films best appreciated by the more curious cinephile. How odd? This was the first film Bud Cort made, almost five years after Harold and Maude. Even with facial hair, Cort's wide eyes and baby face hadn't changed much since his onscreen fling with Ruth Gordon. Cort's filmography up to that point had several unconventional films, notably Brewster McCloud, so being in an Italian crime drama that take a break for an LSD trip doesn't seem like such a stretch.

Weirdly enough, there is Robert Altman;s French connection from Images here, Marcel Bozzuffi as the cop with an eye on Cort, mostly in the hopes of nabbing Rome's bigger drug dealers. Too bad Altman wasn't on the set of this film. Just having two names from two films that defined Hollywood in in the early Seventies can't make Hallucination Strip more than a film that is neither bad enough, nor bold enough to even be considered cinema maudit.

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This is the only film by cowriter and director Lucio Marcaccini. As reported by editor Giulio Berruti, Marcaccini seemed to be adrift on his own set. Maybe someone will get Bud Cort to relay his own version of the making of this film. In the meantime, Berruti's story is of an editor for a small production company, who is asked by the producer to "stitch" a film together, and finds himself occasionally advising the novice director. Marcaccini also reportedly produced the film with his own money. The only consistent information about Marcaccini is that he made this film. His stint as an assistant on Garden of the Finzi-Continis and a couple other films is not documented.

It could be that some of the basic story ideas were percolating in Marcaccini's mind well before he had the opportunity to make the film. Certainly, by 1975, making a film about rich high school kids smoking very fat jays and going on bad LSD trips was hardly topical. Add to that a scene of body painting, some performance art, a bit of consciousness raising, and you have a film that might have seemed marginally more "with it" had it been made in 1968. Bozzuffi is Marcaccini's proxy here, disapproving of the drug taking, and questioning the kids' politics, but also taking the parents to task for being too self-involved to really know what their children are up to. In keeping with that beloved cinematic tradition, the high school kids all look like they've all past their 21st birthday.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:03 AM

April 20, 2014

Coffee Break

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Kelly Lin in Mad Detective (Johnie To & Wai Ka-Fai - 2007)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:09 AM

April 17, 2014

Death Occurred Last Night


La morte risale a ieri sera
Ducio Tessari - 1970
Raro Video BD Region A

It was future screenplay writer Ric Menelllo who clued me in on Ducio Tessari. We saw Tessari's one foray into Hollywood filmmaking, Three Tough Guys, starring Fred Williamson, Isaac Hayes and Lino Ventura. On my own, I saw the Alain Delon crime thriller Tony Arzenta, released in the U.S. under the title of No Way Out. Tessari's most familiar work is as one of the writers for A Fistful of Dollars. Death Occurred Last Night has none of the exuberance of Three Tough Guys, nor is it an exercise in style like Tony Arzenta, but Tessari makes some interesting choices here.

Raf Vallone is a panicked father whose daughter has disappeared. The daughter, Donatella, is twenty-five, but is described as "mentally deficient". Vallone is seen in a series of full shots, some from a pronounced distance, that emphasize his isolation and sense of smallness in trying to find the truth about his daughter. The film takes place in Milan, and Tessari often uses shots where the scale of the city, the tall apartments, office buildings and even a stadium dwarf the characters. Police captain Frank Wolff reminds Vallone that his daughter is just one of many missing young women, and Tessari creates a visual motif to illustrate a sense of personal anguish in an indifferent environment.

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There is also a very unusual scene where Wolff and his wife, played by Eva Renzi, have alternating monologues. The wife has just published a book, it's suggested that it is pictorial, documenting the violent state of the world. It takes a little while to realize that the two are not having a dialogue, but are each commenting on the kind of void one feels after accomplishing something, whether it it solving a case, or getting a book published. It's not every genre movie that gives room for the characters to have a little existential crisis of justifying their lives.

Even though the film begins with Raf Vallone confronting the police, the narrative mostly follows cops Woff and Gabriele Tinti who persuade a former pimp to help them seek out Donatella. I was a bit thrown off when Wolff is seen with a syringe, and medically treats Vallone, until I learned that the source novel is one of several books about physician turned detective Duca Lamberti. The novel's author, Giorgio Scerbanenco, lived in Milan, where all of his books take place. The source novel's English language title is "The Milanese Kill on Saturday".

A couple more visual bits that I liked: a shot of Frank Wolff handing out cash to a couple of madams at one of several "houses" visited, while in the background, behind frosted glass, we can see one of the girls undressing. Also a shot with the camera tilted up at a staircase where several floors above, several oranges fall to the floor, dropped by one of Vallone's startled neighbors.

Chris Alexander, of Fangoria magazine, provides a video introduction, as well as an overview in the booklet to Death Occurred Last Night that in retrospect tries too hard to position the film within the dominant Italian genre films of the time. The problem is that this approach brings certain expectations for the viewer. There is also some discussion of the film score by Gianni Ferrio, that some critics have cited as inappropriate. I had no problem with the music, which would seem to coincide with Tessari's overall aim which would be to go against the grain of familiar genre conventions.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:17 AM

April 15, 2014

Seven Warriors

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Zhong yi qun ying
Terry Tong - 1989
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In Christopher Frayling's biography of Sergio Leone, Frayling recounts how issues of plagiarism held up the release of A Fistful of Dollars in the United States. After making millions of dollars, well more than a fistful, throughout most of the world, Leone had to settle a legal dispute over his publicly acknowledged use of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo before United Artists would introduce American audiences to what became known as a spaghetti western. Just a few years earlier, and with the same studio, Kurosawa made more money from the United Artists' remake of Seven Samurai than he had earned making the original film.

I wouldn't know if Kurosawa was unaware of the Hong Kong film that was very obviously inspired by both his work as well as the Hollywood remake by John Sturges. Maybe he thought any financial rewards would not be worth the effort. Certainly, at the time Seven Warriors was made, it was not seen by anyone outside of Hong Kong and some Chinese language areas in East Asia. If the film played in the U.S., it would have been seen in the circuit of Chinatown theaters. Whatever the case of the film's visibility, Kurosawa's name is nowhere to be seen in the credits.

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The concept is of some interest, transposing the story to China of the 1920s, known as a time of conflict between various warlords vying for regional rule. The more remote regions of China were similar to "the wild West" with people essentially fending for themselves. There is one scene that plays on that analogy, with one of the soon to be members of the seven, a tall man armed with several knives, facing a man in a very western style black suit, along with a cowboy hat. The story is essentially the same: a group of peasants wish to defend themselves against a gang of bandits, and hire some professionals to fight on their behalf. The professionals are men, down on their luck, who take on the job as a means of keeping what is left of their self-respect.

At a little more than ninety minutes, Seven Warriors is quite a bit shorter that either Kurosawa's original, or Sturges' popular remake. Character development is set aside for action. A couple of sources list Sammo Hung as having had a hand in the direction. Hung is quite visible in an opening scene, saving his sister from the clutches of a warlord, and showing off his kung fu moves. The most notable stars would be Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Jackie Cheung, both relatively early, when they were starting to gain traction as Hong Kong stars. Leung is more of a lover than a fighter, the idealist of the group. A scar-faced Cheung is a martinet, training the villagers in military tactics. Old school Shaw Brothers star, Lo Lieh, has the plum role are the warlord the seven are fighting against.

Seven Warriors hasn't aged as well as the films it was trying to emulate. Particularly grating are the sound effects, the punches and clanging of swords that sound like they came from the same library as countless other Hong Kong martial arts movies. There are a handful of nice action scenes, especially those with Ben Lam as the knife throwing Mao, and a heroic Jackie Cheung. I also like the inclusion of a point of view shot from blacksmith, the top screen grab, taking a peek through the burnt out bottom of a pot.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:32 AM

April 13, 2014

Coffee Break

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Elizabeth Pena in Mother and Child (Rodrigo Garcia - 2009)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:58 AM

April 10, 2014

Confession of Murder

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Naega Salinbeomida;
Jung Byung-gil - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The best reason to see the South Korean Confession of Murder is for the action set pieces. This is the kind of stuff that reveals the conventionality and lack of imagination in big budget Hollywood. The first chase scene has the brother of one of the victims in pursuit of the confessed killer. When the two are not leaping around from one fast moving car to another, they are having a fist fight on one of the moving vehicles. The action is cut between point of view shots with the camera at bumper level. There is a lot of fact cutting, but Bung is able to organize the shots so that the sense of direction remains coherent. There is a second high speed chase with the dogged detective in a high speed chase driving one very large truck, following a man on a motorcycle. The dynamics of scale are immediately set up here, along with the constricted space of part of the chase filmed in a tunnel. Many of the scenes throughout the film take place in very restricted or enclosed spaces, but Bung amps up his chases with cars and trucks that spin sideways and upside down, and lots of breaking glass.

As a critique of celebrity, Confession of Murder takes a few pot shots at a familiar target. Shortly after the statute of limitations has expired, a book is published, written by a confessed serial killer. The book is a best seller, with the killer earning millions of dollars. There is still one death that the killer may have been responsible for, but he's not admitting to more than what's been published. Detective Choi, who sports a scar on his mouth from when he almost caught the killer, finds himself conflicted in still wanting to bring the man to justice, yet at the same time finding himself protecting the killer from relatives of the known victims. The killer, Lee, with his boy band good looks, enjoys his time appearing on television, and taking the admiration of his young female fans. In spite of the evidence, Choi is not totally convinced that Lee is the real killer.

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There are some scenes with the producers of a reality show, setting up a meeting with Choi and Lee. The producer is concerned that Choi might shoot Lee on live television. The station owner sees that possibility as an "exclusive". Several characters debate the use of celebrity and mass media manipulated for personal advantage. Whether Lee is the actual serial killer, and if so, is truly remorseful, are almost beside the point.

Where writer-director Jung excels is in setting up a sense of almost constant claustrophobia, of the action taking place in enclosed spaces. The first scene takes place on a dark, rainy night. This is one of those few times when use of a shaky-cam, with the camera lens smeary with rain drops, is used to good effect. The killer is introduced wearing a storm bucket hat, his face partially covered by a surgical mask. The is very little visibility, and the the surrounding darkness seems more like walls rather than an infinite space. The crowds who have come to see Lee, and the shots of multiple television screens add to the oppressive atmosphere. Jung also films a fight inside an elevator, alternating shots from the observational camera with some point of view shots, as well as overhead shots showing a little room there is for the two foes to maneuver.

It should be noted that Confession of Murder was inspired by a real life, unsolved case, of the murder of ten women in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province. Until 2007, there was a fifteen year statute of limitations for murder, later changed to twenty-five years. Currently, the South Korean government is considering a bill to abolish any statute of limitations for first degree mursder, making release quite timely.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:03 AM

April 08, 2014

A Touch of Sin

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Tian zhu ding
Jia Zhangke - 2013
Kino Lorber BD Region A

I saw the name of Office Kitano in the opening credits. I had forgotten that Jia had made past films in collaboration with this production company. And for those who don't know, that is the production company of Takeshi Kitano. Hopefully, anyone reading this has some familiarity with Takeshi Kitano. The context of the violence in Jia's film is quite different though.

I wouldn't pretend to know enough about life in China. The characters are those most marginalized in the changed economic landscape. The film is made up of four loosely connected stories of people who have nothing, and nothing to lose. Extreme actions are taken against those who become extremely wealthy at the expense of others, or simply find ways to exploit others for their own gain. And even though the film takes place in China, there is the uneasy feeling that some of the stories could well be transposed to other countries, including the U.S. One could say that the film lays a persuasive argument against privatization, especially of land and resources. All of the stories are based on true events. The title translates as "Ill-fated".

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Maybe it's my own reaction, but the sense of irony and wry humor of Jia's past films seems to have been replaced by a sense of despair. There are those who still have some appreciation for China's cultural legacy, but what brings in the rich male tourists are young women in sexed up Red Guard uniforms or Chinese opera headdresses worn with bikinis. Jia's films have been examinations of the effects of modernization in China, but this is certainly his harshest work.

For a good sense of context, there is Tony Rayn's article from Film Comment. It should be pointed out that Rayns was responsible for the English language subtitles. Still, I appreciate the explanation for the English language title with its phonetic resemblance to King Hu's A Touch of Zen.

As a cinephile, I found it interesting that the two films within the film were excerpts of films by Hong Kong filmmakers Johnny To (Exiled) and Tsui Hark (Green Snake). Unlike Jia, To and Hark have been making films that have been designed to cater to mainland Chinese audiences, keeping in mind the dictates required for approval prior to release. While there has been discussion by others on considering A Touch of Sin a wuxia film, it is helpful to know that the term literally translates as "armed hero", and more specifically someone from one of the lower classes that is compelled to use a weapon as a means of achieving social justice or to use against an oppressor. Stylistically, Jia doesn't share the flashy techniques of the other filmmakers mentioned. What the four have in common is rooted in the stories from the past.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:11 AM

April 07, 2014

The Bold and the Brave

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Lewis R. Foster - 1956
Optimum Releasing Region 2 DVD

The Bold and the Brave is a film that use to appear on late night broadcast television every Veterans' Day. It was made back at a time when war films, and this usually meant taking place during World War II, were a Hollywood staple, much like those other almost extinct genres, the western and the smaller scale musical. The title belies a much more intimate film here. The first hour is devoted to establishing the shifting friendships and conflicts between three soldiers. Opening titles proclaim how man's biggest battles are those within himself rather than those in war. It might have been those philosophical moments that earned the screenplay an Oscar nomination. Until his nod for The Black Stallion in 1979, The Bold and the Brave was Mickey Rooney's last bid for Oscar glory.

Rooney plays a soldier who loves to eat and gamble. Even when playing with the available girls in a small Italian town, his dream is to gather enough cash to open his own restaurant in New Jersey. Rooney's Oscar competition that year included Robert Stack, Anthony Perkins, Don Murray and Anthony Quinn, the winner for Lust for Life. Considering that Rooney's film was a more modest production from the nearly on the ropes RKO, he was something of a long shot. Say what you want to about Mickey Rooney, he did great death scenes.

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My own viewing of Rooney's output has been scattershot, but his work in the Fifties and early Sixties has struck me as being the most interesting. The guy went straight from MGM to much lower budget, and less prestigious independent productions. It's appropriate that one of Rooney's earliest films after leaving MGM was titled Quicksand. More clearly in that film is the sense of sadness and not a little desperation, befitting someone who once was the top star of the top studio, now fighting to keep a small place as a constantly working actor rather than a former child star. Rooney's most interesting appearances for me were in dramas, the title role in Baby Face Nelson, and supporting turns in King of the Roaring 20s and Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Robert Lewin's screenplay reportedly has autobiographical elements. I know that you can't expect more than some broad strokes in creating even a few characters in a film that runs less than ninety minutes. And while it's great to watch Wendell Corey take on a German tank all by himself, his change from a guy whose sense of humanity overwhelms his ability to shoot a rifle seems inspired by the vaguest of motivations. More detailed is Don Taylor's performance as a soldier known as Preacher, whose world view has been determined by fundamentalist Christianity. What little Lewin seems to be saying is that survival is best served by compromise and flexibility, with Rooney killed and Taylor almost killed by their respective rigidity and sense of purpose.

Credited to journeyman director Lewis R. Foster, IMDb lists Rooney as having also served as director of The Bold and the Brave. Rooney did have a credited hand in writing the title song with Ross Bagdasarian. Just a couple of years away from introducing his novelty act, The Chipmunks, it should be noted that Bagdasarian was the cousin to William Saroyan, author of the play, The Human Comedy, which was made into a film starring, yes, Mickey Rooney, in, yes again, an Oscar nominated performance. What control Rooney may have had off screen, he generously cedes much of the movie to Corey and Taylor. Even if The Bold and the Brave might not be good enough to be accorded classic status, it's worth seeing as a high point in a very long career. In the best of his performances, Mickey Rooney conveyed his own experiences as someone who knew well both the pinnacle of success and the depth of failure.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:47 AM

April 06, 2014

Coffee Break

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Ruben Blades in Spoken Word (Victor Nunez - 2009)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:02 AM

April 03, 2014

In the Blood

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John Stockwell - 2014
Anchor Bay Films

I would like to acknowledge John Stockwell as an auteur. Maybe not the kind that gets accolades for artistic achievements, but I think the guy is deserving of some deeper investigation of recurring themes. I don't know what Andrew Sarris would make of Stockwell as as "women's director". He's not George Cukor, Ingmar Bergman or anyone else you might name. Then again, his women may only fleetingly share some of the same notions of femininity of past actresses. As far as past work goes, my familiarity is spotty, a handful of features and his work of the TV series, "The L Word". I would like to think that if anyone writes about female action heroes, that John Stockwell has his own chapter.

The main reason to see In the Blood is to watch Gina Carano kick ass. And kick ass she does. And what makes her different from other distaff action stars is her sheer brutality. The film begins with one of several flashbacks, where as a young girl named Ava, she is taught by her father, a very grizzled Stephen Lang, to be able to defend herself in the most extreme circumstances. When Ava fights, there is nothing elegant or balletic about her moves. It's mostly about brute force - hurting someone using bare hands, or an available object, like a baseball bat or a glass in a bar. What also makes Carano unique among female action stars is that she physically does not fit mold of the more conventionally attractive women in similar roles.


The basic story has Carano getting married to the son of a very wealthy man. It is mentioned that the two are recovering addicts. The pair go off to a small island near Puerto Rico, where they are talked into visiting a mountainous area which includes a "ride" between two mountain peaks, with the rider hooked on a cable. Things go wrong when the husband gets caught midway and falls. Ava attempts to follow him to the hospital when he inexplicably disappears. The setup is hardly original but it's a an effective hook for the audience. Where In the Blood goes wrong is that the writers seemed to have written themselves into a corner, where the only way out is accomplished by some very big plot holes and half-baked explanations.

Ignoring any narrative deficiencies, we get to see Ava in pursuit of the men who have kidnapped her husband, and get in trouble with the local police, complete with escapes from the law in pursuit of the truth. There are no wisecracks or any attempts to have the violence played for laughs. The humorlessness and single-mindedness of Ava makes her character, at least in spirit, something of a throwback to an earlier era of action heroes, or perhaps, anti-heroes.

On the plus side is good support from Luis Guzman as a cop who might know more than he's sharing with Ava, and Danny Trejo whose very presence always seems to be an announcement of bad news.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:06 AM

April 01, 2014

Meet Him and Die

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Pronto ad uccidere
Franco Prosperi - 1976
Raro Video BD Region A

I don't know if any heads will roll at Raro Video over this goof, but somebody wasn't paying attention. In his video introduction to Meet Him and Die, Eurocrime expert Mike Malloy makes a point of reminding viewers that the Franco Prosperi who directed this film is not the Franco Prosperi best known for directing the documentary Mondo Cane. Even in the perpetually mistake laden IMDb, it is noted that the documentarian was sometimes credited as Franco E. Prosperi, most likely to minimize confusion. And yet, in the booklet that comes with the disc is a biography of that other Franco Prosperi.

The Franco Prosperi for Meet Him and Die might not be known for the films he's directed, but among his conspicuous credits are a handful of collaborations with Mario Bava in the early Sixties, as an assistant director and/or screenwriter. Judging from the work here, Prosperi isn't the stylist like Bava, but there are a few stylish touches here, particularly a mirror shot of Ray Lovelock and Elke Sommer. The title, by the way, translates as "Ready to Kill", and most of the characters seem more than ready.

I saw this movie with the English language soundtrack. Keep in mind that most Italian movies were dubbed in post production during this time, so that the Italian voice you heard was not always the voice of the Italian actor on the screen. I chose the English track for the pleasure of hearing Martin Balsam speaking his own lines. And he sounds like he phoned them in, literally. Especially in the first few minutes, there is a metallic quality to his voice which indicates that Balsam did his dubbing at a different studio. At any rate, in this gig he took in between more high profile work in All the President's Men and Two-Minute Warning, we get to see Martin Balsam as an action star. Well, maybe not quite, but as a mob capo, he does a bit of shooting, and even takes a bullet in the shoulder. When one of the other characters suggests that Balsam get some medical attention, he responds, "The hell with doctors!". It's moments like that which may help explain Balsam's frequent trips to Italy in the Seventies, plus the ego boost of his name usually as one of the top billed stars.

There is a chase scene involving Ray Lovelock on a motorcycle in pursuit of a big truck. It's not that such a scene is unusual, but it is easy to forget how much more dangerous the stunt work was in the years before CGI. In his booklet notes, Malloy suggests that it was Lovelock who took several spills on the highway, as well as climbing on that fast moving truck. Whether it is always Lovelock we see in action or a stunt double, this last chase is one of the film's highlights. Probably less challenging for Lovelock was a bedroom scene with Elke Sommer, where the actress shows just enough skin to please her fans. Meet Him and Die might not be a genre classic, but the craftsmanship is undeniable.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:20 AM