With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

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

Monday, August 25, 2008

ACF 141: Year of the Fish

Ye Xian (center) is prepared for her job by Hong Ji (l) and Katty (r)

Year of the Fish
Written and Directed by David Kaplan
U.S., 2007, 96 minutes
Rotoscoped Animation

Last week I got to see a special private screening of this wonderful film that will open at the Angelica Film Center in New York (and also in San Francisco) this coming Labor Day Weekend, August 29, 2008. Later in the month it will be opening in other theaters across the nation.

Year of the Fish is an independent animated feature that's based on the Chinese version of the Cinderella story, one that reportedly predates the European version by several hundred years. In a brilliant twist, writer/director David Kaplan, making his feature film debut, places the story in a "massage parlor" in today's New York Chinatown.

Ye Xian (An Nguyen, in her first film) has come to New York to make money for her sick father back in China. (Her mother is dead.) She arrives with no knowledge that her expenses have been paid by Mrs. Su (the fantastic Tsai Chin), the owner of the massage parlor, who expects Ye Xian to "service" the clientele to pay off her debt.

When Ye Xian is unable to bring herself to "perform" such labor, Mrs. Su instead assigns her all the menial, physical labor: shopping, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, etc. Ye Xian also has to face the advances of Mrs Su's younger brother Vinnie (Lee Wong), and the animosity of Hong Ji (Hettienne Park), a jealous "masseuse." In another nice variation on the traditional Western version, here there is only one "wicked step-sister" figure, Hong Ji. The other "step-sister" who features in the story is Kitty (Corrine Wu), a "nice" one.

Auntie Yaga (Randall Duk Kim), the Fortune teller

These evil forces are countered by three characters. Auntie Yaga (Randall Duk Kim) is a scary but benign fortune teller actually based in Slavic folklore. She gives Ye Xian a magical goldfish, who narrates the beginning and ending of the tale. Finally, there's Johnny Pan (Ken Leung, of TV's "Lost" and several well known films), an accordion player in a trio and Ye Xian's romantic "prince."

The cast is outstanding.

An Nguyen, who is Vietnamese by birth, conveys the perfect balance of sweet innocence and moral grit. She has been seen in The Brave One (2007) with Jodie Foster and 2008's Definitely, Maybe. Although Year of the Fish is technically a 2007 release, principle photography was done in 2005, so this was actually her first film role, and a starring one at that!

She's scheduled to star next in The Sorrow of War, based on the novel that looks at the Veitnam War from the North Vietnam perspective. It is to be filmed in Vietnam and Cambodia. I expect to see this fine young actress a lot in coming years.

Tsai Chin as Mrs. Su

Tsai Chin as the "wicked step-mother" figure is a force of nature. She gives an incredibly powerful performance that still manages to salvage her humanity. Her films include The Joy Luck Club, The Interpreter, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Casino Royale, and she has also been seen on "Grey's Anatomy."

Randall Duk Kim, in addition to his role as Auntie Yaga, also plays an old man who harangues Ye Xian about what to do with her fish and the foreman of a Chinatown clothing sweatshop. Among the films you may already have seen him in are Memoirs of a Geisha, The Matrix Reloaded, Anna and the King, and The Replacement Killers.

Johnny (Ken Leung) and Ye Xian (An Nguyen)

Ken Leung has appeared in Brett Rattner's Rush Hour and in numerous episodes of TV's "Lost."

As for the others, just click on the links I've provided, if you haven't already. Just be prepared to be impressed by all the filmographies.

I must confess that I was somewhat apprehensive about the rotoscoped animation, worried that it might mute the performances. But my fears were unfounded. The technique Kaplan used has produced lovely, often gorgeous, painterly images that at the same time allow the actors' expressions to show through.

Year of the Fish is an imaginative wonder, a marvelous work by a talented director working with a terrific, talented cast and crew. The dialogue is sharp, smart, and very funny. The film has everything one could want: suspense, tragedy, comedy, great performances, and – of course– a magical, talking fish! It's a delightful film, a real gem. Catch it at the Angelica, in San Francisco, or at one of the other theaters that will be showing it soon.

The Year of the Fish website has a trailer, photos, and information about the film and the animation process. it's well worth visiting.

Addendum: Here's a ink to the very positive review in The New York TImes that appeared 08.29.08, a few days after my post. Also check out the Reader's Reviews.

Monday, August 11, 2008

ACF 140: New York Korean Film Festival 2008

The top image is of actress Song Hye-kyo
as the tile character in Hwang Jin Yi (2007)
(a.k.a. Legendary Courtesan Hwang Jin Yi)

The final annual festival of the New York summer season will soon be upon us. The New York Korean Film Festival (NYKFF), the largest showcase of its kind in the U.S., will present over fourteen feature films from August 22 - 31, 2008 at two locations: Cinema Village theater in Manhattan and the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) Cinematek.

There will be a special event with reception, special guests and a screening of Hwang Jin-Yi on opening night Thursday, August 21, 2008:

6:00 PM Cocktail Reception
with special guests
Hwang Jin-Yi director Chang Youn-hyun
and actor Yoo Ji-tae

7:30 PM Hwang Jin-Yi Film Screening
Starring Song Hye-kyo and Yoo Ji-tae

The New York Times Building
242 West 41st St.
New York, NY

$30 Advance/$35 At the Door
(The Korea Society members, $25)

For further information or to order tickets, visit koreanfilmfestival.org.

Monday, August 04, 2008

ACF 139: Maiko Haaaan!!! out on DVD

Maiko Haaaan!!!
Directed by Nobuo Mizuta
Japan, 2007, 120 min

I’ve written about this movie a few times previously, in my initial review in ACF 103 and in announcing its theatrical release in several cities. Recently it came out on DVD and that’s occasion enough to take another look at this delightful comedy.

The film stars Sadawo Abe (Kamikaze Girls) as Kimihiko Onizuka, a geeky salaryman who looks like a Japanese version of Moe Howard of The Three Stooges. During a school trip to Kyoto several years earlier, he became obsessed with maiko, apprentice geisha between the ages of 15 and 20. As an “adult” he manages, through a combination of personal drive and bizarre luck, to succeed against all odds in achieving success in a number of ventures and realizing his dream of gaining entry into the world of maiko and geisha.

Lovely Kou Shibasaki (Memories of Matsuko) plays his girlfriend Fujio. When Kimihiko learns that he has been reassigned to the dead-end Kyoto branch of his Tokyo based company, he drops her like a hot potato, thrilled that the relocation will put him in proximity of his beloved maiko. Not one to give up easily, Fujio follows him to Kyoto, determined to become a maiko herself and to win her fellow back.

Actor Shinichi Tsutsumi is Kiichiro Naito. He’s a rich, handsome athlete and Kimihiko’s rival and nemesis.

Sadawo Abe, Kou Shibasaki, and Shinichi Tsutsumi

This colorful comic confection was written by the talented Kankuro Kudo (Ping Pong) and ably directed by Nobuo Mizuta. This is Mizuta’s second film, his first being Hanada Shonen-Shi.

The single disc DVD is distributed by VIZ Pictures. Special features include The Making of Maiko Haaaan!!! featurette, Japanese trailers of the film, and some samples of other VIZ offerings.

There’s an a single page insert on laminated stock that’s folded in half. The front page has pictures of maiko and definitions of several terms relating to their appearance and clothing. The centerfold is a map with information about 14 sites in Kyoto that were used in the movie. The back page has pictures and brief bios of the cast. A nice, thoughtful touch.

Maiko Haaaan!!! is a hilarious, mad-cap comedy that I really enjoyed. It’s a skewed look at a world that few of us will ever experience in any way, shape or form, a very funny two hour laugh-fest. The DVD package from VIZ is a really solid offering and is highly recommended.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

ACF 138: Heroes of the East

Heroes of the East / Zhong hua zhang fu
(a.k.a. Shaolin Challenges Ninja)
Directed by Lau Kar-Lueng (a.k.a. Liu Chia-Liang)
Hong Kong, 1979, 104 min.

Ah To (Gordon Liu) is an outstanding Chinese martial student. His wealthy father has arranged for him to be married to Kung Zi, the daughter of a Japanese business associate. Au To’s initial resistance is overcome once he sees Kung Zi, his beautiful bride-to-be, after she arrives from Japan. It turns out that his new wife is herself a practitioner of such Japanese martial arts as karate, judo, and kendo, and is also experienced with several other Japanese weapons.

Ah To finds the clothing she wears when practicing her martial arts, as well as the style of certain movements, to be decidedly unladylike and tries to convince her of the superiority of Chinese style martial arts. Thus the first part of the film, besides having some terrific action sequences, also plays out like a comic Chinese/Japanese riff on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Not only is Ah To unsuccessful in his attempts to convince her to change, but he actually manages to so offend her that she packs up and returns to Japan. There she is meets with her teacher Takeno. He clearly had feelings for her but chose martial arts over marriage. When Au To, in an attempt to get his wife to return to him, sends a letter challenging her to a contest so he can prove the superiority of Chinese over Japanese martial arts, Takeno misinterprets it as an affront to all Japanese martial arts. With his teacher and several other martial arts masters, as well as Kuda, he travels to China to confront Au To.

At this point the film evolves into a series of contests as Au To must face a different Japanese opponent, and their individual weapons and fighting styles, each day. Not exactly a fair arrangement, but one he must accept. And we, the viewers, are treated to some outstanding demonstrations of martial arts prowess with a variety of weapons, both Chinese and Japanese.

Heroes of the East is a unique film in two ways. First off, it doesn’t demonize the Japanese, at least not as severely most Hong Kong films. For example, in Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury the Japanese are depicted pretty much as the incarnation of evil. Heroes of the East, on the other hand, recognizes the importance of mutual respect among martial artists, and that humility is “the true martial arts way.”

Secondly, the film is essentially without physical violence. There are no broken bones, no deaths or dismemberments, none of the unique Shaw Brothers’ red “blood” that’s found in so many other of their films. Here, the emphasis is on real-deal martial arts action, albeit tailored for cinematic effect. Heroes of the East used actual Japanese martial artists, an approach that had not generally been employed before.

Even though it’s only a single disc, this DVD release, Dragon Dynasty has again done an outstanding job packing it with terrific extras. Besides his feature length commentary, Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan also provides an featurette on director Lau Kar Leung, who appears briefly in the film as a master of drunken fist kung fu.

The interview with star Gordon Liu, approximately 22 minutes long, includes an interesting insight into how he and his female co-star, who didn’t understand each others language, worked things out. To signal to one another that their dialogue had ended, they would say “hai,” which mean “yes” in Japanese. Since the actual dialogue was, as usual, dubbed after filming, this didn’t interfere with the soundtrack and allowed them to know when the other should start responding.

There’s also a very nice 26 minute segment that compares Chinese and Japanese weapons. It’s hosted by Kea Wong, who has done similar service on other Dragon Dynasty releases.

Star Gordon Liu studied martial arts with both Lau Kar-Leung’s father, who adopted him, and with the director himself. Lau and Liu had previously made The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which is a classic and is also available from Dragon Dynasty. Heroes of the East, although perhaps not as well-regarded, is one hell of a terrific film and would be a welcome addition to any Asian film fan’s collection.

I rate the film at 3.5 out of 4 stars, highloy recommended. The DVD special features rate 4 stars, outstanding.

Price: $19.95
Language: English Mono, Cantonese Mono, Mandarin Mono
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Runtime: 104 min
Screen Format: Widescreen

Special Features
- Feature Commentary With Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan
- Spotlight On A Legend: A Tribute To Celebrated Martial Arts Icon, Lau Kar-Lueng
- Hero of Shaolin: An Exclusive Interview With Leading Man Gordon Liu
- Shaolin Vs. Ninja: An Exploration Of The Legendary Martial Arts Weapons Forms Of China and Japan
- Trailer Gallery