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Category Archives: China-Asia Cinema

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.

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!

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!  and

“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.

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.

“Stoker” is a bit of an odd film. It is almost an orgy of beautiful shots, of stylistic adventures, of people being draped in colours, close-ups of innocent faces… a visual feast! As the main character India is not one of too many words, this describes her world quite accurately. She is caught in a family she does not like, her one point of affection, her father, was killed, and now she is trapped with her extremely annoying mother and her uncle who suddenly turned up out of nowhere. I am not sure whether the mother is intended to be as annoying as she is, it somehow appeared to me that the script writers had a lot of trouble writing the right lines for Nicole Kidman, or did they make her intentionally obnoxious? There was some talk in the reviews about the first English-language film of a non-native speaker always struggling with the language. I am not so sure about that, I would rather think that there is an intentional discrepancy between the emotionality of the girl and the artificiality of the mother, explaining why these two just cannot get along.

As this is a Korean director with a certain history in unpleasant occurrences (such as this one or this one or … ah, just about every film he made), it is not surprising that the family drama takes a turn towards violence and ill-conceived family relations. Something wicked this way comes… and as usual the wolf comes disguised in sheep’s clothes …The wolf is the uncle, a mix of physical and intellectual attractiveness and an aura of unclear intentions and vaguely hidden peril.

In total, the film reminded me of Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” in ts partial attempt to break out of the director’s biography, while actually sticking to it, putting the characters’ developments and motivations under scrutiny and leading them towards a rather unpleasant fate. Like the Jackson film, I could very much appreciate the effort, even though I could not get myself fully immersed in the film.


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.

This film should be established as compulsory watching at film schools around the world. It shatters the notion that anybody can make a solidly entertaining action movie given a certain budget. It provides ample evidence that film making is pretty hard, that it requires skills which need to be built up over time, that the production of a movie is a vocation, a craft which should be learned properly and systematically. It may not be the most complicated of things, but you need to get some people involved who have a vague idea of what they’re doing, and some others who have seen a film or two in their lives. “Come visit our Film Academy”, film academy’s promotion flyers should shout, “or else you will end up making movies like ‘Switch’!”
I read that the reception of the film was not very good, to say the least. There is the suspicion that the film only ended up with the high box office figures because of the spectacularly bad press it got – and many people wanted to see Andy Lau in this kind of car crash of a film. On the other hand, I learned to enjoy “not very good” films on their own level of existence, they are created to provide forgettable escapism for an hour or three, and I don’t mind that. This is the attitude with which I started watching “Switch”… I admit that I was not prepared for the spectacular mountain of incompetence that “Switch” is. There is no hint of skill, either in photography, direction, sound, acting, visual effects… nothing. Some deficiencies are even more outstanding than others. The production design basically consists of buying everything from a designer furniture bargain bin and pretending it is cool. The award of most rotten composition of a movie I remember having ever seen goes to: editing, stunt coordination, product placement:
• Min. 7: realisation creeps in… this will be tough… somebody was shooting footage and then handed it over to a four-year-old, who started pushing all the buttons on the Avid machine and then some… the editing / timing is completely off, creates almost incomprehensible successions of cuts and scenes. This is not “modern-style frantic”, it is “text book incompetent”.
• Min. 10: Andy Lau’s character has a doctorate degree in law from Oxford? Then why can’t he say a single straight (four-worded) English sentence? Thank God for the English subtitles…
• Min. 15: this is what they consider to be a dense atmospheric setting with creepy protagonists? It would be funny would it not look so poorly made.
• Min. 23: I was waiting for this… the Japanese sadist has had a bad childhood …
• Min. 49: Yes, we all thought the “Minority Report” computer interface was quite slick, but that was like 15 years ago. Also: If you show a character handle the screens like that, at least pretend that he has a reason to do so. And don’t show it seven times, 3 minutes each…
• Min. 66: Quite a feat to make Andy Lau look stupid and clumsy in a fight scene. This is called “Dumbass Kung Fu”? Do they not have choreographers, stuntmen, any of the things that you need for a movie fight?
• Permanently: Buy Audi! Because Audi is a very good car. It is very fast and will never get a scratch! Buy! Even when shot at, really! Great car! In silver and red! Even better if you are tapping on your nonsensical Nokia mobile phone interface while driving an Audi, this makes you invincible!
• Min. 72: refer to comments about the Minority Report interface… really, there’s still somebody who thinks the Burj al Arab is a very cool setting for an action movie?? Yes, it used to be, but that was, like, 320 movies ago …
• Min 80: No Audi will ever get damaged in a car chase.
• Any non-Audi car will fall over, hence: buy Audi! Or else your car will fall over and a hand-painted burst of flames will signify that it exploded. Not with the Audi, of course! Take out your Nokia and tell all your friends about it!!
• Min. 91: Even when a shot of a camera moving around a black Audi is superimposed on an aquarium, creating the immaculate illusion of the (unbreakable) Audi to smash into said aquarium, there will never be a single scratch on any black Audi. Hence: Buy Audi, brand of the champions! (Despite Audis being unbreakable, for shooting the scene it looks they used Lego cars to make it appear more convincing, like transcending the idea of a car crash and making a more general point about all this being a child’s play IF you drive an Audi, silver or black. The red one is for social occasions only).
• Min. 104: Is this is the best showdown ever? The two opponents taking the time to dress in white Olympic fencing gear and fighting it out with the foil??? Maybe the two actors were out of contract time or were taking the Audis out on a spin, so the whole scene plays out without even pretending they are present on the set, full-face fencing masks and all…

Summary: I think it’s very likely that BMW and Samsung paid for the whole film, just to make a fool out of the competition. Worked well: Nokia has gone the way of all things mortal within half a year of the movie being released. I expect Audi to call it quits any day now. Andy Lau, on the other hand, is as unbreakable as a silver, red or black Audi. This abomination of a film cannot do him any harm. Everybody else should be thoroughly ashamed on themselves.

That is quite an insightful comment here on China Daily, linking nicely to my “Chinese Box Office Wonders” project:

“it is the typical Hollywood way of story-telling that is absorbed by these Chinese films. And that secret is called genre films. These films are commercial in nature; they conform to strict formulae in narrative, which Chinese filmmakers had always ignored or disdained.”

Full text by Raymond Zhou at  Fast forward with film |X – Ray |

CZ12 (or “Chinese Zodiac”, as it is also called, because some Chinese zodiac sculptures looted from the Beijing Summer Palace serve as McGuffin) is not a good film. By no category or definition. Now I have never been a fan of Jackie Chan’s “oeuvre” in any way, and do not find the least bit of pleasure in the effort of Chinese and Hongkong movie industry to find new ways of making people of all ages, genders and physical skills bounce about in their martial arts varieties and get roped around “like a feather” (which in all cases that I actually did see looked as light as meat chunks on the butcher’s hook. And I know what I’m talking about, butchers in the family and all…). When you combine this with what I dare to call a “Chinese sense of humour” (i.e. excessive use of slip-on-banana kind of slapstick, pulling faces in front of an automatic camera while being kicked in the balls by a camera tripod, blatant use of homosexuality references, etc. etc.), then … it’s really not my piece of cake. This means “CZ12” never stood a chance of being liked by me. No problem, but for what it is, is it well done?

Nope! The film adds to its own misery by doing what it’s doing in a surprisingly amateurish way: Its action power is basically exhausted after the opening sequence involving some full-body-rollerskating escape, which is so poorly directed that it was painful to watch. After that: a bit of change of scenery, some girls screaming so as to be rescued by the brave heroes, some girls talking about their underwear, some girls pulling each others’ hair. Some old men pretending they are still very good at fighting very young men. Some international actors who clearly do not know what they signed up for (Oliver Platt, please, have a word with your agent, or is business really so dire? If you need a job, call me!).

I watched the film even though I knew this is not my genre, expecting at least some production values and some of China’s and Hongkong’s most experienced directors and actors at work. I would need to check whether “CZ12” and the recent “Journey West” are among the most expensive Chinese movies ever made. If this is the case – and I believe it is – then this tells a very sad story about the technical and narrative skills of the Chinese film industry. The involvement of the international setting (travelling from Paris to China to Vanuatu (I am told by Wikipedia) and some more) and a bunch of international actors is certainly aimed at opening the international markets. Really? With this??? (not much info there)

When writing about Jackie Chan’s recent “CZ12”, I almost started with writing “Where to begin?… sigh…”. Then I realised that this is exactly what I had thought (and written) when I started writing about the recent “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons”. I see a pattern emerging … popular Chinese films often leave me flabbergasted, making me wonder about this and that. In particular, they make my wonder why there are so few good ones. And why the not-so-good-ones still attract such large audiences. There are plenty of things to be considered (censorship eradicating any challenging material; professional training institutions not up to snuff; differences in general pop culture, of course  … ) and maybe there will be time some day to write them down.

Not now. Now I engage in a different adventure. A perilous one. I have recently written (for a German film industry magazine) about the perceivable trend of Chinese movie audiences to turn their backs on average Hollywood superhero franchise output, and hand their rising middle-class income over to the cashier to see domestic films instead. Some odd and unexpected candidates stormed the box office charts over the last year, the astonishing success of the low budget screwball comedy “Lost in Thailand” marking the turn of tides (now most successful Chinese film ever, and most definitely most profitable one).

When looking at the list of the 10 most successful Chinese films at the Chinese box office over the last year that I compiled for that article, I realised that almost nobody outside China has ever heard of these films, more certainly nobody has seen them. So what about going through this list one by one and writing short comments about them, to share the pleasure, if there is any to be found. And forcing myself into exposure to cutting edge Chinese pop culture while I am at it.

The experiment will not have dimensions as described in A.J. Jacob’s heroic task of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover, or his equally astonishing project to live one year in full compliance with the Old Testament. Still, I am already quite scared of having to make sense of the success of the likes of “Tiny Times” (which sounds like a dumbed-down and sexed-down version of “Sex in the City” – if thinking about that concept does not blow your mind already…). And I am truly terrified of exposing myself to the subtle humour and elaborate character development I am used to from previous Jackie Chan movies –  there’s one on the list, whether I like it or not. Others are more interesting, with a drama about 1942 Hebei during the Chinese-Japanese war, or… well, that’s the one I am looking forward to. Maybe Andy Lau’s Oriental James Bond effort “Switch” will feature some eye candy (even though I read he already apologised to his fans for starring in it, but hey –  what does he know? He’s just a pretty boy!). And one of them I have already written about, said umpteenth screen version of “Journey to the West”, so only nine to go! And the good news is: not a single historic costume drama about the adventures of some rotten or heroic Qing, Ming or Tang emperor on the list (with the exception of “Journey…”, but let’s do the right thing and ignore that, especially I’ve gone through that experience already and kind of survived). May it be that the Chinese audience has finally had it with the funny hats and Gong Li’s swelling cleavage? Let’s not celebrate too early…

Here we go: starting today, in loose sequence, the most successful domestic Chinese movies of the last year. Buckle up… The list based on the total domestic (i.e. mainland China) box office revenue goes like this:

  1. Lost in Thailand
  2. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
  3. CZ12 – Chinese Zodiac
  4. Painted Skin: The Resurrection
  5. So Young
  6. American Dreams in China
  7. Finding Mr. Right
  8. Tiny Times
  9. Back to 1942
  10. Switch

Sometimes I can be forgiving. After delivering what in my eyes is still the worst film of the last two years, I still decided to check out “the other reason” why anybody would give Kim Ji-woon a bunch of million dollars to make a fool out of Arnold Schwarzenegger (as if he needed Korean help for that). One reason was “I Saw The Devil”, I suppose, which many loved (myself? Not as much as others…). The other reason was “A Tale of Two Sisters”. This one managed to wangle a major US release and become a stunning success (some 70 Million US, I think). Which is a bit surprising actually: This film is very quiet, mellow, moody and atmospheric, you will not find the trademark mutilation or other forms of violence today are so typical for the new Korean cinema. It may not even be a horror film, but a film about how horrible life sometimes is.

I suggest to watch the film without knowing anything about it, then sitting down with several grams of alcohol and thinking hard about what it was about, and then read the plot summary on Wikipedia. I needed it (but maybe that was because I opened a bottle halfway through and lost focus). While the story arch is somehow easy to write down (“two girls being shoved into father’s new family and not getting along with stepmother, plus being haunted by ghosts of the past”), that description may include at least three contentious claims. It does not matter, though, whether at any point you feel you know what is going on. The film is about the atmosphere of adolescent fears, rejection, and guilt (as so often with “horror” films), and that atmosphere is crafted in style. If the audience is sometimes left alone with the question of what is real and what is not, it is consoling that for the film’s characters, this also applies, and with much more severe impact. The teenage actresses are also very convincing in conveying this, the adult actors a little bit less so. (The stepmother always appeared to over-act, and I could not figure out whether this was intentional or whether she is just not a very good actress. Looking at her oeuvre and seeing that she mainly worked in Korean TV shows before, I am leaning towards the latter, but that may be unfair…).

Hence, Mr Kim, I appreciate you are not in general a useless director. “A Tale of Two Sisters” is a pretty good movie, even though it lacks original elements (unless you count “audience confusion”). I just wished you would pick your projects a bit better in the future. If I take the succession of “Tale of Two Sisters”, “I Saw the Devil” and “Last Stand” as an indicator for what’s next, you are not riding a good vector… What about making a film at home again, and proving that you are not a one-hit wonder?

A collection of three “shorts” (not really, 40 minutes each, very good length actually in my opinion!) by three of Asia’s most exciting directors:

I have seen “Jiaozi / Dumplings” by Fruit Chan before, actually, when it premiered at Berlin Film Festival in feature length, and the memories of that particular screening will never wane, as I was sitting next to (NEXT TO) the film’s frighteningly beautiful star Bai Ling (oh so fragile and white skinned, the scent of perfume and … never mind…). I am sure she was 65 at the time, but looked like a stunning 27. Why that is we learn in the film, which reveals some depths about human vanity few ever cared to learn about. Very disturbing! (Oh and she was wearing this glittering nothingness of a dress, providing hints on this and that that are still haunting me.. Stop it!).

Anyway… Park Chan-Wook: Cut! Park (of Lady Vengeance, Mr Vengeance and most prominently Oldboy fame) is maybe the most achieved of the three directors here in terms of directorial style. He throws you into a beautifully crafted film set which, we will learn, is build on the model of this film-in-film director’s own home. Returning back to this home is what starts his misery, as he finds an intruder in his house, who is seeking revenge for … well, no, should not give it away, as it is part of the absurdity of this piece. It is a cruel story, of cruel choices imposed on our “hero”, and do I say too much when I say that some choices are just too hard to make without causing serious damage.

Takashi Miike’s (Audition, 13 Assassins) “Box” does have something of a plot, but at the end of the day it is more of an allegorical statement on guilt and jealousy. It (maybe) deals with the memories of a former circus artist (one of those little girls who can bend their tiny bodies to fit into impossibly small boxes), tortured by the guilt about her sister’s fate. As it pans out, there is plenty more to it, more allegory maybe, or more nightmares.

These three films team up almost perfectly in their differing aesthetics, morale and approaches to disturbing the audience. All three are seriously disturbing, but – thank God! – not in a “Hostel” way. These are serious cinematic achievements, they dig deep into humanity and its flaws, and do provide neither easy remedy nor catharsis. I love them for that!

Around 20 minutes in, I developed the feeling that I’ve seen this film before…  I still cannot swear on it, but the initial setup looked terribly familiar: a young (and absurdly handsome) guy checking into strangers’ houses while they are away, staying for a while, using all facilities, reading their books, fixing clocks and scales, and then leaving without obvious trace. You wonder how long that can work until he will stumble across somebody to surprise him, and of course this is what happens and what sets the film in motion. He meets a girl, trapped in her house and her life with an abusive and in general psychopathic husband, and the two develop a silent understanding that it might be nice to share some part of the future with somebody who cares a bit and does not talk a lot (the dialogues between the two are astonishingly well written…). They move on together for a while, and there are scenes that indicate that they are just the perfect team of silent loners with human skills (a sequence involving a body and a burial ritual especially).

Needless to say, Korean issues come in: police corruption and violence, in this case, and family violence, but also a certain affection to the spiritual. Kim Ki-Duk manages to give the film a spin towards the latter that could have been laughable in the end, but quite to the contrary is beautiful and touching.

Identified a pattern here: mother issues I already found in my previous Korean film marathon. Now I feel there are police issues as well. Issues with police officers closing their eyes when faced with family atrocities (“Bedevilled”) and officers prone to beating and abusing suspects and prisoners (basically all the films I’ve recently seen, particularly disturbing maybe in “Mother”, or in “3-Iron”).

So when these issues meet “Bedevilled”’s topic (family violence, if you want), it is not surprising that things get a bit out of hand, i.e. violent, which again seems to be the overall topics of at least the Korean films I come across (or I need to check my selection procedure, might be it says more about me than about Korea).

Here we have a particularly pretty city girl visiting her particularly sad childhood girlfriend, who is stuck on a remote island with an abusive husband and a bunch of senior citizens that would give Macbeth’s witches a run for their money.

Emotional discrepancies, betrayed childhood memories, moronic brothers… through that into the mix with the above-mentioned features of any good Korean movie character, and you can guess this ain’t gonna end well for some, worse for others.

While “Bedevilled” may not have the most original script in how it makes the drama evolve, it is yet another piece of evidence that Korean cinema is very authoritative when it comes to depicting people pushed to the edge and beyond. Maybe there’s no need to watch too many of these, but catching up once every decade is definitely worth it. There is an abundance of competent directors, actors and screenwriters that can at any time pull off an entertaining night drenched in blood.

Did I mention I believe Koreans have mother issues? I believe Koreans have mother issues! Seeing “Pieta” (praised by Hongkong Film Festival audiences, I think awarded with director’s or script prize) just a bit after seeing “Mother”, a scheme appears. That scheme is that Korean mothers are all-embracing, absolutely without compromise when it comes to taking care of their babies. Those babies being grown-up men or toddlers doesn’t matter, they are all on when it comes to protecting them from harm (“Mother”) or avenging them (“Pieta”).

The film is about a professional thug, loan shark and sadist, who indulges in supporting his clients collect the money they owe him by helping them have accidents to collect insurance money. This is a bit hard to watch at times, but then again, if you get into Korean movies, you know what you’re in for. Somebody wrote in a review that the first hour of the movie required her to constantly look away, while the rest made her cry. I understand what she means… Our “hero” is faced with some twist of fate, in the form of a woman who decided now it’s time to make up for all the times she has neglected her son, and devotes herself to the task without compromise whatsoever. While loan-shark man starts off into this newly found family pattern with, let’s say, hesitation, he quickly realises that there have been some things about having a caring mother he actually did miss and appreciates, if not longs, to catch up on.

Now… this is not the place to spoil the fun of watching the movie by indicating how this will end, but let’s say that Korean mother-son relationships are always complicated, and that if you ever encounter a Korean mother with a plan, you better run the other way, as you never know what part in her scheme you might end up playing.

Side note: I loved the fact that the film’s title can only be properly understood after watching it, clever…

Kim Ki Duk is apparently a very prolific director, the professionalism of setting up the scene and putting the actors to task was obvious made me wonder why I have not seen any of his films since “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring”, which I absolutely loved. Seems I need to catch up on yet another gap in my Asian film knowledge…

A Look At Chinese Cinema: Too Much Capital, Too Few Quality Films.

I like Mr Ng’s comments, because he agrees with my key thesis that most of the Chinese film quality calamity comes down to the lack of an age verification system. Or in other words: the lack of willingness to treat the adult part of the audience as adults. The absence of such a system is the most powerful censorship instruments, limiting mature storytelling to the films made for the international festival markets – or not at all.

Journey West

Where to begin? Sigh… The Chinese media (i.e. the government) is occasionally surprised as to the why Chinese big movie productions fail to make a smash at international box offices. This film is maybe the perfect example to illustrate why that is. It is massively popular in mainland China, on its way to become the highest grossing domestic film ever. It takes a classic tale of heroes and adventure, mystical creatures and humour. It uses some of the countries’ most popular actors, with Stephen Chow as an experienced director and certainly (I’m guessing here) all the technical talent that could be found. The result is, to say it frankly, an embarrassing mess. Let’s take this ecxlusively from a foreign observers’ perspective, and you may come to the conclusion that the humour to be akin to the 1970s Louis de Funes or Bud Spencer/Terence Hill films (rolling eyes, fat suits, sexual innuendo jokes). The cgi looks as if made on a shoestring budget, especially weird in the opening sequence that is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the film. Is that tone supposed to be one of spoof hero quest? That fish demon certainly was produced by Beijing Nr 171 middle school film working group, right? That feeling is manifested in the other big cgi sequences, with pigs, tigers, apes all quite obviously beyond the capacities of the cgi teams (particularly problematic just a few weeks after a Chinese director showed how to do tigers, and with great success in China, too).( On a side note, why did the first international reviews all seem to be quite content with the FX quality (Hollywood Reporter or Variety)? That is even weirder than the effects themselves… ) .The “love story” is as if taken out of a barbie doll cartoon (and I learned that it does not exist in the novel… guys, maybe there is a reason for that?), the wigs are awful, but not in a good way, the … the … the …

Let’s turn it around, what did I like? While I still have not read the book (shame on me, but I have not read Ulysses and Gilgamesh either, so here we go, life’s short), it seems to be an interesting allegory. As the film stops after the book’s first act, I have no way of telling whether it will be a substantial and profound allegory, but an allegory about something it clearly is. It is historic mystic material, so no reason to complain about some of the plot devices or story resolutions (Buddha is actually a stone giant and then a galactic pressure cooker? I hope that was not in the book…). The Monkey King is a fascinating character, maybe the only one featured so far who is not just thick or meaningless. It’s no surprise that this king-demon has such a large presence in Chinese story-telling and keeps popping up on every corner. It is played while not subtly but convincingly by Huang Bo, whom I have seen quite a lot despite generally shying away from modern Chinese blockbuster cinema.

Now my question: if you have a slightly silly and old-fashioned book of materials like that, and you are tasked with making yet another film out of it, why would you not approach the task by identifying what’s interesting today and how to find a new approach. I could imagine a lot of different approaches, including one focusing on the fate of these demons who were (justified or not) doomed to an existence as evil creatures, usually after falling out with Buddha over some jealousy-induced love-craze. Just listening to Sun, the Monkey King, telling about his 500-year-long ordeal makes me think that there is something more interesting hidden here than can be shown by smashing a mountain or air-balleting with computer-generated swords. But I guess it comes down to: the way this film has been made, it becomes the blockbuster success it needs to become. The Chinese audience appreciates what we might call old-fashioned and very much non-subtle slapstick humour, does not mind the rubbish effects and pours into 3D screenings as if this was something other than… ah, don’t get me started.

This is not just not my piece of cake, it is not the piece of cake of a lot of Western audiences. I think the word to use is “mature”: given that we have seen this style of “humour” all around the global cinema over the last 60 years, I assume once audiences have seen enough of the same clumsy  stuff, they want to advance to more subtle story-telling and acting. Judging not just from “Journey”, but also from that terrible terrible and even more old-fashioned film it will probably soon push off the box office throne (“Lost in Thailand”), it will take another while to match the Chinese audiences mainstream taste with a taste that can be sold abroad.

Shu Qi as Duan looks nice, though. And the scene  where she uses some movement copy charm to learn some tricks from her erotic tutor (who looks nicer) was funny, I admit.


Ok, I understand… not only do I have some catching up to do with respect to Korean police procedural (Bong’athon), but I also have completely missed out on the Johnny To phenomenon. Another marathon… sigh! But it seems it’s worth it. “Vengeance” features Johnny Hallyday, who is usually a quirky French singer with a worn-out face. Here he plays a French restaurant-owner with a history and a bullet in his head. That matters only insofar as towards the end of the film, he starts forgetting quite vital things. It does not really affect the plot, because by hiring a bunch of triad killers, he seeks vengeance for the death of his daughter’s family. Why they were killed also does not matter. A lot of things do not matter, actually, what matters is the way To puts the chase into scene, with some memorable scenes: a chase sequence down a fire escape, the discovery of one the hired guns’ uncle in his Macao shed, several showdowns between several key protagonists. I never fell in love with the Hong Kong action cinema, but watching “Vengeance” I started to wonder why. Maybe To is of a generation to have emancipated (a little bit at least) from the perennial slow motion gun fights and excessive bullet impacts making bad guys fly in flocks across restaurant kitchens. It’s there, but confined, and that’s a good thing. The cast is brilliant, with Hallyday stumbling through Macao and Hong Kong not understanding anything about the culture or the language, depending on the worst possible people. These helping hands are also not just side characters, but written and played as strong and decisive individuals who have their own ethos and their own demons. Still a Hong Kong action film, but one that allows itself through silent moments with beach lunches, beautiful cinematography and mature acting to be taken seriously.

Memories of Murder

Let’s continue my Bong Joon-ho mini-marathon. Murders happen, pretty girls get abused and slaughtered, the village police is overwhelmed with the task of finding the murderer. And it happens again, and again. They capture suspects, they torture them a little bit, they get a couple of confessions, but new evidence keeps showing up indicating that they got it wrong. The quest becomes a nightmare, getting at the police force, turning the public against them.

This is Zodiac, Korean village style, with a police officer at the heart of the investigation who does not have the means his American counterpart would have (actually, they even have to send evidence to the US, as DNA analysis in Korea’s late 1980’s had not been advanced enough), and who is not heroic enough to serve as a centerpiece of a crime thriller. That’s because “Memories of Murder” is not a crime thriller. It is more a tableau of small-town Korea, and even when big things happen, everything stays small. It’s a more humane version of what an American film would look like. People are caught in their hierarchies, in their social contexts, in their need to please the boss, the media, the neighbours or the restaurant owner. They do not shy away from violence in a way that is unpleasant to watch when it comes from the good cops, and in this it is also a depiction of the social system these people live in in pre-democractic Korea. Politics play in the background, with police forces unavailable because they have to smother a workers’ demonstration in a neighbouring city, big changes behind the horizon that do not yet affect local life.

Bong focuses, I learn in part three of my Bong-athon on people, not on events. The way he can set free a rubber monster on Seoul, or a mass murderer on this small town, provides him with the plot he needs to drive his characters through the film. What he is interested in, however, is not the monster or the murderer, he likes the people populating the scene, the good ones and the bad ones.


Damn, why was this film sitting on my shelf for such a long time? I know, because I started watching it, and really hated the titular character, an over-protective mother of a rather dumb boy who gets entangled in some police shenanigans  They have an odd relationship to say the least, verging on the uncomfortable, sleeping together, allowing the bad cops to make all kinds of rude jokes about what else is happening in that household (and I can’t blame them). The boy gets too close to a girl after one night of drinking away his sorrows, and she ends up dead. Did he kill her? We don’t know, but we assume that he did not, and that he becomes part of a crime story that is way over his slightly dumb ahead. The mother goes at great lengths to protect him, she follows up and investigates, while the police are satisfied to have found the perfect murder suspect.

This is all in an early setting. What makes this Bong Joon-ho film more than one of the odd Korean cop flics is that it fluctuates between oddball comedy, with dumb cops and dumber suspects, the mother character who is dedicated to not give way, and the fabulous visuals of Bong and his DP Hong Kyung-pyo. When you have settled in comedic feeling, you will be thrown back with queasy scenes showing the desperation and solitude of the protagonists. When you think you have reached the point of hardball police procedural, you will get some slapstick thrown into your face. I remember that the same feeling of a director completely uninterested in categories and genres was what I loved about “The Host”. Is this Bong’s specialty? I am very motivated to check out his other movies now…

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