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Sauna (2008)
58 out of 67 people found the following review useful:
Finland showing cinematic muscles, 18 March 2009

Euro-horror is doing good business lately. France, Great-Britain and Spain are all battling on the front lines, but smaller countries like Belgium are producing splendid genre works too. Enter Finland, a somewhat cinematic void for me, showing their muscles with Sauna. A horror film that fairs well with its European peers but also succeeds in giving Finnish cinema a face, although a grim one.

The film's premise is kept rather vague and for people not living close to Finland or familiar with its history the film might take a flying start. Two teams, one Finnish and one Russian, are sent out to draft a new border after a long-raging war. They cross the barren lands in order to fight a more civilized war in trying to decide who gets what. Even though the film is set a good 400 years back in history, it could've well been just 50 years ago. Not that the film looks too modern for its setting, it's just that the characters are never really surrounded by recognizable cultural references. Safe from a pair of glasses and the clothing, it's all swamp and unforgiving nature that is served to the audience.

The two teams don't get along very well, but the one really stirring things up is Erik, a long-life warrior who has trouble adjusting to the new-found peace. Even though he wears glasses to fake a distinguished look, he is a true barbarian, murdering and abusing everyone coming across his way. The only one he seems to care for is his little brother, who was sheltered from the war as college student. The first half of the film is spent drawing out the relationships between the different characters, giving the audience some time to adjust to the happenings in the film. From the moment they arrive in an unlisted village in the middle of a swamp, the the core plot and the titular Sauna make their entrance.

Sauna has a couple of things going for it. First of all there is the performance of Ville Virtanen, portraying the Erik character as someone that is simply terrifying. As simple as those glasses may be, they make him out as someone with a certain sense of civilization while in reality he is as bad as they come by. His performance is hard as nails and unsettling. The rest of the casts plays along nicely, although none of them really make a big impression.

Visually the film is very consistent. Grey, dark colors and rough landscapes make up most of the visual scenery. No bright colors are seen, even the blood in the film is dark red, almost black. The camera work is solid too and helps in setting the atmosphere nicely. But even though it gives the film plenty of flair, there's never that little extra to make the film rise above its rivals. The soundtrack too is extremely fitting, with some very nifty sound deformations and good, supporting music. It has an ambient-like quality only furthering the grim and dark atmosphere of the film.

As the film progresses the story is slowly revealed an even though the premise is intriguing, you'll be left guessing at least for a little on how it all fits together. The ending is somewhat vague and even though impressive, won't bring you any clear answers. Looking back at the film, it has a lot of parallels with Vinyan (even small details - just think of the shots of water becoming blood-soaked), though Sauna is a much more subdued film, without any real climaxes or cinematic bursts. Depending on what you like more, you might prefer this one over Vinyan which has more curves compared to the straight line that is this film.

Nonetheless, Sauna is an impressive experience, solid in just about every department. Extremely strong lead, nice and fitting visuals, great soundtrack and intriguing storyline. And if you won't miss the climaxes, this will be exactly your thing. A recommendation for all fans of European horror out there. Just don't be expecting guts and gore, Sauna plays at atmosphere, grit and travels through the darker parts of the human mind. 4.0*/5.0*

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Dead pan mockumentary, Oshii style, 17 March 2009

There is no director I like more than Mamoru Oshii. But sadly, even though he directed quite a few films that gained huge international attention, there are still a fair few of his films that have slipped through the cracks. Tachiguishi is one of them, and even though I loved it to bits, it's not hard to see why distributors in the West are somewhat reluctant to release it.

In between his big and serious films, Oshii is known to do some smaller and quirkier projects. While Tachiguishi definitely falls into this category, Oshii has really outdone himself with this one, creating something that is very hard to classify, even as a freaky Japanese flick. Go figure.

At its very core lies a documentary not quite unlike Otaku no Video. But rather than make a fool of an existing subculture, Oshii invents his own and delves into the lives of culinary heroes, scrounging away food for free and upholding the Japanese culinary level. Oshii's approach on the subject has close ties with Dai-Nipponjin, as the subject is handled with a deadly sense of gravity while the images on screen look as ridiculous as can be. Deadpan humor taken to the extreme.

But that is not all, rather than simply shooting his mockumentary Oshii decided to make it using a new visual technique baptized superlivemation. A weird mix of live action, photography, digital animation and puppets on a stick. Performed and acted out (or posed, if you want) by the greats of the Japanese animation industry no less, as the project was supposed to be as low-budget as possible.

And if you think that just about covers it, know that the film is extremely dialogue-heavy, making it a good companion piece for Innocence. The influence of the grifters is analyzed from all kinds of cultural, political and even philosophical angles, fired at the audience through a continuous stream of monologues and dialogues. And to make it even worse, the whole film is completely grounded in actual Japanese history and customs, making it even harder for a foreigner to get a good grip on the material. Needless to say, multiple viewings are advised to make the best of all the details tucked away inside the film.

That said, on a conceptual level the film is easy to follow and already pretty hilarious. Various grifters are introduced as were they the most influential historical figures of post-war Japan. The film plays like you'd expect a serious documentary of any other important figure to unfold, but somehow the big and crudely animated cut-out photography limbs of which figures are assembled don't quite make it all that serious. The range of characters introduced is sublime, Shinji Higuchi taking the cake as cow-creature wearing a nose ring while taking on the fast-food chains with his gang of bull/people.

Oshii regular Kenji Kawai provides, besides a pretty comical performance, a score ranging from atmospheric and dark to wacky, strange and comical. A lot of fun is to be had from the exaggerated noises and effects, complementing the animation and totally contradicting the tone of the rest of the film.

Visually the film is very atmospheric, though it must be said that the animation is pretty scarce and while effective, remains toned down, only to burst out in hyperactive weirdness from time to time. Which is not exactly a bad thing, seeing how Tachiguishi is so dialogue-heavy. Despite that, the film is still a visual masterpiece as each frame looks absolutely lush and is tailored to match and improve the general atmosphere of the film.

Beware though, because Tachiguishi does demand a lot from the viewer. If you don't speak Japanese, there is a lot of reading to be done and there are many cultural references that demand some attention. On top of that, the monologues in the film area quite extended and can be hard to follow. The film still lacks English subtitles and even though my French was largely sufficient to get what it was all about, I'm sure I missed many of the finer points of the film.

Tachiguishi is not an easy film to get into, but around halfway through it reaches full steam and it doesn't let off from there on. I still hope to see this one again with English or Dutch subs. A dub would actually be best for a film like this (much like Container), though I guess a quality anime dub is a bit too much to ask for.

With all of that said, I can only congratulate Oshii on another marvelous film. It's rare to find a film that blends and mixes so many styles and influences to create something that is so unique and still works. The film is smart, looks and sounds great and is filled to the brim with creativity. It is immensely funny, even if you can't catch all the details on the first viewing. But be sure to at least get this with decent subs, as the automated English translation that is floating out there is completely worthless and does the film no justice at all.

Tachiguishi caters to a very specific audience and I'm not surprised the French got their release while the rest of Europe (and the rest of the Western world) is still waiting for a sign of this film. But for those that like Oshii, appreciate dry and deadpan humor and crave creative spirits, it is a film that cannot be missed, even though it could just as well misfire. 4.5*/5.0*

17 out of 21 people found the following review useful:
Kitano the Painter, 11 March 2009

After two introspective films before Achilles to Kame, Kitano is back to complete his trilogy. With Takeshis' he explored himself as an actor, Kantoku: Banzai! revealed Kitano as a troubled filmmaker and Achilles to Kame, third in line, is telling us something about Kitano as a painter. And art. Or non-art, for that matter.

The film starts of rather slow. Kitano seems to reach back to the feel-good 50s try-outs he made in Kantoku: Banzai! Soft lightning and swift switches between humor, slices of life and drama of the poor make up most of the first 30 minutes. A few scarce moments remind us we are watching a Kitano film, most of them coming from the interaction between the young kid and the village retard. Scenes that are not unlike the ones between the grandpa and little girl in Ishii's Taste of Tea.

While those first thirty minutes are quite pleasant, the humor is warm and comforting and the score is pretty spot on (staying very close to the work of former Kitano regular Hisaishi), as a Kitano flick the film is definitely missing something vital. That something is added when we jump a couple of years forward to the painter's college years. It is obvious that Kitano's style starts to flourish in a more modern Japanese environment.

This is also the time when things start to go wrong for our young painter. Up until then he has been following his heart, making the paintings he likes best. But apparently, that is not to the liking of the young art dealer who is asked to sell his work and our young painter is urged to start following art lessons. He begins learning about art, which kick-starts his everlasting journey to grasp to concept of Art (with a capitol A).

Visually this second part is much more like the films that made Kitano famous. Static camera views, harsh lighting and many shots of stark facial expressions. The structure too becomes more like his older work, reminding me a lot of Kikujiro. Where the first parts grounds the trip the main characters are about to make, the core of the film lies in the sketchy scenes that follow. Our young painter teams up with his classmates and through several (often very funny) attempts eh tries to capture the core of art, spirit and originality.

After this second part the film jumps to the current time, Kitano himself (of course) portraying the painter as someone who has lost touch with reality, still running behind this idealized image of capturing the essence of art. In this third part the film really starts to shine as Kitano himself can fool around to make the best of the scenes he's in. He is visibly enjoying himself as probably a couple of those scenes were largely improvised on set (remembering the docu I once watched on Kikujiro).

Kitano will always remain Kitano, no matter what character he plays, but since he's playing himself that's hardly a fault. Apart from that, his mannerisms and posture are gold in the comedy scenes. Still, Kitano's character starts to sink deeper and deeper to the point where the comfortable life around him is shattered to pieces, with Kitano unable to let go of his self-induced passion.

The first section of the film is obviously the weakest but important for Kitano's vision on the subject. The moment he goes to school to learn about art he loses his spirit and becomes a parody of what an artist is supposed to be. Kitano pretty much trashes artists, art dealers, self-indulged amateurs and buying customers alike as he questions and undermines the importance of art and its function in our society.

It is nice to see a director doing this so openly and directly. Even though the film revolves around Kitano as a painter, it is easy to broaden the perspective and to see this film as a comment on art and art appreciation in general. On how people approach art, want to understand art and want to profit from it. It is also good to see that Kitano can walk away from it in the end with a contented heart and a freed soul.

Achilles to Kame is a film that combines the themes and topics of his two latest outings with the style and feel of his earlier work. The comedy is typical for Kitano, the acting (with a neat little cameo for Terajima), directing, structure and pacing are all very much like his earlier films too. Even the music seems to come right out of Hisaishi's office. It's very nice to see all these things come together to create something that feels like the current Kitano, bearing his past baggage and showing multiple sides of his personality as a director, while still remaining very consistent in style and feel.

A must for Kitano fans and probably art fans alike (as all paintings were made by Kitano himself and are apparently based on existing paintings). Probably not the best place to start for people not really familiar with Kitano's earlier work as a director, but as a fan of his directorial efforts this is a pretty complete and awesome film to behold. 4.5*/5.0*

PTU (2003)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A slice of To magic, 10 March 2009

Johnny To is turning into a real favorite of mine. After praising Mad Detective and Sparrow earlier, now it's time to rewind and take a look at a slightly older To film. PTU proved to be just as impressive as his successors.

I try not to expect too much when I approach older films of a director as his trademark style might not be perfected yet. This is the point where PTU surprised me the most. It just breathes To and even though it is starting to age a little, you will hardly notice it when watching the film. To's trademark style is already fully present and already a real spectacle to behold.

Do mind the marketing of the film though, as it is often presented as somewhat of an action flick. PTU is clearly not that. Even though there a few action scenes and one major stand off, the rest of the film is brooding and slow, playing on atmosphere and emotion. But if you've seen any other recent To flicks, you'll already know what I'm talking about.

Visually PTU is a little gem. The lighting is exquisite as Hong Kong's nightly appearance is a collection of dark patches broken down by bright lights. To is constantly playing with the visuals, trying to create a ghostly and barren city which at the same time steams and is ready to burst. Camera work is equally impressive as the camera floats and flies through its surroundings. To knows how to shoot film, that much is certain.

The soundtrack is interesting (again a trademark To element) as it captures a certain atmosphere not often found in a film like this. Always a little off-key and uncommon, but To manages to make it work time after time. The film benefits from the score in several key scenes where the tension is built up to explode into a stylish climax. Good stuff alright.

I guess most people will trip over the storyline, since PTU is pretty sparse when it comes to actual events. The setup is simple, as Lam's character loses his gun and Yam and his crew aid him in recapturing it. Things get out of hand and it all leads up to an impressive gathering of all parties involved (which are quite a few near the end). And even though the film boasts a very amusing ending the key is not within the main story arc but within the individual scenes themselves.

To is one of those directors that can bring life to a scene. He dares to stretch them and brings audio and visuals together to build up tension and to develop a solid atmosphere. The storyline becomes nothing more than a hook and for those hungering for telltales to keep them occupied this could well be quite frustrating. Other film fans will appreciate To's magic and the way he applies it to turn each scene into something more than just a presentation of a storyline.

PTU is first class film-making. Lam en Yam are good actors and know how to play their parts. The soundtrack is solid and the film is visually impressive. It even boasts a simple but fun and sufficiently developed storyline. But if that is what you care about the most, you will miss the real magic of To's film-making. 4.0*/5.0*

13 out of 18 people found the following review useful:
The art of blood fountains, 5 March 2009

I'll join all the other Tokyo Gore Police reviewers and ask: "What's in a name". A title like this creates certain expectations and it's safe to say that based on the title alone, it fulfills them all. There's Tokyo, a police force and plenty of gore. But there is more to Nishimura's first film.

Nishimura gained fame for being responsible for the graphical effects in The Machine Girl so it didn't take long for people to catch on to Tokyo Gore Police. At the same time this raised expectations and made comparisons to The Machine Girl inevitable. And while the films do have a lot in common (and will probably cater to the exact same audience), there are enough differences to set the two apart.

Depending on where you're coming from, you might be overwhelmed or slightly disappointed by the amount of actual gore found in the film. Of course this film splurts blood like a genuine pro but compared to The Machine Girl, Tokyo Gore Police isn't all that more violent or bloody. There are parts where the pacing drops down a few notches and where the level of gore is pretty acceptable.

On the other hand, if you are only used to films that circulate within the regular film circuit and are peeing your pants when watching the blood fountains in Kill Bill, you might be in for quite a surprise because this film goes way beyond.

The Machine Girl was a film purely focused on gore and camp, but Nishimura goes beyond that. There is no doubt that there is enough camp, weirdness and goofiness to keep any fan satisfied with Tokyo Gore Police, but Nishimura is a much better director that Iguchi. Tokyo Gore Police is more filmic, has a more serious undertone and mixes all the weirdness with a slice of social comedy very reminiscent of Verhoeven's work in Robocop and Starship Troopers.

The intermezzo commercials are simply hilarious, praising first class harakiri swords, messed up recruitment videos for the police force and one particularly hilarious scene where Japanese high school girls are praising designers wrist cutter knifes. Even though these interludes might miss their effect as grinding social commentary in a film like this, the result is as amusing as can be.

Visually Tokyo Gore Police is a serious step up from The Machine Girl too, with much more attention paid to the camera work, good and atmospheric use of color and some snappy editing from time to time. It helps to hide the imperfections and low budget and makes for a more compelling and interesting viewing. Use of CG is kept to a minimum which helps the film to uphold that lovely, squishy and gory feel which a film like this just needs to have.

The soundtrack is the only real sub par element of the film, with some catchy but ultimately failing tunes that are supposed to raise the adrenaline further but only manage some moderate feet tapping. As for the acting, it's not particularly amazing but on the other had perfect for a film like this. Completely over-the-top, with lots of posing and insanity going on. Eihi Shiina's performance is noteworthy though, as she seemingly disappeared from view after her infamous role in Audition.

As for the gore in the film, Nishimura manages to turn blood fountains into an art. Add to that plenty of torn limbs and exploding people and gore fans won't be disappointed at all. But where the film really shines is the deformities and weirdness. There are some awesome looking creatures crawling through the film, from the SM girl-dog running around on 4 huge knives, to the alligator-mouth-for-legs girl. One scene in particular stands out, when one of the characters strolls into a night club where human deformities are auctioned for sexual pleasure. One that will stick for quite a while to come.

Nishimura really made something special here, somewhat outgrowing the simple gore B-splatter fun while keeping that part of the film intact too. Tokyo Gore Police is gory, fun, funny, weird and insane, but at the same time the realm in which it exists start to grow on you. Add to that some top notch designs and some nice visual scenes and I can only hope Nishimura will return quickly to the directing chair. Not to be missed ... if this is your cup of tea of course. 4.5*/5.0*

4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Ke Jia meets Kar Wai., 3 March 2009

One of the biggest upcoming art-house stars of China is without a doubt Yibai Zhang. With strong genre works like Curiosity Killed the Cat and the best entry in the About Love omnibus, his name is starting to spread around the globe. His latest outing is Lost Indulgence and shows yet again another side of Yibai's competence.

With Lost Indulgence Yibai travels to the Yang-Tse river and immediately enters the territory of fellow filmmaker Zhang Ke Jia, showing China as a mixture of old and new in a bleak, industrialized yet impressive landscape. But visually Zhang takes a different direction that is more reminiscent of Kar-wai's work, with rather dreamy camera-work and many shots where parts are hidden behind the scenery. And indeed, Lost Indulgence could've well been the result of a Ke Jia/Kar-wai collaboration.

Zhang's film is divided into several sections each introduced by a clay figure representing the happenings. Though most parts flow well together those intermissions also indicate the somewhat fragmented way of Zhang's main story arc. The film starts by introducing the characters but takes little time to arrive at a fatal accident catapulting a taxi driver and his client (a prostitute) into the Yang-Tse river.

While the taxi driver remains lost, the girl lands in the hospital and is taken care of by the family of the driver. When she finally moves in with them the film starts focusing on the relationship between the driver's son and the prostitute. A strange relationship that remains floating between friendship and physical attraction but never fully develops itself in either direction, leaving the two floating around each other.

Visually the film is impressive. Thumbs up for the strong, dreamy camera-work and some absolutely stellar shots of the surroundings. Nature and industry are often opposed in films but Zhang finds beauty in the combination of both. The best shots of the film are those of the characters set to their immense surroundings. Use of color is strong as ever but then again, this is a Chinese film.

The score is pretty subdued which is hardly strange for a drama like this, but from time to time Zhang lashes out with great effect. The scene filmed from behind the glasses or the manic dance scene belong to the best the film has to offer and underline the importance of a good musical score and what it can do to the atmosphere of a film.

Acting is very solid with a star role for Karen Mok as the prostitute and a solid little guest appearance for Eric Tsang. As the film progresses the relations between the parties become vaguer (yet somehow more human), but oddly enough the question of what exactly went on in the cab is not raised until the very end of the film. This keeps the interest of the audience growing without needing to touch on the actual subject, constantly undermining the relationship of the main characters.

The film remains somewhat vague, story-wise and character-wise, but manages to turn that into a positive feat. It is hard to get a good grip on the elements playing between the different characters but at the same time it all feels very natural and spontaneous. Add to that some lovely visuals, a strong score and some neat little touches to lighten up the atmosphere from time to time and what you have is quality drama, looking very good on Zhang's ever growing resume. 4.0*/5.0*

8 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
Afros, samurai, technology, gore and weirdness, 10 February 2009

2007 was an important year for Japanese animation. Not only did the first American director cross over to direct a big anime (Tekon Kinkreet), the Japanese were allowed to make an original, high profile series for American television. The result was Afro Samurai, a creepy mix of black culture, samurai and technology. Afro Samurai hit it big and a year later Afro Samurai - Resurrection was born, the feature length TV sequel.

The original OAV series was a pretty particular beast. The story is extremely simple but the setting is a strange mix of influences. At the base lies an A to B tale about a samurai trying to find the number 1 headband, which will put him in the top spot. There is some background info about his motives but none of that is too interesting.

More fun is the fact that our main hero is a black samurai with a huge afro, voiced by Hollywood's favorite black guy, Samuel L Jackson. Even cooler is the setting, where old-style samurai antics are mixed with science, technology, Japanese myth and plain and over-the-top weirdness and action.

Resurrection leaves the concept of the OAV pretty much intact. Afro loses his headband and is forced to get it back and that's about all there is to it. Again some background story is added to keep things rolling and to give everyone enough motivation to start killing each other, but apart from some die hard fans I don't think many people will be to interested in all of this.

Main attraction of the film is still the artwork. From the start it was Koike's input that gave Afro Samurai its distinct style and appeal. Koike, one of the best animators today, was launched by partner in crime Katsuhito Ishii (Trava Fist Planet and the intro of Party 7), but most will probably remember him from his Animatrix short.

His distorted, larger than life, shadow-infused style is instantly recognizable. And even though I couldn't confirm his involvement in this film, the result just breaths Koike. It seemed they spared no money either, keeping in mind this is a TV film the animation is actually splendid, especially during the action scenes.

Character designs are still pretty cool with some outrageous figures popping up. There seems to be a bit more focus and technology in Resurrection which only adds to the fun. And there is of course the ending which is marvelously animated and is actually a little bit similar in effect to the ending of Tekon Kinkreet. It's all pretty vague and surreal.

Sadly, Resurrection still suffers from the same shortcomings the OAV had. The voice acting is terrible. Afro himself is OK and Liu's acting skills are on par too, but Afro's sidekick (also voiced by Jackson) is a pain in the ear from start to finish. He adds little to nothing to the whole film but is ever present. A real shame they didn't cut him out. And while it was doable in short bursts of 30 minutes, it really starts to irritate in a full length feature.

The soundtrack (by RZA) is not all that good either. Somehow the music and images rarely seem to flow together well. A little too poppy and a missed opportunity because with a little more effort Resurrection could've really outdone the OAV. Enough solid hip-hop that would've fit this film a lot better.

Luckily, the rest is still as cool as ever. It is not a film that caters for a wide audience though. It's core appeal is very simple. It has samurai, gore, technology, machine guns and a weirdness surplus. It's all about cool and action and apart from that there is very little, nor does the film seem to care about that. In that sense, it seems to owe a lot to films like Dead Leaves.

So if you're up for some good solid fun and don't have too much trouble neglecting the grating dub and soundtrack, there is plenty of amusement to be had from this film.4.0*/5.0*

Dirty Mind (2009)
9 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
The happy disease, 5 February 2009

Pieter van Hees is one of the many young director talents surfacing on Belgian soil. With Linkeroever, his first film, he established himself as a director with a definite sense of style, Dirty Mind takes him a little further into the world of quality cinema. He leaves the horror genre for what is it and takes on comedy with a dash of drama and action.

The idea behind Dirty Mind is pretty interesting. Diego is a pretty big loser living under the wings of his older brother. The both of them form a pretty unsuccessful stunt team, until one day Diego is forced to do a stunt himself and lands pretty hard on his head. He is diagnosed with frontal lobe syndrome, a disease which takes away the human restraints and makes you enjoy life at the expense of losing your feeling of empathy.

Diego becomes Tony T and launches the stunt business to instant stardom. Tony's sudden change in character leads to some pretty funny scenes but at the same time holds a definite level of sadness as the audience is constantly aware of Tony's disease. Van Hees and actor Van Helsen succeed in exploiting this feeling to bring some very powerful scenes in between the laughter.

In essence though, Dirty Mind is still pretty much a hardcore comedy with a sense of humor that's starting to become pretty typical for the alternative Belgian cinema. It shows the lowest, simplest side of the human mind and links it to everyday tragedy. It is definitely not to everyone's liking (we were pretty much the only ones laughing) but it is certainly the type of humor I appreciate.

Visually Dirty Mind is kept very grainy. It suits the film and the characters but apart from that Van Hees serves us some cool shots and pretty imagery. It is good to see that a young director like him at least pays good attention to the visual side of his film. Also remarkable are the intertitles in between segments of the film as they are integrated pretty well in the scenery of the film. Pretty cool font too.

In the end though, it really is Van Helsen, the main actor, who makes this film work. His character has the potential to greatly irritate an audience but he pulls it off to make his a pretty interesting guy nonetheless. As the film progresses he turns into a complete asshole but never loses the sympathy of the audience. The humor becomes grittier too as the film nears its end and becomes quite black in tone, but it never crosses the line of being too dramatic or tragic to switch the feel of the film.

Van Hees really proved his worth with his second film. Dirty Mind is funny, bears a good and original story and is well directed on all fronts to help create a solid feel for the film. Soundtrack and picture quality could be seen as negative points but fit the characters and setting so well that it could hardly be seen as a lack of talent. Dirty Mind is a funny film, but delivers a few smart punches and leaves some interesting questions, though the film itself is not too concerned with hammering them into the minds of the audience. Make sure to catch it if you get the chance. 4.0*/5.0*

26 out of 28 people found the following review useful:
A dark fairytale, 3 February 2009

Maybe I've been ignoring Korean films for too long because I've seen some good things coming from those regions lately. From the first time I laid eyes on the promotional artwork this films sparked some interest, but I never bothered to pursue that interest. Luckily I finally did get around to seeing the film as this is right up my alley.

Hansel and Gretel is many things and is being marketed as many more. Sadly some people try to tag this film to the Asian horror wave, yet the film is pretty different in tone and execution. Some similar elements to Korean(/Asian) horror films are definitely present but in the end the film presents itself more like a darker fantasy.

Comparing this film to others is not an easy thing. It reminded me of quite a few other films but never as a whole. The setup is somewhat similar to Calvaire, the styling of the film has more than a little of Survive Style 5+ and the atmosphere could've been borrowed from a Korean Burton. But none of those references seem sufficient to describe Hansel and Gretel. In the end it draws its unique flavor from mixing all these influences and making them its own.

The film starts off like many Western films do. A guy in a car in a forest on a mountain road. Car crash anyone? But when Eun-Soo wakes up he sees a girl dressed up like Little Red Ridinghood. When he reaches her house he is confronted by a family of fairytale people, but looking and acting a little off. From those first scenes there's already a pretty weird atmosphere present.

The styling of the house and its inhabitants its absolutely lush, with plenty of attention to detail. Colors are flying off the screen and even though the frame is filled with toys and other colorful objects, the house is meticulously clean. It's these kind of things that help to establish the uneasy atmosphere from the start of the film.

As the story progresses the tone becomes gradually darker, as does the styling. The candy-colors never really fade but are often overshadowed by darker tones. It takes a while to get a good grip on the story as more and more elements are introduced to the film and certainly not all of them fit well together from the start, but about halfway through you should have a good idea of what the hell is going on.

Visually this is a very consistent film, with pretty awesome camera work and a great sense of color. Not unusual for Korean films but surprisingly the editing is not so intervening as to kill the atmosphere. There is plenty of time to admire all the visual sweetness, which has been known to be otherwise in Korean cinema.

The soundtrack too is effective and to the point. No high drama bombast to kill the atmosphere but good film music that aids the feel of the film. It's good to see that for a change the atmosphere of the film is kept consistent and is given room to develop itself. Something the film gratefully makes use of to crawl under your skin.

While the revealing of the mystery is nothing too special and the film knows its share of typical Korean taboo-breaking weirdness, it's that very mysterious, dark and fantasy-like atmosphere that gives the film enough momentum to easily swing past these little imperfections. In the end, Hansel and Gretel is a rather special experience that leaves a solid mark in the world of film.

Rather than call it a horror film, it's a dark fantasy mixed with drama and a touch of horror elements. The film is well acted, looks extremely lush and flies by in no time. And while many parts seem influenced by other films, the mix is completely unique and fresh. A very nice film and interesting take on fairy tale antics. 4.0*/5.0*

10 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Boys be boys, 2 February 2009

Winds of September is the first - Taiwanese - part in a trilogy on youth friendship. Following this film are parts set in China and Hong Kong, helmed by different directors but handling the same theme. All films are produced by Eric Tsang who also took up a small role in this film, but international meddling or not, in the end Winds of September is still very much a Taiwanese film.

Taiwanese cinema is dominated by a typical style of drama films. Slowly Taiwanese directors are trying to break away from those boundaries, but the road is long and progress is slow. Not that they are bad films, I actually like them a lot, it's just that it would do the Taiwanese film industry good to diversify a little. Winds of September makes a small but worthwhile effort.

The film does not wildly differ from its peers but the first part in particular feels more modern and free. Taiwanese drama is the home ground of timid acting, wide landscapes and soothing piano music. While all of that is still prominently featured in the second half, the first part isn't restricted to just that, giving us a different (and more realistic I think) view of youth culture in Taiwan.

The film follows a group of students united by their loyalty for each other. It is never really disclosed how they all came together, but it's made clear that they form a pretty tight pack of friends. Like most boys they like to fool around, going for nightly skinny dips in the school pool and similar boyish antics. Still, discipline is strict where they live and it doesn't take them long to face expulsion on repeated offense.

Interwoven with the main story is a little love triangle between Yen, boss of the group, his girlfriend who tries to break lose of him and Tang, Yen's best friend. It's the first crack which will break up the unity of the group and will scatter the members to go and live their own lives. Nothing new thematically speaking, but executed well with much attention to even the smallest of details.

Lin makes sure to give each member of the group its own part in the film. All characters add to the group and bring their own merit to the film. It is a tad less dramatic than most of its predecessors too, making it possible for the audience to enjoy most of the groups goofing around without too much worry for drama. There's a very nice boys be boys atmosphere flowing through the film which adds a lot to its charm.

Camera work is strong and tight, though some part are a little more hectic than you would expect from a film like this. Same goes for the music which dares to deviate from the piano score, though not always. It gives the film a more modern, contemporary feel (even though it is set 10 years back). When the drama shifts gears it seems that old habits die hard (and soft piano tunes even harder), but at least the global feel of the film is a little different than I am used to.

I might come off a little negative towards Taiwanese dramas, which is really not my intention. I really love 'em the way they are, but on the other hand they are becoming pretty predictable in subject and atmosphere. Winds of September is not among the best of them but it does deserve applause for at least being a little different from the rest.

Apart from that, it's a very solid film with strong acting all around, some very strong shots and camera work and a pretty touching story about a group of kids growing up. A simple film but stylishly executed. 4.0*/5.0*

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