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My Short Films

Sunday, December 31, 2006

VIDEO: Filmmakers Anonymous, Indiescene Cafe.


Filmmakers Anonymous, at Indiescene Cafe (29th of December 2006)


Since my return from Perth more than three weeks ago, I've been stuck in limbo, like a Wong Kar Wai character perpetually stuck in a stagnant state of existence whilst the rest of the world blurs by like the flitting of a hummingbird's wings. While taking my (absolutely needed) rest after months of working on my last short film, Girl Disconnected, my filmmaking endeavours were put on hold, just so I can figure out what the local filmmaking scene is like. In Perth, I got to know how things work, how to contact actors, composers, production houses, etc. Over here, I feel like a helpless foreigner.

Then I heard about the Filmmakers Anonymous via the Malaysian Cinema mailing list last week, an interesting event where short films would be screened at the much-talked about Indie Scene Cafe (a cafe meant to promote, ah, the indie scene, be it films, art, music and literature) on the 29th of December 2006, with the filmmakers available for a Q & A session with the audiences, where everyone gets to socialize, interact and share their love for films.

So I went, bringing a DVD copy of my own short film, Girl Disconnected with me just so it could be screened during future sessions. Last night's event was the very first session they had, but I was surprised by the amount of people who went, considering the rain, and the time of the year. Nearly thirty plus people were there, much more than the seminar organized by Sin Chew Jit Poh (the country's leading Chinese newspaper) that had award-winning directors James Lee and Tan Chui Mui speaking to my dad (a film critic) last July, I wonder whether it had to do with the lack of interest from the Chinese-speaking community? Or some marketing blunder by Sin Chew?

Despite being a regular for such events in Perth (like the Sony Tropfest, which I wrote about here, or the Artrage, where I went to see Drawing Restraint 9 with Justin) I've personally never attended anything like that before in Malaysia, so I was somewhat intrigued, although my initial expectations were tainted by the numerous horror stories my other aspiring filmmaker/ film buff friends like Han, Chewxy, Sebastian had told me after attending some short film screenings of their own over here...

"Er, we saw this film, where, ah, we saw this girl, sitting in her room, doing nothing for ten minutes. Then ah, it turned out that there's this pages-long psychoanalysis thingie given to us by the filmmakers telling us what it was supposed to mean. It's totally, like, arty."

"Very slooooooooow! Boring, man! We were made to watch paint dry, no, I meant that literally! Watching paint dry, it seemed, was meant to symbolize the slow evolution of mankind, where blah blah blah. Our inability to understand the film meant that we were too uncultured and slow to appreciate fine art and life's deeper meaning."

"Watching some of the winners of the Astro Chinese Short Film competition made me want to commit seppuku!"

All right, most of what they said were fictional, made up by my own excessive imaginations. But basically, neither of them seemed to have really pleasant experiences at the short film screenings, so I myself became rather apprehensive too. Wondering whether I've been so long numbed by Hollywood explosions and the smell of popcorn that anything less compromising would fly over my oversized head completely.

To my surprise, and unbridled joy, that didn't happen during last night's screening. The ten short films, entirely different from one other, were stuff that, in my opinion, deserved more awareness from the public, not just locally, but internationally, because they were screaming to tell us all how complex the local filmmaking scene actually is.

Malaysian films, apparently, are not defined only by the stuff that are shown in cinemas, or on television, or those that are currently gaining international acclaim by winning awards at foreign film festivals. That's just a part of it. There's still more waiting to be discovered, screaming for an audience, for wider acceptance.

Now, I'll list out the films that were shown, and also provide some brief thoughts of my own in BOLD.

1. Fairuz Sulaiman: WHERE IS MY INDIE ROCK DARLING (3mins/color/music/2006)


Screenshot from Where Is My Indie Rock Darling by Fairuz Sulaiman


A film about the ever continuing search for reason and purpose in life.

Fairuz Sulaiman is a videographer involved in experimental video performances, theatre productions, video installations and productions. He lectures part time in video making in a local art college.

Strange, the description here sounds different from the film I actually saw during the screening but if it is, then I can say that I like the merging of music and surrealistic images in this experimental video. It's short, but it's nice to look at. I can't really say much about this cos' this was the first film shown and I wasn't really prepared to ah, pay too much attention.

2. Chi Too: WHILE YOU ARE EATING (2006/Digital/4 mins)


A double dinner date goes 'boink' in the night.

Chi Too makes films for fun, love, and activism. His films have travelled to various film festivals around the world. He one day hopes he can travel the world like his films do. Previously made films include 'Out Of The Closet', 'Just Pretend', 'The Chinese Dilemma', 'Goodbye Luang Phabang', 'Paradise Bus', and many more. Visit his blog.

Two couples (?) having dinner, peaceful music of 'Girl From Ipanema' playing in background, a dude and a chick excused themselves from dinner table, the other two resumed eating, loud sounds of, ah, lovemaking were heard from beneath the table. Pretty out there.

3. Crystal Woo and Sidney Tan: IT'S NOT ABOUT EVERYTHING, IT'S ABOUT EVERYTHING (2006/ 14 mins)
Screenshot from It's Not About Everything, It's About Everything by Crystal Woo and Sidney Tan


A short film about Yee May who finds herself caught between two men and turns to unconventional means to solve her dilemma.

Director's Profile
Crystal Woo and Sidney Tan have collaborated on various projects that include short experimental video works, comics, and films. Sidney Tan draws & designs for a living, and Crystal Woo art directs and writes for a living. Together, they are fascinated by pictures in the head…ideas in space…and stories floating everywhere.

Festivals
Gold Prize Winner for Malaysian Video Awards 2005 (Experimental Video Category)

Not sure whether the title listed on the Filmmakers Anonymous is accurate, I remembered it was It's Not About Everything, It's About Anything, or was it It's Not About Anything, It's About Everything? I like this film for its tongue-in-cheek and stylishness, very nice postproduction work, I like the colour grading and the blurry surrealistic (seem to use the word a lot) effect here. Very wonderful use of music. Yee May's method involved time-traveling, it's pretty nuts. Ending's a hoot. :D

4. Tony Pietra: MY MIND (2006/ 5 mins)

Screenshot from Tony Pietra's My Mind, a music video of the band, Rabbit


A promotional music video for the first single from MANGO OVERHEAT, the latest album by Malaysian electro/new wave/dance-rock artist Rabbit. Made on a shoestring budget but given the treatment of an MTV-caliber product, the video is an eclectic post-modern homage to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, classic film noir, 1980's futurism, Stephen Chow, and anything else you'd care to point out.

Tony Pietra is a former TV commercial editor. He now works as a film director with FYI Creative (a collective of aspiring filmmakers). His showreel includes some PSA's and TVC's, music videos (for local artists Pete Teo, Rabbit, and Shelley Leong), and independent short films (WRATH: CURSE OF THE KERIS). He has won a few awards, such as a Bronze for Best Editing (a TV station promo directed by Yasmin Ahmad)
at the 2002 Malaysian Video Awards, and two Cyberjaya Digital Video Competition awards for Best Documentary (YOU GOT A LIFE, YOU GOTTA EAT) and Best Short Film: Drama (SEEING THINGS) in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

Very... VERY cool music video that had everyone bursting into giggles by its silly coolness. Come on, a homage of Clockwork Orange and Kungfu Hustle, what else do I have to say? Just watch the music video below yourself and tell me what you think. The rabbit ears won by the band members were similar to the one worn by Grace in my film, Girl Disconnected. I think Justin will like this.


My Mind - Rabbit


5. Mien Lor: MY CONFESSION – THE PICTURE DIARY (2005/10 mins/silent)


Screenshot from Mien Lor's My Confession - The Picture Diary


The filmmaker's picture diary reveals her innermost thoughts on the politics of space and desires.

Mien Lor is a full time activist who makes film for expression, for exploration and for air. She believes that filmmaking is at once personal and political. She produces documentaries and social films for www.komas.org and organizes the only human rights film festival in Malaysia www.freedomfilmfest.komas.org.

Festivals
The IIC IAWRT Asian Womens' Film Festival 2006, India

Avant garde experimental stuff. We see footages of a girl saying random stuff accompanied by text from diary entries. Footages were used for illustration or juxtaposition. There was a scene that said 'I ran naked at the fields when I was young', unfortunately, all we had was a silhouette of a naked woman. Darn. Yes, the film's totally silent, but pretty meditative. Mien Lor's one of the people behind the Filmmakers Anonymous, and was also involved in the production of many short films screened that night. Yes, she's totally active.

6. Amy Lim: MY NEW HOME (2006/11 mins)


Screenshot from Amy Lim's My New Home


Coming from a Chinese-only background, a family from Kampar moves to a multi-racial environment in urban Kuala Lumpur. With each family member reacting differently to their new surroundings, the story challenges the social interpretation of our society today.

Amy loves colors, movements, and adventure. She starts off as an
editor, and now gets her hands dirty in the real production. She has
worked on a few short documentaries and tv programmes. Currently she designs, edits and explores.

Like many people at the place, my first response when seeing the first scene was... "WHAT THE... THAT'S JAMES LEE PLAYING THE DAD!!!" Photo of me and acclaimed director James Lee can be viewed here. His sheer display of dramatic acting skills boggled my mind. But to correct the summary a little, this film is about a Chinese family of three moving to an Indian environment. The dad had to do this for work, the mom was uneasy, the little daughter was happy. Uneasy racial tensions that still exist in contemporary Malaysian society is displayed here. Effective short film.

7. Margaret Bong: TUDTU (2006/15 mins)


Screenshot from Margaret Bong's Tudtu


This is a story of a young, vulnerable Kelabit boy from the Bario. Raised in a salt making family, the film shares his life and his world that is still filled with innocence as well as his struggles towards the Kelabit Culture.

Margaret Bong, born 1981, has a Degree in Cinematography from Malaysia University Sarawak (UNIMAS) and a Diploma in Broadcasting. The filmmaker has been involved as director, writer and producer for the following films: Tudtu (short documentary), Lie Beneath (short fiction) and Red Drawing (short fiction).

This unflinching documentary is very educational as it shows us a culture unknown to most living in the modern world. The sight of a boy, barely more than ten years old, smoking (pot), playing truant, getting expelled while needing to aid his poor family in salt making can be pretty disturbing. Makes you realize that despite how much our country's developing, there are still certain areas that demand some attention. This documentary has to be seen by more.

8. Nadia Hamzah and Wan Muhammad Tamlikha: AN AFTERNOON WITH THE HIJJABED (2005/8 mins)

A screenshot of An Afternoon With The Hijjabed by Nadiah Hamzah and Wan Muhammad Tamlikha


A mockumentary revolving around five different Malaysian women who vastly differ in character, but share one common trait, all of them don the 'tudung' Moslem veil. As they sit over tea one fine afternoon, they ponder upon thoughts and consequences of wearing the veil.

Initially classmates for a production class in Multimedia University, Cyberjaya Malaysia, Wan Muhammad Tamlikha and Nadiah Hamzah started collaborating on creative independent projects since 2004. From music videos they slowly progressed into making films. 'An Afternoon with The Hijjabed' is their second combined effort under on.par pictures, their unofficial filmmaking collective.

A major crowd-pleaser that seemed to be quite an Internet hit. Very funny and witty. Five women, each of their personality's exaggerated into manic levels reveal the truth concerning hijjabed Moslem women. Pay attention to badass-looking cigarette-smoking chick, she's Nadiah Hamzah, the co-director. I couldn't stop giggling. Watch it, it will blow your mind.


on.par pictures' An Afternoon With The Hijjabed


9. Rajan Paramesran: RAINY DAYS (2006/14 mins)

Screenshot from Rajan Paramesran's Rainy Days


This story is inspired by an true event. It highlights a labor case in 1973 that on the surface appeared to be a straightforward one. One rubber tapper, who is guaranteed a minimum of 24 days pay by the law, was short changed by 7 days by his employer. He filed an action with labor court and subsequently won. But the management appealed that decision in the High Court in 1974. For some reasons, judgment was not delivered until twenty years later in 1994. In the meantime, the rubber tapper and his lawyer had died and the estate sold. A true demonstration of justice delayed is justice denied. And the sum in contention: RM22.40 (US$6.20)

Rajan Paramesan is currently a business writer and assistant editor for a newspaper as well as a researcher for a business program on television. Rainy Days is his second short film.

I like the ambition of this film a lot. I like it when people attempt to do something historical cos' it's seldom seen. Unfortunately, I was slightly bothered by the dialogue of the film, which was dubbed in postproduction. I'm just pretty anal about things like that, after all, it's the same thing that affected my enjoyment of 'Curse of Golden Flower' last week. The case that inspired this film is pretty infuriating.

10. Umi Salwana Omar: WHERE ART THOU? (2004/1 min)

Screenshot from Umi Salwana Omar's Where Art Thou


Based on a poem by Sufi philosopher, Jalaludin Rumi. The poem been translated into visual art by using metaphorical images.

24 year-old Umi is a final year student of Center for Advanced Design (CENFAD). Graduating in December, she is currently doing her internship at Motion Effects Studio. Her documentary Aunty Wahid won the Best Art Work in CENFAD and shown at Malaysian Documentary and Freedom Film Festival.

Let me quote the director's statement:

What does it mean to be different? Differences have been damned by segregation of race, religion and country. Differences have been divided us all. I think differences should be celebrated. Would it not be a boring world if we are all the same? Differences teach us that although we do things differently, we do it for the same purpose and reason. To celebrate life.


It's deep and life affirming. As for the film itself, ah, well, it went by pretty quickly, so when credits rolled, my reaction was a quick "WTF???". Basically, it's a poem accompanied by metaphorical images. Yeap.


(Image source: Filmmakers Anonymous)




Anyway, if you've watched the video I shot (... at the beginning of this entry), you're probably aware of the fact that the future of Filmmakers Anonymous might remain in question, they are still waiting for enough submissions so that another session can be held.

So, to make it sound simpler...

Enough submissions = My short film, Girl Disconnected, gets shown in the next session.

Not enough submissions = Well... my short film, Girl Disconnected, doesn't get shown. :D

But obviously, this really isn't about me, this is more about helping with the growth of our local filmmaking scene. After all, audiences and filmmakers do have a two-sided relationship, each needing the other to bloom, filmmakers having someone to make their movies for, and the quality of their works, what they can do, lie solely in the hands of the public (provided that they do not live in vacuums, which, of course, is a rarity). Of course, everyone needs an open-mind, it's all a balance, filmmakers crafting a film with audiences in mind isn't exactly a demeaning thing, it's not pandering, or conforming, or kowtowing, it's just sharing. Whilst audiences should be prepared to accept the fact that the local filmmakers will unlikely be aiming to emulate Hollywood or Hong Kong films completely even though these have long immersed themselves into our culture (along with, recently, Korean films) since we have vastly different cultures and backgrounds.

Korean cinema would never had succeeded without the support of its audiences. (of course, there's the massive support from the government too, but that's another story)

So, there you go. I'll end this entry with a quote of mine I used in an 'interview' with Monsterblog.

"I wish for a friendlier country to live in, where people are unafraid to chase their dreams and live lives the way they want to without fearing ridicule.

I also wish for the continual rise of Malaysian literature and films, where more people are unafraid to express their creativity. Yet more audiences who can accept this creativity too."


Happy new year.

Swifty's Top 10 Most Disappointing Films of 2006

While I'm waiting for Youtube to process my latest video (of the Filmmakers Anonymous held in Indiescene Cafe two nights ago), I'll put up a top ten list of films that left me disappointed this year despite its hype. Yes, note that this not a top ten WORST films, just top ten DISAPPOINTING ones, basically films that I heard so many good things about, expected so much from, only to end up disappointed in the end. So films that I expected not to enjoy, and ended up having my suspicions confirmed (The Da Vinci Code, Eragon, Lady In The Water etc.) are excluded from the list.

Let me begin, oh, and it's all in alphabetical order, it's too painful to relive which one was more disappointing than the other:

Swifty's Top 10 Most Disappointing Films Of The Year

1) Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan



Borat


After hearing people claiming it to be the funniest comedies in decades, and then seeing the critical acclaim it's been getting by critics (it's in quite a lot of top ten lists), I expected it to be a comedic masterpiece that would make me laugh so much that my jaw would fall off. That didn't happen. Yes, there were parts that made me laugh like hell, but that's it.

My review here

2) Confession of Pain 伤城



Confession of Pain


A film starring Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro? Directed by the Infernal Affairs duo? What could possibly go wrong? Well, almost everything. Ran to watch it with dad during its opening night, almost wept in disappointment. This list was almost made because of this film.

My review here.

3) Drawing Restraint 9



Drawing Restraint 9


I knew this wasn't going to be a popcorn experience, nor a life-altering cinematic experience. Matthew Barney is a visual artist, not an actual filmmaker, thus I was already expecting to appreciate the film as art, for its craftsmanship or originality. I expected surrealistic, trippy images that would haunt me for years, I ended up getting some pretty shoddy filmmaking (questionable lighting, cinematography and editing) that left me cold. One would say that all these can be overlooked because it still has original ideas, but for me, I feel that execution is just as important as ideas, yeap, not just the what, the how is also important.

My review here.

4) Flag of Our Fathers



Flag of Our Fathers


When I went to see this, I was the youngest person in the cinema. Not really the biggest fan of Clint Eastwood (I liked Mystic River, but thought Million Dollar Baby was just okay), so expectations weren't sky high. Yet film was disappointing to me because I actually felt that it could've been much better if it hadn't tried to be so many things at once. Battle scenes were great to watch, the dramatic scenes had some decent acting, but due to the fact that this tried to be both war film and character drama, battle scenes were few, dramatic scenes lacked emotional depth due to lack of character development, became unnecessarily convoluted with its many plot strands and non-chronological order.

My review here.

5) Miami Vice



Miami Vice


Was looking forward to this because of Gong Li, and because Michael Mann's last film, Collateral (with Tom Cruise as a bad guy, whoohoo!), was one of my top ten favourite films of 2004. Not really a bad film at all, but I expected more, thus I was disappointed. Still loved the cinematography. But bothered by the fact that Colin Farrell looked as if he had just popped into the film from the set of 'The New World' as John Smith (with the unkempt hair and beard).

My review here.

6) My Super Ex-Girlfriend

All I wanted was to be entertained by some harmlessly silly popcorn fluff. Remembering director Ivan Reitman as the one who brought us the Ghostbusters movies, which gave me countless wonderful childhood memories, and starring Uma Thurman, who was sooooo badass in Kill Bill! And a superhero film too! Wheeeeee!

Despite not having any expectations at all, the film still made me feel miserable. WTF. :(

My review here.

7) Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest

One of the year's most-loved films, and this year's runaway box-office champ. It's not a bad film at all, but I didn't enjoy it as much as the first one, hence my disappointment. First half was a bit too slow, and when things started getting really good, credits started rolling. Major frustration. Even so, I am definitely looking forward to part 3.

My review here.

8) Snakes On A Plane

No, I wasn't expecting this to be Oscar material, I was merely expecting this to belong to the 'so bad it's good' category (like, say, the Dead Or Alive movie) where I could just laugh at, like those Stallone films of the late 90s, or Steven Seagal films. Turned out to be quite an unmemorable film. A day after seeing the film, Justin and I tried to remember what we saw, we ended up asking each other whether we actually did see the movie. Some of the Snakes on A Plane video mashups done by fans prior to the film's release was more entertaining.

My review here.

9) Superman Returns

Despite never being much of a Superman fan, I was just as excited about the film as anybody when it was about to be released. The hype was insane, I was looking forward to this just as much as I did with Pirates of the Caribbean 2 (after all, I loved the first two X-men films, yet the end results were underwhelming. There were some good parts, but it felt rather overindulgent, and at times, pretty boring. Was slightly flabbergasted by some early reviews of the films which demanded every single cast member (including the dude who played Jimmy Olsen) to get nominated for Oscars. Bryan Singer shouldn't have left the X-Men films for this. And speaking of X-Men, I actually enjoyed X-Men 3 more than this, probably because my expectations were MUCH lower.

My review here.

10) V For Vendetta

V For Vendetta


One of the more talked-about films earlier this year, (yet it felt forgotten these days) almost everyone I knew loved it, telling me how incredibly cool the fighting scenes were, how awesome Hugo Weaving was as V, how thought-provokingly disturbing post-apocalyptic future London looked. Being a Natalie Portman fan myself, my expectations were absolutely sky high, I went into the cinema (dragging Justin along, who was forced to go through it a second time with me), and ended up wondering what the hell was I missing. The experience was pretty forgettable.

My review here.

(Dis)Honorable Mention:

The 3rd Generation



The 3rd Generation


I can't really say that I was disappointed with this high-profile Malaysian Chinese film since I was already expecting it to be bad. However, my immensely sarcastic review of this film turned out to be one of the most-commented entries of all-time in this blog. So check it out for fun.

So, there you go, what about you guys? What are the most disappointing films you've seen this year?

Friday, December 29, 2006

VIDEO: Comic Fiesta 2006... Swifty's Li'l Sis In Action!


Swifty's Sis in Comic Fiesta 2006


The Comic Fiesta is a fan-based convention in Malaysia that is meant to promote anime, comics and gaming (ACG) by allowing fans to interact amongst each other and introducing them to other aspects of ACG fandom, like fanart, doujinshi, that kind of thing. I had the privilege to serve as their committee member and as an emcee during the 2003 event, prior to my resignation. Certain circumstances forced me to leave the Comic Fiesta message boards last year, but I have nothing but gratitude and love for them.

And despite my departure, my sister remains an ardent supporter of Comic Fiesta, and actually went to cosplay (dress up as an anime/comic/video game character) in their latest event on December 17 with a couple of her friends, Jing Ling and Michelle (I'm putting their names here because them, along with my sis, were the ones who shot the video, NOT ME). However, seeing the great time they had there, I might as well help them edit a short video of what they had shot just so their memories of that day can forever be preserved.

My sister is the one in orange (in case you STILL don't know that by now). The song I used is from Kahimi Karie, whom I wrote about earlier this year.

Have fun watching.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

VIDEO: Family Vacation in Shanghai 2005


Family vacation in Shanghai 2005


This video is shot during my vacation with my family in Shanghai more than a year ago (sometime during early December 2005, but I can't remember what was the exact date). I'm actually going to Shanghai again early next January, so I was suddenly compelled to finish editing this video today. I actually had an older version which I did two months ago using the editing suites in my university, prior to editing my last short film, Girl Disconnected. But the older version was more than 8 minutes long, and it bored my sister to death, so I assumed that uploading that would do the same to my dear loyal readers, hence, the re-edit. The resolution of the video should be higher than most of the other videos I've posted here (since the video transfer was done using the comps in uni, not my own laptop... I didn't get myself a Firewire cable until two days ago... unbelievable)

ZhouzhuangThe majority of the video is shot at Zhouzhuang, which is a watertown known as the 'Venice in China' (or was it 'Venice in Shanghai'? Not sure...). The very same place Mission Impossible 3 was shot. Yeap, if you've seen the (very underrated) film, you'll recognize this place from the final scenes of it. That great long take where Tom Cruise was running through the place, pass the people and everything to find his wife (or was it to detonate a bomb? I can't remember...).

My sister was pretty sick that day in Zhouzhuang, thus she seemed like a walking corpse. I think I had a bit of flu, thus my enjoyment there was slightly diminished too. Quite a pity.

Music I used is Alvorada, which was used in both the Nacho Libre and City of God soundtracks. Yes, I used a Samba song for a video shot in China, I'm incredible.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Junichiro Tanizaki - Seven Japanese Tales



"Here, the exploration...leads into a tangle of relationships as bizarre and unhealthy as those of Tanizaki's earlier novel, The Key,"
-from the introduction by translator Howard Hibbett

"Unhealthy" is an apt word to describe the fictional world of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. Although now accepted as a pillar of modern Japanese literature largely on the basis of his re-translation of Genji and the sprawling novel The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki's early work was better known for its aesthetic obsessions and outre subject matter - a typical Tanizaki story would concern something like stealing a girl's used handkerchief and licking it, or the joys of prostitution in China (John Updike memorably called him 'the most masculine writer of the 20th century'). Compared to Mishima, who dealt with characters at least as fucked up, Tanizaki's protagonists are far less self-conscious, less guilty or conflicted - where a Mishima character would analyze their neuroses in a dense psychological monologue, a Tanizaki protagonist is usually enjoying himself too much to be at all reflective.

As Tanizaki got older, his novels took on more 'literary' themes (i.e., conflict between changing social models, nostalgia for ye olde Japan, and a bunch of other boring shit that usually wins Nobel Prizes). But in these seven tales (they can't really be called 'short stories', as I'll explain later), the old-style Tanizaki comes through. Although their timespan varies greatly, with later-life pieces jostling against early-career stories, the dominant concerns are fairly consistent: incest, masochism, death, and sheer bugfuck insanity.

Okay, so it's not necessarily as out there as that might make it sound: Tanizaki is usually subtle, and cares greatly about prose and narrative framing (just as the wrapping and presentation are often of more importance for the Japanese than the actual gift). In the three novella-length works included here - 'A Portrait of Shunkin', 'The Bridge of Dreams', and 'A Blind Man's Tale', the stories' intrinsic deviance is couched in complex structures that allow for distance and ambiguity. "A Portrait of Shunkin" probably the best-written story here, and wisely sequenced as the first - is a third-person narrative recounted from primary sources, principle among them a biography of Shunkin - a beautiful blind samisen player - likely written by her pupil, servant, and lover Sasuke. As the narrator comes across a picture of Shunkin and other documents, he pieces together the story of Shunkin and Sasuke: their beginnings as master and servant, and the eventual progression, as Shunkin is horribly disfigured and Sasuke blinds himself so as not to lose his mental image of her beauty. Sasuke and Shunkin's relationship, despite its peculiarities, is probably the closest thing to conventional romantic love among all these stories: from then on, it's rough going. Case in point: 'The Bridge of Dreams." See for yourself:

"'You needn't go - I'll be done in a moment. Just stay where you are." And then: "Look! My breasts are so full they hurt!'
I said nothing, and she continued: 'You must remember how you tried to nurse at them till you were twelve or thirteen. You used to fret because nothing would come out, no matter how hard you sucked.'
Mother removed the milking device from her left nipple and placed it over the right one. Her breast swelled up inside the glass receptacle, almost filling it, and a number of tiny streams of milk spurted from her nipple. She emptied the milk into a drinking glass and held it up to show me.
'I told you I'd have a baby someday and there'd be lots of milk for you too, didn't I?'...The next moment, before I realized what I was doing, my hand reached out for the glass, and I took a sip of the sweet white liquid.
'I wonder if you remember how to nurse,' she went on. 'You can try, if you like.' Mother held one of her breasts in her hand and offered me the nipple. 'Just try it and see!'


As you can see, with this story Tanizaki establishes a direct lineage to Miike Takashi, who used the same premise in films like Gozu and Visitor Q (Tanizaki would have loved Miike's work). A novella concerning an old-fashioned Kyoto household and the narrator's relationship with his family, 'The Bridge of Dreams' is about the narrator's stepmother, the young woman encouraged by his father to imitate the previous mother in all ways. Now, this is about the point at which a conventional story would pick up - that is, the new wife's conflict of being compared to her predecessor (i.e., something like Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca). But Tanizaki doesn't care about any of that; to the narrator of 'The Bridge of Dreams', neither mother can really be distinguished, since both exist solely to fulfill his needs. As the story progresses, the narrator marries a young woman from an aristocratic family, but is less interested in her than in his step-mother, now entirely conflated with his birth mother. The unreliable narration seems to suggest that there never was an original mother to begin with; that the step-mother is in fact the narrator's birth-mother and that Takeshi is his son by her, and the step-mother's hazy history as a geisha in the Gion district is just a fabrication used by the narrator to avoid the psychological reality of incest. This is almost reminiscent of Nabokov in its subtle convolutions, with the uncertainty all the greater in that the chronicle appears to be fairly straight-forward and reliable at first. Just as Sasuke's self-romanticizing account of Shunkin's life can't necessarily be trusted, so the narrator throws doubt on the veracity of his chronicle:

'Of course, all that I record here is true: I do not allow myself the slightest falsehood or distortion. But there are limits even to telling the truth; there is a line one ought not to cross. And so, although I certainly never write anything untrue, neither do I write the whole of the truth. Perhaps I leave part of it unwritten out of consideration for my father, for my mother, for myself...If anyone says that not to tell the whole truth is in fact to lie, that is his own interpretation. I shall not venture to deny it.'


"A Blind Man's Tale" takes advantage of a different narrative form: it's told by a blind masseur to a traveller at an inn, and recounts the blind man's role in taking care of a noble lady at the court of a feudal lord. Apart from the costume-drama window dressing, this is essentially a retelling of 'A Portrait of Shunkin', with the theme of - extremely literal - 'blind devotion' repeated exactly. But 'Shunkin', to my mind, is the better work - while it's interesting to see real-world historical figures like Nobunaga and Hideyoshi caught up in the drama, the protagonist of "A Blind Man's Tale"'s extremely passive role throughout makes the novella feel lifeless at times. The historical approach means events are for the most part just recounted rather than dramatized, and the ending is fairly unspectacular.

As for the shorter pieces, early stories like 'Terror' and 'The Thief' are especially primitive compared with the later constructions, being little more than brief sketches. 'The Thief', in particular, could almost be an Akutagawa story, with the Western equivalent being something like the work of O. Henry or Guy de Maupassant - the operative word being tales rather than short stories, more dependent on twist endings and corkscrew plots than any real character depth. Characterization is not really a strong point here - in fact, Tanizaki can hardly be said to build characters at all. The stories are less the psychological realism often expected of short fiction than they are the enactments of elaborate fantasies. This comes to the fore more in the shorter pieces, most of them written quite early in Tanizaki's career, the earliest ('The Tattooer") dating from 1910. That story is actually one of the more distinctive: it takes advantage of a historical setting like the others, but uses it even more to couch Tanizaki's characteristic concerns of decadence and gaudy beauty. In it, a cruel tattoo artist in the Tokugawa period enjoys tormenting clients with his needles, until he meets, or in fact, creates his match: a beautiful young woman with a hidden streak of evil. After tempting her with scrolls of Chinese princesses strolling among severed heads, the tattooer eventually drugs her and inscribes a tattoo of a giant spider on her back. As she awakens, the girl realizes her true nature, and promises to make the tattoo artist her first victim - much to his relief.

'The Thief' is a more strictly 'tale-like' story, in which the title character is always literally honest in his statements but manages to mislead both his friends and the reader - similar to 'The Bridge of Dreams', but perhaps less subtle. 'Aguri' is about a man who feels his vitality being drained by his fourteen year old mistress as he takes her on a shopping trip for expensive Western clothes. Aguri is a near-duplicate of Naomi, the eponymous protagonist of one of Tanizaki's best novels (discussed by Swifty here). But whereas Naomi was allowed to come to life over the course of a whole novel, becoming a strangely believable embodiment of demonic energy and selfishness, Aguri is in every sense of the word a fiction, just an external embodiment of the narrator's obsessive desires. The story, consisting of little more than the shopping trip, has no real narrative energy, and is largely an excuse to describe Aguri. Particular, perverse attention is paid to the clothing, with its 'fastened buttons and hooks' and the process of measuring Aguri's body. 'Terror' is even more skeletal: a quick sketch of a man afraid of trains. There's some nice fin de siecle paranoia, but little else.

Why read these stories, then, if there are few real sympathetic characters, occasionally weak structure, and no psychological reflections except for the obvious, barely-examined pathologies?

The intensity seems to me the primary reason. When Tanizaki is on, when his interest in a story suddenly peaks, you immediately know - he's capable of hallucinatory freakouts that would give even Mishima and Akutagawa pause, explosions of terror and lust that seem to destroy the fabric of the story itself in their desperate need for expression. Here's this, from 'Aguri':

"Look, Mr. Ghost! I bought this wonderful ring with your money. I bought this beautiful lace-trimmed skirt. And see!' (she pulls up her skirt) 'See these legs you're so fond of? I bought a pair of white silk stockings, and pink garters too - all with your money! Don't you think I have good taste? Don't you think I look angelic? Although you're dead I'm wearing the right clothes for me, just the way you wanted, and I'm having a marvelous time! I'm so happy, really happy! You must be happy too, for having given me all this. Your dreams have come true in me, now that I'm so beautiful, so full of life! Well, Mr. Ghost, my poor Mr. Ghost who can't rest in peace - how about a smile?'
Then I'll hug that cold corpse as hard as I can, hug it till its bones crack, and he screams: 'Stop! I can't bear any more!' If he doesn't give in, I'll love him till his withered skin is torn to shreds, till his last drop of blood is squeezed out, till his dry bones fall apart. Then even a ghost ought to feel satisfied..."


I have to make a note on the translation. Although Howard Hibbett is a consistently excellent translator of Japanese literature who completely pwned on books like Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness, I'm not positive he's the right choice for Tanizaki, a writer of very different emphasis. Take 'The Tattooer', for instance: I feel as if some of the earlier translations better captured the gaudy beauty and decadence of the story. In an earlier translation, a bit at the end where a shaft of light hits the girl's spider tattoo was rendered as 'set fire to the spider' whereas Hibbett has that it was 'wreathed in flame'. "set fire to the spider", to my ear, sounds better than "was wreathed in flame" - the latter is almost a cliche, while the former maintains both the active voice and a nice consonance (the 'f-i-re, sp-i-der sound). Not having read the source material myself I can't comment on the literal accuracy; for all I know, Hibbett got down exactly what Tanizaki intended. Opinions will differ, I guess. (these translation issues, incidentally, are the reason I'm going to retire from reading translated J-lit shortly - I feel like the original version is the only way to go, even if it's a pain in the ass to look up kanji).

The Verdict: Doesn't really work as a collection. The extreme difference in the stories' dates of composition shows, making for a jarring read. Other Tanizaki stories like 'The Golden Death' should have been included instead, and sequenced chronologically (or by length). Why include weak or brief pieces stacked against stand-alone novellas composed decades apart? Why not just put all Tanizaki's novellas ('Captain Shigemoto's Mother', 'The Reed Cutter', 'The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi', as well as those included here) into one large collection and then include all the shorter stories in another? Logic...

Still, any Tanizaki is better than none, and a read-through of 'A Portrait of Shunkin' and 'The Bridge of Dreams' will show why he's held in regard; while the strongest moments from everything else here give an impression of his characteristic obsessive intensity.


Tanizaki hides inside this giant ass until the members of Berryz Koubou wander by. Then he GRABS em!




Swifty Reviews 'Curse of The Golden Flower'

Curse of the Golden Flower poster


If you intend to watch Curse of the Golden Flower (满城尽带黄金甲), the latest film by Zhang Yimou, don't expect this to be a martial arts film. There's no high-flying wire-fu that you've seen in Zhang Yimou's previous fares like Hero or House of Flying Daggers (both films more well-received in the West than the East, I personally liked the former, but really dislike the latter). Adapted from a 1934 play, 'Thunderstorm' by Cao Yu, Curse of the Golden Flower is more period drama (with a little bit of fighting, and a really large-scaled, spectacular-looking battle scene in the end) set during the 10th century about the most dysfunctional Royal Family ever.

Gong Li in Curse of the Golden FlowerIt's really more like a soap opera, but with really awesome production sets and lavish eye-popping costumes (lots of, ah, corset-clinched cleavage shots... film's been nicknamed in China as Curse of the Golden Corset, with people claiming that the cleavage shots leave a deeper impression than the battle scenes. Even so, it's currently smashing box-office records with the highest 3-day gross ever, maybe it'll even challenge the record of all-time box-office champ Hero).

Anyway, watching this film in Malaysia is painful because, for some strange reason, we got the CANTONESE DUBBED VERSION in our cinemas. Yes, while the rest of the world gets the original Mandarin version, Malaysian viewers will have to suffer through the sight (and sound?) of Gong Li speaking fluent Cantonese in a low raspy voice, Jay Chou with a manly deep voice (the exact opposite of his actual high-pitched voice) and Chow Yun Fat sounding like some random old hag. Bummer. And while the voice actors were adequate (still somewhat stilted and unnatural), my inability to actually evaluate their performances (I was curious about how intense Gong Li would've sounded in the original version, or whether Jay's line-delivery was wooden, or whether Chow Yun Fat had any improvements in his Mandarin since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) greatly diminished my enjoyment of the film. Darn.

Curse of the Golden CorsetThe most expensive Chinese film to date (budgeted at US$45 million), Curse of the Golden Flower, like this year's The Banquet by Feng Xiaogang (which I watched on DVD the night before seeing Golden Flower) is another member of the Asian Cinema genre (started by Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), a visually spectacular gigaproduction featuring a cast and crew from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China (and the composer is Shigeru Umebayashi, who was responsible for the soundtracks of Wong Kar Wai films In The Mood For Love and 2046) with aspirations to conquer Asian box-office (it will, despite the controversy), and Oscar recognition (mmm...), and oh, acceptance from Western audiences. (after all, seeing Asians flying around kungfu-ing each other seem to be more acceptable than an actual realistic depiction of contemporary Asian culture and life).

The Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) is slowly poisoning the Empress (Gong Li) after finding out that she had been sleeping with her stepson, the Crown Prince Xiang (Liu Ye). Refusing to go down without a fight, the Empress plots rebellion with her doting son, the second prince, Prince Jie (Jay Chou), during the Chong Yang festival. And then, there's also the youngest prince, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), whom nobody liked. The Empress is also utterly displeased that Crown Prince Xiang had been having an affair with Jiang Chan (Li Man), a servant girl, also the daughter of the Imperial Physician. Lots of backstabbing, political intrigue, angst, and some incest were involved in this film.

Chow Yun Fat in Curse of the Golden FlowerThere are no bad guys or good guys in the film, no one sympathetic to root for or unlikeable to root against, everything is presented in a detached manner for you to watch so that you can form opinions of your own, you'll either be drawn in (like you're drawn in by a train wreck) as you watch the characters become increasingly homicidal towards each other, or you'll be too bored by the lack of fighting to pay attention to the intrigue. It's an uncompromising film.

Acting-wise, Gong Li stands out as the Empress (er, and I'm not referring to her costume), and I think in this film, she shows how much more natural she is in a role like this compared to Zhang Ziyi (who had a similar role in The Banquet). Chow Yun Fat was pretty charismatic and badass in certain scenes and slow mo shots. Jay Chou turned out to be a decent actor, for a pop star, (he was good in Initial D, but I always felt that the role in Jay Chou in Curse of the Golden Flowerthat film was tailor-made for his inexpressiveness) as he got to display more range of emotions. I'll take him over F4 anytime. Unfortunately, I personally think that a more experienced young actor, like, say, Nicholas Tse, in this role would've elevated the film to greater depths of emotions since Prince Jie, compared to all other characters, was supposed to be the most sympathetic one of all, just that he was never developed much due to his lack of screentime.

I wasn't really blown away by this like I was by Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero, but at least I liked this more than the disappointing House of Flying Daggers, and this is definitely not as horrifyingly horrible as The Promise, and not as snicker-inducing as the unintentionally funny The Banquet. Don't take this film so seriously and you'll enjoy it more (like I did with The Banquet), look deeper and you might even interpret the ending as a political barb of the Tiannanmen incident.

By the way, I like the song Jay Chou composed for the film 'Chrysanthemum Flower Bed' (菊花台). Check out the music video (I am amused by the lack of Chow Yun Fat in the entire music video).



Music video of Jay Chou's Chrysanthemum Flower Bed, ending theme of Curse of the Golden Flower


Other reviews:

Lim Chang Moh gives it 3 out of 4 stars and calls it the 'Parade of Bouncing Boobs'


Sebastian gives it a 7 out of 10 and believes this is film is a show-off thing by the Chinese as a prelude to the 2008 Olympics.

GreenCine Daily's roundup of both positive and negative reviews of the Curse of the Golden Flower.

The Visitor thinks that the music video is even more emotive than the movie itself (I agree)

(P. S. MERRY CHRISTMAS, Y'ALL! THERE WILL BE SOME GOODIES ON THIS SITE TOMORROW!)


Friday, December 22, 2006

Swifty Reviews 'Confession of Pain'

Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro in Confession of Pain


Three Chinese films opened in Malaysia yesterday to compete (sorta) for the Christmas week. The local Chinese film, Love Conquers All, directed by Tan Chui Mui (my review here), Curse of the Golden Flower (directed by Zhang Yimou, starring superstars Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li and Jay Chou) and finally, Confession of Pain (directed by Infernal Affairs duo Alan Mak and Andrew Lau, starring Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Shu Qi and the world's most famous Chinese blogger, Xu Jing Lei). Golden Flower is most likely going to be the top film this Christmas due to its massive promotional campaign, however, if you were going to choose between Love Conquers All and Confession of Pain, I suggest you go see the former since it's better for you to contribute to the local indie film industry than to suffer the colossal disappointment I had last night.

I'm not kidding.

The directing duo employed all kinds of visual devices that made their previous hits, the Infernal Affairs films and Initial D, so stylish to watch (Andrew Lau was Wong Kar Wai's cinematographer for Chungking Express, alongside Christopher Doyle, and was said to be the one who devised the now-iconic slow shuttle, slow mo, blurry shots in that film) . The acting, obviously, was good, with Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro collaborating for the very first time (they were both in Chungking Express, yes, but neither of them were in the same scene together), Shu Qi doing her cute shtick (her character was likeable, but it felt like a step backward for her, being in the kind of comedic role she had done earlier in her career, not something you would expect from someone who had just won the Golden Horse Best Actress award last year for Hou Hsiao Hsien's Three Times) and, er, Xu Jing Lei, like all mainland Chinese actresses in a HK movie, being dubbed in Cantonese.

And that was it, nothing else about the film worked. The film, a murder investigation drama, was such a humongous bore with such an insipid script (featuring plot holes you could drive a truck through) that the only thing that kept me seated and prevented me from falling asleep was the immensely charismatic acting from the leads, and the fascination of seeing Tony Leung as the bad guy for the very first time in his career.

Tony Leung in Confession of PainYet here comes the problem with the film's promotional campaign, which was so focused on selling Tony Leung as a villain that whatever possible surprises I could've gotten from the film were ruined. But then, there really wasn't that many selling points in this film. Yet imagine how things would be like if Sixth Sense was promoted with 'Watch Bruce Willis as a GHOST who helps a little boy who sees dead people!" or Seven promoted with "Watch Kevin Spacey kill Gwyneth Paltrow and put her head into a box and send it to Brad Pitt so that Brad Pitt can kill Kevin to complete the seventh kill!" or Fight Club promoted with "Watch Brad Pitt play Edward Norton's imaginary alter ego!" or Empire Strikes Back with "Watch as we find out Darth Vader is Luke's father!!!"

Sometimes, you just can't reveal a twist like that in a film.

The following spoilers-filled MSN conversation with my friend just now will illustrate more about this film. Yes, I'm go read it, don't waste your money and time with the film, better to just find out everything about this film via me. (Malaysian-slang English reduced for international consumption)

lieweemei says:
so wat u up to
Great Swifty says:
Saw this new movie, Confession of Pain (伤城) last night
Great Swifty says:
starring Tony Leung
Great Swifty says:
and Takeshi Kaneshiro
Great Swifty says:
SHIT MOVIE
Great Swifty says:
directed by the Infernal Affairs directors, Alan Mak and Andrew Lau
lieweemei says:
i love
lieweemei says:
the actors
Great Swifty says:
i know
Great Swifty says:
me too
lieweemei says:
Oh? SHIT MOVIE?
Great Swifty says:
even had shu qi and china actress/director xujing lei
Great Swifty says:
very draggy and slow
lieweemei says:
not nice?
Great Swifty says:
and the story's very predictable
Great Swifty says:
no surprises
Great Swifty says:
because the promotion kept on saying that tony leung's the bad guy
Great Swifty says:
so when the guys started investigating the murders, you know that Tony's behind everything
Great Swifty says:
and as it went on, you felt that Kaneshiro's an idiot because he couldn't figure everything out
lieweemei says:
haha
lieweemei says:
stupid promotion
lieweemei says:
haha
Great Swifty says:
yeah, because it's not much of a commercial film
Great Swifty says:
so the only way to promote is to say
Great Swifty says:
"TONY LEUNG, FIRST TIME AS THE BAD GUY!!!"
Great Swifty says:
that's why as the film went on, i was like "C'mon, Kaneshiro, expose Tony!"
Great Swifty says:
the story is
Great Swifty says:
tony leung = high ranking police
Great Swifty says:
kaneshiro = private eye, ex cop who used to work for tony
Great Swifty says:
so one day, when tony just got married, his wife's father got killed violently (bashed up by stone statue of Buddha's head)
Great Swifty says:
Kaneshiro (an alcoholic recovering from girlfriend's tragic suicide years ago) and Tony went to investigate
Great Swifty says:
... but we all know Tony's the baddie.
Great Swifty says:
because during the first time kaneshiro was at the crime scene, there was this stylized flashbacks of tony going around killing people
Great Swifty says:
it was quite stylish. kaneshiro himself in colour, but everything else black and white
Great Swifty says:
Turned out that tony married the wife just to get near the father so he can kill him for revenge
Great Swifty says:
but as he tried to kill his wife, he realized that he really did love her
Great Swifty says:
but he had just put her in a kitchen and left the gas open
Great Swifty says:
so that when phone rang, the oven went BOOOOOM
Great Swifty says:
and then guilt-ridden tony looked after her in the hospital. kaneshiro went off to continue investigation, wife woke up and knew that tony was a liar, asked whether he had loved her before
Great Swifty says:
he said yes, she turned away from him and wept
Great Swifty says:
after that, kaneshiro confronted tony, tony showed his sheer acting skills by suddenly having tears flowing down (and saying that even if the wife is or isn't his enemy's daughter, she's still his family)
Great Swifty says:
Kaneshiro left, Tony's wife had committed suicide in hospital, tony killed himself
Great Swifty says:
kaneshiro lived a bit happily ever after with shu qi
Great Swifty says:
the end

Movie poster of Confession of PainThe film might not have aimed itself as a suspenseful crime thriller like Infernal Affairs, or a popcorn fare like Infernal Affairs, since the tone and pacing are already set during the beginning of the film. Prior to an operation to arrest a serial rapist, Tony Leung's character, Hei, and Kaneshiro's Bong were involved in a rather lengthy, analogous discussion about girl problems and whiskey, so this is more likely a character study drama bent on investigating how people would change due to the irony and injustices they face in life. But whatever fascination I could get was diminished, nay, ruined when the film turned out to be so stale and lifeless.

I was surprised to see two Malay guys walking into the cinemas to see this movie last night, their support of Chinese films was flattering. However, as the film dragged on, they began talking among themselves. Normally, such situations would result in them being shushed by other members of the audiences. However, in this case, no one bothered to.

The only confession of pain I want to make is my own.

By the way, this film is partly financed by Avex, thus Ayumi Hamasaki's 'Secret' (from the album Justin had just reviewed here) was used as its theme song.


Confession of Pain music video (Ayumi Hamasaki's Secret)


Swifty Reviews 'Happy Feet'

The tap dancing Mumble in Happy Feet


What a beautiful film!

Walking into the theaters with my dad and little sister last night, I wasn't really expecting Happy Feet to be such a great film despite my friend, Sebastian's endless championing of the film and declaration of it being his favourite film of the year. After all, I've gone through many 3D films this year, Over The Hedge, Monster House, Cars, Hoodwinked and the likes, most of them entertaining, but not entirely mindblowing, Cars was by far the best 3D animated film I've seen this year, and I considered that a lesser effort by Pixar.

Then, as the film went on, I gradually realized that I was watching a film that wasn't just try to make some cheap millions in the box-office during the holiday season, this isn't Ice Age 2 (didn't bother to watch), Over The Hedge (funny, but generic), or (thankfully) those Dreamworks films (which, with the exception of the first Shrek film, I've never thought too highly of). Slowly, before my eyes, it unseated Cars to become, in my own opinion, the best animated feature of the year.

Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and Memphis (Hugh Jackman)I started giggling when I saw the mating ritual at the beginning of the film, where Marilyn Monroe-like Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and Elvis Presley-like Memphis (Hugh Jackman) won each other's hearts with their 'heart songs', it was an extravagant musical number, every other penguins joining in the choruses, flashy camera-work that seemed like something from Chicago or Moulin Rouge. Like Moulin Rouge, songs sung here are classic pop tunes that were reworked to fit this musical, but unlike Moulin Rouge, which I didn't even like that much, this film had me desperately wanting the original soundtrack. Hugh Jackman singing Heartbreak Hotel, Nicole Kidman singing Kiss (by Prince), Brittany Murphy singing Boogie Wonderland, and Robin Williams singing a SPANISH VERSION of Frank Sinatra's My Way. Holy crap! I never knew that... BRITTANY MURPHY could all sing so well!

(The dude sitting next to me, however, watched with stony silence.)

And that was it, no stupid out-of-place pop cultural references, no desperate attempt to parody a classic film just to appease the parents (while there was a homage of sorts to 2001: Space Odyssey, yes!) The story was told with sincerity, taking itself seriously without resorting to the sort of sarcasm Hoodwinked and The Wild used to make up for their narrative shortcomings (let's just make fun of ourselves so the audiences won't make fun of us).

While initially drawn into the story by its humour and cuteness (come on! It's a tap dancing penguin!), a seemingly simple tale of Mumble (Elijah Wood), son of the aforementioned Norma Jean and Memphis, who was incapable of singing at all, but could tap dance like there's no tomorrow, unfortunately in the colony of Emperor penguins he was in, his dancing and inability to sing was frown upon. His mother supported his eccentricity, but his father grumbled. His tormented love for childhood friend Gloria (Brittany Murphy) was made even more heartwrenching since he knew he couldn't sing a 'heart song' to attract her. Not entirely an original story, just watch the likeable underdog/social outcast character's attempt to win everybody's hearts in the end by 'being true to himself' and choosing not to conform, is still a fine message.

But this story isn't just about the engaging story and memorable characters (Mumble, after he left his colony, would run into "the amigos," a group of five misfit bachelor adélie penguins headed by the Robin Williams-voiced Ramon, adélie penguins are half the size of emperor penguins like Mumble, I assume, having not seen March of the Penguin, my knowledge of penguins are limited. Robin Williams also did the voice for Lovelace, a Barry White-like penguin guru). It's the emotions generated by the film, the sheer heroism and beauty, the exuberance and joy of watching some brilliantly conceived scenes with majestic visuals that separate itself from other 3D films. What I watched wasn't just a purely entertaining animated feature, but a masterful work of a true filmmaker.

The lyricism and visual poetry of this film was something I had seen only in the finest of Pixar films, or the greatest of those old Disney cartoons during their second Golden Age (Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin etc.) and Don Bluth's classics (The Land Before Time, An American Tail), the more ponderous works of Hayao Miyazaki (but don't get me wrong, it's just as exciting as the most exciting moments of Castle of Cagliostro). I was enthralled, because the film wasn't just something churned out by a film studio, it was an obvious work of art infused by passion. Director George Miller, I would find out later, was also responsible for the Babe films (he produced the first and directed the second) and the Mad Max films. So this guy wasn't just some hack, and had spent years working on this project.

It's timeless due to its lack of pop cultural references and stupid attempt to be 'hip', it's likely to age gracefully and become just as relevant twenty years from now. Some negative reviews had dissed the film for its sudden shift of mood towards the end, when it became not just a story about a social outcast trying to fit in but something of a much epic scale. How every single inhabitant in Antarctica had been affected by mankind stripping away the natural resources of this world. When the film begun with a shot of space, then a zooming in to Earth, my sister and I snickered at first, thinking that it was being dramatic in an over-the-top way. But we were wrong, the film was indeed aiming for the stars.

Penguins plunging into the seaThere were many scenes that were so fabulous that they remained with me until even a day after I've seen it. It's impressive because to create strong lasting images is part of my own filmmaking style, it is my personal belief that filmmaking is visual storytelling, and the aesthetics are equally important as the story. What stuck with me? Male penguins huddled together to keep themselves warm against a massive blizzard, looking after their eggs while the females were off hunting, frolicking penguins careening down a snowy mountain, an avalanche behind them, young penguins diving into the sea for the very first time, seeking for fish, performing a beautifully choreographed dance routine underwater, the majestic elephant seals (one voiced by Steve Irwin, sadly a month before his untimely death) warning the penguins of their ominous plight, a graduation ceremony at night where penguins sang, dance and partied while the Aurora lit up the night sky, and some intensely thrilling chase scenes that involved lion seals and black whales that might scare some little kids. Yeah, the film was filled with non-stop wonders.

I love films that not just attempt to break conventions (like its protagonist, this film truly tries to be original and different), but remain an immensely watchable experience for audiences. After all, since when does art has to be inaccessible? Since when does inaccessibility can be used as a justification for art, and not an artist's failure to connect with audiences?

I've tried hard to recommend this to many people (Justin, Alynna etc.) in the past day, yet the majority of responses I got was skepticism, reluctance and disbelief. Unsurprising, the mediocre quality of most 3D animated films in recent years had caused most people, including myself, to hold some sort of bias against a film like this.

However, Happy Feet isn't just a great 3D animated film, it's a great film that happened to be animated in 3D. Watch it, you won't regret it.

... what a beautiful film!

(While it's not really accurate to judge a film's quality by its box-office receipts, the fact that it could beat the well-received Casino Royale and remain number one in the US box-office for three consecutive weeks could've said something about its appeal)

BTW: I was listening to the Happy Feet CD while writing this review.

Links:

Sebastian's first review of the film.


Sebastian went to rewatch it and adds more of his thoughts about it.


Happy Feet trailer


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Ayumi Hamasaki - Secret



For me, the height of Ayumi Hamasaki's career was the 2002/2003 Rainbow / I Am... era. On those two albums, Ayu and Max Matsuura forged an original and intensely modern sound, one that combined the futuristic gloss and production of electronic dance music with the grind and guitar base of hard rock, all leavened with strong pop flourishes that somehow sounded more ambitious than any of Ayu's previous material (which had been good, to be honest, if a bit sugary and conventional). Appellations like 'dancy metal-pop' or 'club-core with solos' sound ridiculous, but accurately describe the albums' innovative fusions. And they were albums, too, with transitions and spaced-out interludes to bridge the more disparate songs. Because of the unified production, a straight up club track like 'Connected' could segue easily into the driving rock of 'Evolution', and the whole thing felt seamless. For a while, Ayumi Hamasaki really did feel like the most modern pop star in the world, one who could get mentioned in grasping Time magazine supplements and still make you want to put her singles on your playlist.

But like many of my favorite artists, my estimation of Ayu's music has been up and down. From being intensely into her during the aforementioned period, I fairly lost interest through albums like My Story - which weren't bad, per se, but I had more pressing things to listen to at the time; and then this year's (miss)understood just about killed my regard for her completely. Although advance-release singles like 'Step You' and 'Alterna' set up some high expectations, they were ultimately misleading. You see, Ayu had been listening to Euro-dance group Sweetbox (inexplicably popular in Japan, justifiably unknown everywhere else), and had decided she liked their music so much she wanted their songs for herself. And that's what essentially happened: Sweetbox producer Geo loaned her backing tracks which had already been used on Sweetbox albums to fill out most of (miss)understood. See, that may be okay in context, but when I buy an Ayumi Hamasaki album, I'm expecting to hear Ayumi Hamasaki, not her covering a peripheral group I don't even care about. It's like buying a new Metallica record only to find out it's not actually a new Metallica record, but them covering shitty, old Blue Oyster Cult songs (okay...sadly...that one has happened too. Fuck you, Garage Inc.) This pinched production, combined with some truly horrible songs (I'm looking at you, 'Bold & Delicious') made me think Ayu was, for lack of a better term, washed-up, or at least in need of some serious career-reconsideration. All of this is a lead-in to say that a lot was resting on Secret, coming as it does only a few months after the (miss)-step. Were it to continue the trend of that album, I'd feel safe in relegating Ayu to the ranks of has-beens like Namie Amuro or YUKI: once massively influential, now only barely capable of cranking out a decent single or two every few years. Were it to be, unexpectedly, a return to form, then Ayu would have proved herself to be more than the equal of her sometimes-rival Utada: a true national icon and long-haul player, not just an idol but an artist.

Well...surprise! Ayu WINS! This is a great album. From its very first track, Secret destroys all fears: Ayu is very much alive and in no need of resuscitation. Seeming to have taken my advice, she's returned to Max Matsuura's production as if from a deeply regrettable adulterous affair, and Matsuura has welcomed her with open arms so that they can get back to the business of creating beautiful music. Everything great about the early albums is present in force, progressively expanding as the album unfolds. From the moment - somewhere around the fifty-second mark - where the synths and drums open up, panning across both channels like rogue waves, album-opener 'Not Yet' lets you know Ayu is resolutely back: it's a commanding intro, minimalistic but forceful, with impeccable production. This powerful phased opening sets expectations high: it's crammed with tension and space, and Ayu's simple lyric, repeated over in true techno fashion, quickly builds force. At just two minutes it's the perfect length to hook listeners and leave them breathlessly anticipating whatever is to come next. Not yet? Right now, is more like it.

'Until that Day' fulfills that promise, opening with an old-style, almost Led Zeppelin-type riff before breaking into waves of patented tech-rock. The chorus speeds it all up as Ayu spits vocals, while the bridge brings in an acoustic guitar to counterpoint the industrial clammer and almost-rap of the chorus. This song is the mark of a producer working with every color in his palette, completely in control of his materials; and Ayu sounds more confident than she has in years. Her voice has matured: it's no longer the little-girl squeal it was in something like 'Boys and Girls', and it doesn't need to rely on crutches like the digital voice-manipulation in some of the I Am... era tracks. Although not a natural by any stretch, Ayu has become, through incessant training and experience, a genuinely great vocalist, one who sounds just as commanding as the multilayered production swirling around her. She pwns this track.

The excellent 'Startin'', heard previously this year in single format, remains a blast of classic Ayu/Matsuura-style hard rock, with its serpentine guitar line underpinning the stadium-sized chorus and turntable breaks. The video is pretty corny by Ayu standards, but definitely a great pisstake the first time you see it, with Ayu ragging on Britney Spears and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. After scores of uber-serious art-videos filled with disembodied eyeballs, Victorian peep-shows and futuristic factories churning out dance-androids, it's nice to know that Ayu can laugh at herself with a more lighthearted PV.


Startin' music video


'1LOVE' continues the rock (yes!), with strong guitars and a chorus that takes a little while longer to embed itself, but does the job nicely after that. It has a great Fellini-esque video too, continuing the decadence theme common in Ayu's recent big-budget videos. Ayu has always been savvy about the role played by mediation and soullessness in corporate pop music (the 'Alterna' video was high-level conceptual satire - seriously), but the '1LOVE' video is decadence for the sake of decadence - nothing wrong with that, after all - with Ayu working the stripper's pole in a room full of swirling clouds of cash, and later, circus freaks. What more could you ask for? It sure beats Koda Kumi's prissy 'ero-kawaii' gimmickry.


1Love music video


These opening tracks, the first quarter of the album, are such a quantum leap over anything on (miss)understood, indeed are so dead-to-rights, that you're reminded of how genuinely exciting and forward-sounding Ayu can be. Up to now, Secret has been so good that if it continued to maintain this level of quality, it'd easily be a contender for album of the year, and a true Ayu career highlight. Does the album maintain? Well, pretty much yes. The following trio of songs, 'It Was', 'Labyrinth' and 'JEWEL' move the album into a slower phase. The second is one of the album's two interludes, and provides a nice bridge to its second half. 'JEWEL' is pretty well your standard Hamasaki piano ballad, not bad by any stretch, if you're into that sort of thing. It sounds unexceptional to me, but then I've heard enough Hamasaki piano ballads to the point where this one doesn't sound like it does enough to distinguish itself (and, I'm sorry, but - JEWEL? What the hell? When is it cool for Ayu to steal song titles from my future girlfriend Sifow? Didn't I already warn her that Fujita-san was going to give her a run for it? Shame...). Still, it offers a nice respite between more interesting tracks, another kind of breath-catcher. 'momentum' is just that, a track which picks up the pace again, with an almost 'M' style intro. 'taskinst' is another instrumental interlude - but this time it's full-on riffage! You'd never have heard guitar crunch like this in Ayu's earlier intermissions, which were almost always quiet and piano-based, or else jazzy electronica. It's a nicely bombastic intro, leading into...

A song written for the 2006 Winter Olympics, 'Born to Be'. It's appropriately dramatic, a completely over-the-top, multi-tracked vocal-backed monster; too big, too loud and damn good. Ayu (and the production) unashamedly grandstand, trying to rise to the lofty Olympic occasion with a suitably Olympic-sized song. You could use it to soundtrack military marches, boxing warmup sessions, political inaugurations - anything big and formal and Triumph of the Will-y, really. Ayu and Matsuura should be commissioned to write a new Japanese national anthem or something.

'Beautiful Fighters' has one of those incredibly catchy vocal hooks and choruses that marked out old-school Ayu tracks like 'Real Me'. This is just a great straight-up pop song, one destined to be remixed a million times and pulled apart into thirty-two flavors of electronic taffy. It's followed by 'Blue Bird'...uh. Didn't like this when I first heard it as a single, and to be honest it's not a really great track, sounding like some kind of remix or alternate version of the earlier single 'Fairyland'. But it's got some nice floaty beats that are kind of cool. As a whole, it's pretty 'summery', not really standout but not bad either. But 'Kiss o' Kill' is immediately more interesting, mirroring the approach of 'Not Yet' with its sudden explosion of sound, although this one's even more driving and propulsive. The sequencing is interesting here: this song could easily have been the album opener, but has been placed instead as the penultimate track. Most albums have already faded out by this point, but Secret is still going strong, and 'kiss o' kill' is one of its best tracks. Really, how exciting is it to reach the end of an album and to find Ayu still pulling off surprising and exciting tracks like this? Sequencing can really make or break a disc, and Secret has some of the best-thought-out sequencing of any album I've heard all year. Fittingly enough, it closes with the title track, a ballad - and one I think is a lot better than 'JEWEL', the ballad-single here. 'Secret' is nicely understated, with a gently insistent Ayu chorus with some lovely singing, sending the album out on a prettified note. Note the nice contrasts working here, especially coming after 'Kiss o' Kill': as mentioned before, the dynamic shifts from track to track are great, never allowing a single groove to get monotonous. As soon as Secret is finished you immediately want to play it again, just to hear this muscular and air-tight album's arrangements from start to finish. No real skippable tracks; how rare is that?

In light of this album, (miss)understood seems like a barely-remembered bad dream, or (more accurately, given its Sweetbox fixation) a palate-cleansing night of karaoke before the real thing. I was a little worried about Hamasaki's continued viability there for a while, but Secret has completely confounded my expectations - for the better! This album kicks just as much ass as the classics, and I'd recommend it without question to both longtime fans and initiates wondering what the big deal is about Asia's biggest pop star and the most remixed artist in the world. Really, way to go, Ayu.


Momentum music video


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