onderhond blog - onderhond.com http://www.onderhond.com/blog/onderhond The onderhond blog is a collection of gathered thoughts about my work and my personal life. Find out about what drives me as a person and how I get about in my professional life. en-us underdog@operamail.com (Niels Matthijs) <![CDATA[Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai/Keiichi Hara]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/miss-hokusai-review-keiichi-hara

It's been a rough couple of years for anime feature films. Making an original film (ie. not based on a big fanbase-sporting anime/manga franchise) has been proven to be nearly impossible. The ones that do get made are usually fantasy/dramas that try to mimic Ghibli's success formula. Imagine my surprise when I heard about Keiichi Hara's Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai. A historical drama coming from Production I.G that targets a more mature audience. I just couldn't let this one slip by.

screen capture of Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai

Sarusuberi isn't 100% original material mind. The film is an adaptation of Hinako Sugiura's manga, though it has been thoroughly reworked to get to its current incarnation. The original manga was extremely fragmented, Hara chose to single out O-Ei's character and build the film around her. On top of that, additional material was written and added to flesh out the story. The film still feels pretty fragmented at times, but for what is basically an animated biography that shouldn't pose too much of a problem.

Even though O-Ei's the main character of the film, she's only a proxy to Katsushika Hokusai (better known as Tetsuzo), one of Japan's most famous 19th century artists. O-Ei is Tetsuzo's third daughter and the one who inherited his talents. She lives with Tetsuzo and one of his apprentices in a small house. Painting is what they live for and honing their skill takes up the bigger part of their lives. While this also takes up a sizeable part of the film, the meat of the matter lies in the drama surrounding the Hokusai family.

The film doesn't really work towards a definite point or dramatic climax. Instead we see small vignettes that help to shape Tetsuzo and his nearest family. Luckily the film goes well beyond simple mythification of its main characters, Tetsuzo is shown as a rather self-centered, single-minded man who works hard for his passion but is known to neglect others because of that. Through the eyes of O-Ei we get to know him a little better, though Hara makes sure that O-Ei herself also gets an appropriate amount of screen time.

screen capture of Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai

It was a nice surprise to see that Production I.G upped their animation standard for this release. Rather than go for an upgraded OAV look (like they did with the latest Ghost in the Shell film), Sarusuberi looks the part. The animation is detailed, the character designs delicate and there are some interesting sequences in between where the art style changes to match the more mysterious and dream-like nature of the story. The CG isn't always up to par though, some bits look a little too clean and obvious, in part because the camera work is too focused on showing off the 3D models. That said, these moments are rare and generally speaking Sarusuberi is beautifully animated.

The Japanese dub deserves a big thumbs up. If you tend to get annoyed by the more typical (child-like and high-pitched) anime dubs then you don't need to worry here, Sarusuberi features a more natural, mature dub. Anne Watanabe in partcular does a superb job as O-Ei, Kumiko Aso also pulls her weight in a smaller role. The soundtrack is up to par too, although more in the line of what you'd expect. Classic Japanese sounds in a more contemporary arrangement that complement the atmosphere of the film. Except for two obnoxious pop/rock tracks that felt completely out of place. I cannot even imagine why they were added, luckily the impact on the film as a whole is minimal.

screen capture of Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai

Sarusuberi's biggest hurdle is that it lacks a clear structure. Part of the film illustrates the dedication and passion of O-Ei and Tetsuzo, there's also plenty of time to dive into their bumpy personal lives and another sizeable part adds some mysticism to the film. But all these scenes are mixed together without too much of a general frame. Personnally I don't mind, I'm quite averse to the typical rise and fall structures of biopics, but people looking for a clear cut story might be a little disappointed by the disjointed way the film is set up.

Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai is a much needed entry in the anime feature film segment. It isn't based off of a big, popular franchise. It comes off as mature and genuine, with little fantasy influences, solid animation, a natural-sounding dub and some truly outstanding scenes. It's not quite up there with the best of Production I.G (roughly the period between '93 and '05), but it's a big step up from most other films and series they've released the past couple of years. A great film for people who are craving finer animation films, hopefully this is the start of a new trend.

Thu, 23 Jun 2016 09:22:35 +0000
<![CDATA[Dante Lam/x20]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/dante-lam-x20
Dante Lam

Dante Lam is one of those directors who profited wisely from Hong Kong's cinema collapse during the mid-90's. After Hong Kong's martial arts empire imploded a second time, history was set to repeat itself. Through the likes of Johnnie To, Wai-Keung Lau and Dante Lam himself, cop and crime thrillers came back into fashion after a short hype in the late 80's, signalling the rebirth of Hong Kong cinema in the early 00's.

The late 90's were ripe with opportunities for aspiring directors and Lam jumped on the bandwagon. I've yet to see Lam's first film G4 Te Gong [Option Zero], but Yeshou Xingjing [Beast Cops] is a good example of where Hong Kong action cinema would be going. Under the wings of Gordon Chan Lam manifested himself as a director with vision and style, delivering a fun and edgy cop thriller that laid the groundwork for many to come. Next up for Lam was Kong Woo Giu Gap [Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone], which turned out to be another hit, only now focused more on the Triads instead of the police force. Lam's future looked rosy and it seemed he was well on his way to becoming one of Hong Kong's greats. And he'd get there eventually, just not right away.

The early 00's saw a few detours for Lam's career. He didn't stop making action films, though Chung Chong Ging Chaat [Hit Team] and Chung Fung Hum Jun [Heat Team] didn't really live up to the bar Lam had set with his early films. At the same time Lam's focus started to shift to comedy and romance for a while. That may have been a commercial success, but films like Luen Ching Go Gup [Love on the Rocks], Luen Oi Hang Sing [Tiramisu] and Chow Tau Yau Liu [Runaway] just highlighted Lam's shortcomings when working in other genres.

Things did pick up mid 00's. With an action/comedy and two animation features under his belt Lam still hadn't arrived where he needed to be, but he seemed to have learned from earlier efforts, using that new-found knowledge to make him a better overall director. In 2008 he committed to Ching Yan [The Beast Stalker], the film that finally put him back on track. A raw, gritty and entertaining cop flick that kick-started a series of vintage Lam action films.

This quality streak would last Lam about 4 years. Jik Zin [The Viral Factor], Sin Yan [The Stool Pigeon] and Sun Cheung Sau [Sniper] are all great action flicks, For Lung [Fire of Conscience] is the one that stands out and captures all of Lam's qualities in one film. It's a prime example of stylish looking Hong Kong action cinema that falls somewhere in between the work of Johnnie To and Wai-Keung Lau.

It's a shame Lam suffered another setback after that. Mo Jing [The Demon Within] is still a pretty good film, but Ji Zhan [Unbeatable] was a little disappointing and Po Feng [To the Fore] is a downright disaster. It's understandable that Lam is looking for something different, but a sports film about cycling is clearly not something he was cut out to make. Hopefully this is just another phase and he'll return as an even better version of himself. Dante Lam has a lot of talent, but it's mostly centered around directing action cinema. When he diverts from that, the result isn't always pretty.

Best film: For Lung [Fire of Conscience] (4.0*)
Worst film: Luen Oi Hang Sing [Tiramisu] (1.5*)
Reviewed films: For Lung
Average rating: 3.05 (out of 5)

Mon, 20 Jun 2016 09:43:29 +0000
<![CDATA[19/Kazushi Watanabe]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/19-review-kazushi-watanabe

Back in 2000 Japanese cinema started to boom. In the wake of Kitano's Hana-bi young and upcoming directors were given a chance to bring their vision to the screen. Actor/director/writer Kazushi Watanabe jumped at the opportunity and was able to expand his earlier short film to a full-length feature. The result was 19, a somewhat strange, hard to coin yet sublime and gripping little film that managed to seduce me all over again.

screen capture of 19

Kazushi Watanabe's 19 is part of that rare breed of film that leaves you with good memories, but not so much of the film itself. What remains afterwards is simply the memory of the memory. I remembered 19 as a rather special, unique film, but I'd completely forgotten why exactly that was. It kind of messed up my expectations when I wanted to see it again. Either it would turn out fine and I could relive the film as if I was watching it for the first time, or it would bomb and I'd have to question my former self's taste in films.

Lucky for me Watanabe's first turned out to be as special as I remembered it to be. It's clear that 19 owes quite a lot to the cinema of Kitano (Sonatine in particular springs to mind), but made as if the film was part of the more recent slow cinema movement. It's a strange fusion of genre cinema and arthouse, not surprisingly the small niche I tend to favor. That makes it a little harder to recommend blindly, but if you're the adventurous type then 19 shouldn't pose too much of a challenge.

Plotwise expectations are better kept low. Not because the plot fails to engage, but there just isn't much there. A trio of thugs come across a student (Usami) and they decide to take the boy with them. It's not exactly a hostage situation and the reason why Usami is forced to go with them is kept a mystery, but it's clear that he has little say in the proceedings. They drive around, raise hell wherever they come but don't seem to have any specific goal in mind. And so the film becomes a road movie with no clear destination or point.

screen capture of 19

Visually 19 is pretty interesting. It looks a little like a high-contrast black & white film, only shot with washed-out colors. There's lots of grain, milky colors and an abundance of overexposed imagery. The effect is gritty and ethereal at the same time, giving the film an otherworldly quality even though the locations themselves may be a little her plain. Don't expect slick and fine-tuned cinematography though, but for this type of film the style works wonders and 19 wears its indie look with pride.

The soundtrack is equally gritty. Raw and distorted guitars wail in the background, often in jazz-like constructions. It's a very definite, recognizable sound that gives the film quite a lot of extra flair. Together with the visuals it creates a feeling of gravity and mystery, an atmosphere that somehow grounds the film. It's not the kind of music I would listen to outside the context of this film, then again I feel that's often one of the defining elements of a good soundtrack.

What the cast lacks in acting talent, they make up for in raw flair. Kazushi Watanabe in particular makes an awesome thug, taking on the role of an intriguing yet difficult to grasp (low-ranking) criminal. His actions and motivations are often murky, but his character doesn't suffer from it, on the contrary even. His almost impenetrable facade makes it easier to understand why his victims remain so passive under his command. The rest of the cast performs well, although I assume that's mostly because there's a lot of posing going on and minimal dialogue for them to mess up.

screen capture of 19

You could say that 19 is more about the journey then it is about the destination, but I'm not even sure that is true as the journey itself isn't all that exciting either. Still, the trip has an incredible impact on the lead character and observing that change is what kept me glued to the screen. The ending is also perfect in that sense, but might be a little hard to swallow if you don't really relate to the film by that point. The film doesn't come to a neat, all-encompassing conclusion, but still feels finished and complete.

Even though its appeal might be limited to a rather small group of film fans, I still feel 19 is undervalued (and incredibly underwatched). Chances are that it will disappoint some people, others might be left clueless and wondering what they have just watched, but it's a unique film that at least deserves the benefit of the doubt. 19 is rich in atmosphere, offers a novel take on the road trip genre and the film left me wishing there were more films like this. Watanabe's 19 is a little diamond in the rough and I'm pretty glad that I'm able to cherish it.

Thu, 16 Jun 2016 09:36:24 +0000
<![CDATA[Sutorobo Ejji/Ryuichi Hiroki]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/sutorobo-ejji-review-hiroki

It seems Ryuichi Hiroki is back. Sutorobo Ejji [Strobe Edge] may be one of his more commercial films to date, but where his previous commercial efforts seemed to falter, resulting in unbalanced and slightly disappointing films, Sutorobo Ejji is a superb mix of cute, heart-warming romance and Hiroki's trademark female-centered drama. Don't expect anything edgy or any indie-leaning antics from this film and you might be in for a very sweet, little romantic treat.

screen capture of Sutorobo Ejji

Like Otoko no Issho (Hiroki's previous film), Sutorobo Ejji is a manga adaption. While manga adaptations are known for being rather tepid and shamelessly catering to the local market, Hiriko seems to have found a healthy balance between pleasing Japanese fans and keeping international audience engaged. Sutorobo Ejji is still very much a Japanese film, but you don't have to know the ins and outs of the local market to derive any pleasure from it.

Don't expect anything too original though. The core story is a very simple, run of the mill romance that should feel familiar and comfortable to most, unless you've never ever seen or read a romantic film/novel before. If there's anything in the way of a twist, it's that the film focuses on the girl rather than the boy in her quest to conquer love. It gives the dramatic side of the story a slightly different angle, but the bottom line remains exactly the same.

Sutorobo Ejji tells the story of Ninako and Ren. Ninanko has confessed her feelings to Ren, knowing fully well that Ren is in a relationship with another girl. He politely declines and the two decide to remain friends. Inevitably Ninako has to let go of her feelings for Ren at some point, but right when she decides to move on Ren brakes up with his girlfriend. Classic romantic drama that practically writes itself, but for a genre film that's hardly a deal breaker.

screen capture of Sutorobo Ejji

Visually Hiroki has made some clear strides forward. At times, the camera work and color pallet reminded me a lot of Makoto Shinkai's work. There's a strong spring feeling to the visuals, with lots of lens flares, sharp greens and blues, traditional shots of cherry blossom and smooth camera work. It creates a warm yet crisp atmosphere that works wonderfully for a romantic drama like this. It's pretty fluffy and cuddly, then again this is a romance.

The soundtrack is a mix of more typical drama music and a bunch of J-Pop to lighten the mood. Excluding the people familiar with J-Pop, this is probably going to be the hardest sell for international audiences. I'm not a big fan myself, though Hiroki did seem to have cherry picked a selection of songs that work well within the film without ever becoming too sugary and poppy. It's far from excellent, but it's also not as bad as it could've been all things considered.

As for the cast, it's clear that Hiroki worked them hard. At first I feared that the actors wouldn't be able to carry the dramatic parts of the film as they all have this glossy, smooth aura over them that doesn't immediately betray acting talent. Hiroki is known to be good with actors though and when the drama opens up it works well. There's no gross over-acting or poorly acted dailogues, instead Arimura and Fukushi make for a sweet couple, carrying the romantic weight with ease.

screen capture of Sutorobo Ejji

Even though it's rarely recognized, romance is as much genre territory as is horror, sci-fi or fantasy. That means you'll be dealing with lots of clichés, predictable plot points and unsurprising endings, but that just comes with the territory. Genre films are all about execution and Hiroki adds a lot of value there. But if romance isn't your thing, then Sutorobo Ejji has little that will convince you of its merits and you're probably better off skipping it.

In many ways, Sutorobo Ejji is a typical manga adaptation as much as it is a typical romance. But Hiroki builds upon that to make a sweet, cute and genuine little love story. The film looks great, the acting is up to par and while the soundtrack is a bit too poppy, it never feels out of place. Hiroki did his best to make a film that transcends its built-in audience and he succeeded, but if you have an aversion towards romances it's better to just leave it be.

Wed, 08 Jun 2016 10:22:27 +0000
<![CDATA[Hyn Huet Ching Nin/Pou-Soi Cheang]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/new-blood-review-pou-soi-cheang

Right after the turn of the century, director Pou-Soi Cheang was quickly working himself up to become one of Hong Kong's leading directors. One of his first truly great films was Hyn Huet Ching Nin [New Blood], an accomplished horror film that managed to stand out from the crowd. Asian horror films were all the rage back then though, so I wondered if it still held that same appeal. What better reason to wipe the dust from my DVD and give it another run.

screen capture of Hyn Huet Ching Nin

Much like Taiwan, Hong Kong never really managed to become part of the Asian horror wave, although for slightly different reasons. It's not that Hong Kong didn't make any horror films, it's just that their approach to horror is somewhat unconventional and doesn't hold much appeal for Western fans. People like Herman Yau, Marco Mak, Wai-Keung Lau and Cheang himself all had a go at the genre, but lack of focus, gross overacting, too many different genre influences and not so scary ghost material stood in the way of broader success.

Hyn Huet Ching Nin is different though. It's a pretty straight-forward genre effort. There's no comic relief to ruin the atmosphere, no distractions to take away from the scary parts, no twist to drama halfway through. It's just plain scary fun. It's a film that lies closer to the work of the Pang brothers, though it bears more of Hong Kong's traditional styling. That makes it a rare example of a full-blooded Hong Kong horror film, something to be treasured for sure.

The plot revolves around the suicide of a young couple. Three passersby are just in time to notice something's not right. They rescue the couple and carry them off to a nearby hospital. The girl is beyond saving and dies, but thanks to a timely blood transfusion the boy manages to survive, albeit in a coma. The blood donor is heralded as a true hero, but one person is less than happy with the survival of the boy and vows to take revenge on the well-meaning trio.

screen capture of Hyn Huet Ching Nin

The cinematography is what you'd expect from a Hong Kong horror film. Lots of night time shots that look extremely blueish (Nuit Américaine, if you want the fancy term), agile camera work and some interesting camera angles leave a strong visual impression. There's an extra layer of finish though that's quite unique to Cheang's work, but if you don't appreciate the cold, muted, blue hues then it's probably best to avoid this one. Even so, for a horror film it looks pretty accomplished.

The music is truly something else. The film thrives on some very interesting, expressive musical pieces you wouldn't immediately link to the horror genre, but Cheang manages to blend them into a very atmospheric whole. There's one track though that jumps out immediately. It's a somewhat butchered, heavily slowed down version of Clint Mansell's Lux Aeterna (from Requiem for a Dream's soundtrack). The resemblance is uncanny, but the effect of the track is completely different and it works absolute wonders within this film. It's probably one of the best and smartest musical rip-offs I've ever heard.

The cast is without a doubt Hyn Huet Ching Nin's weakest link. Niki Chow's performance is passable and the other actors aren't a complete disaster, but there are some borderline acceptable performances and overall I feel that a slightly better cast could've added to the effectiveness of the film. Still, you won't see any of that typical Hong Kong overacting here, so it could've been a lot worse still.

screen capture of Hyn Huet Ching Nin

Even though the source of the horror stems from a dramatic event, the film never really gives up on its horror premise. The ghost never becomes a tragic character that tries to evoke sympathy from the audience, even though her anger is somewhat understandable. It's one of the key differentiators that sets Hyn Huet Ching Nin apart from most other Asian horror films. The hauntings themselves though are rather tepid and the film is never on-the-edge-of-your-seat scary, instead Cheang focuses more on creating a dark, unsettling atmosphere.

Hyn Huet Ching Nin is a good place to start if you're interested in watching a Hong Kong horror flick. Maybe it's not really all that representative, but that's what makes it easier to digest. It draws a lot of atmosphere from its strong visual identity and an unusual yet impressive soundtrack and even though the acting leaves a little to be desired, it never gets in the way of the actual film. If you're into horror films, this is an easy recommend.

Thu, 02 Jun 2016 09:35:11 +0000
<![CDATA[Jug Face/Chad Crawford Kinkle]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/jug-face-review-kinkle
Jug Face poster

After an unusually big peak in the late '00s, the horror genre is collapsing on itself once more. Less horror films are being made, less money is given to new and upcoming directors and safe a few big shots who survived the somewhat sudden implosion (I'm looking at you James Wan), it has become difficult to build a name for yourself directing horror films. But there's also an upside to all this doom and gloom. With all the mainstream attention moving away from the horror scene, room is being made for people that want to take the genre in new directions. Rather than retell the same story with more gore or better special effects, new talent is experimenting with new ideas and approaches, which will ultimately lead us to the next horror renaissance.

Jug Face is one of those interesting new horror films that shows a lot of promise. When it was first released I let it pass by because it came with quite a lot of negative criticism, but over the pass few months I've come to realize that it's better to trust he recommendations of a select few than the opinion of the masses, especially when horror cinema is involved. And so I gave Chad Crawford Kinkle' first-born a fair chance. I'm pretty glad I did.

While Jug Face is a unique film that stands well on its own, the link with producer Lucky McKee's most infamous work is still a good indication of what to expect. Not that it begs for direct comparisons with The Woman, but it seems to reside in that same corner of the horror spectrum. It's not easily classifiable as one of the common horror subgenres, but if you like the occult, mixed with some redneck weirdness and some general unpleasantness than Jug Face is definitely worth a gamble.

The film revolves around a mysterious pit. Local folk believe that the pit has healing powers, as long as they keep sacrificing people to keep it happy. Not just any random sacrifice will do though. The community is guided by the jug maker, a somewhat backwards guy who produces jugs in the form of the pit's next sacrifice. It's a rather unlikely setup, ripe with backwater superstition, but Kinkle makes it work.

There's a little gore and some freaky, semi-demonic action, but that's not where the true horror resides. The creepiest facet of Jug Face is its little community, which has built its entire universe around the pit lore. Regardless of the true nature of the pit, the eagerness of succumbing to the gruesome, ghastly rituals that surround it is what got to me the most. As freaky and outlandish as these people may look, there's a sense of realness that transcends classic horror tropes, making it that much scarier.

Technical credits deserve a thumbs up too. While you shouldn't expect a slick Hollywood-looking film, the editing is sharp, the setting is used to good effect, the gore is convincing and the few special effects that are used never feel cheap or out of place. The soundtrack adds a lot to the film too. Slow, distorted guitars give the film a dark, vibrant and uncomfortable atmosphere. And even the acting is far better than expected, with Carter and Fessenden performing well above genre standards.

Jug Face may lack a bit of finish here and there, but seeing this is Kinkle's first film that's hardly a big issue. Kinkle sculpted a dark, powerful and unsettling little horror film that keeps the tension high throughout its entire running time. The pacing is rather slow and those expecting a simple genre flick might be disappointed by Kinkle's less defined take on the horror genre, but fans with a deeper love for horror cinema that reaches further than the comfort of simple genre clichés should definitely give Jug Face a chance. It's films like this that make sure the genre still has a future.

Tue, 31 May 2016 09:59:11 +0000
<![CDATA[Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai/Wei-hao Cheng]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/tag-along-review-wei-hao-cheng

Even though Taiwanese cinema went through a much-needed refresh a couple of years ago, finding pure genre films from Taiwan still requires a hefty search. Wei-hao Cheng's Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai [The Tag-Along] is a welcome exception to the rule. One of the most successful horror flicks in a long time, the film might signal a new start for Taiwanese horror cinema. Based on the quality of this film, that may not be such a bad deal for horror fans. While it's not the most imaginative of films, it's a quality production that delivers.

screen capture of The Tag-Along

Taiwanese horror films are quite rare. Zhaibian and Xiong Mei are two fine examples and Zhi Yao Yi Fen Zhong enjoyed its five minutes of fame not too long ago, but taking into account the boom of Asian horror films that swept over us for the past 15 years, Taiwan has been notably abscent from the scene. Not that Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai is sure to turn all of that around, but it at least has the potential to make a difference. Hopefully more will follow in its footsteps, since it would definitely benefit the further diversification of Taiwan's cinema output.

Asian horror films tend to focus more on drama, opting to use classic horror elements as an expression of personal trauma. Personally I don't mind this setup, but it does mean that the second half of these films often lose much of their suspense and tension, instead edging closer to a dramatic conclusion. It's a setup that often hinders international exposure and keeps these films from reaching a wider audience. There's a little of that here too, but overall Yi Xiao Nu Hai remains pretty true to the spirit of its horror roots.

The film is based on a popular Taiwanse legend, involving a 'mo-sien'. A mo-sien is a mountain ghost that manifests itself as a little girl and is known to follow people around, "tagging along" with its victims until it captures their soul. We follow Wei and Yi-chun, a young couple that is burdened with the curse of a mo-sien. Even though their relationship is under strain, Yi-chun is unwilling to simply give up Wei and is determined to fight back against the mo-sien that keeps her boyfriend from her.

screen capture of The Tag-Along

Taiwanese films are known to look good and Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai is no exception. With its greenish, desaturated colors and strong compositions, it looks considerably better than most other horror films. Practical make-up is impressive too, the CG on the other hand can be a little flakey. It's not even all that clear why they used CG for certain shots, but the difference is a bit too visible at times. A small blemish on an otherwise splendid-looking film.

The soundtrack is unremarkable but functional. It follows a classic horror film approach, residing in the background and keeping to itself for most of the time, only when things get a bit more tense does it demand attention. It's not a bad soundtrack and it's hard to fault it, but the fact that I needed to skip through the film again to refresh my memory means it's just not very memorable and it does little to really help the film forward.

The acting is above par. River Huang and Wei Ning Hsu put in solid performances, well above the expected level for a horror film. They probably won't be wining any prizes, then again their parts don't really allow them to really go above and beyond. Fans of classic Taiwanese cinema will be happy to hear 70s icon Yin-Shang Liu shows up in a rather large secondary part. She hold up well, even though her role is pretty one-dimensional.

screen capture of The Tag-Along

Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai is a film that's bound to do well with fans of Asian horror and people with a soft spot for the Taiwanese sense of aesthetic. It isn't until quite late in the film that the mo-sien legend brings something fresh to the table. It's mostly just about a young girl ghost haunting people in rather traditional ways. The finale spices things up a little, but if the film has lost you already I'm sure those last scenes won't be able to save the film for you.

Still, it's nice to see Taiwan deliver a good horror film like this. The acting is well above par, the film looks great and the added couleur locale is sure to please seasoned horror fans. Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai is not an exceptional film, nor a film that turns the genre upside down, but it's an accomplished horror film that might please a broader audience. Here's to hoping it finds its way on the international scene and it'll be interesting to see where director Wei-hao Cheng will go from here.

Thu, 26 May 2016 09:25:27 +0000
<![CDATA[Container/Lukas Moodysson]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/container-review-moodysson

There's a cliché that states great art stems from negative emotions (aka the tortured artist), if that's true then Container is probably Lukas Moodysson's magnum opus. It's a relentless, dark and hermetically closed down film. I remember loving it when I first watched it, but I never saw it again since that first viewing. It's just not the kind of film you pop in to have a good time. This weekend I figured it was time to see if the film still held up after all those years and I must say, Container still packs quite a punch.

screen capture of Container

Moodysson has had a pretty interesting career so far. He started off with Fucking Åmål and Tillsammans, two dramatic yet uplifting films which left a pleasant impression. Soon after he started his descent into darker territory though. He seemed to have hit rock bottom with Ett Hål i Mitt Hjärta [A Hole in My Heart], but that was before the first footage of Container surfaced. I'm not sure in what way this film reflected Moodysson's personal state of mind, but it's clear that he had to get something off his chest badly.

Container is not a typical narrative film, in fact, there isn't much of a plot to speak of. Instead there's a stream of loosely related scenes featuring a boy and a girl. The girl subscribes to the contemporary beauty ideal, the boy is your average overweight, scruffy male. On top there's an endless voice-over telling stories and baring feelings that relate tangentially to the people on the screen. Container is an audiovisual poem, a film more concerned with communicating a state of being than touching on concrete plot points or any kind of coherent message.

What binds these characters is the feeling that they don't belong in their body. The girl wants to be a boy, the boy wants to be a girl. It's a thread that runs throughout the entire film, prompting me to believe that we're actually watching two aspects of the same person, sometimes fighting with each other, sometimes helping each other out. But as is often the case with a film like this, if you're looking for meaning or looking to make sense of what you're seeing, it's ends up being more about what you yourself bring to the film than what's actually there.

screen capture of Container

Moodysson chose to do the film in harsh and rich constrasting black and white, which works extremely well for the atmosphere he tried to evoke. It gives the images an ominous look, even when there's nothing really disturbing to see. It's somewhat of a safe choice when doing an experimental film and it's not used to its fullest effect, but it's hard to imagine the film in color, let alone in a way that would've improved on it. If you also take into account some sharply edited scenes and some nice camera work, there's really no way to fault the visuals.

It's the soundtrack that really gets to me though. Mind you, I use soundtrack in a very liberal sense, because 95% of the film goes without any form of music. Only at the very end is there some dark ambient/illbient to go with the visuals. But the monotone voice over is as much an element of style as it is a way to convey meaning. Jena Malone just drones on for 70 minutes straight, taking care of both the male and female part of the monologue. It's a truly transfixing experience, although I'm sure it's going to be a bend or break deal for most people.

From what I've read there's also an original Swedish dub, but Container is a rare example of a film where I would advice against the dub. Not just because Malone does such an amazing job, but because the information density is so high that reading subtitles would detract too much from the overall experience. Besides the voice over there are also the two main characters of the film, though they don't really have that much to do. They just act out certain motions, but there's little or no interaction to speak of and most of the time the camera acts as a voyeur while they're doing mundane (and not so mundane) things.

screen capture of Container

Container clearly isn't a film for everyone. There's no real narrative, the droning voice over weighs on the film and the visuals aren't exactly pleasant or soothing. 70 minutes may not sound like a long time, but when served like this it surely drags you down. That said, Moodysson sculpts a tight and suffocating experience, a unique, twisted vision of the human psyche that wraps you up and won't let you go until long after the very last frames have faded from the screen.

It's impossible to univocally recommend a film like this, but fans of experimental, dark and uncompromising cinema should really check this one out (if you haven't already). It has lost none of its power since its release, it's still an impressive, atmospheric and unrelentless piece of guerilla cinema that grants us a rare glimpse of Moodysson's darkest inner corners. Not for the faint of heart, but still a clear personal favorite of mine.

Thu, 19 May 2016 09:15:17 +0000
<![CDATA[Iya Monogatari: Oku no Hito/Tetsuichiro Tsuta]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/iya-monogatari-review-tsuta

Some films seem tailored to become obscure gems, hiding away in the cracks of genre niches, shielded by language and/or country barriers. You usually run into them by chance or by taking a rare gamble. Tetsuichiro Tsuta's Iya Monogatari: Oku no Hito [The Tale of Iya] is such a film. It's far from an easy recommend and it's sure to be a frustrating experience for unsuspecting victims, but if you happen to be part of its target audience it's nearly impossible not to succumb to its charm.

screen capture of Iya Monogatari: Oku no Hito

Iya Monogatari is part drama, part mystery (with a tiny blip of eco-scifi thrown in for good measure). But it doesn't really try to blend these different elements into a cohesive whole. Instead the first 100 minutes are pretty straight-forward drama cinema, only to turn into a complex, unsettling and slightly dazzling mystery during its final hour. Usually I'm not a big fan of 120+ minute films, but the length really adds something to the impact of the thematic twist here.

The first part is a rather grim, rural Japanese drama following Kudo, a Tokyo resident moving back to the countryside. Fed up with the stress of city life, he aspires a more tranquil existence. He ends up in Iya, a secluded and small mountain village which is having some trouble of its own. Young people are moving away and the construction of the tunnel that is needed to improve transit between the town and the outside world is held up by demonstrators.

High up the mountain lives Haruna with her guardian, on old man who once rescued her from a crashed car. Kudo befriends the duo and Haruna teaches him how to survive in the harsh mountain setting. But life on the mountain is tough and once winter settles in both Kudo and the old man are having a difficult time surviving the barren circumstances. From there on out, things start to get a little weirder as the narrative trails off in an entirely new direction.

screen capture of Iya Monogatari: Oku no Hito

With a setting like this it's hard to shoot ugly material, but Iya Monogatari's beauty exceeds the pure, natural attraction of the mountains. Cinematographer Yutaka Aoki turns Iya into an almost otherworldly place, a mystical alternate reality that seems almost untouched by modern life. I did find the indoor scenes to be a little too murky though. I'm sure Aoki prided himself on using natural light only, but a bit more contrast inside would've been nice. Still, most of the film is spent outside and there are some truly inspiring shots to be enjoyed.

The soundtrack is a little less adventurous. The music remains respectfully in the background, the little music there is is mostly of the lone piano variety. The rest of the soundtrack is filled with ambient sounds that evoke that typical mountain atmosphere. It's known to work for a film like this and sure enough, the soundtrack is an asset. It's just not as remarkable or defining as other aspects of the film.

The acting on the other hand is well above par. Shima Ohnishi (a late Koji Wakamatsu regular) is great as Kudo and Min Tanaka puts in a great performance as the old man. But it's Rina Takeda who makes for the biggest surprise. Mostly known for her parts in cheesier genre flicks (High-Kick Girl! and Dead Sushi, to name two famous ones), she excels as Haruna and inject in just the right amounts of mystery and drama into her character. As a little bonus, arthouse fans should watch out for an extended Naomi Kawase cameo.

screen capture of Iya Monogatari: Oku no Hito

The first part of the film is spent exclusively in Iya, focusing on a limited set of characters while also giving a broader view of the little mountain community. I feel Tsuta meandered a bit too much at certain points, for example spending too much time in a local wood mill. But these are just a handful of scenes in an otherwise strong drama. I suspect most people will have more trouble with the sudden switch in atmosphere, when Tsuta relocates his film to Tokyo halfway through. From then on the narrative becomes a little blurrier, with little or no explanations given.

Iya Monogatari is a film that comes with a built-in audience. Unless you're specifically scouting for obscure arthouse films or you're drowning yourself in Japanese cinema, chances are you'll never hear of this one again. But if you like a fresh challenge and you think you can handle the narrative loose ends and the crude switch in styles halfway through, Iya Monogatari is a little gem that begs to be discovered. Let's just hope it isn't Tsuta's swan song.

Thu, 12 May 2016 09:37:32 +0000
<![CDATA[Bangkok Dangerous/Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/bangkok-dangerous-review-pangs

Before Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang made a name for themselves as horror directors, they were already on the radar of adventurous action fans. Bangkok Dangerous is a little cult film that kickstarted the Pangs' international career, a film that made heads turn and put them on the map. I recently sat down to watch it again, expecting it would have lost some of its charm through the years. It didn't take me long to realize I had underestimated the beauty that is Bangkok Dangerous.

screen capture of Bangkok Dangerous

Bangkok Dangerous was probably the first Thai film I ever watched. Back then Thai cinema has little to no international presence, let alone a presence in genre cinema. The Pangs would change all that, even though they themselves moved their business to Hong Kong soon after. In 2008 they would revisit Bangkok Dangerous once more as a remake, fronted by Nicolas Cage. While not a bad effort (at all, in fact), the original remains unchallenged in terms of raw quality.

If you only know the Pangs from their more commercial work, you might be a little surprised by the vividness of their earlier films. Bangkok Dangerous isn't exactly subtle, subdued or timid, instead it flexes all its cinematic muscles in an attempt to get itself noticed. It definitely worked, but I'm pretty sure not everyone is going to appreciate the film's boldness. Not all the flexing is functional and if you're in the 'style over substance' haters camp then there's a lot to dislike.

The film submerges itself into the criminal underground of Thailand, following two best friends who operate as serial killers. Kong is a deaf-mute who kills as an emotional release, Jo is the one who took Kong under his wings when he was still a young boy. The two get their jobs from Aom, Jo's former girlfriend, who acts as a middle man between the boys and organized crime units. They are a pretty dangerous team, but when a client stalks Aom and rapes her, the two embark on a mission that will turn everyone against them.

screen capture of Bangkok Dangerous

On a visual level, Bangkok Dangerous is meant to dazzle. The film is shot through bright, neon-like monochrome filters, the camera work is showy and in your face while the editing is deliberate and leading. It's the kind of look some might describe as taken from a music video, but it gives the film lots of flair and it's a big part of the reason why it still works today. It's slightly dated, but creative enough to transcend mere contemporary coolness.

The same can be said about the soundtrack. The electronic-based tracks that are featured throughout the film are a clear product of the 90s, but they're used to good effect and it's more than just some random dance beats put underneath various scenes. They blend well with the visuals and enhance the dark, trippy Thai underground setting. As someone entrenched in electronic music for the past 30 years it's easy to see where and how the soundtrack could be improved, but for a film soundtrack it's well above average.

The acting is pretty decent, but the only one who makes a real impact is Pawarith Monkolpisit (playing Kong). It's weird that his career never really took off, but he lends Kong the necessary gravitas without any need for overacting. Quite the feat since he's playing a deaf-mute. Ratanasopha, Timkul and Intrakanchit put in solid performances, but they never seem to be able to match Monkolpisit's onscreen presence.

screen capture of Bangkok Dangerous

Even though Bangkok Dangerous won me over with its flashy exterior and bold stylistic choices, around halfway through the Pangs start inserting just the right amount of drama to give the film that extra bit of texture. Kong's character is fleshed out, not in a very original or creative way, but enough to start caring for him. It's a smart build-up to a strong finale that offers both an emotional as well as an adrenaline-fueled pay-off. A rare combination for this type of film.

Bangkok Dangerous is a film that's surviving the test of time surprisingly well. While certain elements are a little dated by now, they're used in such a way that they haven't lost much of their appeal and impact. The Pangs delivered a mighty fine action film, one that didn't really call for a remake and still holds its own to this very day. Style and just the right amount of substance blend together to create one of the best crime/action films of the 90s.

Wed, 04 May 2016 09:36:00 +0000
<![CDATA[Hardcore Henry/Ilya Naishuller]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/hardcore-henry-review-ilya-naishuller

Thirty seconds was all it took. After that I abandoned the trailer, ignored all the promo material and crossed my fingers that Hardcore Henry, Ilya Naishuller's first feature film, would make it into Belgium theaters. And for once, luck was on my side. When I finally sat down in the theater my expectations were sizable, even though I had managed to ignore the hype surrounding the film. All I can say is that Naishuller exceeded them effortlessly, delivering a film that could proudly crown itself the new action film benchmark, a film all upcoming action flicks will be measured against.

screen capture of Hardcore Henry

Hardcore Henry is a rarity, especially amongst theatrical offerings. Pretty much every film that ends up in theaters these days is made with one foot on the brake, Naishuller on the other hand lets his film run wild. It's madness from start to finish, a production merely concerned with being as badass as possible while ignoring possible audience fallout in the process. It's the kind of film that score a 5/10 on average not because everybody was unmoved by it, but because it's a true love it or hate it affaire.

The main draw of Hardcore Henry is its POV setup. From the very first to the very last frame, everything in the film is experienced through the eyes of Henry, our main character. While this may sounds rather uneventful after a decade's worth of found footage horrors, the actual experience is quite different. For one, while Henry is never seen in full (they left out the obligatory FPS mirror scene), we often see his hands (and guns) onscreen. There's also no camera that can be put aside or can be dropped during a wild chase. Nor is there any kind of multi-camera setup that can be exploited. There are only two short moments where we don't experience normal vision and that's when Henry's eyes aren't firmly lodged inside his skull.

If you're concerned about the somewhat derivative plot (and be warned, it really isn't much to look at), this probably isn't a film for you. It's a combination of popular game tropes, with androids, armies of super soldiers, bad guys with telekinetic powers and whatnot. Our hero lost his memories, has been brought back to life using a couple of strength-increasing prosthetics and is pretty much running from A to B, either because someone told him or because he's being shot at. It's definitely not prize-winning material, then again it's not meant to be.

screen capture of Hardcore Henry

Visually though, it's a totally superior film. The POV camera work is more than just a gimmick or a nod to FPS games (think Doom, Half-Life). Naishuller exploits the technique in order to put the audience in the craziest situations imaginable. Henry flies through the air, gets hit by cars, barges through minivans, climbs walls, is set on fire ... and we can all experience it through his eyes, as if we're doing it ourselves. There is some room for improvement of course, but for a first-time effort the bar is set almost impossibly high. I can only hope others will copy Naishuller's work and either refine it, or see how it may add to other genres.

The soundtrack is probably the least hardcore element of the film. It's sometimes used for comedic effect (Queen's Don't Stop Me Now as part of the finale is sure to draw some smiles) and it's edited quite nicely to the visuals, but mostly it's just a loud and in your face mix of rock and electronic dance music. Luckily it's not the lame movie-disco variety of electronic, but for a film called Hardcore Henry the music could've been a bit more hardcore I guess. That said, the soundtrack does the job and that's what's important here.

Henry himself is a faceless character, lacking any discernible trace of personality. He never thinks, reasons or evaluates, he merely listens and reacts. This lack of individuality is offset by Sharlto Copley's collection of characters. Copley is clearly having the time of his life, taking on different roles and guiding the audience from set piece to set piece. I liked him best as the old British soldier, but the hippie and party boy are also memorable incarnations. Bennett is okay but has little to work with, Kozlovsky goes way over the top and is lucky the film can cope with it. All in all the casting is good, but in the end it's really just Copley's show.

screen capture of Hardcore Henry

When reading other reviews, it's interesting to see that people are pretty much in agreement about the film's specifics, it's only the ratings that are miles apart. No, the plot doesn't offer much to chew on. Yes, the cinematography is pretty chaotic and sure enough, there is hardly any time to catch your breath. But whether you end up hating it or enjoying it says more about you than it does about the film. I love the fact that Naishuller made a movie that doesn't waste too much time on pointless context, a film that doesn't feel it should slow down once in a while so everyone in the audience can catch up and tone down the violence, gore and gaming nods just to appeal to a larger audience. We have enough of those already, in fact, that's all we seem to have nowadays.

There's just one point were I don't agree with the majority of the reviews I've read. While it's true that Hardcore Henry originated out of the broader FPS genre, it doesn't feel like a mere game adaptation, nor should it be compared with them. Rather than translating a (fictitious) game franchise to the big screen, Naishuller looked at FPS games and extracted elements that would make the cinematic experience more intense. Hardcore Henry is 100% cinematic, not an interactive experience reimagined as a mere viewing experience. Which is exactly why Hardcore Henry is a great film where pretty much every other game adaptation is a waste of digital pellicule.

Hardcore Henry is a film with no noticeable compromises. I say noticeable, because with only 2 million dollars to spend there must have been quite a few limitations for Naishuller and his crew. What that means though is that unless you can stomach the continuous onslaught of action, there really isn't much else to enjoy. If you're prone to motion sickness, if you expect to be intellectually triggered or if you can't accept a little silliness, don't even bother. But if you're looking for one of the most immersive cinematic rides in ages, there isn't a single film that can top Hardcore Henry. Maybe it'll take a year, maybe two, maybe even ten, but people will eventually start to copy Naishuller's approach, which is something I'm looking forward to very much. One of my finest theater experiences in years.

Wed, 27 Apr 2016 09:52:38 +0000
<![CDATA[The Arti: The Adventure Begins /Huang Wen Chang ]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/arti-review-huang-wen-chang
The Arti: The Adventure Begins poster

The cool thing about cinema is that even though you may have seen 6000+ films, from time to time something completely unexpected will cross your path. The Arti: The Adventure Begins is such a film. I wasn't at all aware that there was a puppet animation scene in Taiwan, let alone that they had made a film that set out to blend traditional puppet animation with CG. The result is a little uneven, but the good bits royally outweigh the bad ones.

Arti reminded me a little of Klarulund's Strings, though it never quite reaches that same level of quality. Both films are very successful in creating an intriguing lore though, bringing to life a sprawling world that is fun and exciting to explore. The Arti follows Mo, Tong and their wooden robot, Arti-C. Arti-C is a parting gift of their late father, who was murdered for creating the robot. He used a mysterious power called Origin to construct it, which Mo and Tong are trying to locate in order to keep their robot alive and kicking.

The puppet animation varies between somewhat flakey and downright impressive. Some of the shots, especially the ones where the puppets are running, look a little odd and awkward. But the fighting sequences and the more detailed close-ups are absolutely stunning and betray some superb craftsmanship. The use of CG is equally divisive. When used for backgrounds and smaller effects it's nice and effective, but the CG characters often clash with the traditional puppets. Those puppets are by far the main attraction of the film, meticulously sculpted and incredibly detailed, they are a joy to look at when brought to life.

The film faces some minor pacing issues, with certain scenes passing by a little too quickly. The soundtrack isn't quite up to par either, especially the Chinese pop songs can be a little unsettling considering the tone and setting of the film. On top of that, the dub could use some work too. Some voices are fine, others are a little too outspoken. It's the combination of these smaller issues that hold the film back just enough to keep it from being truly great.

But if the title is to be believed, this is only the beginning of a greater adventure. I for one would love to see a couple of sequels. I'm sure the team behind Arti learned a lot from shooting this film (just watch the end credits, it's pretty cool to see the behind the scenes footage), knowledge that can be put to good use to improve possible follow-ups. Even so, fans of puppet animation (or just people looking for something different) will have a blast with Arti. It's a great first effort with a lot going for it, it just lacks a little polish.

Tue, 26 Apr 2016 09:38:49 +0000
<![CDATA[Shun Liu Ni Liu /Hark Tsui]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/time-and-tide-review-hark-tsui

Timing is everything. When I first watched Hark Tsui's Shun Liu Ni Liu [Time and Tide] the Hong Kong movie business was struggling to keep its head above water. Not only that, I was very much into Japanese cinema and didn't really like the films coming out of Hong Kong. Shun Liu Ni Liu is one of the films that marked a major turnaround in my viewing habits, as Hong Kong now represents a significant amount of my monthly film diet. But what about Hark's film? Well, it still holds up, though it's not quite as spectacular as I remembered it to be.

screen capture of Shun Liu Ni Liu

Hark Tsui may be one of Hong Kong's biggest and brightest action directors, even he couldn't stay afloat during the late 90s. He relocated to the US to direct two action flicks, though that didn't turn out to be such a great success either. Shun Liu Ni Liu was somewhat of a comeback film for Hark, a film that helped him to get his own career back on track while revitalizing Hong Kong's dwindling film industry and setting a new bar for Hong Kong's action cinema in the process.

Shun Liu Ni Liu is somewhat of an atypical Hong Kong action film. While the action choreography borrows liberally from local martial arts cinema, there aren't too many archetypical one of one fights to be found here. Instead Hark mixes in heroic bloodshed elements and neckbreaking stunt work, making it feel more like a fancier version of Léon. On top of that Hark drummed up a gang of South-American criminals to be the film's antagonists. That may not sound like a such a big deal, until you realise what a self-contained cultural bubble Hong Kong cinema really is. It's quite rare to see foreign elements introduced, especially South-American ones.

Plotwise things aren't too exciting, then again this is a pretty straightforward action flick, so what did you expect? We follow Tyler, a young bartender looking for a better life. Little does he know he's going to get more than he bargained for when he joins up with a shady bodyguard company, run by an ex-criminal. Tyler gets mixed up in a vicious showdown between Jack (a skilled mercenary) and his former gang member, leaving him struggling to get out alive.

screen capture of Shun Liu Ni Liu

Hark tried to make his film look as dynamic as possible, playing around with different kinds of effects, camera angles and editing tricks, whatever got him closest to his desired result. Some of it still looks cool today, other effects feel a little outdated and surpassed by more effective techniques. For the larger part it's still very amusing, giving the action scenes a little extra pop, but I don't know if the film can survive another 15 years of progress.

The soundtrack is by far the most generic part of the film. It's hardly memorable and mostly aimed at providing some background noise during the more intense scenes. It's not even particularly effective, but at least it doesn't irritate either. It just sits there in between conversations, making sure nobody ever thinks "hey, it's kind of silent in here". It's a pretty typical score for an action film and I guess Hark isn't the man to take big risks on a soundtrack, but it would be nice if he showed a little more balls, especially when he tries to go all out on the visuals.

Nicholas Tse comfortably takes on the lead role, a part that fits him like a glove. It's Wu Bai who leaves the biggest impression though. A bit surprising maybe, as he comes off as almost invisible in the first few scenes he appears in. But his martial arts skills are impressive and combined with his ability to blend in it makes him one of the more ruthless and lethal characters I've ever seen in a film. Anthony Wong also puts in a decent performance, the rest of the cast is okay, but mostly just action film fodder.

screen capture of Shun Liu Ni Liu

Shun Liu Ni Liu features some several impressive action sequences, but the one in the apartment building really stands out. The location (a bit like old Kowloon) is amazing and used to its fullest. When Bai is jumping between buildings, crashing into apartments and running through the hallways and stairwells, Shun Liu Ni Liu is at its very best. It's these moments that make the film live up to its reputation, even by today's standards.

Don't be mistaken, even though Shun Liu Ni Liu is somewhat atypical for a Hong Kong action film, it's still a pretty pure genre effort. If you're not into action cinema you probably won't get much out of it. But if you like high octane adrenaline rushes and you can stomach Hong Kong cinema, Shun Liu Ni Liu is a tasty little treat. Even though some of the effects have a aged a little and the soundtrack is underdeveloped, there's still plenty of fun to be had with this one.

Mon, 25 Apr 2016 09:32:14 +0000
<![CDATA[Philip Yung - Mei Gaau Siu Nui/An Interview]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/philip-yung-interview-may-we-chat

Even though Philip Yung is currently conquering Asia with Port of Call, he still managed to free up a little time to talk about his previous film: Mei Gaau Siu Nui [May We Chat]. If you ever wondered why Hong Kong produces so few contemporary dramas, why Hong Kong actresses are a bit more prudish compared to their Western counterparts and how the film ties in with Hong Kong classic Lonely Fifteen, be sure to read on.

Philip Yung on May We Chat

Niels Matthijs: Hong Kong is known for producing quality genre films (thrillers, martial arts, comedy), but that seems to come at the expense of other genres. How difficult is it to get a film made about Hong Kong's contemporary youngster and the problems they deal with?

Philip Yung: In fact, the Hong Kong mainstream market is dominated by genre films, with almost no room for arthouse films and real literary film. Apart from Fruit Chan, Ann Hui, Herman Yau and a couple of new directors, almost no one is willing to shoot realistic movies. And once a new director matures, he tends to work on more commercial films, so personally I think that shooting social, realistic drama is a modern filmmaker's mission.

I have directed three films so far: "Glamorous Youth", "May We Chat" and "Port of Call", all of them grounded in reality, while my next film will be adapted from a true story in China. Of course, I'm not ruling out shooting commercial films in the future, but I hope I'll still be able to use my observational skills to direct films with strong social relevance.

For me, the hardest thing is to persevere. Because such films are classified as non-commercial films in Hong Kong, it is very difficult to find investors. In Hong Kong the independent film market is immature, it is not easy to keep on making this kind of movie at low cost in the long run. I also think it's important that I keep in check with the community, so every day I insist on reading the newspaper, listening to current affairs programs, having more contact with people. Just because I know that many Hong Kong directors, once they become a director, start living in a dominantly commercial world, almost completely isolating themselves from society.

May We Chat receiving a Cat III [18+] rating probably didn't make things easier. It prevents the film from being seen by younger viewers while hardcore Cat III fans may not be too interested in watching a drama. I suppose the mainland Chinese market is out of the question too. Did you consider censoring certain scenes in order to lower the rating?

This is a good question. In fact, it's really a big mistake I made. First of all, "May We Chat" received a Cat III rating, but I initially intended to target a younger audience, 15-17 year olds in particular. I hoped this film would be considered, recognized and reflected upon by young people, but in order to make the film more realistic and make the audience feel the sense of crisis, I had to include some violent and sexual scenes. As a result the film was classified as Cat III, preventing young people from watching it. The film's box office was also influenced by this. Now that the film has come out, I feel that the result is bold, rare and spectacular, but we lost a lot of viewers in the process.

Secondly, the film mixes commercial elements with element of social realism, so as a result the film didn't bring satisfaction and pleasure to either the commercial film fans and the fans of social dramas. If you look at this film as a social drama, the screenplay of this movie is too sloppy and quite cliché. I simply didn't have enough time to write the script. In fact, I didn't even have enough time for the research and the information-gathering process. So when the film came out, it was not completely as I wanted it to be. However, the content discussed in the film was what I had in mind and what I was concerned about. I solved all of these issues in my third movie, "Port of Call". The screenplay was carefully planned out, as I usually write my own script and that is where I tend to focus on.

And if “May We Chat” should've deleted certain scenes to enter the Chinese market? Releasing it over there was out of scope from the beginning. "May We Chat" started out as a low-budget film, the entire cost of production was only about 500,000 dollars. Initially the reason that I was willing to shoot this movie was because it was an unrestricted, pure Hong Kong Film and that I was allowed to use new actors. But even "Port of Call”, which has a big star and Christopher Doyle's participation, is not a big budget movie. Generally when I make a movie, I tend not to consider the movie's final rating; I just want to shoot the way I see fit in order to express my ideas.

What is holding back films like May We Chat? Is it that local audiences aren't interested in a drama like this? And what about the international market, many of the challenges the characters face are universal, are youth cultures outside of Asia so different that they cannot relate?

Actually, "May We Chat" is also unpopular in the Hong Kong commercial market, the box office is a failure and it did not get any awards. As for overseas, foreign audiences didn't seem to pay too much attention to it. But at certain film festivals, some viewers did see it as a real Hong Kong film and a special piece of work. For example, after Korean director Kim Ki-duc saw it, he liked it and he said the film reminded him of his own film "Samaritan Girl". Of course I know that "May We Chat" can't be compared to "Samaritan Girl", but it made me understand that the movie might make some foreign viewers curious about Hong Kong's social culture. I felt this was very significant for me as a director as well as for the characteristics of my film.

I think that when making a movie a director shouldn't need to be afraid that a foreign audience might not fully grasp it. If foreign audiences can't truly understand a movie, it might make them more curious, hence the movie becomes more culturally significant. This is also the reason why contemporary Japanese and European films have their special cultural value; and why the majority of the Chinese, Korean and Indian movie, even if they look good, lack personality and individuality, as they have always been imitating commercial Hollywood movies.

Hong Kong cinema is a rather male-oriented business, yet May We Chat features three female leads and just a handful male secondary parts. Was it a conscious decision to break away from the standard, or did it come about more organically.

I like shooting female-orientated films. When I'm dealing with male characters, I tend to make them relatively weak and gloomy, something I also did in my screenplay of "Rigor Mortis". The female part on the other hand show strength and dignity. I do not know why though.

A film like this benefits from young, often unknown faces. It lends the film credibility and youthful vigor, on the other hand it's probably not that easy to work with novice actors. Did you do anything special to make them feel more at ease?

I like using new actors, because they have a more natural side to them. I keep trying to mix new actors with veteran actors, so they will influence each other. Professional actors end up looking more natural and young actors can learn some acting skills. So far, I think it has worked well, although it has been more time-consuming. In "Port of Call" I liked the actors' performance and they went on to win a number of international awards. As for "May We Chat", the three first-time actresses weren't bad at all, but the film itself had very little response so not many people paid attention to them.

Rainky Wai stated that she used a body double. These days nudity isn't frowned upon that much, although it seems that Hong Kong can still be quite prudish when it comes to showing skin. Was the decision for a body double made in order to protect Wai's future career?

This is also a good question. Chinese actors are generally more conservative; there are still a lot of so-called code of ethics. An actor's nudity is not really accepted by the Chinese community. Many actors are also singers and advertising stars. They need to earn money and well-paid opportunities for Hong Kong professional film actors are limited. That's why they lack a strong professional awareness, they do not understand that their body is part of the performance.

I think that Tang Wei and Qin Hailu are pioneers as Chinese actresses, they have good performing sense and no one disrespects them. Unfortunately that didn't change the trend, as their cases remain stand alone examples. In my case, as a director, the need for nudity depends on the requirements of the script. In "May We Chat", Rainky Wai ‘s role does not require her real body to be exposed. I do believe that in the violent scene, where she counter-attacks her client, her character needed to be fully naked, but a body double would do the job.

You write your own films, you direct them and if I heard correctly you even edited your latest film. How important is it for you to have this much control over the final product?

"Port of Call" is the latest film where I both directed and participated in the editing process, together with William Chang and Liao Qingsong. I am grateful that I had a lot of control over the editing, as I also wrote the script. Compared to "May We Chat", "Port of Call” feels more like my personal, individual piece of work, so I insisted on sticking to my principles to express my ideas in this film. Obviously, my producer and film company understood this, so the audience felt that this movie was a bit more special, unlike all the typical commercial films. I believe that because of this, "Port of Call" received a number of awards and nominations. Unfortunately, because it's not a commercial movie, the Hong Kong box office was just average.

I feel that it is important for a director to have editing control, but it is not absolutely essential, as the final editing decisions are generally made by the film company. As long as the director can participate, particularly during the rough cut, that should enable the director to achieve his goals. With regards to smaller changes afterwards, it is best for the film company and director to decide together under mutual respect. Generally speaking there will be some controversy, but that's just part of the process.

May We Chat is a film that handles contemporary youth problems, but how representative is the film of modern-day Hong Kong youth. Are these types of stories common or is the film more a drama about excesses that exist?

The plot of “May We Chat” was too dramatic, which made the film less realistic. In this sense, "May We Chat" is actually worse than my very first film, "Glamorous Youth". It's because I kind of wanted to make the film to go towards the commercial side, but also because time was limited. I used a melodramatic way to tell the story as to make it easier for the viewer to follow the plot. There were conflicts and dramatic effects I added, which were a bit like Hong Kong TV series.

However, I took quite a few realistic elements from Hong Kong's everyday life. For example, the social life of young people and the way they deal with each other through mobile communication tools, the concept of love and the way young people in Hong Kong are conscious of their body, the way some young people get entangled in the sex industry and the problems they face when dealing with their parents' generation. Also their dignity; the dignity of the three young girls, their friendship, their commitment and way of expressing it; all these elements were very realistic in the movie. I think many young people in Hong Kong are seemingly frivolous and superficial, but their true personalities and the way they pursue happiness is actually very precious.

How difficult is it to write and a direct a film about a generation that isn't really your own. I'm more or less the same age as you and while I'm young enough to know about the technology young people use in their everyday life, I'm too old to truly understand what it means to live with and through it every day. Where did you find inspiration for that?

I did some research and gathered information with my other screenwriter Lou Shiu-Wa (who is also the screenwriter of "The Way We Are"). Although we couldn't do much, we had discussions and we observed a lot, after which we felt we had a better understanding of how today's youngsters behave. In fact, I have always paid special attention to Hong Kong's scoiety, as it's very likely to become a subject in my movies. Some of the elements in the script were chosen by me, and I only choose elements that are credible and I have a good understanding of. I also like to get inspiration from real stories; I feel that the most important thing is to create characters based on the character’s intention, motive and psychological condition. All these combined make the character look realistic.

Hong Kong people like to use "Whatsapp" and "We Chat" to communicate; I believe that nowadays you can see something similar happening in all modern cities around the world. Even though I could only observe the situation, I felt this was a common phenomenon in Hong Kong. Some people simply never met another group of people, yet they managed to become friends. This kind of relationship is very different from my childhood's situation. It's a bit like a pen pals; but it is also more like hiding yourself in a place where you feel it is safe to communicate with the outside world; which I find really absurd.

Many people see the film as a critique on the "social" life youngster lead online, but the way I see it the WeChat app actually brings the different characters closer together, acting more as a social bridge rather than a negative influence on their lives. Do you welcome these different visions people have on your film?

Actually, I would both criticize and affirm, but this is just an objective expression. I thought that the movie would work best if it had an objective perspective, but you could still find some subjective angles. The ideal is to question, to ask, leaving enough room for thought. Don't go in with too many principles and justifications.

May We Chat is not your typical Hong Kong movie, while watching I was more reminded of Taiwenese cinema and the way they shoot/handle drama films. How did you figure out the style to shoot this film, when there are so few local references?

It's very strange, a lot of people say that my films are like Taiwanese films. People said that about my very first film "Glamorous Youth"; and also about my latest film “Port of Call”. A lot of people say my films don't feel like Hong Kong films. I don't know why, probably because I have worked as a film critic before, which made me unwilling to use the typical Hong Kong way of shooting films. Of course, I still feel that I haven't done enough for my films and they were not mature enough.

Now that we're talking references: the scene that stood out for me (both visually as well as thematically) was the rape scene. I was oddly reminded of Fruit Chan's Hollywood Hong Kong (the narrow hallways, the butcher character). How did that scene come to be?

That was a real case; sex workers in Hong Kong have been exploited like this, with the client pulling off the condom during the act. I feel that Hong Kong sex workers do not receive adequate protection, so I added this particular scene in order to express how a sex worker would feel about the cold and dark side of society and how she would strike back. I like the movie “Hollywood Hong Kong", although I think sometimes Fruit Chan was too deliberate in making it, but the intensity of the performance was very strong and it did lift the spirit.

I do think the scene in "May We Chat" where the fat client is killed is far too intense, but maybe that's just because other scenes look relatively mild. So compared to the rest the intense scene seems a little over the top. However, I really liked that scene, the storyboard and the shooting are very vivid, detailed and accurate and I liked the location and the choreography, as well as the performances of Rainky Wai and the fat guy.

While I think that particular scene is one of the centerpieces of the film, it feels like a very divisive moment that is sure to put off a part of your audience. Do you think of the audience while writing/directing a film, or do you always put the film first?

I would always put the film first, but I also think it could stimulate the audience. I feel that pleasing or conforming to the wishes of the audience is not the only way to make the audience “participate” in a movie, the occasional vagueness and confusion can make the audience ponder and could make them synchronize with the director.

May We Chat is linked to David Lai's Lonely Fifteen. Both leads of Lonely Fifteen return and reprise their former roles. There's an obvious thematically connection between both films, but why Lonely Fifteen? Was there a special reason for choosing that film?

I like the movie "Lonely Fifteen". It has realistic elements, but it is in fact an idol movie. I'd say it might be the last Hong Kong New Wave film, a bit strange maybe, but very special. The box office was good and I have fond childhood memories of it, so "May We Chat" is my tribute to Hong Kong films.

I've been thinking about other Hong Kong films that put the lives of young people front and center and all I could come up with is Heiward Mak's Winds of September. Do you have any recommendations for Hong Kong films that deal with similar themes?

Lawrence Lau Kwok-Cheong’s "Spacked Out", Carol Lai Miu-Suet’s "Glass Tears" and Kenneth Bi’s "Girl$" are all very good. And finally, I hope you get the opportunity to see my latest movie "Port of Call". Thank you.

Wed, 20 Apr 2016 09:56:06 +0000
<![CDATA[Umimachi Diary/Hirokazu Koreeda]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/umimachi-diary-review-hirokazu-koreeda

After some tougher years, it seems Hirokazu Koreeda is slowly returning to his old form. Soshite Chichi ni Naru was already a step in the right direction, with Umimachi Diary [Our Little Sister] Koreeda continues this upward trajectory. His latest is still not quite up there with his very best films, nonetheless it's a gentle, warm-hearted and soft-spirited drama that carries Koreeda's signature from start to finish. Fans of his lighter work should be pleasantly surprised.

screen capture of Umimachi Diary

You may not really expect it, but even a guy like Koreeda isn't beneath adapting a manga when push comes to shove. Umimachi Diary is an adaptation of Akimi Yoshida's prize-winning comic, but unless you were already aware of the existence of the manga Koreeda's film does in no way feel like a typical adaptation. There are no talking pandas, no mecha, no harems, no superheroes or tentacles, instead the film bears a closer resemblance to adaptations like Otoko no Issho and Usagi Drop. Umimachi Diary is a typical, gentle, Japanese drama that just happens to be based off a comic.

Gentle is really the keyword here. It's rare to see a film that is so well-meaning and good-natured as Umimachi Diary. And it's not as if Koreeda lacks opportunities to crank up the dramatics. The film starts with a funeral, we see kids from different marriages living together, a mother who abandoned her daughters, villagers who are struck by incurable diseases and I can go on for a while. It sounds like the recipe for a hefty drama, but instead Koreeda turns it into a snug package of reconciliation and comfort.

The film follows three adult sisters (Sachi, Yoshino and Chika) who live together in their family home. They were abandoned by their father when they were still quite young, but when word arrives he passed away they set out to attend his funeral. There they meet up with Suzu, their teen half-sister. After a short introduction, the three decide to ask Suzu to come live with them for a while. Suzu accepts and moves in with her sisters in order to learn more about her dad's past.

screen capture of Umimachi Diary

There's little experimentation on the visual side of things. Umimachi Diary is a typical Japanese drama set in a rural area, so expect to see lots of blues and greens, slightly washed out colors, plenty of sunshine and short bursts of overpowering pink when sakura season starts. It looks and feels like a live action Miyazaki film at times, basking in warmth and embracing nature as much as possible. It gives off a very pleasant and agreeable, but it's not exactly spectacular.

The soundtrack is similarly pacifying. Very typical piano/string tunes that happily float around in the background, only sporadically moving up to the front to underline certain slightly more dramatic moments. What's maybe less apparent but at least as important is the voice track. There are lots of female characters in Umimachi Diary and they all talk very softly and politely while sporting cute accents. Japanese can sound very harsh or very delicate depending on how it's being used and Koreeda makes good use of that here.

The cast puts in a good performance, though there aren't too many complex roles here. All the characters are welcoming and open and whatever differences they have never really linger. Haruka Ayase (Amemasu no Kawa) takes the lead as Sachi, Chika (played by Kaho) is probably the most likable of the bunch and Suzu Hirose is the promising newcomer. Some great secondary performances by Takafumi Ikeda, Ryo Kase, Shin'ichi Tsutsumi and Jun Fubuki seal the deal.

screen capture of Umimachi Diary

What makes Umimachi Diary special isn't its lack of drama, nor its characters, plot or aesthetic qualities. What makes it special is its almost boundless optimism. Most films are constructed around pain, despair, loss or any other conceivable type of conflict. And I'm not just talking dramas here, even comedies have their half-time dramatic setback which the main character has to overcome in order to get to the trademark happy ending. It seems to be part of the DNA of storytelling.

There's just none of that in Umimachi Diary. Drama is temporary and easily overcome by the characters, who draw strength from family and tradition. Positive and uplifting elements permeate every single aspect of the film in such a way that I can't remember ever seeing it done this consistently in any other film. From the sunny surroundings to the warm personalities of the characters, from the traditions shared in the little village to the soft-voiced dialogues, everything is tailored to be as pleasant and heart-warming as possible.

Because the film lacks any sense of urgency or lingering drama, it's probably not for everyone. Koreeda is smart and talented enough to avoid false sentimentality, but if you're not up for a film that goes out of its way to avoid friction then Umimachi Diary has little to offer. I loved it though. It's a welcoming, soothing and comforting drama that's just all too rare in cinema. Hopefully Koreeda continues this upward trend, I'm already looking forward to his next film.

Wed, 13 Apr 2016 09:52:25 +0000