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Hideous and compelling
While not afraid of subtitles, I rarely dip into French cinema for the simple reason that people speaking French tends to lull me off to sleep. No such worries here, I think I even started to forget to blink as this hideously compelling film unfolded.
A young girl named Lucie (Jampanoi) escapes from unspeakable imprisonment and torture. Traumatised beyond measure, she's brought up in an orphanage, where she is taken under the wing of Anna (Alaoui), who cares for her with simple and heart-wrenching humanity. Fifteen years later, a helpless Anna cannot control the tragic and brutal events as Lucie takes her revenge on the couple who may or may not have been her tormentors so long ago.
A few years back, I really enjoyed Hostel. It was a lurid ride of bible-black comedy horror. It did, however, let loose a torrent of lookey-likeys that have become both tedious and sinister. Martyrs director (Laugier) considers this an 'anti-hostel', and by the film's end you can see what he means.
If you survive the squirmy gore and horror of the seemingly conventional (but technically excellent) first act, you find the film drags you deeper and deeper into the grotesque, but ultimately for a purpose. Whether that purpose justifies the movie or not depends on your resistance to high concept pretension, or the level of empathy you share with Anna, a character who surely belongs in any list of cinema's most tragic heroines.
Kaiju for the kids
When a logging company uncovers an ancient artifact in the mountains of Hokkaido, the Company's boss Mr. Goto finds a mysterious talisman. He prises it free from its resting place, thinking it would be a nice present for his daughter. Unfortunately he's unsealed the resting place of Desghidorah, a three headed, fire breathing beastie that's soon freed to run wild and destroy the local scenery, sucking Earth's precious energy.
Only a giant plush moth can save the day! A tired old Mothra - tending a lovely big egg - is reluctantly summoned (in a slightly more J-pop than usual fashion) by her tiny priestesses Moll and Lora. These cuties are from a race called the Elias, and they spend much of the movie astride a mini-Mothra called Fairy, battling their nemesis Belvera, who gets to fly a mini dragon thing and cackle a lot.
First in a trilogy of Mothra films for the nineties, while Godzilla was taking a well earned break. Clearly aimed at kids more than the average kaiju fan, this is still great fun, and while no cities get totalled in this offering, the countryside looks nice and there are some cool fight scenes between Death Ghidorah and Mothra.
There's a 'save the planet' theme going on that gets rammed down your throat a bit before the movie ends, but the more obvious beef many western fans are going to have with this flick is the lack of a Japanese language option on seemingly the only version available. Why do they do this? Yes, the film's been tarted up nicely, and the dubbing is lip-synched and not overly annoying, but some people will always prefer the original language and there seems to be little reason why it shouldn't be included.
Excellent chiller from Korea
Korean chiller that initially appears to poach elements from better known J-horrors 'Ringu' and 'One Missed Call', amongst many others. Fortunately, with the very important advantage of having a decent plot, 'Phone' is clearly far better than the latter, and perhaps even as good as the former.
Ji-won is a journalist who receives menacing phone calls after exposing a paedophile ring. She decides to lie low in an empty house belonging her best friend Ho-Jeong and her husband Chang-hoon, and their young daughter Yeong-ju.
All's well, until her new cell phone starts ringing, and all that can be heard down the line are disturbing noises and disembodied voices. Worse still, when little Yeung-ju accidentally answers the phone, she's possessed by a malevolent spirit that turns her from cutie-pie to scowling devil child. Ji-won desperately seeks the reason behind the possession, but will she be prepared to find the source of the evil is so close to home?
Refreshingly edgy horror, delivered with atmosphere and style, a little welcome humour, and perfect timing. Too many recent horror flicks seem to rely too heavily on their concept, and forget to tell a good story. In Phone, the twists keep coming, and every time you think you've got the film pegged, it pulls the rug out from under you - right up to its freaky, memorable climax.
The adults are perfectly fine actors, but all their thunder is stolen by See-woo Eun, who plays the little girl. A large part of the unease and sinister atmosphere the film generates is from how uncomfortable you feel seeing such a very young actress in such a role. I was watching the Tartan DVD, and felt much better after watching the behind-the-scenes footage included - which showed little See-woo clearly loving being the centre of attention, and the more intense scenes being filmed in small doses and in a light-hearted fashion.
Solid Japanese thriller
Efficient 'terrorists take over a building' thriller from Japan.
The building in this case is the largest dam in Japan, high in the mountains. A terrorist group seize control of the facility, threatening to open the dam and flood the surrounding countryside if they aren't given a suitably huge wedge of cash.
The spanner in the works is Togashi (Yuji Oda), an earnest employee who finds himself hip deep in randomly coiffured baddies.
Yes, there are big slabs of 'Cliffhanger' and 'Die Hard' here, and the flick outstays it's welcome by at least twenty minutes. However, this is a good solid thriller, buoyed in no small part by Togashi being an everyman rather than a typical action hero. He thinks on his feet and dispatches the terrorists in some neat ways, but at no point devolves into a dead-panning stereotype. In fact, his actions are in recompense for being unable to save the life of his best friend during a mountaintop snowstorm, several months previous. His friend's fiancé Chiaki (Nanako Matsushima) is visiting the dam and becomes one of the hostages, and she firmly believes Togashi will simply escape rather than help them. But Togashi has a debt to pay to his friend, and he'll do whatever it takes to save Chiaki!
Oda is a believable and spirited hero, and Matsushima a lovely and talented actress. The chief villain, mad haired and wheelchair-bound, is also good fun. The secondary characters, especially the cops, overact to a ridiculous degree, so much so that their scenes are almost comical. If this was deliberate, I didn't get what they were referencing or paying homage to.
The Ocean Shores DVD offers good, if unspectacular picture quality, and subtitles that are mostly fine.
Offbeat family drama
Offbeat family drama starring Eriko Sato (Cutey Honey, Carved).
When their parents are killed in a bizarre cat-rescuing incident, the dysfunctional Wago siblings are reluctantly forced to endure each other once more under the same roof.
Sumika (Sato) is a selfish wannabe actress, only returning to her quiet, rural home to collect her inheritance. When she finds there's no money and she cannot return to Tokyo for fear of a ruthless loan shark, she immediately recommences terrorising her younger sister Kyomi and elder stepbrother Shinji, and his new and relentlessly upbeat and optimistic wife Machiko (a wonderful turn by Hiromi Nagasaku).
While being a black comedy from the get-go, 'Funuke' soon gets darker and more demented, as the family's history of violence, prostitution and dark secrets are revealed.
While it's no classic, it's a good looking flick made with style and bolstered by some well measured and memorable performances.
The 'Third Window' UK DVD release is technically decent enough, but there are no extras.
Yau ching yam shui baau (2001)
Enjoyable rom-com starring Tony Leung and Shu Qi.
Skinflint businessman Richard (Leung) doesn't feel bad when he sacks his employees and secretary to cut unnecessary costs. He also doesn't bat an eyelid when his gold-digging girlfriend leaves after he refuses to give her money. She gets her revenge by cancelling his credit cards and giving away his furniture.
Suddenly destitute, he's forced to rely on the generosity of Choi (Shu Qi - lovely as always), a good Samaritan who helps him out even though she thinks he's a scumbag who makes a habit of cheating women out of money.
When Choi wants him to repay her by pretending to be her boyfriend, to throw off the unwanted advances of her father's choice of husband, Richard starts to see the appeal in stringing women along for money.
If you're watching this purely because it stars Leung and/or Shu Qi, you're not going to be too disappointed. They're a charismatic pair and their chemistry is good, and there are enough genuinely funny scenes to satisfy the 'com' part of the genre. The 'rom' side is handled strictly by the numbers. The leads are backed up in fine fashion by Theresa Mak and Yuk Fei Wong. Anyone who remembers the latter's singing prowess in Shaolin Soccer may be happy to learn he bursts into song in this one, too.
If you have to rely on subtitles (like I do), unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a good version of this flick available. I first watched a Chinese import copy a few years back which was almost indecipherable, and recently 'upgraded' to the Tai Seng version currently on sale in the UK. The subs were better, but disappeared way too fast and were still riddled with bad spelling and grammar. The film also seemed to drop frames, or even whole seconds in places. A shame.
Kei fung dik sau (2003)
Colourful caper starring the gorgeous Shu Qi
Given a leave of absence after killing a criminal in the line of duty, undercover cop Grace (Qi) takes a trip to a beautiful Malaysian resort with her friend Joey (Chan). Joey is a model and shooting a commercial, but the trip is also a chance for Grace to get away from a pair of overbearing and overly competitive beaus.
Unfortunately, these lovely ladies are soon embroiled in an arms smuggling deal between Joey's slimy agent Bobby (Lam) and smooth criminal Poon (Yam) and his colourful moll. A pair of bounty hunters, Alex (On) and his boss (Hui) suspect the girls of being involved in the deal and - as they clearly know what kind of film they're in - set up hidden cameras in their suite to keep an eye on them.
Highjinks ensue, and I for one enjoyed pretty much every minute. This flick knows it's silly and makes no pretence otherwise.
The best thing about this movie, other than a chance to slaver over Shu Qi, is Simon Yam's over-the-top act as the twinkle-toed villain. Yam is always good value when he's allowed to climb the walls, and here he's practically dancing on the ceiling.
There are also a couple of impressive action set pieces - including a Bond-style jet-ski chase, which may go some way to reminding you you're watching a Ringo Lam film.
The final fight scene goes too far over the top in terms of slapstick comedy, but if you've been enjoying the flick up to that point, you'll probably forgive it.
This is a nice change if - like me - you've watched more than enough grimy cop thrillers and mafia nastiness. It's a bright, fun movie that should put you in a good mood for the rest of the day.
Dong jing gong lüe (2000)
Fun and fast moving spy caper
After being jilted on her wedding day, Macy (Chen) journeys to Tokyo to look for her errant fiancé Ken. She's accompanied by Yung (Cheng), a disgruntled interior designer (with kung-fu skills!) who's decorated the happy couple's Hong Kong apartment and is after his pay-cheque.
It soon becomes clear that Ken has been up to no good in Japan, and is in trouble with the authorities and the mob. Macy finds herself beset on all sides by people wanting to use her in their efforts to hunt him down. Luckily, playboy man of mystery Lin (Leung) is on hand to batter the baddies and rescue the fair maiden - provided no-one tries to damage his face!
This colourful spy caper from Jingle Ma is fun and fast moving. While the plot veers between baffling and boring, there's always a fight or action scene around the corner to keep you amused. The mambo soundtrack is a little off-putting at first, but you'll probably end up whistling it for the rest of the day.
Leung's physical prowess is respectable - plus he seems to be doing most of his own impressive stunts, and Cheng is convincing when he's beating on hordes of mob goons. Chen mostly screams and cowers during the fight scenes, but there's girl power on hand from Lin's team of gorgeous sidekicks, including the lovely Cecilia Cheung and Shibasaki Kou.
This is fun stuff and well worth a watch. Tony Leung is always good value, even in more light-hearted movies, and Kelly Chen is as lovely as always and - as a bonus - not too shrill in this one.
Tian xia wu zei (2004)
An engaging and beautiful crime romance
Professional thieves Bo (Andy Lau) and Li (Rene Liu) con a businessman out of his BMW, and head for the hills to lay low. They visit a temple, where Bo busies himself relieving pilgrims of their wallets and phones, while Li earnestly prays. Shortly thereafter, she announces to her lover that she wants them both to abandon their thieving lifestyle and settle down. When he refuses, they argue and split.
On foot and hopelessly lost, Li encounters Sha Gen (Wang), a simple man who wants to find a wife and settle down with the money he's earned. He helps her find her way to a train station, where she's reunited with Bo.
Touched by Sha Gen's open honesty and trust in his fellow travellers, Li adopts him as her little brother, and decides to protect him and his money on their journey as an act of redemption. However, while Bo wants to get back together with Li, he has his eye on Sha Gen's moneybag. To make matters worse, a whole gang of thieves is on board the train, and they all wouldn't mind helping themselves to the easy cash. It's thief vs thief as the train rolls through gorgeous landscapes, and Li has her work cut out defending Fu from all sides, not least her unscrupulous lover.
I've only seen one of director Feng Xiaogang's movies before, 'Big Shot's Funeral', and will admit to not being blown away by that. This, however, is a very engaging and beautifully shot romantic crime comedy, and I enjoyed it immensely. The product placement that seems to have offended many viewers slipped by me, and the pro-communist message simply fits the character of Sha Gen and did not seem out of place. I certainly didn't feel anything getting forced down my throat.
Andy Lau manages to be a likable rogue, while Rene Liu plays her role with a lot of heart. Their on-screen chemistry is perfect.
There are a number of 'fight' scenes between the thieves, that put me in mind of the 'God of Gamblers' series of films. Instead of fighting with Mah Jong sticks or flinging cards at each other though, the thieves duel with razor blades as they try to poach from one other. These scenes are inventive and done with flair and just the right amount of CG trickery.
I did have a problem with the ending, which - while being necessarily melodramatic - seemed overly manipulative. To compensate for this, Rene Liu's acting at the conclusion should leave all but the hardest of hearts unmoved. I have to admit with some shame that this is the first film I've seen starring this astonishing actress. It will definitely not be the last.
Yi jian zhong qing (2000)
A romantic comedy, with very little of either.
Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai are among my favourite Asian actors, but any hopes I had that they would set the screen on fire again after their partnership in 'Comrades: Almost a Love Story' were soon dashed as it became clear this unassuming romantic comedy contains very little comedy, and not much romance either.
It starts off well enough. Ellen (Cheung) is a cab driver in San Francisco, raising a young son. Invited to a nightclub, she ends up having an uncomfortable one-night stand with Mike (Lai), who appears to be some kind of dot-com playboy millionaire. I say 'appears to be' as for some reason Lai underplays the role to such a degree that he seems bored most of the time - and this rubbed off on me.
Naturally the two hit it off and begin to learn more about each other, until Mike's business deals start to go sour, which disrupts his relationship with Ellen. Can true love overcome such a hurdle, etc.?
The opening half hour focuses on Ellen, and Cheung is more than capable of drawing us her lonely, struggling character. It's regrettable then that the focus shifts to Lai's rather unlikable character for the remainder of the film, and even more regrettable than the film starts to pile more and more unlikely scenarios on us right up to its (anti)climax.
I was actually sad I didn't like this flick. The setting is certainly different, it's well shot by Andrew Lau (although the musical score is horrible), and I usually enjoy Cheung and Lai. There was simply more NOT to like, though, including an uncomfortable and almost homophobic role for the wonderful Richard Ng (Wong Jing's influence, I suspect), and the wasting of Valerie Chow as a corporate femme fatale.
If you're a huge fan of the stars, you may see past the story and enjoy this one. It didn't work for me, though.
The Deltamac version looks decent enough, and the subtitles are OK, although definitely not perfect.