personal blog - onderhond.com http://www.onderhond.com/blog/personal 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 underdog@operamail.com (Niels Matthijs) <![CDATA[Patrick Ryan - Darkness on the Edge of Town/An Interview]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/patrick-ryan-interview-darkness-edge-town

Two weeks ago I watched Darkness on the Edge of Town, expecting a run-of-the-mill horror flick. But Patrick Ryan's firstborn surprised me, so much in fact that I wanted to ask him a couple of questions about his first feature film. We talked about looking beyond established scriptwriting rules, the importance of a good score and the difficulties of getting your film made as an first-time director. You'll find all that and more below.

Patrick Ryan on Darkness on the Edge of Town

Niels Matthijs: The opening 10 minutes of Darkness on the Edge of Town are pretty spectacular. First impressions are important and for many people it will be the first time they come into contact with Patrick Ryan, the director. Was that a factor, or did you simply feel the film needed an opening like that?

Patrick Ryan: Thank you; it was a little of both I think. At the time I was surrounded, am still surrounded actually, by independent films that just sound like radio. Endless talking. Those silent ten minutes were kind of like, "hey, watch THIS"; a bit of bravado. But I think it's important tonally too, and something I find the most interesting to direct. It also has the benefit of being a throwback to old Westerns; like the waiting on a train at the start of "Once Upon a Time in the West", which fit in with what we were trying do.

There is no dialogue in those first 10 minutes and just 5 minutes in the audience is watching the key scene. Weren't you worried that this might require a little too much focus on the audience's part, leaving them struggling throughout the rest of the film?

That's always a danger, you're right; I think my reasoning at the time was, if they're with us at the opening, we've got them the whole way. If not, they're probably not going to enjoy the rest of the film anyway. But I think some people sit up straight with that scene and think, "that's the murderer? So what the hell's going to happen now"? Which is exactly where you want them. It was a bit of a gamble, but hopefully it paid off for some of the audience.

Give this setup to any other scriptwriter and the film would've ended up a whodunit, with the killer revealed in the final act. I felt it was quite daring to forego all that, even the key scene itself is shot in such a way that any notion of a possible twist is nipped in the bud. Where did you get the idea to structure the film like this?

The film was never structured as a "whodunit", even from the first draft. That approach was totally disinteresting to me. I was more interested in writing about the reactions and the decisions the characters made in the fallout of the murder. It creates a different kind of tension during the events and in the audience. It allows you to control the pace a little more too; the audience aren't going to have much patience and follow you into the quieter moments if they're only concerned with who killed the girl. As a device, it came directly from the Greek Tragedies and Shakespeare, namely "Othello". We were studying them in film school, and I thought, well, that's kind of interesting. How come screenwriters don't do that more?

The structure of the plot probably violates a whole lot of scriptwriting rules and I read that you had to defend your choice more than once. My gut feeling tells me that film in general could benefit more from breaking such rules. Do you feel film schools may be a little too restrictive at times?

I think film schools are what you make them. You take what's useful and discard the rest. I've had teachers say the most useless things to me and also had teachers say the most enlightening. I also think schools are restrictive in terms of conforming you to a certain style, which inevitably involves shaky cameras, plotless scripts, social messages and crying actors. I don't know why, but that seems to be the stuff they favour. I mean, people don't initially go to film school because they want to make that meandering shit, they go because they love Tarantino. I think that initial passion gets lost along the way somewhere for most people.

When I read up about the things that influenced you when making this film I was surprised how broad those influences were. From Shakespeare to Westerns, from the Sopranos to Evangelion. Even so, Darkness on the Edge of Town is a very tight, coherent film. Did you have to keep yourself in check to make sure things didn't spin out of control or did that come about naturally.

I remember there was a lot of spiraling out of control during the script stage; that's when you have to keep a grip on your influences and decide what kind of story you really want to tell. Even so, I think you can see the Sopranos and Evangelion in "Darkness" if you look for them. But once the script was locked, I moved to visual influences, which are much easier to keep in check, because you're restrained by the needs of a scene. The script hardly changed at all during shooting, we couldn't afford to. Also, once you start bringing in the key crew you've got to look like you know what you're doing. These are smart people, and they're not going to follow you into the woods if they sense you don't really know the way back out.

I've seen the film being categorized as 'horror', but there's clearly a lot more going on, from the Western impulses to strong dramatic undercurrents. How would you categorize it?

I think I would call it a neo-Western. But I've seen it called a lot of things; drama, thriller, horror, revenge drama, western; and I kind of like the fact it's hard to pin down. Whatever someone thinks of the film, at least we didn't make something generic.

A lot of first time directors start off by making a horror film, I guess because it's not as demanding a genre (most fans don't mind, sometimes even demand clichés, you don't need A-grade actors, ...). Clearly you aimed a little higher than that. What prompted you to make a dark film like this?

I was hoping to make something that nobody had seen before. Part of the reason for the film's success, I think, is its identity. If you're looking for it, you can see the budget limitations here and there on "Darkness", but I think its identity carries it through. When it comes to your first no-budget film, identity is the only weapon you have, really. I remember about a week into shooting, a few of the crew started making little scenes where they spoofed the film and the two lead characters, just for fun. And I recall saying to Tommy at that time, "I think we've got something here". Because to have someone do an impression of you usually means you're doing something distinctive. So despite the fact that they were ripping my scenes to shreds, I was quite encouraging.

You and Tommy Fitzgerald have your own production company (Lagoon Pictures Ltd), which I guess allows you a certain degree of freedom to make the films you want to make. Money is always an issue though, so how far do you think you'd be willing to go when a big studio comes knocking on your door?

I suppose it would depend on the project. I'm certainly not anti-studio; there are a couple of franchises I'd happily take a crack at if the big lads came knocking. But the total freedom we had on "Darkness" was fantastic, and something I doubt we'll have again. I didn't have to implement a single note from anybody unless I thought it was a good idea. In terms of translating a vision, it will probably be the most pure film I ever make.

How important was it for you that you were already familiar with part of your crew before you started shooting?

Pretty important I think, especially in the case of "Darkness", where the whole thing was hanging by a thread; you have to make sure they're people you trust, and in terms of having a shorthand with them, it's invaluable. For example, I've been working with Tommy for years; he doesn't need me looking over his shoulder the whole time, he knows what I like and I know his ideas are more often than not going to be great for the film. I think it led to a more unified, cohesive film. As a director, you have to remain fluid on a low-budget shoot; you've got to confront challenges and obstacles most days and constantly reframe the script around them to see if it can still work. That's a lot easier to do when you're working with people you know and trust.

Did that same familiarity hold you back at times? It's quite a dark, grim film, so I imagine that switching back and forth between shooting and having a laugh in between may not have been the easiest thing to do.

You'd be surprised; we made a "making of", and from that it looks like we were all just fucking about half the time. The crew was holed up together in a couple of houses, so you immediately start to feel like a little unit. A couple of days towards the end of the shoot, people started to fray, but all in all, it wasn't tough to have fun. The crew was full of smart, funny people, and anyway, the amount of stuff that blows up in your face on a day-to-day basis, you've got to face it all with levity. Actually, our van windscreen literally blew up one day. Everyone was still smiling.

Some directors make it into a sport to work with as many different people as possible, others stick with a trusted inner circle for most of their career. Which way do you see yourself evolving?

I'd be more than happy to work with the same key creative team for the foreseeable future. I can't imagine not going to Tommy (Cinematographer), Alex or Conor (Fitzpatrick, Editor) when something comes up. They all bring a lot to the table in terms of creativity and I enjoy working with each of them, so I'll be bringing them along to the next feature, if they're available. In terms of actors, I'd like to work with a large variety, but obviously, certain people stand out. Brian Gleeson is one, and we're hoping to work together again. Brian is world class. I'm hoping to get the next film out of him before Hollywood notices.

I read that you like to write on a train with a song stuck on repeat. Does that mean you already have a score in mind when you're writing, or is the music just needed to put you in the zone?

Not a score so much as just music that triggers something. And that could literally be any song, there's no rhyme or reason that I can tell. But some songs, in my mind, are inherently cinematic. And they're the ones that seem to bring out the good ideas, even though most of the time I know there's no way that specific song will be used in the film. And I should explain that screenwriting, to me, has very little to do with physically writing stuff down, but does have a lot to do with firing up your imagination while staring out of a train window.

Even though Darkness on the Edge of Town is visually striking, it was the score that impressed me the most. I often get the feeling though that most directors consider the score more like a necessary evil instead of a tool to add to their film. How important is the music for you?

I appreciate you saying that, as the music is everything to me; the score gives the film part of its identity. Alex Ryan, the composer, is my brother and wonderfully talented in that area, so I knew going in that the score would be a big part of it all. For me, screenwriting has more to do with music than any other creative art. Editing too. I find it quite hard to separate filmmaking and music.

There's like this semi-hidden connection between Hozier and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Can you elaborate on that a little?

The main connection would be that Alex plays bass with Hozier, and has been on tour with him for the past two years or so. Hozier's a good friend; I remember we were finishing the rough cut of "Darkness" just when all his stuff was kicking off, in Ireland at least, and he still made the time to sit down and go through the first cut with me, tell me what he thought. He's got keen sensibilities. He made the effort to come to our premiere in Galway too; he's a great friend in that way.

There's a lot of doom and gloom when people discuss the future of cinema, even so you managed to write, produce and direct your first feature film. How difficult was it to get this project off the ground?

It was difficult, but I had some fantastic people around me. Everyone who came on board wanted the best for the film, including the actors, who were so great, especially the two lead girls, Emma Eliza Regan and Emma Willis. I think people will always respond to and rally around a good script, but you have to put in the groundwork there. So people know you're not fucking around and wasting their time. It's a long, hard road where you have to learn a lot of things fast and make the rest up as you go along; but if it's in your blood, I think you're going to do it regardless.

One thing that surprised me was Netflix' limited release of Darkness on the Edge of Town. I'm not looking for exact numbers, but is selling global rights to a platform like Netflix so much of a disadvantage compared to selling rights separately for each region?

In our case, we have two different distributors, so Candy Factory, our U.S. guys, made the deal with Netflix. We were shocked when we heard Netflix wanted it, that wasn't in the game plan. And even better, in America, which is where you want to be seen. If the film does well, it's possible Netflix will roll it out to other regions, or pick it up for a second year. I'm very new to all this stuff, but I don't think dealing with regions separately is too bad, you get to retain more control over when and where the film is put out.

I can imagine that getting that first film out there is immensely important for a director, but even then a lot of promising new directors fail to make their second feature. What are your plans for the future?

To have "Darkness" find an audience, especially in America, has been really encouraging and humbling, and it does make you want to go again. My second film is called "Gemini"; it's about a serial killer in Dublin, with Brian Gleeson playing the lead. But, like "Darkness", I hope a lot of what people expect from the serial killer genre will be thrown out of the window in the first ten minutes. The script is done, Brian's read it, Tommy's read it. We're putting the pieces together at the moment. It took me a while to finish the script, but I'm really excited about it, and I hope we get to do it. I think we will. I'm looking forward to getting back on that most unruly of horses.

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Tue, 09 Feb 2016 11:31:13 +0100
<![CDATA[Ten no Chasuke/Hiroyuki Tanaka]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/chasukes-journey-review-sabu

Some films you watch with no expectations at all, some films you walk into expecting the world and more. And then there are those films that you just know will be good, even when all you know about them is the director. Ten no Chasuke [Chasuke's Journey] is one of those rare cases. I went in blank, but not once did I doubt this film would be anything less than it turned out to be. And while it's not one of Tanaka's absolute best, it's still a marvelous little film.

screen capture of Chasuke's Journey

Ten no Chasuke is a book adaptation with a twist, the twist being that Hiroyuki Tanaka (credited as Sabu when he's directing) himself wrote the novel. It's not often that an author is in the position to adapt his own novel, but I think it's a pretty good position to be in. There's always the chance a creator becomes too involved of course, but ultimately you'll get a much more faithful rendition this way. Considering the relative absurdness of the source material I can't see how anyone else would've handled this film better.

Tanaka made a film that's quite difficult to explain in a mere paragraph or two. Ten no Chasuke is one of those films that makes sense while watching, but merely summarizing the plot won't do it much justice, instead it makes it sound like a convoluted mess. In true Tanaka style, the film shoots off in all kinds of directions. There's a bottom line that somewhat clear from the start, but the road there is everything but predictable. It's what draws me to his films, though I'm sure not everyone is going to appreciate this.

The plot revolves around Chasuke. He's a tea server in heaven who takes care of the scriptwriters. One day he inadvertently causes the death of a young girl and he's sent to Earth to try and right his wrong. Along the way he is helped by a couple of scriptwriters from above, but he's found out before he can reach the girl and a battle of heavenly scriptwriters ensues, each one trying to make sure their character remains alive and relevant. It sounds like a good enough concept for 100 minutes of amusement, but instead this merely describes the first 20-30 minutes of the film.

screen capture of Chasuke's Journey

Visually Ten no Chasuke is another step up from Tanaka's earlier work (unless you have a thing for black and white, then Miss Zombie is pretty much uncontested). What struck me the most though was the exquisite lighting. There are lights everywhere, handled in such a way that they always impact the overall impression of the visuals. Clearly it wasn't just accidental, as I noticed the end credits mentioned a lighting director. For me personally that's the first time I ever heard about the position, but I'll be more than happy if it actually becomes a thing. Apart from the lighting, Tanaka plays around with some different visual styles, making the film even more dynamic and playful. The result is absolutely amazing.

The soundtrack was featured a little less prominently than I expected. Tanaka has a way of incorporating music in such a way that it becomes an integral part of the film. While the score definitely wasn't bad or disappointing, it never truly gripped me or seemed to play a big part in the overall atmosphere of the film. I guess I wouldn't have made a big deal of this if it had been any other director, it's just that I expect a little bit more from Tanaka in the sound department.

I was glad to see him dig up part of his old actor crew though. While they weren't given major parts, seeing Ren Osugi and Susumu Terajima featured in the same film always gives me a little tingle, especially when said film starts off with the Office Kitano logo. Ken'ichi Matsuyama (the lead) has established himself as one of Japan's bigger stars, Ito Ohno is not as famous, but if her performance here is anything to go by she might have a bright future lying in front of her. Solid casting all around.

screen capture of Chasuke's Journey

Tanaka fans will have little trouble with Ten no Chasuke, as it's basically just a more contemporary update of his earlier work. But if you've never seen a Tanaka film before, it might all be just a little too freeform, too confusing. Tanaka still gets side-tracked quite easily, there are some weird and absurd elements and plot-wise it's just not the most coherent of films. That's a small price to pay though, especially when in return you get a film that's very creative, constantly surprising and has its heart in the right place.

It seems Tanaka is back where he belongs, after going through some rougher patches in the late 00's. Ten no Chasuke is visually stunning, well acted, original and most of all unique. It's exactly the kind of film that fuels my love for Japanese cinema. If you're not familiar with Hiroyuki Tanaka or Japanese cinema in general you might be better off looking at some more accessible films first, but long time fans will feel right at home with this one, if only because the film reunites Osugi and Terajima. I can't wait to see what Tanaka will come up with next.

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Thu, 04 Feb 2016 11:25:32 +0100
<![CDATA[Darkness on the Edge of Town/Patrick Ryan]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/darkness-on-the-edge-of-town-review
Darkness on the Edge of Town poster

The horror genre has been experiencing a small setback these past couple of years, but that doesn't mean there aren't any interesting films being made. Darkness on the Edge of Town is Patrick Ryan's first feature film and it shows a lot of promise. It's maybe a little too borderline horror for some, so hardcore gorehounds should probably think twice before sitting down for this one, but anyone with a soft spot for dark genre films would do well to at least give this film a chance.

The first five minutes are pretty indicative of what to expect, although things do get a little less abstract as the film progresses. There's no dialogue during those opening minutes, Ryan relies on seemingly disjointed images and dark, dreary soundscapes to paint a setting and then delves right into the core of the plot: a brutal murder in a public toilet. Ryan doesn't really care about the whodunit aspect of the story since he reveals the killer right away, instead he focuses on the relationship between the killer and the sister's victim.

Even though it wouldn't be wrong to categorize the film as horror, there's a hefty dose of drama running through Darkness on the Edge of Town. The close-knit relationship between the two girls, their hardships in life and their barren prospects fueled by a lack of possibilities in their home town make for ideal subjects to give the film a little extra depth. In that sense, Darkness on the Edge of Town reminded me of Ben Wheatley's take on horror. It's not so much about the supernatural, rather about the darkness within us.

Even though it's a small-scale project, the film packs a pretty decent audiovisual punch. Ryan makes excellent use of the Irish countryside, which is complemented by a grim and muddy color palette. The soundtrack is equally dark, with lots of gritty soundscapes and illbient sounds. And to top it off, the acting too is top notch. Usually this is a little less important for a horror flick, but because of the strong dramatic layer running underneath it's good to see some solid performances from the main characters.

I don't really have anything negative to say about Darkness on the Edge of Town, apart from the fact that it doesn't really excel at anything. It's good across the board, but it simply lacks something that makes it truly memorable. Since this is Ryan's first feature effort though, that's nothing to be ashamed of. If you're looking for a horror film with good performances, characteristic visuals and a little extra depth, you can't really go wrong with this one. Just know that it's not a full-blood horror feature and simply let the darkness wash over you.

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Mon, 01 Feb 2016 11:06:25 +0100
<![CDATA[Inland Empire/David Lynch]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/inland-empire-review-david-lynch

It's already ten years ago that David Lynch made his final feature film. Back then nothing really pointed at Lynch's departure from cinema, though looking back at it now it probably wasn't that big of a surprise. While rewatching my old Lynch favorites it became quite clear that his films, while still intriguing, don't age all that well. It's not that they've turned sour all of a sudden, but they do lack a certain finish I've come to expect from more recent films. Inland Empire is a prime example.

screen capture of Inland Empire

When Inland Empire was just released it didn't feel anything like a swan song, on the contrary even. After finishing up Mulholland Dr. Lynch started experimenting with DV, resulting in some shorts and short series. Feeling confident enough, he saw the time fit to take DV into feature film territory, with Inland Empire as a result. Back then I remember thinking Lynch had rebooted himself, ready to start a new path in his career as a film maker. As it turned out though, it were merely the final twitches of a dying director.

To be fair, very few of those early DV films aged well. Back then the tech simply wasn't there yet. Even so, some of those films showed a clear promise of what the future would hold, looking back at Inland Empire though there's just none of that. It's a real shame because it's far from a bad film, especially when you're into Lynch. In many ways the film is a culmination of his entire career, just let down by some mediocre camera tech and the inability to do something worthwhile with it.

Storywise Inland Empire is pretty vague, but that shouldn't come as a surprise. Just like Mulholland Dr. the first hour isn't that convoluted (for the most part at least), although there are already a couple of scenes that foreshadow the mystery let loose during the second half. The film follows Nikki, an actress who is just starting out as the lead of a new film. While she tries to bond with her co-star, her husband is watching her every move, clearly not comfortable with the situation. When Nikki falls down the proverbial rabbit hole though, you'll be grasping at straws to make sense of it all.

screen capture of Inland Empire

Visually it's all rather drab, but not because of lack of good intentions. Lynch was clearly exploring the possibilities of DV, sometimes with good result too, but in the end it's just too ugly overall. The visuals are way too grainy, lack proper contrast and the crude, harsh lighting doesn't help things along either. Add Lynch' somewhat poor editing capabilities and it's just not good enough. When I first watched the film I was a bit more forgiving (DV was still new and exciting back then), but 10 years later I've come to expect more.

It's not all doom and gloom though, stylistically speaking. The soundtrack is up to par, which means a lot of mystery and atmosphere can be drawn from it. Lynch has always had a knack for incorporating music in his films (after all, he is also a musician on the side) and it definitely pays off. Where the visuals are lacking, the soundtrack steps in and provides ample grip for those slipping away in this mysterious nightmare.

As for the acting, that's a bit tougher to judge. It doesn't help that I'm not a big fan of Laura Dern, nor does it help that Lynch sticks his camera in everyone's noses. Even so, while most actors do a decent enough job, there's no one that truly sticks out. Performances are okay, but none of them is very memorable or inspiring. Except for maybe the rabbits, but that could be attributed to the mysterious nature of the suit rather than the actual performance of the actors.

screen capture of Inland Empire

Inland Empire is a strange beast, even for a Lynch film. Not only did Lynch include parts of Rabbits, he also expanded on the series a little. And where a film like Mulholland Dr. merely turned its whole plot upside down around the halfway mark, Inland Empire makes a complete thematic and narrative U-turn. As a viewer, you're left with the choice to just experience the mysterious nature of the film as is, or to scour the internet for clues and to deconstruct the film in an effort to find coherence. I prefer the former, but there's more than enough leeway for both approaches.

Inland Empire is still a pretty interesting film and if you've enjoyed Lynch's older films it won't be too much of a disappointment. But expect crappy video quality and less than preferable visuals. It's really a shame this is Lynch's final film, as it's not the swan song he deserves. Hopefully he'll be able to return to feature film cinema once more to right this wrong, but as it stands now you can't help but feel a little disappointed, if only because you know the man can do better.

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Thu, 28 Jan 2016 11:11:06 +0100
<![CDATA[1980 Nian Dai De Ai Qing/Jianqi Huo ]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/love-1980s-review-jianqi-huo

Even though China's box office figures are currently overtaking Hollywood's, the attempts to raise the international appeal of Chinese cinema have been mostly in vain. Apart from some classic arthouse fare (think Zhangke Jia and Yi'nan Diao) the West just doesn't seem to care. It's a shame because China is producing some worthwhile films. Point in case Jianqi Huo's 1980 Nian Dai De Ai Qing [Love in the 1980s]. Not the most dashing of productions, but a beautiful romance nonetheless.

screen capture of Love in the 1980s

Jianqi Huo is a pretty inconspicuous director, which in part explains why nobody has picked up on his latest yet. While some of his older films did enjoy a Western release (Nashan Naren Nagou and Sheng Huo Xiu were both lucky enough), Huo seems to lack a certain authority, something that makes him stand out from the crowd and has you looking forward to catching his next film. Sitting down to watch a new Huo is always somewhat of a struggle, even though he's proven time and time again it shouldn't be.

In 1980 Nian Dai De Ai Qing, Huo revisits the setting of Nashan Naren Nagou, though theme-wise it feels more like an early Yimou Zhang film. Set in a rural mountain village, the film explores the rekindled love of two old classmates who are stationed in the same town. While Huo keeps a clear focus on the romantic part of the story, old China politics heavily influence the outcome of the romance, lending the film some political weight (though it seems to restrain from being too critical).

After graduating, Guan Yubo is shipped off to a small village close to where he grew up. Much to his surprise he bumps into Cheng Liwen, a former classmate who now runs a shop in town. Yubo has always had a thing for Liwen, but he never dared act on it before. Certain not to let Liwen slip away again, he tries everything to court her, yet Liwen is reluctant to answer his advances. Not because she doesn't love Yubo back, but because he is poised to leave the village again once his assignment is over.

screen capture of Love in the 1980s

Huo's previous films had visual flair, but he's still making great strides forward with 1980 Nian Dai De Ai Qing. Even though the film is set in a rather poor, non-luxurious environment, it couldn't be further removed from typical poverty porn cinematography. Instead Huo finds great beauty in nature and plays with strong color contrasts to accentuate the beauty of the village and its surroundings. Exquisite use of lighting, vivid colors and gentle camera movements complement the setting and make for a stunning-looking film.

The soundtrack is pretty interesting too. Overall it's still quite predictable (it's a Chinese drama, so expect piano and string-based music with slight folk influences and ethereal vocals to seal the deal), but there is also an element of surprise there. While still very much in line with the rest of the music, Huo uses a couple of ambient tracks to diversify the sound a little. The timing of the ambient pieces is perfect and even though they're used sparingly, they manage to add a lot of emotion to the key scenes.

Rather than rely on seasoned actors, Huo found two newcomers to fill in the lead roles. They do a great job, but I'm not quite sure if their lack of experience added anything in particular to the film. It wasn't until I peeked on IMDb that I found out they had no prior experience in feature films. Yang Caiyu and Fangsheng Lu both do a pretty great job though and their performances are more than capable, so there's really nothing to complain about.

screen capture of Love in the 1980s

I am notoriously bad at catching pro or anti-Chinese government sentiments in films, so I'm not going to comment on it too much, but since China's political system plays such a large part in the outcome of the romantic relationship that I believe it's fair to stress that message-sensitive viewers will either find the film extremely touching or extremely deplorable, depending on their own beliefs. I'm just going to keep the boat in the middle and judge the film on its romantic premise, but know that the film offers a little more than just a simple romance.

If you're familiar with Chinese dramas then you'll feel right at home watching 1980 Nian Dai De Ai Qing. While there are some welcome updates, like a slightly modernized score and stronger visuals, the film plays out like a oldskool mix between Nashan Naren Nagou and early Yimou Zhang. It's a strong drama with solid performances and a touching romance, made by an accomplished director, but I doubt the film will do much for Huo's international recognition. Not because it lacks quality as such, but because it lacks any real defining qualities. Still, if you like Chinese dramas this film is a definite recommend.

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Wed, 20 Jan 2016 11:30:30 +0100
<![CDATA[Seul contre Tous/Gaspar Noe]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/seul-contre-tous-review-gaspar-noe

Seul contre Tous [I Stand Alone] is where it all started for director Gaspar Noé. After directing four short films over a period of roughly ten years, he finally got the opportunity to helm his first feature film. While not as grand or ambitious as Irréversible or Enter the Void, Noé was determined to leave his mark right from the start. This weekend I rewatched NBoé's first and while it can't really stand up to his later work, Seul contre Tous is still one hell of a ride.

screen capture of Seul contre Tous

If you're a fan of subtlety then don't even bother with this film. Seul contre Tous is vile, angry and pompous, in a way only a film by a young and driven director can manage to be. Clearly this won't be to everyone's liking and some will quickly shelve Noé's film as a poor, attention-seeking effort. To me though, there's a welcome purity in these films that's pretty much impossible to find elsewhere. Seul contre Tous is like a battering ram, not the most subtle of tools to use when trying to open a door, but definitely one of the more amusing options out there.

The film opens with a series of photographs depicting the depressing journey of a nameless butcher. Not much went right in a life that left him stranded without a job, without any money and without proper friends. He hits rock bottom when his daughter is moved off to a shelter, while he sits out his sentence for attacking his daughter's alleged rapist. When the butcher finally gets out of jail he hooks up with a lady, hoping she might provide him with some kind of way forward.

Before long the butcher finds himself stuck inside a life he doesn't really care to live. Rather than succumb, he salvages all that's left of his pride and heads back to Paris, hoping to give his former life one last shot. Nobody there is really waiting for the butcher's return though and when people turn him down one after another he slips into a violent, self-obsessed stream of negativity.

screen capture of Seul contre Tous

On the visual side of things Seul contre Tous is still a little bare bones. There is no Benoît Debie to work his magic for Noé, but that doesn't mean it turned out to be a dire-looking film. The grainy look, combined with fat, bold intertitles and a hefty dash of 80s lower class ugliness makes for a very fitting atmosphere. There's also some nifty editing trickery that spruces things up a little, keeping the audience's attention from wandering off. So while not as in your face compared to his later work and despite they film's limited budget, there's definitely some visual polish here.

To make the impact of the little editing trick considerably bigger, Noé coupled these moments to loud, gunshot-like bangs. It's showy and not exactly refined, but within the context of the film and the anger that comes off from the lead character it makes plenty of sense. There isn't much in the way of an actual soundtrack, apart from a classical piece near the end of the film, but the near-constant voice-over spewing increasingly depressing monologues makes for an interesting sonic experience nonetheless, taking away the need for actual music.

Noé also found himself the perfect actor in Philippe Nahon, who takes on the role of the nameless butcher (a part he actually carried over from Carne, one of Noé's earlier shorts). Nahon is at his best when portraying grim and sleazy characters and it's hard to think of anyone else doing a better job here. The rest of the cast is adequate too, but in the end it's really just a one-man show and Nahon will be the one you'll be thinking of when remembering this films years down the line.

screen capture of Seul contre Tous

Seul contre Tous isn't so much about plot or characters (despite its strong focus on the butcher), instead it's a film about emotion. The gritty look, the pounding voice-overs, the occasional editing trick accompanied by loud bangs, it all gives body to the anger that lives and grows inside the butcher. It makes the film more of an emotional experience rather than a cerebral one. Rather than trying to explain and analyze the anger residing in the butcher, you're meant to live it for 90 minutes. And that, at least in my eyes, is a much stronger experience.

So yeah, Noé could've opted to make a more pensive, explanatory version of the story, but that's not really his style. Instead he went for a more tangible experience, shamelessly and openly toying with the emotional state of his audience. Whether you appreciate that is up to you of course, fact remains that Noé doesn't pull any punches and the impact of the film hasn't diminished much, if anything over the years. Seul contre Tous is still a hellish trip, spiralling down the destructive path of a man with nothing much to live for.

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Thu, 14 Jan 2016 11:43:54 +0100
<![CDATA[Steven Soderbergh/x20]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/steven-soderbergh-x20
Steven Soderbergh

If there is one major schism in cinema, it's no doubt the barrier between mainstream and arthouse. There are a select few directors who manage to bridge that gap, but even that is fairly trivial compared to what Steven Soderbergh set out to do. Soderbergh didn't just try to bring these two worlds together, he actually managed to become successful in both worlds separately. Off the top of my head, there's no other director out there who has done something similar.

Looking at Soderbergh's oeuvre, he has kept a healthy diet of Hollywood projects interspersed with more arthouse-minded films, becoming quite skilled at making films on both ends of the spectrum. His Hollywood work has plenty of flair and gusto while his smaller films feel genuine and don't stray away from a little experimentation left and right.

Soderbergh started off small. Sex, Lies, and Videotape may be quite the bore on paper (with its B-cast and avalanche of small-scale drama), the actual film turned out to be surprisingly fun and entertaining. The next few years Soderbergh would keep to producing smaller films. Kafka and Gray's Anatomy are interesting experiments while films like King of the Hill and The Underneath started to show some openness towards more mainstream cinema.

Before going big for the first time, Soderbergh doubled down and directed his most experimental film. Schizopolis is a title that aptly describes its contents. A collection of ideas, sketches and just some general weirdness make for one of Soderbergh's weirdest films. It's a bit difficult to recommend since the humor won't be everybody's cup of tea, but if you like absurd comedy than this is a little gem.

With Out of Sight Soderbergh released his first attempt to sway the masses. It's a fun, light yet stylish crime comedy featuring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. The film marks the start of a series of movies aimed at a broader audience. The Limey is still a bit niche (but pretty damn good), after that Soderbergh directed Erin Brockovich, Traffic and the first Ocean remake. Good, solid Hollywood productions that may not be overwhelmingly great, but definitely better than your average Hollywood fare.

With Solaris, Oceans Twelve and a segment in Eros Soderbergh kept up his good name, but by then I guess these films didn't pose too much of a challenge. That changed when he made Bubble in 2005. The film itself is a worthy but somewhat predictable lo-fi drama, more interesting was the film's release plan. Rather than adhere to industry standards, Soderbergh rose up to call for a revolution. His idea was to release his film across the board, all formats at once. Ten years later this is still the consumer's utopia, but that move earned Soderbergh plenty of praise, because film makers stepping up for the pleas of consumers are a rare sight indeed.

In the next five years Soderbergh would continue to alternate between bigger Hollywood work (the third Ocean film) and smaller, more personal projects (The Informant). Sadly Soderbergh became more and more disillusioned with Hollywood (and the movie business as a whole), which prompted him to quite directing films altogether in 2013. His final feature was Side Effects, a good and solid goodbye, though not exactly the final bang that Soderbergh deserved.

Hopefully this is just a temporary setback, because it's sad to see a director like him lose interest in the medium. While his best years are clearly behind him, Soderbergh rarely made a bad film and always tried to do something interesting with his films, even his lighter Hollywood work. And if not that, he loved pioneering new ideas, from embracing DV to coming up with new release plans. I feel he didn't always get the praise he deserved, maybe because he walked two different paths at once, but looking at his body of work there are some great discoveries to be made. He is by far one of America's better directors if you ask me.

Best film: Schizopolis (4.0*)
Worst film: The Good German (1.5*)
Average rating: 3.20 (out of 5)

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Thu, 07 Jan 2016 11:14:54 +0100
<![CDATA[Otoko no Issho/Ryuichi Hiroki]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/otoko-no-issho-review-hiroki

Japanese drama cinema is slowly recovering from its near-total implosion. After doubling down and focusing almost entirely on the domestic market, more recent outings have been looking beyond the island borders once again. Ryuichi Hiroki's Otoko no Issho [Her Granddaughter] lands on the softer, less edgy side of the genre, but is handled with enough subtlety and integrity to hold its own. It may not be a very spectacular film, but it's definitely more than just quality filler.

screen capture of Her Granddaughter

You might not realize from watching this film, but Otoko no Issho is still somewhat of a compromise (at least on paper). Even though it feels like a genuine, original drama, Otoko no Issho is actually an adaptation of a lauded manga (that goes by the same name). Don't expect any crazy mangaesque antics though. I'm not familiar with the source material so I can't say how much it deviates from that, but this film could just as well have been an original Hiroki.

The film revolves around the relationship between Tsugumi and Kaieda. Not a very novel premise, except that there's a considerable age gap between the two (I'm guessing it's about 30 years). When Tsugumi's grandmother dies, the both of them end up living in her old house. There it is revealed that Kaieda was once in love with Tsugumi's grandmother, so needless to say the two have some things to work through before they can settle down and fully enjoy each other's company.

With a story like that the drama could go either way, but surprisingly it turns out to be one of Hiroki's softer films. Maybe it's because of the rural setting, which tends to work better in more placid, serene dramas, sporting lots of traditional drama imagery (people riding their bikes in between the paddy fields, mountains in the back, small-town railway stations - if you're familiar with Japanese dramas you know what I'm talking about). If you were hoping for a more edgier and taboo-confronting film, you're pretty much out of luck.

screen capture of Her Granddaughter

With Otoko no Issho it seems that Hiroki further refined his visual signature. He makes the best of the setting, cramming in as many green, sunny and beautifully lit landscape shots as possible. It gives the film a very warm, calming and welcoming atmosphere. Indoor shots are traditionally a bit darker, but nice framing and smooth yet subtle camera work give them a refined edge (and the openness of traditional Japanese houses makes sure that nature does make its way into the frames). The film doesn't look spectacular, but nonetheless very attractive.

The soundtrack is what you'd expect from a film like this. Piano tunes and string arrangements add to the docile, warm feel of the film, but it's all well within the range of what could be expected. Near the end the music gets a bit more sentimental, even going as far as to include two J-Pop songs. A bit unnecessary if you ask me, but it's not past the point of the acceptable. So all in all it's a pretty decent soundtrack, just nothing special or noteworthy.

As for the casting, Hiroki is up to his usual tricks. The cast doesn't look too spectacular on paper, but he really gets the most out of them. Nana Eikura is mostly known for her TV work, yet she shines as the somewhat frail, yet headstrong Tsugumi. And while Etsushi Toyokawa is a true veteran, this is without a doubt one of the better parts of his career. Add a short but worthwhile part for Sakura Ando (one of the most promising contemporary Japanese actresses) and you have a strong, worthwhile cast that carries the emotional part of the film with ease.

screen capture of Her Granddaughter

What makes Otoko no Issho rise above the competition is the very natural, low-conflict way Hiroki portrays the relationship. While there are some hurdles for the couple, it's never really about their age difference. There aren't too many meddling villagers, no worried relatives and no pouty kids fighting their relationship, it's just two people meeting and falling for each other. A relief, especially when these kind of relationships are still considered a little taboo.

Otoko no Issho is another worthwhile addition to Hiroki's oeuvre. Why a film like this can't garner a bigger international response is beyond me (especially when you see Koreeda's latest films are still released internationally), what I do know is that it's not an issue of quality. Otoko no Issho is a beautiful, serene and heart-warming little drama with no false notes, no overt sentimentality and no obvious tear-jerking. Hiroki still has it in him and hopefully he'll resurface on the international scene once more, because his films deserve a bigger audience.

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Mon, 04 Jan 2016 12:29:32 +0100
<![CDATA[Movies 2015/The highlights]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/movies-2015-top

With 2015 coming to an end, let's do the "best of" thing again. The rules haven't changed: this list is not about production year, instead it's a rundown of the 10 best films I discovered this past year. If for whatever strange reason you've missed some of my reviews, here's your chance to catch up. And of course, for reference, I'm also including all the posts from previous years: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008.

10. Mei Gaau Siu Nui [May We Chat] (2014)

Mei Gaau Siu Nui was one of the biggest surprises of the year. Hong Kong isn't known for its contemporary dramas, Philip Yung demonstrates it's not an issue of quality. In a world that is connected through phones, three young girls are reaching out to each other. Beautiful cinematography, strong acting and a dose of edgy drama make for a great film putting Hong Kong's youth culture front and center. They could use more more films like this one over there.

09. Horsehead (2014)

It wasn't a great year for horror cinema, but at least there's light at the end of the tunnel. Romain Basset is one of France's emerging talents and he delivers a spectacular genre piece. Horsehead is a little vague and not straight-forward enough to be a run of the mill horror film, but the added mystery is more than welcome and the presentation is absolutely stunning. Here's to hoping Basset's next film will be every bit as entrancing.

08. Watashi no Otoko [My Man] (2014)

Last year Kazuyoshi Kumakiri resurfaced with a gritty, edgy and overall impressive film. Rising star Fumi Nikaido appears next to Tadanobu Asano and shines in this icy, understated drama. Kumakiri touches on quite a few taboo subjects and doesn't pull his punches, making for a twisted yet humane package. It's probably not for everyone, but if you're into harsh and relentless Japanese dramas you simply cannot pass this one up.

07. Alléluia (2014)

When Fabrice du Welz made Calvaire he put Belgian horror on the map. With Alléluia he returns to the roots of his first success. While not a sequel, the film is part of an ongoing trilogy set in the Ardennes, featuring Laurent Lucas as the main lead. The film has a rather slow start but purposely builds up to a dark, vile and disturbing finale. It's not your typical horror film, yet the impact is one most horror films can only dream of.

06. Lost River (2014)

When I read Ryan Gosling was directing a film I wasn't immediately interested. I liked Gosling in his early days, but I felt he made a few less than favorable career choices since then. Yet after hearing Benoît Debie was on board to handle the cinematography, I couldn't help but seek this one out. And a good thing I did, because Lost River is mysterious, atmospheric and beautifully shot. It may a little disjointed and vague, but that's actually works in the film's favor.

05. Si Fei [Guilty] (2014)

While Jill Wong's oeuvre mostly consists of domestically targeted comedies, she's actually a protégé of Oxide Pang. Looking at Si Fei that suddenly becomes very obvious. A fantastically shot, well acted and aptly scripted drama/thriller, Si Fei is without a doubt one of the highlights of Hong Kong's recent output. Hopefully Wong will continue in this direction, because this film is infinitely better than her usual work.

04. Kawaki [The World of Kanako] (2014)

Tetsuya Nakashima rebranded himself. From the colorful world of Pako to Maho no Ehon and Shimotsuma Monogatari to his recent violence and revenge-driven films, it can be a little challenging to recognize the hand of the old Nakashima. What remained is Nakashima's keen eye and his minute attention to detail. Kawaki may be a raw, energetic and hostile film, Nakashima is always in control over what is shown and how it's being shown. Kawaki is one hell of a ride, but not for the squeamish.

03. Tokyo Tribe (2014)

2015 was the year of Shion Sono and what better way to honour him than including one of his 2014 films. International distribution of Japanese films remains a total disaster. Anyway, Tokyo Tribe is Sono's completely demented crime/action/musical movie and what a joy it is. Several different hip hop clans battle it out in one big fight for control over the city. Riki Takeuchi is the perfect bad guy and even though Tokyo Tribe crosses over on Miike's turf several times, it's a film nobody with a taste for the exceptional should miss out on.

02. Rairu Onigokko [Tag] (2015)

But wait, there is more Sono! Rairu Onigokko is one of the six films Sono released in 2015 and while I haven't seen the other ones, this one will be quite difficult to top. From the crazy opening to the dazzling ending, I was hit with the rare feeling of not knowing where the film was going. Sono hides the clues remarkably well and keeps you guessing until the very end, all of that without an actual twist to speak of. This is Sono at his very best.

01. Gokudo Daisenso [Yakuza Underground] (2015)

But the best film I've seen this year comes from the uncontested master of bafflement. Gokudo Daisenso is Miike at the top of his game, two hours of weirdness and nonsensical voodoo balled up in one single film. And then there is the frog. Easily one of the most memorable characters in years, even though it doesn't have any actual dialogue. It's hard to believe, but even after 70+ films Miike still knows to surprise. Maybe not the easiest Miike to recommend, but fans owe it to themselves to seek this one out.

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Thu, 31 Dec 2015 11:12:07 +0100
<![CDATA[Steven Spielberg/x20]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/steven-spielberg-x20
Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg, the Hollywood king of my generation. He was the first director I knew by name, probably not too surprising since he's one of the few household names in the directorial world. He's been at the top of Hollywood for the past 30 years. Every new film he makes is met with tons of anticipation and whatever he does, he simply can't seem to make a "small" film anymore. Save for his first couple of movies, all the projects he tackles are big and epic. But honestly, after having seen twenty of his film, there isn't a single one I actually liked.

To me, Spielberg embodies everything that's bad about Hollywood. His films have all the elements I ran away from, pushing me towards arthouse and genre cinema. And even after my recent reacquaintance with Hollywood I don't seem to get much joy out of his work. It's all just so middle-of-the-road, so sentimental and cheesy, without redeeming qualities to speak of. It lacks any kind of purity, it never feels genuine and it's all dragged out for maximum effect. Nopes, I'm not a fan.

That said, Spielberg first effort wasn't all that bad. Released in '71, Duel is a pretty simple genre film. A little boring in places maybe, but the core of the film is tense and exciting. Follow-up Something Evil is equally small in scale, but this would only be a short-lived phase in his career. When Spielberg directed Jaws in '75 he blew up and never looked back. While many people consider Jaws to be one of the great horror films of the 70's, I must say the film did very little for me. It's long, drawn-out and features only two or three actual moments of worthwhile tension.

After Jaws Spielberg would wander around different genres for a while. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a sci-fi film about humankind's first alien encounter, 1941 is a war epic and Raiders of the Lost Ark one of the great adventure films of all time. All that was just child's play leading up to one of Spielberg's biggest and most defining films: E.T. His first film that was truly child-proof, signalling a move to even more tepid, watered-down films. The impact of E.T. is undeniable, but a good movie it ain't.

For the remainder of the 80s Spielberg kept jumping between genres, directing 2 sequels to Indiana Jones, another war drama (Empire of the Sun) and a live action Disney adaptation with a twist (Hook). All popular films in their own right, but Spielberg's next big hit would come in '93. Jurassic Park caught everyone's eye, triggering a world-wide fascination for dinosaurs, spurring several videogames and crushing box office records left and right. It's one of his better films, if you can get past the fake sentiment.

That same year Spielberg would also release Schindler's List, a film that marked the start of a series of more serious, socially conscious films from Hollywood's most sappy director. Amistad and Saving Private Ryan would follow, all big, costly and ultimately very sentimental Hollywood hits. To top it off, in 2001 Spielberg would direct A.I. A legacy from Stanley Kubrick, who reportedly transferred the film to Spielberg because the story needed more humanity than Kubrick himself could manage. The fact that Kubrick fell ill 2 years before the film's release (and actually died) sounds like a more plausible explanation to me though. Anyway, if you're in the mood for mushy sci-fi, A.I. is definitely your kind of film.

Spielberg would churn out several more high-profile Hollywood releases in the coming years (Minority Report, War of the Worlds and the fourth Indiana Jones), but none of them deviated much from earlier films he made. The only remarkable post 2000 Spielberg film is The Adventures of Tintin, a motion-captured adventure of one of Belgium's most iconic comic book characters. Again, it has Spielberg's signature all over, but at least it's a little different from his normal output.

Even though Spielberg is nearing 70, there's still no stopping the man. He just released his latest epic Hollywood production Bridge of Spies and his next one is already in the works (an adaptation of Roald Dahl's BFG). I've long made peace with the fact that there's probably no Spielberg film out there for me, but at least the man has a clear signature to speak of. He's the biggest director of his generation and he's left his mark on the history of cinema more than once, so there's really no escaping his films.

Best film: Duel (2.5*)
Worst film: Artificial Intelligence: AI (0.5*)
Average rating: 1.35 (out of 5)

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Wed, 30 Dec 2015 12:46:31 +0100
<![CDATA[Tom Yum Goong/Prachya Pinkaew]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/tom-yum-goong-review-pinkaew

A little over 10 years ago, Thai action cinema was up and coming. With Tony Jaa and Prachya Pinkaew spearheading the genre, the future looked bright. Tom Yum Goong [The Protector/Honour of the Dragon] was their second collaboration and it raised the bar for all to follow. But now that the hype has subsided, I was quite curious to see if the film could still hold its own. And while the answer isn't quite as straight-forward as I'd hoped, I still liked this film. A lot.

screen capture of Tom Yum Goong

Pinkaew and Jaa crashed the scene two years earlier with Ong-bak, a splendid little martial arts film that turned a lot of heads and provided heaps of exposure for Thai cinema. It's one thing to produce a surprise hit though, following it up with a second film that actually improves on it is probably an even bigger feat. All that extra cash and attention is rarely a guarantee for a better film, but Pinkaew and Jaa handled it surprisingly well.

Tom Yum Goong isn't a sequel to Ong-bak but it very well could have been. It features all the same key ingredients, only everything is bigger and bolder the second time around. There's the strong focus on Muay Thai fighting, a high-speed non-standard vehicle chase, some mediocre drama and lots of bad guys that serve little other purpose then being beat up in style. In that sense it's not that different from every other martial arts film out there, except that it has Tony Jaa in his prime.

Even though it's unlikely anyone is watching this one for its plot, here's the gist of it: Jaa was brought up by a tribe of elephant trainers. When one of the tribe's elephants is chosen to be presented to the king (the greatest honour one can bestow onto their people) Jaa, his master and the elephant all travel to the city. Once there they are ambushed by a gang looking for prime elephant meat. The criminals manage to take the elephant and transport him to Australia. When Jaa finds out about their location he doesn't think twice about following his beloved elephant in order to rescue it.

screen capture of Tom Yum Goong

Visually there are two sides to this film. Whenever Pinkaew is focusing on plot progression and drama, Tom Yum Goong looks disappointingly bland. It stands in great contrast with the magnificent action cinematography, to the point where it becomes almost impossible to believe these scenes are actually from the same film. The camera work during the fight sequences is nothing less than stunning, with an extremely agile and mobile camera following Jaa around all over the place. Standout scene is the fight in the restaurant, an admittedly fake one-take tracking shot that just flutters through the entire building while Jaa is kicking down opponents left and right.

The soundtrack is less interesting. It's comprised of some pretty generic-sounding adrenaline-fueled tracks that fail to truly engage. It's just music that rages on in the background, in order to create a fuller, more energetic experience. Ultimately it does what it was supposed to do, but afterward you'll be hard-pressed to remember any particular track. As a film score it suffices, but Pinkaew neglects the potential to actually make his film any better with some proper music choices.

As for the acting, that's once again a very divisive affair. The acting is pretty atrocious for the bigger part of the film, with many of the secondary parts seemingly filled by people they pulled off the street. It's actually not uncommon when an Asian production hires a bunch of Westerners, but Tom Yum Goong really takes the cake. That said, the action is what it's all about and as bad as the actors may be, the fighters are absolutely top class. Tony Jaa is truly impressive, which his unreal kicks and fast yet controlled movements. His adversaries are pretty cool too, the capoeira guy in particular deserves a special mention. So yeah, if you want top of the line acting, you'll be left hanging, but if you're watching this for the martial arts there's nothing to complain about.

screen capture of Tom Yum Goong

Expectations are crucial when going into a film like this. Sure enough it's a little lacking in certain departments. The acting is pretty iffy, the soundtrack generic-sounding and the film doesn't look its best when Pinkaew is trying to tell the story. But that's all just a small part of the film. Tom Yum Goong is genre cinema at its purest and the martial arts is clearly the center point of the film. And action-wise, this is one of the best films out there. The action sequences are relentless, imaginative and perfectly executed. And there are plenty of them, once Jaa starts kicking ass there's hardly time for any breathers.

As a martial arts fan, Tom Yum Goong is the kind of movie I love watching. It puts every single baht in making its fight scenes bigger, crazier and more inventive. Because of that the all-round experience may not be up to par, but I think that's a fair price to pay. I can see how this may be a harder pill to swallow if you're not really into martial arts movies, but then this film probably isn't for you. If you're fine with Tom Yum Goong just being one big Tony Jaa action reel though, it's one of the best films the genre has to offer.

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Tue, 22 Dec 2015 11:32:30 +0100
<![CDATA[Mei Gaau Siu Nui/Philip Yung Chi-Kwong ]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/may-we-chat-review-philip-yung

Look hard and long and you'll find a few (wayward) youth films in Hong Kong's sizeable filmography. From all the films I've seen I can only remember Heiward Mak's Lit Yat Dong Hung, a worthy entry that deserves more love. Looking back a little further there's also David Lai's Liang Mei Zai, a film that's closely connected to this one. With that in mind, it's safe to say that Philip Yung's Mei Gaau Siu Nui [May We Chat] is a welcome film, regardless of quality. And luckily, Yung shows a lot of promise and delivers a fine, yet surprisingly edgy drama.

screen capture of Mei Gaau Siu Nui

While Hong Kong cinema is doing pretty well for itself, it seems perpetually stuck in producing the same kind of films. If you're looking for some good genre movies (action, comedy and crime mostly) then you have plenty to choose from, but outside of those flagship genres it can be quite a barren place. And it's not like they're not trying or actually doing a terrible job with other genres, there just doesn't appear to be any real support for the films that venture away from the beaten path.

Point in case: Mei Gaau Siu Nui. It's smart, good-looking, edgy and provocative, but reactions to the film have been overly tepid. That is, reactions from the few people that actually watched it. I do have to admit that it's probably not the easiest film to sell, HK audiences are clearly not big fans of provocative cinema and the topic can be quite daunting for foreigners not used to Asian youth culture. But putting all that aside, this is a film that would suit many Western film fests looking for a hidden gem to brighten up their program.

Mei Gaau Siu Nui follows the lives of three girls lost in a sea of people. They crave attention, but for different reasons nobody is there to take care of them. Wai-Wai lives in poverty and raises her younger sister while doing some odd jobs to survive, deaf-mute Ying goes on paid dates to escape life with her dementing grandmother and Yan suffers from romantic troubles while living separated from her mother and father. The three keep each other company through WeChat, a popular phone chat app that connects people in a nearby area. When Yan disappears from the app, Wai-Wai and Ying meet up to find out what happened to her.

screen capture of Mei Gaau Siu Nui

On the visual side of things there's very little to complain about. Sure enough the film looks a bit flashy and poppy in places, but that particular look is functional, aptly reflecting the world of the film's main characters. Underneath that layer of pink gloss hides a film with precise framing, strong lighting and use of color and inspired camera work. It seems as though Yung took a few pointers from Taiwanese cinema in that regard, definitely not a bad source of inspiration when making a drama film. Add a few stand-out scenes and you have a looker of a film.

The soundtrack is a little less adventurous. While there are a few traditional drama pieces (of the piano/string kind), most of the soundtrack is based on Chinese pop music. I'm not a connoisseur of the Hong Kong music scene though, so I might be mistaken, but don't expect too much in the way of a thrilling soundtrack. That said, it goes well with the setting and it isn't truly grueling to listen to, so I won't complain too much, but Mei Gaau Siu Nui could've benefited from either classier or edgier musical choices.

Taking up the parts of the main characters are three novice actresses. Kabby Hui, Rainky Wai and Heidi Lee perform well, especially considering their lack of experience and the challenging roles they were given. Youthful energy is essential for a like this and between the three of them there clearly is no lack of it. One can only hope that the limited nudity in the film won't stain the rest of their careers, seeing how prude Hong Kong can be. Also interesting are the additions of Irene Wan and Tak-woh Mak, both reprising their roles from Liang Mei Zai. While Mei Gaau Siu Nui is hardly a sequel to Lai's film, it offers a little extra context that adds to theme of the film.

screen capture of Mei Gaau Siu Nui

Thematically Mei Gaau Siu Nui offers a contemporary update of the problems youngster in Hong Kong are facing. The digital age is very much present, but even so the challenges and issues they are dealing with haven't changed all that much through the years. In that sense the film isn't a critique on the digital age or its up-and-coming citizens, it just shows how young people today are using these tools to communicate with each other. What you take from that has probably more to say about your own views and ideas than any explicit commentary the film is making.

Not only is Mei Gaau Siu Nui a very welcome and needed addition to the Hong Kong filmography, it's also a great film regardless. The acting is strong, the film looks beautiful and the problems the characters face feel genuine. Yung doesn't seem to judge his subjects, nor is the film a one-sided warning against a derailing generation of youngster. Here's to hoping the film can inspire other directors in Hong Kong to venture more outside of their walled gardens, but looking at the reception of Mei Gaau Siu Nui I fear chances are slim. Whatever the case, Yung made a superb film and deserves all the credit for taking this much risk.

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Tue, 15 Dec 2015 11:20:56 +0100
<![CDATA[Cheh Chang/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/cheh-chang-x10
Cheh Chang

From the 60+ directors I've handled so far, Cheh Chang is without a doubt the hardest one to write about. Not that there isn't much to say about the man, after all he was one of the top directors of the legendary Shaw Bros studios. His career spans five different decades and he directed almost a hundred films, so there really is no lack of material to write about. But when thinking of the 10 films I've seen so far, they all just seem to blur together into one indiscernible blob of interchangeable martial arts footage.

If you're unfamiliar with the Shaw Bros studios, you're better off satisfying your martial arts fix elsewhere. But once you've seen enough martial arts films there really is no escaping the tremendous impact the studio has had on the genre. They dominated the Hong Kong scene from the late 60's until the early 80's, cranking out martial arts films at an excruciating pace. People interested in the studio will probably end up watching Chia-Liang Liu's films first, since he's by far the best director of the bunch, but once the Liu pool dries up Cheh Chang is the next in line.

When you've reached that point you'll surely have noticed that the Shaw Bros stamp is somewhat like the Ghibli stamp (only for martial arts B-films). While directors did carry a certain influence over their films, there are way more similarities than there are differences. From the actors to the studio decors, the scripts to the plot build-ups and the trademark endings, Shaw Bros films follow a very fixed structure. This to the point where it becomes hard differentiating between different films, especially when several years have passed since you've seen them.

Of course some films stick out, but the bulk of the Shaw Bros productions are little more than fanboy pleasers, 90 minutes of clichés rolled up into an easily marketable product. That sounds quite negative perhaps, but when you in fact like the Shaw Bros style of film making it means you have found an almost infinite supply of decent films to keep you occupied for years. Which is a pretty good overall description of Cheh Chang's oeuvre.

While he started his career in the 50s, his first work of importance is Bian Cheng San Xia [The Magnificent Trio]. Released in 1966 (the same year as King Hu's Come Drink With Me), it's one of the films that kickstarted the whole martial arts rage. Those early martial arts films are pretty basic though. The action choreography is quite stilted and the pacing rather slow (influences of the Japanese samurai film are still quite visible), on the other hand those early productions did feel more solid than some of the newer films.

Chang produced the majority of his oeuvre in the 70s, directing between 4 and 6 films each year. Chi Ma [Blood Brothers], Shao Lin Zi Di [Men from the Monestary] and Can Que [Crippled Avengers] are some of the better films I've seen, Hong Quan Yu Yong Chun turned out to be a disappointing low in Chang's career. His output started to wane during the early 80s, though 1980's Fei Hu Wai Chuan [Legend of the Fox] is by far the best Chang film I've seen up until now.

Cheh Chang is not the kind of director that you can really recommend to other people. He's the kind of guy you happen upon all by yourself, once you've shown a certain interest in a particular niche. His films aren't all that great, but if you like the material then they're never truly bad either. Chang is a genre filmer pur sang, a solid foundation of the Shaw Bros' success and a director you cannot evade once you decide that martial arts cinema is something you'd like to know more about.

Best film: Fei Hu Wai Chuan [Legend of the Fox] (3.5*)
Worst film: Ren Zhe Wu Di [Five Element Ninja] (2.0*)
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)

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Wed, 09 Dec 2015 11:13:21 +0100
<![CDATA[Amemasu no Kawa/Itsumichi Isomura]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/amemasu-no-kawa-review-isomura

Just ten years ago I was a complete novice when it came to Japanese live action cinema. I watched whatever I could get my hands on, pretty much clueless of how it all tied together. Itsumichi Isomura's Amemasu no Kawa [River of First Love] was one of those random finds that I ended up liking a lot. But how does a film like that hold up 10 years (and some 1000 Japanese films) later? Surprisingly well it turns out, though it's clearly not without flaws.

screen capture of Amemasu no Kawa

The period between 2000 and 2005 was quite lucrative for Japanese distributors. The West wanted Asian films but lacked a broader understanding of their cinema. It led to some very strange and misguided choices (like the release of early Shinji Iwai films and Fujiwara's Ido), but also (and more interestingly) a slew of local Japanese releases featuring English subtitles. Clearly they were hoping for massive oversees import, something that obviously never happened.

Amemasu no Kawa is basically a romantic drama made for the local market. Sure enough the film has a few elements that make it stand out from the pack, but unless you're partial to these type of films you're not going to be blown away by it. To make things worse I watched Isomura's Matataki not too long ago and I was pretty appalled by the quality of that film. Needless to say, my expectation were quite low when I sat down to watch Amemasu no Kawa again.

Amemasu tells one story spread over two different timespans. The first part follows Sinpei and Sayuri during their younger years. Sayuri is a deaf-mute, Sinpei a little simple-minded. Even so, they share a very strong bond together, Sinpei being the only one able to talk to Sayuri. Once they're older though, reality sets in and Sayuri is promised to another boy, one who has a better chance of providing for her. Meanwhile Sinpei is sent on a trip to Tokyo in order to soften the blow.

screen capture of Amemasu no Kawa

Visually the film walks a fine line between acceptable and sentimental kitsch. The rural Japanese landscapes and sunny surroundings make for a warm and comforting setting that Isomura gladly exploits. The camera swoops can be a bit much though and the CG is not always up to par. That said, there are some nice looking dream sequences and the film never goes completely overboard on useless CG, so in the end it all kind of levels out. It's not a film that will win you over with its visuals, but if Amemasu no Kawa gets to you than they do add something to the romance of the film.

The soundtrack had a very similar effect on me, though I have to say it stood out a bit more. Isomura isn't very subtle in the way he uses the score, but he does hit the right notes at the right times. The music almost a bit Hisaishi-like, with its beautiful melodies, recognizable hooks and soft piano sounds. It suits the film really well and without it, I think I would've had more trouble getting into the whole dramatic and romantic part of Amemasu no Kawa.

The acting is a little overdone, though it's so consistent that it seems by design rather than lack of talent. It gives the film an almost manga-esque feel, so better make sure you're prepared for it when going in. With veterans like Hiroshi Abe and Miki Nakatani present you might expect more natural performances, instead you'll find broad gestures and overstated facial expressions. That said, when it really matters the core talent of the actors does shine through, giving the drama just enough swing to make it effective.

screen capture of Amemasu no Kawa

Amemasu has its ups and downs, but Isomura makes certain all the key moments work. The dramatic and romantic stretches may not be all that special or unique, but in the end they succeed in what they set out to do: support a good, feel-good romantic film with some slight dramatic impulses. The scene at the very end (Ayase's outburst near the river) is the cherry on the cake, finally convincing me that Amemasu no Kawa was in fact worth revisiting and not just a sin of the past painted over by nostalgia.

That said, it's a film that caters to fans of light-hearted Japanese dramas, doing little to even try and persuade people outside of its niche. Also, I'm not sure how I would've rated the film if this would've been my first time watching it. There's enough intrinsic quality here for a solid rating, I'm just not entirely sure if it would have made the final cut. That said, if you have a soft spot for Japanese dramas, give this one a chance and you might just be surprised by this little-known gem.

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Tue, 08 Dec 2015 11:40:20 +0100
<![CDATA[Shion Sono/x20]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/shion-sono-x20
Shion Sono

Through the years, Shion Sono worked himself up to become one of the most revered directors of modern-day Japanese cinema. Some people like to call him the new Takashi Miike, but it's probably better to not ask him about that directly to his face. Sono is actually Miike's senior, having directed three shorts and three feature well before Miike started directing films. Due to a rougher start of his career though, Sono had to wait a decennium or two longer before his genius was finally recognized.

That said, the comparison between Sono and Miike does make sense on several levels. There's Sono's generous output (6 releases lined up for 2015), his ability to break with conventions and his somewhat similar approach to playing around with genre tropes. But save one or two films, Sono's work is recognizably different from Miike and the only thing that really connects both directors is their ability to make truly unique films, no matter what genre they're working in.

Sono's earliest work is pretty crude. I haven't seen his first few films (yet), but Jitensha Toiki [Bicycle Sighs] is a pretty amateurish affaire that only occasionally shows glimpses of Sono's talent. It wasn't until '92, when Sono released Heya [The Room] that things started to get interesting. It's a pretty experimental film, quite uneven but featuring a great soundtrack, one of Sono's typical traits. Utsushimi was another step in the good direction. Once again characterized by a superb soundtrack and a couple of original ideas, Sono started to shape his own unique style.

His big international breakthrough came with Jisatsu Sakuru [Suicide Circle]. Japanese horror was all the rage back then and even though the film didn't really meet the regular criteria (there's none of the long-haired black ghost stuff and it isn't too keen on following the once so popular 'less is more' approach) it was picked up by the crowds anyway. It's not one of Sono's best films, but it does feature one of his more memorable scenes (the girls in the train station). If anything, it's a good place to start if you haven't seen any of Sono's films yet.

2005 was one of Sono's most productive years, with no less than 4 releases. Noriko no Shokutaku [Noriko's Dinner Table], Yume no Naka E [Into a Dream] and Hazard are all fine films, but it was Kimyo na Sakasu [Strange Circus] that stood out the most. A highly disturbing mix of horror, weirdness and taboo subjects, the film is Sono's first masterpiece and the start of an almost constant stream of impressive films. Two years later he released Ekusute [Exte], a fun but rather low-key horror flick (with a magnificent Ren Osugi), only to blow everyone away with Ai no Mukidashi [Love/Exposure] the year after. The film isn't without flaws and it may not be Sono's slickest production, but the 4+ hours are crammed to the brim with all kinds of craziness to the point where it becomes difficult to take it all in. It's a film that defies description and can only be understood by experiencing it first hand.

The next couple of years Sono would crank out one masterpiece after the other. Tsumetai Nettaigyo [Cold Fish], Himizu and Koi no Tsumi [Guilty of Romance] are all amazing films that helped to build up his reputation. Kibo no Kuni [The Land of Hope] was a rare misfire (not bad by any means, just not as good as the rest), but quickly forgotten after he released Jigoku de Naze Warui [Why Don't You Play in Hell?]. Just last year Tokyo Tribe made a big splash and Riaru Onigokko [Tag] is by far one of the better films of 2015, so there's no sign of Sono slowing down just yet.

If you're looking for something different and you can handle a solid dose of Japanese weirdness, Shion Sono is one of the best options out there. While his older films are a not as slick and/or refined, pretty much every post 2000 film he directed is at least worth a shot. His films are never boring, they never repeat themselves and there's always at least something memorable about them. Sono is rightfully one of the hottest alternative directors out there, so if you haven't seen any of his films yet, do yourself a favor and give the man a chance.

Best film: Tokyo Tribe (4.5*)
Worst film: Seigi no Tatsujin: Nyotai Tsubo Saguri (0.5*)
Reviewed films: Ekusute - Ai no Mukidashi - Tsumetai Nettaigyo - Himizu - Koi no Tsumi - Kimyo na Sakasu - Jigoku de Naze Warui - Tokyo Tribe - Rairu Onigokko
Average rating: 3.28 (out of 5)

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Mon, 07 Dec 2015 11:48:28 +0100