Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sorority Row


I can't help but to compare this with I Know What You Did Last Summer, where one can make a slasher film by assembling a bevy of hot looking girls, never mind if they can act to save their lives, and designing enough innovative ways to make them fall to the killer's weapon of choice. It's pretty no brainer, and while this film succeeded in its casting, the way it went about dispatching its victims was a tad too boring.

Story centers around a group of sorority seniors whose prank went awry resulting in the demise of one of their own. The surviving members decide to hush it up after a great moral debate on what's right and wrong, and the voice of reason gets drowned out. Fast forward some 8 months later to graduation, they get haunted by the victim's phone messages and video clip of the event, that they decide to investigate just who is bumping them off one by one.

The filmmakers don't even try to make the killer an iconic one worthy for induction into Horror's Wall of Infamy, and designed yet another generic psychopath that are B-grade plenty. Body count is low too, and it didn't help that the characters are unlikable to begin with that you just don't bother if they live or die.

You can read my review of Sorority Row at by clicking on the logo below.


City of Life and Death (南京! 南京!)

The Horror

The last Rape of Nanking event film I had watched, was the docu-drama Nanking back in 2007 during the Hong Kong International Film Festival. With interviews conducted with real survivors, I was riveted to listen to their account of the atrocities conducted by the Japanese soldiers, and you empathize with them as they relive their memory and make them known. The dramatic elements were nicely presented as well, with notable names reading off memoirs and letters pertaining to individual episodes, which collectively make up the brutal horror, a living hell if you would, of the conditions of occupation.

Lu Chuan of Kekexili fame has crafted this fine film that looks into 2 broad episodes – the first few hours of occupation which will satisfy action junkies, and the later half which looked into the atrocities that were committed some 1 week into occupation, from within an international safety zone set up by Westerners, led by German John Rabe, who gets some concession by virtue of Nazi Germany being Japan's ally.

There's the controversial aspect of the film though, where it doesn't demonize the invading force right away. Instead, I lauded its realistic portrayal of the human condition of Fear when we go into the unknown, and this emotion gets vividly captured in the first few minutes of the movie, setting the tone of the entire film, where fear drives us to do inhumane, barbaric acts. That being said, it doesn't shy away from reenacting the atrocities committed against the Chinese, from bayonet stabbings, mass burials of breathing souls, burning and the machine gunning of surviving soldiers, and rape.

Filled with plenty of characters each given a specific purpose in the film, either representative of an historical legend, or collectively as a group, it makes you feel for the individual with documentary-like precision, and I am somewhat intrigued at how one can feel so much through the simple camera work of going real close to the actor's face, and lingering onwards to capture moments of despair and bewilderment.

If there's one film you should see this year, then don't miss this one. I only hope that it gets played in a decent cinema hall with a great sound system, otherwise it'll do this film no justice. Certainly a contender for one of my films of the year, and comes highly recommended!

You can read my review of City of Life and Death at by clicking on the logo below.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Paper Heart

All You Need Is Love

How do you define love? Is it something that's short lived and passionate, or a long drawn commitment? Is it that fleeting and can disappear on a whim, or something that you know for sure is permanent, consistent and wouldn't change? For those who have been through a phase of having loved and being loved before, you're likely to have developed your own philosophy - cynical, sentimental or pragmatic. For someone like Charlyne Yi who has never been in a romantic relationship before, the subject of love, and the dramatized account of her budding romance with Michael Cera, become the parallel stories in Paper Heart.

For director Nick Jasenovec (who appears in front of the camera played by actor Jake M. Johnson), meshing the two threads together in a seamless fashion blurred the line between fantasy and reality. At times the documentary segments crosses over to the dramatized narrative, that it becomes hard to tell whether Charlyne, as the explorer of the theme, is genuinely being herself, or just putting on a facade to be in character. The same goes for Michael Cera, who is aware of the camera constantly poking its nose into him and his relationship with Charlyne, whether he's hamming it up for the camera, or being really perturbed by the invasion of privacy.

But it is precisely the down-to-earth demeanours of both personalities, that make this film shine as we gleefully become voyeurs shadowing their every move, no thanks to the clause of having the film crew do just that, in case of missing out on any perfect moment suitable for the documentary. Those familiar with Michael Cera and the stereotyped characters he plays, will find the same kind of appeal in Charlyne, the musician-comedian being almost a female equivalent of Cera, and the pair share some great chemistry together in their young, inexperienced courtship. Who cares if they're faking it, as they do look adorable together, with their insecurities, hesitations and all!

Then there are the flat-out documentary segments, which in truth was to me as entertaining as they were enlightening, exploring the theme of love in as wide a spectrum as possible, gunning for interviews all around America from children and their innocent perspectives, to full-blown theories from various scientific fields. It's Love 101 for Dummies succinctly summarized in a film, where you'll begin to realize that it's pretty much all-encompassing, with personal interpretations from talking heads sharing their most memorable accounts in anecdotal terms. You'll find yourself adoring the puppets and landscapes (complete with moving parts, mind you!) crafted to reenact these moments, that they'll surely bring about a chuckle or two in the childish, kitschy style presented.

Don't head out the door just yet when the end credits start rolling, especially if you're a fan of that insanely touching yet comedic love song performed by Charlyne Yi, and for that little stinger at the end. It's an ambitious documentary of sorts for taking on a subject as vast as “Love”, and personally I thought there's a subtle lesson learnt here from all the couples who have made it through their decades-long marriage anniversaries, and that is being a guy, it's as one of the interviewees mentioned, just say I do and subsequently, forever, just Yes Dear. Looking at the way the film got constructed, it's also important to keep the mouth shut, and agree with everything the lady says. Just watch the film, and see if you agree with me on this one!

Paper Heart opens in cinemas 1 Oct 2009.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

[DVD] The Longshots (2008)

We Can Do It

I looked at the director of this film, and I really didn't think Fred Durst, one time front man of Limp Bizkit, could have pulled off a family drama. But pulled it off he did, albeit making a relatively plain film which is based on a true person, a certain Ms Jasmine Plummer, played by Keke Palmer (of Akeelah and the Bee fame), an outcast of her school, whose natural gift for American football sparked a whole new inspiration for her sleepy town. But to realize her potential, she gotta be chummy with her uncle Curtis (Ice Cube) who imparts to her the basic knowledge of the game, as well as to hone her skills as a mean quarterback.

The chemistry between the two leads obviously worked, but if you've watched one too many "true life" American football movies, then this one might just pale in comparison, although it does have some pretty exciting set action sequences from the various match games to keep you entertained.

You can read my DVD review of The Longshots at by clicking on the logo below.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

What's Your Raashee?


I've been following the films made by Ashutosh Gowariker, who has helmed huge epics and worked with the biggest names in Bollywood today, such as Lagaan with Amir Khan, Swades with Shah Rukh Khan, and his previous film Jodhaa Akbar starring Hrithik Roshan and Ashwarya Rai Bachchan. And it's a fact that his films have runtimes of about 3.5 hours, which goes by real quickly as he keeps the story engaging, and the production values for this films are nothing less than magnificent. So naturally my interest was piqued as the auteur has now turned his sights on a romantic comedy, and I wonder exactly how a filmmaker such as he would be able to tackle this mass-appeal genre.

Based on the novel “Kimbali Ravenswood” by Madhu Rye, What's Your Rashee? (or translated as star sign for the English speaking audience) has all the ingredients that would allow for the runtime to stretch to a typical Gowariker length, but that's only because the challenge is to present all 12 female characters representing their respective star signs with attempts at equal runtime for each, with a song being inserted during the whirlwind courtship, clocking 13 tunes when the typical production averages 5. Think of it as an extreme speed dating where we get to know the opposite sex in some detail, with some travelling involved as the production showcased different districts in Mumbai, which of course is an eye-opener for one who has never visited India, yet.

The story's actually nothing sophisticated, and by romantic comedy standards quite predictable at times. Basically Yogesh Patel (Harman Buweja), an Non-Resident Indian living in Chicago has been summoned back to India because his parents learnt of his multi-million dollar inheritance from his grandfather should he get married, and the family now needs that kind of money to pay off his brother's debts. He reluctantly agrees of course, and sets himself up to meet initially hundreds of girls, but inspiration struck and he decided that he should be 12, one maiden under each star sign.

The main draw of the film is of course actress Priyanka Chopra, who has taken on possibly her most challenging film to date, playing 12 characters with more than 12 personalities. Why I say this is because some of her characters are putting on a facade, thus allowing more room for Priyanka to showcase her acting chops, which she did, with the help of stylists decking her out in beautiful dresses, varying make up, wigs, contact lenses and prosthetics even. That's only the physical outlook – you would be amazed at the physical presentation at how chameleon-like this ex-Miss World can be – and she takes her roles on with gusto to make you feel with some, laugh at some, and endear towards some through some wonderful pieces of acting. Not to mention that she broke the record set by Kamal Hassan, who tackled 10 characters in his movie Dasavatharam.

Unfortunately for Harman Baweja, who's in need for a booster to his fledging career after the flop Love Story 2050 (which incidentally also co-starred Priyanka), and the lacklustre Victory, his role as Yogesh, quite obsessed with doing the right thing each time, finds himself constantly upstaged and overshadowed by Priyanka's performance. It's a little pity of course, given that if it's anyone who can help him it'll likely be Gowariker given the director's strengths, but this was not to be as it's pretty much the leading lady's vehicle. But that's not to mean that Gowariker's film here is without flaws. Amongst his works to date, I feel that this was perhaps the weakest of the lot, suffering from a number of subplots which provided nothing more than a distraction to the meat of the story, such as that involving the infidelity of his uncle and marriage-consultant (Darshan Zariwala), and that of the loansharks who pop up now and then for unnecessary comic relief.

However, its strengths more than compensated for its drawbacks, such as how Priyanka just ran with her opportunities to shine, 12 times. The story also provided some insights into how arranged marriages, with dowries and all, are still conducted and quite a cultural thing, and the plights that some family face with having too many daughters, and wondering how best to have them married off. As the encounters with the different women were rather stand-alone, each allowed for the examination of traits and characteristics that will make you love, or loathe, and generally applies across the board, which allows you to identify with such instances.

But for all its narrative twists in secrets that cannot be kept, for its fleeting discussions on honesty or lack thereof, what I enjoyed most was the quasi-explanation of why the females that Yogesh meets, all share a striking resemblance with one another, which other characters don't seem to agree with, but only to the male protagonist. I liked how it was mentioned that we all have this preconceived idea of how our soul mate would preferably look like, and from then we tend to project this thought onto whomever we think would have a chance with, or at least tend to take those physical bits into consideration, only for their inner character, when revealed, to be anything but adhering to our dreams.

What's Your Raashee? for the romantic in me, worked wonders, and will leave you guessing at the end just who Yogesh would end up with, since Gowariker deliberately kept you hanging in suspense for as long as he possibly could. I'd recommend it as a date movie anytime if you're looking for something different from the usual Hollywood fare. Just remember to empty your bladders before the show starts, or you'll have to plan to hit the loo just about the time Leo gets introduced, for that inbuilt intermission.

In the spirit of this fun movie, I thought I'll give you the reader a run through if you're curious about which character came first, and their general characteristics. It contains spoilers of course, but those who are also curious as the type of women I fancy (OK you gotta take this with some pinches of salt here), then read on:

Check them out!

1. Aries Name: Anjali
She's a bit dorky looking, and terribly shy, speaking with a lisp and tries very hard to impress with her smattering of English learnt in a 2-day crash course. Full marks for effort, but her motivation in wanting to hook up, comes from an overbearing mom, and seeks marriage as an escape. Priyanka drops her glam self for this role.

2. Aquarius Name: Sanjala
She's out with you because she's under the orders of her parents to do so. She knows you're still looking, and suggests that you reject her outright, because she's honest in not wanting to hurt you and wasting your time, since she's already attached in secret to someone else. Otherwise she'll be perfect, with her contemporary affable outlook and lifestyle. Priyanka probably played this with tremendous ease, because it didn't call for anything other than probably being herself.

3. Gemini Name: Kajal
She's your typical young adult who still refuses to grow up, and constantly seeks out to be the life of parties. She's fun to be with and hang out with, and is always all smiles. However her maturity level is still a few notches down, and Yogesh cannot wait for a year to settle down with her. She's more like a sister, than a potential spouse at this point. Hip hop dance moves become a staple here, since it's the In thing for the In crowd, inspired by countless of street dance movies.

4. Cancer Name: Hansa
Traditional and demure. It's not until she opened up to Yogesh and was completely honest with him about her virtue, would you not think that you've met the right person. So the huge skeleton in the closet was revealed, and would leave one at odds, especially in a traditional society. Personally I've encountered something like this before, and like Yogesh was quite gung-ho about it, but seriously, this segment was the one that I identified with the most, especially that lingering look between the two character wondering just what the next step would be.

5. Libra Name: Rajni
I can tell you Libran guys are probably not like that, but I cannot vouch for the opposite sex. Rajni is a high powered executive, so high powered that she has a personal assistant, and loses complete touch with her EQ. Meetings become interrogation sessions and are extremely impersonal. Everything becomes a transaction, even the marriage which serves as an escape clause from possible legal liabilities and criminal charges. Fashionably chic (love that bob hairdo), but run far, far away, please!

6. Pisces Name: Chandrika
The earlier character had an overbearing mom, but here's an overbearing dad with plenty of airs because he's a self-made rich man, and just doesn't know when to shut up and let her daughter speak her own mind. Chandrika falls into the traditional, demure mold again, until we find out that she's a believer in reincarnation, and firmly believes that you're her soulmate from before, and into the future. A notch below Psycho, Priyanka had the song and dance segment to thank for in differentiating this character from the others, since the dance movements were less fanciful, yet powerful to demonstrate the conviction of her belief.

7. Leo Name: Mallika
Priyanka goes back to becoming glamorous again as a top dancer who wants to marry a rich man, so that she can continue to do philanthropic work by donating money away. So unless you can feed that kind of lifestyle, what she's seeking is someone at the top of their game and in the upper echelons of society, despite her insistence in wanting to continue pursuing her career. Sports a bad temper and a feminist as well.

8. Scorpio Name: Nandini
A plain jane introvert on the outside, a sexy model on the inside, keeping the real her under wraps because of disapproving parents. She sees the potential for a Green Card after marriage as a means to satisfy her passionate desire and dream of modelling in Chicago. Tries very hard to win your affection and quite persuasive, but while good natured, needs to be honest with herself first.

9. Virgo Name: Dr. Pooja
A humanitarian who found her calling to be in India to work in the healthcare industry, providing services to poor village children. This segment brought out potential relationship tussles when one half refuses to give up their career to relocate to another country. Great chemistry struck up, but unfortunately the realities of life come stomping on the bright catalyst to a great relationship.

10. Taurus Name: Vishakar
The only child to the Cotton tycoon, she's a typical rich kid spoilt with a silver spoon, where her notion of a simple life still equates to impossible material wants. Character-wise I thought she was extremely spritely with a dash of playful childishness. She's putting on an act of course, since she's not sure if someone is actually interested in her as a person, or after her family's wealth which will eventually belong to her. It made me recall a Chinese adage about social standing and class , where differences could lead to unhappiness.

11. Sagittarius Name: Bhavna
The premise stemmed from an astrologer's reading, and it somewhat came full circle when Yogesh's prospective bride is an astrologer herself, having to read both their fortunes and makes suggestive proposals to break an impending curse regarding Yogesh's upcoming marriage. Not that I'm complaining of course, but spiritual persons do give me the creeps sometimes as they live their lives according to cards and stars.

12. Capricorn Name: Jhankhana
Jhankhana is the least looking like Priyanka Chopra amongst all the other characters, because this segment wanted to address the issue of child brides, dowries and the unscrupulous ways how some parents concede in near pimping their children away. It served its purpose well, though I was squinting in confirming whether it was really Priyanka under all that prosthetics.

And my choice if I was to be in Yogesh shoes? Well, it's a tough call to make, though we can eliminate the obvious no-gos such as Jhankana, Nandini, Mallika, Rajni, and Kajal, leaving behind 7 to choose from. If I really have to choose one, then it'll be the same as that in the film, which means you'll have to go watch to find out!

Accident (Yi Ngoi / 意外)

Watch Out!

You know how it is when you cry wolf too much, or are one of those pranksters who ultimately falls for a trick just because of you didn't believe it can happen to you. Accident plays along similar lines, and director Soi Cheang's latest film is an excellent atmospheric piece that adds to Milkyway's repertoire of tautly crafted contemporary crime thrillers.

Accident introduces a bunch of hitmen who bump their marks off very differently. They are not hardened criminals who are on the radar of the cops, but operate in such stealthy fashion, from obtaining their contracts, right down to execution (pardon the pun) and retrieval of payment dues. The movie boasts two of such finely designed set action pieces sans guns ablazing, but full of meticulously planned cunning (in what is staple in heist films) carried out to a T, where death gets delivered to victims and made to look like freak acts of god, which of course takes a wee bit of stretching of the imagination since some bits do rely on coincidences to ensure a perfect degree of success.

The trouble amongst this group lies with the leader Brain (Louis Koo), whose crew consisting of Uncle (a welcome to see Feng Tsui-Fan back to the big screen), Fatty (a role that Milkyway evergreen regular Lam Suet owns), and a beautiful but unnamed woman (Michelle Ye), feel a little stifled given Brain's suspicious and paranoia nature. In what Brain preaches as Trust amongst his crew, it is actually trust that he personally doesn't embody, with frequent taps on his gang to ensure that they toe the line. The reason why Brain would choose a life as such was suggested in the prologue, which adds some emotional weight to the deliberate deadpan of the character, one conscientiously living off the grid, with no bank account, and no Octopus card too for public transport, preferring to use cash and not leave a paper trail.

It's the second half of the film that intrigued a lot more, as we're drawn into Brain's suspicious world from the time the second action sequence didn't go as planned, and went horribly awry. Refusing to believe in chance encounters since there are others in the business, and that their earlier victim had been a triad boss, we're thrusts into a web of possibilities to the chain of events that follow, which involves an insurance worker played by Richie Jen in what would be nothing more than a glorified cameo. You'll start to question whether Brain's set up from the inside (ala Brian De Palma's Mission Impossible), or is outwitted by Jen's character, or just drowning into his own delusions where his paranoia finally caught up with him.

And this became translated into the Louis Koo show. Of late he has been starring in a number of noteworthy roles, but his character here really took the cake. A friend of mine had commented that Lau Ching Wan would find the Brain character right up his alley, but I thought Koo did well enough in this role that involved minimal dialogue, of a quiet man on a warpath utilizing his trade to find some meaning in debunking that thing called Chance. I suppose you can also call it an occupational hazard of sorts.

The mood of the film will really get to you, with rain soaked sequences, moments of aloofness and loneliness (kinda like an art film at times too) and unflinching scenes of violence, with credit also going to the soundtrack by Xavier Jamaux, who has also been involved with and contributed to Milkyway productions such as Sparrow and Mad Detective. If you're a fan of the soundtrack from those movies, then you're in for a treat when you watch Accident.

Running less than 90 minutes, the finale, or the “Eureka” or moment of realization, is a scene that I'll remember for a long time to come. While it might have been similar to the Deux Ex Machina styled as employed in another Milkyway production in Eye in the Sky, I thought that it played into the themes of Chance, Fate and Karma all rolled into one perfectly shot and designed sequence, that had me at the edge of my seat and wondering how it would all finally play out. And when the answer is so starkly simple, you're left to ponder that you too have already become what Brain symbolized – you have thought too much, and share in the same level of reluctance to believe in anything other than the situation having to be something overly engineered.

I would recommend that you give Accident a go in the cinemas, but of course if you're willing to put up with it being dubbed in Mandarin, and censored sex scenes being treated in the same manner as Overheard's.

Friday, September 25, 2009



I had watched the original Fame movie when I was a kid, enough to know the theme song sung by Irene Cara, but little else. Fast forward to today, I'm pretty sure I still enjoyed the reworked theme song, but the film unfortunately is a disaster, with predictable storylines, cardboard characters, and while I'm quite OK that it may have tried to be more documentary like in its presentation, it just fell short on almost all accounts, save for some of the set musical pieces.

Despite its hip trailer aimed specifically at its demographic audience, the film just didn't work out, and tried too hard to resemble plenty of dance movies already out there, except that it did a lot more worse by injecting too many characters having everyone bear the brunt of the burden in carrying the film through its runtime, through supporting role appearances at best. Having cast a relative bunch of good looking unknowns also helped in providing the fresh-facedness required, but it's akin to watching a bad episode of American Idol, except that you don't get to choose who stays and who goes.

Granted it wanted to be more "School like" encompassing all the various subjects taught from dance to acting, in quite an elitist fashion in getting mere hundreds amongst thousands of applicants, and if quality control was so stringent, it provided critical flaws to the plausibility of the show. For one, these characters are talented folks, and it's just no good treating talented folks like toddlers in school, picking on every little thing they do wrong in hoping to polish those rough diamonds. Also, the screening of candidates, while provided some Audition hilarity, was mostly based on the whims of the various instructors, hence the kind of petty issues they dredge up for themselves, like the angry actor who thought the stage was his calling, throwing tantrums and in need for some serious counselling.

But the most critical flaw of them all, for a movie in its genre, is whence the buildup and character development? We're suppose to believe that after their graduation they're all "ready to make it" in the big, bad, unforgiving world of fine art performance. Unfortunately the output's pretty much the same as the input, save for a few characters who turned into perfect gems overnight, with nary any focus on their transformation. The best just coasted through school, while the worst (amongst the best) turned in much better performances through the sprinkle of magic dust or through the rubbing of shoulders. There must be something in the diet served by the school's canteen as well it seems.

Fame fell short and became plain, formula, predictable, and ultimately boring. The screenplay reeked laziness - who needs yet another teenage movie where it tells you that even the best amongst us suffer from trouble dished out by disapproving parents, romantic relationship roadblocks, yet another naive girl becoming bait for hot looking predatory guys, wanting to fulfill a deep desire and break out of routine, discrimination, trust and integrity. The list just goes on, no thanks to individual cardboard characters being assigned some thematic homework, and turning in the results in little episodes and scenes, without allowing the audience to build any emotional connection, or to even root for the underdogs.

It's ambitious too in its setting, taking on the entire school journey of these select group of youngsters, albeit without a real story, nor gelling them together in one coherent way. Technically, director Kevin Tancharoen (who had so far done music videos) and cinematographer Scott Kevan had opted for the shaky cam technique, for what reasons I do not fathom, and came off quite irritatingly. Someone should start preaching the virtues of mounting the camera of a tripod, versus making it a lame excuse to want to do it documentary style, or to allow for fluid motion in capturing the performances, not!

The only saving grace here, are some of the performances, be it group dance ensembles, or solo acts. I had preferred the former a lot more for their energy and choreography, and amongst all the disciplines, I personally enjoyed the dances a lot more, compared to the others like acting, or even singing, due to the rather lacklustre tunes and mediocre lyrics.

This is one film that I'd rather not remember its name, and could be called anything else other than a remake of Fame.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

An Interview with BLOOD TIES Director CHAI Yee-wei

CHAI Yee-wei is quite the prolific short-film maker in Singapore, having made a number of shorts that have won various awards both locally and abroad. He now joins the ranks of those from Singapore making the leap into feature filmmaking with his debut feature film Blood Ties, which was funded under the Singapore Film Commission's New Feature Film Fund. Principal photography began on 1 March this year, and it made its World Premiere on 10 September. I have this opportunity to catch up with Yee-wei over a period of time to talk about the transition, and his film.

Stefan S (SS): Hi Yee-wei, thanks for agreeing to this interview, amidst your busy schedule. Almost all your shorts, such as Loser, Lau Sai (Diarrhea) and My Blue Heaven amongst others, dwell in the realm of comedy. Now Blood Ties is sans comedy of course, was it a surprise to you that your first feature will be of the supernatural-mystery-thriller genre instead of a forte you seem to be comfortable with? My Blue Heaven was insanely comedic!

Yee-wei (YW): I am amazed you had caught all of my short films over the years! (Laughter) I have always liked the comedy genre as it comes to me most naturally. But considering how the supernatural/action/thriller genres probably have more market potential, I am not too terribly surprised.

SS: Blood Ties was a short film, and I've seen it in September 2007 during a festival screening, where you had made the announcement that a feature film version was in the works. How daunting was it to develop the feature length version, without feeling that you're repeating yourself. I thought you had mentioned that the short film was somewhat like a teaser to a bigger story, so was that like a calling card of sorts?

Still from the Short Film version

YW: I was able to make the announcement because we were fortunate to have a production house back the project (Oak3). I am extremely grateful that they stood by me for these 2 years while I was developing it. Making the leap from a 10 minute film to a 100 minute one takes a lot of leap of faith. And to feed that faith consistently for 2-3 years is not easy. There will be sceptics and also people who encourage you. And the biggest challenge wasn't in trying to make sure it is different enough from the short, but whether it can stand out on its own in the market amongst the rest of the competitors out there from the rest of the world.

The short film was a calling card of sorts, yes. But so is every one of my short films I guess. All filmmakers who start out making short films are in a way building up a body of works that will showcase their ability to tell a story and give others a chance to see if they could be capable of more.

Cheng Pei Pei

SS: You've always managed to get well known faces to act in your shorts, be it in the lead role, or cameo appearances. Now Cheng Pei Pei and Kenneth Tsang, two Asian cinema veterans who have made films internationally. How did you manage to get (or convince!) them to act for you, especially when you're just starting out?

YW: Ingredients that will help are a good story/script, having credible producers and investors, and of course plenty of sincerity goes a long way.

SS: Any moments where the film fan in you was in awe of their presence on set, or jitters when it comes to directing these veterans?

Kenneth Tsang

YW: I was quite concerned if I there would be any issues with them taking instructions from someone as fresh and new as I am. After all they are so much more experienced. But from what I've learnt through this production, is that as long as you are professional and explain properly the reasons to justify why you want things to be done, people will follow. I think during the initial meeting with them I was quite nervous, but as you enter production, everyone just focused on getting the job done and they just become another person you work with on set.

SS: Joey Leong was quite the sensation in the film, having convincingly carried off the role of the central character Qin which, if I may put it this way, is both the saint and the sinner, being that wide-eyed teenage girl, and the avenging angel by way of possession by her dead brother's spirit.

YW: We had a hard time looking for a suitable actress for the Qin character, and had held numerous auditions. We received Joey's profile, but it was not until her audition that we knew instantly that we had found the perfect actress to pull it off.

Joey Leong Scares

SS: I had sort of hoped to see some of the original cast from the short version, like Loke Loo Pin, in the feature version, whether be it reprising their roles or being casted in new ones. Vincent Tee (from your short My Blue Heaven) happened to be a key cast member!

YW: I was trying to make this one as different as I can from the short film. Vincent Tee was not in the short film (of Blood Ties), but I saw that he could act as one of the characters in the feature, so I decided to use him. It was good that he was not in the short film too so there's no expectations. But many of the local actors that I've casted are excellent performers who are usually not given the chance to shine. I promise you will be pleasantly surprised by the performance of the local actors in this film - especially the "bad boys".

SS: And yes I was, as they really had this street-edginess about them! You had credited your art director in the short film version with coming up with many of the ingenious sets and props seen in the short, from the altar right down to the fake tombstone in a real cemetery. How much more was accomplished, production wise, given the expanded budget to translate your vision across as intended?

Still from Blood Ties

YW: Zoe Chu was my art director in the short film, and I asked to have her join me in this feature film. It was on a scale many folds larger - scope wise, budget wise and of course effort wise too. Much was accomplished, and she designed some really beautiful sets. One of which was the room where one of the bad boys was going to be slaughtered. And many of the set design and props, required so much attention to detail and though not everything are shot in close ups, they are in such abundance that they generally make certain scenes so much more lush and intricate. Thanks to her work, Blood Ties is able to look like a big budget production.

SS: For something shot under S$1M (approx US$690K), I'd say the production values have been pretty impressive. For the benefit of those not familiar with the Chinese culture here in this part of the world, let's talk about the mystique in your story, since the release date of the film is also during the Lunar Seventh Month this year, which ties in somewhat with your story involving the supernatural. There are at least 2 long held beliefs that you've included in your film, one involving dressing the dead in red for burial so as to make the spirit vengeful, and the other involving a spirit's return on the 7th day after death. What made you decide on these 2 beliefs amongst many out there? My knowledge of them is quite basic, and if your research had turned out any interesting nuggets that may spook us some more?

YW: I guess because these 2 beliefs are quite familiar to many Chinese across many regions. I added the use of blood to complete the curse, so as to add a level of distinction between my implementation of the myth and traditional practice. I think it also adds an additional step to make it such that it wouldn't be as straightforward as how we traditionally thought it would be.

SS: Here's the perennial question I have for local filmmakers. Your short My Blue Heaven had 2 versions, one of which is the uncut/uncensored version that was screened in a special one-off screening in Singapore. So we know how naughty you can be! From the trailer, we can see numerous gore-filled moments. Have you faced any pressure from the local censors so far, or felt the need to self-censor yourself while shooting some of the scenes?

Still from My Blue Heaven

YW: Censorship is always an issue when you are making films that might provoke not just on a visual level, but also on a content standpoint. The plot of Blood Ties requires some gory scenes, but I also have to weigh the consequences of how it will impact the box office if it was rated too high. While I hoped the film could be NC16 or even PG, some cuts if made would directly impact the story's effectiveness. So we are taking some sacrifices in box office by protecting the integrity of the film and keeping some violent shots, while still making sure we will not make it too violent that will push it to R21 as we will not be able to even sell the DVD. Who knows, maybe if the film does well, it might justify us to release a R21 version? That said, I assure you that at M18, it is still going to be the most violent Singapore film so far.

I do hope that one day, our films can be rated at the same level, and with the same standards that the censor board uses with foreign films. We are already at a disadvantage having a film industry that is still so young, and to have the censors be harsher on our films than the foreign films is really unfortunate. How are we able to compete with another similarly rated film if our film pales in impact compares to the foreign import? As you know, Singaporean filmgoers are a demanding bunch when it comes to watching fllms! And they will end up saying "agh ... How come our local rated film is so weak compared others? Singaporean film sucks!" Our censorship board might unknowingly be killing our own film market.

SS: Yes, the ratings applied toward local films may be somewhat harsher I feel as well, and of course an R21 rating will not allow for DVD sales here. We know how anything higher than a PG will somehow dent box office numbers, and Jack Neo too had seen none-too-spectacular (by his track record) box office for his unexpectedly rated NC-16 film earlier this year. But given the theme of your film, coupled with the rare M18 rating for a local movie with an integrity of not re-editing for a lower rating, I hope that it'll make some local history with audiences giving recognition for that at least!

YW: I do hope so as well, but the numbers for any M18 film (local or foreign) does not look that great. So I do have to make realistic expectations as well.

SS: Now with one feature length film under your belt, will we continue to see some more short films from you, or have you bitten the bug and will focus your energies in developing more stories for the feature length format? Would there be a chance of watching a Chai Yee-wei comedic film?

YW: I do hope to make a comedy some day, as you can tell, it is in my blood. But really, what gets made next is usually determined by which script comes ready first. I do have a few ideas for comedies, but I will not commit until a script I am happy with gets written. As for short films, I wish I will continue to make more as I find the opportunity to. It is all about timing I guess!

SS: For those curious, will there be any planned DVD release of your earlier short films? I think they do deserve a wider audience!

YW: Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, some of them might never ever get released.

Blood Ties is now showing and is into its 3rd week at the cinemas.

Related Links
Official Movie Website
My review of the film

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

April Bride (Yomei 1-Kagetsu No Hanayome / 余命1ヶ月の花嫁)

Live Each Day Like It's The Last

It's easy to roll your eyes and dismiss this film as “yet another popular Japanese romance weepie”, but truth is it's a dramatic interpretation and enactment of a real person's last days, a youth who was given the short end of the stick by Fate. On one hand you're tempted to frivolously park this under Clichés, but on the other, realizing that it's based on a true story (with dramatized moments of course), your interest gets piqued in trying to understand the reasons behind the filmmakers decision to want to turn her story into a feature film, because there must be something in it that inspired them to do so.

Nana Eikura takes on the role of Chie Nagashima, a sprightly young girl whom Chance has set up a meeting with Taro Akasu (Eita), and from their random, memorable encounter, strike up a serious relationship over time, only for Chie to confess one day, when she couldn't hide her condition any longer, that she's suffering from breast cancer. Coming from a guy's perspective, cancer might just be another disease to do battle with, given the advances of modern medicine, but I do feel that it has some significant impact from a female perspective, because it could be a blow to making a woman feel complete, especially when advanced stages of the cancer calls for removal of the breast.

The film at no time tried to preach in heavy handed ways about breast cancer, which in the first place was largely absent and a filmic plot device. It took a different approach, in quite shrewdly making mention, and hopefully to win over some audience mindshare and to research more about the condition, as a take away from the film. As a romantic movie, one cannot steer clear away from saccharine sweet moments that two lovebirds share, and director Ryuichi Hiroki smartly balances these events with enough dark clouds looming. For instance, the physical intimacy which they share very early in the film, will soon give way to separation of sorts, or the cycling down the streets at night at high speed, crossing junctions without slowing down, brought out that sense of danger always peeking from around the corner in their relationship.

Writer Hiroshi Saito thankfully tuned down the melodrama which could be seen from his earlier, recent effort in 252: Signal of Life, and portrayed all characters here with quiet dignity instead. Ryuichi Hiroki, having done some arthouse films that are female-centric, definitely knew how to put the spotlight on Chie as a likable character whom you will feel for, and enabled you to share in her struggles and pain, knowing that each day alive is a miracle and a gift, but yet being too weak to seize the day and make the most of it. It is this dilemma that will hit you hard especially if you have so far been leading life without aim or fulfillment, and here witnessing an event where people make the best against the clock.

You can't help but to contemplate over the what you would do if you were in Taro's shoes, making great personal sacrifices for someone you love deeply, to the extent even of upsetting one's parents even, who had reproached him to rationalize and make emotionally detached judgements. I felt that if one has genuine, deep feelings for someone, then you're likely to be as stubborn as a mule, optimistic too especially when the characters here are youths, defiant with belief of invincibility at the prime of one's life. An outcome of the actual documentary that Chie had shot, and this film for that matter, was to level this sense of complacency, since it's quite horrific how one's temporary inaction, could result in such a drastic outcome, in a short frame of time.

If there's a favourite scene of mine in the film, it has to be when Taro and Chie's father (Akira Emoto) share a private moment in the confines of Chie's hospital room when she had a night's off. It's an extremely touching piece whereby a stoic man broke down and showed his tremendous gratitude to someone whom he had only been strangers with, and finally understanding the positive effects Taro has on her daughter. This single scene had won this film over for me, and triumphed, in my opinion, over many others that will equally tug at your heartstrings. Prepare those tissues please.

At the end of the movie after the credits roll, the filmmakers had put up a dedication to the real Chie, and to those interested, here's a glimpse of the real television documentary that she had agreed to make. It's in Japanese with Chinese subtitles, but don't let that put you of:

April Bride opens on 8th October 2009.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yasmin Ahmad: A Tribute

Dear friends,

In Memory of Yasmin Ahmad (January 7th, 1958 - July 25th, 2009)

For those who have yet to discover the magic of a Yasmin Ahmad film, here's your chance to do so! There will be a retrospective of ALL her feature films over a period of 4 days in October, so please don't miss these tribute screenings, which I'm sure would make you laugh, warm your heart, and simply charm your socks off you. You'll discover and experience why she's one of my favourite directors of all time!

All proceeds collected from the Yasmin Ahmad Tribute @ Cathay Cineplex Cineleisure Orchard will be donated to Pertapis Children's Home.

When: 15-18 October 2009
Where: Cathay Cineleisure Orchard Singapore
Duration: 4 days
Special Guest: Ms. Orked Ahmad (Sister of Yasmin Ahmad)

Thursday: 15th October 2009 (Gala Night)
Time/Title: 7.15pm TALENTIME, 35mm. English & Malay Subtitles

Friday: 16th October 2009
Time/Title: 7.15pm MUKHSIN, 35mm with English Subtitles.
Time/Title: 9.45pm MUALLAF, 35mm with English Subtitles.

Saturday: 17th October 2009
Time/Title: 5.15pm GUBRA, 35mm with English Subtitles
Time/Title: 7.45pm SEPET, 35mm with English Subtitles

Sunday: 18th October 2009
Time/Title: 5.30pm RABUN, digital with English Subtitles.

This may be your last chance to watch all of Yasmin's feature films presented on the big screen in a proper quality cinema. The way she has always wanted you to enjoy her films. Rabun will be a treat as it's rarely shown on the big screen, although the VCD was released, it remains as elusive as ever in trying to obtain a copy.

I wish I could be there, but I'll unfortunately be away, though nonetheless trying to make my way to similar screenings at the Tokyo International Film Festival where her films are also celebrated, given they had consistently made it to TIFF's Asian, and now Asian-Middle Eastern Film Selection, with Sepet winning Best Asian Film, and Muallaf garnering a Special Mention award last year.

Advance ticket sales available at all Cathay Cineplexes box office in Singapore and from Thursday, 24 September 2009. Details for the Tribute can be found here

[Animation Nation 2009 Prelude] Genius Party Beyond

The first Genius Party anthology from STUDIO4℃ was screened during last year's Animation Nation, and provided an excellent platform to showcase what those visual geniuses from the production house were capable of. Originally conceptualized as one extremely long collection of shorts, a split in having 5 of them showcased separately in a followup simply meant that we'll be treated again in this year's edition to other creative directors' in the Studio's fold.

Gala - directed by Mahiro Maeda

One of the rare few in this collection that has a semblance of a narrative storyline, where chaos begins when a huge rock descends from the skies and pummels itself firmly in an environment where strange, fantastical creatures (some looking suspiciously like gods too) reside. The natural reaction would of course be to try and break it down, and ultimately this led to a group of chosen ones being granted special, larger than life musical instruments for combat. The visual assault with the numerous characters croweded on screen reminded me of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, where you’ll probably require multiple viewings to capture all the movement of each background character onscreen.

Moondrive - directed by Kazuto Nakazawa

Not since Aachi and Ssipak had I seen an animation that combines edgy, angst-ridden teenage characters extremely full of naughty, cheeky overtones. Moondrive follows a bunch of gang robbers who are hot on the trail of what promises to be a wealth of treasure. It’s essentially having the characters visit site to site, the visuals bordering on stylistic rawness and incompleteness, full of rough, unpolished pencil lines staining its slickly designed landscape deliberately. Pay attention to the thematic designs of the shops these riotous gang visits, accompanied by plenty of noisy visuals almost like the earlier short. Loud, Wacky and Comical sums this up nicely.

Wanwa the Doggy - directed by Shinya Ohira

This short proved to be distinctly different from the earlier ones, where the narrative structure gets thrown out of the window, mainly because you’re in for a trippy ride into the imagination of a child. The camera rarely holds still, and is full of continuous movement with nary a pause in its fluid motion, combining plenty of child-like fantasies and favourites, from gigantic sized candy to even Lego blocks. It’s doesn’t make much sense of course, though full of colours with artwork resembling output from crayons. Oh, the titular dog plays a supporting cameo, just in case you’re wondering.

Tojin Kit - directed by Tatsuyuki Tanaka

My first impressions of it was that we’re in for a Fifth Element styled short, observing the protagonist’s slice of morning life in a cramped quarters called home, before the authorities come raining down and wrecking havoc because of the harbouring of something illegal. The animation styled plenty of wonderful ideas, such as the psychedelic looking blob-like aliens which are inhabiting man-made dolls, for reasons unexplained other than what I am guessing as safe refuge from extermination. I liked the light-bulb heads of the robotic security forces, which provided some sense of vulnerability over a mean-looking exterior. I can’t say that the story’s great as it’s pretty straightforward on the surface, probably inspired by Men in Black, but with some cyberpunk influences as well which begs to be expanded.

Dimension Bomb - directed by Koji Morimoto

Morimoto himself was present last year during the inaugural Anime Festival Asia in which he discussed about, and presented a short preview of Dimension Bomb. My appetite had been whet for almost a year now, and the final product is nothing less than mind-blowing. Sure it doesn’t have a coherent plot to make sense of its sci-fi / fantasy elements, but who can deny the animation genius that unraveled to the tune of a hypnotic, pulsating soundtrack? Clearly it’s one to be experienced and savoured with an open mind, akin to watching a trailer full of best bits and sequences, leaving you with an air of anticipation that there could be more just around the corner.

Genius Party Beyond screens at Animation Nation, Singapore's premiere animation film festival, on 18 October (Sun) at 2100hrs, and on 20 October (Tue) at 1900hrs. Click here for ticketing details.

Monday, September 21, 2009

[Animation Nation 2009 Prelude] Waltz With Bashir (Vals Im Bashir)


The trouble with memory, is more often than not, over an extended period of time, it tends to be faulty. We recall certain key scenes suspended momentarily in time, but with nary a clue how they move forward or backward, akin to knowing presence of the dots, but lacking the details to connect them up. Traumatic experiences may cause chunks to be buried deep and repressed into the subconscious, leaving behind gaping holes susceptible to imaginary inputs that we might assume to have happened.

Based on the true story of filmmaker Ari Folman, his friend's recurring nightmare of being haunted by exactly 26 hounds, triggered his realization that he cannot remember a thing about his tour of duty as a 19 year old in the 1982 Lebanon war, except for a mysterious bit of memory that has him, and a group of unknowns, emerge from the beach, walking toward some a war-torn city under the illuminated night skies.

Waltz with Bashir is a stunning animated documentary, possibly the first docu that I've seen that's being told in animated form. Ari's story goes about probing and getting more details about his stint, with no memories of his own, and being totally reliant on what others feed him from their perspective. From talking heads styled interviews, events get constructed in piece meal fashion, which provided the Roshomon Effect in technique even, since perspectives are always biased, and again open to inaccuracies.

From the memories of his peers, we see countless of imagery of the war fought, each providing a key eventful piece that suggests Ari himself was present when they took place, from simple ambushes, to what slowly unravelled itself to be the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, controversial for the IDF's inaction to prevent a genocide from happening from under its watch in a refugee camp.

The imagery used in the film, especially the fantasy, escapist sequences, allowed for some distraction away from the stark visuals on the horrors of war, and you'd have a stone cold heart should you not be affected by the senselessness of evil that Man is capable of. What I liked about the animation here is its lighting and keen use of shadows to suggest something bleak, hidden, and sinister. There's also a unique and beautiful style of animation used her that's invented by the "Bridgit Folman Film Gang" studio that combines Flash animation, classic animation and 3D, so those eager to experience something that's new, should make it a point not to miss this.

Winner of the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film 2008, the film also clearly serves a sharp critique against war. For an animated piece, it's hard hitting, challenging, and provocative even in questioning how we tend to be apathetic and do nothing when cruelties unfold right in front of us.

Waltz with Bashir screens at Animation Nation, Singapore's premiere animation film festival, on 17 October (Sat) at 1900hrs, and on 21 October (Wed) at 2100hrs. Click here for ticketing details.

[DVD] Little Note (小字条) (2009)

"If we could just release this fear of the unknown, we would have boundless courage to accomplish the unimaginable" - Royston Tan

After two hectic years of shooting and releasing two successful feature films – 881 and 12 Lotus – almost back to back, Royston had intended that 2009 be a year of rest. At least we won't be expecting to see another feature, but he's been busy with directing a stage play (Broadway Beng) which will premiere at the end of the year, and then there's a return to his roots with this short film Little Note, which was released under his newly formed Chuan Pictures.

Those who have been following Royston's shorts through the years would be familiar with his masterful strokes at storytelling in the short form, be it experimental, humour-filled critical pieces, or straight narrative pieces. It's little wonder that his talent has been sought after by a the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in collaborating on a short story that has touches of Buddhist elements without being religious, having general teachings with themes on encouragement and resilience, with the intent of reaching out to everyone impacted by uncertainties in today's environment to soldier on with hope and courage.

From the production blog, the idea first came in January 2009 and pre-production happened in late February. Given the setting which is back in the good ol' kampung days, Singapore turned out to be too much of a concrete jungle, thus leading the production to Bentong in Pahang, Malaysia for its shoot. And the sheer beauty that came out of the idyllic location is nothing short of breathtaking, from its picturesque greens to the perfect blues of a sky peppered with plump white clouds, reminiscence of the simpler days.

The story is uncomplicated, with plenty of pathos to mull over. It's one of unconditional love between a single mom (Chua En Jye) and her child Zhiren (Chen Jing Jun as the younger version, with Desmond Tan taking over the reins midway as the teenager), with scenes accentuating the bittersweet episodes in bringing up a child single-handedly. And I suppose as part of nurturing, of not being able to be there all the time by choice or intent, Zhiren receives the titular note from his mom as a reminder to be brave when facing adversary, be it prejudice or ridicule faced from peers, or to conquer his stage fright. You can just about imagine the power of positive thinking in situations like these. In many ways then, Zhiren was reminded to cast aside his fears, and go the distance without too much hand-holding from his mom, but yet also knowing that she'll be there for him should he fall. The three-worded note is beautifully simple, yet tells a lot in its minute space, like a haiku with profound meaning in the context it is read under.

Then there's the symbolism of the lotus plant and leaf in the story. The plant represents the purity of spirit, and one of those which can root in mud, yet rise above unclean water in its habitat and yield a beautiful flower. The second half had the teenage Zhiren dealing with this inevitable event, where through the basis of tender, loving care showered by his mom, he's able to excel, and clinched an overseas academic scholarship. Certainly it paved the possibility toward a more comfortable, material life (not to say that they aren't already leading simple, meaningful ones) should he succeed, one perhaps he dreamed of repaying his mom with for the many hardship she had to endure to bring him up.

But then this brings unto itself another dilemma, of having to leave his mom, facing a fear not for himself, but that of his mom being left alone. It is in this segment which is designed to tug at your heartstrings, coming full circle to the very first scene of the film. There's only so much you can tell in less than 15 minutes, but Royston managed to pack them all into his film, and fans will see how this cinematic “bad boy”, could craft a film that speaks from the heart and sincere to be that encouraging calling card to all and sundry in dire straits.

Little Note had premiered on the big screen at a special preview session held at the Asian Civilizations Museum, as well as the recently concluded THIS Buddhist Film Festival. For those who didn't make it to either of those screenings, there's no excuse not catching this latest Royston Tan short as it's already been released exclusively on DVD format nationwide.

This Code 3 DVD comes specially designed, wrapped in a mock lotus leaf and secured by a brown little note sticker, which is a very nice touch given their significance to the story. But if I had a gripe, it would be that the sticky fastener (the brown note) used to secure all the extra bits will likely succumb to wear and tear, or to the impatient, become a victim of a penknife since it's not easy to get to the contents the first time round. I would have liked either a string (similar to Cape No 7's packaging though), or a little piece of velcro on the underside of the note for a more permament fixture, but that's just me.

As extras, you have 8 postcards that got packaged into the DVD packet:

The disc itself contains the Trailer (1:00), a Photo Gallery (0:45) which runs through 15 non-selectable movie stills with the theme tune playing in the background, and the Making Of (9:51) which contains the standard behind the scenes look at the production, with interviews from the director, the music production which is key to the film, as well as the principal cast talking about their characters and sharing their most memorable scenes.

Related Links
Royston's Shorts DVD
Little Note Facebook Page

Sunday, September 20, 2009

[9th Asian Film Symposium] S-Express: Singapore

We, The Real People of Singapore - Ghazi Alqudcy
2009 / 16min / RATINGS TBA

This is like a quintessential slice of life piece in Singapore, where a vignette of 6 short stories get compiled into one seamless tale thanks to editing, where the camera shifts its focus to new characters that come by way of the location the previous story had concluded. You'll probably find some pieces to identify with, from a jilted man, to the fat boy and the prejudice that he has to face on a daily basis, which was one of my favourites of the lot - simply because we tend to gossip behind people's back since we're assuming that they can't speak the language, but ha! Watch it because the youngsters these days are conversant in more than 2 languages.

Director Ghazi Alqudcy was also on hand after the screening to share how the stories got collated from a bit of a guerrilla tactic with flyers pointing out a blogsite to folks on the trains to contribute their personal stories to. Quite innovative in a way, where the submissions were scrutinized after a week to whittle the number down to those featured in this film.

National Day - He Shuming
2009 / 19min / RATINGS TBA

In some ways this short is somewhat similar to Anthony Chen's Ah Ma, where family members rally around each other, each having their own way in dealing with a death (or in Ah Ma's case, impending) in the family. He Shuming's short is set on the 7th day after the passing of a man (well, this plot element also used in Chai Yee-wei's Blood Ties), which happens to fall on National Day. With the entire nation celebrating the occasion and enjoying the public holiday, the story looks at bereavement in stark contrast against a celebratory environment, where streets are quiet and everyone glued to their goggle boxes to partake in the parade.

The strength of this short laid squarely on Shuming's characterization of the family, with a dialect (Hainanese?) speaking, nagging mom, and the children - the daughter and her own family, and her brother, an army boy who had managed to obtain those difficult-to-get parade tickets, as we learn them being his deceased father's favourite event. As the story wore on, each member had its own segment to highlight their personal grief amidst brave fronts they put up, or quiet ones such as those that they boy fell into. There were some additional religious observations within the family that got presented as well, with different members with different beliefs, quite contrary though very real on the state of affairs facing some families which served as a momentary distraction from the main intent.

It's still pretty amazing that this was a school project, though the audio at times did sound a little airy and distant, probably voiceovers on the original soundtrack. Nonetheless a nice effort and I'll be paying attention to He Shuming's works to see what more he can conjure up.

Kissing Faces - Wesley Leon Aroozoo
2009 / 11min / PG

Taken from my earlier review. The KTV Karaoke video still cracked me up again!

The opening shot was video-like as well, where we see an aged, balding man frolicking in a resort background with a young nubile female. They seem happy with each other's company, though of course this is engineered because it's a cheap, sleazy looking karaoke production. Which the film did perfectly well to mimic. But the narrative is nothing like the perfect world that exists within those videos, where the protagonist, a karaoke hostess, is pretty depressed enough to be mulling in deep thought over a ride down Singapore's red light district area of Geylang. Visually though, the shots are very diverse and had plenty of night time scenes where the streets are draped in neon, against very vivid memories of a childhood long bygone. The depressing monologue does get a little too indulgent after a while, where we learn of the hostess' search for an escape and a reboot of her life.

à la folie - Sanif Olek
2008 / 12min / RATINGS TBA
A Singapore premiere, the second part of Sanif Olek's LOVE trilogy sees an adaptation crafted from the classic Ramayana text, with the characters of Sinta, Arjuna and Rawana given a new, experimental spin on themes such as manipulation and revenge rolled into one simply put tale. The cast also played to their stereotypes wonderfully, and we can see how one being dumped would offer that second chance at getting back, if only a mission of sorts was fulfilled. The two transsexuals also provided plenty of humour by way of how jesters and comics come in to fill in the narrative gaps in-between scenes. I can't say that I'm an expert, but the animated film Sita Sings The Blues, which is also based on the Ramayana, had elements of the same.

Filmed in and around the area of the Sultan Mosque, Sanif had shared that this was shot without a script, but only a concept, so plenty of stuff in here were improvised. What more, the film was shot over a period of two nights, and he allowed for the film to gestate for almost one year (!) before going it to edit it into the form we've seen today.

[9th Asian Film Symposium] S-Express: Thailand

Curated by Sanchai Chotirosseranee, I had enjoyed this session tremendously, and being my first (Yes I believe so!) S-Express: Thailand session, I will definitely be looking forward to future installments, as the Thai short film scene, if this selection is of any indication, is something that's really vibrant. I wonder how much I have missed out on already.

Man and Gravity - Jakrawal Nilthamrong
2009 / 11min / Thailand / RATINGS TBA

We follow a man on a tricycle moving around the city before hitting some really picturesque landscapes, and harsh terrains on the road less travelled. You'd come to think he has all his world possessions packed into the vehicle, and is probably on his way uprooting himself into a new environment, and that is if he could get there in the first place, his mode of transport being no match for what Nature has in store for him.

It's akin to carrying all your burdens with you, and the failure of letting some go. We stubbornly refuse to budge when we hit a pothole, or when the terrain is bumpy and is pretty much going against us, challenging us to some uphill battle. The film reminds us, in a somewhat comical, cyclic way of how we fail to pay heed to history and the reluctance to lighten our load. And when we do seem to have mastered and overcome our difficult, Nature has its own way of reminding us that she has the upper hand. Wonderful ending, this.

Abtakon - Thawatpong Tangsajjapoj
2008 / 4min / Thailand / RATINGS TBA

It's always a treat to have an animated piece programmed, and it's a bit unfortunate that I had to miss the lot which were programmed by Maggie Lee for S-Express: Chinese. Nonetheless this short, while actually a music video and came without English subtitles, again demonstrates that a story universal in theme, allows just about anyone to enjoy it, through its clean cut, cutely designed graphics, and wonderful song (granted I have little inkling what the singer's singing about).

You'll find yourself hard pressed not to be charmed by a girl-likes-boy story, which society dictates that making the first move is unladylike. Gushing at her crush over brewing a cup of coffee for him, there's plenty of comedy here, especially with that little twist in the end. Next time I head inside any coffee place I'll be keeping an eye on the barista, for good measure ;-)

Red Man - Nattaphong Homchuen
2009 / 8min / Thailand / RATINGS TBA

With the current political landscape in Thailand right now, this film definitely drummed up my interest in seeing how a situation so obtuse and complex could be interpreted on film. And it's a pretty amazing result with how one can portray it with such deft finesse complete with humour to get its message across.

On the surface, a man, because his yellow shirt is still stuck in the laundry, had to make do with a red one when he turns up for work on a Monday. Naturally being the odd one out, he feels enough heat and got flak from peer pressure to want to make a switch so as to avoid trouble and being marked by the boss. Then again, one cannot please everyone in every situation, as he would soon find out.

It's a statement on the current state of affairs of course, but done so with humour, yet never selling itself short in making its points heard. It comes with countless of political allegories such as the political support base in the city, and themes such as conformance come into the picture as well. Little details in the film also seem to suggest that the allegiance could be bought, and changes can be done almost on the fly since the right thing to do is to have elements from both factions handy to go with the flow. One very smart short film.

Français - Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit
2009 / 30min / Thailand / RATINGS TBA

Told in 2 distinct acts with different character focus, this short follows a blind college girl at the beginning, where we share in her predicament in preparing for an exam, with a key source textbook she had submitted for translation into Braille never making it back. Since the exams is the very next day, panic sets in as she visits the library and requests for help, only to be turned away with indifference, and a shrug of tough luck.

The second half continues in her desperation to try and salvage the situation, having begged and aggressively rationalizing with her roommate to junk her plans for the hottest concert in town, and make a trek across campus, just to help her revise. And you know desperation when you have a thick book to go through, with your helper neither an expert in the subject matter, nor can understand the material in the first place other than to phonetically read them off. Kudos to the friend who actually tried and not give up, skeptical she may be on the effectiveness of it all, and the resulting well placed humour throughout.

The story telling craft here was superbly done, inspired by a true story even. It tangents from the usual "pitiful" stories about the disadvantaged, though in this story we see her almost as an equal in her independence (after all, making it to the university is no mean feat), and aside from the disability, shares the same strengths and weaknesses like any other, cursing someone for not being able to help, and quite selfishly manipulative when the situation called for it. While I had to rely on the subtitles, the emotions that the actresses bring out through their performance more than sufficiently make up for any possibility of anything being lost in translation.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The September Issue

Impress Me

Meryl Streep's character in The Devil Wears Prada is rumoured to be inspired by Anna Wintour, the legendary editor-in-chief of the fashion magazine Vogue, and it's not hard to see how so. A cup of Starbucks in hand, the bob hairdo, the cutting remarks, people going into a frenzy whenever her name is mentioned, and worse when dazzled by her presence. Even the vogue office does seem quite similar in terms of layout, and the number of assistants constantly scurrying around looking busy and executing to her every instruction.

It's hard not to see why Wintour and Vogue for that matter, became the subjects of a documentary, since both are very powerful in setting the agenda for an entire industry, with what's being said and featured in the magazine, goes. R.J. Cutler's documentary provided that sneak peek into the behind the scenes working of what's to date the largest single issue of the iconic fashion magazine (it's September 2007 issue), where little interesting nuggets of information get dropped around, such as the distinction and importance of the September issue (hence the title) in trend-setting what's hot and what's possibly not, over the next 12 months.

There are always people curious about the glamourous industry, filled with pretty clothes, flamboyant designers, glitzy fashion weeks in trendy capitals of the world, and of course, the beautiful clothes-horse models. It does seem to be this perfect little eco-system filled with perfect people on the surface, though those looking toward this film in digging out some skeletons from the closet will be sorely disappointed. This in part due to the power that Wintour wields, where you see not only new designers in awe, but veterans from the established fashion houses that come with reverence, for possibly fear of offending the almighty, the high priestess or so she's called, in charge of the bible of the industry.

But of course one editor a magazine maketh not. R.J.'s documentary provided a more holistic look at the making of the magazine. And not just any magazine mind you, but THE one brand that has been around for more than a century, and with that comes trust and influence to make or break designers. R.J. was provided unprecedented access into the behind-the-scenes look at the assembling of an issue, and with that comes plenty of photo shoots, jet-setting lifestyles, the pursuit of deadlines, and enough of office politics. The amount of work is just staggering.

However, the filmmaker does seem to fall short in eliciting a lot more from Wintour, aside from talking-heads styled short interviews which became the bookends of the film. In fact, it's more of the Creative Director Grace Coddington's show, where you will probably be won over by her sheer genius and eye for creative art form in directing photo shoots and dreaming up storyboards on the fly for the still pictures to tell a story. I admit I was more impressed with Coddington's story, wry humour and creative style rather than Wntour's cool demeanour, which often sets them up for clashes, for the good of the magazine of course, in constantly raising the bar, though at times it does seem that someone's creative spark do get unappreciated and often doused with cold water. Such is their love-hate professional relationship.

Which primes this film with a "villain" so to speak, but of course the boss always has the final say and calls the shots. We do get to see how both of them rose to power (they started off as models!) through their joining Vogue at the same time, and rise through the ranks based on their respective strengths. Filled with countless of fashion celebrities, clothes, accessories and the occasional cutting remark (I do think Wintour seemed to have held back her tongue a lot more since a camera is constantly in her way), The September Issue is a superb look into the sheer intense and immense talent and hard work that goes into the publication of every issue, and would likely induce you to grab a copy of Vogue right after the show.

I'll never look at this magazine in the same frivolous light ever again, as they are really taken seriously given the money made available and someone's career probably on the line too.

Tokyo Sonata

Family Woes

Mention the name Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and inevitably you'll think of cult horror films such as Kairo, Sakebi (Retribution) and Rofuto (Loft), since his name is synonymously linked with the genre. He's turned in a surprise here sharing keen observations and an astonishing dramatic piece of Japanese society and of the family, showcasing the hallmarks of a great storyteller, being out of his comfort zone.

Whatever nuggets of general knowledge of Japanese society you're familiar with, this story (written by Kurosawa, Sachiko Tanaka and Max Mannix who did the Singapore film Dance of the Dragon) reinforces that notion of the patriarchal society in Japan, where the male is the head of the family (not necessary the household I thought, since the wife controls the purse string submissively handed over by the husband for the running of the household), and that true, real horror comes in the form of the loss of moral authority, standing in society, and face. This horror hits the Sasaki family squarely on the head, and with carefully hidden secrets harboured by each family member, we see how what society holds to be normal, slowly spirals downwards and disintegrates.

Moral authority as shown is a given, and it can be so fragile and easily destroyed. Kenji Sasaki (Inowaki Kai), the youngest son, in a scene with his school teacher, creates havoc by just merely stating the fact that the latter had been seen reading a porn comic on a train. Immediately the students entered into an ill-disciplined frenzy in the class which the teacher has little control over, a signal that he has lost all standing in imparting knowledge to minds that are to be molded.

And in the main arc, face and standing in society are both easily lost as well, which the head of the Sasaki household Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) will discover when he gets retrenched as Director of Administration of a corporation. Being clueless on what to do, and how to break the news to his family (which will translate in equivalent terms into the chaos as seen in the classroom), he keeps mum and goes about his routine, heading toward free food lines and unemployment agencies to find another job. But one can imagine the stature of his previous job, and it never is easy to come to terms in the swallowing of Pride, and the acceptance of lower pay, longer hours, and of course, jobs that seem to belong to the lower rungs.

Teriyuki Kagawa does a superb job in showing this fear and cluelessness of Ryuhei, who has to grapple with the fact that a victim of downsizing unfortunately has to have his expectations correspondingly reduced in tandem as well. Ever once in a while I would think of what I would do if I'm in the same shoes, and hopefully to lessen the impact should one day the same were to happen. Being unprepared on the receiving end of an outsourcing strategy, he got hit pretty hard, and living a lie to keep up the pretense is something quite pathetic.

For all its prim and properness, society can be equally cruel because of the collective fear that hangs over the heads of failures. There are two superbly crafted arcs in Tokyo Sonata, each dealing with failure and the unfortunate ends that were followed to deal with the perceived shame and genuine despair and desperation. One involved Ryuhei's peer who went to the extreme of making himself seem busy with lucrative deals, but is actually sharing the same boat, at wits end since he's a 3-month old unemployed veteran who imparts survival tricks of concealment, and refuge such as the public library (I suppose with its air-conditioning, newspapers, and couches for that quick snooze. The other arc is somewhat of a quirky spin on narrative, with Koji Yakusho playing a comical rookie robber who, as it turns out, had consistently failed in the things he does.

While a patriarchal society, the role of the wife and mother is equally important for the household to function and act as the glue of tolerance within the family. Kyoko Koizumi owned this character of Megumi, as she goes about her routine household chores with nary a complaint, always being there for her family in the preparation of warm meals, never chiding her husband or put him down when she learns of the truth accidentally (well, up to a certain point that is), and always protective of her children, seen from her constant reminder to her husband not to get mad when the children are going to tell him something he would disapprove of, coming to their defence when they get beat, and with reluctance, seeing her eldest son (Yu Koyanagi) off when he signs on with the American military. There's a breaking point in everyone, though of course a mother's love knows no bounds.

Kurosawa's films are always wonderfully framed, and Tokyo Sonata boasts plenty of beautifully designed shots, not only for aesthetic reasons, but some to involve you in the scene as well. I especially liked the way how the dreaded pink slip got issued, where Ryuhei seemed so small, for an appointment of his stature, when called into his boss' office, and being challenged up front on what else he can contribute to the company, being asked to leave in indirect terms, yet with the meaning fully understood.

The routine, impersonal way of the Sasaki family that we see in the beginning, each going about their own thing with nary an interaction other than over the dining table with a missing member, doesn't really get repaired. Some issues can be addressed, others can be accepted, life generally goes on and it's up to us to make the best out of it. The Sasaki family has this brief hiccup in their lives that forms the basis of Tokyo Sonata, and it's something that will both move you and bring about that general awareness of how Japanese society ticks. Definitely highly recommended, and a surprise of a gem from Kiyoshi Kurosawa that's not from his usual forte of works.
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