Time for round two of my NYAFF 2014 coverage! First we have something decidedly different from mainland China, and second is also something you wouldn’t expect from the man who gave the world Ringu

No Man’s Land

No Man’s Land from 2009 hails from mainland China, yet feels more like a product of Australia, and not just because the film almost entirely takes place on a lone strip of asphalt that runs through the desert, which I imagine as being the Chinese equivalent of the outback. Presented as a neo-western thriller, the film centers on the trials and tribulations of Pan Xiao, a big city lawyer with an even bigger ego. Pan makes the journey to the middle of nowhere to defend a falcon poacher, one accused of murdering a police officer, which he totally did. The hotshot defense attorney is able to use a technicality to get his client off, but the poacher is unable to repay the favor by financially compensating his legal counsel in a timely manner. Despite assurances that he’s a man of his word and will provide payment in just a few days time, Pan demands the poacher’s car as collateral. The poacher agrees, but also makes up in his mind that the lawyer needs to die.

Pan then hits the road, with the aim of reaching civilization in time for a celebration that’s all about how awesome he is. But until then, he’s stuck in a place that’s very much dog eat dog, and it’s made clear early on that he’s basically a chew toy with zero redeeming qualities. Hence why, when trying to throw his weight around two bumpkin truck drivers for driving too slow for his tastes, they justifiably pee in his borrowed car. Yet another colorful personality that is come across, which we assume will help lead to Pan’s eventual redemption, comes in the form a dirt bag owner who justifies the astronomic price for gas that he’s charging by tossing in a bonus: the chance to bang his wife. Naturally she asks for Pan’s help in getting away, but he also has to deal with the poacher’s associate who has been ordered to kill the lawyer, whom Pan seemingly (and accidentally) murders before an attempt is actually made.

No Man’s Land is unlike your typical Chinese movie, which is a very good thing. Given how tumultuous life can be in that part of the world, naturally the films that spring forth are often a reflection, but the absolute stone cold harshness in which tales of political strife and family melodramas are delivered, gets tiresome after a while. As does the slow going pace that’s also seemingly a staple of most films from China, which this film also suffers from, but it helps to establish character at the very least. Otherwise, the focus on just a few quirky, but multifaceted characters are a breath of fresh air, plus the scenery is simply gorgeous. It’s also a perfect compliment to the Hong Kong heavy programming of this year’s NYAFF, which is awesome and all, yet it’s always good to offer a few alternatives. No Man’s Land can be seen this upcoming Tuesday, July 1, at the Walter Reader Theater.

Monsterz

Monsterz is yet another flick about two individuals with extraordinary abilities, one a goody guy and the other not so much, in a battle of one-upmanship (yes, it’s somewhat of a staple of Japanese cinema). The bad guy in this particular case has no name; he leads a fairly misanthropic existence and uses innocent people as he damn well pleases, like freezing them on the spot to take a bite out of their snacks or forcing them to hand over their money. His existence is not just care-free but guilt-free; the dude forces hapless individuals to snap their own necks quite a bit, just for laughs. What a douche. Anyhow, aside from the fact that every time he flexes his ability, a part of his body rots off, life appears to be good. That is until he encounters a man who has both a first and last name: Shuichi Tanaka. For whatever reason, Shuichi is immune to the Monster’s ability, which drives him absolutely bonkers.

An attempt on the lead good guy’s life is made, but not only does Shuichi survive the truck that hits him, the all around nice guy ends up working for the man behind the wheel. A kindly old gentleman who runs a modest acoustic guitar repair shop to be exact; the only other person who works there is the owner’s daughter, Kanae, and when she finds out that Shuichi is as into cartography as she is (by stumbling across the fact that Shuichi’s map centric Twitter feed is pretty popular), love is in the air. Life for Shuichi also seems pretty decent, especially since he’s still besties with his former coworkers; one is a super flamboyant guy dude, and the other is way over the top for Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards. Until the nameless telekinetic with a sh*t attitude and gimpy leg (who also obsesses over a collected volume of the Akira manga, btw) shows up to crash the party that is literally taking place.

The second attempt to snuff Shuichi also bombs, and it finally becomes clear that he’s got powers of his own: dude can take a licking and keep on ticking. The inevitable game of cat and mouse ensues, one that’s surprisingly enjoyable. Director Hideo Nakata is best known for The Ring and basically shaping modern J-horror as a whole. It’s also a genre that I could care less about, mostly due to how its goofy tropes are like the worst parts of Japanese cinema times ten. Granted, there’s a degree of vagueness and mystery that feels more like a co-out than anything else, along with the requisite existential mumbo jumbo that key characters spew, plus even the dreaded “m” word (as in “mutant”) rears its ugly head. Yet it’s all at completely tolerable levels. Everything is surprisingly logical, and if you’re the type of person who loves going “oh wow, I totally forgot about that thing/person!” then this movie is right up your alley.

Ultimately, Monsterz succeeds thanks to its two primary principles; our good guy is noble, you want him to win, and our bad guy is truly despicable, but just like Shuichi, you have no clue how to take care of him. But you do have two chances to watch him try; first is this upcoming Sunday, July 6, at the Walter Reader Theater, and second is the following Sunday, July 13m at Japan Society.

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It’s officially summertime here in New York City, a season that many are not exactly fond of, myself included. The heat and humidity all by itself can be brutal, but add that to overcrowded subway trains in which folks are already on edge? At least there are ways to stay nice and chill, and your absolute best options starts later tonight.

I’m talking about the 2014 edition of the New York Asian Film Festival, naturally! And as I’ve done so for (more or less) the past ten summers, I’ll either let you know what you should see in in lieu of the latest POS Michael Bay creation, or make you feel bad for making the wrong choice after the fact. Starting with…

Seeding of a Ghost

Familiar with Shaw Brothers Studio? They were once the undisputed kings of Hong Kong cinema, largely thanks to the ku fung craze that they helped to usher in, and which lasted all throughout the 70s. But once the 80s rolled in, things changed. Jackie Chan was taking martial arts movies into bold new directions, leaving the Shaw Brothers and their super low budget chopsocky ways in the dust. Hence why they shifted gears and began doing the new thing that was in vogue: low budget horror flicks. The precise name of their take on the genre is Hong Kong black magic movies, and the NYAFF two years ago showcased what is considered one of the most revered representatives, Boxer’s Omen, so for this year they’re resenting the forgotten gem that is Seeding of a Ghost.

HK cinema mainstay Phillip Ko plays a hard working cab driver (with one of the worst hairpieces I’ve ever seen in a movie; the dude’s not bald so I guess he just had a really bad haircut when production started and a wig was the best option) who has a beautiful wife that he absolutely adores. Now her job is dealing cards at some gambling establishment, where she encounters some rich married dude who lays on the moves. Next thing you know, she’s his new girl on the side, and it’s up to the viewer to determine if she’s simply not a good person, or if her infidelity is a curse, the direct result of the cabbie almost running over a black magic sorcerer in the very beginning. Anyhow, while her spouse is earning a heard earned buck, the not so good wife is running around the beach with her new boy toy (while topless and in slow mo).

Inevitably, the cab driver’s wife begins to profess a desire for something more serious, but her sugar daddy ain’t havin’ it, so she storms off into the night in a huff. Two seconds later, she gets kidnapped by two punks who beat, rape, and murder her. Now, her death devastates the husband, though making things much worse is the law, who (as expected) are completely clueless and ineffectual. So the cab driver decides to seek revenge the old fashioned way, with a baseball bat, but when he gets his ass handed back to him by the rich dude, he turns to the magician for help. And that guy’s idea of getting even involves digging up the rotting corpse of the cabbie’s wife and getting her pregnant, by raping the rapist this time, though it’s actually his sprit that’s involved.

Let’s just say, if you remember that one part in the first Conan The Barbarian with the hand drawn souls and thought to yourself: ”Man, this would make a great sex scene, put instead of a living person, it was a floating mummified corpse that awkward animates” then this is the movie for you! Also, one last spoiler: the attempt at a zombie baby is a success and, as the saying goes, hilarity ensues. Seeding of a Ghost plays tonight at 11:30 at the Walter Reader Theater (get your tickets here); it’s highly recommended, though I’d also highly advise a few drinks before showtime.

The White Storm

I know I say this every year, and it’s sure to make some eyes roll, but am going repeat myself anyway: The White Storm proves yet again, and without a shadow of the a doubt, that Hong Kong is still the undisputed king of Asian cinema. And when compared with their direct western counterpart, aka Hollywood, it’s basically a cruel joke. Yes, it’s yet another heroic bloodshed bromance, yes it’s by the numbers to the point of being parody, but just like in the States, not all big budget, star driven vehicles are inherently stupid. It just so happens that the chances of one being good, when it comes from HK, are literally a hundred times greater than in the US. Though you’re basically guaranteed greatness when Lau Ching-Wan is the star of the show.

On paper, The White Storm is seemingly nothing special, again for a flick from Hong Kong; it’s about three childhood chums who are all anti drug enforcers. Louis Koo plays Kin-chow, the rattled undercover who wants out (as expected, given the character type), especially since his wife has a bun in the oven (again, no surprise here). Calling the shots is Lau Ching-Wan as Ho-tin, who tries his best to keep Kin-chow from getting killed plus his eyes on the prize, but is a real dick about it. Finally we have the always awesome Nick Cheun as Tsz-wai, Ho-tin’s second in command, and also the dude who basically keeps the other two from tearing each other apart. Anyhow, the movie kicks off with Kin-chow as he’s about to pull the trigger and make the big arrest, to finally wrap things up.

But at the last minute, the heroic trio are instead sent to Thailand to go after an even bigger bad guy. Yet due to a combination of Kin-chow just wanting to get the f home, and Ho-tin refusing to play by anyone’s rules but his own, the missions goes bad big time. Resulting in Tsz-wai falling off a cliff and into a pond full of alligators, in a shot that absolutely must be seen to be believed. Not long after is the film’s big twist, which for any seasoned HK movie viewer is hardly a shocker, but I won’t spell it out anyway. Let’s just say that the brash, out of control law enforcer is forced to eat humble pie, someone who was clean cut gets facial hair, to tell the whole world that he’s no longer mister nice guy, people get shot way too many times to still be breathing, plus as much male bonding as possible sans spit actually being swapped.

The White Storm is rock solid, and even kinda spectacular in certain parts, but it doesn’t re-write the book. Yet it’s still a watch, especially if you’re new to Hong Kong cinema. In fact, it might actually be the perfect introduction to the genre, a good warm up act to classics like Hard Boiled and Infernal Affairs (especially if you saw the latter Hollywood remake, Martin Scorses’s The Departed… correction, the sh*tty Hollywood remake… k, it wasn’t that bad, I’ll admit, just overrated). The White Storm plays this Sunday, June 29 at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickers here).

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Long story short: Christmas has come 6 months early.

Long story long: as pretty much everyone knows, I am a MASSIVE fan of New York City’s cable access. The glory days are long gone, but there’s still something genuinely mind melting to be found on one of the four channels that runs 24 hours a day in the Big Apple. And my love affair with the Manhattan Neighborhood Network(s) began pretty much 15 years ago, around this very time of the year, that being the summer of ’99. That’s when I began coming to my buddy Joe Simko’s apartment in Chelsea, where we’d overdose on all the audio/visual insanity, produced by mad geniuses and all around crazy people, before the YouTube became their new home.

This was when the medium was at its zenith: Zenbock, Subway Girl, Turn of the Century, Checkerboard Kids, Mad Dog & Brody, Grube Tube, Wild Record Collection, The Weather Report, and The Mark Birnbaum Show, to name a few. As the years passed, Joe lost interest, but not me. Wasn’t always easy to get ahold of, due to constantly moving back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn, plus a few years in New Jersey, but I was able to stay tuned somewhat. And once I found myself in Washington Heights, where I’m still at today (that’s the northern tip of Manhattan, FYI), and also figured a way to make a living by writing, my obsession with MNN was back in full effect. Despite the fact that it was now cable access in a post internet world.

I even began compiling content as I did back in the day with Joe (with a VCR to boot; gotta keep it old school), in hopes to doing “something” with it all. With the idea of possibly doing a zine, maybe a real deal book. I’ve written about cable access a bit around here before a tiny bit, and got a surprising among of attention from folks with similar interests, plus there was the obligatory Tumblr, but have simply been too busy with other projects (should maybe get my way, WAY overdue video game zine out the door before doing one about cable access, me thinks) and life in general to really do something. Yet the idea has always been in back of my mind.

And over the years I’ve tried my best to compile as much data on my favorite shows of the past. Unfortunately, that part hasn’t been easy; almost next to nothing exists online as it pertains to most shows, though there are a few exceptions. Not only was I able to learn more about Concrete TV, perhaps the most iconic NYC cable access show of them all, I’ve actually become friends with its creator (who was kind enough to pass along his latest episodes after their world premier screening last weekend). But of all the shows that still stick out, from the glory days, and which I’ve tried for years to get more intel online, but in vein, was Madam Chao’s. Every few years I’d do a Google search for the name, and nothing would ever come up.

Until yesterday. That’s when I discovered a new website and a bunch of episodes on YouTube, which has been slowly uploaded over the past two years. It was like a man who had been crawling across the desert, with the sun beating down, coming across an oasis and taking that first sip of ice cold, crystal clear water. Spent the entirely of yesterday (save for a quick Skype chat with my bosses up north and necessary food/bathroom/sleep breaks) to watch almost everything on the channel. It’s perhaps worth noting how, whenever I tried showing an old episode on tape to girlfriends and most folks period, they’d tap out after 15 seconds. Yet Joe and I used to watch each and every episode in their entirety. Often forgetting to blink.

Now, as clichéd as it sounds, Madam Chao’s defies description. The only way I can put it requires knowledge of the aforementioned semi-famous cable access show (sorry). And that’s how… if Concrete TV is a party mix that will shake everyone’s ass on the dance floor, then Madam Chao’s is a death metal concert in which everyone is being stomped to death in the pit. The following is just a taste, and am not joking when I say that those are the somewhat easily offended should not watch. Though I’m not f*cking around when I say that those who are prone to epilepsy should absolutely not press play:

Madam Chao has always been a mystery, and there’s still much that I don’t know, though I’ve only begun digging deeper. Am still not sure if it’s a he/she/they/it, but I do know that the show began in 1995 and production ceased in 2005. Not every episode is on the YouTube channel, but I get the sense that at least almost 400 were made, which is a lot, considering all the work involved in making just one. Along the way Madam Chao began performing live, at exhibitions across the globe, and recently started a project called Necro Natal, which has since become Nemesis Semen. He/she/they/it also has a Soundcloud, and according to that, is currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Though what excites me most is to know that Madam Chao is still active, and even up for collaborations, like this one with iamoutofideas1:

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