Sunday, September 30, 2007

Cheaters (Nae Yeojaeui Namja Chingu)

Adjusting My Bulge

And speaking of fragmented timelines, they don't get presented as strongly as that in Cheaters, a Korean R21 movie. It's a modern day tale of relationships, and it actually has a very bleak and pessimistic outlook, in that everyone's trying to get into everyone else's pants, and nothing, not even marriage, is sacred anymore, but only the gratification of lust and the flesh is.

The movie opens with some candid documentary styled interviews with the man on the street, about their views about marriage, fidelity and the likes. We then get introduced to two lovers Suk-Ho (Choi Won-Young) and Chai-Young (Ko Da-Mi). The former is trying his best to get intimate with Chai-Young, after being accepted by her to be the man in her life. However, Chai-Young seems to be putting off physical intimacy until she gets to know him a little better (you go girl! For now at least). During their dates, she seemed a tad too distracted by the incessant ringing/messages from her mobile phone, and not before long, we discover the truth of her deceit, and share sympathies with Suk-Ho.

But here's where the movie starts to get interesting. We are put into different perspectives, and learn about the different characters and their general attitudes toward love and sex. That sweetie-pie, angelic face that Chai-Young possess, hides a devil-may-care attitude within. And Suk-Ho is no knight in shining armour too, as he hides even more secrets and skeletons inside his closet. And this continues for the ensemble cast of 6 characters, as we slowly take their perspective, and learn about their relations with one another. They all make strange bedfellows, and I wonder whether the advent and proliferation of mobile phones, actually help cheating partners go about perpetrating their infidelity by making it all the more easy to stay in touch, and make various clandestine appointments too.

What was interesting here in the narrative presentation, is the way details are revealed slowly point by point, which includes artifacts mentioned and seen through the course of events. Even a simple music CD was highly effective in bringing out the truth amongst the players involved. The jump points from one narrative thread to the next are usually the mobile phone conversations, and each time it's revealed who the person at the other end is, will turn out to be a surprise. And I'm pretty amazed at how this was achieved consistently throughout the movie, keeping the surprises flowing, though some scenes were repetitive, especially when they represent certain important juncture in the movie.

And it's no doubt that the film played to a full house. Almost every couple got in on the hot and heavy, with total disregard to the commandment of not coverting thy neighbour's wife going out the window. If flesh is what you're here for, then flesh is what you get. Or if comedy is your thing, there are ample laugh out loud moments, but to be fair, it's more effective in bringing out that sly smile from within you as and when the secrets of the characters are revealed, providing you the "Aha!" moment that you share with the character put under the spotlight for that segment.

With a host of good looking cast throwing lust, caution (sorry, couldn't resist a bad pun) to the wind, it's a story that comes full circle, of reaping what you sow. Those who frown at infidelity, would probably want to give this movie a miss, given the less than cavalier attitudes presented, with nary a slap in the wrist for such bad behaviour.

Who Do You Want To Sleep With Today?

The Dead Girl


The story brought memories of an old television cult series called Twin Peaks. A dead, blonde girl's body is being discovered in the grasslands of an idyllic village, and this provides the catalyst for the movie as the plot unravels to tell of the stories that centers around that discovery. In summary, it had a total of 5 short stories all interweaved through a fragmented timeline, and a host of characters in those stories who have one way or another, played a part in the girl's life, during when she was alive, and after.

The Stranger stars Toni Collette as the woman who discovered the body, and how she gets thrust into the media limelight, yet yearning for that freedom to flee from her domineering mother. The Sister tells of a pathologist's inability to fight on and continue her family's believe that her missing sister is still out there somewhere, and not to throw in the towel and give up hope. The Wife will manage to rile you up, with the story of a neglected wife, and her hopes for reconciling with her estranged husband, who prefers gallivanting late at night to spending time with her, and of course, with her decision to protect her husband's secrets to losing him for sure altogether when revealed. And The Mother reminds you that a mother's love knows no bounds. Hurt by her daughter's disappearance, the worse case scenario happens, and Mum has got to heal old wounds. It's a touching short, and I thought one of the most powerful amongst the rest. And rounding it up, like the last pieces of a jigsaw, is The Dead Girl's story, where we see a foul mouthed Brittany Murphy bringing it all on.

The movie had excellent performances all round by the ensemble cast, and it doesn't have any big bang moments to shock and awe. It's a dramatic story, rather than a mystery-thriller-whodunnit. I was glad that it didn't go down the torture porn route, although it could have, but didn't need to. Leaving it where it is will already allow your imagination to run wild what the outcome will be. However, this might serve as a let down to some as it might seem that it failed to want to bridge the missing gap in the timeline. Fragmented timeline and multiple, parallel stories do seem to be the rage these days (Babel anyone?), but it all boils down to how much of a story you can make out of a single drop in the pond. That's what The Dead Girl feels like, with the stories the inevitable ripples that fan out.

You Are My Sunshine looks like a song very popularly used in end credits, and so far I had thought that it was a simple childhood nursery song. But when used in this context, it had a profound depth telling of longing and missing, that everyone has their own sunshine that they hold very dear to. Recommended movie, especially if you're into the fragmented timeline fad.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Death at a Funeral

Halt or I'll Leap

Funerals are serious business, where the mood is usually grim and sombre, and friends and family come together to commemorate the passing of their loved one. The proceeding is usually prim and proper, with some protocols to adhere to, for fitting tributes given in a dignified manner.

Death at a Funeral however, is a delightfully wicked black comedy of everything that can go wrong in a funeral. Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) is preparing for the funeral of his dad, but my, there are so many things on his plate, such as bring trusted to provide the eulogy rather than his brother Robert (Rupert Graves), who is a best selling author, and having his wife constantly remind him about their deposit for their new home.

With the gathering of family and friends, expect the bizarre to happen, and it involves around, and this is not exhaustive, meeting the new prospective father-in-law when you're high on hallucinogens (Alan Tudyk in a scene stealing role here), a perpetually missing bottle of "Valium", a pastor who's in a hurry, an old senile uncle with a foul mouth, and a 4 foot tall stranger who seems to have a very shocking secret to reveal should he not get his way. There are multiple plot elements here all perfectly linked together like a well oiled stage play, and resolved in very satisfying outcome.

As a comedy, there are the big moments that are played out just for laughs, but what is commendable, is how it managed to sustain that laughter throughout the movie. It's not just laugh out loud moments, but little chuckles sprinkled along the way that had brought out smiles. And as you would already come to expect from a British production, the movie contains superb individual spoken lines that you would have to listen attentively to (and deserves repeat watching), but at the same time doesn't give you an inkling of a feeling that it's only for the linguistically-skilled, because hey, it does enjoy that occasional toilet humour and shit joke as well!

If you're in need for a good laugh, then Death at a Funeral is a crystal clear choice this week!

The Nanny Diaries

I Am Nanny

Given the dual income generating parents these days, most children are brought up by domestic help. They rarely see their parents on the weekdays given that they're out bringing the dough back to feed their lifestyle, so most of the chores of child raising are left to the maids or the nannies. In Singapore, this phenomenon continues to grow, and in New York, it becomes a fictional social study, where you have a best selling novel turned into a movie (what else?).

In many ways, The Nanny Diaries is similar to The Devil Wears Prada. You have a young starlet (Scarlett Johansson not in her usual blonde bombshell locks) in a lead role, playing a character who is fresh out of college. She works for an uncompromising boss who could be the devil in disguise, dishing out almost impossible chores with even more ridiculous deadlines, and that her line of work puts her own personal relationships under fire. Oh, and not forgetting about the high fashion here too.

Johansson stars as Annie the Nanny (doesn't that just rolls off your tongue so easily?), a business graduate with a minor in anthropology, trying to find her feet in the corporate world. And gets stumped with a question that most of us would be tongue tied for the most times too - how do you describe yourself - if you try and answer it very truthfully. So in a twist of fate, she gets employed in a lucrative job as a child minder for a very rich NY family that only wants the best for their child. which means a very tall order of duties (reading the Wall Street Journal? Speaking in French??), chores like preparing meals that a health freak will die for, and not to mention sticking to the 101 house rules.

And in true diary fashion where you want to rant about your daily mishaps, while at the same time trying to keep things anonymous in the unfortunate event someone violates privacy, Laura Linney's mean employer type gets labelled as Mrs X, but please don't compare her to Merryl Streep's role as she doesn't get to spit veiled venom all the time. The mean streak's there, but coming more from a very demanding mother, who seems to have forgotten how to exactly become one. In truth, the story here becomes in part a social observation of the rich NY Upper East end corporate type household, and does have a veiled criticism on how in wanting the best of both worlds of having a child and keeping personal interests alive. What I enjoyed in the story though involved the expose of hypocrisy, especially those involving parents who want to keep up with the Joneses, and I'm sure many would have experienced this once in a while.

Johansson doesn't have plenty to do here except to become a very frustrated nanny who teaches her charge how to enjoy life and break unreasonable rules, something every child would definitely want to do given the innate rebellious streak within, especially from a spoiled brat. The comedy's quite predictable too, and one overused sequence involves an umbrella that looks suspiciously borrowed from Citigroup for a very tongue-in-cheek Mary Poppins homage. It doesn't have any genuinely funny laugh out loud moments, and got bogged down by a cursory romantic tangle with Chris Evan's Harvard Hottie. Paul Giamatti lends a helping hand to his American Splendour filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini as the dad who's always unavailable.

With slick editing spruced by special effects and a relatively contemporary soundtrack, The Nanny Diaries is a light film despite its occasional social observation and rants. But the bottom line here, is a reflection for parents if they are doing all they can to provide a relatively normal childhood for their children, and of course, not to neglect them (like Joshua's), and definitely not toss them primarily to the care of nannies.


Demon Child Strikes Back!

There are kids who are adorable, and kids who just gets on your nerve. Joshua gets filed under the latter, with a creepy look to boot. No offense to child actor Jacob Kogan who gets the titular role, but when he's brooding with that psychotic glint in the eye, you just want to throw him into a cage and toss the key out of the window.

But this demonic kid pales in comparison to The Omen's Damien, although both will score high marks for their diabolical scheming mind. The latter is the devil incarnate, but Joshua turns out to be your atypical child who feels threatened by the coming of a new born sibling. You know, the jealous rage that permeates as they perceive the lack of attention and love bestowed upon them. Dad Brad Cairn (Sam Rockwell) used to be his best buddy, but Joshua feels that his own lack of athleticism might be that barrier between them, and given his personal preference for the arts like the fondness for dark musical pieces on his piano. Mom Abby (Vera Farmiga) on the other hand, turns out to be a nervous wreck, which works to Joshua's advantage in pushing the right buttons. It's revenge of the neglected kid basically, but without the Devil's direct helping hand.

The movie tried to be creepy with the employment of usual shock tactics seen in most horror movies, and they do feel a little out of place here, especially when it tries to position itself as a psychological thriller. It's nothing very cerebral about it, and for the most parts, its extremely slow pace brings about a sense of frustration, especially when plot loopholes, or irrational character behaviour that you'd come not to expect, gets so blatantly glossed over, thinking that audiences are idiots.

You can't help but to feel that the story development was too contrived as incidents happen too conveniently, with nary any actual resolution except toward the inevitable ending. There's nothing chilling about it, except that you now realize that smart kids do become a nightmare when they put their noodle to the test of outwitting, outplaying and outlasting their parents. Perhaps the only saving grace here is Sam Rockwell's performance as the dad who's trying to figure everything out, and at the same time protecting the new offspring from the clutches of her now demented brother.

But seriously, all Joshua requires is a good long drawn spanking from the slipper, out of the public view of course.

Savage Grace

My Son My Lover

It's been a long time since I've written a short review and stayed true to the nutshell, and I'm compelled to do just that now. Savage Grace is based on the murder of Barbara Daly Baekeland in 1972, and this movie is a dramatization of that incident, but it goes way back to paint a picture of a sad woman of society who gets no love, and although this is brilliantly played by Julianne Moore, that is about the best aspect of the movie.

Otherwise, the story is a yawnfest, and begins in a post WWII year of 1946, with the Baekelands being quite the well to do family, with dysfunctional written all over it. The man of the house, Brooks (Stephen Dillane) seems like a war hero, but behaves anything like one, and the story starts off with the infant Tony (later played by Eddie Redmayne) being born to the household.

As the family jet sets from one luxury location to another in Europe, you begin to wonder just what point it's trying to make. Throw in a questionable sexual orientation in Tony, with plenty of forbidden trysts, and you get a hit fueled with sex and violence, not.

In a one word summary: Utterly Boring. OK, make that two.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Truth Be Told

Can You Handle The Truth?

Being keen to track every Singapore made movie out there (not including those which are joint ventures of course), I've been tracking Truth Be Told for some time already, as early as last year when I got wind of the production. I even chased it all the way to the Hong Kong International Film Festival / HK FILMART in March this year, and could have attended the press screening, but alas the clash of timings with a separate event I got to cover, meant I returned home empty handed save for a promotional flyer. Nonetheless I'm glad that it finally got a theatrical screening, and is scheduled to run from October 4th.

Truth Be Told (TBT) is set in an HDB estate. Wait, before you roll your eyes at yet another local movie set in the HDB heartlands, or having its story dwell on the down and trodden, I've got to echo a sentiment made by a local short filmmaker that I agree with. HDB is very much part of our landscape, like it or not, so why shouldn't we have more stories coming out of the estates? Besides, if I put it in a different way, behind every closed door of an HDB flat apartment, is a story waiting to be told. It might seem that these stories are trivial ones that you get to read about in the press, but when in the hands of a creative writer, you get a succinct story that on its own, could stand and engage an audience for 90 minutes.

A first feature film by Teo Eng Tiong and Lim Jen Nee, I felt TBT had a satisfying story, in that it doesn't try to bite off more than it can chew, and smartly put everything to happen within 12 hours, which naturally reduced the number of challenges one might face with production logistics and continuity. Compacting the timeline meant little luxury for the plot to drag unnecessarily, and it kept its even tempo throughout, save for some flashback moments inserted now and then which built the backstory of the lead characters in the movie. I felt that the editing between flashbacks could have been clearer, or transitioned more smoothly (I've always regarded Highlander being one of the best in this aspect), but this is just a minor gripe, and nobody would get lost in the narrative style anyway.

Television actress Yvonne Lim makes her debut foray into local film, and she plays Renee Donovan, who's back in Singapore to take on a new career as a television producer for the current affairs programme "Exposed" for fictional television station Channel 6. With her on the job is an experienced cameraman Damien, played by actor Bernard Tan, and it's your usual rookie versus an old hand, with conflicting ideals and ideas as to the coverage of their content that led them to Blk 33 Bukit Ho Swee, which in actuality, one of Singapore's "troubled" neighbourhoods with a majority of elderly folks living in the old 1 to 2 room flats with dark and stanky corridors.

This presents ample opportunity for the filmmakers to tackle some genuine and real social issues on the plight of those forgotten and left behind in our nation's pursuit of excellence and wealth, without the feeling of being overwhelmingly forced, while holding the cards closely to their chest, revealing slowly but surely, the keys to the mysteries presented. While no doubt enacted and fictional, it captured some stark scenes which we might have encountered in passing as we go about our daily lives, such as that old lady around the corner whom nobody actually knows about personally, but becomes a cruel victim of various neighbourhood rumours, no thanks to the idling aunties at void decks. Or the disappearing cobbler who plys his trade at the neighbourhood centres, and the ubiquitous coffeeshops selling economical rice.

The leading characters here are layered, in that there's always more to the surface of things, though it reined itself in by not being overly complicated and confusing. Like the secrets behind closed doors and having dirty linen not washed in public, everyone is more than meets the eye. And the story allows you to speculate their backgrounds as you go along with the nuggets of information provided, until all are resolved toward the finale. You'll wonder about the Chinese girl having "Donovan" as a last name, the wanting to break the poverty cycle with education and thus an opportunity to escape the rut, and the extremes one would go to forget an embarrassing past when moving on.

But it's not always doom and gloom in this drama-mystery, although the trailers would have you believe it might be some kind of movie shot with content straight from the X-Files. It's more rooted in realism than the supernatural, really. Ample light hearted moments are provided by HDB Tan, a caricature of civil servants who take pride in their execution of various statutory board and government policies. He has perhaps the best lines in the movie and Louis Lim delivered them so convincingly, you won't be faulted if you thought that he really was one of those civil servant types, acted perfectly to a T. Yvonne Lim has shown that she can carry a movie on her petite shoulders despite not being one of the obvious A-listers on Mediacorp, and she joins the ranks of the rare few who have broken through from television to the silver screen, while the veterans actors like Liang Tian and Steven Woon (who had bit roles in movies like S11 and The High Cost of Living lent their heavyweight presence to the production.

In obvious terms, you can only do a first film once, and Truth Be Told is one of the better looking first films that not only looks right, but has a decent story to tell. It doesn't set out to shock audiences with daliances on things like violence, language, nudity, sex or by having itself banned. Instead, TBT presents an uncomplicated drama mystery story which had delivered the best it can. Watch and judge the truth for yourself come October 4th.


After the screening, the directing and producing husband and wife team of Eng Tiong and Jen Nee were present to talk about their movie, and birthday girl Yvonne Lim also graced the ocassion and shared her thoughts about Truth Be Told. The screening was a full house, and there were a number of friends, crew and filmmakers amongst the audience, which made this session the most cordial of all the Blog Aloud screenings I've been to.

Some of the points shared by Yvonne Lim during the session included

  • She had grown up living in a 3 room flat, though she had heard about the 1 and 2 room flats, she had never experienced living in one

  • During the 18 day shoot they had spent a lot of time interacting with the elderly folks who live in those flats

  • The SERS programme will force most of them to move out, although if given a choice, they would prefer to stay put

  • The extras that you see in the film are real residents of the estate

Director Eng Tiong revealed that the movie was conceptualized 4 years ago, and he had actually stayed in the estate before. When he learnt that the estate was selected for SERS, he wanted to preserve his memories of the area before it was torn down. He wanted to capture the estate on 35mm, and at the end of the year, most of the residents would be moving out. Jen Nee and himself came up with the story 2 years ago, and there had been 7 draft scripts since. The movie was shot within 18 days, and was completed last April. The reason why it was released now was due to timing and funding.

End Tiong also revealed that the movie was shot on HD and then transferred to 35mm for screening. Through conversation some time ago, and today after the screening, he's a keen believer of digital cinema, and both him and Jen Nee are extremely unselfish in wanting to share their experience of making their debut film. For those interested to learn more, you can always drop them an email or comment on their blog, which contains a wealth of information on the production of the movie, in particular, the post production process.

Yvonne had explained that she had met with Eng Tiong and Jen Nee at a Ya Kun Kaya Toast outlet in Toa Payoh, and she read the script in one night to understand the character and to see if she can perform in the role. Eng Tiong recounted that he thought Yvonne was hardworking given that they had only given the script to her late that night and by the afternoon the next day, she had already contacted them.

Eng Tiong had also introduced some of this crew members who were present, including Chee Wei the music composer, and Amandi Wong, the Director of Photography.

Q: Besides funding, what was your biggest challenge?
Eng Tiong: It's the momentum and the engine, which means passion. Things don't happen for you all the time, and there were pressure from family and sponsors. At one point we ran out of funding, and the willpower to carry on, and the passion was required to drive it forward. In making the movie, everyone learned from experience, which is valuable.

Q: After you have seen the film, did you like it?
Eng Tiong: One word to describe the feeling: "Song!" It's fantastic to be be able to see how the production evolved from idea to script to screen.
Jen Nee: I am my own worst critic, and there is room for improvement. I thought it wasn't too bad since we had limited resources, but managed to pull it off.


Truth Be Told premieres locally on October 4th. Do get your tickets early. Support local movies!

Click here for the Official Movie Website, and here for the production blog.



Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Detective (C+ Jing Taam)

I Spy With My Little Eye

I got a production flyer of this movie from the HKIFF FILMART in March earlier this year, and the gritty look does make it very compelling to watch, especially when you have a Heavenly King Aaron Kwok in the lead role. Filmed mainly in Thailand with a very Thai production crew, Oxide Pang brings back some memories of his and his brother's earlier work Bangkok Dangerous. I thought this could work without the supernatural bit thrown in, and in actuality, constituted a very minute part in the overall run time. However, that would make it a pretty plain detective noir film.

The opening song, Me Panda, is one of the best songs which gel and provides the necessary energy to start off a movie, and not since Inside Man's Chaiyya Chaiyya had I grooved to the beat. Excellent sound design, no doubt migrated from the Pang Brother's horror skillset, helped enhance the enjoyment too.

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Voice of a Murderer

This is the News

True crime makes interesting storytelling, but while the usual enactments are rather standard operating procedure, this one offers some strong compelling drama in allowing you to sympathize with the parents, and severely criticizes the authorities for their lack of professionalism and expertise in handling such situations. While it is like an episode of Crimewatch made into a movie version, it should still be able to engage true crime story lovers. The ending, with real artifacts being offered, remains chilling to the bone.

To read my review of Voice of a Murderer at, click on the logo below:

Shoot 'Em Up

The Name's Smith. Mr Smith

Shoot 'Em Up is a guilty pleasure in watching a souped up modern day Western, where a stranger rides into town, minding his own business, but his innate qualities of helping the meek and the downtrodden almost always brings him adventure uncalled for. Trouble looks for him, and he has the opportunity to show everyone, and the audience, just why he's so damn dangerous.

And dangerous is how Clive Owen played "Mr Smith", a pseudonym given to him as he's a one man army with no name, no allegiance, and a mysterious past. Nobody knows who he is and what his story his, but we know him as he gets sucked thick into the action, and follow him through his adventures of staying alive and dishing out vengeful justice on those that stand in his way. He chomps not a cigar but a carrot like an Energizer bunny that refuses to give up, and makes Paul Giamatti's Hertz look like Elma Fudd in trying to get lead pumped into the bunny.

It's an out and out action movie in the veins of Crank, and in many similar ways, played out like a violent video game too. And gratuitous violence doesn't just cut it, it has to be stylized as well While you marvel at Mr Smith's near invulnerability, as expected and a given for any hero in this genre. Bear in mind though, that it doesn't take itself too seriously, with many of the stunts and set action pieces here bordering on the incredible and the ridiculous, but hey, who's complaining? It sure does bring a chuckle or two in its attempts perhaps at ramping up such sequences for the action fan boys. But if you think Hong Kong actioners look too staged and choreographed, then this one may not be your cup of action tea.

High in its body count thanks to the deadly skills of Smith and countless of extras, Shoot 'Em Up is not just about guns guns guns, but had its fair share of sexual situations too, thanks to sex siren Monica Bellucci as a prostitute. As the saying goes, there's nothing more appealing to an audience than sex and violence, and what was pretty audacious, that perhaps had to be seen to be believed, is how the movie managed to marry both together, in a pretty laugh out loud scene that brings to mind any typical treatment that a Hong Kong Category III will adopt.

It's an adrenaline rush from beginning to end, and a loud and noisy movie that's to be filed under guilty pleasure. Clive Own is believable as a one man army - who needs the tuxedo, martini and Aston Martin? - while Paul Giamatti has enough wickedness and menace as a shady unforgiving mercenary. While it has an anti-gun message, truth is, we're here for the senseless violence it offers instead.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

Chuck and Larry

Folks would have remembered Kevin James as the affable guy who needed help from Will Smith to hook up with girls in the romantic comedy Hitch. Which I thought was a little strange, because, and I'm not gay, James comes across in likeable terms. In Chuck and Larry, he's the latter, again looking for help as his job as a firefighter puts him in considerable risks, and wants to ensure that his children's welfare is taken of in the unfortunate event that he goes.

So who can a man turn to except to his best friend, Chuck (Adam Sandler), through a vowed favour to repay. In order go get around red tape, he has to marry somebody who will get his insurance dollars and use that to care for his children. And since same-sex domestic partnership is in, why not exploit it with none other than a buddy whom you have known for considerable time? But of course getting a ladies man to forever ditch his gallivanting ways is a tall order, and worse, having him to declare that he's gay is akin to asking him to lose all his limbs (yes, including that one).

And to a test of their brotherly friendship and marital vows, temptation comes in the form of hot lawyer Alex (Jessica Biel, who looked smokin hot with those glasses), who proves to be too much to handle for the women-loving Chuck. Is it always that women will let down their guard with a gay guy who proves to be a best of both worlds confidante?

Expect the usual gay and homophobic jokes to spew from the movie. However, Chuck and Larry somehow had a lot more heart in it than anyone would like to credit it for. While touching on certain gay issues does allow it to receive some punching bag treatment to bring on some laughs, I felt that it was not so much about gayness or a gay show, than it is about the friendship amongst the bestest of friends, you know, the one whom you can slug it out with when your views differ, but no sooner than the fists are put away, you can hit the nearest pub and down some pints together. While you may argue that it tackles the gay issue and opposition to them in a rather superficial manner, I thought it covered a lot of ground, and while they may be disguised under laughter, actually had very serious and contemporary issues brewing underneath it all. It may seem like a platform mouthpiece, but provides a very succinct coverage of the discrimination and prejudice these same-sex lovers face from society.

The supporting cast here are recognizable faces, although reduced mostly to caricatures, like Dan Aykroyd, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi as a federal employee fraud investigator that you would just love to hate, especially with his disgustingly unhygienic coin pouch and irritating demeanour.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is a pretty even comedy with dramatic and touching moments. It's a romantic comedy with an added dimension, filled with an excellent soundtrack from acts like Wham, PM Dawn and even Cyndi Lauper. Oh, and you'll never look at, or use postal terms, ever the same again!

Balls of Fury

Ping Pong Ding Dong

Balls of Fury is a movie that takes the mickey out of martial arts movies, throwing in a few cheap laughs, and nothing more. Like bad movies with plenty of cheese that adopts martial arts like Mortal Kombat and DOA, Balls follows the usual formula of having a prodigy fall from grace, only to be thrust into a mission that involves prior intense training, and meeting with an adversary who in turn is skilled by the same martial arts teacher, so that the finale is a fight of values.

Often there's a secret weapon involved too, and there's no other direct reference I can think of except that this backtracks all the way to Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon, which the other two movies probably had traces of too. There's a tournament organized for the best of the best to pit their skills in, and the gladiators come from all over the world (so that you can include some poor geographically based comedy, in this case). Like Shih Kien's character in Enter the Dragon, you have an enigmatic megalomaniac as the chief of the tournament, held in a mansion, and in no time, our hero (hey, just for another Bruce Lee related reference for the heck of it, Jason Scott Lee's in this picture as well, though only as a supporting cast member) will discover its dark secrets, and kick the living daylights out of everyone to escape.

Except that in Balls, it is a ping pong / table tennis tournament, and the master of tournament is Feng (Christopher Walken, and I have no idea what's he doing here too), with assistance provided by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who is relegated from a similar head honcho role in the Mortal Kombat movie. And leading the charge to break into the tournament, is one time table tennis child prodigy Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler), a disgraced player now a fat shadow of his past formidable self, persuaded into the competition by a Secret Agent FBI man Agent Ernie (George Lopez) for the purpose of some serious federal investigations.

The comedy here is a bit tired, and most of the best bits were already included in the trailer. You have the usual sexist jokes involving sexy female characters, like the conveniently named Maggie (Maggie Q, doing so little and wearing even less), tired fat jokes, and plenty more from the blind sifu Master Wong (James Hong), whom I thought had probably the best lines in the movie, nevermind that most of them consists of faux pas martial arts philosophy full of sexual inneundos, and plenty of politically incorrectness coupled with slapstick physical comedy. But what went into effective overdrive, were the increasing attempts of sleight-of-hand moments in misdirection, which were spot on and timed perfectly. Other attempts though fell flat, especially those trying to recreate the spirit of nonsensical moments by the Abrahams-Zuker comedies, such as the inclusion of the sex slaves.

However Balls turns out to be pretty bland overall, and the storyline already well summarized in the trailer. Don't expect too much, and you might enjoy a chuckle or two. Otherwise rent this instead.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My DNA Says I Love You (基因決定我愛你)

I'm a Cleanliness Freak

I watched director Robin Lee's first feature film, The Shoe Fairy, last year when it was part of the FOCUS: First Cuts series of movies, which showcased the works of up and coming Asian directors. amongst which I rated Crazy Stone and My Mother is a Belly Dancer as tops.

Robin Lee continues with her whimsical style and stories with My DNA Says I Love You. Perfectly breezy, nothing sophisticated in terms of storyline nor emotional depths. A lightweight drama with some comedy thrown in done saccharine sweet style which you will cringe or roll your eyes at, depending on your tolerance level. The good looking cast is a bonus too.

To read my review of My DNA Says I Love You at, click on the logo below:

Monday, September 24, 2007

[World Cinema Series Media Preview] Cairo Station (Bab El Hadid) (1958)

Don't Underestimate Me

I came, I saw and I was totally in awe.

The World Cinema Series by the National Museum Cinémathèque and co-presented by the Singapore Film Society will showcase the next film in its lineup on 9th October next month. I had the privilege of attending the media preview this evening for the movie Cairo Station by Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, and was thoroughly impressed by the quality of the movie, despite it being made almost 50 years ago.

In attendance today was Yousry Elsayed Mansou, a graduate from The Higher Institute of Cinema in Egypt (in 1981) and an ex-student of the director, and he had shared some valuable insights on the movie which you can read below. Yousry will also be present on screening day to interact with the audience after the movie, and I would encourage one and all to pick his brain to learn more about the movie, and of Egyptian cinema in general too.

Yousry shared that in his 4th year in the Institute, which was the graduation year, they had to sit in a director's workshop, and it was fortunate and lucky that his was with Youssef Chahine, although the director he idolizes was the director who preceded the batch before his! Nonetheless Youssef still remains one of the most remarkable filmmakers today, and is now 81 years old. His latest movie Heya Fawda (Chaos) was screened in competition at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival which ended about 2 weeks ago.

Youssef was born in 1926 and started to make movies from 1949. Cairo Station was made in 1958, and remains the only film in Egyptian cinematic history where the audience demonstrated within the theatre, and almost destroyed the seats. They had also asked for refunds as they didn't like the film, calling the film Ugly. It may seem strange to people today when they watch the movie, why such was the reaction then. It was the first day of screening, and it was removed from release. For 10 years nobody had watched it, until it was screened on television in Egypt, and many then had started to realize its importance.

Youssef Chahine had never spoken about Cairo Station during the 20 years, and relations between him and the scriptwriter were at breaking point - they never stopped blaming each other about the failure of the movie with the public. But on thing's for sure, the film was earlier than its time, and perhaps the audience then were not ready for it. In the movie, Youssef Chahine also plays one of the lead roles.


I believe Cairo Station marks my very first experience in watching an Egyptian movie (those television soap operas over the RTM channels when I was younger, don't exactly count). And having the opportunity to watch one made by an acclaimed Egyptian filmmaker, was nothing less than a bonus. What provided the icing on the cake, was that it was shown in 35mm print, and that is precisely the attraction of the World Cinema Series.

I was under the uninformed impression that older, black and white movies, will likely to be paced too slow for my liking, or have stories that are quite bland by today's standards. I was so wrong, and Cairo Station absolutely threw those notions out of my mental window the minute I experienced the first few minutes of it. It has an extremely strong story, sophisticated in that it managed to span multiple threads and had ensemble characters, having so much paced so nicely within its 74 minute runtime, and having them all come together neatly for the finale.

Having the events take place within a single day, it centers around 3 lead characters - Kenawi the newspaper boy (played by the director himself), who walks with a limp and gets discriminated against by the working folks at the train station (hence the English title), Hanuma the sultry, sexy soft drink seller (played by Hind Rostrom) and her beau Abu Sri (Farid Shawqi), a porter at the station who's galvanizing his fellow workers to form a union to fight for better wages and welfare. There you have the female lead in a familiar seductress role, an anti-hero, and the hero himself, caught in a love triangle, which starts to turn Kenawi's jealousy and having his love spurned, into a dangerous obsession.

Sounds like a Hitchcock-ian thriller? You bet! It's a dark movie indeed, one which explores the trappings of a misguided soul and his fetish and fantasies of beautiful pin up models, and because of his inability to express himself properly, gets frustrated and even with his relatively low IQ, starts to scheme to get his desires met. But it's not always all about Kenawi, as having the premise set in one of the busiest train stations, it allows for a number of avenues to introduce simple side stories to enrich the main narrative - every anonymous face in the station, definitely has a story to tell.

And what exactly was in the film that had made audiences back then upset? Well, I could offer a few suggestions, but by today's standards, it has seemed that it's already quite common, be it the water soaked clothing that accentuates a woman's curves, or a folio consisting of various scantily clad pin up models, or the many cleavage bearing shots, or perhaps some dancing and flirting amongst a train full of man, giving them that seductive wink? One wonders, but as with most situations, anyone seemed to have been crossing the boundaries, pushing the envelopes, or revolutionizing the way stories are told, would have met with either accolades for doing so, or unfortunate condemnation like what this film received during its very first screening.

But on hindsight, as always, this movie is nothing short of being remarkable. And having already watched it, I will be watching it again when the film screens once more to the general public on October 9th. Mark your calendars, and experience a world class production that has withstood the test of time - 50 years and counting, is no mean feat!


After the screening, Yousry shared with us some of the breakthroughs in tradition that this film has had. One, Farid Shawqi the actor is extremely well known for his heroic roles, but here, gets reduced to less than a "superman" he is well known for. Even actress Hind Rostrom was regarded like the Madonna of cinema, and in this movie she has only 1 costume throughout, versus the typically 20-30 costume changes she will have in her movies. These might have presented as a disappointment to their fans and to the audience in general. Two, The main character is a nobody, instead of your usual heroic roles. Three, the movie was filmed entirely outdoors instead of in a studio, and one can imagine the size of equipment those days (on 35mm) that has to be setup during production.

Yousry also provided some additional insights and introduction to Egyptian cinema, for example, sharing with us that the Director of Photography for this movie, Alevise Orfanelli, is credited for having heralded the beginnings of Egyptian cinema way back in 1907, and this year, they are celebrating 100 years of Egyptian cinema.

For those who are interested to learn more, why not attend the screening, and get an opportunity to interact with Yousry too?

Ticketing Information
$8 / $6.40 concession
Free admission for Singapore Film Society members

Counter Sales
Stamford Visitor Services Counter: 10am – 8pm
Canning Visitor Services Counter: 10am – 5pm

Online Booking
(click on Online Booking tab at the bottom of the webpage)

Ticketing Information: 6332 3659
General Enquiries: 6332 5642

Patrons are advised that valid identity pass is required for all screenings.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

[Japanese Film Festival] Moon & Cherry (月とチェリー / Tsuki To Cherry)


An erotic literature writing club? Now that's something new!

The closing film for this year's Japanese Film Festival, given the audience's most positive reaction, I'm quite certain that this edition has closed with literally a big bang. While the premise might be refreshing and sexy, at its core is an unconventional love story between a boy and a girl, in a reversal of roles from the traditional way such characters will turn out to be. The boy, Sakamoto (Akira Emoto) is quite soft spoken and indecisive, while the girl, Mayama (Noriko Eguchi) is an alpha-female, who knows what she wants, and exactly what she must do to achieve her aims, and that includes sleeping her way for it.

Mayama is the writing club's only female writer, and a prolific one too, who writes under a pseudonym, and as fuel for her new novel, she engages the 21 year old virgin to the club, Sakamoto, in a cat and mouse game, using her to help translate emotions onto the written page. So while Sakamoto feels used (having his cherry popped), he can't help but fall in love with Mayama, whose games get bolder and more daring as she seeks to observe how Sakamoto's experience and sexual enlightenment can provide her with a new perspective to her literary works.

It's also a look at modern day relationships, and the question, to a guy, perhaps on what kinds of girls would you want to be associated with. On the other end of the spectrum, there's Akane (Misako Hirata), a fellow colleague at the bookstore that Sakamoto works in. She looks better, panders to Sakamoto's wishes, basically one of the modern day cutie pies with sugar so sweet it can give you diabetes just by hanging out with her. And I thought what it was quite spot on in its offering and comparisons of the two ladies, in whether you would prefer to love and continue your pursuit for that unattainable someone, or be satisfied with and loving in return, someone who loves you a lot more (note that I use the L-word here quite loosely).

Moon and Cherry is a comedy of epic sexual proportions, and its digibeta format and raw look and feel does bring back certain memories of the first American Pie. However, the only drawback here is that the lighting throughout the film looked somewhat dim, but don't let that be an obstacle to enjoying a sassy, fun movie. Don't expect many laugh-out-loud moments, though Moon and Cherry certainly has its charm in punctuating portions of the narrative with very placed humour that hits you when you least expect it to.

[Japanese Film Festival] Life Can Be So Wonderful (世界は時々美しい / Sekai Wa Tokidoki Utsukushii)


This film is anything but wonderful. Consisting of five short films by Minorikawa Osamu, it's one of those pretentious flicks that try to pass itself off as art, and there's nothing worse than stringing together a series of short films with nary a common theme and passing it off as a feature film. Sure, there are the usual notions of loneliness, solitude, melancholy and the likes that it would like to pass off as, but sadly, neither is the individual shorts or the sum of the whole remotely good.

The five shorts are also clumsily titled, and they are "Life can be so Wonderful", "Bar Fly", "Her Favourite Solitude" (isn't that a tad too obvious?), "Snusmumrik Liberty" and "Reasons to Live". In most shorts, shots of nature and the natural environment are included ad nausem, trying nothing more than to make up for time. The stories are a bit of a yawn too - the first short tells of the struggles and exasperation of an ageing nude model, the second an alcoholic man's passion for the bottle, the third features two lovers in bed talk (and for a rare moment I thought the nudity was unnecessary), and the fourth tells the story of a pregnant woman and her lover (Ryuhei Matsuda who did Nightmare Detective). Only the fifth contained some semblance of coherent story, but it was too little too late.

The stories have nothing fresh to offer. Too many narrations, too many poetic quotations trying their very best to impress. But seriously, it tries too hard to connect with the audience. Or maybe perhaps it was so successful with the exploration of its themes, it managed to alienate itself from a regular audience. And those today can't wait to bolt for the door once the end credits start to roll.

Only recommended if you want something uninspiring or badly shot to test your patience.

Planet Terror

That's My Girl

I am a fan of Tarantino, though I'm slightly disappointed with his portion in the Tarantino-Rodriguez Grindhouse partnership. It's classic Tarantino with the excellent dialogue, but Death Proof seemed to be lacking something, and seemed more like a Tarantino movie done Blaxploitation style. Now Rodriguez's offering with Planet Terror is the bomb, and it is miles better than Death Proof in containing the spirit of Grindhouse, and that it doesn't seem to have his fingerprints and stylistic references all over it, making it a truly wicked grindhouse experience.

The opening pole dance by Rose McGowan as Cherry Darling is worth the admission ticket, set to a pulsating score contributed by Rodriguez himself, which rocked the entire picture with its snazzy, catchy tune which doesn't seem the least embarrassing. It's worth more than the lap dance sequence in Death Proof, which seemed rather tame as compared to the energy exuded by McGowaan. But sexiness is not just her character's trait, as she does get to kick some serious butt with that machine gun to save humanity, and does so with aplomb, that I will rate her Cherry Darling as one of the most interesting female action heroes out there.

And true to the spirit of Grindhouse, there are tons, and I mean really tons of blazing guns that don't seem to run out of bullets, blood that splatter, spray, and ooze, plenty of gore and many more gut spilling. Action sequences are filled with exaggeration and stylized violence, you can't help but to chuckle at them, yet cheer them on. To me, it seemed that all the cast and crew had a wonderful time trying to recreate those cheesy moments, especially with the spouting of extremely cringeworthy lines of dialogue, and even more terrible acting, but this attitude of fun permeates through the movie, even having an essential reel (with I'm sure plenty more flesh you would want to see, and probably some major plot revelations as well) gone missing. Ha!

The story played out like a no brainer, with plenty of characters thrown in for the fun of it, and scenes which jump from one to another without much proper coherence. But who cares, since all we want to see are flesh and blood. So the semblance of a story goes with an experimental biological weapon released airborne into a town, and everyone starts turning into zombies one by one. It's Invasion and a gang of survivors, ala 28 Days/Weeks Later, got to put aside their differences, gang together and hold out for survival, which involved a scene which looked straight out of Feast.

Freddy Rodriguez leads the group as highly skilled with a mysterious past El Wray, who has the hots for Cherry Darling, his ex. They're joined by Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), Sheriff Hague and Deputy Carlos - Michael Biehn from Terminator and Crlos Gallardo from El Mariachi - experienced folks with guns and survival of course, and a hot of other recognizable faces like Stacy Ferguson, Naveen Andrews, and even Quentin Tarantino as well, in a role that is reminiscent of his character in From Dusk Till Dawn (at least that mouth of his anyway) and in a scene that will bound to make his detractors laugh out loud. Look out too for a cameo appearance (and this guy seem to be making a lot of uncredited/cameo appearances too) and his dialogue regarding the war on terror.

I'd highly recommend Planet Terror over Death Proof anytime (sorry Tarantino), and it is too bad their idea of kickstarting a slew of Grindhouse features seemed to have taken a backseat due to the lacklustre performance of their double bill. But this one, I'd go as far as to say it's under contention for my top 10 movies of the year, as I haven't had so much fun at the theatres for a long while already. Go watch, and don' forget the coda (extremely short though) at the end of the credits.

P.S. the movie version shown in Singapore is the extended version, and came together with the "Prevue" of Machete, one of the fake trailer segment out of four which made it here.

[Japanese Film Festival] Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story (めぐみ 引き裂かれた家族の30年 / Megumi Hikisakareta Kazoku No Sanjyuunen)

Megumi Yokota

In 1977, Megumi Yokota vanished without a trace. For 20 years her family had tried to search for an answer, but found nothing, until it was revealed that she was amongst those who were abducted by North Korean spies.

The screening today opened with a video address dated in August 2007 by her parents. In it, they shared their experience in dealing with the shock, their efforts, and of course, their steely resolve in hoping that their daughter will be returned to them one day. Containing an ode to Megumi, it was a relatively short video address, but one which I thought summarized the entire movie succinctly.

It's an understatement to say that kidnapping is terrible, for both the victim and the parents. But one done without a ransom provided, leaves little clues to the parents, and here, sparked off intense sorrow that I'm sure any parent can identify with - the love and effort in raising a child, now so suddenly taken away with you, with zero trace. There's absolutely nothing to fall back on - no motive, no eyewitnesses, no prior abnormal behaviour noticed, nothing.

This documentary charts the 30 years of the time of the abduction until now. It tells of the journey and struggles of Megumi's parents, but provides as a launchpad, an introduction into a mystery unravelled. While the act of kidnapping itself might seem one-off and random, but the putting together of little facts gathered throughout Japan by investigative journalists provided the bigger picture, and ultimately, the ability to point a finger, suggest motives, and seek closure.

But closure is something not easy to come by. For those who have been following press reports in recent years, you might have read a bit about the incidents starting from Japan's ex-Prime Minister Koizumi's historic visit to North Korea, and the release of some of the abductees in return for food and medical aid. Diplomacy seemed to be the best, and the only course, for Japan to engage North Korea. North Korea has shown that it doesn't negotiate easily, and it tends to flip flop around given its poor track record and ambigious and conflicting, unconvincing evidences.

Abduction managed to piece together a compelling narrative, and at some times, horrifying too, at how random and perhaps senseless these acts are. But it does suggest some reasons why these Japanese were abducted, and mostly for espionage and training reasons, which seemed highly plausible. What was suspect though, and also not probed in depth, was interviews with the returned abductees. I thought that given it managed to talk to a North Korean defector, it would also be able to get those folks to open up. But perhaps they do not want to talk about their ordeal, or that it's classified information for confidential debriefing only, or like they mentioned, to ensure the safety of those still held by NOrth Korea, one will never know.

On a more personal scale, it charts the emotional turmoil and immense efforts by Megumi's parents to champion for the return of their daughter. Red herring, doctored evidence, and even something that should provide the most compelling evidence by far were all rebuted. It's understandable, and the documentary seemed to support and debunk whatever evidence that turns up. There's nothing like parents love, and this film captured all that. 30 years of hope and continued fighting for the truth shows all that. And it is their personal wish that these atrocities are made known to as many people as possible.

You can click on this link for more information.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

[Japanese Film Festival] Dialogue Session with Yoshiyuki Kazuko

LtoR: Interpreter, Yoshiyuki Kazuko and Leong Chun Meng (Singapore Film Society)

The following panel discussion was done through an interpreter, so some bits might have been lost in translation both ways as questions posed were also in Japanese. Seemed that a lot of Yoshiyuki Kazuko fans were present for both the screening and post screening discussion. So, to the best of my ability with loads of caffeine in the system, here goes:

Q: I am from Sakai Prefecture, and the movie and your protrayal made me think about my own grandmother. I would also like to say that I was impressed that you were accurate in the speaking of the dialect of the Prefecture.
Yoshiyuki: I never expected to have someone here in the audience from Sakai Prefecture, and am worried that my speech in the dialect might not be perfect.
The interpreter then shared with us that there are slight variations in the Japanese language, with different Prefectures having their own local dialects.
Yoshiyuki: I had received a tape on the Sakai dialect one month before filming, and sometimes I had forgotten how to say it during the acting out of the role. In Oriume, speaking was not as difficult as the dealing with Alzheimer's, and I had stayed with Alzheimer patients for a while and it was an interesting experience.

Q: There are not many scripts with the elderly in lead roles. How did you manage to clinch these roles?
Yoshiyuki: I have been acting for many years, and I feel fortunate to have gotten these roles.

Q: Which Prefecture were you from and where were you born? Also, what's the author of the Gabai Granny story like?
Yoshiyuki: The author of Gabai Greanny had based this real story on his grandmother in Sakai Prefecture. This film shows something we've forgotten, like people's warmness and care for one another. This is missing in today. Myself, I'm from Tokyo.

Q: How difficult is it for a Tokyoite to be in the shoes of someone in 1957 Sakai Prefecture?
Yoshiyuki: First of all this grandmother is very hardworking. I have seen these people even in Tokyo, like using a well pump to pump water, cook rice using dry wood. But even if I've seen it, I haven't done it. In acting I got to seem as if I've done it for a very long time, so it's tough. Also I had to speak in the Sakai dialect, and have to look so used to the lifestyle.

Q: There were 3 of your movies screened today (Nianchan, Oriume and Gabai Granny). Which is your favourite and why?
Yoshiyuki: I like all of them. Nianchan was in an era about the same as that of Gabai Granny. Every film has its good part.

Q: You have worked with great directors like Shohei Imamura and Takeshi Kitano. Could you share with us your experience in working with them?
Yoshiyuki: For Imamura, he was a very good director, and well known in Japan. I worked with him when I just started my career, and was afraid of him. But I felt fortunate to have worked with him. As for Kitano, I worked with him in Glory to the Filmmaker! (Kantoku Banzai). He really enjoys making films, and we enjoyed ourselves in the production. The atmosphere was very nice. As for Nagisa Oshima, we heard that he was a very fierce director, but when I got to work with him, he was not fierce at all. He allows us to see how he plans his camera movement, and allows us space to act within the range.

Q: Your films today had explored themes of senior citizens in Japan. Are there any other similar themed movies you're working on? And what are your thoughts on what other issues that can be explored in the movies?
Yoshiyuki: The ageing society is a big issue and everybody is concerned about this. It is good that these movies are made and raised the awareness of these issues, and similarly with awareness raised, comes more of such movies. It also involves younger family members as well, and I believe that more of these type of movies will come about in future.

Q: Have you read another other books or watched other movies in preparation for your role, for example Pushing Hands by Ang Lee. What were your references?
Yoshiyuki: The title of the movie was called "House of Grandma" in Japan, and it was acted by the real grandmother. I can't beat that acting because she's real!

Q: In Taiwan, many children are brought up by their grandmothers. In Japan is this also a trend nowadays? Do women become full time mothers or do grandmothers take care of the children?
Yoshiyuki: Nowadays in Japan, you don't see many members of the family being together, and the family units are getting smaller. With mothers working, the grandmothers take care of the children. This might be an ideal style, or maybe because of other circumstances like the housing problem.

[Japanese Film Festival] Gabai Granny (佐賀のがばいばあちゃん / Saga No Gabai Baachan)

Super Granny

Gabai Granny is based on the bestseller Saga No Gabai Baachan (Gabai Granny from Saga), which is penned by comedian Shimada Yoshichi as he recounts his childhood memories of growing up under the care of his grandmother. And without a doubt, this is possibly one of the crowd favourites given the high turnout of Japanese folks who have come for this screening.

Starring the evergreen Yoshiyuki Kazuko in the title role, it tells the story of a young boy Akihiro, who was sent against his wishes and to his surprise, to the countryside to brought up by his grandmother. In all four movies screened today, it seemed that it's common for parents who are struggling to cope with life, to either sell their children, or to send them away in the hopes that someone else can assist in taking care of them. In Akihiro's case, it is no different, as his mother (played by Kudoh Youki) struggles as a bar-hostess.

To a young boy, journeying to a faraway place, and living in conditions alien to him, definitely makes him miss home. Worse, he is not familiar with his grandmother and her ways too. But this is Gabai Granny we're talking about, and within minutes of her introduction, you'll fall for her warmth ways. We slowly discover, together with Akihiro in his growing pains, just how resourceful Granny is, and she's possibly the first eco-friendly person too, with values of recycling and reusing greatly entrenched within her personal values.

The merits of the story, and the lessons learnt from Granny, is both touching and by no means forceful in having them shoved down your throat. And kudos to Yashiyuki's earnest and heartwarming portrayal of a Granny who truly cares, and loves unconditionally. There is much to be learnt from her philosophy on thrift, though when it comes to spending, she goes for nothing but the best. But possibly the best lesson that can be learnt from her, is to always look at the positive side of adversary, to never be beaten down. She imparts excellent values, positive thinking and reasoning peppered with comedy, you can't help but feel endeared to her.

Love, friendship, good advice, and plenty of everything else makes Gabai Granny a delight to watch. However, I felt that the ending was a little too abrupt for my liking, as it probably didn't provide me an ending that seemed satisfactory, not that it's cliched though, far from it. Fans of Ken Ogata (who has featured himself quite a bit in this Festival with Vengeance is Mine and Ballad of Narayama) will probably sit up and notice his Tofu seller role here.

[Japanese Film Festival] Oriume (折り梅)


Veteran actress Yoshiyuki Kazuko was very sprightly in her introduction to her movie Oriume. She explained to the audience that the movie is based on a true story. She didn't know people who have Alzheimer's, but learnt a lot about the disease through her role in the movie. She also had visited the place where sufferers live, and spent time interacting and trying to understand them. The doctor had told her the sufferers, though stricken with the disease, will still be able to know who is approaching them with good or ill intentions. She of course, had goodwill, and spent time knowing their feelings and emotions in order to portray them accurately.


Movies can entertain, and they can educate, and with Oriume, it brought about a better understanding of Alzheimer's Disease in the way that it was portrayed as is without any big melodramatic moments to drag the story or cast an overly sympathetic view of patients suffering from its symptoms. I thought it managed to strike a neat balance between the victim and the true sufferers - that of the caregiver, most likely being the family members rather than healthcare professionals.

And it is this family aspect of it that Oriume shines. How often it is when you have a sick elderly person in the house, that siblings can't wait to shrug their obligation, and pass the buck around most easily to the one who is deemed has the most free time on hand? And in doing so, cook up various excuses and nary will lend any resource to assist? The same thing happens to Tomoe (Mieko Harada), whose mother in law is suffering from Alzheimer's, and their household taking on the responsibility because of insensitive and selfish relatives.

Of course it seemed like the right thing to do, since nobody wants to lend a helping hand, and her own family values mean leaving nobody behind. But mother in law Masako (veteran actress Yoshiyuki Kazuko) begins to exhibit more random symptoms from simple forgetfulness to more aggressive mood swings, and this begin to take their toil on Tomoe, worse still being her children and husband failing to understand the situation, expecting her to take it in her stride, or to throw her to a home.

Oriume is an extremely heartwarming journey from breaking point to understanding and reconciliation. Both actresses play off each other's strengths, and forged an excellent chemistry as patient-caregiver, mother-daughter-in-law, and of best friends. It brings out a reminder too that in difficult situations like these, moral support amongst family and having everyone chip in, do go a long way to keep the household sane. There shouldn't be a need to shrug responsibility or let it rest on the shoulders of an individual, as the saying goes, more hands make less work. Not to mention, plenty of patience and an arsenal of knowledge help loads too. What's even more admirable here, that we can always learn from, is that Tomoe is an in-law, not direct blood relations, but that doesn't deter her from giving nothing but the best form of care she can dish.

However the movie doesn't feel clinical at all by throwing at you all the medical terms. It demonstrates how to cope with the disease in a much subtle and common manner, weaving a poignant tale within, and I'm sure had definitely touched the audience this evening, as you can hear sniffles all round. Both Yoshiyuki Kazuko and Mieko Harada were excellent in their roles, and the movie can't possibly exude a certain warm feeling toward the end, if not for their portrayals.

I will definitely recommend this movie to anyone who would like to experience a moving tale on family, and of course to learn a little bit more of the Disease. Those who would like a primer on Alzheimer's, can click on this link.

[Japanese Film Festival] Nianchan (にあんちゃん)

Actress Yoshiyuki Kazuko was at today's screening to present the movie to the audience. She mentioned it was a special day for her, and that Nianchan was the second movie she had made in her career of 50 years. Shohei Imamura had actually told her to become rounder and fatter for the role, and she thought that since it's only her second film, the acting here is not on par yet and felt that it probably might be the last role she'll ever star in!

She told the audience she was excited about today's screening, and shared that while Imamura was fierce in his directing of the film, it is thanks to him that she has been acting for the last 50 years. She thanked the audience for turning up, and told us that it was great to watch the movie again (and she did stay until the end of it!)

Depressing Timesa

Nianchan is the film that brings together both the director-in-focus and the actress-in-attendance for this year's Japanese Film Festival. The movie is directed by Shohei Imamura, and just last week, we had seen a series of his movies, like the excellent Ballad of Narayama, and the World Cinema Series kickstarted with his Profound Desire of the Gods. In Nianchan, he directs Yoshiyuki Kazuko to an award winning performance.

Set during Japan's depression years in the 50s, Nianchan (read: My Second Brother) tells the story about a family of 4 orphans, who are forced by circumstances to fend for themselves. Being in a mining town where the mining company is beginning to right-size its operations, jobs are getting scarce, and wages are getting lower with frequent cuts. Sticking together trying to find a way out of the vicious circle is close to impossible, and they realize that they have a better chance at carving a living if they split up.

Imamura again proved his deftness in handling a piece treading on the lower rungs of society. Here, he puts the spotlight on the minority of Koreans who were left in dire straits after the war when they decide to remain in Japan, only to lose their livelihood to returning Japanese soldiers. We see how in a depressive state, help is not always readily available, and if that extra hand is extended, it may at most be temporary, most times with the disapproval of somebody else, of an opinion that these extra resources should go into their own pockets rather than to someone else's.

There are some references from more contemporary movies which I was drawing references from when viewing this old black and white film. With the mining town setting and the depression it faced, it brought to mind the movie Hula Girls, where the female inhabitants of the town pick up a new skill, and with it set about transforming their town into an integrated resort with the Hawaiian theme. Also, with the younger siblings taking care of each other, it somehow brought to mind Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven. Maybe not quite the same premise, but the dynamics and relationship between the brother (the titular Nianchan) and his sister, reminded me of the dynamics of the siblings in Majidi's movie.

While the movie print has aged, the spirit of the themes still ring through well. But I felt it's not exactly A material, but one that's still quite passable, which I thought ended on a good note of hope rather than with despair.

[Japanese Film Festival] Appassionata (序の舞 / Jo No Mai)

Sleeping to the Top

The Japanese Film Festival this year had a number of biographies in its lineup because of its theme, and it's no surprise that Appassionata falls into this category, telling a summarized life story of Japan's female painter Uemura Shoen, who was the first woman to have earned the Order of Culture, Japan's highest award for cultural achievement. Most of the narrative had focused on her humble beginnings, and it went as far back as tracing her mother's roots, as it is this relationship between mother and child that also took the spotlight.

Born Tsuya Shinamura (Yuko Natori), her talent for painting was discovered at a young age, and was brought under the tutelage of renowned artist Shokei Takagi (Kei Sato), who in a scene, was shown to be capable of painting 1000 drawings in a marathon session, using only black ink and a thick brush. And while Tsuya herself begin to win awards for her works, tongues get wagging that she's sleeping her way to the top of her game.

Now this is something that did seem a little strange and I felt was left ambiguous at best, because a most it's only an allegation, which the story and the film took and ran with it. On one hand it showed that Tsuya had every opportunity to escape the indecent proposal, but she didn't, and in the ensuing "rape" scene, might seem to have enjoyed(?!) it knowing very well what it can do for her career. But I would prefer to have looked at another angle, that she had no choice, given the circumstances of the society of the time, where women were characteristically submissive and have absolutely no say whatsoever in society, most of the time looked upon for sexual favours. She's stuck in a damn-if-you-do-or-don't situation, unfortunately.

And Shokei was a man you'd love to hate, right down to the core. Without a doubt the central "villain", here's a man who had abused his position, status and power, to satisfy his lust. A liar and a man of questionable honour, these are the kinds of folks that any society just can't seem to get rid of. Each time Kei Sato appeared on screen, trust me, I swore and cursed at his character.

But it's not just about these sexual dalliances. What was more powerful here were the themes of family, love and forgiveness. Society at the time dictates that family is of utmost importance, and chastity is held in high regard. Illegitimate children born out of wedlock is perhaps one of the greatest sins that a woman can commit, and here, the emotional tussle between Tsuya and her mother Sei (Mariko Okada) was the best amongst all the scenes in the movie. It's never easy for a single parent (already a handicap in Japanese society, without a man as the head of the household) to raise children on her own, and what more when additional, unnecessary challenges present themselves, one which bring shame to family and ancestors? The themes of love, and forgiveness, especially in the finale, will probably move you, after all, blood is thicker than water.

Jo No Mai refers to the dance of a young geisha, one of the more prominent works of Uemura Shoen, and in this movie, most of the award winning paintings were up on display for the audience to gain a slight introduction to her collection of paintings. What I thought was quite sad was that in order to earn a living and make money when turned away by most people, she had to resort to compromising her philosophy for the art by degrading her works into erotic pornography in order to make a quick buck. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but still, it's quite sorrowful.

Appasionata is a rather straightforward movie based on a biography, and if you're interested, you can read more about Uemura Shoen here.

Friday, September 21, 2007

[Japanese Film Festival] The Strange Tale of Oyuki (墨東綺譚 / Bokuto Kidan)


The Strange Tale of Oyuki is probably the raunchiest movie to date in this edition of the Japanese Film Festival. While the earlier Imamura movies shown do have sexual scenes, this one takes the cake in its eroticism, treading so close to being soft-porn like in the style of Hong Kong Category III movies. But hey, I'm not complaining!

Based on a novel by Kafu Nagai, this movie uses a short story of the same name, and at the same time infused it with real diary entries of Kafu's as well, making it seem like an amalgamation of his life and that pre-war story. Some however, have claimed that it's solely based on the novel, and the director Kaneto Shindo had changed the protagonist to the author himself. Whatever the case is, since I can't read Japanese, and until someone who has read the book in its original language and watched the film can advise, we shan't rack our brains about this aspect of it.

The story follows the middle aged author, Kafu Nagai (Masahiko Tsugawa), in his gallivanting ways from the 1920s to post war Japan. It actually took the first 30 minutes or so to establish the fact that his literary works, which consist mainly of yellow literature, is not welcomed by fellow peers. Moreover, he has the propensity to wine and dine women, becoming a Don Juan of sorts, with a notorious reputation after establishing a series of conquests in Europe and North America. The beginning actually painted him as a lonely man as well, unable to hold down a regular relationship, opting instead for fleeting ones with geishas and waitresses.

Things start to change when Fate brings him to Oyuki, a prostitute, one rainy night, and romance start to blossom between the two despite his concerns about their age gap - he's close to 60, while she's mid 20s. As they do the horizontal tango in between the sheets on a regular basis, she starts to really fall for him, while he, always on the apprehensive. It also brought to mind about How to Become Myself's issue on persona, as we see how Kafu engineers himself to be a pornographic photographer as a cover for his researching writer role.

But it's not just sex and skin all the way. The movie allowed some suggestion of the geisha tradition and their skills in the art, and I was rather surprised at the hard anti-war stance and criticism that the narrative had taken up, with its documentary reel like scenes of the Imperial Army, and how because of the war the common folk are made to suffer with the constant barrage of air strikes nearing the end of the war.

Masahiko Tsugawa provided some comedic relief in his acting, though I'm unsure if his wide-eyed eyeball look which seemed to draw more chuckles than anything else, and rubber faced expressions, were deliberate. As a man who decided early how to lead out his elderly life, I thought he had a somewhat stoic presence as an uncompromising man, and one who needed to get his rocks off. Yuki Sumida as the titular Oyuki, had actually won a number of awards for the role, and while her portrayal of the prostitute is sympathetic, I suppose she'll be best remembered for shedding her clothes instead.

Unpretentious and straightforward movie which runs almost like a bio-pic, I do not deny The Strange Tale of Oyuki as being entertaining, for the right reasons of course. Definitely an easy movie to sit through after an almost week long program of heavier material.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

[Japanese Film Festival] Masterclass Lecture by Ichikawa Jun

LtoR: Leong Chun Meng (Singapore Film Society), Ichikawa Jun and Interpreter

The following panel discussion was done through an interpreter, as Ichikawa Jun felt more comfortable conversing in his native tongue. So I suppose some bits might have been lost in translation as I can't understand Japanese too. But nonetheless, to the best of my ability, here it is:

Q: Could you tell us more about the writer of the story How to Become Myself (Kaori Mado), and the inspiration for the movie?
Ichikawa Jun: First of all, the author of the story (Kaori Mado) is a lady about 30 years old now. She's now a staff of an advertising agency for mobile service provider NTT Docomo, one of Japan's largest. The author is brought up in a girl's only school from junior to senior high, and the book is something like her autobiography. I read the book and I loved it, especially the themes of the "fake" and "real" me. Each time I think about the "fake" me, I think about the author.

When we talk about Dazai Osamu, his works contain issues about the "real" and "fake" me. Everyeon when in their youths will face this issue, so I thought that it's good Dazai appears in the movie, so it's inside.

(Ed: I obviously haven't read the books by Dazai, but I think this one could be the reference point of this read/fake me issue, about the character having an incapability of revealing himself to others and is forced to uphold a facade.)

Q: Was the movie adapted from a short story?
Ichikawa: It's about 200 pages.

Q: The actress playing Juri (Riko Narumi) had a subtle way of showing emotion. Was it difficult to get her to show her emotions?
Ichikawa: On the contrary I felt that she expressed a lot of emotions! She's a child actress who had started acting at age 5, and she's a very good actress. She became popular from a television series, and acting for television is easier. But for the movie, I've been telling her not to express herself so much! She's 14 now, and in my opinion, a child prodigy in acting.

Q: In your previous movies, there are a number of female characters in their youths. Are you interested in this kind of stories, or have any message to convey to this particular group?
Ichikawa: If I use a young actress, it's easier to get the budget (laughs) and to convince the producer. When I look at my filmography, you might misconstrue it as I'm liking little girls but I'm not! I believe that inside everyone's heart there's a little girl, and good writers have this young girl inside them.

Q: Why do you like to express the common theme of loneliness in your films?
Ichikawa: When you're watching a movie in a darkened theatre, you are alone. Watching a movie on a DVD doesn't count. When I study good American movies, there's a theme of loneliness in them too. Stories which usually have a main character who's lonely, and then there's a breakthrough, resulting in a changed person. Loneliness is a condition to have a good movie. I watched a lot of 70s American movies like Taxi Driver, and I was influenced by those movies made after the Vietnam War, which has a lot to do on loneliness inside. When I was young I watched a lot of these movies.

Q: You have featured Tokyo in many of your movies, and sometimes successfully made metropolitan Tokyo seem like a small town. What kind of Tokyo would you like to present to moviegoers?
Ichikawa: I think I share something similar to Woody Allen. Woody Allen was born and brought up in New York. In a big city, there's a lot of people, and in a crowd you'll sometimes feel alone. I thought movie directors brought up in big cities share a similar sense as what I have felt.

Q: Every director brings personal experience into the film he directs. Does your own experience help in your movies?
Ichikawa: I'm 60 years old, and have already gone through many sorts of lives in my own, and those represented in books and movies. When it comes to this movie, I tried my best to understand the feelings of the author of the novel, and think about the big issue now in Japan, which is bullies. I was thinking about the issue in the context of my young grandchild.

There was a question about the camera techniques used in Tony Takitani, and the panel in panel shots for How to Become Myself.
Ichikawa: In Tony Takitani I was thinking about flipping a page from left to right as if I was reading the novel. As for today's movie, the panels are in one screen showing the different things different people are doing at the same time. We can see many things happen at the same time on one screen, which you cannot do so in real life. With digital processing this becomes easy, and it's actually not considered a high tech method. I do not think I'm giving the impression that I'm doing something high tech.
Comment: This technique might be appropriate here since you're showing both the "real" me and the "fake" me together...
Ichikawa: When I watch MTV, they're doing the same thing (laughs)

Q: I noticed in Tokyo Marigold, Tony Takitani and now How to Become Myself, are you also exploring the identity crisis of modern people?
Ichikawa: I don't think much about identity crisis.

Q: With the "real" and "fake" me personae in today's movie, Eriko from Tokyo Marigold and her real and commercial self, in Death in the Hospital the shots of the hospital and the real world, in Tony Takitani you have 4 characters played by 2 persons, what is the message you want to send to the audience about this real and "virtual real" worlds?
Ichikawa: I like something that comes with realism. I'm having a hard time trying to understand the question (laughs). I don't think it is useful to analyze my works, as I think movies is something you just enjoy. Sometimes movie critics analyze my movies in ways I've never expected. For me, I make movies as I like and as I want, straightforwardly according to my feelings.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to go into film?
Ichikawa: I was doing oil painting as I wanted to study in the National Art University. I drew a lot and tried to enrol but failed each time. A friend discovered that I can draw good storyboards for commercials, and I joined a commercial production company, which started to employ me to make commercials. The commercials I made were well accepted by the public, and one day someone came and approach me to make movies. So in a sense I was fortunate.

Q: How did your commercial experience influence your filmmaking?
Ichikawa: It's a negative influence (laughs)! For example, the cut is too short, and I have the habit of expressing more superficially than going deep. If you had watched my debut movie, you'll be shocked! The cuts are short and fast, and there's no room for you to breathe breathe or relax.

Q: Any advice for making a first film? Does it have to start with scriptwriting, or doing commercials first?
Ichikawa: You can start tomrrow, and use your own camera. The issue is what you want to express. You can take many years. The most important thing is to think what you want to express. And to everybody, the first debut product is important.

Q: Are you doing any films now, and what is it about?
Ichikawa: It is still under planning, so I can't announce it yet. If you've seen Wild Strawberries by the late Ingmar Bergman about the elderly, then yes I would like to do something like that. I'm tired with girls movies (laughs).

Q: Do you like to keep your movies slow?
Ichikawa: I think I'm trying to let go of my habit from commercials, with the fast cuts. So my movies tend to have longer cuts and slower shots. Sometimes 15 minutes into the start of my movie when I'm watching it in a cinema, I can hear snores (laughs), but I let it be as I can't do anything about it.

Ichikawa-san also mentioned that during editing process, he tends to think about "self", so perhaps the theme of loneliness tend to creep in as you're alone in that process.

Q: What's the state of the Japanese movie industry today compared to the 60s and 70s?
Ichikawa: It's terrible. The movie production companies don't have enough human resource. For example, Akira Kurosawa was with Toho, and Ozu was with Shochiku Kinema. There's no such arrangements now. All of us are free and don't belong to companies. We are daily hired, which also means "daily-fired". Even producers are finding it a hard time to find jobs. We also have to struggle with low budget when trying to make good movies.

Q: Having worked with so many actresses, which one do you consider the best to work with, and is there anyone else you would like to work with?
Ichikawa: I think it'll be kind of rude to rank them in that sense, so I won't do that.
Q: Then which one left the deepest impression?
Ichikawa: Perhaps Riko Narumi in this movie. I didn't know of her as I don't watch much television, and someone introduced her to me. Now I think I have to do more auditions, and meet more actresses.

Q: In real life it may not be easy for young people to change their lives around. Did you have the intention to make the movie tinge with some sadness and uncertainty?
Ichikawa: In the original story, one interesting thing was the words "Happy End" appearing in it. When you look at Japan society now, it's hard to find "Happy End" and what exactly it is. I think it's about the wish you want to get, and this feeling that makes the movie interesting. Mobile phones are featured quite a lot in the movie, but I didn't want to make it "in" and "trendy".

Q: What are the influences Ozu has on your films?
Ichikawa: It's no point trying to copy his methods. But I want to learn from him the spirit of a movie director - protect what we believe, and to stick to what we want to speak about. Ozu is the director that I love the most.

My Memento
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