With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

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

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.