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[The Black Box/Richard Berry]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/black-box-review-richard-berry

Sometimes you just happen upon a film that looks interesting. You watch it, you like it and you talk to a few people about it, but for some reason it just doesn't catch on. A couple of years later you are reminded of the film and it turns out it's still as obscure as the first time you watched it. Well, that's pretty much what happened to Richard Berry's The Black Box [La Boîte Noire], a sweet little French genre film that, for whatever reason, just didn't make a splash.

screen capture of The Black Box [La Boîte Noire

Richard Berry is best known for his work as an actor (if you're familiar with French cinema that is), but he's also had quite some success directing films. His most acclaimed work to date is The Immortal (starring Jean Reno), yet right before that one he directed The Black Box, a very typical, by the numbers but well-executed genre film. It's not a film that will dazzle you with its novel approach or unique direction, instead The Black Box is quite simply a modern mystery done right.

The early '00s saw a small bump in mystery/thrillers. In fact, The Black Box is not unlike Marc Forsters' Stay (also released in 2005), another film that deals with a protagonist who is battling his own memories and finding himself stuck inside a world that doesn't quite feel like the reality he remembers. These films aren't so much about unravelling the mystery (the twist at the end is rarely of any value), instead they draw their strength from the unsettling journey towards their big reveal.

The Black Box starts with Arthur waking up inside a hospital bed, reciting disjointed words. The doctors tell him he's recovering from a serious car crash. After a short stay in the hospital Arthur is deemed fit enough to go home, but not before his nurse gives him a black book containing all the notes she scribbled down while Arthur was in a coma. She tells him it's a rare glimpse inside the unconscious part of his own mind. When Arthur comes home and finds certain things out of order (like a brother who is gone missing), he reaches for the black booklet and starts his journey in search of answers.

screen capture of The Black Box [La Boîte Noire

Visually the film is split into two even parts. The first half of the films is a bit more daring and disorienting, featuring some interesting editing tricks and a darkened, slightly surreal look (there's a little Jean-Pierre Jeunet in there, though the overall effect is more modern-looking). The second half looks a little plainer in comparison, but the bottom line quality is still there. Overall The Black Box is an attractive film that uses its visual tricks wisely, but it does lack the clear and confident hand of a true artist.

The soundtrack is less defining though and you may even find it difficult to remember afterwards. The film sports a pretty generic score, a series of musical pieces that do little besides providing a cure against silence. It's not exactly a bad score mind, it's functional and never really intrudes or irritates, but at the same time a film like this could have benefitted so much more from a tighter, more demanding selection of tracks. It's a missed opportunity, though hardly surprising.

The acting was on point. Much of the pressure rests on José Garcia's shoulders, luckily he performs well as the ever more freaked out lead of the film. He is helped by a solid cast of secondary characters, though most of them have little more than a single scene to prove their worth. The only notable exception is Marion Cotillard, who was still doing fun genre films back then, rather than the prestigious commercial fluff she is known for now. While none of the actors makes a truly great impression, The Black Box is the kind of film that doesn't really need stellar performances to succeed.

screen capture of The Black Box [La Boîte Noire

Films like these are at their best when the mystery is kept intact, sadly The Black Box is a little too eager to reveal at least part of its twist early on. By the halfway point, most of the mystery is already cleared up and from there on out the film is just slowly filling in the blanks, with one final twist to tie everything together. Berry could've stretched it a bit, then again that might've been commercial suicide for a smaller genre film like this. This second time around though, I could feel the potential for an overall better film lingering.

The Black Box is a film for loving genre fans. If you're hoping for a mind-blowing twist at the end, original characters with plenty of emotional depth or just any form of sizeable surprise really, this probably isn't the film for you. It's a film that thrives on atmosphere while going through a set of familiar motions. Everything hinges on the execution, which makes it a little hit or miss and not as easy to recommend, unless you're in the mood for a slick mindbender and don't mind some of the familiar genres tropes along the way.

Thu, 14 Dec 2017 11:32:45 +0100
<![CDATA[I Belonged to You/Yibai Zhang]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/i-belonged-to-you-review-yibai-zhang

It's been a while, but Yibai Zhang returns with a new feature film that does his reputation justice. He was one of the first directors to pull China's post-millennium cinema in a new direction, but the past couple of years he has been slightly adrift. I Belonged to You [Cong Ni De Quan Shi Jie Lu Guo] is a return to form for Zhang, not quite up there with his very best work, but nonetheless a worthwhile and rewarding film for those who have been enjoying his earlier films.

screen capture of I Belonged to You [Cong Ni De Quan Shi Jie Lu Guo]

Zhang is the king of Chinese (urban) romance. He was one of the first to uproot his lead characters from their rural environment, instead granting them a nice, urban setting to thrive in. No more poverty porn, no more turning over every dime and getting by in their torn-down huts, instead we get a glimpse of China's modern city life, following relatively well off characters who can focus on their romantic problems rather than trying to make ends meet. A necessary change to tilt the balance towards romance rather than keep it as a side dish to the drama.

I Belonged to You is an adaptation of Bedtime Stores, an internet novel written by Jiajia Zhang (director of See You Tomorrow). The novel consists of several short stories, Zhang made a selection and tweaked them so they would fit into a single narrative. Don't expect an anthology treatment, while each of the stories has kept its unique appeal, the film itself plays like a normal feature film following a group of longtime friends, each dealing with their own romantic perils.

The main plot revolves around Chen Mo, a radio DJ down on his luck. After he got dumped by his cohost (on air), he scrambles to keep his life together. The fact that he's doing a lonely hearts-type show doesn't make it any easier. But when a new intern is assigned to him the ratings make a positive U turn and he sees the time fit to get his life back on the rails. Side plots involve a gullible nerdy character and a young inventor trying to get their romantic affairs in order.

screen capture of I Belonged to You [Cong Ni De Quan Shi Jie Lu Guo]

Zhang's work has always had a very visual focus and in that respect I Belonged to You might be his best work to date. Superb use of color and lighting, a celebration of urban landscapes and slick camera work turn his latest into pure eye candy. It's as far away imaginable from the drab and dreary-looking rural miserabalism that has characterized the past 30 years of China's cinematic export to the West. A welcome change of scenery, even though the West doesn't seem quite ready for it yet.

The soundtrack too has a more modern edge to it, though it is a little on the poppy side. The original score is nice and moody (also slightly electronic-based), the pop songs in between aren't as solid though. But it speaks in Zhang's favor that he doesn't sideline the soundtrack. He places it front and center and forces it to play its part, which definitely pays off during the key scenes. With that in mind, the couple of Chinese pop songs are actually quite easy to ignore.

Acting-wise though, I felt Zhang failed to strike the right balance here. I understand the need to give I Belonged to You a more light-hearted feel, but reverting to caricatures and comical over-acting doesn't really improve the film. It's not so much that the actors did a bad job, it's that their style of acting just didn't do justice to the romance and the drama present. There are better ways to lighten the mood, then again this film is clearly aimed at the local market and I'm sure it did make a lot of commercial sense. Artistically though, it was a bad call.

screen capture of I Belonged to You [Cong Ni De Quan Shi Jie Lu Guo]

On the whole I Belonged to You ended up a little uneven. Not all the subplots are equally engaging and not everything is equally effective. Luckily the central story is the strongest of the lot and pulls the film through. Whenever the balance appears to be slipping, Zhang tightens the focus and follows up with a strong, emotional scene. It's a precarious balance and depending on how forgiving you are regarding the soundtrack and acting your bottom line may be a little different, but ultimately I felt it worked.

Yibai Zhang's talent is beyond questioning. The stronger bits of his latest effort are stunning, dressed up in lush visuals and backed up by a strong soundtrack. But unnecessary caricaturization and cheesy over-acting do spoil the overall effect, if just a little. This balance between commercial appeal and artistic value is something Zhang needs to refine, but remembering some of the finer moments of I Belonged to You, it's not that hard to give him a pass. If you're interested in a modern Chinese romance, you could do a lot worse, actually getting your hands on it might prove a bigger challange though.

Mon, 11 Dec 2017 12:06:01 +0100
<![CDATA[The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl/Masaaki Yuasa]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/night-is-short-walk-on-girl-review-masaaki-yuasa

Masaaki Yuasa is somewhat of a phenomenon. I'm not his biggest fan, but whenever he has something new to share I try to watch it as quickly as possible. The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl [Yoru Wa Mijikashi Arukeyo Otome] is one of the two feature films he has lined up for 2017 and Yuasa fans can rest assured, it's right up there with his best work. If you're not really familiar with anime it might be a slightly tougher sell, but if you don't mind subjecting yourself to some off-beat animation, there's plenty to like here.

screen capture of The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl[Yoru Wa Mijikashi Arukeyo Otome]

Mind Game was Yuasa's first major achievement as a director, but those with a more in-depth understanding of the anime scene already knew him from his work on Cat Soup. In fact many consider that a core Yuasa film, even though it was directed by Tatsuo Sato. Much like Takeshi Koike (Redline), Yuasa is a director/animator who sticks out because of his unique art and animation style. His work is instantly recognizable and deviates quite a bit from the norm, though it's still easily identifyable as anime. Look no further than the screenshots here to see what I'm talking about.

The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is an adaptation of Tomihiko Morimi's novel by the same name. It's not the first time Yuasa tackles Morimi's work, Yuasa's The Tatami Galaxy (an 11-episode series) was also adapted from one of her novels. I have to admit that I haven't read any of Morimi's work, but it's obvious the broad outlines of her stories fit Yuasa's crazy antics. That said, the source material clearly isn't the star of the show, it's Yuasa's direction that made this film into a sprawling success.

The story is either quite small or outrageously epic, depending on how you look at it. At its core, it's a classic "boy is too embarassed to date girl" setup, drawn out across the entire length of the film. It's a basic premise for a simple romantic comedy, but that's just about all that's basic about this film. While the A to B outline holds no surprises, Yuasa crosses several different galaxies to reach his destination. It's pointless trying to recount the events that occur in between, those are better experienced first-hand.

screen capture of The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl[Yoru Wa Mijikashi Arukeyo Otome]

Those familiar with Yuasa's work know his peculiar style of animation. Slightly exaggerated and slightly wobbly, as if experiencing the film though a mildly drunken dream. There's some insanely beautiful camera work to be admired here, in combination with the equally impressive scene transitions it makes for a very dynamic and surreal film. But ultimately it's the art style that draws the most attention to itself. Sporting a subtle retro vibe, low in detail but expressive and extremely colorful, every single scene is a joy to behind. The strong and bold colors, together with the lively animation and stylish finish all chip in to create a film that's a delight to watch.

The soundtrack is fun, lighthearted and a little quirky. Like everything in this film, it's a bit off-beat and unconventional, but unlike the crazy characters or the flashy visuals, it doesn't draw too much attention to itself. The score is strong enough to help establish the atmosphere, but it never takes the lead. The dub is a bit more noticeable, especially since Yuasa steers clear of the more cutesy voice acting, opting for a more natural, accent-heavy dub. It adds a little extra character to the cast and makes it an easier sell to people not as familiar with anime.

screen capture of The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl[Yoru Wa Mijikashi Arukeyo Otome]

The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is the kind of film that walks to its own beat. The story spans only one single night, but there's a year's worth of material in there. A series of absurd characters and settings provide hurdles and distractions for the central duo, driving their relationship to extremes before they can finally be together. If you're looking for coherence and sense the film might be a litting trying, but then Yuasa's work probably wasn't that suited for you to begin with. Embrace the chaos and you'll find a lot of magic here.

After Welcome to the Space Show, The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is somewhat of a return to form for Yuasa. The outrageous art style, the livid animation, the crazy ideas and constant changes of pace and tone are what make his films special. While all of that sounds pretty chaotic, there's still that stylistic cohesion that pulls everything together. If you're looking for some atypical, quality anime Yuasa has you covered. With his next film already lined up (Lu over the Wall), 2017 might just be a great year for one of anime's brighter talents.

Mon, 04 Dec 2017 12:01:25 +0100
<![CDATA[Café Lumière/Hsiao-Hsien Hou]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/cafe-lumiere-review-hsiao-hsien-hou

When I first heard of Hsiao-Hsien Hou's Café Lumière [Kohi Jiko], it was kind of a big thing. The idea of Hou and Tadanobu Asano collaborating on a film set in Japan was somewhat of a dream come true, needless to say expectations were high. When I finally got to see it I liked it a lot, but there was also a part of it I found rather hard to grasp. That was ages ago though and I was excited to revisit the film once more, if only to see if the film had retained its mysterious aura.

screen capture of Café Lumière [Kohi Jiko]

At least one thing that's changed since then is that I'm feeling a bit more ambivalent about Hou's oeuvre. While there's no doubt he made some excellent films throughout his careers, there is also a considerable amount that I feel isn't up to par. On top of that, his reputation has turned into somewhat of a hindrance for Taiwanese cinema (though that's a credit he shares with Edward Yang and Ming-liang Tsai). What started out as a positive boost quickly turned into a stifling force that began to hold back creativity. In the West, Taiwan equals the Taiwanese New Wave and directors with international aspirations had little choice but to stick to the format. Luckily the younger generations have moved on, though the West hasn't really caught on yet.

Café Lumière was commissioned as part of a big Yasujiro Ozu retrospective. To celebrate Ozu's 100th birthday, Hou was approached to make a film that would channel the vibe of the late director. It was a perfect match, considering how much the two directors overlapped, stylistically speaking. I'll readily admit that I'm not very knowledgeable when it comes to Ozu's work (I've seen a couple, enough to get the broader picture), but from other reviews it's pretty clear that what people refer to as Ozu references could just as well be references to Hou's earlier work.

There isn't that much actual plot here, instead Café Lumière is one of the purer pieces of slice of life cinema I've come across. The film follows Yoko as she returns to Japan to inform her parents of her pregnancy. Her parents are a little concerned when she tells them she plans to raise the kid by herself, but that's as dramatic as it gets. The remainder of the time is spent with Yoko and Hajime investigating a Taiwanese composer for the book she's writing. It's an extremely thin narrative, but that comes with the territory.

screen capture of Café Lumière [Kohi Jiko]

Visually the film is very much in line with other late 90s/early 00s Hou films, sporting rather long takes and an almost static, slow-moving camera observing the characters. A lot of this also translates to Ozu's style, but people who've seen Millennium Mambo and Three Times will surely recognize Hou's hand. The result is a composed and tranquil film, though fragile and delicate at the same time. It's not spectacular-looking, but it gives off a very pleasant visual vibe and the way Hou frames his shots is truly beautiful.

The soundtrack settles for being a decent addition to the visuals. There isn't that much music to begin with, the few bits of music there are, are almost exclusively piano pieces. More interesting are the slightly accentuated soundscapes, often revealing the things happening behind the camera. The street noises or garden cicadas expand the setting beyond what the camera can register, often creating two different sensory realities. One you can see and one you can hear.

If you need an actor with plenty of screen presence while doing nothing much at all, Tadanobu Asano is your man. He is absolutely perfect for the part and delivers, but that's hardly surprising. The same can be said about Yo Hitoto though, a noticeably more remarkable feat considering this was her first ever part in a movie. The secondary cast is small but solid, with a stand-out role for Nenji Kobayashi as Yoko's dad. He has hardly any dialogue, but his body language is telling.

screen capture of Café Lumière [Kohi Jiko]

The last time I watched Café Lumière I wasn't feeling too well. I drifted in and out of sleep and experienced the film as if in a trance. It's actually a suprisingly appropriate way to watch it, though luckily not the only way to enjoy the film. Mind though that if you don't like slow cinema or hate films that don't have a lot of narrative drama, this film isn't going to be for you. There is no obvious beginning or ending to the story, instead you just spend some time with two characters, going about their business.

Café Lumière held up pretty well, which isn't even that surprising knowing its appeal lies in the mundane. While the film started out as an ode to Ozu, it fits snugly into Hou's oeuvre and can just as easily be seen as Hou's little trip to Japan. Don't expect to be dazzled or overwhelmed, instead settle for a cosy, sweet and warm film and you might be surprised just how captivating Hou's signature touches can be. Café Lumière is an amazing film to revisit, even if its not all that easy to pinpoint what exactly makes it great. That's something you'll have to find out for yourself.

Wed, 29 Nov 2017 12:12:14 +0100
<![CDATA[Antiporno/Sion Sono]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/antiporno-review-sion-sono

Very few directors developed themselves like Sion Sono. It took him almost 30 years to fully blossom and now that he finally has, he's really making the best of it. 2015 was a miracle year for Sono (with no less than 5 films released), 2016 is looking a bit more timid in comparison. Quantity-wise that is, because Antiporno [Anchiporuno] is up there with the very best Sono ever directed. Probably not for everyone, but if you're into weird and showy Sono, I'm pretty certain this one isn't going to disappoint.

screen capture of Antiporno [Anchiporuno]

Antiporno is part of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno Reboot, a project set up to celebrate its 45th birthday. Nikkatsu's Roman Porno concept is what kept the company afloat after the studio nearly went broke in the late 60s (Seijun Suzuki's projects being one of the main culprits). Strapped for cash, Nikkatsu began the production of pinku films. With a few simple rules (no longer than 1 week of shooting, no going over budget, between 70 ad 80 minutes and at least one nude scene every 10 minutes) Nikkatsu offered their directors full creative freedom, carte blanche to do whatever they liked. Needless to say, a lot of first-time directors saw this as their way into the movie business.

Nikkatsu's formula proved highly successful and during the following 17 years they would produce well above 1000 titles in the series. A lot of now-famous directors started out working in some way or another on these films, Nikkatsu picked 5 of them to commemorate this special niche. Hideo Nakata, Akihiko Shiota, Kazuya Shiraishi and Isao Yukisada were all given a chance to pay their tribute, but it was Sion Sono's feature that people were eying the most.

Antiporno revolves around a young writer/artist (Kyoko) at the peek of her success. In the process of writing a novel, she locks herself up, brings over models to paint and then uses these paintings as inspiration for her writing. She has a secretary who keeps track of her daily agenda, but also doubles as Kyoko's primary care taker. Kyoko lives like a haughty creative, with little regard to other people's feelings, but not everything is as it seems.

screen capture of Antiporno [Anchiporuno]

Sono was only given a week and a small budget to work with, but that's where all his years of experience helped him out. No two ways about it, Antiporno looks downright gorgeous. Shot mostly on a single location, Sono uses bright, vibrant colors and playful camera work to give the film the needed flair. Lush set designs, strong lighting and slick editing make the experience complete. It's remarkable what he accomplishes on a shoestring budget, just more proof that talent always trumps money.

The soundtrack too is vintage Sono. A decent but simple original score augmented with a selection of popular classical pieces. While that in itself isn't worth a whole lot, the way Sono contrasts these pieces with the onscreen action is pretty cool. The music lends a certain class to subject matter that isn't classy at all, while the subject matter provides the music with a certain edge that's never been there before. It's not the first time Sono has done this of course, but it still works wonders.

Leads in roman porno films are rarely cast for their acting talent, yet Sono needed more than a pretty face to make the film successful. Sono regular Ami Tomite does a commendable job in a part that requires her to quickly morph between different states of her character. It's a demanding , but she made it work. Mariko Tsutsui is good as Tomite's polar opposite, the rest of the cast is solid too, though their parts were clearly less intense.

screen capture of Antiporno [Anchiporuno]

The film has more than enough artistic merit to stand on its own, but Sono saw his chance fit to straighten out a couple of things. In the past some people (often from the surprisingly uptight Americas) have been quick to dismiss Sono's films as misogynistic, what better film to set them straight than a roman porno revival headliner. And to make absolutely sure everyone gets the message, Sono has his main character explicitly shouting out the bottom line once more at the end of the film, like a certified mad woman. Given the context, an incredibly funny scene, though I'm sure the point is probably still lost on some.

Antiporno is a great example of why Japan's pinku films enjoy such a peculiar status among film fans and why it's been such a fertile breeding ground for young, talented directors. If you're watching the film hoping for some form of titillation, better adjust your expectations because Sono is taking this film into an entirely different direction. With Antiporno, Sono proves once again that he has reached a point where he can make any film interesting. Not sure how long this stretch of raw quality will last, but I for one am hoping Sono can keep this up for some time to come. Antiporno is a zany, extrovert and anything but subtle piece of cinema with the potential to be very divisive. It's not for everybody, but Sono fans are sure to have a blast with this one.

Thu, 23 Nov 2017 11:34:00 +0100
<![CDATA[The Land of Cards/Qaushiq Mukherjee]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/land-of-cards-review-qaushiq-mukherjee

If you're like former me and you're not really interested in Indian cinema (thinking it's all just sing and dance Bollywood stuff), do give Qaushiq Mukherjee a try. His films are really something else. I just recently caught up with The Land of Cards [Tasher Desh], one of his older films and I was quite blown away by it. It's his most accomplished film so far, at the same time it's also his most challenging one. The Land of Cards is a film for adventurers, people looking for something new. If you think you can handle that, do read on.

screen capture of The Land of Cards [Tasher Desh]

Even though Bollywood is huge (even bigger than Hollywood if you're going by quantity), it's still very much a closed off niche in the West. Going beyond Bollywood to explore lesser known Indian cinema used to be near impossible, but thanks to the global efforts of Netflix people like me have options now. That's exactly how I found out about Qaushiq Mukherjee, whose films are actually quite well-represented on the streaming service. Gandu and Ludo are nice introductions to his oeuvre, The Land of Cards his undisputed masterpiece.

The Land of Cards is based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, a highly-respected Indian poet/writer. People familiar with Tagore's work might find it a little easier to get into the film, others will probably be scrambling to piece everything together. The first hour in particular is all over the place, not in the least because Mukherjee is way more interested in style and abstraction than he is in retelling Tagore's story by the letter. Persevere though and things will eventually clear up, even though the film remains well on the style over substance side from start to finish.

The story revolves around a young prince who yearns for freedom. The prince lives a good life and his every need is taken care of, but he isn't allowed to ventured outside of his home and he ends up feeling imprisoned by his own luxury. He decides to leave his old life behind and takes off to explore the world and experience other cultures. His little trip goes well, until he wanders into the land of the cards, a militaristic regime that lives by a strict set of rules and scoffs at the idea of freedom and personal expression. Should you still be wondering, there's a clear moral to this little fantasy story.

screen capture of The Land of Cards [Tasher Desh]

Make no mistake though, The Land of Cards is an audiovisual experience first and foremost. If Tagore is a poet/writer, Mukherjee pays his respects through visual poetry. Lush sets and superb use of strong colors and expressive lighting make for a visual feast, but it's the editing and camera work that really define the visual language of the film. The scenes in the land of cards in particular are completely manic and over the top, edited with the same rage and intensity the characters of the land exude. This is clearly my kind of cinema.

The soundtrack is a bit harder to critique. Not for lack of effort or passion mind, it's clear that a lot of thought went into the music and sound design. Even so, there's a lot of Indian pop music in there and while not quite the jolly Bollywood kind (supported by crazy dance routines), it's still somewhat of a cultural shock. That said, the soundtrack does bring something extra to the table and it's always nice to see a director with enough audacity to go all in on the music. Taste and cultural issues aside, it does work well within the confines of the film.

Not having seen that many Indian films yet, commenting on the level of acting is also going to be a bit tougher than usual. That said, none of the actors felt terribly out of place. Some of the performances are a bit overstated, but no doubt that's part of the somewhat theatrical and abstract nature of the film. Joyraj Bhattacharya and Sayani Gupta were the stand-outs for me, the rest of the cast wasn't far behind though and as a whole it felt like a very solid casting.

screen capture of The Land of Cards [Tasher Desh]

Regardless of country of origin, The Land of Cards is a pretty fresh and unique experience. Without the proper background it's not quite clear how much Mukherjee's cultural heritage influenced the film, but in the end that matters very little. Just give the film a little time to establish itself and you should be able to catch on relatively quickly. The beginning may feel a little daunting and disorienting, but once the price reaches the land of cards the broader lines should be pretty clear and transparent.

There comes a point in a film fan's life when few films still manage to surprise, let alone bewilder. At that exact moment, films like The Land of Cards become something you thoroughly treasure. Mukherjee delivered a film that balances between arthouse, genre and author and he managed to create a film that's so unique, it's pretty much impossible to draw comparisons to other films. It's definitely not the easiest film to get into, but if you're looking for something different, The Land of Cards is one hell of an experience.

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 11:54:08 +0100
<![CDATA[Shaolin Soccer/Stephen Chow]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/shaolin-soccer-review-stephen-chow

Many (many) moons ago, Hong Kong cinema felt like something that wasn't really for me. I was mostly into Japanese films back then and the few Hong Kong movies I had tried had done very little to change my mind. But then came Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer [Siu Lam Juk Kau], a silly and over the top football comedy that would pave the way for a whole new arsenal of personal favorites. It's been years since I watched Chow's international breakout hit though and I was wondering if it would still hold up after all those years.

screen capture of Shaolin Soccer [Siu Lam Juk Kau]

Looking back, it feels almost unreal that a film like Shaolin Soccer managed to land international distribution. Sure enough Chow was riding the Asian wave and the film turned out a tad more accessible compared to his earlier work, but overall it's still a pretty hardcore Hong Kong comedy that caters to Chinese audiences first. Regardless, the film made it into our local theater and even though I'd already seen it on import, I went back for seconds. Sadly, that turned out to be the butchered US version - about 30 minutes shorter, with an altered soundtrack and sporting added CG to cover up a bare butt. Just make sure to avoid that one.

China is quite into European football nowadays, with many of the once-best players transfering to Chinese teams to work up a comfortable pension. Back in 2001 though popularity was much lower, but with Japan and South-Korea organizing the World Cup in 2002, there must've been some buzz warranting the production of a Chinese football flick. Don't think for a minute you'll see any kind of serious sports action though, Chow does it all for laughs with little regards to the actual rules of the game.

Shaolin Soccer revolves around a deadbeat coach (Fung) who one day runs into Sing, a young martial artist. Sing is looking for ways to reinstate the former glory of martial arts and football seems like a good option to do so. He rounds up his former brothers to form a team and together they start training for a local championship. It takes a little effort, but once they find out how to channel their martial arts skills into the game, their team seems unstoppable. The only one standing between them and eternal glory is Hung, Fung's nemesis and coach of the aptly named Evil Team.

screen capture of Shaolin Soccer [Siu Lam Juk Kau]

On a visual level Shaolin Soccer has aged considerably. The CG is looking pretty horrible, especially compared to modern standards. But at least it's functional (not to mention extremely funny), so it's easy enough to ignore. Aesthetically though there's very little here. Camerawork, lighting and editing are all pretty plain and beyond the fun use of CG, the film looks a lot cheaper than I remembered. Maybe not all that surprising considering the state of the Hong Kong movie industry in 2001, but it's clear that back then the CG covered up a lot of the film's aethetic shortcomings.

The soundtrack is mostly negligable, unless when used for comedic effect. There's a superbly silly dance routine tucked away in there and a duet between Chow and Yat-Fei Wong that's perfect for a few giggles, but clearly none of that is worth listening to outside the context of the film. Then again, what else did you expect from a Hong Kong comedy? For reference: the US version features Carl Douglas' Kung Fu Fighting as one of the alternative tracks, just to give you an idea of how badly Miramax messed with Chow's film.

Acting-wise though, Stephen Chow is at the top of his game here. The man is just naturally funny, even when he's not doing his crazy faces or relying on the extensive use of CG. He surrounded himself with a bunch of familiar faces (long-time collaborator Man-Tat Ng stands out) and included a few fun cameos, but the funniest casting is no doubt that of Zhao Wei, one of China's most adored actresses. Chow goes through great lengths to make her as ugly and unattractive as possible and Wei clearly had a lot of fun playing along.

screen capture of Shaolin Soccer [Siu Lam Juk Kau]

Shaolin Soccer starts off a little slow. There's some back story to wade through first, after that Chow takes his time to properly introduce his team members. The film follows a clear upwards trajectory though and once the guys start kicking balls the real fun begins. Chow keeps on adding to the weirdness and by the time he and his team mates reach the finals Shaolin Soccer is well in overdrive, servering a bonkers mix of martial arts and football. That final 30 minutes is Stephen Chow at his very best.

It's a good thing Shoalin Soccer is this much fun, because beyond its successful comedy aspect it's clear the film is somewhat lacking. The film's aestehtic is rather plain, the soundtrack quite lame and the plot is hardly worth a second glance. But Chow's infinite charm and wit, a well-seasoned cast and a tight build-up towards an explosive finale make sure that Shaolin Soccer is still a winner, even despite it's obvious flaws. That is, if you can appreciate Chow's peculiar sense of humor. I still enjoyed it plenty, but I'm quite used to Hong Kong comedy so your mileage may vary.

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 11:43:28 +0100
<![CDATA[Replace/Norbert Keil]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/replace-review-norbert-keil Replace poster

Even though sci-fi (especially the not so distant kind) has a natural ally in het horror genre, the two are rarely balanced with great effect. Director Norbert Keil set out to change that and produced a film that delivers on both accounts. Replace is an intriguing sci-fi/horror film with a healthy dash of mystery, a film that aims to dazzle but falls just a little short of its aspirations.

Keil is credited as writer/director of Replace, but co-writer Richard Stanley is probably the one who will pique people's interest. Stanley is a cult favorite, best known for Dust Devil and Hardware, both highly regarded early 90s genre films. Stanley worked with Keil on the script and his influence is clearly felt. That said, some of the sci-fi bits (the clinic in particular) do feel a little out-dated (and not in an acceptable retro sci-fi way).

I'm not going to spoil too much, as the film is set up in such a way that the audience joins the main character in her quest to uncover the mystery. I can say the film revolves around Kira Mabon, a young girl in her prime, who suddenly finds herself burdened with a strange skin disease. The condition spreads like crazy and things start spiraling out of control when Kira discovers she can treat it by assimilating skin from other people. This sets her on a murdering rampage in a desperate attempt to control her condition.

It's on a stylistic level that Replace really manages to shine. Use of color and lighting are exquisite and the sets look absolutely lush. The film doesn't sport an overly obvious sci-fi vibe (in fact, it takes a while before you even realize Replace is set in a not so distant future), but everything looks extremely cool, crisp and atmospheric. Sadly the camera work and editing aren't entirely up to par, which leaves a little untapped potential there, something Keil should try to figure out in his next film.

The music is notable in the sense that it's hard to ignore its presence. There are scenes where the score positively adds to the film, but there are also moments when it doesn't really work well with the visuals. The club scene in particular is a weird cut and paste job, where the music messes up the flow of the scene. Generally speaking, some scenes could've benefitted from a slower, more subtle approach, while others could've been a bit tighter and edgier.

While the film suffers from other minor problems (like the somewhat inconsistent acting), I felt that overall Keil succeeded in what he set out to do. Both horror and sci-fi elements are on point, the film sets up an intruiging mystery and unwraps itself at a steady and satisfying pace. It's an atmospheric trip from start to finish, showing lots of stylistic promise and hopefully it will pave the way for a second film, because there's no doubt that Keil deserves a second chance at greatness. And with a little tweaking left and right, that's definitely within reach.

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 11:43:07 +0100
<![CDATA[Anomalisa/Johnson and Kaufman]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/anomalisa-review-johnson-kaufman

I finally caught up with Anomalisa. I'm a pretty big fan of stop-motion animation and I tend to keep an eye out for Charlie Kaufman's projects. It wasn't that I was unaware of Anomalisa's existence, but for some inexplicable reason our paths never crossed. Until Netflix decided to pick it up that is, once they added it to their library there were no more excuses to ignore the film. I'm not really bummed that I skipped this one in theaters though, even though it's an amazing film, it's the kind that works best when enjoyed in the warm comfort and precious tranquility on one's own home.

screen capture of Anomalisa

Most films marked as "adult animation" are little more than adolescent indulgences soothing our inner child. Hardcore scifi like Ghost in the Shell or action-crazed films like Dead Leaves are clearly not aimed at kids, but they aren't really all that mature either. That's not a judgement mind, just an observation. There's certainly no lack of adult animation for those willing to do a little digging, but finding truly mature animation films is a lot trickier. Hence the value and importance of a film like Anomalisa.

Anomalisa isn't completely void of genre influences, but for the most part it's a pretty down to earth, dialogue-driven drama. Thematically it feels like one of the best representations of the (male) mid-life crisis I've ever seen, though I'm at least 10 years too young to be able to confirm that first-hand. While checking some other reviews though, it seems I'm not the only one who picked up on that vibe. As a result, Anomalisa isn't the world's pleasant and most upbeat film, but it sure is one heck of a well-mannered sucker punch.

The central character of the film is Michael Stone, a successful author and public speaker who promotes his book by giving talks to people about the exciting world of customer service. We follow him on a trip to Cincinnati, where he is supposed to attend a congress and give a presentation. While Stone goes through the motions, it's clear that he has gone through this entire charade at least one time too often. In a world where everyone looks and sound the same, he stumbles upon Lisa, a young woman who lights up his world.

screen capture of Anomalisa

If you're wondering how Kaufman came to direct a stop-motion animation film, it's in fact Duke Johnson who approached Kaufman to adapt his play into a feature film. Johnson has a background in stop-motion and was looking at scripts that would highlight the potential for human emotion and drama done as animation. Kaufman was charmed by the idea and one Kickstarter later they were both on board to direct the film.

I've seen my share of stop-motion films and have in fact a soft spot for the technique, but I've never seen one executed quite like this. There is just so much attention to detail that went into the animation that it's baffling. All these tiny little gestures and behaviors make it so that the puppets are actually believable as human beings. The animation isn't necessarily superfluid, but Johnson doesn't need any grand gestures to convey emotion, which makes it all the more realistic. It's a bit like the old Disney vs Ghibli animation debate, with Anomalisa clearly representing Ghibli's subtler side of animation. Add to that some incredible settings and creative camera work and you have one of the most impressive-looking stop-motion films to date.

The soundtrack is probably one of the weaker elements of the film, though mostly because it doesn't demand too much attention. It's a decent enough mix of jazz, classical and elevator music, but little more than that. Luckily the dub is on point, which is essential considering the amount of dialogue present. David Thewlis is perfect as Stone, Jennifer Jason Leigh does a wonderful job as Lisa and Noonan takes care of all the other characters. While the three of them have rather recognizable voices, their real-life personas never really eclipsed their characters, a strong plus for an animation film.

screen capture of Anomalisa

Anomalisa isn't a very happy film, nor is it a very eventful one. Looking back there are a few moments of standout weirdness (the conversation in the basement is one, the most realistic puppet lovemaking you'll ever come across another), but strangely enough these aren't the scenes that define the film. Instead it's Stone's lifeless demeanor and the meaningless, shapeless and unrewarding life he leads that makes the biggest impression. In that sense the film reminded me a little of Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, a film that also confronted a grumpy lead character with the emptiness of his life, while drawing just enough comedy from that situation to keep it interesting.

Anomalisa is an interesting film. On the one hand there's the superb work that went into animating the entire film. Even though you're looking at puppets for 90 minutes, they feel incredibly human and lifelike. On the other hand there's a surprising amount of emotional and thematic depth here, so much that I'm hoping my midlife crisis will pass me by completely, or at least announce itself more elegantly than the case here. Johnson and Kaufman did good. Anomalisa turned out a worthy, mature and clever animated film. It's probably not everyone's cup of tea, but it's definitely worth a try.

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 12:05:44 +0100
<![CDATA[M. Night Shyamalan/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/m-night-shyamalan-x10 M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan is a peculiar director. A man whose career has been through several ups and downs, though more often than not people can't seem to agree which are the hits and which ones the misses. Nevertheless, Shyamalan has always managed to straighten his back after one of his films got shot down by the critics or bombed at the box office. He also evolved from being a one-trick pony to becoming a more fleshed out director, so going through his oeuvre is definitely a rewarding experience and is sure to unearth some worthy films.

Even though Shyamalan is a well-known director, many people (including myself) never got around to watching his first two films. He released his very first film in '92, but Praying with Anger never made much of a dent, not in the least because the film lacks mainstream distribution. Six years later Shyamalan would direct Wide Awake, a cheesy looking sports comedy with religious undertones. Not quite the crowdpleaser either, but at least it's more readily available for those who want to take the plunge.

Shyamalan's career really took off in '99, when he released The Sixth Sense and switched to the horror/mystery genre. The film went on to become a pop culture phenomenon, endlessly referenced by songs, films and series and ultimately defined by its twist ending. While Shyamalan definitely deserves praise for these accomplishments, the film itself really isn't all that great and its rewatch value is quite disappointing. The same can be said about his followup, Unbreakable, though again Shyamalan deserves credits for the novel way he incorporated the superhero theme into that film.

Signs was Shyamalan's first film I found successful beyond the twisty character of its narrative (and in fact, wasn't all that twisty to begin with). It's a moody, fun and sneaky alien invasion flick that leaves little to the imagination, but at least doesn't pretend to be anything more. It's a shame Shyamalan's next film (The Village) turned out to be the worst thing he ever directed. Still, many people are in love with it and its love it or hate it status became infamous, so your mileage may vary.

When Shyamalan thrives on narrative I tend to get bored real fast, luckily he also made a couple of films that explore more original concepts. Lady in the Water is a modern (somewhat darker) fairytale that oozes atmosphere. It's my favorite Shyamalan, which isn't too surprising knowing that Christopher Doyle handled the cinematography. He followed up with The Happening, a pretty delightful and freaky eco-horror that delivers a novel and atmospheric payback on humanity by none other than Mother Earth.

With that out of his system Shyamalan went on a little commercial Hollywood adventure, starting with the adaptation of The Last Airbender. I never watched the original animation, which probably made the film a bit more bearable for me, but for a blockbuster it sure turned out lackluster. Needless to say critics completely annihilated the film. Shyamalan slipped away even further when he took on After Earth, the infamous Will/Jaden Smith scifi collaboration. The movie screams "gun for hire" on every level, a shame for a director who clearly has more up his sleeve.

Luckily Shyamalan knows how to bounce back and with his latest films he really regained his footing. The Visit is a sneaky little mystery thriller and Split another interesting take on the superhero genre. It's a little worrisome that Shyamalan is planning on connecting the Split and Unbreakable universes (which sounds a lot like he's indulging in narrative overhead again), but I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt. When he's at his best, Shyamalan is an interesting director who adds something unique that you won't find anywhere else. Not every film's a hit, but most of them are definitely worth checking out. I'd say it's best to avoid After Earth and The Last Airbender if you're willing to break into his oeuvre, apart from that there's plenty of quaity in his films, you'll just have to find out which ones speak to you the most.

Best film: Lady in the Water (3.5*)
Worst film: The Village (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.55 (out of 5)

Fri, 03 Nov 2017 12:14:40 +0100
<![CDATA[A Silent Voice/Naoko Yamada]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/a-silent-voice-review-naoko-yamada

With Ghibli (almost) out of the picture, the anime feature film seems to be recovering, albeit slowly. There's a noticable rise in interesting projects that don't necessarily seem to adhere to the rural/fantasy hybrid underlying Ghibli's success, Naoko Yamada's A Silent Voice [Koe no Katachi] is one of them. From the outside the film may appear to be a rather daft highschool romance, in reality there's a surprisingly deep and honest drama hiding underneath.

screen capture of A Silent Voice [Koe no Katachi]

If you hadn't heard about this film before, it might be because the anime conversation in 2016 was almost entirely dominated by Makoto Shinkai's Your Name. It pretty much drowned out all the other buzz, which is a shame because films like A Silent Voice do deserve to be in the spotlight. Both films share some similarities, but where Shinkai still chases fantasy and scifi elements, Yamada's film is purely aimed at setting up a realistic drama.

At its core, A Silent Voice is a film about bullying, but it comes with an important twist. While I've seen my fair share of bully dramas, they rarely seem to move me. I feel that too often these films are set up in such a way that the simplistic victim/offender narrative becomes forced and manipulative, a meager attempt to draw pity and compassion. Not so in Yamada's adaptation of the same-titled manga. Both victim and offender are equally fleshed out characters who struggle their way through life.

The story starts when Nishimiya, a deaf girl, transfers to a new school. The people in her class have a hard time accepting her disability, even the ones that do want to help her out are quickly discouraged by the extra weight it puts on their shoulders. Nishimiya reachers out to Ishida, a young boy sitting right behind her in class, but he too is unable to deal with her disability and becomes one of her primary bullies. Things get out of hand and Nishimiya transfers away again to another school, leaving Ishida behind as the class' outcast.

screen capture of A Silent Voice [Koe no Katachi]

It's nice to see proper attention was given to the visuals here. Too often anime feature films end up looking like extended TV episodes. While A Silent Voice does sport a rather typical and cutesy anime style, plenty was done to elevate the film above the mediocrity of TV anime. The character designs for one are more detailed and the animation is quite lush. There's lots of detail hidden in the way everything moves, the focus on legs and feet in particular stands out. It's an interesting (and rather unique) focus to convey emotion, but it works wonderfully well. The backgrounds are beautiful too, adding to the idyllic and summery feel, though they don't always meld that well with the characters. Overall though, the film looks pretty amazing.

The soundtrack is less adventurous and pretty much what you'd expect from a film like this. Piano tunes and string music make for a soft, mellow and comforting blanket of background music. While I'm usually quite critical of easy music choices, A Silent Voice is a good reminder that "safe" does have its advantages. The only time Yamada breaks the mold is when she drops The Who's My Generation underneath the film's intro. It's by far the worst part of the film, luckily it's only used during the intro and the song doesn't return later on. As for the dubbing, a film like this benefits greatly from a soft-voiced Japanse cast, I'm not sure if an English dub is available but I would strongly advise against it.

screen capture of A Silent Voice [Koe no Katachi]

It's rare to see this much emotional nuance in an anime (or a live action feature for that matter). The decision to follow the story from the bully's point of view is a rather novel one, the fact that his character isn't demonized makes it that much smarter, but also a lot tougher. It creates a unique tension between victim and bully when they finally meet up again, which is really the crux of A Silent Voice. It all leads to a pretty fulfilling finale, though the rundown afterwards is a little long-winding.

130 minutes is quite long for an anime feature, but Yamada need every minute of that to tell this story. There's very little overhead and even though there are some narrative diversions, they always reflect back on the core themes of A Silent Voice. Add to that some impressive animation, a proper soundtrack and a warm, feel-good atmosphere that doesn't belittle the drama and you have an impressive anime feature that is sure to impress a lot of people.

Mon, 30 Oct 2017 12:02:49 +0100
<![CDATA[The Neighbor No. 13/Yasuo Inoue]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/neighbor-13-review-yasuo-inoue

There are few things worse than discovering a talented director whose first film is a gem in the rough, only to see him fade back into obscurity. Yasou Inoue burst onto the scene with The Neighbor No. 13 [Rinjin 13-go] some 10 years ago, raking up international accolades and even landing his film broad international distribution. I remember loving it back then, but had forgotten most of the details since, so of course I was looking forward to revisiting Inoue's single blip on the cinematic radar.

screen capture of The Neighbor No. 13 [Rinjin 13-go]

The Neighbor No. 13 is one of those film that happily rode the Asian horror wave, but didn't quite belong. While the world was scrambling to see the umpteenth copy of The Ring and Ju-On, distributors locked down whatever film they could tie to both Japan and the horror genre and dumped it onto the masses. The response was rarely positive, but fans of weirder genre cinema were living a dream back then. Looking at it from that angle, it's maybe not all that surprising that Inoue never made his second feature.

Inoue's film is more of mystery/thriller, with very minor yet unmistakeable nods to the horror genre. While the film wouldn't feel out of place in the warming-up section of a Halloween marathon, approaching it like a full-on horror movie is just going to end in disappointment. Instead you can expect a somewhat harrowing, bizarre and twisted revenge flick built around a suppressed childhood trauma. That and one of the meanest, bad-ass characters of the past 20 years.

The film revolves around Juzo, a young boy living by himself and trying to make ends meet by taking on a construction site job. Akai is Juzo's supervisor and lives in the same building as him, but he's a bullying jerk who loves to pray on the weak. Juzo appears harmless and Akai sees him as an easy target, but whenever things get too dire Juzo calls in the help from a mysterious friend. No 13 is an impressive and mean-looking guy who takes care of Juzo's problems whenever Juzo can't handle the situation.

screen capture of The Neighbor No. 13 [Rinjin 13-go]

Visually the film shows two faces. The more dramatic parts are a little lifeless and drab, sporting an overly digital look and lacking color. The camera work is still pretty good, but can't offset the rather murky impression it leaves. But when the genre elements surface the visuals become considerably more playfull and whenever Inoue goes into overdrive (the scenes in the abandoned cottage) The Neighbor No. 13 looks pretty damn cool. The contrast feels deliberate, even so it's a shame the overall effect isn't a bit more consistent.

The soundtrack is equally confusing. At times it fades into the background, not drawing too much attention to itself, but once Ihoue shifts gears it suddenly becomes an asset, proud to make a statement while adding tons of atmosphere in the process. Again it feels like this was done deliberately and again I'm not sure if the contrast needed to be this obvious and in your face. It's not a bad score in the sense that it never irritates or detracts from the film, but I was left with the feeling that it Inoue could've done more.

Shun Oguri (Juzo) and Hirofumi Arai (Akai) are doing a fine job capturing their respective characters. The Neighbor No. 13 is based on a manga so the slightly exaggerated portrayal of their personalities comes with the territory and is easily forgiven. But if you're going to remember one actor here it's Shido Nakamura. His rendition of No 13 is beyond legendary, both physically as emotionally, transforming his character into one of the biggest psychos to have ever graced a feature film. His part became absolutely essential to the success of the film.

screen capture of The Neighbor No. 13 [Rinjin 13-go]

The Neighbor No. 13 doesn't really put too much effort into hiding its twist. There might be some slight confusion at the start of the film, but attentive watchers are sure to catch on pretty quickly. There is no big reveal, nor is there a surprise finale. Instead the film draws its strength from the strong performances, the gruesome and harsh paybacks and the duality of its main character. It's a rather tough film to categorize as it largely exists in a plain of its own, but that only adds appeal to an already strong film.

Yasuo Inoue showed immense potential when he directed The Neighbor No. 13. There are so many things right with this film that it's easy to forgive its few shortcomings. There are moments of sheer genius here, hidden away in a film that comes off just a little to modest for its own good. But if you're in the mood for a superb mix of revenge and psychological terror, Inoue has you covered. The Neighbor No. 13 has lost little of its shine over the years and still comes warmly recommended.

Thu, 26 Oct 2017 11:36:59 +0200
<![CDATA[Veronica/Algara and Martinez-Beltran]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/veronica-review-algara-martinez-beltran

Sometimes, picking up a great film is just pure, unfiltered luck. Carlos Algara and Alejandro Martinez-Beltran's Veronica [Véronica] ended up being the wrong Veronica. I was in fact hoping to see Paco Plaza's film (of [rec] fame), instead this Veronica turned out to be a Mexican movie also released this year. It also turned out to be a very moody, stylish and crafty mindbender that slowly crawled its way under my skin. I didn't quite see that one coming.

screen capture of Veronica

The South-American genre film has been gaining momentum for a while now, with Mexico in particular being one of the front runners. Directors like Isaac Ezban (The Incident, The Similars) and films like Come Out and Play and Honeymoon have been paving the way for a promising generation of Mexican genre talents. Algara and Martinez-Beltran represent a slightly more arthouse-like side of that movement, but the core of Veronica is very much traditional genre fare.

Veronica is a rather short film with a narrow focus. It was (more or less) shot at a single location and features just two actresses. It's clear from the very beginning of the film that something is not quite right, but the directors still managed to mask it pretty well. It's the kind of film that starts off a slow burner and tries to lull its audience in a trance, just to shake them awake during the final act. What sets it apart from similar-minded genre films though is its hyperstylish black and white photography.

The film tells the story of Veronica, a troubled young girl. After several failed sessions with various doctors, she is sent to a female psychiatrist who operates from a cabin in the mountains. While the psychiatrist waits for Veronica's medical files to arrive, she jumps the gun and starts the treatement, hoping to find out what trauma is haunting this young girl. But Veronica turns out to be a smart girl and before long she starts messing with the head of her psychiatrist. As both women struggle for dominance, reality starts to fade.

screen capture of Veronica

The visuals are by far the most eye-catching aspect of the film. Shot in clean, ultra sharp black and white and with a largely unshakable camera, Veronica makes a stylish first impression. The camera work is impressive, especially when the camera is on the move. I did feel the static shots weren't always as slick as they could've been. It's a small hiccup, but with a look this crisp and delicate, perfection is expected. Overall the effect is stunning though and the visuals add a level of finish that is rarely seen in modern day genre films. It's somewhat of a risky choice as not everyone is going to appreciate the stark black and white photography, but I thought it was extremely successful.

The soundtrack is also on point. It's not so much a collection of tracks as it is a constant and dense amalgam of sounds, rhythms and music that helps to create a subtle yet ultimately suffocating atmosphere. The build-up is precise and accurate and works over the entire span of the film, not just within single scenes. The soundtrack itself isn't even that original, featuring moody music and darker, slightly industrial sound effect, but the way it works itself through the film sets a great example for other film makers.

And the acting too is top notch. Quite necessary for a film like this, which is pretty subdued and spends all its time with just the two main characters. There are one or two flashbacks that feature a couple of extras, but it's really just Olga Segura and Arcelia Ramírez doing all the heavy lifting. Both are splendid in their parts and constantly feed off each other. Sofía Garza has a small part and copes well with the little material she has, but her contribution is hardly substantial.

screen capture of Veronica

The first hour of the film is rather slow, but meticulous. Little by little the balance between patient and doctor shifts and the film deliberately builds up to its final reveal. But the moment you feel you're getting a grip on the film's reality, Algara and Martinez-Beltran flip a switch and start their rush to uncover the truth. While the twist itself isn't anything too novel or original, the contrast between the pacing and the change in tone is another element that helps to set Veronica apart from similar films.

At its very core, Veronica is a rather simple and mousy little headfuck. But the execution is smart, stylish and honed to perfection. It's a film that casually sinks its hooks into your skin, crawls underneath and paralyzes you throughout its finale. After a series of short films, Algara and Martinez-Beltran deliver a confident, stream-lined and meticulous first feature, one that begs for a confirmation in the form of a second film. For now though, don't let this one slip by.

Tue, 24 Oct 2017 12:00:58 +0200
<![CDATA[Lazy Hazy Crazy/Yee-sum Luk]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/lazy-hazy-crazy-review-yee-sum-luk

It's quite rare to see Hong Kong do a coming of age drama, it's even rarer to see a Cat III film in this genre. Lazy Hazy Crazy [Tung Baan Tung Hok] finds itself somewhere in between the work of Heiward Mak and Ho-Cheung Pang, which isn't that surprising knowing that Yee-sum Luk is one of the few female directors working in Hong Kong while also serving as the screenwriter for a couple of Pang's latest films. Pang returned the favor and acts as a producer for Luk's first feature film. The result is quite interesting, to say the least.

screen capture of Lazy Hazy Crazy

While rare, Lazy Hazy Crazy is not quite unique. One year earlier Philip Yung directed May We Chat, a film that would make an awesome double bill with Luk's first. It explores very similar themes, although a little less graphically and from a different genre perspective. But putting them back to back, the differences quickly disappear and the similarities, especially taking into account both are Hong Kong films, will start to shine through. Hopefully Netflix will notice, because they already picked up May We Chat.

What makes Lazy Hazy Crazy stand out is the way it resembles a typical coming of age drama (think Heiward Mak's High Noon or Chi Y Lee's Beautiful Crazy). Going by the intro, this looks like a very innocent, sweet and sugar-coated view into the lives of Hong Kong teens, but the reality is pretty different. Luk's film is quite frank and open, not shunning away from tougher and more taboo subjects. So much in fact that it will probably raise a couple of eyebrows.

The story revolves around two friends (Tracy and Chloe) who befriend a third girl (Alice) at school. Alice is living by herself, abandoned by her father and mourning her deceised mom. To pay for food and shelter she goes on paid dates, usually with older men. Chloe is drawn to the life Alice is leading, while Tracy feels like she is being left out and substituted as a best friend. When Alice ends up dating the boy that Tracy has had her eye on for years, the friendship of the three is ripped to shreds.

screen capture of Lazy Hazy Crazy

Visually the film is on par with the more traditional coming of age dramas from greater China (which is a pretty high standard). Colors are crisp and summery, the camera work is breezy and dreamy (with a camera that constantly circles the film's main cast) and the editing is soft and lazy. It creates a very mellow, laid-back atmosphere, which makes for an interesting contrast with the onscreen drama. Above all though, it's just really beautiful to look at.

The soundtrack, again, is one of the weaker aspects of this film. There is some beautiful music here and it does strenghten the laid-back atmosphere of Lazy Hazy Crazy, but at the same time it's all so predictable. It's just a little bit too comfortable to be considered good, which is something of a returning problem for Hong Kong (and by extension Chinese and Taiwanese) films. I wish they tried something different for a change, on the other hand why bother as long as it is effective.

Nudity is still considered doubty in Hong Kong cinema and it can gravely taint the reputation of an actress (regardless of current stature), so it's remarkable that Luk found a cast that was willing to push the boundaries when needed. The main cast consists of mostly newcomers, which seeps through during the more dramatic moments, but overall the acting is on par and there's real chemistry between the three friends, which elevates the dramatic impact considerably. Secondary parts are good too, which a notable appearance by Susan Yam-Yam Shaw.

screen capture of Lazy Hazy Crazy

Much like Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Lazy Hazy Crazy finds a comfortable tone to talk about taboo subjects. It's not a coincidence both these films were directed by women, as they tend to have a more natural approach towards female sexuality. Having women behind the camera also helps to make the film's topics easier to discuss, without having to diverge into "creepy male director" debates. With a man in the director's chair a film like Hazy Lazy Crazy could've been quickly dismissed as a creepy male fantasy, with a woman there it can simply be an empowered coming of age drama.

For once, availability isn't a big issue either. People interested in Hong Kong youth culture and phenomena like the paid dating business should have no trouble finding this film with the proper subtitles. Luk shows she has talent as a director and delivers a powerful, confrontational yet endearing drama. Hopefully her talent is recognized and she isn't shot down for the unconventional choices she made here, because Hong Kong can use a director like her.

Tue, 17 Oct 2017 11:50:24 +0200
<![CDATA[Kill Zone/Wilson Yip]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/spl-review-wilson-yip

Nowadays Wilson Yip is an established name with a series of critically acclaimed action films to his name, but when he first released Kill Zone [SPL: Sha Po Lang] he still had everything to prove. The first time I watched Kill Zone I was pleasantly surprised by the gritty action on display, but 12 years is a long time, especially in genre cinema. Needless to say I was looking forward to revisiting the film in order to find out if it was still as impressive. Luckily for me it didn't disappoint.

screen capture of Kill Zone

Hong Kong has faced extreme up and downs in its cinematic history. The 70s and early 90s were highly successful periods, while the 80s and late 90s were way much darker. Hong Kong picked itself up again during the early 00s and Kill Zone is one of those films to emerge from that resurrection. Yip himself spend most of the 90s honing his skills directing mediocre (but sometimes amusing) genre fodder, Kill Zone was one the first times his talent was allowed to flourish.

Kill Zone is a martial arts film, but not the regular Hong Kong kind. Yip even alludes to this halfway through, when he puts one of his characters in front of a King of Fighters (SNK) arcade machine. There is no streamlined and/or highly technical martial arts here, instead the film features a cast of skilled brawlers, each with their own fighting techniques and sporting a very distinct, individual look. It's as if the characters in Kill Zone were transported right out of SNK's flagship series.

The story revolves around a longstanding feud between Chung (a hardened police detective) and Wong Po (a local criminal). With Chung's retirement just days away, he undertakes one final attempt to nail Po for his heinous crimes. Meanwhile Ma Kwan (Chung's replacement) also gets swept up in Chung's desperate attempts to put Po behind bars. With a police force running rampant and a crime boss fighting back, nobody is safe anymore.

screen capture of Kill Zone

Visually the film has lost very little of its shine. Moody lighting, very cool camera angles and snappy editing make for a fast-paced action film with more eye candy than you might expect from a film like this. It's not very high-brow or high-class, nothing like the Chinese martial arts films that were making headlines around that same time, but it still looks pretty damn badass and the action in particular is shot with great care and precision.

The soundtrack is the traditional weak point of Hong Kong cinema and it's no different here. It's not such a bad score to be honest, but it's so ultimately forgettable that you have to wonder why they even bothered. It's functional and it does add some flair, mostly to the battle scenes, but there's really nothing beyond that. Just some music that function as wallpaper so your ears don't have to wonder why there's only dialogue interrupted by the sounds of fists hitting faces.

Casting-wise there's a lot more going on. Leading the film is Simon Yam, but it's the people surrounding him that made Kill Zone stand out. The role of Ma Kwan was given to Donnie Yen, a part that marked Yen's return as a viable actor in Hong Kong (a credit shared with 14 Blades). Even more notable is Sammo Hung's appearance, as he takes on the part of the film's villain. Hung rarely played the bad guy in his career, but clearly not for lack of talent. Finally fans of Jing Wu can warm themselves to one his first stand-out performances, kicking ass as one of Hong's henchmen.

screen capture of Kill Zone

It's not just the fighting style and the prime casting that turned Kill Zone into a niche masterpiece though. Yip delivers a surprisingly harsh film with A-listers dying left and right. There's no Hollywood sugarcoating here, though that doesn't mean Yip shuns sentimentality. The plot is still pretty corny, but the execution is quite relentless compared to Hong Kong standards. Cherry on the cake is the ultimate face-off between Yen and Hung. A marvelous martial arts scene that stands as one of the highlights of modern Hong Kong cinema.

Kill Zone is a modern martial arts classic. Yip assembled a phenomenal cast, revitalized the classic martial arts choreography, gave the film some visual polish and never flinched when the story dictacted his characters to die. It's not a film that transcends its niche, but it considerably upped the bar for all the action films that followed. And a good 12 years later, it's still heaps of fun. It's not hard to see why this film launched Yip into the top league.

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 11:42:47 +0200