Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Sword Identity (2011) NYAFF 2012

I’ve seen this film twice.

I mention this because the first time I saw it under less than optimal conditions, I saw it on a less than ideal screener. When I was done I wrote up the following review but with a long intro on the screener itself.

Time passed.

Feeling that I was reacting more to the screener and not the film (not to mention being, goaded by Inde Wire’s pick as a must see) I watched the film again under better conditions. The result was that my feelings for the film haven’t changed and in fact have grown stronger. Here, minus my discussion of the screener is the original review.

Two ex-soldiers (one a bodyguard for a deceased general who has fallen out of favor) wander into a village and take on the soldiers stationed there. One of the men is captured, the other is runs off with a cryptic statement that if he beats the four masters he can start a new school. The authorities in the town spread the rumor that the two men are Japanese pirates which mean there is reward if he's caught. As the man who got away tries to free his friend, the authorities try to capture him.

Striving for a sense of realism (there are no super feats or wire work) this is an incredibly dry blackish comedy about martial arts versus real warfare and the pomposity of leaders. Actually the film is so dry in it’s humor that I had to double check that it really was a “comedy” since there are no jokes as such just situations that may or may not make you smile or chuckle… or not. I smiled a few times, I may have chuckled once, mostly I had the sense that it was trying to be way more clever than it was managing to be.

The term that kept running through my mind was a martial arts art film, except that there isn’t that many bits of martial arts. Mostly this is a long and winding obtuse tale that seems to want to be realistic in it’s fights despite having frequent unrealistic turns of plot. Things don’t really make a whole of a lot of sense until you realize that the whole point is that the two guys are trying to set up a new martial arts school, hence no one is really dying and that people out to stop them are trying to protect their turf. Its not much to hang a nearly two hour film on.

It’s not a bad film, it’s just an over reaching one. It’s a film that wants so much to be about something, it ends up not really being about anything. It’s the sort of film that you get to the end and you’re left to ponder, That’s it?

Yea that’s it.

By this time you do understand that I saw this under less than ideal circumstances. You also know that I stayed all the way to the end. I didn’t get up and leave while it was on.

Is it worth seeing?

Yea, but you have to understand what you’re seeing. If you’re looking for either a screamingly funny comedy or an extremely action packed martial arts film look elsewhere, this film isn’t those things. If you want a good looking film with a bunch of ideas and some situations that will make you smile give it a shot.

For all my bitching and moaning I’m going to make an effort to see it again, but somewhere down the road. I still have my ticket for the 11th so I may try it again…or not. I’m not in a huge rush.

Wu Xia (Dragon) (2011) NYAFF 2012 (contains potential spoilers)

This is a review of the full version of the film which is not being run at NYAFF. The festival is showing the shorter version because it is the only one available for screening in North America. It is 12 minutesshorter than the the full film. I mention this because I make reference to the length of the film and it's pacing which are different in the reduced version.

I have no idea why the film is called Wu Xia or retitled as Dragon. Yes it has something to do with martial arts masters but at the same time there is only 3 fights in the whole film. That's just one of the many things that don't make a hell of a lot of sense in the film, which was the first sell out of this years NYAFF.

As the film opens Donnie Yen is living quietly with his family is a small village in China. Everyone is beginning to prosper thanks to a new paper mill. When a couple of toughs try to break rob the local tavern Yen manages to stop their attack by killing them. Unfortunately for Yen this brings in investigator  Takeshi Kaneshiro,who  begins to see more to the self defense killing than anyone  else. The result is to kick up a hornets nest and expose some things better left buried.

As you will see I am extremely all over the place concerning this film.  The feeling is the result of the film being essentially three or four separate films grafted together into one Frankenstein monster of a film.

The film opens with one of the greatest openings of the past year. Simply put, the first 12 or 15 minutes of the film, until the appearance of  Takeshi Kaneshiro, is a magical piece of film making. It's the sort of thing that we go to movies to see.  The sequence, life in the village, Yen with his family, and the first fight is incredible. I was hooked and I thought I would be willing to follow the film anywhere.

At this point the film shifts gears as Kaneshiro begins to investigate. Much of the second 20 minutes is a very long sequence as he plays over the possibilities of what actually happened in the fight. The film then goes over to Yen and Kaneshiro playing games as the detective tries to figure out who Yen really is. This part of the film, running about 40 or 45 minutes is a slow methodical slog. It's not even so much Kaneshiro finding evidence but pondering things and asking questions.

At about the 70 minute mark the film shifts gears yet again, into a completely different direction as Yen's past comes crashing into the village. This allows for the second fight of the film, a killer diller that stretches from the village square across roof tops into a barn and then... but that would be telling. The fight is amazing. Its a kick ass piece of action cinema that has a few twists and turns I haven't seen before. I loved it .

If you're sensing a "but" you would be right one is coming.

As much as I loved the fight, it also signals the films shift into the realm of WTF is going on. Yes, the ground work of most of what happens had been laid earlier, but at the same time the rapid series of revelations, and truly odd plot twists make the final 35 minutes seem like it was grafted on from one of the wilder martial arts films from the late 70's or early 80's.  All logic and reason goes out the window in order to end the film before two hours has run.

(The third fight also occurs late in the game and sadly it's the weakest of the fights)

I wasn't sure what I was seeing. Sure much of the film seems to be a Les Miserables re-think, but then there are these weird turns that make no real sense.

Is it a good film?

Yea, it is. But it's not a great one. It has some great stuff in it, Donnie Yen's performance, the first 15 minutes, the action sequences, but the story is a mess both in it's construction and it's pacing. In some ways I'm really glad I didn't score a ticket for the screening at NYAFF since I probably would have been tempted to walk out after the mad dash I would have had to have done to get there from work. I rushed in for this?

Don't get me wrong I like the movie. I just am glad I'm not moving hell and high water to go see it.

To be honest, the first reviews I read of the film way back when it first was released were dead on target. The reviews said the performances and the action were great, but that the story wasn't worth it. I have to agree.

If you have a ticket for this at NYAFF do go, you'll have a blast during the few fights. If you don't seeing it on DVD will be fine.

Mule vs. Crocodile: New York Asian Film Festival 2012 day 1

Last night was the opening night of the 12th, New York Asian Film Festival, digging its foothold even deeper into Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, with no signs of going anywhere.  I arrived for the 2nd movie on the slate, VULGARIA, and it affirmed that the guys running this thing know exactly how to pick a kick off movie.  It’s all about celebration, cheers, and rallying a crowd into something somewhere beyond passive spectator mode.

Last night’s was a different feel than the year before and perhaps some others as well, in that it was less a gala affair, with extremely talented but decidedly on the fringe director Pang Ho-Cheung (who was largely responsible for VULGARIA) in the guest spot. No throngs of photographers or seat filling entourages were on hand (this is perhaps something reserved for the Star New Asia award presentation, which this year, will take place on) but it only served to make the event more about the people in the audience.  

What exactly made VULGARIA such a prime opening night feature was its combination of outlandishness, flouting of the rules (whichever ones there still are, this definitely flies in the face of them), and very clever humor.  There is the appeal, first of all, of the movie within a movie idea, as we follow an account of a b-level producer’s harrowing experiences as he tries to make a movie from hell.  Different elements conspire together to make it one of the most shockingly offensive productions imaginable, even more so (though not necessarily by all that much) than the film it is set within.  Also a great deal of fun is the framing device of the producer lecturing a group of university students, whose vantage point easily coincides with us in the audience.  The cynical students often interrupt the account of things to ask question and express disbelief that would channel our own states of mind.  One fantastic instance of this is a  terse request for him to get off the subject of his personal life and confirm the far more provocative details of a sexual encounter with a mule, which may or may not have happened.

There is similar gross-out humor, calling out local cuisines and creative sexual acts.  More humorous to me was the abundance of wordplay and dialogue based humor.  There is a hilarious exchange between the producer and workers rights representative called in to take him to task when his words are taken vastly out of context.  There is also great societal humor, some of it that would probably benefit from the insight of a native speaker, and many references alluding to and poking fun at the film industry.  Whether it was intended to be or not, I found it a riot to hear ‘Lord of the Rings’ (i think it was that) and ‘Infernal Affairs’ (playing NYAFF a few days later!) referred to in the same breath as examples of major cinematic works.  The film is also gives testament to the power of social media.  Yet, along with all these ideas and the baudy humor, it is at its heart a sympathetic look at the so called ‘losers’ at the margins of society and their struggles to do what they do and still be connected to those they love.  It is a winning combination of ideas and sentiment presented in a frenetic in your face style.
The movie was followed by a q & a with the audience, hosted by the welcome presence of festival figurehead Grady Hendrix.  Cheung spoke largely about the even more incredible fact that most of the situations depicted in the film mirror real life instances.  We also learned that this was produced entirely by Cheung.  He showed a wit in his exchanges with the audience, making me regret taking a break from screenings today when they’ll be showing a series of his earliest home movies (packaged under the title Pang-Ho Cheung’s First Attempt) while he does live commentary in the theater.  I look forward to Db’s report on that.  The last thing they spoke of, as if in answer to Db’s late night appeal, is that VULGARIA has earned a US release by China Lion in the not too distant future!

Moving forward about an hour, after a few beers and chats in the lobby area, and we come to the monstrosity of WTF that was Shaw Brothers classic BOXER’S OMEN.  As opposed to the constant guffaws that come from hyperactively charged wackiness and bad acting, this was a slow slog through mind melting insanity.  What happened is not entirely clear to me.  It involved two fighters in a boxing ring, one being from Thailand, who competed until the Thai fighter claimed victory through some questionable means.  Enter Thailand, a quest for revenge, a transformation into a monk, and a back and forth battle taking place in one black (possibly on another plane of existence) room involving sorcery, demonically possessed wildlife, disembodied heads and appendages, and LOTS of regurgitation of food.  Meanwhile, scenes of more boxing back in China.  This film serves as a reminder that you can not spend enough money or develop effects technologically advanced enough to come anywhere near to touching the disgust and fascination evoked by these low budget, twisted, and supremely imaginative effects and disregard for good taste.  Highlights include a head that turns green, hovers above a levitating monk, and shoots down organ-like strands of flesh to wrap around his head and upper body.  Later, a crocodile is turned over, cut open, disemboweled, before a zombified woman is lowered inside of it, sealed, and taken out covered with all manner of crawling beasties. This is all interspersed with shamanistic chanting. I’m not sure that, if shown in the proper fashion, the film will in fact incure the wrath of some malevolent spirit.

Thank you New York Asian Film Festival, for a memorable opening night!

On today’s docket: Welcome Choi Min-Sik with screenings of OLDBOY and latest NAMELESS GANGSTER, both of which he will attend, martial arts classic Five Fingers of Death which director Chung Chang-Wha will attend, and tonight’s late night contender, GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL!

Kill Zone aka SPL aka Saat po long (2005) NYAFF 2012

When SPL aka Saat po long aka Kill Point came out word on the street was really good. It seemed the action In the film was top notch and everyone was talking about Sammo Hung’s return to the screen in a full bore bad guy role. It was supposed to be a mean and nasty role that could change the course of his career into a villainous mode.

I picked up an import version of the film and really enjoyed the hell out of it. The film was just as everyone said, great action and a killer role by Sammo. The film also offered a star making role by Donnie Yen. Yes Yen had been making films for years, yes he had some great roles in films like Dragon Inn, The Iron Monkey Films, or Hero, but to me, SPL (er Kill Point) he seemed to be experiencing  the moment where he suddenly moved up into movie superstardom. Sseriously, somewhere in his climatic and bloody battle with Sammo Hung he stepped up to the top tier of Hong Kong action stars. I’m guessing the reason was how well Yen stood up to the force of nature in Sammo.

The plot of the film has good cop Simon Yam going after bad guy Sammo Hung. When, through a long chain of circumstances (trust me it’s too complex to explain briefly), Yam is injured and discovered to have a brain tumor Donnie Yen is brought in to take over the investigation. The battle between cops and robber heats up and eventually explodes as the questionable methods used by both good guys and bad guys come back to haunt them.

While the complex, and frankly soap opera like, plot lifted the film up from many other mindless action films released at about the same time, it was very much the action that made the film stand out. I think every one of the action sequence are top notch, there isn’t a bad one in the lot. Additionally because of the complexity of the story the fights carried weight. We know people get hurt and we fear for the people we like as a result.

Striding through the film are the two stand outs, Sammo and Donnie. Sammo with his seemingly ever present golf club is a scary scary guy. Donnie on the other hand is a kick ass cop with a flair for inflicting damage. When the pair square off in the incredibly violent conclusion both are left bruised and broken both physically and emotionally (because they don’t realize what they set in motion).

This is a great film.

If you’ve never seen it you should, if you have you should see it again. If you live in New York you should go see it at the New York Asian Festival when it screens because Donnie Yen will be in the house.

A report from The Opening Night at the NYAFF 2012 - including a few words on Vulgaria (2012)

I'm not going into go into a long discussion about tonight's film. Even if I wanted to it would be tough since it's an adults only film which is all talk and damn funny as a result.

The plan for tonight was influx early on. I was coming in from work with my friend Stan. Mondocurry was making his way in from his house and Mr C was doing similar. Stan and I got in later than expected so I never contacted Mondo and C, instead Stan and I got dinner. We then headed up to the Walter Reade.

Walking into the lobby I saw Grady Hendrix, whom I haven't seen in ages. He was talking to some people, but gave me a wave (Grady, my apologies about not stopping to say hello, but you are a busy man and I didn't want to interrupt.) Stan and I did say hi to Rufus de Rham who was trying to take care of his duties at the festival.

Somewhere along the way Mondocurry made his way in and was secretly setting up a spy station in the corner of the Walter Reade gallery. We began to talk and kibbutz as we waited for the doors to open. Rufus came back and we all talked some more.

I do have to say that I love the audiences at the NYAFF. Everyone is nice and calm. Everyone is polite and respectful, or seems to be. I've been to festivals were people are so freaking full of themselves, but not here. Its a joy.

Eventually we were let in and Mondo, Stan and myself grabbed a seat off to one side. Stan had an early train so we were going to have to leave before the Q&;A.

After a an introduction by Gavin Smith, editor of Film Comment, Grady Hendrix lept to the stage to scream his wonderful usual welcome to everyone--and as the applause filled the theater, I realized I had come home yet again.

After that everyone now steering the festival was introduced (for give me I took no notes) It was Gorin and Rufus and Samuel from the Japan Society and a few more... (and Earl was helping as a volunteer)

Pang Ho-cheung, the director was introduced and he said a few words (I'm hoping Mr C or Mondo will relate them) before the film was run....

Vulgaria...what can I say...

The story of a producer speaking to students at a college about what a producer does when making a movie. The story is to what lengths he was willing to go to make a movie.

In the interest of good taste (and a desire not to spoil anything) I want to say that this is as tasteful as a movie can be with a running joke about mule sex. It gross and tasteless, not for kids and hysterically funny. I mean there are laughs here that will make you go light headed. Amazingly there is no nudity, nothing graphic, just lots of talk and implications. the most graphic thing is the inference of what you can use pop rocks for.

The audience went crazy.

I think it was Dr Stan Glick, Asian film expert, screamed "Fuck Yea!" when it was done seconds before the applause.

It was that kind of night.

Sadly because of the LIRR schedule Stan (my friend) and I had to leave as soon as the movies credits finished.

Stan's comment when Grady introduced the director after the film best summed up the reaction to the film.

Grady started by saying" After that there is only one thing to do..." and before Grady could bring Pang Ho-cheung up Stan said "Play it again" before leading the charge out.

Play it again?

Yea thats about right.

Vulgaria... a damn funny film that should have been run at least once more--I mean christ how else are we going to catch the jokes we missed the first time.

Put it on your must see list...assuming you aren't offended easily.

What a great way to start off this year.

(As I said I had to fly. Expect a report on the Q&A and the showing of Boxers Omen which followed when Mondocurry and Mr C report in.)

Okay, it's 2AM time for bed. There are movies coming tomorrow...

Friday, June 29, 2012

Make Up (2011) NYAFF 2012

(Before I get into anything I have to say that this film is not a horror film, nor is it s a thriller. It's ultimately a nostalgic romantic drama with mysterious overtones)

Hybrid film concerning a mortician's make up artist who's music teacher/lover ends up on her table. As she prepares the body she reflects back on her relationship with deceased even as questions arise as to what really happened to her.

The sort of mix of genres that you simply don't get in Western films, Make Up is a tough nut to crack. Part lost love tale, part lesbian potboiler, part mystery part fantasy the film throws out all sort so things in an effort to try and tell a story the likes of which you've not really seen before. It also doesn't handle them very well.

Give the film points for trying (and give the New York Asian Festival points for bringing it here) this is film that tries to do something different. Unfortunately it doesn't really manage to handle anything but the past love particularly well. The mystery ultimately doesn't amount to anything, the modern brooding about dead lover is often over done and some what maudlin and the fantasy of the dead woman appearing to our heroine kind of just misses.

It's not a bad movie but it isn't really a particularly good one. In a weird way I think this might have worked had the pacing not been again to a slow funeral procession. Say what you will this film just goes on and one and bangs from pillar to post making you feel it's about something when in fact it's really not (I think the lesbian angle is simple there to make the film seem different.)

It's an okay film, and had the film been playing in the middle of the day where you could try it before, after or between other films I would say go for it, but as for it's one screening at 1030 on July 11th... I wouldn't make a special trip especially on a "school night"

Goke: Body Snatcher From Hell (1968) NYAFF 2012

Off the deep end- in a good way- film concerns the passengers on plane, which is hijacked, crashes on a desert island, and ends up battling alien invaders who are re-animating the dead as part of an invasion plan.

It’s wild and wonton craziness from Japan that some how manages to stick with you. It helps that the film is not played for laughs, and is instead deadly serious. There is something about the intensity that helps put over the seeming silliness of the plot. It also helps make you forget that variations of the plot had been used off an on for years (Invisible Invaders, Puppet Masters, Bain from Planet Arous).

Actually what helps a great deal is the striking visual sense. The marvelous use of color and shot composition to add to the impending sense of doom that pervades the entire film. Think I’m crazy? Consider that Quentin Tarantino stole bits for Kill Bill and other films.

This is a really fun film and would be a blast if it was ever paired with Matango a trippy science fiction film from the same period about people turning into mushrooms. (no really, its not as stupid as it sounds).

The fact that this is being shown late at night at the NYAFF is a real treat. The mere fact we are getting a chance to see this projected big is a rare treasure, and that the film is being properly screened late at nigh makes it even more special since this is one of those perfect films which works best when seen on the edge of sleep.

An absolute must see at the NYAFF.

Sacrifice (2010) NYAFF 2012

When a duke is over thrown in a coup, and all of his family is wiped out in the hopes of preventing the rightful bloodline from ever appearing again, a general manages to save a new born heir by sacrificing his own new born in it's place. How the repercussions of that one act plays out over the next fifteen years is the film.

That's not really the plot. The actual plot is a bit more complicated than I can explain simply, but that is enough to get you started.

I really like this film but at the same time I'm kind of annoyed with it.

What I love about the film is that it's a great looking film, with some kick ass battle scenes, some great ponderings about family, honor and revenge and a great cast. The film is an old school  historical epic that, once it's set in motion, pulls you in and drags you along to it's conclusion. Sure it's a bit soapy, which is something to be expected from a film based on a 13th century play, but it's also good drama.

The key problem with the film is that I was lost for much of the first half hour of the film.  The structure of the film bounces around through time and space a little bit too much and if I wasn't in a patient mood I probably would have turned the film off.  The film does settle down and the film does becoming infinitely more compelling once things are set in motion, but the uneven first half hour makes the film a really good film instead of a great one.

That said, if you want to see grand spectacle on the big screen, do make an effort to go see this film when is runs (just one time) at the NYAFF. Films don't get much more spectacular than this one.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

cineTALK: A New York Asian Film Festival Interview with Rufus de Rham!

For its 12th edition, there have been some personnel changes in amongst the staff that sweats and bleeds celluloid to bring us our favorite summer obsessions, the New York Asian Film Festival.  Among the new faces on board is one Rufus de Rham.  Not familiar with that name? Worry not, your viewing experience is in more than capable hands.  Rufus is no small storehouse of encyclopedic knowledge of Korean cinema, some of which appears in published works.  He is cohost of the addictively informative and banter-filled movie podcast, CINEAWESOME, as well as its review laden hosting site.  And he happens to love Asian movies.

Over the past few days, I exchanged a volley of emails with Rufus about the festival and other aspects of his film-related activity.   

This is how it went down.

Q: The NYAFF has gone through quite a bit of personnel change leading up to this year's fest.  Could you explain your role in making this year's fest happen?  What kind of things might attendees notice about the 2012 edition that can be attributed to your involvement?

A: Sure! My role is Operations Manager/Assistant basically I coordinate with the print traffic people and the reception people and help to make sure the festival runs smoothly. Of course I have help from the entire NYAFF crew, as it is a big production to put a festival the size of NYAFF on and everyone works really hard to make it the best damn festival in the city (of course I might be a little biased). I also had a vote in some of the programming but my main contribution was programming the Korean Short Film Madness which includes Night Fishing (the Park Chan-wook iPhone film) and some other weirdly awesome and awesomely weird shorts from the Land of the Morning Calm.   

Q: The Korean shorts program looks like a very interesting offering this year.  Besides Park's much anticipated iPhone film, can you give any extra insight into other films in the it people involved or back-stories behind their productions?    

A: Well all the other short films are from the Mise En Scène Short Film Festival in Seoul, which sees some of the best genre filmmaking in Korea. Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook established it, and it has turned out people like Yeun Sang-ho, who directed one of my favorite films at the festival this year The King of Pigs. I don't really know much about the backgrounds of these filmmakers or films, but I do know that The Hideout (by Lee Chang-hee) is a mean little thriller that shows a lot of style, Heart (by Erick Oh) is crazy, trippy, weird, and filled with action, The Lucky Gumboy (by Choi Shin-choon) is sweet and funny, and finally Finis Operis (directed by Moon Byoung-gon) is dark, a little mean, and is a perfect short film joke, including one of the best closing shots ever. I basically watched a ton (and I mean a ton) of shorts and slowly whittled them down and tested some on my poor friends who happened to stop by. Hopefully people like what came out of this!

Q: You mentioned voting on the program, and in past years there have been allusions to passionate, borderline violent arguments about what to and what not to show.  Were there any titles in this year's lineup that were particularly polarizing among the NYAFF team?  If you'd care to, please do weigh in on what side of the fence you were on regarding them.

A: So the voting rules is pretty much we each get one weapon and whoever ends up with the least amount of blood coming from them gets to pick the movie. Seriously though as an Assistant Programmer I wasn't voting on everything. Usually the hardest things are when we love love love a movie but don't think it would work for our audience or in this specific festival. Those are sometimes the most heated discussions. This year for the ones that made it in (that I got to vote on at least) it was fairly unanimous and easy. I would say Red Vacance, Black Wedding had some great discussion not about if it was worthy to be in the festival, but if our audience would respond to it. The film (directed by Park Cheol-su of Green Chair fame, and Kim Tae-sik of Driving with My Wife's Lover) is split into two stories about infidelity. I love this film, but there was a question if people would respond to its more art house nature. I said people should google Oh In-hye + dress and see if they want to see a film with her in it. Thats the fun of programming though. We never know what the hits of the festival are going to be! Seriously though go see Red Vacance, Black Wedding...just don't bring anyone under 17.
Q: You are extremely knowledgeable on Korean Cinema.  At what point did you decide this was an area of film that you want to pursue to such an intense degree?  What was the thing or movie or moment that pulled you into its grip?

A: I went to a boarding school during high school that had several Korean students who I was friends with. They had hotpots and rice cookers so there was always something to eat in their rooms! One day I was joking around with one of them that I was going to hide in his luggage when he left for the summer. Long story short I got a passport, left my small hometown for the summer, and ended up in Daegu, a city that is in the south west of Korea. We saw Kick the Moon in theaters and I was hooked. An entire cinema I had never heard of! We rented Shiri and Friend, which at that point had blown every box office number in Korea away and I saw Memento Mori and Yongari on tv. At this point I didn't know any Korean, and could only follow the films based on my friends' narration and the visuals, but I had found my calling. I went on to study it at NYU and just slowly tried to make my way. It makes me really happy that it has such an international following now! When I told people I was going to study Korean film when I started at NYU they looked at me like I had antlers on my head, now they just recently (last year) held an intense scholarly conference on it! Shameless plugs: if you want to see some of my writing on Korean cinema check out cineAWESOME! Some of the Korean centric episodes on VCinema Show podcast What's Korean Cinema? from the Podcast on Fire guys,  or my articles in Directory of World Cinema: South Korea which you can pre-order on Amazon.

Q: Speaking of Cineawesome, I've been catching up on some episodes of the podcast. There's a real rapport between you & your cohosts as you breakdown some easily overlooked genre films.

How did you all come together to do the podcast? Has it changed much since you 1st set out?

A: Thanks! It is something we feel makes the show work. James and I have known each other for a couple years now. We were working at Borders together and we started a genre-book site called Paper Spaceships, which is still around but is pretty much defunct. We started writing a bunch of film reviews and decided to split those into another site. Thus cineAWESOME! was born. We actually started with NYAFF 2010! A podcast was always talked about but didn't coalesce until last year also coinciding with NYAFF. Episode 5 was on Japan Cuts, 6 was NYAFF and we had a bonus interview episode with Grady Hendrix which is insanely long and filled with tangents. Our main format has always been to cover two films that are (tenuously at times) thematically linked. Early episodes also have extra sections like voicemail, viewer comments, what we've been watching, etc. We added our 3rd host Billy Ogawa. Check his sometimes NSFW art site here for Episode 14 where we covered Squirm and Slugs. We just clicked, Billy is the naysayer (generally) to James and my over enthusiastic praise and it makes for an interesting dynamic. It helps that we are all friends in real life. Now the show is leaner. We only cover the films and we have better equipment. We used to share one mic and now we each have our own, but we still tell off color jokes and go on crazy tangents. We are also weekly now, having been sporadic with our releases previously we now release every Wednesday. You can search for cineAWESOME! on iTunes or on Stitcher Radio and enjoy the show.

Q: You have some amazing guests at this year's fests, standing out perhaps are Choi Min-Sik and Donnie Yen, both major iconic actors.  How does the festival go about getting the likes of them?

A: Well NYAFF has been running for 11 years now and they have always been about bringing guests to NYC that might not get a chance to interact with people otherwise. Honestly though? I have no idea how they did it! Especially this year with the caliber of our guests. The rest of the Subway Cinema crew are amazing and I've been honored to work with them. As the new guy it has been a crash course education for sure. They work hard all year round, and I know sometimes we get guests based on films we program , like Grandmaster Y.K. Kim who is coming to do a 20 minute Taekwondo demonstration before Miami Connection. Or we build side panels around guests, like Choi Min-sik and Donnie Yen. The Star Asia Awards have also played a big part in the guests as well. Donnie Yen will be getting the Star Asia Award before the screening of Dragon this year, Michelle Chen will receive the Star Asia Rising Star Award before You are the Apple of My Eye on July 1st, Masami Nagasawa will recieve her Star Asia Rising Award before Love Strikes!, and Chung Chang-wha will recieve the Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award before the screening of King Boxer (aka Five Fingers of Death). 

Really though, I like how major stars and indie directors from various countries can be brought together in one festival. Plus after working with some people for a while they become friends of the festival and you can get them to do things like when Pang Ho-cheung is going to give live commentary on two short films he shot when he was 14! Seriously people should buy tickets for Pang Ho-Cheung's First Attempt... it will be a lot of fun. I guess I kinda answered that question? hahaha

Q: You've been on many sides of the festival -- being in the audience, writing about the films (which are not necessarily exclusive)  and now helping to program things. Based on experiencing things from all ends, can you tell us what might be different about this years than others?

A: Well it is interesting having been on all the sides for sure. It sure is easiest being just in the audience! Writing was hard, last year cineAWESOME!, VCinema and Stan Glick combined forces to try to review everything and I think we almost made it. With my involvement with the festival this year though cineAWESOME! isn't doing as much. But you guys know how hard it is to see all these films and get the reviews up for your readers. I think every year this festival grows and gets better. It really is a labor of love. Anyone who thinks Festival life is glamorous needs a reality check! We work really hard to make sure we have a great lineup. I think in general we are seeing a greater acceptance of asian film in America in general than ever before. I mean think about even 5 years ago how hard it was to see Korean films. Now they are screening at AMC theaters, not to mention the Korean Cultural Service's Free Korean Movie Night at Tribecca. This makes it hard to get big exclusives for festivals but I think its good for the industry in the long term. I'm excited to see how it will grow from this year to next. Personally I would love to see more retrospective series during the festival, but that is my training as an archivist!

Q: OK, my last question is a hypothetical...supposing one is dropped off on on the curb outside of Lincoln Center, after a mysterious, lengthy confinement, with a wallet filled with only enough money for an Economy Buster combination from Gray's Papaya and tickets to see 3 New York Asian Film Festival movies.  Which 3 movies do they see?  (Sorry, it's my lame way of spicing up the standard ‘what are your must see recommendations?’!)

A: My three must see movie choices are Miami Connection, Nameless Gangster, and King of Pigs.


So, when you see Rufus or any of the dedicated NYAFF crew running around the theater in the next few weeks, be sure to say 'hi,' be sure to thank 'em for keeping the amazingness going!


Subway Cinema New York Asian Film Festival website

CineAWESOME website

CineAWESOME on twitter = @cineAWESOME

Rufus de Rham on twitter = @Rufushderham

me on twitter = @mondocurry

Simple Life (aka Sister Peach) (2011) NYAFF 2012

Winner of numerous awards from around the world, this is the true story of one of the film’s producers who ended up taking care of his nanny, Sister Peach (one of the film’s titles) after she has a stroke. It’s not your typical movie of the week, it’s actually how the woman strove to recover from her illness and live a somewhat independent life in an old folks home while her “son” watched over her.

Give the film a couple dozen points for not taking the road most traveled, in other words a movie of the week high drama tale, rather it’s more a slice of life closer to what many people actually experience with loved ones trying to live and get on as health fails but family bonds remain strong.

Buoyed by a strong performance by Andy Lau as the producer and an even stronger, yes it was right to give her every award under the sun performance by Deanie Ip as Sister Peach, this is two hours in the company of some really nice people. (Ip performance is the reason this is a MUST see at the festival)

On the other hand this film is two hours long. There isn’t anything wrong with the case being two hours wrong except there isn’t enough drama to support it. Sequences seem to just go on. Actually the best way I can describe it is that it’s a bit too much like life. It’s the sort of thing that makes a near great film a simply good one.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the film a great deal and I do recommend it, I’m just kind of at a loss as to why it’s as long as it is.

Alternately you’ll want to see this for Deanie Ip's stellar performance. Hell it’s not a performance, it’s a real person. It’s one of those performances that put 99.99% of recent Hollywood performances to shame. Yea it’s that good. Actually she’s so good that she makes this film one of the must see films of the NYAFF because who knows if this will get a US release.

Starry Starry Night (2011) NYAFF 2012

Disclaimer up front.

When I sat down to watch Starry Starry Night I found very quickly that I wasn’t in the right mood to completely give myself over to its sense of whimsy and magical realism. I state this so you can better judge my reaction to it.

This is the story of Mei. She is a teenager living with her parents some where in Taiwan. Her parents are verging on divorce and Mei frequently looks to her grandfather, who lives in the mountains, for comfort. Mei also has flights of fancy seeing toys come to life or the world as versions of her favorite paintings. One day she makes the acquaintance of Zhou, a new boy with a decidedly awkward way in the world (this is the result of his mother keeping them on the move). Zhou also has an artistic bend. The pair grow close however the world would see them kept apart.

Coming of age story based on an illustrated novel is either going to tickle you pink or send you screaming from the theater. Full of whimsy and magical moments this is the sort of film that can be painfully sweet. To be certain the film is full of truly magical moments and visual treats aplenty, but it’s also a story that is incredibly by the numbers. Don’t get me wrong I do like the film but it also hit every cliché for a story like this. If the film didn’t have a great visual sense and some great performances, this film wouldn’t stand out.

On the other hand, the films visual delights, toys come to life, a parade of origami animals, the world as a Van Gogh painting are worth the price of admission on their own, especially on the big screen.

If the idea of the film tickles your fancy, go.

You Are The Apple Of My Eye (2011) NYAFF 2012

Based on the writer directors autobiographical novel this is a well made and flashy coming of age story about a bunch of friends in high school and how a pair of them kind of fall in love.

I suspect that you’re either going to love or hate this film. I’m mixed on it. It’s got great performances, looks great but is so knowing and striving to be so hip and happening that it tried my patience. My patience went out the window early with the third shot of Boner’s boner in two minutes. It wasn’t that funny the first time, and by the third one I was just like "oh please". I could deal with some of the knowing jokes and smart attitude (the film is told in flashback so the attitude is how we hear the story), but I really didn’t care for the film’s insistence on playing to the gallery since the characters are good enough that we don’t need to be pandered to. (And yes I know that's how people of a certain age are but the film seems to want to be better than that)

For me the film's weakness is the bookends. The film opens and closes in 2005 as the characters are off to a wedding. The film then flashes back to 1994 where our hero meets the apple of his eye, an honor student and they fall in love. When we see them now they seem to be the same exact people we had seen at the start of the film despite the passage of time and some maturing along the way. Visually there doesn't seem to have been an attempt at aging them, nor do they seem to have grown up despite indications in the central part of the story. They are still the same kids at 27 that they were at 16. It felt wrong. Also feeling wrong was the final fade out which begs the question, you waited until the most inopportune moment to get it together?

I’m sorry to pick on the film but I’m annoyed with it since it almost worked. It almost was great. Its like they had all these great things and then just put them together in such away that the portrait has an eye in the center of it’s forehead. I wanted so much to like the film, nay, I like the film, I wanted to love the film but instead I find I want to smack it up side it’s head and say will you pull yourself together.

Worth a shot, despite my misgivings, especially since my reluctant attitude is in the minority.

(I also reserve the right to change my mind upon a second or third viewing)

Scabbard Samurai (2011) NYAFF 2012 Japan Cuts 2012

From Hitoshi Matsumoto the director of Big Man Japan and Symbol comes the story of a disgraced samurai given 30 days and 30 attempts to make the son of a lord smile or else commit suicide.

Traveling across the country, with his daughter following in close quarter the title character is hunted by various bounty hunters. He barely says a word while his daughter admonish him to behave like a real samurai and just kill himself. Captured and brought before a local lord he is given the sentence of the 30 Day Fete, trying to make his son laugh with in 30 days. Helped, or perhaps hindered, by his jailers the sad sack fellow tries to come up with a means creating laughter.

As with the director other films this is a very deliberate movie. The humor is very dry and calculating with lots of silly faces. The film heads in directions that don't really seem to make sense, or rather only make sense once you get to the end. Simply put what the film is really about isn't readily apparent until it gets to the point where it lets us in on what it's really about.

The question about what the film is about and what is really going on I'll leave for you to discover. I don't really want to spoil it but I will say that the film is incredibly bitter sweet and by the time it ended I found my ass had been kicked to the curb. This wasn't what I was expecting.

The best thing I can say about this film, which is one of the best films I've run across at the New York Asian Film Festival is that it's the sort of film that instantly demands you see it again. By the time it reveals all of its secrets you need to go back through the film simply so you can understand what you've just seen.

I'm floored.

Put this on your must see list at NYAFF/ Japan Cuts

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Old Boy (2003) — NYAFF 2012

There was a point somewhere in the first hour of Old Boy that my brain exploded. I don’t know where it was, but somewhere along the way I picked up the phone and I called my friend Lou.

“Are you going to be home in about two hours?”

“yea why?”

“I have this movie, and you need to see it”

“What is it?”

Old Boy

“Whats that?”

“It’s a Korean film. I picked it up on DVD”

“What is it about?”

“It’s about to mess up your head very badly”

I hung up the phone and then I dropped the film off at his house when the film finished.

About three hours later he called me up and asked “What the hell was that?”

“Yea, that was my reaction”

“How the hell am I supposed to get through the rest of the week?”

“No Clue”

“You need the movie right back?”

“No. I’m still trying to work that out”

“Good, I’m going to watch it again”

He hung up the phone and did.

I should point out that when I saw the film it was as an import. Any sort of US release was ages off, and any talk of the film was coming out of film festivals in Europe and Asia. No one I knew personally knew anything about the film until I started to pass my copy around and destroy minds left and right. No one was prepared for it.

No one.

By the time it hit the US shores in an official release the film had a killer reputation, and despite it, still was messing up minds.

Based on a comic book, Old Boy is the story of a man who is kidnapped and locked away in a room for over a decade by someone unknown. He is eventually released and tries to find out what happened to him and why. I won’t say more than that because what happens is the story and the less you know the bigger the effect.

While the film is frequently violent (there is a nasty fight with a claw hammer in a sequence that is one of the best fights ever put on film) and contains of eye popping moments (yes that dinner sequence is real) but it’s the story itself with its revelations and twists and turns that will mess you up forever.

Trust me once you’ve seen Old Boy you will never forget it no matter how hard you try.

If you’ve never seen Old Boy you should.

If you never seen it on a big screen and live in New York you need to go see this at the NYAFF where the film can really work you over…and you’ll really understand what I mean about the hammer sequence.

Infernal Affairs 2 (2003) NYAFF 2012

Prequel to the classic Infernal Affairs, is possibly a better film than it's predecessor. I know that could be considered sacrilege in some corners but in others it's a well argued point. I'm not up to arguing either way, I simply think this is a great film and if you can you really should see it.

The plot is really too complicated for a simple description. The film starts some 11 years before the first film and introduces to many of the characters we knew from the first film. We see how they got to where they were at the start of the first film. Set in 1991, 1995 and 1997 the film shows how all of the characters lives are colored and changed by the darkness that they walk through.

I've always been curious if you can watch the films in reverse order, if it will make the first film seem deeper. Alternately some of the joy of the first film was not knowing all of the details and watching how the character's lives unfold... maybe someday I'll do it.

Anyway,it's screening at the NYAFF this year you really should make an effort to go. The sequel to once of the more influential films from the last decade Infernal Affairs 2 in many ways ups the ante. Here are some characters we already have a connection to, thanks to the first film, and we get to see where they came from. the fact that many of the characters have already been laid out allows for the actors to shade and color them even further. Watch, for example, Eric Tsang and Anthong Wong give a master class in acting as they all but disappear into their characters.

I like that the film is less flash and more dense. Since the film covers some 7 years of time, things are more complicated. We have plot lines, and lives stretched out and explored with a detail that wasn't possible in the earlier films mole hunt.We see a bit more of some of the characters lives and it deepens what we know about them.

Does the film stand on it's own? I suspect it does. As I said the only way I've seen the film was following closely behind the first one so I can't say I know how the film would play out on it's own. I suspect that outside of references to the first film, anyone watching it would be unaware of what things mean on a bigger level.

If you've never seen this film you really should make an effort to see it. And if you're in New York you should make an effort to see it when it screens with the first film next Friday night.

Infernal Affairs (2002) NYAFF 2012

You've seen this right?

This is the story of a cop who goes deep undercover and joins the triads. It's also the story of a gang member who goes undercover as a cop. After years in deep deep cover each discovers the existence of the other sending the pair and their organizations on a collision course.

You seen this right?

No, seeing the over rated Oscar winning film The Departed doesn't count.

Come on you haven't seen this?

Why haven't you seen this?

This is the real deal. This is one of those films that comes out of Asia every couple of years and changes everything in it's wake. This is a perfect paced film running almost an hour shorter than it's bloated remake. It's a film that has style to burn.

Actually the film's flaw is that it has so much style that it pretty much overwhelms the intricate plot. I remember writing a review not long after`the film came out where I talked about how the film's style drives so much of the film during the first hour that when the plot takes over- during a tense roof top confrontation- the film feels like it's lost something. It's only on a second viewing that you realize that bump isn't as bad as you thought and that it's more like the release of a roller coaster car from the lifting chain at the top of the first hill. After all if the film didn't work the revelations toward`the end wouldn't be so upsetting. Trust me the end almost always brings an "Oh Shit" from everyone who's seen it.

I love this film. Its neat and clean and economical. Don't get me wrong I like The Departed, but I don't love it. Its too big a film with too many characters. It drones on and on and I was 90 minutes in wondering when it was all going to end since it just went on and on. Infernal Affairs on the other hand moves like the wind. There are only enough characters as the story needs.

If you want an example of how good the film is, watch one of the opening scenes with the moles on the inside and the outside of a big meeting trying to warn their real bosses about what is going down- that they suddenly realize that there is a mole in the other side. The one scene has more tension than almost any other American crime film of the last ten years. Its a masterpiece of film making.

Has time and the fact that the film has been copied lessened its impact? Perhaps slightly, on the other hand I semi-recently saw this film again and I found it still rocks. It's still a film that people are copying. Think I'm kidding? I'm not The New York Asian Film Festival is having a panel discussion about the film and it's impact.

See this film.

If you're in the New York City area next week make an effort and go see this it at the film festival.

Potechi (Chips) (2012) Japan Cuts 2012 NYAFF 2012

From Yoshihiro Nakamura comes a film based on the work of Kotaro Isaka, who supplied the source material for three other Nakamura films including A Fish Story.

Poetechi is the story of a young man, aburglar by trade, who ends up in orbit around a baseball player born on the same day as himself ... and thats about all I can say about the plot since if you've ever seen the majority of Nakamura's films you know that the plot lines dive and loop back on each other with a fierocity that is both  unnatural and completely believable. If I tell you anything up front it will reveal something later on. Trust me when I tell you it's very much a kin to A Fish Story and Golden Slumber.

In fairness I also have to mention that the other reason I can't say too much is that this is a triffle of a film, running only 68 minutes so there isn't a great deal to the plot..(There will be a shorts program screening with this on July 15th). The fact that the film is so short (at least relative to todays typical 90 minute or morning running time) is  that the film wonderfully does what it has to do and gets off. Its a film that doesn't do more than it has to.

I like this film a great deal. I like it's short and sweet approach to filmmaking. The film is full of great chracters, from our hero, to his girl, his mom and his friend, a man who can't empathize. Its a wonderful bunch of characters who you'd love to hang around with. They are the sort of people you really root for and become so invested in that by the time the film ends you find that you've been moved emotionally even though there really doesn't seem to be a reason for it. (I'm still trying to figure out where the hell that tear came from- chalk it up to a brilliant filmmaker.)

In fairness I do have to say that as Nakamura films go, this isn't my favorite, that has to go, by a mile or six to A Boy and His Samurai from last years NYAFF. I also find A Fish Story better. But this is solidly among the rest of the surprisingly excellent pack (has he actually made a bad film?). I should also state that just as it's unfair to compare a short story to a novel, it's not fair to compare this shorter work with his other films which are much more complex.

Definitely worth hauling ass over to the Japan Society to see, especially if you can piggy back it with one of the other films that are playing that day (Ace Attorney, Tormented or Monster's Club)

This is screening as part of the Japan Cuts look at Post 311 Cinema.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Monsters Club (2011) Japan Cuts 2012 NYAFF 2012

From director Toshiaki Toyoda who last made Blood of Rebirth a film that split the audiences that saw it at 2010's NYAFF comes Monsters Club, a retelling of the story of the Unibomber but reset in Japan and with some ghosts.

The film is essentially the story of a Ted Kaczynski character through several snow bound months when he begins to see ghosts and gods, and drift back toward civilization. Its a strange heady mix of ideas that is operating on several levels, including one that seems to infer a parallel with poet Kenji Miyazawa If you have no idea who Miyazawa is you're going to be among the vast majority of non-Japanese seeing this film (he was a wonderful poet who kind of chucked it all to live in the country where he farmed and taught). It's something which highlights a problem with the film, it's very referential to Japan and it's history and culture. Yes, you can follow the Unibomber stuff without difficulty (that's mostly him trying to come to terms with his past ans not blowing things up), but with the film is working on other levels you won't get what the film is getting at if you don't know what they are referring to.

Yea I know it's real weird for me to complain a film is too intelligent and thoughtful., but the film is. Its a film that struck me as a highly intelligent film that really only touches the head since almost everything discussed is an idea.

The film also is flawed by ghosts who look more like people wearing whip cream smeared all over their faces rather than anything supernatural.

It's not a bad film but it's not a particularly great one either. Little outside of talk happens, with the result that the film seems more to be telling us stuff rather than showing us or letting us decide.

While it's probably one of the most intelligent films of the year I don't thinkt it's much more than an interesting diversion.

If you like the director go see it.

(In all fairness Mondocurry LOVES this movie. He is over the moon about it. He will also be writing it up...and having talked to him about his piece you will want to come back for that.)

Asura (2012) — NYAFF 2012 / Japan Cuts 2012

One of the co-presentations between Japan Cuts and NYAFF this year, Asura is an animated film based on a controversial manga. Its controversial because the work is bleak dark and depressing, things that the animated film is in spades. As they said before the press screening it's anti-Miyazaki. I also suspect that if it played at Disney World, the characters would all commit suicide and Walt would spin in his grave.

On the other hand the film is a beautiful piece of animation that mixes styles to perfectly replicate a manga panel in both 2D and 3D. Its a masterpiece of animated art that forces you to feel something even though it's not shiny happy rather its the sort of thing that makes you want to crawl in a hole and die...not the sort of thing most people look for in an animated film.

The story concerns a small boy, born into 15th century Japan which has been ravaged by famine and drought. Everyone is hungry. Everyone abuses everyone else. Asura grows up, more animal than human, devouring anything and anyone (yea he's a cannibal) that gets in his way. Meeting a monk on a bridge his life is is the lives of everyone he meets.

This is a magical melding of art and music. The film frequently goes for a feeling rather than absolute narrative perfection, and it works. The creation of the feeling of the pain of existence that is so strong that I wondered if I was going to be able to handle a second film (Isaw this as part of adouble feature).

The film also is an amazing philosophical discussion of the darker side of life and man's desire to over come it.

This is a great film.

If you can go see it.

Far More Than Just an Empty Shell: Scabbard Samurai @ New York Asian Film Festival 2012 Japan Cuts 2012

Scabbard Samurai poster
Some years back I watched Matsumoto Hitoshi’s Dainipponjin to some degree of disappointment.  A mockumentary about a washed up and hopelessly failing kaiju (giant monster) hero, I found it to be a very clever idea.  But it banged out the same note rather repetitively, making me feel trapped by an overbearing cynicism.

Two films later, Hitoshi‘s latest work has caught me off guard with an amazingly disarming sincerity.  I watched in delight as a slight yet amusing version of a fairy tale transformed into something far more profound and emotionally rich right before my eyes.  

The movie’s premise is a simple one.  During the Edo period, a disgraced samurai, wanted for deserting his post, is captured by a feudal lord with a rather unconventional condition for his prisoners:  get his sorrowful son to crack a smile within 30 days, or commit ritual suicide upon failure to do so.  It is up to the ‘scabbard samurai,’ named so for his cowardly reputation as a harmless shell of a warrior, to find a way to thaw the prince’s iced over heart and also earn back the respect of his hard nosed daughter and travelling companion, Tae.

As Matsumoto chronicles one attempt at evoking laughter after the next after the next, we can see his penchant for oversized fantastical set pieces at work.  Between out and out ridiculous slapstick efforts are giant cannons firing out the samurai himself off an expansive beach coast, a wood-and-iron mechanical contraption that launches human fireworks skyward, and a massive pinwheel.  

As the woeful samurai’s number of remaining attempts dwindles down to zero, expectations of the usual variety are probably occurring in the audience’s mind.  And then, with but a small fraction of its running time remaining, Matsumoto pulls out a halting cinematic trick by bringing about a total shift in tone that is both jarring and wonderful. It is a messy, seemingly counterintuitive move that finds the movie with its heart splayed out all over its sleeve.  All cynicism is melted away and I will admit to feeling no less than stunned in its wake.    

After fully absorbing the impact of its sheer sincerity, one can appreciate Scabbard Samurai on some more subtle levels. Recalling my own reaction to this director’s first feature as ‘one note,’ I found myself looking again at the 30 day trial.  The same concept is shown repeatedly, with slight variations, followed each time by a bellowing insistence for the failed entertainer to commit ritual suicide. Could Matsumoto be cleverly referencing his own artistic path with the final act of Scabbard Samurai representing a new, soul baring, and all the more riskier for it, direction he is embarking on...starting within this very movie?  

It is interesting, as well, to see a common theme appear throughout Matsumoto’s slowly growing body of work.  Like in Dainipponjin, this film’s central character is visibly aging and weary of the pace of the world that whirl past him.  Takaaki Nomi’s lead performance is a subtle bit of magic as he wordlessly imparts inspiration, determination, and feeling resigned to failure through body language and facial expressions.  Look him up on IMDB and you will find one of the shortest profiles of a lead actor around.  Apparently, Matsumoto discovered him in the audience of a tv show taping and found a way to get him into this film with him knowing he was the lead until after shooting was finished.  It calls to mind the tendency of stateside comedy outcasts Tim and Eric to cast nonprofessional actors with refreshingly unpolished looks and mannerisms, like Richard Dunn, in their productions.    

Scabbard Samurai, with its coiled up surprise, is a perfect film festival movie.  It will have audiences turning to each other and sharing a moment; not the knowing, winking sort but one of having experienced something that boldly lays sentiment on the line.



Me on Twitter = @mondocurry

Smuggler (2011) — NYAFF 2012 / Japan Cuts 2012

Smuggler is a manga based confection from the mind of Katsuhito Ishii who gave us A Taste of Tea, Funky Forest and Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl. An odd mix of tone and styles it's a film that is going to be loved by some and I think hated by others.

The plot of the film follows Kinuta, a struggling actor in way over his head to the yakuza. He really has no way of paying them back and is kind of relieved when he finds out that his debt has been sold to a company who is going to have him work it off. Then he finds out he'll be working moving bodies and cleaning up messes for the bad guys. It's a job that runs him smack dab into the middle of a war between Japanese and Chinese gangsters and eventually has him acting as a stand in for a vicious hit man named Vertebrae.

I'm not sure what I make of this strike that...I'm not sure I like this film or if I hate it. A great looking film with a great cast of actors the film is plagued by a tone that is best described as all over the place. There is some really serious stuff going on here and yet its under cut by sense of silliness that chaffed the hell out of me.

The has pieces that seem rooted in the manga, one character has big eye brows and wildly over reacts, a female mob boss dresses like she's going to tea,  while the violent action sequences freeze frame and go in an over the top manga style. This over the top silliness crashes head long into the reality of some characters, Kinuta and his boss, and of the nastiness of the violence (bones break and bodies contort with blows).

Am I supposed to laugh or groan?

By the time the end came, I not didn't know what to feel or think about any of it. It didn't help that the costumes undercut the incredibly ugly and prolonged torture sequence. And as for Kinuta's transformation,I'm not sure it added up to much. It's not a matter of getting it or not getting it, I've seen enough way out films like this to know just go with it. It's not even a matter of having seen this late at night,  it's simply  a matter of not feeling it any of it works together.

You know what I kept thinking while watching this? If Takashi Miike had directed this it would have worked. I suspect it would have. All I could think of was Ichi The Killer and how that film trod a very loosely related ground and made it work. Through much if Ichi I didn't know what to think or feel  but I at least felt the director knew what he was going for, here it just seems like he didn't.

And I should explain that when I say this film doesn't work I mean just that, it doesn't work. It doesn't come together as a whole film. I don't think the film is bad, not in how we think of something as bad or good. rather I mean it doesn't work, as in if it were an engine it wouldn't start.

After thinking about the film as I write this I have to say that I really don't like it.

If you can connect with it's wacky tone and enjoy the realistic violence in cartoon action sequences you'll love the film, if not you'll walk out like me and wonder what the hell that was all about.