Friday, October 31, 2008

[Animation Nation] Berni's Doll / Fear(s) of the Dark

Who's Afraid?

Berni's Doll just cracked me up with its black humour, and for those who had watched Lars and the Real Girl, well this takes it a notch hire where the protagonist has to DIY (the doll that is) from parts ordered through the mail. I guess one can get through dead end routines should there be something to look forward to at the end of a dreadful work day. For all its 12 minutes, this black and white French animation is full of wit and I enjoyed every second of it.

Fear(s) of the Dark however was quite a mixed bag, which of course is natural considering it consists of a series of black and white shorts which were worked on by different animators. The stories are quite diverse, though never far from its intended doom and gloom, and the macabre of course, with a story of an old man walking 4 hounds connecting all the shorts together.

Easily adaptable as mini horror stories in the veins of Tales from the Crypt style, the stories range from a romance between a boy and a girl involving some stunning transformation, to even being set in a different land and era altogether. With black and white, there was great use of lighting and even basic geometric shapes were effectively used, as demonstrated in the last short. With different segments come different direction and styles adopted, this film serves as a quick introduction to a group of talented animation filmmakers that one hopes to see more of their works in future.

[Animation Nation] Aardman Showcase

When I learnt that Animation Nation had an Aardman Showcase, it was a no brainer to get tickets for it. What sweetened the deal was having the festival and screening graced by the presence of co-founder David Sproxton and director Luis Cook who were present for a Q&A session after the screening, where the latter had his award winning The Pearce Sisters included in the showcase.

To the uninitiated, you'll probably have watched an Aardman production when I say “Wallace and Gromit”. If you haven't, then you don't know what you've been missing and should go out to the stores right now and grab yourself a copy of any episode, with the chance that you'll soon be bowled over and charmed by the quality of the stop motion animation, as well as the quirky, original story.

The showcase presented a kaleidoscope of the studio's works, ranging from the earlier ones like the Grandmorph series, to more recent ones like Cook's film. With an anthology like this one, you can marvel at how far the studio had come, where over the years it had become more sophisticated, and you can observe for yourself the progress made and the results achieved, being more refined in the design of their models and techniques employed. But that doesn't mean that the more pioneer works are shabby. In fact they do hold plenty of charm.

Amongst the shorts featured, there were a few that were my favourites that I wish to talk about, and incorporate some of the comments made by Cook and Sproxton where appropriate as shared with the audience. Creature Comforts ranked tops, as it was an extremely well made, well thought episode whose simple presentation in the form of interview segments with zoo animals betrays the immense wit it possessed. The Brazilian jaguar undoubtedly will be a favourite amongst those who like this short, and probably the star and scene stealer too. Sproxton shared that Nick Park, who directed this piece, had once commented that the short's dialogue and strength of script almost animated themselves, and this was one of the easiest to make because of that strength, resulting in some animation that flowed straight out.

The Purple and Brown episodes shown were probably the shortest of the showcase, but the most madcap among the lot. It's just plain silly fun and in contrast to the longer, more measured and quirky shorts such as Not Without My Handbag, which resembled like a precurrsor to Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, and the fun-filled Stagefright, which deals with the notion of the show having to go on, despite repeated setbacks. Shaun The Sheep's Save The Tree was a delight as well even with its simplistic, effective story, and you can't help but chuckle at the amplified stupidity and docility of the animals in question when they have to meekly surrender their defense. Even the farmer and his dog did look a little bit like Wallace and Gromit, where the famous duo were featured here in two Cracking Contraptions shorts that are nothing short of brilliant.

The highlight of course would be the recent award winning The Pearce Sisters, as directed by Luis Cook. It's somewhat of a departure from what one would expect from an Aardman flick, with characters quite unappealing both in character and in aesthetics. Also, the usual stop-motion perfection that we associate with Aardman also got put aside, and this looked more 2D than 3D plasticine figurines, which Luis shared that it was a conscious decision to make a different film, with an arduous process going into creating this experimental animation – building the characters in plasticine before doing so on the computer, then animating them before printing them out on paper, where paint was applied on top, then scanned back to the computer, and to recompose everything. The effect? We have 2 really revolting looking sisters in a story that's dark, grotesque and morbid, but still entertaining in an Aardman fashion no less.

Before the session was up, David Sproxton and Luis Cook did share other nuggets of information, such as how Aardmaan got its name – which had its roots in the animal Aardvark, which to David was a rather idiotic name for an idiotic animal which somehow suited a superman-like character they were creating at the time. David also detailed how the earlier stuff was done on Bolex cameras and shot without any video feedback, so the animators would have to wait for usually a week before they knew what was happening. This though enabled them to learn the craft, and the Grandmorph episodes become something like their training ground, where in a single day and without distractions, the animators could shoot up to 20 to 30 seconds worth of footage..

Announcements were also made that dangled all those in the audience in anticipation of their release. There's a new Wallace and Gromit 30 minute film which was finished just last week, and is set in a bakery entitled Matter of Loaf and Death, and it should be released around Christmas season. Another project that got the green light from Sony yesterday was one involving pirates. I'm sure everyone in the audience, and fans worldwide, would be waiting for these projects to hit the big screens with bated breaths.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Saw V

Under Pressure

It seems that you can't put a good man down, or in this case, you can't put a stop to a popular franchise, and should milk it for all its worth until the returns cannot justify another box office comeback. Many Halloweens ago, we got floored by something so gory but yet so innovative in its presentation, that it started a slew of torture porn movies capitalizing on the mantra of the bloodier and gorier, the better. There were some hits and misses of course, but for all it's worth, the Saw movies so far have managed to pull off sucker punch after sucker punch in its finale despite the meat of the plot just chugging along with some difficultly in reaching its end point.

Production designer on the previous Saw movies, David Hackl, takes over the director's chair to steer this franchise into a new direction. Reportedly the beginning of another set of trilogy films, Saw V has all the trappings and pitfalls in being the seed for that tangent in direction, and also of the dawn of a new Jigsaw, sort of. But the question is what would happen to THE Jigsaw that we have grown fond of, that Tobin Bell had played to perfection, personifying that sick moral judgement in his games to his victims?

I suppose Jigsaw has cemented its cinematic pedigree in being one of the most memorable screen villains of today, and undoubtedly without Bell's portrayal, it's anyone's guess how this movie would perform. Granted that we all know what happened to him in Saw IV, this installment still doesn't quite manage to fly on its own without his participation, and relies on a series of flashbacks so that our beloved actor and character could grace the screen one last time. I say last, because if he were to return for the next movie (if it does get made), then truly something is really wrong and it will reek of desperation and the lack of courage to venture forward. Just like how the Terminator franchise is now forging ahead without Schwarzeneggar's participation, though of course having Christian Bale step in is reason enough to believe that the movies should do relatively well (I hope, since I'm counting the chickens before they hatch).

Continuing where the previous installment left off, I'm still quite amazed at how the scriptwriters manage to weave in a plot that goes as far back as they could, and still make it work rather well. I won't give away anything here, but suffice to say that it's yet another cop versus cop thing, and about man's stubbornness and obsession to dig at the truth that fuels the bulk of the story, and of course, leading them straight into the ploy of Jigsaw, with its infamous tape players still around to play Tobin Bell's voice, albeit a little too convenient a grand plan to have things fall into place so nicely.

Pre-requisite knowledge of the earlier films is a must, so don't go at this blind. As the story develops, it goes back to some of the classic scenes that were featured in the earlier movies, so it becomes somewhat deja-vu, or even cheated in a way to have watch the same execution perform twice, although from different points of view. The only plus point here, and it appeals to purists, completists and fanboys, is to dig at the motivation and rationale, as we have Jigsaw explaining a little bit more on what his diabolical plots want to achieve. Otherwise, it will seem more or less like the second movie, with yet another big group of potential victims put together in seemingly random fashion, to try and survive a series of torture traps to see who can make it out in the end.

So is Saw V any good? If you're a fan of the series, then I'm pretty sure you would place your bum in the cinema no matter what anyone tells you, and want to judge for yourself. So for those out there under this category, just remember that this episode probably marks the start of a new direction, leaving behind the old when it's done. For those who have not watched any of the Saw movies to date, then there's only one thing to do, and that's to get your hands on the first, and start from there.

The Coffin

So What's It Like Lying Inside?

Director Ekachai Uekrongtham reunites with actor Ananda Everingham to move from the red light district of Singapore's Geylang back to Thailand to partake in the bizzare Thai ritual of having oneself laid in a coffin to get rid of bad karma. It seems that all the karma in the world are on a zero sum equation, and what you try to get rid of, get translated into unwanted supernatural attention and transferred elsewhere where you least expected.

On paper and from the trailers, the premise is rich for plenty of scare opportunities to be milked. Alas the star pairing of Karen Mok and Ananda Everingham is too overrated, as both only share one scene together, and a short one at that. The story also seemed a tad weak and filled with too many draggy scenes which supposedly tries to build tension and anticipation, but falls flat on its face. And don't get me started on the dialogue, as it contains some of the most cringeworthy lines that it's more interesting just sitting there just watching paint dry.

Don't get me wrong though, there were still some genuinely scary moments, of just 2 scenes which almost guarantees your heart skipping a beat. But that's it. You wait for almost an hour for something to make your hair stand on ends, and they come fast and furious. And too bad that after that the entire film went flaccid after some solid spurts as it plodded along to a boring last act which tried to rationalize the strange happenings a little too much that it just sucks out whatever soul the movie has confidently built up from that crescendo of horrific scenes.

Horrror movies are no stranger to Ananda Everingham, having been introduced to audiences through the superb Thai horror film Shutter. But unfortunately even his acting chops can't lift his mediocre character Chris out from the doldrums, who decided to get into the coffin to try and save his comatose girlfriend, but as suggested in the film but with the potential not followed through, the coffin used might not be a brand new one and could contain some unclean elements in it. While he doesn't have some of the scariest scenes in the film, what he did have was a scene quite powerful in itself toward the end to show off some of his dramatic flair.

Karen Mok has instead demonstrated that she's no scream queen, try as she might. Her portrayal of the troubled Su, who fled to Bangkok with her wedding looming on the horizon because she discovered she's suffering from lung cancer, doesn't provide that air of vulnerability, and her alpha-female persona just gives you the feeling that she'll pull through whatever supernatural trials and tribulations the story throws at her. She got the luck of the draw though with the scariest moments in the movie happening to her character, but too bad these were one off scenes that became the oddity in a horror movie caught up with trying to be innovative, but yet negated by feeling the necessity to explain everything verbatim.

If not for its rare handful of scares, some cheap, The Coffin should stay well buried six feet under, a pity given the premise that was so full of potential.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

[Animation Nation] Genius Party

As with all anthologies, Genius Party by Studio 4C thankfully contain more hits than misses, and I enjoyed most of them featured in this package,, except for Hideki Futurama's Limit Cycle, which at first could be striking in its brainwashing visuals of psychedelic colours, before the shortcomings got severely exposed in what would be disguised and hiding under the label of being experimental. It tried to be intelligent with its take on people, God's grace and miracles, but ultimately turned out to be an over indulgent piece of psycho-babble nonsense. I joined the audience in sarcastically applauding at the end of the short, that it's finally over and we could get on with the better stuff.

The anthology actually opened with a bang, with Atsuko Fukushima Opening Credit Sequence contributing some mesmerizing visuals to the beat of pulsating music. It's a highly imaginative piece that set the tone for a myriad of subjects to come, and Shanghai Dragon delivered what would be a general crowd pleaser. Set in the titular city, its a science-fiction mecha fantasy tale with good natured humour and well thought action sequences that plays on the notion that a child's imagination knows no bounds. Chief to the story is a young boy Guonglong with a perpetual runny and mucus dripping nose, who found a galactic “system” which is essentially a magic pencil that can transfer images to reality, and becomes a legendary messiah prophesied to save the world.

Shinki Mimura then continues with a grotesque stop-motion piece called Deathic 4, where Tim Burton fans would be right at home with. Set in the land of the dead, it tells of some adventures in Zombie-land where a group of children venture to return a living frog back to its proper realm. Something akin to Monsters, Inc, it's filled with deliberately ugly looking characters with plenty of humour to go around in this action adventure. Along similar veins, Masaaki Yuasa's Happy Machine explores a baby's thoughts about his new surroundings, and is a very highly imaginative piece taking on the point of view of a toddler.

What I really enjoyed in this showcase, is Yuji Fukuyama's Door Bell and especially Shinichiro Watanabe's Baby Blue. Two contemporary tales, the first one contains a rather abstract storyline that I liken to the film Multiplicity on one hand with possible clones settling in, and on the other hand, it could be one man's surreal story of self, and in coming to terms with leaving his old self behind for a new life. Baby Blue is as equally photo realistic in its artwork, and the story is full of poignant moments that might bring a tear to your eye.. For a romantic story, it steers clearly away from cliches with a couple of unexpected moments in its narrative, but contains the usual sentimentality of the unsaid relationship between two childhood friends, which I thought was very well done. Added plus points include its moments of spontaneity like in Before Sunrise, and of setting a significant part of it on Japan's subway and rail systems, which I've come to love (it's not as complex as on paper).

A good balance and mix of different animation styles and techniques into one showcase.

[Animation Nation] The Piano Forest (Piano No Mori)

Let's Make Music!

The Animation Nation film festival has been playing for about 5 days already, and because of my recent travel, I have not been able to catch some of the goodies screened in the last few days such as Sita Sings The Blues, and Bill Plympton's latest feature Idiots and Angels. Animation Nation is one of the more highly anticipated film festivals here given its consistently stellar programme lineup over the years, with plenty of animation fans who turn up in droves to catch the latest the scene has to offer. Japanese animation has always been well-received, and in the past the festival had scored a coup with the first screening outside Japan of Satoshi Kon's Paprika, as well as Makoto Shinkai's 5 Centimeters Per Second.

This year's opening film The Piano Forest was one of the nominees in the 2008 Japanese Academy for Best Animated Film. Directed by Masayuki Kojima, additional screenings had to be provided for given the overwhelming response, and after watching it today, it's easy to see why the popularity and favourable response, and has cemented it as one of my favourite Japanese animated film as well, because it has a strong story to tell.

We follow Shuhei as one of the film's main protagonist in his temporary move from Tokyo to a small town, and being the new student whose interest in the piano gets ridiculed by his class, he gets thrown a challenge to play a strange piano which is found in the forest, reputed to be spoilt, but comes alive at night as the melodic strains could be heard by folks outside. But classmate Kai brings Shuhei to this piano which he lay claims to, and indeed the majestic grand piano sitting idly deep in the forest doesn't respond to Shuhei's attempt to play it, but produces beautiful music under Kai's hands.

It's a perfect, mysterious premise set up to pique your interest from the onset, and of course I'll do the story and to you the reader no favours should I dwell on this mystery any longer. But suffice to say that the story is one of the frienship and bond between the two school boys, who come from different backgrounds and possess different values. To Kai, he's the typical rich city kid who gets bestowed with material privileges and a classy hobby which he intents to turn into a career, no doubt also under the pressure of being his father's son. He can be quite anal at times, and takes pride and care to maintain his assets. In Kai is a spontaneous kid who lives a carefree life, with the piano in the forest being his outlet to connect with his self, coming from a single parent home, with his mom presumably in the world's oldest profession. Comparing the two, one plays the piano as if his life depended on it, while the other plays from memory, observation and feeling like in trance.

Nonetheless the two boys make for interesting characters, and for a 2D animated film, their characters are more than three dimentional, with very real human emotions built into them, and brought to life by the superbly clean animation without any useless fanciful trappings. It's a fantastic story about the human condition of enviousness of someone deemed unworthy, and the negative feelings of frustration when they get a leg up on you with opportunities that you crave for, which were given away nonchalantly.

For those who are not familiar with the piano nor with famous music composers, fear not. There are ample scenes to give you a 101 on the basics, and Mozart's Piano Sonato K.310 gets extended airtime here since it's a fundamental piece used throughout. Well placed humour was a welcome as well, celebrating the innate talents of Kai and his ability to charm and encourage others despite having his own demons to deal with. Although there were some Akeelah and The Bee-ish moments, with the set up for some head to head rivalry between the two boys, I thought that the teacher character Ajino Sosuke, a one time all-Japan piano champion, did look curiously androgynous.

There's nothing supernatural to the film, but it comes with a terrific, rich story and a reminder of doing things that you enjoy, in the process yielding far better and satisfying results than doing things that you're tasked to do.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tokyo International Film Festival 2008 Coverage Index Page

An Inconvenient Truth
Assembly (集 結 號)
Beautiful Crazy (乱青春) (International Premiere)
buy a suit (World Premiere)
Cairo Station
Claustrophobia (親密) (World Premiere)
Echo of Silence (コトバのない冬) (World Premiere)
Encounters at the End of the World
Flower in the Pocket
Kill (斬) (World Premiere)
Love Fight (ラブファイト)
Mr. Tadano's Secret Mission - From Japan with Love (特命係長 只野仁 最後の劇場版) (World Premiere)
My Magic
Red Cliff (Chi Bi / 赤壁)
Super Typhoon (超强台风) (World Premiere)
The Cherry Orchard - Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその-) (World Premiere)
The Code (暗号) (World Premiere)
The Other Boleyn Girl
The Sun Also Rises (太陽照常升起)
Trivial Matters (破事兒)

Signs of Love (Ayat Ayat Cinta)
Handsome Suits (ハンサム★スーツ)
Cheer Cheer Cheer! (フレフレ少女)
The Days (歲月)

Green Carpet Opening Ceremony
The Cherry Orchard - Blossoming Talk Show @ Arena
Green Carpet Closing Ceremony
Awards Ceremony

Press Conference
Echo of Silence (コトバのない冬)
The Shonen Merikensack (少年メリケンサック)
Claustrophobia (親密)
Award Winners Press Conference

Teach In
Beautiful Crazy (乱青春)

Bosco Francis

In Memory of Jun Ichikawa
Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Day Five
Day Six
Sayonara TIFF

Monday, October 27, 2008

[TIFF 2008] Sayonara TIFF

It's been an awesome 10 days in Japan, most of which was spent covering the Tokyo International Film Festival, and that said, I still thought that I had barely scratched the surface of the festival, with so many concurrent events, fringe activities and screenings going on, I wished that it be possible to split oneself into many parts to attend each and every one of them, before relishing the combined experience.

While the jury had decided on its winners, here's my personal Top 3 list assembled from the 15 movies that I've watched during the festival. Each had its own merits, and I would surely want to watch them again given the opportunity. In alphabetical order, they are buy a suit, Claustrophobia and Love Fight.

Tokyo has given me special memories, and to add to that, another cap in the feather of experience on how to survive a film festival, and a major A-list one at that. While I had not attended many to date, what kept me most impressed about the festival was how things ran like clockwork, ensuring that everyone kept to the clock so that events could continue as planned, and cinephiles tearing their hair out to arrange their clashing viewing schedules, can do so with to-the-minute information. You read me right – To-The-Minute. Also, there were many activities that were opened to the public, so it's not just an exclusive event for only the who's who in the industry, but an all inclusive one for film fans to enjoy themselves in.

Sayonara Tokyo for now, Arigatou Gozaimasu, and I'm sure if opportunity presents itself again, I am very certain I want to be back for more!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

[TIFF 2008 Press Conference] Award Winners Press Conference

Here's an excerpt of the press conference held after the awards ceremony, with the participation of the winning category's cast and crew.

Special Jury Prize: 4 Nights With Anna - Director Jerzy Skolimowski (JS)

Q: How do you feel now that you've won an award?
JS: I feel awarded and a little bit richer!

Q: Your last film was shot some 17 years ago when the Berlin Wall came down. This film ended with a scene at where the Wall was. Was there any intention behind that? And what is the Polish art cinema like now?
JS: The wall thing is a bit far-fetching, and I didn't recognize it was a metaphor. The state of art cinema in Poland is pretty well, with some good artistic films in Polish cinema this year. 4 Nights with Anna was presented in Cannes, and 33 Domestic Scenes was presented in Locarno.

Q: I would like to know your impression of the Tokyo International Film Festival and of its ecology theme?
JS: I prefer the green carpet of Tokyo to the red carpet in Cannes that's for sure. I'm surprised at the size of TIFF, and am impressed. It should be on the A-list of festivals and deserves its status.

Q: In your film, the surroundings have an effect in creating the atmosphere. Which part in Poland was it shot in?
JS: It was shot in Northen Poland's Mazuria lake district. I run away from the city of Warsaw because it is polluted. It was shot near my house which is a hunting lodge deep in the forest.

Q: You weren't too happy with you previous film, and thus didn't direct another movie for so long. How about now?
JS: I'm so much happier with this film that I should be making my next one tomorrow!


Competition: Best Director; Toyota Sakura Grand Prix: Tulpan - Director Sergey Dvortsevoy (SD), Cast Askhat Kuchinchirekov (AK) and Samal Yeslyamova (SY)

Left: Askhat Kuchinchirekov, Center: Sergey Dvortsevoy, Right: Samal Yeslyamova

Director Sergey Dvortsevoy introduced the background of his cast members, where Samal is a stage actress from Northern Kazakhstan and Askhat is not a professional actor, but when they first met up, he was in an arts college studying directing.

He also shared that this was his very first film, and would like to make another fictional film next, probably set in Moscow. He would then retun to Kazakhstan to make films because he was born and raised there, where he would be interested to make a film about a Russian living in Kazakhstan.

Q: It was unfortunate that the boy in the film had passed away. Could you tell us how you found him?
SD: The boy we're referring to is the boy holding the radio in the film. He died in a drowning accident aged 14. He passed away in-between the shoot, and it was during a fishing trip with his father when the disaster happened. The 3 children in the film, they are all from the same family.

Q: The environment portrayed is difficult to live in. Have you stayed in such conditions before, and if not, how did you prepare for your role in the film?
SY: I'm from a completely different section in Kazakhstan, and truly felt it was different from what I'm used to.
AK: It's important for an actor to believe in the director, and to believe so much that you should be able to fully trust him and the results will be reflected on screen.


TOYOTA Earth Grand Prix: Ashes from the Sky - Producer Loris Omedes (LO), Director Jose Antonio Quiros (JAQ)
Competition: Audience Award; TOYOTA Grand Prix Jury Award: School Days With A Pig - Director Tetsu Maeda (TM)

Tetsu Maeda

Q: In the movie, the schoolmaster said that it has to be a pig. Why so?
TM: The teacher says so in the movie too! If it was a chicken, it can be raised easily. It takes more effort and care to raise a pig, and it was a cute baby pig, where the pink object represents life. Also, it grows rapidly, and is an animal that we raise to eat. The original novel is about a pig as well.

LtoR: Producer Loris Omedes, Director Jose Antonio Quiros

Q: The movie is about pollution, in a comedic way. What's your feelings about the theme in the movie?
LO: It's about progress contradictions. All of us love nature, but we also like modern technology. Our message is we must do something and arrive at a compromise with progress and nature. That's more or less the idea of the film.

Q: How do you feel now that you've won the award?
LO: Very happy. The first award was to be in the festival, the second award was to be in Tokyo, the third award was to meet Japanese people, the fourth award was to visit Kyoto which we did a few days ago, and the fifth award was this one. The film will make its Spanish premiere on 7th November and distributed by Universal Pictures. This award will be important for the promotion of the movie. It's not a film with big stars, so the award will help us.
JAQ: I'm very happy too. I like Japan because of the very interesting Japanese filmmakers, like Kurosawa and Ozu whom I admire, and for me, this is home to the best filmmakers in the world.


Japanese Eyes Best Picture Award: buy a suit - Assistant Director Tomoya Suenaga (TS), Actress Yuki Sunahara (YS)

LtoR: Tomoya Suenaga, Yuki Sunahara

Q: How do you feel about the film winning this award?
TS: Very surprised. If the director was here, he'll also say that he's very surprised.
YS: I'm not an actress, as I normally work as crew, so am not always in front of the camera. I am grateful to the director for the opportunity.

Q: Any plans for a career switch?
YS: I don't think that will happen. If it does, I'll have a talk with the director first before I decide.

Tomoya Suenaga shared that they had found some memos that Jun Ichikawa had left behind, and the first memo on the pile said that Jun Ichikawa had wanted to make something like a movie. He heard about the project a year ago, that the director wanted to make an experimental, pseudo-film.

Q: Do you think that he wanted to find a new direction in making films?
TS: I don't think he wanted to reset anything. He wanted to go back to where he started, with so much power and energy when he first made a movie. He wanted to make a movie for himself, and not for anybody else. Jun Ichikawa also mentioned that if possible, he would like to make this kind of movie every year.
YS: He didn't give me so much instructions, and told me that I need not memorize lines, so I was not nervous during the shoot. However, there were some specific words or phrases that I had to say, otherwise I could speak freely in my role.
TS: I remember the director being very happy when he got the HD camera, and shared that he had the idea and the cast for the film for many years.
YS: No I was not aware that he had me in mind for this movie for so long!


Best Asian-Middle Eastern Film Award: My Marlon and Brando - Director Huseyin Karabey (HK)

Huseyin Karabey

Huseyin Karabey said that the win was a big surprise for him, and explained that the Turkish title and the English title for the film were different. The Turkish one meant “Going” or “On the Way”, which he thought that the distributors might change if it's gong to be commercially released. He often found it difficult to find titles for his films, and for this one, “My Marlon and Brando” came up in the last moment, which was a piece from the poem used in the movie that he thought was quite charming.

Q: During the awards ceremony, you mentioned that the film can now be released in Turkey. Is it that difficult to release a movie in Turkey?
HK: Well we all now how Hollywood movies are everywhere. In the last 2 to 3 years, Turkish people have preferred to watch Turkish movies, but there are 50-60 such movies released in a year. With the award and international recognition, there will be a greater chance for a domestic release. The film deals with taboo Kurdish issues, so the award will help in the release, as well as TV sales. This film is scheduled to be released in 2 weeks time.

Q: How many films did you see during the festival here, and is there any one which you liked best?
HK: I saw 2 films, one of which was Tulya, and I was very impressed by it. This is my 19th festival in the last 8 months, and I was lucky to have seen most of the films in the prrogramme somewhere else, which gives me more time to see Tokyo!

Q: Do you find it easier to make films in Turkey, with not so much restrictions?
HK: I come from a Kurdish family, and at 24 I've decided to make films. My background was in economics. I had many difficulties and was witness to many human rights violations in the country. My aim was to tell stories from all sides that the media avoids and only brings straight forward one way stories. I quit economics school, and started making films 12 years ago, with some human rights documentaries and short films. This is my first feature. Those days were tough times as I was arrested several times. But my films have always been about understanding, about life, and now it's much easier to make films than before.

This award will help to encourage many young people in Turkey. Each year I teach refugees and immigrants who have no chance to go to school. They see a director with the same background as them, and hopefully they will be encouraged to be filmmakers and tell their own stories. So you might see more Turkish people in the working class becoming filmmakers.


Jury President Jon Voight

And finally to close the press conference, jury president Jon Voight was present to wrap up the proceedings, as well as to explain the rationale of the choices that the Jury made. In a jovial mood, you can watch how he defended the choices, making his longest ever speech talking about the Green Carpet, and making 3 recommendations of must-watch films, in the video clips to follow:

Jon Voight Explains Tulpan's Win in 2 Categories

He was also asked about the performance of two Chinese films in competition, and what he thought of them:

On Super Typhoon (Part 1)

On Super Typhoon (Part 2)

On Claustrophobia and Karena Lam

Recommending 3 Must-Watch Movies

[TIFF 2008 Event] Awards Ceremony

Award winners were announced as follows (in the order of announcement):

Akira Kurosawa Award
Nikita Sergeyevich Mikhalkov (director)
Chen Kaige (director)

Left: Nikita Mikhalkov, Right: Chen Kaige

Japanese Eyes
Special Award: Ittoku Kishibe (actor, “Osaka Hamlet”)
Best Picture Award: “buy a suit” (directed by Jun Ichikawa)

Left: Mrs Jun Ichikawa, Right: Tomoya Suenaga

Assistant Director Tomoya Suenaga thought that the late director Jun Ichikawa was happy that the film had the opportunity to join this section of the Tokyo International Film Festival, and explained that this was in many ways a very private film for the director, where he wanted to be a beginner again in a very basic film, such as holding the camera and shooting many scenes himself.

The wife of the director was also present to receive the award. In an emotional thank-you speech, she had said that Jun Ichikawa wanted to remind himself of the things he had forgotten when making films, and she's for sure that he's very happy to receive the award and to thank everyone who have supported his films.

The jury president for Japanese Eyes had shared that it was a heated debate to crown the winner, and that The Blue Bird was also a strong contender. buy a suit gives stimulation to the next generation of filmmakers, and said that there was a debate amongst the jury members about the ending, with expression of anger at how it ended.

Winds of Asia-Middle East
Best Asian-Middle Eastern Film Award: “My Marlon and Brando” (directed by Huseyin Karabey)
Special Mention: “The Sun Also Rises” (directed by Jiang Wen), “The Way We Are” (directed by Ann Hui), “The Convert” (directed by Yasmin Ahmad)

Huseyin Karabey

As explained by the jury president for Winds of Asia-Middle Eeast, My Marlon and Brando was amongst 20 films in a section of interesting quality and variety, and it was from a shortlist down to seven that this road movie with charm stood out.

TOYOTA Earth Grand Prix
Special Award: “THE MEERKATS” (directed by James Honeyborne)
Jury Award: “School Days with a Pig” (directed by Tetsu Maeda)
TOYOTA Earth Grand Prix: “Ashes from the Sky” (directed by José Antonio Quirós)

José Antonio Quirós holding the GlobeTrophy

The Audience Award: “School Days with a Pig” (directed by Tetsu Maeda)
Award for Best Artistic Contribution: “With a Little Help From Myself”
Award for Best Actor: Vincent Cassel (“Public Enemy No. 1 (Part 1 & 2)”)

Vincent Cassel's Acceptance Speech

Award for Best Actress: Felicite Wouassi (“With a Little Help From Myself”)
Award for Best Director: Sergey Dvortsevoy (“TULPAN”)
Special Jury Prize: “4 Nights with Anna” (directed by Jerzy Skolimowski)
Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix: “TULPAN” (directed by Sergey Dvortsevoy)

Team Tulpan

As explained by Jury President Jon Voight, French cinema has great leading men who are great actors, such as Gerard Depardieu and Michael Gambon, and this one can also be added to the list: Vincent Cassel. and he also commented that Tulpan was a perfect film, masterful in every aspect, beautiful and moving.

Closing Speech by TIFF Chairman Tatsumi Yoda

[TIFF 2008 Event] Green Carpet Closing Ceremony

After 10 days of intense competition, blurry eyed film appreciation, and a variety of fringe events, the closing ceremony today at the Shibuya Bunkamura Orchard Hall marks the end of the festival by an awards show to give out the Toyota Sakura Grand Prix, amongst other trophies.

And to spice up the glamourous awards show, is another Green Carpet to welcome guests and VIPs to the venue. It is anyone's guess at this point who amongst those in attendance, would be going on stage later to collect the coveted Kirin-shaped award that the Jury will bestow upon.

Wall-E Was Present Too!

As usual, the Green Carpet is best described by a series of pictures which tell more than a thousand words. Here's the slideshow:

The Jury Having Some Fun

[TIFF 2008 Review] WALL·E

[WALL·E is the Closing Film of the 21st Tokyo International Film Festival, which runs from 18th to 26th Oct 2008. This review is pulled forward from the archive to coincide with the film’s screening at this year’s TIFF.]

To Infinity and Beyond!

In some strange twist of Fate, the local release of recent Pixar movies always had us here twiddling our thumbs wondering when it'll finally make its way to the screens, while we hear the accolades ring from the rest of the world in marvelling at the quality that Pixar continually churns out. It's likely that the distributors want to coincide the release with the local school holidays, but frankly, the money also comes from the adult crowd, as testament to this full house in one of the largest screens downtown during a late night screening with nary a noisy kid in tow.

And I may sound like a broken record, but Pixar has done it again. Quality stories with quality animation, and it kept the run time to a manageable under 100 minutes, compared to the previous offering Ratatouille, which clocked near 120 minutes (or actually felt that long). I never expected WALL·E to pack in such a strong emotional punch, not that Pixar has never animated non-living objects before (such as Cars), but there's a certain child like innocence appeal that WALL·E possesses, that makes him very charming, and very endearing to the audience.

As a Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth-Class, Isaac Asimov's Robot directives has him firmly and dutifully carrying out his duties of compacting Earth's rubbish, as the last of its class on Earth to clean up the mess. Humans have now polluted the world so much that they took to Space in Star Trek inspired ship designs, to live out there while WALL·Es take over to do some massive spring cleaning. Until of course, our WALL·E becomes like The Last Man, erm, Robot on Earth with a cockroach companion, acting and emoting superbly that puts Will Smith to shame.

The fantastic thing about WALL·E is that it can tell so much by so little. The first few minutes establish everything we need to know about the current world, and paints a very humanistic, soulful value to the dusty, dirty and rickety robot. He (see what I mean?) has a lot of eccentricities, and in performing his duties, develops quirks and becomes a collector (of junk) of sorts, which allows the creators to pump in plenty of sight gags and inside jokes ranging from sound effects (I swear my Apple is now a WALL·E pre-cursor) to paying homage to movies such as 2001: A Space Odessey.

In essence, WALL·E is a love story in human terms, where the boy tries hard to get the girl, only to have her spurn his advances. EVE (which stands for Extraterrestial Vegetation Evaluator) is WALL·E's object of affection, who got sent to Earth as a probe for life. And my, she's a difficult one to handle, being state of the art, as well as packing a mean self-defense mechanism that makes breaking the ice really difficult. Not to mention as well, a fiery temper to boot. Which means our guy has to really try, and try hard, to break that wall down. Poor thing really, because all he wanted to do, was to hold her hand. The Beatles would have been proud.

But of course you'll have to throw in tougher adversary and events to make it all the more worthwhile in WALL·E's pursuit of EVE, which spans lightyears and a plant that becomes the catalyst for their romance. A lot of the movie takes place on board The Axiom, the human ship where a vision of the future is presented, which metaphorically holds a mirror up to ourselves in our over reliance in technology that we're beginning to grow sideways, and not noticing the things that nature has in store for us, human to human communication, and the things that matter. It also has an soft environmental message and stance thrown in, but done so subtly that you wouldn't feel that it's being preachy and a turn off.

I hate to admit it too that the movie turned me into a big softie, especially its cliched finale, where you know what will happen, but yet want to second guess if the filmmakers could be so heartless with an ending that I thought would really make me shed a tear. However, it's Disney after all, and when you think of merchandise opportunities, then business sense prevails.

WALL·E deserves every acclaim that it's got, and let me contribute mine too. If you have time to only watch one animated movie this year, or want to bring your kids to one, then make no mistake, WALL·E is the perfect choice, without a doubt, hands down. It makes it to my books as contender for the top 10 movies of the year. Highly recommended stuff, and the leads don't even speak much save to call out to each other!

Oh, do put your bum on the seat early too, as with all Pixar features, there's always a short that preluded it, and Presto is nothing short of hilarious, and a crowd pleaser to rouse the audience into a frenzy before the main act takes over. I guess it's high time I purchase the collection of Pixar shorts available on DVD as well.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

[TIFF 2008 Review] Flower in the Pocket

[This review is pulled forward from the archive to coincide with the film’s screening at this year’s TIFF.]

Mario and Maria

Funded from Tan Chui Mui's award winnings from the 2006 Pusan International Film Festival with her win for Love Conquers All, Flower in the Pocket is fellow Da Huang Pictures' writer-director Liew Seng Tat's debut feature, again epitomizing the spirit of the Malaysian indie filmmaking scene, where yet another Da Huang Pictures collaborator James Lee get casted in the role of a workaholic father who makes mannequins.

In short, this is a very charming and delightful movie to sit through, and no doubt credit goes to the two young boys who played the characters of brothers Ma Li Ahh and Ma Li Ohm, though my personal favourite would be Li Ohm the younger of the two, and from the get go, director Seng Tat puts him in comical light, as the poor dude can't understand Malay in his language class, and had to rely on a fellow student to act as a translator in order to have a conversation with the teacher.Neglected by their father, they spend most of their time hanging out in the streets relying on their street smarts, bullying weaker boys, and being poor, commit petty thefts (or abeitting someone else to do it) for that ice cream or two.

The film also showcases some really heartfelt scenes of friendship which transcends race, religion and gender, and celebrates this diversity, wearing it on its sleeve. I also got to reminisce the games we play as kids, such as catching longkang fish, and Flower in the Pocket had 2 scenes which just crack me up - the choking scene, and the swimming one which is so unbelievable it just has to be seen to be believed.

Alas there are moments here that the Malaysian censors found reason to frown upon. Thankfully, the screening here had those 2 key scenes intact, which involves, in the censored version, a pixelated dog, as well as the removal of the scene where pages from a Bahasa Melayu textbook were used to wipe an arse after doing business out in the open.

While I thought the storyline was nothing really much to shout about, the charismatic leads as well as some truly funny key moments, made this movie. You'll never look at learning how to swim in the same light again LOL

Friday, October 24, 2008

[TIFFCOM 2008 Review] The Days (歲月)

[This review is pulled forward from the archive to coincide with the film’s screening at this year’s TIFFCOM.]

The Usual Suspects

The ubiquitous Ah Beng of Singapore continues to be a cultural fascination for the big screen in Singapore cinema, having been the subject of films like Royston Tan's 15, and Kelvin Tong/Jasmine Ng's Eating Air. I guess almost every one of us will bump into Mr. Beng at some point in our lives, either in schools, coffeeshops, at nightspots, or even have been, or are still currently one ourselves! This classification and label have been evolving through time, and this version here presented in Boi Kwong's The Days, happen to be an era of mine as well.

Set in the late 80s and early 90s in Ming Fa Secondary School, The Days is loosely based on the director's own experiences, and growing up in the same era, you can't help but to nod in agreement at some of the spot-on observations, and the accurate depiction of generic behaviour of the characters. You know, the gang of boys who form cliques and spot non school approved hairdo, who tuck their shirts out, fold their sleeves and pop their collars, who don't walk but strut their stuff around the school turf. They pick on the weaker boys, and as a group, act in a rather gung-ho, devil may care fashion, firmly believing in strength in numbers. Fights are picked on a whim of accusatory stares, and these boys are fodder for recruitment into underground gangs, where recruiters usually hover around school fences, hooking up and enticing them with values like brotherhood and loyalty, of being "family", or could be bold enough to infiltrate schools to help settle differences.

These boys tend to lead a double life. In schools, they are hopeless as students, but come alive after school - which actually depends on whether they decide to skip lessons altogether - at nearby coffeeshops smoking and drinking beer (this was before more stringent laws were passed to curb selling to minors), or at the arcade plying their skills on the latest Streetfighter game, or at billiard salon to congregate with other members of the same fraternity. On weekends, the discos playing the latest techno hits become their playground, to let their hair down, or to pick up girls, or to pick on someone for fights.

While The Days may seem like it contained a simple story to tell about two brothers, it boasts of a broad documentation of the delinquent life as described which I'm fairly sure still exists in the school courtyards of today, despite being out of an observation post from within. Fusing these elements effortlessly into the narrative, The Days centers on the story of two brothers Zi-Long / Tai-Zi (Justin Chan) and Zi-Hao / Baby (Ivan Lim; yes he's nicknamed that because he's the youngest and the kid-brother), of their relationship which starts to strain because of differing values.

Tai-Zi and his 3 friends call themselves The 4 Heavenly Kings, consisting of Cockroach (Avery Ang), Dog (Derrick R) the part time medium and Tau-Per (Kelvin Tan) the dropout and motorcycle fanatic. Together they form quite a terror group in school, and become ripe for a final initiation (with altar and complete with recitation of vows) into a larger gang, sponsored by their Boss Jeremy Tan (Anthony Levi Kho), who happened to be the live-wire in the movie. All these faux-pas glamour and power-play proved to be enticing to a timid, loner Baby who gets picked on In his first day of school by the resident lower secondary ruffian Rat (Jason Ho, with excellent snarl and one of the most convincing in his role). Baby, whose impressionable mind decides that he too should live it up like his brother in the hip and In-crowd, who in Tai-Zi's earnestness, tells Baby that his band of brothers would be his brothers as well, pivoting the story from that point on.

Hang on, you'd say. Isn't this glamourizing delinquent behaviour, and giving a nod towards street corner gangsters? If this was made some 10 years ago, I'd think it would raise more than a few eyebrows. But here's where I thought the compromise was - the characters hardly ever swear, if at all, which makes it a tad quite impossible. They use language and terms which are quite sanitized, and there's a moderating voice represented by Richard Low, whose aged durian seller and ex-gang member provides that constant reminder of not throwing one's youth away for short term pleasures and to make better use of one's time to better oneself. While essentially a mouthpiece of good sense and caution, he becomes a showcase of the detrimental outcome of one who led a life of violence. However, you can count on the veteran actor's gravitas and charisma to lift the one-dimensional role, and doesn't come across as too preachy, and his involvement in many local indie productions, is nothing short of admirable.

In some ways though, there's a distinct lack of authority here with the marked absence of the cops (for a nation like ours that boasts of a safe and secure environment), save for one scene where some plainclothes did a raid, and for a school, there's also the noticeable absence of teachers. Granted, this makes the film border a little on the fantastical, akin to flicks like Volcano High and Crows Zero on turf wars, only without the snazzy effects and superhuman powers. However, there are some eye-popping animations and graphics used to elevate the various characters into legendary, comic book styled status, providing some added colour into the narrative.

In a movie strong in the themes of brotherhood, the women here do play important roles as well, apart from being molls and dolls, and calling the shots at times. Besides sibling rivalry and brotherly love, there's a contrast and parallel to Tai-Zi and Baby in sisters Shan Shan and Valerie (played by real life sisters Adele and Adora Wong), with a built-in love triangle to spice things up a little, to add fuel to the fire. While one sister acts as an inspiration for a change in behaviour for the better, the other becomes the catalyst and chief instigator to entice another's descent into delinquency, of wanting to be, or surpass the "achievements" and reputation of his sibling. It's an interesting parallel, especially when it boils down to hell having known no fury like a woman scorned, and one showing that she has enough tenacity inside her to take charge when the time calls for It. Actress Yeo Yann Yann rounds up the female cast in a supporting appearance as the single mother of the sisters, and in a bar maid role here, that makes it two in a role, given something similar in Yasmin Ahmad's upcoming release Muallaf.

Pacing of the film is remarkably even as it didn't try to cram too much, but felt a little bit rushed toward the end (checking out some film stills did leave an impression that a lot more didn't make it to the final cut). I would suppose some would gripe about the film regarding the fight sequence toward the finale taking place at night, which was a bit of a blur, especially when compounded by shooting it in the dark and had a fair bit of close ups, whereby the characters realistically wearing dark clothing didn't help in allowing to see who's engaging who. Then again, it brought out an aspect of such gangland whack-fest - most of the time, the victims would hardly know who's raining blows at that point in time, and brought out the cyclic nature of such violence perfectly, where victims who survive will round up a bigger gang to take on his attackers when they're left alone and at their most vulnerable. And the cycle continues until there is none-left standing.

For those who still live in the dinosaur era and dismissing every Singaporean movie that comes out automatically based on biased notions of poor production values, of having tele-movie look and feel, and not being able to entertain, you'd be surprised at how far Singapore cinema has come with The Days now setting the benchmark for a quality and slick indie production with what seems to be on a relatively modest budget. With accessible themes, identifiable characters and excellent cast in what would be the first-outing on the big screen for most, I would rate this movie as highly recommended, even though the younger crowd would miss out on it given its NC-16 rating. Don't go in expecting Young and Dangerous, as this movie would ring closer to home in more ways than one, set firmly in our local context.

Btw, put your bums on your seats when the end credits roll, as there's a coda at the end that will complete the story. And it would be interesting to see how The Days would fare at the box office, because it had set up to room for a sequel to be made should the box office prove to be an overwhelming success, that while it wrapped up this particular chapter of the story, still had enough reserve fuel in its tank to go for another round.

Watch, Or Get Whacked!

Related Links
The Days Official Website
Blog Site
Site at

Thursday, October 23, 2008

[TIFF 2008 Day Six]

TIFFCOM is in full swing together with TIFF, and although I had wanted to watch Monster X take on the world in a TIFFCOM screening, conventional wisdom and the experience of travelling during rush hour yesterday morning, made it very clear that there is absolutely no way for the uninitiated like myself to try boarding a packed-to-the-brim subway train, with luggage in tow. Having to check out and change hotels, this would mean to take the later train, which was also a squeeze, but manageable.

Roppongi Hills have lockers available in all shapes and sizes for you to stow away your luggage, otherwise you'll have to lug them all the way to the screening halls, which is likely to be cumbersome. Heck, there's even a storage rack for umbrellas too. Although it's meant more for those visiting the Museum and the Sky Deck, they still serve the same purpose for providing storage area for stuff you refuse to carry around. Bear in mind though that the lockers are cleared every night, and it's going to cost you 300 Yen to deposit, and 100 Yen to retrieve. Have some coins ready!

Only 1 screening for today – Mr Tadano's Secret Mission: From Japan With Love, and the Press Conference for Claustrophobia to cover. At first we weren't sure whether Ekin Cheng would be present, given that only writer-director Ivy Ho and lead actress Karena Lam were at the Opening Green Carpet. Ekin's placard on the table was also removed, until much later was it put back, clearly signifying his presence at the conference.

While he might be relatively quiet in the film scene these days, there is no denying that his star power had not diminished a bit in Japan, where many members of the public, and presumably his fans, were waiting eagerly in anticipation for the arrival of their idol. The conference proceeded without a hitch, and toward the end, the fans can't hold out any longer, started to call his name, and surprise, even had gifts standing by to pass to him as well.

This is Day 6 at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and the full course dinner we had this evening, was par none.

[TIFF 2008 Press Conference] Claustrophobia (親密)

LtoR: Karena Lam, Ivy Ho, Ekin Cheng

Writer-director Ivy Ho and her two leading stars Karena Lam and Ekin Cheng were present this afternoon at the Movie Cafe to field questions by the press with regards to her debut feature film as a director, Claustrophobia.

Ivy Ho explained about film's English and Chinese title, where her husband is actually claustrophobic up to the point of not wanting to even sit at an airplane window seat, and somehow his condition had rubbed off on her. She decided that she would use this condition as a title of a film one day, but not decided at that stage what kind of film it would be. As for the Chinese one, it is rather neutral and has dual meaning, as it can be referring to something sweet, or have a negative connotation to it.

And no, the movie while being presented in reverse order, wasn't shot chronologically in that order. Given the relatively low budget, and having only 16 days to shoot the film, she can't afford to do it chronologically. Ekin mentioned too that it was challenging to shoot the film in random order as it involves totally different emotions and feelings in each scene, though having an experienced cast did make it a pleasurable experience. Karena on the other hand actually had the script with her 5 to 6 months before filming began, and actually, since the scenes are set in their own respective timeline, there weren't any issues with the shoot not being in chronology.

Ivy also explained her rationale for using flashbacks throughout the entire film, that in film there are a lot of things we do not know, but we want to know everything by the time it ends. But in real life, there remains a lot of things that we do not know. She's very inspired by Harold Pinter's Betrayal, and that such a presentation in Claustrophobia is nothing new, nor the first time used in movies, since there are such examples in Irreversible and 5X2 doing the same.

Before the conference wrapped up, each of them were asked to share which is their favourite scene in the movie. Ivy's was the first scene, and she was actually worried if an audience would find that scene to be boring. Ekin also shared the same sentiments in that the first, and the last scene were his favourites, because it parallels life in that one does not know the starting and ending points. Only Karena had a different personal preference, in that she had shared a scene with Eric Tsang as a doctor. That scene was looking for answers, but it was unsuccessful in the end. She was extremely moved by how that scene progressed to the end, where the doctor had returned her the X-Ray of her mom, like a sense of returning and closure, of finally getting over her mom through a clean cut, and signifying the loss of one's hope.

You can also view the entire press conference here, in Japanese and Cantonese language only.

Meanwhile, here's the slideshow containing some photos taken during the press conference:

[TIFF 2008 Review] Mr. Tadano's Secret Mission - From Japan with Love (特命係長 只野仁 最後の劇場版) (World Premiere)

Do You Find Me Sexy?

Set in December 2008 Tokyo, Mr Tadano's Secret Mission – From Japan With Love is an extended television episode designed for the big screen, and for those not familiar with the series, the opening credits do contain enough information for you to start off with, and other established norms easily get picked up as the movie goes on. A comedy in nature, this film's title is an obvious poke at James Bond's From Russia With Love, only that Mr Tadano doesn't work for the government, but for an advertisement agency reporting directly to the President of the company Denodo, and while he doesn't pack a Walter PPK, he shares the same mojo as Bond in using sex as a weapon to elicit information from powerful women.

By day Tadano (Katsuniro Takahashi) is the lowly and dull assistant manager of the 2nd general affairs department in the company Denodo, but by night, gone are the huge glasses, messy mop of hair and in comes some wit, charm, a voodoo rose (don't ask!) and some incredible fighting skills to defend his company's honour in any industrial espionage activities. His assigned Secret Missions come directly from the top guy and in keeping this a secret, he in his disguise become constant fodder for those who look down on the working class.

In fact, this film is a tribute to the ubiquitous suited salaryman, and there is no lack of explicit praises heaped upon the virtues they epitomize, such as honesty and hard work, though they often get abused by those in power and privilege. There was a point made which I thought was quite relevant and correct, that the eternal dilemma for man stands from our need, as pride, to work hard, though in doing so, they become busier, hence as a result, the lack of attention and time for the family. The connection he established with one of the local managers in Osaka was nothing short of sharing relevant pathos that can be enjoyed by everyone.

The mystery and case here in the movie for Tadano to crack involves his idol Sylvia, a sexy teen idol who's a manufactured star, and the company's upcoming Flower Earth Festival. As the newly minted spokesperson for Denodo, she is deemed as the new asset to the company and is scheduled to make an appearance at the Festival. Given the importance of the event, it is natural for Tadano to provide some additional security cover tasked as a minder from the ad agency, especially when threat messages by a certain Prince Darkness start to come in. At the same time, Tadano has to contend with the conflict of interest because of his personal liking for Sylvia, himself a fan boy.

Those worried that this might be a one man show and ego trip can put those thoughts at ease. There were plenty of supporting characters who provide the usual red herring and comedic intervals. Peppered with some visual effects to boost rather regular fight action sequences, the fights are quite 70s-80s Hong Kong old school style, and at times bordering in audacity when cooking up some ridiculously improbable situations, especially in his adversary with a Jaws-inspired character. Comedy comes loads, some offered by Tadano's assistant played by Atsuko Sakurai. Going one step further than Bond, this film does feature some random gratuitous nudity and again, some cartoony situations such as having busty babes enter a sauna and start to show off their cleavage to our heroes.

While not exactly pristine, Mr Tadano's Secret Mission at least didn't take itself too seriously, and had quite a good balance between its stronger dramatic moments, and the madcap zany comedy it gets itself into.

[TIFF 2008 Review] Assembly (集 結 號)

[This review is pulled forward from the archive to coincide with the film’s screening at this year’s TIFF.]

Band of Chinese Brothers

Feng Xiaogang's Assembly was the opening film at last year's Pusan International Film Festival, and tickets were sold out in record time once they were made available online. Such is the faith (or curiosity) of the new film from the director who brought us movies like World Without Thieves, and martial arts Hamlet The Banquet. When you think of Chinese directors making a movie based out of Chinese history, you can't help but imagine the massive amount of propaganda that get so blatantly infused into the story and especially the dialogue. But here, Feng managed to bring about a movie which goes beyond the usual ra-ra, and shows us that a movie with universal themes can also come out from what is essentially a war movie based upon China's tumultuous era after WWII.

Assembly refers to the call of the bugle to retreat and regroup, and this is the call that Captain Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu) and his 47 men of the 9th Company, 3rd Batallion, 139th Regiment, are keenly listening out for, as they go about their mission in ill-equipped fashion, holding fort on a strategic plain. Sent to the frontlines for war-crimes, Captain Gu and his men, while being the best at trench warfare, find themselves severely lacking in essentials - manpower, ammunition and heavy weaponry, as they go up against the marauding forces of the Nationalist army, with their relatively superior armour. However, their mantra is old school - only the bugle will signal their fall behind, and everything else means fulfilling their mission objectives at all costs.

While all might seem lost, this provides the kind of tales of valour that comes out of these battles, something like 300's. Assembly honours the spirit of the unit, of their tales of bravery and unflinching under insurmountable odds. If you're looking for a war movie, then Assembly will not disappoint. For the first hour anyway. Told in three acts, the first act, all 60 minutes of it, is where the action takes place. The war sequences here aren't poetic in the veins of Terence Mallick's The Thin Red Line, but are more aligned with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, with its gritty realism, strained colours, and bloody, gory violence.

We're probably, in recent years, in tune with war movies that put us in the shoes of aggressors, and that is to follow an assault team. Very rarely are we put into trenches and be seen to be on the defensive like that of Letters From Iwo Jima, soaking up wave after wave of attacks. And that's where Assembly shines, in having four intense battle sequences, three of which were on the defensive scheme of warfare, and the other, while an assault, does seem more to be on the losing end rather than achieving a clear, decisive victory. If details are what you're after, then you probably can't go wrong with the single bolt weapon, primitive artillery and the sharing of tin helmets. In fact, you'll probably be wondering instead that the PLA at the time was really backward, given the world's military technological advancement in the West/Japan during the 40s.

And given last year's double bill by Clint Eastwood in Flags of our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, Assembly seems like both movies combined, in providing both an indepth look at the battles fought, as well as taking time off to contemplate more serious issues in dramatic fashion. In the second and last acts which take up the remaining hour, we follow Captain Gu as he tries his darnedest best to get his company recognized for the contribution it made, no matter how minuscule it might seem compared to the helicopter view of achievements. These acts might bore those who came satisfied with the first half, but for those looking into a more intimate drama of one man's fight for his lost brothers, then this portion will likely appeal to you.

Ultimately, Assembly is an ambitious film. It combines drama and action, and in both aspects, doesn't hold back in bringing about the best it probably could. Kudos go to actor Zhang Hanyu who plays Captain Gu, in what can be essentially a one man show, putting focus of his place in history and his solo fight against the system. And after watching this, you'll probably won't hesitate to watch another war movie coming out of China, if they meet the benchmark set by Feng Xiaogang. Recommended!

[TIFF 2008 Review] Cairo Station

[This review is pulled forward from the archive to coincide with the film’s screening at this year’s TIFF. During the screening I attended, Yousry Mansou, a filmmaker based in Singapore, was in attendance during the screening to share some insights of the movie, which I have also included here.]

Don't Underestimate Me

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

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. [Editor's Note: Youssef Chahine had passed away earlier this year.]

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.


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.
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