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[Akumu Tantei /Shinya Tsukamoto]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/nightmare-detective-review-tsukamoto

If you're looking for an easier entry into Shinya Tsukamoto's oeuvre, Akumu Tantei [Nightmare Detective] is it. It's one of the few films where he doesn't dissect an entire genre just to reassemble it and make it his own. Akumu Tantei is a horror film with recognizable traces of J-Horror scattered left and right. On the other hand, 85% Tsukamoto is still a whole lot of manic, in your face craziness that should probably be approached with caution, especially when you're not all too familiar with his other films.

screen capture of Akumu Tantei

When Akumu Tantei was first released, people were a little too quick and eager to label the film as part of the J-Horror wave. Sure enough, the digital look might have tricked some and the larger focus on plot was a clear departure from earlier Tsukamoto films, but there are no long-haired ghosts, no classic scares and no grudges or revenge-themed plots. Instead Tsukamoto made things a bit more mysterious and fantastical, carving out his own niche in the genre.

The story about a mysterious phone call seemingly killing people triggered another false positive (Takashi Miike's Chakushin Ari [One Missed Call] was quite popular back then]), others tried to link the dream aspect of the killings to the Nightmare on Elm Street series. While those references are factually correct, Akumu Tantei as a whole has little to do with those films. The psychological and dramatic angles weigh much harder on the film, letting it transcend the horror genre.

The story is told from Keiko's point of view, a police young but accomplished detective. Transferring from a desk job, the suicide of a young 20-year-old is her first assignment in the field. When a second suicide turns up not much later, they discover that both victims killed themselves in their sleep. Hitting a dead end, Keiko's last resort is to contact Kagenuma, a young boy rumoured to be able to enter people's dreams. Convincing him to do so isn't that easy though, as Kagenuma considers his gift more a burden than a blessing.

screen capture of Akumu Tantei

While definitely not as crazy and extreme as Tsukamoto's older work, Akumu Tantei still carries clear markings of his trademark style. The dream attacks are filmed from up close by a camera that tries to bolt in all directions at once, while the ending has plenty of semi-abstract imagery. The rest of the film looks pretty great too, but never as outspoken compared to what he did in the past. I also remembered it as being a little grainier, but that might just be me spending the past 10 years getting used to the DV look.

The soundtrack follows the same toned-down pattern. Chu Ishikawa is still allowed to go completely wild during the dream-induced attacks, but the rest of the score is pretty timid for his doing. Again, it's definitely not a bad score, there are some very nice, moody tracks that invoke exactly the right atmosphere, it's just that it's way more accessibly than Ishikawa's earlier work.

Main attraction on the actor's list is without a doubt Ryuhei Matsuda. His part is actually quite limited, both in duration as in reach, but it's always a pleasure to see him appear on screen. Leading lady Hitomi does a decent enough job too, some well-known names (Ren Osugi, Masanobu Ando, Tsukamoto himself) in supportive roles round off a solid cast. The acting is nothing too out of the ordinary, but it more than meets the requirements for a film like this.

screen capture of Akumu Tantei

While the first part of the film is more horror-oriented, things get a bit more mysterious when Matsuda's character is introduced. The dream sequences aren't as abstract as you may expect from a Tsukamoto film, but slowly the horror aspect of the film is replaced with a darker, more intricate layer of mystery. It all builds up to a very gratifying finale, but it's just too little, too late for Akumu Tantei to be counted as one of the best Tsukamoto films.

It's still a great film though. Even a slightly watered down Tsukamoto film is way better than most of the J-Horror films released in the past 15 years. In that sense, Akumu Tantei is a great introduction to Tsukamoto's films for people not familiar with his work. It gives you enough slices of trademark Tsukamoto madness in order to get a feel for his work, but it also leaves enough traditional horror fun for the rest. Akumu Tantei may not be one for the ages, but it's still a superb diversion to pass the time.

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Mon, 29 Jun 2015 11:42:05 +0200
<![CDATA[Ann Hui/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/ann-hui-x10
Ann Hui

Ann Hui, the undisputed empress of Hong Kong cinema. In a field dominated by men, Hui had to fight twice as hard to keep her head above water. It paid off though, a good 35 years and almost 30 feature films later she is one of Hong Kong's veteran directors, still going strong. I'm not Hui's biggest fan, but if you're interested in Hong Kong cinema you can't escape her work, so it was only a matter of time before my counter would hit the 10 mark.

Some directors take a flying start, other learn the trade as they go along. The oldest Hui film I watched is Zhuang Dao Zheng [The Spooky Bunch] (Hui's second feature) and Hui had her work cut out for her. It's a pretty bad, uneven film that tries to combine horror and slapstick, not the best combination when you're watching a Hong Kong flick.

Hui got her first real break with Woo Yuet Dik Goo Si [God of Killers], a film that became crucial to the rest of her career. After all, when you have Chow Yun-Fat (Hong Kong's biggest non martial arts action star of the 80s) headlining your film people are bound to take notice. But Hui didn't just grow big on other people's star power, she also put something of herself into the mix. While she made clear-cut genre films, she added dramatic and romantic elements not often found in other Hong Kong films. The results weren't always terrific, but it did help to set her apart from the rest.

Safe for Gam Ye Sing Gwong Chaan Laan [Starry Is the Night], I didn't really see much of her early films. The next film I watched was made in the mid 90s, right after the industry collapsed. Starring Michelle Yeoh and Sammo Hung, it's a sizeable chunk of girl power that gives us a rare insight in the workings of the Hong Kong movie industry. It's a decent film, although the final act derails pretty badly.

Hui would continue to struggle with balancing different genres within a single film. Youling Renjian [Visible Secret] is Hui's attempt at horror, though it's probably best not to approach the film that way. It's still a fun flick, even though it's quite light-hearted, with some drama and romance influences thrown into the mix. Yu Guanyin [Goddess of Mercy] on the other hand starts off as a romance, but ventures off into thriller territory later on. Ironically enough, Laam Yan Sei Sap [July Rhapsody], the only true drama Hui did during the early 00s, is one of her weaker films.

In 2006 Chow Yun-Fat finally returned to Hui's films, though not in an action part. Yi Ma De Hou Xian Dai Sheng Huo [The Postmodern Life of My Aunt] is a strange, somewhat darker comedy that eventually turns into a dark drama. It's my favorite Hui, but once again the balance between the different genres feels a little off. It was just a temporary recovery as her next few films did very little for me. Somehow she tried a little too hard to get a point across, which hurt the integrity of her dramas.

But Hui is someone who just keeps going and in 2011 that resulted in Tou Ze [Still Life], probably Hui's most famous film to date. It's another light-hearted drama that highlights the elderly situation in Hong Kong. A nice film and probably the best way to get to know Hui, though I still haven't discovered what made people take notice, as it's little more than a basic Hong Kong drama. On the other hand, Hui deserves the extra attention as she's too easily passed by on the international scene.

Being the respectable Hong Kong director she is, Ann Hui is already busy working on her next film. If she follows in the footsteps of people like Jing Wong, Tsui Hark and Johnnie To she still has a healthy part of her career in front of her. Finding her films isn't always easy and not every film is as balanced as it should be, but she's a force to be reckoned with and if you're into Hong Kong cinema you simply cannot ignore her work. But make sure you start with her later films, as Hui's early work may be a little hard to stomach, especially if you're not really familiar with Hong Kong cinema.

Best film: Yi Ma De Hou Xian Dai Sheng Huo [The Postmodern Life of My Aunt] (3.5*)
Worst film: Zhuang Dao Zheng [The Spooky Bunch] (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.55 (out of 5)

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Tue, 23 Jun 2015 11:55:34 +0200
<![CDATA[Damejin/Satoshi Miki]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/damejin-review-satoshi-miki

The feeling you get before watching the last remaining film of a director you like is always a bit two-sided. There is anticipation and a warm buzz fuelled by the near-certainty that you're about to watch something good, but there's also a lingering fear that it might not live up to your expectations. And worse, a saddening realization that after watching it you'll have reached a (temporary) dead end. And so I sat down to watch Satoshi Miki's Damejin [The Loafers], crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

screen capture of Damejin

Miki is a clear favorite of mine. So far the man has made seven films and I've loved every single one of them. His latest film being the only (minor) exception, but even that was still pretty good. Damejin is the first film Miki ever made, even though he would go on to release two more films before Damejin would finally find its way into the open. It explains why the film is a tad cruder than his other work, on the other hand the crudeness does give the film a slightly more daring, edgier feel. And that's something I appreciate in a film.

Damejin is the kind of film where everything can happen, everything happens and nothing has any impact whatsoever on the actual story. It's fragmented and random and outrageous plot points are forgotten just as quickly as they are introduced, but that's the main pull of the film. It's not so much about the story (if you want coherence, it's best to skip this one) as it is about the crazy characters and chill, relaxed atmosphere that lingers throughout the entire film.

Miki follows around three loafers. They don't work, they lack any goal in life and they spend their days hanging around in a shabby shack. Whenever they venture outside though crazy stuff happens to them. At one point they are bullied into becoming henchmen for a yakuza just released from prison, the next moment an apparition appears urging them to move to India in order to save the world. That's the kind of plot you can expect from this film.

screen capture of Damejin

Even though Damjin was Miki's first, it's one of the better-looking films he has directed so far. It may be just a little rough around the edges, but the entire film is drenched in a warm, orange/green filter that ties in perfectly with the hot, lazy summer day atmosphere Miki is striving for. It's a real treat. Add some nifty camera work and a little creative editing and you have a beautiful, slick-looking film that radiates warmth and tranquillity.

The music too is a perfect fit for the atmosphere. Miki doesn't really tie himself down to a single genre here, instead he cycles through some different styles, always on the lookout for music that add to the quirky, uplifting vibe. From the more classical drama music to folky and jazzy-sounding tunes, it's a weird little soundtrack that, like pretty much everything else in the film, works surprisingly well.

Even though Damejin doesn't have any big Japanese actors on its payroll, there are some interesting faces to be spotted. Mikako Ichikawa does a great job as the leading lady, Ryuta Sato is surprisingly effective as her male counterpart. Yoichi Nukumizu is the ideal goofy sidekick and Akaji Maro has a small but very memorable cameo. It's a very solid cast without any weak links and a few great performances, perfectly suited for the kind of film Miki set out to make.

screen capture of Damejin

Damejin is a very peculiar film that won't appeal to everyone. Not because it's so edgy, offensive or slow-moving, but because it lacks a certain level of coherence that's usually expected from a film. It's not exactly episodic or sketch-like, it's just incredibly random and free-form. Damejin, much like its main protagonist, just lingers and ventures in whatever direction that's thrown before its feet. If you're looking for a great story you won't find it here. If, on the other hand, you're fine with drifting along on the lazy, comfy summer atmosphere you're in for quite a ride.

Miki has a unique, dead pan sense of humor that pushes the film forward. I can only hope he continues to make films in the same vein as his work doesn't really compare to anything else out there. It's silly alright, but there's also a deep feeling of warmth and serenity embedded in his work. For a first attempt Damejin is already quite accomplished, easily capturing Miki's spirit. It's just a tiny bit rougher compared to his later films, but at the same time it's also a little purer. Miki fans are sure to enjoy this one, Miki novices should find a good starting place in Damejin.

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Mon, 22 Jun 2015 13:17:02 +0200
<![CDATA[Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng/Roy Hin Yeung Chow]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/rise-of-legend-review-roy-chow

Hong Kong's already massive martial arts catalogue is still expanding. Ever since the mid 60s they've been producing martial arts film at an almost constant pace. Sure enough the attention sometimes shifted to other genres, but only for a short period of time. In the end, they always returned to their roots. Point in case: Roy Hin Yeung Chow's Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng [Rise of the Legend], the latest in an endless series of Wong Fei-hung stories.

screen capture of Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng

To be offered the role of Wong Fei-hung is a big deal, as the man is featured in some of the leading Hong Kong martial arts films, portrayed by some of the absolute greats of martial arts cinema. There is Jet Li in Tsui Hark's first Wong Fei-hung film, Gordon Liu popped up in Chia-Liang Liu's Huang Fei-hong Yu Liu a Cai and Wu Guan and Jackie Chan appeared as Fei-hung in the Drunken Master films. It's safe to say that relative newcomer Eddie Peng is in pretty good company.

Even though Wong Fei-hung existed as a real person, the stories around his persona rarely correspond to actual historic events. If you took all the series and films about him and tried to map them chronologically, you'd probably need 6 lifetimes to fit in all his adventures. Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng is the latest in a long lineage of Wong Fei-hung stories that probably isn't too concerned with what actually happened. But as any self-conscious martial arts fan will tell you, that isn't too big of a problem. Martial arts is all about legends and folklore, reality doesn't play a big part in that.

Chow's film is a little different from its predecessors in the sense that the story is more detailed. While there's still plenty of fighting, there's also an actual plot that takes up most of the middle part of the film. Fei-hung is infiltrating the Black Tiger gang in order to destroy it from the inside out. To get to the master of the gang Fei-hung has to defeat his adopted sons first, which he does by setting up some elaborate traps. All the while Fei-hung is helped by a couple of lifelong friends who operate from the outside.

screen capture of Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng

Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng is not a cheap-looking film. At all. Clearly a lot of money went into the production design and it shows. The costumes, the city and the interiors all look lush and detailed. But it's not the first Chinese film to spend a lot of money on remodelling times long gone. What sets it apart is the reinvention of Hong Kong action cinematography. The classic camera moves are still there, but some creative zooming, first person action shots and snappy editing make for a different action experience. It looks amazing and it gives the the genre a welcome boost.

Soundtrack-wise there's not much to look forward to. It's a fair, adrenaline-inducing collection of tracks that go well with the action scenes, but nothing that will stick to your brain or can even be vaguely remembered afterwards. A very typical soundtrack for a martial arts film in other words. It's remarkable how little innovation there is in that regard, especially if you consider the effect a more fine-tuned soundtrack could have on these kind of fight sequences.

Star of the film is Eddie Peng, who is clearly soliciting to become Jet Li's successor. Peng is a bit slicker (he looks more media-aware too, even playing a classical character like Wong Fei-hung), but his fighting skills and posture are top notch and he really shines during the fight sequences. The secondary cast is on par, with a sizeable part for Sammo Hung and solid supporting roles for Tony Leung Ka Fai and Angelababy.

screen capture of Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng

Even though Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng pays ample homage to the roots of the genre, it also feels like a new start for Hong Kong martial arts cinema. Together with Once upon a Time in Shanghai it heralds a profitable future for Hong Kong's most prestigious genre of films. There are subtle influences from other genres to liven things up, a new batch of actors ready to star as the classic folk heroes and an updated action cinematography that breathes new life into Hong Kong's special brand of action cinema.

Hopefully Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng is only the first in a series of new Wong Fei-hung films, as the end left me begging for more. Chow laid the foundations for a new film series and as it has done pretty well for itself I'm sure that a sequel is already in the works. If you're martial arts fan than this new Wong Fei-hung film is a must-see. It's hard to predict if you'll end up liking the changes that have been made to bring the genre into up to speed, but even then there's still plenty of oldskool entertainment to be had from this one.

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Tue, 16 Jun 2015 12:32:54 +0200
<![CDATA[Fruit Chan/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/fruit-chan-x10
Fruit Chan

Hong Kong is a fortress of genre cinema. From martial arts cinema to Triad films, from the Cat III work to their own specific brand of comedy, Hong Kong directors are frighteningly efficient at cranking out genre films at blistering speeds. Few escape the clutches of this cinematic machine, director Fruit Chan is one of them. While almost impossible to coin and wildly inconsistent, Chan has worked hard to set himself apart from his peers. This hasn't always resulted in good films, but it did brand him as one of the more interesting Hong Kong directors of the past 30 years.

Fruit Chan started off like many others do in Hong Kong. He did a couple of acting jobs, worked his way up from assistant director and learned the director's trade under Sammo Hung while doing Long De Xin [Heart of the Dragon]. The mix of action and drama was not a big success though and Chan's directing career was quickly put on ice.

During the mid 90s the Hong Kong movie industry collapsed, leaving a tremendous void for others to fill. Chan saw an opportunity there and in '97 he released Heung Gong Jai Jo [Made in Hong Kong], a mix between Zimou's You Hua Hao Hao Shuo [Keep Cool] and Wai-Keung Lau's Gu Huo Zi: Zhi Ren Zai Jiang Hu [Young and Dangerous] series. It's the first real sign of Chan's emerging talent.

In the early 00's Chan tackled Hong Kong's prostitute situation with two separate features. First there was Durian Durian, a somewhat lifeless drama that didn't add too much to what was already out there. Lucky his second attempt was a lot more interesting. Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood [Hollywood Hong Kong] is a kind of magical, almost Jeunet-like tale featuring rising star Xun Zhou, set in the outskirts of the city. It's a unique film that still stands as one of my favorite Hong Kong films ever made.

In 2004 Chan would finally catch his big international break. His horror film Gaau Ji [Dumplings] would find its way to the West, riding the Asian horror wave. First as part of the Saam Gaang Yi [Three Extremes] anthology, later as a full-length stand-alone feature. Beautifully shot (Christopher Doyle behind the camera) and pleasantly morbid, it's a great entry into Chan's work if you like horror films.

Chan would stick with the horror themes, first remaking Nakata's Ghost Actress as Don't Look Up, later on contributing to Hong Kong horror anthology Tales from the Dark (the first batch of shorts). But both films never reached the heights of Gaau Ji. There's still some life left in Chan though, as proven by his latest film: Na Yeh Ling San, Ngo Joa Seung Liu Wong Gok Hoi Wong Dai Bou Dik Hung Van [The Midnight After]. A fun and entertaining mix of genres that parked itself somewhere between scifi, mystery and horror.

It's hard to imagine someone liking all of Fruit Chan's films, if only because his work is so varied. Through the years he skipped between drama, mystery and horror cinema, injecting his own stylistic elements without ever going full author. His films are generally ignored here in the West, so if you feel adventurous his oeuvre holds a few rare gems just waiting to be discovered. Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood is by far his greatest accomplishment, so that's probably the best place to start.

Best film: Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood [Hollywood Hong Kong] (4.5*)
Worst film: Hwajangshil Eodieyo? [Public Toilet] (1.5*)
Reviewed film(s): Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood
Average rating: 2.95 (out of 5)

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Mon, 15 Jun 2015 11:48:33 +0200
<![CDATA[Joe Dante/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/joe-dante-x10
Joe Dante

Joe Dante, 80s horror icon and one of the last ones of that era to survive as a director today. If you were living and breathing during the 80s chances are that at one point in your life you saw one of Dante's films. And if you are the nostalgic kind you probably still have a soft spot for his 80s work. Younger horror aficionados beware though, while Dante is generally considered a horror director, his oeuvre is a little more varied than that and most of his horror films have a somewhat child-like edge to them.

Dante started off slow. His first film was a strange 420 minute compilation film made in the 60s, after that it would take him 8 more years to complete Hollywood Boulevard, his first actual feature film. But it wasn't until '78, when Dante released Piranha, that the world took notice. To be entirely honest though, I'm not quite sure why they did. I never really understood why Piranha became the horror classic it is today, but it's impossible to contest its status and it launched Dante into the 80s.

Three years later Dante came out with The Howling, one of the quintessential films in the werewolf niche. A lot less pulpy compared to Piranha and one of the most straight-up horror films he ever directed. After that Dante's horror films began to change. First there was his segment in The Twilight Zone, then came Gremlins. More humorous. more kid-friendly. Gremlins in particular is a film that served as a perfectly fine introduction to horror cinema for younger viewers.

Dante continued down that path, focusing more on Stand By Me-like children's adventures, quite often dropping the horror entirely from his films. Films like Explorers, Innerspace and The 'Burbs are all solid 80s children's entertainment, but might have trouble enticing more mature audiences (unless they're looking for 80s nostalgia of course).

During the 90s Dante's career took a pretty big dive. With only a couple of B-grade comedies and a poorly executed action film (Small Soldiers) Dante was struggling for relevance. It wasn't until 2005, when the Masters of Horror project set out to revive the glory days of a number of oldskool horror directors that Dante got back into the spotlight. Homecoming and The Screwfly Solution are two decent horror short films that are worth a look.

Dante saw this as an opportunity to reboot his career, releasing a few more films in recent years, but none of them sparking much interest. While his career isn't exactly dead, most people have abandoned his work in favor of keeping the memories of his 80s films alive. Which is probably not such a bad idea. If you're looking for that light-hearted, adventurous 80s vibe Dante has a few nice films to seek out. And if you end up liking those you might decide to try out some of his other films, but know that you're entering muddy waters. If you're more into modern cinema then his Masters of Horror work is a good place to start, but it's probably best to keep your expectations quite low.

Best film: Homecoming (3.5*)
Worst film: Piranha (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.10 (out of 5)

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Fri, 12 Jun 2015 12:09:11 +0200
<![CDATA[Huo Yuanjia/Ronny Yu]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/fearless-review-ronny-yu

Mid 2000 the revival of the Hong Kong martial arts flick was well under way. Many established directors jumped on the boat and tried to one up the films that preceded their own efforts. Ronny Yu, back from his little adventure in America, was one of them. Together with Jet Li he set out to make the ultimate wushu film. And truth be told, they came pretty close with Huo Yuanjia [Fearless]. Ten years later, the film still holds its own and can be seen as one of the best in the genre.

screen capture of Huo Yuan Jia

After a successful run in the 80s and 90s and a semi-successful run directing a couple of franchise horror sequels in Hollywood, Ronny Yu returned to Hong Kong (as most Hong Kong directors do after trying their luck in America) to reboot his career. There he teamed up with Jet Li to direct Li's final wushu film, causing quite a stir in the West (where the difference between wushu and martial arts cinema in general was quickly lost in translation). It really got the buzz going around Huo Yuanjia.

The film centers around Huo Yuanjia, real life Chinese martial arts legend. The man lived in the late 19th century and founded one of the more popular martial arts schools in Shanghai. But his true fame comes from beating down a series of foreign fighters in bouts staged to underline foreign supremacy. At a time when China was overrun by outside influences, Yuanjia gave the Chinese people back their culture, and even more importantly, their dignity.

The problem with recounting the life of someone like Yuanjia is that because of all the stories and legends surrounding him it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. Yu's film is clearly more of a cinematic experience than it is a history lesson, cherry-picking the tales that shaped Yuanjia's legend. The film is split in three big acts, starting off with the younger (and more arrogant) years of Yuanjia, followed by his spiritual rebirth and ending with his return to Shanghai, where the stage is set for the big fights.

screen capture of Huo Yuan Jia

On a visual level Yuo Yuanjia easily holds its own among its peers. But instead of following the pull to mysticism (Ye Yan, Ying Xiong) that was all the rage back then, Yu went for a more down-to-earth approach that would serve as an inspiration for Wilson Yip's Yip Man and Yip Man 2: Cheung Si Cheun Kei. While the CG is a little too obvious by modern standards, the setting is lush and the camera work top notch, without really overdoing things.

The soundtrack is pretty much what you'd expect from a film like this. While very present and epic-sounding it's also a little bland and incredibly forgettable. There's a classic Chinese vibe that goes well with the setting and time period and it's an effective soundtrack as far as supporting the fight sequences goes, but you'll be hard-pressed to remember much, if anything, the next day.

As for the acting, watching this film again it's clear that Hong Kong never really found a replacement for Jet Li. Jacky Wu and Donnie Yen are good in their own right, but the combination of Li's charismatic smile, controlled posture and amazingly agile fighting techniques is simply unmatched. It's always a pleasure to see him in action and Huo Yuanjia provides him ample opportunities to show off his wushu skills one last time. The rest of the cast is okay (Shido Nakamura makes a notable appearance), but this film is really a one-man show.

screen capture of Huo Yuan Jia

If you're allergic to Chinese propaganda you might want to think twice before watching this film. While the opening segment may be a little crude, especially for a martial arts film, Huo Yuanjia is really about keeping the Yuanjia myth alive. Yu takes quite a few liberties towards the end of the film, painting Yuanjia as a martyr that fought for his fellow countrymen, upholding Chinese values while kicking foreign ass in the process. Personally I don't mind, but I'm sure not everyone will be appreciative of the message.

If you're looking for a stellar martial arts flick though, Huo Yuanjia is a safe bet. The middle part may be a little light on action, but the first and last act contain some of the better fight scenes to ever come out of Hong Kong. Jet Li gives a tremendous performance and production values are high all around. Huo Yuanjia is a great wushu epic honouring one of China's biggest martial arts legends. It may not be true to life, but that's why Yu made a feature film instead of directing a documentary.

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Wed, 10 Jun 2015 11:05:32 +0200
<![CDATA[Kamisama no Iu Tori/Takashi Miike]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/as-gods-will-review-takashi-miike

Takashi Miike, the man that never ceases to surprise. Even after spewing more than 70 films in 25 years time, even after after crossing over into the "mainstream", he still manages to direct films that are as weird and unique as anything found in the indie and/or arthouse scenes. Kamisama no Iu Tori [As the Gods Will] is one his latest efforts and once again isn't like anything you've seen before. I suggest you sit back, go in blank and let the film wash over you, because there's little else you can do to prepare for Miike's latest.

screen capture of As The Gods Will

If you check the reviews this film's been getting you'll notice that just about every single one mentions Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. While a very (very) feeble connection exists between these films, it's hardly a relevant comparison. You could just as well reference Saw or any one of its copies if you start going down that path. Personally I'd rather describe the film as mix between Raia Gamu, Shinboru and Gantz, but ultimately it's just one of those film you just need to experience yourself.

Not all of the weirdness in Kamisama no Iu Tori can be attributed to Miike though, the film is actually based on a manga by the same name. I haven't read the series myself so I can't really vouch for how close the film stays to its source material, but judging by his earlier adaptations I think it's safe to say that Miike added his own layer of insanity. At the very least Miike is the ideal person to bring the ideas and concepts of the manga to the big screen, as I'm sure there are few other directors who could make a film like this work.

Context and background story are sparse as the film dives right into the events. We get a full minute of character introduction, then the fun (read killing) starts. A group of high school kids find themselves trapped in a series of 'do or die' games. Either they participate and beat the challenges laid before them or they die a horrible death. After the first two games the winners are transported to a mysterious white cube hanging over Tokyo, where they are teamed up with the winners of neighboring schools. Doesn't make any sense you say? I agree, but that's besides the point.

screen capture of As The Gods Will

None of the adversaries are human, instead the kids have to fight a range of mythical creatures and well-known children's toys. There's a Daruma doll, a Maneki-neko and a carved wooden polar bear (among others). All the adversaries are CG and while noticeably so, the effect is far less jarring than you may expect. The polar bear in particular is superbly animated, with his sudden movements and extreme facial expressions giving him a very unique and peculiar presence. Production values are high and Miike regular Nobuyasu Kita does an excellent job with the cinematography, opting for clear and well-lit visuals rather going for a darker and grimmer look which is often first choice for similarly themed films.

The soundtrack is a little better than usual for a Miike film. There are still quite a few filler tracks, but there are also a couple of fun and crazy choices that underline the light-hearted atmosphere of the film. Bright and uplifting tracks that are often in contrast with the things happening on screen (I guess the Battle Royale comparison comes in handy after all). The voice acting of the adversaries too is notable, with pitched voices accompanying their childish looks. The effect is rather silly, even humorous, but that's exactly what Miike's aiming at.

The cast is decent enough for a bunch of Japanese high school kids, but as a group they're maybe a little too generic and slick-looking. It's made up of popular stereotypes, featuring the nerd, the loud-mouth, the crazy guy and the somewhat plain-looking hero attracting the attention of multiple girls. Clear manga stereotypes that Miike kept intact. There's a somewhat random cameo by Nao Omori (still not sure why his character was included) and a notable appearance by Riri Furanki, but their parts are too small to have a big impact on the overall quality of the cast.

screen capture of As The Gods Will

It's really difficult to label a film like Kamisama no Iu Tori. Lots of people get killed in rather gruesome ways, but I would't call it a horror film. The atmosphere is fun, humorous and light-hearted, but it isn't quite a comedy either. There are sci-fi elements but they are never really explored. It plays like a thriller, but it isn't really tense enough nor does it try to be. In the end, mystery is the label that fits the film best, even when it might give people the wrong idea about Kamisama no Iu Tori.

What struck me as most surprising was the complete lack of any form of explanation. These kids are kidnapped and subjected to childish games with lethal outcome, going from challenge to challenge, meeting up with the strangest characters and there's not even the slightest attempt to explain why all of this is happening. It just is and that's that. From what I understand the manga doesn't offer much in the way of an explanation either, but to see that translated to a big budget movie adaptation is quite the stunner.

Kamisama no Iu Tori is a typical Miike flick in the sense that it's pretty much pointless to compare it to other films out there. It's a film that resides in a universe of its own, it's not really bound to genres nor is it restrained by classic film laws. It's just incredibly fun and entertaining, serving up slices of madness at an incredible rate. And since it's a recent Miike film it means that the production values match its grand ideas, making it one of the most implausible mainstream films I've seen in a long time. After all these years Miike is still going strong. It's almost scary to think that if all goes well he's only halfway through his career. I don't mind though, one can never have enough films like Kamisama no Iu Tori.

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Tue, 02 Jun 2015 12:17:06 +0200
<![CDATA[Ringo Lam/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/ringo-lam-x10
Ringo Lam

Ringo Lam is one of the big names of 80s and 90s Hong Kong action cinema, but I never really connected with the man's work. When I started getting acquainted with Hong Kong cinema I tried a couple of his films, but quickly abandoned him in favor of other directors. It wasn't until I was done with my first wave of Hong Kong directors that my interest in Lam renewed.

What sets Lam apart from other Hong Kong directors is his grittier approach to action cinema. While Hong Kong is known for choreographing great action sequences, Hong Kong action is mostly stylized and not all that brutal. Lam's films are different. His films have a darker, grimmer edge where death comes easy and characters are killed off without flinching. While that itself isn't a bad thing, Lam's films are often bogged down unnecessarily by overly theatrical drama and romance.

Somewhat surprisingly though, Lam started off directing comedies in the early to mid 80s. Rather typical Hong Kong stuff, not horrible but not all that great either. I watched Oi San Yat Ho [Cupid One] and Zuijia Paidang Zhi Qianli Jiu Chaipo [Aces Go Places IV] and while amusing I wouldn't recommend them unless you have a soft spot for 80s Hong Kong comedy cinema.

In '87 Lam flipped his career around when he started on his Fire trilogy. Not only did he turn his back on comedy cinema, it's also marked Lam's first collaboration with Chow Yun-Fat, the legendary Hong Kong action star. Lung Fu Fong Wan [City on Fire] is probably the most famous of the three, if only because it's so often cited as an important influence on Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. I wasn't too taken with the film though, apart from the cool ending it's a pretty standard late 80s police thriller.

During the early 90s Lam would become one of Hong Kong's leading directors, working closely together with some of its biggest action stars. Yi Chu Ji Fa [Touch and Go] had him collaborating with Sammo Hung, Shuang Long Hui [Twin Dragons] teamed him up with Jackie Chan and Xia Dao Gao Fei [Full Contact] is a pretty nice action flick featuring Chow Yun-Fat and Simon Yam. But my favorite Lam from that era is Huo Shao Hong Lian Si [Burning Paradise], Lam's take on the popular martial arts genre. No famous actors to get it noticed, but a fun and spectacular martial arts fantasy film nonetheless.

Like so many other famous Hong Kong directors, Lam also tried his luck in America, directing a total of three films with Jean-Claude Van Damme. He never really left his home turf though, also making several other Hong Kong films in between. Mid 2000 it seemed that Lam's career was over and done, until he formed an alliance with Johnnie To and Hark Tsui. The result was Triangle, Lam's best film and a worthy film to end a career.

Lam is the kind of director that will appeal to Hong Kong genre enthusiasts. I can't say I'm a big fan, but he made some interesting films and if you're serious about Hong Kong cinema it's hard to ignore that man's films. Depending on what genres you prefer there are several possible entry points in his oeuvre, but I would suggest starting with Triangle as that is by far his most accomplished film.

Best film: Tie Saam Gok [Triangle] (4.0*)
Worst film: Da Mao Xian Jia [Great Adventurers] (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)

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Mon, 01 Jun 2015 11:50:05 +0200
<![CDATA[Brother/Takeshi Kitano]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/brother-review-takeshi-kitano

Right in between Kikujiro no Natsu and Dolls (the start of a 10-year long break from Yakuza cinema), Takeshi Kitano travelled to America to submerge himself into organized crime territory one last time. The result is Brother, a somewhat forgotten and often discarded Kitano film. It's not even that it's particularly disliked, people just don't mention it very often when talking Kitano films, so I was quite curious to see how it had held up over time.

screen capture of Brother

Some foreign directors travel to America to blend in and make an all-American movies, others go there simply to make their film set in America. Kitano is definitely the latter kind. He took half a crew and half a cast with him from Japan, mixed in the Americans and simply made a bonafide Kitano on American soil. Opinions may differ, but I think that's by far the most interesting path to take. It allows the audience to see a familiar setting (assuming they've been watching a fair amount of American films) through a foreign eye, creating something entirely new and unique.

In Brother Kitano takes his typical Yakuza setting and transports it to Los Angeles. While the movie starts off in Japan, Kitano's character is soon pressured to leave the country. He obliges and moves to America to visit his cousin Ken. Ken and his gang like to dabble in low-profile crime and are looking for a way up. When Kitano arrives, he teaches the boys a lesson or two and starts his own little Yakuza gang, but not without annoying some of the neighbouring gangs.

The move to America pretty much allowed Kitano to work a bunch of different crime syndicates into the story. The Chinese, the Mexicans and of course the Italians all play their part in Brother. Thankfully it didn't turn out to be one of those "kicking ass in a foreign country" type of films (often of the American persuasion) and Kitano's plans are met with a number of serious hiccups, leaving him to struggle to keep his head above water.

screen capture of Brother

On the visual side of things Brother is very much oldskool Kitano, staying close the style found in Hana-bi and Sonatine. That means that the setting may look a little grim, lacking color and detail, but the framing of the shots is exquisite and the editing is still as snappy and surprising as ever. It's definitely not Kitano's best-looking film, but Brother has a very clear, distinct visual style that's characteristic for Kitano's early Yakuza films.

The soundtrack too is vintage Kitano, mostly due to Joe Hisaishi still being on board back then. It's not Hisaishi's best work as it can't really compete with the soundtracks of Dolls, Kikujiro and Hana-bi, but it does the job. At its worst it's rather tepid and lazy, hiding in the background, at its best it's warm and soothing, laying het groundwork for Kitano's playful Yakuza scenes. Luckily the main theme is a strong Hisaishi track that is repeated several times during the key scenes of the film, giving the film some extra shine.

The acting is pretty much all over the place too. Kitano is superb as head of the Yakuza gang, Japanese regulars like Osugi, Terajima and Ishibashi fit their parts perfectly (Terajima in particular is amazing). Their American counterparts have a considerably harder time fitting in, with some pretty weak performances from the lower-ranking members and adversaries. That could've been a problem, were it not for Omar Epps (the American lead) who clearly hit it off with Kitano. I'm not a big fan of Epps, but once the two start fooling around there's some real chemistry there.

screen capture of Brother

If you've already seen a couple of Kitano's Yakuza films you should know what to expect from Brother. The sudden bursts of aggression, criminals goofing off while resorting to childish games, Kitano's trademark brand of poetic violence, it's all right here. To hardened Kitano fans the ending won't come as a surprise either. What the film loses in originality though, it makes up for in refinement. Brother is the culmination of Kitano's first 10 years as a director, showing off one last time what he had learned before he would go on to reinvent himself.

Brother is not an American Kitano film, it's a Kitano film set in America. If you liked Sonatine, Hana-bi and 3-4x Jugatsu then you really can't go wrong with this one. That is, if you can accept Epps as Kitano's prime henchman. There's some real chemistry between the two actors though, so that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Brother is a fine film that stands proud amongst Kitano's other films and doesn't deserve to be forgotten.

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Thu, 28 May 2015 11:13:58 +0200
<![CDATA[Si Fei/Jill Wong]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/guilty-review-jill-wong

When I sat down to watch Si Fei (Guilty) I really had no idea what to expect. The film was listed as a drama/romance, but the promotional material clearly hinted at a different kind of movie. I wasn't very familiar with Jill Wong's earlier directorial work either, so I decided to just take a gamble and press play. What followed was one of the best films to have come out of Hong Kong in quite a while. If Si Fei is an indication of Wong's future career, I'll be going along for the ride.

screen capture of Guilty

Jill Wong is one of the few female directors active in Hong Kong today. Rather than follow in the footsteps of Ann Hui or Heiward Mak, Wong carved her own path. While generally speaking female directors tend to opt for drama delivered in a more realistic manner, Si Fei is extremely raw and stylized, somewhat reminiscent of films like Gau Ngao Gau and Fuk Sau Che Chi Sei. It wasn't exactly what I expected, but boy was I blown away by it.

The only other Jill Wong film I had seen was Hong Kong comedy Oi Chut Mao, a group effort with Oxide Pang and a few other lesser known directors. Not exactly the kind of movie that would signal a film like Si Fei. Dig a little deeper though and you'll find that Jill Wong has had an extensive career as an assistant director, working with the Pangs and Pou-Soi Cheang on titles like Mon Seung, Chung Oi and Shamo. That should a least lift a tip of the veil as to how Si Fei turned out.

Si Fei follows the life of Kit, a badly disfigured serial killer with a knack for his job. He lives a secluded life, until the day he meets Ting Ting. The two hit it off and Kit takes Ting Ting in. While they are drawn to each other, they are both broken personalities who have trouble keeping a sane relationship. Ting Ting in particular is quite fickle, toying with Kit's emotions every chance she gets. Then one day Ting Ting gets kidnapped for ransom and Kit has to pull off one final job in order to save Ting Ting's life.

screen capture of Guilty

On the visual side of things Wong clearly took a hint from her mentors, because Guilty is one of the nicest looking films I've seen all year. Lots of yellow and green hues give it a very distinct Chinese/Hong Kong flavor, the often decaying sets are lush and intricate and the lighting is simply exquisite. Some very nice shots too while the editing is slick and snappy. Si Fei is just one endless stream of blissfully dark imagery drawing the audience into the film, keeping a perfect balance between beauty and decay.

The soundtrack too is remarkable. None of that wimpy background noise you'll find in most films, but a score that is used front and center, proudly establishing the rhythm and flow of the scenes. There's a clear electronic edge to the music, though not too outspoken. Together with the visuals it makes for a perfect audiovisual spectacle that adequately supports the themes and story while outlining a thick, almost tangible atmosphere.

With Pak-ho Chau (Kit) and Liddy Li (Ting Ting) Wong opted for relatively unknown faces. Pak-ho Chau (Kwan Yan Chut Si had some prior experience, for Liddy Li this film is pretty much her big breakthrough. Both actors do a pretty good job, Li in particular is allowed to kick some serious ass in this movie and she does so with conviction. The secondary cast is decent too, with a quick cameo of Kai Chi Liu as the most notable appearance.

screen capture of Guilty

Si Fei is a film that doesn't reveal its true face until very late in the game. It disguises itself as a kind of twisted romance, but it ends up a harsh and mean-spirited thriller. It's good to see Hong Kong hasn't forgotten about this genre as they're actually quite good at it, even when its commercial appeal might be lower than their regular output. While saying too much about the ending would probably spoil things, for me this was one of those rare cases where the ending actually made the film better.

I'm excited to see where Wong will go from here. Si Fei proves she is more than capable to stand on her own two feet, delivering a film that is powerful, gripping and skilfully made. If you're a fan of Hong Kong's harsher thrillers this is definitely for you, if you like directors like the Pangs or Pou-Soi Cheang don't think twice about seeing this one. If on the other hand you don't have a clue what I'm talking about Si Fei is the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with Hong Kong's darker side.

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Tue, 26 May 2015 11:41:15 +0200
<![CDATA[Jamin Winans on The Frame/An Interview]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/jamin-winans-interview-frame

A little over two weeks ago I wrote my review for Jamin Winans' The Frame, soon after I got the opportunity to ask him a couple of questions about his latest film. We talked about working on a budget, the importance of a good score, film distribution woes and why we probably won't see him working in Hollywood anytime soon. That and a lot more of course, so let's jump right in.

Jamin Winans on The Frame

Niels Matthijs: Urban fantasy is a genre that's not too popular in cinema. It seems that big studios consider it too big a risk, while indie filmers have a hard time pulling it off with their limited budgets. What draws you to the genre?

Jamin Winans: Honestly I never identified it as "urban fantasy" before, but I like that title. I've always been a big sci-fi/fantasy fan because it's an opportunity to go crazy with the possibilities of the unknown. I'm someone who believes there's an enormous amount going on that we can't see, haven't discovered yet, or our brains just don't have the capacity to understand. So sci-fi/fantasy is a way to at least try and push into those possibilities.

At the same time my mind (like anyone else's) is planted firmly in very real human struggle. I'm someone who doesn't find sci-fi/fantasy compelling unless it somehow gets at the heart of deeper questions of existence, pain, love, etc...

So "urban fantasy" is a way to come at those big real world questions from a radically different perspective. And hopefully by changing our perspective we can get some sort of wisdom out of that.

Were there any things you left out of The Frame because you figured the budget wouldn't allow you to do it properly?

Nothing thematic, but in early drafts of the script I had planned on more ambitious action sequences. Mainly just more destruction in the sequences that are there. Fortunately I don't miss any of it.

The best films are often the ones where creativity overcomes budgetary limitations. What part of The Frame are you most proud of, taking into account the limited budget you had to work with?

Above all else, the actors. That's often the first thing to go in low-budget "genre" filmmaking, but we pressed hard for the right cast and were truly fortunate to get them. David and Tiffany hold the whole thing together and that's saying a lot because it's a pretty insane piece of material.

That said, I'm really proud of the actual technical camera work that went into the film. We had some very specific rules about what the camera represented and how it behaved. Those rules made shooting and planning a big pain in the ass, but we also did some things I haven't seen before in other films. Had we had more money, we may not have been forced to shoot the unique shots the way we did.

The Frame was obviously made with a clear vision in mind, but it seems you leave it up to the audience to piece everything together. Do you hope they will faithfully reconstruct what you put in there, or do you prefer people to find their own version of the truth?

I do of course have a specific intent with the film, but I know that if I want someone to understand and connect with it on a truly deeper level, I have to leave space for them. A lot of people don't like having that space and don't want to do the mental work, which I get, but this isn't that kind of film. Anyone really wanting something substantial from a story or a piece of art has to put themselves into it, be a part of it.

There are things I hope people walk away with, but in the end, I really do want them to combine the experience of the film with their own life and let it speak to them in their own language.

You spend a lot of time constructing elaborate and unique universes in your films, layered with thick, mysterious atmospheres. Are you afraid people will just submerge themselves in the worlds you construct, ignoring the questions and deeper meanings that are there, or do you embrace such an experience?

In a perfect world we're always making something multi-layered that can be enjoyed at different levels. Most people watch movies to escape from their lives and be transported and I hope our films do that. But for the person like me that wants to go deeper, well then I hope they can and will do that too.

I always feel that most directors underestimate the impact of a good score. They see it as a necessity rather than an opportunity to make their film better. Is that the reason why you wrote the score for The Frame yourself?

I think there's a couple schools of thought around film music. For most, yeah it's an afterthought. We need music because that's what films have, so let's hire a musician.

Then there's the filmmakers that hate scores because they feel like music is manipulative. I understand that point of view and think going without music is great for some movies. That said, everything about making a movie is arguably manipulative from the dialogue spoken to the edits made, so I don't think the blanket rule of "music is bad" makes sense.

To me filmmaking is the ultimate artform because it includes so many other art forms. One of those is music. I've always responded to movies when the music intimately works with the story so that's what I try to create in my own work. I write the scores myself because it's the easiest and fastest way to work, it allows me to integrate the two more intimately, and quite honestly no other musician would put up with my crap.

I think I read somewhere that you wrote most of the score before you even started filming. How did that influence the film?

Working on the scores early on helps me to find the tone of the movie which is really helpful. Tone is closely linked to theme in "The Frame". When I was experimenting with the music early on I ended up creating a piece with an almost breathing quality like a resting giant. That drove a huge part of the aesthetic of the eventual film.

You even go one step further in The Frame, letting the characters connect with each other by having them murmur the film's main theme. Is having music as part of the plot an idea you'd like to keep exploring in your next films, or did it just feel right for The Frame?

It's definitely been a big part of the last several films. Our short film "Spin" is about a DJ who controls the world with turn tables, "Ink" had a character who taps into the beat of the world and to your point the characters hum the theme in "The Frame". So there's definitely a trend there. I think there's a good chance it will continue.

You wrote, composed, edited and directed The Frame. Is there some other aspect of film making you think you could learn to make your films even more personal?

Boy I hope not. It takes me too long to make a movie as it is. And I don't think anyone needs to see me try to act.

I understand you tried out Hollywood for a short while but couldn't really fit in. While I get this need to create films that are very personal to you, aren't you at least a bit curious what it would be like to create a studio film?

Well, I wouldn't say I tried out Hollywood. I reluctantly signed with an agent after Ink, did some general meetings with studios in order to see if there was any way I could get our films funded within the system and still retain final cut. As I expected, very few people in the studio system are making original work (non-franchise material) and virtually no director is getting final cut in Hollywood, let alone a wee fellow like me. So, I've opted to just keep making films the way I always have.

I'm actually not that curious about studio filmmaking. I think that's the ultimate goal of a lot of filmmakers, but it seems like most really creative and talented filmmakers who jump into that system end up making very expensive films that are ultimately less interesting than their indie work and they no longer have a voice. I just have this strong belief that life is short and I don't want to spend any of it making someone else's movie, even if it means I'll be poor the rest of my life.

Would you know what to do if some rich investor came up to you and said "Here's 100 million dollar Mr. Winans, make whatever you like but you have to put every last cent I give you into this film"?

Do you know someone?

Yeah, like any filmmaker, I would be happy to spend the money, but not if it meant I had to make it back. More money means more financial responsibility and that usually means less risk-taking artistically. But if none of that was a concern, then you bet, I would build some insane sets and do things I always dreamed of.

In another interview you said: "our trajectory is to always do something better". Do you start by analyzing your previous film, looking for things to improve, or do you start fresh and take what you learned from your prior experiences to create something new (that will hopefully end up being better)?

"Better" is ultimately very subjective. What I don't want to do is focus on making something the audience will perceive as better. I don't read reviews and generally stay away from audience feedback because I don't want to be influenced by what audiences do or don't like about what I've done.

For me "better" is knowing that I'm pushing myself further, going deeper, and not allowing myself to get comfortable and redundant. I had a teacher say once, "Just write for God and no one else." I think that's good advice.

It seems that your cinema exists in a niche of itself. The only other director I could see you being compared to is Shane Carruth. Where in the big picture do you see your films fit in?

Good question. Hopefully they don't fit in anywhere. Hopefully they're seen as unique enough to be their own. If people can't quite describe what they are or fit them into a specific genre, then we've done something right.

Do you still watch a lot of other films and do they inspire you? Or do you find your inspiration elsewhere?

I do still watch a ton of films and love them, but I'm realizing as I say this, they don't inspire my process as much as they used to. I think that's probably natural. In the beginning you riff on things that you like, but as you find your voice you depend less and less on other influences.

Your films are quite niche and you've said no to Hollywood before. Does that mean you dislike Hollywood films, or is it just something you don't see yourself doing but can still respect/enjoy on a different level?

I love a lot of Hollywood films, but fewer and fewer take any chances. I haven't been really excited by a Hollywood film in a really long time.

I think there are great directors and craftsman making movies in that system and they're doing phenomenal work, but they're doing phenomenal work for franchises that require very specific results.

What struck me as awesome when I looked at the Blu-Ray and DVD of The Frame was the Region 0 encoding plus the inclusion of French, German and Spanish subtitles. 20 years ago things like that where advertised boldly to push DVD sales, but in reality DVD did very little to get rid of geolocking people out of watching films. Was this a very conscious strategy?

Yeah, we're very pro self-distribution and make sure we're not tying up our movies with some ancient business strategy of geo-locking. It astounds me that companies are still doing that. We have fans in France, Germany, Spain, Latin America and all over really. If we had the money and resources we would have subtitled the film in every language, but unfortunately we could only afford our three biggest languages.

Ink blew up in the online piracy scene, I'm sure The Frame is encountering similar problems. Still I heard you say you are "pro-access" (a lovely term). Things are slowly improving with services like Netflix and the EU committing themselves to make cross-country distribution rights more transparent, but on a global scale it's still hard to watch films on a try & buy budget. How do you see that changing in the coming years? Will services like Netflix finally take over, or will studios win their power back?

I think access will ultimately win the day. Trying to control how people watch movies and listen to music is futile. If you don't provide access, people will create their own.

I don't necessarily think people expect everything for free, but they do get tired of not having access and they get tired of prices being unreasonably high. You see an amazing trailer for a movie on YouTube, but you have no way to watch it in your small town in Uzbekistan. So you're going to pirate it.

Services like Amazon and iTunes are making it easier and easier for people to watch anywhere in the world which is great, but their digital pricing is based on DVD prices from 15 years ago. Most people don't want to buy a digital file for $15 and a good deal of the world can't afford it.

This is driven by the studios who are still dependent on an old and dying model. The fact is the new digital model isn't nearly as lucrative as the DVD/Blu-ray model and that sucks for content creators and distributors, but it's unavoidable. And by trying to hold onto this old model, studios and distributors are helping to create a larger and larger base of pirates who feel justified not paying. That's not a habit you want to create because it's going to be very hard to reverse.

All I know is that piracy is rampant because the current system is not working. Give your audience easy access at a fair price and I think many many more will pay. We have an $8 digital download of "The Frame" that includes the film, soundtrack, and Art-Of book on www.DoubleEdgeFilms.com. And that's done well.

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Tue, 19 May 2015 11:27:32 +0200
<![CDATA[Clint Eastwood/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/clint-eastwood-x10
Clint Eastwood

To me Clint Eastwood is first and foremost an actor, but it's becoming harder and harder to ignore the immense body of directorial work he's done. So far Eastwood directed 35 feature films spanning 45 years. That's more than most directors would hope to ever accomplish in their entire careers. Even though he's well in his eighties now, he's not showing signs of slowing down anytime soon.

To say I dislike Eastwood's film would be an understatement. I'm not particularly fond of westerns and his sentimental dramas don't really do it for me either. Eastwood is one of those directors who ended up on my list mostly by accident, by watching a few of his well-respected films combined with some random encounters. Not counting one pleasant surprise, his oeuvre has left me pretty disappointed.

The oldest Eastwood I've seen is High Plains Drifter, one of the first films where he appeared as director. It's a pretty typical western on the surface, though I'm sure western fans will appreciate the deeper layer underneath. If you're like me and you don't like the typical western elements (not in the least Eastwood's character), the film has very few redeeming qualities. The same could be said about Unforgiven, the second Eastwood I've seen. In between he made 11 more films, though none of which I've seen.

In 2003 Eastwood released Mystic River, the film that kickstarted the most recent cycle in his career. It's a very heavy-handed, sentimental and drab Hollywood drama that would go on to become the template for most of his later films. Millon Dollar Baby and Changling suffer from the same shortcomings, while Letters from Iwo Jima and American Sniper carry over the defect to a war-like setting. Jersey Boys (adapted from the musical) doesn't fare much better.

The only Eastwood film I liked so far is Gran Torino. Not that I have extremely fond memories of it, but the main character is just perfect for Eastwood's onscreen persona. It easy to see how the film could be pretty offensive to some (Eastwood's character has been wrongly branded a racist and the film's ending is pretty boastful), but as long as you see the humor of his performance then it's an okay film.

Long story short, Eastwood isn't my kind of director (nor actor for that matter). I find his films old-fashioned, dire, heavy-handed and lifeless. I still have a few Eastwoods lined up, but only because of their status. If you're into westerns than a film like Unforgiven is a good starting point, if you're more into Hollywood drama than Mystic River is the obvious choice.

Best film: Gran Torino (3.5*)
Worst film: High Plains Drifter (0.5*)
Average rating: 1.25 (out of 5)

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Mon, 18 May 2015 11:41:49 +0200
<![CDATA[Ronny Yu/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/ronny-yu-x10
Ronny Yu

It's not easy to succeed in Hollywood as a foreign director, but that hasn't stopped a bunch of Hong Kong directors from taking the plunge. Very few made a noticeable impact, even fewer made anything truly worthwhile and just about every single one returned to their homeland to reboot their careers. Ronny Yu is one of those brave men and while his Hollywood work isn't exactly A-grade material, he did direct some memorable films over there.

But like most Hong Kong directors crossing over, Yu started his career in Hong Kong. I can't say I'm very familiar with Yu's early work though, somehow his first couple of films have completely eluded me. Yu started his career in 1979, co-directing a film with Philip Chan. The first somewhat famous title he directed was Xun Cheng Ma [The Postman Fights Back], an action vehicle starring Chow Yun-Fat. All in all he directed 9 films before the '90s, none of which I've seen.

The first Ronny Yu film I did see was Qian Wang 1991 [Great Pretenders], an amusing comedy romp featuring Teddy Robin Kwan and Tony Leung Chiu Wai in a typical (Jing Wong-like trickster setting. He followed it up with Huo Tou Fu Xing [Shogun and the Little Kitchen], a martial arts comedy featuring Yuen Biao, Leon Lai and Man Tat Ng. Funny films if you can stand the typical Hong Kong sense of humor, but probably not the best entry points in Yu's oeuvre.

In the magical year 1993 Yu directed his two breakthrough films. Bai Fa Mo Nu Zhuan I & II [The Bride with the White Hair I & II] are two solid fantasy epics that are sure to appeal to fans of 90s Hong Kong cinema, travelling far beyond the borders of Yu's home turf. Two years later he would repeat his success in a more historically correct setting with Ye Ban Ge Sheng [The Phantom Lover], though that film failed to generate the same international buzz as its predecessors.

'97 was the year that Yu began to actively woo Hollywood. At first tentatively, with Hong Kong/USA cross-over film Warriors of Virtue, later he would move on to direct two high-profile horror franchise sequels (Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs Jason) while delivering a weird Guy Ritchie clone (The 51st State) in between. While not great films, they possess a baseline quality that make them quite enjoyable still.

It wouldn't be until Yu's return to Hong Kong in 2006 that he would finally direct his masterpiece. Huo Yuanjia [Fearless] is a grand martial arts epic recounting the life of its titular character. The film did well, not in the least because Jet Li announced it as his last Wushu film. It would take Yu another 7 years to direct a follow-up, but sadly that one failed to really excite audiences. Yang Jia Jiang [Saving General Yang] is a decent enough film, but a little below Yu's usual quality standard.

Ronny Yu isn't a great director, nor the kind of director who has a clear signature style. But he can handle big budgets remarkably well and even when he's given weak source material he is able to make something fun with it. While Huo Yuanjia is pretty much his only stand-out film so far, I haven't really seen a weak film by Yu either. Though I presume you need a soft spot for Hong Kong's legendary sense of humor to appreciate his older work.

Best film: Huo Yuanjia [Fearless] (4.5*)
Worst film: Qian Wang 1991 [Great Pretenders] (3.0*)
Average rating: 3.3 (out of 5)

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Fri, 15 May 2015 12:20:02 +0200
<![CDATA[Lost River/Ryan Gosling]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/lost-river-review-ryan-gosling

Ryan Gosling is hot property these days, yet the fact that he just finished his first feature film would come as a big surprise to most people. Somehow Lost River failed to generate the kind of buzz expected from a film with Gosling's name attached to it. After watching Gosling's firstborn though, it's actually not that hard to see why it failed. Even if it's by far the best film I've seen coming out of America in quite a while, it's not what you call a potential crowd pleaser.

screen capture of Lost River

I'm not sure exactly why, but somehow I wasn't too thrilled by the prospect of watching Lost River, which is probably why it ended up on the bottom of the pile. The idea of Gosling directing a film was definitely intriguing enough and the fact that he'd chosen to make a mystery should have peaked my interest. It could have helped had I known Benoît Debie was hired as DP, but I only noticed during the opening credits. And it might be that I expected this film to turn out more like Refn's latest films (while not bad, I think their potential greatly exceeds the final result), but even that feels like reaching.

Long story short, I was wrong to have almost discarded Lost River without giving it a fair chance. Even though the link with Refn's later work is definitely there, Gosling goes his own way while borrowing little bits and pieces from elsewhere. Influences may range from David Lynch to The Wizard of Gore and even something as exotic as Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, but in the end Gosling managed to create his own little universe that stands perfectly well on its own.

Lost River is set against a background of a region in decay. Jobs are scarce, poverty reigns and people are moving to better places. Not so Billy, who tries to cling to the house she occupies with her two kids. When the money finally dries up, she accepts an offer to work in a mysterious bar that does horror-themed performances. Meanwhile her son Bones is getting into trouble with Bully, the self-appointed ruler of the region who drives around terrorizing people and setting houses on fire. To escape this dreary existence Bones hooks up with Rat, the girl next door, who tells him a legend of an underwater city that resides nearby.

screen capture of Lost River

Call me patriotic, but with Benoît Debie (Enter the Void, Calvaire, Spring Break) on board visual excellence is pretty much guaranteed. And Debie delivers in spades here. The framing is beautiful, the lighting exquisite and there are some very bold color choices that go a long way in giving the film its otherworldly atmosphere. The darker, gloomier scenes in particular are of stunning beauty, making it that much easier to pull people into the unfolding mystery.

The score (by Johnny Jewel, of Drive fame) has a very similar, ethereal quality. While the 80s influences are unmistakeably there, it seems that we are finally moving beyond merely emulating that typical 80s sound and exploring new territory with it. The score has a pretty Lynchian feel to it, constantly moving to the foreground and demanding the audience's attention. In combination with the visuals it makes for a very compelling yet demanding atmosphere that hurls the film forward.

Gosling managed to secure a pretty impressive cast, which may be one of the perks of his current golden status. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Iain De Caestecker (In Fear, Filth) shine as Billy and Bones, Saoirse Ronan, Ben Mendelsohn and Matt Smith act as a more than solid addition to the primary cast. Even Eva Mendes made a worthwhile appearance as leader of the horror troupe, rounding off a pretty interesting cast.

screen capture of Lost River

Lost River is a film more about atmosphere and emotion than it is about plot and story. Gosling creates a world that is very much like our own, but still feels very distant and alien. While there's a clear climax, the film doesn't have a real conclusion and many of the film's ideas aren't explored to their fullest. If you're okay with that though, the film offers one of the dreamiest and eeriest film universes I've encountered in quite a while, rising above and beyond as one of the most enveloping mysteries I've seen since Lynch stopped directing feature films.

Lost River's reception was pretty poor, but that was only to be expected. The film's way too strange and peculiar to appeal to a broad audience, yet Gosling's name will attract many people who wouldn't normally sit down to watch a film like this. I went in with low expectations but I was blown away. Lost River is an audiovisual trip through an intriguing world, it's a feverish nightmare presented as a soothing dream, but above all it's a film from a director who has a voice of his own. Hopefully Lost River won't be the last we hear of Gosling as a director because his potential is seemingly endless.

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Wed, 13 May 2015 11:30:08 +0200