Category Archives: Movie Review

Confucius the Movie

Well, Chow Yun Fat plays Confucius? Hmmm… I am confused. He will play Leon most excellently but Confucius? I was skeptical at first but after watching the movie, well, he is not too bad although I still feel that he doesn’t look like it. But it’s not a bad performance.

Confucius the movie is supposedly about the life and teachings of Confucius and all the trials and tribulations that he had to face in a society so brutal and hostile as the Spring and Autumn period in China (the time of Sun Tzu) which immediately precede the Warring States era, one of the most hostile era in Chinese history, until Shih Huang Ti unified all the states and formed the Qin dynasty, the first Unified Chinese dynasty as they more or less appear today, albeit expanded later (and where the name China supposedly came – or is it supposed to be Qina? hmmm).

To now realize that a person as Confucius to be able to preach and practice the idea of a “Gentleman”, the “Superior Man”, based on the ethical theories of rites and rituals, empathy and reciprocity (do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you), righteousness, etc. in an era of barbaric conquest is indeed something great. To put order back to a society so barren in order, to preach for the respect for people and trust and righteousness in an era where everybody is doing the opposite, these are great teachings indeed.

Of course, Confucius is no idiot as we can see in the movie. He is really good in archery and military deployments, and as we can also hear from the dialogue, he is well versed with Sun Tzu’s Art of War too (although I am not sure if he is really so – but I think a person of his learning, he would have known) – e.g. quotes from the Nine Terrains chapter is obvious.

So did the movie live up to its expectations? To many people, the movie seems slow and it dragged on and on. At a certain time in the movie, I find myself looking at my watch, which is not a good sign and I do feel the same, the movie is a bit draggy, and unnecessarily so. One could easily think of the movie A BATTLE OF WITS (which I talked about here). In that movie, we see yet another philosophy, Mo Tzu’s Mohism, in action. Mo Tzu’s time is after Confucius, and the peace-loving nature of that philosophy is similar to Confucius although the similarity ends there. Mo Tzu disagreed with Confucius’ hierarchical society and over attachment to rites and rituals and instead preached a philosophy of universal love where everyone is equal.

The production quality of the movie is very good and given the big budget movies nowadays (there is so much money in China for production!), high production quality is a given nowadays. Anyways, I would think that this is a good movie to go to if you would like to know a bit about Confucius and his life but if you already know about him, there is nothing much that this movie can offer. Maybe you would just want to watch it because it is a movie about Conficius and that it is quite a good production. But beware of the yawns.

There is something missing from the movie, and I think that is a smooth narrative flow and purpose. After the movie, what I felt was the movie is like a pictorial slideshow just to showcase Confucius’ teachings, and for that, the movie felt artificial. So if you want to go and watch it, go only for four reasons, 1. You want to know something about Confucius and knows next to nothing about him, 2. You like historical movies and likes well produced movies, 3. You are a huge Chow Yun Fat fan, 4. You’ve got nothing better to do and got lots of cash.

Other than that, don’t.

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Vengeance

Finally managed to find some time to go and watch VENGEANCE, the new Johnnie To movie. One could not but think of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy (SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, OLD BOY and SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE) and make mental notes.

However, I feel that Johnnie To’s motive is not the same as Park’s also touching on the same subject. Johnnie To is more inclined to make visually stunning movies, cool movies. Watch SPARROW. What a cool movie it is. Johnnie’s movies are more about brotherhood and honour, about being cool, about “Yi Hei”, which reminds one of John Woo’s brotherhood movies such as A BETTER TOMORROW, only that Johnnie’s films are more extravagantly cool looking (the killer’s black raincoat uniform even though it was not raining, the cigarette smoking scene in SPARROW, the umbrella scenes in both SPARROW and VENGEANCE, the bicycle shooting scene in VENGEANCE, etc. etc.)

In fact, Johnnie’s films has always been cool. The scenes always so idiosyncratic and memorable (remember the shopping complex shoot-out scene in THE MISSION?).

So what is this VENGEANCE movie about? The plot is simple. Everything is in the execution. The topic of vengeance was not touched upon the way Park Chan-wook did. The movie is just about a family got killed by some killers and the wife’s father came and wanted revenge. And he himself hired killers to hunt his enemies down. That’s all. But go watch and see for yourself how the film was shot.

By the way, Wong Kar Wai’s ASHES OF TIME REDUX is now showing in the GSC International screens.

Also, I watched UP and love it! Don’t miss UP.

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Movies

Ah, a post about movies. Have been wanting so long to write a post about movies. There are currently so many summer blockbusters in the cinema and one really is spoilt for choice. Big bang movie lovers love the summer movies, for all the visual extravaganza and entertainment, doesn’t matter mindless or not, so long as one is entertained for that couple of hours. Life is hard enough eh, so why not spend some hard earned money on some good fun entertainment. And there you have TRANSFORMERS, HARRY POTTER, ICE AGE, etc.

But for a true movie lover, ahem, or movie snobs, movies like TRANSFORMERS can rarely satisfy them. I for one must admit that I enjoyed the fun in TRANSFORMERS, the visual and especially sound effects, all the running with extra focus on Megan Fox’s upper body, etc. But truly, in terms of substance, what is there in the movie? There is hardly any new ideas, nothing to stimulate thoughts and feelings (except perhaps for the extra adrenaline pump).

But contra this to DEPARTURES. Not many people in the movie hall though but all those who went, I believe, took home with them a certain thought, a certain feeling. Yes, the movie does not have big bangs and loud sound effects and stunning graphical effects, but what it has is something that touches us more deeply into our heart. A message that penetrates our being. It is like eating a really nice dinner compared to eating fast food.

I think I have mentioned before in a post about TOKYO TOWER that one feels like giving our parents a call right after watching the movie. Japanese movies have this kind of effect on me. It really touches me deep. Yes, I do love movies by European filmmakers, for example, but Japanese movies moves me a lot more. A family drama in the tradition of Ozu, DEPARTURES tells not only about family issues but also opens our eyes to a rarely, if ever, touched upon subject matter.

The performance is first class (oh the so cute and lovely Ryoko Hirosue whom I last seen in BUBBLE FICTION, – who is Megan Fox compared to her? Nobody!). The music is superb, with a very strong focus on the cello and we see Pablo Casals’ records everywhere.

It’s a wonderful movie and I hope that you would have seen it before it leaves the cinema. It will be a great treat for yourself and whomever you bring along to watch the movie.

On another note, I think I owe SELL OUT! a short write up here although I have commented on the movie on Facebook when an ex colleague in TGV asked me what I felt about the movie. As I have said in the Facebook post, SELL OUT! is a bold movie. It refuses to follow the more traditional “Malaysian” movies’ footsteps. It criticizes but done in quite an amusing way (although I only really laughed at the opening scene of the movie). It is sort of a musical and may put some people off (I remember watching EVITA and overheard someone at the back saying “oh my god, they are singing throughout the movie! aren’t they gonna say anything??”.) But don’t worry, there are dialogues in SELL OUT!

Anyways, for whatever its shortcomings, the movie did successfully interpret the many ills and problems with our society in quite an unconventional way and this deserves praise. We need more filmmakers that dares to get out of the box.

A side note, SELL OUT! was produced by my ex-company, ASTRO SHAW and for whatever insider stories I have heard about it, from the making to the marketing to the distribution, kudos will have to be given to the boss (I think it was Ralph Marshall’s call) for supporting filmmakers like this.

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The Battle of Chibi

The Battle of Chibi (or Red Cliff) is a decisive and important battle that led to the solidification of the Three Kingdoms, the historical period between around 180AD and 280AD following the demise of the Han Dynasty. Cao Cao rose to power in the Northern court, ruling over the puppet Emperor and by around 208, Cao Cao decided to march South and unite China by defeating his arch-enemies, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. This marching of the south campaign was when the Battle of Chibi happened and Cao Cao’s decisive defeat in this battle created the north-south divide and the division of China into three kingdoms, Wei (Cao Cao), Shu (Liu Bei) and Wu (Sun Quan).

The stories of this Three Kingdom period have been widely told, whether in Chinese opera or in literature and the most famous of them all is Lo Guanzhong’s “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Lo borrowed some historical material and romanticised the story, often exaggerating the characters especially that of Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhuge Liang and adding romance and magic (especially that of Zhuge Liang) to the story. John Woo joined the fray and made RED CLIFF and I was at the media screening today.

I have high expectations for RED CLIFF and I have been waiting for this movie for quite some time. This is what I thought after watching the movie:

1. I like the portrayal of the character of Zhou Yu, played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai. It showed him to be quite a personality, a great strategist with a great heart. This is unlike what is portrayed in Lo’s novel (although the movie draws a lot from the novel) and RED CLIFF is successful in avoiding the myopia created by Lo. However, I didn’t think that the bandaging part done with his wife, Xiao Ciao (played by the beautiful Lin Chi-ling) warrants such an extended screen time.

2. I thought that the movie dealt with some strategical aspect of the war quite well, in a way that the general audience can relate to.

What I didn’t like:

1. The main characters are over-played. I understand that the director would like each character to have very distinct personality but at the end, what we felt about the characters is this: Liu Bei (loser), Zhuge Liang (gay), Zhang Fei (clown), you get it? Yes, these characters are very strong, for example, I took greatest offense on the portrayal of Zhang Fei. He is a very brave, smart but sometimes loud person but the movie made him look so clumsy, stupid and stubborn. Another example is Liu Bei. He is a stateman who has a great heart for people and citizens, and that is the reason why great people like Zhuge Liang and Guan Yu followed him. But in this movie, this aspect of him has been so thoroughly exploited, he looked weak, meek, and a loser.

2. The movie sometimes look like a rip-off from a computer game, especially so the opening of the movie. The CGI work put me off initially but luckily the strength of the story pulled me back in.

3. The battle scene with the cavalry involving the Bagua formation is rather disappointing. I do not mean the execution of the scene, which is alright but the logic of it. Why would the commander risks the life of his greatest generals and put them to fight with the enemy troops while he still has many of his soldiers capable of surrounding and killing the enemy, especially so if the Bagua formation is so successful? To further exaggerate it, the commander, i.e. Zhou Yu, put his own life in jeopardy as well. This logic didn’t click with me.

Overall, I don’t think this is a bad movie but instead, I thought it is rather good, except that it can be better, for me at least. Also, the movie is in two parts and we can only watch the second part some time in December 08, so this is not much fun, even if I already know the story and how it concludes.

Ok then, initial top line thoughts. I think I will go and watch this movie again and maybe will comment about it more then.

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SEPI Comments

Sepi, 2008

dir: Kabir Bhatia

[There may be spoilers, so read on if you don’t mind]

I don’t know Kabir Bhatia personally but I have a feeling that he is a Wong Kar Wai fan. From his first movie CINTA to now this brand new movie SEPI, I cannot but feel the Wong Kar Wai in his movies. I may be over sensitive but dialogs like “expiry date of love”, running it off when one is down on love and the BLUEBERRY NIGHT shot between Baizura Kahar and Pierre Andre just jumps out. Anyways, Wong Kar Wai is a master when it comes to the theme of love and loneliness, so if this is taken as a tribute to him, then is is well justified.

SEPI, like CINTA, is made up of several different stories linked up by one event (sounds very WKW huh?). Okay, okay, enough of WKW references. Unlike CINTA that is made up of 5 seperate stories, SEPI is made up of only three. I thought quite highly of CINTA and naturally I have quite a high expectations of SEPI. Both movies are about love but the producer made it very clear upfront that the two movies are not related in any ways.

The stories in SEPI deal with lost and loneliness, but then it is also about love found and second chances in love. To me, it is also about love at first sight which I also believe to be the most impactful and strongest type of love there is, whether it is puppy love or not. By strongest, I do not necessarily mean strongest in terms of bonds or love to eternity type but more on the strongest assault on one’s heart there is. All three stories involve a love triangle, which again, to me, is the most real type of situation many people faces in real life, and is the most complicated of all.

The first story is about finding your true love and sticking to your heart. The second story is about love lost and found and the third story is about knowing what love means.

Afdlin Shauki plays Adam in the first story and his delivery is always on the dot. Unable to find his true love, he remained single until one day, the scent of a flower brings him to meet this woman, Ilyana played by the ever so beautiful Vanida Imran. To complicate things, Ilyana is already engaged before she met Adam and Adam has a very fierce admirer, Suzie – played by Nasha Aziz, whom he eventually promised to marry after knowing that Ilyana is already no longer available since she must honour her promise. This brings us to a very delicate scene where we see Afdlin in his very emotional self and a subtle scene where he looks at a sympathetic little girl with tears welling in his eyes. That is just a superb moment in the movie. With this, Adam is back to square one, a lonely person all over again. All sepi again.

Eja plays Marya in the second story, the story which I think is the strongest of all three and has the best conclusion to it. Sufi, played by Tony Eusoff, just lost his beloved wife in an accident and could not let go of his sense of guilt. He runs and runs so that he can run away from reality until one day he met Marya at the park. Love at first sight, sparks everywhere, but unfortunately, Marya is already a married woman. She craves for a child but so far, God has not given the couple any yet. Marya’s husband, Zain played by Riezman Khuzaimi, sells fish and is having financial difficulties. In a moment of losing his sense, Sufi tried to buy Marya from him but later, after knowing that Marya is pregnant, Sufi got to his senses and secretly helped out the family financially. Although Marya’s heart is with Sufi, she has to stick with Zain for the good of their child and after many, many years, we see Marya in her old age, and looked for Sufi in the park where they first met but is met by Sufi’s only child who told her that Sufi has passed away. Before he died, he told him to return something to Marya, and this something is the memento of their first love. A beautiful story.

The third story is set in a college where a young, brash and confident kid, Ean played by Syed Hussein, falls at first sight for Imaan, played by Baizura Kahar. Ean is good looking and is thrilled by the strong character of Imaan who didn’t fall on her feet like other girls do. In fact, she criticized him for lacking in the sense of artistic appreciation and said that he is a horrible stage actor. Challenged, Ean begin to want to know Imaan more and to also want to learn how to act. Through a series of encounters, Ean begin to truly fall in love with Imaan and Imaan begin to have strong feelings for Ean too. However, Imaan already has a boyfriend, Khalif played by Piere Andre, for whom she can do anything for, let alone getting rid of Ean. She proceeded to ignore Ean and in times of loneliness, Ean begin to understand what love is, what loneliness is and acted it out in the stage with this understanding. Imaan went to a celebration party after the show but saw Khalif outside. Afraid that Khalif will misunderstand, she rushes out but is met with an event that will change her life forever and bring her back to reality. There is a twist at the end which I will not divulge here.

Overall, although I would prefer that the director actually leave the stories as they are instead of showing us the candy eye endings, they are pretty good stories themselves. In real life, things are not as sweet as the ending of the stories in this movie and many people have gone through days of extremely loneliness and still not being able to find their love, let alone true love. Things are a lot more complicated and the final outcome of a relationship is most often not the one that is the sweetest. This is one reason why ASHES OF TIME is so great. Like in a lyrics of one Chinese song, “If this is the best conclusion, why are you still always in my mind?”.

Sepi will be in the cinemas on the 26th of June nationwide.

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Man of Marble

Man of Marble, 1977

(Czlowiek z marmuru)

dir: Andrzej Wajda

Halfway into this movie, three things come to my mind. First is Citizen Kane. Second is Mao Tse-dong and third is Amir Muhammad. Of course many other things got my mind to work, and movies like this one is great because it sets my mind free. It let’s me ponder on history, philosophy, politics, economics, film techniques, aesthetics, all at once. And by this, I mean real history, real politics, not some imagined settings which are not only biased but totally wrong.

There are not many Polish directors that are well known. One can actually count them with one hand. Roman Polanski is Polish but I don’t consider his movies really Polish, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Krzysztof Zanussi. Anymore that one knows, one then can be considered a learned world movie buff (actually there are a couple more names that should be quite familiar to people who digs world movies). These bunch of directors made some really interesting and good movies, including Polanski. Here’s a sample:

Polanski: KNIFE IN THE WATER; THE PIANIST (non-Polish films: ROSEMARY’S BABY; CHINATOWN)

Kieslowski: THE DECALOGUE; Three Colours trilogy; NO END

Wajda: ASHES AND DIAMONDS; A GENERATION; LANDSCAPE AFTER BATTLE; MAN OF MARBLE

Holland: EUROPA, EUROPA; A WOMAN ALONE

Zanussi: YEAR OF THE QUIET SUN; CAMOUFLAGE; POSSESSION

In fact, Wajda’s new film, KATYN, actually made it to the nominee list in the recent Oscars, so one should be quite familiar with him (in fact, I was offered the acquisition of the rights to KATYN and THE DECALOGUE plus a few other Polish movies, so stay tuned to the channel).

MAN OF MARBLE is about a young lady, Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), who is making her diploma film and picks a subject that interests her but the “authorities” would rather forget (reminds me of Amir Muhammad). Told in the CITIZEN KANE style, her subject is a person, Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a bricklayer who has been identified by the authorities to be used as propaganda tool to show the people the power of the labourers and the potential growth and prosperity of the nation under Stalinist rule. However, Birkut soon fell into disfavour and is then conveniently forgotten. Agnieszka is interested to know what happened to Birkut and went all out to look for witnesses and the people involved to get a true picture of this once hero. As she went further into the investigation, the authorities put an end to her work and stopped her from using the camera and films. Once steely and determined, we finally see her breaking down in the presence of her father who encouraged her to go locate where Birkut is now. Encouraged, she found his son and got to know what happened to Birkut.

This film is a study on the Polish society under Stalinist rule and how they manipulate and create icons and idols to support their political agenda. We see the same thing happening in Communist China under Mao Tse-dong as well, where a particular common citizen is chosen to be the example to the whole country. Sometimes, whole towns are made model-towns for propaganda purposes. Propaganda songs are sung everywhere (one particular song actually mentioned Malaysia, I think it is talking about Ching Peng’s struggle in Malaya – that gives an idea on what era this film is set). At the end, Wadja showed us how he reconstructed a made icon and found a man whose only objective is to be honest and work for the welfare of the people but is a sad victim of political propaganda and agenda, and then had to live a broken life which he didn’t really recover from.

Wajda is widely acknowledged as to be the forerunner of a new generation of Polish filmmakers after the second world war and shortly after Stalin’s death, made his first movie A GENERATION. The movie is a marked move away from the propagandist films made before and Wajda continued to push the boundaries further and further with his next movies such ASHES AND DIAMONDS. Together with Zanussi, they sort of started a movement called “Cinema of Moral Concern” with the expressed objective of morally examining modern Polish history and and modern Polish life.

MAN OF MARBLE is a truly fascinating film. Watch it if you can and if you are interested in history, politics, movies, you will love this film.

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Kungfu Movies

The Forbidden Kingdom, 2008

dir: Rob Minkoff

To start with, I have extremely low expectations of this movie. In fact, I have waited until yesterday to watch the movie, and I wouldn’t have gone to watch it if not for the complimentary passes. The channel did a joint promotion for this movie, due mainly to our good relationship with both the distributors, one of which is our sister company. But the main reason why I decided to do a tie up is because I know this movie will appeal to our main target audience, especially with Jet Li being so popular with this customer group, and with this tie up, it is a reward to our loyal customers. Indeed, it is true. The majority of the people in the cinema yesterday are Malays. And they really enjoyed it, as far as I can tell from the yells and the “Yes!”.

The funny thing is, I enjoyed it as well and thought quite highly of this movie. Maybe it is because of the low expectations. I find this movie an honest fan-boy tribute to kungfu movies. It is at once quite well made, with good-humoured and like-able characters, charming acting from both Jet Li (as Silent Monk and Monkey King) and Jackie Chan (as Lu Yan and Old Hop), superbly beautiful girls-with-weapons to kill (Li Bing Bing as Ni Chang and Liu Yifei as Golden Sparrow) while Michael Angarano is not bad too as Jason Tripitikas although his overly abundant chest hair can get a bit annoying.

It is quite nice to see familiar characters reappearing on screen – Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master and scene reminiscent although a bit short on the training on the horse stance, the Bride with White Hair (Ni Chang) – Wow! Li Bing Bing is soooo beautiful and charismatic – I wouldn’t mind her playing a sequel or prequel to THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, Cheng Pei Pei’s Golden Swallow – again, Liu Yifei is extremely beautiful too and same-same, I wouldn’t mind having her in a prequel/sequels/remake of COME DRINK WITH ME, the Monkey King etc. Weave all these together based on the story of the Monkey King, we have a well made fantasy-action-comedy movie.

How about the action and the fighting? The action choreography is directed by Yuen Wo Ping afterall. With Jet Li and Jackie Chan promising a duel, the action sequences should be top class, what more, with Peter Pau as the cinematographer ensuring that we see the actions well played out. The final result is that it is nothing much to shout about albeit fun to watch, and the various fighting sequences with the Tiger, Snake, Hawk methods is quite nice and reminds me of my own childhood where I was captivated and mesmerised by these Kungfu Stance and methods I took it on myself to perfect the snake stance, practicing with my dad who is a Chin Woo Martial Arts member.

All in all, this movie reminds me of the good old days where we, as kids, are captivated by kungfu movies. Watching this movie, I think to myself, “indeed it has been a long time”.

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Attack Station

Attack the Gas Station!, 1999

(Juyuso seubgyuksageun)

dir: Kim Sang-Jin

The Korean New Cinema begins with movies like this one. They are unconventional, edgy and stimulating. Box Office takings soar, film exports increased and artistes get recognition at international festivals. As time goes by, Korean movies became more and more formulaic and thus getting more and more boring and unimaginative. The production quality has improved, no doubts, but the creative quality has gone down a mile.

The year 1999 is an important year for Korean cinema. It is the year where Koreans flock the cinemas and kick started the revival of the Korean movie box office hit phenomena. The movie that led this was SHIRI which eventually beat TITANIC at the box office but that same year also saw the release of TELL ME SOMETHING and ATTACK OF THE GAS STATION! The year also marked the release of critically acclaimed movies such as NOWHERE TO HIDE and MEMENTO MORI.

ATTACK THE GAS STATION! is a black comedy and is set in the course of one night, like Johnnie To’s PTU. It also reminds one of movies like Guy Ritchie’s LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS. Four friends, each with their own dark history, got bored and decided to rob a gas station. They have actually robbed the station the night before but since they are so bored, they decided to do it again. However, the station’s boss is smarter this time and hid the cash.

Seeing that there is not much money in the till, they put the boss and his teenage employees captive and run the station themselves under the direction of their leader (played by Lee Sung-Jae). Clumsy as they are since they do not know how to pump gas, they manage to get some cash out of the station’s customers, and in the course of doing so, also kidnapped customers that annoys them.

The situation becomes more chaotic when local gangs are involved and the four guys, who are all excellent fighters, made captive of these gangsters. By now, you will imagine what it is like in the room where all these people are held captive, the station employees, the arrogant customers and local gangsters, one of whom has a grudge against one of the station employees. It is quite a spectacle to see the shift in power among the captives which is at once comical but is so true to human behaviour.

Then the four guys decided to order Chinese food and got the delivery boy involved in the chaos. The delivery boy felt that he was insulted and gathered his big gang of delivery boys to teach them a lesson. Here, we see the role of the “lower” income group/blue collar workers in affecting the politics of the country, that is if you wish to see this as a metaphor and commentary on the state of the Korean society.

The final scene is a huge ensemble of gangsters, delivery boys as well as cops and the standoff is comical. Of course, the four guys got away and the incident was then forgotten but the movie sticks in my mind. The shooting style and look and feel is edgy, one cannot but see the decay of youth and the rise of the lower income class and all these within a movie that many will consider comedy. Movies like this one makes my heart pump faster and leaves me feeling refreshed. They make me love the movies more. It is very satisfying.

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Iron Man

Iron Man, 2008

dir: Jon Favreau

IROM MAN is hugely popular with many people. In fact, last checked, the IMDB registered a 8.4/10 ratings based on 20,305 votes. Some people even equated it with BATMAN BEGINS. Luckily I have yet to read anyone equating it to SPIDERMAN 2. I have high regards for both BATMAN BEGINS and SPIDERMAN 2.

To be honest, this is quite an entertaining Hollywood blockbuster movie to kick start the “summer”. It has all the ingredients, the typical Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell in his seminal book, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”, a thumping soundtrack, superb visual effects, romantic moments, etc. But it is just that, popcorn entertainment.

Popcorn entertainment, however, can be dangerous if some people tries to read too much into the movie and could not differentiate fictional entertainment with the real world. If we use what is happening in the real world as a measure of how real the movie is, the movie is far from real. In the real world, the villain is the USA since they are the ones supplying the weapons to Afghanistan to fight the Russians. They are also the ones that supplied Iraq with weapons to fight Iran. In fact, they pretty much supplied all the problems in the hot spots around the world, just like Brendan Fraser’s character in THE QUIET AMERICAN, or the economic equivalent as described in the book Confessions of an Economic Hitman written by John Perkins.

Ok, let’s steer clear of all the holes in the misleading reality that it tries to portray but what about holes in the story? I just have a couple of plot questions:

1. If the “bad guys” or the terrorists from the Ten Rings can easily buy the Jericho missiles as shown later in the film from the inside-man in Stark Industries, why then supply Tony Stark with all the firepower and equipment etc. to build one, knowing that he is a genius and can basically blow his way out of the hole? They even failed to properly supervise him because to anyone who has some IQ, what Tony Stark is building is obviously not a missile, and we are not talking about people who knows nothing about weapons but terrorists who have stocks of advanced weapons at their disposals. I am therefore not convinced at all and to me it is just a necessary thing to do to facilitate the story flow.

2. Later in the movie, if the inside-man is double dealing and supplying the weapons to the terrorists, why then he later kills all of them? Who then is going to buy the super-suits from him except the USA maybe? So then it defeats the double-dealing, fast money motive. By killing the terrorist, he is in fact killing his customers. Why would one kill their own customers? You think other terrorists around the world will now want to deal with this guy? If he is afraid that the terrorist will be powerful beyond control, he can easily build a devise where he can blow up those suits at will, or something like that.

I may have missed some plot twists but based on what I saw, I am not convinced by the plot.

By the way, Jericho is a town in the West Bank and has a chapter in the Bible, so if people really wants to read this film, go read this up and think what this means. Tell our censors this and they may start to ban the movie. Good luck!

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Seventeen Years

Seventeen Years, 1999

(Guo Nian Hui Jia)

dir: Zhang Yuan

It is always easy to want to read a movie and this is even more tempting if the movie is from a country that imposes stringent censorship laws and thus a lot of “messages” cannot be explicitly shown on the screen. Zhang Yuan is widely considered as the fore-runner of the new Chinese Underground movie-makers with his first docu-movie MAMA in 1992 and followed that up with the provocative BEIJING BASTARDS the next year. Together with Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye and Wang Xiaoshuai, they are now widely regarded as the pillars of China’s 6th Generation filmmakers.

However, watching SEVENTEEN YEARS is a different experience compared to watching BEIJING BASTARDS. In fact, EAST PALACE WEST PALACE is already different as the movie feels more formal and better produced, marking an end to extreme low budget production.

His latest movie, LITTLE RED FLOWERS, is similarly well produced and actually had its theatrical run in Kuala Lumpur but I doubt many have actually gone to watch it, due a lot to the lack of publicity as well as support from the media and movie reviewers. It is easy to read a lot of things from this very simple movie as well but I will leave my commentary of this movie for another post focusing on just that movie.

SEVENTEEN YEARS is about a person who has lost 17 years of her prime age in prison, from being a teenager and then released from jail in her thirties. These precious years are lost just for the sake of 5 Yuan. It happens in a family where the parents are both from a divorced family and brings to their new marriage a daughter from the previous marriage. We are then shown that both parents love their own daughter more than the other and to add to the tension, both sisters are not really in good terms with each other.

The daddy’s girl (Yu Xiaoqin played by Li Yun) studies hard and looks very decent while the mummy’s girl (Tao Lin played by Liu Lin) is brash and tomboyish and wishes to work in a factory. However, an unfortunate incident involving 5 yuan (about RM2.50) puts Tao Lin in jail for apparently killing Yu Xiaoqin and after 17 years, she is allowed to return to her family for a short holiday to celebrate Chinese New Year. The film reaches this point fairly quickly but the best part of the film is what follows.

A young and good hearted prison captain brings Tao Lin home as after so many years in jail, she has no idea how things worked. Her parents have been informed but they didn’t turn up to pick her from the station. So the captain took pains to locate the parents as all the old Hutongs have been demolished to give way to modern development.

The new dwelling was finally found but the young captain was made to witness a family drama so intense, it shocked her. Can the step father forgive her? Can she forgive herself? Did she steal the 5 yuan? What actually happened?

We the audience are treated to something rare in cinema, the portrayal of human emotion so intense, the players don’t have to act so as to act. The acting is so believable, so un-bombastic (give this to any Hollywood actors/actresses and I guarantee they will blow it by making the characters look so emotionally bombastic!), it strikes a chord in our heart and we feel the characters.

For me, this is one of the best movies that has come out of China, such a little film but so emotionally powerful. Well executed, well directed, well scripted. Neat! For me, this is cinema as perfect as can be.

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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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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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