Thursday, August 30, 2007


Do I Look Like a Sucker?

If you believe in urban legends, there are some pretty nifty ones out there regarding hotel rooms. You know, the ones about not requesting for a room with a double bed when you're alone, or to check under the bed, cupboards for erm, extras, or the golden rule to knock before entering. Pah! you may say, but some deem them standard operating procedures as you just do not know the history behind the strange room you're going to spend the night in.

Based on a short story by horror maestro Stephen King, 1408 is a horror tale about an evil hotel room. It's so evil, that the entire movie for the most parts is devoted in that single room itself. You can say that the room is the star of the movie, but I'd rather give that kudos to one of my favourite character actors, John Cusack. Cusack plays writer Mike Enslin, whose popular works include his accounts in checking out supposedly haunted hotel rooms, with scientific equipment in tow and a cynical mind, to live and tell the story. He's a non-believer, but in order to get that regular paycheck, he writes what his audience wants to read.

Until he got an anonymous invitation to visit the Dolphin Hotel's room 1408, whose notorious history has a series of bizarre murders taking place within the confines of the room. Picking up the challenge much against the wishes of hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), here's when things start to really go bump in the night. Touted as the room where you won't last an hour in, we follow Mike Enslin as he tries to uncover just what is the mystery behind this evil force is, but like the cynic in him, we start to cast that suspecting eye on Mike himself - is he going insane, letting his dark history catch up with him, or is the room truly hell in luxurious settings? It's basically Jumanji within four walls, as wave after wave of spooky events hit Mike, and tests the limits of his sanity.

And there are some genuinely spooky moments in 1408, so credit goes to the filmmaking team in setting everything up for little climaxes in the narrative. But too much of a good thing tends to make it seem like being stuck in a repetitive loop, and before long, you'll be crying out loud for the entire episode to end, just like how Mike just wants to get out. For a small set, 1408 unleashed total mayhem onto itself, so much so that you suspect it doesn't know how to end, falling prey to the multiple ending syndrome, and at one point I was cringing that it could go along the same direction as that Nicolas Cage stinker Next. Thankfully, it didn't, but it after too much ingredients stuffed into it, the outcome was really quite bland, that its ending, with great promise, just doesn't wow, after the fatigued long drawn route to conclusion.

In actuality, what made this movie engaging is that John Cusack essentially does a one man show here. Fear, despair, desperation, hope, we see it all as his Mike battles with the unknown with great aplomb. He doesn't disappoint, and one of the highlights is his sparring with Samuel L Jackson as the hotel manager with an attitude. But don't hold your breaths for many scenes where they appear together. Despite having shared top billing with Cusack, Jackson got nothing more than a supporting role here, showing shades of his mo-fo attitude, before having the spotlight centered firmly on Cusack again.

Great buildup, effective spooky moments, but overall a rather dull affair if you piece them all together. And one thing's for sure, you'll never listen to The Carpenter's "We've Only Just Begun", in the same light ever again.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

7th Asian Film Symposium

The Asian Film Symposium is back! Into its 7th edition, it runs from 6 to 10 September this year, which seems to be advantageous for working folks like myself, nestling within an extended weekend (Thu-Mon). The previous 2 editions (if I recall correctly) have activities mostly during the weekdays, and I only managed to catch up with, unfortunately, one event per year.

5th Asian Film Symposium: Eric Khoo Retrospective - 5 Shorts from Eric Khoo
6th Asian Film Symposium: The Year of Living Vicariously + Village Radio

Presented by The Substation Moving Images, the Symposium offers a great number of short films from around the region, including Singapore, as well as featuring panel discussions on film and the film industry. Tickets to the panel discussions are free (upon registration), while the ticket prices for films are usually at concessionary rates already. What more, there's also the presence of the filmmakers themselves, together with the curators and programmers for the various short film features, to make their respective sessions unforgettable with up close and personal Q&A sessions after each screening.

For those who can't get enough of short films (especially after the recent Singapore Short Cuts, into its last week), why not broaden our horizons to what's available out there from Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and Indonesia? Best yet, as the Opening Film, the much awaited screening of Tan Chui Mui's award winning film Love Conquers All finally hits our shores (tickets are already on sale at the Cathay website)! And local documentary Remember Chek Jawa closes the Sympsosium on 10th September.

The activities take place at the Substation Theatre, and the Picturehouse. Click on this link for ticketing details, film synopsis, schedule of the film panel discussions, and to find out who'll be making an appearance! I'll be there, and I hope to see you there too!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Blood Brothers (天堂口)


Inspired by John Woo's Bullet in the Head, Blood Brothers ventures into the tried and tested boys in the hood gangland story about honour and comradeship, only to find out that there's a little more to girls, gangs and guns. The movie looks great with beautiful sets, costumes, props, but there was a general sense of being emotionally empty beneath the shiny looking veneer.

I always thought the cinematic 1930s Shanghai resembled the Capone era of Chicago, with gangland chiefs ruling the streets, and beautiful molls being the damsels in distress, carving a living out of singing in the dance halls, waiting for their anti-hero in that smart suit and fedora hair, totting a tommy and mowing down opponents without batting an eyelid. Blood Brothers transports us back to the era of the Shanghai Bund, with brothers Gang (Liu Ye), Hu (Tony Yang) and best friend Feng (Daniel Wu) looking toward the big city for an opportunity to carve a name for themselves. Leaving their village to pursue their dream, little do they know that their friendship will be put under severe tests when greed, power and ambition, or the lack thereof, come into play, and challenge the very notion of blood being thicker than water.

However, despite big names in the production, what I found to be primarily lacking, is that you don't feel for the brotherhood and camaraderie between Gang, Hu and Feng, which I thought was extremely crucial if we were to care about what will happen to the trio - a reluctant soul yearning for home, a brawn over brains type muscleman whose ambition knows no bounds, and one who turned to the bottle because he can't live up to expectations. Time is indeed set aside in the beginning as a prompter, but it's a case of too little too late, with the narrative being caught up with bringing the audience to the glitz and glamour of the Paradise nightclub. Here, the blood brothers three get involved with yet another power playing trio - Boss Hong (Sun Honglei), his number one enforcer and brother Mark (Chang Chen), and the moll of the movie, the sultry cabaret singer Lulu (Shu Qi), and as the story unfolds and entangle all our casts together into a web of complex relationships, it is when the plot starts to thicken and get slightly interesting, only again to be exposed for its one-dimensional treatment.

Which is a pity, given the potential of how things could have been played out. Even the ironic audacity of having the devilish characters storm into Paradise and unleash hell with guns ablazing, in attempts to reach a crescendo, ended up being a tad too bland. Perhaps the same-old treatment given to familiar themes and scenarios bore little fruit, despite a change in setting and a power cast. You just know what will happen, and they happen like clockwork. And it seemed that Blood Brothers was perpetually plagued by the clumsy romantic angles that don't serve much purpose or to contribute any depth to the characters involved.

Despite the weak material, the cast did prove to be charismatic enough to hold your attention throughout, which is a good thing. Shu Qi lends her voice and sings in the movie, Chang Chen broods with a degree of suaveness, Daniel was found to be struggling with Mandarin, Sun Honglei was being really menacing, Tony Yang as the naive follower, and Liu Ye's steely gaze and demeanour will make you think twice should you want to cross his character. There were plenty of close up shots of their facial expressions in Blood Brothers, and this pretty left much of the beautiful sets and costumes being left unseen.

What I found wanting though, was the editing and cinematography. It was quite jarring to see the 180 degree rule broken so obviously, and bringing so much attention to itself. For the first time in many years, I was actually slightly disoriented when watching a scene, when it particularly liked to cross the line and back again, and move back and forth when characters are conversing, or that sudden swing of action brings us to the other side of it all. For once, I would have begged for the camera to stay where it should be, and stay still for that matter.

I would love to have loved Blood Brothers for its high production values. However, the way the story is developed, and while trying hard to evoke equal emotions as the material it got inspired by, just left a bad aftertaste that it was trying just too damn hard to please.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Contract Lover (合约情人) (Hup Yeu Ching Yan)

2 Good Reasons

Your eyebrows may have been raised, that I've chosen to watch this movie ahead of Blood Brothers, which also premiered this week. The reasons are simple. First, there's Fan Bingbing and Kate Tsui, one a recognizable actress after her stint on TV's My Fair Princess, and her role opposite Andy Lau in Battle of Wits, while the other made her maiden foray into the Hong Kong film industry with her lead role in Eye in the Sky. Then there's this tacit affirmation that I would go watch every Kate Tsui movie that would be released in the cinemas here, given that she was nice to oblige my taking of a photograph with her during the HKIFF, no less than 3 times, but that's a story for another day.

Kate stars opposite Richie Ren (or Jen, depending on what floats your boat), as couple Rachel and Fat. They're the atypical modern day couple living it up in Beijing, though the latter is suspect of the former's promiscuity. He loathes the time when he has to bring his girlfriend back to the village to meet his parents, and to get the stamp of approval from his father (played by Yuen Wah). So they device a plan, and that is to look for a substitute girlfriend (hence the title Contract Lover), whose mission is to be as disgusting as possible, so that Dad will tell Fat to find anyone else better than the current beau, and hence, for Fat to introduce Rachel.

Cue Fan Bingbing's Joe (don't ask), a poor Chinese teacher who desperately needs the money to send home to her mom. To pull off being the most horrendous girlfriend ever, she has to go through a complete makeover, and be someone she's totally not, which is basically to act like a slutty bimbo (the credits actually showed her having an image consultant on set, though I suspect the role is to ensure her character doesn't tarnish Fan's good image). Then it's off to the village to try and be a put off to Fat's family.

The plot seems familiar, one of those fluffy romantic comedies where a mismatched couple soon find themselves falling for one another, while at the same time things happen to go against their plan, and for Fat not knowing who actually proves to be more compatible for him. Needless to say, Kate's role here is actually quite limited, given that she only appears in the beginning and at the end. The movie's in Mandarin too, and everyone has to speak it sans dubbers, which means the Hong Kongers must have had quite a difficult time - Kate does struggle with it, and can't seem to shake off her Cantonese accent convincingly.

The narrative runs quite choppily, and scenes seem quite disparate. Besides trying to be sexy at times (more for laughs actually), it cannot shake off the common generalization of villagers, that they just have to be skilled in martial arts. Yuen Wah's Dad is the distant descendant of Huo Yuanjia (remember Fearless?) and spouts (hokey) philosophy quite freely. Having set up the Jing Wu school, and the rivals being distant descendants of Wong Fei Hung, you can be sure that whatever jokes you can think of regarding their ancestry, be brought out for laughs. Those familiar with Hong Kong comedies, might see glimpses of them here, though with a lesser degree of success in delivery.

But there are genuine moments of laughter, though they are extremely few and far between. One involves pole dancing and kungfu training that just has to be seen to be believed, even though you see that moment coming a mile away. Or that 3-way romantic tangle involving a demure village girl, a hunky martial arts practitioner, and a gay Caucasian. There are just too many minute sub-plots that seem to suffocate and artificially inflate the runtime of the movie, adding little depth and contributing to many frivolous moments. Funny moments too run into the depths of blouses, though some might find them a tad too distasteful, and not revealing too much anyway.

However that's what you should expect in the first place when watching a movie like this. It has a basic premise tweaked from a tried and tested formula, and highly predictable to boot. It might serve as a decent romantic comedy for dates, but that's about it, unless of course you're a fan of either of the leads, or you've also had a tacit affirmation set up.

[4th Singapore Short Cuts] 3rd Week

The 3rd week of this year's edition of the Singapore Short Cuts saw a retrospective on Rajendra Gour, arguably a pioneer of independently-made Singapore short films, and an award winning one too. Having to open his showcase, Rajendra shared that he had started to make films when he was 25 years old, back in 1965, and advised that so long any film is made with spirit and soul, they will last the passage of time. And looking at the 4 short films presented, I couldn't agree more.

A Labour of Love - The Housewife

I liked this film a lot, in that Rajendra had a keen eye on issues that were raised in his short, issues which still ring true to this day. The short is as the title says, as we follow a housewife's routine, the daily, menial tasks of taking care of the home, as well as the children. While highlighting challenges faced, it also had a very heartwarming observation on the children of the household, with many earnest scenes on interaction, and you can really feel the love permeating through.

There were also a couple of scenes that set the era - the trishaw, and the outdoor street market, but one thing's for sure, the issues of the housewife faced in those days, are almost similar to the ones faced today. Time and again you do have the spotlight set on discussing how can one quantify, in monetary terms, the value that housewives contribute to society and economy, and perhaps, this short allowed for the reminder that they are important in "shaping the future generation", and that "her work must be appreciated".

My Child My Child

Sort of a quasi-sequel to A Labour of Love, My Child My Child specifically echoes the love of a mother for her child, as well as her hopes and even fears of the fact that her child might one day cast her aside. Like A Labour of Love, My Child My Child also had this heartwarming quality in it, and contains some scenes which were from the former as well, reused over here. Those who have been to the Haw Par Villa / Tiger Balm Gardens will find it a blast to see it depicted here in the short, especially those morbid, grotesque looking statues!


This is an experimental short, which featured some nifty effects and some extreme closeups of the eye. The "all seeing" eye explores pain and suffering, but alas, as Rajendra shared later during the Q&A, much of this short had already succumbed to deterioration brought about by time.

Sunshine Singapore

If the audience hadn't gotten enough of the scenes of Singapore of old, then Sunshine Singapore was the short worth waiting for. Playing like a musical montage piece, this short deserves to be watched on repeat for scenes that are no longer, and as I mentioned earlier, a visual treat for any historians or those born here in the last 20 years, to see how Singapore was once like. The music is catchy too, having this hypnotic beat to it.


LtoR: Karen (from Asian Film Archive), Zhang Wenjie, Rajendra Gour, Kristin Saw

Apparently almost every member of the audience who turned up today, had also decided to sit through the Q&A session after the screening. I suppose many were naturally curious about the shorts, and would like to learn more about them from Rajendra himself.

Zhang Wenjie: This is possibly the first time all 4 of Rajendra's shorts have been shown in a retrospective. What was the feeling like having watched them in front of an audience after more than 40 years?
Rajendra: I've never imagined this, given it's the first time they're shown in Singapore. I'm more than happy. Thank you.

Wenjie: Could you share how you first started making films independently. With the many filmmakers making their films now versus in the 60s, what was the environment of the time like?
Rajendra: In December 1964, I bought a small Bolex camera, which cost me 2 months salary. I could afford it because I was a bachelor - I could eat as I liked, and sleep wherever I liked, with all my money going into film! My first film was called "Mr Tender Heart", however the film is not in good condition now and cannot be projected. It's shot in black and white, with very little dialogue, and ran about 28 minutes. I acted as a poet in the film, to show the world as it is, and I used animal sounds to show people's jealousness, frustration and anger. All the animal sounds were produced by mouth by myself, and I wished I can produce them now for you!

I worked with RTS (Radio and Television Singapore) in the news department as senior film editor, and doing the news at that time, I was feeling bored. So I thought about filmmaking, and had 2 options. The first was to go to the USA to join the New York Film Institute to do my Masters, but it cost a lot of money. So the second option was, why not make my own films and learn from my own mistakes? I had many crazy, unconventional ideas, and dreams.

My second film was Eyes, and the original cut was 20 minutes long. I couldn't save all the footage. It was recorded with no dialogue, so that you can form your own interpretation. I had only one normal lens, and it was a great challenge making the film. It was difficult to keep the camera in focus, and I even tried using a magnifying glass to make the eye look bigger! I had a lot of fun, and had used my caretaker's eyes as they were very big! There were no effects done in the lab, except for one scene of superimposition, and one black and white shot. All other superimposition were done on camera, so you can imagine I had to take the shot, roll the film back, expose the film again and so on. I did too many takes, and it was hard to calculate. By fluke, I got about 70% of what I wanted. The part where the face was cracking, I had gone to a photo studio, and used an aluminum plate. I bent the plate at different angles to achieve the shots, and married them. Back then you had to improvise a lot, but now you have computers and you can do it. However I don't feel the creativity that's coming from the heart. For the suicide shot, it was filmed at Selegie House. I took the camera and ran 11 floors *to the chuckles of the audience* - the energy comes from enthusiasm and passion.

The other challenge was how to show the man falling 10/11 floors. I had a camera box, made a hole in it, and devised a pulley. My friend ran with the rope, but instead of having the camera falling down, it went round! I was initially a little disappointed with the result, but maybe for a man falling down, he sees it that way! *chuckles* I had a one to two man crew accompanying me for Eyes. I liked Eyes, as it was from the heart, and from the mind.

The third movie I made was Sunshine Singapore. It was made over a number of years as I had to shoot sunrises. Most mornings were cloudy or rainy, but I managed to get some nice sunrise and sunsets. I had the music in my mind, and it was from the rhythm of the camera sway. I was actually warned by my wife not to stare at the shots as the sun rays were going into my eyes. The version you've seen today was from VHS, as the original film still needs money to restore. The shot of the military band was to show the regimental nature of Singaporeans, while the montage of the foreign banks was my imagining of the future of Singapore. My funds for the film got exhausted, because I got married! *chuckles*

One person had to work, while the other had to take care of the family, and the money I made went to family. Salaries for graduates at the time was about S#765, and I had to temporarily stop making films. I had a smart ploy though, and that was to make a film about the family. At the back of my mind was the story, and I had to convince my wife to be in it, and there was actually no need to act. There was no lighting, and I had only the normal lens. But I had the perfect setting. It took 5 years to make My Child My Child, based on things I see happening in the house, so there wasn't a real need to think of a plot. I have beautiful stories out of filming my family, and I did 2 films out of that.

I had wondered how to screen my films. You can only show your films to friends twice, and they'll tell you "that's enough"! *chuckles* I read Sight and Sound magazine, and researched a list of film festivals to send my films to. It was not easy as I had to send them by air, and it cost a lot of money. But my intention to send them was not to win awards, but I had done so, so that someone else can see my films. A Labour of Love - The Housewife, won a bronze medal at an American film festival, and BBC bought the rights to show My Child My Child. I got encouraged and with some money, I was tempted to make another film. I still have the original 16mm films, and if archived and projected, the colours will definitely turn out nicer.

Wenjie (to Karen): Perhaps you would like to talk about how you came across Raj's films?
Karen: Raj came to the Asian Film Archive as a volunteer, and had helped in some school talks. It was then we found out about his 16mm films. In the archival process, films have to be cleaned so that we can assess the quality of the film. Colour would have faded and there would be scratches, but there's also the "Vinegar Syndrome", where because of our climate, the film would emit a scent and would shrink the films, making them brittle. We can slow down the decay, but can't eliminate it. The cost of restoring about 1000 feet of a print, will cost about S$4-5K. We're hoping that by next year, we would have one print restored.

Karen (to Raj): What advice would you give to future filmmakers about preserving their films for another generation?
Raj: It's always good to keep the films, preserve them, and store them properly. You can look back at how life was then, the culture and feeling of the times, improvements, and if we are going in the right direction.

Q (to Raj): Are you still making films?
Raj: Yes, I'm making a lot of films in my mind and heart. I've lots of stories to tell, but now I don't want to put my own money to make them. I'm looking for sponsors, and I'm planning to make 2 films. I'm trying to get finances. One is about old age people, and the other about women. Women hhave been a pet subject of mine, because there's a of emotions about their lives and how it changed over the last 40 years. In the last 2 to 3 years, I've made documentaries for others.

Q: What was the indie film scene like in the 60s and 70s?
Raj: There was none as far as I can recall, for experimental films. There were many amateur filmmakers making 8mm films, but not on this scale.

Q: Did the awards make any impact in Singapore?
Raj: Unfortunately the movies were not appreciated in Singapore. Nobody bothers, unlike today, where you can get finances, or people to watch them. Sunshine Singapore was rejected by RTS at the time, but probably because back then, society was cautious about showing anything of this nature because of nation building.

Q: How do you reflect making films to your own narrative versus someone else's?
Raj: The main difference, you feel it more for your own, from the heart.

Wenjie then introduced Raj's son Sanjay, who was also in the audience.
Wenjie: For those who don't know, Sanjay was the little boy in Raj's films. How do you feel, watching yourself on the big screen now?
Sanjay: I feel the same; I've seen the films many times, and I guess it's better to recall those moments on film rather than from still photographs.

Photo Credits: Richard Lim


Next week will be the final week of this year's edition of the Singapore Short Cuts. Do remember to grab your ticket early, as we have Anthony Chen's Cannes Special Mention film Ah Ma, as well as 2 short films from each director of Solos - Loo Zihan and Kan Lume, and Boo Junfeng's Katong Fugue. See you next Saturday!

Jesus Camp

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost! Hallelujah!

Religion is a complex, sensitive and touchy issue. I was waiting with bated breath if a documentary like Jesus Camp will actually make it to our shores, and surprisingly, it did, and was uncut to boot. The subject matter, on Evangelical Christianity, is actually quite a powerful movement, given its congregation explosion of late, and in a film that exposes the horrors of brainwashiing and its hypocrisy, you'd wonder if there will soon be folks who will be up in arms against its release.

In any case, any film that exposes hypocrisy, gets my economic vote in a box office ticket. Just to set the record straight, I believe, but not as strong a believer (i.e. I'm not a fanatical idiot), and some couldn't wait to pin labels such as "strayer", "lacking of faith" blah blah blah on me, but I couldn't care less. Fact is, I've seen my fair share of the hypocrisy around on religious grounds, and some of the most absurd reasonings of all time coming from the group of so-called staunch believers.

Someone: Hey, there's a charity drive here and they need donations of old clothes and canned food. But I won't support.
Me: Why not?
Someone: 'cos they're not a Christian group. They're Buddhists. I won't support them.

Yes, it's that absurd.

Jesus Camp is a horror movie. And the horror is real, not made up, doesn't rely on cheap special effects or tried and tested techniques to make your heart jolt. What's horrific is the systematic brainwashing of children, to have them believe something so abstract, by using devices such as toys, and fear. Children are highly impressionable, and watching the little ones put through a regime of highly charismatic thought processes, and perhaps even empowering them, what you get are little monsters. Angelic faces, but with hearts so demented, they are children no more.

And the persons to thank, are the evangelical preachers, who, like perverse adults, find pleasure in indoctrinating young, easy to mould minds, to serve their sick cause. What made it worse, is that these folks find immense pleasure in recording their deeds on tape, and then going home to review them, watching their handiwork all over again. If success at robbing someone makes stealing candy from a toddler count, then these folks surely find this method the easiest, and the one that scores the most points.

It's a pain to watch how these children believe, in raising their arms up high, thinking they can feel the holy ghost possessing them, writhe in imaginary pain on the ground, and cry so much crocodile tears, they think the more the holier art thou. But the one that takes the cake, is speaking in tongues.


There, I just did it myself too. I'm not a believer of it - heck, if the holy spirit wants to speak through you, doesn't it make perfect sense that it'll be a language everyone understands, and not gibberish that even you do not know what you meant? Then someone will say "yeah, you lack faith, you're not strong, blah blah" OK, so now it's the Force yeah?

It's flat out hypocrisy, one that bears warning about the false prophets that permeate society these days. And how cowards like those target the helpless and those who are in their formative years, to fill their brains with cow dung, and more selfishly, in preparation for the future, where their political ambitions include taking over the government, followed by world domination. They idolize George W Bush (can someone recall something about worshipping idols?) and call non-Christians enemy combatants, whom they want to emulate (short of bearing arms, at this point). They revel in their "enemies" ability to make their children handle bomb vests, while secretly hoping that one day they can do that to their own kids too. Religions are always about love and peace toward all fellow mankind (or all god's creation), but here, the preachers twist words and sow the seed for the future - one of their own designs.

Watching how they lambast and so believe their own non-"Dead Church" ways, I think it'll take years for any of those kids shown to be de-programmed from their dangerous thoughts. The "jumping up and down" ways in Church will naturally be appealing, as it goes against the grain of the usual congregational behaviour one would perceive in holy places of worship. And you know, anything that seems rebellious, fun (c'mon, rock songs, free love, etc), and counter-establishment, will always find a place in the heart of a child/teen. And seduction, is always sweet.

You can judge me to be critical and non-approving of the behaviour demonstrated, and frankly I don't care. What I would like to see though, is come Judgement Day and for the unfortunate (likely?) reason I can't pass through the Pearly Gates and have to head southwards, I sure like to see those false prophets there with me for eternity.

The film managed to portray, in its short 90 minutes, the content, but really, left judging it on your own. What I found a little distracting at times during the documentary, is when the camera has difficulty putting itself into focus, resulting in many shots being focusing shots, from blur to clear, making it a bit nauseating.

Should there be a sequel or follow up (say 10-15th Anniversary DVD Edition), it sure would be a blast to see the outcome of these children in their teens, if they have realized their follies, and left their "calling", or worse, fallen prey into deadly Sin that they have been warned time and again. Stay tuned when the end credits roll for a little coda, where the kids clearly demonstrate bigotry and generalization. So young, but already so set in their minds, in the wrong way.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


We're the Hip Generation

Teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) has a dream, and that is to join a group of hip teenagers in a dance programme on television called the Corny Collins (James Marsden) Show, especially when she has a crush on the show's heartthrob Link (Zac Efron). But as you know, despite being pleasant, blessed with a good voice and groove, possessing a wonderful never-say-die attitude and positive demeanour, television's all about glamour, and being plump means she's out of place, especially for TV producer Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) who sees her as a constant thorn undermining her and her engineered-for-success daughter Amber (Brittany Snow).

Given the loads of song, dance, music that you can shake your booty too, Hairspray is right up my alley. I can't seem to recall having seen the original 1988 movie (though the songs do ring familiar), nor watched the musical, but I guess it doesn't matter unless you want to be picky and start comparing. On its own, Hairspray has all the ingredients that continues the now-tapering tradition of Hollywood made musicals, with a surprisingly star studded cast who seem to get ample time to showcase both their dancing feet and vocal prowess. And to sum it up, it's almost perfect as an entertaining musical.

But what worked into this breezy light hearted film, are serious themes on race relations and society's obsession with being thin. Hairspray's set in the 60s, where segregation in American society still reared its ugly head, where in a television programme, white folks don't mix with "coloured folks", and in a seemingly progressive move, a "Negro Day" is set aside in the programme schedule for non-Whites to perform in. Tracy Tumbald, as a character, seeks in her earnestness to break down those barriers, of course with tacit support from Corny Collins (who though may seem is doing it for the ratings?). Being sentenced to detention class also made it quite clear that Tracy's one of the rare white folk who gets sent, though her interactions with the RnB hip hoppers, proved to be fruitful. And weight obsession provided for some cheap laughs in the beginning, slowly made way to acceptance, and hey, girl power, whatever size they may be.

Much has been said about John Travolta's comeback to the musical genre after his ever successful 1978 musical Grease, as Danny Zuko. Here, Travolta dons a fat suit and gets casted in the opposite sex as Tracy's mom Edna, and I think he did a great job, still showing he has the moves and the singing voice, despite it being almost 30 years coming back to the genre. While the novelty of donning the fat suit isn't new, it's still Travolta, and there are moments when you'll cringe, especially when husband Wilbur Turnblad (Christopher Walken) gets all lovey-dovey with her. Walken is fantastic as well, despite the relatively short screen time, singing and dancing (he did the music video for Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice) opposite Travolta and Grease (2 actually, and Batman Returns) alumni Michelle Pfeiffer.

It's been a while since we last saw Pfeiffer on screen, and this year we see her taking on two roles (including this one) where she plays the antagonist (the other movie being Stardust). She still looks great though, despite her age, and wearing that red slinky dress, brings back memories of her heating up the screen with her sultry moves and singing voice way back in the Fabulous Baker Boys. Screen daughter Brittany Snow (John Tucker Must Die) does a complete evil-Barbie role here, while Amanda Bynes was a hoot as the wide eyed and naive in the cute and ditzy dumb role of Tracy's best friend Penny Pingleton, who actually goes against the grain (of the times) with her inter-racial romance.

Rounding up the cast of notables include Queen Latifah and Elijah Kelly, but in a real act of reel emulating real, or real emulating reel, the discovery and coup casting will be newcomer Nikki Blonsky. Somehow she exudes this lovable charisma that you can't help but fall in love with her and her character. She bursts into the movie full of energy, just like her character did, and Hairspray provided the perfect platform for her to showcase her singing and dance talent. To sum up in two simple words, "she rocks", and her chemistry with Travolta as daughter-err-mother, was simply irresistible.

Hairspray's full of wacky fun despite its tackling of serious themes, has memorable songs and great chemistry amongst the cast, who look like they all had a good time making this musical. And it's a very enjoyable movie where you feel plenty of positivity exuding when the end credits start to roll. Highly recommended, one of the best musicals to have come out of Hollywood in recent years!

Useless fact #542: A number of the cast here have done a superhero movie. John Travolta was in Punisher, Christopher Walken and Michelle Pfeiffer tangoed with each other in Batman Returns, and James Marsden was in the X-Men trilogy.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


We're Bad

The poster may look menacing, but Skinwalkers is actually a tame pussycat. In the hands of ordinary filmmakers, this is what you get - mediocre, "have we seen this before" moments, and plenty of unintentional comedy, for a werewolf genre that tried to reinvent itself, and exhausted its game plan. To give itself a mystical feel, it developed its own uninteresting mythos about some prophecy (not again!) that will come true after the appearance of the red moon.

Zoom past the intertitles, and hey, the red moon! From then on, it's Terminator-hasta-la-vista baby! The prophecy seemed to dwell on the fate of a 12 year old boy, who is said to have some rocking puberty mumbo-jumbo happening to him (no, it's not the sudden growth of extra hair in certain parts). So his mother, Rachel (Rhona Mitra) becomes an unwitting, uninspiring Sarah Conner clone, while relying on a bunch of rag tag team mates led by Jonas (Elias Koteas), to keep them alive. Jonas and gang however, have a deep dark secret. They're werewolves, but good ones, who get strapped up before dusk so that they can be artificially restrain their blood lust.

On the other hand, the bad mofos (who are also werewolves) are led by Lorenzo Lamas. Wait a minute, that couldn't be him! He's still looking... so young! No, it's Jason Behr, who I swear in his unshaven face, and wavy shoulder length hair, shades and bad attitude, seemed to have crawled out of a typical Lamas made-for-video movie. As with the many Lamas movies, it's almost guaranteed to have bad cheapskate action. It screams B-Flick with sirens blaring and strobe lights flashing, and frankly, Skinwalkers is nothing except that.

Like I mentioned, it's Terminator all over again. Bad guys want to annihilate the kid so that they can prevent the prophecy from coming true (whatever that is, which they have no clue whatsoever). In between, they kill and have edited sex, which is bad, in both sense. The good guys just want to stand in the way (hey, we don't feed on blood, so we're cool) and they too have no idea just in case the kid turns into some hybrid - ok, wrong movie - while we see the toughening up of Sarah Con, I mean Mitra's Rachel, that it all reeked of plagiarism.

If anything can justify labelling a werewolf movie as cheap, then it is the distinct lack of on-screen transformation. The wolves just appear, in full hairy costume, bad teeth and probably stinky breath and all, without any attempts to allow a glimpse at the transformation. Not only that, the local distributors, in attempts to make money hence requesting this to be passed with a lower rating, removed all sex scenes. No wonder we see macabre, gruesome high profile killings, and low birth rates. We can't even watch sexy on screen. Bring the sexy back!

Anyway I digress. Skinwalkers was pretty bad from the get go. Hokey prophecies, cheap makeup, and horrors, guns are used with glee from all quarters, and the gunplay's probably the laziest I've seen in a long time. Laughable effort, especially when you realize the cop out made just for the bigger names in this picture. Only suitable for that DVD rental on a lazy weekend afternoon at best.


Queer Straight Guy

I'll have to admit that Poltergay is a lot of fun, for straight folks and gay folks alike. It's probably something that Kelvin Tong's Men in White could have been - smart, witty and with that level of cheekiness, without almost always falling flat on its jokes. If it could have been at least what Poltergay was, then it won't have to suffer the misery of a relatively poor box office, or DVDs that I think most people would stand around the shops to watch for free, rather than to purchase a copy for personal consumption.

The plot for Poltergay is a no brainer. Married couple Marc (Clovis Cornillac) and Emma (Julie Depardieu) move into an old dilapidated house at a bargain price. While slowly converting it to livable conditions, it turns out that Marc begins to hear things (extremely loud music at 0155hrs each time), before suddenly realizing there're 5 queer men living in his cellar. However, it seems that he's the only one who can see these fellas, and before you know it, he's branded mad, and runs into martial troubles because, well, it's a gay themed movie, so naturally, everyone around thinks that Marc is a closet gay, secretly fantasizing about men, and 5 of them no less!

What I liked about the movie is how it incorporated the gay moments into the story and the jokes quite seemlessly, and introduced perhaps in an extremely novel way, the rationale behind ghost-spotting. It certainly took the mickey out of a lot of things, and brought out some laughter in subtle, razor sharp manner. However it is not without its flaws, as the introduction was a tad too draggy, and I thought took about an hour before the pace and the comedy picks up, and suddenly, there was a big squeeze of plenty of smaller subplots into the last 30 minutes, including the resolution and finale. Essentially it boiled down to screwing up, wrecking havoc, before the ghouls decided to help Marc get back to this normal life again.

And the ghouls were pretty hilarious in themselves, with their penchant for tight clothing, and their disco dancing ways to Boney M's Rasputin for instance, injecting a certain amount of retro disco energy when they get down to boogeying the night away. Their individual characters could not be any different from one another, with for instance, a closet heterosexual (oh!), a gay couple, one nursing a broken heart, and one who likes to replicate his male manhood at almost every conceivable object he can get his hands on.

It didn't have to rely on crude toilet humour, nor plenty of slapstick moments to bring on the laughs. What it had was a refreshing take on the horror-comedy genre, with a twist of the queer for good measure. Like I mentioned, it's enjoyable fluff, good enough for those stressed out workdays where you need some light hearted relief to keep your sanity.

Oh, and Rasputin is certainly becoming one heck of a earworm!

Rasputin by Boney M
There lived a certain man in Russia long ago
He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow
Most people looked at him with terror and with fear
But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear
He could preach the bible like a preacher
Full of ecstacy and fire
But he also was the kind of teacher
Women would desire

Lover of the Russian queen
There was a cat that really was gone
Russia's greatest love machine
It was a shame how he carried on

He ruled the Russian land and never mind the czar
But the kasachok he danced really wunderbar
In all affairs of state he was the man to please
But he was real great when he had a girl to squeeze
For the queen he was no wheeler dealer
Though she'd heard the things he'd done
She believed he was a holy healer
Who would heal her son
But when his drinking and lusting and his hunger
for power became known to more and more people,
the demands to do something about this outrageous
man became louder and louder.

"This man's just got to go!" declared his enemies
But the ladies begged "Don't you try to do it, please"
No doubt this Rasputin had lots of hidden charms
Though he was a brute they just fell into his arms
Then one night some men of higher standing
Set a trap, they're not to blame
"Come to visit us" they kept demanding
And he really came

Lover of the Russian queen
They put some poison into his wine
Russia's greatest love machine
He drank it all and he said "I feel fine"

Lover of the Russian queen
They didn't quit, they wanted his head
Russia's greatest love machine
And so they shot him till he was dead

(Spoken:) Oh, those Russians...

The Willow Tree (Beed-e Majnoon)

Was Blind But Now I See

Sometimes God works in mysterious ways, and us mortal man have absolutely no idea what to make of it, opting for the most parts to blame the big guy when things don't go our way, only to find out that the fault lies in ourselves. No, I'm not suddenly pious and wanting to spread the word, but Majid Majidi's The Willow Tree evoked such a feeling and reminder to myself, that it's always so easy to blame "somebody else", even though that someone could be the guy up there.

I haven't seen much of Majid Majidi's works, but from what I have in just Children of Heaven, and now The Willow Tree, I can't wait to watch a whole lot more. The stories might seem simple - few key characters (lovable too I might add), gorgeously shot, and you might think you have the plot all wrapped up, there's always this beauty in the simplicity of it all, and its powerful underlying message ever so subtle, in no way sledge-hammering itself on you at all. Somehow I feel that there's so much enveloping the movie, that I'm simply amazed at how they are all packaged together in a nicely paced movie, without the need to be butt-numbing.

Youssef (Parviz Parastui) is a blind university professor, who spends his time playing with his young daughter, and has his wife assist him with his work. From the onset, it's a happy little family, except that Youssef has a dream, that he could one day regain his sight and see again. Sometimes I wonder if able folks like us take things for granted naturally, and if only we lose it, do we start appreciating and missing something at all. Majid has for the first minute placed us in Youssef's shoes, and listening to his innermost thoughts and dreams, one ponders.

While faith is important, and I would think if I were in Youssef's shoes, I would also choose to turn to religion as a pillar of strength, there's this little warning of being careful with what you wish for, as sometimes, what you think is best for yourself, isn't true at all. If you made promises to the big man, make sure you can fulfill those promises, and not let it ring empty. We follow Youssef's journey and understand his fears, frustrations and hopes, coupled with his fall from grace and redemption. The Willow Tree leaves things wide open, but you can only hope for the best. I like the way how Youssef is forced to choose, and I actually felt pity for the guy as he loses himself, like the saying goes, because of his straying eye. I wonder too, if our gift of sight somehow will sometimes be the attributing factor, or seed the beginnings of mistrust, just because our eye sees something that our minds interpret differently, or fantasize.

And the movie couldn't work without the excellent soundtrack, or the commanding performance by the lead Parviz Parastui. He has on one hand made Youssef a likable fellow, yet managed in the same movie to make us despise his actions, with a tinge of pity, and at times, just wanting to slap him out of his arrogance. It's been a long while since I actually cared for a character, and want to reach out to him - as the bystanders usually have the better view of any situation - and to direct him, just as how you would a blind person, to avoid the pitfalls that seem set to dawn on him.

At another level, The Willow Tree has indeed opened my eyes to more of Iran, instead of those ra-ra sanctions filled news bulletins demonizing the country as a whole. I thought that through film, I see a little more of a country caught on celluloid, depicting the same hopes, dreams, and even challenges that folks in the country grapple with too. And with such intelligent stories from their filmmakers, you wonder about their rich culture, and also realize that you don't need big sets and big moments to create an impact - the little things in life that you can put into stories to tell, work just as majestically.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

License to Wed

No Sex Until We're Married

Marriage is serious stuff. I've come to realize that it takes a lot of commitment and trust in order to walk down the aisle and dedicate your entire lifetime from that point onwards to the welfare of another human being, and that's not counting the fact that some kids would be in tow in the future as well. Forever is a very long time, and just how sure are you to say "I Do" to the significant other, that the relationship should at least stay the same, or in the best case, improve and grow from strength to strength. If someone has problems keeping promises, then an eternal vow, wow.

With the divorce rates climbing, you wonder how folks of the older generation manage to stick through thick and thin, when the general attitude these days could be as easy as throwing in the towel at the slightest sense of frustration. And you also wonder, does marriage counselling work? I dunno, cos I'm neither married nor gone through one of those courses before. But I suppose during those courses, a couple is put through the motion of expected problems that could creep up, and given tips and tricks on how to effectively deal with them.

And that's what License to Wed is all about, although the trained person dishing out the advice, is Reverend Frank (Robin Williams), a man of God. Religious beliefs aside, I thought the movie actually had placed a bit of focus on having showcased multitudes of potential marital problems, for an audience to journey through with soon-to-be-weds Ben Murphy (John Krasinski) and Sadie Jones (Mandy Moore). It also raked up the many doubts one would have in a relationship, especially one approaching matrimony. While highlighting these issues are good, it only meant that comedy had to be sacrificed in competing for screen time.

Which made it a little strange for a supposed Robin Williams comedy, to be sans comedy. What we have instead are a few insipid jokes sprinkled here and there, with probably one or two attempts that are genuinely rib-tickling. Having Josh Flitter from Nancy Drew casted here as Reverend Frank's protege, also seemed a bit of a miscast, as the pair didn't really have much chemistry together as partners in crime. Williams' own recent comedic movies like RV and Man of the Year, while not 100% funny, do still have their moments. But in License to Wed, he seems to be his own supporting character, while Krasinski and Moore soak up most of the screentime as the film placed attention on the pre-marital issues and woes.

With some of the better jokes already shown in the trailer, that's quite an indication on how the rest of the movie will turn out. It's quite plain sailing, and sometimes feeling a bit episodic with scenes placed side by side without much thought for proper transitioning in narrative. Williams without being presented the opportunity to improvise and ad-lib, well, tells a lot of the potential that is wasted. It took the outtakes to actually showcase what he could have done, and what the movie could have become, and then you realize that some bits have ended up on the cutting room floor. A shame.

License to Wed isn't exactly Williams giving a vintage performance. Like I mentioned, it's a supporting role at best, and in my opinion, this movie's more suited to couples who are about to walk down the aisle - are you so sure of the partner you're gonna spend eternity with? Stay tuned for the animation that play during the end credits, after the outtakes.

[4th Singapore Short Cuts] 2nd Week

Playing to a full house, this week's selection seemed to veer more into the experimental and arthouse, giving host to plenty of diverse questions during the Q&A Session after the screening.

Wrong Turn - Charles Lim
This is a visually beautiful film. The jungle never looked so nice, and so real, and what more, the soundtrack/effects for the film was performed live. Watching the movie, the first thought that came to mind was, this could be a localised version of JJ Abrams' Lost, where you see a host of characters, from a schoolboy to a security guard, looking perplexed, and testing the area they're stuck in for a communications signal. Slowly they realize they only have one another to count on, to survive in that strange environment, coupled with that parting end shot.

Tracks - Gavin Lim
This short had recognizable actors in Yeo Yann Yann and Timothy Nga, who also paired up as a couple for a local movie last year in The High Cost of Living. It's a challenge to film inside an MRT carriage, because you know that sound will definitely be an issue, especially when the film is dialogue-laden. Some clues that the story's something surreal, include that perpetually long MRT ride - arrivals at stations happen every few minutes, but this one made it look like it's a train ride from Singapore to KL. Continuity issues aside, the plot twist was charging at you at high speed, and was something waiting to happen.

superDONG - Pok Yue Weng
Part of the official selection in Director's Fortnight of the 60e Cannes Film Festival this year, superDONG was one of the shorts shown during the media preview. Animation and humour usually go down well with audiences, and it is no doubt that despite its short duration, this was one that could be easily enjoyed.

Fonzi - Kirsten Tan
Shot in black and white, Fonzi is the modern day Pinnochio, believing that she has a real family in the real world, before being challenged on those beliefs. It's a film on existentialism, but one which I thought could have been shortened a fair bit given that some scenes were repetitive. Had a bit of a creepy feel to it, especially when some probing questions were asked.

Take Me Home aka I Saw Jesus - Gozde and Russel Zehnder
The first thing that strikes is that it's on 8mm, and the soft focus made it difficult to folllow. Telling the story of select individuals, I found it difficult to connect with the characters, and didn't really enjoy the story. Technically the filmmakers have set out to achieve what they wanted, but I think using yesterday's technology for an audience today could be somewhat trying if the story didn't engage.

LtoR: Charles Lim, Zhang Wenjie, Kirsten Tan, Gavin Lim, Gozde Zehnder, Russel Zehnder, Pok Yue Wen, Kristin Saw

All the directors for this week's edition were on hand today for a Q&A session after the screening - Wrong Turn's Charles Lim, Tracks' Gavin Lim, superDONG's Pok Yue Weng, Kirsten Tan for Fonzi, and Gozde and Russel Zehnder for Take me Home aka I Saw Jesus. Both Zhang Wenjie from the National Museum and Kristin Saw from Substation were on hand to moderate the panel. As always, given the content of discussion, this session recap below contains spoilers for those who have yet to watch them.

Kristin: Perhaps we can begin with the filmmakers introducing themselves and sharing the background behind their films?
Yue Weng: I had this idea for a very long time, and finally put together a script which was submitted to the Digital Film Fiesta.
Russel: It was a combination of a few things. Mainly I wanted to go back to the house I grew up in, and see how different it is now.
Gozde: We wanted to explore the connection to music and long scenes, and make a whole short film using 8mm, so thats why we used the medium.
Gavin: Tracks was part of a project to put together some short films from around the region about different subway systems, and I was the one who did the piece for Singapore.
Kirsten: Fonzi was my graduation project in my polytechnic days. I was reading up a lot of books on existence and consciousness, and had watched a lot of films which had influenced Fonzi.
Charles: I am from a visual arts background, and Wrong Turn was my cathartic reaction. I'm interested in using visuals but the film is quite brainless actually *chuckle* My wife came out with the story, and I thought it was a chance to collaborate with my wife. It was shot with a still camera, and I tortured the actors into moving very slowly.

Q (for Gozde and Russel): Was it a deliberate decision to film in 8mm?
Russel: We wanted to try filming with 8mm, and if shot on DV, it would be emotionally different.
Gozde: Yes, 8mm gives a feeling of timelessness and a melancholic texture.
Russel: The feel of 8mm film is different. We deliberately made it soft focus, grainy, and the colours were saturated. We were working on the story for a while, approximately a year, before shooting it on film.

Q (from Wenjie to Kirsten): You mentioned that you read a lot of books, and watched films which had inspired you. Could you share what they were?
Kirsten: The script was developed first, then came the black and white film concept, with visual references from movies by Fellini. I like and am very fond of his 8 1/2. When watching his films, I would pause for lighting references. The original shooting format had been film, before the lack of budget meant finishing it on DV.

Q: What was the inspiration for superDONG?
Yue Weng: For those who know me, I spend a lot of time in the toilet! I had actually recced a lot of places for some of those graphics.
Wenjie: Did you actually draw some of those graffiti yourself?
*Laughter all round*

Q: Are there any specific message in your film? And Gavin, how did you manage to have an entire MRT carriage to shoot in?
Gavin: Shooting in the MRT means you have to pay. Thankfully we got a grant from SFC, and everything went into the rental. The script was changed a lot, and we had only 4 hours to shoot. Most of the shots that you see, were not inside those 4 hours. So we did have to film on the run, and were actually caught on the last take. My crew were obviously younger than me, so my reasoning "I'm a film student" obviously did not fly. I've done commercials and short films, but this was the most difficult of them all. For my third short Tracks, I wanted to go back to just having dialogue and good actors. And zero dialogue recorded on the train could be used. I also wanted to do something serious, about haunting. You know, when you lose a dear one and how after three days they will come and visit you, and haunt when you can't let go. It was shot with ambiguity, and the real message is about letting go.
Russel: Sorry, unfortunately there's no message for mine. We wanted to get feeling and emotion across, and the story wasn't the main attraction and focus.
Yue Weng: No message in mine too, just wanted to tell a story.
Kirsten: These kind of questions are quite scary. Any discussion into Fonzi will be very long, especially for the last shot of the film, which to some means running to freedom, and to others, never escaping.
Charles: I wanted to create a situation where I could play. I was watching a number of silent films on YouTube, and wanted to make something for an audience to feedback and enjoy.

Q: The shorts today explored visuals and effects. Were they films whose focus is on form rather than on content?
Charles: I guess some audiences don't know how to react to video art. The film was screened in some festivals overseas, and some had actually stood up and danced, leaving the organizers quite perplexed and didn't know how to react.
Kirsten: For myself, I focused too much on form, and felt that I lost track of the basics of film and was in a black hole for a while. I'm still experimenting, but I think they can be complimentary and can go together.
Gavin: Tracks was minimal on form. I have to apologize that the transfer was done quite badly as you can see, and I actually tried not to do anything fanciful visually, except for that tangerine-green colour that my DP hated.
Gozde: We tried to tell the story visually, but this is our take, and the sharing of our story in this way.
Russel: Filming using Super8 is going back to basics, and save for 2 shots on a tripod, everything was handheld. We had 2 cameras, one for indoors and one for outdoor shots, and had a soundman always around to record sounds on a separate DV cam.
Yue Weng: The form is the content, and without visual effects, it wouldn't work.
Charles: Coming from a visual arts background, and with the advent of reality in reality TV, it does make some wonder if something being done too beautifully, is deemed as dishonest?

Q: How big is your production crew, and how large was your budget?
Charles: We had 3 guys each time on the set, and 2 using the reflectors. The budget was S$3K.
Kirsten: I had 11 to 12 people on set, and the equipment is sponsored by the school. We had a S$10K budget from SFC.
Gavin: The crew was about 4 to 5 persons, and we got a grant from the SFC.
Gozde: The budget was S$2.5K and all went into the Super8 film, processing and payment to the 5 to 6 crew.
Yue Weng: I had a 4 to 5 man crew and it was shot in one night.

Q (for Take me Home): I notice that in your credits you had a Festival Coordinator?
Gozde: Yes, the specific role is to fill up forms, finalizing copies, things that you need to prepare for the festivals. It's really hard work.

Q (for Gavin): Does your film contain plenty of improvisation, or does it follow closely to the script? It reminded me of Wong Kar-wai films.
Gavin: This was one of my hardest productions. It's scripted entirely, but might have changed a little during the delivery of lines. What was in the final cut had about 40% edited out, and we had little time, so we didn't manage to rehearse as much as I would have liked to. During the shoot we had peope gawking at the actors, so it's not an ideal situation. And actually I tried hard not to be very "Wong Kar-wai".

Q (for Yue Weng): The film had travelled to Cannes, and what was the interaction and reaction like from the French audience?
Yue Weng: The French definitely saw superDONG differently, and are more interested in the actors than the animation. They said the characters were interesting, quirky, weird and resonated with them.

Q: If something is scripted, will it come across as too formal, and sometimes improvisation may be a tool to bring across realism?
Gavin: I'm a big fan of improvisation.
Kirsten: Personally, improvisation is very, very useful. If over-rehearsed, a line in itself is never a line, and improvisation helps to get behind those scripted lines.
Charles: The music you heard for my short film, it's improvisation all the way, each time it's different.
Gozde: There's not much talking in my film, and we didn't use actors but casted those whom we think look interesting. It depends on how you want to do it.
Russel: We actually improvised a lot on the set. The script was for grant purposes! *chuckles* However it's important though, as the script is there to serve as a guide. But once you see how the actors move in the space, ideas will start to flow.
Yue Weng: superDONG was storyboarded, which is quite standard for animation, and it's rather action-specific.

Q: Describe your film in one word.
Charles: Play.
Gavin: Ah?!
Gozde: Melancholy.
Russel: Home.
Yue Weng: Sex?!
Kirsten: In festivals, the more common words used to describe Fonzi include Alienation, Isolation, and Trapped. It's too difficult, but I would use the word Chessboard.

Q (for Charles): Do you think your short is cinema?
Charles: I'm questioning cinema, how we can look, and relook it.

Q (by Wenjie): As always, to wrap up, we usually ask what's your next project?
Charles: I'm working on sea stories.
Kirsten: I'm doing a short film in Thailand, where I am based now.
Gavin: I just finished shooting "Bastard-Born Under a Bad Star", and it should be completed in the next few weeks.
Gozde: A black and white short film.
Russel: Holiday! *chuckles*
Yue Weng: I'm working on an animated series, not on superDONG, but on another subject.

Photo Credits: Richard Lim


The 4th Singapore Short Cuts continues next Saturday, with a retrospective session featuring the shorts of Rajendra Gour. Do come and check out what is possibly the first Singapore anti-war film, and if you're curious how Singapore circa 60s and 70s looked and sounded like, then you definitely won't want to miss the next session! See you there!

Dead Silence

The Doll's Lecherous Too!

In 2004, James Wan and Leigh Whannell burst into contemporary horror-thriller genre with their highly successful movie Saw, and had created quite an enigmatic character in Jigsaw, the serial killer with highly questionable morality issues. Success had meant spawning a slew of sequels, though they hadn't really had much direct control over the quality of the subsequent movies, which I thought to date had made quite a neat trilogy.

So the pressure's to create something new, to wow audiences all over again. And sometimes, expectations set high will run into challenges when they're not met. Wan and Whannell combine forces once again for another potential stab at the genre and in doing so, had created a new character called Mary Shaw, a ventriloquist who had inspired an adage about having to keep quiet should you encounter her. However, Mary Shaw turned out to be a weak Jigsaw wannabe, and uses (well, you can say Jigsaw was inspired by) her wooden puppets, whom she calls children, to send chills and spills. I'm not sure why, but those demonic looking dolls are indeed creepy enough, they give Chucky of Child's Play a run for his money.

As with Jigsaw, some time is invested in having characters dig into Mary Shaw's background. It works like an investigative mystery, and as it went along, you'll begin to see some similarities in structure with Saw - the numerous twists and turns, events that are more than meets the eye, one more involving cops which I shall not ruin, and of course, the doll (see if you can spot the one Jigsaw uses)! But if compared, then Dead Silence was not as tight, and had a number of loopholes so wide, that it could be considered as a cheat.

The story tells of Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) who was made a widower when an unexpected delivery of Billy #57, the ventriloquist doll, seems to be the cause of his wife's demise - in probably one of the more gruesome scenes I've seen in a while. Investigations lead him to his hometown, where superstition about Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) seem be more than what is superficially discussed. Jamie gets reluctant help from Detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), while having to contend with his own estranged father, and his young wife with model looks (Amber Valletta).

Superb light and shadow play amplifies the creepy moments in Dead Silence, and it doesn't rely too much on cheap shock tactics to make you scream (wait, you're not supposed to, lest Mary Shaw rips your tongue out). With a bluish tinge throughout, Dead Silence rely quite successfully on its moody atmospherics and patient buildup, though I thought that its somewhat slower pacing would have enabled audiences to piece everything together for themselves. Unlike Saw's superb sleight of hand tactics, this one played out in a more straightforward manner, and sometimes quite clumsily too. The sound effects, when there's a premonition of something bad about to happen, works wonderfully in a crowded theatre, in creating heightened tension and anticipation.

Alas its loopholes spoilt what could have been yet another classic winner from Wan and Whannell, but Dead Silence had primed itself for potential sequels, should anyone want to pick up the ball from here. Watchable, but not by any Saw standards.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Brave Story

On Guard!

Say "Anime" these days, and the brewing spat between the local anime community and the company Odex will spring to mind, with the latter suing illegal downloaders of their licensed anime and allegedly gloating over the internet, leaving a bad aftertaste amongst the online folks. But I'm not into serialized anime (ok, I hear those chants of you-don't-know-what-you're-missing), but frankly, I prefer animated movies, as they're to the point, and nothing beats watching them on the big screen.

I thought Brave Story was going to be quite ordinary (from the trailer), but I was glad I was so wrong. It had an interesting premise, and built up nicely to a satisfying conclusion. It played on one of the questions I used to ask myself - what if one day you find everything going just wrong for you, and you're presented an opportunity to make them all right again, albeit with heavy personal sacrifice. Will you leave things as they are, or take the risk and go for it, with zero guarantees everything will come out just fine?

Based on a novel by Miyuki Miyabe, Brave Story has its protagonist, a young boy named Wataru, who seemed to be living the good life, until his world comes crashing down and he sees for himself his dad walking out on the family, and his mum succumbing to illness and is hospitalized. With a tip from the new boy in school, Mitsuru, he decides to try his luck at changing his destiny by passing through a magical gateway, which transports him to the World of Vision, a fantasy land where he has to look for the Tower of Fortune, where the Goddess of Fortune resides in and will grant a single wish. For Wataru, the choice is simple - to get his mother well again.

Fans of medieval fantasies like Dungeons and Dragons (not the movie incarnation) and games like Might and Magic, will have plenty of reasons to like Brave Story. It's like being the gamemaster, and observing your gamer wander around the make believe land recruiting followers, strike alliances, and battle foes, with some sword and sorcery thrown in. The world of Vision that Wataru journeys to, feels like Disneyland with its many worlds partitioned separately for exploration, and adventure. And it strikes the chord right in the beginning, offering some masterful strokes of comedy, and bestowing our protagonist not with great power, but starting him off right at the bottom, as a "hero apprentice", thereby holding your attention as you wait patiently for him to gain some experience.

What made Brave Story work, is clearly the character of Wataru. He's not all powerful, and through his earnestly unwitting and bumbling ways, serve to appeal to you as time goes by. For the young, he's sort of an ideal role model, at times too ideal (hey, I got no qualms with Jin Yong's goody-two-shoes Guo Jing character too) but then you realize that sometimes, these are the kind of boy scout heroes who are lacking screen appearances, and for a change, refreshing. They are plenty of situations where Wataru has to make critical decisions on sacrifice and morals, and in doing so however, stunted the story with predictable outcomes.

But Brave Story more than makes up for it with a host of supporting casts like the Lizard humanoid Kee-Keema, feline Meena, a pet baby dragon, and The Highlanders. The antagonist Mitsuru though, provides ample tussle and the clash of values with Wataru, and he's primarily the "villain", although a sympathetic one, to make our hero look good, and play off against, providing strong messages on friendship - sometimes your values are different, but if you're the friends forever type, you surely know who to count on when the going gets rough.

The animation might not be cutting edge, but it presents the material squarely, and occasionally had the wow-factor, especially in its grander depiction of the finale battles towards the end. Watch this in a proper theatre, and you'd appreciate the job the folks at Skywalker Sound has done. Brave Story might not have a lot of bells and whistles, but its buildup to the story, and its powerful ending, more than makes up for any potential flaws. Animes don't make it to our local screens very often, so supporting a good film like this, will pave the way to more good material coming our way.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


A Much Better Poster

Zombies being domesticated? Hell, if you wanna watch that, then this show is for you! Full of wicked dark humour, Fido also contains jabs at society, and plenty of cynical satire to satisfy the unsatisfied. Don't miss this independent Canadian movie, which I think should be given a decent shot at the local box office. For those with blood lust, this movie contains little blood and gore though.

To read my review of Fido at, click on the logo below:

Sunday, August 12, 2007

[DVD 2-Disc Limited Special Edition] Eye in the Sky (Gun Chung) (2007)

I made this purchase as a remembrance of the first Hong Kong movie I've caught during my first Hong Kong International Film Festival experience, and also getting that rare opportunity of having a picture snapped with lead actress Kate Tsui, and getting her autograph on the mini poster as well. That happened right after the second screening of the movie after the festival, which was way past midnight, and she was nice enough to oblige, even though she was visibly tired.

But in all honesty, I liked the movie as well, as it had something to do with the day job, and given I had reviewed the movie earlier, I shall not repeat myself, and instead provide the lowdown on the 2 Disc Limited Special Edition DVD from Sundream Motion Pictures. What pushed me to purchase this version instead of the standard 2-disc edition, was the inclusion of a film strip from the movie, which contains 6 frames from the film. I realized that it could be just landscape shots if I was unlucky, but I guess I can't be choosy when mine turned out to have Tony Leung included in all 6 frames. also thrown in 5 exclusive photographs from the movie, and if you're interested to find out more about this edition, you can click on this link for more details.

The Code 3 DVD comes with animated menus, but the menus are in Mandarin/Cantonese only, so if you do not speak/read the language, you'll have to rely on guesswork to know what the menu selection actually means. Audio is available in either the Cantonese Dolby Digital EX 5.1 track, the Cantonese DTS ES 6.1 track, or the dubbed Mandarin Dolby Digital EX 5.1 version. Subtitles are available in traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese or in English. The visual transfer is quite pristine, clear and without any noticeable flaws, and is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The main gripe here though is the scene selection. While 12 chapters are available, there isn't any indication, either by animated thumbnail scenes or chapter description, to tell you what the chapter's all about. It's just a number, and you'll have to rely on your sense of "guesstimation". Something to improve here.

Disc 1 contains the movie with no extras, and Disc 2 is the special features disc. Being a Hong Kong release, those who do not understand Cantonese will find no help here, given the absence of subtitles in Chinese or English. One thing to note though is the absence of Tony Leung in most of the features, i.e. there's no one-to-one interviews where you come to expect them. During the Hong Kong International Film Fest Gala which I attended, he was unfortunately absent too, so there seems to be a void where fans cannot hear his views on the movie.

First up, there's a dedicated Interviews section with cast and crew, interspersed with scenes from the movie at regular intervals However, there are no subtitles included in the interviews conducted in Cantonese, and for some reason, the background music seem to drown out some of the conversation and the interviewees' voices.

Director Yau Nai Hoi (9:21) talked about the international audience's reaction to the movie's local nuances, given that it had already travelled to festivals overseas. He also shared the most difficult portion of the movie, as well as revealed that the script actually underwent continuous changes during production. He also added that there was some deliberate considerations not to make it seem like a Johnnie To movie (To's one of the producers though), and for the first two days, To was actually on set, but decided not to be around so as not to add pressure to the first time director. Yau explained how the characters for Tony Leung and Simon Yam were designed, and that the scene with the tailing of Lam Suet's Fatman was actually the longest scene to film, given that they only had a narrow window of time each day to film in. This interview gave quite a pretty good insight.

Producer Johnnie To (7:55) also had a segment, and has good words of praise for his protege Yau, with whom he had collaborated for 16 years, and who is now pushed to the forefront of decision making since he's now the director. To also spent some time debunking the myth that he had a hand in the direction of the movie.

Simon Yam (7:57) talked about putting weight for his role (no, that's not a pillow under his shirt, he really was pudgy), and how good natured director Yau is. He also compared the stylistic differences between To and Yau, and told of his good impression of co-stars Kate, and complimented the professionalism of Tony Leung. Yam hoped that should Yau ask him to make another movie together, that it will not involve any changes to his weight! I always thought Simon Yam was an all round nice guy, and watching him give this interview, surely reinforced that thought.

Kate Tsui (clocking at 11:22, the longest of the lot), the new kid on the block, shared her first time experience in given a starring role in a movie, and talked about her first impressions of director Yau, and how she observed he was stressed with his job (he too was a first time director). In preparation for her role, she had actually asked friends in the police force about the Surveillance Unit, but they too did not know much about it, given that it's highly secretive. Being a rookie, she was awed at the presence of the veteran actors, and learnt a lot from Simon, Tony, Maggie Siu, and even Lam Suet, whom she was quite amused with. Kate actually broke down slightly with tears of heartfelt joy when she recounted that expectations for her were high given that she's handed a starring role, and when she'd seen the final cut, she was thankful that her character was not sidelined during editing, and actually was key to the very final scene. She thought that Eye in the Sky was an important film for her, and was extremely thankful to the cast and crew who took good care of her during production.

Rounding off the Interview section was the one with Lam Suet (6:25), who talks about his character eating most of the time when he's not robbing, and shares his thoughts of the movie and some memorable scenes.

A short "Making Of" (6:38) has interviews with the cast like Kate Tsui and Lam Suet, and Simon Yam explained that he took on 30 pounds for the role, and compared to Election, it seemed that Tony Leung and himself had swapped roles and mannerisms, with Tony Leung giving a more stoic performance than the crazed one in Election.

Eye in the Sky had travelled to various Film Festivals, and there's a separate section to include the highlights from each festival, In the Berlinale (4:19), there were interviews with the director, the audience members (on what they expected and who they're here to see), and had full houses for the 3 screenings it had. At the Hong Kong International Film Fest (3:48), there were interviews with the producer Tsui Siu Ming, Johnnie To and actor Simon Yam, and not to mention Lau Ching Wan too. I was there too, and you can read more of the proceedings from this link. The film had also travelled to the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy (3:56), and it included interviews with the audience and coverage of director Yau's opening speech. Eye in the Sky actually received a one minute ovation at the end of the screening, and Patrick Tam, whose movie After This Our Exile was also participating in the same festival, shares a few words too. Lastly, the Shanghai International Film Festival (3:57) had Yau, producer Tsui and Kate Tsui in a press conference, where questions from the press came fast and furious, adding much stress to the trio. Watch them "complain" :-)

The Hong Kong Gala Premiere (10:23) was included in a separate section from the above, and includes lengthy photo poses with various Hong Kong stars who graced the occasion. Short speeches were also given by the director, cast, and producer Tsui Siu Ming, and the guests also shared their thoughts of the movie after the screening.

A Yau Nai Hoi Director Featurette (14:15) consists of an interview with the director at an open air sidewalk cafe. It's quite an insight into the mind of the man who was chief scriptwriter to acclaimed Hong Kong director Johnnie To, with whom he has collaborated for 16 years. He also candidly shares his opinions and his way of doing things, about the stress faced with To when working with him, and his inspiration in joining the movie industry. Also included are interviews with others like To, Lam Suet, Kate Tsui and Simon Yam on their views of Yau. What was interesting in this feature was how Yau plans his action shots using coins and cigarette packs - something you must see to believe.

A short On Location Making Of (2:38) recounts an anecdote where the cast and crew were shooting a robbery scene, and a member of the public thought it was for real, and called in the police. So it was a mingling of the real cops and the reel cops in the scene that made the final cut.

The Trailers section contains a number of short trailer spots - two 20s spots, one 30s and one 40s, with slight variations in each, and a stylishly edited theatrical trailer which runs 2:03. Unfortunately the voiceovers are in Cantonese, and come without subtitles, except for those scenes lifted directly from the movie.

Lastly, there is the complimentary Photo Gallery, where 15 movie stills and 7 posters are included, which are the HK movie posters, and the international release posters for territories in Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and China.
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