Since I started this site I've been keeping myself to a bottom line of 4 out of 5 stars in order to review a film. It's a great way to determine whether a film is actually great (reviewing is time-consuming) or just plain old good. Still, there are always edge cases that are worth a look if you've nothing better planned. I'm going to list these films right here, providing a capsule review for each one of them.

xi men ding

date
June 03, 2013
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Westgate Tango poster

Even though 2011 was a stellar year for Taiwanese cinema (Xiao Shi Da Kan, Hetun, Xing Kong, Make Up), 2012 didn't really deliver. While the potential is still there, a lot of the recent Taiwanese films seem to have traded some of their artistic value for more commercial appeal. Taiwanese cinema changed a lot the past couple of years (from the slow, pondering works of Hsiao-hsien Hou and Ming-liang Tsai to the more modern-Chinese inspired films of today) but not all that change is for the better.

Not to say that Xi Men Ding is a bad film. Wang Wei's first has quite a few stand-out scenes, moments of wonder that betray a deeper love for the medium. But whenever things get serious and I started to fall in love with the film, there's always a cheesy pop song to break the mood or an impatient cut to the next scene. Wei just doesn't allow the film to breath, which just doesn't bode well for the lingering romance that runs at the core of the film.

Visually there is plenty to admire. Superb use of lighting and a magnificent sense of color. The soundtrack is a downer though, so are the actors, who seem like they'd be more at home in a local soap opera. Especially when seeing them perform next to Anthony Wong (who has a couple of scenes) the difference in quality is painfully notable. The romance is fresh and playful and Wei does his best to keep the charm going, but his cast and the pacing just aren't up to the job. Underneath some superficial touches, Xi Men Ding hides a very good film, sadly it never manages to break itself free from its commercial reigns.

I guess this review houses more negativity than the film actually deserves, but it's disappointing to see a perfectly solid gem given a treatment like this. Xi Men Ding is still worth seeing for a nice selection of stand-out moments though.

suicchi o osu toki

date
May 22, 2013
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When I Kill Myself poster

Ryo Nakajima's first film (This World Of Ours) blew me away but failed to make a big international splash. Maybe not too surprising as it wasn't the easiest film to sell, but if anything the film made clear that the boy had talent. His second film (Rise Up) passed me by, but I was lucky enough to catch Nakajima's latest. While not as pure as This World Of Ours, there is still plenty to enjoy here.

The first minutes of Suicchi o Osu Toki are reminiscent of Battle Royale, only a lot darker in tone. Forty kids are taken from their parents and are locked up in a medical facility by decree of the Japanese government. The plan is to try and figure out why suicide rates are on the rise among youngster, so they give each kid a suicide button and monitor them to find out what triggers their suicides. Most kids die within the first year, but a group of 6 manages to survive for 7 years in a row. Until a new warden is assigned to keep an eye on them.

The first half of the film has a strong, dark and brooding atmosphere. The film looks good, support a strong soundtrack and manages to intrigue. Halfway through Nakajima switches gears though, as he lets the plot take the upper hand. Even though a lot is happening, I would've preferred a slower, more pensive approach to the themes Nakajima unearths here. He does fight back with a strong finale, but by then I had somewhat lost interest in what happened to the group. It's a shame, because there is still a lot to like in Suicchio Osu Toki and overall Nakajima delivers a very interesting film. It's an easy recommendation, but sometimes a plot just gets in the way of a potential masterpiece.

zombie ass

date
May 08, 2013
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Zombie Ass poster

Noboru Iguchi (Mutant Girls Squad) unleashed a very special kind of cinema onto the world when he made The Machine Girl. He has been struggling to repeat that success and has since been bested by his Sushi Typhoon buddies. With his latest film Iguchi seems to have finally settled into an even smaller niche though. Zombie Ass must be one of the most outrageously embarrassing films currently out there, and for that reason alone it should be worth a small gamble.

Even though Zombie Ass isn't part of the official Sushi Typhoon catalogue, it's very much in line with other Sushi Typhoon releases. Bad CG, horrible actors and a pretty amateurish finish are all part of the deal, but in return you get some of the weirdest, sickest and funniest moments ever caught on film. If there ever was a "so bad it is good" flick, this one is definitely it.

Iguchi expands on the short he entered in the ABCs of Death anthology (F is for Fart). Never before has a director explored the CG fart in such devastating depths and with such great conviction. Ironically the longer running time actually plays in Iguchi's favor here, as the ever-increasing sense of embarrassment really adds to the fun. Not that the entire film is about farts, there are also a bunch on toilet zombies and a group of anal tentacles to balance out the narrative. Great art this is not, but if you're looking for 90 minutes of mind-blowing weirdness, Zombie Ass is a must see.

ai zuozhan

date
May 01, 2013
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Love Battlefield poster

Pou-Soi Cheang is one of the better genre film directors currently residing in Hong Kong. With highlights like Shamo, Yi Ngoi (Accident) and Gau Ngao Gau (Dog Bite Dog) the man has been establishing himself as a driving force behind the international recognition of Hong Kong cinema. Ai Zuozhan (Love Battlefield) is a slightly older Cheang that bears all the potential, but ever so slightly fails in its execution.

Ai Zuozhan would've made a pretty good Milkyway (Johnnie To's production house) film I think. The desaturated visuals are classy, the story is a bit grittier than usual and holds a few solid surprises and there's enough police work going on to make it a thematic peer to a slew of other Milkyway productions. It's not really an action flick, rather a tense and dark thriller mixed with a dash of romance.

The problem is that Pou-Soi Cheang has a thing for melodrama. In more recent film he's learned to balance it out a bit more, but here he crosses the line of the acceptable a few times too often. The finale for example is an exhilarating 20 minute climax, only to be followed by a mushy and unnecessary scene that takes the bite out of the ending. Cheang always compensates with style and tension, but in the end it makes the film just a tad too uneven. It's definitely worth a watch though, just brace yourself for a few overly emotional scenes that really don't belong.

asura

date
April 27, 2013
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Asura poster

Director Kei'ichi Sato (of Karas fame) returns with Asura. The film is an adaptation of a 70s manga that sparked quite a controversy when it was first released, due to some rather graphic cannibalistic content. Don't expect an average tentacles and gore horror anime though, as the story of Asura is surprisingly timid and humane.

Asura is young kid, part man, part beast. Left behind in the Kyoto wastelands at a very young age, he has learned to survive under barren conditions. He is an outcast of society and doesn't hesitate for a moment when all there is to eat is a passing fellow human being. Until one day he runs into Wakasa, a young girl who is the first to treat him like a real human. Asura has trouble leaving the beast in him behind though.

To be honest, the story is of the yada-yada variation. The film lacks emotional strength and even though it doesn't outstay its welcome with only 72 minutes on the clock, it does drag a little in places. You'll be wanting to see this film because of the awesome art style and the stunning blend of CG and traditional animation though. Sato created another technical marvel, there are a few moments where the CG is just a tad too apparent but otherwise the blend is pretty much perfect and makes for a very moody and grim atmosphere.

It's a shame the film itself isn't as slick as its visuals, but Asura is definitely worth a look if you like your animation a little different.