personal blog - This part of my blog is dedicated to articles about my personal life. What moves me, what interests me, where I'm going and what I'm doing. en-us (Niels Matthijs) <![CDATA[Watashi no Otoko/Kazuyoshi Kumakiri]]>

Japan is clearly no stranger to edgy, taboo-baring dramas. After all, it was only less than a year ago that the sent in Soko Nomi Nite Hikari Kagayaku as their representative for the Oscar competition. Feeling he would be able to one-up Mipo Oh's dark and grim drama, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri started work on adapting Sakuraba's novel Watashi no Otoko (My Man). The result is one of the more impressive dramas to come out of Japan in a long time.

screen capture of Watashi no Otoko

Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Sora no Ana) is one of Japan's better kept secrets. Not all of his films are great, but along the way he has made some very worthwhile dramas and even his lesser films aim to add interesting angles and ideas to what is otherwise a rather strict and timid genre. The past few years Kumakiri has been struggling to match the quality of his earlier films, Watashi no Otoko puts him right back where he belongs.

Do not expect an easy watch. This isn't one of Japan's stilted, piano-driven dramas about love and loss. Instead it dives into an incestuous relationship between a young girl (Hana) and her legal guardian (Jungo). Hana was left orphaned by a big earthquake when Jungo found her wandering around a nearby shelter. Unable to keep a healthy relationship and start a family of his own, Jungo adopts Hana and vows to better his life.

But Watashi no Otoko isn't a simple incest warning. Instead it digs deep into the twisted relationship that blossoms between Hana and Jungo, in order to find out what truly binds them together. Hana isn't a mere victim in the relationship. While clearly scarred by the events in her childhood, she's come to accept Jungo as her lover and will stop at nothing to protect their relationship. Jungo on the other hand tries to ward of his guilt while attempting to accept the morally deplorable happiness he has finally found.

screen capture of Watashi no Otoko

Visually Watashi no Otoko is a welcome step up from Kumakiri's previous films. Shot on three different formats (16mm, 35mm and digital - one for each time period the film covers) and taking optimal advantage of its cold and icy settings, Kumakiri paints a dark yet stunning picture of wintry Hokkaido. There are also a few truly stand-out scenes: the haunting intro, the blood rain and the scenes on the ice floes are all of stunning beauty. The visual prowess isn't constant, but there are more than enough moments that jump out and leave a lasting impression.

It's the brooding soundtrack that's the true driver of the film's grim atmosphere though. All the key scenes are accompanied by eerie ambient drones and/or loud noises, upsetting what is otherwise a starkly beautiful selection of more typical drama music. I'm always happy to see a director acknowledge the extra push a good soundtrack can give a film and Kumakiri clearly jumped at the opportunity.

For a drama of this magnitude you need a couple of good actors to support the heavy-handed dynamics. Jungo and Hana aren't the most pleasant characters and many of their actions are pretty much impossible to (fully) identify with for anyone with a sane, healthy mind. Listing Tadanabo Asano as Jungo was a safe bet, casting Fumi Nikaido as Hana on the other hand quite a gamble. Nikaido was great in Jigoku de Naze Warui but this was something different altogether. Hana is the kind of role that, when handled the wrong way, can pretty much destroy an entire career. Nikaido shines though, even trumping Asano on several occasions. The two form a stellar couple and manage to draw some unexpected but necessary empathy from the audience.

screen capture of Watashi no Otoko

Watashi no Otoko has its fair share of uncomfortable scenes. I've become quite accustomed to sitting through some fucked up stuff, but Kumakiri still managed to make me twist in my chair on several occasions. It's not quite up there with Omori's Germanium no Yoru and it's not as nihilistic or barren compared to similar films, but Kumakiri doesn't shy away from anything. He is quite open and direct when it comes to the film's themes, which is sure to put some off the queasier people in the audience.

If you're up for slice of madness wrapped up in heavy-handed dramatics, Kumakiri created quite the masterpiece. With a superb soundtrack, two killer leads and some visual punch he delivers a film that has the power to linger. That is, if you can stomach what Kumakiri has to show. Watashi no Otoko is probably a film that only speaks to a selected audience, but if you think you're a part of that you simply cannot let this film slip by. Watashi no Otoko is a sublime punch to the gut that screams future classic.

Mon, 30 Mar 2015 12:23:39 +0200

Enter Vidocq, one of France's biggest (anti)heroes, a criminal turned public servant, father to the French police force and said to be the very first private investigator. He later turned up in the literature of Hugo and Balzac, only further underlining the man's strong legacy. You would expect a film about Vidocq to be quite tepid and accommodating, but that's not the kind of film Pitof set out the make. Instead Vidocq is one of the crazier films to come out of France and all the better for it.

screen capture of Vidocq

Pitof's career as a director would completely bomb only a few years later (when he set out to Hollywood to direct Catwoman), but before even starting Vidocq he'd already earned his stripes working on some major French films. Together with Marc Caro, Pitof was one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's loyal henchmen who brought the worlds of Delicatessen and La Cité des Enfants Perdues and Alien; Resurrection to life, Pitof taking care of the special effects. Seen from that angle, it's no surprise Vidocq turned out the way it did.

Vidocq was one of the first feature-length films to fully embrace the use of DV (digital video). Up until that point DV has been mostly used to cut costs and to ease the production process, but Pitof clearly saw more potential in the medium. Even though the raw footage couldn't match the quality of classic film, the potential to tamper with the film's look and feel in post production was simply too enormous to ignore. Vidocq was Pitof's playground, an experiment in taking DV post production to its limits.

The story is pretty basic, though it is quite remarkable that Vidocq himself is largely absent from the film. Instead we follow Etienne Boisset, Vidocq's biographer, who travels all the way to Paris after losing contact with the man. As he retraces Vidocq's final steps, he gets swallowed up by a mysterious plot that aims to kill some of Paris' highest-ranking businessmen. Binding all the strange events together is a cloaked figure wearing a mirror mask.

screen capture of Vidocq

At the very least, Vidocq in visually interesting. Even if you don't like Pitof's extravagant experiments, it's impossible to classify them as dull or boring. He puts his camera close to his actors, tampers with the colors, lighting and backgrounds and races through the shots, applying some very sharp editing tricks. The settings and costumes are impressive too, though when everything is combined it can become a bit much for some. I definitely don't mind the abundant style, but it's clearly not for everyone.

The soundtrack is loud and epic, something that usually bothers me no end. But with a film this expressive and fast-paced, there really is no other option than to go all the way. While the music itself didn't interest me as much, it does give the film more body and seeing how the pacing is quite excruciating, it's hard to fault the soundtrack for being overzealous. But again, if you're not on the same wavelength as Pitof, I can see how the music could become dire real fast.

Having Guillaume Canet (he was still quite young back then) and Inés Sastre on your team is never a bad thing, but with Gérard Depardieu taking up the lead role Pitof really hit the jackpot. Depardieu is probably France's most prestigious actor and a true star well beyond its borders. Simply putting his name on your poster greatly increases the chances of international recognition. They all do commendable jobs too, though for the larger part they're just lending their faces to their respective characters. Vidocq is not the kind of film that puts a lot of strain on its actors.

screen capture of Vidocq

Vidocq is a rather wild ride. At its core you'll find a simple detective story, but along the way Pitof stops to include elements from several different genres. The setting is that of a raunchy costume drama, the masked figure introduces some curious fantasy elements and when Vidocq finally faces the villain there's an actual martial arts fighting sequence. And a pretty great one at that. It's an eclectic mix of genres that don't always play nice together, but seeing how this movie is set up to be a roller coaster ride, that's hardly an issue.

There are some things here that don't work as well as they should, but they are completely eclipsed by the parts that do. Not only that, the sheer vigor and energy that explodes from every pixel makes this one of the more entertaining French films I've seen. And while technology has long since caught up with Pitof's first, its strange and no-hold-barred visual approach still sets it apart on an aesthetic level. It's a shame Pitof's career as a director would end soon after, but at least he made one great film. It's definitely not for everyone, but if you're up for some French high octane weirdness it's a very solid bet.

Tue, 24 Mar 2015 11:42:35 +0100
<![CDATA[Daniel Lee/x10]]>
Daniel Lee

Daniel Lee is one of the best action directors in Hong Kong. He isn't part of the hardcore group that pumps out at least 2 films per year, instead he keeps to a saner pace that allows him to put a little bit more time and effort into his films. That doesn't necessarily result in better films, but the more polished feel of his oeuvre does make it easier for his films to cross the Chinese borders.

Lee got off to a very rough start though. He directed his first film in '94, the year that Hong Kong cinema started its painful decline. Not that '94 Du Bi Dao Zhi Qing [What Price Survival] is a bad film, but it does show the first signs of an industry that is struggling to find a proper way forward. Lee tried again two years later, this time with the help of Jet Li. Hak Hap [Black Mask] is an entertaining romp, but hardly a standout release for neither Li or Lee.

He kept up appearances with Sing Yuet Tung Wa [Moonlight Express], but finally succumbed to the industry's failing standard. A Fu [A Fighter's Blues] and Siu Nin A Fu [The Kumite] are rather poor films far below Lee's own capabilities. He even tried his fortune in America, but Journeyman hardly made an impact and probably remains Lee's most obscure film to date.

In 2005 Lee started to work on his Hong Kong comeback. Maang Lung [Dragon Squad] was his near-perfect return to high octane action cinema, featuring an abundance of amazing gun fights. A less than stellar cast failed to gel everything together, but Lee was clearly done producing mediocre filler. Saam Gwok Dzi Gin Lung Se Gap [Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon] confirmed Lee's return to form, a slick, stylish historical war flick featuring Maggie Q and Andy Lau catapulted him back into the spotlight.

For his next film, Lee assembled an all-star cast (Donnie Yen, Wei Zhao, Sammo Hung) and set out to revive the glory days of '93, a year he failed to experience to the fullest when he just started out. Jin Yi Wei [14 Blades] is a joy for martial arts fans, with elaborate sets, excellent fight choreography and a high level of visual detail. In a surprise move, Lee's next film kept the setting but dropped the action. Hong Men Yan Chuan Qi [White Vengeance] is a tactical historical warfare film, focusing on an intellectual battle between two counsellors. Great stuff, just don't expect any big sword fights or dashing martial arts sequences.

Lee's latest films have enjoyed plenty of international attention, which put him in the top spot to direct Tian Jiang Xiong Shi [Dragon Blade], one of China's most recent attempts to bridge the gap between Hollywood and its local output. Rather than send its directors to Hollywood, China is now importing Hollywood stars to try and sell their films oversees. By the looks of Tian Jiang Xiong Shi though, they still have a long way to go. The film is a flawed attempt to mix Eastern and Western cinema, leaving it stranded somewhere in the middle. Hopefully this was just a one off for Lee, as his talents fare better when he can simply focus on making kick-ass action films instead of working on trying to unite two different film markets.

Best film: Jin Yi Wei [14 Blades] (4.5*)
Worst film: Siu Nin A Fu [Star Runner] (2.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Hong Men Yan Chuan Qi, Jin Yi Wei
Average rating: 3.20 (out of 5)

Mon, 23 Mar 2015 11:42:20 +0100
<![CDATA[Once Upon a Time in Shanghai/Ching-Po Wong]]>

Remakes. Often cited as a sign of the times, but they've been ever-present throughout the history of cinema. So how do you do one properly? Well, you get a good director, hire a proficient cinematographer, make sure you have enough acting talent and familiar names to drape across your poster and you keep it familiar enough as to not alienate your core audience. Extra credit for starting off your title with 'Once Upon', meaning you're pretty much set up for success. And that's exactly how the remake of Ma Yong Zhen came to be.

screen capture of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

Hong Kong has a severe martial arts problems. Donnie Yen is unable to replace Jet Li as martial arts overlord, there's an over-reliance on sketchy CG to spruce up the big productions and ever since the first-rate directors have abandoned the genre there's been no one to truly take over the reigns. Producers Wai-Keung Lau and Jing Wong set out to turn things around. They brought together a pretty amazing team, giving it their all to try and revive the glory days of the Hong Kong martial art business.

Attracting Ching-Po Wong (Fuk Sau Che Chi Sei) to direct the project was a pretty gutsy move. Even though he's an incredibly talented director, Wong lacks real experience when it comes to bringing martial arts wizardry to the big screen. He's more at easy directing off-kilter crime and drama films, so to offset that short-coming Woo-ping Yuen Su Qi-Er) was brought on board. Yuen is one of the most legendary martial arts choreographers/directors ever to work in Hong Kong and a near-guarantee that at least the action scenes will leave you mesmerized.

Even though the film is a retelling of a popular Chinese tale (based on real-life boxer Ma Wing-Jing), this could've easily been a more generic martial arts story. It's a simple tale about a poor chap arriving in Shanghai and taking the city by storm. Rise and fall, vintage Once Upon material. Apart from producing, Jing Wong also wrote the screenplay, which explains why it's quite short, fast-paced and a little ill-focused. Then again Once Upon a Time in Shanghai never even tries to be really epic or deep.

screen capture of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

Shot entirely in not-quite black and white, the cinematography is one of the highlights of the film. Jimmy Wong (Fuk Sau Che Chi Sei) has become Wong's cinematographer of choice, lending his films the proper visual prowess. The martial arts scenes in particular jump out. They did go a little overboard on the speed-ups, but apart from that the fight sequences are extremely dynamic, complex and hard-hitting. It's been a while since I've been this impressed by fight choreography and cinematography, so that's saying something.

The soundtrack is an amusing romp, though mostly functional. Except for the scenes in the night club, where some really nice vintage-sounding Chinese songs help to establish the mood. It's in these moments that the film reveals its Wai-keung Lau inlfuences (just watch Jing Wu Feng Yun: Chen Zhen). All in all it's a pretty accomplished soundtrack, nothing too out of the ordinary but not as invisible as is usually the case with martial arts films.

Taking up the lead role is Philip Ng. He's far from the best actor around and he has a rather goofy air hanging over him, but he's an excellent martial artist and he managed to use his weaknesses to his advantage here. He is something of a modern day Bruce Lee, which is a perfect fit for his character. Andy On is a reliable adversary, former martial arts legends Sammo Hung and Kuan Tai Chen (lead actor in the original film) complete a solid cast.

screen capture of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

It's one thing to gather a talented crew, keeping everyone in check in order to create a sensible whole is quite something else. Once Upon a Time in China is definitely not without fault, it's no Yip Man where every little detail is part of a greater vision. But it knows it isn't and instead it tries to be something different, something new. Rather than perfect what's already there, the film aims to deliver a fresh, novel take on the genre. And in that it succeeds.

Jing Wong, Wai-keung Lau, Ching-Po Wong, Jimmy Wong, Woo-ping Yuen and Philip Ng gave it their best shot. The result is a little uneven, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. Everyone with a soft spot for martial arts cinema would do good to give Wong's latest offering a shot. Not everyone may appreciate the modern spin they've added, but between the stunning cinematography, the impressive fight scenes and the fast-paced plot it's hard not to like at least some part of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai.

Thu, 19 Mar 2015 11:22:39 +0100
<![CDATA[Leon/Luc Besson]]>

1994 was a major year for Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Angel-A). After several local successes he finally hit it big with his first English-language film. Together with partner in crime Jean Reno he traveled all the way to New York to direct one of the 90s biggest cinematic legacies, a film that would be royally quoted and referenced in the years to come. To this day, Léon (The Professional) remains one of the 90's landmark films and a lasting testament to Besson's directing talent.

screen capture of Leon

Besson's breakthrough film is one of the few personal favorites from my pre-Tetsuo/Eraserhead era that managed to withstand the test of time. Together with Kokaku Kidotai, Braindead and Trainspotting it belongs to a select group of films that I still cherish as much as I used to. As I sat down to watch it again a feeling of slight dread came over me, but 15 minutes in I knew I had nothing to fear.

Léon is often advertised as an action film, but I believe that listing the film as a crime drama does it more justice. Especially if you decide to watch Besson's director's cut, which only further deludes the action to drama ratio. It's truly the best version to watch as the added scenes help to bridge the gaps in what is basically a rather implausible storyline. And since the director's cut is clocking in at just a little over two hours, it doesn't really overstay its welcome either.

The story follows Léon, a hitman working for the Italians in New York. When one day his drug-dealing neighbors are violently killed by some rampant cops, he shelters their 12-year old daughter (Mathilda) in order to save her from certain death. Mathilda has no place else to go and to make matters worse, she loves the idea of becoming a hitman herself. Even though this greatly upsets Léon's daily routines, he finds himself unable to break off the relationship with Mathilda.

screen capture of Leon

Visually Léon is still a very solid experience. Some of the shots (Léon and Mathilda walking next to each other on the NY streets) became so iconic that they actually transcended the film, taking on a life of their own. The film as a whole is a looker though, benefitting from Besson's solid camera work and slightly sepia-tinted styling. The action scenes in particular are visual treats, showcasing Besson's knack for restrained but powerful and explosive action cinematography.

The soundtrack is a little less interesting, relying heavily on existing music (though props for picking a Björk song), fleshed out with somewhat forgettable film music. Not that it's a terribly bad soundtrack, but it hardly adds anything to the atmosphere and you'll be hard-pressed to remember much of it the day after. It's a typical weakness in Besson's films, still I would've wished the soundtrack was at least a bit more outspoken. Now it's only functional at best, which is a shame for a film this good.

The acting on the other hand is stellar. Jean Reno plays the part of his life, turning his rather basic character into an immensely loveable goofball. The matchup with Portman is nothing less than genius, both visually (the towering Reno and the petite Portman make quite the couple) as emotionally (the bashful serial killer pitted against the unrestrained kid). You would almost forget that Oldman is having the time of his life playing the psycho killer cop. Secondary roles are solid too, but they are completely eclipsed by the main trio.

screen capture of Leon

The setup of Léon is simply wonderful. A somewhat simple-minded yet ultraprofessional hitman is coupled with a crazy kid forcing him to teach her the trade. It's a crazy premise but Besson makes it work. Ultimately though, it's the small details that truly seal the deal. The milk, the plant, the wardrobes of Léon and Mathilda, Oldman's crazy antics. All memorable elements that keep the film from becoming just another "good" '90s crime film and set it well apart from its peers.

The film has aged surprisingly well. The action scenes are still amazing, Reno and Portman continue to impress and there's an edgy playfulness that keeps the film from becoming overly serious. Make sure you watch the director's cut though, as it adds a couple of interesting scenes that help to strengthen the bond between the main characters. A must see for everyone who lived through the '90s and undoubtedly one of top films of its decennium.

Tue, 17 Mar 2015 11:00:23 +0100
<![CDATA[Gureitofuru Deddo/Eiji Uchida]]>

Touted as a grimmer, darker version of Amélie, Gureitofuru Deddo (Greatful Dead) is the latest genre bender to make the trip out of Japan. It's a decidedly Japanese film that may have trouble convincing people who aren't too familiar with the country's output, but fans of Japanese genre mixers will feel right at home. It's very much a niche film, but those with an open mind would do good to give it a chance as there's tons of fun to be had.

screen capture of Greatful Dead

The past few years the international distribution of Japanese/Asian off-kilter genre films has come to a virtual standstill. Third Window Films is one of the only remaining labels continuing its dedicated support, working hard to become a quality label in the same way Criterion and Masters of Cinema are for arthouse cinema. So when they announced Uchida's Gureitofuru Deddo, I approached the film with healthy anticipation.

Even though Uchida has been directing for a good 10 years already (making a solid 9 films before this one), I had never heard of him or his work before running into this film. Turns out those 9 films must've given him some pretty good exercise, because Gureitofuru Deddo feels like a film by an accomplished director. There's a certain polish here that's only acquired by directing enough films, in part explaining why the unique blend of different genres and moods works so well.

The film follows Nami, a young girl scarred by an unhappy youth. Her mother left, her sister ran away and her dad ended up with a religious zealot. To battle her own solitude, Nami starts to track down fellow "solitarians", spying on them for comfort. The lonelier and weirder they are, the more Nami likes them. Until one day she discovers that one of her childhood idols has also turned into a solitarian. Nami is ecstatic, but things take a turn for the worse when the man starts meeting up with a God-loving Korean girl.

screen capture of Greatful Dead

Don't expect the Amélie references to carry over to the visual side of things. Gureitofuru Deddo looks like a pretty normal Japanese film, not the colorful, stylized and dream-like beauty that is Jeunet's darling. On the whole that means it's a little plain but solid looking, with a few scenes jumping out. Though I wouldn't be surprised if a more generous budget would give Uchida a bit more elbow room to add some visual polish, as the potential is definitely there.

The soundtrack is okay but not all that memorable. It's largely functional and it's clearly an achievement that it still manages to feel like a coherent whole when going through several different moods, but it never goes beyond supporting the atmosphere already present. It never lashes out or commands a scene in a certain direction. That feels like a missed opportunity, especially for a film as bold as this one.

Star of the film is Kumi Takiuchi. She maintains a perfect balance between pleasantly insane and insanely creepy. It's difficult to get a grip on her character, but that's definitely part of the charm and mystery as she guides the audience from scene to scene. She finds a great challenge in Takashi Sasano, a quirky old guy with a surprising bite. He continues the remarkable tradition of older Japanese actors taking on uncharacteristically crazy roles. No complaints about the rest of the cast either, though they are clearly more low-key.

screen capture of Greatful Dead

I'm pretty sure Gureitofuru Deddo is the first film I've listed here with 3 distinct genres. For a moment I hesitated whether I should cheat by using "dramedy" as a stand-in for comedy and drama, but dramedy has become a genre in itself and it's a poor substitute for the type of comedy and drama present here. Uchida happily leads his film through a comedy-filled first part, only to switch to a horror-inspired second part while finally opening up the dramatic undercurrent at the very end of the film. The most amazing thing is that it all gels together seamlessly, never feeling clumsy or forced.

Even though Gureitofuru Deddo is both unique and accomplished, there's also a feeling of untapped potential. Third Window Films seems to think so too as they've just met their Kickstarter goal for Uchida's next film. For now though, Uchida delivered this amazing genre bender that may leave the uninitiated a little stunned, but should be required viewing for everyone with a soft spot for Japanese genre cinema. Leave the comparisons to Amélie and Sono for what they're worth, avoid teasers and trailers and let yourself be surprised by this little gem.

Thu, 12 Mar 2015 11:12:16 +0100
<![CDATA[The Scribbler/John Suits]]>
The Scribbler poster

Superhero films are hot property these days. Marvel elevated its niche to become one of the industry's most impressive strongholds, DC Comics is desperately trying to take a piece of the pie. On the indie side there's been a rise in superhero films featuring geeky main characters faking their superhero-dom (Super, Defendor, Griff the Invisible). The problem is that both scenes are doing little in the way of innovation. It's basically the same film told over and over again.

The Scribbler offers a rather novel take on the whole superhero concept. There are no capes or costumes, no evil supervillains, no lame love interests ... or maybe there are, but completely twisted and mangled as to make it virtually unrecognizable. If you look at the bare facts then The Scribbler is indeed a superhero film, but while watching the film it never feels like one.

The vibe coming from The Scribbler reminded me of films like One Point O and Ink. Low-budget movies with an intriguing concept that bet heavily on an expressive audiovisual image in order to stand out from the crowd. Even though the technical and financial limitations are impossible to miss, the styling more than makes up for it. But judging from the critiques, The Scribbler (and like-minded films like Kite) has a hard time selling itself. It seems this kind of cinema is slowly going out of fashion.

The plot follows Suki, a young women suffering from multiple personalities. An experimental new treatment is killing off her personalities one by one, slowly getting her back to normal. When she finally starts to feel better she is sent to a closed off apartment building, a place that functions as gateway between the world of the mentally insane and the regular folk. It's there that things start to take a turn for the worse. When people around Suki start dying in droves, The Scribbler, Suki's final excess personality, takes over.

There's a noirish atmosphere running underneath that's not quite unlike Sin City, but with touches of neo-goth and more outspoken scifi elements. The soundtrack is a little underwhelming for a film like this, but visually there's plenty to like. At the end of the film it does start to fall a part just a little, with an over reliance on mediocre CG and a rather poorly choreographed duel, but by then I was already quite pleased with what I'd seen.

Suit's film is not without faults, it's not even the best in its league, but it offers a welcome refresh of the superhero genre. The film looks great, has plenty of innovative touches and doesn't outstay its welcome. The finale is a little lacking and the score could and should have been a bit better, but it's definitely a fun diversion when you've gone through all the usual suspects.

Thu, 05 Mar 2015 11:30:28 +0100
<![CDATA[Punch-Drunk Love/Paul Thomas Anderson]]>

Back in 2002 Paul Thomas Anderson surprised the world when he announced he was teaming up with Adam Sandler to make a simple, light-hearted comedy. Those two giants had been living in opposite corners of the cinematic realm for quite a while, so either Punck-Drunk Love was an accident waiting to happen, or it would become one of the nicest surprises of 2002. It turned out to be the latter and ten years down the road not much has changed.

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Paul Thomas Anderson is a man of grand, sweeping, epic dramas. His films never dip below the 140 minute mark (happily ignoring Hard Eight for a minute, but that was his first ever feature), so seeing him do a 90 minute romantic comedy is a surprise in itself. But coupled with the lead role for Sandler (the king of simplistic, shlocky comedies), it quickly turned into one of the weirdest high-profile projects I've seen in the past 15 years. On paper both personalities seemed quite incompatible, but somehow they made 1 + 1 equal 3 here.

At surface level Punch-Drunk Love is a pretty typical romantic comedy. Sandler plays a socially handicapped entrepreneur (who grew up between his seven sisters), while Emily Watson is the somewhat uncomfortable love interest. There's clearly a spark when they meet up for the first time, but since they are both a little shy they have a hard time setting up a date. The fact that Emily is a colleague of one of Sandler's pushy sisters doesn't really help either.

But underneath that simple love affair lies a wealth of weirdness. Scenes, characters and moments that don't immediately add to the story or advance the romance, but greatly affect the mood of the film. At the very start of the film a van stops in front of Sandler's company and drops off a harmonium, right in the middle of the street. No real explanation as to why this happened is given, but it becomes a central element within the narrative. Punch-Drunk Love is full of scenes like that.

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Colors and light are important in this film. There are several scenes where an abstract, living color palette (based on the art of Jeremy Blake) takes over for a minute or so, Anderson also goes to great length to color code the emotions of his characters through the use of mundane objects. And then there are the exaggerated lens flares which are all over the place, as a result of Anderson's playful use of lighting sources. Add to that a couple of excellent long takes (it's still an Anderson flick) and you have a visually striking film.

Still, the visuals have nothing on the soundtrack. Punch-Drunk Love is one of those film that demonstrates the effect a daring choice of music can have on a film. The music is pretty experimental, almost free form, at times drowning out entire conversations. While people are rattling on in the background and Sandler is slowly losing grip on himself, the nervous banter is silenced by an even twitchier soundtrack that pushes him (and the audience) right over the edge. The effect is nothing less than amazing.

Sandler is pretty much his typical self, only without the lewd jokes and without the Happy Madison gang backing him up. He plays a rather awkward and uncomfortable character, but he's likeable enough and his endless rants can be pretty funny. Watson is an interesting but somewhat strange love interest, though her role is clearly secondary. Luiz Guzman and Philip Seymour Hoffman are part of a noteworthy supporting cast, making sure the film doesn't fall short on acting talent.

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Punch-Drunk Love strikes a rather implausible balance. While Anderson doesn't shun a more experimental approach, the core of the film remains surprisingly accessible. And even though Sandler is his usual self, he's restrained enough not to silence all the non-believers. I'm not sure exactly how they did it, but Anderson and Sandler delivered a film that would please both their fan bases, without drawing away attention from each other.

Punch-Drunk Love is a harmless romantic comedy and can definitely be enjoyed as such. But it's also offers a unique audiovisual experience. The camera work, the use of color, the crazy soundtrack and the quirky characters all indicate that this is not a film made by a director for hire. Anderson and Sandler complement each other and the result is one of the most peculiar films I've seen. A film I can heartily recommend to just about anyone.

Tue, 03 Mar 2015 13:29:48 +0100
<![CDATA[Zhi Qu Weihu Shan/Hark Tsui]]>
The Taking of Tiger Mountain poster

Old man Hark Tsui (Ching Se) seems to have finally settled down. Gone are the days of lively martial arts films, snappy comedies and risky (at least for Hong Kong standards) projects. Nowadays Tsui invests his time in epic blockbusters. Not too surprisingly, he's actually quite skilled at making them.

Like his two previous films, Zhi Qu Weihu Shan (The Taking of Tiger Mountain) was shot in sprawling 3D. Reportedly Tsui is quite capable of handling 3D imagery in his films, it's just that I'm not a very big fan of the whole 3D/live action thing. Instead I settled for the boring yet pleasantly comfortable 2D version, which I believe was the right decision. Even while watching the 2D version it was pretty easy to spot the 3D effects, something that would've bothered me no end if I'd seen the film in 3D. To each his own though, I'm just glad the choice was there.

Zhi Qu Weihu Shan feels like Tsui's answer to Wen Jiang's Rang Zi Dan Fei. Both films are extremely light-hearted action flicks with an unmistakeable tongue in cheek approach. Tsui's film may not be as balanced and accomplished compared to Jiang's and it's clearly geared at a more forgiving audience, but the link between the two is definitely there.

The plot is pretty convoluted, but the film's premise is actually quite simple. A gang of criminals has its stronghold on top of a snowy mountain, a small but dedicated police force is tasked with breaching the stronghold and capturing the leader. Start with some espionage and people double-crossing each other, add a couple of long-running, high octane action scenes, finish of with a touch of drama and there you go: two hours of shameless entertainment.

Two things stand out. First of all there's Tony Leung Ka-Fai as the lead criminal. His character may be a silly caricature, but Ka-Fai has so much fun playing him that he quickly became one of the funniest villains I've come across the past few years. Then there are the crazy, over the top action sequences that take up a pretty big part of the film. Tsui clearly didn't aim for realism here, leaning heavily on CG (just check the crazy antics of that plane during the finale) to support some outrageous action scenes. If that's not your kind of thing, it's probably best to stay away from this film.

Sadly the parts in between are a little less entertaining. The drama and the espionage bits are decent enough, but they still needlessly slow the film down. Tsui also misses the raw talent to rise above the commercial foundation of the film, failing to bring that little extra which is needed to give a film like this a more lasting impression. Still the action is fun and exciting and while it lasts, it's a wildly entertaining experience. If you're okay with that it's hard to go wrong with this one.

Thu, 26 Feb 2015 11:17:03 +0100
<![CDATA[Terumae Romae II/Hideki Takeuchi]]>

Two years after Hideki Takeuchi surprised unsuspecting film fans with his rather faithful live action adaptation of Terumae Romae, he is back with a sequel. Double the fun, double the baths, double the bare butts. Don't expect a major twist or entirely new direction, Terumae Romae II (Thermae Romae II) is a near-replica of the original film, once again remaining close to the source material. And as it turns out, that's not such a bad place to be.

screen capture of Terumae Romae II

The source material might not have been that easy to adapt to a live action feature format, but Terumae Romae's concept is pure comedy gold, so when the first film turned out alright a sequel was bound to happen. Takeuchi didn't tinker much with the original formula, reserving the first hour for more fragmented gags and the second one for a simple but passable storyline. A smart choice since Terumae Romae is first and foremost a comedy.

Once again Terumae Romae starts off in ancient Rome. Lucius (the thermae architect) is tasked with designing a soothing bath for the gladiators, not much later he's travelling "back" to modern-day Japan to learn some tricks from what he calls "the flat-faced clan". The first hour is spent traveling back and forth, with Lucius visiting a sumo bath house, a water park, an onsen village and a Japanese toilet. Inspiring trips that are translated to slave-powered labor back in Rome.

Half-way through a story starts to form around the successor of the Roman emperor. Lucius ends up in the middle of a vicious coupe and will need all his wits and bath smarts to unearth the truth. It's nothing too serious and the plot never runs very deep, always keeping the comedy front and center, but for a 2 hour film you need something to hold everything together and that it does well. If all of this sounds familiar, that's because it plays out exactly like the first film.

screen capture of Terumae Romae II

Visually everything looks a little slicker, a little more polished than the first one. Takeuchi does a pretty great job bringing old Rome to life (on a small scale of course, this is no Gladiator) and while the CG is still a bit too obvious in places, overall the film looks good. Not only that, Takeuchi also mixes in some fun and quirky visual gags. Add some smartly framed shots, beautiful lighting and detailed settings and what you get is a pretty attractive package.

The soundtrack too is a carbon copy of the first film. Most of it is pretty forgettable, light-hearted background music, but once Lucius starts traveling through time the opera/classical music bits return. I'm still not entirely sure I understand the point of these scenes, but they add a lot of character to the soundtrack and they're an overall fun addition to the film, so you don't hear me complaining.

Much of the film's appeal rests on the shoulders of Hiroshi Abe, who reprises his role of Lucius. This time around, Abe's looks are even sterner, his puzzlement even more thorough and his stature even more God-like. He's still a perfect match for his character and probably one of the only Japanese actors who could've pulled it off. The secondary cast is fun too, in particular one or two ancient-looking Japanese men (the recluse and the master) who are simply beyond adorable.

screen capture of Terumae Romae II

Terumae Romae II feels like coming home. If you've seen (and liked) the first film, this feels like rewatching one of your old favorites, only with different gags, a different plot and looking a bit more polished altogether, more in line with your slightly exaggerated memories of the first one. Seeing both films back to back would probably ruin that experience, so it's really best to leave some time in between watching both films.

While it's probably best Takeuchi stops the series here, this second film was anything but redundant. It's a nice reprise of the original film, only slightly better, slightly funnier and slightly more well-rounded. What it wins there, it loses in originality of course, but if you're fine with watching an alternate version of the first Terumae Romae, that shouldn't be much of a problem. I'm already looking forward to see what Takeuchi is worth when he moves on to his next project.

Wed, 25 Feb 2015 11:58:46 +0100
<![CDATA[Johnnie To/x50]]>
Johnnie To

Like Hark Tsui and Jing Wong, Johnnie To started his career at the crossroads of the '70s and the '80s. It was a period of great change for the HK film industry, with the Shaw Bros slowly losing grip and a new generation of directors eagerly waiting to carve their own niche. Unlike his peers though, To didn't really take a flying start.

While To wasn't exactly shy for work, his 80s films lack the distinctive qualities that would bring To international fame further down his career. Some of his 80s work is still quite pleasant though. Films like Ji Xing Gong Zhao [The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon] and Bi Shui Han Shan Duo Ming Jin [The Enigmatic Case] are decent enough films. But then he also made Qi Nian Zhi Yang [Seven Years Itch] and Cheng Shi Te Jing [The Big Heat], real stinkers having little appeal beyond hardcore genre fans and/or To completists.

To rode the waves of the 90s like most other Hong Kong directors. Sam Sei Goon [Justice, My Foot] and Chai Gong [The Mad Monk] are two fun Stephen Chow comedies made during the early 90s. Then there's a noticeable dip during the mid 90s, with Shi Wan Huo Ji [Fireline] as a disappointing low and of course the reboot of the Hong Kong industry nearing the turn of the millennium. With To on the front row, readying himself to rise as one of the stars of Hong Kong crime cinema. Films like Am Zin [Running Out of Time] and Cheung Fo [The Mission] foreshadowed To's true awakening.

He kind of split himself in two after that. On the one hand he kept on making his crime films, with Chuen Jik Sat Sau [Fulltime Killer], PTU and Yau Doh Lung Fu Bong [Throw Down] as notable highlights. On the other hand he teamed up with Ka-Fai Wai for more light-weight and quirky output. A profitable collaboration that yielded some good films. Watch Daai Zek Lou [Running on Karma] and Heung Joh Chow Heung Yau Chow [Turn Left Turn Right] are proof of that.

My favorite To period spans the second half of the 00's, where he combines the quirkiness of his Ka-Fai collaborations with his favored crime setting. Stylish cinematography, off-kilter soundtracks and some general weirdness come together to materialize into some of the best films the Hong Kong film industry has ever seen. My personal favorite is Man Jeuk [Sparrow], but films like Sun Taam [Mad Detective], Fuk Sau [Vengeance] and Fong Juk [Exiled] are also quite dear to me.

The past few years To has been alternating between more commercial crowd pleasers (Daan Gyun Naam Yu [Don't Go Breaking my Heart] and Gao Hai Ba Zhi Lian II [High Altitude of Love II]) and films with larger international appeal (Du Zhan [Drug War] and Man Tam [Blind Detective]). And with three new films in the works, there's no sign of To slowing down any time soon. You certainly don't hear me complaining as To's output has been consistently high the past 10 years. He's become one of the biggest and brightest directors working in Hong Kong and his reputation is more than deserved. He worked long and hard to get where he is today and he has quite the oeuvre to show for it.

Best film: Man Jeuk [Sparrow] (4.5*)
Worst film: Qi Nian Zhi Yang [Seven Year Itch] (1.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Man Tam, Du Zhan, Yau Doh Lung Fu Bong, Fuk Sau, Heung Joh Chow Heung Yau Chow, Sun Taam, PTU
Average rating:3.11 (out of 5)

Mon, 23 Feb 2015 11:46:21 +0100
<![CDATA[The Fifth Element/Luc Besson]]>

It's been more than 10 years since I last watched Luc Besson's crazy space opera. Both ode and parody, The Fifth Element is a strange blend of genres, wearing its many influences on its sleeve while making sure it establishes a few memorable scenes of its own along the way. Truth be told, time hasn't been all that kind to this one, but the core of the film remains untouched. It's still a fun film, just not as amazing as I remembered it to be.

screen capture of The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element was the follow-up to Léon, Luc Besson's ( Angel-A) big international breakthrough film. While everyone was waiting for another action/crime epic, Besson went his own merry way and came up with a comedy/fantasy/sci-fi bender. As was to be suspected, not everyone appreciated Besson's bold choice and so the initial reception of The Fifth Element was mixed at best. Over the years though, the film found its niche and nowadays the film enjoys the comfort and protection of a clan of loyal fans.

Besson set out to make a film that pays homage to some of the biggest genre representatives. The early scenes in Egypt are vintage Indiana Jones, the futuristic city is a more colorful version of Blade Runner's metropolis and the birth of Leeloo is strangely reminiscent of project 2501's awakening in Kokaku Kidotai. The Fifth Element never feels derivative though as Besson goes to great lengths to make the material his own, adding to the source material rather than merely copying it.

The story revolves around the fifth element, a mythical element that is supposed to protect the universe from immense harm should the need arise. The secrets of the fifth element are buried deep within one of Egypt's pyramids, guarded from afar by a race of friendly aliens. When evil leader Zorg teams up with a malignant force called Mr Shadow, the universe is running out of time to retrieve the fifth element and to save everyone from doom.

screen capture of The Fifth Element

With the recent resurgence of sci-fi cinema, The Fifth Element has began to suffer on a technical level. The visual effects are underwhelming and the CG just doesn't really cut it anymore. Some shots are clearly geared to awe the audience, but those shots just fall flat now. Luckily the camera work is still more than solid and the sets and costumes still hold their cheesy charm, preventing the film from becoming a typical outdated CG nightmare.

The soundtrack on the other is pretty generic Hollywood fare. It's light-hearted, bombastic and ultimately forgettable. It isn't as annoying as other epic Hollywood soundtracks tend to be, but it's far from good. That is, until the opera scene starts. Out of nowhere Besson pulls out a song that becomes the focal point of an entire scene, perfectly mixed and edited to some pretty slick action antics. The scene became an instant classic and I really wish he'd included more moments like this throughout the film.

Besson did assemble a pretty special cast for the occasion. Bruce Willis is perfect as the smirky action hero, Jovovich plays one of the most memorable roles of her career and Holm is as dependable as ever. Stand-out parts are reserved for Gary Oldman (Besson gets the perfect villain out of him) and Chris Tucker, though his part is best described as extremely polarizing. All in all a pretty great cast, perfectly coached by Besson.

screen capture of The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element is pretty funky space opera, a pastiche that honors its source material, but is also frank enough to poke a little fun at it. Its light-heartedness might surprise unsuspecting viewers, but it's an essential part of the film that is introduced very early on and is exploited until the very last scene. The Fifth Element may be set in the future, but it's probably more fantasy than sci-fi and above all it's a comedy, so hardcore sci-fi fans might think twice before venturing into Besson's wondrous universe.

If only Besson had bet a little less on the special effects. Almost 20 years later they have lost much of their shine, leaving the film looking a bit cheaper than intended. It's a shame because the rest of the film is still as charming and funny as the day it was released. It features a great cast, plenty of smart references and some memorable scenes of its own. The Fifth Element is one of Besson's greatest achievements, a film only he could make.

Tue, 17 Feb 2015 12:01:58 +0100
<![CDATA[Tokyo Tribe/Sion Sono]]>

Sion Sono, what a hero! The man's been on a roll the past couple of years and by the looks of it his quality streak isn't bound to end very soon. Tokyo Tribe is his latest film and may very well be very best thing I've seen from Sono so far. Not that I'm 100% comfortable with the film, but when it comes to putting on a blisteringly fun show, Tokyo Tribe delivers from start to finish, leaving no opportunity untouched to squeeze out some extra gags and laughs.

screen capture of Tokyo Tribe

Tokyo Tribe is Japan's first hip-hop gang action comedy. Quite probably, it's also the first hip-hop gang action comedy ever made (but don't quote me on that). It's a pretty outrageous, insane and otherworldly comedy that exists in a universe of its own, two hours of unashamed escapism with nothing else on its mind besides blatant entertainment. It's good to see Sono (Kimyo na Sakasu, Koi no Tsumi, Love Exposure, Ekusute, Tsumetai Nettaigyo, Himizu) letting off some steam once in a while.

The hip-hop part of the genre description doesn't just refer to the scene and setting, Tokyo Tribe is effectively a musical with the majority of the conversations and voice overs packaged as hip-hop music. Sono strikes a good balance between comedy and quality, with the beats and melodies guiding the film's drive. The lyrics and flow do lack some power and rhythm, which I guess may irk the more hardened hip-hop fans. As a more moderate fan though, I think Sono did a pretty great job.

The film is set up as one big gang fight. The different districts of Tokyo are governed by distinctive hip-hop clans, which are all dragged into an ongoing struggle for power. The Wu-Ronz and Musashino Saru clans are spearheading the conflict as everybody is readying themselves for a big show-off. Things get only more entangled when the daughter of a famed priest suddenly shows up in the middle of Tokyo. Much sense it makes not, but that's entirely besides the point.

screen capture of Tokyo Tribe

Keeping with the hip-hop aesthetic, Sono goes for agile camera work and strong, bright colors. But the lengthy tracking shot at the beginning of the film betrays higher aspirations. The beautiful lighting, detailed sets and sharp editing make for a vibrant and sprawling visual experience, rising high above the average hip-hop music video aesthetic. The CG can be a little shabby at times, but it's always functional and it has an obvious comical side (something not everyone will appreciate).

The soundtrack of Tokyo Tribe is clearly one of its main attractions. It's a 2 hour lasting hip-hop movie score that's simply impossible to ignore as it's put front and center throughout the entire film. The rapping itself leaves a little to be desired (though some of the actors were pretty proficient), but the beats and the songs itself are pretty awesome, setting a terrific mood and adding to the film's excruciating pacing.

Sono worked with a pretty vast cast, all of them clearly appreciating the opportunity to appear in this film. Ryohei Suzuki (mostly known from TV series) and Shota Sometani make particularly notable appearances, but there's truly only one man stealing the show here. Riki Takeuchi may not be a very good actor as he can do little else besides uncontrollably over the top, but give him a role that suits him and he just glues your eyes to the screen. Buppa's character is a perfect match for Takeuchi and he gladly goes overboard to deliver one of his best performances so far.

screen capture of Tokyo Tribe

Tokyo Tribe is pretty much perfect, still I felt a little uncomfortable after the film. Nothing to do with the film itself really, but looking at its distinctive qualities, it felt like Sono was treading on someone else's turf. Just consider the atypical musical concept (Katakuri-ke no Kofuku), the shabby but functional and comic use of CG, the gang setup (Kurozu Zero, the adaptation of a comic book and the zany sense of humor. Hell, even Takeuchi's presence adds to the feeling that you're watching a vintage Takashi Miike film. By themselves these points don't make too much of an impression, but put them together and there's a pretty strong connection with Miike's oeuvre. Not that it's a derivative film, it's just that Sono goes with a kind of unique that you would normally attribute to Miike.

That said, it didn't make the film any less enjoyable, on the contrary even. Tokyo Tribe is a killer ride from beginning to end. It's brutal, outrageous, funny, weird and it has a terrific drive. If you dismiss films that are pure escapist fun you shouldn't even venture near it and hardcore hip-hop fans might be a little disappointed by the not-so-album-like quality of the raps, but everyone else is bound to have a real blast with Sono's latest. It will be difficult for him to top this one.

Thu, 12 Feb 2015 11:23:07 +0100
<![CDATA[Kiyosu Kaigi/Koki Mitani]]>

Even though current day Japanese cinema can't really match the quality present ten years ago, there are still enough signs of life that point at a promising, positive future. Koki Mitani's Kiyosu Kaigi (The Kiyosu Conference) is one of those signs. It's not the most outrageously innovative film you'll watch this year, but it's a pleasant, fun and enjoyable romp. It's also the perfect film to get acquainted with Mitani if you haven't seen any of his films before.

screen capture of The Kiyosu Conference

For a while now Koki Mitani has been growing as a director. With his previous film (Sutekina Kanashibari) he finally moved far enough up the ranks to become one of big players. Kiyosu Kaigi builds on that, though it doesn't actually improve on Mitani's previous film. That's not necessarily a bad thing of course, but people hoping to see some progress here might be a bit disappointed. Kiyosu Kaigi is (almost) exactly what I've come to expect from a Mitani film.

There is one big difference with Mitani's earlier films and that's the film's setting. Mitani's work has always been grounded in modern day life, for his latest he travels back into time to recount one of the more important moments in Japanese history. Not a true to life retelling mind, the film is based on his own novel and is quite liberal when dealing with historical facts. Not only that, the film also feels very different from other history-based Japanese films. Much lighter in tone, less grim and serious.

The setup is quite simple. When the head of the Oda clan is killed, the clan is in dire need of a successor. With two eager brothers and a son eyeing the throne though, finding the right candidate is easier said than done. Ikeda and Shibata, two life-long rivals, each pick a favorite for the throne and start rallying to get their candidate in pole position. Both are certain they can win, but convincing their fellow voters proves a lot tougher than expected.

screen capture of The Kiyosu Conference

The color palette for these kind of historical dramas is usually quite muted, dull and overly reliant on brown tints, Mitani breaks with that tradition and turns Kiyosu Kaigi in a warm, colorful film. There's a little CG that stands out just a bit too much, but apart from that the visuals are bright and cheerful, helped by some very solid camera work. It's nothing too out of the ordinary, but those who've seen their fair share of samurai flicks will definitely notice the difference.

The soundtrack too is a lot more upbeat than usually the case with these type of films. It's big, bold and orchestral, with lots of drive and positive vibes rubbing off of it. It does its part in helping to brighten up the atmosphere and while none of the individual tracks made a big impression on me, overall the soundtrack does make a big difference.

Mitani loves to work with big casts (just have a look at the posters for his films), but he truly outdid himself with Kiyosu Kaigi. And it's not just the size of the cast that is impressive, just looking at the actors featured put a big smile on my face. Koji Yakusho and Tadanobu Asano team up, Susumu Terajima has a sizeable role and there are small but fun parts for Ken'ichi Matsuyama and Yusuke Iseya. But the undeniable star of the film is Koichi Sato. Normally I can't stand the guy, but he's perfect here as the goofy but cunning Ikeda.

screen capture of The Kiyosu Conference

Even though the setup is quite simple, the path from there becomes complex real fast, with all forms of treason, scheming and leg-pulling going on. Almost every character has ulterior motives, stretching far beyond the candidate election. Even so, Mitani keeps a clear overview of what's going on, helped of course by the film's generous running time. It never becomes boring though, neither does it start to drag, the film's just to jolly and fun for that.

Kiyosu Kaigi is good, solid, old-fashioned fun. Mitani has a great cast to his disposal and goes with colorful visuals and an upbeat soundtrack. The plot is engaging enough without ever outstaying its welcome. Kiyosu Kaigi is a film that confirms Mitani's talent, even though it does hint at the fact that he might have reached his top. Either way, it's a great way to spend 2+ hours without so much of a worry.

Wed, 04 Feb 2015 13:35:58 +0100
<![CDATA[Xi Feng Lie/Qunshu Gao]]>
Wind Blast poster

China's Gobi desert is probably one of the most beautiful shooting locations I know of. The barren, dusty and moon-like landscapes and near-deserted concrete towns make for the perfect place to shoot some high-octane action flicks (remember Wu Ren Qu). Director Qunshu Gao (Feng Sheng) is well equipped to bring an ordeal like this to a good end and you don't need to look any further than Xi Feng Lie (Wind Blast) for proof.

There are some meager plot lines hidden away in Xi Feng Lie, but Gao is too busy introducing characters and changing the dynamic between the different groups and coalitions to spend too much time explaining what the hell is happening. Because of that, the first 20 minutes are a little hard to follow and get in to, but once the film gets up to steam only the most hardened plot whore are likely to take offence.

The film is basically one big action sequence, travelling from one location to the next while setting everything up for an explosive 30-minute climax. All the while Gao makes excellent use of the film's setting, so expect rugged, hardened characters, dusty surroundings and a muted color palette. The Gobi desert is not a very hospitable place, that much is certain.

The cast does a good job, even though there aren't too many familiar faces. Jacky Wu is present but in a rather minor role, Francis Ng on the other hand shines as a ruthless assassin. There's also a small role for director Yibai Zhang (Jiang Ai, Mi Guo, Kaiwang Chuntain De Ditie) and a notable performance of Zhang Li. Not that there's much depth to the characters, but as tough action stars they're definitely above average.

Compared to a film like Wu Ren Qu, Xi Feng Lie falls just a little short. The intro is a little too tough to get through and it takes too long before the film really gets up to speed, but once it gets going there's a lot to enjoy here. It's a pretty neat action flick, sporting a phenomenal setting, some solid performances and a memorable finale.

Mon, 02 Feb 2015 12:50:18 +0100