With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

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

Monday, March 31, 2008

ACF 095: PTU available on DVD

PTU: Police Tactical Unit
Directed by Johnny To
Hong Kong, 2003
Runtime: approximately 85 minutes

When it comes to crime capers or police procedurals, Johnny To is the contemporary Hong Kong master. In this film he's produced a fine study of what he calls "the blue curtain," the protective brotherhood that binds enforcers of the law together, even when they engage in questionable, if not outright illegal, tactics. It was a personal film, shot over a three year period on a very low budget. While not one of his best films, it's a good one. And it recently became available on a single-disc Special Collector's Edition from Dragon Dynasty.

Simon Yam (above) stars as Sergeant Mike Ho, who heads a unit out on their nightly rounds. As they are driven to their drop-off point, they discuss a major robbery earlier that day which cost one of their fellow officers his life. Little do they know the strange and dangerous evening they're about to face.

The same is true of plainclothes policeman Lo Sa, played by Lam Suet, one of Hong Kong's finest character actors. In the course of chasing a punk who's damaged his car, Lo Sa loses his pistol. Though this should immediately be reported to the superintendent, the blue curtain comes into play, and the PTU personnel agree to hold off until morning, hoping that either they or Lo Sa will be able to retrieve the gun by then.

Meanwhile, the young son of one triad leader has been killed by a member of another gang, so murderous revenge is in the air. And someone is going around breaking the windows of parked cars on the city's silent streets, setting off their alarms.

Before dawn arrives these various developments will come together in a finale that provides a satisfying payoff, even if it's a bit heavy on coincidence.

Director To wanted to make this a personal statement about the way a group of policemen work, to show their team spirit, even if he didn't personally agree with all of their methods. To finance it, he had to keep costs down. That's part of the reason why it takes place in the course of one evening: he didn't want to have to deal with the difficulty and expense of crowd control during the busy daylight hours.

He also had to meet his commitments for making other, commercial films, seven of which he shot during the three years it took to get PTU in the can. This meant that for continuity his male actors and the two featured actresses had to be able to wear their hair the same way and to keep their weight consistent during this lengthy period. At one point when shooting was to resume, one actress had put on several pounds that altered her look too much. To gave her fifteen days to lose ten pounds, according to Simon Yam!

Knowing all this, one can't help but be struck by what a remarkable achievement the film is. There isn't the slightest hint that it was shot over such a long period with numerous interruptions of various lengths.

Lam Suet as Sergeant Lo Sa

Still, PTU is a little thin on the bone. I found the finale very satisfying, as I've said, but there's not a lot of action along the way. Some scenes just didn't have the payoff that I was expecting or hoping for, leaving me with a "that's it?" feeling. A scene in a video game parlor and another in a stairwell come to mind.
On the other hand, I've watched the film twice, the first time several months ago, and I wasn't bored watching it again on this new DVD release. (The DVD, by the way, has the fine video transfer and really good audio quality that's a hallmark of Dragon Dynasty releases.)

So all in all, I think PTU deserves 2.5 out of 4 stars, a recommendation that's a bit on the moderate side, not quite solid. Like I said at the beginning, it's not one of To's best films (Breaking News, Election, and Exiled are just three of his better outings), but it's definitely got his style and panache; it's well worth watching and holds up to repeated viewings.

And I feel it's only fair to mention that the film won 11 out of 19 awards that it was nominated for at various festivals and ceremonies. Wins include best original screenplay for Yau Nai-Hoi and Au Kin Yee at the 2003 Golden Horse Film Festival and best director for To at the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards, both in 2004.

As for the DVD extras, listed below, they're definitely decent. There's no "making of" doc, but the interviews are quite interesting and a commentary by Bey Logan is always welcome. The guy really knows his stuff and puts it across well.

DVD info:
Format: widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 TVs
Languages: Cantonese Dolby 5.1, English Dolby 5.1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish

Feature Commentary:
- by Bey Logan, an extremely knowledgeable veteran of the Hong Kong film industry
Three Interviews, in Cantonese with English subtitles:
- Into the Perilous Night with Director Johnny To
- On the Trail of the Smoking Gun with Simon Yam
- Cool as a Cat with Maggie Shiu, who plays Kat, another police officer
- Original trailer
- U.S. promotional trailer

Thursday, March 27, 2008

ACF 094: "Blue Dragon" coming on Cartoon Network

The Blue Dragon animated series will be shown in the U.S. on the Cartoon Network starting this spring. The show is based on the popular Xbox 360 videogame developed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy. It features character designs by Akira Toriyama, creator of the Dragon Ball manga series.

The Blue Dragon TV series debutted in Japan on April 7, 2007. It's an adventure story about Seven Soldiers of Light who mush awaken the magical Shadow powers within themselves, fight a despotic power and bring piece to their land.

Blue Dragon has been licensed for U.S. distribution by VIZ Media, which also handles the Naruto, Death Note, and Bleach animated series.

ACF will try to bring you anime lovers more info as it becomes available.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

ACF 093: Who Killed Empress Wan in "Legend of the Black Scorpion"?

This article reveals some plot points in the film
Legend of the Black Scorpion.

Several people have been referred to my review in ACF 079 when they ran searches that asked, in essence, "Who killed Empress Wan in Legend of the Black Scorpion?" I didn't discuss the matter in my review, but since there seems to be at least a fair amount of interest in the question, here goes.

The short, and correct, answer is that the film does not reveal who kills Empress Wan (Zhang Ziyi) at the end of the film. Neither Feng Xiaogang, the director, nor the cast have said. In his interview on Disc 2 of the Dragon Dynasty DVD release, actor Daniel Wu (Prince Wu Luan) teasingly says that he knows but won't tell.

My thought, when I first saw the film at the 2007 New York Asian Film Festival, was that it was the ghost of the dead Emperor, Prince Wu's father, who killed her. I mean, if his armor can bleed, why couldn't he strike her down after all the misfortune that she'd caused, even if she didn't do it deliberately?

One of the members of Subway Cinema, the organization that sponsored the festival, told me that he thought it was Minister Yin, who had been sent into exile by the Empress. The logic here was that he was the only significant character that was still alive. Turns out this was close to the mark.

Bey Logan, in his terrific commentary accompanying the movie on Disc 1, discusses what he knows, and sheds considerable light on the vexing question. According to him, the script originally called for the one maid who is seen in several shots throughout the film (she's in the background in the screen shot above) to kill the Empress. Furthermore the murder was done at the bidding of Minister Yin, who certainly had motives.

I believe Logan also said that scenes that would have given the maid greater presence, and perhaps some that actually showed the order being given and the deed being done, either were not shot or were deleted when the director decided to make the ending ambiguous.

So there's the best answer available that I know of. As Logan delightfully puts it: "It was the maid what done it."

Friday, March 21, 2008

ACF 092: Funky Forest - Seattle Screeenings

Funky Forest copyright 2004 "Naisu no Mon" Production Committee. All rights reserved.

Cult comedy and festival hit Funky Forest: The First Contact moves to the second leg of its three city theatrical release tour today. Seattle area residents will be able to catch the fun film through Thursday, March 27th, 2008 at:

Grand Illusion Cinema
1403 NE 50th Street Seattle
Seattle, Washington 98105

For info and showtimes, click
here, or call 206.523.3935

I reviewed the Funky Forest 2-disc DVD from VIZ Pictures in ACF 089. I hope that Asian Cult Film Fans in and around Seattle, and Los Angeles where the film will play next, don't let the availability of the DVD disuade them from seeing it in a theatre. It's a very funny film and can best be appreciated in the presence of a large group of kindred spirits. So have a fun time and support the theatrical releases of Asian films.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

ACF 091: Yakuza Films @ Asia Society

Photo courtesy of KADOKAWA PICTURES, INC.

It seems that barely a day goes by in New York without an Asian film series or screening. Tonight, Thursday, March 20th, 2008, there are at least two films to pick from.

As I mentioned yesterday in ACF 090, The Korea Society is offering a screening of Lee Chang-dong's Green Fish.

Well, Asia Society and The Japan Foundation have been presenting a series entitled Gamblers, Gangsters and other Anti-Heros: The Japaneze Yakuza Movie. Curated by author and critic Ian Buruma, the series consists of five films made by Toei Studios from the late 1960s to early 1970, a period during which this genre blossomed. The series started off on March 6th with A Tale of Two Yakuza. (Sorry I didn't have the opportunity to write about that.)

Tonight the series continues with Hoodlum Soldier / Heitai yakuza (1965), "a highly unusual yakuza film, as it places the noble codes of the old-fashioned yakuza in the context of army brutality in World War II."

Showtime for this and the remaining three films in the series is 7:00 PM.

Asia Society is located at 725 Park Avenue at 70th Street, NYC.

For more info, or to purchase tickets online, click here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

ACF 090: Green Fish @ NY's Korea Society

Green Fish / Chorok mulkogi
Written and directed by Lee Chang-dong
Korea, 1997, 111 min

This is the first film directed by Lee Chang-dong, whom I consider to be one of the world's best directors. Oasis, his third film, was the first of his works that I saw. Later I watched Peppermint Candy, his second film, on DVD. Last fall I got to see Secret Sunshine at the Film Society of New York's press screening prior to it showing at the New York Film Festival.

All three are brilliant, as the many awards they have garnered attest. (In a remotely just world, Secret Sunshine, which was South Korea's submission, would have at least been a best foreign picture nominee at this year's Oscars. But we all know what are farce that category usually tends to be, don't we.)

A former high-school teacher and novelist, Director Lee was almost 40 years old when he began working in cinema as a writer on Park Kwang-su's To the Starry Island (1993 ). Though his oeuvre consists only of four films, I think that he's as accomplished as many of the world's greatest filmmakers.

Green Fish is the one film by him that I have not yet seen, so I'm especially looking forward to tomorrow night's screening at The Korea Society at 6:30 pm.

The film is about Makdong (Han Seongk-kyu), a young man who returns to his small hometown after serving two years of mandatory military service. Finding it vastly changed in the interval, and being jobless, broke, and unable to find work, he heads to Seoul where he enters the world of organized crime.

For more information about tomorrow's screening, or to order tickets, click here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

ACF 089: Funky Forest DVD Streets 03.18.08

Funky Forest: The First Contact / Naisu no more: The First Contact
Japan 2005
Funky Forest copyright 2004 "Naisu no Mon" Production Committee. All rights reserved.

It's cracked and whacked, strange, zany and just plain weird! It's festival fave Funky Forest: The First Contact, and it's just become available today on a 2-disc DVD from VIZ Pictures.

Director Katsuhito Ishii, aided and abetted by directors Shunichiro Miki and ANIKI, has created a collection of 21 mad-cap vignettes. While the P.R. materials I received put it in the tradition of Monty Python, it reminded me more of Saturday Night (Live) in it's heyday, its first three seasons from 1975-1978.

Ishii's work most familiar to Americans is his direction of the animated portion of Kill Bill, Vol. 1. He's also directed the live action features The Taste of Tea (also available on DVD from VIZ Pictures) and Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl. Several of the actors in those films also appear in Funky Forest.

Here's a sampling of what you're in store for:

- The Mole Brothers, a white clad comedy duo that reappear periodically throughout the film
- Guitar Brother, an ongoing story of three brothers (the middle one plays the guitar). While the two older bros desperately seek female companionship, the younger one is an overweight white pre-teen who has a thing for Snickers candy bars.
- A strange dance-off at a beach that features huge speakers and a tall animated female figure with large breasts shaped like missiles. Very Fellini-esque.
- The Bubbling Hot Springs Vixens, a trio of comely young women who tell increasingly outrageous stories as they become more and more drunk
- Homeroom, a number of hilarious skits in a classroom whose students range from young girls through middle-aged men.
- Lots more music, dancing, and comedy
- A transcendent scene in a forest that closes the film

I'm giving Funky Forest an ACF rating of 3 out of 4 stars, a solid recommendation. But keep the following in mind:

1. If you're primarily a right brain person, clued into creativity and open to experimentation, you'll probably rate it higher.

2. If, on the other hand, you're a rational, logical, analytical left-brained S.O.B., you'll probably find it hard to get the humor. But, you may just be the type to benefit most from it's free-wheeling, mind-blowing madness. So give it a try.

The extras, which I've listed below with some comments, are outstanding, easily meriting 3.5 out of 4 stars.

The 2-disc DVD package of Funky Forest offers a fun film, great extras and is an outstanding bargain.

Movie Specs:
Running time: approx. 150 minutes
Format: 16:9 widescreen
Japanese language with English Subtitles

Special Features:
- Japanese original trailers
- The Making of Funky Forest: "Into the world of the Unfathomable Forest" - a great behind the scenes look at the process of creating the film; over an hour long and well worth watching
- "Katsuichi's Dance" Secret Treasure (A Choreography Lesson Video) - a look at the development of a parody of a Noh dance
- "The Transfer Student is Here!" - storyboards for an animated segment

Monday, March 17, 2008

ACF 088: Wings of Defeat

Wings of Defeat poster credit: Edgewood Pictures

Wings of Defeat / Tokko
2007, 89 minutes

Digital video, color, and black & white

In English and Japanese with English Subtitles

In the fall of 1944, U.S. forces were advancing on the Philippines. General Douglas MacArthur, who had bungled the defense of the islands at the beginning of the war, was about to make good on his vow to return.

Japan's defeat seemed inevitable, but the militarists and Emperor Hirohito turned to a desperate policy that they hoped would lead to a negotiated peace. They sought to inflict unacceptably high losses on the American fleet . The means to achieve those losses was suicide pilots crashing their bomb-ladened planes into American vessels.

Termed Kamikaze, after the "Divine Wind" (most certainly a typhoon) that saved Japan from a Mongol invasion in the 13th century, they referred to themselves as Tokkotai, or Special Attack Forces. They came into being on October 20, 1944, and by the end of the war they had sunk about forty ships. Their overall effect on the course of the war was negligible. Approximately 4,000 of them had died. But some of them lived.

Photo credit: The National Archives and Research Administration

Risa Morimoto, born and raised in New York, was surprised to learn recently that a beloved uncle, dead for several years, had been trained as a Kamikaze. Having never questioned that they were fanatics, she was now faced with the puzzling question of why her good-natured uncle had wanted to become a Kamikaze. Her efforts to resolve this conflict led to interviews with family members, other surviving members of the Tokkotai, and with survivors of the U.S.S. Drexler, a destroyer that perished in a kamikaze attack.

Those interviews form the core of this extraordinary and fascinating documentary. From it emerges a far different view of the Kamikaze than the conventional one. Here they are seen for the most part as young men who saw this as a duty that one had to fulfill, though they did so with no great enthusiasm. Most interestingly, one of the survivors of the Drexler calmly acknowledges that Americans might well have done the same thing against Japan or Germany if necessary to defend the West or the East coast.

Takeo Ueshima as a member of the Tokkotai
(Photo credit: Takeo Ueshima)

While one cannot assume that those interviewed represent all Kamikaze, clearly the stereotypical view of them as nothing more than totally crazed fanatics, veritable demons, can no longer by accepted. The film does a remarkable job of humanizing at least some of the Kamikaze. At the same time it sheds considerable light on the mindset of the Japanese populace during the war years. It also makes clear how the attitude of the populace was shaped by the militarists and the Emperor.

One of the high points of the film, at least for me, was listening to a former pilot named Nakajima refer to Hirohito as "that Emperor," his voice practically dripping with disdain. Nakajima also epitomized the inner conflict felt by many of those who survived. Apologizing to those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he acknowledges that with the near total destruction of those two cities, he knew the war would end soon and realized "Now I can live."

Another touching revelation was that the pilots flew off with little dolls attached to their flight uniforms. Made by women and girls, the dolls symbolized the thought "Take me with you."

Wings of Defeat
will be shown at Japan Society tomorrow, Tuesday, March 18th, 2008 at 8:00 pm. Preceding the film will be a reception at which director/producer Morimoto and writer/producer Linda Hoaglund will be present. Two former Kamikaze pilots featured in the film, Takehiko Ena (age 84) and Takeo Ueshima (85), and Fred Mitchell (83), a U.S.S. Drexler survivor, will be special guests. A Q&A session and discussion will follow the screening.

Director Morimoto has made a very special and touching film. It deserves to be seen by a large audience. Hopefully screenings such as the one tomorrow night at Japan Society will ultimately result in it having some sort of decent theatrical release and perhaps eventually being broadcast on Public Television.

In the meanwhile, DVDs of Wings of Defeat and Wings of Defeat: Another Journey, a 40 minute follow-up film about U.S. veterans going to Japan to meet and reconcile with former Kamikaze pilots, are available separately or together for purchase or rental. Interested universities, institutions, public libraries, and non-profit groups should go to http://www.wingsofdefeat.com/.

For further information about Tuesday's screening at Japan Society, click here.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

ACF 087: "13: Game of Death" Streets 03.18.08

13: Game of death / 13 game sayawng
Directed by Chookiat Sakveerakul
Thailand, 2006, 117 minutes

13: Game of Death is an incredibly great horror/thriller from Thailand. A single disc DVD will be available this coming Tuesday, March 18th, 2008 from Dimension Extreme.

Phuchit Puengnathong (Krisada Sukolsol) is a salesman of musical instruments for Sahamongkol Music, and a more out of luck follow would be hard to find. Another salesman has beaten him to an important sale at a school, and Phuchit, or Chit as he's sometimes called, is fired in a cost-cutting move. Further problems befall him that I won't give away here other than to say that he's not only out of work but also deep in debt.

A chance for salvation arrives unexpectedly when he gets a call on his cell phone. The unidentified caller, who knows all about him and his situation, asks if he's willing to be a contestant in a mysterious game show. All Phuchit has to do is complete 13 tasks. Success at each task will result in increasingly large deposits being made automatically to his bank account. He can chose to quit at any time, but if he completes all 13 challenges, the total winnings will amount to 100 million bhat, a veritable fortune.

Though skeptical, Phuchit accepts and succeeds at the first task, which is simply to kill a fly that's been annoying him. A call on his cell phone immediately informs him that a deposit in the amount specified for the task has been deposited in his account.

Thereafter the tasks get increasingly disgusting, revolting, violent, and unlawful. Before long his very humanity is being challenged, but he's at least as caught up in playing the game as he is in winning the 100 million bhat. Tong (Achita Sigkamana), a friend who installed the computer system at his job, becomes worried about him and manages to hack into the game's website. Will she be able to get through to him before he's totally engulfed by greed, or before he's captured by the police?

Phuchit (r) hides from Police Colonel Surachai (center, background) and his men

Based on a comic by Eakasit Thairatana, the screenplay was written by Director Sakveerakul. He's done a fantastic job taking an outrageous premise and making it sufficiently believable in what, unlike a comic, is essentially a realistic medium.

Krisada Sukolsol is flawless as Phuchit, a simple everyman caught up in something way beyond what he's really prepared to deal with. He won the 2007 Thailand National Film Association Award for best actor. The film received the association's award for best visual effects. One of them will most surely remind you of an effect towards the end of the movie Hannibal.

I'm normally not a big fan of horror/thrillers. Most of them are just too flawed in one way or another for my taste: stupid premise, plot holes big enough to drive a semi through, horrendous acting, whatever. In all honesty, I'm not sure how the opening scene in 13 ties in to the overall story and I found the ending rather enigmatic. Nonetheless, this film totally had me in its grip. I loved it and really look forward to watching it again.

13: Game of Death is that rarest of breeds: an intense, gripping thriller that's also thoughtful and intelligent. The direction, acting, special effects, and musical score are all outstanding . I give it an ACF rating of 4 out of 4 stars, highest recommendation.

DVD Specs:
Price - $19.97
Widescreen format
Unrated (no nudity or sex, but there's a lot of brutal violence)
Languages: Thai Dolby 5.1, English Dolby 5.1
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Special Features:
- "The Making of 13: Game of Death" (Approximately 16 minutes long, it features the director and cast actually talking about the movie, not doing the "how great it was to work with" blah, blah, blah that I personally can't stand)
- Trailer and Teaser

IMDb links (some DVD subtitle names differ from the IMDb listings):
Game of Death
Chookiat Sakveerakul, director; this is his 2nd film
Krisada Sukolsol, actor (Phuchit), this is his 3rd movie
Achita Sigkamana, actress (Tong); this is her 2nd movie
Saranyu Wongkrachang, actor (Police Colonel Surachai)

Friday, March 14, 2008

ACF 086: Flash Point

Flash Point / Dao huo xian
Directed by Wilson Yip
Hong Kong, 2007, 88 min

Two days ago I attended a special preview screening of this terrific Hong Kong cop & criminal action caper. As the poster art above indicates, it opens in theaters today, March 14th.

The film stars Donnie Yen (who also produced and served as Action Director) as Jun Ma, a detective in the Serious Crimes Unit. He's a tough-as-nails type who has no problem laying a heavy dose of whoop-ass on the bad guys. In fact, his use of excessive violence has brought him to the attention of his by-the-book superiors on the force. They are none too happy about his methods, though they can't deny the results achieved.

The film is set in 1997, just before the handover of Hong Kong to the Mainland. The only reason I can think this has been done is to avoid suggesting that police would use such techniques in Communist China. But that's just speculation on my part.

Anyway, a gang led by three Vietnamese brothers is the target of Ma's investigation. Archer Sin (Lui Leung-wai) is the eldest, but he's ceded leadership of the gang to Tony (Collin Chou), the middle brother. Tiger (Xing Yu), as his name implies, is a ferocious fighter, though his older brothers are by no means shabby in this regard.

Louis Koo plays Wilson, an undercover cop who's infiltrated the gang. His cover gets blown, Tony gets arrested, and the other two brothers briefly flee the territory. But they come back intent on freeing Tony no matter what it takes, body count be damned.

Donnie Yen, right, gets a little hang time

The fighting scenes are terrific. If jaw-dropping, take-your-breath-away action is to your liking, this film is for you. There was one bit that involves a fallen tree trunk, a speeding car, and a rifle with a sniper scope that I just could not believe. It was so outrageously imaginative, well choreographed, and crisply edited. I'm sure my mouth must have hung open for some time afterward.

At the same time, I was really pleased that the overall story played so well. Often in this type of genre fare, when there's no action going on, the film slows down or stalls dead in the water. Here things moved along much better than I expected, a tribute to a decent story arc and to interesting supporting characters and sub-plots. Veteran character actor Kent Cheng is perfectly cast as Inspector Wong, and lovely Fan Bing-Bing provides a lovely respite from all the testosterone as Julie, Wilson's girlfriend.

Detective Ma is ready to get it on

Dragon Dynasty is presenting the theatrical release of Flash Point in three cities. The label, and its parent company The Weinstein Corportation, has been criticized by some for releasing Asian films directly to DVD without giving them any widescreen release. While the DVD packages have been outstanding, I fully support the notion that many of these films deserve, and would do well enough to justify, a theatrical release, even if only a limited one.

Now that Dragon Dynasty is coming through in that regard, Asian film fans have two reasons to see this film in a theater. First off, it's a really solid work, very engaging, and it merits viewing on a big screen. Secondly, if Flash Point does well in theaters, it will hopefully encourage the release of more such offerings before they come out on DVD.

Flash Point will be playing in the following three cities:

In New York City:

ImaginAsian Theater, 239 E. 59th Street, Manhattan
Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th Street, Manhattan
Main Street Cinemas, 7266 Main Street, Queens

In Los Angeles:

ImaginAsian Theater, 251 South Main Street
The Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd
Regency South Coast Village, 1561 W Sunflower Ave

In San Francisco:

The Lumiere, 1572 California Street

Check with the theaters or in your local newspapers for start dates (I'm not sure if it's March 14th at all locations) and for showtimes.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

ACF 085: Plains Wanderer @ Japan Society

Plains Wanderer / Daisogen no wataridori
1960, 83 min., 35mm, color
Directed by Buichi Saito

Tomorrow, Friday March 14, 2008 at 7:30 pm, New Yorkers will get their first opportunity to see this famous "Eastern-Western" from Nikkatsu Studios with English subtitles. Its one of the nine films in the Wanderer series that were made from 1959 - 1962.

Akira Kobayashi
(Kanto Wanderer, Black tight Killers, Bloody Territories) is Taki, a horse-riding, guitar playing, fringed leather jacket wearing wanderer. He travels through Hokkaido with a young boy who's been abandoned by his mother and fights a developer who wants to turn land belonging to the Ainu into an airstrip. The landowner's niece provides the love interest.

Plains Wanderer is one of the eight films in Japan Society's inaugural Monthly Classics series NO BORDERS, NO LIMITS: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema. The series has been curated by author and critic Mark Schilling, who has written a book with the same title. Among his other works are The Yakuza Movie Book - A Guide To Japanese Gangster Films, which I can - and do - highly recommend.

I've seen some of the previous films in the series, though I unfortunately haven't had a chance to review them yet. But I can say that they've all been fun films, quite entertaining and uniformly enjoyable. I'm sure that will also prove to be the case with Plains Wanderer.

For more information @ the Japan Society website about the Plains Wanderer screening, or to buy tickets, click here.

For the Plains Wanderer trailer @ YouTube, click here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

ACF 084: Battles Without Honor and Humanity - Free Screening

Cover art for Battles Without Honor and Humanity
as Volume 1 of The Yakuza Papers box set
available from Home Vision Entertainment

The film series OUT OF THE ASHES: Early Postwar Japanese Movies continues at Columbia University tomorrow night, Tuesday, March 11, 2008, at 6:00 PM, with a free screening of Battles Without Honor and Humanity. Directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku (Black Rose Mansion, Battle Royale, and many other great films), this 1973 film was the first in a series concerned with the conflicts between and within rival crime families in the Hiroshima area in the years after the end of World War II. Thus it is not an early postwar movie itself, but rather a classic about that period in Japanese history.

The film starts with an emotionally powerful shot of the Gembaku Domo, the "A-Bomb Dome," Hiroshima's only structural ruin left erect as a reminder of the bomb's devastation. With the city essentially destroyed and the economy in ruins, there were construction contracts to be had and black markets to be run, both prime turf for gang activity.

Bunta Sugawara (above, center) stars as Shozo Hirono, a former soldier who comes to the aid of a Japanese citizen being assaulted by American G.I.s. In prison he is befriended by a member of gang. After their release, Hirono becomes a yakuza himself. He is the central character around whom this film, and the overall series, revolves

The film is of major significance for at least a couple of reasons. Previously films about yakuza were known as ninkyo eiga, or chivalry films. These tended to pivot on the protagonist's conflict between his duties to his crime family and his feelings for an outsider, often a member of another gang with whom he has a special relationship, such as a sworn brother. Here, as the title suggests, there's little chivalry, honor, or humanity. Betrayals run rampant not only between both also within families. Bosses will sell out their underlings and vice versa.

Director Kinji Fukasaku in his younger days

Battles Without Honor and Humanity also constitutes an alternative to the official version of Japanese history. This resulted from Fukasaku being roughly fifteen years old when the war ended. Suddenly, the emperor, who adults had insisted was a god, was declared to be as human as anyone else. This instantaneous change in belief left Fukasaku and others with a great distrust of the official count of things. The movies in this series tell the story of those who were not talked about or acknowledged to have existed in official chronicles.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity will be shown at the Davis Auditorium, Columbia University. It's a must see. For more information about this and the other films, as well as a link to a map of the Columbia campus, click here.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

ACF 083: Funky Forest - Manhattan Screening

Funky Forest copyright 2004 "Naisu no Mon" Production Committee. All rights reserved.

Funky Forest: The First Contact starts its limited engagment at The ImaginAsian Theatre in Manhattan tomorrow, March 7th, 2008. See my prior post in ACF 081.

The 150 minute long comedy consists of 21 skits. The Taste of Tea, also by director Katsuhito Ishii and a crowd favorite at the New York Asian Film Festival a few years ago, will begin a concurrent run at this theatre starting on the 7th.The ImaginAsian Theatre is at 239 East 59th Street, between 2nd & 3rd Avenues.

For more information, showtimes, or to order tickets, click here.

After New York, Funky Forest will be making its way to Seattle, then Los Angeles. I'll post updates just before it hits both of those cities.

Funky Forest is presented by VIZ Pictures, which will be putting out a 2-disc DVD of it in April. My screener copy is on its way, and I hope to have a full review up soon. The Taste of Tea is already available on DVD from VIZ. Look for a review of it here in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

ACF 082: "Wings of Defeat" at Japan Society

Photo Credit: The National Archives and Research Administration

Wings of Defeat is a touching and enlightening feature-length documentary about Japanese aviators who were trained to be Kamikaze pilots but survived World War II. Director/producer Risa Morimoto, who was born and raised in New York, came to make this film after learning that a beloved uncle had been one such pilot. He had been dead for several years by the time she learned this, and she sought to reconcile her image of him with the far different one of Kamikazes as suicidal fanatics.

Preceeding the screening on Tuesday, March 18th, 2008, there will be a reception at 7:30 PM. Ms. Morimoto, writer /producer Linda Hoaglund (a renowned translator of Japanese film dialogue), two former Kamikaze pilots that are featured in the film, and a survivor of the Kamikaze attack that sunk the U.S.S. Drexler will be present for the reception and for a Q&A session after the screening, which will begin at 8:00 PM.

The 2007 film is in English and Japanese with English subtitles and has an 89 minute running time.

I've watched a screener DVD and will have a full review posted before this screening, which promises to be a fascinating and emotional evening.

For further information at Japan Society's website, click here.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

ACF 081: Funky Forest - Theatrical Screenings in 3 Cities

Funky Forest copyright 2004 "Naisu no Mon" Production Committee. All rights reserved.

Funky Forest: The First Contact, a hit at last summer's 2007 New York Asian Film Festival and other festivals, is getting a limited theatrical release in three U.S. cities, courtesy of VIZ Pictures, the live action film associate of VIZ Media.

The film consists of 21 episodes ranging from " a nonsense sci-fi comedy to a dance-battle daydream." Among the off-beat characters are a hyperactive Japanese stand-up duo, three unpopular brothers looking for female companionship, and a trio of drunken professional women on a hot springs vacation.

One of the vignettes features Neon Genesis Evangelion director Hideaki Anno as an animator on a project with an unusual director.

The film's primary director is Katsuhito Ishii, whose works include the feature films The Taste of Tea and Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl. He also helmed the animated segment of Kill Bill Vol. 1. Joining him on Funky Forest are directors Shunichiro Miki and ANIKI (a.k.a. Hajime Ishimine).

Screening Info:

ImaginAsian Theatre, March 7-13
239 East 59th Street (between 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
New York, NY 10022

Grand Illusion Cinema, March 21-27
1403 NE 50th Street
Seattle, Washington 98105

ImaginAsian Center, April 18-24
251 South Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012