Saturday, March 31, 2012

ATM (ATM: Er Rak Error / ATM เออรัก เออเร่อ)

Let's See Who Quits First!

I always believe that competition will bring out the best, or the worst, in a partner and oneself, and it's always either fun if things go right, or a challenge if otherwise, during the course of this discovery that could make, or break, relationships. Reality shows like The Amazing Race has demonstrated time and again that the best of couples stick with each other even if decisions or tasks at hand seem to put them at odds, and the worst that could happen after these disagreements given time and other pressures, is the inevitable split given new found hard truths that cannot be reconciled.

As I've mentioned before, GTH is on a roll in its horror and romantic film offerings, and continues this streak with their latest film ATM, a true blue romantic comedy that provides plenty from both genre mixes into one massive film that's suitable for the family, and definitely right up there amongst the best contemporary love stories from around the region. With good looking protagonists providing eye candy while we enjoy and endure their one up-manship against each other, and a story that's kept simple to follow, ATM is one madcap, fun filled adventure about machines gone awry, and the recovery of money from withdrawals that exploited a system glitch.

At the bank they're working at, Jib (Preechaya Pongthananikorn) is assistant department manager in charge of the bank's ATM machines country-wide, while her boyfriend Sua (Chantavit Dhanasevi, last seen in another GTH comedy hit Hello Stranger), happens to be a lowly co-worker in the same bank. There's an employment clause working in the bank, and that is co-workers cannot be dating one another, since it believes that will perpetuate into opportunities for fraud to take place, and while Jib is the unit's clause enforcer, she's essentially leading a hypocritical life since she and Sua are into a relationship for years already, with colleagues none the wiser. To take the pressure off her, Sua proposes and makes arrangements for an upcoming wedding, but they cannot decide just who amongst them should resign.

Then comes an opportunity to resolve this given an ATM glitch in a small town where extra cash got dispensed to an unknown number of people to the tune of a some thousands of Baht. Sua and Jib agrees that whoever is able to recover the amount for their employer will stay employed, and the loser to resign. From then on it's game on, as they try all sorts of means and ways to stay ahead of the game, which is almost akin to finding some needles in a haystack since preliminary investigations churn out no useful information from whatever logs and records the bank would have kept.

Expect plenty of comedy to come from each of the couple in their own respective story arcs in their quest to stay in their jobs. With Jib, there's a small sub plot involving the bank manager's son who joins the company as a trainee and is not bounded by the non-dating rules, doing his very best to try and woo Jib, and on Sua's end, finding himself amongst the small townsfolks trying their very best to hide the fact of their unexpected ATM windfall, and getting himself into a needless romantic triangle involving a young teenage couple when the laundromat's daughter happens to develop a crush on him. Aiding both Jib and Sua is the small town bank branch's manager who has his loyalties tested constantly, and plenty of support characters who add colour to the simple plot, each having their own reasons why they are keeping their ill gotten gains.

The draw here is of course both Chantavit Dhanasevi and Preechaya Pongthananikorn playing a couple who find themselves deep into competition that puts their relationship on the brink of breaking up. Director Mes Tharatorn paces the film expertly and doesn't lose the audience one bit in his brand of humour brought to the table, which is filled with plenty of sight gags and crazy situations that range from an arsenal of jokes stemming from repetition to even toilet humour. Chantavit Dhanasevi continues to show that he's capable of being a comedy leading man without the need to go over the top with his delivery, while Preechaya Pongthananikorn possesses enough sweetness and tenacity to give romantic heroines from Korea and Japan a run for their money, fitting right into the looks department, with great comic timing to boot.

ATM is zany, slapstick, and has just about everything in it that will bring a smile to your face by the time the end credits roll, and the NG clips come on. It's perfect as a date movie, and cements GTH's reputation in competing with the best of romantic comedies that the Japanese and Korean film industries can conjure. Highly recommended, as it slots itself as a genre contender to be amongst this year's best.

A Dangerous Method

Exchanging Notes

A Dangerous Method marks the third film that director David Cronenberg had collaborated with actor Viggo Mortensen, casting him as the famed Sigmund Freud in a tale that examines the relationship between three prominent scientists in the early days of psycho-analysis, with the other two being Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), set in the early 1900s, adapting from the play The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton, which in turn was based on the non fiction book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr.

While one of Cronenberg's most accessible and straightforward films as are his other Mortensen starrers in recent years, the story based on real people provides that compelling watch as it takes the viewer on a relatively scientific journey full of hypotheses and theories on psychosis, psychiatry and sexuality even, listening keenly on heavy discussions that even the layman can pick up, and stay engaged that I won't deny may be attributed to the charismatic cast who play their real life counterparts with aplomb. Events that unfold and with scenes set in are based on real incidents, so that provides a bit of historical accuracy, albeit there's always that dramatic license adopted to tell a tale especially involving more private moments amongst the characters.

Michael Fassbender, Hollywood's recent It guy, sets the stage as Carl Jung, who in his active practice in a Swiss hospital sees him introduced to Sabina the patient, brought in from Russia and having treatment by Jung using Freud's methods. A correspondence with Freud results in the two spending time with each other exchanging ideas and concepts, forming a professional friendship although Jung admits to Sabina that he's a little bit wary and apprehensive. Who wouldn't be, when one takes another's theory and sees the results obtained when utilized.

It's a tale about professional rivalry, and how sometimes one's perception of friendship becomes totally jaded when feelings aren't really reciprocated in expected terms, such as when Jung shares his most intimate dreams with Freud for interpretation and analysis, much to his slight disgust for Freud's penchant for dissecting and co-relating everything in fairly sexual terms, but for the reverse to never happen because of the big fear that in doing so renders one vulnerable to the other. And this professional relationship turned rivalry under the most natural and expected terms, with Mortenssen and Fassbender disappearing into their roles thanks to heavy makeup, is what makes this somewhat like a mirror to our own personal life when we reflect upon our own friendships kept.

But with Keira Knightley's Sabina Spielrein in the picture, it provided an additional complexity between the two men, especially when Jung breaks the doctor-patient relationship and enters into a more intimate, sexual one with Sabina, in a certain way also goaded and encouraged by Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel in a minor role), to whom some proponents of free love will credit him for that concept. This adulterous relationship behind the back of Jung's wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) adds a tinge of danger and destruction to the professional life of Jung as it threatens to boil over, with Sabina's emotional instability, and threats of blackmail, especially when rumours and anonymous letters start to fly, points to a difficult resolution in having to confess one's deeds to a mentor or peer. It's not an easy thing to do, and instead of physical violence as seen in the other recent Cronenberg films in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, this one sees more of a psychological tussle and one-upmanship between the three historical characters involved.

Lush in production values to bring back the early 20th century with sets, costumes, and even an ocean liner thrown in for good measure, what will result in A Dangerous Method will be that spark of interest to read up more about the true life characters involved in this story, to dig a little bit deeper into the theories they created and the ideas they each support and differ from one another. Knightley, without a signature look to hide behind, is memorable as Sabina in the introduction, fighting against her inner demons, and then growing into a confident professional complete with Russian accented English to boot.

Bel Ami

Three's A Crowd

Robert Pattinson is probably trying very hard to shake off his glittering vampire role in Twilight that had earned him millions of fans and followers worldwide, opting to play a shady character who's not very talented, but possessing enough good looks to tempt and seduce his way up the social ladder in 19th century Paris, and to chase fame and fortune by milking the right female connections in his established network. He's a cad with a capital C, without much of a plan except to sleep his way to get what he wants.

The story, by Rachel Bennette based on the 1885 French novel by Guy de Maupassant, deals with the notion of how far good looks can get one ahead in life when one is without much talent or smarts, having a number of doors that can be opened from a simple praise, or a smile, and to have urges satisfied by being emotionally and physically available, even if the former mindset and actions are nothing more than a little play pretense.

This is the classic rags to riches story and the story about insatiable greed in always wanting something more, or someone more beautiful. Pattinson plays Georges Duroy, an impoverished man who just came back from the war front, and given a leg up in life when he runs into an old acquaintance who himself is married to old money. Pattinson almost sets his eye on his friend's wife Madeleine Forestler (Uma Thurman), if not for her to spurn his advances and to set the record straight that she's there only to help him initially in his job as a columnist..

It is Madeleine's doing however, to set him off into the arms of her friend Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), whose husband is almost always out of town, and soon both Georges and Clotilde become adulterous lovers, made all the more convenient when Clotilde gets their own love nest where they can carry out their illicit affair. In effect Clotilde becomes his sugar mommy, and of course tongues will start to wag and Georges becomes increasingly erratic in not able to control his emotions, before ruining a life that's perfectly set up. But second chances always present themselves, and Georges couldn't get it any better with being reinstated in his job thanks to Virginie Walters (Kristin Scott Thomas), and ultimately being able to get married to Madeleine.

But life isn't all that rosy, with Madeleine spending a lot of time on politics behind the scenes of a revolution spear-headed by the newspaper and editors Georges works for, and herself having her own lovers that Georges was warned way early of, and when Georges starts to plot, things get very ugly indeed as his true colours start to show, emotionally breaking Virginie, and unleashing his vengeance on Madeleine, made all the more worst when he felt he had been played out of a huge chunk of wealth, and going after the innocence of Suzanne Rousset (Holliday Grainger) as revenge against her father and his one-time corporate nemesis.

And the surprise package here is Pattinson. Sure we can take out potshots and laugh at his turn as the glittering, pale vampire involved in a romance that doesn't know when to call it quits, but his effort here as the amorous and the evil Georges Duroy is something to sit up and take notice. But of course the women surrounding him all made him look good as well, with Christina Ricci being relatively underrated here as a woman desperate for true love, while Uma Thurman does quite the about turn now from her early debut during Dangerous Liaisons, progressing from what was once the equivalent of a Suzanne Rousset, to an ambitious woman who will do what it takes to secure a stake in the power play amongst men. Kristin Scott Thomas is perhaps the most underused here, only appearing in a handful of scenes toward the end, playing the most vulnerable of the female characters bearing full brunt of Georges Duroy at his most despicable.

Directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod has quite a classy film in their hands, with lush sets and costumes transporting the reader instantly to a period Paris, and with the quality of cast at their disposal, delivered an intensely engaging drama about the temptation and seduction of power, and the incessant obsession with the climbing of the social ladder given the promises of fame and fortune that comes automatically with the ascension of each rung. Recommended!

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

I See Salmon There!

With a title like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, it's either a story about the impossible, or that which deals with fishing. It's thankfully the former which makes it a little more engaging and less of a focus on what could be a solitary activity, and a romance-comedy-drama that centers about the theme of hope, even though this British film has plenty of elements to keep one entertained, especially the good ol British wit and humour that comes fast and furious when the need calls for it.

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom whose last film was an adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' Dear John, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is based on the novel by Paul Torday, that tells the unlikely romance that sparked between Dr Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor) and investment consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) while working on a theoretically possible project funded by a rich Yemeni Sheikh Muhammad (Amr Waked). Dr Jones, the bureaucrat stuck in a dead end job and happily coasting along in spite of having useless superiors, is the initial skeptic, preferring the status quo than to question and set challenges for himself, being the expert on fishing and a mean fly-fisher himself, while Harriet is that can-do go-getting consultant who doesn't take no for an answer, herself in a sub story arc involving a British soldier sent to the frontlines in Afghanistan.

Together, they work under a programme mooted by the Sheikh to bring salmon fishing to his country, which of course has plenty of detractors especially from extremists who see this as a waste of resources spent on infidel activities involving the West, especially so since Kristin Scott-Thomas' thrash talking Bridget Maxwell, the publicist for 10 Downing Street, sees it as opportunity to raise the Anglo-Yemeni friendship and profile. The character of Bridget Maxwell is probably the one bringing in most of the laughs for her potty mouth ways, with expletives almost always finding their way into her communications, verbal, over the internet, or otherwise, and you'd wonder just how the Prime Minister's Office could have survived one PR disaster after another.

Most of the narrative circled around the friendship and relations formed between the trio of Dr Jones, Harriet and the Sheikh, developing bonds that wouldn't have existed if not for this 50 million pounds project. It's not as if it is about those with plenty of oil money and finding themselves not knowing what to do with it, but about the spreading of far larger ideals that go into community bonding. And the romantic tale almost felt like an after thought into the second half, finding it irresistable not to have now fellow colleagues fall in love because it's a waste of good looking talent not to. There isn't any threat in the film to put things in a spin other than the battle against nature and elements that get systematically addressed, and extremists who don't get air time lest this film gets spun into a war on terror story, aside from an assassination and sabotage attempt.

It's been too long since Ewan McGregor played an Englishman, and one with impeccable manners at that, which is something his character will strike you from the onset, minding his Ps and his Qs, with the penchant for the prim and the proper. The subplot involving a slowly estranged wife was something seen coming since it stood in the way of a possible relationship with Emily Blunt's Harriet, and essentially is a weak point in the narrative that could have been done without, since it added little emotional depth to the plot. Harriet on the other hand had an equally tit-for-tat plot arc that also didn't do wonders for the story, and together they made it feel as if there was a need to throw each character into their respective romance (or lack thereof) arcs with someone else until work got in the way. It didn't help of course when Kristin Scott-Thomas was in her element being cast against type.

ultimately it's a feel good movie about hope and that leap of faith, so long as someone is funding a dream to fruition or failure. The more important central arc of fulfilling the titular dream was the most engaging, with sub plots being nothing more than a distraction that didn't offer any emotional depth, and padded the story to a feature length one. Thankfully there's comedy thrown in now and then, otherwise this would really have been like a solo fishing trip and attempt that calls for plenty of patience for something to finally bite.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Mighty Heroine

Hollywood studios have been scrambling of late in desperation to find another fantasy franchise to fill the shoes left by Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Harry Potter having drawn to a close after more than a decade, growing up with its fan base. With Twilight entering into its final film this year, and with false starts by potential franchises such as The Dark is Rising, Eragon and The Golden Compass all failing to capture the dollars at the box office, things aren't looking too dandy. Until the box office responded to The Hunger Games, the first of a trilogy of young adult stories written by Suzanne Collins that ignited and clicked with movie-goers.

I have to admit at first glance, going by the trailers that have been incessantly playing since late last year, that this was nothing more than a Battle Royale rip off, having teenagers put into an arena and fighting to the death. Such genre films have been done countless of time, from the days of Schwarzeneggar in his The Running Man, to even Stone Cold Steve Austin in The Condemned, where everyone becomes gladiators and essentially television content fodder, and The Hunger Games surely contained the exact same elements too. But what excelled and stood this film from its peers, boils back to Collins' superbly set up story, and in Gary Ross' focused direction that never leaves the film soulless, filling it with plenty of heart and got the audience to emotionally invest in its protagonist from the get go.

And that is something Gary Ross, going by his filmography such as Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, does quite effortlessly, with a story that's set in a fictional period where much of the known world is divided into districts to suppress an uprising decades ago, where each district, living in hunger and in fear, have to cough out a teenage boy and girl each between the ages of 12 to 18 every year as tribute to battle in The Hunger Games, a fight to the last, that is also broadcast live in a television show. The arena is at The Capitol where the elites live amongst armed protection, and the combatants duke it out in an arena of faux pas natural habitat that can be manipulated at will by designers.

What set this out from the rest is that it has a female protagonist who is not a useless, or whining damsel in distress. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a hunter and provider for her family, volunteering as tribute in place of her sister Primrose (Willow Shields), and together with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), they become the tributes from District 12. We spend the first hour unhurried in painting the background set for the entire trilogy, so much so that not everything got explained, which was a sly move to leave out unessential details at this point for the other sequels to follow up on, especially the need to know more about the current state of the world. We're left to concentrate on a series of unfolding events around Katniss, as well as to get to know the reclusive girl who has to learn how to milk her popularity to increase her chances of survival.

While it's essentially Battle Royale, there are the necessary tweaks to the rules of the game to keep it unique, such as the introduction of sponsors and external assistance. Katniss also had to rely on a lot of luck, and isn't your superhero Rambo from the onset, making her believable, identifiable, and with qualities in a character that you would root for. Even her skill with the bow doesn't make her a deadly shot all the time, as things like anxiety and fear make her character all the more believable, and human. Pacing was kept just right especially after the hour mark when the games kick into gear, although one complaint will be that since this is a teenage flick, you do not get to see the gory details of teen killing teen, no thanks to the deliberate cinematography to keep thing shaky, out of focus and never within comfortable depth of field. After all, this is supposed to be PG-13 stuff for the mass market, so everything's kept at a level that Walt Disney himself will approve.

Still, it's not about the violence and the deaths, but a lot more about the theme of survival, with the story going a lot more for collaboration and cooperation, even amongst allies and alliances formed amongst the strong to pick on the meek. Subplots included in the film all hint at stories that the next two installments will pick up on, such as Katniss' growing popularity amongst the districts and her becoming the icon of rebellion that you'd know will be dealt with even without reading the books. Romance also finds time to creep into the storyline, especially since an engineered one starts to become a little bit more real, and setting up an uncomplicated love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and the former's best friend in Gale (Liam Hemsworth) who had sworn to protect and provide for her family while she's away competing to return home.

And the supporting ensemble cast consists of notables such as Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson as pro-Katniss supporters, or at least those who have to stand at her corner during her preparation for the Games, and others such as Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones as television personalities, Wes Bentley as the primary gamemaster, and Donald Sutherland as President Snow, everyone veterans in their own right propping up the relative newcomers who take on primary roles in this expected franchise. Amongst those who stood out are Banks, almost unrecognizable in her makeup and costumes, and Tucci who hams it up as a television host.

The Hunger Games have got me hooked despite getting off on the wrong footing during its marketing, and I am as eager as many new found fans out there who are anticipating what's next in the story. It may be tame, but Katniss is a fresh female protagonist who will have you hooked to her cause, and that alone is this film's strength that it played up superbly. Recommended!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wrath of the Titans

And Your Role Is To...?

Once bitten, twice shy. I suppose the really bad 3D effects in the Clash of the Titans remake two years ago made me steer really clear of yet another post-production 3D conversion effort in this follow up sequel, and going by the looks of it, there isn't really much to provide that depth of field, nor effort in the way it's shot to exploit the 3D format, other than to rake in extra dollars since the 2010 version did so to have green lit this total imaginary Greek mythology scribed by Greg Berlanti, David Johnson and Dan Mazeau, who between them have written stuff like Green Lantern, Orphan, and Red Riding Hood. But one thing's for sure, gone is the direction and focus on pure action, and in comes a semblance of a stronger storyline.

The theme about fathers and sons cannot be more pronounced in Wrath of the Titans, set 10 years after the first film, that harks back to the Greek mythology origins of the splitting of powers between Zeus (Liam Neeson), Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Poseidon (Danny Huston) when they condemn their father Cronos into the depths of Hell, and Zeus having to play Hades out by making the latter lord of the underworld. So the balance of power has remained as such, until Zeus walks into a trap as planned by Hades and Zeus' son Ares (Edgar Ramirez) the god of War because of his jealousy of Perseus (Sam Worthington), the new favoured son of Zeus. With Zeus entrapped to sap his life force and powers for Cronos, the plan is to release Cronos back into the world to destroy everything in the known universe.

The saviour is of course demi god Perseus, who now is a father to Helius (John Bell), his son with now deceased wife Io, conveniently written out because of Gemma Arterton's non participation, and to steer the romance in this fable back to between Perseus and Queen Andromeda, who's now Warrior Queen and played by Rosamund Pike. And Perseus can't save the world alone because he's only a half-god up against the might of Ares, Hades and Cronos, so he has to team up with another demi god, the son of Poseidon, Agenor (Toby Kebbell), who will lead them to Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), who holds the key to safe passage to the Underworld where Zeus is imprisoned. The quest this time, as you can see, is kept quite linear and straightforward, which makes it extremely easy to follow as the dots get connected in the most simplest of fashion, keeping in constant reminder of the theme that deals with the squabbles between family members, and fights between envious siblings.

And not only is the story kept simple, the battle scenes here were also cleanly designed without complication, unleashing new beasts yet to be seen in the Clash of the Titans film, involving ugly two-headed hounds from hell, battles with one eyed cyclops, and of course, big daddy himself who seemed more smoke and mirrors, especially since the strategy involves something that's very close to Star Wars' destruction of the Death Star. I can't fathom why there are so many complaints about the big minotaur fight unless you're watching the film really close to the screen. Some easter eggs continue from the first film, such as the presence of mechanical owl Bubo, and Pegasus having a little bit more personality though still sidelined as being nothing more than air transportation.

Sam Worthington looked like he's enjoying much of the adventures of Perseus this time round, playing the man who walked away from his new found fame as the Kraken slayer, to return once again from his life of being a simple fisherman, and taking up arms and fight to save the world against the titans in the film (collectively inclusive of the other monsters in the film). With the gods severely weakened because nobody prays to them, the role of Perseus and Agenor, for slight comic relief, may pave the door to follow up films that deal more with demi gods than those residing in Mount Olympus. Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes had a lot more to do here also in expanded roles, with the final act providing the opportunity for one last hurrah that is surprisingly moving.

Perhaps the miscast here would be Rosamund Pike's Andromeda, with the idea of a Warrior Queen being a departure from Andromeda's usual role of the damsel in distress, but this film still being more testosterone suited instead. She doesn't get to do much given her very human abilities, and is there as token romantic interest with a romance that isn't strong to begin with, coupled with a sagging mid-section that involves hallucination en route to the Underworld that got abandoned before it even begun for her character. Her troopers too in the final battle scene didn't get to do much despite much posturing for nothing, and were relegated to mere cheer leaders for the most part, grateful that someone else had stepped up to the plate and did their fighting for them instead.

Still, if compared to the rather disastrous Clash of the Titans 2 years ago, Wrath of the Titans is a leg up in terms of storytelling, and didn't have an albatross of the superbly nostalgic 1981 version hanging around its neck to be compared to. The fights also didn't get obsessed with wanting to be bigger, faster and more CG-laden, and the combination of a more focused plot and theme, with better designed battles that adhered to the mantra of keeping it simple, proved to be a winner for this Jonathan Liebesman directed follow up. Recommended for being that far out, imaginary modern take on Greek mythology that played on the what-if scenario.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Agent Vinod

He Knows The Name and The Number

You can't help but to compare India's latest cinematic spy with the established James Bond because of its many references drawn from what would be the longest and most famous spy film franchise. Agent Vinod still stands apart as his own man, although he could have picked up a leaf or two from Bond's formulaic book to keep the plot fairly interesting and chugging along, rather than to rely on a series of contrived conveniences that was fun while they had lasted, until it suffered from not knowing whether to keep up with the flamboyance of Bond movies, or to ground it more realistically to a world that Jason Bourne could have operated in.

Vinod does read from the same playbook. For starters, Bond cheats death almost all of the time, no thanks to villains who just love to break off into monologues, with preference to finish the spy off in the grandest way possible instead of putting a bullet in the head when opportunities arise. This leads to plenty of great escape moments, with Agent Vinod emulating the staple of Bond movies with a daring action piece before the opening credits roll. But because this is India, we don't get gyrating female silhouettes, but a nicely done animated sequence that would define Vinod the secret agent.

The task at hand is phenomenal just like any spy film that involves villains with megalomaniac plans to conquer the world, and here it includes a portable nuclear device that can fit into a backpack, being stolen and to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Encapsulating this plan is the mystery behind the number 242, and the Rubaiyat book of poetry, thus playing up real world concerns with a nuclear device falling into the wrong hands, and plays up Bond's cold war fears, in which case it would be nuclear Armageddon between arch rivals India and Pakistan.

Pakistan understandably had banned this film because it portrayed its officials as inept, corrupt and responsible for the plot to destroy India, but if one had watched the entire film, it presents a rather cautionary tale about the need to cooperate rather than to be arch-enemies, because being the latter exposes both sides to manipulation by world elites with resources wanting to exploit chaos for their own advancement, political or monetary, and this is what the real threat ultimately is about, and not as far fetched as one would think involving bullets and bombs, but that of an influential, shadow organization made up of the who's who in the world. But I suppose they don't take it too lightly to have their head of intelligence get finished off so simply, nor with a prime villain, the Colonel (Babu Antony), being of Pakistani origins and being unwittingly made use of like a pawn. But I digress.

Saif Ali Khan possesses the right amount of charisma and suaveness to pull off his character of an Indian RAW Agent who goes by the name of Vinod, but adopts multiple disguises and personalities in his tour of duty that he survives throughout with plenty of aliases. But even with such precautions taken, his rate of being captured rivals that of Bond's, as Vinod comes off very nearly as careless to a fault, never aware of his surroundings and being caught offguard for more times than I can care to remember. Worse, he doesn't have any fancy gadgets to rely on to make his great escapes. If this was Johnny English it would have been a very funny comedy, but playing it straight and serious just shows the ineptness of the spy we should be admiring instead.

Perhaps the only exception in characterization is Kareena Kapoor's Iram Parveen Bilal, who flip flops her allegiance and loyalty so many times, she becomes what could be a double agent, playing the side that's most advantageous to her at any given point. Despite being a real couple with Saif Ali Khan, their more romantic moments in the film come off as nothing more than sheer convenience, with little emotional grounding that somehow got worse and stretches the believability factor when the story decided to give the romantic arc a lot more focus in the finale. But from the get go until then, Iram is quite the force to be reckoned with, only so thanks to a series of plot conveniences and moments that go unexplained, and almost always to her advantage that this could have been called Agent Iram instead, that would have been a lot more interesting.

The action sequences could have been more defined rather than being quite derivative of other spy genre movies involving car and foot chases. Gun play also lapsed into the very generic styles and with villains always being hopeless marksmen when they have our hero as the sole running target to take down, with the other way round being plain opposites. Perhaps the only wow factor, that we see a lot getting designed in various films these days, is the singular extended tracking shot involving Vinod, with Iram in tow, grossly outnumbered but systematically taking down a bunch of goons in a motel. Other than that even the big bang finale was nothing more than a shadow of the George Clooney, Nicole Kidman starrer The Peacemaker involving the downtown hunt for a lone terrorist carrying a deadly explosive device.

Still, for a spy film, Agent Vinod had its moments, the rare ones as described in the action sequence above. If only it had taken a more straightforward route with a solidly grounded, diabolical plot, and did without the many loopholes and conveniences, and given Vinod a lot more personality traits, then we would have seen a potential for a growing franchise. Unfortunately Vinod limps rather than wows, and such is its wasted potential.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wearing Green - 27 March to 3 April

The inevitable call of duty to the nation. For the final time.

Be back soon!

Monday, March 26, 2012

[DVD] You Are The Apple of My Eye (那些年,我们一起追的女孩 / Na Xie Nian, Wo Men Yi Qi Zhui De Nu Hai) (2011)

You are the Apple of My Eye broke plenty of box office records, garnered a cult following and made superstars out of leads Ko Chen-Tung and Michelle Chen, as well as raising the profile of writer-director Giddens Ko many times over. With the theatrical release already over weeks ago, it's time for fans to pick up the double DVD commemorative edition that's packaged in a stylized steel box available almost every country that the film had played in, with a few minor differences in the poster that's packaged along - in Taiwan you have a choice between Ko Chen-Tung or Michelle Chen, in Hong Kong it's made up of this particular still:

and in Singapore, you get none of the above. And for more or less the same price as well. In any case the contents within the steel casing are similar, save for the 3 frame film strip that depends on the luck of the draw.

Steel Case Front, Sitting Within Cardboard Holder (btw that's in Hong Kong Dollars!)

Steel Case Back

Steel Case Removed from Cardboard Holder

Steel Case Opened, Notice that the Chinese and English Titles are Embossed

8 Post Cards Perforated Together

Plenty of Stuff To Read Behind Those 8 Post Cards

More Contents - Packaging on the Right Contains the 2 Discs, One on Each Side of the Envelope

Film Strip Contained Within Inside Front Cover of This Photo Book

And It's Pure Luck with What You Get!

The Earlier One Belongs to a Friend, and This One's Mine!

A proper DVD review will come, soon! But in the meantime if you're not sure what you're gonna get within that steel casing since there's little local publicity on what it actually contains inside, well, this is it!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

[HKIFF 2012 Review] Robo-G (ロボジー / Robo Ji) (International Premiere)

Part Man, Part Machine, All Heart

When it comes to robotics, Japan remains at the forefront of technology in creating bots to do just about anything from the useful to the quirky, and if waves of interest in making robot-related films in Asia such as India's twin offerings in Endhiran and RA.One would signal a lot more countries making their own robot themed films, I'm glad it was Shinobu Yaguchi in Japan who wrote and directed Robo-G, fusing his knack of comedies with heart, and once again having a hand at showcasing yet another zero-to-hero story, albeit a little bit more subtle this time, but dig deeper, and it's there and worked wonders in this remarkable film.

Kimura Elctrical Company is a consumer electronics firm that developed an interest in autonomous robotics, and gave its three man research department - Oata (Chan Kawai), Kobayashi (Gaku Hamada) and Nagai (Junya Kawashima) - some 3 months to create something miraculous. It's about 1 week to go live and demonstrate their newest robot product at the robotics expo, but within the first five minutes of the story, all their hard work went up in smoke and out the window, literally. To salvage the company and their careers, the trio hatch a desperate plot, and that's to get a human person dress up as their New Shiokaze creation, so that they can get through what was thought to be a one-time demo, to buy time while they create another prototype. Think of it like Iron Man, but without the bells and whistles weaponry.

In a departure from the usual Shinobu Yaguchi film, the central protagonist is not a young adult, but a senior citizen. Suzuki (Mickey Curtis) is a retiree and finds it extremely boring to be doing precisely nothing, in a routine he would like to break out of. Coupled with the desire to be the centre of attraction amongst his peers and family, he responds to a classifieds looking for anyone willing to get into a mascot suit, with a handsome paycheck for effort provided they turn up for auditions and fit precisely into the physical measurements provided. A hilarious Yaguchi-ish comedic sequence ensues, and it's not before long our elderly gentleman, hard of hearing, would be selected through a comedy of errors.

The story moves at breakneck speed with Suzuki breathing life into New Shiokaze, and to the horror of its creators, decided to take things into his own hand to give New Shiokaze unbelievable qualities very much like a human, which the expo crowd and media herald as Kimura Electrical's breakthrough in the field of robotics. Fame and popularity soon follow, much to the headache of Oata, Kobayashi and Nagai, when their robot/Suzuki saves Sasaki Yoko (Yuriko Yoshitaka) at the expo from a falling beam, propelling the robot into overnight stardom with multiple requests for more appearances country wide, that Kimura Electric's CEO (Takehiko Ono) is adamant that they follow through. So Suzuki gets on the payroll on the sly, known only to its 3 creators, as the deceit becomes bigger, with more cover up and the spinning of bigger and more lies to cover up the previous, especially when Suzuki begins to make demands, and finds a new career of sorts.

An expanded role goes to Yuriko Yoshitaka's Sasaki, as the girl who coincidentally is a robotic freak, being one of the brightest prospects in her school, and given her new found fame, made it sure that New Shiokaze makes it to her school for a presentation. Here's where Shinobu Yaguchi's theme of youth shines, especially when it's that inevitable pointed message that the young almost always have that spark of creativity and innovation that stuffy corporations should choose to listen to, rather than to shut them out entirely, with the three engineers finding enlightenment amongst the discussion to shore up their own shortcomings and to help accelerate a replacement, with Suzuki behaving more and more erratic, though lending good humour for any audience with his zany antics when in costume.

And Shinobu Yaguchi found a perfect balance in keeping the focus on both the young with the 3 engineers being cast in the classical, perfect mold of zero to hero, and that about the elderly and retirement, where there are always some who are not yet ready to lead an inactive life, feeling bored being cooped up all the time doing nothing and with no aim, and are constantly seeking anything to prove their usefulness and obtain at least some form of attention. This constant tussle between the two groups, with comedy thrown in, made Robo-G a lot more than just another robot film and provides for plenty of humanity, and even philosophical leanings about man and machine if you so decide to dig deeper.

With a premise built on deceit, it opens up tense moments where a nosey parker reporter (Tomoko Tabata) is always on the brink of exposing the entire plot, and bring down everyone involved in the game with some serious repercussions. The last act centered around a press conference brings everything together one full circle, and again the writer-director shows his knack for creating feel good films that are never saccharine sweet, but just treated just right to provide that satisfying feel of an entertaining film that's planned to perfection. It's like a jigsaw, with everything tightly fitting, and falling into place without a hitch, although during the post screening Q&A he had categorically stated that there will be no follow up film to this.

Stay tuned during the end credits roll, because the theme song Mr Roboto whose music and lyrics are by Dennis De Young, is extremely catchy and will grow into a earworm. In fact I like this film so much I just had to re-watch it again at the HKIFF media centre, because I'm not sure when the next opportunity will be, at least for months before the DVD will be out. So wherever you are, if Robo-G comes visiting, be sure you make a beeline and head out to get tickets for this Shinobu Yaguchi crowd pleaser, and be prepared to laugh and be touched by the excellent filmmaking and storytelling. Definitely highly recommended, and one of my favourites of the year thus far! Domo Arigato, Mr Roboto!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Love Lifting (高舉‧愛 / Gao Ju Ai)

Does That Weigh A Lot?

One of the key reasons to visit the Hong Kong International Film Festival is to be able to watch some of the latest films coming out of the territory in its native language, otherwise should they make it here they will first have to be unceremoniously dubbed, and lose some of the bona fide flavour that comes with it. So besides those playing during the festival, and this year surprisingly only had a limited handful with the rest being (to Asians) re-runs, I had to venture outside of the festival to sneak a peek at what's available theatrically. And if there's Herman Yau, arguably one of the most hardworking filmmakers to date with a filmography that's extremely diverse, at the helm of a romantic tale, I thought to myself, why not?

Wait a minute, Herman Yau? Love story? Believe it people, the director has a knack for it as well, even if the story is a little derivative of many romances out there, but trust Yau's experience to pull through a film in this genre. Leading the cast are Chapman To and up and coming star Elanne Kwong, who had been to Malaysia/Singapore recently for The Wedding Diary in which she played the main lead. Here they play Shek Yung and Li Li respectively, with Herman Yau as writer-director in this plain and simple tale where two people at the crossroads of their lives find their fate intertwined, and together forged through along the common road ahead. And I am as adamant about romances being able to work only as romantic comedies or tragedies, and this one didn't disappoint any bit in sticking to that expected formula.

And in case you didn't already know, this romance film as the sport of weightlifting being featured, but no worries for those not inclined to the sport because it doesn't go beyond the usual training montage, nor bore you to death if you can't tell the difference between the Snatch, and the Clean and Jerk categories. The athlete in quesiton here is "strong girl" Li Li, whose diabetes forces her to quit the sport and the Chinese national team. In making a living she moves to Hong Kong and outsources her strength to furniture movers, who see her as competition in her frequent undercutting of what they cannot do with more men. In one of these moves she helps her new neighbour Shek Yung with his furniture, and inevitably becomes the centre of his attraction.

In a story that's narrated in retrospect of 6 years by Chapman's Shek Yung, we take a look back at a time when both characters are at their lowest point, with Li Li unable to find meaningful work and being ousted for a sport she dedicated her life to, and Shek Yung folding his pub business and finding it increasingly tough to pay his ex-wife alimony. But despite her hardships, Li Li maintains a very positive outlook which Shek Yung finds attractive and soon enough they fall in love, get married, have a kid (!) through an extended subplot about risks involved, and through constant encouragement, Li Li finds her way back to weightlifting under a new coach who believes in her abilities

Yes, the story does fast forward in that breakneck speed to talk about family, and how a couple in marriage have to make compromises for one of them to fulfill their dreams and desires. It's not always an ideal situation given that there's no win-win, but it achieved a perfect harmony, despite what neighbours love to gossip about with Shek Yung having to look after a kid and become a househusband, and his wife crossing the border to train and bring home the bacon. If anything, the lessons here is to remind us how acidic unwarranted comments and rumours can become, andf what other families do, so long as they're happy, is really somebody else's business and not anyone else's.

Chapman To excels in playing one of the many laidback roles he had played to date, such that he's believable in stepping into the role of Shek Yung without difficulty nor challenge. He's the go-to guy for everyday Joe characters, but I think filmmakers ought to give him a break from playing roles that require him to be an ex-husband and being riddled with alimony (eg. Mr and Mrs Gambler, Vulgaria, and here). It's quite unlike Elanne Kwong, who has to shed her pretty lass image to play a relatively average looking plain Jane, and I suppose bulking up her muscle mass is out of the question for just one film unless she's considering a change in careers. You got to nod in the direction of the make up artists and costumers in trying their utmost best in concealing her lack of obvious muscular tone through realy baggy everyday clothes to give the illusion of bulk, and decking her out in competitive sports attire to look heavy-set.

With the likes of Tien Niu playing a landlady and Izz Tsui as her son to add colour to the straightforward plot, Love Lifting doesn't offer too many surprises except for what I thought was a somewhat toned down Yau-moment for blood, gore and violence, that was seen coming as the scene got introduced, and jut had to be done to shake things up just a little bit, otherwise this tale would bore even the most forgiving fans of the romantic genre. It's no classic, but for fans of Chapman To and Elanne Kwong, it's another feather in the cap, and for the latter, another opportunity to showcase some acting chops and potential to one day stage a breakthrough.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

[HKIFF 2012 Review] Beautiful 2012 (World Premiere)

What's Real?

What is Beautiful?

In previous editions of the HKIFF, the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society (HKIFFS) had commissioned a series of short films under the "Quattro Hong Kong" anthology, where filmmakers both in Hong Kong and from abroad are welcomed to create stories either shot in the territory, or what Hong Kong means to them. Continuing in this series of commissioned works by the HKIFFS and produced by Chinese internet platform Youku, Beautiful 2012 sees the works by Hong Kong director Ann Hui, Taiwan based director Tsai Ming Liang, China's Gu Changwei and Korea's Kim Tae-yong, bringing together a very diverse series of shorts that underlines their particular brand and style of filmmaking. Beautiful 2012 world premiered at the HKIFF in this order:

You are More Than Beautiful
Directed by Kim Tae-yong, the story takes place in Jeju Island, where a man employs a woman (Gong Hyo-jin) to pretend to be his fiancee, so that he can fulfill his ill father's wish to see his son about to getting married. The first half of the short is a road trip of sorts, with pit stops at a restaurant and a horse ranch, where the couple, or rather the woman/employee tries her best to ice-break the stuffy atmosphere between two strangers, because anything less would mean their ruse is up. It's very transactional in nature where you're paid to do a job, but the second half, when the trick is no longer required when the father goes into a coma, leads to Gong Hyo-jin having to perform a classical Korean opera piece to a room full of sick men, is amazingly shot and captured that forms the true centerpiece of this film. Just when you thought that things would move from the cold to the warmth and compassion shown, we're pulled back to reality, back to the transactional emotion of the beginning, where some things are just not meant to be.

Trust Tsai Ming Liang to come up with a slow moving piece for a fast moving society. Known for his filmmaking style of incredibly long takes, Tsai puts his actor Lee Kang-sheng, shaved bald and in bright red monk robes, one hand holding a piece of bread and the other a plastic bag of what looks like a cup of drink within, into the streets of Hong Kong, moving at a snail's pace, one step after another, in what would essentially be a silent film if not for the ambient noise captured. We all know that with life whizzing by all the time, we're often told to take time off to stop and smell the roses, and Tsai forces everyone, audience, and the crowd captured on film, to do just that within the duration of his short. Lee's deliberate slow, and forceful motion forward draws attention to itself, with his head never looking up, making his lack of interaction pretty much for others to take notice, and avoid.

Walker takes his character to places in both day and night time commonly seen in Hong Kong utilizing different angles, long, wide shots and closeups, such as the starting point of a dimly lit, narrow stairwell, to the busy sidewalks amongst gleaming skyscrapers, tram stops, in front of billboards or of a music playing Softee van, and the best centerpiece in the film, the pedestrian cross junction that I thought could be in Mongkok (then again I can be wrong here). Here, your eyes dart around the busy cityscape starved for some action given the lack thereof by the titular character, and soon you'll find that glimpse into the mundaneness of life all over, as the camera puts you into taking just a moment to stand around, and people watch. Reactions by those captured during this scene, is priceless, and fun to observe in this modern day and age, with people who just don't give a damn, and those with the proliferation of technology, developing voyeuristic tendencies. But ultimately, being the longest offering of the lot at 26 minutes, there's a nagging feeling that it could have been a tad shorter as it overstayed its welcome, and I was glad that piece of bread got utilized just as it was intended, with Sam Hui's song to accompany and break the monotony.

Long Tou
Probably the most oblique amongst the short films, this episode by Gu Changwei centers around three individuals who talk about death, suffering and life in general, raising examples to reinforce their respective discussion points, although whether or not you choose to agree with any of them depends on your personal philosophy on these topics. The introductory discussion on death with the examples of abandoned babies was harrowing, to say the least, before other smaller characters, such as a dancer, weight lifter, garbage collector and a mysterious man who doodles genetalia, take over the narrative, if there was one.

Almost documentary like in fashion and nature, Long Tou boasts a stunningly beautiful struming guitar soundtrack, but ultimately it's lack of a proper narrative made this feel like it's all over the place, until the shocking finale that came out of the blue, and took everyone by surprise. Would have preferred to see a more structured approach to the themes rather than a very scattered treatment.

My Way
Saving the best for last, this short film by Ann Hui sees Francis Ng in drag most of the time, as we follow him from his home in Wanchai and going about some daily activities, anxious about his upcoming operation that he's saving for to completely transform him into a woman by the complete removal of the male genetalia. But it's all not smooth sailing, not only the mental preparation despite having good natured friends who have gone through the procedure sharing tips with him, but because he's carrying emotional baggage from his estranged marriage to his wife (played by Jade Leung), with teenage son in tow as well.

Yet again Ann Hui displays very deft storytelling abilities without a tinge of sensationalism, crafting a very human tale about not denying oneself, and to live life and not live a lie. Characters, no matter how fleeting, all serve a purpose and a point, and Francis Ng once again is an acting force to be reckoned with, playing a man whose lie had hurt others, especially his wife, who has to come to terms and resign to fate for falling in love with a man who harbours deep down to be a woman, where signs were already showing through some flashbacks. Their interactions are always emotionally charged for this betrayal, and just how this would be played out at the end, makes this film extremely engaging. Brownie points also goes out to the three actors playing the transsexual friends of Francis Ng's character.

[HKIFF 2012 Red Carpet / Stage Appearance] Beautiful 2012

Beautiful 2012 is the new set of commissioned works by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society (HKIFFS) which sees a total of four new short films by acclaimed directors Ann Hui, Tsai Ming Liang, Gu Changwei and Kim Tae-yong, joined by cast members Francis Ng and Jade Leung at today's Red Carpet / Stage Appearance:

and here's the stage appearance within the theatre before the show started, with Directors Tsai Ming Liang, Gu Changwei and Kim Tae-yong, and Cast Francis Ng and Jade Leung invited to say a few words and introduce their respective short films:

[HKIFF 2012 Review] Go! Boys' School Drama Club (行け!男子高校演劇部 / Ike! Danshi Koko Engekibu)


Two key reasons that induced me to watch this are that it stars Aoi Nakamura in the lead role, where the last I saw him was in Beck, being the relatively quiet member of the troupe, and here leading the charge as an extremely loud-mouthed character. The other is of course wanting to see how bold and outrageous the titular drama club can get in their performance, because after all it's Japan we're talking about and their game shows are tremendous in innovation and creativity, that one can expect to be wildly entertained. And this film by Tsutomu Hanabusa (who did Handsome Suits) doesn't disappoint at all.

We follow Genki Oga (Aoi Nakamura) and his best friend Kaji Owada (Sosuke Ikematsu, who was in Dive!!) in their freshman year in Ikematsu Boys High School, where they have to enrol into an enrichment club. Oga has one sole objective, and that's to join something where the girls will fawn over him. But he got mesmerized by a girl in Romeo and Juliet, rushes to sign up for the theatre club, and finds out that "Juliet" is none other than a guy in drag - it's a boy's school after all. Suckered into joining the club and becoming its leader, and for reasons unexplained he didn't walk out of this sudden responsibility being dropped on his lap, and takes it upon himself, together with members Ueda (Keisuke Tomita) whom nobody can seem to see, and Joe (Naofumi Kaneko), the shakespeare wannabe, to try and keep the club afloat, threatened to disband and have their club house taken away should they not come up with at least five members.

In the classic three act structure, recruitment forms the first act, and you can imagine the many silly situations the characters find themselves in when finding suitable classmates, made worst when girls only seem to be interested in jocks, and those joining drama clubs are gross. With the help of student advisor Mr Kanda (Tetsuhiro Ikeda), himself being relatively perverse with a deep fetish for sweet young females, they soon pull enough numbers to keep the club afloat, and soon get into shenanigans such as trying to learn from the best in the school business of theatre, by posing as girls and infiltrating the drama club of an all girls school. It is here that Oga meets Mai (Yua Shinkawa), whom he unilaterally swears to save her, and everyone else, from their tyrannical drama school teacher Kaneko (Masako Chiba).

Go! Boys School Drama Club is peppered by comedy at every turn, and has enough quirky characters to be put in equally quirky scenarios to make this one heck of an absurdist comedy, designed with ridiculously funny set comedy acts to elicit plenty of laughter from an audience. The second act is where things get ramped up narratively as the club members practice their production, and puts out a relatively disastrous first play for senior citizens, and exposes each character for their lack of performance experience, again played up for laughs. Sticking to a formula of having a bunch of misfits band together for a common goal may be done to death before, but it's the on screen charisma of Aoi Nakamura as the fearless (and many times clueless) leader of the troupe, and the many shenanigans as written by Tetsuhiro Ikeda, makes this very much worthwhile to sit through.

But the payload comes in the final act when the gang puts out their performance for the theatre festival, based on Henry's The Last Leaf, where the play develops in real time under very meta circumstance, telling of a moving story and delivering it quite by accident in even more moving terms that begs to be seen. If this is not about camaraderie, and about quick thinking on one's feet and taking that giant leap of faith, then I do not know what is. It's a fitting finale that's both comical and touching, and perhaps subtly reminds us that in every art there's always something that's reserved for an elite few, and there's always something else that appeals to the masses. Clearly the competition here distinguishes between the two, especially the latter when the Ikematsu boys take over, to remind everyone that there's always time in serious situations to be laughing at ourselves while still staying true to the spirit of things.

With plenty of sight gags and sub plots to pad this less than 90 minute movie, some of these aspects can actually be dropped, if only to serve a spectrum of scenes for an audience, such as a needless romance between the canteen lady being wooed by a student, or the sight gags such as Oga's lunchbox almost always having his food shaped like religious figures. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken isn't off the hook in this, while being product placement, I thought it was something effectively done, and done with unexpected comedy. Recommended!

[HKIFF 2012 Review] Vulgaria (低俗喜劇 / Di Su Xi Ju) (World Premiere)

Posing for a Job

A disclaimer comes on before the movie starts proper to remind everyone that it's going to be a super vulgar affair, and given 10 seconds to leave the screening room/hall if one is offended by politically insensitive remarks that's found in almost every minute of the film, before signing off with an expletive that any other damages suffered after watching the film is none of the filmmaker's business. Welcome to Vulgaria, with producer-director-co-writer Edmond Pang Ho Cheung pulling out all the stops in making a film about filmmaking from a producer's point of view, peppered with expletives that would even make Tarantino blush.

The stage is set with heavy grunge music in the opening credits reminiscent of exploitation movies, before it opens with Chapman To on a stage waiting for a public lecture to commence. To plays film producer To Wai-Chueng, an obvious moniker to the director Pang himself, invited by a film professor to speak to his students about film producing, who breaks the fourth wall constantly to interact and engage audiences directly. In Pang's filmography he had made films involving filmmakers before, with his earlier works like You Shoot, I Shoot and A.V. but this one takes a more instructional, albeit comedic, take on what it takes to produce a film. If you're clueless about what a film producer does, then perhaps this hilarious offering will be right up your alley.

And that is in the most raunchy explanation ever, where Pang shows off his hilariously filthy mind through the character of To, using an analogy that has to be listened to first hand, comparing a film producer's function with that of pubes, moving the narrative along in Q&A fashion involving flashbacks into his latest foray of a production, drawing upon those experiences and sharing it with the students and us, the audience. Much of the story centers around To's film project, in what would be a mirror to Hong Kong films these days, the experience of having to make movies with the injection of Mainland Chinese money, and the lengths one would go through to secure funding, and with that comes the evil necessities such as compromises and meddling from financiers.

In To's case, his financial backer happens to be Brother Tyrannosaurus (Ronald Cheng, in what I deem as his most effective comedic role to date), a Guang Xi chief hoodlum who has taken an interest in making films, and has the hots for actress shaw Yin Yin, who still gives him the stiffy when he sees her in an old Shaw Bros pic. So he funds and commissions To on the remake called Confessions of a Concubine and insists that Shaw, now a senior citizen, in the role. But not before a roundtable of festivities involving exotic foods, drink, and in an act of friendship, offers his wife to To for shagging; you will never see another mule again without thinking of Vulgaria. This entire, extended episode becomes the fulcrum for the first act, is extremely funny and a hark back to the good ol toilet humour that Wong Jing used to do with pinache, now having the ante upped through Pang's not having a handbrake on in censoring oneself, and setting the bar for the most unbelievable things ever said and happen on screen.

So what does a film producer actually do? He makes things happen with the resources at hand, or seeks out avenues to expand those resources. We go through the hoops that he has to jump through as well, navigating sticky situations to get his project off the ground, made worst when he has to deal with an estranged hotshot lawyer spouse ever so keen in wanting to cut off contact with their daughter. Then there's a strawberry of a generation gap with his none-too-reliable secretary/assistant Quin (Fiona Sit, last seen opposite Chapman in Mr and Mrs Gambler), who sues him for sexual harrassment. But things aren't always looking down since there's a whiff of romance in the air with "Popping Candy" Tsui Ka-Yan (Dada Chan), with a penchant for warming To's bed, or car. Subplots like these offer a little bit of a narrative distruption, but thanks to well injected humour put in, they never feel unwelcome for little funny surprises that pop up now and then.

The film gets really referential in the second half about contemporary movie making, and since the fictional film here is to do with Category III, there are numerous pot shots at the genre as well, poking fun at the much talked about exploding bodies scenes in Sex and Zen 3D, and even getting actor Hiro Hayama in a role to act opposite Tsui Ka-Yan, whose in the movie only for a body, wearing a green mask in which Shaw Yin Yin's face will be digitally grafted onto, to satisfy Brother Tyrannosaurus' funding requirements. Alas in desperation to find a way to call it quits, this section ends quite abruptly, before shifting gears to talk about marketing efforts before you know it.

Pang Ho Cheung has two films making their debut at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, and they're both on different ends of the spectrum, showing Pang's versatility as a filmmaker and storyteller, being able to entertain and move depending on the genre of film he's tackling, with this being fun and funny all round. Be sure to catch this wherever you can, and for film producer wannabes, this film is definitely for you. Be sure to stay in your seats when the credits roll for its real epilogue.

[HKIFF 2012 Red Carpet / Stage Appearance] Love in the Buff (春嬌與志明)

The opening film of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Love in the Puff sees its director and stars grace the red carpet, and make an introduction on stage during the opening ceremony last night:

Red Carpet

Opening Ceremony Stage

Writer-Director Edmond Pang Ho Cheung was in the house to introduce the film, and was game enough to return to the hall when the screening had ended to do a quick wrap up, and reminder to the audience not to spoil the ending for friends:

Pre Screening Introduction

Post Screening Appearance

Going by the audience's response throughout the screening, I am pretty certain Love in the Buff will surpass Love in a Puff at the box office and cement both films as classics in the making.

[HKIFF 2012 Review] Love in the Buff (春嬌與志明 / Chun Giu Yu Chi Ming) (World Premiere)

Romancing in Beijing

Two years ago, I was with a full house surprised by Edmond Pang Ho Cheung's Love in a Puff, a film that revolves around two smokers who became irrepressible lovers in the delightful romantic comedy, winning us over with their down to earth, identifiable qualities, undoubtedly thanks to Edmond Pang's solidly written story, and characterization. Today we sit in the exact same hall where Love in a Puff made its world premiere, and the air was thick with anticipation amongst all, where we would be revisiting two friends whom we had last left, in our minds, a firm couple finally after the trials in the first movie, only for the writer-director to surprise us once more with the premise of the sequel, that it's not all's well that end's well with them.

The film begins with a story about death, much like the earlier film, but this time round you're probably attuned to Edmond Pang's signature style, with snippets like these easily becoming short films in their own right. It blended absurd comedy with solid dialogue, which is to become the hallmark of Love in a Puff/Buff, and many of Edmond's films. We learn that both Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and Cherie (Miriam Yeung) have moved in together and cohabiting in an apartment, but not everything's fine and dandy in a relationship that calls for much compromises, maturity, little niggling white lies here and there, fused with the director's keen observation of modern day society where a focus on one's career may have a detrimental effect in sucking the romance out of a relationship bone dry. Reality has set in, and it's not looking too good.

It's about time and quality spent with the significant other, and it pains to see the both of them drift, and part over time, nary saying much to each other when they once had some of the best communications and dialogues any couple can have. Their break up isn't very clean to begin with, where Jimmy goes over to Beijing to further his career, given an appraisal of the bountiful opportunities in China, with Cherie staying behind in Hong Kong, only for her company to find itself shutting down its doors for the larger (and cheaper to operate in to boot) China market, but she too given a chance to remain with the organization since she's of low threat to her boss, spelling out a relocation to Beijing as well.

Sure enough, their paths do meet in the most serendipitous of instances in the large capital city of China, but by then Jimmy has already moved on and is in a relationship with You-you (Mini Yang), an air stewardess much closer to Jimmy's age (don't forget that Cherie is many years older), and with physical assets that gets compared to in one of the most hilarious scenes in the film. One notices that the comedy in this film, and in the Love in a Puff/Buff series, is never slapstick, but boiled down to very strong language delivering its razor sharp wit, and of course, coarseness as well that only serves to reinforce the point that dubbing will only make all these moments woefully lost in translation.

While Jimmy's story arc in his relationship with You-you is great eye candy, especially since the latter has this effervescence demeanour and their hookup also based on a joke on board a plane that served up another highlight, it's actually Cherie's story arc leading to a relationship of sorts with Sam (Xu Zheng) that proved to be more substantial and engaging instead, involving an observation about love in Beijing dealing with how singles get hooked up through family, who spend time scouring parks where parents of other singletons would advertise their own children's qualities, and appraisals done before the setting of blind dates. There's a point put across as well about the magnanimity of the Mainland Chinese in love and relationships, and how pragmatic their attitude can be as well, and this point will likely go down well with the Mainland audience, while doesn't come across as sucking it up because hey, we're all here to root for any sliver of possibility that our primary couple will break all deals and get together. After all, they still hold a candle for each other and constantly keep in touch through secret late night rendezvous or dirty weekend retreats behind their respective partner's back.

While it looks like a light hearted romp, it has plenty of heart put into the story, and those who have been through breakups will probably identify some takeaways that Love in the Buff points out well, with its exploration of themes like how one lover tends to exert an influence over the other whether subtly or otherwise, and how we deal with the implications of a messy and unclear breakup, where both Jimmy and Cherie obviously has pride, ego and longing in the way of calling it quits properly. And it's not all fun and laughter, since Pang Ho Cheung includes some heart-breaking moments but steering very clear of melodrama, which would have really ruined the treatment of the film.

A whole bevy of stars remain best to be unnamed to maintain the comical nature when they get introduced, from recognizable up and coming ones to those whom we have not seen for the longest time since bowing out of the limelight, bringing back plenty of memories especially for those amongst us who are of the couple's age and have grown up with the 80s and 90s pop culture. The end credits is wickedly hilarious, so don't leave the cinema just yet when the first credit starts to roll off, not only will you be treated to a short epilogue, but it continues to wryly poke fun at how we prefer our most embarrassing moments caught in digital records to be erased from the consciousness of all and sundry. Let's see how one of the actors wriggle out from this one indeed!

It's probably only the half way mark now, but Love in the Buff made this trip worthwhile already. Highly recommended and a definite must watch for fans of Pang Ho Cheung and Love in a Puff. This is a more than worthy sequel as it gets a little bit more intimate with our favourite characters, and it powers its way into my top films of the year to date!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

[HKIFF 2012] Red Carpet & Opening Ceremony

Write up will follow, but first, knock yourself out with a photo slide show in the meantime:

Charlotte Rampling

Sandra Ng and Peter Chan

[HKFILMART 2012 Review] The Second Woman (情谜 / Qing Mi)

Who Are You?

One suspects writer-director Carol Lai may have harboured some Black Swan ambitions with a tale that also centers around a stage practitioner who embarks on an unwitting destructive journey when playing a role to die for. The Second Woman, whose Chinese title Romance Riddle may hold better clues as to how this film developed, being more of a guessing game that threw constant clues rather than a overly romantic film about twins falling in love with a man who decided it's perfectly OK to string both women along, until he discovers that this spells double trouble.

Nan (Shawn Yue) and Hui Bao (Shu Qi) are a romantic couple in the stage acting profession. He is of leading man material, but his girlfriend Bao is at best, when his influence isn't waning and his leading lady is in a good mood, the supporting actress in the bid budgeted production of Legend of the Plum Blossom, about a scholar falling in love with two women in a supernatural tale about spirits and possession. With the stage being a mirror in life, Nan soon finds himself also falling in love with Hui Bao's older twin sister Hui Xiang (Shu Qi again), who doesn't resist his advances, being probably more attractive to him in terms of character, the demure though more emotionally charged compared to the relatively immature Bao.

Carrying out an affair with Hui Xiang while maintaining his relationship with Hui Bao, you know Nan's just asking for it when the two women sense a shift in attitudes, especially when they start to clash over Xiang's determined takeover of Bao's stage life when the latter falls sick before her final performance, and Xiang's performance wins accolades that Bao can only dream of. Jealousy in their professional lives, yes, but when you throw a man into the picture, things can get messy. They confront each other, and as it turns out, one of them emerges the victor, but who?

That's when the movie kicks into full gear to keep you guessing just who Shu Qi is playing. While the first act introduces us to the two distinct sisters with their differences clearly defined in character and physical outlook - one wears her hair constantly up, and the other letting it down - these are indeed superficial changes should anyone decide to take over the role of the other and dress in similar fashion. And since both are actresses, or an actress wannabe, becoming the sister is nothing impossible, keeping up the Riddle and mystery in the title as to which of the two sisters Shu Qi is playing, since it involves an open ended possible murder mystery that happened in the deep sea thrown in as well, with Xiang mysteriously missing, but not before calling a neighbour to look after her blind mom when she's away on business.

Is she actually Bao who had gotten rid of her sister Xiang, or is she Xiang who had usurped Bao's position? Or is Xiang deranged as the first scene would have suggested, schizophrenia and all, or worst, the story having the gall to pull a rug from under all our feet to suggest they may even be the same person? As the film goes on with Nan's investigative friend and his sister going all out to seek the truth while Nan continues to string Bao/Xiang along to reveal everything, but frankly up until a certain time you'd stop caring, and decide to just enjoy Shu Qi's performance taking up characteristics from both twins.

And that I suppose sounded the death knell for the mystery it wanted to build up, because it didn't manage to sustain an interest exactly who of the two women we're seeing on screen. Carol Lai also chose to mix things up with her direction, blurring the line between the lives of the characters on stage and outside of it. While the stage play deals with supernatural possession, suggestions do creep into her story outside of the stage, with constant jump cuts and eerie atmospherics contributing to suggestions that we may see what's on stage being repeated in real life given parallels that are converging. This also mirrors the production as well, being undecided whether to be a psychological thriller, or an outright horror film given its numerous jump cuts intended to scare.

The game is up when the filmmakers realize that they have dug a hole so deep that the only way out is to have two characters, whose value to the film is saved entirely for the finale, to explain everything in very verbatim terms like a sort of cheat sheet in spilling the beans, inclusive of new scenes yet to be seen to allow for the connection of the dots, spoonfeeding the audience in the hopes of not letting the slightest of clues go unnoticed, and hopefully to make sense of everything else that had transpired, including a found trenchcoat at sea, a haunted, abandoned theatre and a blind mom who for all her heightened senses and years spent on motherhood and weaning her twins, couldn't tell them apart. Perhaps a tighter story could be crafted from its promising premise if there's a bold leap of faith in a more sophisticated audience capable of piecing everything together themselves.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

[HKFILMART 2012 Review] Nightfall (大追捕 / Dai Chui Bo)

Cable Car Rumble

Once bitten and could have been twice shy, but lessons learnt from that experience will prove rewarding. Writer-Director Roy Chow's first foray into the Hong Kong crime thriller genre with the film Murderer could have been an impressive debut, boasting Aaron Kwok as a leading man after his stellar outing in C+ Detective, but alas was let down by what would be a debutant's relatively naive handling of the big reveal in a mystery that's set up for a big wow, but only to fall flat and too hard against the required suspension of disbelief. But in his second attempt with co-writer Christine To, they had come up with a better story and while no instant classic, had all the right ingredients put in for a taut, pacey thriller from start to finish.

Nick Cheung is going places albeit going dangerously close to repeating himself at times. The film opens with a gritty, prison bathroom fight where his buffed and mute Wang goes up against a group of bullying goons. This prologue doesn't tie in too closely with the film proper and stands out by itself, but nobody's complaining for the hard hitting fight scenes here where Cheung gets into a close quartered survival battle if only to cement his character's reputation as a mean machine. He's released from prison after 20 years for a crime he claimed to have not committed, but admitted guilty to anyway, involving the horrific rape and murder of his lover Eva (Janice Man) at her family home. He soon finds himself stalking a teenage pianist Zoe (also played by Janice Man) who bears uncanny semblance to Eva, and discovers that her dad is none other than Eva's dad, the acclaimed pianist Han Tsui (Michael Wong).

Han Tsui is soon discovered murdered in most gruesome fashion - burnt, drowned, void of prints - near his mansion, and the film proper gets underway where two murders under the same family tree gets investigated by detective Lam (Simon Yam), who reopens Wang's 20 year old case while investigating into the current one. You'll know that they're related in some way, but the journey this film takes is to understand the Whys and the Hows, which both Roy Chow and Christine To managed to pull off yet another surprise and twist in their story, but one that is more palatable, direct, and handled with a certain finesse when compared against their clunky first time endeavour that drew more laughter instead. Things are kept suspenseful with Chow pulling off atmospheric moments, though at times lapsing into horror film territory with overzealous jump cuts.

But he is slowly showing his ability in crafting action sequences, from the bathroom brawl the opened the film, to the highlight which is the cable car rumble at Ngong Ping, which had noticeable CG involvement (a pity that the landmark is now closed for an indefinite period of time for servicing). Foot chases scenes were also handled deftly, with Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi chiming in with a punchy score heavy on the drum beats to accentuate that systematic cat and mouse game played out, and relentless pursuit by cops with escape at the nick of time episodes. I would even go out to say if not for Umebayashi's score, this film would have felt robbed of a key element

And of course they now have two acclaimed actors to thank for this as well, hooking you in with their charisma and engaging screen presence. Simon Yam bears a grungy, bearded look that fits in with an experienced, tired cop who's facing problems with his teenage daughter, and carries an emotional baggage that's relatively unexplored with the death of his wife, if only for this to serve as fuel for his desire to dive deep into the unsolved cases at hand. Gordon Liu also pops out for a cameo as an ex-cop there to jog Lam's memory of a series of events that ties both Lam and Wang even closer than imagined to the 20 year old case which will unravel itself from fuzzy still photo shots in the opening credits, to full blown revelation as time goes on.

Nick Cheung has his character's vocal chords taken away from him for his role here, and has to rely on everything else, especially on his facial expression, to bring you to his cause, and keeping you wondering just how involved or guilty his character is, being the number one creepy stalker who sneaks into everyone's home, and leave you wondering just what his game is in his deliberate leaving behind of clues, or blatant attacks against cops. Needless to say his limited face off scenes opposite Simon Yam were the most delicious to watch. He's a relatively late bloomer in the industry, but is now growing in stature and fast becoming one of my favourite actors from the territory.

The film's theme deals with family relationships especially that between fathers and daughters that is central to the entire plot, in having no less than three prime case studies put on display. Michael Wong chips in as the hypocritical man you'll grow to love to hate, and the Cantonese version here (I can imagine how awfully dubbed he is going to sound in the Singapore Chinese dubbed print) plays up to that hypocrisy very well. To lighten things up at times in this sombre film, Kay Tse plays a token female cop opposite Simon Yam's Lam who clearly develops feelings for the widower but got spurned at every turn, so stay tuned when the end credits roll for that little bit of closure here.

Roy Chow may not bear the pedigree of other crime thriller filmmakers in Hong Kong yet, but he's slowly and surely getting there. If this doesn't become an instant box office success (already released commercially in Hong Kong), it has definite legs to become a cult classic with time. Recommended!
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