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[Alleluia/Fabrice Du Welz]]>

Eleven years ago Fabrice Du Welz made a big impression with his first feature film. Back then the Belgian film scene wasn't exactly know for its edgy films (C'est Arrivé Près de chez Vous being a notable exception), Calvaire started to turn things around. Ever since Du Welz has been carrying the mark of up-and coming-director, though that didn't really translate itself into a rich and varied oeuvre. Du Welz' output has been rather sparse, but that's just a typical case of quality over quantity. Alléluia is his latest offering and a more than worthy successor to his earlier films.

screen capture of Alléluia.

Even though Fabrice Du Welz (Vinyan) could be branded a horror film director, he loves to work outside the typical boundaries of the genre, never letting himself be confined its rules and limitations. Calvaire offered a strong dose of black comedy, Vinyan explored the horrors of losing one's child. Alléluia offers a similar deviation, focusing on the twisted relationship between two damaged people who stay together more out of fear of being alone than out of love and kinship.

The film is loosely based on the story of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, an American couple whose lives led them down a similarly cruel path during the late '40s. The word 'loosely' is key here though, as the story merely seems to have sparked the idea for this film. Instead Alléluia follows the life of Gloria, a middle-aged mother abandoned by her husband, left alone to take care of their child. Afraid she will shut herself off from the outside world, a friend of Gloria urges her to join a dating site.

There she finds Michel, a nice-looking chap who shows all the signs of being prime husband material. Gloria takes the plunge and after a nice evening out they end up in bed together. Things are looking up for Gloria, but the next day Michel disappears after lending some money from her. Gloria tracks him down and finds him in the arms of another woman. But rather than sink back into her life of loneliness she decides to stand by Michel, helping him to deal with his issues.

screen capture of Alléluia

Du Welz' first two films were shot by Benoît Debie (Irréversible, Enter the Void), one of this generation's most ravishing cinematographers. For Alléluia he switched to Manuel Dacosse, a very promising alternative. Dacosse is known for his work on Amer and L'Étrange Couleur des Larmes de ton Corps, two unique films that stand out because of their strong visuals, though somewhat let down by poor editing choices. Luckily there's none of that here. Powerful close-ups, excellent use of the dim and grim surroundings, strong lighting and some first-class visual muscle during the film's key scenes. Dacosse turned out to be a worthy replacement.

The soundtrack too plays a big part in the film's menacing atmosphere. It starts of rather gentle and soothing, only to grow darker and viler as the film treads into increasingly twisted territory. Pulsating, distorted rhythms add drive to the key moments, underlining the mental stress and psychological unease of our central duo. It's a soundtrack that doesn't hide itself in the background, but demands to be heard and isn't afraid to add something to the whole. Good stuff.

Lola Dueñas takes up the role of Gloria and she does so with great devotion. It's not an easy part, her character suffers both physically and mentally and her actions and choices can at times be hard (if not impossible) to grasp, but Dueñas makes it work. She finds a great adversary in Laurent Lucas, who shows he can handle both hapless loser (Calvaire) and calculated maniac. They form a terrifying couple, pulling the audience through some of the harder scenes with deceptive ease.

screen capture of Alléluia

The first 15 minutes of the film are pretty tame and betray little of what is to come, from there on out the film starts its inevitable decent into madness. Gloria's role is crucial as she undergoes the biggest transformation, not merely clinging to Michel's madness but overtaking it in order to try and control the situation. It's no surprise that things don't end well for just about everyone involved, still Du Welz manages to take it well beyond the expected.

And yet, no matter how grim and dark things may become, there's still a pitch-black layer of comedy present that makes Alléluia all the more devilish. The reference to Calvaire (where Lucas is forcibly turned into Gloria, the innkeeper's wife) is terrific, the song next to the corps quite bizarre, but it's the uncontrollable laughter of Gloria when Michel spins his missionary story that really got to me. It's a nasty and vile scene, but at the same time it's very hard not to laugh.

Alléluia is definitely a film that grew on me. The crescendo is skilfully executed and even continued after the film had finished. While the start is a little slow, it's essential to the build-up and even though it never becomes as extreme or over-the-top as other films, there's a tangible darkness that leaves the kind of deep and strong impression most horror films can only dream of. With this film Du Welz fortifies his status as one of the best and most unique directors to come out of Belgium, though I'm pretty sure not everyone will appreciate the slice of madness that is served here. If you're up for it though, it's a damn tasty treat.

Tue, 14 Apr 2015 11:47:12 +0200
<![CDATA[Kawaki./Tetsuya Nakashima]]>

After enjoying an unexpected amount of success with Kokuhaku, director Tetsuya Nakashima must've felt the pressure to make a worth-while follow-up. It took him almost twice the time than what he spent on his previous films, but he finally managed to release Kawaki. (The World of Kanako). I've been following Nakashima for quite some time now and he has never disappointed me before, so needless to say expectations for his latest were quite high. Luckily he spent that extra time well and delivered a film that was absolutely worth waiting for.

screen capture of Kawaki.

Tetsuya Nakashima (Pako to Maho no Ehon) is not exactly a stranger to international success. In 2004 he released Shimotsuma Monogatari, a film that did pretty well for itself overseas but was ultimately destined to appeal to a very specific niche. While Kiraware Matsuko no Issho enjoyed similar positive attention, Kokuhaku differentiated itself in the sense that it finally broke free of that niche and reached a much broader audience, captivating both arthouse and genre fans alike.

My educated guess is that Kawaki. will have a hard time repeating that. Not only because it's rawer and weirder, alienating typical arthouse crowds once again, but also because it dramatically distances itself from Nakashima's earlier films. Gone are the bright colors and magical touches, instead we find grinding revenge and blood-drenched characters at Kawaki.'s core. It's quite the switch, but Nakashima's trademark traits still shine through underneath it all.

The story revolves around Kanako's dad (Akikazu) who is trying to reconstruct the circumstances of his daughter's disappearance. Akikazu lost sight of Kananko after a painful divorce, even so her disappearance worries him deeply and he starts a personal investigation. It doesn't take him very long to discover that his daughter wasn't as sweet and innocent as she appeared to be and Akikazu is slowly pulled into a story of deceit, revenge and apathy. Still he perseveres, certain his daughter is still alive somewhere.

screen capture of Kawaki.

Nakashima has always been a very visual director, with Kawaki. he does everything in his power to maintain that status. Mad editing, superb camera angles, slo-mos, rich and detailed settings. But also some very impressive close-ups and more dynamic camera work. There's even room for a couple short animation sequences, handled by none other than Studio 4°C (the only option if you want things done right). From start to finish the film's an absolute looker, though it might be a bit much for some people. The pacing is excruciating and it really is a two hour visual assault. You won't hear me complain though.

The soundtrack too deserves a mention. Nakashima is known to use (alternative) pop music liberally throughout his films and Kawaki. is no exception. No Radiohead this time, but there's some alternative rock present. Nakashima branched out though, as there is also some J-Pop and even a pretty decent dubstep track to make things a bit more interesting. The original score is also awesome, coming from the hands of Japanese soundtrack legend Yoko Kanno (Tokyo.sora). It's a varied selection of quality tracks applied with a great sense of rhythm and style, as one may expect in a Nakashima film.

One of the perks of international success is that it's a lot easier to land a decent cast. Koji Yakusho (Kiyosu Kaigi) takes up the role of Akikazu, Fumi Nikaido (Watashi no Otoko), Jun Kunimura, Jo Odagiri and Ai Hashimoto all feature in solid secondary roles. They all deliver excellent performances. But it's newcomer Nana Komatsu who impresses the most as the mysterious Kanako. Not an easy character and considering it was her first serious role I'm pretty sure we'll be seeing a lot more of her in the years to come.

screen capture of Kawaki.

While Kawaki. does little more than recount the search for a lost person, Nakashima doesn't make it very easy for his audience. The film starts at a maddening pace, does little in the way of explaining itself and jumps through time as if it's living in some alternative space/time dimension. You can't so much as blink in fear of missing something crucial. Halfway through things settle down just a little as the connections between the characters become clearer, but that's when the film reveals some of its viler plot points, making sure there's no chance of catching a breath.

There is a clear possibility of oversaturation though. Kawaki. isn't subtle and doesn't offer much in the way of breathers. It's crazy, weird, harsh and fast-paced, piling body upon body and putting Akikazu through increasingly rough hardships. It's once again a film that will appeal to a certain niche, only a different one from Nakashima's earlier films. That said, I absolutely loved it. Nakashima can't seem to make a bad film, no matter the direction he ventures in. I hope he manages to one-up himself once more in the future, but Kawaki. is definitely on par with his earlier work and that means it's a damn great flick.

Mon, 13 Apr 2015 11:42:49 +0200
<![CDATA[Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain/Jean-Pierre Jeunet]]>

Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain became an instant classic when it saw its release in the early '00s. Back then, it grew from sleeper hit to full-blown arthouse killer in little over a year. It is one of those films that slowly faded away over time though. You realize its special, but that warm, fuzzy feeling diminishes the longer you postpone the inevitable rewatch. So I was in fact quite curious to see what my impression would be almost 10 years after I last saw it.

screen capture of Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain

After the disastrous release of Alien 4, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Micmacs à Tire-larigot) went right back to the drawing board to set a couple of things straight. He had already shown the world he was a great director (Delicatessen, La Cité des Enfants Perdus), but people forget easily and Alien 4 was the kind of film that could ruin someone's career. So he worked hard on his comeback, and what a comeback that was. For many people, Amélie is the best film he ever made (and even one of the best films overall).

And truth be told, it probably is his most complete, accomplished film. There are so many small details, so many creative ideas and nifty little surprises and they're all handled so meticulously that it borders on the feverishly neurotic. The pacing is perfect, nothing feels out of place or superfluous and scattered throughout the film there are ample pay-offs that keep you wanting to see more. Amélie is probably one of the most consistent, "perfect" films I've ever seen.

The film follows the exploits of a dreamy, otherworldly girl (Amélie) on a quest to improve the lives of the people that surround her. Through a series of weird and comical schemes she tries to edge those she loves in a direction where she hopes they'll find happiness. In reality she is simply compensating for the emptiness that resides inside her. When she finally meets a boy that could give her life meaning, Amélie finds herself strangely unable to get her own life back on track.

screen capture of Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain

Lush and detailed doesn't even start to describe the visual splendor that is crammed in every single frame of the film. Rich and extravagant settings (they even physically cleaned up Paris for some of the shoots), majestic camera work, beautiful and warm green and red hues and some very neat editing tricks make Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain into one of the most stunning visual experiences ever put on film.

The soundtrack by Yann Tiersen is just as memorable and went on to live a life of its own, becoming so popular that its reach extended far beyond the confines of the film's universe. Some of the songs also made it into other films (Good Bye Lenin! springs to mind), but they never approached the same effect or atmosphere as they did in Amélie. Tiersen's music is a perfect match for the idyllic vision Jeunet paints of Paris and the two will be forever inseparable from each other.

A final factor in the film's success is Audrey Tautou's performance. I'm not a big fan of her, but it's impossible to argue the impact she has had on this film. It became such a defining role for Tautou that she would have a hard time shedding the Amé,lie character in the years to come. The rest of the cast is great too, with fine performances of Mathieu Kassovitz, Jamel Debbouze and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon, but in the end they are all overshadowed by Tautou.

screen capture of Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain

So if everything's great and magical about this film, why is it not higher on my list of favorites? Well, It's not that easy to pinpoint, but there's a slight discrepancy between the woolly cuteness of Amélie's character and the cheekier, slightly darker humor that is layered on top of the film. And it's exactly that part that doesn't really stick after the film's finished, leaving something that's just a little too rosy and lovey-dovey for my taste. In a sense it's hard to fault the film for it because the cheeky, juicy bits are actually there, they just don't linger as they are overpowered by the naiveté of Tautou's character.

It's a very tiny quibble that never detracts while watching the film, but it's a feeling that keeps creeping up on me as time goes by. I almost feel bad for bringing it up because there is so much to love here, but ultimately it's why I prefer Jeunet's Delicatessen over this one and it does effect the way I think back on Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain. Apart from that, Jeunet delivers 120 minutes of fine-tuned awe and wonder, a required viewing for everyone who gets serious about cinema.

Wed, 08 Apr 2015 11:59:03 +0200
<![CDATA[Let Us Prey/Brian O'Malley]]>
Le Us Prey poster

Don't. Don't go in expecting an elaborate plot, nifty narrative twists or stellar dramatic performances. Originality is not something that's high on O'Malley's list of priorities. Let Us Prey is a pure genre effort, 100% horror film and not ashamed to fully commit itself to that. Just deal with the shortcomings of the genre and what remains is a pretty cool horror flick that finds itself close to becoming a modern genre classic.

The collaboration between Ireland and the UK has proven a great source for quality horror films these past few years. Just think Citadel and Outcast. I feel Let Us Prey could rightfully claim its place amongst that elite gang, although it stops just short of reaching the same heights. The potential is definitely there though and horror fans will find plenty to enjoy.

The film follows a fateful night in a remote little commune. A dark figure rises up from the cliffs in the sea and strolls into town. He is hit by a car, but his body disappears into thin air. When he is finally caught and brought into the police station, his file reveals that the man died years ago. Not only that, this strange individual also knows exactly what buttons to push to irritate the people around him, landing him in jail even though he's done little wrong.

Visually O'Malley has things covered. From the very first frames Let Us Prey emits a very dark, gloomy yet stylish vibe. Strong use of lighting and shadows, well-timed slow motion sequences and effective camera work set it apart from its peers. The soundtrack doesn't let down either, adding to the menacing and grim atmosphere. This audiovisual mastery, together with some strong performances of Liam Cunningham (Harry Brown) and Pollyanna McIntosh (The Woman) form a solid basis for some very stylish horror antics.

The only problem with Let Us Prey is its somewhat dull and lifeless setting. Most of the film is located in the town's police station. A boring, rundown facility that loses its appeal halfway through. It's a shame because the little of the town and its surroundings we do get to see shows a lot more promise for a horror film like this.

The first part of Let Us Prey is pretty mysterious, with people trying to find out who the mysterious newcomer is. The second part brings the true horror. When O'Malley switches gears it quickly becomes clear that Let Us Prey has more to offer than just a moody atmosphere. Things run out of hand pretty fast and O'Malley doesn't shy back from showing a few gruesome kills. While the finale comes quick and hard, I did feel the horror part of the film could've continued for just a while longer.

Let Us Prey is a nifty little horror flick, packed with mystery, creepy characters and gruesome kills. The film looks great, sounds great and does pretty much everything right. It's a shame the setting is somewhat dull and underused, that's really the only thing holding it back a little. Hopefully O'Malley gets a second chance because he shows a lot of promise with his first feature film.

Tue, 07 Apr 2015 11:48:54 +0200
<![CDATA[Omoide no Mani/Hiromasa Yonebayashi]]>
When Marnie Was There poster

You can't help but feel a little bad for Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Kari-gurashi no Arietti was the first feature film he ever directed, and while not one of Ghibli's absolute best it was a more than accomplished film that promised Yonebayashi a bright future under the wings of Miyazaki and Takahata. But then, out of nowhere, they both announced their retirement. To make things even worse Ghibli decided soon after that Omoide no Mani would be their last feature film (at least for now).

Now Yonebayashi's second feature is not only the successor of two of Japan's most lauded animators/directors, it may also be Studio Ghibli's feature film swan song. Clearly Omoide no Mani (When Marnie Was There) wasn't equipped to shoulder that much responsibility. It's somewhat of a niche film (or at least not as broadly accessible as Ghibli's other work) and it carries the marks of a director still looking for his own tone of voice. It's a good film, but not what you'd hope for when faced with the idea that this might be Ghibli's last.

Omoide no Mani seems to be aimed at a younger, female audience. Not that it's overly childish, but the setting with the abandoned marsh house, the secret diary and the play dates between Marnie and Anna feel like a blend of classic Ghilbi and classic fairytale material. There is still plenty to like for adults, but the core of the film felt a little flimsy at times, leaving me just a tiny bit bored and wanting. The middle part in particular could've used some extra spice.

It's still a true to heart Ghibli film though, so there's a basic level of quality that is just impossible to ignore. The animation is magnificent, the voice acting is right on the mark and the hot, summery, outdoors vacation vibe embedded in its roots the perfect cure for a rotten, rainy spring day. Add a young, female protagonist and the traditional break away from city life and lifelong fans will feel right at home. The CG isn't always seamless and the city scenes feel a little dull compared to the country side, but that too is vintage Ghibli.

If Omoide no Mani had lived on to become a filler film in the Ghibli catalogue then I think it would've slipped by without a hitch. But with Kaze Tachinu and Kaguyahime no Monogatari still fresh in mind, knowing this might very well be the final Ghibli film, people are going to watch this one yearning for something more substantial. Just a few weeks ago Yonebayashi announced that he has left Studio Ghibli, so hopefully he will find a new home to further develop his talent. He has everything to make it on his own and given the time he could become one of Japan's top animation directors. Omoide no Mani is a fine film, but in this case that simply wasn't good enough.

Mon, 06 Apr 2015 11:07:47 +0200
<![CDATA[Kazuyoshi Kumakiri/x10]]>
Kazuyoshi Kumakiri

Kazuyoshi Kumakiri is one of those capable directors who never really managed to escape his own country. Sure enough his film appear on festivals, snatching away an odd prize or two, but his name never lingers. Hardly anybody is ever excited to see the new Kumakiri. Even so, through the years he established a strong oeuvre. And if one of his films fails to truly engage, there's always an interesting angle in there that makes it worth watching anyway.

Kumakiri started his career in 1997 with a false note, though ironically it's probably his most known film to date. Kichiku Dai Enkai is the kind of film you might expect to see from Koji Wakamatsu. It's about a group of leftist radicals who go berserk once their leader dies. It gets pretty gruesome near the end, which is why the film was able to tag along on the Japanese horror wave in vogue at the time, but I always found it severally lacking.

Four years later Kumakiri would reappear with Sora no Ana [Hole in the Sky], a film that dropped the horror influences and started his career for real. Susumu Teraijma and a very young Rinko Kikuchi feature in what is a typical Japanese drama. Non-communicative characters, slow pacing and a plot that is not quite resolved at the end, but fans will recognize this as a treat rather than a shortcoming. Not long after Kumakiri would repeat this success with Antena [Antenna].

After that he started to wander a little. Kihatsusei no Onna [The Volatile Woman] is a Hiroki-like drama, Tadareta Ie - Zoroku no Kibyo Yori [The Ravaged House - Zoroku's Disease] a tepid deformation horror (as part of Hideshi Hino's Theater of Horror series) and Seishun Kinzoku Batto [Green Mind, Metal Bats] a nihilistic urban youth drama. They all have their merits, but none of them reached the heights of Kumakiri's earlier films.

Sticking with the nihilistic vibes, Kumakiri went on to make Furijia [Freesia: Icy Tears], a manga adaptation about a violent, emotionless contract killer. The film was not well received, but it offers a remarkable mix of manga and arthouse elements to create a very uncomfortable yet intriguing experience. After that Kumakiri would return to more classic drama cinema with Kaitanshi Jokei [Sketches of Kaitan City] and Natsu no Owari [The End of Summer]. Good films, but lacking something extra to make them stand out.

Finally he got back on top of his game with Watashi no Otoko [My Man], a film that combines a lot of his earlier themes and qualities. Stark, cold settings, socially inept characters and a dash of surreal horror make this into one of his best movies to date. It's not an easy watch though, so it's probably not the best film to start with when you're planning to work through his oeuvre. Hopefully people pick up on Watashi no Otoko and Kumakiri is launched again, as he's a strong asset to Japanese cinema. The man and his films deserve a loving (international) audience.

Best film: Watashi no Otoko [My Man] (4.5*)
Worst film: Kichiku Dai Enkai [Kichiku] (1.5*)
Reviewed film(s): Watashi no Otoko, Sora no Ana
Average rating: 3.4 (out of 5)

Tue, 31 Mar 2015 12:18:29 +0200
<![CDATA[Watashi no Otoko/Kazuyoshi Kumakiri]]>

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

screen capture of Watashi no Otoko

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

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

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

screen capture of Watashi no Otoko

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

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

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

screen capture of Watashi no Otoko

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

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

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

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

screen capture of Vidocq

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

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

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

screen capture of Vidocq

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

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

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

screen capture of Vidocq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

screen capture of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

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

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

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

screen capture of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

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

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

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

screen capture of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

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

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

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

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

screen capture of Leon

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

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

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

screen capture of Leon

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

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

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

screen capture of Leon

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

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

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

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

screen capture of Greatful Dead

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

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

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

screen capture of Greatful Dead

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

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

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

screen capture of Greatful Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 26 Feb 2015 11:17:03 +0100