Saturday, November 26, 2011

2011 African Diaspora International Film Festival Review Round-up

The 19th edition of the African Diaspora International Film Festival screens in New York from November 25 through December 13, 2011 at Quad Cinema, Teachers College at Columbia University, the Thalia Theatre, and the Schomburg Center for Black Culture.  This year’s festival features 63 films from 37 countries.  Some of the most interesting and eye-opening selections are the documentaries, a few of which I’ll review here. 

An African Election (Jarreth Merz, Ghana/Switzerland, 2010)

Jarreth Merz’s revealing and meticulously crafted film examines in great detail, and with unprecedented access, the inner workings of the 2008 presidential election in Ghana.  The election of Barack Obama earlier that year was a major aspirational influence on all participants in the Ghanaian election, who very consciously saw themselves as an important test case and example to the rest of the African continent.  The major question was whether an African country, especially one with a long history of rulers seizing power through military coups, could conduct a fully democratic election without it descending into the chaos of civil war.  Merz vividly details the twists, turns, and high drama of the 2008 election, especially the contentious period when, with neither of the two major political parties achieving a majority, a runoff election had to be held.  Things got especially tense during the runoff, with accusations of fraud and vote tampering flying fast and furious on both sides.  And even though a winner was eventually chosen without a bloody civil war, which becomes the cause for celebration (and no doubt, relief), unsettling issues remain unresolved.  Not the least of these are the many problems with the voting process itself, which often resulted in long lines and many hours of waiting for people wishing to cast their ballots.  Also, a civil war being narrowly averted seems to be a rather low bar with which to measure the success of an election.  Still, Merz’s film excels in its penetrating examination of democracy in action, which, while not always a pretty sight to behold, is always fascinating to watch.  An African Election will screen for an Oscar-qualifying weeklong run at the Quad, from November 30 through December 6, with shows at 1pm and 7:25pm daily.  Jarreth Merz will appear for Q&A sessions on December 2, 3, and 4.

The Story of Lover's Rock (Menelik Shabazz, UK, 2011)

Music documentaries are a frequent fixture at ADIFF, and a great example is this year’s opening night film The Story of Lover’s Rock, which sheds valuable light on an underappreciated and largely neglected music movement in 1970’s and 1980’s Britain known as “Lover’s Rock,” which was a distinct genre of reggae music which originated among black British people who were born to immigrants from Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean.  Lover’s Rock was a softer, more romantic version of reggae that was a sharp contrast to the harder-edged, political, Rastafarian influenced music coming from Jamaica.  This music, along with its culture of “sound systems,” (live venues that served as an alternative network to mainstream radio, which mostly ignored Lover’s Rock), and methods of dancing to these baby-making tunes, were an escape from the racism and violence young people experienced at the time.  The Story of Lover’s Rock makes a powerful case for this musical genre as a mostly unacknowledged influence on British popular music, which spawned such figures as The Police, Culture Club and UB40.  Lover’s Rock music, even though its practitioners are still not widely known outside diehard devotees, remains alive through its travels to other countries, especially Japan, where latter-day fans eagerly embraced this music, and helped revive the careers of some of its artists.  The Story of Lover’s Rock will play a weeklong run at the Quad, from November 30 through December 6, with shows at 9:40pm daily.  Shabazz will appear for Q&A’s at the Quad on November 30, December 1, 2, and 3.

The First Rasta (Hélène Lee and Christophe Farnarier, France/Jamaica, 2011)

Jamaican reggae music is aesthetically, spiritually and politically permeated by Rastafarian ideology, which revered Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, and advocated healthy living, organic living, and of course, ganja.  Many know at least this much about Rastafarianism; what most may not know about is the story of the man who began the movement, Leonard Percival Howell, who is largely forgotten, even by those who follow a Rastafarian lifestyle.  Howell is the subject of the impressively researched and eye-opening documentary The First Rasta, which seeks to uncover the hidden, and governmentally suppressed, history of the man who existed as a constant thorn in the side to Jamaica’s government, both during and after British colonialism.  Howell lived his early life as a sailor traveling the world, where he picked up ideas from everywhere he went: Communism, Indian philosophy, Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement, the Harlem Renaissance.  With this eclectic mix of influences, he began a colony in Jamaica known as Pinnacle, where the guiding principle was self-reliance in every aspect, including farming and even creating a separate monetary system.  Howell and his people were often persecuted by the authorities, and Howell spent some time in prison, and was even institutionalized in a mental facility at one point.  An especially revealing fact emerges in the documentary: the most well-known aspects of Rastafarianism, wearing dreadlocks and smoking ganja, were directly influenced by Indians living in Jamaica at the time.  Howell also had an influence on reggae music as well; Bob Marley, the world’s most famous and celebrated reggae musician, derived his nickname, “Tuff Gong,” from Leonard Howell, who was known as “Gong.”  The First Rasta’s most moving passages concern music, much of it sung by now elderly followers of Howell, who are unstinting in their praise of their leader.  The First Rasta screens at the Quad in a weeklong run from November 30 through December 6, with shows at 5:25pm daily.

Love Lockdown (Nadia Hallgren, US, 2010)

A little closer to home (New York City, that is) is the short documentary “Love Lockdown,” which addresses the impact of the radio show “Lockdown Love,” which is a forum for loved ones of incarcerated people.  “Love Lockdown” follows one woman, Shoshanna, who uses the show to send messages to her boyfriend Felix, the father of her children who is currently in jail, as she anxiously waits to hear if he will be given a 10 year prison sentence.  The film sensitively follows Shoshanna’s struggles to cope as a single mother, with the fate of her family, and the possible long absence of the father, threatened with the looming sentence that hangs like a scimitar over all their heads.  The voice of the DJ is a conduit for the most impassioned and heartfelt feelings of those like Shoshanna who use it to communicate with their lovers behind bars.  Behind this lies the backdrop of the overwhelmingly black and Latino makeup of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons, which of course is its own sad commentary.  “Love Lockdown” screens November 27 at Teacher’s College at Columbia University and December 8 at the Schomburg Center, both times preceding Benedict A. Dorsey’s feature The Human Web.

For more information on these and other festival films, and to purchase tickets, visit the ADIFF website.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Preview: "Daggers: The Short Festival of Short Horror Films"

The third edition of “Daggers: The Short Festival of Short Horror,” a two-hour program of short horror films from around the world, returns to the Museum of Arts and Design in New York on October 20 at 7pm and October 22 at 3pm.  “Daggers,” curated by noted film critic Peter Gutierrez, puts a premium on displaying the eclectic nature of the horror film genre, and the diverse directorial talents working in this mode of expression, which is often unrecognized by the general public, who are used to the horror film being reduced to a very narrow set of stereotypical stylistics, mostly of the slasher film variety.  “Daggers” admirably works as a corrective to this notion, and finds its chosen directors employing a broad range of stylistic expression, encompassing comedy, gore, surrealism, psychological horror, the musical, animation, and many other artistic modes.

One interesting aspect of this year’s edition is that it affords us the opportunity to see earlier works by film directors who have garnered considerable attention on the film festival circuit.  The three films I chose to preview are very intriguing examples.  “New Born” is an Israeli film by Navot Papsushado, the co-director (with Aharon Keshales) of Rabies, which is billed as Israel’s first slasher horror film.  “New Born” is a much subtler work than that subsequent feature, a moody psychological film about a couple who may or may not have a baby who may or may not be alive or even exist.  Two viewings of this film were not quite sufficient for me to completely discern what exactly was going on, but Papsushado does a very good job suggesting just enough allusive, sinister behavior to keep us interested. 

“Next Floor,” the clear winner of the three films I previewed, is a sly, sardonic, and satirical French-Canadian film by Denis Villeneuve, who subsequently made two acclaimed features: Polytechnique (2007) and the Oscar-nominated Incendies (2009).  The intense drama of those two films are a sharp contrast to “Next Floor,” which features a group of pampered rich partaking of an impossibly opulent meal, with stomach-turning close-ups of knives cutting into animal flesh and seafood, presided over by a maitre d’ who, with the use of a uniquely constructed mansion, turns this feast into an elaborate, sadistic, ritualized sort of carnage.  The roles of master and servant are completely flipped around, and while the servants cater to their clients’ culinary desires, they very much have the upper hand and completely control the fates of the diners.  “Next Floor,” in conception, editing, and effects, is often breathtaking in its audacity and invention, and is a major highlight of this year’s festival.

“Treevenge” is by Jason Eisener, who went on to make Hobo with a Shotgun, a modern day homage to exploitation movies, and this earlier short is as blunt and unsubtle as that feature.  The premise is hilariously brutal and simple: Christmas trees, portrayed in the film as fully sentient creatures, stage a bloody revolt on their sadistic human masters, who cut them down, burn them, and humiliate them with tinsel and lights.  It’s the gore-horror version of The Secret Life of Plants.  The cheap gore effects and the broad playing by its cast add to this film’s goofy charm.

For more information on these and other films in the program, and to purchase tickets, visit the Museum of Arts and Design's website.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review: Joe Swanberg's "Art History"

Art History. 2011. Produced, directed and edited by Joe Swanberg. Written by Joe Swanberg, Josephine Decker, Kent Osborne, Adam Wingard, and Kris Swanberg. Photographed by Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg.

Cast: Josephine Decker (Juliette), Joe Swanberg (Sam), Kent Osborne (Eric), Adam Wingard (Bill), Kris Swanberg (Hillary).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

The filming of a sex scene proves to be no simple process (if indeed it ever is) in Joe Swanberg’s Art History, a complex and unsettling examination of the creative process and the materials involved, both human and mechanical, in the making of art, as well as the psychological pressures that go along with it.  Film director Sam (Swanberg) is shooting a sex scene that presumably occurs during a couple’s one night stand.  The film opens both in medias res and in flagrante delicto, with a very explicit depiction of the characters having sex, with full frontal nudity by both participants.  We immediately know that this is not “real,” as we hear Sam’s off-screen instructions to his actors during the scene.  The film within the film has a very different visual style than the one that surrounds it; the film Sam is making is rough-hewn and handheld, not unlike the real Swanberg’s early films.  Art History itself takes the opposite stylistic tack, shot almost entirely with long, static takes, and much more meticulously framed and composed, with many scenes resembling iris shots, the image in the center surrounded by a ring of darkness.  There are a couple of shots that are strikingly lovely, especially one of a shimmering pool with patterns of sunlight that wouldn’t be out of place in an avant-garde film.

Art History invites us to read it as a self-critique of the film director, or as the title indicates, the creative artist generally, as a sort of vampire who preys on the intimate details of those who are used as the objects of this art.  Swanberg himself says as much in his director’s statement, where he writes: “This film is an apology to anyone I have hurt because of the way I work or because of my own emotional recklessness. As the title suggests, I hope all of these instances are in the past.”  The atmosphere of Art History is hermetic and claustrophobic; the film takes place entirely in the single location of the house where the film within the film is being made.  The only acknowledgement of a world outside the film set is the sound of an airplane that intrudes at one point on the scene. 

Juliette (Josephine Decker) and Eric (Kent Osborne), the actors in the scene, are told by Sam to improvise their dialog, during which they reveal details of their personal relationships during their sex scene.  Sam is mostly unconcerned with the specific details of this dialog, concentrating instead on the technical details of lighting, sound, and the physical actions of his two actors.  The intimacy of the scene bleeds into the “real life” outside the film, as Juliette and Eric explore their real attraction to one another, having actual sex off camera during the shoot.  A simultaneously humorous and disturbing moment occurs when Sam turns his attention from checking footage he has shot to peer in on Juliette and Eric as they have sex.  The film shoot runs into a major complication when it becomes clear that Sam and Juliette seem to have some sort of an off-camera relationship as well, forming an inchoate and somewhat confusing love triangle.  This sex act seems to upset the delicate balance of the shoot, as Sam’s jealousy of Juliette and Eric’s relationship gradually becomes more apparent.

Swanberg has come a long way artistically from earlier films such as Kissing on the Mouth, LOL, and Hannah Takes the Stairs; as interesting as those films were, one still got the sense that Swanberg was working out his stylistics, and that framing and composition were very much secondary concerns.  However, Swanberg right now is in the midst of a creatively fecund and boldly experimental phase of his career, and has been incredibly prolific in the past year.  Swanberg premiered three films at two major festivals within a month of each other this year: Uncle Kent at Sundance, and Art History and Silver Bullets at Berlin.  Another film, Autoerotic (co-directed with Adam Wingard), recently opened in New York, and two more films are set to be released later this year.  Art History so far is the only one of these films I’ve been able to see, but if this is any indication of the quality of his other recent work, I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing the rest of them.

Art History is now playing at the reRun Gastropub Theater through September 29.  For screening times and to purchase tickets, visit reRun’s website. The film is also included as part of film distributor Factory 25’s box set “Joe Swanberg: Collected Films 2011,” a limited-edition subscription in which buyers will receive four films over the course of a year: Silver Bullets, Art History, and the upcoming films The Zone and Privacy Setting.  This release includes bonus materials for each film, including vinyl soundtracks and set photography booklets.  For more information, and to order the set, visit Factory 25’s website.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: Anne Sewitsky's "Happy, Happy"

Happy, Happy (Sykt lykkelig). 2010. Directed by Anne Sewitsky. Written by Ragnhild Tronvoll. Produced by Synnove Horsdal. Cinematography by Anna Myking. Edited by Christoffer Heie. Music by Stein Berge Svendsen. Art direction by Camilla Lindbraten. Sound design by Gunn Tove Gronsberg.

Cast: Agnes Kittelsen (Kaja), Joachim Rafaelsen (Eirik), Maibritt Saerens (Elisabeth), Henrik Rafaelsen (Sigve), Oskar Hernæs Brandsø (Theodor), Ram Shihab Ebedy (Noa), Heine Totland (Choral director).

(Note: this review has also been cross-posted on Twitch.)

Anne Sewitsky’s debut feature Happy, Happy, winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a story involving two couples, infidelity, and marital strife coming to the surface after lengthy repression, that goes down smoothly and easily – in fact, far too smoothly and easily, which is the film’s main problem.  Good performances by the four principal actors are subsumed in a scenario that dials the cutesiness and whimsy up to 11, which sits uneasily with material that seems as if it should be more traumatic for the characters.  But again, it all goes down easily – not for nothing was this film chosen as Norway’s foreign film Oscar entry.

Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), a woman who is ever the eternal optimist, despite her rather distant and chilly relationship with husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen), with whom she hasn’t made love in a year – the resistance is all on his end.   Another couple, Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), moves into the house across from them.  All of them live in a remote town, a snowy place far from the city.  There doesn’t seem to be much to do in this place, and the main activity in town comes courtesy of the local church; Sigve and Elisabeth were choir singers where they came from, and they join the local choir also.  They play board games soon after they meet, revealing the dynamics of both couples.  Playing “The Couples Game,” especially, causes Kaja to reveal their lack of a sexual relationship to the other couple, and to reveal herself as someone extremely lacking in guile and completely an open book to everyone.  Her neediness and clinging to her husband, as Eirik cruelly tells her one night, is the cause of his recent lack of attraction.  However, there is another reason Eirik has distanced himself from his wife, which becomes evident in due course.  Similarly, Sigve and Elisabeth moved to this remote place because of a troubled aspect of their marriage that has lain beneath the surface of their outwardly placid demeanor, but which is revealed through their interactions with their neighbors.

All of this sounds like the premise of a Bergmanesque study of troubled marriage (a sort of Scenes from Two Marriages), but Sewitsky and her screenwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll opt for a much lighter tone.  This is an interesting narrative tactic, and a potentially intriguing one; unfortunately, this choice renders the proceedings rather saccharine, especially with the device of a male choir that pops up frequently between scenes with songs commenting on the action, functioning as a gospel-singing Greek chorus.  Another major miscalculation is the subplot involving Sigve and Elisabeth’s adopted Ethiopian son Noa (Ram Shihab Totland), and Kaja and Eirik’s son Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø).  While their scenes seem intended to represent how their parent’s problems are passed down to their children, they too often (especially when they play “master and slave”) come off as gratuitous, unnecessary distractions from the main storyline.

Happy, Happy opened September 16 in New York and Los Angeles. For more information, visit Magnolia Pictures' website.

Friday, September 23, 2011

"Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today" Review: Yim Soon-rye's "Rolling Home with a Bull"

Rolling Home with a Bull (Sowa hamkke yeonaenghaneun beop). 2010. Directed by Yim Soon-rye. Written by Park Kyoung-hee, based on the novel "How to Travel with a Cow" by Kim Do-yeon. Produced by Yang Dong-myung. Cinematography by Park Yeong-jun. Edited by Park Kyoung-sook. Music by Roh Young-sim. Production design by Kim Jong-woo. Art direction by Kim Min-jeong. Sound by Seo Young-june.

Cast: Kim Yeong-pil (Choi Sun-ho), Kong Hyo-jin (Lee Hyun-soo), Mek Bo (Han-soo/Peter), Jeon Guk-hwan (Sun-ho's father), Lee Yeong-yi (Sun-ho's mother), Mun Chang-gil (old Buddhist man), Jo Seung-yeon (boy monk's father), Weon Poong-yeon (cow auctioneer), Ahn Do-gyu (boy monk), Jo Moon-eui (policeman), Jeong Weon-jo (Min-gyu), Park Hye-jin (Sun-ho's aunt).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on New Korean Cinema.)

A humorous, lyrical, and philosophical wonder, Yim Soon-rye’s Rolling Home with a Bull is her best film to date, a superior addition to her already impressive body of work.  Essentially a Buddhist parable, its free-flowing peripatetic nature, following the path of a lovelorn, failed poet who seeks to escape his home and his own past, is filled with warmth and humanity, its import growing deeper with multiple viewings.  The film at first unfolds in a deceptively realistic mode, but then dreams and allegorical visions gradually take over the narrative, pulling the viewer ever so subtly into the rich fabric of its atmosphere, and making the audience a shotgun rider on the spiritual journey taken by its protagonist.

Sun-ho (Kim Yeong-pil), in the opening scenes, has had just about all he can take with the backbreaking work on his family farm, deep in the countryside of Kangwon Province.  His ears ring with the harsh tones of his bickering parents – his irascible, cantankerous father (Jeon Guk-hwan), and long-suffering mother (Lee Yeong-yi) – all day long as they plow the fields with their trusty work bull.  Sun-ho’s father harshly criticizes his son’s impractical and fruitless pursuit of poetry and his habit of coming home late drunk every night.  His mother hectors him to get married, and to follow the example of other village men who have taken Southeast Asian women as wives; in her mind, the clock is rapidly ticking, as Sun-ho is now nearly forty.  (Much of the film’s humor derives from the verbal dueling of Sun-ho’s parents, the father frequently calling his wife a “hag”; this brings to mind the real-life elderly couple of the Korean documentary Old Partner (Lee Chung-ryoul, 2008), which functioned as a paean to bucolic life.)  Finally, Sun-ho’s frustration with his parents and his own feelings of personal failure drive him to taking a pickup truck and the family’s bull out on the road, with the aim to sell the bull and use the money to go traveling.  The remainder of the film takes the form of a road movie, a familiar staple of Korean cinema, as Sun-ho is forced on a long trip because he can find no buyers for the bull.

The Buddhist content becomes ever more apparent as the story progresses; besides the bull itself, which we are told has great symbolic value in Buddhism, other recurring figures appear: a kindly old monk (Moon Chang-gil) and his “Ohmygod Temple”; a father (Jo Seung-yeon) and young son (Ahn Do-gyu) who beg to ride Sun-ho’s bull in order to gain enlightenment; and, in a late scene, the miraculous blooming of a lotus flower.  But the most important recurring figure in Sun-ho’s life is the sudden reappearance of his estranged former lover Hyun-soo (Kong Hyo-jin), who informs him of the death of her husband, who also was Sun-ho’s best friend.  Hyun-soo’s choice to marry this friend over Sun-ho, we soon learn, is the cause of his retreat from his former city life in Seoul and a deep resentment that has rendered him unable to pursue any other relationships with women.  These characters, and others, serve to guide and instruct Sun-ho on the path he must take to heal his pain and reveal a purpose to his restless wandering.

This is all guided by the unerringly masterful hand of Yim Soon-rye, aided by Park Kyoung-hee’s beautifully written screenplay, based on Kim Do-yeon’s novel How to Travel with a Cow (the film’s Korean title is How to Travel with a Bull), Park Yeong-jun's richly textured cinematography (the Red One digital images nicely capture the beauty of Korea’s countryside), and a well-placed Peter, Paul and Mary folk tune.  As usual, Yim elicits great performances, which in this case go well beyond their allegorical function; Kim Yeong-pil and Kong Hyo-jin are especially great in the drinking scenes that most immediately recall Hong Sang-soo in the way their personal histories spill out as easily as the many bottles of soju they consume.  And last but not least, the titular bull is a compelling, sympathetic character in its own right; while not achieving the sublime depths of Bresson’s Balthazar, it’s at least in the ballpark.

Rolling Home with a Bull screens at the Museum of Modern Art on September 23 at 4:30 as part of the film series “Yeonghwa: Korean FilmToday,” screening September 22 through October 2.  For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit MoMA’s website

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today" Review: Shin Su-won's "Passerby #3 (Rainbow)"

Passerby #3 (Rainbow). 2009. Written and directed by Shin Su-won. Produced by Shin Su-won and Kim Mi-jung. Cinematography by Han Tai-yong. Edited by Lee Hyun-mee. Music by Moon Sung-nam. Art direction by Kang Ji-hyun. Sound by Lee Taek-hee.

Cast: Park Hyun-young (Kim Ji-wan), Beack So-myung (Si-young), Yi Me-youn (Producer Choi), Kim Jae-rok (Sang-woo), Cho Hyun-sook (Hyun-joo), Yang Jong-hyeon (Ahn Chang-nam), Park Ji-weon, Song Nam-hyeon, Noh Yu-nan (Rainbow band members).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on New Korean Cinema.)

The trials and tribulations of being a film director, an oft-told tale in movies, gets a unique and lightly surreal spin in Shin Su-won’s Passerby #3 (Rainbow), which can be best described as the slightly milder cousin of Barton FinkPasserby #3 features an increasingly unhinged protagonist whose attempts at individual creativity are continually ground under the merciless gearwheels of the conventional wisdom of producers and investors, whose ideas of what sells seemingly shift without rhyme or reason.  Ji-wan (Park Hyun-young), after catching the filmmaking bug with her first touch of a camera, impulsively quits her day job, going all in to pursue her dream.  Cut to: five years later, with a bratty, demanding teenage son (Si-young, played by Beack So-myung), an increasingly impatient husband (Sung-woo, played by Kim Jae-rok), 15 drafts of her script “House of the Sun,” visions of imaginary ants everywhere, and constant producer rejections, Ji-wan has yet to make her debut.  Producer Choi (Yi Me-youn), an old friend of Ji-wan’s, provides her with a last lease on professional life by hiring Ji-wan at her company; but alas, the vicious cycle of script changes, rejections and enforced commercial mainstreaming begins anew. 

Inspired by the sight of a rainbow in a puddle that may or may not be a mirage, Ji-wan pursues a new idea, a music-themed film called “Rainbow,” which greatly excites her, but unfortunately meets resistance yet again from Choi and the investors.  Choi, taking her cue from her bosses, harshly criticizes Ji-wan’s “psychotic” fantasy-laden script and her “shitty imagination,” giving her the rather insulting gift of the book “How to Write a Script,” so that Ji-wan can come up with an alternate idea.  Choi soon relents, forced to try to work with Ji-wan’s original “Rainbow” script when a rival production company launches a project similar to the one Ji-wan is currently writing.  Unfortunately, Ji-wan’s travails with Choi eventually lead to the bitter conclusion that there are really no friends in the movie business.

Just as Ji-wan is bullied in the pursuit of her art, her son Si-young is bullied in the pursuit of his, by an upperclassman at school who taunts and intimidates him as they practice together in the school rock band, and swipes the new guitar Si-young’s mother bought him.  This paralleling of two creative people whose attempts to fully express their talents are thwarted by intimidating forces is but one example of the depth and sensitivity of characterization that vividly breathes life into what could have been an irredeemably clichéd scenario.

Passerby #3 (Rainbow), Shin’s debut feature, which won best Korean film at the Jeonju International Film Festival and best Asian-Middle Eastern film at the Tokyo International Film Festival (both in 2010), is at least partly autobiographical.  Similarly to her film’s protagonist, Shin quit her teaching job in 2002 to enter film school and pursue filmmaking while raising two children.  Again, like her main character, Shin had also been preparing a music-themed film before making this one, and indeed, many musical elements remain in her story.  However, Shin insists that the events occurring in her film are heavily fictionalized.  Nevertheless, based on the portrait Shin paints of the Korean film industry here, one could be forgiven for concluding that it must be a miracle that any personal, non-derivative films manage to be made in Korea at all.  Passerby #3, of course, is itself proof positive that such films are indeed being made, and are by no means rare.  The performances in the film are, for the most part, just as multifaceted as its narrative.  Park Hyun-young is especially memorable as the spineless sad sack who eventually finds the courage to be more than a bit player in her own drama, while Yi Me-youn, as the producer, reveals deeper layers that complicate her role as the villainous killer of creativity she initially seems to be.  The only character here that feels miscalculated is that of Ji-wan’s son Si-young.  As played by Beack So-myung, Si-young comes off as such an obnoxious jerk, and is so merciless in his verbal take-downs of his mother, that it’s difficult to feel sympathy for his artistic struggles.  Still, this only slightly mars what is otherwise an affecting, impressive introduction to an interesting new director well-worth watching.

Passerby #3 (Rainbow) screens at the Museum of Modern Art on September 22 at 4:30 and September 25 at 4:30 as part of "Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today," a small but impressive snapshot of recent Korean cinema.  A joint presentation of MoMA and the Korea Society, the series runs from September 22 through October 2.  For more information on this and other films in the series, and to purchase tickets, visit MOMA's website.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Japan Cuts 2011 Review: Masahiro Kobayashi's "Haru's Journey"

Haru's Journey (Haru to no tabi). 2010. Written and directed by Masahiro Kobayashi. Produced by Muneyuki Kii and Naoko Kobayashi. Cinematography by Masamichi Uwabo. Edited by Naoki Kaneko. Music by Junpei Sakuma. Production design by Jun'ya Kawase. Costume design by Masae Miyamoto. Sound by Shin Fukuda.

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai (Tadao Nakai), Eri Tokunaga (Haru), Hideji Otaki (Shigeo), Kin Sugai (Keiko), Kaoru Kobayashi (Kinoshita), Yuko Tanaka (Aiko Shimizu), Chikage Awashima (Shigeko), Akira Emoto (Michio), Jun Miho (Akiko), Naho Toda (Nobuko), Teriyuki Kagawa (Shinichi).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on VCinema.)

The masterful performance by legendary actor Tatsuya Nakadai is the most obvious central attraction of Haru’s Journey, the latest film by Masahiro Kobayashi.  Nakadai plays Tadao, an ornery, cantankerous character close to the end of his life, who despite his age is as impulsive, foolish, and self-centered as any typical adolescent, a fact that is remarked on by other characters in the film.  In the nearly wordless opening sequence, Tadao is furiously leaving his home, followed closely on his heels by his granddaughter Haru (Eri Tokunaga), who tries to keep him from leaving.  Taking great offense to Haru’s expression of dissatisfaction with their home life – she has been taking care of Tadao by herself in the years following her mother’s suicide – Tadao sets out to look for his long lost siblings, in the hopes that one of them will take him in.  Tadao, as portrayed by Nakadai, is a complex character: a man with many faults, a selfish man who has hurt nearly everyone around him, yet is not entirely unsympathetic.  Nakadai brilliantly portrays the multifaceted nature of Tadao – the charm and humor that attracts others to him, as well as the many negative qualities that just as strongly repel them.

Haru’s Journey is essentially a road movie, one that begins in Hokkaido (the usual setting of Kobayashi’s films), and winds its way through the towns of Japan’s northern region, as Tadao and Haru visit his siblings, and are summarily rejected by them for various reasons, mostly dealing with the long family history that is gradually revealed in the course of their trip.  Kobayashi recasts Ozu’s Tokyo Story in a sense; his film similarly involves a search for familial shelter on the part of its protagonist.  But while Tokyo Story concerned itself with intergenerational conflict, Haru’s Journey is more about conflicts within the same generation; Tadao’s siblings are still very angry with Tadao because of the selfish ways they were treated by him in the past and, in some cases, bitterly gleeful over his now humbled status as an impoverished supplicant.

Significantly, even though Tadao is the character we initially focus on, the film is not titled Tadao’s Journey.  This is because the true evolution of character occurs within Tadao’s granddaughter Haru, who comes to learn more about him during their trip, and also because she is the catalyst for all that happens.  A quietly wrenching scene occurs late in the film, when Haru confronts her estranged father (Teruyuki Kagawa) and demands answers to why he left her mother, an act Haru believes precipitated her mother’s suicide.

On the surface, Haru’s Journey seems to be much more conventional than Kobayashi’s previous austere, formally rigorous works such as Bashing and The Rebirth.  However, his new film represents an intriguing marriage of potentially sentimental and melodramatic material with an aesthetic style that pulls back from overheated emotion.  Kobayashi makes frequent use of long shots showing the forbidding landscapes he places his characters in, creating a distancing effect that is penetratingly observational.  His detached stance toward the characters and events serve to make the more emotional and conventionally dramatic scenes stronger than they would be without the countervailing elements he places around them.  Kobayashi makes full use of the talents of Tatsuya Nakadai, as well as the iconic presence he brings to this film, along with his association with such Japanese masters as Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse, Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi (no relation to Masahiro), Hideo Gosha, and others.  Kobayashi, however, doesn’t allow Nakadai’s legendary status to overwhelm his film, and allows generous space for visual schemes and fruitful interactions with the other characters.  Nakadai, with the aid of Kobayashi’s sharp, tough screenplay, never plays to audience sympathies, retaining his character’s hard edges and uncompromising stubbornness.  Eri Tokunaga is a subtly powerful presence as Nakadai’s foil, and while she may initially seem to be overshadowed by her veteran co-star, her steadfast and steady presence, as well as the emotional journey her character takes, makes an ever greater impression as the film progresses.

Deeply humanistic yet unsentimental, harshly rendered yet beautiful, Haru’s Journey both draws inspiration from and subtly critiques the sentiments of classic Japanese cinema, and proves, once again, that Masahiro Kobayashi is more than worthy to stand alongside the master filmmakers who created those earlier works.  Haru’s Journey, which deals with loss and survival among its themes, gains rather tragic resonance by events outside the film; it was shot in some areas that were devastated by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami.  Appropriately, 50% of the ticket sales from its screening at Japan Society will be donated to the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011 Review: Ryoo Seung-wan's "City of Violence"

City of Violence (Jjakpae). 2006. Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan. Written by Kim Jeong-min, Lee Won-jae, and Ryoo Seung-wan. Produced by Ryoo Seung-wan and Kim Jeong-min. Cinematography by Yeong-cheol. Edited by Nam Na-yeong. Music by Bang Jun-seok. Martial arts direction by Jung Doo-hong.

Cast: Ryoo Seung-wan, Jung Doo-hong, Lee Beom-soo, Jeong Seok-yong, Ahn Kil-kang, Lee Joo-sil, Kim Byeong-ok, Kim Hyo-seon, Kim Kkobbi.

Ryoo Seung-wan, a favorite and frequent guest of the New York Asian Film Festival, has two films in this year's edition: The Unjust, his latest and one of his best, a sprawling tale of urban corruption and moral corrosion; and a retrospective screening of the swift-moving, down-and-dirty action flick City of Violence. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at the 2007 New York Asian Film Festival.

City of Violence, Ryoo Seung-wan’s lean and limber 92-minute noir, is very much a back-to-basics production after his previous, more ambitious films Arahan and his most impressive work to date, Crying Fist. Even though the knee-jerk reaction would be to identify Quentin Tarantino as his principal influence, a much more apt comparison would be the Shaw Brothers epics of the ‘70s, such as The Five Venoms, which Ryoo has expressed his great admiration for. City of Violence is anchored by its incredibly energetic and acrobatic action scenes, choreographed by his lead actor and long-time martial arts consultant Jung Doo-hong.

Jung plays Tae-su, a Seoul detective who returns to his childhood home of Onseong after the murder of Wang-jae (Ahn Gil-gang), one of his old friends. He reunites with his old crew, including Sukhwan (Ryoo Seung-wan) and Pil-ho (Lee Beom-soo). Pil-ho has become a powerful gang boss who, in a bid for legitimate respectability, is working to build a casino to make the town a major tourist attraction. Pil-ho tells Tae-su how the murder occurred (this scene is replayed multiple times, Rashomon-like, throughout the film). However, after visiting Wang-jae’s widow, Tae-su immediately smells a rat, and suspects that he hasn’t been told the entire truth. He decides to remain in Onseong and investigate the murder. Sukhwan, also suspicious, assists Tae-su.

City of Violence is so swift and relentless that one only notices its flaws on later reflection. Tae-su’s sudden realization of Wang-jae’s true killer doesn’t quite make sense, and the flashbacks to his friend’s younger days are rather awkward. However, while watching the film, these weaknesses seem to be minor since the movie contains enough style and verve to overcome them. City of Violence contains two impressive set pieces. One occurs early in the film, when Tae-su is confronted by scores of high-schoolers – uniform-clad schoolgirls, break dancers, motorcycle punks – whom he must fend off, each with their own weapons and fighting styles. The other is the film’s final fight scene in an inn, where Tae-su and Sukhwhan are armed with swords, battling dozens of henchmen (and one woman), and crashing through sliding screen doors and up and down staircases. To put it in musical terms, if Ryu’s previous film Crying Fist was his orchestral piece, then City of Violence is his garage band record: fast, loud, and somewhat ragged, but containing very entertaining and catchy riffs.

City of Violence screens July 13, 3:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater, with director Ryoo Seung-wan in attendance. For tickets, visit the New York Asian Film Festival and Film Society of Lincoln Center websites.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival/Japan Cuts 2011 Review: Hisayasu Sato's "Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano"

Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano (Namae no nai onnatachi). 2010. Directed by Hisayasu Sato. Written by Naoko Nishida, based on the book "Women Without Names" by Atsuhiko Nakamura. Produced by Ryoji Kobayashi and Koichi Kusakabe. Cinematography by Kazuhiro Suzuki. Edited by Hiromitsu Yamanaka. Music by Jun Kawabata. Production design and art direction by Kaori Haga. Sound by Ataru Ueda.

Cast: Norie Yasui, Mayu Sakuma, Makiko Watanabe, Ini Kusano, Hirofumi Arai, Aya Kiguchi, Yuji Tajiri.

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on VCinema.)

This year’s New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts festival is graced by new films by two of the “Kings of Pink,” directors who made their name in “pink films,” softcore Japanese sex films.  One is Takahisa Zeze’s Heaven’s Story, a sprawling 4½ hour examination of the aftermath of two murders which leaves the pink genre altogether, brimming with passion and ambition.  The other is Hisayasu Sato’s Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano, which is somewhat more connected to his sex-film roots, since it is set in the porn film industry.  Sato’s film is a hard-as-nails examination of this industry, based on Atsuhiko Nakamura’s nonfiction book Women Without Names, a collection of interviews with porn actresses. Accompanied by vertiginous images of Tokyo’s streetscapes, and often peering into puddles and gutters, the film is a quietly disturbing look at how personas are given and created, and how they can be simultaneously liberating and imprisoning. Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano is a porn Pygmalion, in which sleazy recruiters and promoters exploit women and trade them as commodities for entertainment value.  The women are very much aware of this, but they manage to derive some emotional value from this work and try to navigate through this sordid world and to find some personal space and freedom within it.

Mousy office girl Junko (Norie Yasui) has long been dominated by her sexually profligate mother (Makiko Watanabe), and is a withdrawn, shy presence at her office-drone job.  She finds very unlikely liberation from this restricted existence by a porn promoter whom she encounters on the street, who asks her the key question that opens her up to a new world: “Wouldn’t it be fun if you could become someone else?”  This someone else, suggested by the director of her first porn shoot, is a blue-haired, sailor suit wearing otaku character named Lulu.  She takes to the work very quickly, reveling in the double life she leads and her secret satisfaction that she is not the worthless person her mother thinks she is; strangers watch her, desire her, and send her fan letters.  Lulu has a rival in Ayano (Mayu Sakuma), a violent woman who immediately resents Lulu’s meek demeanor and naïveté; however, Ayano eventually warms to Lulu and comes to be protective of her.  The stardom Lulu has gained from being in porn also brings its dangers, most pertinently in the form of an overweight otaku (Ini Kusano) who sends Lulu her first fan letter, along with many more, and begins stalking her.  Lulu’s predatory promoter takes advantage of Lulu’s willingness to do anything on screen to steer her toward ever more physically dangerous, even life threatening, video shoots.  All these situations threaten to completely implode Lulu’s existence.

Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano is a sort of a meta-porn, a film that deconstructs the makings of this sort of film, utilizing a plot which could be that of a porn film itself.  The repressed woman’s awakening to her hidden sexual nature is a perennial plot of porn and many forms of erotic art.  The film is anchored by two fine and convincing performances by Yasui and Sakuma, portraying the newbie and the veteran who both find their own ways of escape from, or at least freedom within, their prisons.  Sato explores it all with a hard-edged, unsentimental eye, a nonjudgmental and non-stereotypical stance that makes this a film (mostly) not for titillation, and insistent of the dignity of its characters, and by extension, the real women who work in the sex-film industry.  Alternating between steely near-monochrome and lurid color (especially in a very violent and bloody scene near the conclusion), Sato’s film departs from the more extreme imagery and subject matter of his previous work (which depicted bestiality, rape, and most notoriously, self-cannibalism) to deliver an emotionally and psychologically penetrating film.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival/Japan Cuts 2011 Review: Yu Irie's "Ringing in Their Ears"

Ringing in Their Ears (Gekijouban Shinsei Kamattechan: Rokkun roru wa nari tomaranai). 2011. Written, directed and edited by Yu Irie. Cinematography by Kazuhiro Mimura. Music by Shoji Ikenaga. Art direction by Naoko Hara. Sound by Osamu Shimizu.

Cast: Fumi Nikaido, Kurumi Morishita, Kiyotaka Uji, Yui Miura, Tatsuya Sakamoto, Maki Sakai, Mikito Tsurugi, Keisuke Horibe, Shinsei Kamattechan (Noko, Mono, Chibagin, Misako).

(Note: This review has been cross-posted on VCinema.)

Yu Irie’s last two films, 8000 Miles and 8000 Miles 2, detailed the travails of aspiring Japanese underground hip-hop artists.  With his latest, Ringing in Their Ears, Yu shifts to a rock milieu, an expansion of focus, and a leap of structural ambition, offering an Altmanesque multi-character narrative centering on Shinsei Kamattechan, a real-life rock band whose members play themselves.  The narrative is driven by a musical ticking time bomb, counting down to an upcoming performance by the band; there is a bit of suspense concerning whether Noko, the band’s mercurial, reclusive lead singer, will even show up for the gig.  As with many other details, this reflects reality outside the film; Noko assiduously avoids the press and refuses to participate in band interviews.  The narrative strand directly involving the band finds the group at a turning point in their career, having signed to a major label after gaining a large following on the internet.  Again, this has a real-life parallel; Shinsei Kamattechan was signed to Warner Music Japan last year after building their following with surreal homemade videos on You Tube, and a successful indie album release.  In the film, the band faces the perennial dilemma that comes from being on the verge of mainstream stardom: whether to “sell out” by making a bid for broad audience appeal, or remaining true to the essence of what attracted their fans in the first place, even if this retards their progress in conventional career terms.  This choice is presented to the band’s manager by an arrogant, bullying record company executive, who wants the band to change its image and rewrite one of their songs as a positive anthem to encourage hikikomori (pathological social shut-ins) to emerge from their rooms.  The manager, almost certain the band won’t go for it, gingerly, and reluctantly, tries to bring up the subject with the group.

While the band prepares for its show, we are taken into the lives of other characters whose crises orbit the group, and who are all connected with this music in some way.  Kaori (Kurumi Morishita), an office cleaning lady by day and an exotic dancer by night, is also a harried single mother driven to distraction by dealing with her son Ryota (Tatsuya Sakamoto), who won’t let go of the laptop given him by his estranged dad, and who horrifies his teachers by leading his kindergarten classmates in choruses of very morbid Shinsei Kamattechan lyrics.  Kaori wants to take the night off from the club to see the band in concert, but her boss gives her a hard time, threatening to replace her with younger girls.  Meanwhile, high-school girl Michiko (Fumi Nikaido) obsessively pursues her dream of becoming a shogi (Japanese chess) champion, which drives a wedge between herself and everyone around her, including her father – who increasingly resents her rebelliousness and who Michiko blames for turning her brother into a hikikomori – and her cheating boyfriend, who gives her a CD of the band’s music to listen to.

The film shuttles back and forth between the band and the parallel storylines, building to a crescendo with an impressively edited final sequence on the day of the show, in which all the narrative lines converge into an ecstatic explosion affirming the power of rock and roll, and most especially the passionate and idiosyncratic brand that Shinsei Kamattechan practices.  Their music is a vessel that allows their fans to express their hidden feelings and desires, allowing them to experience epiphanies and to break out of prisons both self-imposed and created by society.

Irie gets major points for ambition and well-drawn characters, but the grand statement he is clearly going for remains elusive, since his style of filmmaking rarely rises above the functional.  One hopes for more of a transcendent feeling from this film, for more poetry and less prose.  Still, Ringing in Their Ears nicely captures the power of a song, and the myriad ways it can hit listeners in the deepest and most personal places.

Ringing in Their Ears, a co-presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema, screens July 7, 9pm at Japan Society and July 11, 1:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Japan Society websites.


Monday, July 4, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011 Review: Lee Seo-goon's "The Recipe"

The Recipe (Doenjang). 2010. Directed by Lee Seo-goon. Written by Jang Jin and Lee Seo-goon. Produced by Jang Jin. Cinematography by Na Hee-seok. Edited by Kim Sang-bum. Music by Han Jae-gweon. Production design by Jang Seok-jin. Costume design by Kim Heui-ju. Sound by Choi Tae-yeong. Visual effects by Park Eui-dong.

Cast: Ryoo Seung-ryong (Choi Yu-jin), Lee Yo-won (Jang Hye-jin), Lee Dong-wook (Kim Hyun-soo), Cho Seong-ha (Chairman Park), Ryoo Seung-mok (Kim Jong-gu).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on New Korean Cinema.)

A mystical and magical concoction, much like the doenjang jjigae (soybean paste stew) dish that it revolves around, Lee Seo-goon’s second feature The Recipe hinges on a brilliant bit of narrative misdirection.  Choi Yu-jin (Ryoo Seung-ryong), the producer/host of a sensationalistic TV expose program, is tipped by a prospective intern to an odd last statement given by Kim Jong-gu (Ryoo Seung-mok), a fearsome serial killer, on the day of his execution.  Jong-gu longingly utters the word “Doenjang.” (This is also the film’s Korean title.)  He goes on to express his wish for another bowl of the stew.  As we’ve been conditioned to do by so many other films, we expect to be taken into the convoluted past and secrets of this criminal, and indeed, this is the initial path Yu-jin pursues in his investigation.  However, to Yu-jin’s and our great surprise, Jong-gu quickly disappears as a significant character and instead the focus shifts to what would in any other film would be a peripheral figure: the woman who made the dish that mesmerized the criminal, allowing this fugitive to be taken in by the police and put to death.  This cook is one Jang Hye-jin (Lee Yo-won), and soon the story shifts to Yu-jin’s investigation of her life, and more specifically, the love affair that led to her own death in a car accident.  Along the way, Yu-jin learns the intricacies of doenjang making and is told about the metaphysical qualities of Hye-jin’s special brand, which mysteriously attracts butterflies, resurrects deadened taste buds, contains scientifically impossible 100% pure salt, and which proves to be a physical manifestation of her equally pure love for Kim Hyun-soo (Lee Dong-wook).  Yu-jin searches for this man, to get to the bottom of the enigma that is Hye-jin’s magical stew.

Free-wheeling mixing and matching of genres is a very much a hallmark of Korean cinema, and The Recipe takes this to a new level.  Lee’s film contains many different narrative modes and methods within it: the crime drama, the road movie, the romance, the melodrama, and the ghost story, with some off-kilter comic elements, and even an animated sequence, stirred into the mix.  On paper, this would seem like an impossibly unstable object; however, Lee’s sure and steady directorial hand, and the gorgeous and dreamy imagery she lends to her magical-realist tale, prevents it all from sinking into incoherence.  Lee Seo-goon, also known as Anna Lee, was the screenwriter (at 19!) of Park Chul-soo’s bizarre and satirical 301/302 (1995), which also had a very strong food-based theme.  But where that film depicts psychological imbalance and existential angst, The Recipe has a far gentler and more lyrical tone.  The film’s titular dish takes on an allegorical import that goes beyond mere food; its connection to nature and the land, and its representation of tradition and historical memory expands its meaning into a metaphor for the nation itself.  Hyun-soo’s status as a dual Korean/Japanese citizen, and the hinted-at colonial legacy which serves to drive the lovers apart, serves to make that metaphor explicit.

The Recipe, among its many other virtues, is a foodie film extraordinaire; it deserves to stand next to films such as Tampopo (1985), Babette’s Feast (1987), and Like Water for Chocolate (1992) as another classic of this genre.  Produced and co-written by writer-director Jang Jin (Guns and Talks, Good Morning President), Lee’s second film arrives 12 years after her debut feature Rub Love (1998).  Let’s hope this incredibly talented filmmaker doesn’t take nearly that long to make her next one.

The Recipe screens at the Walter Reade Theater on July 5 at 3:45pm and July 9 at 7pm.  For tickets, visit the New York Asian Film Festival and The Film Society of Lincoln Center websites.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011 Review: Jun Tsugita's "Horny House of Horror"

Horny House of Horror (Fasshon heru). 2010. Written and directed by Jun Tsugita. Produced by Hideomi Nagahama and Shin Hayasaka. Cinematography by Shin Hayasaka. Edited by Katsutoshi Usa and Jun Tsugita. Music by Piranha Orchestra. Art direction by Ryuji Hayakawa.

Cast: Saori Hara, Asami, Mint Suzuki, Yuya Ishikawa, Toushi Yanagi, Wani Kansai, Akira Murota, Demo Tanaka, Takashi Nishina.

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on VCinema.)

Jun Tsugita’s pink film/horror hybrid Horny House of Horror goes all Grand Guignol on us with its absurdly copious amounts of blood, which sprays with frequency and gleeful abandon.  As such, the film makes full use of the talents of gore effects master Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) to relate its tale of three hapless friends who fall into the clutches of the titular trap for randy male customers.  There is a soupcon of social commentary here, mostly dealing with the euphemistic nature of the sort of sex parlor that the film satirizes; as the animated opening tells us, these happy-ending massage emporiums are called “fashion health” centers to get around Japan’s anti-prostitution laws.  The film’s Japanese title, Fashion Hell, is a play on words: “hell”/”health.”  The purpose of this down-and-dirty, quickie exploitation flick (albeit given a 21st century digital sheen), is fairly straightforward: to titillate with its abundant female flesh, and to keep us in awe at how creatively flesh can rend and tear on screen.  As a horror film, it’s not really all that horrifying: there’s too much of a jocular air for that.  Much of the carnage is directed toward the vulnerable male member, the special target of the homicidal sex workers of the massage parlor.

The three victims are friends and amateur baseball players Nakazu (Yuya Ishikawa), Toshida (Wani Kansai), and Uno (Toushi Yanagi).  Nakazu has recently gotten married, and his friends incessantly rib him because of the cell-phone based short leash his wife keeps him on.  He professes to be a loyal and devoted husband, yet he doesn’t argue too strenuously when his friends drag him to Shogun, the massage parlor that will in short order become an insane charnel house of atrocity.  The three are matched up with Nagisa (Saori Hara), Nonoko (Asami), and Kaori (Mint Suzuki), the three girls of the house.  The pre-credits sequence shows Nagisa in action with another unfortunate client, who is subjected to a variation of sushi roll dining involving the man’s penis.  Think a variation of the denouement of In the Realm of the Senses (1976), but placed at the very beginning.  The three women are tasked with collecting the penises of their clients by their boss who monitors them through closed-circuit TV surveillance, for a reason that is never specified.  Much like Nakazu, who is slightly less of a pervert than his friends, Nagisa, the newbie sex worker, manages to retain the conscience and revulsion toward her work that her co-workers completely lack.  As the men very quickly cotton to the horrible predicament they have gotten themselves into, Nagisa switches sides and battles to escape from her workplace/prison.

The playing is as broad here as one would expect; Shakespearean-caliber performances are definitely not called for.  Hara, however, whose background is in hardcore pornography, gives some unexpected gravity to her character.  Asami, a veritable veteran of these kinds of films by now, is the force-of-nature spitfire she usually is, her tough-girl pose and her guttural screaming always fun to watch.  Tsugita, the screenwriter of Mutant Girls Squad (2010) making his directorial debut, delivers the sex-and-gore goods with maximum efficiency and minimum fuss.

A midnight movie if there ever was one, Horny House of Horror screens at exactly that time on July 1 (with a second screening on July 12 at 10:15pm), preceded by Makooto Ohtake’s short film Dark on Dark.  For tickets, visit the New York Asian Film Festival or the Film Society of Lincoln Center websites.

Monday, June 27, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011 Review: Panna Rittikrai and Morakot Kaewthanee's "BKO: Bangkok Knockout"

BKO: Bangkok Knockout. 2010. Directed by Panna Rittikrai and Morakot Kaewthanee. Written by Dojit Hongthong and Jonathon Siminoe. Produced by Prachya Pinkaew, Akarapol Techaratanaprasert, and Panna Rittikrai. Cinematography by Pipat Payakka and Nontakorn Taweesook. Edited by Saravut Nakajud and Nontakorn Taweesook. Music by Terdsak Janpan. Art direction by Pongnarin Jonghawklang. Production design by Kasi Faengrod. Action choreography and stunt co-ordination by Thana Srisook. Martial choreography by Sumret Muengput. Sound FX and sound design by Snowman Studio. Costume design by Jaruwan Pongpipattanakarn.

Cast: Sorapong Chatree, Supaksorn Chaimongkol, Kiattisak Udomnak, Pimchanok Leuwisedpaiboon, Patrick Kazu Tang, "Fighting Club", Speedy Arnold.

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on VCinema.)

BKO: Bangkok Knockout, the title of Panna Rittikrai and Morakot Kaewthanee’s kinetic B-movie action spectacular, is an unabashedly crude and blunt statement of purpose, much like the film itself.  And what is that purpose? To pummel you into submission and keep you continually in awe at the stable of martial artists Rittikrai has put together, blowing past the paper-thin plotting and characterization, the broad, cartoonish humor, and the generally unsubtle nature of the proceedings.  And at that it succeeds swimmingly.  Rittikrai, fight choreographer and sometime director, has mentored such Thai action stars as Tony Jaa (the Ong Bak films) and Jeeja Yanin (Chocolate, Raging Phoenix).  Bangkok Knockout functions as a virtual audition for film audiences, or, more pertinently, a battle between these fighters as to who can be a worthy successor to, or competitor with, those two established stars.

The film rather impatiently breezes through its setup.  A bunch of fighters are lured into a competition with a tantalizing prize dangled in front of them: the promise to be stunt performers in Hollywood.  Instead, after a huge banquet with drugged food, they find themselves in a cavernous warehouse, the unwitting action figures in a human video game hosted by an arrogant, cigar-chomping American (played by an actor with the amusing name Speedy Arnold), and their arranged battles bet upon by farang high-rollers.  There’s a bit of a romantic love triangle between three of the fighters, and a similarly underdeveloped revenge story between two other fighters, but who gives a damn about any of that?  The film certainly doesn’t; the bulk of its running time is devoted to the ever more elaborately choreographed, outrageous, and dangerous fights – this is certainly a production that knows what its audience wants and delivers exactly that, with direct, uncomplicated brio.  Bangkok Knockout affords us such sensational sequences as: a metal-masked, ax-wielding man on fire; two men smashing each other through an indoor waterfall; two others swinging on a dizzyingly high beam over a highway; and most audaciously, the climactic fight that occurs underneath the chassis of a moving truck. Muay Thai, capoeira, kung fu, tai chi, and any number of other fighting styles – this film has it all, and more.  Critical evaluation is almost beside the point for a film like this; the coolness of the fight scenes is both means and end.  If pure martial-arts demonstration is your thing, unencumbered by such niceties as plot, complex characterization, and actual acting, then Bangkok Knockout is just what the cinema doctor ordered.

BKO: Bangkok Knockout screens at the Walter Reade Theater on July 2 at 12:15pm and July 9 at midnight. For tickets, visit the New York Asian Film Festival's website.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Blissfully Thai" Review: Wisit Sasanatieng's "Tears of the Black Tiger"

Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah talai jone). 2000. Written and directed by Wisit Sasanatieng. Produced by Nonzee Nimibutr. Cinematography by Nattawut Kittikhun. Edited by Dusanee Puinongpho. Music by Amornbhong Methakunavudh. Production design by Ek Iemchuen. Art direction by Akradech Keaw Kotr and Rutchanon Kayangnan. Costume design by Chaiwichit Somoboon.

Cast: Chartchai Ngamsan (Seua Dum, "Black Tiger"), Stella Malucchi (Rumpoey), Supakorn Kitsuwon   (Mahasuan), Arawat Ruangvuth (Police Captain Kumjorn), Sombati Medhanee (Fai), Pairoj Jaisingha (Phya Prasit), Naiyana Shiwanun (Rumpoey's maid), Kanchit Kwanpracha (Kamnan Dua, Dum's father), Chamloen Sridang (Sgt. Yam).

Asia Society's essential "Blissfully Thai" film series continues with Wisit Sasanatieng's deliriously psychedelic classic Thai cinema homage Tears of the Black Tiger, screening tomorrow at 6:45pm.  For tickets, click here. Below is what I wrote on this film at the time of its extremely belated 2007 US release.

“Nostalgia as future shock,” is how the press notes describe Tears of the Black Tiger, the debut film from Thai writer-director Wisit Sasanatieng.  The first Thai film chosen for the Cannes Film Festival, it was purchased by Miramax shortly after its Cannes screening in 2001, but – as was so often the case, especially with their Asian film acquisitions – Miramax proceeded to agitate and frustrate the film’s potential audience by holding back its theatrical release, forcing fans to troll the Internet to search for English-subtitled imports.

Sasanatieng is a major player in the renaissance of Thai cinema that began in the late ‘90s, which also includes Tears of the Black Tiger’s producer Nonzee Nimibutr (Nang Nak, Jan Dara), Pen-ek Ratanaruang (6ixty9, Monrak Transistor, Last Life in the Universe), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady), and Hong Kong-born brothers Oxide and Danny Pang (Bangkok Dangerous, The Eye). Many of these filmmakers (with the exception of Weerasethakul, whose background was in avant-garde film and gallery installations) began in advertising, and Sasanatieng is no exception. He experimented in his commercial work with much of the wild visual tropes and super-saturated coloring featured in his film.

Consisting of equal parts Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and the palimpsests of numerous 50’s and 60’s Thai action films, Sasanatieng’s film brilliantly combines cutting-edge technology (much of the film’s bright pastel colors were digitally added in post-production) with nostalgia for the popular cinema of Thailand’s recent past. Tears of the Black Tiger boldly jettisons realism in order to create a uniquely cinematic universe. Making use of such retro-cinema techniques as painted sets, back projection, iris shots and wipes, Sasanatieng has created a visually stunning and self-aware pop artifact. There is a quite bracing spirit of formal playfulness that is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino. One great example occurs during the opening shootout, in which the two central gunslingers, attired in the archetypal costumes of Hollywood Westerns, battle seemingly dozens of other gunmen. These antagonists are dispatched en masse, punctuated with enormous, and absurdly fake, bright red squibs of blood. After the film’s hero kills one of them with a bullet that ricochets off several surfaces before landing right between his eyes, a title card appears: “Did you catch that? If not, we’ll play it again.” The sequence then replays at a slightly slower speed and from a different angle, allowing us to follow the bullet’s trajectory. This sort of genre parody/homage is in abundance throughout the film.

The film’s plot is unabashedly melodramatic: Dum (Chutchai Ngamsan), the son of a poor peasant farmer, falls in love with Rumpoey (Stella Mallucci), the daughter of the local governor. Class differences conspire to keep them apart, culminating in Rumpoey’s unwilling betrothal to police captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth). During his time apart from Rumpoey, Dum has become a bandit, the titular “Black Tiger,” infiltrating the gang who murdered his father in order to avenge that death. When he learns of the gang’s plan to ambush the governor’s house on Rumpoey’s wedding day, Dum must battle both his romantic rival and his former compadres in order to save her.

This “pad thai Western,” to use critic Chuck Stephens’ description, was conceived as an homage to Thai genre film master Rattana Pestonji, an independent filmmaker active in the ‘50’s and ‘60s who has now been mostly forgotten, both in and out of Thailand. Perhaps this film will encourage repertory houses and film societies to seek out this director’s work, which at least on paper seem to be long overdue for rediscovery. However, Tears of the Black Tiger is not simply an empty post-modern exercise. The obvious affection with which Sasanatieng regards his Thai cinema forbears, not to mention the Western films that influenced them, permeates every aspect of this production. Simultaneously retro and futuristic, Tears of the Black Tiger is a feast for the eyes and ears, an orgy of riotous color and movie-mad delight.