07/03/2008

“SCISSOR SISTERS!!!”: The New York Asian Film Festival 2008 Part 2

by Matthew Hawkins

So… week two of the NYAFF, and the beat goes on. Have I more or less been living at the IFC Film Center these past couple of weeks? Yup. That’s not to say that other stuff hasn’t been happening… I’ve actually been playing lots of games, some of which I can’t talk about (due to you know what from various folks), and some that I actually can (thanks to enough time that a few of those pesky little things have actually expired). I’ve also had time to take in some movies that have nothing to do with Asia!

But first things first…

Sparrow

Right before the screening, the folks at Subway Cinema got Shan Ding, from Milkyway Image, Johnny To’s production company, on the phone to say a few words about Sparrow. Needless to say, Ding was delighted to address the sold out crowd, filled with Johnny To diehards, who had all been frothing with anticipation for To’s three years in the making pick-pocketing ballet. Though Ding did have some “bad news” for everyone in attendance: there would be no guns and just a single drop of blood throughout the entire affair… again, by the main synonyms with the honorable bloodshed genre of Honk Kong cinema.

Sparrow is just one of those films that lives in a world of its own. Taking place in contemporary Hong Kong, but feeling very much like France, circa the 1960′s… whether it be due to the jazzy, Euro-stylish soundtrack, or how the main character likes to soak in and capture the soul of the city with an old crank driven Rolleiflex, or simply how each of the heroes in the movie, despite their profession, demonstrates a true sense of nobility. Plus they’re just so damn super cool; the whole film’s dripping with it actually. The comparison was already made in the NYAFF program guide to Ocean’s Eleven, but Sparrow is indeed the true spiritual successor to the Brat Pack original, and I hate to be a hater and all, but it (along with the fest as a whole) goes a long way to show why the remake, as well as most Hollywood fodder these days, are so fucking lame.

Kei, portrayed by the always awesome Simon Yam (last seen as the corpse collector in Sasori), leads a quartet of carefree, pleased as punch pickpockets. Life could not be any simpler and pleasurable, especially for Kei, who again spends his days riding around the city on his bike and taking pictures… till he takes one of a pretty young woman, Chun Lei, and instantly becomes smitten. In fact, all the dudes fall for the same lady, though it’s totally by design. And each one gets beaten up as a result! Turns out, she’s trapped in a loveless relationship, the girl of some old gangster that’s rich and powerful as sin, and close to kicking the bucket. He actually treats he quite well, and gives her anything she wants, yet still doesn’t take kindly to the advances of strangers, hence the beat down. But that special something that every girl needs just isn’t there, and she’s simply not the kind of person to just wait around to collect the cash. So her advances towards our four heroes were simply desperate cries for help, which they don’t appreciate, due to the accompanying cracked skills/wrists/legs, most especially Kei. Hence why he doesn’t fall for her all over again like the other three. So Bo, the number two guy, always eager to show Kei a new thing or two enacts a plot involving cross dressing and pizza laced with stuff that causes diarrhea. And when things backfire, Kei comes in to sweep up the pieces; right after he demands that his brothers apologize for the all trouble they’ve caused, as just as he’s almost out the door, the old gangster patronizes Kei, claiming that such a youngin can’t hang with his leet pick-pocketing skills, it then becomes a showdown of who has the fastest hands, with Chun Lei’s fate in the balance.

Much like how Lost In Translation was a love letter to Japan, the same applies here to Hong Kong, albeit in a slightly different manner. Though when the credits roll, all you’ll want to do is rush how and see how much it costs to go and stay here.

Action Boys

… is a documentary that follows the careers of several stuntmen working in the Korean film and television industry, starting from their very humble beginnings at stuntmen school. All of whom were in the film City Of Violence, which I saw last year, though if I were to see that movie again, knowing what the dudes looked liked, I’d still be hard pressed to point them out among all other faces that get fists of feet shoved in them. I would also discover from Action Boys that quite a few people got really hurt in the making of that action spectacular, though it’s also made quite clear that dems are the breaks.

The art of filmmaking has never been portrayed so excruciating unglamorous. Starting with the actual audition tapes of several crazy young men, we watch the ups and downs that their careers take them, both figuratively and literally. Why do these guys think getting beaten up or flipping a car over in the air for some movie is something to make a living from? Well, some think its just cool, but most seem to have very little else to do with themselves, like the one dude that became a hair dresser all because of his childhood crush on Winona Ryder (from Beetlejuice) and finally realized that maybe such work is not for him. At its core are five guys who become friends, as well as entrenched in their line of work, constantly keeping touch, seeing what the other is working on this week, and what bones are broken this time. Stuntmen never have it easy, but given that the world of Korean cinema, despite being red-hot, still doesn’t come close to Hollywood when to comes to stuff like, say, safety equipment. The style in which everything is presented is fast paced, and quick witted, more than happy to poke fun at its subject, thanks in part to the narrator’s ultra deadpan delivery, who also happens to be the girlfriend of one of the narrators.

Like all documentaries, there’s moments of joy, such as hearing how one proud mother of an action boy is always excited to see her son die… not for real of course. There are also moments of sadness; not to give too much away, though it?s also not too surprising that eventually one of their own dies in the line of work. There’s also plenty of crazy people, like the one stunt guy who clearly doesn’t have what it takes, and has some wacky delusions of grandeur, but then again, one has to be clearly nuts to be involved in such work in the first place. Also needless to say, seeing the audition tapes of those that didn’t even make the cut for admittance to the school is pretty entertaining, especially seeing what else they’ve managed to do with themselves. Though my personal favorite supporting cast member has to be the little girl whose uncle dies for a living, and the reaction she has when he bites the big one onscreen: “Is there anything you would like to say to your uncle?” “PLEASE DON’T DIE!”

It’s really hard to accurately describe the movie… it really does go all over the place, to the point that even the people behind the camera of Action Boys become a part of the story (at a certain point, they have to head to China to follow one of their subjects on set, though by then the budget is stretched pretty thin, in addition to constant roadblocks every which way). There’s also one of the absolute greatest breaking of the fourth wall moments in recent memory, as well proof that Korean public schools apparently kicks the ass of those in America… Just see the movie if you can!

The Butcher

When hyping up The Butcher, the folks at Subway Cinema constantly suggested to any interested parties that a vomit bag needed to be brought along. And it was; no fucking joke I almost lost it during the screening, not even halfway through. Was it that disgusting and disturbing? I guess… For me, it was the way too shaky cam.

Here’s the deal: four poor souls have been kidnapped by a sadistic mother fucker, who has in his employment a totally insane mother fucker wearing a pig’s head as a mask. Each of the victims has a video camera strapped to their heads, while the ringleader has his own… he’s the director after-all, who apparently takes and edits the footage of people’s POV as they die gruesomely by the hands of the pig man, and then sells it overseas. The “story” is told almost completely from behind the lens of the dude whose poor wife is alongside him; we really never find out what the real deal is, but apparently he owes the snuff producer money and couldn’t pay, hence the predicament they both find themselves in. The first part of the movie is just him chained up on the floor next to his wife, trying to figure out what the fuck is going on, and hearing the two other people getting chopped into bits (which causes him to puke on himself), as well as an unsuccessful attempt at escaping. Poor dude is caught in short order and repeated blows via a hammer, courtesy of the director’s goon, as punishment. Eventually we move onto the moment of truth, as poor dude and his wife are both strapped onto chairs, to be tortured to death. The husband then begins to beg for mercy, and with the director clearly not having any of it, he then pleads on the behalf of his loved one, stating that it doesn’t matter what’s done to him, his wife should be let go since she’s innocent. Director then points out, hey, for someone that loves his wife so much, you clearly left her ass in the dust when trying to escape a minute ago, lolamirite?

Eventually the director offers a deal: if dude can put up with ten minutes of the pig guy, both him and his wife will be free to go. Dude says yes, and immediately gets hit with a hammer a bunch more times, and the audiences hears him scream and scream and scream. The movie is clearly a low budget one, and a major advantage that the first person angle provides is can easily convey and instead of outright showing all the gruesomeness that’s going down. Anyway, pig dude then starts to sodomize him. Now… if I had just been beaten savagely with a hammer, I’m pretty sure a dick up my ass ain’t gonna mean (let alone feel like) shit afterwards. But maybe that’s just me. Though with just three minutes to go, the dude simply can’t take it anymore and asks for it to all stop. Director naturally goes “But you have just a few minutes left? What are you, a big pussy? Guess we’re gonna kill your wife after-all… Then you next@” And at that point the director, who is struggling to come up yet another interesting way to off the woman, since by this point they’ve literally done it all, offers the dude yet one more chance for freedom, if he can figure out some cool way too kill his wife. And I think you can guess where it goes from here…

Like I said, I came dangerously close to vomiting due to the constant camera shaking; I know that its supposed to set the mood and get the audience on edge, but I’m sure most folks are well aware of my problems with playing first person shooters, and even if I didn’t get motion sickness so easily, I would still be super annoyed. Though I have no idea if it was also the overly jittery visuals, or the subject matter, that drove one woman in the row behind me, seated all the way at the other end of the theater to casually excuse herself and walk towards the exit, which I was right next to; the minute she was on the other side of the door, I heard her hurl. But yeah, there was a steady stream of folks who just couldn’t take it anymore and exiting from the screening. On my end, to keep from upchucking, I would either close my eyes or divert my attention to something that was stationary, like the back of the seat in front of me, and even though it was a subtitled film, I missed absolutely nothing. Not saying the movie was bad… it’s actually quite effective in making the audience uncomfortable… just not my thing. Actually, since it was so short (just 75 minutes), a short by the same director was presented afterwards, his previous film, called Chainsaw High School girl, and from what I saw, it was easily 30 times more interesting. But because things were behind schedule so much, I wanted to make sure I was in line nice and early for the next screening (plus I also had Hilary’s ticket on me)…

X Cross

Man, where to begin. Two city girls go to a remote village in the middle of nowhere to relax and chill at the natural hot springs that the place is supposedly known for. One of them, Aiko, is a party girl that goes through dudes like it’s no thang… the other, Shiyori, is a wholesome lady who just had her heartbroken by her one and only man. When Shiyori gets upset at Aiko over an off-hand comment while at the springs, she excuses herself and goes back to her cabin and hears something… it’s a cell phone ringing, but not her own, but one belonging to another girl. And the person calling is some dude who was trying to warm her sister of the danger she’s in. And because sis is not around, the man fears the worst, and then shift gears towards saving Shiyori’s. Reason? The village is filled with crazy mountain folk that cut the left legs off of girls due to superstitious mumbo jumbo dating back eons ago. He also explains why all the dudes… and both her and Aiko had only seen dudes thus far…. have a weird limp (all babies born have the tendons on their left legs cut per tradition). He also informs that Shiyori that this whole thing might be a set-up on the part of Aiko! She was after-all the person that suggested the place and the such.

And what about Aiko during all this? Is she being hunted down by the wacky villagers too, or is she actually in cahoots with them? Actually, as she attempts to meet up with Shiyori who is on the run, she ends up meeting a demented gothic lolita with a thing for scissors who wants to cut Aiko’s head off! Why? Turns out, her boyfriend dumped her to become one of Aiko’s boy toys, who in turn also got dropped like a hot potato shortly after they banged.

The story is truly a wacky one, that goes all over the place; the narrative is constantly jumping back and forth in time, to shed light on mysteries while also opening up new ones… if you thought something or someone was this way, it’s actually that a way. And as crazy and convoluted things becomes (the ending is particularly nuts), the whole thing still manages to complete total sense in the end, once all the pieces are laid out, which is simply yet another facet of it’s absolute brilliance. Everything, the story, the acting, the pacing, it’s all such good stuff. And the gothic lolita scissor sister is indeed the best cartoony killer bad guy the world of cinema has seen since, seriously, Freddy Krugger. On a side not, Japanese cinema has been inundated with cell phones as plot devices (much to the annoyance of some film purists… I know Hilary is sick and tired of the trend… it’s actually something I actually touched upon over at my old cell phone blog), but never have they been used so effectively for dramatic purposes (once again, it’s a real shame that the plug got pulled on that one). Also worth pointing out is the director, Kenta Fukasaku, son of the legendary Kinji Fukasaku. Most people will be most familiar with Battle Royale, and his son simply hasn’t had the best of track records… starting with the rather abysmal Battle Royale 2 (though some also claim that Yo-Yo Girl Cop also sucked, but I certainly enjoyed it a lot), but X-Cross might finally mark the beginnings of truly awesome things to come. Another highest possible recommendation.

The Most Beautiful Night In The World

Yet another mindblowing epic from Japan…. this one dealing with sex. So there’s this remote fishing village that has the highest birth rate in all of Japan, and at a time when less and less folks are having children, or are simply waiting much later in life to do so, hence why the prime minister is paying tribute to the entire community. Needles to say, everyone is pleased as punch, though no one really wants to divulge the reason behind the population boom… except for one teenage girl who discovered the dirty truth for some school assignment, and immediately got reprimanded. Pissed off, she then passes the tale along to a newspaper reporter, and we soon discover it’s all because of… another newsman, around fifteen years ago, by the name of Mizuno. He had a sweet gig working for a big time paper in Tokyo, but was transferred to the offices of the fishing village’s daily tribune, which is more or less where journalists go to die, to there being absolutely nothing to write about. The circumstances behind his exile? While at a bar, he met a pretty woman, got drunk, passed out, and woke up in an alleyway with his pants down, and the girl’s panties right next to him. Next thing you know, she’s claiming rape, and the paper, in order to avoid controversy, has him relocate and fork over his retirement fund to help shut her up.

Immediately Mizuno decides to find something to write about (whereas his editor gave up a long time ago, hence why he’s a drunk… or at least that’s one of the reasons), which basically means talking to all the people in the village, and there is absolutely no shortage of colorful characters to be found: you’ve got the headstrong fisherman that yearns to be a folk singer, his goofy daughter who acts like an idiot but is actually one of the smartest persons on Earth, the inept mayor and his wife, who is the head of the women’s club, which is where all the ladies in the village get together under the guise of civil service but actually just sit around to watch porn and check out male strippers, the pedophilia high school principle, the angry religious nut that runs the local shrine, as well as an ex-political radical that lives on a boat and spends all his time conducting research of some kind, plus always has a monster of a hard-on. But the one person that grabs Mizuno’s attention the most is Teruko, the lovely lady that runs the local watering hole… at least when he finds out that she left one dead fianc? and one dead husband in Tokyo, both victims of heart attacks, despite their young age and excellent health. Eventually we discover that the reason for their untimely demise is indeed due to Teruko, but not due to foul play but her voracious sexual appetite, that literally sucked the life out of her men. Horrified by this, she then decides to abstain from sex, going so far as to have the resident girl genius design a chastity harness for her. This lack of sexual contact in turn drives her insane… which in turn leads to her developing special powers? The ability to read people’s souls, to diagnose their inner most troubles, which is why everyone goes to her for help.

Everything here, much like The Shadow Spirits, is quite dense, with countless players and set-pieces, all masterfully orchestrated. Also, yet another, “only in Japan” and “never in Hollywood” picture; whereas in America, a sexual dramedy would consist of various couples fucking each other, starting with their partners and then their friends’ partners, here we have a guy that’s tired of politics and realizes that the only way to have people stop hating each other is to have them have sex with one another. One thing worth pointing out (well, one of many) is the flash back sequences that are accentuated with ultra awesome paper cut-out animation that utilizes Russian newsprint. Also, the big orgy scene at the end (which causes quite the stir in Japan). Along with Shadow Spirits as one of the finest films of this year.

Tamami: The Baby’s Curse

Yet another live-action, cinematic adaptation of a manga! This one by the dude behind Drifting Classroom, and directed by the guy who helmed the live-action Cromartie High movie from two years ago. The tag line for the movie in the trailer was “15 year old girl vs 15 year old baby!” And… indeed it was! Actually, the domestic title of the movie was only finalized not too long ago; the distributor asked the people at Subway Cinema for ideas, and they suggested such gems like Twisted Sister, but in the end, we got Tamami.

And who’s Tamami exactly? Before answering that, let’s talk about Yoko, cuz it’s really her story…. a sweet, but somewhat melancholy 15 year old girl who was separated from her parents during the war. But after spending most of her life in an orphanage, her father has found her at last, and the film kicks off with her being dropped off at her new home. Which unfortunately is a super scary estate that everyone is scared shitless about. Yoko’s father is a kind, warm person who is elated that his long search for his missing daughter is finally over. As for Yoko’s mom… well, she’s not as nice. In fact, she’s a total cunt to Yoko, preferring to live in her own little world, and nursing a stuffed teddy bear, treating it as her long last baby. There’s also the bitchy old biddy in charge of the estate… she fucking HATE Yoko and totally treats her like dog shit. But at least daddy’s a cool dude, right?

Oh, and there’s somebody else… a baby actually. An evil baby. An evil psychotic baby that rips people’s heads off, leaving nothing but a gushing fountain of blood where the neck used to be, with a little bit of spinal cord sticking out in the middle. As for the face-off between Yoko and Tamami, its pretty entertaining, with loads of blood and gore, along with surprisingly decent special effects. Yoko in particular gets fucked up pretty bad, with a degree of abuse that would never fly in an American production. As for the killer baby, is she scary? Yeah, kinda! At the very least, she’s got short hair, and NO LONG HAIR. Thank fucking God.
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…. Shit, I haven’t even touched any of the non-NYAFF stuff I’ve seen and I already have to wrap things up, such as Bigger, Stronger, Faster, which I’m slated to write about for the Figure 4/Wrestling Observer website anyway, along with Shamo, due to its heavy does of mixed martial arts, that I saw last night. So yeah, check there for my two cents on those two flicks very soon! Or simply wait for me to pass the appropriate links along…

Then there was this past Friday night’s long-awaited return of HORROR NIGHT! Long story short, myself and the rest of the Joe Simko/Sweet Rot crew are reviving our drunken get-togethers where we sit and watch, as well as heckle, shitty horror flicks (while drunk of course). We opened with Troll 2, which most everyone in attendance, including myself, have seen about a hundred times, just to set the mood, but newcomer Abby Denson had never seen it, so we ended up watching more or less the whole thing. Next up was Rumpelstiltskin, though there’s no need to recap that one since I’m pretty sure I did so already that one time we saw it years back, during horror night’s original incarnation. Again, can’t tell if its horribly depressing or sublimely wonderful to watch the poor baby be in a constant state of fear, which you just know has led to an adult life filled with vivid nightmares and countless hours spent on an analyst’s couch. The evening ended with a screening of Basket Case 3, but it was well past midnight by that point, and those of us who lived in the NYC and not in Journal Square kinda wanted to get on the PATH before it got too late and sketchy out; the new plan is to rotate the venue, and we kicked thing’s off at Mike’s, from the Beer Drinking Fools/Black Out Shoppers/Scum City…. remember that band I was the lead singer of for a grand total of eight hours?

Not sure exactly what I’ll be presenting when it’s my turn, though Nothing To Fear, which is basically The Blair Witch Project, but with retards, will definitely be included. And speaking of, Dave Roman and Raina Telgemeier both came over last night to (finally) check out the new place and in addition to introducing to Raina the wonder that is New York cable access (something that Dave recalls quite fondly, since he used to live in Manhattan when attending SVA), I also had the pleasure of introducing Karate Ruler as well (meanwhile, it was Dave’s first chance to check it out in pristine DVD quality… quite the change from that old VHS copy I used to pull out for close to ten years at parties).

And besides movies, I’ve also had the chance to check and play a fuckton of games, so that’ll all have to wait. But the list will be nice and long, and include everything from Spore to Sengoku Basara X! I’ll also be going over the rest of the NYAFF, including my closing thoughts (I will admit that my remaining list of stuff to catch is quietly being shorted… gotta say, at this point, I’m kinda getting Asian movied-out), and I guess whatever I end up doing for the 4th of July. The plan at this point is to once again head out to Long Island to chill out by the pool with a bunch of Star Wars nerds, but I know Mike really wants me to throw some sort of shindig on my roof…. which would be a swell idea, if not for the possibility that it might rain that day. And speaking of Mike, he’s finally back from Ireland, which means back to boxing and working on the podcast. LULZ. Though at this point, its quite clear that perhaps I shouldn’t bother with yet another podcast to glut up the internet, and instead concentrate on doing a cable access show, since it’s so crystal clear that Manhattan Neighborhood Network desperately needs new content.

Okay, I’m already running late for my next screening… till next time!

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