With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

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

Sunday, December 30, 2007

ACF 058: Shonen Jump Anniversary

Shonen Jump
, a monthly manga offering from VIZ Media that features several ongoing stories, is celebrating its fifth anniversary. The January 2008 issue (cover shown above) marks the start of Volume 6 with a whopping 392 pages.

Stories include:
Naruto (a new story line starts in this issue)
Hikaru No Go
Bobobo-bo Bo-Bobo
One Piece
Yuyu Hakusho

"Shonen" is Japanese for "boy," but it can also mean "pure of heart." The magazine is thus geared primarily for young males (it's rated T for teen). However, the manga it features (as well as their related anime, video games, etc.) are popular worldwide with fans of many ages and both genders.

Check it out at your local comic/manga store, at www.shonenjump.com or at store.viz.com.

Monday, November 26, 2007

ACF 057: Midnight Eagle

Former war photographer Yuji Nishizaki (Takao Osawa)

Shinichiro Ochiai (Hiroshi Tamaji) a journalist for Toyo Newspapers

"Wise" magazine journalist Keiko Arisawa (Yuko Takeuchi)

Only 48 hours till the end of Japan!

Takao Osawa portrays burnt out war photographer Yuki Nishizaki, who's seen one too many on-the-job horrors. An avid mountain climber for many years, he witnesses and photographs a U.S. stealth bomber, the titular Midnight Eagle, coming down in the Japanese Alps.

With reporter Shinichiro Ochiai (Hiroshi Tamaki, from Waterboys), he climbs through a blizzard to investigate. The two are fired upon by white-clad foreign agents who are also headed to the crash site, as are similarly garbed Japanese Special Defense forces. If the enemy gets there first and succeeds in setting off the Eagle's nuclear payload, the huge snowmelt and air-borne radiation will spell disaster for the country.

Meanwhile, magazine reporter Keiko Arisawa (Yuko Takeuchi, from Ring), Osawa's sister-in-law, has received photographs he took of the plane going down and becomes involved in her own investigation in Tokyo. This leads her to two of the foreign agents who were involved in sabotaging the plane at the U.S. airbase in Japan.

Most of the film cuts back and forth between these two locations: the snow-covered mountains in northern Japan and Tokyo, where we follow both Arisawa's investigation and the response of the Japanese government.

I've seen the film described as an "action thriller" and "a gripping adventure story" and I think these are fair descriptions of what it was intended to be. But director Izuru Narushima doesn't come particularly close to succeeding on this score. His cinematic interpretation, based on the eponymous novel by Tetsuo Takashima, doesn't have much in the way of really exciting action and isn't particularly thrilling. For me, it came across mainly as melodrama, and seemed more like a made-for-TV movie (though admittedly an expensive one with high production values) than a feature film release.

Now, I'm as ready as anyone to let some things slide: plot holes, inconsistencies, what have you. But here, there were just too many things that took me out of the picture. First off, the stealth bomber is said to have been flying missions over "the peninsula" and the enemies are described as "northern agents." Assuming the subtitles are accurate, it's like the film can't bring itself to say "North Korea." Meanwhile, there's no problem with bashing the United States, which kept the plane's nuclear payload a secret from the Japanese government.

Also, the "northern agents" on more than one occasion fail to kill Nishizaki and Ochiai. This despite the fact that the two are wearing clothing that makes them stand out from the snow. On the other hand, the same agents have no trouble ambushing and all but wiping out the white camouflage-wearing Self-Defense Force team. I know our two male leads have to make it to the plane - that's a given - but this is just too absurd, too inconsistent.

And how is it that the stealth bomber, which was brought down by a bomb that was place on it at the airbase where it was stationed) crashes in the mountains, breaks apart (we see one large piece standing vertical in the snow), and yet the fuselage remains almost completely intact, with all the lights and electronics working?! I don't think so, and I just wasn't buying it at all.

Midnight Eagle opened both in Japan and in the U.S. on November 23rd. Here, it's been playing at Manhattan's ImaginAsian Theater, and will be there through Thursday, November 29, 2007. For showtimes, click here.

On December 7th, it will be the first feature to be shown at the new ImaginAsian Center in Downtown Los Angeles. This will be the only center there dedicated to first-run Asian and Asian American films. It will also showcase live performances and special events. Located at 251 South Main Street, the facility will feature 250 stadium style seats, including a 16 seat VIP section. And while I wouldn't have chosen to open it with this film, I'm sure the center will prove to be a great treasure for fans of Asian films, just as the ImaginAsian Theater is here in New York. For further info and some photos, click here.

Midnight Eagle isn't a bad film, just not a particularly good one. (John Woo's Broken Arrow, while not a great film by any stretch, is still a far better actioner about a hi-jacked plane with a nuclear warhead.) For me, while Midnight Eagle didn't really succeed, it was still moderately enjoyable. At least I had fun in my bemused befuddlement at what I was at times watching.

ACF rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars, a cut above fair, but short of good.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

ACF 056: Akira Kurosawa in the News

Toshiro Mifune as Matsunaga in
Akira Kurosawa's "Drunken Angel"
Japan, b&w, 1948

Three items related to Akira Kurosawa have recently come to my attention and should be of interest to any fan of Asian films.

First off, Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi) is due to come out this month on Criterion DVD. This 1948 release was the first Kurosawa project in which Toshiro Mifune appeared; previously he'd been in three films by other directors.

Takashi Shimura stars as Dr. Sanada, the title character. Despite his problem with alcohol, Sanada is a consciencious physician who runs a clinic located near a large cesspool, which represents Japan in the early post-WWII years. But Mifune, as a gangster with TB, steals the movie. The scene in which, drunk and with pompadour flying, he jitterbugs like a madman, well, that alone is worth the price of admission.

Drunken Angel is a film of several other firsts besides being the first pairing of the director with Mifune. It was the first film that Kurosawa considered to be truly his own, having previously had to deal with Japanese wartime and then Allied Occupation censors. It was also the first time he worked with composer Fumio Hayasaka, who went on to score all but one of Kurosawa's films until he died in 1955. Finally, this was the first Kurosawa film to win the prestigious Kinema Jumpo Best Film award, which is roughly equivalent to the New York Film Critics' Award.

I first saw this film at Japan Society in 2003 and have hoped ever since that it would become available on DVD in the U.S. And now it soon will be joining the many other Kurosawa films from Criterion. (I believe that there are more Kurosawa films available from Criterion than from any other director, which is fine by me.) And coming from Criterion, you know it's going to be a magnificent transfer. Hopefully there'll also be enough DVD extras to make all of us thrilled.


Also in the news from Criterion, is the announcement that January, 2008, will witness the release of Postwar Kurosawa. This will be Series 7 in Criterion's Eclipse line of lower cost box sets of lesser known films by great directors. The set will include:

No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi), 1947
One Wonderful Sunday (Subarashiki nichiyobi), 1947
Scandal (Shubun), 1950
The Idiot (Hakuchi), 1951
I Live in Fear (Ikimono no kiroku), 1955

I've only seen No Regrets, a solid film about a college professor's daughter who is caught up in the turmoil of the suppression of dissent in Japan during the 1930s and '40s. I Live in Fear is said to be most memorable for the then 35 year old Mifune's remarkable portrayal of a 70 year old who is terrified of the nuclear bomb and hatches a plan to move with his loved ones to Brazil, where he believes they will be safe.

The only real potential clunker is The Idiot. This movie was a box office disaster. It supposedly didn't work because Kurosawa made the mistake of too slavishly adhering to his source material. In his autobiography, Kurosawa said he was prepared to "eat cold rice" because the film bombed. He was spared, however, when Rashomon (1950) won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. In any case, I can't imagine any Kurosawa fan passing up five films at a most reasonable price.


Finally, and this is perhaps the only potentially bad news, VarietyAsiaOnline recently carried an article about Toho's plans to remake Kurosawa's classic Hidden Fortress (Kakushi-toride no san-akunin, 1958). This tale of a gruff general who, accompanied by two peasants, escorts a princess through enemy territory served, at a minimum, as inspiration for George Lucas's original Star Wars.

Shinji Higuchi, a director skilled in SFX, is to direct. Hiroshi Abe, said to be branching out from romantic comedy to action roles, will be taking over the Mifune role. Masami Nagasawa is set to portray the princess. In this remake, the two peasants will be combined into one character, a mountain dweller. This role will be filled by Jun Matsumoto, of the boy band Arashi.

Such ventures generally have disaster written all over them, but we'll just have to wait and see.

For the complete VarietyAsianOnline article on Toho's announced plans, click here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

ACF 055: Love and Honor

Actress Rei Dan portrays Kayo, the wife of a low level samurai

Love and Honor / Bushi no ichibun
Directed by Yoji Yamada
Japan, 2006, color, 121 minutes

Veteran director Yoji Yamada's Love and Honor, the third film in his samurai trilogy, will have an exclusive one week engagement at The ImaginAsian theater in New York starting on Friday, November 2, 2007. The first film in this series was The Twilight Samurai (2002), the story of a widowed samurai whose love of his two young daughters leads to him being mocked by his peers, at least until he is called upon to perform a dangerous service for his clan. Next came The Hidden Blade (2004), in which a samurai must kill an escaped prisoner who was a close friend and a fellow student of the same sword master.

In Love and Honor, Shinnojo Mimura (Takuya Kimura) is one of the samurai assigned to taste food prepared for his lord to insure that it is safe. He tells his wife Kayo (Rei Dan, in her first film) that he regards the job as meaningless, since it's inconceivable that an attempt to poison his lord would ever be made. However, an error in food preparation results in Shinnojo becoming deathly ill. He recovers but has lost his sight. Since there's nothing as useless as a samurai who cannot see, he stands to lose most, if not all, of his rice stipend.

His relatives are unwilling to support him and his wife. They urge Kayo to approach Toya Shimada, the clan's head clerk, and try to get him to speak on her husband's behalf to his lord. She is reluctant because she knows that Shimada wants her body in exchange for his efforts, but goes to him because it seems the only way to provide for her husband.

After his aunt informs him that there are rumors that Kayo has taken a lover, Shinnojo has her followed and learns of her secretive meetings with Shimada. In anger and despair, he divorces Kayo and, though blind, resolutely sets off on a path to achieve revenge by challenging Shimada to a duel.

Director Yamada, who was born in 1931, is best known for directing over forty of the popular Tora-san series of films. Thus it was somewhat surprising when, at over seventy years of age, he directed The Twilight Samurai, his first period film. It, along with The Hidden Blade and now Love and Honor, share certain characteristics:

- Each is based on a novel by Shuhei Fujisawa
- Each concerns a low level samurai of high principles
- Each includes a sub-plot concerned with the obstacles that arise between the samurai and his beloved
- Each culminates in a gripping one-on-one sword fight
- Each film is a beautiful, delicate gem

Yamada's approach to a samurai film is almost the antithesis of Akira Kurosawa's, but in it's delicacy and small scale, it's every bit as compelling. And though Shinnojo is no Zatoichi, he's perhaps more relevant and believable because he's more real.

Love and Honor
gets a 4 out of 4 star ACF rating (highest recommendation)

If you're in New York and can, get yourself over to The ImaginAsian and catch this wonderful film by one of Japan's master directors. If you're elsewhere or can't make it to one of the shows during the week long run here, look for it elsewhere or on DVD.

For further info about Love and Honor at the ImaginAsian, click here.

For the official Love and Honor website (in Japanese only), click here.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

ACF 054: "Dog Bite Dog" DVD Out 10.23.07

Dog Bite Dog / Gau ngao gau
Directed by Cheang- Pou-Soi
Hong Kong, 2006, 109 minutes

Asian action film fans, the time to rejoice is almost upon you! The two-disc DVD of Dog Bite Dog is due to arrive on Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007. I was amazed by this film when I saw it at its New York Premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival early this past summer. I mentioned that the DVD was coming out in a previous ACF posting, and was lucky enough - as I'd hoped to be - to score an advance screening copy of the DVD. So I've had time to watch the film again and to check out the DVD extras.

And I'll tell you this: Dog Bite Dog is a fantastic action film that has been magnificently packaged and presented by Dragon Dynasty.

Edison Chen, in a remarkable breakthrough performance, stars as Pang, a brutal, savage and conscienceless Cambodian hit man. He's sent to Hong Kong to kill a lawyer. After he completes his mission, his escape is initially thwarted by Ti Wai, a police inspector played by Sam Lee, in a breakthrough performance of his own. Aided by a sweet, but mentally limited and abused young woman, (mainlander Weiying Pei, billed as Pei Pei in this, her first film!), Pang eventually is able to return to Cambodia, bringing her along. But Wai, who has seen all his colleagues, as well as some innocent civilians, viciously murdered by Pang, must avenge their deaths and goes to incredible extremes to do so.

Wai takes Pang's wife hostage

This brief synopsis doesn't begin to convey the extreme and realistic violence that is portrayed in this film. It's no standard Hong Kong actioner with carefully choreographed fight scenes. It's down and dirty, in your face, gut-wrenching, bone-crushing, unforgiving, visceral violence. Sam Peckinpah would have been proud to have made this film.

Instead, it's director Cheang Pou-Soi to whom all praise is due for what he's done with a screenplay by Matt, Chow, Melvin Li, and Szeto Kam-yuen.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to think of his film only in terms of its graphic depiction of violence. At it's heart, Dog Bite Dog is a meditation on survival. And the performances of the two male leads are each tour de forces. Edison Chen's is perhaps the more remarkable in that he manages, using only expressions, gestures and body language, to convey the emergence of the human being that lurks inside a seeming automated killing machine.

The two disc set offers the film on one disc with Cantonese Dolby 5.1 or DTS soundtracks, an English-dubbed Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, and a feature length commentary soundtrack with star Edison Chen and Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan. I've only had a chance to listen to some of the commentary soundtrack, but what I heard was very interesting, and I'm looking forward to watching the film yet another time with this on.

Disc two is chock full of terrific extras. There are separate interviews with director Cheang, Edison Chen, Sam Lee, and co-star Lam Suet. These are not what I call MAS extras (MAS = Mutual Admiration Society). You know, actors and directors babbling about how working with one another was the greatest thing in their career. (At least since their last DVD interview and until their next one.) Little or nothing of substance.

The four Dog Bite Dog interviews are really solid, worthwhile watches. Director Cheang's is noteworthy for his describing his initial reluctance to cast Edison, but becoming convinced that he'd be right for the role, which certainly turned out to be the case. He's also pretty much on the mark when he talks about others being correct that the film could have ended when Pang and the girl escape from Hong Kong, but that if it had, no one would remember Dog Bite Dog. That's perhaps a bit of an overstatement, since the nature of the violence would have made it at least somewhat memorable. But Cheang is absolutely right that the final twenty minutes or so, which take place in Cambodia, take the film to a whole other level.

Edison's interview is the only one in English (the others are subtitled). It's amazing to listen to him: he's more articulate in English than many actors are for whom it's their primary language. He talks about the challenge of working outside his comfort range and having to "speak without speaking" since his character has almost no dialog until the last twenty minutes or so, and very little even then. In addition, whatever dialog he has is in Cambodian!

Sam Lee talks about making his first film in 1997, having worked with Dog Bites Dog's director on two earlier projects, and having previously done mainly silly comedies. As Wai, he gets to play a troubled cop who's been living with a horrible family secret for about a year, since his cop father was shot and went into a coma. Able to inflict violence on his own terms, his character is temporarily shocked by what he sees Pang do to others. Lee's cop goes through a truly amazing transformation over the course of the film.

Lam Suet, probably Hong Kong's best character actor, plays inspector "Fat" Lam, a cop who serves as an uncle figure to Wai. His interview is notable for his description of working on film production years ago and finally talking a director into giving him an opportunity to act. He also talks about how this film was such a breakthrough for Edison, whom he describes as previously being cast as "handsome, gentlemanly and romantic" characters.

There's also a separate behind-the scenes look at the making of the film. One segment of this includes a brief interview with actress Weiying Pei. To top things off, there's the U.S. promotional tailer.

Dog Bite Dog is a must see film and the two disc DVD set is a must have. The film gets a 4 out of 4 star ACF rating (highest recommendation). The packaging of so many worthwhile extras by Dragon Dynasty also warrants a 4 out f 4 star rating, the first time I've been moved to give a separate rating for DVD extras.

So get out on Tuesday and buy Dog Bite Dog, or at least rent it as soon as you can.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

ACF 053: Recent Hong Kong Films at Lincoln Center

Andy Lau in
Infernal Affairs / Mou gaan dou

Hong Kong, 2002, 100 minutes

Can you believe it's been ten years since the turnover of Hong Kong back to China, specifically to the Chinese Communist government of the mainland? Well it has, and to commemorate what is more formally called "the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region," the Film Society of Lincoln Center is presenting 10 Years and Running: Recent Hong Kong Cinema.

This series of thirteen films will follow right on the heels of the retrospective of Cathay Studio films (which ends tonight) and will run from October 17-25, 2007. Many people, including myself, feel that the Hong Kong film industry has seriously deteriorated since shortly before the return of the former "Crown Colony" when many leading filmmakers left for greener, and freer, pastures in Hollywood and elsewhere.

Still, as this series demonstrates, there have been several fine films that have come out of Hong Kong in recent years. Opening night will showcase Triangle, a collaboration by three well known directors, who also happen to be long term friends : Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and Johnnie To.

To, of course, is currently Hong Kong's hottest director. His Exiled just got selected as Hong Kong's entry for consideration as best foreign film at next year's Oscars, though I must say it has a snowball's chance in hell of being one of the nominees. Three films he helmed on his own will also be included in the series: Election, Triad Election, and The Mission, the latter being somewhat of a precursor for Exiled, what with much the same cast and plot device.

Art house fave Wong Kar Wai will be represented by 2046, a "sort-of sequel" to his In the Mood for Love and by Happy Together. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs will be screened, as will two other of their films. (Martin Scorsese's The Departed, while admittedly a fine film, doesn't quite measure up to Infernal Affairs, upon which it was based.)

For further info about the complete series, click here.

And check back at AsianCineFest for reviews of some of the films in the coming days.

Update 10.17.07: I came across an intesting news item about London's Institute of Contemporary Arts recent tribute to the Hong Kong cinema since the turnover. For the link to the VarietyAsiaOnline.com article, click here. By the way, VarietyAsiaOnline.com offers a free daily Variety Asia e-zine. Signing up for it is easy on the sidebar to the right of the article.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

ACF 052: Sun, Moon and Star

Chang Yang (l) and Grace Chang (c) are two of the stars of
Sun, Moon and Star (Parts One and Two)
[Xing xing yue liang tai yang]
Directed by Yi Wen
Cathay Studios, Hong Kong, 1961, b&w, 221 minutes with intermission

Chinese Modern: A Tribute to Cathay Studios, a seven film retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, will end on Tuesday, October 16th, 2007, with two separate screenings of this two-part epic about the three loves of Xu Jianbai (Chang Yang), a hopeless romantic. His attitude might best be described by paraphrasing an early Crosby, Stills and Nash song: "If you can't be with the one you love, fall in love with the one you're with."

The story takes place during the Japanese aggression against China in the 1930s and 40s, and in the years after World War II ended. We meet his women in an order opposite that of the title.

His first love is A-Lan (Lucilla You Min), a neighbor in his village. She's an orphan who lives with an aunt and uncle who - surprise! - exploit her. They intend an arranged marriage for her to someone else so as to improve their own lot. A-Lan is sweet, but her health is poor. She reminds Jianbai of the Moon.

When he goes away to school, Jianbai ends up falling in love with his cousin Qiuming (Grace Chang) after she nurses him back to health from a serious illness. Both their parents have hoped and planned for them to marry. Qiuming makes him think of the Moon.

Jianbai's third love is Yanan (Julie Yeh Feng), a fiery student activist and patriot whom he meets on a train when he goes away to college. His desire to win her affections lead him to first become an activist himself, then later to join the Chinese army. To him, she represents the Sun.

The hook in this melodrama is that at one time or another each of the women give up Jianbai, thinking that he should be with one of the others. Some do this more than once. They each truly love him, but think that their selfless acts in giving him up will lead to his greater happiness.

Frankly, it's much ado about very little to this contemporary Western viewer. Jianbai is a near total wuss with no backbone. Eventually I found myself screaming, "Grow some balls, already!" (Fortunately I was alone in my apartment watching DVD screeners, not in a theater with other people.)

The film was an extremely expensive production. It cost over $200,000, roughly equal to the budgets of five average Hong Kong films at the time. A critical and commercial hit, it nonetheless falls way short of Hollywood films of "comparable" scale. (Think Gone With the Wind, Spartacus, Ben Hur.) Nowhere is this more apparent than in the pathetic combat scenes where the Chinese army battles the totally unseen Japanese.

I think Sun, Moon and Star will appeal mainly to cinephiles with an interest in the history of Chinese films in general, Hong Kong films in particular, or of the Cathay Studios specifically. Therefore it gets a qualified recommendation of 2.5 out of 4 ACF stars. If you're someone with any of the interests I've mentioned, by all means check it out. If not, at least you're forewarned to approach it with limited expectations.

Sun, Moon and Star (Parts One and Two) will screen at Lincoln Center twice on October 16th: at 12:00 noon and again at 6:45 PM. For info and tickets, click here. In between, at 4:30 PM, there will be a screening of June Bride, which also stars Grace Chang. For the FSLC website on that film, click here.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

ACF 051: Mambo Girl

Kitty Ting (l), Enjia Liu (c) and Grace Chang (r)
Mambo Girl / Manbo Nulang

Directed by Yi Wen

Cathay Studios, Hong Kong, 1957, b&w, 95 minutes

Mambo Girl is one of the seven films in the Cathay Studio retrospective playing as a sidebar to the Film Society of Lincoln Center's 45th New York Film Festival. It's a fun, but somewhat curious, musical that catapulted star Grace Chang to stardom.

The film starts cute with the use of an Asian Barbie Doll (or rip-off) and suitably -sized props as the opening credits roll. Then we're treated to Li Kailing (Chang), the Mambo Girl herself, singing while she demonstrates the hot new dance to a group of her high school friends. Chang's smile, energy and exuberance are immediately evident, and there's no denying you're watching an incredibly talented new (at that time) performer.

Kailing's life seems perfect: she's a good student, the center of her classmates' attention, and living in the loving bosom of her family. Her younger sister, Baolin (Kitty Ting), adores her. Her father (Enjia Liu) and mother are totally supportive of their two daughters.

This happy arrangement is rent apart after Baolin discovers an old family secret about her elder sister. Unable to contain her unsought and unwanted knowledge, Baolin shares it with Melan, who travels in Kailing's circle but is jealous of her because she has the hots for Kailing's boyfriend Danian (Peter Chen Ho, who would be an on-screen partner to Chang in numerous future films). Melan makes the "secret" public, and Kailing's life is drastically altered, perhaps irrevocably.

It's at this point that this light-hearted youth film takes a very serious dramatic turn, hence my initial comment about it being a "curious" musical. I can recall Hollywood movies of a similar bent that were made around the same time, such as Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Don't Knock the Twist (1962). Neither of them got anywhere near as serious as Mambo Girl does for awhile. (The initial Where the Boys Are, 1960, did deal somewhat with heady topics, although it wasn't a musical.)

But not to worry, Kailing's crisis gets resolved, and she rejoins her family and friends to dance some more. No surprise there. The final lengthy number is a real treat. It's upbeat, rousing and guaranteed to leave you in a good mood.

Mambo Girl gets a 3 out of 4 star ACF rating (solidly recommended).

For further info about Mambo Girl screenings at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, click here.

Monday, October 08, 2007

ACF 050: I Just Didn't Do It

Kaneko Teppei (Ryo Kase) is arrested for molesting a schoolgirl

Teppei (2nd from right) in custody with other prisoners

Teppei has one of his many days in court

I Just Didn't Do It / Soredemo boku wa yattenai
Written and Directed by Masayuki Suo
Japan, 2007, color, 143 minutes

Screening at the 45th New York Film Festival

This morning I caught a Press and Industry Screening of this new film from Masayuki Suo, his first since the 1996 hit Shall We Dance. This time around, he's concerned with the Kafkaesque world of the Japanese legal system, where the presumption of innocence is an ignored formality and proof of innocence is the actual reality, where police coercion, deception and worse are the norm, and where many judges, when not acting as surrogate prosecutors, do all they can to justify a conviction.

Kaneko Tappei (Ryo Kase from Letters From Iwo Jima) is a young man on his way to a job interview who gets mistakenly accused of groping a teenage schoolgirl in a crowded subway car. (This, as the film makes clear, is a crime that often takes place in such circumstances.) He steadfastly refuses to cop a plea, despite the imprecations of the police and his public defender lawyer, even though this would make the matter go away quickly and almost totally painlessly.

Naive about the legal system, he's foolishly sure that his actually being innocent will lead to him being exonerated at trial. Eventually represented by Masayoshi Arakawa (actor Koji Yakusho of Warm Water Under a Red Bridge) and his assistant Riko Sudo (Asaka Seto, who was in the first Death Note film), Tappei endures jail, twelve public hearings, a change of judges, and a final verdict that -- well, I'm not about to spoil it here.

Let's just say that this compelling court room drama moves smoothly through its rather lengthy running time, and that it's well worth sticking around for that final verdict. I''ve had first-hand "experience" with the U.S. justice system, both in Washington, D.C. during the anti-Vietnam War protest years and more recently in the Bronx, where a novelty lighter got me arrested when I appeared to serve as the foreman of a Grand Jury. As unpleasant as those relatively brief experiences were (and they were pretty damn unpleasant), I truly cringe at the thought of being arrested in Japan after seeing this film.

I Just Didn't Do It gets a 3.5 out of 4 star ACF rating (highly recommended).

The film will be screening at the 45th New York Film Festival on Tuesday, October 9th at 6:00 PM and on Wednesday, October 10th at 8:45 PM. For further info or to buy tickets at the Film Society of Lincoln Center website, click here.

Friday, October 05, 2007

ACF 049: Chinese Modern: A Tribute to Cathay Studios

Grace Chen (l) stars as Wang Tanlin
in the romatic comedy
June Bride / Liuyue Xinniang
Cathay Studios, Hong Kong, 1960, 102 minutes

The Film Society of Lincoln Center, as a sidebar to the 45th New York Film Festival, is offering a retrospective of films from Cathay Studios. The seven film series will run from October 10 - 16, 2007.

By the mid-1950s, Cathay had become one of the largest film studios in Hong Kong, rivaled only by the legendary Shaw Brothers. Both studios made dozens of films each year in a variety of genres. The Shaws were noted primarily for opera (huangmei) and martial arts (wuxia) films that tended to look to China's past. Cathay, on the other hand, was known for its films with contemporary themes, particularly comedies, musicals, and melodramas.

For information about Chinese Modern: A Tribute to Cathay Studios (including links to a listing of films and to the schedule of screenings), click here.

And be sure to check in here at AsianCineFest for advance reviews of some of the films.

Chinese Modern: A Tribute to Cathay Studios is sponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office New York and organized by the Film Society, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Film Archive.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

ACF 048: Ping Pong

Peco gets some air!

Smile and Coach Butterfly Joe

Hot on the heels of the theatrical release of the ping pong themed martial arts parody Balls of Fury comes the two disc DVD realease of Ping Pong, the delightful 2002 film based on the five volume manga by Taiyo Matsumoto.

The film focuses on two friends who play on the same high school team. Lively "Peco" Hoshino sports a bowl-cut hair style (actually a wig worn by actor Yosuke Kubozuka), loves snack foods, and wants to be the greatest ping pong player on the planet. Trouble is, he's kind of lazy and frequently cuts practice.

His best friend is the quiet, introverted, bespectacled "Smile" Tsukimoto (former model Araka). He got his moniker because smiling is something he just doesn't do; Peco can only remember him smiling once since he rescued Smile from some bullies years ago. Smile is extremely talented, but claims to play only to kill time. He often doesn't play his best because he's sensitive to his opponents' feelings about being defeated.

These two have three main opponents from different schools. One is "China" (Sam Lee), who couldn't make the Chinese national team, so he came to Japan to play. He often provides knowledgeable commentary about the matches being played by the others.

The other two play for yet another school, one whose members all shave their heads. The captain of this team is "Dragon" (Shidou Nakamura, whose background is in Kabuki), who takes the game super seriously. "Demon" (Koji Ohkura) has known Peco and Smile for years.

Two other characters round out the main cast. Peco and Smile's school coach, "Butterfly" Joe, is played by Naoto Takenaka, who I first saw in A Night In Nude, but who is probably best known for his performance in the original version of Shall We Dance. Mari Natsuki (who to me looks a bit like a Japanese Helena Bonham Carter) plays "Granny"; she runs a ping pong establishment and takes Peco under her tutelage.

Fumihiko Sori specialized in Computer Graphics (he worked on James Cameron's Titanic) before undertaking this, his first directorial project He wanted to use his experience in CGI, but wound up using it even more than he initially planned.

This came about because he discovered that sometimes when using a real ping pong ball, the actors concentrated on the play and couldn't give him the facial expressions that he was after. To Sori, and his crew's credit, it's all but impossible to distinguish between actual ping pong balls and the CGI ones. Only in one scene, where several games are going on simultaneously and the players are each hitting in the same "one-two' rhythym, is it obviously CGI that we're watching.

Ping Pong won the Audience Award at the 2003 New York Asian Film Festival, an indication of its broad appeal. Hey, I'm a middle-aged white guy who's only played extremely casual ping pong, and the last time I did that was many years ago. But I've watched the film twice, and got caught up in the characters and the story both times.

Ping Pong has an interesting story about friendship and competition that isn't the least bit "preachy." The film is both comic and touching, great entertainment. And VIZ Pictures, which is putting out the DVD, has done fans a great service. Rarely are we treated to a two-disc release with lots of worthwile extras, as we are here. Thanks, VIZ!

For both the film itself and the extras packaged with it, Ping Pong gets a 3.5 out of 4 star ACF rating [Highly recommended].

Ping Pong [imdb]
Fumihiko Sori, director
Yosuke Kubozuka, actor [Peco]
Arata, actor [Smile]
Sam Lee, actor [China]
Shido Nakamura, actor [Dragon]
Koji Ohkura, actor [Demon]
Naoto Takenaka, actor [Butterfly Joe]
Mari Natsuki, actress [Obaba, a.k.a. "Granny"]

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

ACF 047: Dog Bite Dog

Edison Chen sticks it to Suet Lam
Dog Bite Dog / Gau ngao gau
2006, Hong Kong, color, 108 minutes,16x9

Asian action fans, count your money and mark your calenders. Genius Products and The Weinstein Company have just announced that Dog Bite Dog will be released as a two-disc DVD set on October 23rd, 2007, under the Dragon Dynasty label.

I saw this film at the 2007 New York Asian Film Festival and was totally -- you should pardon the expression -- blown away by it. Haven't watched anything so wild and visceral since seeing Takashi Miike's Ichi The Killer. Director Pou-Soi Cheang (New Blood) has here created a work that's like watching Sam Peckinpah on steroids. The final showdown, which includes a rendition of the song "You Are My Sunshine" on the soundtrack, is not to be believed, it's that incredible.

Edison Chen plays Pang. a ruthless, savage Cambodian hit man. He's relentlessly pursued by Sam Lee as Inspector Ti Wai, a Hong Kong cop who intends to avenge the deaths of his partners. He's willing to go to any lengths to obtain his personal brand of justice.

Special DVD Features Are To Include:
- Feature Length Audio Commentary By Leading Man Edison Chen And Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan
- Biting The Bullet: A Featurette With Director Cheang Pou-Soi
- Top Dog: A Featurette With Leading Man Edison Chen
- Unleashed: A Featurette With Star Sam Lee
- Every Dog Has His Day: A Featurette With Co-Star Lam Suet
- Dog Bite Dog Explored: A Behind-The-Scenes Look At The Making Of The Movie
- US Promotional Trailer

Hopefully I'll land a review copy and be able to provide you with further info in the not too distant future. In the meanwhile, prepare to be totally rocked by this release.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

ACF 046: A Colt Is My Passport

Jerry Fujio (l), Jo Shishido (c) and Chitose Kobayashi (r)

A Colt is My Passport / Koruto wa ore no pasupoto
Directed by Takashi Nomura
© 1967 Nikkatsu Corporation
Black and White 35 mm, 84 min.

This Friday, September 28, 2007, at 7:30 pm, Japan Society is providing New Yorkers with an opportunity to see this terrific, exciting actioner. It's the lead-off film in the NO BORDERS, NOLIMITS: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema series. I was fortunate in being able to see it at a press screening last week, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again on Friday.

Jo Shishido, seen later the same year in the better known Branded To Kill by Seijun Suzuki, here plays an assassin hired by one Yakuza group to kill the oyabun (leader) of a rival group. After pulling off the hit, he and his partner (played by Jerry Fujio) find their initial escape plan thwarted at the airport. They then hide out in a cheap inn in Yokohama, hoping to escape by boat. They are befriended by a young woman who works there (actress Chirose Kobayashi) and who also longs to escape.

An unexpected - and highly unlikely - rapprochement between the two Yakuza gangs, leads to betrayal by those who ordered the hit. Now Jo and his partner find themselves targeted by everyone involved.

The ending, a face-off between Shishido's character and the gang members, some in a bullet-proof Mercedes, takes place on a barren expanse of reclaimed land. It's so over the top, so delectably implausible, that you just have to love it.

A Colt Is My Passport gets a 3 out of 4 star ACF rating, solidly recommeded.

NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS is the inaugural series of a new, annual event at Japan Society called "Monthly Classics." Mark Shilling, author (The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films) and critic, is the guest curator for this series. An earlier version of NB,NL was first presented at the 2005 Udine Far East Film Festival. Mr Shilling will be at Japan Society to introduce the film on Friday, and will be present afterward for a reception and signing of his accompanying book, No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema, newly edited and published by FAB Press.

- Shishido had plastic surgery, reportedly in 1956, that gave him his trademark "chipmunk cheeks." I'm pretty sure he also had eye surgery to give him more Occidental-looking eyelids.
- The initial target's car is a 1960 Dodge Dart, the top-of-the-line Phoenix model, I believe. My family had the mid-level Pioneer version, complete with push-button automatic transmission!)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

ACF 045: Viz Pictures gets "Death Note" Movies

Death Note
[Desu noto]
Japan, 2006, directed by Shusuke Kaneko

Death Note: The Last Name
[Desu noto: The last name]
Japan, 2006, directed by Shusuke Kaneko

Sorry that it's been awhile since my last post, but the day job has just left me with next to no energy. However, when I received notice from VIZ Pictures, the live-action affiliate of VIZ Media LLC, that they'd acquired the North American theatrical and DVD distribution rights to both Death Note and its sequel, Death Note: The Last Name, I wanted to pass on the word right away.

These films are about what happens when Ryuk, the God of Death, drops his notebook and it's found by a young law student named Light, whose father just happens to be a cop. Light has become cynical about the normal legal system's aiblity to mete out justice. When he discovers that he can kill criminals by remote control, as it were, simply by writing their names in the notebook, he embarks on a mission to rid the world of crime.

Based on the manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, these films had their New York premieres this past July. They were jointly presented by Subway Cinema as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2007 and by Japan Society as part of its Japan Cuts film series. Both films ranked in the top five picks as audience favorites.

I didn't get to see them in July, but ironically started watching my screener DVD of Death Note last night. I've gotten a bit more than half way through it and already can understand why it, and its sequel, were so popular.

Both films will be screening September 20-27 at the Fantastic Fest 2007 in Austin, Texas. For showtimes and tickets, go to http://www.fantasticfest.com/.

Death Note, but not its sequel, will be shown November 1-4 at the 11th annual Vancouver Asian Film Festival. For showtimes and tickets there, go to http:/www.vaff.org/.

Other screenings of the two films will continue throughout 2008, and VIZ Pictures is planning a summer 2008 release of both films on DVD. AsianCineFest will most certainly carry reviews of the DVD releases.

In the meanwhile, try to see them in a theater if possible, and check back here in the next few days for a review of the recent 2 disc DVD release of Ping Pong, also from VIZ Pictures.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

ACF 044: Nikkatsu Action Series

A Colt is My Passport © 1967 Nikkatsu Corporation

I've covered various film series at Japan Society for Asian Cult Cinema magazine for several years now, and I've seen lots of good films and quite a few great ones there. But I've never been as excited about an upcoming series as I am about NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema. This series marks the launch of a new annual event called "Monthly Classics" that will utilize guest curators to create film series that will feature -- have you guessed -- one screening approximately every month.

Nikkatsu produced over 500 action genre films starting in the mid-50s. Probably its best known products, at least in the U.S., are Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded To Kill (1967), the latter of which ironically led to Suzuki being terminated for making "incomprehensible" movies, as the studio suits put it. [Both of these Suzuki films, as well as several others, are available from The Criterion Collection. Enough said.]

NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS will feature eight films never before screened in the United States. The series will consist of:

A Colt is My Passport, directed by Takashi Nomura, September 28, 2007
The Warped Ones, directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, November 9, 2007
Like a Shooting Star, directed by Toshio Masuda, December 14, 2007
Red Handkerchief, directed by Toshio Masuda, January 18, 2008
Gangster VIP, directed by Toshio Masuda, February 22, 2008
Plains Wanderer, directed by Buichi Saito, March 14, 2008
Glass Johnny: Looks Like a Beast, directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, April 4, 2008
Roughneck, directed by Yasuharu Hasebe, May 2, 2008

Author and critic Mark Schilling, who began living in Tokyo in 1975 and who is currently the Japan correspondent for Variety, curated this show. He will introduce A Colt is My Passport, the series opener, on Friday, September 28th. Afterwards there will be a reception, and the author will be signing his book, appropriately titled No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema, which has been newly edited and published by FAB Press. Shilling's other works include The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films, which I'm currently reading and enjoying.

All films will be shown with new digital English subtitles, prints courtesy of Nikkatsu Corporation. Show times will be at 7:30 PM.

NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS is co-organized by Outcast Cinema. A tour of other US and Canadian venues is planned for later in 2007 and in 2008.

For further info click on this link to the NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS page at Japan Society.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

ACF 043: Unstoppable Marriage

Unstoppable Marriage
Korea 2007
International Premiere
New York Korean Film Festival 2007

The concept that "opposites attract" has served romantic comedy films well since at least, oh, off the top of my head, Howard Hawk's 1938 classic Bringing Up Baby. So it's nice to see it used in such a delightful and fresh way as it is here. First time director Kim Sung-wook, who also wrote the screenplay, has come "out of the gate" with a hilarious comedy of manners - or lack thereof on the part of some characters - that had me laughing a lot, sometimes out loud, as I watched a screener DVD in my living room. Not too shabby, especially when you consider how difficult comedy really is, and even more so with sub-titles!

Hwang Ki-baek is a handsome doctor who specializes in breast implants. He comes from a very wealthy family and is also quite a playboy. One day, a girlfriend tricks him into going para-gliding - he's expecting sex - and he freaks out in mid-flight. Strapped in front of his instructor, he causes the two of them to land in a tree, after which he discovers that: (1) His instructor is a lovely young woman and that (2) In his fear, he'd lost control of his bladder and is now exhibiting a huge wet spot down the front of his pants.

From this inauspicious start, love comes to bloom between Ki-baek and the instructor, Park Eun-ho. She comes from a very modest and traditional background. Although she does para-gliding on the weekends, her real vocation is making dolls out of mulberry paper and teaching classes - albeit small ones - in this Korean folk craft. She also does a martial art that resembles Tai Chi.

Having overcome their initial mutual animosity and cultural differences, the would-be couple then has to deal with the opposition of their single parents. Ki-baek's mother, Shim Mar-uyun, is a real estate wheeler-dealer, who has affectations of culture and sophistication, but who can be as coarse-mouthed as any sailer. Eun ho's father, Park Ji-mahn, is a widower, a former marine, a collector of ink stones, and a practitioner of martial arts and feng shui.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Mrs. Shim is involved with an American partner in developing a luxurious golf course, but has been stymied by one landowner who refuses to sell out. Mr. Park, naturally, is the owner in question. In a development that's sort of a negative parallel to their children overcoming their differences, these two put aside their mutual distaste, only their efforts are to prevent the couple from uniting.

Given the film's title and the fact that it's a romantic comedy, I'm surely not giving anything away in saying that the wedding ultimately takes place. But it's in the getting there wherein the fun lies, and there's lots of fun along the way.

Kim Yoo-jin, also anglicized as Eugene or Eu Gene, is a pop star and TV actress here making her big screen debut. She's obviously lovely and definitely talented. She can play it straight, tough or comic, depending on what a scene calls for.

Ha Seok-jin (also Ha Suk Jin) is fine as Ki-baek. It's a rather thankless roll, as most of the comedy comes from the other three leads.

Lim Chae Moo, recently in Highway Star, acquits himself wonderfully as Eun-ho's father. Gruff at times, tender at others, his best scene may be his confrontation with a fancy ultra-modern Western-style toilet at Mrs. Shim's home.

But if the movie can be said to clearly belong most to one actor, that would have to be Kim Soo-mi as Mrs. Shim. Her performance is masterful. She can instantly change from being utterly pretentious to shockingly crass, yet still humanize her character in her few scenes that call for touching drama. I'm predicting a Korean film award for her, or at least a nomination.

The film also gives some good moments to Mr. Park's younger brother, who engraves seals and is not above extorting money from Ki-baek, and to Ki-Baek's younger sister, a seeming air-head with her mother's acquisitive propensities but not her business smarts. Her reaction to him saying that she is as smart as she is beautiful is priceless. And don't miss them in the coda that plays in a window as the end credits roll.

The clash between traditional values and the potentially corrupting influence of Westernization had been a concern of Koreans and Korean films since at least the 1990s, the decade the 3-8-6 filmmakers emerged. [They were so named because they were in their 30s, had been in college in the 1980s, and had been born in the 60s.] Unstoppable Marriage, which does not totally deplore modernization, clearly comes down most strongly in favor of the traditional. Still, it's nice to see Andrew, Mrs. Shim's partner and the only Westerner in the film, portrayed not as a money-grubbing American, but as a sensitive person who appreciates the value of traditional Korean crafts and sensibilities. This is a far cry, say, from the portrayal of Americans in the recent monster/horror hit The Host.

Unstoppable Marriage (also sometimes called Unpreventable Marriage) had its "International Premiere" - by which I assume is meant its first screening outside of Korea - at the NYKFF 2007 on Friday, August 24th and will have its second and final screening on Wednesday, August 29th at 9:00 PM. For further info, click on this link.

The film easily earns a 3.5 out of 4 star ACF rating.

The New York Korean Film Festival 2007 is presented by Helio.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

ACF 042: 200 Pound Beauty

Hanna (actress Kim Au-jung)

"Jenny" (actress Kim Au-jung)

"Jenny" and Han Sang-jun (actor Ju Jin-mo)

200 Pound Beauty / Minyeo-neun goerowo
Korea 2006
New York Korean Film Festival 2007
North American Premiere
An ACF Preview Review

Hanna is what's sometimes referred to as a "plus-size woman." This is, of course, a polite way of saying that she's enormous. Because of her girth, she doesn't have much in the way of romantic prospects, or great job opportunities.

She does phone sex from home and sings at packed music concerts. The hook is that, since she's "talented, but ugly and fat," she can only sing from backstage, providing the voice for pop star Ammy, who is "untalented but gorgeous and sexy."

Hanna has a major crush on handsome producer Han Sang-jun. When she overhears him tell Ammy that they must be nice to her so that she will keep providing Ammy's "voice," she realizes that he will never really care for her, because of her looks.

After one attempt at extreme action fails, she blackmails a doctor into giving her extensive head-to-toe plastic surgery. (Plastic surgery also was a major plot device of Kim Ki-duk's film Time / Shi gan, also released in 2006.) After a year she returns as "Jenny" and tries out for the still vacant position of providing Ammy's singing voice. But now she herself is not just talented, but also gorgeous and sexy, and Sang-jun wants to present her as "herself."

There's some consideration of such serious issues as identity, self-confidence, and the relative importance of physical appearance, but 200 Pound Beauty is essentially a light-hearted romantic comedy that works really well.

Actress Kim Au-jung, who in my opinion often bears an uncanny resemblance to Taiwanese/Hong Kong actress Hsu Chi (a.k.a. Qi Shu), won the 2007 Korean Grand Bell Award (the main and official South Korean film award) for this performance, and deservedly so. She maintains both physical and personality traits she exhibited while in a fat suit as Hanna after the character is transformed into the svelte and drop-dead gorgeous Jenny.

Some of the credit for this also must go to writer/director Kim Yong-hwa. He's really delivered the goods in this, his second film, and he clearly has a great future. He will be present for Q&A sessions after the August 24th and 27th screenings. For screening dates and times, click here.

200 Pound Beauty gets a 3.5 out of 4 star ACF rating (Highly recommended).

The New York Korean Film Festival 2007 is presented by Helio. >

Monday, August 13, 2007

ACF 041: NYAFF 2007 Sponsors

I don't shill for anyone. Never have, never will.

But I am a big believer in giving credit where credit is due. As several of my more recent postings have clearly indicated, I have nothing but the highest praise for all those involved with the recent New York Asian Film Festival.

And that has to extend to the festival's sponsors, who are indicated in the above image, a scan of a page in the lush festival booklet. If you're at all a fan of Asian Cinema, and why would you be reading this if you weren't, they deserve your consideration and appreciation for sponsoring this event.

I do want to point out some of the ones who should be of particular interest to you:

Dragon Dynasty - This is a division of the Weinstein Company, sort of a superior successor to the Dimension Films division of Miramax. They're putting out fantastic DVDs, both Hong Kong classics such as The 36 Chambers of Shaolin, The One-Armed Swordsman, My Young Auntie, Hard Boiled, as well as more recent fare, such as Infernal Affairs 2 and Infernal Affairs 3. Check out www.dragondynasty.com.

John Woo Presents Stranglehold - Who wants to play Tequila, not the drink, but Chow Yun-Fat's character in Woo's 1992 classic Hard Boiled? I do!!! I do!!! And so should you. With this game for Playstation 3 and XBox 360 (if yours still works) you can. For more info about this release, due out this month, go to strangleholdgame.com.

Stone Bridge Press - 'Cause every once in awhile ya need ta read about the Asian Films ya been watchin'. Books such as The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Asia Shock, The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film, Stay Dogs & Lone Wolves, and many others. Website: www.stonebridge.com.

Palm Pictures - The company's website is www.palmpictures.com. But you might want to first go www.glamorousmovie.com, the website for The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai, the film that asks, "Can a genius call girl save the world?" I know I'm going after a screener of this one!

Websites of other sponsors and venues:
IFC Center
Japan Society
Zen Green Tea
ImaginAsian TV
Korean Cultural Service NY