Monthly Archives: April 2008

RUN PAPA, RUN PAPA, or is it LOLA?

Run Papa Run, 2008

dir: Sylvia Chang

There is something about Sylvia Chang, whether as an actress, writer or director. She always strives to want to bring something new to her work. As a director, sometimes she succeeds brilliantly like in TEMPTING HEART (yes!!!) and 20 30 40 and sometimes fails like in PRINCESS D. RUN PAPA RUN is not an exact translation of the Chinese title. The Chinese title actually means A GOOD PAPA, if translated literally. So I don’t know how it became RUN PAPA RUN which is at once comical, does not really reflect the story and reminds one of RUN LOLA RUN. Maybe A GOOD PAPA sounds a tad too boring and common. Being common is not something that Sylvia Chang admires. Or maybe, just maybe, the director wants re-iterate that this movie is not a normal run of the mill dramatic movie and has elements of wackiness and fantasy in it, just like how the keyart depicts.

With this in mind, one will see why the movie suddenly breaks into a song out of nowhere and why LEE the triad boss (Louis Koo whose acting is certainly not up to par and is more comical than resembling a feared triad boss – maybe he should stick to movies like HAPPY BIRTHDAY which he also played with Rene Liu and both them and the movie were very good) talks to the camera. In fact, the creative opening title is rather refreshing to watch. RUN PAPA RUN takes a microscopic look into the life of a triad boss. In the majority of Hong Kong movies, triad bosses are depicted as violent (they actually are) or heroic but these movies hardly zoom into the inner life of the triad boss. In this movie, we see how a new born daughter plus a great wife (played by the ever so superb Rene Liu) changes the life of the boss and by talking straight into the camera, the audience is given a rare chance of what he actually thinks and feels.

Out of 10 triad members, 9 of them ends with a miserable life. That is the premise of the movie. Will LEE be the 10th, a triad who can actually lead a normal and good life at the end of the tunnel? Being a triad boss who is himself controlled by a board of directors (just like a modern big corporation), can he escape the underground activities and start fresh to give his beloved daughter a healthy life (some scenes depicting the fathers love for the daughter is actually quite nicely done)? Can he hide from his daughter forever that he is in fact a triad boss? Can Jesus save him? In fact, in a scene, LEE equated the Christian establishment with a triad establishment. So once he joins this new Kingdom of God, can he get out and continue to pray to Guan Yu and get blessings from both? Can the movie actually convince us that the love of a father to the daughter is boundless and exceeds any sacrifices that needs to be made? Will God do the same for all his children on earth (or at least those that believes in Him)?

However, the treatment of Christianity as a savior sometimes go overboard and becomes preachy and that got on my nerves quite a bit. We don’t have to be reminded constantly that only Jesus can save us and if a person is not baptised, he or she will go straight to hell (even if that person has done good his or her whole life???). Another disappointment in the movie is the rather predictable ending. Well, to think of it now, as I am typing away at the keyboard, what kind of ending can Sylvia Chang actually tell? Maybe this is the best ending ever for a triad boss. To avoid concluding an ending like most commercial movies does, she actually has an option of not providing an ending and leave it at that and let the audience come to interpret it. Like in TEMPTING HEART, the ending is perfect. Even thinking of the ending of TEMPTING HEART now, I can feel goose bumps at the back of my neck. That is because the ending inspire a sense of nostalgia, of could-have-beens, of deep feelings that is hidden in one’s heart but could not reveal or be expressed, of the unfortunate turn of events and of naive dreams.

RUN PAPA RUN is not even close to that but is definitely something fresh versus the onslaught of too many costume movies and dumb rom-com coming to the cinemas nowadays.

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Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon

Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, 2008

dir: Daniel Lee

I was really not expecting much from this movie. Not another costume period movie, not after watching AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS. But what the hell, since I watch many crap movies anyways and there is nothing much in the cinemas to watch then. So with rather low expactations, a packet of soya bean milk and a pack of nuts sneaked in, I sat down while the lights dimmed.

Actually, one key reason why I wanted to watch this movie is the focus on Zhao Zilong. Stories from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the greatest literary classics written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century, always focussed on the key characters such as Liu Bei, Cao Cao, Zhuge Liang, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei. But this movie tells the story of Zhao Zilong whose character is much less well explored compared to the others.

What struck me when the movie started was the soundtrack. The combination of modern orchestration with the solo Pei Pa is most fascinating. It is like heaven and hell compared to the Leon Lai-Kelly Chen MTV in AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS (by now, you would have figured that I hated that movie).

Andy Lau’s acting skill is on the rise as well and he managed to steer clear of the “Wah Di” look. Maggie Q is a stunner and exceeded my expectations too. She is very charismatic, very beautiful to look at and at the same time, just by looking at her will inspire fear. Ti Lung is superb as ever as Guan Yu, just that the image of him being Justice Pao keep recurring in my mind. That said, I thought Samo Hung’s effort to be rather below par and given the power of his role, as big brother to Zhao Zilong and the person that seals his fate, that character can be played more powerfully. Also, the one big spoiler is Vanesse Wu. Why the hell is that boy band in this movie? Completely spoils it.

Anyways, this movie is a fairly good tale of Zhao Zilong, and I appreciated this point of view, although it will help to further paint Zhao Zilong’s inner world and how he rose to greatness which was merely hinted at in the movie as it was rushed through (the movie plays at around 100 minutes). This little story, despite some fictional characters invented by the director (e.g. Samo Hung’s and Maggie Q’s character), will be a nice little piece in anticipation of John Woo’s THE BATTLE OF RED CLIFF. Ah, what a treat for us Romance of the Three Kingdom fans eh?

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NEW IRANIAN CINEMA

One does not have to watch PERSEPOLIS to know that Iran is not a country that you want to get yourself messed-up in. However, the movie is a good introduction to anyone who wants to know broadly the recent history of Iran and the impact on the people’s life. Knowing the key events will be helpful as they serves to also demarcate the movie industry in Iran.

Recent Iranian history is now generally categorised as Pre-Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary and the year that demarcates them is the 1978-1979 revolution that saw the toppling of the Shah/Monarch and the birth of the Islamic Republic. Most of the Iranian filmmakers that we know today emerged from the Post Revolutionary period, except probably the most well-known of them all, i.e. Abbas Kiarostami who already started working during the Pre-Revolutionary period. Post Revolutionary Iranian filmmakers include Mohsen Makhmalbaf and the members of the Makhmalbaf family (most notably his daughter Samira), Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi and a few others. The works by these filmmakers are now more generally known as the New Iranian Cinema (not, as many thought, the Iranian New Wave since the Iranian New Wave actually precedes the New Iranian Cinema and began about a decade before the revolution).

According to Screen Digest, Iran produces about 70-80 films in the past couple of years which increased dramatically from the early 2000s where it produced about 30 films a year, so the annual output has more than doubled and exceeded that of Hong Kong. However, although I acquire quite a number of Iranian movies for the channel, I am a very auteur focused person and concentrates a lot more on the films by Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi and to a lesser extent Majid Majidi. For me at least, these four are the pillars of New Iranian Cinema.

To the uninitiated, many of their films, especially those of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf, will appear raw and unrefined. However, to see the movies as such is to miss the point. The point is not to focus on the technical aspect of the movie by Hollywood standards but the story that is told. The style of how the story is told is also interesting and if one is willing to empty the cup that contains Hollywood and opens up the mind to accept a different cinematic experience, these movies are very rich in content, often offering a look at the Iranian society such as the after-effects of the Iran-Iraq war, the status of women, Islamic rule, the process of modernisation of Iran and interaction with the outside world, Islamic worldview and concept of God and afterlife, and such.

Some of the New Iranian Cinema movies that I like:

Abbas Kiarostami: A Taste of Cherry; The Wind Will Carry Us; Close Up; Through the Olive Trees; Ten

Mohsen Makhmalbaf: The Cyclist; A Moment of Innocence; Time of Love; Once Upon a Time, Cinema

Jafar Panahi: The Circle; The White Balloon; The Mirror; Crimson Gold

Majid Majidi: Children of Heaven; Colour of Paradise; The Willow Tree

As time goes by, I will slowly write reviews of each of these movies and put them up on this site.

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Web Update

Well, managed to put up some new stuffs on the website which includes some notes on recent trends in Hong Kong/China, Japan and Korea and also some notes on Iranian Cinema. Also added two reviews, one is THREE KINGDOMS: RESURRECTION OF THE DRAGON and the other is ESCAPE FROM HUANG SHI.

If you are interested, they can be easily accessed by following this link: http://hdoong.googlepages.com/

Comments can be posted here.

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Barking Dogs Never Bite

Barking Dogs Never Bite, 2000

dir: Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho was largely unnoticed until THE HOST grabbed international attention. Even that, in a world where most people choose their movies based on genre and has little regard of who the director is, it is easy to overlook this director’s two previous gems, i.e. MEMORIES OF MURDER and this movie that I am about to review.

BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE is Bong Joon-ho’s first feature length movie and we can already see from this movie the director’s style and the subject that preoccupies his head. He is concerned about the society that he lives in and the quirky people that is part of that society. He is interested in examining the psychology of these people and how these people live that led to the extraordinary events that happens. The criticism of the society and the people are always delivered with a mix of comedic sarcasm, drama and tragedy, and in the case of THE HOST, fantasy and science fiction.

The story centers around a college lecturer, Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae), who is leading a rather sorry life. He is poor, has a nagging wife who is also pregnant and he realises that if he wants to be a professor, hard work alone is not enough. He has to bribe the Dean for that appointment. The problem is Yun-ju does not have that big amount of money to bribe the Dean even after convincing himself that giving money to buy that position is not morally wrong. How is he going to raise that cash?

In the midst of all these, there is a dog that barks and that annoyed him terribly. Despite the fact that one is not allowed to keep pets in the apartment, apparently no one gives a damn about that rule. And therefore, Yun-ju took the job up himself, kidnapping the dogs and silencing them without understanding the effect on the owners who lost their beloved dog. The consequences can be darn serious and he got a taste of his own medicine when his wife’s newly acquired pet dog went missing when he took it out for a walk. In a very well constructed and executed scene, we understand why the dog meant a lot to his wife and it’s now his turn to recover the lost dog to redeem his guilt.

Crossing his path is Hyeon Nam (played by the ever-oh-so-superb Bae Doo-na). Hyeon Nam is a clerk in the apartment maintenance department. She is a bored person whose job seems to only consist of stamping approvals on bulletins. The recent rise in the number of lost dog cases intrigued her and one day, she accidentally witnessed someone actually killing a dog. She then sets out in hunting down this dog murderer and when Yun-ju met her while looking for his lost dog, they became good friends. The thing is, of course, Hyeon Nam does not know that Yun-ju is the dog murderer. Anyways, this conflict was finally resolved as well, with an “all’s well ends well” ending.

There is one scene that suddenly jumps out on the unsuspecting audience and that is when Hyeon Nam went all out to save Yun-ju’s dog from the dog eater, we see a lot of yellow people suddenly cheering for her on the rooftops of other apartments. Of course, this is a fantasy in Hyeon Nam’s mind, that she is now a hero, something that she always wanted to be in her private times spent with her best friend (who I suspect loves her romantically as hinted by the director in a couple of nuanced scenes). There are also a couple of underground characters, the janitor and the beggar, that added to the uniqueness and richness of the story. This is indeed a grade A movie.

We therefore get a glimpse on the society through the lives of Yun-ju and Hyeon Nam: the corruption in Korean university system, the loneliness of people who has to depend on the company of their dog, the prejudice against women in the corporate world, the restless youth of the day but also the sense of morality and civic-mindedness, the Confucian tradition, that is still quite deeply ingrained in the Korean psyche. But then again, that is getting eroded day by day.

No dogs are harmed in the making of the movie.

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Ashes of Time

Ashes of Time, 1994

dir: Wong Kar Wai

In the mood for a Wong Kar Wai movie, I stretched for my copy of ASHES OF TIME. This is no accident as I was talking about this movie with the producer of FLOWER IN THE POCKET who is an avid fan of ASHES OF TIME. It reminds me how long ago I have watched that movie and I remember the impression of the movie is not very favourable since half the time, I have no idea what is actually happening. Rewatching it some years back didn’t really help, so I thought I may as well give it another try since there is something in there that really captivates me and I remembered the feeling. I want to explore that feeling.

ASHES OF TIME is by far not an easy movie to watch despite having one of the biggest cast line up that I have ever seen in a Hong Kong movie. Plus the talent of Christoper Doyle, William Cheung and Patrick Tam, it promises to be one of the best received movie. But the reverse is actually true. Most of the people in the team didn’t know what is happening and Patrick Tam was said that he thanked God Christopher Doyle did an amazing job with the visuals to make his editing job that much easier.

The story of ASHES OF TIME, if there is one, is loosely based on Jin Yong’s novel “The Legend of the Condor Heroes”. It is meant to be a prequel to the novel, on how the characters in the novel is as it is by examining the relationship between the characters when they were still relatively young.

This is where it started to charm me, this time, besides the great cinematography and music which I appreciated before. In ASHES OF TIME, deliberately or not, Wong Kar Wai infuses a certain humanism in the characters. For all of us who grew up with a steady diet of TVB drama adaptation of Jin Yong, if not read Jin Yong’s novel ten times already, the characterisation that we feel from the novel and the TV adaptations is somehow different from how Wong Kar Wai depicted them to be in the movie. In ASHES OF TIME, these characters are much weaker, more humane, still has love in their hearts, and still think of their hometown and people they love. The characters in ASHES OF TIME has just a tad too many human flaws.

These human flaws made the characters interesting and charming. And God-damn Wong Kar Wai made the characters recite dialogue which to many people will sound very comical, including me. In the scenes where Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung exchanges words, I cannot help but imagine the words of Leslie Cheung coming out of Stephen Chow’s mouth and I started laughing.

Well, anyways, this movie is about unrequited love most of the time. The people you love is not always the person you are married to. One exception that stood out was Jackie Cheung’s character where his wife came to look for him and he brushes her off. She refused to go and waited outside for him for days. Then much later, after many experiences, Jackie Cheung decided to leave to which Leslie Cheung asked him what he is going to do with the wife. He answered that he will take her along. And somehow, we the audience understood that Jackie Cheung understood the underlying meaning of love, i.e. the person you love most is in front of you. Make a life with her or you will regret later, like how Leslie Cheung regretted not saying the 3 words to the girl he loves, i.e. Maggie Cheung, or how Tony Leung Chiu Wai married a woman, Carina Lau Kar LIng, who loved his best friend, Tony Leung Kar Fai, more than she loves him and had to resort to abusing the horse to satisfy her sexual needs (hic!).

Another character that stood out was Charlie Young’s character who played a poor woman whose brother was murdered by a band of roving bandits. She asked Leslie Cheung to help avenge her but because she has no money and Leslie Cheung will not kill for no money since he is an assassin/assassin agent. All she can offer is a donkey which is supposed to be her dowry and a basket of eggs. Leslie Cheung said that she can actually get more money by selling her own body since she is not ugly. But Charlie Young adamantly stuck to her principles of not selling her body and it finally took Jackie Cheung to avenge her for the price of one egg which resulted in one of Jackie Cheung’s fingers getting cut off. What follows is a dialog between Leslie Cheung and Jackie Cheung, and it clearly shows the difference in characters between the two of them, who later in the novel, are sworn enemies and killed each other in a duel.

I came to realise the richness of the characterisation in the movie and even thinking of it now, a feeling of sadness for the characters and sympathy for their regrets arise from my stomach. This may be the same feeling I felt when I first watched the movie. And the theme music and scenes keep playing in my mind. Indeed a great movie.

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Sanctuary

Sanctuary, 2004

dir: Ho Yuhang

As I was saying to a friend, Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country but the Malaysian society is in fact very fragmented. Although we are made to believe that we are one nation, the three main races do not, in reality, mixes that well. Sometimes, it is a wonder to me on how these people can live in the same country, see each other daily at work and still know so little about each other.

SANCTUARY takes a look at the lives of a Malaysian Chinese family. It is popular myth that the Chinese in Malaysia is wealthy which is a basis for the New Economic Policy for weath distribution. I for one could not agree with this as I see with my own eyes how poor many Chinese family can be, and I come from one of these poor families. SANCTUARY put that on the big screen for all to see.

The story centers around a brother and a sister. The brother is a job hopper who can never find a permanent job and also sucks at gambling at the pool table. The sister works in a photocopy shop, that is evidently pirating textbooks. The grandpa lives in an old folks home, prefering to stay there to take care of another old woman instead of coming home to stay with his grandchildren. In fact, he seemed very much happy and contented playing and attending to the dog compared to with his grandchildren. The kiddo’s dad is dead, having been stupid and committed suicide. The connecting theme of these characters is that they are struggling to find their own sanctuary, a place where they can find peace, love and quietude. But can they find it? For me, I don’t think they can. In fact, I think they are doomed.

Throughout the movie, we see the characters looking for their sanctuary; the brother’s attempt to move to a motel is fruitless as the sound from the construction drilling annoyed him, the grandpa’s only peace is to look after the sick old woman but that soon has to come to an end, the sister’s solace in her brother turned out to have a dangerous romantic turn, well even the dead is not at peace as we still hear the construction drilling sound when the brother and sister visits their parents at the cemetery. So finally, where do they go? Maybe they are as doomed as their father. We see the number 4 appear at least three times in the movie. Number 4, in chinese, is synonymous with death. Is this their destiny?

The camera work is one of raw realism. Often times, on handheld, the camera follows the character and thus we always see the back of the character’s head. This technique gives us the feeling of watching the character from behind, seeing what he is seeing, and sometimes, a feeling of peeking into their lives, which indeed is what we are doing. In a scene in the cemetery, the camera went behind the joss sticks that and I get a feeling that I am the parents looking at my kiddos but can do nothing to help them find solace and peace and love. It is a very sad feeling. We see that the characters gets glimpses of richness, of what is “good” in the world via a radio commercial but all these seem so unreachable for the characters. For them, material comfort and cosmetic beauty will never be within their reach in this lifetime. But still, it challenges, even if one achieves material comfort and beauty, is that really a true sanctuary? If not, what is?

This seemingly “slow” movie is not for those who watches only INDIANA JONES and SPIDERMAN movies because this film is truly beyond them. It is beyond mass popcorn entertainment but if one has the patience to watch, feel for the characters and reflect, then the journey will be very rewarding.

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