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Shallow, generic but entertaining thriller
25 May 2012
OK, I admit it... I'm a whore. And not just because I have sex for money, but because I can never resist putting out for a movie about cops. But I know I'm not the only one . Really there's nothing cheaper or easier as a plot device than making your main character(s) cops or killers. It's far easier to imagine an interesting story for a cop than it is for a computer programmer or telemarketer, despite the fact that the audience is more likely to be in such a job. I'd love to compare the statistics for occupation distribution and life expectancy between real world and movie world, just to see how much our entertainment misrepresents our lives. Not that I'd have it any other way - the reason cops and killers are such movie clichés is because they make good movie material, after all.

This Is Law / Out of Justice is a cop movie, pure and simple and with no pretensions to be anything else. It almost feels like part of a series, it's all so comfortable and familiar. And in a way it is - part of the universal series of movies about cops on the trail of a mysterious killer. Different characters, different locations, but ultimately the same as half the movies and TV serials ever made.

This time around, we get two groups of cops - a pair of homicide detectives and a group known as STF, which I deduce to be Special Task Force. Both groups end up on the same case, when a series of bodies turn up with a signature - a tarot card left with the corpse. The connection between the victims seems to be that they are all criminals who have somehow evaded punishment by the law. The vigilante aspect coupled with the killer's self promotion via his own website means that he has quite a cult following. But law is law, and our cops have to find out who he really is and stop him doing it again.

The basic familiarity of the situation means that the movie can leap into its complicated storyline without wasting too much time setting the scene. We meet the characters, we follow some detective work, we let the story unfold. The plot is pretty complicated - we get a lot of plot twists and turns and details... enough to quite overwhelm my poor little brain I must say. The number of characters brought into the case is high, and I always felt like I was playing catch-up with who was who and what they were up to. It felt like I was meant to know more than I did about what was going on. Not to the extent that I was ever lost or overly confused, but enough to mean I was never in any danger of anticipating the way things were going to develop. This takes some of the fun out of a mystery, naturally.

However, that's not problem enough to stop This Is Law being entertaining. During the course of the movie we get a bit of action, a bit of suspense, a bit of character development and meaningful dialogue and even a hint of romance (and some gratuitous nudity!). All the things that make it easier to make a cop movie interesting than movies about hairdressers or gardeners. The characters are good, the action exciting, the romance unnecessary and the 'police procedure' doubtless wildly inaccurate. In other words it's an enjoyable movie about cops on the trail of a killer.

This Is Law is largely interchangeable with thousands of other movies, and there are certainly better movies even within the genre. However, it hits all the right notes that make a cop movie enjoyable, and provides adequate entertainment throughout. I'm sure that 3 days from now I won't remember the first thing about it, but for this evening at least it kept me quite happy and fulfilled.
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should have been so much better
24 May 2012
The film opens with a narration explaining that by 2007 Thailand will have 2 women for every man, and by 2017 it could be 4:1. It doesn't explain *why* this is the case... since gender isn't a hereditary attribute (except in the sense you either get your mother's or your father's, I suppose!). However, if we accept the claim, then it is clear that the laws of economics dictate one thing: men will take mistresses! In fact, taking a mistress is already considered quite normal in Thailand and several other Asian cultures (perhaps because Buddhism never proclaimed on the subject of adultery), which is why a film like BULLET WIVES is only likely to come from Asia.

The (high) concept in a nutshell: Many men have mistresses, and when the "First Wife" dies the mistress is "promoted" to full wife status. The mistresses form a society to encourage this promotion, so the wives form a society to help protect each other. At the start of the film, the mistresses murder two prominent members of the First Wives Society to try and provoke them into a war where the mistresses can take over. The logic seems flawed since a mistress that becomes a wife, she would automatically become the enemy of her own society, but this is conveniently ignored for the purposes of the film :P I have to say that it's one of the best concepts for a film I've ever heard, because it's really just a good excuse to have lots of gorgeous women engaging in stylised action scenes that pay homage to John Woo, The Matrix, Kill Bill and especially indie sci-fi yawner Equilibrium. And if you get caught drooling, you always have the excuse that you were just fascinated by the feminist themes the film raises :P Unfortunately, as wonderful as BULLET WIVES is in concept, equally dire is it in execution. It's visually very slick, with great cinematography and production design, but it is woefully amateurish in other respects - the acting is awful, the editing is worse and the sound recording is especially poor! It's not often you can point to the sound recordist as the person that really let the film down, but BULLET WIVES is a great counter-example that shows what a good job the vast majority of sound recordists actually do. In fact, nobody on the production team seems to have thought through the issues involved in making a sync-sound film: namely that the microphone will pick up background noise, and multiple microphones in a scene will pick up *different* background noises! When you have dialogue between somebody inside and somebody in a doorway, and the sound of the ocean cuts in and out depending on who is speaking, you have to wonder how the film got all the way to a DVD release without somebody suggesting they just redub the dialogue in the studio.

It's also one of the only films I can think of that has "uncomfortable silences" in it - pauses in the dialogue that are so unnatural we begin squirming a little. I don't know if one should blame the actors, director or editor for the problem - but somebody along the line should have realised there was a problem and taken measures to correct it. Since most of the cast are models with little to no acting experience, it seems unfair to blame them, so I guess the buck stops with the director (who also co-edited!). I assume he comes from a music video or advertising background, since he has a great grasp of making attractive women look cool and not much else - so maybe it's unfair to blame him too! Since much of the film's short running time (about 75 minutes) is taken up with the girls posing or engaging in stylised shoot-outs, the flaws with the acting, editing and sound can at least partially be overlooked. It's clear that the "Gun Kata" scenes from EQUILIBRIUM were a big influence on the action, with several sequences being almost directly lifted from it, but the stylisation is pushed even further, to almost abstract levels. "Stylised" seems like too weak a word to describe the action in fact, which is choreographed and filmed more like a dance than even John Woo's lauded scenes of gunplay. The finale actually intercuts a ballroom tango with the shootout to make it clear that this is intentional. Whether it's effective or not is likely to be a matter of taste... if you're basically watching the film because you love to see beautiful women posing with weapons, you will likely be satisfied :) If you're looking for anything resembling realism or danger, you certainly will not! Basically the film should be treated as an exercise in style, with an extremely facile comment to make on mistress culture in Thailand... expressed eloquently on more than occasion as "Mistresses suck!". The wife and mistress societies are called "First Class Wives International" and "Economy Class Wives International", respectively, to make sure we understand what side the film stands on. However, the position is undermined a little by the fact the mistresses' society does have the better looking members overall :P (whoops, you didn't hear me say that). The "lead" mistress is the stunning model Methinee Kingpayome, and as a male reviewer it's hard to watch the film and not feel that mistresses have something going for them :P Which is essentially how I feel about BULLET WIVES... it's a film with such gaping technical flaws nobody could sincerely call it "good", but it does certainly offer some guilty pleasures (for the eyes if not the brain), and is short enough to be tolerated whilst they are consumed :) With a more competent team behind the camera though, it could and should have been so much better!
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22 May 2012
I had believed that I had seen this film on a lousy cropped + dubbed DVD some years ago and found it not deserving of the affection/adoration with which it is usually discussed. However, the film seemed so wholly unfamiliar when I watched it tonight that I think I may simply not have seen it before at all - I can't believe that widescreen + original language/subtitles would make _that_ much difference. Then again, my memory is very poor! Regardless, it seems I've finally found my Sonny Chiba groove, and can completely see why this film is loved and revered. It's as ultra-violent, nasty, sleazy a piece of 70's karate-sploitation as you're ever going to see! Chiba plays Tsurugi, a merciless karate master whose moral stance is at best ambiguous - the baddest of asses, if ever an ass was bad! He is quite happy to kill for money, but his real wish seems simply to fight an opponent of equal skill and bloodthirstiness. He volunteers to protect a wealthy heiress, though whether his real motive is to steal her money is never quite resolved. Once the bad guys start sending their karate masters to kill him it's a moot point, though, as he's much more interested in maiming and mutilating them! The film was made only a year or so after Bruce Lee's death, and it's clear that Chiba was being offered as the Japanese replacement for him - but unlike many abortive attempts by the HK studios to produce a "new Bruce Lee", Toei realised from the start that imitation wasn't the right approach... Chiba is in many ways an "anti-Bruce"... rugged, mean, visceral and brutal. He's definitely not a "hero" in any traditional sense... he even warns the heiress' family that he may be worse than the people he's going to protect her from.

The film is action packed pretty much from the beginning to the end, with a small army of goons apparently willing to throw themselves on Chiba's lack of mercy - which he rewards with a whole lot of bone cracking, eye gouging and body part ripping violence. Chiba's style is distinctive, and the fights have a rawness that is quite different from the kung fu films of the day. Much of it seems to be full-contact, with Chiba hitting pretty hard. The film piles on the gore gleefully and gruesomely, though obviously the special effects look dated today.

The film delivers all that fans of trashy, violent exploitation might be looking for except perhaps for nudity - conspicuously absent given the trends of the times... perhaps they didn't want to distract people's attention. It's easy to see why Chiba became an international icon, and why the film is regarded as a classic of its genre.

Highly (but selectively) recommended!
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Better than it ought to be
13 May 2012
A team of military special forces are escorting a scientist and his family in the Middle East when they are ambushed by terrorists, intent on taking the scientist's work on a genetically engineered super-strain of smallpox and using it for their own private financial gain. One of the operatives receives a bullet in the head, but declines to stay in hospital to recuperate, instead heading off to Malaysia to look for his estranged father and the brother he never knew he had. As luck would have it, this course of action brings him back in contact and indeed conflict with the terrorists.

Hong Kong does not typically do hi-tech action thrillers very well, and terrorists seeking super-viruses is certainly a red flag when it comes to a Hong Kong movie. The smarter Hong Kong's scriptwriters try to make their characters sound, the dumber they usually come across, and this is no exception. Additionally, credibility-stretching coincidences are rarely a hallmark of a well-written script. One incredible coincidence which becomes the centre-piece of the story, exploring how the effects of random probability or the hand of fate can transform a person's life, can make for an interesting story and film. When your hi-tech action thriller introduces at least 3 unbelievable coincidences in an attempt to make your story about super-viruses seem more coherent, you should probably realise you've taken the wrong track.

In short, the script for The Viral Factor is a mess... ridiculously, eyeball rollingly so, really. The annoying thing is that it's all quite unnecessary... at its heart there is a story of two estranged brothers that have found themselves on opposite sides of the law, but who have to cooperate to protect their family and see if they can find forgiveness and redemption. The implausible coincidences don't really add anything to that scenario, and the whole terrorists with super-viruses aspect is basically not needed, too. They're plot devices that speak of a weak writer, one who feels that the simple motivations of family, love, guilt and redemption just aren't enough to engage the viewer... when in fact they're the only parts of the script that do.

Somehow, the glaring flaws in the story do not derail The Viral Factor nearly as much as you feel they ought to. The writing is awful, but pretty much everything else about the film is good. Dante Lam's direction is strong, the performances from Jay Chou and Nic Tse are good, visuals and production values are excellent and the action scenes are top calibre. Some individual scenes are well written and executed, and there is generally a lot to like about the film. Generally, the further the whole 'Viral Factor' aspect is pushed into the background, the more engaging and enjoyable the film is - and for much of the running time it is indeed relegated to the background.

If Lam had had the confidence to just excise all the hi-tech espionage type fluff and focus on the emotional core of the story, he could have made a great film here... though admittedly he'd have robbed himself of some excuses for staging some quite remarkable action scenes (though I'm sure he'd have found a way). As it is, I guess he can take some credit for managing to produce a pretty solid film despite the self-imposed handicap of a ridiculous script.
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If you liked Black Mask 2...
26 April 2012
A group of circus performers are accidentally exposed to Japanese biochemicals from the World War II when looking for gold, and rapidly become super-strong but horribly disfigured mutants... all except for simpleton wannabe knife thrower Sunny (Aaron Kwok), who gets the strength without the hideousness due to... some reason or other.

The ugly mutants go on a rampage in Hong Kong, using their super-strength to rob, murder and generally get up to mischief, whilst after a brief spell being horribly fat, young Sunny becomes a have-a-go hero and strikes up a relationship with beautiful reporter Angel (Shu Qi).

It takes a special kind of person to watch Black Mask 2 and conclude "the world needs more films like that!", or to think "Terence Yin is an actor", or indeed to think "Benny Chan is a talented writer and director". I really can't imagine who would believe the latter, other than Benny himself, but he does keep getting quite large budgets to work with so unless his rich grandmother is financing them I guess he's somehow managed to convince others of it. To be fair, his films have mostly been successful - though largely due to Jackie Chan apparently being one of those who believe in Benny's ability enough to submit to his direction on multiple occasions.

City Under Siege, or as it's called in the UK "Assassin: City Under Siege" (for absolutely no discernible reason - perhaps somebody's brain melted after watching the film, and they decided that randomly following words and concepts after each other was the new normal) is truly a bad film. It's terribly written, terribly directed, and for the most part terribly acted. Things start off full of cheese and poorly plotted, and just get worse from there. By the end there's barely a scene goes by without invoking responses of "Why are they doing that?", "What were they trying to achieve?", "Didn't they think this through for even a moment?" and "wow, that was some really poor acting right there". Poor Aaron Kwok, who has worked diligently to develop some degree of respectability as an actor despite all the early evidence that it was not a talent that came naturally to him, seems to have regressed 20 years overnight, or is just woefully miscast and mishandled. This is probably his worst ever performance. Shu Qi, another one who struggled to achieve credibility after debuting and being summarily dismissed as a ditzy airhead only fit for soft porn roles, also flounders in a role that to be fair gives her precious little to work with. Ngai Sing, who generally fares well enough when he's used properly - i.e. required to look somewhat stoic and serious and kick somebody's ass - is the worst victim of miscasting and a director who can't handle his actors. His overacting becomes truly painful to watch as more and more layers of latex and makeup are applied to his mutating body, until you just feel pity for the guy.

The only cast members who come off at all well are Wu Jing and Zhang Jing-Chu, who perhaps benefit from being allowed to speak Mandarin or something. They are the only cast members who seem to fit their characters, and get a few (a very few) scenes where there seems to be some plausibility in their characters and emotions. Oh, and they get to kick plenty of ass.

The one thing that Benny Chan does unquestionably know how to do is stage some big action set pieces, and this is where City Under Siege scores a few points. Having Ngai Sing & Wu Jing go toe to toe is clearly a good idea, as that is what they are good at. The super-strong mutant angle gives the choreographers Ma Yuk Sing and Nicky Li a good excuse to show off their wirework, but they also remember to have some more grounded action where the performers get to show off their skills. The staging of the fights is quite imaginative and dramatic, though I couldn't fully enjoy the final showdown in and around traffic because I couldn't stop thinking "Why the hell are people still driving along normally when all this is going on around them?", largely because by that point I'd decided that the most fun that could be extracted from the film was probably by going into snarky critic mode and picking it to pieces... a task which, unfortunately, offers absolutely no challenge.

Oddly, bad as it is, watching City Under Siege has had the entirely unexpected effect of making me want to watch Black Mask 2 again... probably just to remind myself how bad it is, and to confirm that CUS is not quite _that_ bad. Perhaps it's just the timely reminder that you have to watch something truly dreadful every so often to remind yourself that overall, most films aren't really that bad.
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Enjoyable battle of wits
26 April 2012
Tells the story of The Banquet at Hongmen, an event that marked the transition from the Qin Dynasty to the Han Dynasty in Chinese history.

Liu Bang and Xiang Yu are leaders of insurgent forces who work together to defeat the last remnants of Qin forces, but then each set their eyes on becoming emperor of the new dynasty. They both turn to their respective strategists, Zhang Liang and Fan Zeng, for advice. The advisors each formulate plans in an attempt to ensure their sponsor's success over the other, and engage in a battle of wits and cunning to achieve victory over their opponent. The opposing forces both put their plans into action starting at a banquet at the Hongmen Gate. Whose cunning will prove to be greater, whose foresight will be longer? Who will emerge victorious in the end? White Vengeance is a gorgeous production of suitably epic proportions, built around a well written script that succeeds in bringing these historical events and characters to life. The battle of wits, cunning and bravado makes for a great story, and the cast have been well chosen to fill their roles. Anthony Wong is particularly good as the aging, blind strategist, but the show is nearly stolen by Jordan Chan in a supporting role that gives the film two of its most memorable scenes. The presence of Liu Yi-Fei, whose face is surely the strongest argument for the existence of God that man has conceived, is of course most welcome.

The film has a number of battle scenes, which are generally very well executed. CGI is obviously used to make the massive armies seem truly massive, but is mostly eschewed for any close-up combat situations, with good old-fashioned people and the occasional wire, and just the occasional bit of CGI when somebody needs a sword, arrow or spear to go through them without alarming the film's insurance company unduly. This makes for some highly satisfying scenes of combat and carnage.

It's the dialogue and the characters that make the film though. Unfortunately, things do get a bit derailed towards the end with some scenes that are simply overcooked, and performances that lose their subtlety and break the illusion that we really are witnessing events as they unfurled. It's a shame, but the flaws aren't sufficient to undo the good work that comes before them.

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Tsui Hark favours special effects over character and plot again
21 April 2012
Tsui Hark goes back to the well to draw fresh inspiration, returning once more to King Hu's classic Dragon Gate Inn - which he already remade rather wonderfully in 1992. The story is given a fresh set of details to flesh it out, but the basic skeleton remains the same - evil eunuchs, patriotic rebels and independent forces of uncertain allegiance all converge on the eponymous inn, where identities are masked and secrets concealed until a game of wits allows the various parties to ascertain where they all stand - and exactly whose ass they need to kick.

This is not the first time that Tsui Hark has convinced himself that what one of his classic films really needed was an update with loads of CGI - witness Legend of Zu in 2001, an exercise which failed to convince anybody else of that viewpoint. This time he has an extra decade of Chinese experience in CGI to draw on though, and what's more... now he can do it in 3D! Well, I will have to take the internet's word for that, 'cause I watched in boring old 2D (albeit HD). Can he convince us this time that computer graphics are the tool he's been waiting for all along to truly unleash his imagination? No, he can't. Aside from a few impressive moments, the CGI still looks rather fake, and fails to impress or engage as well as the low-budget special effects (wires, clever camera work) that made the 1992 film such an impressive spectacle. Furthermore, he seems to have failed to note the main factor that caused Legend of Zu to rank so much lower in fans' hearts than its 1983 predecessor... all the special effects in the world won't engage an audience if they don't get involved in the story. Well-defined, likable (or hateable, where appropriate) characters whose fates we actually care about will encourage us to forgive any weaknesses in the special effects, but the converse is rarely true. Flying Swords of Dragon Gate fails to deliver on characters, and fails to develop the plot. The film begins by introducing the political intrigues of the court and the rival factions of the Eunuchs, then fails to provide any particular relevance to this detail. Jet Li plays a rebel who we assume to be patriotic, but doesn't actually offer any explanation whatsoever as to as his motivations, his particular plights, or much of a character at all (though he gets more than most). Various groups are introduced, and brought together at the inn, then the film sort of flounders for a little bit before everybody just sort of decides its time to start fighting. The sense of intrigue, the subtle details, the game of wits as these master fighters out-smart and out-guess each other... the actual meat of King Hu's original film, in other words... pretty much replaced by 'hey, one of the good guys happens to look exactly like the chief bad guy!'.

Oh well, Jet Li's on hand, so at least there must be some spectacular action, right? Oh yeah, I forgot... he got old. There are some nicely choreographed action scenes in places, but with too much reliance on CGI of mixed effectiveness.

Maybe I'm viewing the older films with a touch of rose-tinting, or maybe I'm just getting old and tHe KidZ will see the many virtues of the latest attempt to improve a classic that I'm missing. It probably did look quite spectacular in 3D-capable cinemas... but I am yet to be convinced that that can ever take the place of a well written script, or a director who still remembers that he has human actors on set somewhere, and that getting a great performance out of them is probably the most important of his job.
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Bad film, amazing action
18 December 2010
A group of fighters are selected, via competition, to go to Hollywood for a project... or that's what they believe. In fact, after winning they are drugged and kidnapped, and forced to fight for their lives in a contest staged for the benefit of some extremely wealthy gamblers.

Bangkok Knockout is a terrible film by most standards - i.e. the story is dumb and the acting is terrible. It does, however, have some of the most extraordinary action scenes ever filmed. The cast are mostly stuntmen and fighters, and the film showcases a range of different styles and techniques going head to head. The level of physical virtuosity on display is amazing, and the scenes are brutal - fights are full contact, and stunts are outrageously dangerous.

For lovers of action cinema it's a must-see... everybody else should probably skip it.
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Don (I) (2006)
Quite poor
6 September 2008
The problem with remaking a classic film is that chances are you're going to make it worse, and be judged more harshly than you would if you made a new film. The remake of DON would be mediocre even if it wasn't being compared to one of the most entertaining films of all time. We already more or less know the story, and the new twists that are added to keep it fresh make little or no sense. SRK pales next to Amitabh's multifaceted performance, and the sheer cheesy fun of the original is mostly absent. The sub-par music is the final nail in the coffin. Only the action is better done here (though Malaysia makes a beautiful setting).

Next time try remaking a really bad film, then you might at least get credit for improving it!
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Triangle (2007)
As messy as you'd expect
22 April 2008
A novel idea, originating in Tsui Hark I believe, to make a film based on the old game of incremental story-telling, passing the baton between 3 of Hong Kong's (once) top directors (they should have swapped Johnnie To for John Woo and called it "The Victims of Jean-Claude Van-Damme Rehabilitation Project"). The result is, sadly, almost as incoherent as a nay-sayer might expect it to be.

The first third of the film (Tsui) is kind of scatter-shot, throwing ideas out there for the other directors to pick up on, centred around a heist movie setup with 3 main protagonists (Simon Yam, Louis Koo and Sun Hong-Lei) - setting up a triangle that clearly hints where he really wants the movie to go. This section does suffer from that amphetamine-high lack of focus that sometimes afflicts Tsui Hark when he has too many ideas for a movie, and can't decide which ones are really important.

Ringo Lam takes over just before 30 minutes in, and the mood shifts - he evidently wants to create a psychological horror instead of a crime movie, and shifts the focus more to the characters played by Kelly Lin and Gordon Lam. This part is eerie and oblique, a little surreal at times but much more focused.

Then Johnnie To comes in for the final act, and decides that the film should really be... a farce! Perhaps it's his way of commenting on the baby he has been left holding. Every character that's been introduced so far is brought back into play, along with a couple of new ones (notably Lam Suet), and the plot plays itself out in an elaborate comedy of errors hinged upon a series of entirely implausible coincidences. The finale is a gun battle vaguely reminiscent of those in THE MISSION or EXODUS, but with a more comical coating. It's a bit Shakespearean, but falls short of The Bard's wit.

The shifting of tones, and the diverting focus of the narrative, is exactly the sort of problem you'd expect a movie with three directors and three script-writing teams to have. Perhaps that was the point, and each director deliberately took the movie into their own favourite territory when they took the reins. I guess that's how it usually happens when people play the game amongst themselves (I forget the name of it, never really saw the appeal), but they perhaps failed to factor in that the game is more fun for the people playing it than for somebody who simply gets handed the end result. The production process may be interesting to talk or think about, but probably makes for a less enjoyable film than a more conventional collaboration would have.

I did enjoy Ringo Lam's section though - hopefully it's a sign he's going to be doing more work in Hong Kong again!
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poorly conceived and badly written, but L is still cool
15 February 2008
I'm sure everyone agrees that L was by far the more interesting character in the Death Note movies, thanks to a charmingly weird geek-cool performance from Kenichi Matsuyama, possibly channelling Johnny Depp. As such you can't blame the producers for giving him his own spin-off/sequel... only for making it so bad.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the writers have missed the point on practically everything that made the Death Note films interesting. The intriguing mystical lore about the Death Notes and their keepers is all forgotten about, which is probably better than trying to contrive some re-entrance for them - except that it's replaced by a feeble pseudo-science deadly virus tale that even the cheesiest of direct-to-video American films would be ashamed of. The high level mind games that drove the plot of DN are almost entirely gone - L's opponents are a dim-witted bunch, and in their place is a countdown to destruction and an entirely unforgivable attempt at an action-packed finale. Ugh.

Worst of all, they decided that what L really needed was humanising - to whit, a back-story that reveals him to be part of an alphabetically codenamed secret organisation fighting crime under the stewardship of Watari, and a plot that leaves him taking care of two young children for most of the film. Matsuyama tries his best, and his presentation of L still manages to be simultaneously super-cool and super-cute, but there's only so much he can do with the ill-conceived storyline and juvenile scripting. There are some moments that do work, but they are in a minority. Worth seeing if you enjoyed the Death Note films, just to tie things up, but set your expectations for it several notches down.
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Kung Fu Dunk (2008)
Slick crowd-pleaser
9 February 2008
Jay Chou plays an orphan raised in a kung fu school, but kicked out by the corrupt headmaster after fighting with a bunch of thugs in the employ of a nefarious villain. He happens upon down-on-his-luck trickster Eric Tsang, who immediately sees cash potential in the youngster's skills. Basketball is the chosen avenue for riches, and Tsang bids to get him a spot on a University team and to promote him in the media. General success leads to a basketball championship and a really nasty rival team managed by the same nefarious villain of before.

It's all a bit Shaolin Soccer I guess, but not so quirky or ridiculous - the plot sticks pretty close to sports movie conventions, and delivers all the elements the crowd expects from the set-up. You've seen it all before, but it's the kind of stuff it never hurts to see again when it's done well. Luckily it really is done well here (some might say 'surprisingly' with Chu Yen-Ping in the director's chair... I expect he had good 'assistants') - the script delivers and the presentation is slick and stylish. Jay Chou remains pretty much expressionless throughout, but such is his style, and when he does let an emotion flicker across it can be to quite good comic effect. Eric Tsang compensates with a larger-than-life character that he's played many times before (in real life, for instance) who gets many of the films most emotional moments.

Since the film revolves around basketball, it's good that the scenes of basketball matches are suitably rousing. The cast show some real skill, including Chou, and some well done wirework and CGI add that element of hyper-real kung fu skill that make the scenes even more entertaining (assuming you like that sort of thing) and justify the movie's plot/existence.

There's only one significant fight scene in the movie, but it's a doozy in the "one against many" style. Jay Chou appears to do a lot of his own moves, and is quite impressive - he's clearly pretty strong and fast for real, and Ching Siu-Tung's choreography makes him look like a real martial artist. I wish there'd been more, but at least it's a lengthy fight.

Very much the kind of Chinese New Year blockbuster I hoped it would be from the trailer, and recommended viewing!
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The Fountain (2006)
Vacuous and trite
12 June 2007
A brilliant scientist is absorbed by his work searching for a cure for cancer, whilst his artistic, spiritual wife is dying of... well, guess. A more trite scenario can hardly be imagined, but it is from this platform that Aronofsky delivers vacuous symbolism to make his case that religion is better than science because religion can make death more bearable, whilst science can't even find meaning in life. Whilst this may be true, it doesn't change the fact that religion is a load of made up nonsense whilst science has at least produced some cool toys like the cameras and computers Aronofsky uses to ply his trade. If you believe in some form of religion already, you may well enjoy this affirmation - otherwise, you might enjoy the pretty CGI but the banality of the film is likely to annoy.
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7/10 - more enjoyable than Japan sinking
26 April 2007
Due to rather dubious plate tectonics, every country in the world starts to sink beneath the sea... except Japan. It all happens so quickly that few survive, but the richest and most powerful in each country manage to make it to Japan to escape the watery fate of most of humanity. Politicians and movie stars that were used to being the world's elite find themselves in an entirely different situation in their new homeland, at the mercy of the generosity of their hosts - or failing that, their ability to entertain them.

THE SINKING OF JAPAN was originally a novel, released in 1973, and it spawned a satirical response in the form of a short novel called THE WORLD SINKS EXCEPT JAPAN. When it was announced that the original novel was to be made into a big-budget movie (for the second time) in 2006, the only reasonable thing for Minoru Kawasaki to do was to announce that he would make its satirical brother into a movie too... but on what must doubtless have been a fraction of the budget that could comfortably be rounded down to zero.

Whilst the rest of the world was barely mentioned in passing when Japan sank, here they are foregrounded, and the reaction of the Japanese to having to share their country with an influx of foreigners whom they now have power over is the major focus of the film. Whilst JAPAN SINKS revels in notions of the Japanese spirit excelling and triumphing in the face of adversity, THE WORLD SINKS has a much more realistic view of humanity (not just in Japan) - selfish, vain, petulant, unreliable, untrustworthy and xenophobic.

Whilst WORLD certainly doesn't have the budget for special effects that JAPAN did, it makes up for it by having a smart script and a sense of humour. Characters are mostly ridiculous stereotypes, and the film is cheerfully ridiculous on many occasions. The acting is mostly terrible, but that's not such a bad thing when the film isn't asking us take it seriously and have an emotional response. There are many non-Japanese cast members, and their ability with the language ranges from fluency to barely able to string a sentence together - which fits the situation of their characters.

There are no heroics to be found here, and no heart-warming message about triumph in the face of adversity, which means it's much less nauseating than the film it satirises - and generally more satisfying. It can't be claimed to be a great film because the production values are so bargain basement, but I happily give it... 7.5/10
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Japan doesn't sink nearly fast enough
17 April 2007
Due to rather dubious plate tectonics, Japan starts to slip under the sea. Initial predictions say it'll take about 40 years before the country is submerged, but a rogue scientist adds in some even more dubious science and determines it will actually take less than 1 year! The government think he's a crackpot, but evidence soon starts bearing his theory out.

This big budget disaster movie follows the formula set by any number of Hollywood films of the late 90's (I assume, having seen none of them), with the scale of disaster and tragedy bringing out the nobility of the human (well, Japanese) spirit in acts of heroism and sacrifice, and proving the power of love or something like that. i.e. it's as naive in its psychology as it's geology... we all know that half the populace would be out raping and looting the minute they thought the police had their back turned, and the other half would just panic and be useless.

The film does have some very nice special effects, but is not as slick or expensive looking as an equivalent Hollywood production would be. It is at least as nationalistic, humourless and lacking in self-awareness as that Hollywood film would be though, and probably has even worse acting. It does have the hot evil chick from Battle Royale as one of the leads... but she's not even slightly evil, and is therefore much less hot.

The film is much too long at 132 minutes, and gets worse and worse as it progresses towards a conclusion that had me in danger of puking. I certainly didn't care in the slightest whether Japan sank or not by the half way point, and well before the end I was trying to think of ways to expedite the process should I ever find myself in that situation for real.

But, it does have nice special effects, and Kou Shibasaki is still pretty hot, so I magnanimously give it... 3/10.
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April Snow (2005)
Quiet, realistic look at pain
17 March 2007
Take IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE but have the protagonists meet when their spouses are in a serious car crash, don't be so bloody obtuse about the whole thing, and you're on way to making APRIL SNOW. Writer/director Hur Jin-Ho is certainly not a cheerful chap, with his trilogy of seasonally-named films each taking a depressing scenario and quietly exploring the characters' pain... yet somehow his films don't end up actually being depressing. The situation could easily lend itself to melodrama (and the soundtrack seems like it wants to go there), but the characters and emotions feel too real and natural.

Although the plot of the film is essentially very predictable, it's all about the details... the unassuming direction places the actors in the spotlight - a light that pierces right into the characters, and requires superb performances from the cast. Luckily Bae Yong-Joon and the gorgeous Son Ye-Jin are capable of delivering exactly that.

Very well crafted and enjoyable, though not so innovative as ONE FINE SPRING DAY.
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The Big Heat (1988)
Intense, violent and dark - and very nearly a classic
24 February 2007
Tsui Hark produces and Johnnie To directs this classic tale of hard-boiled cops and powerful criminals who might be above the law, but aren't above justice (Hong Kong style).

Waise Lee plays the detective who wants to crack the proverbial 'one last case' before retirement, with Wong Hin-Mung as the rookie with a weak stomach and admirable support from Phillip Kwok and Lo Ging-Wa as the ice-cool action cops with an unspoken respect and affection under the competitive appearance of their relationship. Paul Chu Kong is truly fearsome as the ruthless villain, and Joey Wang is... cute as a chipmunk (sorry, but she really does look like one - she must never have babies with Donnie Yen!).

The film opens with a shocking image of a power drill piercing a hand, in quite convincing detail. It's just a nightmare/metaphor for Waise Lee's nerve condition, but it sets the tone for the film effectively - one of the most violent and cynical films Hong Kong has produced. It's reminiscent in more ways than one of the recent SPL, and the appropriation of the name from Fritz Lang's at-the-time-shocking noir is... appropriate. The film is quite openly influenced by Robocop too, with several moments of violence essentially stolen from Verhoeven's still-shocking work. This is mostly at the start of the film... as it progresses it shifts more towards Hong Kong style gunplay action in the John Woo style, but never gives up on its mission to up the ante for violence. There is some fantastic gunplay in the film, grittier and less stylised than Woo's, but just as 'ballistic'.

The film is just as intense in its narrative and atmosphere as in the action, genuinely 'thrilling' and dark as it sucks you into the characters' situation, making you care for the relatively-good guys and despise the undeniably-bad guys. There's very little 'fluff' or wasted screen time (Tsui Hark's tacked on cameo at the end being the major exception!).

I first saw the film years ago - one of the first DVDs I imported when I joined the digital world, as it happens. I wasn't all that impressed at the time, though the level of violence/gore definitely stuck in my head. After an overdue rewatch on the new/improved HK DVD, Waise Lee is still a terrible actor, even in this (one of his best efforts), but the film is so intense and uncompromising that he can't destroy it. If Chow Yun-Fat had been free (and affordable) there is no doubt in my mind that this would be held up as one of the all-time classics of HK Cinema's 'Golden Age'. My new evaluation is that it comes pretty darn close anyway.
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Dead Run (2005)
Very different from Sabu's other films
18 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Director Sabu has a small cult following thanks to his quirky, slightly clever but mostly quite fluffy comedies which tend to be based around a literal perspective on the theory that a good story is about the characters' "journeys". However, there was a suspicion gaining ground that he was stuck in a rut with this theme/style, especially after the rather uninspired and uninteresting pair of BLESSING BELL and HARD LUCK HERO.

Perhaps feeling this rut himself, DEAD RUN represents a pretty radical change of direction (and style) for the director. Not only are the characters' journeys more metaphorical than literal this time around, but 'light fluffy comedy' is right off the menu... DEAD RUN is heavy stuff.

The film feels more typically 'Japanese' than Sabu's other work (which feels like nothing so much as Sabu's other work). The pacing is languid, the storytelling sometimes oblique and mostly stripped of exposition (though sections are narrated, curiously, in the second person). The prevailing atmosphere is of melancholy throughout most of the film, reinforced by mostly static camera placement and a (beautiful) haunting soundtrack. Stylistically there are definitely shades of Shunji Iwai, maybe with traces of Takeshi Kitano and Toshiaki Toyoda.

The story concerns a boy called Shuji, growing up in a rural area of Japan where the community is divided into "Shore" and "Offshore" - the latter so-named because it is built on reclaimed land. He meets a few main characters, besides his family, that shape his development - gangster Oni-ken (Susumu Terajima) and his hostess girlfriend, an ominous-looking Catholic priest and his congregation-of-one, the troubled and rebellious teenage girl Eri - who also becomes Shuji's classmate and the object of his adolescent affections.

Life in the Shore/Offshore community is not a bundle of joy - the impression is of a community and lifestyle in decay, with the only hope of rejuvenation being a gangster-funded hotel development project that doesn't exactly inspire the locals either. It's an environment that does not fill its young inhabitants with much hope or inspiration.

Since Sabu's previous films have essentially been about self-discovery through a journey, one might expect that DEAD RUN will follow a similar path - which leads the characters to discover the hope and inspiration missing from their environment. One would be wrong. When a glimmer of hope seems to appear on the horizon, you can be fairly sure that its going to be dashed. The central and recurring presence of the church and the bible often had me wondering if Sabu was going to start selling Christianity to me, but the promise of redemption it initially seems to offer is never delivered. As I said, DEAD RUN is definitely a departure from Sabu's other films.

In fact, this turns out to be the main criticism I have of the film. Whilst the first 2/3rds are undoubtedly powerful stuff, with ideas and imagery that are sure to leave an impression, I couldn't help *hoping* that Sabu was going to pull some redemption and optimism out of his hat in the last act. In fact, circumstances do force characters to abandon their passive slide towards defeat and take charge of their lives, but whilst this is certainly transformative, it is hard to argue that it's redemptive. Whilst events in the final few reels are often unexpected, they are in many ways too obvious - in the context of Japanese cinema at large, if not Sabu's own body of prior work. This leaves them feeling rather unfulfilling, especially because they sometimes rely on characters acting in a manner that they've shown no disposition towards earlier. I assume that the novel being adapted provided constraints in this respect, but I think the film would have been more successful if it had followed a more typically Sabu-ian trajectory at the end.

The film definitely shows that Sabu is more than a one-trick pony though, and being more high-brow and portentous will perhaps help him to cross over with international audiences in the way that some of his contemporaries have managed (though it is not at all clear why his earlier films have been largely neglected outside - and probably inside - Japan). Despite my reservations about the ending, it's a powerful film that is worth a watch.
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Masters of Horror: Imprint (2006)
Season 1, Episode 13
Lacks the wit or heart that makes good Miike good
5 December 2006
Takashi Miike's first American gig was to direct a 60 minute episode for Showtime's "Masters Of Horror" series. Famously, the end result was deemed 'too extreme' for fragile American cable audiences, but not for those with DVD players apparently, so a release from Anchor Bay allows us to see what the fuss was all about.

There's no question that IMPRINT is unpleasant, with aborted foetuses casually cast into rivers, some familial violence and a prolonged torture scene being the most obvious reasons why it was never broadcast. Or perhaps it was just because it's not very good? The main problem is the acting, with many of the Japanese cast members speaking very artificial English, even when alone together (presumably a condition of the producers), but even worse acting from US native Billy Drago, who has no such excuse. The other major problem is that the unpleasantness lacks any real purpose except to be shocking. It doesn't have the wit or intelligence that make films like AUDITION, ICHI and VISITOR Q great - which justify and necessitate the use of extreme violence or perversion.

Or, since I'm not a fan of horror movies, perhaps I'm just not equipped to appreciate the point of the film.
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Face (2000)
Unique and powerful
19 August 2006
A woman has two daughters who couldn't be more different - Yukari is slim, attractive and popular whilst Masako is frumpy, clumsy and reclusive. When their mother dies the two sisters fight, and Masako kills her sibling. She goes 'on the run'... which is quite a challenge for somebody who has barely left home her whole life, and has rarely had to deal with other people.

Junji Sukamoto's film is an offbeat exploration of a type of person who doesn't often get attention, cinematic or otherwise. Something like a road movie which leads to fascinating and unpredictable places, it is a quite unique and powerful piece of work. It's sometimes very funny, sometimes very sweet, sometimes rather rough and sometimes quite disturbing. Fantastic acting by the lead actress Naomi Fujiyama carries it wherever director Junji Sakamoto decides it should go.
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Intriguing mix of styles and moods
13 August 2006
Meiko Kaji spends 3 years in jail for avenging her Yakuza father, and on her release she inherits the leadership of the Tachibana gang. They're quite a nice bunch, for Yakuza, but a nasty rival gang are bent on taking over their territory. As if that wasn't bad enough, she appears to be under the curse of a black cat that got a taste of her victim's blood...

The film takes a broadly familiar period-Yakuza story and mixes it up with elements of horror and... strangeness, making for an intriguing cocktail of styles, moods and ideas. Teruo Ishii was one of the premier visual stylists of the Japanese exploitation wave, and this film shares the style even though it's relatively light on the exploitation. The plot is straightforward but the details make it interesting, and having Meiko Kaji as the lead actress certainly helps there too.

Good stuff!
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Sukeban deka (1987)
Great fun, 1980's style
23 July 2006
I think enough time has passed now that we can all admit that the 1980's were basically a bad idea, but the Decade Of Excess did manage to produce some great cultural relics (deliberately or not). A new one for my list is SUKEBAN DEKA. Originally a Manga and then a TV show, and finally a movie in 1985, SUKEBAN DEKA is the story of a special (and secret) branch of the police which employs Japanese schoolgirls to fight crime... with yoyos! The reasons for this are presumably explained somewhere, but the audience of this film is assumed to be familiar with the history. The main star of the film is apparently the actress from the first series, but to fight a particularly villainous megalomaniac high school principal she has to enlist the help of two other Sukeban Dekas and her buddy Marble Girl! The plot is quite entertaining, with a high school for delinquents on a Japanese island that's secretly training the pupils to be obedient soldiers - vague shades of BATTLE ROYALE - and our gang of teenagers basically on a mission to stop them, and kick their asses. The weapon of choice for a Sukeban Deka is a yoyo made out of a super-dense compound so that it deals unfeasible amounts of damage to whatever they swing it at - how cool is that? Cool enough for Quentin Tarantino to rip it off for Go-Go Yubari in KILL BILL, at least ;-) The film is quite violent, very melodramatic and cheesier than Switzerland - which makes for great fun viewing... in a 1980's sorta way :) Recommended!
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Enjoyable low key drama
16 July 2006
THE WAY TO FIGHT is a coming of age tale set in Osaka in the 1970's, centred around two teenagers named Takeshi and Kazuyoshi, who love to fight and are the "cocks" of their respective schools. The boys have somewhat troubled home lives, and fighting is a means of expression for them, and is used as a metaphor for general perseverance in the face of adversity - don't take it lying down! The other main characters are Kazuyoshi's friend who always feels like the "second fiddle", and the anime-esquire Ritsuko, who is... adorable :) This is one of Miike's earlier films, made just before the watershed FUDOH. It is not one of those "extreme" films with which Miike made his name, but still betrays his touch in the quirkiness of his characters, a mixture of deadpan and slapstick humour and a general level of intelligence, sophistication and wit that audiences who have only seen his more transgressive efforts may not realise Miike possesses (though it is present even there).

The pacing of the film is... unhurried, as with a lot of Japanese cinema. One of Miike's gifts is a willingness to let the characters tell their story without resorting to lots of exposition. He can actually be very subtle when he wants to be.

I suppose I should note that although the film does revolve around fighting, it is in no way an "action movie". The fights are brawls, short and sharp... sometimes quite intense, other times quite amusing. Please don't expect it to be a martial arts film though! The film is mostly a drama with splashes of comedy and quirkiness that occasionally wanders into surrealism. Sometimes funny, sometimes quite moving. Quite "low key" in the Takashi Miike scheme of things, but another solid piece of work from one of cinema's true masters.
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Not quite like anything else!
13 July 2006
OK, make a list of all the things you've never seen a movie about.

Keep going...

Keep going...

OK, stop.

Now, that's quite an impressive list, but I bet you $5 it doesn't include "A Pro-wrestling Squid"! Right? 'cause if you haven't seen CALAMARI WRESTLER, there's no way you would ever conceive of CALAMARI WRESTLER... unless you're writer/director Kawasaki Minoru, apparently! Taguchi finally achieves his dream when he knocks out his opponent to claim the Japan Pro Wrestling championship... but he barely has time to hold up the belt when it is grasped from his hands by... a giant squid. The squid then knocks him out cold and claims the championship for his own. Who is this wrestling squid? Where did he come from? Should giant squid be allowed to fight in the Japan Pro-Wrestling league? The leaders of the industry think no, but Taguchi feels he must have a real match with the squid or he'll never feel like a true champion, and the squid needs a proper match so that he can truly claim the championship himself. Will the public accept a cephalopod as a wrestler? CALAMARI WRESTLER is basically a "boxing movie", and follows most of the conventions of the genre... with the exception of species. There's also a bit of a love triangle, and some social commentary on the state of Japan in the modern age. It's shot on video and features some of the worst acting ever committed to screen... but it's about a giant wrestling squid! And that's just cool :-) It's very very silly indeed, and really quite amusing - and even quite touching at times. The rubber suits for the squid and some other characters who enter the plot are pretty well done... though they never actually look like anything other than a man in a rubber suit, which is part of their charm.

Cheap and cheerful, and something that could only have emerged from Japan... not quite brilliant, but interesting enough to receive a recommendation... especially if you're feeling that your cinematic diet is starting to feel a bit bland :-)
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Goes nowhere... very slowly
10 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The narrator tells us the story of his father, a Korean who emigrates to Japan as a young man in the 1930's-ish. There, he turns out to be quite the bastard - selfish, violent, abusive and miserly. He gets married and has a few kids, then runs off with another woman and all the while inflicts suffering on everyone around him. Until he dies.

Why is he such a bastard? We are never offered an explanation... too many X chromosomes? (or Y, whatever). Is he going to learn, change or grow? Nope. Is his son going to rise up against him and break free from his bad dad? Not really. Will he learn to love his dad despite his flaws, because a rotten father is still a father? Doesn't appear to.

The film is quite compelling for most of the first 90 minutes, in a cheerless sort of way, but there's still most of an hour left by then... and the film doesn't really go anywhere. The years pass by and people only become more passive in their misery until age, disease or their own hand puts an end to it. Nobody seems to learn anything, nothing is accomplished and there's no obvious lesson about life to be gleaned from the 2.5 hours of glacially paced misery. What is the point? No idea.

Perhaps it's just to see Takeshi Kitano at various stages of advancing age, under the hands of the makeup team. Moderately interesting, but the makeup only sometimes looks convincing... and different members of the cast seem to age at inconsistent rates (in sudden bursts, usually).

There could have been a good film here, and the first half pretty much is... but it fritters away the good will it had earned in the remaining time and definitely runs longer than it should, leaving a broadly negative impression when the credits roll.
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