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Category Archives: China-Asia Cinema

 

As I read somewhere: if you are stuck in a collapsed tunnel somewhere in Korea, Jung-Soo is the guy you want to be stuck with. Despite his poor fate of sitting in his Kia under millions of tons of rubble after the tunnel through which he was driving towards his daughters birthday party falls down on his roof, with little hope of rescue and a limited amount of water and birthday cake, his spirits remain high. After he finds another survivor with a dog, he happily (well, briefly hesitatingly) shares his water, and he surprisingly does not kill the dog for diving into the food supply. I would have.

The dynamic between what’s happening below ground and above, with the head of the rescue operation trying hard against all odds to get to the buried victim, and with the Jung-Soo’s wife being positioned as a mostly silent conscience of the rescue, the film manages to sustain the level of suspension that is necessary to avoid the boredom that could have happened in a less skilled script. Towards the end, there is some plot convolution going on, but proper placement of humour and the pretty impressive cast serve to divert from this. “The Tunnel” manages to keep the audience at the edge of their seats, and at least as far as I am concerned, I would not have placed any money on who is going to win this, Team Mountain in liaison with greedy suits and embarrassing politicians, or Team Kia, trying to dig a way out of this malaise.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_tunnel_2016/

Of course Zombie movies are not everybody’s piece of cake. They are not even everybody’s piece of cake among those who like zombie movies, given the amount of nonsense that has been around for the last decades. Whenever I see a trailer or a plot synopsis for such a film, my defenses go up immediately and I wonder where a new film may find something original to tell in a setting where the undead start roaming, or most recently running, the earth. Hence, after some of Romero’s films, and after Danny Boyle’s “28 days / weeks later”, and after “World War Z” added the Global Blockbuster aspect to the genre, I keep suspecting that I have seen everything that could be fun about them.

This is partially true for “Train to Busan”. It is not much different in terms of plot from “Dawn of the Dead”. People are locked up in a confined space while the world around them falls to shambles, they need to defend themselves against intruders and at some point they need to get out. This kind of setting is made to create social comment, you can nicely place the good guys and the bad guys, the selfish and the mellow-hearted, the fanatics and the hesitant. The difference here, firstly, is that to a Western audience, the social commentary goes into somehow different directions.

Korean movies have their topics, and they turn up here as well: blind career-orientation, class awareness, family bonds… the ruthless business guy replaces the egomaniacal redneck. Apart from that, execution needs to be judged, and “Train to Busan” shows all the features of today’s professional action cinema. Exploding trains, burning cities, and of course, hordes of very fast zombies come together for an entertaining bit of action. It is not tight enough to make you forget the plot holes. Most notably: if they discover early on that the zombies only recognise their prey on sight and are easily calmed by putting up blind screens, why is this not used later on when clearly this would have been a very good idea? Be that as it may, the film rewards with proper heroism and a very well executed closing scene. There may not be the need for more Zombie movies, but when done like this, hey why not?

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/train_to_busan

What can you expect from a 2016 Zhang Yimou film? Stunning landscapes, grand costumes, a bit of action at the Emperor’s Court… Yes, it feels like the dime-a-dozen historical pieces that kept flooding the Chinese cinemas in the 2000s, when setting your stories in ancient times was the only safe way to circumvent questions by the censors. This being established as an international coproduction with international star power (Matt Damon, my personal man crush Detective Pena from “Narcos”, aka Pedro Pascal, and Willem Dafoe, who… I don’t know, needed a new kitchen for his house? Or a new house?). The story is generic enough, with only the foreign thugs who came to steal black powder being able to find their inner hero and tackle the aggressors from outside that come in the shape of slightly oversized alien-dogs. Of course there is also a bunch of Chinese star power, Tian Jing (who keeps working her way into Hollywood productions, “Kong: Skull Island “ next) as commander of some Amazon Cirque de Soleil squad that wears very tight suits and hits the drums surprisingly inefficiently and with plenty of artistry even in combat situations. They are all better at drumming than at fighting, you have to say, especially Tian Jing is not too convincing as warrior. Andy Lau chose the more clever role, looking intelligent and brooding all the time. The dialogues are cringe-worthy, and some of the performances play to a Chinese movie slapstick humour that I could never quite appreciate. That said, once the battle gets going, Zhang Yimou finds some impressive pictures including fog, balloons, and fire. The experience is dampened by the surprisingly shoddy cgi, especially in the large battle sequences, when hordes of those doggy creatures storm the Wall and the Palace – it looks very much like sub-World War Z, and I am sure there are many game designers (or gamers, for that) who shouting at the screen “I could have done that, and better!”. The film hence somehow supports the claim frequently expressed by Chinese producers and film investors that there is still a lot to be learned from Hollywood. This being a Legendary production, you would have expected more professional input from the US partner. Maybe next time…

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_great_wall_2017

Stephen Chow knows how to make blockbusters for Chinese audiences. My guess is he is mystified as to why they keep racking up box office records in China, while being ignored by the rest of the world. The reason, I think, is because they are pretentious and poorly made. They pretend to be blockbusters of international quality, while actually being slightly embarrassing variations on what you have seen on the screens already. As the Chinese domestic audience seems not to care about the absolutely sub-par quality of cgi in films consisting mainly of cgi, he is getting away with it here, but not there.

This is what stuns me the most, really: you would expect that Chow and his producers could afford to bring in some serious cgi talent when making films about Chinese mysticism or mermaids. The revenues generated from his films would allow for the extra expenses. But you end up seeing crappy waterfalls, half-developed monsters and afternoon-tv explosions. This is distracting… what’s also distracting is the lack of judgement about to what level to raise the violence in a romantic comedy such as “The Mermaid”. I guess the lack of a film certification system and board is to blame. They would certainly have a word with the producers about scenes of vicious slaughter amidst a family entertainment movie such as this…

After the “Journey West”, another mystifying disappointment…

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mei_ren_yu/

A film about a celebrity actor who gets into trouble after a drunk night out and seeks to remedy his life and career by making the ultimate superhero movie, said superhero being a Jian Bing (Breakfast pancake) vendor with superpowers… this could go either way, really. Even for the standards of Chinese comedy, this is camp and slapstick and as low-brow as it gets. That being said… I laughed a couple of times, and a few times out loud. Da Peng manages to mock the vacuous life of movie celebrities (certainly limited in its insight to the Chinese movies, international Hollywood stars would never be caught jogging with a bunch of bodyguards while puffing on a fat cigar, right?). That is fun already, and it gets more fun where he decides that – lacking resources after old friends and partners do not take his phone calls anymore – his film will need to be shot guerilla style, sneaking up on famous actors, kidnapping them or pretending an assault, with Jian Bing Man coming to the rescue. This actually works, some moments of utter hilarity ensue, with the locals probably mostly enjoying the known faces of Chinese films falling victim to assaults with raw eggs and onions, choice of weapon for every Jian Bing man of self-respect…

It is not much of a surprise that this film catapulted itself into the top grossing films in mainland China in a short time. When you look into other non-Hollywood domestic markets, simple-minded comedies that manage to push the right buttons at the right time are the one segment where local film industry can hope to compete with blockbusters for the hearts of the local audiences. Jian Bing Man follows “Lost in Thailand” in that respect, but with (I would guess) considerably higher budget (needed to show off some celebrity lifestyle and Beijing cityscapes). Whether or not Jean-Claude Van Damme was a necessary addition… well he is there and manages another split, which is an achievement that sets a good example for senior citizens. Stay fit, it might lead to a small part in the next screen sensation.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/jian_bing_man/

 

Maybe every country at any moment in time has one director that single-handedly manages to provides a comprehensive view on his own nation. For his own people to reflect on, and for the world to see. People like Ken Loach, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or Truffaut, and today these could be Tobias Lindholm, Christian Paetzold, Steven Soderbergh. Never mind the respective quality of each film, but as an oeuvre, these are powerful depictions of life, in all its gory and glorious reality.

For today’s China, in my opinion nobody can challenge Jia Zhangke in this role. With a fantastic stretch from “Platform” and “Pickpocket” in 2000, through the splendid wasteland of “The World” and peaking at 2006’s “Still Life” (still up there with the best mainland Chinese films I have ever seen), he will not let go, he seeks to show the happy and ill fates of the ordinary people, in how the concept of ordinary shifts through China’s development, he shows victims and crooks, people passing their lives in passive endurance and those engaging in a constant uphill struggle. Scott Tobias writes “No director has done more to chronicle change in contemporary China and the instability it breeds in the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people.” Well spoken!

“Mountains May Depart” (judging from the Chinese title, intended as a companion piece to “Still Life”) may not be the most coherent or powerful of his films. It does, however, achieve one thing the previous works did not achieve – it uses a large time scale to show the consequences of choices made decades ago. Starting in 1999, with a love triangle in a decrepit and depressing coal mining town in Shanxi  province, we follow the three leads through life. The choice of partners, choice of location, and choice of life concept all play out through the decades until 2014 (when we meet the three again, in different circumstances), and in 2025, when some choices are just not reversible anymore. We need to judge by ourselves whether something could have been changed if only 25 years earlier people had felt less bound by tradition and expectations. Formally, the film’s aspect ration changes with each time leap, starting from grainy 1:1.33 images of dusty Fenyang and ending with colourful widescreen Australia. It’s a fake sign of splendour, though, image brilliance is not reflected in life’s brilliance.

Tao Zhao as Tao Shen plays the central female role, and for once she may be the weak spot of the film, as she remains smiling in the face of adversity for just a bit too long to remain credible. Liang Jindong as Liangzi, her would-be lover, is more powerful in his mostly silent acceptance of the Tao’s choice. Zhang Yi as Zhang Jinsheng has the somehow ungrateful part of the newly rich twerp to play. We may start out despising him, but in the end, when he is sitting in Australia, faced with a son  who does not speak his language and is completely detached from anything his father stands for, you may well feel a bit sad for him.

Sadness always plays big in Jia’s films, and this is no different here. Sadness looms over two and a half decades of life, and the only bit of hope is – again – Tao, who to the very end, and in the very final scene, takes life with a smile and a dance… in your face, sad world!

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mountains_may_depart_2016

 

Instances of arbitrary violence, linked by a number of characters trying to lead their lives in modern China. “Modern China” being not the fancy and rich China, but the China torn by migrant work, split families and existential pressure to make a living, while seeking to stick to some form of old values.

There is the worker who cannot accept that the village did not benefit from the sale of a coal mine, the father-gangster returning to his family and leaving a trail of blood, the spa receptionist with the hope of a better life with a new husband, the factory worker who is despairing under his job situation.

The depiction of these people’s fates is always moving and powerful, even if the links between the stories do not quite pan out as coherently as you would wish (strange thing that the film received the screenplay award at Cannes, of all things). Jia Zhangke picked bits and pieces from the Chinese microblogging universe, events that every Chinese online citizen not only knows about, but most likely actually participated in, such as the public outrage campaign about the treatment of the spa employee stabbing a public official. He also adds more such items in the background, most notably (and as subtly as American films frequently inserting people watching 9/11 coverage on the tv…) the Wuzhen train crash. It is a statement about the everyday violence encountered in this often cruel society. Not just the rampages and the deaths, but also the social situation that build up to them, with often inhumane family situations and desperation being omnipresent in so many people’s lives.

As always: Jia Zhangke manages to be the narrator of today’s China. He has done it more elegantly before, but it is still a very powerful document and a mostly splendidly acted and beautifully shot piece of film making.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/a_touch_of_sin

Wang Jianling ist nun Filmproduzent. Nachdem der meist reichste Chinese die von ihm als Immobilienfirma gegründete und geleitete Dalian Wanda Group schon vor drei Jahren durch den Kauf der US-amerikanischen AMC-Filmtheater als internationalen Akteur im Filmmarkt etablierte, gehört nun bald auch eine bedeutende Hollywood-Produktionsfirma zur Gruppe. Bis zu 3,5 Milliarden Dollar wird Wanda für Legendary Entertainment zahlen, die größte internationale Übernahme durch ein chinesisches Unternehmen in der Unterhaltungsbranche. Zuvor hatte Wanda mit Investments in einzelne Produktionen („Southpaw“) bereits Ambitionen anklingen lassen, sich von der reinen Distribution zu entfernen.

Das Investment erscheint passend: Legendary produziert genau jene Filme, die chinesische Säle füllen, Special-Effects-lastige Blockbuster wie „Pacfic Rim“, „Jurassic World“ oder „Godzilla“ treffen den Geschmack der neuen chinesischen Mittelschicht und sind maßgeblich am enormen Umsatzwachstum an den Kinokassen beteiligt.

Während die von Wang initiierten Wanda Studios in Qingdao noch im Bau sind, dürfte sich das Unternehmen damit mittelfristig auch eine solide Auslastung der 400 Hektar großen Anlage und einen Wissenstransfer durch die in Qingdao arbeitenden Filmemacher versprechen. Das neue Unternehmen kann durch den Status als heimische chinesische Produktionsfirma auch deutliche Vorteile bei der Genehmigung neuer Produktionen und der Erlösanteile beim Verleih erwarten.

Legendary-Gründer Thomas Tull soll weiterhin das kreative Ruder in der Hand halten, eine Einmischung in Stoffentwicklung und Produktion sei explizit nicht vorgehesen. Wang Jianling ließ anklingen, auch ein Börsengang sei denkbar.

This must be one of the most beloved films among critics, and no surprise here. Firstly, because it is fabulous. But also, secondly, because it takes liberties that critics (defining criterion: they watch a ton of movies every year) love: it is edgy, it kills off beloved characters, it defies expectations, it is slow when other films would be frantic. “Fireflies” takes the liberty of creating a film about war and not romanticising a damn thing. It shows two children who fall victim to a world at war, and not only to the enemies fire bombs, but also to the increasing egoism of their own people, their own relatives, infected by the disease that is called blind patriotism  and nationalism.

I read somewhere that a critic saw one scene (where brother and sister are taking a bath together and he creates an air bubble out of cloth for his little sister’s amusement) and this scene made him realise he is experiencing something different and beautiful. I had a similar epiphany when the little girl is shown pulling her treasure purse on a string from her blouse. It’s a bit long, she struggles with it, but manages. This so spectacularly well observed, so beautifully casually recreated, and it serves the purpose of making these people real. The fact that this is an animated film is incidental, because this film merely takes whatever means are necessary to show reality. If reality needs heightening by buzzing fireflies at night, so be it. The sore patches on the little girl’s skin are real, even though they are drawn and coloured. The sadness in her face when she shows that she already knows about the fate of her mother, and tries to bury the dead fireflies in the same manner her mother is supposedly buried, this sadness is real, because Takahata knows exactly how to draw a scene so as to make it hit the point.

The film made me imagine what it was like, being uprooted during war time, losing friends and family and home, losing all places where you could go, and reaching a point of zero possession and complete dependency on strangers, accepting the fact that all rules are off, that this is about survival now, for yourself and your little sister. I have seen many films about war time and post-war time,  but while I was seeing the final act of “fireflies” I was wondering whether I have ever seen a film that evokes this feeling of being utterly lost, of being spat out by history, so utterly perfect and cruelly.

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-grave-of-the-fireflies-1988

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/may/26/grave-fireflies-review?utm_source=feedly

www.rottentomatoes.com/m/hotaru_no_haka/

 

Lav Diaz is often called a favourite of the international festival circus. And when you check e.g. Rottemtomatoes on the films he made, there are plenty, but only this, the most recent, has enough critical opinion to award it a rating. Are these films never shown outside the festivals? Which ones should I see after this fascinating, flawed and beautiful monster of a film that is “Norte”?

“Norte” violently rejects the urge to cut scenes short, to take away any of the natural time of a moment. There are long discussions rather ludicrous pseudo-intellectuals who are a bit too old to play around with teenage logic of revolution and justice, with primitive versions of Raskolnikhovian dialogues – you could call “bullshit bingo” after three minutes, but the scene goes on and on in all its tediousness. Why? Because it is important to know how these guys behave, what kind of people they are. One of them will become important, at least in the way people can become important to other people when they cross their paths in unexpected fashions.

But in most cases it is not even tedious, in most cases these long shots are terribly rewarding, such as in a prison scene where one of the inmates just sits with a guitar and is allowed to have the time he needs for his melancholic song. The camera is tiptoeing in order not to disrupt the peaceful moment. While the script may be the weakness of “Norte”, the is the strength of a film that has not so much going in terms of plot, story or dialogue. I read somewhere that the camera hardly moves, but that is wrong, the camera almost never does not move, but it does it very slowly and carefully, such as not to disturb the scene it is filming. It manages to catch beautiful images of some kids playing on the front porch of the poor dwelling they live in, and these scenes could not last long enough. Or of the women who do the laundry for the rich people. Of the small family’s peaceful stroll along a dirty canal to a place we do not know while we are watching, and it could be a place of desolation or a place of joy, they have just visited their husband / father in prison and now they are just walking through the sun, the camera strolling with them at a wide angle, no need to disrupt the intimacy of the family with a close-up.

We follow some parallel lives: that law student with his silly philosophy about justice, and the family that just tries to recover from their father’s leg disease. That goes wrong, because when the two strands intertwine, as a result the father  ends up in prison. While this is a drama, the film never creates a drama out of it. It keeps its calm, a laid-back fatalistic attitude about life being something that happens to people. Those who think they take control over life, fix its deficiencies and twist fate… they face very severe consequences, as that law student will experience. He looks into the abyss, and the abyss looks back into him, and he is on a downward spiral that will leave him wrecked in so many ways. His victims do not necessarily fare better, but at least they can go down with their heads held up.

If there is a star in this movie, a moral and emotional centre, it is Eliza, played by Angeli Bayani. She is the wife of the man who goes to prison, she is the mother of the two children she now needs to raise on her own, supported by her cousin, I think, by selling vegetables, taking on cleaning jobs, abandoning all hopes of a small restaurant that she had nourished before her husband fell ill. It may very well be that I have never ever seen anybody play a role so credible, so truthful, so heartbreakingly undramatic despite all the unfolding drama. I obviously have never heard of the actress, but watching this I was absolutely stunned by her performance, which I can only explain by her not being a “proper” actress (which seems not true, judging from the list of films she played in already) or by the director creating some form of setting that allows her to behave as if she was part of a documentary rather than a scripted drama. The whole film manages to catch this “ordinariness”, it seems it is a bit ashamed when people get too agitated, when they get all shouty and violent and murderish … in those moments the camera discreetly looks the other way, or stays in front of the door when the action happens inside, or allows a bush to stand in the way between camera and atrocity.

Norte does not shy away from cruelty, the director just decided that you do not need an image of violence to understand the degree of cruelty. Bad things happen, plenty of them. It is a sad world. And a beautiful one.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/norte_the_end_of_history/

New York Times Review by A.O. Scott

Worth reading a bit more about it at Wikipedia (Spoilers)

I’ve had it with those streamlined, Oscar-horny biopic bore-fests! To cleanse my system from the standard fare of family-friendly enlightenment, I occasionally need to switch to the less Hollywood narration style infested parts of world cinema. Two separate inspirations helped:

Empire’s “100 Best Films of World Cinema” is a treasure trove for anybody who loves film. A brief check brought about at least 10 films among the top 50 that I have never seen or that I planned to see again for ages. Even some I have never heard of and that sound thrilling (“Come and See”).  Let’s dive in!

And then there is the Filmspotting marathons, and currently the Satyajit Ray marathon, that started with Pather Panchali, a film that had been sitting on my virtual book/film shelf since 2010, when it was first recommended to me. And now, one night, after an overdose of “Unbroken” / “Selma” / “American Sniper” / “Imitation Game” etc. mediocrity … this was exactly what I needed. A film about nothing much happening to a bunch of poor and a bunch of less poor people somewhere in Bengal’s (is that how you write it?) countryside. A family scene in all its lovely depiction of  the beauty and cruelty of childhood whatever the circumstances. A cruel highlight on the way the oldest generation of a family has to struggle for their role in the modern family, always exposed to the danger of being pushed around or even expelled from the protective family circle. A film about the pressure imposed on individuals and families by tradition and their representatives (“you should have talked to the village elders first”), about self-delusion (“I will go to the city and find the money we need”). Maybe primarily about the casual cruelty of the world, or fate, creating new life and taking away other lives at random and without much caring about the pain and the consequences. Because the wheel of life keeps turning.

The film is shot in calm black and white that looks beautiful despite the slightly crappy transfer on my DVD, the actors are all splendid whatever the part they had to fill. Interestingly, nobody ever qualified (at least to me) as the film’s main character. The family mother needs to shoulder most responsibility, needs to be good guy and bad guy, needs to defend her possibly stealing children against the accusing  neighbours, needs to be humble towards those neighbours because she needs their current and future loans. She is suffering most from the downsides of being the unofficial head of the family, with her husband the useless poet and religious functionary being pretty much a bit of decoration in the household, if he is around at all. To me, the film circled around the film’s girl daughter, a lively and unorthodox free spirit bouncing around with energy and wit. At some point late in the film it becomes clear that this may have been a cruel trap set by the script for the audience, and it is not a pleasant moment when you realise you’ve been had. This finale is devastating in many respects, it seems the director wants to shoot a new bullet at you every other minute, as a punishment  for having been complacent for the last 90 minutes, for indulging in the illusion of romantic countryside life of simple but satisfied people.

I loved the sentence in Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review: “Standing above fashion, [the trilogy] creates a world so convincing that it becomes, for a time, another life we might have lived.”  That is true. I felt very much at home there, could relate to just about any of the characters, felt attached to each and every one of them like in an ultra-modern first person immersion game where you can pick the character you want to inhibit.

I do not know whether the following two films that follow the fate of the family’s small son are available, but I will certainly try to lay my hands on them to see whether this level of masterful film making was sustained by Ray.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/pather-panchali-song-of-the-little-road/

Review of the whole trilogy:

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-apu-trilogy-1959

 

Serbuan Maut / The Raid was a very compact and intense bit of film making, almost like a video game where the hero needs to work  / fight his way through the various levels (of a decrepit housing block in Jakarta), applying his considerable fighting skills against increasingly vicious opponents (and against a wide range of fighting styles, I was told, even though I could only recognise the “hit and kick him” style). Until then, at the top of the building… the way it is supposed to be.

As a contrast to this very straightforward structure, The Raid 2 is a very very different film. It is not confined in space or story, it is actually sprawling the way Hongkong epics sprawl, and as a matter of fact, the Hongkong school of action cinema can be recognised all over this picture, much more so than in the first part. The visually brilliant,  occasionally slightly stupidly choreographed fights (always only one guy out of 200 running towards our hero? Really? Still?), frequently shot in slow-motion and with plenty of bad weather for decoration. There is a prison yard mud fight that has it all, that pulls all the stops, that does not care whether the audience recognises who is fighting whom (I did not – all muddy). What is important is that the violence and the energy is amped yet again a bit. Where part one was a man on a mission, part 2 is a couple of cartels fighting for survival, so everything is a bit more grandiose and a bit more lethal and a bit more confusing. I can’t say that this is to the benefit of the film. I believe the first part gained so much attention and so many positive reviews because it was such a compact and simple bit of work. Part 2 is rather generic in contrast, but of course visually impressive and serving the needs for all the friends of martial arts who cannot stand the nonsense of lifting people around on strings, but want to see true artistry and kinetic fun.

Plenty of individual scenes to be enjoyed, even though my memory is a bit murky when it comes to what this was all about. Infiltration and exposure, I guess, and not trusting in old loyalties…

Even though Indonesian martial arts film making has arrived in Hongkong, it is still the more enjoyable way of Hongkong martial arts film, with Indonesian characteristics.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_raid_2/

Bong Joon Ho has a new movie out – that is always an event to look forward to. His previous “Mother” was outstanding, and “The Host” was a very very strange variation on the “monster comes down to haunt a city” topic – strange in a very relaxed way, as if the extra-ordinariness of the event is a mere side note.

And this is what links The Host to “Snowpiercer”. We have an extraordinary situation, outlandish in its eccentricity: the world has frozen over in a freak accident after some well-intended weather manipulation. Now what’s left of civilisation is huddled up in a high-speed train that circles the planet. Nobility and working class, spa cars and slavery work included. There is not too much discussion about the practicality of the arrangements, but the tone is rather one of “let’s assume this could be plausible”. Of course there is dissatisfaction and rebellion in the train’s rear end, of course there is a military-like suppression of all such rebellion with whatever violent means is necessary. It is not really clear what the elite class gains from their survival and segregation of the poor class, but maybe that lack of clarity is always present in segregated societies.

But then they rise, the army of the misfits… under the intellectual leadership of John Hurt, no less, who is one of those actors I am always very very  happy about seeing, and who I am always very very confused about seeing, because I keep thinking he died decades ago. Widely exaggerated, he’s still around and saves half of the film through his presence. Of the other half, a third is saved on the other end of the train by Tilda Swinton, who must have had the time of her life playing the … liaison officer between the train’s front and rear end. This is over the top in all possible manners, think Willy Wonka high in speed, and on a high-speed train, as it is. Lovely teeth, too.  Song Kang-ho gives the cool and wicked Korean nerd criminal, Ed Harris the evil leader coat, but when it comes to fighting the just fight, it is Chris Evans who has to do the heavy lifting. Maybe not the best choice amidst all this acting nobility, he comes across as a bit of a generic action hero figure.

As a romping and stomping action drama, with a bunch of outlaws fighting their way through a very long train, this actually works most of the time. The narrow confines of the train structure allow for a lot of vertical kinetic energy, with very little place to hide (unless you find some fat people in sauna cubicles). The choice of occasionally cutting to an outside perspective on the train is not the best one, as the whole winter landscape and cgi snow effect department was not quite up to the task. It actually conjured some fond memories of much better and dramatic train sequences, such as in particular in the more recent “Transsiberian” and the more mature but insurmountable “Runaway Train”  (ohhhh… have to watch that one again, and soon!)

What happens on the train stays on the train, as they say, and what is on the train makes for some very solid and dense atmospheric action cinema!

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/snowpiercer/

Blood will flow… heads will roll… hardly ever have those standard issue gang war sentences been taken so literally by a film maker…  Wikipedia cites the Norwegian film classification board as calling the film to depict “high impact violence and cruelty” and keeping it out of the theatres for that reason. A very accurate and sober description, I have to say.

This film is about a war between several Yakuza gangs, triggered by the butchering of one of the gangs’ boss, Anjo. Then Anjo’s guys and some other guys and some other guys’ guys venture out to find who did what and kill everybody who might have done something. A particularly memorable encounter happens between Kakihara, played in creepy and jolly fashion by Tadanobu Asano, the interim leader of the Anjo gang, and a Mister Suzuki, the latter experience an intense period of suspension (haha! Oh wicked humour of the … well, wicked… ), but only until the misunderstanding is settled and Kakihara admits to having been a split-tongued bastard.

Kakihara is kind of a bad-ass Joker, waiting for the next extreme experience in his life and facing it with a grin all over his grin-cut face (which allows him the neat trick of blowing cigarette smoke sideways out through his cut cheeks – something that goes down well at a certain category of party, I am sure). Despite his generally humorous approach to sado-masochism, he takes it on himself to find the killer who slaughtered his boss and somehow to “keep the band together”. As rumours narrow down to a certain Ichi being said killer, it all moves towards a face-off between those two. The quest will render more faces off and other parts of other bodies in a detached state.

Ichi is correctly described at some point as a whining and weepy kid. He cannot get over the trauma of watching a girl getting raped in high school and not only being unable to intervene, but also actually getting aroused by the experience. As a result, he dresses up like a Ninja-Batman and tries to figure out whose death will remedy the evil deeds of the past.

This sets the tone for a lot of what’s happening in this politically and aesthetically most incorrect of all films. Sadists meeting masochists, torturers having a field day, slicing and poking and chopping until there are literally fountains of blood spurting all over the place, intestines piling up and limps flying across rooms. I kid you not.

There is not much arguing that this is a film for audiences of a certain deviant taste. It should be noted, however, that there is almost always a comical atmosphere of grotesque theatre, taking the edge off the most gruesome scenes. The topic of this gory stage play is revenge and violence, and how some people consider violence a form of artistic expression. I think nobody with a mature mind will confuse this with glorification of violence (the depiction of the somehow negative consequences of violent acts are actually quite… graphic…), but out of the people I personally know, I would judge 90 per cent would still find the film too revolting to watch. The other ten per cent will have a field day, and will celebrate Takeshi Miike for another bit of evidence that he is something between a sick genius and genuinely sick…

(side note on the plot: I am in general unable to follow a somehow twisted plot in a setting that makes me constantly shout “woah?” or “yiiieks?”. Hence I was not just a bit surprised about the details of the plot as described in the Wikipedia entry.. )

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/ichi_the_killer/

Having finally identified Johnny To to be the one Hongkong director to pay attention to, I am working my way (slowly…) through his back catalogue. So after the splendid “Drug War” I took on 2007’s “Mad Detective”. Not knowing what to expect, merely approaching it through the name of the director. And what a stunning surprise that holds… it is (of course) about police corruption and organised crime and brutal killings. But it is also about a weirdo police detective who tortures dead pigs, then himself by asking to be locked in a suitcase, later cuts off his ear so he can give it away as a token.

It’s a while ago now that I saw this, but there are some vivid memories of meetings and shootings in the woods, about Detective Bun staggering and running around a world that he mostly shuts out from his stream of inspiration, a whole society of multiple personalities populating a dark world … It is a crazy and twisted film, but in the competent hands of To and Wai, I almost never lost track of what was going on (I was particularly proud of that given that some people are actually represented by as much as eight actors…). While it does not have the narrative density and punch of “Drug War”, it is another example of edgy and innovative film making out of Hongkong by maybe the one director who is consistently terrific.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mad_detective/

Johnny To has my attention since he made “Vengeance” and avoided a lot of annoying Hongkong action movie stereotypes. Drug War goes one step further and comes across like a police procedural that could just as well have its space in a tv show. A good tv show. The effort of a drug agency investigator to hunt down a cartel of Hongkong mobsters making their fortune on China’s mainland is complex and complicated, but it’s hardly ever over the top (maybe with the exception of a role playing game that stretches credulity). It is a stealth man hunt (or men hunt) that takes place across Shandong province, that hardly involves large-scale action, never needs to fall back on the slow-mo and martial arts nonsense that used to be so inavoidable in Hongkong action pictures. There is a need to investigate, to pursue, and to deceive the bad guys, and when you do that, it may happen that you need to turn your own bad sides to the outside, as well. This is most apparent in the opening sequence, where a group of drug mules is busted and interrogated – after seeing this, you clearly do not want to get caught up with that kind of business in China. The bust leads to a trace, provided by a turncloak, and handling that guy, never knowing whether he is a credible help or merely a cunning double agent between the drug mafia and the police, makes a large part of the film’s tension.

This is low-key, high-tension cinema by an extremely skilled director, with excellent actors almost throughout the cast. Splendidly entertaining, never shallow.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/drug_war_2013/

This film I saw as part of my project “Chinese Box Office Wonders” – I took it on myself to watch the 10 most successful domestic Chinese movies of the last year. See here for the introduction and the list of films.

“Back to 1942”, based on Liu Zhenyun’s novel “Remembering 1942” and by now the Chinese nominee for the 2014 academy awards, was the only film on the list I was actually quite looking forward to seeing. The topic is a serious one, for a foreign observer also one maybe not well known. On a meta-level it is always interesting to see how Chinese film makers (can) cope with aspects of Chinese recent history that are less than flattering for the rulers at the time.

On that last point, I was quite impressed. Without indeed knowing too much about the Henan drought of 1942 that, in combination with the invasion of the Japanese troops, killed about 3 million people in just a couple of months. The drought and maybe even a locust plague did away with the harvest, but but what was decisive was the government’s unwillingness to send substantial personnel and food aid. The reason is spelled out: sometimes when your burden is too big, it’s better to cast off that burden, leaving the starving people to themselves, focusing the troop efforts on a war with the Japanese that is not even fought with great determination. Even when the order comes in to withdraw from the battle lines, the military is not used to help the refugees leave the province, but instead they scavenge and steal what’s left, saving their own hides wherever they can. Food aid is hampered by an abundance of officials who care about nothing as much as about the well-being of their own clientele, and the governor of the province – even though apparently well-intended –  seems unable to cut through the mess and help his people.

“Back to 1942” is a story of plenty frustration and not much hope. There are no heroes, only people who succumb earlier or later to the cruelties of their system, be that system politics, farming, or military. The story is told from the perspective of a Henan town or village that, as everybody else, abandons their homes to flee west, in a rather irrational move, rather than moving to the warmer and less war-ridden South (but as is explained: “This is what Henan people always did in times of trouble”). Landlords turn paupers, wives and children get sold, plenty die of exhaustion and starvation and the cruel cold. The most lucky one might be the one who find some pimp to host them in a brothel or a farmer who needs a new wife and carries her away. Interesting that for the men, there is less choice than for the women on whether and how to survive.

I commend the film for not pulling many stops. If you want the good guys to survive and the bad guys to die, a drought in wartime is not where you get that. Children are separated from their families and never seen again, or smothered to death by accident when chaos breaks out. The denial and incompetence of governmental sections is addressed, as is the complicated political landscape within which these decisions had to be made. This is not always told in the most subtle way (in one clumsy scene there heads of police, education and some other departments make a claim for receiving help first, rather than the general public of Henan), but given what kind of Chinese films addressing historic events I have recently seen, “Back to 1942” is almost of spectacular quality. The acting is also very solid, with Zhang Guoli as landlord Fan in the downward spiral, Chen Daoming plays “Generalissimo” Chiang Kai-Shek as tough leader who feels he needs to wall the pain about his people’s suffering behind a wall of discipline and administrative diligence. Adrian Brody and Tim Robbins pop up, the former at least with an role important to the plot development, as TIME reporter who alerts Chiang to the severity of Henan’s misery.

What I liked most, and what some international reviews oddly criticized, is the lack of pathos. This drama does not play out as structured accumulation of misery towards a resolution of death or survival, but – I think more credibly and realistically – as an effort in endurance, without a true prospect. The refugees go west until they die or are stopped. The government gets entangled in compromises without there being a Gordian knot in sight that could be cut. Individual fates start, diverge, converge, dissipate, until the world is not the same as it was before. This lack of clear and clean resolution is to be commended!

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/back_to_1942/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Back_to_1942

Update Oct. 2013: 

This was the second time I saw The Chaser, honouring its listing in the filmspotting series of contemporary Korean films, and also honouring my memory loss regarding the fact that I saw it just over a year ago. But even after I realised that, I did not see a reason to abort the project, because I also remember that it was a really solid thriller, with all the ingredients that make the Korean thriller genre so worthwhile. It has a main character who is a crook, but still able to develop affection for the girls he used to consider only as merchandise in the game of pimps. He invests himself – his time, his business and his good health – to get back to the guy who apparently is responsible for the disappearance of a number of working ladies. The police is – also in good tradition of many Korean recent films – borderline incompetent, the villain is thoroughly psychopathic, but sufficiently controlled that we are not dealing with just an effort to avoid a massacre from happening. The script is more tricky than that, it allows to develop some form of pity and sympathy for the bad guy, who quite obviously is deranged, and in need of help rather than deserving our, the audience’s, unconditional despise.

They even manage to arrange a “Leon” moment, by introducing an incredibly cute girl to the story, who (of course) distracts our hero from doing what needs to be done, but who (of course) manages to crack open his heart and soul a bit, even though he would not really admit that, I suppose…

The finale is cleverly written, with outrageous developments leaving the audience ideally speechless. It is a refreshing reminder that deviating from the Hollywood formula of what satisfies an audience can make for much more satisfying film experiences.

Original Comments March 2012:

What’s wrong with these Korean people? Can it be that a certain social, economic and political environment systematically produces a taste for graphic violence, for the depiction of people hurting other people, for films that at some point feature a character (at least at some point, at least one character) drenched in blood, standing in the middle of a room with an axe-hammer-pick-axe-sword-baseball bat etc. in his hands, looking exhaustedly at the mass of human bodies around him that he has just beaten and cut to pulp? To be honest, I don’t blame them, those Korean people, I tend to very much enjoy these films with their uncompromising approach to bad things that can happen. But still, why is it them, and all the time? Strange, isn’t it? Of course because you have these central elements to every decent Korean thriller since I guess the Vengeance trilogy (at the latest, I am not very literate about Korean film history), newcomers need to offer variations – this newcomer here (director Na Hong-jin, whose directorial debut “The Chaser” is, and who has followed this one up with the very interesting “Yellow Sea”) places his elements in the framework of a cop thriller. You see at the outset what is happening, who is the bad guy, and how bad (pretty bad – it’s Korean…). You get to know the likable crook, whose main interest is to protect his investment, as there is somebody out there messing with the hookers that are on his watch. And there is the police force, which – again, what’s wrong with Korea??? – seems mostly to be a bunch of corrupt, imbecile and lazy slackers. Similar to “I saw the Devil”, the key is not finding the bad guy – the key is to trying to hold him in custody, and when you cannot do that anymore, to run very fast to keep the worst from happening. Now, this being a Korean thriller, it is almost the reverse of the Hollywood cliché: you almost expect things to turn out dismally, you almost expect all of your audience hopes to be kicked in the teeth… and the film delivers on this expectation to a good degree.

What distinguishes this thriller from others (Korean or not) is that it is pleasantly rooted in reality. People don’t just show up in places, they need to get there. They don’t just flee from the police, they need to turn a whole lot of hooks and loops to get away. They don’t just find the bad guy – they put a lot of effort into searching. With a city such as Seoul (or at least the suburb where most of the film plays) that is great to watch, as the place has twisted alleys and slopes, providing the structure of a little Tuscan mountain village, with all the opportunities for chasing, hiding, finding, and getting terribly exhausted after running up the hill. And at some point, somebody stands in the middle of a room, drenched in blood…  It’s all there for a perfectly entertaining night at the movies, if you happen to have a taste for this!

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/chaser/

http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100127/REVIEWS/100129976/-1/reviews04  and

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chaser_%28film%29

“Poetry” is one of those films that I have been looking forward to for years, and started watching occasionally, only to realise each time that no, now is not the time, now is not the right mood. It’s strange how this sometimes works, how a film can communicate from minute one that it is special and worthwhile, maybe even excellent, and still resists being started at an arbitrary moment. It made me wait until it called on me, told me “now is the right time”, and no surprise, when that happened I was immediately immersed and enchanted.
This is not the odd Korean “police man with mother issues” or “domestic abuse provoking vicious revenge” kind of film. It has an almost European calmness to it, a focus on one character who is neither a hero nor a victim. It is an ageing woman we are witnessing struggling with her health and her family, and who seeks to find something more in life than meeting the expectations of working and caring for her family. This is where the title stems from, she checks into the local adult education poetry class, and through this finds the liberty to do what she had done before: look at the world with wondrous eyes, allowing herself to focus on beauty and harmony rather than getting entangled in all the petty challenges life throws at her. Those challenges she has to deal with, too, such as the fact that her daughter has more or less dumped her son at his grandmothers’, and that this son is rather unpleasant and ungrateful piece of work. Or that a crime happens and the elderly lady has to deal with the consequences of that crime, and finds herself in the midst of machinations that she cannot possibly identify with.
The film’s beauty comes from two things: The first is the calm camera that allows actress Yun Junghee to elegantly stroll or sit through her life, appreciating her usually moderate pace and upright composure. She tries to maintain some virtues and culture in the midst of a society that frequently does not care about such things. The second is the seriousness with which poetry as a means of expression is treated, with a teacher who is almost comical in his earnest reminders about the importance of this literary form, and about the help he wants to give with students in at least catching a glimpse of it. I was tempted to (silently) mock this odd counter-culture of poetry readings, introductions of the new hopeful poetry masters and the various discussions about how to create the right mindset for writing a poem. But the film is too truthful to allow that, the characters on screen have so serious and unadulterated dedication to the subject that even silent mocking is not called for.
I am often hard-pressed to remember the ending of a film, and justify that to myself by the ending being only a minute detail in a much larger narrative and composition. In this case that will be different: in the same way particularly ill-conceived final acts or scenes can seriously spoil the pleasure of watching a film, “Poetry” has one of the most satisfying endings I have seen in a long time. Again, it is honest and truthful to the characters, whether it is happy or not is up to everybody to decide. What it is in any case is beautifully written and directed, a memorable completion of what we have seen before.
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/poetry_2010/

This Japanese animated film almost lost me within the first five minutes. Pop Idol girls struggling with the breakup of their girl group, and with overenthusiastically devoted fans? Fortunately sufficient seeds were planted to suggest that something interesting could follow. One of those fans looks a bit creepy (don’t judge a book by its cover, unless you are watching an animated Japanese film…), the hero of the story seems eager enough to leave all the manufactured pop star system behind her and turn to acting. This is something not appreciated by some of her supporters and her management, and so things start going awry.

It is fascinating to watch. The film manages to intertwine several levels of reality, dream, imagination and paranoia, preventing the audience from being sure whether how close what’s on the screen is to reality. It conjurs memories of all different themes from all kinds of film and literature heritage (“Misery” and “Shutter Island” I was thinking of occasionally), and if you have any ideas about animated films targeting children by principle, the film’s depictions of violence and nudity will cure you of that. It is a thriller proper, and reminded me that there are not enough adult-oriented animated movies around, combining adult themes with mature and complex story-telling.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/perfect-blue/

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