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[Feng Shen Bang /Koan Hui ]]>

It's been a few years now since Hong Kong cinema fully embraced CG and it seems there's no stopping this trend. The current onslaught of CG fantasy blockbusters is almost mind-numbing, a continuous stream of kitsch and ugliness firmly keeping international interest at bay. Koan Hui's Feng Shen Bang [League of Gods] is the latest to join the hype, but contrary to my expectations I actually enjoyed this one. Your mileage may vary though, as spirited CG-bashers still have plenty to complain about.

screen capture of Feng Shen Bang

If the name Koan Hui doesn't ring a bell, don't feel bad. Even though he's anything but a novice, he's been actively keeping himself out of the spotlights for the past 25 years. He did however work as second/assistant director on quite a few high-profile martial arts/fantasy films (most notably Ching Se and Shin Liu Ni Liu) and moved on to visual effects supervisor from there (working on films like The Legend of Zu, SPL and Dragon Tiger Gate). He's often seen as Hark Tsui's protégé and it shows in Feng Shen Bang.

Feng Shen Bang is an adaptation of a 16th century Chinese novel, but don't expect anything too serious or historical. The film is an unbelievable mishmash of classic and modern fantasy elements and then some. It's hard to imagine this is a faithful rendition of the original novel, then again I'm not quite familiar with 16th century Chinese literature so take it as an educated guess. What I do know is that it's completely bonkers from start to finish, which I consider an immense asset for a fantasy film.

There is a plot, but it's pretty complex and convoluted and not much time is spent explaining things in detail. It may be a bit easier to grasp if you're familiar with the source material, but for most it'll be easiest to just go with the flow. In short, a nine-tailed fox disguised as a concubine is pressuring a king to rule the world, a band of heroes is looking for the Sword of Light in order to stop the king. There's way more to it of course, but it's better to just find out for yourself.

screen capture of Feng Shen Bang

Visually it's a huge pile of contradictions. To say the film is CG-heavy is an understatement and there's quite some crappy CG to get worked up about, but for every failed shot there's also one that works (and works well). Furthermore, the CG is functional. The days a film like this could be made with just practical effects are long gone and since just about everything and everyone is otherworldly, the CG is very much a necessity. On top of that, Hui's aesthetic sense is quite good, so even though the film lacks technical prowess, there's still a lot of visual splendor that adds to the fantastic nature of the film.

The soundtrack is exactly what you'd expect from a film like this. I don't know if they have some kind of big music reserve for fantasy blockbusters, but it all sounds pretty much identical. Chances are you won't even notice it that much, with the film moving forward at such a blistering pace. The music is just noise in the background that coincides with the visuals, it never really draws much attention to itself, but it would be nice to see some progress in future blockbusters. It remains a mostly untapped well of potential.

As for the cast, little can said except that most of them are underused. Many famous names were drummed up, but they're hidden under layers of makeup, clothing and CG. Jet Li, Louis Koo, Angelababy, Fan Bingbing, Zhang Wen, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Jordan Chan, Andy On ... they're all present and very much in frame, but they're just stick puppets, shouting some epic lines or battling CG enemies. I guess they're needed to attract bigger crowds, but a little more quality exposure wouldn't have hurt the film.

screen capture of Feng Shen Bang

Feng Shen Bang isn't what you'd call a film without defects. It's easy to completely demolish it in a review and just lump it in with the rest of the CG-heavy Chinese/Hong Kong blockbusters. But it also has a (huge) saving grace. The film's excruciating pacing combined with the wacky fantasy elements make it a thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster ride. It reminded me of films like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Flying Dagger, Kung Fu Master and similar blends of manic action and fantasy. There's a surprise around every corner and even when something falls flat there's hardly enough time to get worked up about it.

This clearly isn't a film for everyone. Wacky fantasy isn't quite popular in the West and the lack of technical prowess is sure to put some people off (though the production design was lavish), but I ended up loving it despite entering the film with very low expectations. I think Hui learned a lot from the directors he worked for in the past and managed to properly update a somewhat lost interpretation of the fantasy genre. It's almost impossible to recommend as I usually tend to dislike films like these, but Koan Hui did a great job convincing me not all is bad in the world of Chinese blockbusters.

Mon, 17 Oct 2016 10:14:35 +0000
<![CDATA[Nashan Naren Nagou/Jianqi Huo]]>

Sometimes a director needs a little luck to get his career off the ground. Nashan Naren Nagou [Postmen in the Mountains] is the type of film that could only be unearthed by the mere randomness of hype. Back then Jianqi Huo was a complete nobody, even so his film was picked up for international distribution. I loved it the first time I watched it, but Chinese cinema changed a lot over the past 15 years, so I was looking forward to see if Huo's breakthrough film had managed to survive the test of time.

screen capture of Nashan Naren Nagou

Even though it's perfectly possible for Asian films to achieve a certain level of recognition in the West, those credits are rarely extended to the director (bar a handful exceptions of course). So while Nashan Naren Nagou received positive criticism, Huo had to start from square one when he released his next film. It's probably one of the main reasons why it's so hard for Asian cinema to get a foot in the door here. You may be a talented director, but with each film you make you have to prove yourself all over again.

That said, it's already a small miracle Nashan Naren Nagou made it to the West in the first place, because it's hardly a film with broad international appeal. Apart from some local folklore (which always does well over here), the film is virtually void of any dramatic impulses and consequently "suffers" from slow pacing. It's interesting because the premise leaves plenty of room for drama, Hou just chose a different path for his characters. What you're left with is some Ghibli-like rural charm spread over a 90 minute walk.

The film documents the succession of a local mailman working in the Hunan mountains. The job of mailman is a little different from what we're used to, a mailman in Hunan generally leaves on a three-day journey through the mountains, on foot, visiting different villages while delivering and collecting letters and packages. When the old mailman retires, his son, who never got to see much of his dad, is appointed as his follow-up. When they make the trip together (a one-time experience), they finally get a chance to get to know each other a little better.

screen capture of Nashan Naren Nagou

Nashan Naren Nagou is a gorgeous looking film, though it must be said that part of its visual splendor comes from the amazing scenery. The Hunan mountains are as much part of the film's visual identity as the cinematography itself. Not that the cinematography is bad, mind you, the lighting is exquisite, the colors are vibrant and warm and some of the shots will linger long after the film has finished, but the environment really is a character of its own here and plays a big part in the overall visual impression.

The soundtrack too adds a lot to the overall atmosphere. Traditional Chinese instruments and sounds aren't shunned, but they are combined with soothing ambient sounds. Even though it's typical string-based 80s ambient (think Brian Eno and Steve Roach) and not the more modern processed-sounds type variant, it's still pretty progressive. Especially when used in a Chinese film about traditional values. It's a really nice addition that made the film that more relaxing.

The cast is small but solid. Rujun Ten (of Red Sorghum fame) and Ye Liu (this was his breakthrough film) do a great job as father and son. They seem to share a connection that perfectly translates the feelings of their characters towards each other. As for the rest of the cast, I wouldn't be surprised if they were actually local folk who were asked to participate in the film. Whatever the case though, they come off as genuine and believable, which is a big plus for a film like this.

screen capture of Nashan Naren Nagou

The father-son theme is well executed and a dash of local folklore adds some extra spice, but when all is said and done Nashan Naren Nagou is a film about two guys taking a three-day trip through the mountains. If you want narrative and dramatic impulses, this film won't be for you. If, on the other hand, you want a film that feels like a small vacation, make it a triple bill with Shinkokyo no Hitsuyo and Omohide Poro Poro and simply sit back and relax.

I must say that Nashan Naren Nagou lost little of its appeal over the years. Maybe it's because the film feels rather timeless, showing a part of China that looks as if time has had no influence there, or simply because I have a soft spot for Asian low-drama rural cinema. The bottom line is that I still enjoyed it immensely. Jianqi Huo is one of China's hidden gems, a director who makes films with soul and warmth. It's an easy recommend, if you can stand the slow pacing that is.

Tue, 11 Oct 2016 10:12:43 +0000
<![CDATA[Seiji: Riku no Sakana/Yusuke Iseya]]>

It's always a little sad to see young talent being ignored. Yusuke Iseya may have made a name for himself as an actor, his directorial efforts are passing the world by mostly unnoticed. Needless to say I was pretty excited when I got the chance to catch up with Iseya's second feature film, Seji: Riku no Sakana [House 475]. In its core a somewhat traditional Japanese drama, but featuring modern touches to spruce things up a little. The result was far from disappointing.

screen capture of Seiji: Riku no Sakana

Iseya's acting career has been one of mostly highlights. From his very first part in Koreeda's Wandafuru Raifu to the indie greats of Sogo Ishii's Dead End Run and the mainstream success of Casshern, Iseya has always an eye for stand-out cinema. He's still young though and making it as a young writer/director can be a serious challenge. Iseya's first (Kakuto - 2003) was a very promising film, but it would take him eight years to finally produce a follow-up.

Riku no Sakana (literally Fish on Land) feels like a film from a director who matured considerably, but still managed to keep part of his youthful enthusiasm alive. Stylistically the film aligns with what you'd expect from a (serious) Japanese drama, but there's also enough room for lighter moments. Some playful camerawork and quirkier characters betray Iseya's age and background, but they do add some welcome flavor to the film, setting it apart from its peers.

The film starts with Boku remembering his bike trek across Japan. Back then his journey came to a sudden halt when he crashed his bike into Kazuo's van. Luckily Kazuo was kinder than his scoundrel looks let on and he was willing to take Boku to a nearby inn. That's where Boku met with Shoko and Seiji, the peculiar tennants of the inn. He decided to halt his journey to stick around, while getting to know the people living in the area.

screen capture of Seiji: Riku no Sakana

Visually Iseya has everything under control. The foundation of the film's visual identity is taken from Japan's traditional dramas, with beautifully framed shots, a toned down color scheme and subtle camera work, slowly easing the audience into the film. But there's also room for a little visual intensity, with several impressive close-up scenes and some fun editing tricks livening up the frame. It's a strong, balanced combination that feels like a logical evolution.

The soundtrack aims for a similar balance, but falls short. The classic drama score is up to par though, with a selection of nice piano tunes complementing the visuals. It's tried and tested territory, but it works. The modern touch comes in the form of (rock) band music, which sadly turned out to be a little underwhelming. I'm not a big fan of Japanese films doing band-related stuff in the first place, Riku no Sakana is just another example of why I prefer they'd stop doing it. It lacks identity and at times takes over the film in a way that feels like a waste of time. Luckily these moments are limited, but it's a shame nonetheless.

The cast is impeccable though. Contrary to his first film, Iseya doesn't take up the main part, in fact he doesn't even show up in front of the camera at all. Instead Hidetoshi Nishijima and Mirai Moriyama take up the leads. Both are very capable and deliver strong, moving performances. Nae and Hirofumi Arai shine in supporting roles, rounding off an excellent cast. Performances can be a little impenetrable for people not used to Japanese dramas I guess, but that's hardly the actors' fault.

screen capture of Seiji: Riku no Sakana

Seiji: Riku no Sakana is one of those films where the main character is little more than a vessel for the audience. Boku has his own path to follow and Moriyama does a great job adding a little depth to his character, but in the end he's really just a pair of eyes that allows us to spy on the relationship between Seiji and Shoko. It's an interesting approach that throws you for a loop, but it's also an approach I'm sure not everyone will appreciate, as it forces you to switch perspectives halfway through.

This may just be Iseya's second film, but it feels a lot like the work of a confident, accomplished director. It's a shame his output is a little limited in quantity right now, because I feel he would be a welcome addition to Japan's current director line-up. Even so, it's good to know Japan has people like Iseya lying around, skilled individuals with a rich career in film who can deliver the goods in front as well as behind the cameras. Riku no Sakana is a fine drama and if you like Japan's take on the genre, it's an easy recommendation.

Wed, 05 Oct 2016 09:59:01 +0000
<![CDATA[Rob Reiner/x10]]>
Rob Reiner

Rob Reiner is one of those directors you keep running into when exploring various corners of America's extensive film catalogue. You won't see his name pop up too often if you only skim the top layers of the mainstream, but once you dig a little deeper you'll find that Reiner is nothing less than a monument. His oeuvre is mostly centred around drama, romance and comedy cinema, but with a decent Stephen King adaptation and an infamous court drama under his belt, Reiner's range is clearly broader than just one single niche.

It all started in the mid 80s, when Reiner released This Is Spinal Tap, a faux documentary following a fictional metal band. It would be unfair to underestimate the impact of this little niche film (it's the only film rated on /11 on IMDb and "turn it up to 11" is still a rather popular quote), but even as a non-metal fan I couldn't really enjoy the cheap insults and bad parodies of said music scene. If you want to have a laugh at metalheads just watch Story of Anvil instead, at least that documentary had some heart.

Two years later Reiner would enjoy his first real success. Stand by Me is one of the quizessential films of the 80s, especially now that the whole 80s hype is at its very peak. With its strong 80s vibes and boyish charm it's not hard to understand why so many people love to revisit this film. If you're a fan of the era and you like a young male-only cast going out on some big adventure (like a more serious version of The Goonies), this should be a top priority (if you haven't seen it already of course).

Reiner would continue his high with The Princess Bride (a much-referenced and lauded film, although its popularity is somewhat country-specific) and When Harry Met Sally... (probably his most mature film to date). The latter is actually my favorite Reiner film, with a solid central duo, a quirky romance and just enough drama and bite to keep it interesting while making sure the actual romantic bits remain intact.

After that it was time for Reiner to branch out a little. Misery is one of the better King adaptations, a decent thriller with a memorable Kathy Bates, A Few Good Men a more than decent court drama featuring Jack Nicholson's infamous "You fucked with the wrong marine" speech. Reiner fared surprisingly well in two genres that weren't really his home turf, even so he quickly changed back to more familiar grounds, giving the impression that Reiner himself didn't feel truly at ease directing these films.

I kinda lost track of Reiner during the 90s, it wasn't until he directed Alex & Emma in 2003 that I ran into him again. The film is basically When Harry Met Sally 2.0, updated with a new set of actors and a different plot. It's a nice enough film, though not all that special. But Reiner was stuck in a rut. His films didn't attract too many people and his audience was starting to forget about him.

He did however have one more moment in the spotlights. The Bucket List is a wildly popular film featuring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two grumpy old dudes on a trip to see the world while they still have the chance. It's a pretty cheesy affair, but it is well liked by many. Reiner went back to directing smaller, retro-inspired films after that, with Flipped and The Magic of Belle Isle as a result. I'm sure these films have their audiences, but I'm clearly not part of them.

Reiner is still at it, but it seems his films are having a tougher time finding proper distribution. That said, LBJ (his latest) looks like a film that might attract a decent audience, with a couple of familiar names in the cast and a non-fiction halo to attract people interested in the life of vice-president Johnson. I'll probably watch it when I get the chance, but like most of Reiner's films I won't be putting in too much effort trying to track it down.

Even though I have no trouble recognizing Reiner's status, I'm not a very big fan of the man's work. His films are pretty cheesy and are well adjusted to the American mainstream. He likes to play it safe and if you're expecting something unique or surprising, you better look elsewhere. If on the other hand you are a fan of American romances and/or comedies, his oeuvre has a lot to offer.

Best film: When Harry Met Sally... (3.0*)
Worst film: This Is Spinal Tap (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.15 (out of 5)

Fri, 30 Sep 2016 08:26:09 +0000
<![CDATA[One Night Only/Matt Chung-tien Wu]]>

Even though Taiwan never really followed through on the immense promise it showed a couple of years ago, there's still heaps of untapped potential lingering over there. Matt Wu is the latest name to join the list of talented Taiwanese directors with a promising future. One Night Only is a superb calling card for a director his age, a film so full of vigor and cinematic joy it requires zero effort to overlook its slight shortcomings and just enjoy it for what it is.

screen capture of One Night Only

If Matt Wu's name rings a bell, it's probably because he started his career as an actor. Highlights so far include Make Up and Jianyu, but it's clear that Wu can do more than just parade in front of the camera. It's true that he got a little help from seasoned Taiwanese director Leste Chen (who took on the role of producer for One Night Only), but the film bears all the signs of a young, talented director eager to leave behind something he can call his own.

The only thing One Night Only lacks is focus, but that's somewhat characteristic for a film made by an eager, first-time director. It's almost impossible to pin a genre on One Night Only, with influences ranging from Hong Kong crime cinema to Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 to a million things in between. You may be put off by this, but it does give the film a certain vitality that is difficult to find in the films of seasoned directors. Once a director becomes more experienced, he tends to lose the boundless enthusiasm that comes with the naivety of a first-timer, so I definitely welcome films like these from time to time.

The film follows Gao Ye, an infamous gambler down on his luck. Knee deep in debts, his daughter is taken hostage and Ye is given a deadline to dig up the money he owes. That's a bit of a problem, since Ye doesn't have any and all he knows is gambling. His luck changes when he runs into Momo, a young and seemingly naïve prostitute. He manages to convince her to lend him some money, what Ye doesn't realize is that their meeting is anything but a coincidence.

screen capture of One Night Only

While the film may lack focus, there is one pleasant constant. From start to finish, from the very first frame to the very last, the film looks drop dead gorgeous. Cinematographer Charlie Lam did a terrific job, using extremely vibrant colors, graceful camera work and some amazing settings to give the film heaps of flair. The film is visually intense, not a single moment goes by without something cinematographically interesting happening on screen. It sure helps to gel everything together, especially when Wu goes through one of his somewhat crude genre switches.

The soundtrack is pretty interesting too. Chinese (and I'm including Hong Kong and Taiwanese) cinema isn't exactly known for its daring music choices, so it's nice to at least some experimentation happening. There's even a slight Johnnie To vibe going on, with some slightly quirkier track appearing at times you wouldn't really expect them to. It's not quite up there with To at his peak, but it's a fun soundtrack and it does a good job illustrating the fun Wu must've had making this film.

Taking up the lead is Aaron Kwok, in a role that reminded me a little of his part in the Pang's Jing Taam trilogy (though his character here is a bit more outgoing). It's no surprise Kwok has the necessary flair to pull off a role like this, the biggest revelation is Zishan Yang's performance, who gives Kwok a good run for his money. Yang is Matt Wu's wife and while that might have made the casting a little easier, Yang does absolutely nothing to betray Wu's trust. On the contrary even, as the chemistry between Yang and Kwok is another key element in the success of the film. Secondary parts are solid too, with Jack Kao and and Andy On as the most eye-catching additions.

screen capture of One Night Only

One Night Only is a film that's sure to divide its audience. If you're looking for a tightknit, well-scripted, solid experience, this might not be what you are looking for. If instead you don't mind a little genre hopping and you can appreciate a director who has visible fun messing around with the medium, then this is an easy recommend. The voyage from crime to romance to drama might be a weird one, but if you're not too fixated on the destination One Night Only is an awesome ride.

Matt Wu is hardly the first Asian actor to turn director, but he's definitely one of the more promising ones. He clearly isn't satisfied with making just another genre film, instead opting to shake things up a little. One Night Only is raw and undiluted cinematic fun, boasting superb visuals, a great soundtrack and a more than solid cast. I hope this film does well enough for Wu to get another shot at directing, because he definitely deserves to build up a second career as a director. I'm pretty confident this film will have little trouble making it in my list of 2016 favorites.

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 10:01:21 +0000
<![CDATA[Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken /Shunji Iwai]]>

Welcome back Mr. Iwai. After 10 years of mucking about (doing documentaries, an anthology segment and even releasing his English-language debut almost nobody bothered to watch), Shunji Iwai is back with a new feature film. Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken [The Case of Hana & Alice] is only tangibly related to Shunji Iwai's last serious effort, but fans of his earlier work will be happy to learn that Iwai made a very worthwhile comeback. The biggest surprise though is that his latest feature is an animated film.

screen capture of Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken

For the longest time, it seemed as if Hana to Arisu would be Iwai's swan song. The film was received well both locally and abroad and it felt as a culmination of everything Iwai had done as a director. Then after its release the big void started. Luckily Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken isn't just the final twitch of a dying director, Iwai's next film is already out and doing the rounds, so there's clearly some life in him left. Don't watch Satsujin Jiken expecting a simple prequel/cheap cash-in either, because even though both films are related, they offer quite a different experience.

The move to animation is definitely an interesting one. It's not just Iwai's first venture into the field of animation, it's also the animation world's first real confrontation with a guy like Shunji Iwai. In a way, Satsujin Jiken feels as if Iwai is building upon Satoshi Kon's legacy, only with the strong genre elements removed. There's a realness to the animation and the atmosphere that's usually completely absent from animation films, but not without ignoring the strengths and possibilities of the medium.

The film tells the story of how Alice and Hana meet up for the first time. It's not a true origin story though, as it takes half a film for Hana to even show her face. The first part of the film is structured around a murder mystery/urban legend in Alice's school. It's only during the second half that Hana and Alice actually meet up, determined to uncover the truth behind the mystery. Just don't expect anything too exciting or tense, Satsujin Jiken is still predominantly a drama and the murder mystery is merely an excuse for the drama to unfold.

screen capture of Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken

Iwai used a unique method of rotoscoping to animate his film. Usually rotoscoping is used to attain more fluid animations and more detailed character outlines, but that's clearly not the case here. The backgrounds carry a watercolor look and the characters appear rather simplistic in their detail. Iwai actually pulled back the framerate to give the animation a more Japanese (read less fluent) feel. Even so, the technique is still very noticeable in the smaller motions and bearings of the characters. There's something very natural and lifelike about how they move about, which is largely absent for traditional animation. Add to that the beautiful coloring and the stunning backdrops (they look as if someone painted over some detailed storyboard sketches) and you have a very unique result, pretty difficult to compare to other animation films I've seen so far. Not only that, it's also perfectly suited to Iwai's directorial style.

The soundtrack is very much in line with Iwai's previous films. That means typical string and piano tunes, the kind that can be found in most Japanese dramas. The quality of the music is great though and Iwai uses the score skillfully, never over- or understating key moments. The dub is top notch too, though part of that is because both Yu Aoi and Anne Suzuki returned to voice their characters (while also standing model for the rotoscoping). Both girls are 10 years older now, which could've been a problem if the film had been live action, but through the wonders of animation it's not a bother at all.

screen capture of Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken

The first half of Satsujin Jiken may be a little confusing for people who like to know right off the bat where a film is going. Iwai is playing with several chess pieces, slowly aligning them to properly kick off the second half of the film. That's when Satsujin Jiken settles down to become the type of drama we've come to expect from Iwai. Personally I liked the extra bit of variation in the beginning, I've seen pretty much every Iwai film so far so it's nice to see something a little different, but I'm sure some people will be a little disappointed that the film changes direction after the first half.

Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken was better than I expected. It's no easy transition to go from live action to animation after 25 years of directing live action films, but Iwai found the right balance between Japanese live action drama and the magic of animation. The film looks great, the story is moving, the characters quirky but lovable. And in true Hana & Alice tradition, there's another stand-out ballet scene that lingers long after the film has finished. Fans of Iwai and Japanese animation are in for a treat with this one.

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 09:38:33 +0000
<![CDATA[Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu/Foung-Hon Chiang ]]>

It's clear by now that the big Taiwanese cinema boom isn't happening anytime soon, despite some very promising signs a couple of years ago. That doesn't mean the country is lacking in quality films though. From time to time a little gem floats by and whoever is paying close attention will be aptly rewarded. Foung-Hon Chiang's Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu [The Missing Piece] is such a gem: a sweet, little film that successfully combines lighthearted drama with touches of deeper emotion.

screen capture of Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu

Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu presents itself as a warm, sweet and comfortable drama. Taiwan is an ideal setting for a film like that. It's one of the greenest places I've ever seen, there's sea everywhere, the summers are sunny and it has remote places that look as if time has stood still for the past 50 years. Just looking at some stills is enough get that vacation feeling going. And Foung-Hon Chiang exploits that to the fullest.

The second sign that betrays this film's Taiwanese roots are the betel nut stands. Not that it's uncommon to have small food stands alongside the road in other countries, but these betel nut stands are something peculiar. They hold the middle between food stops and public softcore erotica, with scantily clad women serving their customers drinks and betel nuts. If that sounds somewhat familiar, it might be because Kang-sheng Lee's slightly more famous Bang Bang Wo Ai Shen [Help Me Eros] also featured them prominently.

The film follows Lin Daofeng, a young boy who suffers from a strange affliction. Whenever he is asked a question, no matter how simple, it always takes him 5 seconds to reply. Tired of upsetting people he goes on a hitchhiking trip, hoping the contact with others will help him get rid of his problem. That's how he meets Shasha, a betel nut girl. Together with three others Lin spends his days hitchhiking around the island, bonding with Shasha and her friends.

screen capture of Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu

Chiang's idyllic vision of Taiwan completely dominates the cinematography. At its worst, the weather is mildly cloudy, meaning that the film overflows with bright greens and fresh blues. Palm trees, the sea and lush vegetation make for a perfect backdrop in which five quirky characters prance around. The camera work is up to Taiwanese standards and the editing feels solemn and timely. Add a couple of modern touches left and right and you end up with an extremely pleasant-looking film.

The soundtrack walks a fine line between comfortably beautiful and slightly overdone. It has a strong Joe Hisaishi vibe, perfect for its summery setting, but it lacks Hisaishi's subtlety and it can be a little too present at times. But right when you think it'll start becoming annoying, Chiang dials it back a notch and it returns to be being just nice and fitting. It's definitely not a bad soundtrack, but a little subtlety would've gone a long way in making it better.

Luckily the cast is right on point. Po-Hung Lin is well on his way to make something of his career. After his small part in Transformers: Age of Extinction he demonstrates he can easily carry a film by himself. That said, he is still outperformed by Ella Chen, local pop star turned actress. The two form a marvelous duo, with Chen-Nan Tsai and Mei-Chao Lin serving as perfect sidekicks and Wei-min Ying taking care of the more comical bits. An all-round strong cast.

screen capture of Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu

The strength of Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu is the particular balance it upholds between its joyful and upbeat appearance and its slightly more sensitive core. When Chiang is focusing on his quirky characters and their funny adventures the film is extremely light and easy-going, but whenever he takes a step back a more painful layer of emotions is revealed underneath. Some might find the upbeat side not quirky enough, others might be disappointed that the dramatic side lacks depth (it's not hardcore arthouse after all). The experience is rather personal, but for me it worked extremely well.

Foung-Hon Chiang produced a sweet, sunny and pleasant film. The acting is great, the film looks good and contains just the right amount of drama to stop itself from becoming too sweet and/or sentimental. Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu is the perfect film to brighten up a warm, summer evening, though you'll have to put in the effort to dig it up somewhere. Internationally speaking it has been completely ignored. Luckily the Taiwanese DVD comes with English subtitles, so even if nobody else decides to pick it up it still has a fighting chance to prove its worth.

Thu, 01 Sep 2016 09:52:49 +0000
<![CDATA[Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu/Kitaro Kosaka]]>

It's Vuelta time. With the 3-week Spanish cycling Tour well on its way, what better film to watch than Kitaru Kosaka's Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu [Nasu: Summer in Andalusia]. Anime might not be the most obvious choice when you're looking to appease your film/cycling fix, but it turns out to be one of the best. It's been a while since I watched the first Nasu film, turns out it has lost little of its shine over time and it hasn't concede its crown of 'best cycling film' yet.

screen capture of Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu

Cycling is not an easy sport to translate into a feature film. Even though races are long and dramatic opportunities are plentiful during a 3-week cycling tour, races are often decided in mere minutes, the rest of the race is spent consolidating a lead or working hard to take back the escapees. As a sport it's a great mix of tactics and physical endurance, but looking at the groups battling for seconds miles on end doesn't make very interesting film material.

Point in case Dante Lam's Po Feng [To the Fore], a rather poor attempt to make a cycling drama. It felt more like a dramatized introduction to the sport rather than a film centered around a couple of cyclists. All the more surprising that a short anime like Nasu manages to do everything exactly right. The race part is exciting, almost believable (there is some slight dramatization, probably needed to get some thing across to people not familiar with the sport) plus it comes with some very nice drama on the side.

The film follows Pepe, a young rider for a Belgian team. The sponsors want him out because he's not winning enough, but with a finish in his hometown Pepe is extra motivated to take center stage in one of the biggest tours in the world. It's a blistering hot day and the peloton is dragging its feet, so Pepe take off and leads a break of 6. Meanwhile, Pepe's brother is getting married nearby, when he sees Pepe is leading the break he quickly decides to move his wedding party to the finish line.

screen capture of Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu

Kitaro Kosaka learned the trade at Ghibli and it shows, although not too explicitly. There's something in the character designs that gives off a slight Ghibli fragrance, without them being a downright copy. The backgrounds feel a little empty at times and the 4:3 ratio is slightly disappointing, but the animation is gorgeous. It may not be abundant, but the way the peloton moves and slithers across the road is extremely convincing. There is some CG involved there, but it is very well hidden and the hand-drawn style persists throughout. The film was clearly made on an OAV budget, but the result is impressive and rises above its budgetary limitations.

The soundtrack is equally nice. A combination of more traditional drama music (strings and pianos mostly) and typical Spanish sounds, inserted to give the music some additional colour locale. It's not a very memorable or demanding soundtrack, but it does add something to the warm, somewhat lazy atmosphere already present. The voice acting is on par with the better anime releases too, with no sign of an English dub to ruin things for unsuspecting DVD hunters.

screen capture of Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu

Even though Nasu is only 45 minutes long, it never feels flimsy or shallow. Kosaka did an excellent job inserting some depth and drama with very short but telling moments. There is a history between the two brothers, there is also a lingering romance, there is the wedding going on and Pepe's lack of job security that pops up halfway through. And Kosaka manages all that with very little exposure or needless explanation, all to make sure there's enough time left for the actual race.

Nasu is a great seasonal film. Its summer vibe is tangible, it coincides with the Vuelta and it gives one of the best depictions of cycling ever caught on (fictional) film, let alone animation. On top of that, it also serves some worthwhile drama. The animation is solid, the voice acting is great and the film feels a lot meatier than its 45 minute running would give away up front, without ever becoming too laden or demanding. Just tack on Nasu: Suitcase no Wataridori (the follow-up) and you're set for 90 minutes of summer fun.

Tue, 30 Aug 2016 10:01:01 +0000
<![CDATA[Onna ga Nemuru Toki/Wayne Wang]]>

Director Wayne Wang is traveling. After his visit to China to work on Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, he continued his voyage east in order to direct the newest addition to his oeuvre. Onna ga Nemuru Toki [While the Women Are Sleeping] is an adaptation of Spanish writer Javier Marias' short story, set in Japan with a fully Japanese cast. The result is an interesting mix of cultures and influences, dominated by Wang's subdued yet detailed style of direction.

screen capture of Onna ga Nemuru Toki

Wayne Wang is a pretty unique director. Born in Hong Kong, he actually started his career in the USA. Even though Smoke and The Joy Luck Club brought him minor success, he never managed to secure a permanent seat in the mainstream. His films are rather hard to come by and most of his work is overlooked (though I'm pretty sure directing Maid in Manhattan didn't help his status). Hopefully for Wang, Onna ga Nemuru Toki will turns some heads back his way.

I never read the original story, but its premise provides all the necessary material for an intriguing film. The story was moved to Japan and some minor details were changed, but from what I've heard the core of the story remains very much intact. Onna ga Nemuru Toki is a mystery with subtle yet definite mindfuck elements. It's one of those films that starts off quite normal, but not long after strange bits begin creeping in, piling up until they become an unsurmountable puzzle that cannot be ignored.

The story follows a couple out on a work vacation. Kenji is a writer, Aya an editor. Aya is visiting one of her clients who lives in the neighborhood while Kenji remains at the resort to rest. One afternoon by the pool, Kenji notices and old man and a young girl who are more than just familiar with each other. Intrigued by the odd couple, he decides to follow them around as he tries to figure out how the two are related. When Kenji learns about the weird fetish of the old men, his mind starts to wonder.

screen capture of Onna ga Nemuru Toki

I haven't seen enough Wang films to know how strong a visual mark he leaves on his films, but if you've seen Smoke and you imagine that film through the eyes of a Japanese cinematographer, you come pretty close to the look of Onna ga Nemuru Toki. That means very strict camera work, beautiful framing and rigid but atmospheric use of color, giving the film a slightly dreamy impression. It's not the most expressive or energetic of films, but it looks beautiful nonetheless.

The soundtrack is a mix of classic piano tunes with some more modern touches in between. It captures the essence of a Japanese drama soundtrack, but adds a little extra Western flavor without it becoming too cheesy or distracting. It's a nice blend of influences, though the result isn't all that remarkable or memorable. It's simply a good soundtrack that does the film a couple of favors, but won't leave a big enough impression to label it a true asset.

The casting is right on the mark though. Hidetoshi Nishijima is great as the confused writer, Sayuri Oyamada excellent as his pushy wife. Still they are overshadowed by the presence of Takeshi Kitano, who plays the part of the old man. If you're not a fan of Kitano's style this role probably won't do much to convince you. After all, he's somewhat of a one-trick pony in front of the camera. But I love the man and the weight he puts on his characters and he really shines as the strange and somewhat pervy old man. Also kudos for casting Lily Frankie as one of the secondary characters, it's always fun seeing his face pop up.

screen capture of Onna ga Nemuru Toki

While the mindfuck part of the film is somewhat explained, Wayne leaves it to the deduction of the viewer to piece everything together. Unless I missed it, there's no scene or snippet of dialogue that truly reveals what the whole mystery was about. You may find that confusing, especially if you were hoping for a James Wan kind of ending, but in my opinion is does a better job at leaving the mystery intact while still explaining in broad lines what exactly you've been watching.

Onna ga Nemuru Toki is a fine mystery/thriller. The film looks great, sports a good soundtrack, has a perfect cast and handles both its mystery and its audience with the proper respect. It's not the most flashy of films and chances are more bolder films will quickly take its place, but its core qualities are rock solid and shouldn't wane with time. Wayne Wang's journey to Japan was a successful one, if it's up to me he can prolong his stay for a little while longer and make it a Japanese trilogy of some kind.

Thu, 25 Aug 2016 09:52:42 +0000
<![CDATA[Zhou Yu De Huo Che/Zhou Sun]]>

Back in the early 00s Chinese cinema was finding itself at a turning point. After being dominated for years by rural dramas sporting strong social themes, more modern/urban-themed films were starting to find their way to the public. Zhou Sun's Zhou Yu De Huo Che [Zhou Yu's Train] was one of the early examples of this change of pace. When I sat down to revisit Sun's film I was curious to see how well it had survived 15 years of Chinese cinema renaissance.

screen capture of Zhou Yu De Huo Che

The first time I watched Zhou Yu De Huo Che my knowledge of Chinese cinema was practically nil. I remember watching the film for the first time, wondering to myself when Tony Leung would finally show himself. I was completely unaware of the fact that there were two popular Chinese figures going by the name of Tony Leung (three if you count director Siu Hung). The difference between Ka Fai and Chiu Wai meant absolutely nothing to me. That's at least one thing that didn't bother me this time around.

I'm still not quite sure how Zhou Yu De Hou Che landed a local release, though like most Asian releases back then it was probably a combination of festival recognition and sheer luck. The global interest in Asian cinema was starting to boom around that time and I remember watching whatever I could get my hands on. By modern standards Zhou Yu De Hou Che is a pretty simple romance, enhanced by subtle artistic choices and a slightly convoluted plot. While it inevitably lost a little of its initial impact, it's still a beautiful film though.

The story follows Zhou Yu, a young vase paintress who becomes enamored by a budding poet (Chen Qing). He lives quite far away from her, so Yu ends up travelling the distance by train. Their relationship is passionate but unstable and the long train ride gives other interested parties plenty of opportunities to steal Yu away from her poet. Zhang Qing is the most persistent of the bunch and his advances start to pay off when Chen's career as a poet fails to take off.

screen capture of Zhou Yu De Huo Che

Visually the film is on par with its peers. That means strong use of color and lighting, some very nice compositions and a couple of attractive tracking shots. Sun has a broad arsenal of visual tricks, but he uses them sparsely and wisely. He may lack a clear individual style, at least based on what he puts on display here, but Zhou Yu De Huo Che looks beautiful from start to finish and that's a definite plus for a romantic drama with slight artistic pretenses.

The music is by Shigeru Umebayashi, one of Japan's most famous soundtrack composers. It's a solid, fitting soundtrack, but at the same time it's also pretty safe and familiar. The score consists of classic compositions, mostly consisting of piano and violin work. It's atmospheric and gracious, on the other hand it's also exactly what you'd expect from a film like this, almost to the note. A slightly more daring soundtrack would've been nice, but that doesn't seem to be part of the Chinese film DNA.

Zhou Yu De Hou Che leans heavily on its central trio of actors. Tony Leung (Ka Fai) and Honglei Sun are both great as the competing guys, but it's Gong Li who pulls most of the attention towards her. She actually has a double role here, although the not-"Zhou Yun" part is considerably smaller. But the acting is great all-round, even the secondary parts, small as they may be, put in the necessary effort. Always a plus for a film that relies on dramatic impact.

screen capture of Zhou Yu De Huo Che

In essence, Zhou Yu De Hou Che is a pretty simple film. There's a love triangle, some dramatic interference and people pondering what to do with their lives. Sun adds a little complexity by giving Li an extra part to play and he likes to jump around in time and place, though applied more from an artistic point of view than a puzzling one. It adds a little extra flavor to the film, but it is in no way essential to the core experience.

There's a basic quality that keeps Zhou Yu De Hou Che on its feet, even though I've seen better and more creative variations from China in more recent years. It's still a great film, with a strong central romance, solid acting and a pleasant audiovisual finish. It's also an easy film to recommend, even when you're not all that familiar with Chinese cinema, as long as you don't expect anything too innovative or groundbreaking you should be able to enjoy it.

Thu, 18 Aug 2016 11:14:57 +0000
<![CDATA[Ubume no Natsu /Akio Jissoji]]>
Ubume no Natsu poster

Akio Jissoji is somewhat of a cult figure. He started out as a director in the Ultraman franchise (both series and films) and ended his career directing obscure horror films. I've reviewed his segments in Rampo Jigoku and Yume Ju-ya, shorts that should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from Ubume no Natsu [Summer of Ubume], his final standalone feature film. He died not long after, joining a prestigious list of directors who kept going right until their final breath.

Even though Ubume no Natsu was made in 2006, it has little to no ties to the Asian horror wave that was all the rage back then. This is no 'less is more' horror flick trying to mimic the success of Nakata or Shimizu, instead the film harks back to the classic Japanese horror stories of Edogawa Rampo. Dark, twisted and supernatural, but with a strong psychological core. Ubume no Natsu is an adaptation of the first novel in the Kyougokudou series, a novel that is also enjoying its own manga adaptation right now.

The film is set in the early 50s, following a detective who is called in to investigate the events surrounding a mysterious hospital. Patients, mostly children, keep disappearing on the hospital's premises. When members of the staff are also ending up dead, the neighborhood's imagination starts running rampant. Of course the case isn't so easily solved and several other people are brought in to try and explain the mysterious events.

If you care about a great cast, this film has you covered. An insane amount of familiar faces are featured, from the lead roles down to the smaller, secondary parts. Shin'ichi Tsutsumi and Masatoshi Nagase are probably the most prestigious names, with actors like Hiroshi Abe, Susumu Terajima, Suzuki Matsuo, Rena Tanaka and Yoshiyoshi Arakawa also on board you just know you're in for a treat. It's great to see all of these actors brought together in one film and it's pretty clear they had a lot of fun shooting Ubume no Natsu.

The presentation is top notch too. Even though Jissoji was already quite old when he shot this, the cinematography is quirky and playful. There are some great angles, the editing is fun and even though he uses the same visual tricks a few times too often, the film looks great throughout. The soundtrack is a bit more classic in nature, but goes well with the film. The two combined create a mysterious, dark and intriguing atmosphere, the kind you expect from a tale that could've been written by Rampo.

Don't expect any gore, don't expend a typical Japanese suspense flick. Ubume no Natsu is a film that relies more on intrigue and mystery, with some perversion and psychological horror thrown in for good measure. The presentation is great, the cast is impressive and even though the film is quite long, it never drags or becomes boring. There are better films in the genre, but that's hardly a critique on this film.

Tue, 16 Aug 2016 09:52:54 +0000
<![CDATA[Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen/Oishi and Shinbo ]]>

The anime feature film is crumbling under the weight of a terrible creative lull. Just ten years ago anime feature films were enjoying an immense peak in quality, with at least 3 or 4 high profile films being released each year. Nowadays we're getting swamped by slightly upgraded TV shows and Studio Ghibli rip-offs. It should come as no surprise then that my expectations were rather low when I sat down to watch Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen. A mere 64 minutes later I had quite a different story to tell.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen

Even though originality might be key, fact is that Kizumonogatari is part of an established franchise. The film is a prequel to Bakamonogatari and Nekomonogatari, both TV series adapted from NisiOisin's books. Other entries in the franchise include Nise-, Hana-, Tsuki-, Koyo- and Owarimonogatari (also TV series), so the film comes with quite a lot of baggage. I must admit that I haven't seen any of the TV material, nor did I read any of the novels. It's hard to say for sure of course, but I feel quite certain that this only increased the effect this first Kizumonogatari film (there are three planned in total) had on me.

It took me a while to get a grip on the film. There are parts that reminded me of Soul Taker, but there's also some of Makoto Shinkai's earlier work in there and even Colorful (the TV short series, not the feature film) passed through my mind a couple of times. I understand that's a rather nonsensical blend of influences, which is why I think this film is probably best compared to FLCL. Not because it shares particular stylistic influences, but the impact of Kizumonogatari somehow matched that of FLCL. It's so different from anything else I've seen, so free and unrestrained yet so very hardcore anime that I think the experience of seeing it for the first time is extremely similar.

If you're looking for any kind of strong, coherent story though, this film probably isn't for you. We follow Araragi, a somewhat reclusive student who one day walks into a vampire (named Kiss-shot Acerola-orion Heart-under-blade, go figure) thirsting for blood. Araragi runs away, but retraces his steps and decides to sacrifice himself to save the vampire, because why not. In return, she promises Araragi she'll change him back into his human form, but only after he slays the three vampire hunters that are after her. Shakespeare it is not, but it's a good enough hook for some great fun.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen

Visually it's a whirlwind of different styles. It's clear that Oishi and Shinbo gathered some of Japan's greatest animation talent to work on Kizumonogatari, but that doesn' mean everything looks slick and lavish. Some of the CG is elemental, cold and lifeless and stands in great contrast to the lively animation. But it's done with a purpose and a clear vision, not just because they lacked the talent or because the budget didn't allow for better CG, because some of the computer work does look amazing. The same goes for the intertitles, which appear almost random, at times feel completely nonsensical, but add a very peculiar, unique flow to the film. The editing too is unique, sometimes staying slightly too long with certain scenes, at other times cutting quickly between different angles. Not everything is logical, but it all makes sense.

The soundtrack is also a strong asset. It's slightly jazzy, with an electronic finish. But more importantly, it's perfectly in sync with the editing. Together with the visuals it creates a strongly rhythmic, almost poetic flow that feels very futuristic. It's a perfect example of how a solid soundtrack can be cut up and applied in such a way that it becomes something more. The voice acting is on par with most high-profile anime features, meaning that it's done well but it comes with a fair amount of anime stereotypes. Then again, it's exactly that weird combo of artistic excellence and anime silliness that defines the atmosphere of the film, so it definitely adds to the appeal of the film.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen

Kizumonogatari is Oishi and Shinbo's playground. It's a film that is truly defined by the choices of its directors and animation artists, not by plot or characters. Nothing is merely shown or told, every scene is seen as a new opportunity to do something weird, funky or insane. Every single second feels like a counter reaction against the staleness and almost soulless production that is ruining Japanese animation. It's probably a little uneven because of that and those looking for a deep, homogenous and more traditional film experience might be put off, but if you like something different, Kizumonogatari will not disappoint.

You may think 64 minutes is rather short, but it's perfect for a film like this. After a short period of acclimatization (probably depending on how familiar you are with the franchise), the film washes over you like a tornado, constantly throwing you off balance and finding new ways to surprise. The knowledge that two more films will follow helped me to part from this crazy experience. Kizumonogatari is anime the way I like it. It's a directorial tour de force, a film that proves there's still some life left in the Japanese animation scene. It's probably a bit much for some, but if you're into more experimental and weird animation and you don't mind a little silliness, this is definitely one to check out.

Thu, 11 Aug 2016 09:43:08 +0000
<![CDATA[Following/Christopher Nolan]]>

A long time ago, in what almost seems like a past life, I was a pretty avid Christopher Nolan supporter. I liked Memento and Insomnia, but it was Following, Nolan's first feature, that really caught my eye. A film that was intriguing, smart and streamlined, a bare-bones low budget movie that amazed despite its obvious limitations. My taste in films changed a lot since then, so when I finally sat down to watch Following again I was pretty eager to find out whether its qualities were lasting.

screen capture of Following

Nolan is the archetypical example of a director who cannot handle a budget. The more money you give him, the worse his films become. His entire career has been one slippery slide to the bottom, all the way down his latest blockbuster disaster Interstellar. He's in good company though, with people like Darren Aronofsky and Peter Jackson following very similar paths. yet Nolan is the undisputed king of budget waste, a feeling that only grew stronger when I rewatched Following.

Following was made on a production budget of just 6000 dollars, which is ridiculously small for a professional film. Nolan cut every corner he could, every element of the film is tailored to get the maximum result out of minimal effort, including the screenplay. There are no fancy visual requirements, no demanding action sequences and no need for a big cast. Following is a film that relies on an intriguing setup, a small group of actors and tried but bested audiovisual methods. And Nolan makes it work, seizing total control over the film.

The story is about a jobless wannabe writer who starts tracking random people, just for the fun of it. When he notices his new hobby is rapidly becoming an addiction, he sets up a couple of rules for himself that act as boundaries, keeping him from getting into trouble. Basically the rules prohibit him from getting too close to his victims. But one day he ends up following what looks like a thief and his curiosity gets the best of him. Little does he know the thief is actually on to him, getting more and more worked up about this unknown guy following him.

screen capture of Following

Like many other low-budget first-time efforts, Following was shot in a grainy, high-contrast black & white. It's a smart choice if you want your film to look stylish without worrying too much about the cinematography. Not that black & white is an absolute guarantee to success, but when your camera equipment is limited, it's probably the best option you've got. Following looks nice enough, but it doesn't quite compare to the likes of Pi or Tetsuo. The only truly remarkable thing is that Nolan doesn't give you any visual clues to differentiate between the flashback and the normal scenes, effectively creating an extra layer to the puzzle.

The soundtrack is subtle but interesting. Nolan chose a ambient-inspired soundtrack, going for maximum effect with minimal soundscapes. The music goes well with the black & white cinematography and blends extremely well with the dialogues. It's a bit like Pi's soundtrack, where music and dialogue become one, though once again Nolan loses the battle with Aronofsky's first. That said, Following builds on a rock solid audiovisual experience.

The cast was kept very small. It's just the three main actors and some very minor secondary parts. The actors are okay, though it's clear they aren't A-list material. Lucy Russell in particular is a bit static and lifeless. Jeremy Theobald isn't perfect either, but at least he has a good voice to fall back on. Best of the bunch is Alex Haw, it's just a little weird to see he never pursued any other acting jobs. As a group they fare well though, especially for a film like this.

screen capture of Following

Following is a film that is low-key by necessity, but that's actually what saves the movie. As the puzzle slowly unravels, there is no time or money for epic reveals. There are several twists, but no sentimental soundtrack or flashy edits to make them appear bigger than they are. There's no extra build-up, no spicing things up just for the heck of it. The plot and twists simply do their job, the mysterious atmosphere and overall intrigue do the rest. Simplicity is a real asset here and it actually makes the film more complex.

Nolan never managed to allocate the extra budget for his following films in any meaningful way. He kept writing puzzling stories full of twists and turns, but as his films grew bigger he just added a lot of pointless padding that only took away from the experience. Following is still Nolan's only masterpiece and I've got a strong feeling he's never going to return to directing smaller films. It's a shame because deep underneath the Hollywood kitsch lies a great storyteller and a more than decent director. Following may be slim and bare-bones, but it's a solid film on every level that never outstays its welcome.

Tue, 09 Aug 2016 09:44:40 +0000
<![CDATA[Stephen Chow/x10]]>
Stephen Chow

Saying Hong Kong comedy is an acquired taste is a big understatement. It enjoys little to no international exposure and truth be told, that's not much of a surprise. Infantile humour, gross over-acting and some cultural weirdness make it one of Hong Kong's least appropriate export products. That doesn't make it objectively horrible of course, it just takes a little extra time to get used to and since people in the West rarely invest their time in Hong Kong cinema most comedies remains stuck in Hong Kong.

There is only one man who managed to beat the odds, which is Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow. Chow started out as an actor, but it didn't take long before he switched to directing his own films. It turned out to be a smart move for Chow as not long after he managed to distribute his films internationally. An even bigger feat consider the state of Hong Kong cinema in the late 90s/early 00s. Chow is probably the biggest and brightest comedian Hong Kong as ever known and a perfect entry point for those who want a taste of what Hong Kong comedy has to offer.

The first film with Chow in the director's chair was Gwok Chaan Ling Ling Chat [From Beijing with Love], a strange Bond parody he helmed together with Lik-Chi Lee (also included is actor Man Tat Ng, long-time Chow collaborator in front of the camera). The film gives a good idea of what to expect from Chow's films. Goofy comedy, lots of parodies and a fair slice of action, all delivered at an excruciating pace.

At the beginning of his career Chow would keep to codirecting his films. Po Huai Zhi Wang [Love on Delivery], Sik San [God of Cookery] and Hei Kek Ji Wong [The King of Comedy] are all made together with Lik-Chi Lee, for Daai Laap Mat Taam 008 [Forbidden City Cop] Chow relied on director Vincent Kok to help him with his directorial duties whenever he was performing in front of the camera. These older Chow films are all good fun, but clearly just preparation for what would become Chow's big international breakthrough.

In 2001 Chow surprised the world with Siu Lam Juk Kau [Shaolin Soccer]. While the rest of Hong Kong was struggling to produce anything half decent, he created a CG-heavy football comedy (of all things) that went on to conquer international audiences. It's a great entry in Chow's oeuvre, although his follow-up might be an even be a bigger contender for most successful Chow film. Kung Fu is a perfect blend of his typical comedy, some funky martial arts and a dash of classic Triad action. If you want to crack open Chow's oeuvre, start with Kung Fu.

With CJ7 Chow would lose the interest of his newly acquired international audience. A fun film still, but with its young protagonist and a fairytale-like plot maybe a bit too childlike to appeal to the people who got to know him through Siu Lam Juk Kau or Kung Fu. After that, Chow would try to further rebrand himself, coming out with Xi You Xiang Mo Pian [Journey to the West], a spiritual follow-up to the A Chinese Odyssey series in which he originally starred. Sadly the film turned out to be a CG crapfest (like so many big budget HK affairs nowadays), the only bad mark in Chow's oeuvre so far.

His latest film is somewhat of a return to form, although it never reaches the heights of his best work. Mei Ren Yu [The Mermaid] is a fun eco-fantasy with Chow's trademark comedy. It's a shame Chow retreated from acting though, as he remains a crucial element in the success of his films. Without him in front of the camera, his films just aren't as funny. Still, if you're looking for some goofy comedy, Chow's oeuvre is warmly recommended. He's by far Hong Kong's most lucrative comedy export product, rightfully so. Start with Kung Fu and Siu Lam Juk Kau and go from there.

Best film: Siu Lam Juk Kau [Shaolin Soccer] (4.0*)
Worst film: Xi You Xiang Mo Pian [Journey to the West] (1.5*)
Reviewed films: Cheung Gong 7 Hou
Average rating: 3.50 (out of 5)

Fri, 05 Aug 2016 08:46:12 +0000
<![CDATA[Pavel Khvaleev - III/An Interview]]>

To say III is a divisive film is an understatement, but if you love fantasy, mystery and horror it's a film that begs to be seen. With a budget of only 15.000 EUR, Pavel Khvaleev directed one of the best films I've seen all year. A perfect excuse to grill him about this success story. If you want to know more about making films on a shoestring budget, about the Russian horror scene and what's next for Pavel Khvaleev, you'll find all the answers right below.

Pavel Khvaleev on III

Niels Matthijs: You started out as DJ/producer in Moonbeam, an electronic/dance project you set up together with your brother. From there on out you started to direct your own music videos and finally you ended up doing your own feature films. Are you a creative genius or did you get any formal training in music/film?

Pavel Khvaleev: Unfortunately, I didn't get any formal music or film education. To some extent that's an omission since you have to spend a lot of time learning everything by yourself. But on the other hand, this lack of formal education doesn't appear to burden me. In a creative sense it’s actually better as it does not set any limitations for me. All my mistakes come from my personal experience and I am the only one who is responsible for them. It turns out that vision comes from within, not from outside. At the moment, music and cinema stand united for me.

While watching III there were only a select few moments where I could see signs of the limited budget you worked with. I kind of figured III was a low-budget production, but when I heard the film cost only 15,000 EUR I pretty much fell out off my chair. How did you manage to keep the production cost so incredibly low?

That’s right, we spent 15,000 EUR on III. First of all, this amount was so small because everyone was working out of pure enthusiasm, simply believing in the future of our film. The main expenses were related to the rental of locations, the prosthetics and the trip to Germany with our entire team. Secondly, the entire post-production, editing, CG effects, color corrections, sound and music were done by me at home, so that also played a major role in keeping the film budget low.

Looking at the credits (people doing multiple jobs, family members and friends in the crew) it's clear this is a project born out of passion. These things either turn out really well or they end up amateurish crap. Were you ever afraid you might not be able to pull it off?

We were just doing what we all liked, not even realizing that it could be bad. Even if it had turned out to be crap, the worst that could've happened was that we wouldn't have received any invitations to international festivals and we wouldn't have received any awards. We would've just presented the film in our city and hopefully it would have been quickly forgotten. But things turned out completely different and we are sincerely surprised and happy with this. So, now we can continue to develop the genre of indie films.

Great creature design is rare in horror films, I must say III really nailed that part. Who came up with the designs and how did you translate them that well to the screen which such limited resources?

Thank you for the compliment! Probably the most important thing we had to learn was to find the delicate balance between dilettantism and quality level. We did experience some difficulties with certain scenes, but we managed to cope. This was our first experience on such a large scale project, despite the fact that we had to learn many professions on the spot, such as how to do all the prosthetics work. Together with Evgenia Zakharova we spent a lot of time creating the monsters from scratch.

One of the most interesting critiques I've read about III is that it would feel too much like a music video. Personally I feel the score is a very overlooked part of film making and even when the music itself is nice, there's usually very limited interaction with the visuals. Was this something you paid attention to or did it come natural?

Music is part of my life and apparently I failed to hide my special relationship to it during the editing process. To some extent, it was also done on purpose: it was an attempt to immerse the viewer in the atmosphere through the music and through the observation of nature. Nowadays, audiences are so used to dynamic and controversial plots because commercial films have set such a standard. But we wanted to create a more layered world of characters. I now understand that it can be a positive hallmark of our work.

I read you found general inspiration in films like The Cell and Silent Hill, personally I got a slight Avalon (Mamoru Oshii) vibe from III. Any other important sources of inspiration that influenced the way III turned out to be?

Oddly enough, it were the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch that we used as a reference from the very start of the project. His special relationship with religion and his artful depiction of monsters perfectly matched the mood of III. Just before starting work on the scenario we saw his paintings in the Prado Museum, which influenced us all a lot. Then of course there's my own music, which has always been filled with quite minor atmospheric tones.

Russia has a reputable cinematic history, but the past 10 years or so not many Russian films have reached us here in the West. There's Aleksandr Sokurov on the arthouse side and Timur Bekmambetov handling some more commercial projects, but that's about all I can come up with. What happened?

I have the same question as a viewer. In my opinion, there is no such thing as “healthy professional competition” in Russia at the moment, which ultimately drives film art (like, for example, in Hollywood). Film crews led by directors and producers often have one single goal in mind – getting rich. And nobody cares what they produce as long as in the end they receive the money.

Take for example Tarkovsky or Parajanov, who both became renowned around the world for directing films with unique and deep stories. They stood out from the crowd, which is the real key to being successful abroad. I think it’s time for a new generation of film makers who will change that situation and who will bring something very personal to film production, instead of seeking imitation.

Why did you choose to do a horror film? Russia doesn't really have a history in horror cinema and even though horror fans are known to watch just about everything that is labeled as horror, they usually don't take well to films that deviate from established niches?

This genre is only emerging in Russia now. As it turns out, a couple of years ago young Russian filmmakers somehow started realizing all at the same time that this niche was almost unexplored, so they al started working in this direction. With III, we’ve tried to make a film on the verge of genres, to make it deeper, which is something you cannot always find in horror movies.

Why are there so few genre films coming from Russia? Is there something structural blocking such movies from being made, or is there simply a general lack of interest in genre cinema?

There is nothing preventing genre films from appearing, except the factor of low demand for them in our own country. And to get any attention abroad, a Russian film must be truly unique and original.
For example, last year Brussels was covered with posters of an independent film called Hard to Be a God by Alexis Herman. This surprised us very much, because in Russia this film was only shown in small independent theaters.

2016 is shaping up to be a great year for Russian genre cinema though. Ilya Naishuller's Hardcore Henry made big waves and now III managed to land a Netflix deal. Do you feel something is changing in Russia or is this just a coincidence?

As far as I know, there were difficulties while shooting Hardcore Henry. To finish the film they had to raise money through some kind of a crowdfunding campaign. We were shooting III entirely with our own money and thanks to the success at film festivals and through the work of our producer Frank Ellrich we landed a global release on Netflix. But the main problem in Russia is a complete lack of support for genre films from the state, so we can rely only on ourselves.

Pavel Khvaleev on Involution

I saw you're already working on your next project [Involution: site / trailer] which is looking to be a post-apocalyptic scifi. That's raising the bar considerably. Will it be something completely different or are you looking to build on what you already established with the previous films you did?

As for the picture's budget, it will be bigger than that of III, as we’ve expanded our team a little, inviting 3D artist Aleksey Poplavsky and one more producer, Olga Feshchenko. I again will be doing all post-production and music on my own, while my wife Alexandra is responsible for the screenplay and the original story. We want to take this film to the next level, which we'll try to achieve with the help of the cast, some crowd scenes and bigger opportunities to implement our ideas.

And as we did in III, we also will continue to play with unusual surreal scenes, such as dreams and immersions, allowing the viewer to see the inner world of our characters. This will once again involve large-scale work with the production of props and some 3D modeling.

What if I would give you 5 million EUR to spend on Involution? Where would you put that money? Or do you prefer to work with smaller budgets, doing everything with a small, tight-knit crew around you?

Of course, a bigger budget would have helped us to implement bolder and more creative ideas, because in both III and Involution we have to think about money limitations first, only then can we further develop our ideas. With 5 million EUR we could afford to cast actors with well-known names, as well as construct film sets and use more advanced equipment for filming (cameras, lenses, cranes and other devices). This could help to bring in new ideas, new angles and to feel creative freedom to the fullest extent. But our production team would still be quite small, though very loyal.

How difficult is it to combine directing feature films with making music and touring? Is it something you'll be able to combine in the future or will you have to choose between one of the two (and if so, which one are you mostly likely to keep doing?)

This year my brother and I shut down our Moonbeam project that has successfully existed for 12 years, so now I have a little break just to fully engage myself in the creation of Involution. But after that I will once again return to music. I'm afraid I would never be able to choose just one thing, so I will find some way to combine those two .

Thu, 04 Aug 2016 09:23:39 +0000