onderhond blog - onderhond.com http://www.onderhond.com/blog/onderhond The onderhond blog is a collection of gathered thoughts about my work and my personal life. Find out about what drives me as a person and how I get about in my professional life. en-us underdog@operamail.com (Niels Matthijs) <![CDATA[Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai/Wei-hao Cheng]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/tag-along-review-wei-hao-cheng

Even though Taiwanese cinema went through a much-needed refresh a couple of years ago, finding pure genre films from Taiwan still requires a hefty search. Wei-hao Cheng's Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai [The Tag-Along] is a welcome exception to the rule. One of the most successful horror flicks in a long time, the film might signal a new start for Taiwanese horror cinema. Based on the quality of this film, that may not be such a bad deal for horror fans. While it's not the most imaginative of films, it's a quality production that delivers.

screen capture of The Tag-Along

Taiwanese horror films are quite rare. Zhaibian and Xiong Mei are two fine examples and Zhi Yao Yi Fen Zhong enjoyed its five minutes of fame not too long ago, but taking into account the boom of Asian horror films that swept over us for the past 15 years, Taiwan has been notably abscent from the scene. Not that Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai is sure to turn all of that around, but it at least has the potential to make a difference. Hopefully more will follow in its footsteps, since it would definitely benefit the further diversification of Taiwan's cinema output.

Asian horror films tend to focus more on drama, opting to use classic horror elements as an expression of personal trauma. Personally I don't mind this setup, but it does mean that the second half of these films often lose much of their suspense and tension, instead edging closer to a dramatic conclusion. It's a setup that often hinders international exposure and keeps these films from reaching a wider audience. There's a little of that here too, but overall Yi Xiao Nu Hai remains pretty true to the spirit of its horror roots.

The film is based on a popular Taiwanse legend, involving a 'mo-sien'. A mo-sien is a mountain ghost that manifests itself as a little girl and is known to follow people around, "tagging along" with its victims until it captures their soul. We follow Wei and Yi-chun, a young couple that is burdened with the curse of a mo-sien. Even though their relationship is under strain, Yi-chun is unwilling to simply give up Wei and is determined to fight back against the mo-sien that keeps her boyfriend from her.

screen capture of The Tag-Along

Taiwanese films are known to look good and Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai is no exception. With its greenish, desaturated colors and strong compositions, it looks considerably better than most other horror films. Practical make-up is impressive too, the CG on the other hand can be a little flakey. It's not even all that clear why they used CG for certain shots, but the difference is a bit too visible at times. A small blemish on an otherwise splendid-looking film.

The soundtrack is unremarkable but functional. It follows a classic horror film approach, residing in the background and keeping to itself for most of the time, only when things get a bit more tense does it demand attention. It's not a bad soundtrack and it's hard to fault it, but the fact that I needed to skip through the film again to refresh my memory means it's just not very memorable and it does little to really help the film forward.

The acting is above par. River Huang and Wei Ning Hsu put in solid performances, well above the expected level for a horror film. They probably won't be wining any prizes, then again their parts don't really allow them to really go above and beyond. Fans of classic Taiwanese cinema will be happy to hear 70s icon Yin-Shang Liu shows up in a rather large secondary part. She hold up well, even though her role is pretty one-dimensional.

screen capture of The Tag-Along

Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai is a film that's bound to do well with fans of Asian horror and people with a soft spot for the Taiwanese sense of aesthetic. It isn't until quite late in the film that the mo-sien legend brings something fresh to the table. It's mostly just about a young girl ghost haunting people in rather traditional ways. The finale spices things up a little, but if the film has lost you already I'm sure those last scenes won't be able to save the film for you.

Still, it's nice to see Taiwan deliver a good horror film like this. The acting is well above par, the film looks great and the added couleur locale is sure to please seasoned horror fans. Hong Yi Xiao Nu Hai is not an exceptional film, nor a film that turns the genre upside down, but it's an accomplished horror film that might please a broader audience. Here's to hoping it finds its way on the international scene and it'll be interesting to see where director Wei-hao Cheng will go from here.

Thu, 26 May 2016 09:25:27 +0000
<![CDATA[Container/Lukas Moodysson]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/container-review-moodysson

There's a cliché that states great art stems from negative emotions (aka the tortured artist), if that's true then Container is probably Lukas Moodysson's magnum opus. It's a relentless, dark and hermetically closed down film. I remember loving it when I first watched it, but I never saw it again since that first viewing. It's just not the kind of film you pop in to have a good time. This weekend I figured it was time to see if the film still held up after all those years and I must say, Container still packs quite a punch.

screen capture of Container

Moodysson has had a pretty interesting career so far. He started off with Fucking Åmål and Tillsammans, two dramatic yet uplifting films which left a pleasant impression. Soon after he started his descent into darker territory though. He seemed to have hit rock bottom with Ett Hål i Mitt Hjärta [A Hole in My Heart], but that was before the first footage of Container surfaced. I'm not sure in what way this film reflected Moodysson's personal state of mind, but it's clear that he had to get something off his chest badly.

Container is not a typical narrative film, in fact, there isn't much of a plot to speak of. Instead there's a stream of loosely related scenes featuring a boy and a girl. The girl subscribes to the contemporary beauty ideal, the boy is your average overweight, scruffy male. On top there's an endless voice-over telling stories and baring feelings that relate tangentially to the people on the screen. Container is an audiovisual poem, a film more concerned with communicating a state of being than touching on concrete plot points or any kind of coherent message.

What binds these characters is the feeling that they don't belong in their body. The girl wants to be a boy, the boy wants to be a girl. It's a thread that runs throughout the entire film, prompting me to believe that we're actually watching two aspects of the same person, sometimes fighting with each other, sometimes helping each other out. But as is often the case with a film like this, if you're looking for meaning or looking to make sense of what you're seeing, it's ends up being more about what you yourself bring to the film than what's actually there.

screen capture of Container

Moodysson chose to do the film in harsh and rich constrasting black and white, which works extremely well for the atmosphere he tried to evoke. It gives the images an ominous look, even when there's nothing really disturbing to see. It's somewhat of a safe choice when doing an experimental film and it's not used to its fullest effect, but it's hard to imagine the film in color, let alone in a way that would've improved on it. If you also take into account some sharply edited scenes and some nice camera work, there's really no way to fault the visuals.

It's the soundtrack that really gets to me though. Mind you, I use soundtrack in a very liberal sense, because 95% of the film goes without any form of music. Only at the very end is there some dark ambient/illbient to go with the visuals. But the monotone voice over is as much an element of style as it is a way to convey meaning. Jena Malone just drones on for 70 minutes straight, taking care of both the male and female part of the monologue. It's a truly transfixing experience, although I'm sure it's going to be a bend or break deal for most people.

From what I've read there's also an original Swedish dub, but Container is a rare example of a film where I would advice against the dub. Not just because Malone does such an amazing job, but because the information density is so high that reading subtitles would detract too much from the overall experience. Besides the voice over there are also the two main characters of the film, though they don't really have that much to do. They just act out certain motions, but there's little or no interaction to speak of and most of the time the camera acts as a voyeur while they're doing mundane (and not so mundane) things.

screen capture of Container

Container clearly isn't a film for everyone. There's no real narrative, the droning voice over weighs on the film and the visuals aren't exactly pleasant or soothing. 70 minutes may not sound like a long time, but when served like this it surely drags you down. That said, Moodysson sculpts a tight and suffocating experience, a unique, twisted vision of the human psyche that wraps you up and won't let you go until long after the very last frames have faded from the screen.

It's impossible to univocally recommend a film like this, but fans of experimental, dark and uncompromising cinema should really check this one out (if you haven't already). It has lost none of its power since its release, it's still an impressive, atmospheric and unrelentless piece of guerilla cinema that grants us a rare glimpse of Moodysson's darkest inner corners. Not for the faint of heart, but still a clear personal favorite of mine.

Thu, 19 May 2016 09:15:17 +0000
<![CDATA[Iya Monogatari: Oku no Hito/Tetsuichiro Tsuta]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/iya-monogatari-review-tsuta

Some films seem tailored to become obscure gems, hiding away in the cracks of genre niches, shielded by language and/or country barriers. You usually run into them by chance or by taking a rare gamble. Tetsuichiro Tsuta's Iya Monogatari: Oku no Hito [The Tale of Iya] is such a film. It's far from an easy recommend and it's sure to be a frustrating experience for unsuspecting victims, but if you happen to be part of its target audience it's nearly impossible not to succumb to its charm.

screen capture of Iya Monogatari: Oku no Hito

Iya Monogatari is part drama, part mystery (with a tiny blip of eco-scifi thrown in for good measure). But it doesn't really try to blend these different elements into a cohesive whole. Instead the first 100 minutes are pretty straight-forward drama cinema, only to turn into a complex, unsettling and slightly dazzling mystery during its final hour. Usually I'm not a big fan of 120+ minute films, but the length really adds something to the impact of the thematic twist here.

The first part is a rather grim, rural Japanese drama following Kudo, a Tokyo resident moving back to the countryside. Fed up with the stress of city life, he aspires a more tranquil existence. He ends up in Iya, a secluded and small mountain village which is having some trouble of its own. Young people are moving away and the construction of the tunnel that is needed to improve transit between the town and the outside world is held up by demonstrators.

High up the mountain lives Haruna with her guardian, on old man who once rescued her from a crashed car. Kudo befriends the duo and Haruna teaches him how to survive in the harsh mountain setting. But life on the mountain is tough and once winter settles in both Kudo and the old man are having a difficult time surviving the barren circumstances. From there on out, things start to get a little weirder as the narrative trails off in an entirely new direction.

screen capture of Iya Monogatari: Oku no Hito

With a setting like this it's hard to shoot ugly material, but Iya Monogatari's beauty exceeds the pure, natural attraction of the mountains. Cinematographer Yutaka Aoki turns Iya into an almost otherworldly place, a mystical alternate reality that seems almost untouched by modern life. I did find the indoor scenes to be a little too murky though. I'm sure Aoki prided himself on using natural light only, but a bit more contrast inside would've been nice. Still, most of the film is spent outside and there are some truly inspiring shots to be enjoyed.

The soundtrack is a little less adventurous. The music remains respectfully in the background, the little music there is is mostly of the lone piano variety. The rest of the soundtrack is filled with ambient sounds that evoke that typical mountain atmosphere. It's known to work for a film like this and sure enough, the soundtrack is an asset. It's just not as remarkable or defining as other aspects of the film.

The acting on the other hand is well above par. Shima Ohnishi (a late Koji Wakamatsu regular) is great as Kudo and Min Tanaka puts in a great performance as the old man. But it's Rina Takeda who makes for the biggest surprise. Mostly known for her parts in cheesier genre flicks (High-Kick Girl! and Dead Sushi, to name two famous ones), she excels as Haruna and inject in just the right amounts of mystery and drama into her character. As a little bonus, arthouse fans should watch out for an extended Naomi Kawase cameo.

screen capture of Iya Monogatari: Oku no Hito

The first part of the film is spent exclusively in Iya, focusing on a limited set of characters while also giving a broader view of the little mountain community. I feel Tsuta meandered a bit too much at certain points, for example spending too much time in a local wood mill. But these are just a handful of scenes in an otherwise strong drama. I suspect most people will have more trouble with the sudden switch in atmosphere, when Tsuta relocates his film to Tokyo halfway through. From then on the narrative becomes a little blurrier, with little or no explanations given.

Iya Monogatari is a film that comes with a built-in audience. Unless you're specifically scouting for obscure arthouse films or you're drowning yourself in Japanese cinema, chances are you'll never hear of this one again. But if you like a fresh challenge and you think you can handle the narrative loose ends and the crude switch in styles halfway through, Iya Monogatari is a little gem that begs to be discovered. Let's just hope it isn't Tsuta's swan song.

Thu, 12 May 2016 09:37:32 +0000
<![CDATA[Bangkok Dangerous/Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/bangkok-dangerous-review-pangs

Before Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang made a name for themselves as horror directors, they were already on the radar of adventurous action fans. Bangkok Dangerous is a little cult film that kickstarted the Pangs' international career, a film that made heads turn and put them on the map. I recently sat down to watch it again, expecting it would have lost some of its charm through the years. It didn't take me long to realize I had underestimated the beauty that is Bangkok Dangerous.

screen capture of Bangkok Dangerous

Bangkok Dangerous was probably the first Thai film I ever watched. Back then Thai cinema has little to no international presence, let alone a presence in genre cinema. The Pangs would change all that, even though they themselves moved their business to Hong Kong soon after. In 2008 they would revisit Bangkok Dangerous once more as a remake, fronted by Nicolas Cage. While not a bad effort (at all, in fact), the original remains unchallenged in terms of raw quality.

If you only know the Pangs from their more commercial work, you might be a little surprised by the vividness of their earlier films. Bangkok Dangerous isn't exactly subtle, subdued or timid, instead it flexes all its cinematic muscles in an attempt to get itself noticed. It definitely worked, but I'm pretty sure not everyone is going to appreciate the film's boldness. Not all the flexing is functional and if you're in the 'style over substance' haters camp then there's a lot to dislike.

The film submerges itself into the criminal underground of Thailand, following two best friends who operate as serial killers. Kong is a deaf-mute who kills as an emotional release, Jo is the one who took Kong under his wings when he was still a young boy. The two get their jobs from Aom, Jo's former girlfriend, who acts as a middle man between the boys and organized crime units. They are a pretty dangerous team, but when a client stalks Aom and rapes her, the two embark on a mission that will turn everyone against them.

screen capture of Bangkok Dangerous

On a visual level, Bangkok Dangerous is meant to dazzle. The film is shot through bright, neon-like monochrome filters, the camera work is showy and in your face while the editing is deliberate and leading. It's the kind of look some might describe as taken from a music video, but it gives the film lots of flair and it's a big part of the reason why it still works today. It's slightly dated, but creative enough to transcend mere contemporary coolness.

The same can be said about the soundtrack. The electronic-based tracks that are featured throughout the film are a clear product of the 90s, but they're used to good effect and it's more than just some random dance beats put underneath various scenes. They blend well with the visuals and enhance the dark, trippy Thai underground setting. As someone entrenched in electronic music for the past 30 years it's easy to see where and how the soundtrack could be improved, but for a film soundtrack it's well above average.

The acting is pretty decent, but the only one who makes a real impact is Pawarith Monkolpisit (playing Kong). It's weird that his career never really took off, but he lends Kong the necessary gravitas without any need for overacting. Quite the feat since he's playing a deaf-mute. Ratanasopha, Timkul and Intrakanchit put in solid performances, but they never seem to be able to match Monkolpisit's onscreen presence.

screen capture of Bangkok Dangerous

Even though Bangkok Dangerous won me over with its flashy exterior and bold stylistic choices, around halfway through the Pangs start inserting just the right amount of drama to give the film that extra bit of texture. Kong's character is fleshed out, not in a very original or creative way, but enough to start caring for him. It's a smart build-up to a strong finale that offers both an emotional as well as an adrenaline-fueled pay-off. A rare combination for this type of film.

Bangkok Dangerous is a film that's surviving the test of time surprisingly well. While certain elements are a little dated by now, they're used in such a way that they haven't lost much of their appeal and impact. The Pangs delivered a mighty fine action film, one that didn't really call for a remake and still holds its own to this very day. Style and just the right amount of substance blend together to create one of the best crime/action films of the 90s.

Wed, 04 May 2016 09:36:00 +0000
<![CDATA[Hardcore Henry/Ilya Naishuller]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/hardcore-henry-review-ilya-naishuller

Thirty seconds was all it took. After that I abandoned the trailer, ignored all the promo material and crossed my fingers that Hardcore Henry, Ilya Naishuller's first feature film, would make it into Belgium theaters. And for once, luck was on my side. When I finally sat down in the theater my expectations were sizable, even though I had managed to ignore the hype surrounding the film. All I can say is that Naishuller exceeded them effortlessly, delivering a film that could proudly crown itself the new action film benchmark, a film all upcoming action flicks will be measured against.

screen capture of Hardcore Henry

Hardcore Henry is a rarity, especially amongst theatrical offerings. Pretty much every film that ends up in theaters these days is made with one foot on the brake, Naishuller on the other hand lets his film run wild. It's madness from start to finish, a production merely concerned with being as badass as possible while ignoring possible audience fallout in the process. It's the kind of film that score a 5/10 on average not because everybody was unmoved by it, but because it's a true love it or hate it affaire.

The main draw of Hardcore Henry is its POV setup. From the very first to the very last frame, everything in the film is experienced through the eyes of Henry, our main character. While this may sounds rather uneventful after a decade's worth of found footage horrors, the actual experience is quite different. For one, while Henry is never seen in full (they left out the obligatory FPS mirror scene), we often see his hands (and guns) onscreen. There's also no camera that can be put aside or can be dropped during a wild chase. Nor is there any kind of multi-camera setup that can be exploited. There are only two short moments where we don't experience normal vision and that's when Henry's eyes aren't firmly lodged inside his skull.

If you're concerned about the somewhat derivative plot (and be warned, it really isn't much to look at), this probably isn't a film for you. It's a combination of popular game tropes, with androids, armies of super soldiers, bad guys with telekinetic powers and whatnot. Our hero lost his memories, has been brought back to life using a couple of strength-increasing prosthetics and is pretty much running from A to B, either because someone told him or because he's being shot at. It's definitely not prize-winning material, then again it's not meant to be.

screen capture of Hardcore Henry

Visually though, it's a totally superior film. The POV camera work is more than just a gimmick or a nod to FPS games (think Doom, Half-Life). Naishuller exploits the technique in order to put the audience in the craziest situations imaginable. Henry flies through the air, gets hit by cars, barges through minivans, climbs walls, is set on fire ... and we can all experience it through his eyes, as if we're doing it ourselves. There is some room for improvement of course, but for a first-time effort the bar is set almost impossibly high. I can only hope others will copy Naishuller's work and either refine it, or see how it may add to other genres.

The soundtrack is probably the least hardcore element of the film. It's sometimes used for comedic effect (Queen's Don't Stop Me Now as part of the finale is sure to draw some smiles) and it's edited quite nicely to the visuals, but mostly it's just a loud and in your face mix of rock and electronic dance music. Luckily it's not the lame movie-disco variety of electronic, but for a film called Hardcore Henry the music could've been a bit more hardcore I guess. That said, the soundtrack does the job and that's what's important here.

Henry himself is a faceless character, lacking any discernible trace of personality. He never thinks, reasons or evaluates, he merely listens and reacts. This lack of individuality is offset by Sharlto Copley's collection of characters. Copley is clearly having the time of his life, taking on different roles and guiding the audience from set piece to set piece. I liked him best as the old British soldier, but the hippie and party boy are also memorable incarnations. Bennett is okay but has little to work with, Kozlovsky goes way over the top and is lucky the film can cope with it. All in all the casting is good, but in the end it's really just Copley's show.

screen capture of Hardcore Henry

When reading other reviews, it's interesting to see that people are pretty much in agreement about the film's specifics, it's only the ratings that are miles apart. No, the plot doesn't offer much to chew on. Yes, the cinematography is pretty chaotic and sure enough, there is hardly any time to catch your breath. But whether you end up hating it or enjoying it says more about you than it does about the film. I love the fact that Naishuller made a movie that doesn't waste too much time on pointless context, a film that doesn't feel it should slow down once in a while so everyone in the audience can catch up and tone down the violence, gore and gaming nods just to appeal to a larger audience. We have enough of those already, in fact, that's all we seem to have nowadays.

There's just one point were I don't agree with the majority of the reviews I've read. While it's true that Hardcore Henry originated out of the broader FPS genre, it doesn't feel like a mere game adaptation, nor should it be compared with them. Rather than translating a (fictitious) game franchise to the big screen, Naishuller looked at FPS games and extracted elements that would make the cinematic experience more intense. Hardcore Henry is 100% cinematic, not an interactive experience reimagined as a mere viewing experience. Which is exactly why Hardcore Henry is a great film where pretty much every other game adaptation is a waste of digital pellicule.

Hardcore Henry is a film with no noticeable compromises. I say noticeable, because with only 2 million dollars to spend there must have been quite a few limitations for Naishuller and his crew. What that means though is that unless you can stomach the continuous onslaught of action, there really isn't much else to enjoy. If you're prone to motion sickness, if you expect to be intellectually triggered or if you can't accept a little silliness, don't even bother. But if you're looking for one of the most immersive cinematic rides in ages, there isn't a single film that can top Hardcore Henry. Maybe it'll take a year, maybe two, maybe even ten, but people will eventually start to copy Naishuller's approach, which is something I'm looking forward to very much. One of my finest theater experiences in years.

Wed, 27 Apr 2016 09:52:38 +0000
<![CDATA[The Arti: The Adventure Begins /Huang Wen Chang ]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/arti-review-huang-wen-chang
The Arti: The Adventure Begins poster

The cool thing about cinema is that even though you may have seen 6000+ films, from time to time something completely unexpected will cross your path. The Arti: The Adventure Begins is such a film. I wasn't at all aware that there was a puppet animation scene in Taiwan, let alone that they had made a film that set out to blend traditional puppet animation with CG. The result is a little uneven, but the good bits royally outweigh the bad ones.

Arti reminded me a little of Klarulund's Strings, though it never quite reaches that same level of quality. Both films are very successful in creating an intriguing lore though, bringing to life a sprawling world that is fun and exciting to explore. The Arti follows Mo, Tong and their wooden robot, Arti-C. Arti-C is a parting gift of their late father, who was murdered for creating the robot. He used a mysterious power called Origin to construct it, which Mo and Tong are trying to locate in order to keep their robot alive and kicking.

The puppet animation varies between somewhat flakey and downright impressive. Some of the shots, especially the ones where the puppets are running, look a little odd and awkward. But the fighting sequences and the more detailed close-ups are absolutely stunning and betray some superb craftsmanship. The use of CG is equally divisive. When used for backgrounds and smaller effects it's nice and effective, but the CG characters often clash with the traditional puppets. Those puppets are by far the main attraction of the film, meticulously sculpted and incredibly detailed, they are a joy to look at when brought to life.

The film faces some minor pacing issues, with certain scenes passing by a little too quickly. The soundtrack isn't quite up to par either, especially the Chinese pop songs can be a little unsettling considering the tone and setting of the film. On top of that, the dub could use some work too. Some voices are fine, others are a little too outspoken. It's the combination of these smaller issues that hold the film back just enough to keep it from being truly great.

But if the title is to be believed, this is only the beginning of a greater adventure. I for one would love to see a couple of sequels. I'm sure the team behind Arti learned a lot from shooting this film (just watch the end credits, it's pretty cool to see the behind the scenes footage), knowledge that can be put to good use to improve possible follow-ups. Even so, fans of puppet animation (or just people looking for something different) will have a blast with Arti. It's a great first effort with a lot going for it, it just lacks a little polish.

Tue, 26 Apr 2016 09:38:49 +0000
<![CDATA[Shun Liu Ni Liu /Hark Tsui]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/time-and-tide-review-hark-tsui

Timing is everything. When I first watched Hark Tsui's Shun Liu Ni Liu [Time and Tide] the Hong Kong movie business was struggling to keep its head above water. Not only that, I was very much into Japanese cinema and didn't really like the films coming out of Hong Kong. Shun Liu Ni Liu is one of the films that marked a major turnaround in my viewing habits, as Hong Kong now represents a significant amount of my monthly film diet. But what about Hark's film? Well, it still holds up, though it's not quite as spectacular as I remembered it to be.

screen capture of Shun Liu Ni Liu

Hark Tsui may be one of Hong Kong's biggest and brightest action directors, even he couldn't stay afloat during the late 90s. He relocated to the US to direct two action flicks, though that didn't turn out to be such a great success either. Shun Liu Ni Liu was somewhat of a comeback film for Hark, a film that helped him to get his own career back on track while revitalizing Hong Kong's dwindling film industry and setting a new bar for Hong Kong's action cinema in the process.

Shun Liu Ni Liu is somewhat of an atypical Hong Kong action film. While the action choreography borrows liberally from local martial arts cinema, there aren't too many archetypical one of one fights to be found here. Instead Hark mixes in heroic bloodshed elements and neckbreaking stunt work, making it feel more like a fancier version of Léon. On top of that Hark drummed up a gang of South-American criminals to be the film's antagonists. That may not sound like a such a big deal, until you realise what a self-contained cultural bubble Hong Kong cinema really is. It's quite rare to see foreign elements introduced, especially South-American ones.

Plotwise things aren't too exciting, then again this is a pretty straightforward action flick, so what did you expect? We follow Tyler, a young bartender looking for a better life. Little does he know he's going to get more than he bargained for when he joins up with a shady bodyguard company, run by an ex-criminal. Tyler gets mixed up in a vicious showdown between Jack (a skilled mercenary) and his former gang member, leaving him struggling to get out alive.

screen capture of Shun Liu Ni Liu

Hark tried to make his film look as dynamic as possible, playing around with different kinds of effects, camera angles and editing tricks, whatever got him closest to his desired result. Some of it still looks cool today, other effects feel a little outdated and surpassed by more effective techniques. For the larger part it's still very amusing, giving the action scenes a little extra pop, but I don't know if the film can survive another 15 years of progress.

The soundtrack is by far the most generic part of the film. It's hardly memorable and mostly aimed at providing some background noise during the more intense scenes. It's not even particularly effective, but at least it doesn't irritate either. It just sits there in between conversations, making sure nobody ever thinks "hey, it's kind of silent in here". It's a pretty typical score for an action film and I guess Hark isn't the man to take big risks on a soundtrack, but it would be nice if he showed a little more balls, especially when he tries to go all out on the visuals.

Nicholas Tse comfortably takes on the lead role, a part that fits him like a glove. It's Wu Bai who leaves the biggest impression though. A bit surprising maybe, as he comes off as almost invisible in the first few scenes he appears in. But his martial arts skills are impressive and combined with his ability to blend in it makes him one of the more ruthless and lethal characters I've ever seen in a film. Anthony Wong also puts in a decent performance, the rest of the cast is okay, but mostly just action film fodder.

screen capture of Shun Liu Ni Liu

Shun Liu Ni Liu features some several impressive action sequences, but the one in the apartment building really stands out. The location (a bit like old Kowloon) is amazing and used to its fullest. When Bai is jumping between buildings, crashing into apartments and running through the hallways and stairwells, Shun Liu Ni Liu is at its very best. It's these moments that make the film live up to its reputation, even by today's standards.

Don't be mistaken, even though Shun Liu Ni Liu is somewhat atypical for a Hong Kong action film, it's still a pretty pure genre effort. If you're not into action cinema you probably won't get much out of it. But if you like high octane adrenaline rushes and you can stomach Hong Kong cinema, Shun Liu Ni Liu is a tasty little treat. Even though some of the effects have a aged a little and the soundtrack is underdeveloped, there's still plenty of fun to be had with this one.

Mon, 25 Apr 2016 09:32:14 +0000
<![CDATA[Philip Yung - Mei Gaau Siu Nui/An Interview]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/philip-yung-interview-may-we-chat

Even though Philip Yung is currently conquering Asia with Port of Call, he still managed to free up a little time to talk about his previous film: Mei Gaau Siu Nui [May We Chat]. If you ever wondered why Hong Kong produces so few contemporary dramas, why Hong Kong actresses are a bit more prudish compared to their Western counterparts and how the film ties in with Hong Kong classic Lonely Fifteen, be sure to read on.

Philip Yung on May We Chat

Niels Matthijs: Hong Kong is known for producing quality genre films (thrillers, martial arts, comedy), but that seems to come at the expense of other genres. How difficult is it to get a film made about Hong Kong's contemporary youngster and the problems they deal with?

Philip Yung: In fact, the Hong Kong mainstream market is dominated by genre films, with almost no room for arthouse films and real literary film. Apart from Fruit Chan, Ann Hui, Herman Yau and a couple of new directors, almost no one is willing to shoot realistic movies. And once a new director matures, he tends to work on more commercial films, so personally I think that shooting social, realistic drama is a modern filmmaker's mission.

I have directed three films so far: "Glamorous Youth", "May We Chat" and "Port of Call", all of them grounded in reality, while my next film will be adapted from a true story in China. Of course, I'm not ruling out shooting commercial films in the future, but I hope I'll still be able to use my observational skills to direct films with strong social relevance.

For me, the hardest thing is to persevere. Because such films are classified as non-commercial films in Hong Kong, it is very difficult to find investors. In Hong Kong the independent film market is immature, it is not easy to keep on making this kind of movie at low cost in the long run. I also think it's important that I keep in check with the community, so every day I insist on reading the newspaper, listening to current affairs programs, having more contact with people. Just because I know that many Hong Kong directors, once they become a director, start living in a dominantly commercial world, almost completely isolating themselves from society.

May We Chat receiving a Cat III [18+] rating probably didn't make things easier. It prevents the film from being seen by younger viewers while hardcore Cat III fans may not be too interested in watching a drama. I suppose the mainland Chinese market is out of the question too. Did you consider censoring certain scenes in order to lower the rating?

This is a good question. In fact, it's really a big mistake I made. First of all, "May We Chat" received a Cat III rating, but I initially intended to target a younger audience, 15-17 year olds in particular. I hoped this film would be considered, recognized and reflected upon by young people, but in order to make the film more realistic and make the audience feel the sense of crisis, I had to include some violent and sexual scenes. As a result the film was classified as Cat III, preventing young people from watching it. The film's box office was also influenced by this. Now that the film has come out, I feel that the result is bold, rare and spectacular, but we lost a lot of viewers in the process.

Secondly, the film mixes commercial elements with element of social realism, so as a result the film didn't bring satisfaction and pleasure to either the commercial film fans and the fans of social dramas. If you look at this film as a social drama, the screenplay of this movie is too sloppy and quite cliché. I simply didn't have enough time to write the script. In fact, I didn't even have enough time for the research and the information-gathering process. So when the film came out, it was not completely as I wanted it to be. However, the content discussed in the film was what I had in mind and what I was concerned about. I solved all of these issues in my third movie, "Port of Call". The screenplay was carefully planned out, as I usually write my own script and that is where I tend to focus on.

And if “May We Chat” should've deleted certain scenes to enter the Chinese market? Releasing it over there was out of scope from the beginning. "May We Chat" started out as a low-budget film, the entire cost of production was only about 500,000 dollars. Initially the reason that I was willing to shoot this movie was because it was an unrestricted, pure Hong Kong Film and that I was allowed to use new actors. But even "Port of Call”, which has a big star and Christopher Doyle's participation, is not a big budget movie. Generally when I make a movie, I tend not to consider the movie's final rating; I just want to shoot the way I see fit in order to express my ideas.

What is holding back films like May We Chat? Is it that local audiences aren't interested in a drama like this? And what about the international market, many of the challenges the characters face are universal, are youth cultures outside of Asia so different that they cannot relate?

Actually, "May We Chat" is also unpopular in the Hong Kong commercial market, the box office is a failure and it did not get any awards. As for overseas, foreign audiences didn't seem to pay too much attention to it. But at certain film festivals, some viewers did see it as a real Hong Kong film and a special piece of work. For example, after Korean director Kim Ki-duc saw it, he liked it and he said the film reminded him of his own film "Samaritan Girl". Of course I know that "May We Chat" can't be compared to "Samaritan Girl", but it made me understand that the movie might make some foreign viewers curious about Hong Kong's social culture. I felt this was very significant for me as a director as well as for the characteristics of my film.

I think that when making a movie a director shouldn't need to be afraid that a foreign audience might not fully grasp it. If foreign audiences can't truly understand a movie, it might make them more curious, hence the movie becomes more culturally significant. This is also the reason why contemporary Japanese and European films have their special cultural value; and why the majority of the Chinese, Korean and Indian movie, even if they look good, lack personality and individuality, as they have always been imitating commercial Hollywood movies.

Hong Kong cinema is a rather male-oriented business, yet May We Chat features three female leads and just a handful male secondary parts. Was it a conscious decision to break away from the standard, or did it come about more organically.

I like shooting female-orientated films. When I'm dealing with male characters, I tend to make them relatively weak and gloomy, something I also did in my screenplay of "Rigor Mortis". The female part on the other hand show strength and dignity. I do not know why though.

A film like this benefits from young, often unknown faces. It lends the film credibility and youthful vigor, on the other hand it's probably not that easy to work with novice actors. Did you do anything special to make them feel more at ease?

I like using new actors, because they have a more natural side to them. I keep trying to mix new actors with veteran actors, so they will influence each other. Professional actors end up looking more natural and young actors can learn some acting skills. So far, I think it has worked well, although it has been more time-consuming. In "Port of Call" I liked the actors' performance and they went on to win a number of international awards. As for "May We Chat", the three first-time actresses weren't bad at all, but the film itself had very little response so not many people paid attention to them.

Rainky Wai stated that she used a body double. These days nudity isn't frowned upon that much, although it seems that Hong Kong can still be quite prudish when it comes to showing skin. Was the decision for a body double made in order to protect Wai's future career?

This is also a good question. Chinese actors are generally more conservative; there are still a lot of so-called code of ethics. An actor's nudity is not really accepted by the Chinese community. Many actors are also singers and advertising stars. They need to earn money and well-paid opportunities for Hong Kong professional film actors are limited. That's why they lack a strong professional awareness, they do not understand that their body is part of the performance.

I think that Tang Wei and Qin Hailu are pioneers as Chinese actresses, they have good performing sense and no one disrespects them. Unfortunately that didn't change the trend, as their cases remain stand alone examples. In my case, as a director, the need for nudity depends on the requirements of the script. In "May We Chat", Rainky Wai ‘s role does not require her real body to be exposed. I do believe that in the violent scene, where she counter-attacks her client, her character needed to be fully naked, but a body double would do the job.

You write your own films, you direct them and if I heard correctly you even edited your latest film. How important is it for you to have this much control over the final product?

"Port of Call" is the latest film where I both directed and participated in the editing process, together with William Chang and Liao Qingsong. I am grateful that I had a lot of control over the editing, as I also wrote the script. Compared to "May We Chat", "Port of Call” feels more like my personal, individual piece of work, so I insisted on sticking to my principles to express my ideas in this film. Obviously, my producer and film company understood this, so the audience felt that this movie was a bit more special, unlike all the typical commercial films. I believe that because of this, "Port of Call" received a number of awards and nominations. Unfortunately, because it's not a commercial movie, the Hong Kong box office was just average.

I feel that it is important for a director to have editing control, but it is not absolutely essential, as the final editing decisions are generally made by the film company. As long as the director can participate, particularly during the rough cut, that should enable the director to achieve his goals. With regards to smaller changes afterwards, it is best for the film company and director to decide together under mutual respect. Generally speaking there will be some controversy, but that's just part of the process.

May We Chat is a film that handles contemporary youth problems, but how representative is the film of modern-day Hong Kong youth. Are these types of stories common or is the film more a drama about excesses that exist?

The plot of “May We Chat” was too dramatic, which made the film less realistic. In this sense, "May We Chat" is actually worse than my very first film, "Glamorous Youth". It's because I kind of wanted to make the film to go towards the commercial side, but also because time was limited. I used a melodramatic way to tell the story as to make it easier for the viewer to follow the plot. There were conflicts and dramatic effects I added, which were a bit like Hong Kong TV series.

However, I took quite a few realistic elements from Hong Kong's everyday life. For example, the social life of young people and the way they deal with each other through mobile communication tools, the concept of love and the way young people in Hong Kong are conscious of their body, the way some young people get entangled in the sex industry and the problems they face when dealing with their parents' generation. Also their dignity; the dignity of the three young girls, their friendship, their commitment and way of expressing it; all these elements were very realistic in the movie. I think many young people in Hong Kong are seemingly frivolous and superficial, but their true personalities and the way they pursue happiness is actually very precious.

How difficult is it to write and a direct a film about a generation that isn't really your own. I'm more or less the same age as you and while I'm young enough to know about the technology young people use in their everyday life, I'm too old to truly understand what it means to live with and through it every day. Where did you find inspiration for that?

I did some research and gathered information with my other screenwriter Lou Shiu-Wa (who is also the screenwriter of "The Way We Are"). Although we couldn't do much, we had discussions and we observed a lot, after which we felt we had a better understanding of how today's youngsters behave. In fact, I have always paid special attention to Hong Kong's scoiety, as it's very likely to become a subject in my movies. Some of the elements in the script were chosen by me, and I only choose elements that are credible and I have a good understanding of. I also like to get inspiration from real stories; I feel that the most important thing is to create characters based on the character’s intention, motive and psychological condition. All these combined make the character look realistic.

Hong Kong people like to use "Whatsapp" and "We Chat" to communicate; I believe that nowadays you can see something similar happening in all modern cities around the world. Even though I could only observe the situation, I felt this was a common phenomenon in Hong Kong. Some people simply never met another group of people, yet they managed to become friends. This kind of relationship is very different from my childhood's situation. It's a bit like a pen pals; but it is also more like hiding yourself in a place where you feel it is safe to communicate with the outside world; which I find really absurd.

Many people see the film as a critique on the "social" life youngster lead online, but the way I see it the WeChat app actually brings the different characters closer together, acting more as a social bridge rather than a negative influence on their lives. Do you welcome these different visions people have on your film?

Actually, I would both criticize and affirm, but this is just an objective expression. I thought that the movie would work best if it had an objective perspective, but you could still find some subjective angles. The ideal is to question, to ask, leaving enough room for thought. Don't go in with too many principles and justifications.

May We Chat is not your typical Hong Kong movie, while watching I was more reminded of Taiwenese cinema and the way they shoot/handle drama films. How did you figure out the style to shoot this film, when there are so few local references?

It's very strange, a lot of people say that my films are like Taiwanese films. People said that about my very first film "Glamorous Youth"; and also about my latest film “Port of Call”. A lot of people say my films don't feel like Hong Kong films. I don't know why, probably because I have worked as a film critic before, which made me unwilling to use the typical Hong Kong way of shooting films. Of course, I still feel that I haven't done enough for my films and they were not mature enough.

Now that we're talking references: the scene that stood out for me (both visually as well as thematically) was the rape scene. I was oddly reminded of Fruit Chan's Hollywood Hong Kong (the narrow hallways, the butcher character). How did that scene come to be?

That was a real case; sex workers in Hong Kong have been exploited like this, with the client pulling off the condom during the act. I feel that Hong Kong sex workers do not receive adequate protection, so I added this particular scene in order to express how a sex worker would feel about the cold and dark side of society and how she would strike back. I like the movie “Hollywood Hong Kong", although I think sometimes Fruit Chan was too deliberate in making it, but the intensity of the performance was very strong and it did lift the spirit.

I do think the scene in "May We Chat" where the fat client is killed is far too intense, but maybe that's just because other scenes look relatively mild. So compared to the rest the intense scene seems a little over the top. However, I really liked that scene, the storyboard and the shooting are very vivid, detailed and accurate and I liked the location and the choreography, as well as the performances of Rainky Wai and the fat guy.

While I think that particular scene is one of the centerpieces of the film, it feels like a very divisive moment that is sure to put off a part of your audience. Do you think of the audience while writing/directing a film, or do you always put the film first?

I would always put the film first, but I also think it could stimulate the audience. I feel that pleasing or conforming to the wishes of the audience is not the only way to make the audience “participate” in a movie, the occasional vagueness and confusion can make the audience ponder and could make them synchronize with the director.

May We Chat is linked to David Lai's Lonely Fifteen. Both leads of Lonely Fifteen return and reprise their former roles. There's an obvious thematically connection between both films, but why Lonely Fifteen? Was there a special reason for choosing that film?

I like the movie "Lonely Fifteen". It has realistic elements, but it is in fact an idol movie. I'd say it might be the last Hong Kong New Wave film, a bit strange maybe, but very special. The box office was good and I have fond childhood memories of it, so "May We Chat" is my tribute to Hong Kong films.

I've been thinking about other Hong Kong films that put the lives of young people front and center and all I could come up with is Heiward Mak's Winds of September. Do you have any recommendations for Hong Kong films that deal with similar themes?

Lawrence Lau Kwok-Cheong’s "Spacked Out", Carol Lai Miu-Suet’s "Glass Tears" and Kenneth Bi’s "Girl$" are all very good. And finally, I hope you get the opportunity to see my latest movie "Port of Call". Thank you.

Wed, 20 Apr 2016 09:56:06 +0000
<![CDATA[Umimachi Diary/Hirokazu Koreeda]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/umimachi-diary-review-hirokazu-koreeda

After some tougher years, it seems Hirokazu Koreeda is slowly returning to his old form. Soshite Chichi ni Naru was already a step in the right direction, with Umimachi Diary [Our Little Sister] Koreeda continues this upward trajectory. His latest is still not quite up there with his very best films, nonetheless it's a gentle, warm-hearted and soft-spirited drama that carries Koreeda's signature from start to finish. Fans of his lighter work should be pleasantly surprised.

screen capture of Umimachi Diary

You may not really expect it, but even a guy like Koreeda isn't beneath adapting a manga when push comes to shove. Umimachi Diary is an adaptation of Akimi Yoshida's prize-winning comic, but unless you were already aware of the existence of the manga Koreeda's film does in no way feel like a typical adaptation. There are no talking pandas, no mecha, no harems, no superheroes or tentacles, instead the film bears a closer resemblance to adaptations like Otoko no Issho and Usagi Drop. Umimachi Diary is a typical, gentle, Japanese drama that just happens to be based off a comic.

Gentle is really the keyword here. It's rare to see a film that is so well-meaning and good-natured as Umimachi Diary. And it's not as if Koreeda lacks opportunities to crank up the dramatics. The film starts with a funeral, we see kids from different marriages living together, a mother who abandoned her daughters, villagers who are struck by incurable diseases and I can go on for a while. It sounds like the recipe for a hefty drama, but instead Koreeda turns it into a snug package of reconciliation and comfort.

The film follows three adult sisters (Sachi, Yoshino and Chika) who live together in their family home. They were abandoned by their father when they were still quite young, but when word arrives he passed away they set out to attend his funeral. There they meet up with Suzu, their teen half-sister. After a short introduction, the three decide to ask Suzu to come live with them for a while. Suzu accepts and moves in with her sisters in order to learn more about her dad's past.

screen capture of Umimachi Diary

There's little experimentation on the visual side of things. Umimachi Diary is a typical Japanese drama set in a rural area, so expect to see lots of blues and greens, slightly washed out colors, plenty of sunshine and short bursts of overpowering pink when sakura season starts. It looks and feels like a live action Miyazaki film at times, basking in warmth and embracing nature as much as possible. It gives off a very pleasant and agreeable, but it's not exactly spectacular.

The soundtrack is similarly pacifying. Very typical piano/string tunes that happily float around in the background, only sporadically moving up to the front to underline certain slightly more dramatic moments. What's maybe less apparent but at least as important is the voice track. There are lots of female characters in Umimachi Diary and they all talk very softly and politely while sporting cute accents. Japanese can sound very harsh or very delicate depending on how it's being used and Koreeda makes good use of that here.

The cast puts in a good performance, though there aren't too many complex roles here. All the characters are welcoming and open and whatever differences they have never really linger. Haruka Ayase (Amemasu no Kawa) takes the lead as Sachi, Chika (played by Kaho) is probably the most likable of the bunch and Suzu Hirose is the promising newcomer. Some great secondary performances by Takafumi Ikeda, Ryo Kase, Shin'ichi Tsutsumi and Jun Fubuki seal the deal.

screen capture of Umimachi Diary

What makes Umimachi Diary special isn't its lack of drama, nor its characters, plot or aesthetic qualities. What makes it special is its almost boundless optimism. Most films are constructed around pain, despair, loss or any other conceivable type of conflict. And I'm not just talking dramas here, even comedies have their half-time dramatic setback which the main character has to overcome in order to get to the trademark happy ending. It seems to be part of the DNA of storytelling.

There's just none of that in Umimachi Diary. Drama is temporary and easily overcome by the characters, who draw strength from family and tradition. Positive and uplifting elements permeate every single aspect of the film in such a way that I can't remember ever seeing it done this consistently in any other film. From the sunny surroundings to the warm personalities of the characters, from the traditions shared in the little village to the soft-voiced dialogues, everything is tailored to be as pleasant and heart-warming as possible.

Because the film lacks any sense of urgency or lingering drama, it's probably not for everyone. Koreeda is smart and talented enough to avoid false sentimentality, but if you're not up for a film that goes out of its way to avoid friction then Umimachi Diary has little to offer. I loved it though. It's a welcoming, soothing and comforting drama that's just all too rare in cinema. Hopefully Koreeda continues this upward trend, I'm already looking forward to his next film.

Wed, 13 Apr 2016 09:52:25 +0000
<![CDATA[Takashi Miike/x70]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/takashi-miike-x70
Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike is without a doubt one of Japan's most interesting directors. He's a phenomenon, an unstoppable force, a cinematic anomaly and last but not least, he's one of my all-time favorite directors. I'm sure most film fans have watched some or other Miike film at one point in their life, but really that's not much of a feat when you know he's nearing his 100th directorial credit. That's when he's not writing, acting or producing on the side.

The problem with Miike is that you can watch 10 of his film and still have no clue what kind of director he is. He is, quite literally, not bound to any genre, any niche or any target audience. He can direct big budget commercial project for kids and follow them up with absurd horror comedies. He made a few Yakuza flicks, but that didn't stop him from directing a straight up TV adaptation of a popular TV series. He made a musical, a western and a remake of Seppuku, because why not. The only way to get an idea of what kind of director Miike is, is to watch all of his films. So that's pretty much what I've been doing.

Miike started his career in the early 90s, at the very bottom of the ladder. His first few films were simple, low budget affairs that will likely appeal to only the most hardcore of Miike fans. They are pretty hard to find too. The oldest Miike film I've seen is Bodigaado Kiba [Bodyguard Kiba], which was already his fifth film. It's decent enough, displaying short flashes of Miike's later genius, but it gets seriously bogged down by subpar production values. It wasn't until Miike directed Naniwa Yuukyoden [Osaka Tough Guys] that his style would begin to flourish.

From then on Miike would start making a name for himself as someone with no limitation to what he would put on screen. Films like Gokudo Sengokushi: Fudo [Fudoh], Full Metal Gokuo [Full Metal Yakuza] and Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha all added to Miike's notoriety because of selected scenes that stuck with people. Besides coming up with craziness, Miike became also known as a prolific director, making at least 3 films per year between 1995 and 2005.

Besides making crazy melanges of genres, Miike also got more proficient at more serious work. Films like Kishiwada Shonen Gurentai: Chikemuri Junjo-hen [Young Thugs: Innocent Blood], Chugoku no Chojin [The Bird People of China] and Nihon Kuroshakai [Ley Lines] show a more mature director, one who doesn't necessarily needs to rely on gimmicks or weirdness to make his films work.

But also more purer genre work got some attention. Miike scored his first big international hit with Odishon [Audition], one of his few straight-up horror films (which is odd for someone who's often pegged as a horror director), he directed Araburu Tamashii-Tachi [Agitator], a more than decent yakuza flick and he made Tengoku kara Kita Otoko-tachi [The Guys from Paradise], an interesting drama set in a Filipino prison.

All of this is still before Miike's strongest period. The early '00s brought a lot of international attention to the Japanese film scene and Miike made the best of that. With films like Bijita Q [Visitor Q], Katakuri-ke no Kofuku [Happiness of the Katakuris], Koroshiya 1 [Ichi the Killer] and Gokudo Kyofu Dai-gekijo: Gozu [Gozu], he amused, surprised, shocked and freaked people out. These are all film that are vintage Miike, impossible to compare and perfect examples of the playful, limitless freedom Miike had created for himself.

Not happy with the variety of project he'd done so far, Miike set out to conquer the festivals. With Izo, 46-Okunen no Ko [Big Bang Love, Juvenile A] and his short in Saam Gaang Yi [Three ... Extremes] he adapted a more arthouse-like approach, though not without losing too much of the weirdness he was known for. These are all great films that further underline Miike's seemingly endless talent.

The next ten years Miike would continue to hunt for things he hadn't done before. Make a straight-up sequel (Crows Zero II), direct children's films (Yattaman), take on a Western (Sukiyaki Western Django), do a game adaptation (Gyakuten Saiban), do a musical (Ai to Makoto), adapt a samurai classic (Ichimei, a remake of Kobayashi's Seppuku), try a superhero flick (Zebraman) ... it just doesn't end. By then Miike was proficient enough at making films that nothing posed a challenge anymore. While not every film is equally great, these are all accomplished films made by a seasoned director.

If you're looking for more recent work then Gokudou Daisensou [Yakuza Apocalypse] and Mogura no Uta [The Mole Song] are prime examples of Miike's unique approach to cinema. Just know that there's no real shortcut to understanding this director. Even after having seen 70 of his films, he still manages to surprise, seeking out new challenges (next up: a scifi space horror and a humanitarian drama) and coming up with wild, original ideas. He's one of my absolute favorites and his oeuvre is varied enough that most people should find something to like. Actually finding it might be somewhat of a challenge, still, when you do it might one of the best things you've ever seen.

Best film: 46-Okunen no Koi [Big Bang Love, Juvenile A] (5.0*)
Worst film: Shirubaa [Silver] (1.0*)
Reviewed films: Gokudo Daisenso - Kamisama no Iu Tori - Hyoryuu-Gai - Mogura no Uta - Yokai Daisenso - Ai to Makoto - Izo - Gokudo Kyofu Dai-Gekijo: Gozu - Gyakuten Saiban - Nintama Rantaro - Bizita Q - 46-Okunen no Koi - Zeburaman: Zebura Shiti no Gyakushu - Kurozu Zero II - Kuruzo Zero - Taiyo no Kizu
Average rating: 3.55 (out of 5)

Mon, 11 Apr 2016 09:29:26 +0000
<![CDATA[Shoto Pisu/Various ]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/short-peace-review-various

In a time when full-length anime features are pretty much comatose and their American counterparts are still way too hung up on CG animals and their not-so-funny adventures, a project like Shoto Pisu [Short Peace] is an absolute breath of fresh air. In the fine tradition of anime anthologies, some of the brightest and most talented artists and directors were brought together to muster up a glimpse of the e. The result is absolutely mind-blowing, but to those in the know this shouldn't come as a big surprise.

screen capture of Short Peace

The anthology looks like is a typical Studio 4°C project, except that it isn't. The setup, the reach, the art styles, the directors involved, the freedom ... everything points to Studio 4°C's signature style (think Digital Juice, Memorizu, Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond). But the production of the shorts was handled by Sunrise and Shochiku, with no mention of Studio 4°C anywhere. It's a little baffling to be honest, but since it doesn't reflect on the final result you won't hear me complaining.

The Shoto Pisu project spans more than just the anthology. The central theme of the project is "Japan across the ages" and with modern time not represented by any of the anthology shorts, they decided to plug that hole by introducing a video game (produced by Crispy's Inc. and Grasshopper Manufacture). As always, the central theme is nothing more than a loose connection between the different shorts, so don't expect too much in the way of an overarching atmosphere. This review only reflects my view on the anthology part of the project, I haven't played the game yet and ranking a cross-media project like this would only make things needlessly complex.

Even though the introduction isn't listed separately as part of the line-up, the fact that it was directed by Koji Morimoto and so clearly carries his mark warrants a special mention. In his typical style, a girl follows a rabbit through a warp hole and traverses several surreal universes. The imagination, the colorful, futuristic designs and the techno/IDM-like soundtrack make this a true Morimoto classic. I still hope he gets around to making a feature film in the same vein, but until that happens I'll take everything I can get. It's just a bit too short for a full mark, but as an opener it hits all the right notes. 4.5*/5.0*

screen capture of Short Peace

The first true short is Shuhei Morita's Tsukumo [Possessions]. Think Kosetsu Hyaku Monogatari meets Mushishi, rendered in Morita's typical style. It closely resembles Morita's Freedom, sans Otomo's influence. The story follows a lone tailor who spends the night in a desolate shrine. Before long ghosts start to hassle the tailor, but rather than freak out he confronts them in his own unique way. The CG is a big step up from Freedom and the story is interesting enough, but it lacks and stand-out features when compared to the other shorts. Still, not bad at all. 4.0*/5.0*

Up next is Katsuhiro Otomo's Hi no Yojin [Combustible]. If you had to link Otomo's name to one of the fives shorts, without any prior knowledge of the anthology, I'm pretty sure Hi no Yojin would come up as the least likely candidate. It looks like nothing Otomo has ever done before (in fact, in looks like nothing anyone in the animation business has ever done before), but then again, those who remember Cannon Fodder may not be all that surprised. The short is set up like a traditional Japanese scroll painting, drawn up in weird diagonals and soft, fuzzy colors. While it starts off quite subdued, the ending is extremely intense and overwhelmingly impressive. Another future Otomo classic. 4.5*/5.0*

screen capture of Short Peace

The third short is Hiroaki Ando's Gambo and it's by far the most gruesome of the bunch. It's bloody, mean and nasty, but never gratuitous or excessive. The shorts tells of a white bear battling a giant red demon who threatens the safety of the royal family. It's pretty disturbing and violent, but then again so are most non-Disneyfied legends. The art style is a little cruder compared to the rest of the shorts, but the level of detail is remarkably high and the animation is nothing short of stunning. It's a great short that aptly showcases Ando's talents. 4.5*/5.0*

But the best is saved for last. Buki yo Saraba [A Farewell to Weapons] is the film that bares the biggest resemblance to oldskool Otomo, though it's directed by Hajime Katoki (famed mecha designer). If you wonder where the resemblance with Otomo's work comes from, the short is an adaptation of an Otomo manga that goes by the same name. It starts of rather disappointingly, with a plain-looking frame sporting 80's blues and yellows (as if you're watching the opening of the original Hokuto no Ken movie), but once the the city, the mechs and the characters are introduced my jaw was glued to the floor. The animation is rich, detailed and quite simply unmatched. The camera work and editing are stupendous and the climax is one of the most thrilling pieces of animation ever put to film. 4.75*/5.0*

Shoto Pisu proudly honors the the rich tradition of Japan's animated anthologies. It's up there with the very best, bustling with innovation and creative freedom. There's no weak link here, no bad parts or boring bits. It's a celebration of animation as an art form and it stands in stark contrast to other contemporary feature-length animations. Watching the umpteenth anime series turned feature film or childish animal-ridden comedy will only get more and more irritating after having watched a film like this. Kudos to Otomo, Morimoto, Ando, Morita and Katoki for making this mind-blowing film. For those with only the slightest interest in animation, this is a must-see.

Thu, 07 Apr 2016 09:16:40 +0000
<![CDATA[Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo/Tetsuo Shinohara]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/shinkokyu-no-hitsuyo-review-shinohara

With March gone and April barely awake, it's the ideal moment to revisit Tetsuo Shinohara's Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo [Breathe In, Breathe Out]. Shinohara's drama, set during the Okinawan sugar cane harvest, is an unlikely little masterpiece that continues to prove its worth with each new viewing. This is the fourth time I watched the film and even though I started every viewing with considerable doubts, Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo managed to overcome them effortlessly every single time.

screen capture of Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo

Even after having watched it four times, I still find myself wondering what it is exactly that makes this such a great film. Tetsuo Shinohara isn't the greatest of directors, there's surprisingly little drama to support its running time and the rural setting isn't the most dashing. But much like Omohide Poro Poro the film has a very chill, de-stressing and relaxing effect. While the setup is extremely simple, Shinohara creates a strong bond with his characters, one that ultimately pays off in the end.

The film follows a small group of people who get together to help out an old farmer and his wife with the yearly sugar cane harvest. They get food, a place to sleep and a little money, in return they slave away to get the harvest done before the 31st of March, the final day the factory takes in the sugar canes. The harvesting is all done by hand, in the blistering sun (Okinawa has a subtropical climate), with only one day off a week. If you love to see other people work, this is a film you cannot miss out on.

You may believe this is all just a setup, a reason to bring these characters together and work through the group dynamic while giving each character his own dramatic background story. While that's partially true, it's definitely not as outspoken as you may suspect. For many the "trip" is indeed a perfect excuse to run away from their everyday problems and each character has its own demons to battle, but Shinohara keeps a lot to himself, often excluding the viewer from the finer details.

screen capture of Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo

Visually it's a pleasant film. It may not be very spectacular, but Shinohara makes excellent use of the film's setting. Okinawa carries that typically rural Japanese look, it's just a bit sunnier than usual so prepare to be flooded by lots of blues and greens while our small group of characters works the fields. The camera work is what you can expect from a typical modern Japanese drama, so is the editing. It all combines to create a very warm, calm and soothing visual atmosphere.

The score is equally inviting. Again it's a pretty typical affair, with lots of piano melodies dominating the soundtrack, but the timing of the songs is impeccable and together with the sunny visuals they make for a very smooth, gentle experience. It comes as no surprise that Takeshi Kobayashi also scored a couple of Shunji Iwai's earlier films, though while watching Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo I actually suspected the film was scored by Joe Hisaishi. I guess that's a pretty big compliment.

The cast consists mostly of lesser known actors, the only truly familiar name there is Nao Omori. He does a great job, but that's only to be expected. Fans of Japanese cinema may also recognize Hiroki Narimiya, who puts in one of the better performances of his career. The rest of the group isn't bad either, mind. At first their performances may seem to lack subtlety, but that quickly fades during the second half of the film. Special mentions go to the old couple running the farm, two superb characters played with such conviction that they feel completely real.

screen capture of Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo

Somewhere halfway through the film one of the characters voices the obvious: that everyone is simply running away from their problems rather than face them head on. The remark is met with an affirmative silence as each of the people in the group reflects on their own motives to go on this work vacation. It could've been a turning point, a dramatic moment that would urge everyone to open up to the group, but Shinohara just lets it slide. Some characters do reveal why they came along, but most of them simply remain quiet. Nonetheless, this moment unites the group, even when the specifics of their problems remain vague and/or unsolved.

It sounds like a missed opportunity, a storytelling fail if you want, but in fact it adds a sense of realism that places you much closer to the characters. Much in the same way the old granny mothers the youngest of the group without ever asking about her problems, you start to feel for the characters without knowing the exact issues they're dealing with. It's a strong feeling that crushes any sense of sentimentality and keeps the drama pure and honest. And in return you get more scenes of the group working the field.

If you think it all sounds rather dull than that's perfectly understandable. The thing is, it really isn't. Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo is a beautiful, pure, subtle and heart-warming drama. It's never flashy, showy or intrusive, instead it shows rather than tells. It's a little strange that Shinohara never even came close to reproducing the genius of this film, but that doesn't change the fact that Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo is a film that deserves more recognition. It's a film that is terribly underwatched and underrated. If you have a soft spot for Japanese drama, this is a must see.

Tue, 05 Apr 2016 10:04:38 +0000
<![CDATA[Pusong Wazak!/Khavn]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/ruined-heart-review-khavn

Film distributors are often anonymous companies. But spend some time in the darker niches of cinema and you'll find that some labels are more than just money-grabbing institutions. When it comes to releasing Asian films in the West, Third Window Films is one of the prime labels out there. Point in case one of their latest releases: Khavn's Pusong Wazak! [Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between a Criminal and a Whore]. A film that would've passed me by completely if it wasn't for the TWF marker. It's the sole reason I picked it up, and boy am I glad I did.

screen capture of Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal & a Whore

Considered by many to be "the father of Philippine digital filmmaking", Khavn (De La Cruz) is a pretty unique persona. In less than 20 years time he produced a filmography of over 150 films (that's features and shorts combined). Pusong Wazak! is enigmatically introduced as "this is not a Khavn film" and besides directing films Khavn is also a singer, pianist, poet and festival director. He's a man with a clear vision, that much should be obvious. Not everyone will enjoy what he does and stands for, but those who do are in for a spectacular ride. At least, if Pusong Wazak! is somewhat representative for Khavn's whole oeuvre.

Pusong Wazak! is not the easiest film to introduce. It's a Pan-Asian endeavor listing Tadanobu Asano and Christopher Doyle, so there is a weak link with Pen-ek Ratanaruang's most lauded films (Invisible Waves and Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan). But the film itself feels more related to Sogo Ishii's punk cinema (think Dead End Run), drifting on more freeform structures, ignoring narrative coherence and drawing fiercely from its soundtrack. It's punk cinema, but without the raging guitars.

There is a something in the way of a plot of course, concerning a crime boss, a lowlife criminal working for him and two women who drive a wedge between the two men, but specifics remain rather vague. Bits and pieces are thrown around, yet piecing everything together is no easy task. If you want you can read up afterwards, but that would be missing the true appeal of Pusong Wazak! In the end it's not so much about what happens, but what is shown and how it is shown.

screen capture of Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal & a Whore

Khavn is someone who prefers to work quickly, capturing the energy of the moment. At first I was a bit worried this approach wouldn't go too well with Doyle's cinematography, but the result is entrancing. The camera work is agile and free, but at the same time there are some great camera angles and strong, powerful use of color. The film looks energetic and true to its punk roots, but with definite traces or Doyle's softer, more elegant cinematography running throughout. Add the sharp and snappy editing and the result is a film that feels both fresh and classy at the same time.

I described the film as Pan-Asian before, but Khavn's reaches stretch further than just Asia. The film is scored by Stereo Total (a German electro pop collective) giving the film a very distinct atmosphere. The score was written with the support of Khavn himself and it permeats every single pore of the film. Some go as far as to call it a musical/punk opera, but scores are typically very present in punk cinema so it kind of comes with the territory. That said, while it's not exactly my kind of music it adds plenty to the film, making it an ever bigger melting pot than it already was.

Even more evidence of the film's global influences is found in the addition of Nathalia Acevedo (Post Tenebras Lux). Together with Tadanobu Asano and Elena Kazan she forms the central trio of the film. It was particularly nice to see Asano get into the role of flamboyant anti-hero once again. He hasn't lost much of his former presence and he's still an ideal choice to play this type of character. It just goes to show what shame it is that Japan currently lacks similar opportunities like these, because it won't be too long before Asano will be too old to play these characters convincingly.

screen capture of Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal & a Whore

Pusong Wazak! is only 73 minutes long, but it has the potential to be a true test of patience for those who don't feel it. It's less a narrative journey than it is cinematic poetry and those kind of films are known to sharply divide audiences. Sadly there aren't enough of these films around, which makes it all the more important that distributors like Third Window Films give them the attention they deserve. Khavn clearly has talent and with the people he gathered around him for this project the quality only rose exponentially.

If you like cultural melting pots, non-narrative cinema, punk cinema or just something off-kilter and youthfaul, then give Pusong Wazak! a try. It's one of the best cinematic experiences I've had so far this year and I would be pretty surprised if it wouldn't make my end of year list. I can't vouch for Khavn's other films, but as far as this one goes it's a true joy to behold. Kudos to Third Window Films for unearthing this little gem, it's a film I wouldn't have wanted to miss out on.

Tue, 29 Mar 2016 10:03:33 +0000
<![CDATA[Bai Ri Gaobie/Tom Lin Shu-Yu]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/zinnia-flower-review-tom-lin

It took him four years, but Tom Lin Shu-Yu, one of Taiwan's brightest talents, is finally back with a new film. Things are a little different this time around though. Gone are the frivolities, gone are the youthful characters and the cheerful drama, instead Lin takes Bai Ri Gaobie [Zinnia Flowers] in a darker, more solemn direction. The result is a strong, gentle and heartfelt film about mourning, a film that also requires a bit more effort compared to his previous films.

screen capture of Zinnia Flower

At first it may feel like a strange change of pace for Tom Lin, but throughout the film it started to dawn on me that there might be a good reason for Lin's more introspective, serene approach. The sad truth is that Lin is working from his own experiences here, Bai Ri Gaobie is a film brought forward by the untimely death of Lin's own wife in 2012. While it's not a true to life reconstruction of the aftermath of her death, the emotional journey of the two main characters are clearly mapped to Lin's own emotions and experiences.

The film starts mere seconds after a massive car crash on the highway. Ming and Yuwei are taken to the hospital with light injuries, both unaware that their respective partners are facing a much more dire fate. Yuwei loses his wife and unborn kid to the crash, Ming is left without her soon-to-be husband. One single moment completely turns their lives upside down, all they can do is try and pick up the pieces of their broken lives.

The remainder of the film is spent on the different aspects of the mourning process. There is the social aspect, with friends and family doing their best to help wherever necessary. There's a clear religious angle (the Buddhist mourning rituals form the common thread throughout the film) and there is the individual mourning process. Emotions like rage, defeat and desperation make up most of the first part of the film, the second part sees the characters coming to terms with the loss they have suffered.

screen capture of Zinnia Flower

The visuals are a bit more subdued compared to Lin's previous features. While I tend to prefer films that have a clear, stylistic presence, I do understand why Lin toned things down a notch. I can't say it has a particularly negative influence on the overall experience either, the sober visuals give room to the other aspects of the film. It's not that the film looks sloppy, ugly or boring, you're not watching a Dardenne films after all, it's just that his previous films had a bit more visual identity.

As for the soundtrack (used sparingly throughout the film), I'm still not quite sure whether it was the music that added to the emotional impact, or the other way around. It doesn't really matter though, while the score is pretty typical (with some actual classic music, namely Chopin, featuring quite prominently) it fits the film like a glove. The end song in particular left me glued to my seat, unable to bring myself to stand up and leave the film behind. If that isn't a sign of a good score, I don't know what is.

But the true stars of the film are Karen Lam and Shih Chin-hang. Lin puts a lot of trust in their performances, then again it's not as if he had a real choice. For a film like this to work you need two strong leads who can communicate a lot with just a couple of small cues. The film doesn't have many grand emotional gestures or big, dramatic events, so the burden of getting the emotions across rests with the two leads. And it must be said, they do a tremendous job. It's really no surprise that Karen Lam was awarded a Golden Horse for her performance.

screen capture of Zinnia Flower

Bai Ri Gaobie won't be everybody's cup of tea. In a way it feels quite Japanese, with its slow pacing, introvert characters and subtle dramatic exposure. It foregoes easy (and cheesy) sentiment, instead aiming for something more intense and heartfelt. It's been a while since I felt this connected to the characters in a film, but if for some reason the film doesn't connect with the viewer than it's easy to see how Bai Ri Gaobie can become a chore real fast.

Ultimately I still prefer Lin's more frivolous side, but that doesn't change the fact that Bai Ri Gaobie is quite the impressive drama. Lin's personal involvement gives the film an extra dimension, though it works well enough on its own merits. Bai Ri Gaobie is one of the most intense, pure and respectable renditions of what it means to lose a dear one, for that reason alone it's worth a try. Tom Lin Shu-Yu delivers another beautiful film and while the inspiration for the film isn't something to be happy about, the result is mighty impressive and a very worthy addition to his small but impressive oeuvre.

Thu, 24 Mar 2016 10:06:45 +0000
<![CDATA[The Acid House/Paul McGuigan]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/acid-house-review-paul-mcguigan

Twenty years ago Danny Boyle immortalized Irvine Welsh' Trainspotting, currently Boyle is working on an unnamed Trainspotting sequel, featuring the original cast. If you're having a hard time waiting for Boyle's latest, you could always watch Filth, or you could give Paul McGuigan's The Acid House a try. Not the slickest of Welsh' film adaptations, but a perfect diversion for those who simply can't get enough of Scotland's less fortunate.

screen capture of The Acid House

McGuigan's The Acid House is an adaptation of the same-titled book. Welsh' original work is a collection of short stories, so it's really no surprise that the film ended up an anthology project. The style is pretty consistent for an anthology film, but that's not too uncommon when all the parts are filmed by the same director. McGuigan restricted himself to adapting just three of the book's shorts, as to give each story ample time to develop.

First one up is The Granton Star Cause, the story of Boab's encounter with God. Boab is having a pretty bad day. His football team doesn't want him anymore, his girlfriend dumped him, his parents want him out of the house and to top it all off, he got sacked from his puny job. His luck is bound to change when he runs into God at his local pub, but Boab is about to find out that God isn't as nice a bloke as he's often made out to be. Actually, God is pretty angry at Boab for slacking off and Boab is going to find out angry gods can be pretty spiteful.

The Granton Star Cause is a comedy in the same way Trainspotting or Ex Drummer is a comedy. It isn't really laugh out loud funny, but there's a dark, cynical undercurrent that serves as solid groundwork for some edgy comedy. Welsh' characters are tragic in their failure and when coupled with an asshole God it's hard not to snigger at their misfortunes. It's a good short to start off this film, though probably the weakest of the three. 3.5*/5.0*.

screen capture of The Acid House

The second short is A Soft Touch, the most dramatic entry of the three. It follows the mishappenings of Johnny, a young guy with few prospects in life, who gets married to a downright horrible woman after getting her pregnant. Before long their relationship is in shambles, but Johnny stays with his wife because of the kid they share. That is, until they get a new upstairs neighbor. Larry is pretty much the worst neighbor you can imagine, but again Johnny is too soft to stand up for himself.

While Larry is a fun character (unless you're dealing with a guy like that in real life of course), A Soft Touch is a generally tragic tale about a guy who means well but who is let down by the people around him. Unable to properly stand up for himself, Johnny's life slips away from him with his newly born daughter as the ultimate victim. Again the Trainspotting comparisons aren't far off, but since this is a more contained story the dramatic impact is a tad stronger. 4.0*/5.0*

screen capture of The Acid House

Mention The Acid House to me and a voice inside my head will go "Coco fuckin' Bryce!". It's hardwired in there somehow. The first two shorts are nice enough, but what makes this film truly memorable is the last one (also called The Acid House). It's about a young bloke who switches brains with a newly born baby. While mom is shocked by her foul-mouthed offspring, Coco's girlfriend suddenly has to tend to a baby in a young man's body.

It's a fun setup, sporting good jokes and some rather eerie effects (the talking baby is just creepy), but this really is Ewen Bremner's little one man show. He was one of the highlights of Trainspotting and one-ups his Spud character as Coco Bryce. His delivery, his facial expressions, his sudden mood swings, it's all just perfection. Add some manic editing and a fun soundtrack and what you get is a pretty insane, loud yet very entertaining short film. 4.5*/5.0*

I'll readily admit that I have a pretty big soft spot for the Scottish accent. It sounds like somebody had a little too much fun with English and messed up all the vowels. Sure enough you'll need subtitles along the way, but it adds something incredibly juicy to the dialogues. Visually the films is a little barren, though some fun camera angles and crazy editing tricks make it pretty bearable. The acting is good, the stories are smart and the sense of humor is typically Welsh: dark and tragic. The Acid House won't disappoint Welsh fans, but a Danny Boyle film it is not.

Mon, 21 Mar 2016 11:05:53 +0000