Sometimes the karma is just right. The mail man starts dropping DVDs with a heavy Asian influence, enough that I get to devote a full column on them. This is one of them.
As always, we try to mix it up. There’s a touch of anime (would have been more if I it wasn’t for a mail thief), martial arts, Cannes award winners and more. After all, Asia is the largest continent in the world, and has a proportionate number of films to go with it.
So let’s get to it.
BALDER FORCE EX (FUNimation)
Look at BFE the same way otakus look at Pocky. It’s tasty, but its junk food. Nothing too wrong with that if you keep it as a snack.
What we have here starts out as a cyberpunk whodunit, from there it evolves into some teen drama, a bit of the “Laughing Man” elements from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Finally it ends off as the evil end of Serial Experiment Lain.
What’s sweet is it’s a whopping four chapters, period. It’s solidly animated and can be occasionally daring (definitely don’t show it to the under eight unless you approve of exploding heads and virtual rape). There’s some heavy handed symbolism, particularly involving a toy box with Alice motifs.
Still, it wasn’t a bad way to while away a couple hours.
DRAGON DYNASTY (Genius)
• COME DRINK WITH ME
• HEROES OF THE EAST
• TAI CHI MASTER
There have been some that hate this collection, and others that love it. No matter what, you absolutely can’t deny the quality of DD’s three latest releases.
Directed by King Hu, Come Drink With Me not only put actors Cheng Pei-Pei (Crouching Tiger) and Hua Yueh (The Ghost Story) on the map. It was also a groundbreaking movie when it was released in 1966, creating a virtually new visual style previously unknown in Hong Kong. For instance, every time you see an inn scene in an Asian martial arts film, you can see some element of Dance in it, somewhere.
The extra content in Drink is exceptional, even by this collections standards. Cheng herself joins DD host Bey Logan in the commentary. One interesting comment she makes is about various alternative versions of the film, some with scenes not in this one, others with a lot, lot less. There’s also an independent interview with Hua as well as several solid examinations of the career of King Hu, who after this film would go on to up the ante with such films as Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen.
While cineastes go into fits of rapture over Drink, Heroes of the East is just plain fun. Directed by Lau Kar-Leung (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, One-Armed Swordsman), he plays a man who’s forced to marry a Japanese beauty who also thinks Japanese martial arts are the best. She consistently challenges him, he consistently spanks her. When she can’t take anymore, she runs back to Japan. This leads to a comedy of errors of international proportions, with Lau suddenly finding himself having to take on seven different masters of Japanese combat. Considering Lau’s overall work, you know the fighting aspects of the movie are going to be solid, if not exceptional. What makes this film a treat is the film has more than its share of funny moments, too.
This time the EC includes an interview with lead actor Gordon Liu, as well as an examination between Chinese and Japanese fighting styles. Well worth it for those features, too gaijin.
Finally, we have one of my personal favorite Jet Li films. He was ultra hot after playing the likes of Wong Fei Hung and Fong Sai Yuk in the Legend and Once Upon A Time series. It also didn’t hurt his co-star was the superlative Michelle Yoeh. While his acting still needed more practice (check out his “madness” sequence in the middle of his film), his kung fu was truly awesome. He also had one of his best adversaries in the form of Siu-hou Chin. Their final confrontation is a personal favorite and worth the price of admission alone.
So, three particularly wonderful titles from the growing DD library. All you haters have your fun, I’m just glad to have these three added to my library.
THE EYE: Special Edition (2 DVDS)
THE EYE 3 (Lionsgate)
If you aren’t aware of the Pang Brothers, you better be. These identical twins are rapidly becoming the Coens and/or Wachowskis of the East. If you don’t believe, check out the American remake of one of their earlier films, The Eye, to its latest, still all Thai, sequel.
The concept of The Eye is pretty simple. With each film, the protagonist(s) gain the ability to see the dead and the dead don’t like it. In the first film, it was through a corneal implant. The problem with the American remake is two-fold. The first is casting Jessica Alba in the lead. The second are certain shifts in the plot line that takes away a lot of the impact of the original, particularly the ending.
Fact is, Alba is a solid action adventure star, but she fails miserably in her first psychodrama. She sleep walks her way through most of her screen time. Then again, the way they toned down this film, I had a hard time staying awake myself. Many of the inventive touches that are the Pangs are sorely missing.
You’ll see those in spades when it comes to Eye 3, or as the Brothers prefer to call it, Eye 10 or Eye Infinity. This one starts off with one of its five main protagonists learning there are more than one way to see the dead. In fact, there are ten. A pack of young adults who explore the metaphysical for thrills, they decide to test the remaining eight (method #2 was explored in guess where). Again, the dead don’t think too highly about this, and retaliate.
The big difference between E3 and the American version is how the fight back. You’ll see the dead love a game of hide and seek, but you might end up hiding a lot longer than you expected. They also have a particularly warped sense of humor, having one of the protagonists break dancing on a ceiling. You should see how they handle a basketball. Further, breath isn’t the only gaseous emission the spirit world can’t handle.
It’s that sense of humorous inventiveness and the eerily bizarre that truly sets the Pangs above their competition. You’d be hard-pressed to find any of that in the American production. Without it, both the thrills and excitement levels of their projects would be found sorely needing. The word out is they are now working on their first American-financed film. Let’s hope the moneybags over here remember this as the production moves on.
FINISHING THE GAME (IFC)
Keep your eyes on the horizon for Justin Lin. This Asian-American has the potential of becoming a future superstar.
With his latest effort, Lin re-examines what happened when Bruce Lee suddenly died during the shooting of his last effort, The Game of Death. There was only 12 minutes of completed film, but his studio thought it would be a great idea to hire a substitute to finish the film. Nothing so audacious happened since Bela Lugosi overdosed during the shooting of Plan 9 From Mars (although history might be repeating itself with Terry Gilliam’s upcoming The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnisius).
The pure pleasure of this film is two-fold. First of all, Lin takes all the now romanticized elements of the AIP’s, Roger Cormans, Crown Internationals and fellow cronies and exposes their maggoty undersides to the glaring spotlight. If the actors portraying their various roles seem to be totally loving it all, well as one key character puts it, “I’ve been in 14 movies in the last two years.” In other words, when you are running around in a blue jump suit going against a villain named Nazi Fu Manchu while his henchwomen run around in red hot pants and stockings, you don’t have little room for shame. What’s even more pointed is that character, named Breeze Loo (Roger Fan) is actually one of the smarter ones. As you will soon see, the lines between innocence, idiocy and just plain lunacy for these Dragon wannabes have been so blurred their perception of what’s real or not just don’t matter any more.
The end result is a satire that brutalizes the 70s Z-movie industry with all the finesse of a set of spiked brass knuckles. Further, you’ll enjoy every bit of blood, ravaged flesh, broken tooth or bone Lin rips out of his subject. Even more fun is spotting all the cameos running through this flick. Among them are the likes of MC Hammer, George Takei and Joe McQueen (last seen as the Hulk impersonator in Confessions of a Super Hero). The B-story of a psycho killer called Takeout Charlie also has a deeper resonance than you might initially know of. There’s also some smart casting in the primary roles; not only in the form of Fan, but also the likes of James Franco, Dustin Nguyen and several others.
So keep a bead out for this DVD. As it is, Lin is now hard at work on the latest Tokyo Drift feature. But I get the feeling he’ll take the money and do something like this again. Hopefully in the very near future.
It wouldn’t be an all-Asian column without one samurai epic, eh? Well, here’s one that’s refreshingly different.
Hana tells the tale of Soza (Junichi Okada), a young samurai brought to ruin and squalor when his father is murdered in a game of Go. He can regain his status if he avenges his father’s death. Yet even when he finds the murderer, he refuses to do it. He’d rather teach people how to read and do math.
What sets this film apart from its compatriots is it works more like it was directed by the late Robert Altman than Kurosawa. Soza’s story is told as much through the multitude of side stories going on around him as it is by his own lack of action. It’s also beautifully shot and contains some sterling performances, particularly by Okada, who apparently won his share of nominations and awards for this film when it was originally released in 2006.
In all, a nice relatively quiet film for those times when you want something a little different. Also, don’t be surprised if you hear more of Okada in the future.
INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A COURTESAN (Image)
Another Shaw Brothers classic? Yes, this time a very notorious one.
Starring Shaw Beauty Lily Ho, it tells the tale of an incredibly beautiful young woman, (Ainu) who is kidnapped and sold to a brothel. After attempts to escape and then kill herself, she realizes the madam (Betty Pei Ti) is head over heels in love with her. She then uses this to her advantage, murdering all those who she blames for her fate. Like any Shaw costume drama of the early 70s, the sets are exceedingly and extravagantly lush. The acting level is higher than one would expect and the fight scenes, of which there plenty, nicely violent and inventive.
So what was the controversy in the film? It’s treatment of lesbianism as central to its plot. By more modern standards, say such films as Bound, it will look quite tame. But at that time it was considered exceedingly shocking. Not that the cheap thrills are all that carries the film. Like many of Shaw’s “flowers,” these ladies could tear it up when it came to a fight scene. In fact, the finale is some of the bloodiest and brutal for the time period.
The only disappointment is the extra content. Yes, there’s a small documentary about the Shaw Beauties, but it neither includes Pei Ti or Ho. Also, to be quite honest, Starz broadcast an even better and more detailed similar effort a few years back.
That aside, this would be another addition to any HK library. Pick it up for just the pure enjoyment of it.
MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS (Miriam)
This is an interesting little number picking up props for its superlative soundtrack as well as the film itself.
The first American effort of veteran HK director Wong Kar Wai, known for his circular storytelling and broad, dark color palette. Like certain other foreign film directors (say Wim Wenders, particularly his film Paris, Texas), Wong took advantage of his situation to do some unusual casting and then explore various part of this country of ours.
In this case, the casting involved jazz diva Norah Jones. She plays Elizabeth, a young New Yorker who finds out her steady has been two-timing her. Her first move is to spend evenings playing victim at Jude Law’s rather great looking diner. From there, she goes on the road; first to Memphis, then to just about every poker dive and cheap motel in Nevada, where she picks up inadvertent life lessons form the likes of Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman along the way.
Yes, you can see the ending of the story before she even hits the road. On the other hand, like any decent story, it’s how Elizabeth gets there that makes it enjoyable. Jones isn’t bad in her role, and Law and Weisz steal just about every scene they’re in. Extra kudos must be given to David Straithairn as an equally broken hearted cop Jones meets along the way. As said before, the soundtrack is really exceptional. Besides Jones, artists such as Cassandra Wilson, Ry Cooder and Cat Power help drive the movie.
In all, not quite what I expected from the man who’s past work includes Chunking Express. On the other hand, not a bad American debut either. I’ll be real curious to see what he does next.
SHOALIN V. VAMPIRE (BCI)
I love this Gordon Liu’s alternative title, which is Baby Vampire v. The Invincible Shaolin Kung Fu Devil Gang. It’s every bit as strange and low budget, too.
In this film the great Liu is a movie stuntman with a wife and obnoxiously cute daughter. When the kid accidentally revives a baby jiang shi, this film turns into The Littlest Vampire goes up against a murderous wizard and his real estate scam. To top it, it’s low, low budget bit of goofiness that shows its graininess and bad editing as plainly as its plot.
Yet for some reason, I just didn’t care. Yeah, it’s a train wreck as far a character development, plot cohesiveness and just about everything else is concerned, but it’s so bad it’s great. I just rolled along with it like it was a rainy Saturday afternoon and Chop Socky Theater was still a fresh concept. Try it yourself and see if you agree.
Probably one of the most hyped Japanese animes in ages, my final opinion is this is probably the biggest disappointment I’ve endured since that American version of Final Fantasy.
Vexille wears its debt to Masomune Shirow like a dog collar. It tells the tale of another female super soldier in a world where the line between robots and humans are becoming so blurred the two are becoming indistinguishable. The big difference here are the robots are the straight up bad guys from the get go, having already taken over Japan and now with the U.S. as their next target.
The primary question is hadn’t these guys heard of Ghost in the Shell or Appleseed? The story looks like a Chinese menu where the creators took one from Column A and more from Column B and hoped they could pass it off as original. Oh yeah, the Japanese wasteland is populated by mechanical versions of Dune’s big worms, too. Also, the CGI, while pretty to look at, is exceedingly stiff and lifeless. The primary characters run around and emote like animated Barbie dolls. In fact, animated Barbie DVDs have more expression.
In all, this is probably the biggest disappointment I’ve gotten from the anime world this year. Avoid at all cost.
YOUNG YAKUZA (Cinema Epoch)
Now here’s a gangland documentary with an interesting twist.
It tells the tale of a 20-year who’s mother actually helps him get an “apprenticeship” in Japan’s most notorious crime organization, the Yakuza. After a successful interview process, what we learn is he might as well have gotten a job at IBM or Bank of America. Yes, as his clan leader tells him, the Yakuza aren’t “boy scouts,” but that doesn’t mean they must not change with the times.
Chock full of some very eye opening interviews with everyone from the boy’s rapping pals on to the actual leader of his clan, you sit and marvel at the boy taking lessons on everything from how to fight to how to properly present tea to his superiors. You learn that the body covering tattoos are now strongly discouraged (makes one easily identifiable). Heck, these guys have meetings that look like they’re modeled more like Asian Amway sessions instead of the dark bars and clubs we see in the movies.
If that isn’t confounding enough, there is virtually no violence. No elaborate tortures, no hits, no graft or grifts. One might think we’ve dropped into Daiwa subsidiary instead of a tight-lipped crime family.
Hate to say it, but this is a DVD that screams for extra content, if only to reinforce the messages laid out in the movie. Unfortunately I didn’t find any. That aside, Young Yakuza is a real eye-opener and well worth finding out for your own illumination.