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35 reviews in total 
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2 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Entirely nihilistic filmgoing experience, 11 February 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

After being held hostage by a dissatisfied citizen, a high school teacher--who is a hopeless bum with no mission in life whatsoever--follows a similar path to express his dissatisfaction: by building an atomic bomb in his apartment. In the end he blows everything up.

What we have here is a totally nihilistic filmgoing experience. The message seems to be that society has fostered dissatisfied citizens who sense no purpose in life. In fact their only sense of achievement can be felt through destruction. Some fingers are pointed to Mr. Big Brother aka the conservative government, which has oppressed the wants of some people, for example by keeping the Rolling Stones out of the country because the band symbolized drugs.

I think (I hope) anyone can see that the main character here is a nut, albeit a highly dangerous one since he could blow up Tokyo with a little ball. The point is that once the sense of purpose in life is lost, all hell breaks loose.

About Love (2005)
9 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Love comes in various shapes, 5 February 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Recently, we have noticed an increasing trend in multinational productions featuring short films by several directors. For example, we have Three, Three Extremes, Eros, and the BMW Films. Actually such practice was not uncommon in Europe in the 60s; the difference is that Asian directors were overlooked back then (with the possible exception of Japanese directors), and are now usually at the forefront of these films.

ABOUT LOVE is a 3-part romantic film featuring the talent of China, Japan, and Taiwan -- although the names would not be as famous as the directors of Three Extremes. In each short film, there is a He and a She, and one is always Japanese, the other Chinese. All 3 are highly evocative, although each part evokes distinct emotions.

The first short film is an upbeat fairytale from Ten Shimoyama (St. John's Wort). In Tokyo, the story begins with a woman Michiko receiving a phone call from Tecchan, while going through her daily wandering in the midst of 20 million people. It has been 1320 hours since her boyfriend failed to return, and her boyfriend just ended their 3-year relationship with a 4 second phone call. She finds comfort from a Chinese student (Chen Bo-lin of BLUE GATE CROSSING) who posts drawings on her door, drawings of her gradually recovering. This part is short and sweet, filled with the wonderful nightscape of Chen Bo-lin riding through Tokyo in solitude. The super evocative music perfectly complements the imagery.

One word to describe part 1: Fairytale. [10/10]

The second segment actually precedes the first part in terms of time line. In Taipei, unable to sleep, a woman spends all night pounding nails into a bookshelf to release her frustration. She calls Tecchan (whose voice we hear in part 1) on the phone to come over. She doesn't speak Japanese, while his Chinese proficiency is probably 5%, but that doesn't stop them from attempting to communicate. In the hands of Yee Chin-yen (dir: BLUE GATES CROSSING), this part has a more experimental style, featuring super lengthy takes and not-so-smooth cuts. The style, along with the emotionally unstable and disillusioned protagonist, are bordering Wong Kar Wai territory. The most memorable scene from the movie can be found in this segment: in a 3-minute scene, he tries to deliver her a message in Chinese. They go back and forth decoding the exact message, full of repetition, but she knows that he is just trying to make her feel better; he is helping her to keep the last inch of hope alive. The result is both hilarious (esp if you know the Chinese language) and heartfelt. For those who have seen BLUE GATES CROSSING, it's the equivalent of the lengthy chair-pushing scene, but here the repetition is even more striking.

This segment illustrates the impossibility to let go, and what one can do to fill the emptiness. The main characters' complexity are also the strongest here. Feelings of loss, missing, incomplete, dependency, vulnerability, longing are inevitable. [9/10] (I took off one point for his not only frustrating, but also irritating attempt at speaking Chinese. It goes beyond believable sometimes)

Our last stop is Shanghai. The life of working class girl YunYun has been lacking, until the arrival of a Japanese teacher. Instead of going to school, she is working as cashier at her home store, and studying at home. At some point, he stole her heart, but he is too busy fulfilling his dream (for which he came to Shanghai) to notice. His ex-girlfriend also waited for him, but she realized it was only his dream, not hers. For YunYun, love hurts. One year later, he returns to Shanghai, to finally discover the true love that he missed. And yet, the walls of YunYun's family residence has been crumbled, the neighborhood nonexistent. In the midst of 10+ million people, how can he find this girl whose heart he melted, and finally grant her the comfort of being in his arms?

One word summary for segment 3: poignant. [8/10]

3 flavors of love, 3 unforgettable experiences. Romance doesn't get much better than ABOUT LOVE.

8 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
Relevant and entertaining, 22 January 2006

Having never previously viewed a Portuguese film, I was curious about this particular new production due to its famed director (who apparently was a pioneer of Brazil's New Wave movement). Like the recent hit SYRIANA, Portugal SA may be hailed as a political thriller, exposing the dark side of politicians and their ties to corporate bosses. It explores about 10 major characters, all of whom know each other very well. They are highly influential in their career, and are lifelong friends. A bitter businessman comes along, takes in one of the guys, and the dilemma of "to double cross or not to double cross" begins. There is also a priest, who is sort of like the chief adviser to the group of influential characters, who secretly reads and narrates Machiavelli's "The Prince"--a text frowned upon by the church. But indeed, this film illustrates that some concepts from "The Prince" are very much alive in politics and abroad today, and hints that they may be essential for success. Although the government and situations depicted are Portuguese, I think the ideas are relevant beyond national scope. Bravo to Guy Guerra for undertaking this risky project.

Avalon (2001)
Abstract, Imaginative, and Memorable, 8 January 2006

I was mighty excited to discover that AVALON was directed by the guy responsible for GHOST IN THE SHELL, which is my most-want-to-see movie due to its spiritual soundtrack and Matrix-inspiring concept. It has been said that one should first check out GHOST before AVALON to taste the style of the filmmaker. Well, I dived right into AVALON as my first encounter with Mamoru Oshii. The result is a visually appealing albeit mighty ambiguous treat.

AVALON is ambiguous even by Japanese standards, but that's what makes it interesting. The theme is reality vs illusion, and also technology's impact on reality. In the future, reality becomes more boring and isolated, and individuals turn to an advanced virtual reality video game called Avalon that is capable of providing an exciting world. The video game is designed to consume the players' lives. More dangerously, the game can directly alter the player's reality. For example, if a player gets lost in the game, he becomes brain dead in real life (this is explained in the prologue text). To make the film stand out visually, a special film stock was used, and the effect is unmistakable from the first minute. Now, Unlike The Matrix for example, here we are not sure which world is real or not. One straightforward theory is that the players exist in reality and the game is virtual; however, it is possible that the players exist inside another virtual reality game; or better yet, it's even possible that the players are illusion, but the game they play leads them to reality! One of the film's lines summarizes the struggle for truth: "Why does it matter? You have no way of confirming anyway." Indeed, even in real life one can argue there is no way to be sure if we exist in reality or not.

There is a sharp contrast between the characters' futuristic real world and our current world. Our world is still full of human interactions and a sense of community, while their world is hopeless isolation that depends on technology for survival.

More about the film: The music is absolutely fantastic. The cast is mostly Polish. And the lighting is probably the most impressive I have EVER seen.

I thought of CASSHERN while seeing this one, so I put in that movie for a brief comparison. I must say that I enjoy CASSHERN's futuristic visuals a heck lot more, while AVALON's ambiguity makes it more memorable.

In conclusion, I back the recommendation of one reviewer: stay, if you are looking for an experience; go, if you are looking for a story.

8 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Love and Fate, 11 December 2005

"Fate is fate whether or not it binds you to another person. Likewise, Love is love whether or not it binds you to another person."

According to China.Org.Cn, "This heart-wrenching film, The Foliage, is to date, the most touching love story to hit the Chinese box office." While this movie is not bad, the above description is grossly exaggerated. The Foliage is a decent recount of life when young Chinese intellectuals were required to move to the countryside for re-education. Shu Qi aficionados and those who can identify with pre-commercialized Mainland China will probably discover the most fondness here.

This movie offers a thought-provoking take on fate. It reinforces the notion that we are all connected in a big web, and Anyone has the power to alter his/her life or someone else's life, whether intentional or not. To make this point unmistakable, the filmmaker concludes the film with the tip of an iceberg to an ALTERNATIVE fate of the story, caused by a slight difference in one character's action. Who can say what the outcome of the story will be in this alternative fate?

As a side note, the story takes place in south China's Yunnan province, and the entire cast seems to speak either the local dialect or the Beijing-accent Mandarin, except for our lead actress Shu Qi. Coming from Taiwan, her Mandarin has an unmistakable Taiwanese flavor, and the film does not try to disguise her accent or explain why it is out of place with the rest of the characters.

8 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
Deliberate minimalism from an uncompromising master, 30 November 2005

This movie achieved substantial impact on me, in a good way. Firstly, it's the first Hou Hsiou Hsien film that I have been able to sit through in its entirety. As much as I claim to admire film as art, I will not ever consider giving FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI another attempt. Secondly, I now see Hou Hsiou Hsien as one of the most respectable craftsman in cinema, even more admirable than Zhang Yimou from China or my personal favorite, Wong Kar Wai from HK, and I'll give my reasons. Zhang and Wong take risks with their creations, but they are relatively easy to grasp, and even have some entertainment values. For example, Zhang's TO LIVE is an emotionally heavy drama that spans several generations before, during, and after Cultural Revolution. Even if one doesn't have taste for art films, one could enjoy its sheer melodrama. In the case of Wong, his Chungking Express has a huge cult following. It has a sweet touch of spontaneity that makes it watchable to anyone, although the disconnected storytelling could throw some people off.

So Zhang can do intense drama, and Wong can direct spontaneous acting. Hou Hsiou Hsien (or his colleagues Tsai Ming Liang and Edward Yang), however, is of a different breed. His films (that I've seen anyway) are casual but deliberately never ever strive to be interesting. For example, there's no moody music, showy cinematography, or thought-provoking dialogue to spice things up while you watch a 2-minute long take of people walking. Everything is just as indifferent as it is and nothing more; then it's up to us to give it a meaning -- that is the essence of MINIMALISM which define Hou's body of work. Minimalist cinema is by far the most difficult to grasp and sit through (since "nothing happens," some will understandably accuse), and many viewers detest it with a passion. Whether this style is actually effective I do not know, "all I know is this: once I was blind and now I can see." Good Men Good Women is an eye opener for me.

In recent years, several well-noted Chinese art house filmmakers have upgraded to generously budgeted blockbusters: Ang Lee with Crouching Tiger, Zhang Yimou with Hero and Flying Dagger, He Ping with Warriors of Heaven & Earth, Fruit Chan with Three Extremes: Dumpling, not to forget Cheng Kaige's special effects fantasy extravaganza The Promise on the way, followed by Wong Kar Wai reportedly to film an American feature The Lady from Shanghai with Nicole Kidman, and words of Hou's Taiwanese colleague Edward Yang to direct an animation produced by Jackie Chan. In such a relaxing trend, will Hou Hsiou Hsien have any surprises for us, or will he continue to explore Taiwan in minimalist glory?

8 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Superior character-driven independent showcase, 29 November 2005

I'll begin by saying that this is the best American movie I have seen in 2005, which may not say much since I try to steer my viewing habits to things of greater merit than mind-numbingly insulting garbage that comes out of Hollywood these days. Other outstanding American films of the year so far include SIN CITY and CRASH.

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE is hailed as a mystery thriller, which is somewhat misleading considering the mystery is secondary to the primary focus of studying the characters' psychology in modern society by looking at their public and private lives.

The spontaneous, down-to-earth performances is the film's greatest asset. No moment stands out as showy, as popular blockbusters would try to impress us with badass personalities, or as experimental art films would consciously pile layers upon layers of subtleties. This type of independent film has the perfect balance in the spectrum, in my humble opinion, which another review has mentioned that it "tries" to look like mainstream, and I'll just add that it offers more depth. In little moments like Melody's spontaneous yet helpless laughter in response to David Dailey's awkward line "I've been there (Chicago)," it's obvious that the film isn't trying to sell its stars, cool characters, or edge-of-your-seat action. All it's doing, is offering a realistic character study, taking in issues that have become central to society only recently, for example the drive for workaholism and its consequences on personal life, the long term devastation of marrying the wrong person, as well as maintaining the right distance in relationships, as the title suggests. If art is to imitate real life, then KEEP YOUR DISTANCE is an outstanding work of art.

Several themes gradually unfold in parallel situations, such as the parallel between the Lentz scandal and David Dailey's own problems, and common dissatisfaction in the relationship of Melody and Sean paralleling that of David and Susan. In Melody's case, marrying the wrong man phased out her trust for everything. When she checks into a hotel room, she routinely looks under the bed and behind the shower curtain, as if not doing so will jeopardize her security. Such insecurity distances her from her new boyfriend Sean, who has a habit of spying, and even sets up a secret camera overlooking his band mates. As a side note, I think Sean probably inherited this habit from his wealthy father, whom we see paying people to keep an eye on other people. As for David, his wife Susan has been calling the shots since their marriage. They have had a lot of luck, and all can be attributed to her initiatives. David finally realizes that their marriage isn't about two people, but about one person, which cannot be sustained.

The ending is a bit of a letdown because the solution to the mystery is not earth-shakingly complicated. However, this is in tune with the rest of the film's down-to-earth approach, which still manages to play out impressively captivating (and in my opinion is a case of simplicity bearing superiority).

Inevitably, this kind of character study film will always trigger criticism for being boring or "nothing happens" (case in point: THE LIMEY, another personal favorite). In my opinion, such accusation is a lame move generally coming from viewers that have been trapped in mainstream blockbusterland. Needless to say, many such viewers are handicapped by short attention span and lack of exposure to the other end of the spectrum (namely films bearing more complexity, originality, sophistication, depth, boldness, and imagination).

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE is a fine film because it aims to impress us by delivering elements fundamental to the art: strong performances, interesting storytelling, and thorough characterization. Most mainstream blockbusters cannot touch a genuine independent showcase like this one because there's hardly any substance underneath their star power and high tech tricks.

12 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
Great throwback to HK cinema's golden age, unfairly dismissed, 23 October 2005

The general consensus among HK cinema followers is that Jiang Hu suffers from this and that, so I expected it to be mediocre. Truth is, it turned out to be the most delightful surprise in many years. Right from the start, the bar scenes are filled with energy and dazzling lighting effects, maximizing the cinematic excitement. The film's retrospective score and set design evoke the old Chinese city which was previous achieved to perfection only by Wong Kar Wai's IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Jiang Hu's director seems to have learned more than a few tricks from Kar Wai, from utilizing well-placed retrospective songs to capturing the moment for maximum mood. This is to say, Jiang Hu is an outstanding work of art that captures the essence of triad life-cycle and blood brotherhood.

Watching Jiang Hu is like experiencing the 21th century Chinese update of The Godfather or any number of European and Italian American gangster classics in the 60s/70s. In our jiang hu, Loyalty is at stake. Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung, two of HK's finest, reprise their boss-follower roles from AS TEARS GO BY, complete with Jacky's impulsiveness and Andy's more calm personality. Their pure friendship from years ago is turning pale as Jacky's ambition pull him towards the dark side.

While Jacky favors violence as primary resort, Andy Lau's character is more of a pacifist. I find his peaceful resolution approach representative of Buddhist ideology in some manner. When warned that Jacky may turn against him, Andy responds: "I am not worried. If my death is what it takes to make Jacky realize the meaning of blood brothers, then so be it." Andy has reached the top of the game, where money and fame have lost their meaning. He only wishes to change his old friend for the better before time runs out. But Andy does not shove this idea down Jacky's throat; he shows Jacky the way through demonstrations of sophistication and wit, instead of blood and force. In the end, after leaving his words, Andy walks away from the table. Whether Jacky accepts his invitation to recover their brotherly bonding is up to Jacky.

Some viewers have pointed out the lack of brutality/blood. This ties back to Andy's philosophy that success can be achieved without blood, as he expresses many times in the movie. It is a central theme to the story.

Another criticism is about the two intertwined story lines - some think it's confusing. However, let's not forget this kind of narrative structure is featured prominently in Godfather Part II, considered a classic. In that movie, 2 parallel story lines, involving the present day Michael and previous accounts of Vito Corleone, switch back and forth throughout the movie -- very similar to the style of Jiang Hu. I personally think Jiang Hu's approach is even superior to Coppola's classic, since here the parallelism is much stronger (and perhaps more meaningful).

Jiang Hu is the third masterpiece I saw in 2004 (the other two being GONG FU and 2046), a fairly kind year for HK cinema. The film is a bit showy at times, but above all, Jiang Hu is more than a standard gangster flick; its artistic passion yields a touch of timelessness which I suspect will outendure many genre classics. As I write this review in October 2005, no HK film I have seen this year comes close to exhibiting Jiang Hu's rare quality to honor the integrity of the medium.

11 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
"Greed is our downfall", 2 October 2005

"Greed is our downfall. I was watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The woman won a lot of money but wouldn't stop playing. She lost and only got 30.000 Baht."

"The tiger trails you like a shadow. His spirit is starving and lonesome. I see you are his prey and his companion."

The experimental creator of "Mysterious Object at Noon" is back with another abstract gem, "Tropical Malady." This time we have a 2-parter connected by common themes and metaphors, a la Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express, equally casual but much slowly paced here. The first part of the film is set in everyday world. A gay soldier pursues a young country boy. The boy is most likely not gay, but he returns the attraction most of the time, probably because he is attracted to the soldier on another level (e.g. he is fascinated by the soldier's uniform). One day, while the soldier is flipping through the boy's photo album, suddenly the movie blacks out -- enter part 2, a story inspired by legends that parallels part 1, but from an alternative angle that makes it challenging to detect the patterns. Set in the dark tropical forest, the soldier relentlessly hunts a tiger ghost spirit for love, fear, or both (foreshadowed by a shooting computer game played by the boy who later appears as the tiger spirit). The tiger is fascinated by the soldier's sound device. The soldier is warned that he must either kill the tiger or be devoured by it.

Part 1 and part 2 are both about desire and pursuit, and essentially follow the same path. In both, the soldier makes great effort to pursue his passion, but it leads him nowhere. He is incompatible with the partner of his desire, so it cannot be satisfied in the case of a straight boy or a tiger. The soldier can be classified as greedy, and it will be his downfall. The 'fairytale-esque' romance in part 1 seems almost Utopian, but it's an illusion that cannot be sustained. In the end he will be consumed by his desires.

This is a powerful and challenging film with 2 segments, each providing a distinctive context to view the same patterns. With only 2 or 3 lines of dialogue in the second part of more than 65 minutes, it's a highly sensual and contemplative experience, where every drop of water, wind gently brushing the leaves, and sound of birds singing contributes to your senses. You can literally smell the mud in the fresh rainforest.

The photography is undeniably beautiful. The last shot of the film is sheer poetry that will take your breath away.

4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
A man's Rebirth, 25 July 2005

Somewhere in Shanghai, a young woman has an illness. She won't live much longer, and the clock is ticking. She wishes time would stop so she can enjoy more of her limited days with sister and father.

Elsewhere in Shanghai, a business man has arrived from Japan. Depressed and hopeless, his life has stopped cold, even though he is physically alive. He wishes time would start again so he can find meaning in his days ahead.

Inevitably, those 2 cross fate in Shanghai, and they compliment each other. The man finds meaning in life after all, and the woman's last days are filled with joy to last through eternity.

All this is fairly formulaic of course, but it's not without some nice moments. There is a scene when a Japanese manager points ahead and says "where those skyscrapers are, they used to be wild fields." Then they drive through more wild fields, and one cannot help but feel their numbered existence. How long before all the little fields are crushed by modern arrangements? It may not be the movie's central theme, but I found it worth pondering.

In the same scene, the manager and the business man (our depressed protagonist) drive through an area with trees on the side. We only see the lower part of the trees, which appears as lifeless and colorless as the business man. At the end, after his transformation, he returns to the street, and the trees are light green, the road ahead looking bright.

The only major problem with this movie experience on the current DVD is that half of the dialogue is in English, spoken badly by Asian actors, and there is no Subtitle in these scenes. Another shortcoming that I found in this 2 hour movie is that there are only 4 or 5 somewhat major characters. It gets a bit repetitive when they're in every scene, and the movie's second half completely focuses on one relationship.

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