06/30/2009

“HAUSU!!!”: The New York Asian Film Festival 2009 Part 1

by Matthew Hawkins

Guess it’s about time I actually filed a NYAFF report! Which thus far has been pretty amazing; I know I say that every year, but each edition simply manages to top itself. And I’m saying this now with the fest not over yet, along with a few clunkers under it’s belt. So happens the really good movies have been REALLY good, some of the finest movies I’ve seriously seen in years. Unfortunately, all this movie watching has left me precious little time to collect my thoughts, so instead of writing about 12 movies all at once (with plenty more to come) how about just the first couple for now…

Gehara: The Long-Haird Giant Monster/Monster X Strikes Back: Attack The G8 Summit

To kick things off, a kaiju double-header! First up we have the seventeen-minute long Gehara, which was originally produced for Japanese television earlier this year and directed by an up and comer who?s insanely young (I think he’s like in mid twenties or something crazy like that). Long story short… literally… is about a giant monster that first appears in the ocean and takes out boats and tourists by the seaside, becoming an instant point of fascination for the Japanese public, including a savvy news reporter who senses the story of the year, provided he can get the inside scoop. But once he comes to tear shit up on the mainland, that wonder turns into fear as everyone starts running for their lives, especially when all attempts at taking him down are completely futile. With the biggest problem being it’s long locks of hair; aside from providing protection, whenever anything combustible hits it, a noxious gas is released. So basically, the smell of burnt hair but about a million times worse.

If most of what I described seems standard fare, aside from the longhair part of course, well, it is. And that’s the point; it’s every single beat and trope from every single giant monster movie from Japan, boiled down to it’s purest essential. In other words, Godzilla/Gamaera/wahtever: the cliff notes version. Why bother with some long-winded scientistic explanation, just flat out state that the monster is the result of man’s ignorance towards and abuse of the environment without the details and simply get it over with? It honestly makes you wonder why every single big monster movie, especially the crappier ones, simply can’t be so to the point. Though certainly helping things out here is the stellar cast and stellar special f/x; there’s a tinge hinge of CGI here and there, but for the most part, it’s a guy in a suit stomping on models, the way God intended it to be.

Next we have the feature presentation, Monster X Strikes Back, directed by Minoru Kawasaki, whose past body of work includes Calamari Wrestler, Crab Goalkeeper, and Executive Koala, and anyone familiar with those will know precisely what to expect: wacky! The story goes something like this: a gigantic monster crash-lands in Japan and starting wrecking havoc, naturally. Coincidentally, the G8 summit is also taking place at the same time, but instead of putting the proceedings on hold and heading back home where it’s safe and sound as it’s been advised, all the leaders of the mightiest nations on earth decide to stick around and figure out a way to end this menace from outer space. Because, aside from saving Japan and potentially the world, which is important and all, whomever has the winning plan will become a God among men (or women) back home, politically speaking. And thus we have the bulk of the film, all the world leaders trying to figuring out their plans of attacks and occasionally throwing jabs at each other, most of which are on a racist and hilarious side. Everyone except for Japan, whose leader is painted as a flat-out pacifistic coward, and who also ends up bowing out early on due stomach issues. Also, the leader of France can’t be bothered, since he’s too busy trying to lay his translator.

I can’t comment on the non-Japanese actors that portray the leaders of the free world as a whole, but I will say that those that speak English, specifically the heads of America, Canadian, and the UK are not exactly the greatest actors in the world, just random dudes in Japan that happen to speak English and who were available for dirt cheap I’m guessing (though you’d think that they’d at least be able to find someone who could attempt to fake a British accent for the prime minister role). Yet they are not without their charm; the dude who plays the American president personifies much of everyone loves, and hates, about the 50 states, and despite being an idiot, was charming nonetheless (due in part to how he wasn’t a complete moron) and I actually found myself rooting for the guy! Though as one might expect, none of their plans work, and each progressively makes the situation worse, by either making Monster X (otherwise known as Guilala, a name coined by a kid who literally appears from out of nowhere, and that the adults adopt of course) stronger or just more aggressive. Midway through the film, the former Japanese prime minister, whom everyone loves more than his successor shows up, and everyone’s happy, till he suggests an option that shocks the hell out of everyone, at least considering Japan’s sordid past. But… and not to give anything away, but this isn’t Citizen Kane or anything, plus the following is actually given away in the official trailer for the NYAFF… turn out, it’s not the former Japanese head of state that everyone knows and respect but the crackpot leader of North Korea that we all know and love in disguise! Meanwhile, during all this, there’s a subplot involving two reporters trying to get the inside scoop, since the government has decided to strictly control all flow of information regarding the incident. Eventually it’s revealed that there’s this small village in the mountain that worships a great warrior in the sky who alone has the power to abolish Guilala, which leads into one of the more inventive cinematic cameos of all time. Anyhow, similar to Gehara, Monster X Strikes Back is yet another loving tribute to the big, bad monster movies from Japan’s golden age of cinema. The featured kaiju here is actually from The X From Outer Space, originally filmed in 1967 (even some of the footage from the first movie is recycled), and might be the most ridiculous looking giant rubber monster in cinematic history. Which is why it’s so awesome; you basically kinda have to be a hardcore fan of such stuff to really enjoy yourself, but it’s still a nice, little goofy ride for everyone else.

… Afterward, a guy from Media Blasters said a few words, who will be releasing Monster X Strikes Back under their Tokyo Shock imprint in the coming month. He also came to discuss other projects, specifically Death Kappa, another rubber suited kaiju flick that’s currently being filmed; it’s being directed by Tomoo Haraguchi, who is considered the Rick Baker of Japan, and we all got to watch a brief behind the scenes clip, including a few words from the director. The monster is based upon the cute little turtle dude that has a shell on the top of his head, for those of you familiar with Japanese mythology and ghosts. Well, this time he’s huge and evil and is going to crush all of Japan in model form. Looked promising! The representative also answered a few questions, which led to a few interesting revelations, like how sequels to The Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police are in the works! As well as how a lot of what’s been incorporated in those movies thus far have been designed to appeal to Western tastes (which has obviously worked since they’ve proven to be such big hits), such as ninjas and schoolgirl outfits (the Japanese also have a thing for school girls, but they could honestly give a rat’s ass about ninjas as a whole). It was also mentioned that they’re re-releasing Ichii the Killer on Blu-ray, along with various Shaw Brothers classics, in glorious high-definition, plus there’s even a store in New Jersey where assorted props from Tokyo Gore Police are on-hand, including the pussy chair! Gotta make a trip out one of these days…

Ip Man

Pop quiz: who?s the most influential and famous face of martial arts of all time? Easily, Bruce Lee. Okay, whose right behind him? Ip Man (pronounced Yip Man btw) of course, the grand master of Wing Chung martial arts, and Bruce Lee’s mentor. And here we have a bio-pic that traces his early years in China, before venturing forth to Hong Kong to teach his ways to students and transforming the world of kung fu forever. Some important details right up front: Yi Man stars Donnie Yen, noted martial arts actor, producer, director, and fight choreographer, though we have the equally talented and esteemed Sammo Hung taking care of that last part for this particular movie. On paper at least, it would seem that Yi Man is practically the perfect martial arts spectacular, right? Thankfully the final product manages to not only meet one’s high expectations, but exceed them magnificently; things kick off in the city of Foshan, located in Mainland China, circa the 1930s. The local economy is thriving thanks to the kung fu craze that has swept the nation, with numerous martial arts “clubs” offering to teach people the ultimate way of the fist, though everyone knows that there’s only truly grand master in town and it’s Ip Man. But instead of running a school, he simply chooses to lounge around his lush estate all day long, drinking tea and eating snacks, as well as hanging out with his wife and young son (it’s never really explained how he came to be so rich, but he clearly has money to burn when his brother shows up asking for seed money towards a cotton mill, which he receives without hesitation). Though every once in a while someone will stop by to test their skills against his, which Ip Man is always more than happy to oblige; early on some out of town ruffian arrives and beats the crap out of every teacher from every school in the city, to prove to everyone that he’s the top dog, so when said tough guy eventually opens his own school, the list of students should be nice and long. Eventually, the locals implore Ip Man to help redeem the good name of Foshen, even the head of the police; it’s established near the beginning that this guy absolutely loathes martial artists since he feels it’s an old and barbaric means of handling conflict, whereas he’s a thoroughly modern, 20th Century fellow.

But the good times don’t last forever, as WW2 spills into the happy little town and the Japanese wreck havoc; Ip Man and his family lose it all and effectively become homeless, much like everyone else in town. Eventually he has to get a job, which lands him a gig shoveling coal (the dude running the operation has a soft spot for martial artists, btw), and despite the harsh fall from grace, Ip Man remains resilient and optimistic since he at least still has his family. Though that policeman from before makes a return appearance with a bunch of Japanese officers as their translator and explains that anyone who wishes to demonstrate their fighting acumen to their overlords will earn one bag of rice, which is a good amount of food. Yet Ip Man couldn’t be bothered, until a friend who accepted the offer doesn’t return the next day. We discover that there’s this fighting tournament organized by a Japanese top dog to demonstrate how Japanese martial arts is supposedly superior to Chinese martial arts. Unfortunately the Chinese martial artists are no match for their Japanese opponents, except for Ip Man of course, who at one point, out of anger over the untimely death of said pal, decides to take on ten Japanese at once. I’m sure you’ve all seen a movie where one guy takes on an army all by himself and it’s generally on the silly side, whereas here it’s never been so extremely plausible and realistic. Perhaps it should come to little surprise that the Japanese general is supremely impressed and wants Ip Man to share his secrets, as to make Japan the ultimate martial arts army, but he ain’t having any of that, so Ip Man goes into hiding. Meanwhile, we also discover that he’s brother’s cotton plant is still operational, but they’re being terrorized by a gang, led by the hooligan from before, and it’s up to Ip Man to teach everyone how to defend themselves, despite the fact that he’s never been a actual teacher. As his brother points out, it was one thing to deny people such knowledge during peaceful times, but with the entire nation of China’s back against the walls… Many valuable lessons like that one are learned throughout the film, and Ip Man is in many ways a bit on the formulaic side; the movie doesn’t break any new narrative ground, nor are there any fancy/wacky new kung fu moves or maneuvers introduced to the world either, but that’s totally fine. The whole thing is simply a textbook example of how to do a martial arts movie properly. And much of it’s awesomeness is primarily due to Donnie Yen; I’ve always liked the guy, but he’s always been a bit on the stiff side in everything I’ve seen (though I have yet to catch the one where he plays some wacky breakdancing cop I’m afraid), though in Ip Man he exhibits the absolute perfect mix of bad ass-ness and heart to make the legend seem very much real (even if much of the life story told here is apparently somewhat exaggerated) as well extremely likable. Can’t wait for the sequel, which is in production this very moment! Not only will it feature his star pupil, Bruce Lee, but Sammo Hung will have an onscreen role as a bad guy of some sort. Which will be shown at next year’s festival, hopefully.

… Unfortunately, the screening I went was not without incident; the film broke at least twice, maybe three times. And hey, that happens, but for some stupid reason, the people in the audience were all whiny bitches about it, especially this one asshole who acted like someone had peed in his hair. One of the Subway Cinema guys did his best to keep everyone nice and calm by talking about the movie plus answering questions (actually, it was mostly just me asking stuff to help kill time), while things were being taken care off. The deal is, these movies all get passed around from one film fest to the next, and whomever that had it before did not spool the film reel properly. So it totally wasn’t the Subway Cinema or IFC Center’s fault at all. Eventually the manager came out offering a full refund to anyone that wanted it AND two free courtesy passes, which was not just awesome but super generous, yet some people then became disgruntled over how the movie was getting close to being fixed and how they weren’t going to get their free passes. Jesus Christ, people sometimes. Anyhow, Ip Man should be coming out soon on DVD, via Dragon Dynasty I believe…

Crush And Blush

Not to go off topic, but speaking as a half Korean, I’ve never gone wild for Korean women, despite the fact that they are, imho, the most attractive of all the Asian girls out there (perhaps I’m biased, though I do believe they win in the “cute” category… yes, even beating out Japanese girls whom everyone generally believes are the cutest). Why? Because they’re nuts, and movies from Korea seem to constantly reinforce this negative, yet unfortunately truthful stereotype (which btw was first introduced into my head as a small child by my mother, who was also pretty insane herself). Crush And Blush, which was helmed by a first time woman director, is yet another fine cinematic example of how a girl’s worst enemy is other girls; the tale centers on Me-Sook, this extremely awkward girl who becomes so infatuated with a teacher from high school that she eventually becomes one herself, just to be around him as much as possible. Never mind that he’s already married. Me-Sook commands just as little respect as a teacher as her days as a student, mostly because she’s one piss poor excuse of an English instructor. Though it’s her face that turns bright red whenever she becomes angry, frustrated, or paranoid (which happens at the drop of a hat) that’s been the primary basis of all her woes. Anyway, the story kicks into high gear almost immediately when Me-Sook discovers that the man she’s wanted to swoon for such a long time is actually having an affair with another teacher, whose both a ditz and a player (she’s stringing along several other fellow employees). Oddly enough, Me-Sook finds an ally in a student, that being the daughter of the man she’s in love with. Upset over her family being torn apart, she gladly accepts Me-Sook’s offer to take this home wrecking bitch down, though she’s also obviously unaware of Me-Sook’s own feelings for her father. And they’re not exactly best buds since she also regards Me-Sook as a loser, which is a bit ironic considering that she herself is way down on the social rung among other students as well.

From there, the film runs at about hundred plus an hour and never slows down nor bats at eye; my favorite part would have to when both Me-Sook and accomplice decide to pose as the man of one’s dreams and dad online respectively, to initiate cyber sex with the ditz. Which already is pretty insane and creepy. Despite the fact that there’s an attraction, they have yet to seal the deal, so they figure that coming on hard and heavy would scare the harlot who still has yet to spread her legs and likes to act all virginal. Makes total sense, no? Unfortunately, the plan backfires and cybering ends up becoming a necessity to keep the charade going, but at least comedy also ensues! A million other things happen, like Me-Sook taking the wife’s belly dancing class to spy on her, or Me-Sook and daughter working on a routine for the school festival. Not that I’ve seen every stalker movie out there, but the best part about Crush And Blush is how it both defies convention, with either stuff happening well before you expect it or stuff that you just never saw coming, as well as how consistent the characters are portrayed. Me-Sook and the people around here are fairly reprehensible, and the film never shies away from this fact; when it comes to love and lust, people just do f’d up things, period. It’s by far one of the most uncomfortable yet extremely satisfying comedies to come in a long while, plus it’s a chick flick that I was actually able to tolerate, which I normally cannot. It plays again this Thursday, late in the afternoon, so catch it if you can.

… On a side note, Katie went to this particular screening with me, and considering how disappointing the ones that she attended last year ended up being, at least for her, I was more than a little revealed by how good Crush And Blush turned out. Then again, it still totally bites how her (and most everyone else) were not able to catch The Shadow Spirit back then. Also, it was at this movie that I won one of the pre-screening prizes! An autograph of actress Kong Hyo-Jin, who played Me-Sook, and that was pretty neat.

House

Before the movie began, two Japanese directors took the stage, though neither of them were associated with it whatsoever: Yoshihiro Nishimura, director of Tokyo Gore Police, and Noboru Iguchi, director of The Machine Girl. Both had just arrived from the very long flight from Japan and were dead tired, or so they claimed. Because one could hardly tell; each simply had to see their favorite film from their childhoods on the big screen, digitally restored, and acted like giddy little school children at a candy store by the very prospect, swapping their favorite anecdotes related to the subject at hand. Here’s the thing: I pride myself for knowing a lot about Asian cinema, but I had NEVER heard of House before the festival, and same goes for the rest of America, where it’s an absolute mystery (can’t recall any of my film fanatic buds ever making mention of it either). But in Japan, it’s this long kept secret, a favorite among virtually every single contemporary filmmaker over there, like these two guys, who have each seen the movie like a million times and which remains endless source of inspiration and fascinating to this very day, or so it was eluded.

Afterward was a series of classic Japanese commercials that the director of House was responsible for, highlighted by a few of those Mandom ads starring Charles Bronson that some might already be familiar with via YouTube. The story behind the movie goes something like this: the Japanese film industry was facing some tough times in the 70s, especially for studio Toho, so they offered new guy Nobuhiko Obayashi, based purely on the strength of his aforementioned television work alone (as well as his more experimental stuff that he did in 8 mm beforehand), the chance to make a feature directorial debut. And to whom did he turn towards for a script? His seven-year-old daughter at the time, naturally. The film itself stars a bright and pretty Japanese schoolgirl who doesn’t feel like spending vacation with dad and his new girlfriend, soon to be her new mom. Instead, she writes a letter to her aunt, the sister of her deceased mother, whom she hasn’t seen in ages. The aunt loves the idea and said girl decides to bring all of her friends along. Who one by one gets tortured and maimed as events progress. But it’s more than that, SO much more. I don’t even know where to begin; despite the fact that, sadly, most people will unfortunately never get the chance to experience this groundbreaking work (at least at this point, from what I’ve been told), I’m not going to bother to detail the plot, since nothing I state could ever do it justice. All I can say is House is seriously one of the amazing films I have ever witnessed, period. Same goes for Hilary; literally every two minutes, we had to look at each and repeat the same thing, over and over again: “Oh. My. God. This is the greatest thing. Ever. Greatest thing ever.”

Generally speaking, I always quietly roll my eyes whenever such and such film is touted as something you’ve ever seen before, but never once before has such a phrase been so scarily accurate. The real funny thing is how this one movie was so way ahead of the curve, doing genuinely inventive and groundbreaking things when it comes to narrative, camerawork, art direction, sound design, color, editing… basically EVERYTHING, many years, even decades before anyone else even thought of them, yet no one has seen this flick, let alone heard of it. Which is so wrong, and hopefully it’ll find it’s way on DVD or Blu-ray someday; the restoration was handled by the people at Janus Film/Criterion Collection, though when I asked, a home release was by no means a guarantee I was told (though now the question must be asked is truly unknown House really is, since I find it hard to believe that it wasn’t at least somewhat of an inspiration for countless filmmakers that we all know today, from Sam Raimi to Robert Rodriguez to even Quentin Tarantino). The screening that Hilary and I went to was sold out, so they added a second one, for this upcoming Thursday near midnight. Seriously, if you’re in the NYC area, screw whatever plans you had that evening, especially if you find yourself also not giving a damn what’s playing at the AMC 25… not because you’re some foreign film snob but because everything there just looks dreadfully boring… make it a mission to get your ass there. You do NOT want to miss this one.

  • http://portsherry.balladcollection.com Kurenai

    House is indeed a great film. The release of a german dvd had a couple of obscure films torrent trackers abuzz last year. I think you can still get it from Cinemageddon.org.

  • http://youtookmypicture.blogspot.com Alexis Millena

    Off topic, but what happened to the forums?

  • http://www.fort90.com Matt

    Hehe… about that. It’s been a long time coming, but expect the fort90forums to be re-launched at long last, either later this weekend or early next week. Promise!

    Long story short, something went wrong when Mike tried backing it up about a month ago, hence why it went offline in the first place. And as noted on Twitter (lol, Twitter), I basically expected everyone to go “oh well” and then quickly forget about it. Needless to say that I was then pleasantly surprised by the steady stream of “bring it back, bring it back, bring it back” from various parties; despite not having the most active user base (though it’s still the most awesome, pound for pound, I still say), man, there sure were a lot of lurkers!

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