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Category Archives: China-Asia Cinema

Even though it has been ages since I watched “Princess Kaguya”, it stays very vividly in my mind. What is particularly stunning is the … how to say … very different aesthetics, the water colour appearance, giving the whole film a dreamy appearance. Even more than other Studio Ghibli films, the supernatural elements take a very casual role, are taken as a given by whoever is affected. There is a tiny baby that emerged from a bamboo shoot. That baby is taken in by the family of the bamboo cutter and grows at a stunning rate. Weird, yes, but then again, she is loved just like a regular child. Her friends play with her and like or dislike her, just as they would a regular girl. Her being special  basically means that her education will require some special measures. As her presence comes along with the presence of a fortune that can be spent on a domicile in the capital and the introduction of nobility, well let’s do that. Soon the film turns into a very melancholic glance at a girl who would like nothing more than being allowed to stay where she likes it most, the rural patch where her foster parents found her. She cannot bear the burden of needing to be noble and gracious the way tradition asks her to. She cannot take seriously the promises the men willing to marry her make, and mocks them, only creating more inconvenience to them and to herself. It does not matter at all that she is from “somewhere else”, because she wants to be a simple girl from a bamboo cutters’ family. There are moments of great despair, she seeks to go back to her old home, only to find out she can’t, that everything has changed, and that the boy the probably loves most has become something of a crook after her disappearance. The story moves Kaguya towards the almost inevitable return to her real home, and the final scenes are as dreamlike as can be, with a very calm yet joyful “extraction”.

Beyond the proper and true telling of the story, what makes the film magic is really its looks. I have not seen this used in a film before, and was initially curious, then skeptical, and finally thrilled. The Ghibli masters manage to be innovative through being old-fashioned, and chose the exact right visuals for telling this particular story. I keep always checking film for toddler-friendliness, to see when I will finally be willing to expose a little child to a large-scale movie. I keep coming back to certain classics of the Ghibli output, such as “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “My Neighour Totoro”. “Kaguya” may well be a candidate on this list, as it is mostly calm and warm-hearted, but does not shy away from the truths, dangers and possibilities of growing up.

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

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What? Wait… Wow! WTF??!! Hey this is a funny police creepy-thriller with a chubby police officer in some Korean small town with very poor weather. He is stumbling into some creepy crime scenes and how he starts to see all kinds of ghosts and ghouls and gets all agitated about it… hilarious, right? No. Turn that premise around and let’s say this is an ultimate-level horror movie, as in good vs evil, and some police officer and family father has the fortune of stumbling into it. Epic, right? No. It is The Korean Exorcist with one hell of an exorcism by a Shaman who maybe really knows what he is doing and to whom people should listen more carefully when he is giving instructions (he gives two in the course of the film, and ignoring them  turns out to be costly). Oh and it is a careful allegory about xenophobia in rural Korea, where people turn against the Japanese guy when things go awry, because he is creepy, and nobody understands him anyway. It is about the deeply frustrating efforts of parenting, and how to make the right choices for your kid. And Zombies.

There are two memorable set pieces in this film, and I am pretty sure even when I cannot remember a thing about the plot anymore, I will never forget those: 1) an utterly frantic shaman ceremony to expel a ghost who may or may not be there at all, with wild drums and spraying chicken blood and wild dancing and coffin nails … think Epiphany Proudfoot without the sex but a goat! 2) I have seen many thriller / horror finales, but never any like this. The action happens at three locations and we get cuts from here to there to yonder, and back, and back, and … everything gets slower and slower, the action grinds to a halt, all three locations / characters are as well as paralysed, unable to move forward and take on the challenges, or to at least run away as fast as they can. A thrilling end game where there is indecent eating in location 1, chatting with a pretty girl in location 2 and taking pictures in location 3. Our hero is faced with an utterly unresolvable task of figuring out who says the truth, his shaman buddy or the Lady in White, and everything depends on whether he gets it right. I still do not have half a clue about what “really” happens, and in particular why, but that film putting the brakes on and screeching to a halt amidst the highest tension  and about the highest stakes is bold as bold can be. Fabulous!

Hong Jin-na has three major pictures on his CV, and all three are excellent entertainment. Can’t wait to be thrown off the track again by him soon! Oh, and Kudos to Kwak Do-won as Jong-Goo the police officer. He plays all notes on the fiddle, from slapstick to horror!

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

This film managed to break all the Chinese box office records to become the highest grossing film ever in the Chinese market. When you watch it without knowing that, you might be tempted to guess that it is just another run of the mill martial arts films that are a dime a dozen in China, with plenty of military fetishism and patriotism. Compare it to previous holders of the China revenue top spot, “Fast and Furious 7” or some “Transformers” or the other, or even some Chinese titles that took the box office by storm over the last years, it is very very stunning that this film has done the same. It is, without judging, a very simple action film, along the lines of some “Expendable” aesthetics, but without that franchise’s star power, stripped-to-the-bone scripts, or production values.

The script of “Wolf Warrior 2” is utter pants, as is the whole setting, the editing and most of the cgi. You only recognize a mature narrative structure when it’s not there, and here it so much not there that you stumble across plot point after plot point, not because it would be terribly contrived (ok, there’s that, as in Dr Chen’s ability to cure whatever virus they cure), but because it is clumsily implemented (same virus: our hero got it, and then he suddenly ungot it, but the script forgot to be excited about it). There is stuff… the odd setting within a Chinese community in “Africa” (wherever that may be), for instance, which feels like an alien spaceship landed in an exotic country. Maybe this is just the way it is? There is a tank battle that looks as if kids filmed it on an abandoned junk yard with some hi-def video camera they nicked off their uncle. There are some very decent hand-on-hand combat scenes, though, and much was made of the Russo brothers input as advisers on the stunt and action work of this film. Most notably, the very opening sequence is clearly where they spent most effort to get a grip on the audiences, an underwater fight between our lead hero and some anonymous pirates off the coast of Africa. From there onward, drama and quality is deteriorating. The film has quite a few remarkable elements, but most of them are remarkable in all the wrong ways: there is Frank Grillo, for example, who seems to be so well known even though it seems I have hardly ever seen him in anything… he hopefully has a chance to have this entry expunged from his IMDB record, or he did at least earn enough money to send his kids through college. I checked Wikipedia, he has three sons, he needs the money.

On the brighter side, there is Celina Jade who plays Doctor Rachel, kind of the female lead, and always dressed in tattered half-transparent tops in a completely ridiculous but visually appealing way. Given she is a rather competent and attractive bilingual actress, I am surprised I have not seen more of her before. Perfect co-production co-star. And of course Wu Jun. He has the star power of a Matt Damon or Tom Cruise, with the ability to convey having the right moral compass, but still the ability to act as a ruthless killing machine if need be. He is a very competent as a fighter, and given the right choreography, he performs some impressive set pieces. They are not held together in any coherent manner, but given the box office results  that should not give him a headache. The preview for Wolf Warrior 3 was already included in the credits of this part 2, so whatever criticism the film endured ricocheted off its armor like a bullet off Wu Jing’s vest…

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

As far as opening sequences go, The Villainess has it all, a fierce martial arts first person shooter combat rampage through some factory building, where a single fighter (lady) takes on a whole company of what can only be assumed to be really bad Korean people. You know nothing about context and the players, but a couple of minutes in the manic camera moves away to show the heroine and bounces around the final location of the fight, and you cannot but fall in love with that terrible warrior woman. Then comes a soothing set of Korean rain, I breathe, and wonder… how would they possibly follow up on this opening? Never mind, she’s hot!

Of course what follows it not quite up to par with the opening, a bit of Nikita and a bit of Police Academy: Girl Assassins! Some confusing time layers and a lot of gratuitous violence mix with a teary story line about daughters in general and daughters of villains in particular, and about wives who got wronged once too often. But as compensation you get sword fights on high speed motorbikes, and what I would assume must be a VIP mafia bus fight. It wasn’t always perfectly clear to me who was who and why they were who, but in the end, there were villainy villains, and nice and mellow villains, and a villainess who is least villainy of all, but still has to do the villainy fight against the men that betrayed her. Can’t say I was not entertained, even though I wonder whether organized crime in Korea is really as dependent on knives and swords as a means of battle. Once somebody brings an automatic weapon to a fight, they all stare quite blankly into the hopping fish eye camera…

Very entertaining, all this, and another piece of evidence that Korean cinema is as reliable as it gets.

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

 

 

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/

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