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Flawed, but Fun, Trashy, and Visually Exciting.
It seems that Director Nam Ki-Woong must have been watching Tsukamoto's Tetsuo films when he wrote and directed Teenage Hooker Became a Killing Machine. Which plays as a low-budget homage to Shinya's 1989 Cyber-punk classic with a bit of the famous Korean revenge style type flicks mixed in. Just as in Tetsuo, Nam opts more for visuals and atmosphere than a coherent plot line. Which is not necessarily a bad thing though... you don't watch films named "Teenage Hooker Became a Killing Machine" for the plot.
But the plot goes something like this (as best I could tell). So-Yun Lee plays a teenage hooker who is mentored by her teacher (Dae-tong Kim). Their relationship is not a platonic one, and after long her teacher impregnates the nameless high school girl. In order to avoid controversy, the Teacher kills the girl's baby and then enlists his brothers for a immensely disturbing murder scene involving a double-handled saw! Anyway, Teenage Hooker is then rebuilt (by whom is unclear) into a mechanical Killing Machine. After her first mission, the girl goes on a revenge spree going after her murderers and the sadistic Teacher.
As mentioned, the plot is truly insignificant. The real reason you watch films like this is for the brilliant visuals and the exploitational aspects. Both of which Teenage Hooker has plenty of. Shot in a multitude of grainy hues, the film seems to straddle the line between art and trash. Some scenes are exquisitely crafted, which is quite an accomplishment considering the extremely low-budget nature of the film. It seems to be shot on digital video, but what it lacks in production values it makes up for in imagination.
While I enjoyed the film on various levels, mostly for the visual nature and the shear ambition of Director Nam Ki-Woong's vision, the film has one crucial flaw. It's not long enough. At it's 60 minute run time, including a very long-and bizarre-opening credit roll, Teenage Hooker doesn't have enough time to expand on the theme's it produces. Some scenes seem a bit rushed and I wished the filmmaker would have lengthened the film a bit in order to let the revenge storyline gel in the viewer's brain.
Teenage Hooker is what it is though and maybe I was expecting to much. But what it is, is a fun, trashy, and visually arresting flick worthy of a view. Especially if you take into factor the low production value's (most other director's wouldn't have done half as good a job with twice the money) Director Ki-Woong did a good deed bringing this bizarre vision to life.
Apartment 1303 (2007)
Same old song and dance
Sayaka is the new tenant of the fated Apartment 1303. After moving into her new apartment-which she got at a discounted price (sound familiar?), Sayaka kicks things off with a party. After visiting the "Tatami room," she entertains her guests by eating dog food off the floor and donning a motorcycle helmet(?), she then leaps off the thirteen floor, plunging to her death.
Sayaka's sister Mariko (Noriko Nakagoshi), is puzzled by her sisters sudden suicide. After some extremely long grieving scenes, Mariko decides to do some detective work. She quickly finds out that Sayaka was the fifth woman to die in the apartment, all of who died under similar circumstances. Her journey leads her to the apartment as well as a detective (Arata Furuta) who-for once-believes Mariko's story. Independently, the two set out to unravel the mystery of Apartment 1303 while trying not to become it's next victims.
After watching the first few opening scenes in this movie, I thought this might be good. It seemed as if the director was doing kind of a parody of J-Horror. The death of Sayaka seemed to be ringed with campy overtones. From the goofy faces the characters made to the way things were overacted just a bit, to the weird death scene. Alas, it was not to be, besides the opening and a few scenes toward the end (which kind of reminded of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2... in style only) 1303 then degenerates into the typical J-horror flick, riddled with genre cliché's.
Yes, this film has them all; scary dreams, phone calls from dead girls, a grudge type curse, a long haired vengeful ghost, and of course, the obligatory creepy little girl. Everything in this film is a mix of previous Asian horror films as Director Ataru Oikawa brings nothing new to the genre. I wish he would have followed the goofy beginning to it's logical next step (A spoof movie of Asian horror would be great if done right) but Oikawa instead elects to follow paths already forged out in J-Horror.
Bottom Line- For genre fans only. Same old song and dance.
Linda Linda Linda (2005)
Beautifully Constructed Study of Young Love, High School Politics, and of course, Rock and Roll.
In most films, directors try (with varying degrees of success and failure) to capture various feelings and emotions set in times and places that will connect with the viewer. When the director fails to catch the vibe emanating from the source material the film falls apart. But every once in awhile a director gets the material and turns out a product that seamlessly captures a slice of life. The latter better describes Nobuhiro Yamashita's Linda Linda Linda, a beautifully constructed study of young love, high school politics, and of course, rock and roll.
In preparation of a High School Festival due in three days, band leader Kei (Yu Kashii) forms a group to cover the works of a J-Punk band named The Blue Hearts for the festival. She quickly finds a drummer, Kyoko (Aki Maede), and a bassist, Nozomi (Shiori Sekine). After some difficulty, the group finds itself their singer; a Korean exchange student named Son (Donna Bae), who only has a basic knowledge of Japanese. The group prepares tirelessly for the coming event... but will they be ready in time?
OK, (I want to get this out of the way) I have one major gripe about Linda... To be honest, the first thirty minutes are paced so slow that it borders on tedium. Some scenes (in the beginning) are totally unnecessary to the plot and could have been edited better to provide the film with a better flow. Though after that, the film magically changes itself into a beautifully endearing coming of age drama complete with cute Japanese schoolgirls and blazing punk rock.
After the clumsy beginning, Linda Linda Linda does one thing that few films can boast. It does an exquisite job of capturing the awkwardness of youth, the purity of blossoming friendships, and the universal love of music. As the film progressed, I was constantly reminded of simpler times in my life. A time when friends were closer than they ever were (after which life puts you through the ringer). A time when every experience was fresh and new and exciting... basically it reminded me of how it was to be young. This is no small accomplishment and is the film's strongest point, as well (I believe) as Nobuhiro Yamashita's primary goal in making Lind Linda Linda.
Other than the emotional aspect of the film, Linda also features brilliant cinematography and a great score. Much of the camera-work seemed to be aimed at casting a "Abbey Road" effect, as many of the film's shots could be easily mistaken for album cover artwork. Add James Iha's (Smashing Pumpkins) melodic rock soundtrack and covers of the J-Punk band The Blue Hearts, and you get some moments of intense allure (i.e. what I like to call, "mind candy").
And we can't forget the actresses. Everyone holds their own here, playing their roles expertly and acting how you'd expect teenage girls to act, the standout being Donna Bae as Son. Her wide eyed, naive Son clinches the film and puts it into the level of greatness. She plays the kind of girl that you'd want to befriend, both subdued and full of life at the same time.
Bottom Line-This is a beautiful film that encapsulates all the emotions of youth. A bit boring and unfocused at the start but the rest of the film more than makes up for it.
Hak se wui (2005)
Enjoyable Gangster Flick.
First off, I must say that I made the mistake of watching the Election films out of sequence. I say unfortunately, because after seeing Election 2 first, Election seems a bit of a disappointment. Both films are gangster epics that are similar in form. And while Election is an enjoyable piece of cinema... it's just not nearly as good as it's sequel.
In the first Election installment, we are shown the two competitors for Chairman; Big D and Lok. After a few scenes of discussion amongst the "Uncle's" as to who should have the Chairman title, they (almost unanimously) decide That Lok (Simon Yam) will helm the Triads. Suffice to say this doesn't go over very well with competitor Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and in a bid to influence the takeover, Big D kidnaps two of the uncles in order to sway the election board to his side. This has disastrous results and heads the triads into an all out war. Lok is determined to become Chairman but won't become official until he can recover the "Dragon Head Baton", a material representation of the Chairman's power. The current Chairman, Whistle (Chung Wang) has hidden the baton somewhere in mainland China and the race is on to see who can recover it first.
Much of the film is devoted to the recovery of the Baton. As both aspiring leaders search for it they must dodge cops and opposite sides, which leads into one of the stand out scenes in Election, which involves an underling named Jet (Nick Cheung), a machete, and lots of bad guys. Nick Cheung's presence is attention grabbing to say the least... I wonder if this influenced director Johhnie To in any way while making the second Election, as he does deliver more of Jet's character in the sequel.
While Nick Cheung gives a scene stealing performance, I must not fail to give due to the rest of the film's actors. Election has a great ensemble cast with well thought out performances that are both subtle and impacting. Simon Yam is his usually glorious self and the film also benefits from heavyweight HK actors like Louis Koo, Tony Leung Ka Fai, and the under-appreciated Suet Lam. There really aren't any weak links in the acting and one could easily believe that they're watching real gangsters.
Although the performances are great, one of the most impressive things about Election is Johnnie To's eye for the camera. There are some truly striking shots in the film and it goes without saying that To definitely knows how to frame his shots, as the viewer is treated to a series of innovative and quite brilliant camera placings and angles. All of which makes Election, above all, a great looking film.
My issues with the film arises mostly out of the shear amount of characters involved in Election. It gets a bit hard to follow because the film is so full of characters that aren't integral to the plot. While the sequel opts to focus more on the two candidates, the first Election offers the election process as a whole with tons of Uncles, underlings, and police officers crowding the storyline. Maybe the film would have worked better if it would have been a bit longer with more time dedicated to the inner workings of the Triad, or if Director Johnnie To would have funneled down the necessary elements and expounded on them more.
Bottom Line- All in all, this is a wonderfully brutal film with a great cast, excellent direction, and leisurely pacing that packs a punch. It's just a little more complicated than it needed to be.
Shinobi no mono (1962)
Interesting Seminal Ninja Film
Shinobi No Mono opens quite simply with a meeting of a garrison of ninja's. Oda Nobunaga (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is ravaging the countryside in a quest for total control of Japan. Fearing his onslaught will mean the demise of the ninja, two rival garrisons attempt to send assassins to dispatch the warlord. The Momichi and Fujiyachi garrisons send their two best students to complete the assassination; Guemon (Raizô Ichikawa) from the Fujibayashi clan, and Yohachi from the Momachi clan. Determined not to be bested by the other clan each Shinobi attempts to kill the evil Nobunaga as quickly as possible.
Having never seen any of the series but being familiar with many Samurai movies from the same era, I found Shinobi No Mono to be very similar in form to the traditional Chambara formula... albeit a bit more action packed. However as with most early Chambara, the film features a complicated plot, well-developed characters, and striking imagery courtesy of cinematographer Yasukazu Takemura.
The big draw of Shinobi No Mono is the martial arts and the film delivers in that aspect. Being one of the first Ninja movies, the film is packed with fight scenes and cool ninja tricks. Shuriken's are thrown, gunpowder ignited, and grappling hooks are used in ways they weren't intended. The film is particularly interesting because it helped create quite a few modern day movie cliché's.
For instance, there is a scene where Guemon tries to dispatch a target by sneaking into his attic, drilling a hole in the roof, dropping a string down, and sending poison down the line in an attempt to land it in the sleeping target's mouth. This scene was later imitated in numerous films including George Armitage's 1997 black comedy, "Grosse Point Blank." Other than that, many of the newer breed of ninja movies feature a lot of the same "secret ninja moves" that were made known in Shinobi No Moni.
My only complaint is that sometimes the plot feels needlessly complicated. If your familiar with other films from this era you shouldn't have a problem following the film. But if you're not, you'll probably have to pay close attention because the plot intricacies come fast as the betrayals, set up's, and alliances pile up.
Bottom Line- Interesting and complicated seminal ninja film that's as fun as it is action-packed.
One Last Dance (2006)
A Strangely Compelling and Enjoyable Mess.
As I'm writing this review I keep asking myself, "Why should I like this film?" The plot line is hopelessly jumbled, the humor awkwardly rendered, some of the characters are just plain annoying, and the action leaves much to be desired. When looked at from a rational perspective, this film is a mess... but, it's a strangely compelling and enjoyable mess.
Featuring a Chinese and American Cast, a Brazilian Director, and shot on location in Singapore, One Last Dance is the story of a kidnapping gone wrong. "T" (deliciously acted by Francis Ng), is a hit-man who is assigned to take out a gang of thugs lead by Ko (played annoyingly by Joseph Quek) who have kidnapped a tycoon's son. T is given his marks through small red envelopes called "lisees" which contain the name(s) of his next victim. Along the way T falls for the beautiful Mae (Vivian Hsu in a thankless role), not knowing she's the sister of Ko. When Ko's name shows up in one of T's Lisees, T faces a hard decision.
To be sure there are a lot of things to like about One Last Dance. Francis Ng is mesmerizing as the disenchanted hit-man and helps save this production from its numerous faults. Harvey Keitel is good even though he's not given much to do. Also of note in a positive light, is the film's cinematography and soundtrack, competently filmed and masterfully scored, featuring Pakk Hui's amazing song "Broken Orange" (seriously the song is worth watching the film alone) which nestles its way inside your brain and refuses to come out for days.
On the negative side, the film's humor is uneven and often irritating. One wishes they focused more on Francis Ng's character other than Joseph Quek, who attempts to provide the film with a dose of humor but misses the mark more often than not. Another annoyance is the films use of computer generated blood, which, quite simply, looks terrible. Not to mention the irregular plot. I know this film is meant to be "pieces of a puzzle" and as much as I admire the ambitious attempt it seems to needlessly clutter the production. Most people will need a second viewing to pick through all the overlapping and seemingly unrelated scenes to piece together the time line and plot.
For all of it's faults, I still came away really liking One Last Dance. It's definitely an original piece of work, is entertaining, and features some scenes of true cinematic beauty. I just wished it was a better film.
Yi boh lai beng duk (1996)
A Blissfully Disturbing but Throughly Enjoyable (and Funny) Film.
If I was asked to describe Ebola Syndrome in one word, it would have to be; hilarious. "What?" You might be thinking, "How can you describe a movie that features dismemberment, cannibalism, animal mutilation, self-mutilation, rape, gratuitous nudity, racial slurs, autopsy dissections, and an infamous masturbation scene with pork meat, as hilarious? How? Because in spite of all the nastiness featured in Ebola Syndrome, it actually resembles a gross-out comedy, than a horror film. That's not to say the the film doesn't have it's share of edgy, disturbing violence... it's just done very comically. And better yet, it works damn well.
Anthony Wong reprises his psycho/rapist/killer role again for another outing with director Herman Yau. Along with Danny Lee, these two were behind the much more serious and darker "Untold Story." Drawing comparisons between the two films seems inevitable because they are very similar in plot and both feature Anthony Wong doing what he does best... acting like a raving maniac. But while Untold Story is a dark and mean monster of a film, Ebola Syndrome is it's more light-hearted cousin.
Kai(Anthony Wong)is a psycho, who flees Hong Kong after brutally murdering the family of his employer (all of which happens before the opening credits) to take a job in South Africa working as a chef in Chinatown. Ten years pass, and Kai finds himself stuck in a dead end job with no way out. After visiting a local Zulu tribe to purchase pigs, Kai gets infected with the lethal Ebola Virus. But Kai is "one in ten million" and instead of dying he becomes a carrier for the disease. Shortly after an argument ensues at his work, Kai ends up murdering his employer and his wife, chopping up their bodies, and feeding their Ebola infected bodies to customers as "African Pork Buns (Notice any similarities)." After finding his employer's cash stash, Kai decides to return to Hong Kong; but not without a trail of bodies along the way.
The secret of Ebola Syndrome's success is that it's not afraid to go completely over the top. Combined with genuinely funny humor, the film manages to be one fun ride. Anthony Wong gets to deliver a multitude of great lines with dead-pan nonchalance while he's ruthlessly dismembering or raping one of his many victims. I guess you have to have a dark sense of humor to get this film, and it's not for the squeamish- the autopsy scene is truly disgusting- but if ultra-violence is your thing, Ebola Syndrome delivers a wildly entertaining and sadistic ride.
Bottom Line-If you like extreme cinema seek this out. A blissfully disturbing fun time.
Cha no aji (2004)
As quirky as it is brilliant.
The Taste of Tea tells a charming story of an unconventional Japenese family, the Haruno's, with characters as likable as they are eccentric; Hajime (Takahiro Sato), a shy teen with an unrequited love and a developing case of "female phobia." Sachiko (Maya Banno), a little girl with a 40 foot imaginary twin. Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), an uncle with his share of interesting stories. Grandpa Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), a Manga posing old man with a unique spin on hide and seek. Taste of Tea features all these rich characters, as well as a psychiatrist father (Tomokazu Miura),an artistic mother (Satomi Tezuka), and an flamboyant uncle in a wide array of well-constructed vignettes that range from hilarious, to sad, to outright beautiful.
Leisurly paced, Director Ishii is in no hurry in telling the story(ies) of the Haruno's. At 143 minutes, Taste of Tea might test some people's patience, particularly those who watch Japanese films for the exploitative nature of Asian Cinema might be disappointed. But those who possess the fortitude, will be greatly rewarded by scenes such as hilarious "Mountain Song" and the Super Big Screening. However, the film's emotional payoff features one of the most bittersweet moments contained in any film, of any country. It is sure to move many viewers to tears... myself included.
As important as Ishii's direction, is the ensemble casts performance. Everyone does a great job here, particularly Asano, who steals any scene he's in (obviously), and Tatsuya Gashuin stands out as the wonderfully comical Grandpa. That being said, the sum of the whole is greater than it's parts, as everyone in this film is wonderfully casted and portrayed. There really aren't any week links in terms of acting, which helps create interesting, vibrant characters which is crucial to this type of film, and under Ishii's competent direction, the result is pure cinematic magic.
The cinematography and score are also integral to Taste of Tea and it doesn't disappoint. Achingly beautiful filmed landscape shots, combined with a subtle and reserved score help set the film's emotional nature. Constantly changing with the film, evolving as the characters grow and change. Cinematographer Kosuke Matushima and composer Tempo Little hold their own with Ishii's direction and the casts performances to create a touching film of immense beauty.
As quirky as it is brilliant, A Taste of Tea reminds the viewer of the beauty of life, family, and the awkward little moments we all endure, but never really truly appreciate till afterward. A masterpiece of Japanese cinema, Katsuhito Ishii cements his reputation as one of the most interesting directors of modern Japanese Celluloid. After directing the wildly entertaining Shark Skin Man, and the brilliant family drama Taste of Tea, one hopes we can expect wonderful things from him in the future.
Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai (2006)
Brilliant Portrayal of the Depths of the Human Soul
"Be careful what you wish for... it may come true."
As overused and clichéd as this saying is, it really does match up nicely with the main theme from Johnnie To's Triad Election, the second in the Master Director's Election series. After chronicling Lok's rise to power in the first Election, To and the gang team up for part two. This time Lok (Simon Yam) is the godfather who is seeking an unheard of second term. Jimmy (Louis Koo) is the newcomer who needs the chairman position to secure a building project in mainland China that will make him rich.
Election 2 tells a story which is based on an actual event which occurs in China. Every two years, the Chinese mafia has a democratically held election to decide who will become the chairman. As in any election, a fair amount of foul play is involved, all the more so in Election 2 because the candidates are gangsters who are jockeying for control of the Hong Kong underworld.
The performances are the film's greatest attribute, Election 2 features a great ensemble cast as well as one of Simon Yam's greatest performances (and he's had a lot of roles) as the understated evil chairman. Yam is so charismatic the viewer begins to forget how conniving and deceitful his character is. Louis Koo is also fairly sympathetic in his business man turned gangster character, who as the film progresses, starts to resemble Lok more than himself.
Magnificently scored, Triad Election's music would seem to be more fit for a horror film than a gangster flick. That being said, it works. Melodic guitar riffs and a mournful Cello help highlight the truly horrifying depths a man can reach in pursuit of his goal. And there are some disturbingly brutal scenes in this film, culminating in an ending that is both brilliant and haunting.
But the true allure of Election 2 (Triad Election) is following Jimmy's (Louis Koo)transformation from a somewhat reputable business man into an all out ruthless gangster. This is the center-point of the film, and it's what makes Triad Election great. The focus is on character development, not on action (although, Election 2 has it's share of it). In style and form, the film more closely resembles Coppola's Godfather films than an HK action flick. So don't be expecting non-stop action scenes from Election 2, the real fireworks come from the two leads interactions and the treachery that ensues.
Bottom Line- A must have for Asian Cinema Fans as well as anyone who digs gangster flicks.
Phii khon pen (2006)
Better Than Expected Entry Into Thai Horror.
After watching multiple horror flicks from Thailand, I was very skeptical of Monthon Arayangkoon's The Victim. The success of Thailand's The Shutter has bred a list of copycats trying to imitate the success of that Asian horror classic. Some with good results, some with terrible outcomes (Ghost Game comes to mind). The Victim is neither a great film nor a bad film... but is entertaining and original enough to be a worthy use of 100+ minutes of your time.
The story centers on Ting, a wanna-bee actress, who one day inadvertently secures a job with the local police working as a actor in crime scene re-enactments. After successfully completing a few jobs, Ting is asked by police departments countrywide to assist with their re-enactments. Ting becomes well-known and is also looking at television acting, until a famous crime rips through the headlines. A woman named Meen, who is also Thailands runner-up for Miss Universe, is missing and presumed dead. After an short investigation the husband is accused of the crime. Ting knows that this high profile case will either make or break her as an actress and decides to study the life of Meen throughly and intimately. Unfortunately, she becomes too involved as strange occurrences start to pile up, Ting soon finds out she may be more connected to Meen than she ever thought possible.
One of the greatest selling points of The Victim is that the film was actually shot on location using real crime scenes and the reenactments are also based on true crimes. This helps give the film a bit more creepiness and scores major points in the originality factor(although the film itself does surrender to a few prevalent Asian horror cliché's). Also of note, is that the film's credits feature actual ghost sightings caught by the camera's during the filming.
Another strong-point of The Victim is in it's disturbing imagery. The film elects to take the road of the creepy atmospheric visuals, which are very indicative of Asian horror. There are a few "scary" moments in the film but those pale in comparison with the bloodily beautiful imagery in (for instance) the bathtub scene or the hallway scene (those who have seen this will know what I'm talking about). Monthon's direction in this aspect is spot on and this is one of the major reasons that I can recommend this film.
My major complaint about The Victim is how it seems to want to be too many things at once. A detective story, a romantic love triangle story, and a horror film. There's also a complete change in the film fifty minutes in which results in a MAJOR plot twist that will leave the viewer asking, "...What!?". The plot twist is so unexpected that it almost brings the film to a crashing halt. After which it sputters and coughs like an old engine until the last third of the film where it picks up again and finishes strongly (but also predictably).
Bottom Line- Asian Horror fans should dig this. Clichéd and disorganized, but plot wise it's different enough to be entertaining. It's also accessible to the average viewer, but this ones really for the fans.