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[Fist & Faith/Jiang Zhuoyuan]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/fist-and-faith-review-jiang-zhuoyuan

Chinese cinema is booming. It's been steadily growing for the past 10-15 years or so and it's getting increasingly difficult to ignore. That said, the West is really trying its hardest to look the other way. A movie like Jiang Zhuoyuan's Fist & Faith shows plenty of potential for international success, but for some reason it's unable to catch a break outside China's borders. And that's a real shame, because if you're looking for something fun and creative with a darker edge, Fist & Faith is a solid bet.

screen capture of Fist & Faith

Not longer than twenty years ago, Chinese cinema was quite limited. Not that there weren't any good films around, but you'd be hardpressed to find much outside the realms of martial arts and social drama. Chinese directors had to rebrand themselves like crazy in a short period of time, which does make it considerably more difficult to navigate all the Chinese films being produced today. Suddenly there are blitzy comedies, haunted house horrors and crazy urban fantasies all fighting for attention, borrowing and copying from and adding to foreign influences.

Knowing all that, Fist & Faith still came as a pretty big surprise. The film finds itself somewhere stranded in between Crows Zero, Cromartie High and Scott Pilgrim vs The World, but still comes out its very own thing. The typical Japanese school gangs combined with the comic book aesthetic and the geeky comedy are a triple first for Chinese cinema, but Zhuoyuan does well to put it in a local (historical) context while making sure the presentation is slick and polished.

The film is set during Japan's occupation of Manchuria in the 30s. In order to colonize the Chinese, the Japanese are doing away with Chinese literature and are taking over their history classes. Underground book reading clubs are popping up left and right, but the Japanese are using school gangs to disrupt and disperse these gatherings. Jing Hao is one of the first Chinese students to stand up against the Japanese. He unites the different Chinese clans and vows to take on the Japanese oppressors.

screen capture of Fist & Faith

Visually there's a lot happening here and most of it is pretty neat. Even the less-accomplished CG shots carry a clear aesthetic and add to the overall atmosphere of the film. The comic book effects are very cool, the camera work is fun and creative and the use of color is bold and extravagant. Zhuoyuan is a younger director and it clearly shines through in the look of the film. Not every single effect and/or filter is successful, but overall the film looks superb and presents itself as both modern and stylish.

The soundtrack too is quite remarkable. Chinese films tend to play it safe when it comes to choice of music, but Zhuoyuan opts for a slightly more daring approach. Some hip-hop and dubstep influences bring a lot of extra energy to the film, not in the least because these aren't the typical soundtrack interpretations of said genres. The music here feels genuine and edgy and supports the scenes effortlessly, while adding a lot of extra flavor to the film. It's a great example of how a soundtrack can be both modern and impactful without sounding like a bad pop compilation.

The cast is also pretty on point. Jing Tian and Oho Ou carry most of the weight and do a solid job. There is some oustpoken comedy that might come off a little weird for those not used to the Chinese sense of humor, but the lighthearted first half of the film makes it pretty easy to cope with. Jiang Zhuoyuan deserves extra credit for casting a fine selection of Japanse actors (Meisa Kuroki and Kento Hayashi are perfect) to fill out the Japanese parts. While that may sound like an obvious thing to do, it wouldn't be the first film to use Chinese actors in Japanese roles.

screen capture of Fist & Faith

The first half of Fist & Faith is pretty casual. Bits of comedy, comic book silliness and romance brighten up a pretty simple plot. Halfway through it turns dark though and the second half of the film is a lot harsher. Things escalate quickly and characters end up dead, yet somehow the film manages to maintain its air of entertainment. It's a tough trick to pull off and the transition might not to be everyone's liking, but by the time Zhuoyuan starts his final act it felt like a natural progression of the story.

Fist & Faith is a film that isn't shy to pay tribute to its influences. From the 300-esque Crows Zero clan fight to the Scott Pilgrim-like introduction, Zhuoyuan borrows royally from a broad varity of films. The way he brings everything together though is quite unique, not in the least for a Chinese film maker. The result is a thorougly entertaining film that amuses, dazzles and delights. Getting your hands on it is going to be a tougher challenge, but I'm sure those willing to go the extra mile will find a way.

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Wed, 20 Sep 2017 10:01:43 +0000
<![CDATA[Mother!/Darren Aronofsky]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/mother-review-darren-aronofsky

When Darren Aronofsky releases a new film, I'm there. While the second part of his career has been a little hit and miss, even his flukes tend to be unique and different enough to warrant a trip to the theater. The first impressions of Mother! (mind the exclamation point) were bouncing between hype and severe negativity, luckily I mananged to stear clear of any spoilers or guidance. Just make sure you go into this one as blank as possible, it will only make the ride that much more impressive.

screen capture of Mother!

I don't really keep track of how many films I watch in theaters each year, but it's probably somewhere between 20 and 30. I do love the experience, but I rarely love the films. The last one I reviewed was Hardcore Henry and that was almost one and a half years ago. I'm actually a bit surprised they decided to release Mother! in cinemas here. It's a very divisive film and it's sure to leave some people confused, if not angry and cheated out of their money. I'm not complaining though.

I think it’s OK to be confused. The movie has a dream-logic and that dream-logic makes sense. But if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.

Mother! isn't a very literal film (as a reference: Aronofsky stated he drew influences from Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel). The symbolism is thick, layered and obvious, but explaining what exactly it's about is a lot tougher. More specifically: finding one, singular explanation that fits the entire film seems impossible. That's also what Aronofsky's above quote seems to allude to. Once you try to pigeon-hole the symbolism, it starts to fall apart real quick. Instead Mother! is an amalgam of ideas and allegories that both fight and feed off each other and end up becoming one big, feverish, visceral nightmare.

While watching I found myself jumping between different theories. The first act felt like an allusion to America's (and Europe's) refugee problems, later on the film reveals clear religious influences, but also a strong environmental message, an opinionated take on gender roles and politics and even strong allusions to the relationship an artist shares with his audience as well as the art he creates. Upon further reading, I also found a solid take that point towards the destructive effect of narcissism. In the end, none of those explanations feels truly fulfilling, yet all of them feel relevant.

screen capture of Mother!

On the visual side of things, Mother! is a pretty intense and demanding film. Aronofsky glues the camera to his characters and makes it their shadow. Even though the entire film plays in a single house, you never really get a solid grip on the place, as most of the frame tends to be eclipsed by its occupants. It leaves you grasping for straws and keeps you on your toes while you try and mentally map the setting together, though Aronofsky never grants you the release you're looking for. While not as rhythmic as some of Aronofsky's earlier work, nor as polished and slick-looking, the visuals sure are dense and overpowering and add a lot to the overall experience.

The music is mostly absent, but nonetheless the sound design is very much present and leading. Aronofsky builds his soundscapes in such a way that slightly filtered high-pitched tones keep edging themselves to the front, creating a very uneasy and foreboding atmosphere. There is a short rave scene where Aronofsky isn't afraid to crank up the BPMs, but that's about it. Music has always played a strong role in Aronofsky's films, so I guess it's a little surprising to see him ditch an entire soundtrack. Then again, it's nice to see he can play with different types of sound design while still making a distinct and valuable impact on his film.

Much has been said about the peculiar casting, but Aronofsky coached his actors to perfection. It's rare to see a cast this diverse (no, not in color) and so out of their comfort zone pull it together (I mean, Kristen Wiig, Ed Harris and Jennifer Lawrence featuring in a psychologic thriller), but each and every one puts in a strong and captivating performance. Quite an accomplishment with the camera so close to the actors, capturing every little twitch and grimace, but not a single one succumbs under the pressure. Bardem and Lawrence deserve the biggest accolades though and I wouldn't be surprised if it earns them some prizes.

screen capture of Mother!

Mother! is a film that toys with the expectations of its audience. The trailers marketed the film as a home invasion horror, but even that angle is flipped around by Aronofsky. While Lawrence's meticulously renovated home gets trampled on and destroyed by a group of outsiders, Lawrence is made out to be "the bad guy" while her husband acts as the ever-forgiving host. To see your own private world ruined by others while being unable to react in fear of social backlash is a particular kind of horror that I don't think I've ever seen before in film, but it's extremely enervating and infuriating, not to say extremely effective.

From there on out the films grows ever more grotesque. To say the second part derails is an understatement, but Aronofsky completely owns the direction Mother! takes. Some people are going to hate it, others will love it, but there's simply no way to stay unfazed by what Aronofsky puts in front of his audience. It's been a while since a film got me this tense and on edge and it's somewhat comforting to know something like that is still possible, even with 7000+ films behind me.

A film like Mother! is impossible to recommend, but it's also a film that needs to be experienced regardless of appreciation. There are no trailers or reviews that can prepare you for the onslaught of terror and chaos here, at the same time there is infinite potential for dissecting the film afterwards. It's a film that is tailored to allow for a thorough personal experience, while also talking about subjects that encompass the whole of humanity. One thing is sure, Aronofsky delivers the goods and reestablishes himself as one of the most talented and relentless directors of his generation.

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Mon, 18 Sep 2017 10:11:00 +0000
<![CDATA[Iron Monkey/Woo-Ping Yuen]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/iron-monkey-review-woo-ping-yuen

A few weeks ago I revisited Corey Yuen's The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk, one of the absolute highlights of 90s martial arts cinema. Closely trailing Yuen's film is Woo-Ping Yuen's Iron Monkey [Siu Nin Wong Fei Hung Ji Tit Ma Lau], another prime example vying for the crown of best '93 Hong Kong martial arts feature. I'd seen the film a couple of times already and was looking forward to watching it once again, this time paying closer attention to how it compares to its peers.

screen capture of Iron Monkey

Woo-Ping Yuen is one of the all-time martial arts greats, though not an onscreen practitioner himself. He gained international fame when he was hired to do the action choreography for The Matrix, but films like Iron Monkey and Twin Warriors were no doubt the reason why he got noticed by the Wachowski's in the first place. Yuen often worked as a dedicated action choreographer for other directors' films, but he also directed quite a few movies of his own.

While you might expect these films to be complete action fests, one of the most distinguished features of Yuen's trademark style is his ability to merge martial arts with seemingly mundane tasks and/or slapstick comedy. In the case of Iron Monkey there's a very typical scene early on, where a pile of papers is blown away by a dash of wind, only to be retrieved by various fancy martial arts moves. Scenes like these are vintage Yuen and help to set his films apart from the competition.

The plot is as simple as can be and borrows royally from stories like Robin Hood and Zorro. Iron Monkey is a masked fighter who stands up for the poor and tries to redistribute the wealth in the town where he resides. He fights the local police and government, but finds himself in a pickle when both the righteous Wong Kei-Ying (father of the infamous Wong Fei-Hung) and a corrupt official visit his town. Iron Monkey befriends Kei-Ying, but when Fei-Hung is taken hostage and held as collateral, he must find a way to convince Kei-Ying to fight with him in order for justice to prevail.

screen capture of Iron Monkey

Visually it's pretty much on par with comparable genre films from that era. It looks a bit rushed and hastily put together at times, but quick successions of crazy camera angles and hyper tight editing make for a very pleasant visual experience. It's not simply aesthetic either, the editing plays a crucial part in the success of the action scenes. The choreography is so outrageous that the action scenes need to rely more on imagination than actual visual cues, which the editing fully supports.

With these kind of films, the music is rarely anything to write home about, but Iron Monkey's score is noticeably moodier. It's not as loud, generic or blatantly functional compared to similar scores, but it actually manages to inject some extra atmosphere here and there. If you're not familiar with the genre it may not be all that apparent (it's not like this is one of the absolute best scores out there) but it's a definite step up from what I've grown to expect and it should've made a great case for other films to follow in its footsteps. Clearly, that never really happened.

Even though I wached this film three or four times already, I keep forgetting that Donnie Yen isn't in fact playing the part of Iron Monkey. For some reason Iron Monkey is etched in my mind as "that film that features Donnie Yen instead of Jet Li" and because Iron Monkey is the titular character, Yen is somehow the obvious choice for the part. While in reality Yen is taking on the part of Wong Kei-Ying (no worries, he gets plenty of action) and Rongguang Yu was chosen for the part of Iron Monkey. Jean Wang (as Iron Monkey's assitant) and Shun-Yee Yuen (as the token bad guy) both shine in secondary roles.

screen capture of Iron Monkey

Iron Monkey serves a fine cocktail of comedy and action. Yuen's superb action choreography is sure to appeal to people even beyond the martial arts realm (the pole fight finale is simply sublime), the comedy on the other hand might be a tougher sell. Hong Kong comedy is rather specific and unless you've grown accustomed to it, it can present a real hurdle. Personally I'm a big fan of Yuen's blend of action and humor, but I'm sure not everything is going to appreciate it in equal measures. Then again, the martial arts antics are the clear focus of the film, so don't let that deter you from watching the film.

Iron Monkey is a film that doesn't disappoint. There's enough creativity, silliness and genuine love for the genre to keep me coming back for more. While the film suffers from the usual caveats, Woo-Ping Yuen adds just enough of a personal touch to make the film stand out from the crowds. It's no doubt a good entry film for people wanting to see more martial arts films, while being accomplished enough to hook even the most hardened fans. Definitely recommend, unless martial arts cinema isn't your thing.

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Thu, 14 Sep 2017 11:30:39 +0000
<![CDATA[Residue/Alex Garcia Lopez]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/residue-review-alex-garcia-lopez
Residue poster

I bumped into Alex Garcia Lopez' Residue completely by accident. I was looking up some info on Rusty Nixon's Residue (2017) when I suddenly ended up with a trailer of Lopez' film. A happy coincidence, as Lopez' Residue turned out to be a sleek and well-directed genre effort. It may not be winning prizes for originality anytime soon, but Lopez more than makes up for it with stylish and headstrong direction.

Residue combines equal doses of mystery, horror and thriller, with some small extras of scifi and fantasy. That's quite a handful of genres, but at its core it's really just an outbreak film that shuffled some details around in order to avoid becoming yet another basic zombie flick. And with great success I should add, because Residue never feels like the 28 Days Later knock-off it could've been. Instead it reminded me more of Spectral, though a bit more low-key in execution.

The plot revolves around a New Years eve discotheque bombing that compromises an old military facility. A contamination spreads from the facility and a perimiter is set up around the distaster area, completely closing off the heart of the city. Time passes and normal life resumes, but for some reason the government has trouble clearing up the infected area. People are starting to suspect there's something the government isn't telling them and when a city photographer starts seeing weird shapes and shadows in her pictures, she vows to dig up the truth.

Residue is a film that lives through the atmosphere it conjures. It's a pretty dark and brooding film and the styling reflects that. Flashing neon signs are pretty much the only sources of color, the city looks bleak and abandoned and the contamination pushes people to pull off some pretty horrible stunts. The film also features a pretty banging soundtrack, with strong ambient and industrial influences, that only fortifies the desolate atmosphere. The underground club scene is a superb culmination of all these elements and stands as the highlight of the film.;

I guess some people were taken aback by the bleak atmosphere of Residue, on top of that Lopez leaves a lot to the imagination of the viewer. While the setting is properly established, the film offers little in the way of explanations. The source of the contamination is never revealed, neither is its exact nature. This may be because Lopez was planning to expand on his premise in a future TV series, but I actually believe that it works in favor of the film. It won't be easy coming up with a decent, let alone imaginative explanation for everything that's happening, so leaving it unresolved was probably the best solution.

If you like dark, moody outbreak films than Residue is a very easy recommend. If you demand closure and relief from a film though, it's probably best to skip this one. Still, I hope Lopez will return with a second film (though not necessarily a sequel), because he clearly has the talent to construct intriguing worlds that ooze atmosphere. Residue is a little gem that deserves to be seen by more people.

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Mon, 11 Sep 2017 09:30:00 +0000
<![CDATA[Love Off the Cuff/Ho-cheung Pang]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/love-off-the-cuff-review-ho-cheung-pang

After a little time-out, director Ho-cheung Pang finally resumes his journey with Love Off the Cuff [Chun Jiao Jiu Zhi Ming], the third entry in his esteemed Love series. The first two films were rather atypical Hong Kong romances that successfully combined drama, comedy and romance while aiming for a more natural and slighty raunchier approach. Like most Hong Kong projects these days Pang's latest has Chinese funds backing the film, so it wasn't entirely clear whether Pang would be able to retain the series' unique flavor. Worry not though, he succeeded in keeping the spirit of the first two films alive.

screen capture of Love Off the Cuff

While different in atmosphere and execution, Pang's Love films remind me of Richard Linklater's Before series quite a lot. The setup is pretty similar, with a central couple being followed throughout different stages in their lives. Pang's timeline may be a bit more concise and the tone in Pang's Love films might be a little cheekier, but each installment in the series is meant to handle a different phase in their relationship. An approach that allows Pang to make sequels that aren't exact copies of the previous films, as the evolution of the story and characters is exactly what drives each new film.

The first film saw Cherie and Jimmy meet up for the very first time, the second one handled their separation while they each went their own way. If you haven't seen Puff and Buff already it's probably best to watch them before starting on Cuff, though Cuff really isn't that hard to enjoy when not having watched the earlier installments. You'll miss some background story and references of course, but Love Off the Cuff is by and large a stand-alone entry that doesn't rely on past events to make its point.

The film catches up with Cherie and Jimmy enjoying their time together. There are the usual hiccups and quibbles every relationship faces, but things are genuinely looking up for the two. That is, until Cherie's father reenters her life. He's planning to remarry a much younger woman and when Cherie starts comparing Jimmy to her dad doubt starts creeping back into their relationship. Cherie questions Jimmy's ability to care for her and give her the emotional comfort she craves, while Jimmy is battling himself to leave his more carefree life behind.

screen capture ofLove Off the Cuff

When watching a Ho-cheung Pang film, there's always the expectation of some visual showmanship. Even while working in the romantic/drama genre (not exactly known for its visual appeal), Pang makes sure to put a lot of work into the visual presentation of his films. Love Off the Cuff is no exception. Lighting and framing are both exquisite and the city of Hong Kong gets a very prominent role as the background in which this romantic drama unfolds. The icing on the cake are several memorable shots that linger long after the credits have faded from view.

The soundtrack on the other hand isn't memorable at all, to the point where I had to skip through the film again just for reviewing purposes. It makes little to no impression and while that means it's not exactly irritating either, it does highlight Hong Kong's lingering problem with undervaluing the strength of a good score. While there are exceptions (like Johnnie To's and Wong Kar Wai's films), they are few and far between. And even though a romantic drama may not benefit the most from a strong soundtrack, it's still a glaring omission in the overall presentation.

Luckily the acting is up to par. Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue are a fine screen couple and are clearly feeling comfortable playing their characters. Their evolution throughout the films feels natural and even though they have a glossier side to them, the level of realism is high enough for the drama to make an actual impression. The secondary cast is decent too though mostly absent, with the exception of Paul Chun who puts in a good performance as Yeung's estranged father.

screen capture of Love Off the Cuff

While drama and romance are the clear focus of Love Off the Cuff, there's still enough goofiness left to set it apart from purer genre efforts. In between the perils of Jimmy and Cherie, Pang finds time to do a short horror introduction and a fun alien/ufo intermezzo. And while the Chinese injection of capital is slightly noticeable for those in the know, there's still enough crude dialogue and comedy left to keep it in line with the two earlier films. Love Off the Cuff is still very much vintage Pang.

If you're unfamiliar with Pang's Love series, do yourself a favor and watch the other films first before starting on Love Off the Cuff. Once you're up to speed, Cuff is a very easy recommend. The film is up to par with the earlier films while still being different and distinctive enough to avoid turning into a cheap, cash-obsessed sequel. For someone who missed Pang's output in the past couple of years, it's a fine reunion with a director who hasn't lost his touch and still stands as one of the top Hong Kong directors of this generation.

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Thu, 07 Sep 2017 09:36:27 +0000
<![CDATA[Casshern/Kazuaki Kiriya]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/casshern-review-kazuaki-kiriya

When Kiriya debuted Casshern in 2004, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the film. Kiriya had made a name for himself directing music videos, the trailers looked lush and it was Japan's first full-digital feature film, so people were expecting a smash hit. But reviews were all over the place and it quickly became apparent that Casshern wasn't as audience-friendly as its trailers had suggested. I really liked it the first time I watched it, yet I wasn't all that confident that it would still hold up after all this time. To my own surprise though, I ended up loving it even better the second time around.

screen capture of Casshern

Kiriya's film is a loose adaptation of Neo-Human Casshern, a 1973 anime series. I never got to watch the original, but it's pretty clear from just looking at the two that Kiriya's vision didn't keep too closely to the source material. The original series itself was based on a manga and received an OAV treatment in the 90s. After Kiriya's Casshern the franchise was rebooted with another animated series, which in its turn spawned a new manga adaptation. Just to say that Casshern is part of a greater franchise, though separate entries can easily be enjoyed as stand-alone works as the cohesion between different entries isn't all that great.

Casshern is a stand-alone story with a clear start and ending. There's no movie franchise- type cliffhanger that suggests sequels or follow-up episodes, instead Kiriya crammed an entire story arc in one single film. 141 minutes isn't exactly short for a movie, even so the pacing is extremely high and you've got to stay focused if you want to keep track of what is going on. It's all quite epic with lots of rises, falls and origin stories stacked on top of each other, making for a pretty dense film.

The plot revolves around a special gen exploited by doctor Azuma, a workaholic scientist, set in retro-futuristic post-war world. The program is funded by the government in order to grant its people eternal life, but when things go wrong it yields an alternative race of neo-humans. Chaos ensues and the neo-humans plan on taking over the planet. The only one able to stop them is Casshern, the born-again son of doctor Azuma. The bottom line is a classic tale of small-scale drama with epic consequences.

screen capture of Casshern

Even though there's a lot of plot to wade through, Casshern never feels like an overly narrative film. Kiriya is a very visual director and he worked Casshern as if it was his one and only shot at film making. There's a lot of post-production work with lots of CG settings and a large arsenal of visual filters. Not all of it is up to par, in fact some of the CG is downright poor, but the overall effect is nothing short of impressive. The combination of bright, strong colors, superb camera work and sharp editing makes for a true visual feast and Kiriya's dedication to keep it going for the full 140 minutes is laudable.

The soundtrack is less distinctive. It's not a terrible score, but it's little more than a whole lot of noise, with the sole purpose of keeping the adrenaline pumping. It's a mix of rock, electronic and pop that blends into the background without much resistance. There are a few moments where it got loud enough for me to take notice (mostly during the action scenes) but even then it wasn't very memorable. It's just filler, but seeing how the visuals dominate the film I wasn't too disappointed.

The cast consists of familiar faces, with Yusuke Iseya taking up the role of Casshern, Kumiko Aso acting as his love interest and Akira Terao transforming into the (mad) doctor. With smaller parts for Hidetoshi Nishijima, Susumu Terajima and Mayumi Sada there's no lack of star power on board. While the cast as a whole does a pretty solid job, there isn't too much room to shine for them and none of the characters are extremely memorable, then again that didn't seem to be Kiriya's main goal here.

screen capture of Casshern

Casshern is a film with a rigid focus on visual storytelling, while still being extremely fast-paced and narratively dense. It's too artistic to be catering to commercial audiences, at the same time it's too silly and over-the-top to please arthouse fans. That leaves genre fans, but Kiriya isn't too interested in sticking with genre clichés either and fans of the original may not be too happy with the way this update strayed from the original. That leaves the film stranded in a somewhat awkward no man's land, where it doesn't really come with a built-in audience but has to win over each fan one by one.

While Kiriya does his best to make that happen, his approach simply isn't popular enough to turn Casshern into a universally revered film. In general, film fans seem to prefer narratively clear and expansive films rather than aesthetic rollercoasters. I'm a fan of the latter though, so Casshern is right up my alley. And as time continues to mask the film's technological shortcomings, its aesthetic prowess only grows bigger. Casshern looks great, it's lots of fun and it's fast-paced from start to finish. It's not a very easy film to recommend, but it's a film that deserves the benefit of the doubt.

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Thu, 31 Aug 2017 09:27:54 +0000
<![CDATA[Good Take!/Various]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/good-take-review-various

It's no secret that I have a soft spot for anthology films. Hong Kong isn't too keen on producing them though, so when I heard about Good Take! I was keen to find out how they fared. Luckily the result wasn't too shabby. Good Take! offers a nice mix of young talent and seasoned veterans eager to prove that Hong Kong cinema has more up its sleeve than a slew of genre films. As such, it's a great starter film for people not yet familiar with Hong Kong cinema.

screen capture of Good Take!

I was pleased to learn the project was helmed by Eric Tsang, an omnipresent force in Hong Kong cinema and someone who isn't afraid to give young talent a chance. He may not be the best actor or best director of his generation, but it's impossible to overestimate his influence on the industry as a whole. Good Take! is a collection of shorts which all take place in and around Macau, apart from that there's not much of a common theme. Genre and styles differ greatly between the films, which means lots of variety but little coherence.

Kicking off the anthology is Kwok Cheung Tsang's Concrete. Kwok Cheung is in fact Eric Tsang's very own son, but his short provides ample proof that his presence is more than just a friendly pat in the back from dad. Concrete is a slick, tight and slightly macabre little horror short that packs quite a punch. The cinematography and use of color are outstanding, the acting is on point and even though it's not the most original horror story, the atmosphere is there and all combined it works wonders. A confirmation of all the good things Tsang showed in Lover's Discourse. 4.0*/5.0*

Second in line is Henri Wong's A Banquet. Wong is a seasonsed special effects guy, but surprisingly his short is the most modest of the bunch. It tells a pretty timid story about a father and son on their way to a party. While the presentation is nice enough, with a humorous videogame tie-in, the plot is a little meandering and the finale isn't as powerful as Wong would've hoped. It's not a bad short, but it is the least memorable of the bunch and the only one that felt a little pointless. 3.0*/5.0*

screen capture of Good Take!

Dead center in the anthology is Chun Wong's Good Take, the darkest of the five. It's a short with two distinct sides to it, though still narratively connected. It's a strange setup as time is limited and each concept probably could've worked as a separate short, but Wong does find a way to connect both without losing too much momentum. On the one hand this is a tale about a man unable to let go of his deceased wife, on the other a story about a violent hold-up. It's well realized and it does hold a lot of promise, but ultimately it's not really clear why these two different ideas where stuffed into a single short. 3.5*/5.0*

Every anthology needs that one standout short, in Good Take!'s case that's Lung-Ching Yeung's The Solitudes. Yeung is a fresh talent with no traceable earlier work in the industry, but what he delivers with The Solitudes should be more than enough to launch his career. The film looks lush, with great color work, some snappy editing and a soundtrack tailored to the visuals. The story is pretty dark too, about the revenge of a nurse turned prostitute (Cherrie Ying) on the one seducing her to make the career switch (Sam Lee). The Solitudes is fact-paced, great-looking and has a superb ending, hopefully Yeung won't take long to start working on his first feature film. 4.5*/5.0*

screen capture of Good Take!

The final short is directed by Ching-Po Wong (Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, Revenge: A Love Story), the most accomplished director of the bunch. We Are Ghosts starts off as a pretty basic, run of the mill horror romp, but turns into a fun little tongue in cheek comedy real fast. It's comedy aimed at genre fans, but with enough broader appeal as to not alienate the rest of the audience. With names like Stephen Fung and Charlene Choi, We Are Ghosts also has the biggest star power, but quality-wise it can't best Lung-Ching Yeung's film. Still, a fun and amusing closing act of this anthology. 4.0*/5.0*

Good Take! is a fine collections of shorts. Macau is a superb setting and each director manages to bring something unique to the table. Not all shorts are up to par, but there are no bad eggs and even the lesser short have something interesting to add. If you're not into anthologies and you prefer coherence, Good Take! probably isn't going to sway you, but if you want to explore Hong Kong's upcoming talent and you don't mind shifting gears from time to time, then this one comes well recommended. And for those who just can't get enough, there's also a second part aptly titled Good Take Too!

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Thu, 24 Aug 2017 09:38:10 +0000
<![CDATA[Domino/Tony Scott]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/domino-review-tony-scott

The first time I watched Tony Scott's Domino the film didn't quite blew me away, nonetheless I was happily surprised to see its relentless stylistic approach. It's not often you come across a Hollywood film that has the audacity to dazzle its audience with style over substance. I was quite curious to see how and if that style had held up over time, so I gave the film a second run. Once again the film managed to win me over, though I couldn't really help but wonder how that reflects on the overall quality of Hollywood's output.

screen capture of Domino

For much of his career, Tony Scott made light, easily digestible yet entertaining Hollywood fare. Halfway through the 00s something clicked though, triggering him to turn up the volume and go all out. Both Man on Fire and Domino stand as outliers in Scott's oeuvre, still going for the same tried and tested storylines put packaging them into a decidedly more modern and outgoing exterior. It's as if Scott tried to carry on the legacy of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, something I can definitely appreciate.

The film is based on real-life bountyhunter Domino Harvey, who died the very same year Scott's film was released. Together with Richard Kelly (of Donnie Darko fame) Scott condensed her life story into a 2 hour film that revolves around a single case gone wrong. Like most Hollywood adaptations, there is quite some leeway when it comes to the realism of the portrayal, but Scott did consult with Domino and her fellow bounty hunters extensively while producing the film.

The film is set up as a post-event narration, with Domino being questioned by the FBI about a money bust gone awry. It's an easy and useful setup that allows Scott to go through the key events while at the same time filling in the blanks regarding Domino's past when necessary. There's quite a lot of material to go through, with many marginal characters and plot deviations that add little beyond dragging out the running time. Luckily Domino is more about style than it is about substance so the film itself never really feels slow or ill-paced.

screen capture of Domino

Scott says the style of the film was heavily influenced by the excessive cocaine use of the bounty hunters. Whatever excuse works for Scott, I just wish there were more films that were into the visual storytelling on display here. Rapid editing, rampant cameras, a myriad of filters and a harsh oversaturated color palette turn Domino into a visual onslaught that knows no Hollywood equal. It's definitely not for everybody, with many complaining about suffering from nausea (heh) and headaches (myeah) just from watching the film, but I'm definitely in favor.

The soundtrack too is pretty processed, with some of the dialogues receiving an almost sample-like treatement. The music itself consist of pretty basic but effective high-octane tracks, but in combination with the visuals and dialogues it creates a very clear and definite rhythm that reminded me of Pi. Not in the way it actually sounds (as Pi's soundtrack is more electronic-oriented) but definitely in the way the sound fits into the film. I just wish more films would put this much effort in the way the music and dialogue blends in with the rest of the film.

Portraying Domino Harvey is Keira Knightley, a somewhat suprising choice that paid off quite favorably. Based on her other work I wouldn't have given 2 cents for her casting, but she's remarkably edgy and kick-ass when need be. The same can be said about the rest of the cast, especially Rourke (who I usually can't stand) and Christopher Walken. There's a slew of fun cameos too, ranging from Macy Gray and Mena Suvari to Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green (both of Beverly Hills 90210 fame - playing themselves) and Scott gets bonus points for adding Lucy Liu as the FBI inspector.

screen capture of Domino

Domino is obviously a bit much for most people. If you're hung up on narrative clarity or still reference MTV music videos when valuing a film, I'm pretty sure this is going to be a rather painful experience. From start to finish, Scott keeps the pace high, never putting in any breathers and never dialing back the overall intensity. Domino is an audiovisual trip, but still hooked into the Hollywood DNA. There is a narrative and a strong focus on plot progression, it's just drowned out by stylistic prowess.

Sadly, this was just a little phase for Scott and Hollywood wasn't immediately inspired to follow in his footsteps. Personally though I think it's still one of the few great films to come out of America's big film circus. Domino is loud, bold and in your face, but it's also fun and entertaining while staying clear from Hollywood's usual pitfalls. It's a movie with balls, with a strong female lead and a very clear sense of style. If you're in the mood for something different and you don't mind style over substance, be sure to give this one a chance.

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Thu, 17 Aug 2017 10:19:35 +0000
<![CDATA[Hideaki Anno/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/hideaki-anno-x10
Hideaki Anno

Hideaki Anno is one of the rogue forces that shaped the anime industry in the 80s and 90s. He's best known as the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but he's had a much richer career so far than most people appear to realize. In the early 80s Anno was picked up by Miyazaki to work on Nausicaa as an animator. That same year Anno would cofound Studio Gainax, one of the leading animation companies during the 90s. As a director Anno first got noticed when he released Gunbuster, a short but fun OAV that followed a bunch of young, female mech cadets. But it wasn't until Anno directed Evangelion in '95 that his fame exploded. Evangelion is still considered one of the all-time landmark anime releases and while personally I'm not a big fan, it's simply impossible to ignore its impact on Japanese animation (and international geek culture as a whole).

Anno's first steps into feature film territory were directly related to Evangelion. The End of Evangelion was a rework of the series' finale (to clear some thing up, as people were quite confused by the way the original series ended), Death & Rebirth is an almost abstract compilation of the entire series into a single film. While these are interesting additions to the Evangelion universe, they offer very little to people who weren't too impressed by the original series.

With the whole world going mad over Anno's creation, the man himself surprised friend and foe when he decided to make a 180, suddenly turning to live-action cinema. Love & Pop was his first attempt and turned out to be an interesting experiment, with Anno tirelessly exploring the different possibilities of live-action cinema. The film itself is a little uneven, but it was already clear back then that Anno wasn't interested in simply copying existing conventions. He made that even clearer when he followed it up with Ritual [Shiki-Jitsu], a beautiful, creative and original drama that still stands as one of my all-time favorite films. As an added bonus, the film features director Shinji Iwai as one of the lead characters. It may be somewhat of a challenge to track down, but it's definitely worth the effort.

But Anno isn't one to get stuck in a particular niche, so from there on out he went back to animation, directing the somewhat obscure Submarine 707R and following it up with a Cutie Honey revival (consisting of an animated anthology and a live-action feature film). The animated anthology (Rec: Cutie Honey) is definitely the stand-out of the two, but I'm sure that had more to do with Hiroyuki Imaishi's involvement. The live-action feature is a pretty cheesy anime adaptation, quite cheap and childish and only worthwhile if you're a big fan of the original series.

In 2007 Anno finally returned to the series that brought him his fame. With three new feature films spread out over 5 years, Anno set out to reimagine Evangelion for a third (and final?) time. The first film is pretty tame and remains quite close to the original series, only adding some improved animation. But part 2 and 3 is where things get more interesting. Anno went for a more dynamic and exuberant visual style and really upgraded the films in such a way that they became true stand-alone entries in the Evangelion franchise. They may still cling to the original storyline, but the experience of watching them is quite different and in fact marks the first time I managed to actually enjoy something Evangelion-related.

Not too long ago Anno set out to reboot the Gojira franchise, together with up and coming director Shinji Higuchi. The result was Shin Gojira, a fun and worthy addition to the long-running Gojira franchise that didn't quite reinvent the series, but did showed enough potential for possible future remakes. At the very least, it's a lot better than what their Western counterparts are currently up to with the Gojira franchise. Up next is the fourth and final instalment in Anno's third Evangelion reboot, though no specific date is set for that one.

Even though Anno's name will forever be tied to the Evangelion franchise, he has a much wider range than most people give him credit for. Evangelion is a curse and a blessing, though ultimately it allowed Anno to venture out and do what he wants to do, with surprisingly little restraint, which is something I'm sure many other directors are quite envious of. Not everything he touches turns into gold, but it's always interesting and often surprising to see where he goes next.

Best film: Ritual [Shiki-Jitsu] (5.0*)
Worst film: Evangelion: Death & Rebirth [Evangelion: Shito Shinsei] (1.5*)
Reviewed films: Ritual
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)

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Thu, 10 Aug 2017 09:42:04 +0000
<![CDATA[Raw/Julia Ducournau]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/raw-review-julia-ducournau

For the first time in years, a French horror film made some serious headlines again. Julia Ducourneau's Raw [Grave] enjoyed reports of people fainting, throwing up and leaving the theater prematurely. Hell, there were even stories about heart attacks. I finally caught up with the film and I have to say that it didn't disappoint. Is it as crazy as the hype promises? Of course not, then again the film was never intended to become a renowned shocker. So go in with an open mind and prepare yourself for a nice slice of French unease.

screen capture of Raw

People going in expecting a film matching the likes of Inside or Martyrs are sure to leave disappointed. While there is definitely some graphic content and Ducournau never shies away from showing what needs to be shown, the film doesn't set out to scare or gross out its audience. Raw is a darker, more unsettling kind of horror. It's more interested in presenting a world that's overtly disturbing while sharing a feeling of tension and unease that keeps its viewers on edge.

Raw is a film about the blossoming sexuality of a young university student, only it's disguised as a mix of coming of age and cannibalism. It doesn't really blend in with the French horror films of the '00s, instead if feels more like a crossover between Fabrice du Welz and the Dardennes. Raw has in fact a very Walloon feel to it (a solemn bleakness combined with splash of dark comedy), maybe not all that surprising knowing that the film is in fact a French/Belgian coproduction. So if you're looking for references, films like Alléluia and Small Gods should give a much better idea of what to expect.

The film follows Justine during her first week at vet college. She may be one of the brightest students of her year, but she has a hard time fitting into her new environment. The fact that she's being hazed quite thoroughly isn't exactly helping to improve her mood either. Things get worse when she's forced to eat raw rabbit liver (she was brought up a vegetarian) and ends up with a terrible rash. Even so, that first bite of raw meat awakens a dormant longing in Justine, who finds it increasingly difficult to suppress her urges.

screen capture of Raw

Ducounrau joined forces with Ruben Impens (Broken Circle Breakdown) to give her film the necessary visual flair. While Impens does a commendable job, I think cinematographers like Debie, Dacosse or Karakatsanis could've brought something extra to the table. Impens does a great job at capturing the somewhat dim and gloomy setting of the campus and its surroundings, but when things get a bit craftier (like the party scenes or the paint scene) there's a lingering wish for a little more visual oomph. Raw doesn't look bad by any means, it's just that there's some untapped potential there that could've given the film that extra push.

The score does go that extra mile though. Ducounrau isn't shy to let the music take over and let it dictate the rhythm of a scene. One of the film's core moments is built entirely around Orties - Plus Putes que toutes les Putes, a rather dark and gritty hip-hop/electronic cross-over track that Justine is listening to when she finally gives in to her inhibitions. It's scenes like these that define the film and it's nice to see that Ducounrau understands the importance of a great soundtrack when building up these key moments.

Taking on the lead role is Garance Marillier. Marillier teamed up with Decournau before when working on Junior, a short film that marked the first steps into the film business for both. Marillier is still pretty new to film, but she really applied herself to what stands out as a difficult part and came out on top. Ella Rumpf too puts in solid performance as Justine's sister, but fans of European horror will be more delighted by the (albeit short) appearance of Laurent Lucas (Marc Stevens in Calvaire) as Justine's dad. Definitely was a nice little touch, even though his part is pretty limited.

screen capture of Raw

While the wild stories about people fainting appear grossly overstated, there is definitely a certain harshness to Raw that many people will find hard to stomach. It's not about scaring people's socks off or making things super gruesome, instead there's a more realistic sense of horror that runs underneath the film. It's like that feeling you get when you drive past a car crash (also a direct reference in the film). A mix of dread and unease that's scarier than any horror film out there, because in some weird way it hits much closer to home. It may not satisfy commercial horror fans or hardcore gorehounds, but it doesn't make it any less horrific.

Raw is a great film for a director just starting out in the business. Ducournau not only showed that she's a very capable director, she also demonstrated the ability to bring something new and unique to the table. Coining that second film will still be a challenge I think, as Raw developed into something beyond the immediate control of Ducournau, but the talent is definitely there. For now though, Raw is an easy recommend if you like horror cinema in a broader sense of the word, just keep your expectation in check and you'll be fine.

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Mon, 07 Aug 2017 10:04:49 +0000
<![CDATA[Your Name/Makoto Shinkai]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/your-name-review-makoto-shinkai

For a while now, Makoto Shinkai has been knocking on the gates of international breakthrough. Your run-of-the-mill anime fan will recognize his name, but somehow Shinkai never quite managed to take his fame beyond his own niche. That is, until he released Your Name [Kimi no Na Wa.]. Shinkai's latest was a tremendous success, both locally and internationally, finally placing him next to anime greats like Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii. Looking at Shinkai's oeuvre so far, that token of respect is well-earned.

screen capture of Your Name

Shinkai himself is bit weary of his newfound success and I must admit that it's somewhat of a double-edged sword for Western fans too. Your Name was released exactly a year ago, but its success kept it in cinemas and festivals for a much longer period than normally the case. The home release took a full year to materialize, just because of import worries and tight distribution control. For someone like me, who prefers the comfort and quiet of his own living room to watch a good film, that's pretty annoying. For a full year I've been ignoring reviews and online commentary about the film, needless to say I jumped on the home release the moment it became available.

Your Name is a film that blends the fantasy of Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below with the romance of 5 Centimeters per Second, making it a pretty logical continuation within Shinkai's oeuvre. The fantasic elements are mostly there to propel the story forward and to conjur up a unique romantic dilemma, while the romance forms the true core of the film, providing the atmosphere and emotional pay-off. It's a fragile balance that, when not executed perfectly, could've easily brought out the worst in Shinkai's work, yet he pulls it off with great elegance.

The story revolves around Mitsuha (a girl living in a rural village) and Taki (a boy living in Tokyo), who swap bodies randomly. They go to bed being themselves but they wake up in the other one's body. At first they assume they're just being a little hazy and forgetful, but it doesn't take them too long to realize what is happening to them. It's the "why" that has them puzzled though. When they finally decide to meet up in real life, it turns out that's actually a little harder than originally exptected.

screen capture of Your Name

Shinkai gained notoriety because of his extremely detailed and overpoweringly romantic visuals, with Your Name he takes his style one step further. The level of detail is almost unmatched, making it virtually impossible to take everything in the first time around. The colors are bold and striking and even though Shinkai toned down the use of his trademark lens flares just a little, his play of light is still as impressive as ever. One of the more remarkable visual feats of Your Name is that Shinkai succeeds in making the urban scenery just as attractive as its rural counterpart. Modern-day anime is so rural-mad that it's nice to see someone who still knows to conjure up the beauty of our urban society.

The character models are a bit more detailed compared to Shinkai's earlier work. There's more nuance in the facial expressions and the characters have a bit more technical complexity. It takes away a little of their cuteness, at the same time it does add an extra layer of humanity. The animation too is top notch, with elaborate camera work, lots of movement and some stunning adaptations of live action techniques (like the timelapse scenes, which are beyond amazing). Needless to say, Your Name is a visual feast from start to finish.

The soundtrack is still going to be as divisive as ever. Shinkai has no problems using J-Pop ballads in his films, which doesn't always go over too well with international fans. I do have to say that he seems to have chosen some more subdued tracks this time around, which should make it a bit more bearable for those who are allergic to J-Pop. I don't particularly mind, though I would prefer a more tailored and unique choice of music. The dub is great, as can be expected from a high-profile film like this. Not quite sure if they made an English dub, but I don't see any reason to bother with one. If you can't take in all the visual detail because you're too busy reading the subtitles, that's just more reason to see the film a second time.

screen capture of Your Name

There's quite a lot of plot to go through during the first half, but Shinkai makes sure that the bond between Mitsuha and Taki keeps growing tighter, never letting the plot eclipse it. The second half reverses that balance, putting the romance front and center while keeping the plot going forward in the background. There are some nice twists and turns along the way, clearing things up without explaining too much, keeping part of the mystery alive. The emotional pay-off is kept until the very end though, with Shinkai conceiling his ending until the very last scene. While a bit more crowd-pleasing compared to some of his other films, I felt the ending fit the film and having it end any other way wouldn't have added much extra.

The real-world setting mixed with slight fantasy elements makes the film a bit more accessible compared to Shinkai's earlier films. Add to that an even higher level of stylistic finish, a 90 minute plus running time and an ending that is a bit easier to swallow for mainstream audiences, and it's no surprise Your Name turned out to be the hit that it is. While not my absolute favorite Shinkai, it's definitely up there with his best and it should have no trouble finding its way on the international home market. You have to wonder where Shinkai will go from here, then again that's the feeling I always have after watching his latest film and somehow he still finds ways to improve on his previous films. I just hope his next one doesn't take as long to arrive.

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Tue, 01 Aug 2017 10:01:43 +0000
<![CDATA[The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk/Corey Yuen]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/fong-sai-yuk-review-corey-yuen

The year 1993, no doubt one of the most mythical years in Hong Kong cinema history. When I was just getting into Hong Kong films, I quickly realized there was something unmistakably unique about the martials arts/fantasy period films produced in '93, so I went on a mad frenzy trying to watch every single one I could get my hands on. That was quite a long time ago though, and the idea of getting myself reacquainted with these film was something I've been looking forward to for a while now. First in line: Corey Yuen's The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk [Fong Sai Yuk].

screen capture of The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk

Hong Kong is a pretty small place, but it does have a rich cinematic history. I don't have an exhaustive explanation as to why that is, but part of it definitely has to do with the work ethic of the Hong Kong people. To be a part of the film industry there means working hard and diligently, taking on whatever job opportunity presents itself. It's not all exceptional to find people with acting, writing, production and directing experience under their belt. Cinema is not so much an art as it is a job and getting better at it is very much an iterative and cooperative process rather than an artistic or creative one.

That's also why it's an ideal breeding ground for genre cinema, which is all about taking familiar structures and concepts and polishing them to perfection. So when fantasy and period martial arts films gained traction in the late '80s, everyone jumped on the bandwagon and started churning out films with a very similar vibe and aesthetic at increasingly crazy speeds. The bigger it grew, the more experienced people got at making them, snowballing the genre forward to '93, the year when it finally exploded (and ultimately plateaued). The niche collapsed on itself soon after, but the films that were produced that year are some of the best martial arts films ever conceived.

Fong Sai-Yuk's plot is as generic as they come, but what did you expect. There is a 30 minute introduction that's basically just playtime, used exclusively for introducing the characters and having them do silly things in the name of comedy. After that a hastily good vs bad showdown is set up, pitching Fong Sai-Yuk with the rebels and having him fight off some of the emperor's evil minions. There's a little additional drama, but really it's all just filler stuffed in between the spectacular fight sequences. Fong Sai-Yuk is all about the action, so it's best not to expect too much story-wise.

screen capture of The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk

Just like its peers, Fong Sai-Yuk is a film with much grander ideas than its budget allowed for. Showing lengthy overview shots of elaborate fight sequences was simply impossible, but cutting back on the choreography wasn't acceptable either. The solution was a combination of smart camera angles and rapid editing, cutting up the fights to get an almost animation-like effect and creating the illustion of the characters' insane fighting abilities. As an added bonus, it upped the pacing dramatically while making the action much more vibrant. Camera work is overall great and nighttime scenes look beautiful too, though by contrast the daytime filler scenes do look a bit frumpy and rushed.

The soundtrack on the other hand is just an afterthought. It sounds like stock music that you might hear in a million similar films. It's not annoying or irritating, but you'll be hardpressed to remember any specifics afterwards. Another area where you can clearly notice the rush job quality of the production is the dub, which is quite atrocious. You don't have to speak a single word of Cantonese to see that the timing is way off. I guess it has to do with the dual Cantonese/Mandarin post-dubs that were made for pretty much every Chinese film back then, even so the result is subpar. Still, it's always better than going for the English dub, which is truly offensive.

As for the acting, it solemnly depends on what you expect from a film like this. There clearly aren't any award-winning performances here, but keeping in mind this is all about the martial arts and the comedy, I actually found very little to complain about. Jet Li is stellar as Fong Sai-Yuk, Michelle Reis is pretty good too and Josephine Siao proves that women can kick ass and be funny at the same time. Sung Young Chen is the only one that goes full Hong Kong comedy, making him the weakest of the bunch.

screen capture of The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk

Fong Sai-Yuk is very focused. The whole film is constructed around three extended action sequences, evenly spread out throughout the film. If you're going in expecting a more complete, fleshed out experience, I'd say it's probably just better to avoid this one altogether. If on the other hand you're looking for spectacular martial arts wizardry, Corey Yuen more than delivers. The action choreography is insanely creative and extremely explosive, gracious yet hard-hitting and most important of all: spectacular from start to finish.

There's some stiff competition for Fong Sai-Yuk and I guess the coming months will reveal whether this film truly is the top of its class. But regardless of how its peers hold up, Fong Sai-Yuk is one of the very best 90s Hong Kong martial arts films and by extension one of the best Corey Yuen films out there. You have to be a fan of wire-fu antics and elongated martial arts scenes to appreciate a film like this, but if you do then you're getting one of the most spectacular and creative films in the genre.

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Mon, 31 Jul 2017 09:59:02 +0000
<![CDATA[Evolution/Lucile Hadzihalilovic]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/evolution-review-lucile-hadzihalilovic

Lucile Hadzihalilovic made a sizable arthouse splash with Innocence, her first feature film. That was 13 years ago though and a second film failed to materialize. Hadzihalilovic drifted back into anonymity, so much in fact that I almost overlooked the 2015 release of her second feature film. That would've been a real shame, because Evolution [Évolution] turns out to be a worthy successor. It's a film that references Innocence quite often, but still manages to be a different experience altogether.

screen capture of Evolution

What made Innocence so unique was the combination of a tangible but cloaked unease combined with a setting that was never truly explained. Evolution takes a very similar route, but does away with the fake fantasy world coating and brings its grim, often disturbing essence much closer to surface. There is absolutely no doubt that something is seriously off this time around, though Hadzihalilovic still only hints at what might be going on. If you were turned off by Innocence's lack of explanation, you'll still feel at a loss here.

Evolution is set on a remote island, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. There's only one small commune on the island, a little society where all the adults are women and all the kids are young boys. There is a sect-like feel surrounding this little commune, but it's clearly not a religion-inspired setup. Apart from the little village (where each family owns a modest house), the island also houses a mysterious hospital where the boys are taken to once they reach a certain age.

The story follows Nicholas, one of the young boys on the island. One day Nicholas stumbles upon a dead body lodged between the coral, freaking him out. He races back home to warn his mom, but she seems rather unfazed by his story. Slowly Nicholas starts to suspect there's something his mom isn't telling him and he ventures off on his own in order to find out what secret the island is hiding. It doesn't take too long before he's found out, soon afterwards Nicholas ends up at the hospital for a checkup.

screen capture of Evolution

Benoît Debie wasn't on board for Evolution, luckily Hadzihalilovic found an excellent replacement in Manuel Dacosse. The film was shot on Lanzarote, a volcanic island that proved itself the perfect location. Lanzarote's grim, relentless but pristine beauty gives the island a remote and alien-like quality and it gave me the impression of having been transported to another world. Dacosse's dark and brooding cinematography then adds an extra layer of primordial beauty, further distancing Evolution from Innocence's more idyllic setting. The overall effect may be a little too dark for some, but the image is always clear and contrasting enough, making sure there's no need to squint and second-guess what is going on.

The soundtrack is somewhat expected, featuring lots of moody soundscapes (mostly built from low hums) in order to create a disturbing and foreboding atmosphere. It's a formula that horror films have been exploiting for the larger part of the new millennium, and while Evolution doesn't take it beyond the familiar it does commit to it with commendable conviction. In combination with the brooding visuals it makes for an unsettling, eerie and slightly disturbing overall impression. While I felt that the soundtrack could've been just a little more explicit, it's still much better than the half-arsed execution most horror films end up with.

Remembering the somewhat stilted performances in Innocence, I went in prepared this time. Not too surprisingly Hadzihalilovic strived to achieve a very similar effect. There isn't much spontaneity and most characters appear extremely closed off, with dialogues often stripped down to the bare minimum. This might be a hurdle to some people, but in the end it only increased the otherworldly vibe of the film for me. There is just very little room for emotion here and the stoic, icy attitude of the characters only added to the overall mystery of the film.

screen capture of Evolution

I've seen people refer to Evolution as a horror film, but that kind of pigeon-holing isn't going to do this film many favors. It's true that it bears plenty of the trademark elements of horror cinema, but everything here appears in function of the mystery. There are some moments of dark, gloomy and even gory beauty, but the film never seems to aim for dread, fear or grossing out its audience. I'm pretty certain the average horror fan isn't going to find much to his liking here, instead these elements are merely there to further develop Evolution's mysterious, nightmarish atmosphere.

Hadzihalilovic delivered what I consider to be an almost perfect second feature. It's different enough to avoid a direct comparison to Innocence, at the same time there are many distinct elements that bind these two films together. Evolution gives direction to Hadzihalilovic's artistic persona and establishes her as a director with a strong sense of style and a knack for mystery. It's a film with a pretty tough exterior, but if you loved Innocence I'm quite confident that Evolution is an easy recommend and might even surpass the appreciation for Hadzihalilovic's first. If you haven't seen anything by Hadzihalilovic yet though, Innocence might be the easier film to start with.

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Thu, 27 Jul 2017 09:51:32 +0000
<![CDATA[Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen/Tatsuya Oishi and Akiyuki Shinbo]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/kizumonogatari-3-review-oishi-shinbo

After being blown away by the first film and immensily enjoying the second one, it's no surprise that is was looking forward to Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen, the third and final instalment in the Kizumonogatari film series. The slight drop in quality (and originality) of part II had me slightly on edge, but as it turns out that fear was completely unfounded. Reiketsu-hen is a more than worthy finale and helps the series back on track to become one of the landmark anime releases of the '10s.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen

Part one gave me quite the shock the first time I watched it. Even though Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen consists of very recognizable anime extremes, it is constructed in such a way that it still feels completely alien and otherworldy. The second part was a slight letdown because it didn't really add much to Tekketsu-hen, instead it merely reiterated the novelties and original ideas that made the first one stand out. While still very enjoyable, that sensation of being utterly perplexed was completely gone, leaving behind a feeling of familiarity that simply didn't suit this film series.

Luckily Reiketsu-hen does away with that slight feeling of disappointment completely. While there are plenty of familiar elements present, tying this film to the other two, Reiketsu-hen either takes a fresh approach with them or supplements them with original ideas. The plot itself may be a direct continuation of the first two films, this third instalment feels like a stand-alone feature that just happens to be a part of a film series. It's a tough and tricky balance to pull off, but Kizumonogatari is all about getting away with tricky, implausible balances.

Story-wise, the film simply continues where part two left off. Araragi has assembled all of Kiss-Shot's body parts, so she can finally be whole again. This also means that Araragi can become human once more, leaving his short but well-lived vampire life behind. But Araragi is quite uncertain about what to do next. He can't go on as a vampire as he still feels connected to the human race, but he also has a hard time leaving Kiss-Shot behind, knowing she need to feed off of his kind. It's a pretty tough conundrum that's about to come to an explosive conclusion.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen

Visually there's a lot going on. The animation itself is the easiest to get a grip on, as that part is constantly impressive. It's clear there's major talent at work here and the budget was definitely there to back them up. It's the art style that's a little tougher to graps. It's not that it is actually lacking, it's just that there are a lot more conflicting ideas there. Parts of each frame are delicate and intricate, while other parts feel consistently clinical and empty. What binds these two together is an amazing level of detail, even though both styles give off a very different vibe. I reminds me a little of those pictures that hold two different images, depending on how you look at them. On the one hand there's a deceptive simplicity to the art style, at the same time there's a lot intricate details that are hard to take in all at once. And it's not just a mistake or happy coincidence either, as this can be seen and felt in every single shot of the film.

The music too plays its part in confusing the audience. It there to help and dictacte a rhythm that makes very little logical sense, but works on a more primordial, visceral level. The film has a wonky space-time continuum and all the jumping around between different visuals styles and stylistic ideas could've turned it into a big old mess, but somehow the soundtrack provides a flow where it all comes together. That's not to say Oishi and Shinbo merely see the soundtrack as glue, there are plenty of times where it's just as surprising and conflicting as the rest of the film (often in the use of peculiar sound effects), but it's probably the single most coherent element of the film. The voice acting is on point too. I'm not even sure if there's an English dub for this one but Kizumonogatari provides such a distinctly Japanese experience that it's not even worth bothering with any dubs. Just watch it a second time if you feel the subtitles take away from the visual experience.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen

The sheer genius of Reiketsu-hen lies in the fact that it plays on conflicting feelings and structures. Oishi and Shinbo are constantly trying to align elements that don't belong together, while at the same time contrasting elements that are meant to go along well with each other. On the one hand it's all about balance, when at the same time it's about chaos and discord. And what makes it truly special is that it's incorporating this schizophrenia on all possible levels. Be it the clear segments within this film that still draw in influences from the other segements, or simply the constant flux in pacing with a single scene, the film keeps you on your toes at all times.

After seeing 7000+ films it's kind of rare to find a film that can still surprise me, but it does happen from time to time. What's truly rare and precious though is when I find a film that actually manages to confuse me, and that's exactly what Reiketsu-hen accomplished. I realize I used a lot of expensive words reviewing this film, but Reiketsu-hen is just as easily described as a lewd, juvenile anime that is more preoccupied with boobs and gore than it is with presenting something artistic and thoughtful. I personally wouldn't be surprised if it's exactly how many people will end up experiencing it, but that's just half the story and Kizumonogatari is really about these two conflicing halfs constantly fighting for dominance.

The bottom line is that, all things considerend, Reiketsu-hen shouldn't work as well as it does. I can give a hundred examples of things that I'd hate when I'd see them pop up in any other film, but somehow Oishi and Shinbo are able to manage the film's schizophrenia up to a point where I'm simply at a loss for words. The whole Kizumonogatari experience is impossible to recommend, rather it has to be experienced. Reiketsu-hen provides perfect closure to this film series and conjures up the genius of the first film once more, but I'm well aware this won't be everyone's cup of tea. That said, just watch it.

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Thu, 20 Jul 2017 09:52:23 +0000
<![CDATA[Innocence/Lucile Hadzihalilovic]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/innocence-review-lucile-hadzihalilovic

I watched Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence when it was first released in cinemas (back when such films were still released in cinemas over here), which was a good 12 years ago. I really loved the film back then, but haven't really seen it ever since. Still, it's a film that stuck with me and I was pretty excited to give it a second run. I was even happier when it turned out it hadn't lost any of its appeal over the years, still serving up a captivating and unique experience that lingers long after the credits have vanished from the screen.

screen capture of Innocence

Hadzihalilovic is often introduced through her collaborations with Gaspar Noé. The two worked together a lot, ended up marrying each other and do share quite a lot of influences (both citing Shinya Tsukamoto amongst their inspirations). But Hadzihalilovic isn't just a female version of Noé. She has her own style, her own aesthetic. Both make somewhat impenetrable and tough, artistic movies, but I feel they're still on different sides of the spectrum. Just to say that (dis)liking one says very little on how you might appreciate the work of the other.

Innocence was inspired by/adapted from Mine-Haha, written by Frank Wedekind. Coming from an anime background though, I felt like I watched this movie before in the form of Haibane Renmei (originally written be Yoshitoshi ABe, of Lain fame, who in his turn referenced Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland as one of his main inspirations). The similarities between both works truly are uncanny, though I guess both creators arrived at it from very different sources and ultimately the differences between the two are as outspoken as the similarities. It's definitely not a question of copycat behavior, just peculiar coincidence.

Innocence follows the lives of three young girls living in a boarding school. It's not just any regular school though. New girls arrive in coffins, the students aren't allowed to leave the premisses and there are weird, communal traditions that need to be adhered to. It feels like an otherworldly place, a universe with its own rules and laws. The film focuses on Iris (who just arrived), Bianca (who is about to graduate) and Alice (who is planning her escape). Through their eyes we get to know the school and all its peculiarities.

screen capture of Innocence

Hadzihalilovic's choice to work with cinematographer Benoît Debie wasn't just a practical one, it was also the best and most obvious one. Debie (Lost River, Enter the Void, Vinyan) is by far the greatest talent Belgian cinema ever put forward and having him on board is certain to give your film that extra edge. Innocence may not look as ambitious or extreme compared to some of the other films he worked on, but the lighting is magnificent, the camera work is beautiful and there's a certain dark elegance to the visuals that helps to define Innocence. More importantly, 12 years down the line the film hasn't lost any of its visual impact.

But it's not just all visual prowess, Hadzihalilovic was smart enough to look for a score that doesn't just complement the visuals, but actually goes a long way in enhancing the atmosphere. The mix of sweet, classical music and darker soundscapes makes for an uneasy, foreboding ambience that touches at the core of the film. It's exactly this feeling of unfulfilled dread that makes Innocence so unique and to have that conveyed by the score is a pretty big win.

The acting is where it might get a little tougher for some. Most of the cast consists of young girls and the acting isn't always all that spontaneous or natural. It took me a while to get used to the stilted performances, but some 30 minutes in I felt that it really started to add to the uncomfortable atmosphere. Cotillard and Fougerolles add a softer touch to the cast, though their unresolved drama is another thing that might irk people looking for more and clearer resolutions.

screen capture of Innocence

What makes Innocence stand out is that Hadzihalilovic is more interested in showing this peculiar world rather than explain it. I've seen people describe the film as a feminist statement, I've seen others dismiss it as downright pedophilia. And these are far from the only popular interpretations once you start looking around. The thing is, there's something to be said for most, if not all of them. I feel that Innocence is a trip that reflects the viewer itself more than it contains inherent meaning. In that sense it's more about the experience than it is about solving a puzzle, something I definitely appreciate in a film.

That said, Innocence is not a very easy film to recommend. It's quite stoic, mysterious and enigmatic, both plotwise and stylistically. There's a definite appeal to that, but it might be more suited for specific audiences who know what they're getting themselves into. I feel it's a film for the ages though, as it lost none of its appeal since the first time I watched it and it remains absolutely unique, almost impossible to put in a specific niche. If anything, this second viewing reminded me that I need to check out Hadzihalilovic's latest (Evolution) as soon as possible, because Innocence is unmistakable proof of her talent.

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Wed, 19 Jul 2017 09:36:20 +0000