07/03/2014

NYAFF 2014: “R100″ & “Moebius” & “Mr Vampire/Rigor Mortis”

by Matthew Hawkins

So what does the NYAFF 2014 have up its sleeves this time? Let’s see; a salaryman’s troubles with dominatrixes, the absolute worst mother in the world, and double feature that shows us how far hopping vampires from Hong Kong have come over the years…

R100

The latest from one of the funniest men in all of Japan, Hitoshi Matsumoto, might be his best effort to date. R100 purposely kicks off on a rather low key fashion, though the underlining premise is pretty wacky as-is: Takafumi Katayama is your everyday, totally boring and bland salaryman who signs up for a service in which women in bondage attire humiliate and torture the guy. The key detail here is how he has zero idea when and where these dominatrixes will appear, whether it be at work, on his way home from the store, or even in his wife’s hospital room Oh, so more about Katayama: his wife has been in a coma for over four years and misses her dearly, but there seems to be no signs of recovery. Katayama is also a devoted father who does his best to raise his son single-handedly to the best of his degree, with some help from his father in law, as the lovable grandpa. So Katayama’s life is a difficult one, so perhaps it can be excused that needs some kind of release to ease the burden, and when the bondage women lay it into him, the dude is in heaven. As illustrated by the waves of euphoria that emanates from his head; the CGI effect, in which Katayama’s face becomes distorted via perverted pleasure, is genuinely creepy.

Inevitably, the service begins to cross the line, like the aforementioned visit in the room that Katayama’s wife is at rest, but because the contract he signs states that there is no cancellation, the doms begin to intensify their efforts, to the point in which his son is sucked in. Thing become progressively wackier and nonsensical, as evidenced by the types of bondage women who show up. There’s one who is “The Queen of Voices”, so she’s good at impersonating people that Katayama knows, “The Queen of Saliva”, who’s good at spitting on Katayama, and “The Queen of Gobbling”, as in gobbling things up. Like eating people. It is eventually revealed that R100 is directed by a hundred year old man and we often cut away to studio execs discussing what they just saw, which is what we just saw, and going over what a mess the movie is. Some of the questions they ask are pretty sound, though some shows a definite lack of imagination, as you’d expect from higher ups at a movie studio that only think about the bottom line. Though the director figured that his work would be misunderstood, and notes that you have to be a 100 to really understand. And the studio folk ask: how many hundred years olds actually go to the theater these days?

Back to the movie within the movie: when one of the dominatrixes accidentally dies, the service vows revenge, so Katayama must go on the lamb. We are then given pool side interviews by the dearly departed bondage woman’s pals, who recall the good times had with ”The Queen of Gobbling”. And this is when I began falling in love with R100; it just started to feel like a combination of a Kids in a Hall sketch and GLOW. Eventually the head bondage woman, the CEO, shows up, who is this 7 foot tall blond woman who is wearing effectively a championship belt and cuts expletive laden promos. Comedies from the East sometimes fail to hit their marks in the West, largely due to cultural differences, including Matsumoto’s past body of work. Not so for R100, which is supremely accessible. Unfortunately, most of his other movies have never made it Stateside, with the exception of Big Man Japan (even though I had problems with Symbol is still pretty great, and Scabbard Samurai is simply awesome, top to bottom), but I did see a Drafthouse Films logo in the beginning, so I’m assuming that a wide release is only a matter of time.

Moebius

What may end up being the most talked about movie of this year’s NYAFF, as it difficult as it might be to believe, is NOT the very first movie in which a person eat another’s penis. That honor goes to Never Belong To Me. And in that case, it wasn’t just any person but a half man/half tiger, though both it and Moebius are from Korea, take that as you will. Anyhow, the latest and greatest from director Kim Ki-duk (his screening of The Isle back in 2001, when the New York Asian Film Festival was still the New York Korean Film Festival, was highlighted by a person requiring medical attention, though people passing out and vomiting on themselves is basically a staple of each and every screening I am told) is en entirely wordless affair, hence why we never hear any names. So let’s just call everyone by who they are: when Mom catches her husband cheating on her with the Convenience Store Girl (both played by the same actress, btw, Lee Eun-woo. who was also a guest of last night’s screening), she goes nuts and tries to cut Dad’s penis off. But that doesn’t work, so she goes after the next best thing: the Son’s. And then she swallows it, before running off into the night, like the demented person that she is.

Naturally, Son is pretty upset about this, especially since his condition is the cause of torment by school bullies. So instead he ditches class to flirt with his father’s girlfriend (whom at this point, Dad’s so not interested in anymore). Son is also soon adopted by a bunch of street punks, who seem like nice guys at first, until they gang rape the aforementioned woman. I guess to be part of the boys, and also maybe to enact revenge for his family falling apart (which led to him genitalia being mutilated), the Son takes part. Not long after he gets tossed in jail, though it would seem his sentence was less than the other thugs since he lacks fully functional sexual organ, or so Dad tries pointing out. Oh, so during all this, Dad is obsessively searching online about how to get off without the normal tools and comes across a website that states that self-inflicted wounds can lead to orgasm, which he relays to his child. It should be pointed out that no one saying a single thing, instead relying upon on non-verbal acting, is beyond effective to conveying all the complex emotions the movie puts on the table. Though all credit goes towards the stellar cast, so kudos to Cho Jae-hyun and Seo Young-ju, plus Eun-woo working double duty; 90% of their performances is completely serious and sincere, though the remaining 10% has a hint of them going ”Man, isn’t this kinda crazy?” to the audience.

Anyhow, the Son eventually returns to the scene of the crime, to grope Convenience Store Girl’s breasts, and she reciprocates by stabbing in him in the shoulder, and that leads both of them to orgasm. When the main thug gets out of jail, the Convenience Store Girl and her new bf set a trap for him, in which he too is stabbed. A three way results. Eventually father and Son discover the miracle of modern medicine that is genitalia transplants, and I believe father offers his willy (the non-verbal presentation did leave me confused in some spots). Unfortunately, he ain’t able to get it up, that is until Mom returns out of the blue. Then wouldn’t you know, the Son gets an erection! And… a bunch more things happen. Let’s just say, it’s all kinda nutty. Now, I have a fairly strong constitution, and even I found myself getting lightheaded for long stretches; it was like the last part of Takashi Miike’s Audition, just for an hour and a half. Surprisingly, I only saw about two folks leave last night; I believe everyone did their best to deal, out of respect for Eun-woo, who again was in attendance. Moebius was initially banned in its home country, before edits were made. Last night’s screening was its only one for the NYAFF, but it set to return to New York on August 15, at Cinema Village, along with screening in Los Angeles and Chicago around that same time frame. It then hits VOD on August 29.

Mr Vampire/Rigor Mortis

Mr. Vampire is widely acknowledged as being a turning point for Hong Kong’s kung fu horror comedy genre. A few movies precede it, most notably Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind in 1980, but 1985 was the year in which Jiangshi (aka Chinese vampires or zombies that hop) was popularized. So purely for the sake of historical context, Mr. Vampire should be viewed, and it being screened back-to-back with Rigor Mortis is an extremely wise move on the part of the NYAFF. Because by itself, one quickly discovers that some classics don’t age as well as others.

Mr. Vampire is actually Mr. Kau (I think; am not 100% sure to be honest), a Taoist priest that everyone turns to when they need any business taken care that’s related to the dead. Like Yam, a businessman who asks Kau to dig up his father’s corpse for a reburial, with the hope that doing so will dispel the bad luck he’s having, money-wise. But upon digging up Yam’s dad, we discover that the body is in excellent condition… to a suspicious degree. So Kau takes him back to his office to investigate, and that’s when the viewer also learns that every corpse has the potential to be ”a walking corpse” (which happens to share qualities of both a vampire and a zombie). Apparently, if someone dies in a less than peaceful manner, he or she will require a fresh breath of air, from a living person, or so I gather. Please note that the version I watched was an old VCD (anyone out there remember Video CDs?) and the subtitles for those were pretty rough; perhaps the translation that the NYAFF has up their sleeves will make more sense.

Anyhow, Kau orders his two assistants to keep Yam Sr. at bay in order to conduct additional research, but because they’re morons they fail to follow instructions properly, causing the corpse to become animated. Who then goes off to kill his son, Yam Jr. Oops. So now Kau must also protect Ting, Yam’s daughter and potentially the next target, as well as deal with Wai, the incompetent police inspector in charge of Yam’s death and who initially accused Kau of the murder. Making things even more complicated are the two aforementioned assistants; first you’ve got Choi who is the bumbling idiot that acts the part of comedic relief who gets bit by the walking corpse and is slowly turning into one. Next you’ve got Sang, who is proficient at dispensing kung fu, almost as good as his boss. But he too is a total idiot, when it comes to women specifically, hence why he falls for a ghost. So in addition to figuring out how to deal with the original walking corpse, Kau must reverse Choi’s condition and also break the spell that Sang is under.

The action is serviceable, just not as refined or as plentiful as one might have hoped or come to expect, even when compared to other Hong Kong classics. And the laughs are pretty cornball, yet not without its charms. The NYAFF’s website describes it as ”probably the movie people are talking about when they say how awesome and insane Hong Kong movies are”, and there’s truth to that statement, though hardcore Hong Kong cinephiles will also be quick to respond by rattling off half a dozen better movies. Though once again, Mr. Vampire is best viewed immediately before Rigor Mortis, which is considered its spiritual successor, and a movie that I enjoyed considerably more. It shrewdly updates many stapes of the horror comedy genre, sans any laughs, though it does admittedly get dangerously close to resembling a typical, generic scary flick that Hollywood produces.

A large portion of Mr. Vampire’s cast is actually part of Rigor Mortis; Chin Siu-Ho, who was Sang from before, plays himself. Well, a movie star at least; am pretty sure the part about him falling onto hard times, enough to move into a rather rundown and downright depressing apartment building is just for show. Also, him being distraught enough over the death of his family to attempt suicide. Anyhow, Siu-Ho’s life is saved by Yau, portrayed by Anthony Chan, who was Mr. Vampire’s friend Priest Four Eyes (sorry, didn’t feel the need to mention him earlier), and they strike a friendship of sorts. We find out that Yau used to be a vampire hunter, until they just began disappearing across the land, so he now runs the eatery on the first floor that all the resident dine at, hence why he knows everyone’s business. And the second most important neighbor of Siu-Ho’s is Uncle Tung, portrayed by legendary comedic actor Richard Ng (seriously, Rigor Mortis is loaded with some of Hong Kong cinema’s finest), who comes to an untimely end. Tung’s death prompts his wife to turn towards the resident black magic practitioner to help bring him back, and I think you know where this is going.

The best part of Rigor Mortis is seeing elements from Mr. Vampire updated for today, especially when it’s something so goofy in the source material. Like I love how the comical hopping of an undead corpse is now somehow legit menacing. Yet, as much as you need to see the first movie to enjoy the second, it’s just as applicable in reverse, because by itself, Rigor Mortis at times feels like just another modern scary movie from Asia, in the vein of Ringu. And even together, one can’t ignore some flimsiness as it pertains to both character and plot (which, to be fair, Mr. Vampire also suffers from, it’s just that people give older movies a free pass in that regard). Ultimately, both movies are a product of their time and should be viewed as such, plus it’s always fun seeing someone take something old and make it new again (at least as it pertains to HK cinema, whereas that behavior is far too prevalent in Hollywood). The double feature takes places tomorrow, July 4, at the Walter Reader Theater. Given that the weather is supposed to be awful tomorrow, I can’t think of a better alternative to soggy hot dogs than a double dose of hopping blood suckers? Actually, in Hong Kong, they suck your soul.

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