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The Bad Sleep Well (1960) October 13, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, Film Noir, 1960s films , add a comment

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Kamatari Fujiwara; Masayuki Mori; Takashi Shimura  Territory: Japan

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Bad Sleep Well is the least well-known of Kurosawa’s adaptations of the Bard’s work.  Instead of placing the story in feudal Japan, Kurosawa chooses a contemporary setting in this gritty, downbeat film noir thriller.

Toshiro Mifune is Nishi, a man marrying into a major company beset with controversy surrounding the suicide of a former employee.  Suspected of marrying simply to gain power, Nishi faces suspicion and hostility as the secretary for Vice President Iwabuchi (his sozzled new brother-in-law declares at the wedding ceremony “make her unhappy and I’ll kill you”, in what must be one of the oddest wedding speeches on celluloid).  However, it turns out his motives for marrying into the family are even more sinister than power and influence as he struggles to find out the truth behind his new employers’ dark secrets.

The Bad Sleep Well
After criticising the casting of Mifune for High and Low, I have to eat humble pie and say he was absolutely perfect in this film noir masterpiece.  It really is a tragedy that The Bad Sleep Well is not among the absolutely highest regarded of Akira Kurosawa’s films – it is simply a riveting, thrill-packed ride of twists, turns and fantastically drawn characters.  What’s more, you would have to go some way to finding a film so fantastically shot as this one.  Kurosawa’s keen eye for dramatic locations is shown again and again in this film, whether in volcanic wastelands or war-torn bombed-out factories that can double up as prison cells. 

Films about corporate espionage can be convoluted and dull, and in the opening scenes of the film things can seem rather complex with lots of unfamiliar names thrown at the viewer.  But from that scene, The Bad Sleep Well settles down into a clear film with a narrative that is easy to follow.  It may be long, and not a little grim, but the story moves like a bullet and is never dull. 

This is another of Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films that really must be seen by a wider audience too hung up on his samurai movies.  The Bad Sleeps Well is one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time.  In fact, I can’t understand why Hollywood hasn’t remade it yet.  Give it time…

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.

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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.

Stray Dog (1949) September 6, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Thriller, Film Noir, 1940s films , 6 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Takashi Shimura; Keiko Awaji  Territory: Japan

Every so often you see a film that so amazes that you think about it for days.  For me, Stray Dog is such a film.  Showing post-war Japanese society in a frank and non-melodramatic way, Kurosawa’s tale of a homicide detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) searching for his stolen weapon as it is used across the city is a masterpiece of film noir.

It was a shock for me to see just how westernised Japan and its inhabitants were in this film – although it should be noted that the trend towards western fashions had started some time before the outbreak of the war.  In particular, American movies were popular, and this shows in almost every scene (and indeed, the soundtrack) of Stray Dog

Stray Dog

Mifune – who looks incredibly young in this – gives a great performance of the guilt-ridden detective.  Other frequent Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura also shines as Sato, Murakami’s friend and mentor.  The two have a great on-screen chemistry together, and it’s no wonder that Kurosawa’s films from this period usually have either or both in starring roles.  Also of note to fans of Kurosawa is the screen debut of Minoru Chiaki, another actor who would go on to feature in several of the director’s films, as the uncouth manager of a jazz nightclub.

The film deals with the disillusionment of those who returned from the war and the changing of attitudes between Sato and the “post-war generation” of Murakami, and works on so many levels.  Not least as a thriller, a film noir detective story and a fascinating insight into post-war Japan.  Essential viewing.

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]–>

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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.

Triple Cross (1992) August 30, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, Thriller, 1990s films , add a comment

Director: Kinji Fukasaku  Starring: Kenichi Hagiwara; Kazuya Kimura; Keiko Oginome; Sonny Chiba  Territory: Japan

Not to be confused with the Cynthia Rothrock movie of the same name (incidentally one of the worst films I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch), this tale of a heist gone wrong comes from Kinji Fukasaku (who would go on to direct Battle Royale). 

After robbing the takings from a top hotel, a trio of older crooks and their young upstart protégé are disappointed that their take is quite a lot less than they expected.  While Kanzaki (Kenichi Hagiwara), Imura (Renji Ishibashi) and Shiba (Sonny Chiba) take the loss philosophically, Kadomachi (Kazuya Kimura) is furious and attempts to steal the money for himself.  Thus begins a lethal chase between Kanzaki and the young metal-obsessed hothead.

Triple Cross
Triple Cross plays slightly like a Japanese version of a Ringo Lam movie.  The movie’s anti-heroes are equally treated with no clear-cut protagonist, and the generation gap between the criminals is played up by using different musical styles in the soundtrack.  The cast is solid, with Chiba excellent as aging playboy Shiba with his much younger lover.  The fame-hungry Mai (Keiko Oginome) two-times Shiba with Kadomachi and adds a valuable wildcard to the mix.

For all its competency (and a brilliantly lethal looking car chase), Triple Cross is never more than adequate.  It has all the action, twists and gunplay you could care for in films of this type, and the decision to eschew the normal central or sympathetic character is a noble one.  But there are better examples of its kind around, particularly in the films of the aforementioned Ringo Lam.  But if you’re hankering for an action thriller with plenty of twists and turns, you can do far worse.

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.

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.

Shinjuku Incident (2009) June 11, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Thriller, 2000s films , 7 comments

Director: Derek Yee  Starring: Jackie Chan; Daniel Wu; Takenada Naoto; Fan Bing-Bing  Territory: Hong Kong

Shinjuku IncidentSteelhead (Jackie Chan) becomes an illegal immigrant in Japan searching for his lost lover.  Struggling to make ends meet, he reluctantly turns to organised crime, escalating his criminal activities and threatening the lives of his friends and family.

I don’t mean to damn with faint praise, although that’s what I’m going to be sounding like when I say that Shinjuku Incident isn’t too bad.  It has a fair dollop of melodrama, but is surprisingly watchable. 

The story itself is pretty routine, but is interesting enough to hold your attention.  It’s like a lot of Triad/Yakuza movies, a gritty (and often grotty) tale of the Underworld with revenge, loyalty and brotherhood.  There’s a friendly cop who will turn a blind eye to Steelhead’s criminal activity because he saved his life, as well as salt-of-the-earth family members who are collateral damage to his new-found life of crime.  Daniel Wu plays Jie, one of Steelhead’s closest friends.  I normally think Wu is pretty solid, acting-wise, but I thought he hamming it up here, and I didn’t really buy his character.

Of course, all eyes are on Jackie Chan as Steelhead here, and his much-touted attempt at a serious role.  A lot of comparisons are made with the 1992 flick Crime Story (and the post-modern Jackie Chan movie New Police Story), but let’s face it, Crime Story (decent though it was) played safe by adding some action scenes.  Shinjuku Incident is completely free of the kind of thing that makes people watch Jackie Chan movies.  Which does kind of leads to the question of why you’d want to watch a film with Jackie Chan in it if he’s not being Jackie Chan.  I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but I’m of the opinion that his strengths are in the loveable, mugging, underdog character he’s portrayed since 1978’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, and not as a serious actor.  That he makes a decent go at it only made it more difficult for me to accept his casting here.

The sex scene is a case in point.  Does anyone really want to see Jackie Chan having sex - even if it’s just on screen?  Watching Chan on the job is like seeing your favourite kindly uncle having sex - and not with your auntie. 

These points aside, there’s no denying that this is an interesting, enjoyable movie, even if I’d stop somewhere short of calling it gripping.   Its primary appeal ironically is probably people who don’t like Jackie Chan films.  Certainly if you don’t like his usual on-screen persona, that should not put you off watching Shinjuku Incident.

Lam Suet-o-meter: High!  When he’s been an extra in so many films, it’s quite a surprise when he gets a decent role and shows that he can out-act everyone on screen.  One of his better roles.

Exiled (2006) December 1, 2009

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

Director: Johnny To  Main cast: Anthony Wong; Francis Ng; Roy Cheung; Lam Suet; Simon Yam  Territory: Hong Kong

A group of Triad hitmen arrive at the home of Wo (Nick Cheung) in Macau, assigned to kill him.  After a brief firefight, they sit down to talk things over.  It transpires that Wo knows his would-be killers very well – he was part of their gang and grew up with them.  Blaze (Anthony Wong), Cat (Roy Cheung), Fat (Lam Suet) and Tai (Francis Ng) eventually disregard their orders, much to the annoyance of Boss Fay (Simon Yam), who ordered the hit.

Exiled burst onto the screens in 2006, and was the perfect antidote to the growing trend of style-over-substance, CGI-heavy Hong Kong movies.  What’s more, there are no giggling/pouting pretty boy/girl pop stars here.  Instead, we have a wealth of acting talent headed by the wonderful Anthony Wong, who just seems to get more miserable-looking as he gets older – in this, you’d think the man had never smiled in his life!

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It throws the viewer in at the deep end right from the start.  One minute Blaze and company are shooting at Wo and the next minute Wo’s cooking them all a meal - during which Blaze finds a stray bullet in his tea, leading to much laughter amongst the gang.  But the film drips information on a regular basis and pretty soon you know what’s going on as long as you’re prepared to join the dots occasionally.

It quickly becomes apparent that Boss Fay (Simon Yam in his default mode) is the real villain of the piece, and the only character without any redeeming features.  After a particularly exciting gunfight with Fay, Blaze’s life is saved by Wo, but the latter is injured and has to go to an “underground clinic” – a surgery run by a quack but the only place a Triad member can be treated without having to answer some serious questions.  This leads to an unfortunate meeting that you should see coming but don’t, in a scene that starts off pretty humorously and ends in more gunplay and a shocking conclusion.

Johnny To nods to the spaghetti western at various times and there’s even a scene that’s reminiscent of Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, but it’s film noir that he seems to be mainly aiming for.  Later in the film we have some outdoor scenes filmed in a very unusual, almost surreal, way.  It’s here that we encounter Chan (Richie Ren), the sharpshooting cop guarding a cache of gold, and the film works itself up to the finale.

The whole package is wonderful – the story, the characters, the action, everything.  It also has a great soundtrack that matches the tone of the film perfectly.  The only fly in the ointment is some horribly invasive product placement and a pretty pointless appearance by ineffective cop Shan (Hui Siu-Hung) who is literally counting the hours until his retirement.  But these are small criticisms compared to the engrossing and uplifting experience of watching a film that bucks the trend of Hong Kong films and delivers something essential.  It’s probably not a coincidence that the film is set in the 90s, and stylistically feels from that period.  It does have a couple of CGI shots, but on the whole seems very organic and natural and very much like the way Hong Kong films used to be made before the digital age.  The setting of the very European-looking Macau over Hong Kong is also a great choice, and some of the locations are brilliantly atmospheric. 

Exiled is an essential viewing experience and a must-see for even the most casual fan of the genre.

Lam Suet-o-meter: Very high!  In fact, one of the most prominent roles I’ve seen him in.  Rejoice!

GP506 (AKA Guard Post) (2008) October 13, 2009

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

Director: Kong Su-chang  Main cast: Jeon Ho-jin; Lee Young-hoon; Lee Jeong-heon; Cho Hyun-jai  Territory: South Korea

gp506.jpgSomething or someone has killed the soldiers stationed at Guard Post 506, an outpost situated near the border between South Korea and its hostile northern neighbour.  Sergeant Noh (Jeon Ho-jin) and his team go to the site to piece together what went wrong, and uncover a bizarre tale of infection and insanity. 

GP506 (retitled Guard Post in the west) has similar themes as certain films in the body horror sub genre, and occasionally reminded me of the much derided Shyamalan film The Happening.  It’s surprisingly not an all-out horror movie though; for most part it plays like a detective thriller, albeit with gory mutilations and unnatural food cravings.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks, and this can sometimes be a problem as it’s not always clear if you’re watching past events or the present.  When a survivor is found from the original team and helps to start putting the pieces together, we get a series of glimpses into the mystery.  Noh also finds and reads diary entries to shed light on the affair.  Other clues suggest Corporal Kang (Lee Young-hoon) may have been unstable and killed the rest of his team. 

Things are never quite what they seem, and the story twists and turns with new elements being introduced that challenge the viewers’ assumptions.  As with most films of this nature, it works better with as little prior knowledge as possible. 

While GP506 is a competently made film (the production values are high throughout), there was something about it that didn’t quite grab me.  Although the film moves quite slowly, I think the main problem is I never really cared about any of the characters and their plight.  The structure and feel of the film is also similar to a lot of modern shockers and doesn’t really stand out from the crowd.

However, the setting is good and occasionally recalls classic films set in remote locations such as John Carpenter’s The Thing.  There’s also a very real possibility the whole film is an allegorical comment on the cold war and the paranoia between the divided Korea. 

But while the film is quite watchable, I have to admit a feeling quite underwhelmed by the whole thing.  Perhaps if the characters were a bit more engaging and the plotting a little tighter, this could have been a lot better.  As it stands, though, GP506 is only mildly diverting.

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