Category Archives: Movie Review

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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