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Thirst (2009) October 25, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Horror, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Park Chan-wook  Starring: Song Kang-ho; Kim Ok-bin; Shin Ha-kyun  Territory: South Korea

ThristCatholic priest Sang-kyun (Song Kang-ho) volunteers in an experiment to create an antidote to a deadly virus, but instead becomes gravely ill.  Upon dying, Sang-kyun lies still…and then begins breathing again.  He unwittingly becomes labelled as a miracle worker, but soon finds that he needs to drink human blood to stop the virus returning.

Park Chan-wook is undoubtedly a very gifted director, and Thirst is a highly polished and accomplished piece of work.  The subject of vampirism is, however, an unfortunate one as the market is currently saturated with bloodsuckers.  But Thirst is more of a tale of love spiralling darkly to destruction, and there isn’t a gothic cathedral or tightly clutched crucifix in sight.

Sang-kyun gets attached to childhood friend Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) who is apparently abused by her idiotic boorish husband Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun).  Without giving too much away, Sang-kyun and Tae-ju begin an affair, and start on the road to ruin, with the previously pious Sang-kyun quickly getting addicted to the sins of the flesh.  The sex scenes are pretty strong (or at least unusual, with foot fetishism and passionate armpit licking more in evidence than actual nudity) and came as a bit of a surprise to tell you the truth.

Thirst is also not for the squeamish.  I don’t know why, but I was quite unsettled by the violence and gore.  I guess special effects look more realistic these days (and I was watching this in HD), or I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.  Whatever the reason, I found myself looking away from the screen an awful lot.

For all its merits, I never truly warmed to Thirst.  Park’s idea of taking bits of the vampire myth and leaving others seemed initially a masterstroke – our victim is dependent on blood, is burned by sunlight and is apparently immortal, but appears in mirrors and is indifferent to holy icons – but then started to feel half-baked.  Why, for instance, when the condition is caused by a virus, can the afflicted man suddenly start flying?  More off-putting, for me, was a shift in tone involving the moronic Kang-woo.  The inclusion of a darkly surreal comic vein to the film seemed out of place to me.

My reaction may be more muted than most, but there is no argument that Thirst was a very successful and crtically acclaimed film.  It deals maturely and thoughtfully with guilt and lust, and the tale of doomed love is one that most can at least identify with. 

Connected (2008) October 11, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, Thriller, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Benny Chan  Starring: Louis Koo; Nick Cheung; Barbie Hsu; Liu Ye  Territory: Hong Kong

I have to confess right at the start of this review that I haven’t even heard of the US film on which Benny Chan’s Connected is based, let alone seen it.  It was called Cellular, apparently, and the remake quite refreshingly gives credit quite prominently for the fact.  Of course, at this point, alarm bells should start ringing with frequent viewers of remakes.  However, believe it or not, Connected isn’t half bad…

Grace Wong (Barbie Hsu) is kidnapped and held in a nailed-up shed with no contact with the outside world.  Luckily, she is an electronic wizard and manages to cobble a broken phone together, and, dialling a random number, manages to contact Bob (Louis Koo), a debt collector with family issues.  After convincing him that she’s not playing an elaborate hoax, and with a sceptical police force not willing to help, Bob gets embroiled in the plot and tries to help the damsel in distress.

connected.jpg
Connected should be a terrible movie, with over-the-top car chases, clichéd characters galore and so much misfortune heaped upon poor Bob at one point that the film seriously looks like it’s heading into spoof territory.  But taken at surface value (whatever you do, do not attempt to apply real-world logic to the events of this film) it is remarkably good fun.  Nick Cheung is a brilliant addition to the ensemble and his character (disgraced detective busted down to traffic cop, with a stupid boss promoted over his head, etc etc, rinse and repeat) is really easy to get behind.  Bob himself is never looks more than Louis Koo in oversized nerd glasses, but he does do his own stunts and some of them are particularly juicy.

While some characters’ decision-making abilities will have you screaming at the screen at their supreme dumbness and while the pace can be nothing short of exhausting, Connected is a fine no-brainer action thriller that should please anyone who wants to have a shot of pure adrenaline.

Connected is available on DVD now in the UK from Cine Asia.  Order your copy here.

Brother (2000) October 4, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, Crime, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Takeshi Kitano  Starring: Takeshi Kitano; Omar Epps; Kurodo Maki  Territory: Japan

BrotherGangster Yamamoto (Kitano) flees Japan after a gang war and arrives in Los Angeles, where he regroups with his half brother and his friends (including a pre-House Omar Epps).  But soon, violence erupts again as a turf war breaks out and Yamamoto is marked for death.

It occurred to me as I started watching this that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a film directed by Kitano before.  I’m going to try like hell not to let that put me off in future, but sadly Brother is not a good film. 

It may be a pet hate of mine, but when a non-English speaking director makes a film in English, you can be sure that badly delivered dialogue is not far behind, and Brother is no exception.  Thankfully, Kitano sticks to Japanese most of the time, but unfortunately his direction is also sloppy as well.  The scene where he encounters Denny (Epps) for the first time is almost amateurishly shot.

With a predicable plot, lacklustre script, directionless pacing and with several terrible performances, it’s hard to pick any good bits about Brother, but Epps gives a decent performance and the chemistry between him and Kitano is good overall.  Sadly, that’s the only bright point in this decidedly average gangster tale.

Brother is out today from Park Circus.

City of Life and Death (2009) September 17, 2010

Posted by Cal in : War, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Lu Chuan  Starring: Fan Wei; Nakaizumi Hideo; Gao Yuan-Yuan  Territory: China

city.jpgIn 2005, Japan published textbooks playing down the scale of destruction their country inflicted upon Nanking (the former capital of China now known as Nanjing), leading to a flare up of hostility between the citizens of the two nations.  City of Life and Death tells the story of “the Rape of Nanking”, in which 300,000 innocent Chinese perished at the hands of a brutal military regime.

Of course, this being 2009 (at least it was when the film was made) and with the Chinese government evidently not wanting to fan the flames any further, there are some concessions to the old enemy – the story is partly told through the eyes of a young idealistic Japanese soldier called Kadokawa (Nakaizumi Hideo).  When Kadokawa accidentally kills a group of civilians at the start of the movie, his conscience begins to trouble him, and as he sees more atrocities, his innocence is lost forever. 

The film prefers to leave the brutal military largely faceless, instead concentrating on the victims and those trying to stop the massacre.  One of which is German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley), a full member of the Nazi party but who, it has to be said, was a thoroughly decent man, even using his Nazi credentials to try to halt the slaughter (try to get your head around that).

City of Life and Death is a very well made film, but it flies too close to cliché in its characterisation, script and even visual style (it’s all in black and white).  Furthermore, director Lu Chuan uses on-screen postcards to update the viewer on events between scenes – a very clumsy and detracting device indeed (not to mention that fact that some of the cards are extremely hard to read).  There’s no doubting that the film’s subject is extremely horrific, but the cumulative effect is numbing.  There is only so much suffering you can watch without becoming unaffected by what you see – which may be why such atrocities are possible in the first place.  That being said, the victory dance through the ruined city of Nanking is truly chilling. 

Although it may never be possible to know for sure the extent of the devastation of Nanking, one only has to look at the documented facts of other atrocities to realise that the events depicted in City of Life and Death are only too plausible.

City of Life and Death is released on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK on 27th September.  Pre-order your copy here.

Battle Royale (2000) September 2, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, 2000s films , 6 comments

Director: Kinji Fukasaku  Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara; Aki Maeda; Takeshi Kitano  Territory: Japan

Based on the novel of the same name by Koushun Takami (which is, incidentally, excellent), Battle Royale takes place in the near future where schoolchildren are so unruly that every year, one class is selected at random, put on an island and left to murder each other until only one remains.

The preposterous premise is somehow pulled off by an occasional tongue-in-cheek attitude and a liberal dose of black humour.  Kinji Fukasaku is more assured in this than in any other film I’ve seen of his, and the ensemble cast is excellent.  Particular mention must go to Takeshi Kitano as the insane but surprisingly sympathetic teacher.  He is portrayed as a lonely, tragic character who somehow manages to win over the viewer despite murdering two schoolchildren at the start of the film. <!–[endif]–>

battle-royale.jpg

Battle Royale is a tense, tight film, although it’s clear from the first that Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is going to at least stick around to the final few.  The breakneck pace never lets up, and there’s hardly a moment going by without at least one poor child meeting its maker in a bizarre and usually gory way (my favourite sequence contains a bunch of girls in a lighthouse).

Of course, the film’s fame and reputation means that this review is largely pointless.  If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen it.  But if you haven’t, then do so.  Just avoid the sequel – it’s awful.

The Accidental Spy (2001) August 4, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Teddy Chen  Starring: Jackie Chan; Vivian Hsu; Eric Tsang  Territory: Hong Kong 

Opportunist and sports-goods worker Buck (Jackie Chan) foils a bank raid and unwittingly gets involved with a chemical weapon ring.

The plot of Accidental Spy is all over the place.  I mean, Jackie Chan’s stories have never been the main selling point of his movies, but something weird happened to his Hong Kong films after Rumble in the Bronx, with confusing, meandering, muddled plots all over the place.  After seeing this about five times, I can more or less follow what’s happening now, but understanding does not necessarily lead to a more enjoyable experience as the underlying plot is serviceable at best.  

The film suffers from a couple of problems.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – when Hong Kong film makers shoot in English, it really doesn’t work.  And there’s a fair amount of English dialogue in Accidental Spy.  The Turkish bank manager who repeatedly asks Buck “are you fine?” after spilling tea on him gets me cringing every time.  Elsewhere, Chan’s delivery of English lines seem stilted and staged.  Surely someone could have hired an English language coach?  
 

Also the supporting cast is instantly forgettable.  Take Vivian Hsu - she’s nice to look at, but her character is dull, dull, dull. And Eric Tsang is, well, Eric Tsang.  Actually, he provides a laugh or two as the seedy private eye, so I can’t complain too much.  Those that loved Brad Allen’s contribution to Gorgeous (and I’m one of them) will be disappointed to learn that he’s pretty much invisible through most of this. However, watching this with the prior knowledge of everything that would come after, Accidental Spy does have some neat touches and a couple of great action scenes.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s the last of the “traditional” Jackie Chan action comedies, even if by now the star had already lost a step or two and dropped the more obviously dangerous stunts.  The Turkish bath scene in particular is brilliant, and sporadic flashes of genius (such as a skyscraper demolition scene) showed that there was still a lot of life left in the old dog.  

Jackie Chan in Accidental Spy
No review of Accidental Spy is complete without mention of the Speed-style climax.  Often seen as a cop-out, it is undoubtedly a weak ending and definitely not one that fans were hoping for.  But I’m not terribly bothered about it any more.  Sure, I would have liked something (anything) else, but I don’t think it wrecks the film. 

For so long, this film has been only available (in its original format anyway) in extremely poor quality home video editions.  I had this on VCD originally, and I have to assume it was a pirate edition as the screen turns monochrome for the finale.  The Universe DVD was little better, as it had a rubbish blurred transfer.  However, the new(ish) DVD from Kam & Ronson provides a crisp, anamorphic, digitally remastered transfer which is simply head and shoulders above any other version of the film I’ve seen before.  Accidental Spy is certainly flawed, but at least now it looks a lot better than it ever did.

Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler (2009) August 1, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Thriller, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Tôya Satô  Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara; Teruyuki Kagawa; Yuki Amami  Territory: Japan

KaijiDown-at-heel Kaiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a directionless young man, is conned into honouring the massive debt of a passing acquaintance.  Attempting to rid himself of debt, he enters an underworld gambling operation, and soon finds himself a slave to the corrupt and corpulent Teiai Kingdom.

The first live-action adaptation of a popular Manga, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler is, unsurprisingly, a film with a fair bit of gambling in it.  Films with intense gambling scenes can be confusing if you don’t understand the game being played.  However, if you can understand Rock, Paper, Scissors, you will have no trouble following the movie – nothing in the film is more complicated than this playground favourite.

There is an unexpected amount of drama and tension to the games Kaiji plays, as the stakes rise and the sides form between the rich and poor, humble and arrogant.  The characters are usually pretty black and white: the unfortunate comrades of Kaiji are generally salt-of-the-Earth people (with one or two exceptions) and the Teiai employees and their supporters are vile.  The best of the latter is the Asian-Agent-Smith-a-like Tonegawa (Teruyuki Kagawa), who sneers and snarls from his position of power.  Mixing it up is Endo (Yuki Amami), the loan shark who initially sets Kaiji up, but shows occasional disloyalty to the Kingdom.

The pace is set early on with the frantic mass game between debt-riddled desperate men aboard a cruise ship.  Although it takes one or two unexpected left turns, the film rarely loses focus and retains its tension throughout the 130-minute running time.

With characters you can really get behind, a compelling story and some intense gambling scenes, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler is a solid slice of entertainment.

To order your copy of Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler, click here.

Rob-B-Hood (2006) July 24, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 2000s films , 6 comments

Director: Benny Chan  Starring: Jackie Chan; Louis Koo; Michael Hui; Charlene Choi; Yuen Biao  Territory: Hong Kong 

Thongs (Jackie Chan) and Octopus (Louis Koo) are burglars and safe crackers under the leadership of The Landlord (Michael Hui). The three come into the care of a small baby when The Landlord takes a big job from a high paying gangster.

This film was retitled Robin-B-Hood for the western market, and you have to wonder why they bothered – it’s a terrible title that fails to clarify the pun that straddles English and Cantonese and fails to make sense in either.  It’s best to just forget the title altogether.

Approaching Rob-B-Hood in the same spirit of all the other recent (i.e. within the last decade) films of Jackie Chan, I expected to enjoy it more second time around.  However, I have to admit the opposite is probably true.  I don’t like young children in movies at the best of times, and babies even more so.  And cute babies are the worst – there’s a tacit implication that only cute babies have any worth, and that if this young spud was an ugly little git, no one would care when he nearly bites the bullet in the final reel.  To say that isn’t really giving anything away – you always know there’s going to be grave peril and that the little blighter is going to pull through in the end.

Rob-B-Hood

Certain other things pissed me off about Rob-B-Hood.  The whole “two gay dads” routine brought back bad memories of Sammo Hung at his most abrasive and ignorant – is it really funny that two men should be in charge of a baby?  On a similar note, I still don’t know what all the stuff with the gay security van drivers is all about – I assume it’s a reference to some other work but it goes right over my head.

Thankfully, there are good moments.  Louis Koo is solid, Michael Hui is pretty darn funny (although it’s a shame Sammo Hung didn’t take part) and Yuen Biao has a great action scene.  It’s a crying shame he doesn’t have more screen time, as the scene where he and Chan get in a rumble in Jackie’s appartment is a definite highlight.  Chan himself shares screen time with his co-stars more than usual, and is best when in full action mode, despite a decent acting scene with his father (veteran Ku Feng).  The action scenes are…well…let’s just say they could be a lot worse.  Jackie is wired up an awful lot - even when you don’t think he needs to be – but some of the stunts look pretty impressive. 

It’s that damn baby I can’t get past though.  Speaking as someone who detested that bit in Operation Condor when the baby in the pram went into the traffic and Jackie heroically saved it, I did not relish the same idea stretched over a feature length movie, which is essentially what we have here.  And this is no ninety-minute quickie – Rob-B-Hood lasts nearly two-hours-and-fifteen minutes long in its extended cut.  This seems longer than necessary even for the most devoted Jackie Chan fan.

Haeundae (2009) July 7, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Thriller, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Yoon Je-kyoon  Starring: Sol Kyung-gu; Ha Ji-won; Park Joong-hoon; Lee Min-ki  Territory: South Korea

A geologist warns of an impending mega tsunami that may strike the coastal resort of Haeundae, a town where residents are still coming to terms with a tidal wave out at sea that caused loss of life and property five years previously.  The professional advice of the geologist is ignored as sensationalism, and so the planned Culture Expo will go ahead as planned.  But what if he was right…?

A quick browse through Haeundae (retitled Tsunami and Tidal Wave in various territories) shows that disaster movies are pretty much the same the world over.  The characters are all here: the scientist whose dire warnings are ignored only to be proved right later on (sorry for the spoiler, but there really is a mega tsunami heading for Haeundae), the star-crossed lovers, the heroes, the villains and the people only here to provide comic relief. 

 Haeundae

A lot therefore hinges on how much you care about the characters.  Do you really care if one person overcomes his past to redeem himself by saving his love?  Do you care about the no-nonsense businessman who shows his human side when under extreme pressure?  Do you care about the noble sacrifice some people are willing to make in order to save others?  The answer, for me at least, was: no, not really.  Everyone’s too much of a cardboard cutout for my taste, and a weird sense of deja vu stuck with me throughout much of the movie.  A lot of people have complained that nothing happens in the first 70 minutes of the film; I personally don’t have a problem with this if the run up makes us get behind the people and help us to us care.

The only way Haeundae breaks from tradition is to have some rather unexpected goofy comedy in the early stages.  One scene (where a would-be actress shows off her skills) is genuinely funny; the rest, sadly, isn’t.  It’s also an unmistakable fact that the special effects are just not quite good enough by today’s standards to really pass muster.  This is a shame, as obviously disaster movies can live or die by how believable it all looks.  Haeundae doesn’t exactly help its cause by drawing attention to the effects either, such as when one character is assailed on a bridge by cargo crates – the CGI is too obvious to really immerse yourself in the drama.

It’s hard to think of an audience that will appreciate this film.  Those interested in disaster movies will no doubt be drawn more towards big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, while fans of Asian cinema will no doubt find much better fare elsewhere.  It’s a shame, but Korea’s first disaster movie is more like a ripple than a mega tsunami.

New Police Story (2004) June 24, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Action, 2000s films , 2 comments

Director: Benny Chan  Starring: Jackie Chan; Nicholas Tse; Daniel Wu  Territory: Hong Kong

The escalating antics of a gang of video-game obsessed cop-hating criminals forces Inspector Chan Kwok-Wing (Jackie Chan) out of retirement.  The gang had turned the once-brilliant cop into an alcoholic wreck following a stunt that saw the members of Chan’s team killed one-by-one.  Blaming himself for their deaths, Chan must shake his guilt if he and his new partner Frank (Nicholas Tse) are to bring the gang to justice.

Following the law of diminishing returns, the original Police Story series ended with a damp squib with the lamentable First StrikeNew Police Story is then a reboot of the series and not in any way connected to the original.  It’s an oddity in the canon of Jackie Chan in that it is mostly serious, but some flashes of Chan’s trademark comedy do turn up later in the movie. 

At various points in Chan’s career, he’s tried to reinvent himself as a serious actor, and New Police Story is another such attempt.  Although his general acting ability can always be questioned, one thing is clear: Chan makes an exceedingly convincing drunk in this (and please, no “drunken master” comments!).  The scene where he staggers into an alley puking his guts up looks too damn convincing for my liking.  It’s gritty, grotty and horrible, and makes you think you’re getting a whole different Jackie Chan movie.

However, the odd thing is, just like all of the other pre-Shinjuku Incident Chan movies, things tend to settle down into a more familiar feel.  Although this never turns into a slapstick comedy, there’s one hell of a sight gag later on in the movie which you certainly wouldn’t have expected when you see the intro sequence.  Also, the rumour that New Police Story wouldn’t include much action (at least from Chan) proved unfounded.

 New Police Story

I’ve found that time and time again, I dislike Chan’s recent films a lot less second time around.  I was quite scathing of the film upon release, but have to admit I enjoyed it a lot better this time around.  I’m sure it’s all down to diminished expectations.  The movie has faults (there are some illogical moments and plot-holes) but is generally well made.  The bad guys tend to be rather two-dimensional and melodramatic for today’s taste, but can be overlooked if you’re just in the mood for mindless action.  In that regard, it’s actually quite close to a typical 80s Hong Kong action movie.

I doubt that anyone would rate New Police Story among the best Jackie Chan movies, but it can be quite good fun, and spotting references to the original series can also provide a distraction if you get bored.  As with a lot of modern Hong Kong movies, the unwelcome spectre of Product Placement looms large in the finale, and this does leave a rather sour taste in the mouth.  But I was surprised how much fight was left in the old dog with this, even if the rest of the cast don’t put in too much effort.  And it’s great to see Chan taking the bus one last time.

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