With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Thursday, September 24, 2020

SAMURAI MARATHON reviewed

Well Go USA
Entertainment
Presents
Samurai Marathon / Samurai marason
Directed by Bernard Rose
Japan/UK, 2019, 103 minutes

Samurai Marathon, an unusual samurai jidaigeki film, recently became available as Digital On Demand, DVD and Blu-ray from Well Go USA. My review is based on watching the Blu-ray version.

The film is set in the 1850s. when the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry (played here by Danny Huston) and his infamous "black ships" brought about the end of roughly 260 years of Japan's relative isolation from the rest of the world. Itakura Katsuakira, lord of the Annaka Domain, foresees problems for the the feudal system of Japan, the Tokugawa Shogunate and the samurai. Fearing that the long period of peace has made the samurai soft and vulnerable, he decides to test the mettle of all of his samurai and foot shoulders with a thirty-six mile footrace on steep hills and rough terrain, the winner to be granted a wish.

Unfortunately, a shogunate spy in Itakura's fiefdom, misinterprets his call for his men to assemble the next day -- when he plans to announce the race -- as a signal for rebellion and reports this to the shogunate, who of course send assassins. When the spy learns of his mistake, he tries to stop his messenger but is too late.

The tale is further complicated by Princess Yuki (Komatsu Nana), the 5th daughter of Kiakura. She is more open-minded then her father and is interested in the ships that have come to her land. She adopts male garb and the name Kumanosuke, and enters the race, hoping to sneak out of her father's fiefdom and get a look at the ships firsthand.
 
Also thrown into the mix is Tsujimura, a would-be suitor of Yuki, who will stop at nothing to win the race and use the wish his lord would then grant him to marry her. Then too, there is the elderly Mataemon Kurita, who's been forced to retire and who teaches the boy Isuke Fukumoto how to run.

There's amply skullduggery and traitorous action to keep things interesting during the film's running time. 
 
In addition to the fine cast, director Bernard Rose (known best perhaps for 1992s Candyman) deserves significant credit. He managed to produce a very Japanese feeling film, unlike, say, Edward Zick in his Tom Cruise starring vehicle The Last Samurai (2003), which has Hollywood written all over it. Rose's efforts perhaps were assisted by the multitude of Japanese producers, co-producers, executive producers, and associate producers, twenty-six in all according to IMDb!

Credit also must be shared with Ishizaka Takuro for cinematography, Kamitsuna Mako for film editing, and Philip Glass for yet another wonderful film score.

The film is based on a historical event. The Annaka clan's first race was in 1855. Twelve years later the era of the samaurai ended with the Meiji Restoration.

Disc Specs:
-- Audio
  -- Japanese DTS-HDMA 5.1
  -- Japanese Stereo
-- Subtitles
  -- English
  -- Off
-- Trailer
-- Previews
  -- Cut Throat City
  -- Ip Man 4: The Finale
  -- First Love
 
Before getting to my rating of the film, I must mention these three facts about Samurai Marathon and the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF):
- The film had its North American Premiere as the Festival's Opening Film on June 28, 2019 
- An image from the film was used on the cover of the Festival brochure
- Komatsu Nana, who portrayed Princess Yuki, received the Festival's Screen International Rising Star award for an actress. (Ryu Jun-yeol, seen in the film Money, received this award for male actor.)
 
AsianCineFest Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars; very highly recommended; well-worth owning.

Friday, September 04, 2020

SECRET ZOO reviewed [NYAFF 2020]

capelight pictures
presents
Secret Zoo
Directed by SON Jae-Gon
Starring AHN Jae-hong, KANG So-ra,
PARK Yeong-gyu, and KIM Sung-oh
South Korea, 2020


Based on the webcomic series Haechijiana by Hun that ran from 9/20/2011 - 4/27/2012, Secret Zoo is a charming and delightful comedy about a zoo struggling to stay afloat. The film is playing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), which this year is running online only from August 28th to September 12th. Secret Zoo, like two other offerings, will only have two screenings: Saturday, September 5 at 8:00 PM and Tuesday, September 8 at 5:00 PM. My review is based on watching an online screener back in January, 2020, in conjunction with the film's theatrical opening in the U.S.A. that month.

KANG Tae-soo (AHN Jae-Hong) is a young lawyer who has worked as a temp at JH Law for eight months and fervently wants to secure a permanent position in the firm's Mergers and Acquisition (M & A) department. It looks like his opportunity has arrived when he is tasked with normalizing and maintaining the failing Dongsan Park Zoo within three months for one of his employer's clients. The trouble is, all the viable animals have been sold off by loan sharks to pay the zoo's debts!

Undeterred, Tae-soo comes up with a plan to used somewhat realistic-looking animal costumes for the four remaining members of the staff to wear and fool the public. Not surprisingly, things don't go well; until, that is, a chance event goes viral on the internet and transforms the zoo into a major attraction.

Given the nature of the genre, one knows that things are basically going to turn out alright at film's end. It's really a matter of how convincing the rather outlandish premise is depicted and how interesting the twists and turns are. On all these accounts, the film succeeds admirably.

AsianCineFest Rating: 3 out of 4 stars, a fine comedy that's well-worth watching.

The official movie trailer is available at https://youtu.be/WPdCjA2Gfys.

Also, a February 4, 2020, interview with director SON Jae-Gon at KoBiz can be found here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

IP MAN 4: THE FINALE reviewed

Well Go USA 
Entertainment 
Presents
IP Man 4: The Finale / Yip Man 4
Directed by Wilson Yip
Action Director - Yuen Woo-Ping
Hong Kong, 2019, 105 minutes

Donnie Yen reprises his role as the Wing Chun grandmaster in Ip Man 4: The Finale, the concluding film in this martial arts franchise. It is available as Digital On Demand, DVD, and Blu-ray + DVD Combo pack from Well Go USA Entertainment. I watched the Blu-ray version. [Note: Ip Man 4: The Finale, and the three previous Donnie Yen Ip Man films, as well as the spin-off Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, currently are available for Netflix Streaming subscribers.]


This time around, Ip Man travels to San Francisco to look for a school for his son Ip Ching, a sullen, defiant, disobedient and rebellious young man who would rather learn Wing Chun than go to school. Ip Man meets the martial arts members of the city's Chinese Benevolent Association, led by Tai Chi master Mr. Wan (Wu Yue). The CBA is upset with Ip Man's student Bruce Lee because Lee teaches Chinese martial arts to non-Chinese, a big no-no in their thinking. Wan withholds a letter of recommendation for Ip Man's son to the school that Wan's daughter Yonah (Vanda Margraf) attends because Ip Man refuses to lay down the law to his student.

Further complicating things are the anti-Chinese biases of almost every white American in the film. These include Becky, a fellow student of Yonah, who is bested by her in a cheer-leading tryout, Becky's mother and her father, who just happens to be an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent with considerable clout.

Most ominous however, is the attitude of two Marines at a nearby base: karate instructor Colin Frater (Chris Collins) and his superior, Gunnery Sergeant Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins). They are fanatical devotees of karate and have no respect whatsoever for Chinese martial arts. (This flies in the face of some facts about the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, but this Ip Man series is not particularly big on being accurate where the historical facts are concerned.)

Their attitude would actually seem to be warranted insofar as Frater and Geddes easily overcome every single Chinese martial arts master in brutal encounters. But rest assured, Ip Man, though recently diagnosed with terminal cancer (!) is on hand to defend the honor of Chinese kung fu!

The numerous action scenes are very well done overall, which is to be expected in that Yuen Woo-Ping is again onboard, as he was on Ip Man 3, as Action Director.

Unfortunately, the story line and plot points leave a lot to be desired. So to do the characterizations of the white Americans, who are one-dimensional at best. Even the female head of the school that Ip Man goes to is a money-grubber, willing to forego the required letter of recommendation if he will make a very sizeable donation (read "bribe") to the school. This episode does at least give Donnie Yen a chance to deliver a very funny line in response to a comment by the school's principal.

I noted three things in the movie that did, for the most part, ring true:

-- Bruce Lee did have difficulties with Chinese martial arts leaders in the U.S. because he accepted non-Chinese students.

-- Lee did perform at the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships. (Long Beach is a city within the Los Angeles metropolitan area, not San Francisco, but let's call this cinematic poetic license.)

-- Ip Man did die on December 2, 1972 from laryngeal cancer.

But, after all, this is a martial arts themed action movie, not a reality grounded bio-pic drama.

Disc Stats:
— Audio:
  — Cantonese Dolby ATMOS in true HD
  — English HDMA 5.1
— Subtitles:
  — English
  —Traditional Chinese
  — Simplified Chinese
  — French
  — Off 
— Bonus: 
  — Making Of
  — The 10-Year Legend
  — The Story
  — Trailer A
  — Trailer B
  — U.S. Trailer
— Previews:
  —Cut Throat City
  — Enter the Fat Drago
  — Ne Zha (English Dub)

AsianCineFest Rating: 3 out of 4 stars; a decent enough action flick, if you can ignore, tolerate or perhaps laugh at the fanciful plot and the ridiculously stereotypical portrayal of pretty much all the white Americans.

Friday, August 21, 2020

NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2020 going virtual August 28th

THE NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FOUNDATION,
FILM AT LINCOLN CENTER, 
and SMART CINEMA USA
ANNOUNCE

OPENING FILM, COMPETITION and MAIN LINEUP
for

THE 19th NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL,
August 28 – September 12, 2020

The 19th edition of the annual NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL will be a special virtual edition from August 28 to September 12, 2020.

Whether online or offline, the festival continues to highlight women both behind and in front of the camera, and features a specific FOCUS on women filmmakers: WOMEN TRANSFORMING FILM, starting with:

The OPENING FILM - the North American Premiere of The Girl and the Gun (Babae at Baril), directed by Rae Red, led by a superb performance by actress Janine Gutierrez, and produced by Iana Celest Bernardez (in a first-time producing role) and Bianca Balbuena.

The Festival’s programming team went the extra mile to spotlight female talent. There is much more to Asian cinema than the male-dominated films shown at Cannes and the Oscars. NYAFF is proud to spotlight an exciting lineup of titles directed and led by women:

Heavy Craving from Taiwan, Lucky Chan-sil and Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 from South Korea, My Prince Edward from Hong Kong, and Victim(s) from Malaysia, among others.

The CENTERPIECE film marks both a departure from genre as well as the festival’s embrace of an ever-expanding range of films: They Say Nothing Stays the Same by Odagiri Joe, one of Japan’s best-known actors, who makes a remarkable feature debut behind the camera. Odagiri is joined by a no less remarkable cast and crew: cinematographer Christopher Doyle; veteran actor Emoto Akira, who leads a star cast including Nagase Masatoshi, Asano Tadanobu and Aoi Yu, plus a rare appearance by musician Hosono Haruomi; Oscar-winning costume designer Wada Emi; and a fabulous score courtesy of Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan.

A generous share of the program is devoted to new filmmakers, including striking directorial debuts and sophomore efforts. Integral to NYAFF’s mission is showcasing the Asian cinema vanguard that emerges largely from new talent and fresh voices. This edition reflects today’s particularly kinetic innovations, much informed by social media and the hyper information highway. An impressive cross-section of work highlights new ideas in storytelling and tackles social mores and personal demons, including Philippines’ John Denver Trending, Korea’s Beauty Water and Taiwan’s Detention and IWeirDo, just to name a few.

In regional terms, South Korea is front and center in this year’s selection. Faithful to tradition, the Festival presents a balance of arthouse and genre titles with an emphasis on outstanding storytelling and accessibility: Secret Zoo, Hitman Agent Jun, Moving On.

As the boundaries between what is strictly film and TV blur, NYAFF has found, in its tireless search for exciting, new content, an extraordinary example of the convergence of both formats in SF8, a series of eight stand-alone 52-minute science fiction films that will make their International Premiere at this first virtual edition. Each film is directed by prominent Korean filmmakers, and the knowledgeable viewer will recognize the names of Min Kyu-dong, Jang cheol-su, Noh Deok.

The series, first shown on Korea’s version of Netflix, Wavve, has been praised locally and has drawn comparisons with Black Mirror.

The Festival continues to champion the work of new directors and filmmakers that have not yet received international recognition with its “Uncaged” Competition section, which includes five films by first and second-time directors: (IWeirDo, Moving On, Legally Declared Dead, Victim(s) and They Say Nothing Stays the Same.)

The Hong Kong Panorama, the point of origin of the Festival, has a specific emphasis on Cantonese-language stories and the new generation of filmmakers at a turning point in the history of the Special Administrative Region.The selection features the following: the World Premiere of Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost, the North American premieres of Memories to Choke on, Drinks to Wash Them Down; The Grand Grandmaster, Legally Declared Dead, Unleashed, the East Coast premiere of the previously mentioned My Prince Edward, and Witness Out of the Blue, one of the few and best representatives of a genre that put Hong Kong cinema on the map: the crime thriller.

Keeping continuity with the festival’s roots, this year’s edition also features Chasing Dream, the latest by Johnnie To, Hong Kong cinema’s l’enfant terrible turned patron saint. NYAFF is notable as the first festival and institution to bring the wild cinematic stylings of To and his team to the US with the groundbreaking series, "Expect the Unexpected: Contemporary Urban Cinema from Milkyway Image Productions" back in 2000.

This year’s selection of films from Japan proves as eclectic as ever with a fascinating diversity of styles and themes, by emerging and established creators. There is salient cinematic sophistication in the resonant work of returning filmmakers: Naito Eisuke’s cause-for-alarm cautionary tale Forgiven Children; Otomo Keishi’s hypnotically enigmatic Beneath the Shadow. On the other end of the spectrum is the hilariously uncomfortable cringe-com Beloved Wife; and rounding things out are Sabu’s supernatural dramedy Dancing Mary, Mariko Tetsuya’s shocking manga adaptation Miyamoto, and more.

At a time when Hollywood and the new East Asian superpower go both head to head and hand in hand, the China selection continues to show a wide-ranging selection of titles that reflects the versatility of the mainland’s filmmaking, and puts the spotlight on new directors: Fresh off the massive success of last year’s White Snake, the programming slate includes a brand new title that shows the sudden rise of the Chinese animation sector with recent hit Mr. Miao, Li Lingxiao’s epic directorial debut. Produced by the team behind box office champion Ne Zha, the film, released in China on July 31, has drawn praise and comparisons with Studio Ghibli's productions. Also on the menu is an original take on the scifi genre: Gone with the Light, a strikingly original feature debut by Dong Runnian, who has made a name for himself as the scriptwriter of Mr Six and Crazy Alien. The film, powered by the performances of star actor Huang Bo and an all-star female cast (Bai Baihe, Song Chunli, Wen Qi , Huang Lu), artfully marries an empowering drama with genre tropes. In addition to highlighting new talent, the Chinese selection includes Sixth-Generation director Wang Rui’s most recent work by (and one of its best to date): Mongolian-language drama Chaogtu with Sarula.

“Since the very first day of our launch, our goal is to always promote and screen the latest quality Asian films to international audiences. So it is our great pleasure to work with NYAFF, one of the most prominent Asian film festivals in the world, for their 19th edition, following our successful partnerships with Shanghai International Film Festival and Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. As a technology and data driven platform, we have created a unique, cutting-edge, virtual “Almighty Cinema” ecosystem to accommodate all the various demands from international festivals, distributors as well as traditional exhibitors.” said Jack Gao, founding partner and CEO of Smart Cinema.

“We are honored that NYAFF selected Smart Cinema USA to be their partner as they continue to showcase the best films from all over Asia during this global pandemic. Smart Cinema has become the premiere virtual cinema destination for movies in Asia and we are committed to replicating that success in North America.” said Doris Pfardrescher, President & CEO of Well Go USA and Board Member, Smart Cinema USA.

“At a time when the work of festivals might seem like a rearguard battle, I’m glad to take a leap into the unknown, and search east, not only for the films, but for new ways of exhibiting those films“, said Samuel Jamier, executive director and president of the New York Asian Film Festival & Foundation.

The full lineup currently consists of 51 films. (Note that the program still subject to change).
 
For more information, visit New York Asian Film Festival.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

THE LEGEND OF TOMIRIS is set to debut on September 29th, 2020

Well Go USA 
Entertainment 
Presents
The Legend Of Tomiris
Directed by Alan Satayev 
Kazakhstan, 2019, 155 minutes

With the likes of Charlize Theron kicking butt in The Old Guard, 2020 is turning into the year of the strong female action hero, and joining Wonder Woman, Mulan and Black Widow is The Legend Of Tomiris, the epic drama on one of the world's first female warlords It will be debuting on Digital, Blu-ray™ and DVD September 29 from Well Go USA Entertainment.

Directed by award-winning director Akan Satayev (The Liquidator), this is the story of the life of the great queen of the steppe – the legendary Tomiris, a woman destined to become a skillful warrior and strategist, unite the Scythian/Saka tribes under her authority, and slay the founder and first king of the Persian empire. The Legend Of Tomiris, the highest-grossing action film in Kazakhstan, stars Almira Tursyn, Adil Akhmetov, Yerkebulan Daiyrov, Berik Aitzhanov, Azamat Satybaldy, Aizhan Lighg and Ghassan Massoud (Kingdom of Heaven).

Synopsis:

Based on historical heroine Queen Tomiris of Massagetae and her cadre of female warriors (the real-life 6th century BCE Amazonians), The Legend of Tomiris recounts the tale of the nomadic ruler who overcame great personal tragedy to repel the powerful Persian empire and unite the Great Steppe.