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[Lazy Hazy Crazy/Yee-sum Luk]]>

It's quite rare to see Hong Kong do a coming of age drama, it's even rarer to see a Cat III film in this genre. Lazy Hazy Crazy [Tung Baan Tung Hok] finds itself somewhere in between the work of Heiward Mak and Ho-Cheung Pang, which isn't that surprising knowing that Yee-sum Luk is one of the few female directors working in Hong Kong while also serving as the screenwriter for a couple of Pang's latest films. Pang returned the favor and acts as a producer for Luk's first feature film. The result is quite interesting, to say the least.

screen capture of Lazy Hazy Crazy

While rare, Lazy Hazy Crazy is not quite unique. One year earlier Philip Yung directed May We Chat, a film that would make an awesome double bill with Luk's first. It explores very similar themes, although a little less graphically and from a different genre perspective. But putting them back to back, the differences quickly disappear and the similarities, especially taking into account both are Hong Kong films, will start to shine through. Hopefully Netflix will notice, because they already picked up May We Chat.

What makes Lazy Hazy Crazy stand out is the way it resembles a typical coming of age drama (think Heiward Mak's High Noon or Chi Y Lee's Beautiful Crazy). Going by the intro, this looks like a very innocent, sweet and sugar-coated view into the lives of Hong Kong teens, but the reality is pretty different. Luk's film is quite frank and open, not shunning away from tougher and more taboo subjects. So much in fact that it will probably raise a couple of eyebrows.

The story revolves around two friends (Tracy and Chloe) who befriend a third girl (Alice) at school. Alice is living by herself, abandoned by her father and mourning her deceised mom. To pay for food and shelter she goes on paid dates, usually with older men. Chloe is drawn to the life Alice is leading, while Tracy feels like she is being left out and substituted as a best friend. When Alice ends up dating the boy that Tracy has had her eye on for years, the friendship of the three is ripped to shreds.

screen capture of Lazy Hazy Crazy

Visually the film is on par with the more traditional coming of age dramas from greater China (which is a pretty high standard). Colors are crisp and summery, the camera work is breezy and dreamy (with a camera that constantly circles the film's main cast) and the editing is soft and lazy. It creates a very mellow, laid-back atmosphere, which makes for an interesting contrast with the onscreen drama. Above all though, it's just really beautiful to look at.

The soundtrack, again, is one of the weaker aspects of this film. There is some beautiful music here and it does strenghten the laid-back atmosphere of Lazy Hazy Crazy, but at the same time it's all so predictable. It's just a little bit too comfortable to be considered good, which is something of a returning problem for Hong Kong (and by extension Chinese and Taiwanese) films. I wish they tried something different for a change, on the other hand why bother as long as it is effective.

Nudity is still considered doubty in Hong Kong cinema and it can gravely taint the reputation of an actress (regardless of current stature), so it's remarkable that Luk found a cast that was willing to push the boundaries when needed. The main cast consists of mostly newcomers, which seeps through during the more dramatic moments, but overall the acting is on par and there's real chemistry between the three friends, which elevates the dramatic impact considerably. Secondary parts are good too, which a notable appearance by Susan Yam-Yam Shaw.

screen capture of Lazy Hazy Crazy

Much like Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Lazy Hazy Crazy finds a comfortable tone to talk about taboo subjects. It's not a coincidence both these films were directed by women, as they tend to have a more natural approach towards female sexuality. Having women behind the camera also helps to make the film's topics easier to discuss, without having to diverge into "creepy male director" debates. With a man in the director's chair a film like Hazy Lazy Crazy could've been quickly dismissed as a creepy male fantasy, with a woman there it can simply be an empowered coming of age drama.

For once, availability isn't a big issue either. People interested in Hong Kong youth culture and phenomena like the paid dating business should have no trouble finding this film with the proper subtitles. Luk shows she has talent as a director and delivers a powerful, confrontational yet endearing drama. Hopefully her talent is recognized and she isn't shot down for the unconventional choices she made here, because Hong Kong can use a director like her.

Tue, 17 Oct 2017 11:50:24 +0200
<![CDATA[Kill Zone/Wilson Yip]]>

Nowadays Wilson Yip is an established name with a series of critically acclaimed action films to his name, but when he first released Kill Zone [SPL: Sha Po Lang] he still had everything to prove. The first time I watched Kill Zone I was pleasantly surprised by the gritty action on display, but 12 years is a long time, especially in genre cinema. Needless to say I was looking forward to revisiting the film in order to find out if it was still as impressive. Luckily for me it didn't disappoint.

screen capture of Kill Zone

Hong Kong has faced extreme up and downs in its cinematic history. The 70s and early 90s were highly successful periods, while the 80s and late 90s were way much darker. Hong Kong picked itself up again during the early 00s and Kill Zone is one of those films to emerge from that resurrection. Yip himself spend most of the 90s honing his skills directing mediocre (but sometimes amusing) genre fodder, Kill Zone was one the first times his talent was allowed to flourish.

Kill Zone is a martial arts film, but not the regular Hong Kong kind. Yip even alludes to this halfway through, when he puts one of his characters in front of a King of Fighters (SNK) arcade machine. There is no streamlined and/or highly technical martial arts here, instead the film features a cast of skilled brawlers, each with their own fighting techniques and sporting a very distinct, individual look. It's as if the characters in Kill Zone were transported right out of SNK's flagship series.

The story revolves around a longstanding feud between Chung (a hardened police detective) and Wong Po (a local criminal). With Chung's retirement just days away, he undertakes one final attempt to nail Po for his heinous crimes. Meanwhile Ma Kwan (Chung's replacement) also gets swept up in Chung's desperate attempts to put Po behind bars. With a police force running rampant and a crime boss fighting back, nobody is safe anymore.

screen capture of Kill Zone

Visually the film has lost very little of its shine. Moody lighting, very cool camera angles and snappy editing make for a fast-paced action film with more eye candy than you might expect from a film like this. It's not very high-brow or high-class, nothing like the Chinese martial arts films that were making headlines around that same time, but it still looks pretty damn badass and the action in particular is shot with great care and precision.

The soundtrack is the traditional weak point of Hong Kong cinema and it's no different here. It's not such a bad score to be honest, but it's so ultimately forgettable that you have to wonder why they even bothered. It's functional and it does add some flair, mostly to the battle scenes, but there's really nothing beyond that. Just some music that function as wallpaper so your ears don't have to wonder why there's only dialogue interrupted by the sounds of fists hitting faces.

Casting-wise there's a lot more going on. Leading the film is Simon Yam, but it's the people surrounding him that made Kill Zone stand out. The role of Ma Kwan was given to Donnie Yen, a part that marked Yen's return as a viable actor in Hong Kong (a credit shared with 14 Blades). Even more notable is Sammo Hung's appearance, as he takes on the part of the film's villain. Hung rarely played the bad guy in his career, but clearly not for lack of talent. Finally fans of Jing Wu can warm themselves to one his first stand-out performances, kicking ass as one of Hong's henchmen.

screen capture of Kill Zone

It's not just the fighting style and the prime casting that turned Kill Zone into a niche masterpiece though. Yip delivers a surprisingly harsh film with A-listers dying left and right. There's no Hollywood sugarcoating here, though that doesn't mean Yip shuns sentimentality. The plot is still pretty corny, but the execution is quite relentless compared to Hong Kong standards. Cherry on the cake is the ultimate face-off between Yen and Hung. A marvelous martial arts scene that stands as one of the highlights of modern Hong Kong cinema.

Kill Zone is a modern martial arts classic. Yip assembled a phenomenal cast, revitalized the classic martial arts choreography, gave the film some visual polish and never flinched when the story dictacted his characters to die. It's not a film that transcends its niche, but it considerably upped the bar for all the action films that followed. And a good 12 years later, it's still heaps of fun. It's not hard to see why this film launched Yip into the top league.

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 11:42:47 +0200
<![CDATA[Two Pigeons/Dominic Bridges]]>

To create something near-original as a modern film maker is a tough challenge. Thousands of films are being made each year and although most of them are fine recycling older ideas, there's always a small group of films trying to deliver something the audience hasn't really seen before. Dominic Bridges's Two Pigeons (formerly known as Freehold) is a little like that, though it's the combination of subject matter and execution that sets this one apart. The result is fiendishly amusing though.

screen capture of Two Pigeons

Two Pigeons is a film that leans heavily on its core concept, which explains its rather short running time. It's really just a single idea expanded into a feature film, but the execution is spot on, mixing eeriness and suspense with a big fat smudge of dark comedy. Some might say it would've worked better as a short, but the build-up is pretty on point and it would mean ditching some of the more elaborate pranks. As a result though, the film is somewhat of a one-trick pony, but when a trick is executed this well that's hardly a point of critique.

The film is essentially a home invasion movie, but with a sneakier intruder. The concept is reminiscent of several other films, but none of them were executed quite like this one. There are traces of Bin-jip, Amelie, Dream Home, 2LDK and Jaume Balagueró's Sleep Tight, yet Bridges manages to twist the plot in such a way that the film never truly references any other films directly. It sorta kinda feels familiar, but it also feels like watching something entirely new.

The story revolves around Hussein, a real estate agent living a rather cozy life in a 2-bedroom apartment in London. He goes through his daily routines, but isn't quite aware of a second person living in with him. The man only comes out when Hussein is away for work or when he's sleeping. At first the second man seems only there out of necessity, but as time passes he starts to undermine Hussein's physical and mental health. The pestering gets progressively worse with each passing day and before long Hussein's life is slowly falling to pieces.

screen capture of Two Pigeons

Two Pigeons is a single-location film (quite literally, the camera never leaves the appartment, apart from the very last scene), but Bridges did his best to keep things visually interesting. The appartment is clearly a set (as some of the open wall/ceiling shots reveal), but it helped Bridges to be a bit more creative with his camera. The editing is tight and the use of color and lighting is pretty cool. It makes for a modern-looking film that may not make a big visual statement, but is easy on the eyes nonetheless.

The soundtrack is a collection of hip-hop and electronic-inspired instrumental tracks combined with more moody electronic for the creepier bits. It's nothing too out of the ordinary, but again it gives the film a fresh and easy-going flair that adds to the overall atmosphere. Bridges also keeps faithful to the typical British sounds, which, together with the thick London accents, give the film some spatial context. That's not too bad for a film that never ventures outside its four walls.

The cast is small, but picked with considerable care. Taking on the role of Hussein is Mim Shaikh, who turns his character into a goofy, somewhat miserable guy, yet manages to draw just enough sympathy from the audience. Not too much though, so his cruel punishment can still be shamelessly enjoyed. But the real star of the film is Javier Botet, one of the modern horror scene's most notable actors, yet virtually unknown to the public. It's nice to see him out of disguise for a change and he clearly grabbed this chance to prove he can do more than just look freaky on camera. The secondary cast is decent enough, but their parts are relatively negligible.

screen capture of Two Pigeons

The first hour of the film focuses on an increasingly nasty payback, though the audience remains mostly clueless as to why these things are happening. There are some short narrations (featuring the titular pigeons) that include small reveals, but apart from that there's very little to go on. Somewhat surprisingly, Bridges sprinkles his finale with heartfelt emotion, which makes the ending that much more interesting. Based on his personal experiences, the ending leaves a bitter aftertaste without ruining the shameless pleasure of the payback. A tricky feat that he pulls off with style.

Two Pigeons is a small delight. It's not a big, swooping movie, but it offers plenty of nasty smiles, some genuine wonder and a very balanced ending. The film looks and sounds modern, features a strong cast and doesn't outstay its welcome. It's just one of those little gems that pop up out of nowhere and might fly under the radar should you blink twice. So if you get the chance to watch this one, make sure you do. It's a pretty safe bet that might leave you with a personal favorite.

Tue, 10 Oct 2017 12:17:37 +0200
<![CDATA[Secret Fruit/Yi-chi Lien]]>

China's movie industry is booming and that ripple is felt well beyond its own borders. Hong Kong and Taiwan in particular are seeing a lot of directors making the jump, no doubt lured by a combination of better opportunities and bigger bugdets. The latest one to make the move is Yi-chi Lien, one of the young talents to have emerged from the latest Taiwanese renaissance. With Secret Fruit (Mi Guo), he takes a typical Taiwanese coming of age drama and moves it to China. The result is pretty great.

screen capture of Secret Fruit

It actually took me a while to realize Secret Fruit was Lien's film, as most online sources credited the director as Lian Yiqi. Different ways of transliteration have always made it tougher than necessary to keep track of Chinese artists and movies, a severe lack of English sources keeping up with the Chinese movie industry (Secruit Fruit isn't even on IMDb yet) doesn't make it any easier. Luckily I remembered the in-film credits listing a different name or I might have never known.

I might have suspected though, because Secret Fruit has all the bearings of a Taiwanese film. Even though directors and actors are quite interchangeable between the three Chinese industries (and crossovers happen regularly), each one has a very distinct style that sets itself apart from the others. Taiwanese cinema tends to be more subdued, less flashy and while not exactly subtle, at least a lot softer in tone. All the right ingredients for a proper coming of age drama in other words.

Secret Fruit is the continuation of a TV series, though the story is easy enough to follow without having seen the series first. It revolves around Mili and Duan, two childhood friends. As these things go, she loves him but he is looking elsewhere for affection. Duan has a crush on his teacher, but she is having romantic problems of her own. The characters keep twirling around each other and while the audience probably has no trouble predicting who's going to end up together, the characters themselves seem to be having a much harder time figuring things out.

screen capture of Secret Fruit

Lien's Make Up was superbly stylish and he brought that same sense of style to Secret Fruit. Impeccable use of color and lighting, strong camera work and amazing use of the various settings make for a lush-looking film. It sure helps when a tried and tested concept gives you some neat visuals to snack on while the story is slowly unfolding, luckily there's plenty of that here. Quite a few memorable moments are derived from the film's visual prowess and make a lasting impression.

The score might be a bit more divisive. The music is pretty typical for Asian dramas, with lots of pianos and strings dominating the soundtrack. It isn't exactly subtle either, but it does help to ground the atmosphere. If you're not taken with the characters and visuals, it's the kind of score that will quickly turn into sentimental dreck, but I really didn't mind it that much here. On the upside, the soft-spoken dialogue has a bigger impact on the overall atmosphere and adds a fine layer of melancholy that somewhat counters the boldness of the music.

Heading the film are Nana Ou-Yang and Oho Ou. Ou is quickly making a name for himself (he also took on the lead in Fist & Faith) and it's not hard to see why. It's Ou-Yang who has the most work here though, as Ou's character doesn't do too much beyond looking sullen and detached for the bigger part of the running time. Ou-Yang shoulders the dramatic part of Secret Fruit and delivers a fun, cheeky character with just enough depth. The supporting cast is nice too, though they are mostly just there to flesh out the lead characters.

screen capture of Secret Fruit

Secret Fruit is a coming of age drama/romance that politely asks its audience to allow it some slack for its frivolous romantic escapades and light-hearted drama. If you're not in the mood for the romantic woes of adolescents, this is definitely not a film for you. But if you don't mind a little trip back to a simpler time (that is of course, if you're 30 or above) Secret Fruit is a stylistic highlight that feels cozy and warm and charms its way from start to finish. It's not genre-bending cinema, but it's executed to near perfection.

Yi-chi Lien delivers another fine film. His move from Taiwan to China has zero impact on the end result s and unless you're familiar with the Chinese scenery present, chances are you won't even realize you're not watching a Taiwanese movie. Unless you're completely allergic to coming of age films with a strong injection of romantic drama, Secret Fruit is an easy recommend. Sadly the availability of this film is terrible (again), which may make it almost impossible to actually give this one a fair chance.

Tue, 03 Oct 2017 11:52:46 +0200
<![CDATA[Man on Fire/Tony Scott]]>

Tony Scott peaked with Domino, but the foundations of that film were laid in Man on Fire. The two films form a perfect double bill, though not for the faint of heart. Man of Fire is a raging action movie, a fast-paced visual assault that tests the boundaries of the acceptable. At least, that's how I experienced Man on Fire the first time around. That was more than 10 years ago though and so I was curious to see how Man on Fire held up after all this time. Just like Domino a couple of weeks earlier, Scott's little gem didn't disappoint.

screen capture of Man on Fire

Man of Fire is a film that still comes off as fresh and modern, though that's not just Scott's doing. The fact that almost nobody bothered to copy his peculiar stylistic approach is one of the main reasons this film has preserved rather well. Scott borrowed and expanded on the cinematic language of movie trailers and went on to build an entire movie out of that. While it earned Man of Fire plenty of novelty credits, it's clear that your average movie audience prefers a well-rounded narrative and proper, decent storytelling. Present company excluded of course.

Man of Fire is an adaptation of A.J. Quinnell's novel and follows a (rather obscure) late 80s adaptation of the same book. Scott moved the setting from Italy to Mexico (City) and mixed in some real-life Mexican cases to make the film a bit more topical. While the film hardly qualifies as socially relevant and/or important, there is a definite message here that Scott pushes through as much as he can. In the end though Man of Fire is very much an action/thriller that works best on a visceral level.

The film follows John Creasy, a former CIA operative who finds himself in Mexico, visiting one of his old pals. Creasy lacks a clear goal in life and his friend recommends taking on a job as a security guard in Mexico City, where kidnappers are running rampant. Creasy lands himself a job protecting Pita, a young American-Mexican girl who sees Creasy more as a friend than a bodyguard. It doesn't take long before Pita becomes the target of a lucrative kidnapping, what Creasy doesn't know is that the kidnapping is just the tip of the iceberg.

screen capture of Man on Fire

If you've seen Domino, you pretty much know what to expect. If not, watch a random Michael Bay trailer, quadruple that and imagine it smeared out over an entire film. There's an excess of color filters, edgey camera work and crazy camera angles, but the truly defining part of the visuals is the editing. Every scenes looks like it was fully deconstructed and put together again by someone with ADHD. For a film that relies on adrenaline and tension, that's not a bad thing though. Scott defended his approach by saying it reflects the mental stability of Creasy's character, but if you're sensitive to visual impulses that explanation isn't going to save the film for you. That said, I absolutely loved it.

The soundtrack isn't quite as crazy but the synchronicity with the images is remarkable and definitely adds to the overall atmosphere. The music itself is edgey enough, not too insane to scare people away but still well above the generic film score level. When there's a discotheque scene that is accompagnied by some actual, believable real-world dance music, you can tell that an above average amount of effort went into the soundtrack. Don't set your expectations too high, but Scott did well here.

Tony Scott counts on regular Denzel Washington to bring his lead character to life. Washington does what he does best and delivers an introverted but powerful performance. The contrast with the young Dakota Fanning couldn't be bigger, but that in part is the appeal of the lead duo. The secondary cast is good too, though a little expendable, except for Christopher Walken. His part isn't all that big, but he makes quite the impression in a very short span of time.

screen capture of Man on Fire

The second half of Man on Fire is mixing detective, revenge and thriller elements in order to make everything appear a little grittier. The film remains well within the boundaries of the expected, but there are some pretty brutal scenes, with very few cop-outs on Scott's side. Creasy's descent into the Mexican underground is not the most pleasant thing to watch, but his almost superman-like powers keep the film firmly grounded into action film territory. In the end, the entertainment value overshadows whatever message Scott was trying to push through, but seeing as subtlety isn't Hollywood's strong point, that's probably not a bad thing.

If you're looking for a traditional action flick or you're one of those people who loves to complain about the MTV aethetic of modern cinema, leave this film alone. Man on Fire is a film with very few stylistic compromises. Together with Domino it marks the highlight of Scott's career, an influence I feel is dearly missed in modern-day Hollywood. It's definitely not for everybody, but a little love/hate rhetoric never hurt the long-term survival chances of a film. If you like your action cinema over the top, make sure to give this one a try.

Thu, 28 Sep 2017 11:21:11 +0200
<![CDATA[Fires on the Plain/Shinya Tsukamoto]]>

It's been a while since I watched a new Shinya Tsukamoto film. Kotoko and Fires on the Plain [Nobi] were released just 3 years apart, but somehow Tsukamoto's latest got stuck in release limbo. Thankfully Third Window Films stepped up to the plate (again) and opened up the film to the English-speaking world. And it's a good thing they did, because Fires on the Plain is vintage Tsukamoto. True bulldozer cinema that lashes out violently and constantly, yet purposefully. It's the kind of film only Tsukamoto is able to make.

screen capture of Fires on the Plain

Tsukamoto has been very vocal about the fact that Fires on the Plain is not a mere remake of Kon Ishikawa's 1959 film, but rather a new adaptation of Shohei Ooka's book. I haven't seen Ishikawa's film, nor did I read Ooka's book, yet it shouldn't come as too big of a surprise that Tsukamoto simply did what he's known to do and made the material his own. While he borrows the premise from the original, he wanders off in a direction that cuts right into Tsukamoto territory, steering this film away from any potential remake discussions. Fans of the existing film and/or book shouldn't expect to see a faithful adaptation though.

When you strip everything away, Fires of the Plain is the umpteenth variation on the classic "war is hell" premise. There's some pretty stiff competition in that particular niche, with films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket towering above their competitors. But where those films are still framed in a somewhat comfortable and reassuring narrative (firmly taking their audience by the hand while slowly submerging them into chaos), Tsukamoto dives right in and smears out all the vileness over a period of 90 minutes. There are no breathers here, no easy way outs, just the grim and hellish surrealism of war.

The film starts with a sick soldier being cast out of his garrison. The nearby field hospital doesn't really want to care for him either as they're dealing with worse off patients, so with no place to go the soldier starts wandering around aimlessly. He has no rations, no companions and worst of all, no real purpose. On his trip through the Philippine jungle he encounters nothing but death and destruction. The few people who did survive the battles are either begging him to be killed or are scheming to kill the few remaining survivors. Slowly the soldier starts to lose his mind.

screen capture of Fires on the Plain

Tsukamoto's body of work is known for the overall intensity it harbours. The visual aspect has always played a substantial part in establishing that intensity and he's not changing course with Fires on the Plain. I do have to say that the overtly digital look isn't doing the film many favors. The colors and lighting are harsh, the framing appears a little random and at times the chaotic cinematography feels slightly out of control. Luckily the editing is top notch and the intensity remains very much intact, but Fires on the Plain isn't one of Tsukamoto's nicest-looking films.

The score too isn't Tsukamoto's finest. There are some odd musical choices that don't do much to help the film forward. It's a bit surprising, because Tsukamoto is known for incorporating strong and unique scores, which are a defining element in his overall aesthetic, but here it just never truly clicked. Luckily the sound design is outstanding, with lots of accentuated sounds adding an extra layer of surrealism to the film. It still makes for a dense and suffocating experience, it's just that there is some untapped potential.

The acting on the other hand is exquisite. It's not the first time Tsukamoto takes on the lead role in one of his own films, but he's really front and center in Fires on the Plain. A good thing then that it's probably his best performance to date. His descent into madness is quite simply horrifying. You can see his physical and mental state deteriorating, as the anguish of his existence grows more painful by the minute. It's a very physical performance, which goes well with Tsukamoto's style of acting. The rest of the cast isn't too bad, but none of them have truly substantial parts.

screen capture of Fires on the Plain

The challenge of Tsukamoto's Fires on the Plain is its utter disregard for direction and context. You're thrown into a story (/war), piggybacking onto a character who ends up being little more than a stand-in for the audience. He is clueless as to where to go, what to do or how to continue, but he's alive and not planning on dying. It's all about survival, but with no clear way forward some people are bound to feel a little helpless and lost. Fires on the Plain is a pretty demanding film, but the pay-off is all the better because of it.

This is not a very happy film, nor is it very subtle. The first 15 minutes are a little tough and disorienting, but as things get increasingly dire for Tsukamoto's character the film starts to really creep under your skin. Tsukamoto pushes through after that and Fires on the Plain might end up devouring some of its audience, but in the end that's exactly what this film was aiming for. Not as stylistically accomplished as some of his earlier work, but a dense and harrowing experience nonetheless. Comes highly recommended for fans of Tsukamoto, others might want to reconsider, or at least choose their timing wisely.

Tue, 26 Sep 2017 12:03:54 +0200
<![CDATA[Fist & Faith/Jiang Zhuoyuan]]>

Chinese cinema is booming. It's been steadily growing for the past 10-15 years or so and it's getting increasingly difficult to ignore. That said, the West is really trying its hardest to look the other way. A movie like Jiang Zhuoyuan's Fist & Faith shows plenty of potential for international success, but for some reason it's unable to catch a break outside China's borders. And that's a real shame, because if you're looking for something fun and creative with a darker edge, Fist & Faith is a solid bet.

screen capture of Fist & Faith

Not longer than twenty years ago, Chinese cinema was quite limited. Not that there weren't any good films around, but you'd be hardpressed to find much outside the realms of martial arts and social drama. Chinese directors had to rebrand themselves like crazy in a short period of time, which does make it considerably more difficult to navigate all the Chinese films being produced today. Suddenly there are blitzy comedies, haunted house horrors and crazy urban fantasies all fighting for attention, borrowing and copying from and adding to foreign influences.

Knowing all that, Fist & Faith still came as a pretty big surprise. The film finds itself somewhere stranded in between Crows Zero, Cromartie High and Scott Pilgrim vs The World, but still comes out its very own thing. The typical Japanese school gangs combined with the comic book aesthetic and the geeky comedy are a triple first for Chinese cinema, but Zhuoyuan does well to put it in a local (historical) context while making sure the presentation is slick and polished.

The film is set during Japan's occupation of Manchuria in the 30s. In order to colonize the Chinese, the Japanese are doing away with Chinese literature and are taking over their history classes. Underground book reading clubs are popping up left and right, but the Japanese are using school gangs to disrupt and disperse these gatherings. Jing Hao is one of the first Chinese students to stand up against the Japanese. He unites the different Chinese clans and vows to take on the Japanese oppressors.

screen capture of Fist & Faith

Visually there's a lot happening here and most of it is pretty neat. Even the less-accomplished CG shots carry a clear aesthetic and add to the overall atmosphere of the film. The comic book effects are very cool, the camera work is fun and creative and the use of color is bold and extravagant. Zhuoyuan is a younger director and it clearly shines through in the look of the film. Not every single effect and/or filter is successful, but overall the film looks superb and presents itself as both modern and stylish.

The soundtrack too is quite remarkable. Chinese films tend to play it safe when it comes to choice of music, but Zhuoyuan opts for a slightly more daring approach. Some hip-hop and dubstep influences bring a lot of extra energy to the film, not in the least because these aren't the typical soundtrack interpretations of said genres. The music here feels genuine and edgy and supports the scenes effortlessly, while adding a lot of extra flavor to the film. It's a great example of how a soundtrack can be both modern and impactful without sounding like a bad pop compilation.

The cast is also pretty on point. Jing Tian and Oho Ou carry most of the weight and do a solid job. There is some oustpoken comedy that might come off a little weird for those not used to the Chinese sense of humor, but the lighthearted first half of the film makes it pretty easy to cope with. Jiang Zhuoyuan deserves extra credit for casting a fine selection of Japanse actors (Meisa Kuroki and Kento Hayashi are perfect) to fill out the Japanese parts. While that may sound like an obvious thing to do, it wouldn't be the first film to use Chinese actors in Japanese roles.

screen capture of Fist & Faith

The first half of Fist & Faith is pretty casual. Bits of comedy, comic book silliness and romance brighten up a pretty simple plot. Halfway through it turns dark though and the second half of the film is a lot harsher. Things escalate quickly and characters end up dead, yet somehow the film manages to maintain its air of entertainment. It's a tough trick to pull off and the transition might not to be everyone's liking, but by the time Zhuoyuan starts his final act it felt like a natural progression of the story.

Fist & Faith is a film that isn't shy to pay tribute to its influences. From the 300-esque Crows Zero clan fight to the Scott Pilgrim-like introduction, Zhuoyuan borrows royally from a broad varity of films. The way he brings everything together though is quite unique, not in the least for a Chinese film maker. The result is a thorougly entertaining film that amuses, dazzles and delights. Getting your hands on it is going to be a tougher challenge, but I'm sure those willing to go the extra mile will find a way.

Wed, 20 Sep 2017 12:01:43 +0200
<![CDATA[Mother!/Darren Aronofsky]]>

When Darren Aronofsky releases a new film, I'm there. While the second part of his career has been a little hit and miss, even his flukes tend to be unique and different enough to warrant a trip to the theater. The first impressions of Mother! (mind the exclamation point) were bouncing between hype and severe negativity, luckily I mananged to stear clear of any spoilers or guidance. Just make sure you go into this one as blank as possible, it will only make the ride that much more impressive.

screen capture of Mother!

I don't really keep track of how many films I watch in theaters each year, but it's probably somewhere between 20 and 30. I do love the experience, but I rarely love the films. The last one I reviewed was Hardcore Henry and that was almost one and a half years ago. I'm actually a bit surprised they decided to release Mother! in cinemas here. It's a very divisive film and it's sure to leave some people confused, if not angry and cheated out of their money. I'm not complaining though.

I think it’s OK to be confused. The movie has a dream-logic and that dream-logic makes sense. But if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.

Mother! isn't a very literal film (as a reference: Aronofsky stated he drew influences from Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel). The symbolism is thick, layered and obvious, but explaining what exactly it's about is a lot tougher. More specifically: finding one, singular explanation that fits the entire film seems impossible. That's also what Aronofsky's above quote seems to allude to. Once you try to pigeon-hole the symbolism, it starts to fall apart real quick. Instead Mother! is an amalgam of ideas and allegories that both fight and feed off each other and end up becoming one big, feverish, visceral nightmare.

While watching I found myself jumping between different theories. The first act felt like an allusion to America's (and Europe's) refugee problems, later on the film reveals clear religious influences, but also a strong environmental message, an opinionated take on gender roles and politics and even strong allusions to the relationship an artist shares with his audience as well as the art he creates. Upon further reading, I also found a solid take that point towards the destructive effect of narcissism. In the end, none of those explanations feels truly fulfilling, yet all of them feel relevant.

screen capture of Mother!

On the visual side of things, Mother! is a pretty intense and demanding film. Aronofsky glues the camera to his characters and makes it their shadow. Even though the entire film plays in a single house, you never really get a solid grip on the place, as most of the frame tends to be eclipsed by its occupants. It leaves you grasping for straws and keeps you on your toes while you try and mentally map the setting together, though Aronofsky never grants you the release you're looking for. While not as rhythmic as some of Aronofsky's earlier work, nor as polished and slick-looking, the visuals sure are dense and overpowering and add a lot to the overall experience.

The music is mostly absent, but nonetheless the sound design is very much present and leading. Aronofsky builds his soundscapes in such a way that slightly filtered high-pitched tones keep edging themselves to the front, creating a very uneasy and foreboding atmosphere. There is a short rave scene where Aronofsky isn't afraid to crank up the BPMs, but that's about it. Music has always played a strong role in Aronofsky's films, so I guess it's a little surprising to see him ditch an entire soundtrack. Then again, it's nice to see he can play with different types of sound design while still making a distinct and valuable impact on his film.

Much has been said about the peculiar casting, but Aronofsky coached his actors to perfection. It's rare to see a cast this diverse (no, not in color) and so out of their comfort zone pull it together (I mean, Kristen Wiig, Ed Harris and Jennifer Lawrence featuring in a psychologic thriller), but each and every one puts in a strong and captivating performance. Quite an accomplishment with the camera so close to the actors, capturing every little twitch and grimace, but not a single one succumbs under the pressure. Bardem and Lawrence deserve the biggest accolades though and I wouldn't be surprised if it earns them some prizes.

screen capture of Mother!

Mother! is a film that toys with the expectations of its audience. The trailers marketed the film as a home invasion horror, but even that angle is flipped around by Aronofsky. While Lawrence's meticulously renovated home gets trampled on and destroyed by a group of outsiders, Lawrence is made out to be "the bad guy" while her husband acts as the ever-forgiving host. To see your own private world ruined by others while being unable to react in fear of social backlash is a particular kind of horror that I don't think I've ever seen before in film, but it's extremely enervating and infuriating, not to say extremely effective.

From there on out the films grows ever more grotesque. To say the second part derails is an understatement, but Aronofsky completely owns the direction Mother! takes. Some people are going to hate it, others will love it, but there's simply no way to stay unfazed by what Aronofsky puts in front of his audience. It's been a while since a film got me this tense and on edge and it's somewhat comforting to know something like that is still possible, even with 7000+ films behind me.

A film like Mother! is impossible to recommend, but it's also a film that needs to be experienced regardless of appreciation. There are no trailers or reviews that can prepare you for the onslaught of terror and chaos here, at the same time there is infinite potential for dissecting the film afterwards. It's a film that is tailored to allow for a thorough personal experience, while also talking about subjects that encompass the whole of humanity. One thing is sure, Aronofsky delivers the goods and reestablishes himself as one of the most talented and relentless directors of his generation.

Mon, 18 Sep 2017 12:11:00 +0200
<![CDATA[Iron Monkey/Woo-Ping Yuen]]>

A few weeks ago I revisited Corey Yuen's The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk, one of the absolute highlights of 90s martial arts cinema. Closely trailing Yuen's film is Woo-Ping Yuen's Iron Monkey [Siu Nin Wong Fei Hung Ji Tit Ma Lau], another prime example vying for the crown of best '93 Hong Kong martial arts feature. I'd seen the film a couple of times already and was looking forward to watching it once again, this time paying closer attention to how it compares to its peers.

screen capture of Iron Monkey

Woo-Ping Yuen is one of the all-time martial arts greats, though not an onscreen practitioner himself. He gained international fame when he was hired to do the action choreography for The Matrix, but films like Iron Monkey and Twin Warriors were no doubt the reason why he got noticed by the Wachowski's in the first place. Yuen often worked as a dedicated action choreographer for other directors' films, but he also directed quite a few movies of his own.

While you might expect these films to be complete action fests, one of the most distinguished features of Yuen's trademark style is his ability to merge martial arts with seemingly mundane tasks and/or slapstick comedy. In the case of Iron Monkey there's a very typical scene early on, where a pile of papers is blown away by a dash of wind, only to be retrieved by various fancy martial arts moves. Scenes like these are vintage Yuen and help to set his films apart from the competition.

The plot is as simple as can be and borrows royally from stories like Robin Hood and Zorro. Iron Monkey is a masked fighter who stands up for the poor and tries to redistribute the wealth in the town where he resides. He fights the local police and government, but finds himself in a pickle when both the righteous Wong Kei-Ying (father of the infamous Wong Fei-Hung) and a corrupt official visit his town. Iron Monkey befriends Kei-Ying, but when Fei-Hung is taken hostage and held as collateral, he must find a way to convince Kei-Ying to fight with him in order for justice to prevail.

screen capture of Iron Monkey

Visually it's pretty much on par with comparable genre films from that era. It looks a bit rushed and hastily put together at times, but quick successions of crazy camera angles and hyper tight editing make for a very pleasant visual experience. It's not simply aesthetic either, the editing plays a crucial part in the success of the action scenes. The choreography is so outrageous that the action scenes need to rely more on imagination than actual visual cues, which the editing fully supports.

With these kind of films, the music is rarely anything to write home about, but Iron Monkey's score is noticeably moodier. It's not as loud, generic or blatantly functional compared to similar scores, but it actually manages to inject some extra atmosphere here and there. If you're not familiar with the genre it may not be all that apparent (it's not like this is one of the absolute best scores out there) but it's a definite step up from what I've grown to expect and it should've made a great case for other films to follow in its footsteps. Clearly, that never really happened.

Even though I wached this film three or four times already, I keep forgetting that Donnie Yen isn't in fact playing the part of Iron Monkey. For some reason Iron Monkey is etched in my mind as "that film that features Donnie Yen instead of Jet Li" and because Iron Monkey is the titular character, Yen is somehow the obvious choice for the part. While in reality Yen is taking on the part of Wong Kei-Ying (no worries, he gets plenty of action) and Rongguang Yu was chosen for the part of Iron Monkey. Jean Wang (as Iron Monkey's assitant) and Shun-Yee Yuen (as the token bad guy) both shine in secondary roles.

screen capture of Iron Monkey

Iron Monkey serves a fine cocktail of comedy and action. Yuen's superb action choreography is sure to appeal to people even beyond the martial arts realm (the pole fight finale is simply sublime), the comedy on the other hand might be a tougher sell. Hong Kong comedy is rather specific and unless you've grown accustomed to it, it can present a real hurdle. Personally I'm a big fan of Yuen's blend of action and humor, but I'm sure not everything is going to appreciate it in equal measures. Then again, the martial arts antics are the clear focus of the film, so don't let that deter you from watching the film.

Iron Monkey is a film that doesn't disappoint. There's enough creativity, silliness and genuine love for the genre to keep me coming back for more. While the film suffers from the usual caveats, Woo-Ping Yuen adds just enough of a personal touch to make the film stand out from the crowds. It's no doubt a good entry film for people wanting to see more martial arts films, while being accomplished enough to hook even the most hardened fans. Definitely recommend, unless martial arts cinema isn't your thing.

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 13:30:39 +0200
<![CDATA[Residue/Alex Garcia Lopez]]>
Residue poster

I bumped into Alex Garcia Lopez' Residue completely by accident. I was looking up some info on Rusty Nixon's Residue (2017) when I suddenly ended up with a trailer of Lopez' film. A happy coincidence, as Lopez' Residue turned out to be a sleek and well-directed genre effort. It may not be winning prizes for originality anytime soon, but Lopez more than makes up for it with stylish and headstrong direction.

Residue combines equal doses of mystery, horror and thriller, with some small extras of scifi and fantasy. That's quite a handful of genres, but at its core it's really just an outbreak film that shuffled some details around in order to avoid becoming yet another basic zombie flick. And with great success I should add, because Residue never feels like the 28 Days Later knock-off it could've been. Instead it reminded me more of Spectral, though a bit more low-key in execution.

The plot revolves around a New Years eve discotheque bombing that compromises an old military facility. A contamination spreads from the facility and a perimiter is set up around the distaster area, completely closing off the heart of the city. Time passes and normal life resumes, but for some reason the government has trouble clearing up the infected area. People are starting to suspect there's something the government isn't telling them and when a city photographer starts seeing weird shapes and shadows in her pictures, she vows to dig up the truth.

Residue is a film that lives through the atmosphere it conjures. It's a pretty dark and brooding film and the styling reflects that. Flashing neon signs are pretty much the only sources of color, the city looks bleak and abandoned and the contamination pushes people to pull off some pretty horrible stunts. The film also features a pretty banging soundtrack, with strong ambient and industrial influences, that only fortifies the desolate atmosphere. The underground club scene is a superb culmination of all these elements and stands as the highlight of the film.;

I guess some people were taken aback by the bleak atmosphere of Residue, on top of that Lopez leaves a lot to the imagination of the viewer. While the setting is properly established, the film offers little in the way of explanations. The source of the contamination is never revealed, neither is its exact nature. This may be because Lopez was planning to expand on his premise in a future TV series, but I actually believe that it works in favor of the film. It won't be easy coming up with a decent, let alone imaginative explanation for everything that's happening, so leaving it unresolved was probably the best solution.

If you like dark, moody outbreak films than Residue is a very easy recommend. If you demand closure and relief from a film though, it's probably best to skip this one. Still, I hope Lopez will return with a second film (though not necessarily a sequel), because he clearly has the talent to construct intriguing worlds that ooze atmosphere. Residue is a little gem that deserves to be seen by more people.

Mon, 11 Sep 2017 11:30:00 +0200
<![CDATA[Love Off the Cuff/Ho-cheung Pang]]>

After a little time-out, director Ho-cheung Pang finally resumes his journey with Love Off the Cuff [Chun Jiao Jiu Zhi Ming], the third entry in his esteemed Love series. The first two films were rather atypical Hong Kong romances that successfully combined drama, comedy and romance while aiming for a more natural and slighty raunchier approach. Like most Hong Kong projects these days Pang's latest has Chinese funds backing the film, so it wasn't entirely clear whether Pang would be able to retain the series' unique flavor. Worry not though, he succeeded in keeping the spirit of the first two films alive.

screen capture of Love Off the Cuff

While different in atmosphere and execution, Pang's Love films remind me of Richard Linklater's Before series quite a lot. The setup is pretty similar, with a central couple being followed throughout different stages in their lives. Pang's timeline may be a bit more concise and the tone in Pang's Love films might be a little cheekier, but each installment in the series is meant to handle a different phase in their relationship. An approach that allows Pang to make sequels that aren't exact copies of the previous films, as the evolution of the story and characters is exactly what drives each new film.

The first film saw Cherie and Jimmy meet up for the very first time, the second one handled their separation while they each went their own way. If you haven't seen Puff and Buff already it's probably best to watch them before starting on Cuff, though Cuff really isn't that hard to enjoy when not having watched the earlier installments. You'll miss some background story and references of course, but Love Off the Cuff is by and large a stand-alone entry that doesn't rely on past events to make its point.

The film catches up with Cherie and Jimmy enjoying their time together. There are the usual hiccups and quibbles every relationship faces, but things are genuinely looking up for the two. That is, until Cherie's father reenters her life. He's planning to remarry a much younger woman and when Cherie starts comparing Jimmy to her dad doubt starts creeping back into their relationship. Cherie questions Jimmy's ability to care for her and give her the emotional comfort she craves, while Jimmy is battling himself to leave his more carefree life behind.

screen capture ofLove Off the Cuff

When watching a Ho-cheung Pang film, there's always the expectation of some visual showmanship. Even while working in the romantic/drama genre (not exactly known for its visual appeal), Pang makes sure to put a lot of work into the visual presentation of his films. Love Off the Cuff is no exception. Lighting and framing are both exquisite and the city of Hong Kong gets a very prominent role as the background in which this romantic drama unfolds. The icing on the cake are several memorable shots that linger long after the credits have faded from view.

The soundtrack on the other hand isn't memorable at all, to the point where I had to skip through the film again just for reviewing purposes. It makes little to no impression and while that means it's not exactly irritating either, it does highlight Hong Kong's lingering problem with undervaluing the strength of a good score. While there are exceptions (like Johnnie To's and Wong Kar Wai's films), they are few and far between. And even though a romantic drama may not benefit the most from a strong soundtrack, it's still a glaring omission in the overall presentation.

Luckily the acting is up to par. Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue are a fine screen couple and are clearly feeling comfortable playing their characters. Their evolution throughout the films feels natural and even though they have a glossier side to them, the level of realism is high enough for the drama to make an actual impression. The secondary cast is decent too though mostly absent, with the exception of Paul Chun who puts in a good performance as Yeung's estranged father.

screen capture of Love Off the Cuff

While drama and romance are the clear focus of Love Off the Cuff, there's still enough goofiness left to set it apart from purer genre efforts. In between the perils of Jimmy and Cherie, Pang finds time to do a short horror introduction and a fun alien/ufo intermezzo. And while the Chinese injection of capital is slightly noticeable for those in the know, there's still enough crude dialogue and comedy left to keep it in line with the two earlier films. Love Off the Cuff is still very much vintage Pang.

If you're unfamiliar with Pang's Love series, do yourself a favor and watch the other films first before starting on Love Off the Cuff. Once you're up to speed, Cuff is a very easy recommend. The film is up to par with the earlier films while still being different and distinctive enough to avoid turning into a cheap, cash-obsessed sequel. For someone who missed Pang's output in the past couple of years, it's a fine reunion with a director who hasn't lost his touch and still stands as one of the top Hong Kong directors of this generation.

Thu, 07 Sep 2017 11:36:27 +0200
<![CDATA[Casshern/Kazuaki Kiriya]]>

When Kiriya debuted Casshern in 2004, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the film. Kiriya had made a name for himself directing music videos, the trailers looked lush and it was Japan's first full-digital feature film, so people were expecting a smash hit. But reviews were all over the place and it quickly became apparent that Casshern wasn't as audience-friendly as its trailers had suggested. I really liked it the first time I watched it, yet I wasn't all that confident that it would still hold up after all this time. To my own surprise though, I ended up loving it even better the second time around.

screen capture of Casshern

Kiriya's film is a loose adaptation of Neo-Human Casshern, a 1973 anime series. I never got to watch the original, but it's pretty clear from just looking at the two that Kiriya's vision didn't keep too closely to the source material. The original series itself was based on a manga and received an OAV treatment in the 90s. After Kiriya's Casshern the franchise was rebooted with another animated series, which in its turn spawned a new manga adaptation. Just to say that Casshern is part of a greater franchise, though separate entries can easily be enjoyed as stand-alone works as the cohesion between different entries isn't all that great.

Casshern is a stand-alone story with a clear start and ending. There's no movie franchise- type cliffhanger that suggests sequels or follow-up episodes, instead Kiriya crammed an entire story arc in one single film. 141 minutes isn't exactly short for a movie, even so the pacing is extremely high and you've got to stay focused if you want to keep track of what is going on. It's all quite epic with lots of rises, falls and origin stories stacked on top of each other, making for a pretty dense film.

The plot revolves around a special gen exploited by doctor Azuma, a workaholic scientist, set in retro-futuristic post-war world. The program is funded by the government in order to grant its people eternal life, but when things go wrong it yields an alternative race of neo-humans. Chaos ensues and the neo-humans plan on taking over the planet. The only one able to stop them is Casshern, the born-again son of doctor Azuma. The bottom line is a classic tale of small-scale drama with epic consequences.

screen capture of Casshern

Even though there's a lot of plot to wade through, Casshern never feels like an overly narrative film. Kiriya is a very visual director and he worked Casshern as if it was his one and only shot at film making. There's a lot of post-production work with lots of CG settings and a large arsenal of visual filters. Not all of it is up to par, in fact some of the CG is downright poor, but the overall effect is nothing short of impressive. The combination of bright, strong colors, superb camera work and sharp editing makes for a true visual feast and Kiriya's dedication to keep it going for the full 140 minutes is laudable.

The soundtrack is less distinctive. It's not a terrible score, but it's little more than a whole lot of noise, with the sole purpose of keeping the adrenaline pumping. It's a mix of rock, electronic and pop that blends into the background without much resistance. There are a few moments where it got loud enough for me to take notice (mostly during the action scenes) but even then it wasn't very memorable. It's just filler, but seeing how the visuals dominate the film I wasn't too disappointed.

The cast consists of familiar faces, with Yusuke Iseya taking up the role of Casshern, Kumiko Aso acting as his love interest and Akira Terao transforming into the (mad) doctor. With smaller parts for Hidetoshi Nishijima, Susumu Terajima and Mayumi Sada there's no lack of star power on board. While the cast as a whole does a pretty solid job, there isn't too much room to shine for them and none of the characters are extremely memorable, then again that didn't seem to be Kiriya's main goal here.

screen capture of Casshern

Casshern is a film with a rigid focus on visual storytelling, while still being extremely fast-paced and narratively dense. It's too artistic to be catering to commercial audiences, at the same time it's too silly and over-the-top to please arthouse fans. That leaves genre fans, but Kiriya isn't too interested in sticking with genre clichés either and fans of the original may not be too happy with the way this update strayed from the original. That leaves the film stranded in a somewhat awkward no man's land, where it doesn't really come with a built-in audience but has to win over each fan one by one.

While Kiriya does his best to make that happen, his approach simply isn't popular enough to turn Casshern into a universally revered film. In general, film fans seem to prefer narratively clear and expansive films rather than aesthetic rollercoasters. I'm a fan of the latter though, so Casshern is right up my alley. And as time continues to mask the film's technological shortcomings, its aesthetic prowess only grows bigger. Casshern looks great, it's lots of fun and it's fast-paced from start to finish. It's not a very easy film to recommend, but it's a film that deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Thu, 31 Aug 2017 11:27:54 +0200
<![CDATA[Good Take!/Various]]>

It's no secret that I have a soft spot for anthology films. Hong Kong isn't too keen on producing them though, so when I heard about Good Take! I was keen to find out how they fared. Luckily the result wasn't too shabby. Good Take! offers a nice mix of young talent and seasoned veterans eager to prove that Hong Kong cinema has more up its sleeve than a slew of genre films. As such, it's a great starter film for people not yet familiar with Hong Kong cinema.

screen capture of Good Take!

I was pleased to learn the project was helmed by Eric Tsang, an omnipresent force in Hong Kong cinema and someone who isn't afraid to give young talent a chance. He may not be the best actor or best director of his generation, but it's impossible to overestimate his influence on the industry as a whole. Good Take! is a collection of shorts which all take place in and around Macau, apart from that there's not much of a common theme. Genre and styles differ greatly between the films, which means lots of variety but little coherence.

Kicking off the anthology is Kwok Cheung Tsang's Concrete. Kwok Cheung is in fact Eric Tsang's very own son, but his short provides ample proof that his presence is more than just a friendly pat in the back from dad. Concrete is a slick, tight and slightly macabre little horror short that packs quite a punch. The cinematography and use of color are outstanding, the acting is on point and even though it's not the most original horror story, the atmosphere is there and all combined it works wonders. A confirmation of all the good things Tsang showed in Lover's Discourse. 4.0*/5.0*

Second in line is Henri Wong's A Banquet. Wong is a seasonsed special effects guy, but surprisingly his short is the most modest of the bunch. It tells a pretty timid story about a father and son on their way to a party. While the presentation is nice enough, with a humorous videogame tie-in, the plot is a little meandering and the finale isn't as powerful as Wong would've hoped. It's not a bad short, but it is the least memorable of the bunch and the only one that felt a little pointless. 3.0*/5.0*

screen capture of Good Take!

Dead center in the anthology is Chun Wong's Good Take, the darkest of the five. It's a short with two distinct sides to it, though still narratively connected. It's a strange setup as time is limited and each concept probably could've worked as a separate short, but Wong does find a way to connect both without losing too much momentum. On the one hand this is a tale about a man unable to let go of his deceased wife, on the other a story about a violent hold-up. It's well realized and it does hold a lot of promise, but ultimately it's not really clear why these two different ideas where stuffed into a single short. 3.5*/5.0*

Every anthology needs that one standout short, in Good Take!'s case that's Lung-Ching Yeung's The Solitudes. Yeung is a fresh talent with no traceable earlier work in the industry, but what he delivers with The Solitudes should be more than enough to launch his career. The film looks lush, with great color work, some snappy editing and a soundtrack tailored to the visuals. The story is pretty dark too, about the revenge of a nurse turned prostitute (Cherrie Ying) on the one seducing her to make the career switch (Sam Lee). The Solitudes is fact-paced, great-looking and has a superb ending, hopefully Yeung won't take long to start working on his first feature film. 4.5*/5.0*

screen capture of Good Take!

The final short is directed by Ching-Po Wong (Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, Revenge: A Love Story), the most accomplished director of the bunch. We Are Ghosts starts off as a pretty basic, run of the mill horror romp, but turns into a fun little tongue in cheek comedy real fast. It's comedy aimed at genre fans, but with enough broader appeal as to not alienate the rest of the audience. With names like Stephen Fung and Charlene Choi, We Are Ghosts also has the biggest star power, but quality-wise it can't best Lung-Ching Yeung's film. Still, a fun and amusing closing act of this anthology. 4.0*/5.0*

Good Take! is a fine collections of shorts. Macau is a superb setting and each director manages to bring something unique to the table. Not all shorts are up to par, but there are no bad eggs and even the lesser short have something interesting to add. If you're not into anthologies and you prefer coherence, Good Take! probably isn't going to sway you, but if you want to explore Hong Kong's upcoming talent and you don't mind shifting gears from time to time, then this one comes well recommended. And for those who just can't get enough, there's also a second part aptly titled Good Take Too!

Thu, 24 Aug 2017 11:38:10 +0200
<![CDATA[Domino/Tony Scott]]>

The first time I watched Tony Scott's Domino the film didn't quite blew me away, nonetheless I was happily surprised to see its relentless stylistic approach. It's not often you come across a Hollywood film that has the audacity to dazzle its audience with style over substance. I was quite curious to see how and if that style had held up over time, so I gave the film a second run. Once again the film managed to win me over, though I couldn't really help but wonder how that reflects on the overall quality of Hollywood's output.

screen capture of Domino

For much of his career, Tony Scott made light, easily digestible yet entertaining Hollywood fare. Halfway through the 00s something clicked though, triggering him to turn up the volume and go all out. Both Man on Fire and Domino stand as outliers in Scott's oeuvre, still going for the same tried and tested storylines put packaging them into a decidedly more modern and outgoing exterior. It's as if Scott tried to carry on the legacy of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, something I can definitely appreciate.

The film is based on real-life bountyhunter Domino Harvey, who died the very same year Scott's film was released. Together with Richard Kelly (of Donnie Darko fame) Scott condensed her life story into a 2 hour film that revolves around a single case gone wrong. Like most Hollywood adaptations, there is quite some leeway when it comes to the realism of the portrayal, but Scott did consult with Domino and her fellow bounty hunters extensively while producing the film.

The film is set up as a post-event narration, with Domino being questioned by the FBI about a money bust gone awry. It's an easy and useful setup that allows Scott to go through the key events while at the same time filling in the blanks regarding Domino's past when necessary. There's quite a lot of material to go through, with many marginal characters and plot deviations that add little beyond dragging out the running time. Luckily Domino is more about style than it is about substance so the film itself never really feels slow or ill-paced.

screen capture of Domino

Scott says the style of the film was heavily influenced by the excessive cocaine use of the bounty hunters. Whatever excuse works for Scott, I just wish there were more films that were into the visual storytelling on display here. Rapid editing, rampant cameras, a myriad of filters and a harsh oversaturated color palette turn Domino into a visual onslaught that knows no Hollywood equal. It's definitely not for everybody, with many complaining about suffering from nausea (heh) and headaches (myeah) just from watching the film, but I'm definitely in favor.

The soundtrack too is pretty processed, with some of the dialogues receiving an almost sample-like treatement. The music itself consist of pretty basic but effective high-octane tracks, but in combination with the visuals and dialogues it creates a very clear and definite rhythm that reminded me of Pi. Not in the way it actually sounds (as Pi's soundtrack is more electronic-oriented) but definitely in the way the sound fits into the film. I just wish more films would put this much effort in the way the music and dialogue blends in with the rest of the film.

Portraying Domino Harvey is Keira Knightley, a somewhat suprising choice that paid off quite favorably. Based on her other work I wouldn't have given 2 cents for her casting, but she's remarkably edgy and kick-ass when need be. The same can be said about the rest of the cast, especially Rourke (who I usually can't stand) and Christopher Walken. There's a slew of fun cameos too, ranging from Macy Gray and Mena Suvari to Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green (both of Beverly Hills 90210 fame - playing themselves) and Scott gets bonus points for adding Lucy Liu as the FBI inspector.

screen capture of Domino

Domino is obviously a bit much for most people. If you're hung up on narrative clarity or still reference MTV music videos when valuing a film, I'm pretty sure this is going to be a rather painful experience. From start to finish, Scott keeps the pace high, never putting in any breathers and never dialing back the overall intensity. Domino is an audiovisual trip, but still hooked into the Hollywood DNA. There is a narrative and a strong focus on plot progression, it's just drowned out by stylistic prowess.

Sadly, this was just a little phase for Scott and Hollywood wasn't immediately inspired to follow in his footsteps. Personally though I think it's still one of the few great films to come out of America's big film circus. Domino is loud, bold and in your face, but it's also fun and entertaining while staying clear from Hollywood's usual pitfalls. It's a movie with balls, with a strong female lead and a very clear sense of style. If you're in the mood for something different and you don't mind style over substance, be sure to give this one a chance.

Thu, 17 Aug 2017 12:19:35 +0200
<![CDATA[Hideaki Anno/x10]]>
Hideaki Anno

Hideaki Anno is one of the rogue forces that shaped the anime industry in the 80s and 90s. He's best known as the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but he's had a much richer career so far than most people appear to realize. In the early 80s Anno was picked up by Miyazaki to work on Nausicaa as an animator. That same year Anno would cofound Studio Gainax, one of the leading animation companies during the 90s. As a director Anno first got noticed when he released Gunbuster, a short but fun OAV that followed a bunch of young, female mech cadets. But it wasn't until Anno directed Evangelion in '95 that his fame exploded. Evangelion is still considered one of the all-time landmark anime releases and while personally I'm not a big fan, it's simply impossible to ignore its impact on Japanese animation (and international geek culture as a whole).

Anno's first steps into feature film territory were directly related to Evangelion. The End of Evangelion was a rework of the series' finale (to clear some thing up, as people were quite confused by the way the original series ended), Death & Rebirth is an almost abstract compilation of the entire series into a single film. While these are interesting additions to the Evangelion universe, they offer very little to people who weren't too impressed by the original series.

With the whole world going mad over Anno's creation, the man himself surprised friend and foe when he decided to make a 180, suddenly turning to live-action cinema. Love & Pop was his first attempt and turned out to be an interesting experiment, with Anno tirelessly exploring the different possibilities of live-action cinema. The film itself is a little uneven, but it was already clear back then that Anno wasn't interested in simply copying existing conventions. He made that even clearer when he followed it up with Ritual [Shiki-Jitsu], a beautiful, creative and original drama that still stands as one of my all-time favorite films. As an added bonus, the film features director Shinji Iwai as one of the lead characters. It may be somewhat of a challenge to track down, but it's definitely worth the effort.

But Anno isn't one to get stuck in a particular niche, so from there on out he went back to animation, directing the somewhat obscure Submarine 707R and following it up with a Cutie Honey revival (consisting of an animated anthology and a live-action feature film). The animated anthology (Rec: Cutie Honey) is definitely the stand-out of the two, but I'm sure that had more to do with Hiroyuki Imaishi's involvement. The live-action feature is a pretty cheesy anime adaptation, quite cheap and childish and only worthwhile if you're a big fan of the original series.

In 2007 Anno finally returned to the series that brought him his fame. With three new feature films spread out over 5 years, Anno set out to reimagine Evangelion for a third (and final?) time. The first film is pretty tame and remains quite close to the original series, only adding some improved animation. But part 2 and 3 is where things get more interesting. Anno went for a more dynamic and exuberant visual style and really upgraded the films in such a way that they became true stand-alone entries in the Evangelion franchise. They may still cling to the original storyline, but the experience of watching them is quite different and in fact marks the first time I managed to actually enjoy something Evangelion-related.

Not too long ago Anno set out to reboot the Gojira franchise, together with up and coming director Shinji Higuchi. The result was Shin Gojira, a fun and worthy addition to the long-running Gojira franchise that didn't quite reinvent the series, but did showed enough potential for possible future remakes. At the very least, it's a lot better than what their Western counterparts are currently up to with the Gojira franchise. Up next is the fourth and final instalment in Anno's third Evangelion reboot, though no specific date is set for that one.

Even though Anno's name will forever be tied to the Evangelion franchise, he has a much wider range than most people give him credit for. Evangelion is a curse and a blessing, though ultimately it allowed Anno to venture out and do what he wants to do, with surprisingly little restraint, which is something I'm sure many other directors are quite envious of. Not everything he touches turns into gold, but it's always interesting and often surprising to see where he goes next.

Best film: Ritual [Shiki-Jitsu] (5.0*)
Worst film: Evangelion: Death & Rebirth [Evangelion: Shito Shinsei] (1.5*)
Reviewed films: Ritual
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)

Thu, 10 Aug 2017 11:42:04 +0200