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Pido nunmuldo eobshi (2002)
A stylish action movie with a brain
It's an action movie with a brain... there are some amazing fight scenes in it, most of which are really unusual, but all of which are filmed beautifully. When I saw this film at KIMA in Berkeley, the director (Seung-wan Ryoo (Die Bad)) was on hand to comment on the film afterward (he's all of 29 years old, and he was wearing an Adidas track suit to the festival); he cited his influences as the Hong Kong movies that he watched growing up in the 80's, as well as Bruce Lee films, and the influences are evident in the fight scenes. It's a remarkably smart movie, too, with a collection of not-at-all stock characters. The main character is a female ex-con who's trying to go straight by driving a taxi. She's having a tough time of it, though, because she keeps beating the hell out of guys who try to solicit her for sex, and there are a couple of geriatric thugs who keep chasing her for some money owed by her ex-husband. The plot goes from there, and provides a colorful and unique vision of a criminal underworld.
Waikiki beuladeoseu (2001)
The slow death of a nightclub band in Korea
A frequently-comedic drama about a night-club band undergoing a slow disintegration, as the members beat each other up, drink themselves into unconsciousness, and leave to pursue more glamorous careers in things like bus driving. This is a smart social commentary and character study, definitely worth watching.
a bleak and fascinating portrait of alienation
Harmful Insect is one of those magnificent films that makes the most extreme behavior comprehensible. It's a portrait of intense alienation, centering on a seventh-grade school-girl. Sachiko lives her life surrounded by adults who are at best ineffectual and at worst (and they are very often at their worse) predatory.
Director Akihiko Shiota does not shy away from the dark, but the film is neither exploitative nor gratuitously gruesome. It is bleak and powerful, and the moments of hope, happiness, and humor stand out all the brighter for the vividness with which Sachiko's psychological isolation is portrayed.
Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)
stylish, edgy, and challenging
It's great to see a bunch of people with no budget get together and create a film with more brains, integrity, emotional impact, and stylistic flair than the vast, vast majority of big-budget films. This is the kind of film that keeps you going back to film festivals for screening after screening, looking for one of those special films that leaves you with that film-loving afterglow.
BLT deals with tough issues without losing its sense of humor. It doesn't succumb to the lure of the morality-play structure that most crime movies adhere to. Crime in BLT has consequences, but consequences that work like consequences do in real life: the only certain results of crime are psychological effects on the perpetrators and the victims. The good are not rewarded, the bad are not punished--not necessarily. The film is as unpredictable as it is brilliant.
Thank the gods of cinema, everyone, that MTV picked this film up for a wide release. Those of you who missed it at Sundance or NAATA in SF can look forward to getting a chance to see it.
Ni na bian ji dian (2001)
The slowest movie ever in the history of everything ever
It wasn't a bad film. Not by any means. It was very well crafted, beautifully filmed, and managed to impart a powerful mood with artistry and precision.
Now, I'm not a lightweight about slow-moving films. But after an hour of this film I was about to chew my own leg off to try and escape. You reach this point where you see the female lead step on one end of a LOOONG escalator, and you think to yourself, "I'm going to have to watch her go the length of that whole damn escalator, aren't I?" And yes, yes, you do.
A complex, sometimes grim, frequently hilarious family comedy.
Rendan is a wonderfully engrossing film, from the first shot onward. It's the story of a family in crisis, and while it doesn't shy away from serious portrayals of the pain involved, it handles the whole thing with a focus on absurdity. As a result, the film is moving, perceptive, and still extremely funny.
The characters--all of them, but especially the main characters--are fascinating, bizarre, and believable. The children have, for once, as full and complex characters as the adults, which prevents the movie from ever sinking into sentimentality.
Hey, Japan--I'll give you Hollywood if you'll give me your movie industry. Deal?
Return to Pontianak (2001)
Think "Blair Witch Project" in the jungle...
Return to Pontianak is an ultra-low budget Blair-Witch-knock-off shot in the jungle near Borneo. A Pontianak is a female ghost (like a banshee, the film synopsis at the film festival said, only it wasn't like a banshee at all, it was a lot quieter and more violent). The film was unquestionably a Blair Witch knock off--shot on DV, a similar structure, similar feel to the dialogue, that sort of thing. But unlike some Blair Witch knock-offs (like, say, Blair Witch 2), this one knew what made Blair Witch good, and it worked it. The creepy stuff was genuinely creepy--there's an exploring-the-abandoned-shack-like-an-idiot sequence which had me squirming in my seat (soon followed by a close-up-on-scary-looking-eyes shot that must rank among the best ever). To the films credit, there's a lot going on--there's more texture to the baddie, for instance. But there were definite weaknesses. You get the feeling they didn't have the plot all the way worked out, and you also get the feeling they couldn't afford as many takes as they might've liked. People were always wandering off and wandering back for no good reason. And when characters started getting whacked, it didn't seem to effect the other characters that much--maybe b/c all of them were so shrill to start off with. But it's definitely worth seeing, if you like that sort of thing. It's got the right kind of ending--this is the kind of evil that you can't fix and you can't escape from. It's evil and it's wrong and it sucks to be you and that's just the way it is. (7/10)
Mayonaka made (1999)
It's a stylish neo-noir with a light touch and a sense of humor.
This film, starring Hiroyuki Sanada and Michelle Reis (Fallen Angels, Kiddo in Swordsman II, etc.), was almost perfect. I'd describe it as kinder, gentler neo-noir. I know, I know, it's not really a noir if there are nice surprises. Everyone's supposed to get killed in a noir. I can sympathize with that--I like a good hard-boiled full-on noirer-than-noir noir myself (like the awesome Sleepless Town, another Japanese film, starring Takeshi Kaneshiro--worth a look if you haven't seen it already). But Round About Midnight had all the noir elements--a dame causing the hero trouble, crooked cops, jazz clubs, chases through town. It just didn't take place in the kind of world where everything always go wrong, and as a result the movie has a light touch and a sense of humor throughout that made it fun for the whole family (I don't really have a family, but you get my drift). But that's not to say it's fluff--it's really good. My girlfriend liked it, too, although she thought it was "sappy" in parts (though she may just be grumpy because I've made her watch too many Asian movies over the last couple of days). My one problem: I wanted Michelle Reis to change shoes SO badly. She spends half of the movie running, and she's wearing these impossible strappy little shoes WITH HEELS! It hurt just watching her. And it's not like those were a stunt double's feet! The poor woman. Anyway, the film is worth the price of admission just to see how many ways they thought of to use a trumpet as a weapon. The main character, you see, is a jazz trumpet player, and throughout the whole film he wants to get back to his club by midnight to play his second set. So he's carrying his trumpet in one hand during THE ENTIRE FILM, except for one moment near the end when he gets in a fistfight and Michelle Reis picks it up. But no more about that, because that's the end, and I don't want to give it away...
Choyonghan kajok (1998)
A slick, entertaining horror sit-com.
This film manages to strike a very tricky balance between humor and suspense. It's funny and tense all at the same time, from start to finish.
It's visually appealing, with interesting characters, and high production values. The acting is uniformly superb, and the plot manages to incorporate good, old fashioned suspense traditions and tropes while remaining fresh and interesting.
If you get a chance to see this, do.
Eye of the Beholder (1999)
Clumsy, tedious, and unconvincing.
A strong contender for worst movie of 2000.
This film is supposed to be a thriller, but it lacks plot, character, and suspense. It's supposed to be a deep psychological study, but, I'm sorry, a troubled past does not amount to an interesting character.
I just kept asking myself... "And she's taking her clothes off why?"
Se qing nan nu (1996)
A witty, self-aware commentary on the Hong Kong film industry.
"Viva, Erotica" (English title) is a smart, bizarre, entertaining film which plays with genre and the boundaries between parody, drama, and pornography. Never taking itself too seriously--but never content to simply dismiss itself--this movie portrays the emotional life of a Hong Kong director with just the right mix of sentimentality and meta-theatrical humor.
The film will leave you endlessly questioning your own reactions.
Joan of Arc (1999)
Gorgeous, brooding, and gothic--another first rate character study from Luc Besson.
Besson brings the same psychological depth, intensity, and intelligence to his portrait of Joan that he brought to Leon in The Professional. The film resists the temptation to descend into a bathetic, jingoistic action film (we are spared the ridiculous spectacle of the protagonist screaming FREEEDOM! at the top of his/her lungs during the execution sequence) and instead explores the moral and spiritual paradoxes involved in attempting to Do Good within a Christian world view. That's not to say that the movie is only for the religious (as I certainly am not to be counted among the ranks of the elect); it should be of interest to anyone who enjoys thoughtful and honest character drama. The tragic ending effectively converts historical fact to psychological necessity--Joan's brilliantly-depicted final psychological struggle, helped along by Dustin Hoffman's first rate performance as an incarnation of God/Satan/Joan's psychology, is satisfying precisely because of its gothic ambiguity.