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Sunday, November 30, 2008

[TOKYO FILMeX] Swifty Reviews 'Love Exposure 愛のむきだし'

Mitsushima Hikari as Yoko in Sono Sion's Love Exposure
Mitsushima Hikari as Yoko in Sono Sion's Love Exposure


(As I was finishing this post, I found out that this film had won the AGNES B. award at the Tokyo Filmex, congrats!)

After taking photos of Ueno Park yesterday, I rushed off to catch Sono Sion's LOVE EXPOSURE at Tokyo Filmex. Frankly, the main reason I wanted to catch the film was for the experience. It's not everyday that you see a 4-hour Japanese film around! There weren't anything else I knew about the film.

Having not seen any of Sono Sion's films prior to this, and having just read a Bela Tarr interview a day before, I had assumed that this would be a slow and languid arthouse flick that requires tons of endurance and patience. So I packed myself some Black Thunder (awesome chocolate biscuits that you can only get in Japan) and most importantly, a can of coffee. During the (Tokyo Filmex Grand Prize-winning!) WALTZ WITH BASHIR screening at the same film fest a few days earlier, I was dozing off at some parts (not because it was boring, but because I myself was tired), so I didn't want the same to happen again.

When Sono Sion and his cast came to introduce the film, he assured everyone that the film would be 'over in a flash'. I was reluctant to believe him.

Director Sono Sion and the cast members of LOVE EXPOSURE
From left to right: director Sono Sion, cast members Mitsuhima Hikari, Nishijima Takahiro, Ando Sakura and Watanabe Makiko.


Four hours later, I didn't even open my can of coffee at all.

Let me borrow the synopsis from Jason Gray's blog post (he was at the premiere too).

Protagonist Yu comes from a devoutly Christian family. A certain incident results in his priest father forcing him to confess his sins, which he commits daily out of a strong desire for praise. In the process Yu develops a taste for the sin of secretly taking photos of others and becomes the sneak photography king of high school students, but then he falls in love with a girl named Yoko who he meets by chance one day in town. Their relationship leads to unexpected developments involving a mysterious religious cult...With an extraordinary running time of almost four hours, Sono Sion's latest film is an unconventional masterwork that throws various aspects of contemporary Japan into its wild potpourri, depicted in the framework of an epic love story. His adeptness in presenting chaos as chaos while also realizing breathless entertainment is worthy of admiration. Nishijima Takahiro, lead vocalist of pop group AAA, gives a fine performance as Yu. Mitsushima Hikari and Ando Sakura are also wonderful as the two women in Yu's life.


(by the way, Mitsushima Hikari's personal blog here. In Japanese though)

I'll also add the press notes from distributor Phantom Film that are also on Jason's post.

A high school boy named Yu will go to the extreme, even risk his life to save his step-sister Yoko from a religious cult. A powerful new drama by the one and only auteur Sono Sion.

Yu is a high school boy who lives with his father who became a priest after Yu's mother died. But one day, a woman, Kaori, falls for Yu's father although she knows that he is a priest. Yu is completely against this because he does not like Kaori's eccentric presence intruding the father and son's peaceful life, and even more because she brought with her Yoko, the girl he fell in love with at first sight. He does not want the girl of his dreams to become a step-sister! One day, religious cult member Koike finds this so-called family as an interesting group and kidnaps three members of the family leaving Yu behind on purpose hoping he will join the cult soon. He will not fall for Koike's tricks, but instead will do anything to save the love of his life Yoko from this religious cult. An exciting, powerful drama based on some true events.


Despite its length, the film was surprisingly accessible, and in most of it, Sono Sion aimed to entertain his audiences with lots of humour and homage to martial arts films of the past that he liked. Film's a blend of comedy, action, romance, tearjerking melodrama, character study, family drama and social commentary, so it was firing from all cylinders, aiming to generate all kinds of emotions from audiences. There were lots of laughter during the first half of the film, and as film shifts to darker and more serious territory after its 10-minute intermission (my, I haven't had that since watching a Bollywood film at the theaters in New Delhi last year!) I heard some loud sobbing in front of me. I thought it was a woman, but when the lights came back after the film ended, I realized it was a big guy.

I didn't write about this film immediately last night because I wanted to familiarize myself with more of Sono Sion's works, so that I won't make some needless assumptions in this blog post. So for the entire day today, I was watching an earlier work of his called NORIKO'S DINNER TABLE (2005), starring Kazue Fukiishi (a personal favourite whose photos had graced this blog numerous times).

Kazue Fukiishi
Kazue Fukiishi


I realize that there are numerous similarities between the 2 and a half hour NORIKO'S DINNER TABLE and LOVE EXPOSURE, especially in terms of plot structure. Both films are divided into chapters, each focusing on the narrative perspective of a different character. Allowing us to dwell deeper into the psychology of the primary characters, knowing their backstories and the like. In LOVE EXPOSURE, the focus is on Yu, Yoko and Koike, and the first three chapters happen concurrently, to show us how each of them ended up at a particular point of the story. But once the title sequence appear (... I think maybe an hour and a half into the film), the plot becomes slightly more linear.

Actually, the introductions of the three main characters, told in slightly different styles, might be my favourite parts of the movie. Those moments were when I started figuring out the actual scope and ambition of the director, and was enjoying how Sono Sion had actually made the film work despite the mishmash of styles and genres (trust me, my description makes it sound more messy than it really is). It's some ballsy and tour-de-force filmmaking. While the rest of the film is still pretty good, and also miraculous in its ability to hold everyone's attention despite its running time (it's actually more fast-paced than the more introspective NORIKO'S DINNER TABLE despite being an hour and a half longer), I felt that LOVE EXPOSURE faltered at some places, and I was a little bothered by some plot holes as well.

I wondered briefly whether, in Sion's attempts to appeal to as many audience members as possible, he ended up making the humour a little too broad, to the point where it became a slight impediment to the story. It's not that I have anything against lowbrow humour, it's just that somehow the whole exaggerated effect of Yu's 'hard-on' feels very out-of-place in this film. It's like watching a Wong Kar Wai film, and all of a sudden he decides to throw in some Wong Jing-esque humour into the fray. Or a serious Sam Mendes drama that's suddenly interrupted by some Farrelly Brothers' style sight gags. As much as it induced giggles among audiences, I was a little bothered then.

Now, when I said that this film's accessible, I meant it more in terms of execution than actual content or themes. The film is still quite dark, aside from being a scathing commentary on modern Japanese society, anarchy, blind belief in religion and numerous other themes that he visited in his previous films (isolation, dehumanization, apathy, family dysfunction), there are elements of incest, lesbianism, cross-dressing... come on, the hero takes pantie shots for a living, for crap's sake. It's also ultraviolent, lots of fountains of blood, and one particularly cringe-inducing scene involves um, not so nice things happening to a guy's genitals.

Sono Sion makes his film with audiences in mind, but that doesn't mean that he compromises and shy away from disturbing content. He explained later in the Q and A session that he found it necessary to depict Yu's sneak photography misadventures in a comical manner (similar to a kung-fu film) in order to make the film more enjoyable or palatable for audiences. Of course, it's also to ensure that the protagonist remains likable. Unfortunately, when asked whether he had any trouble dealing with talent agencies of his actors because of the bold content, Sion didn't seem to answer directly (I was curious to know whether he needed to deal with anything like that or not, with lead actor Nishijima Takahiro being a lead vocalist of a pop group AAA). He merely praised his cast for being daring enough during the shoot. I agree, and I think that the performances, while over-the-top at times (more to do with the screenplay than the actors), are pretty good. Being such an epic tale, all actors get to display a wide range of emotions and the like. Production values are good, even the martial arts scenes are handled well.

Sono Sion is also a poet (read his Wikipedia entry), so he has a good eye for details. He does have something to say in this love story, yet I can see that he was able to pull it off without alienating too many people, so is already a marvelous feat. For an independent (?) film of such ambition and scope, I half-expected it to devolve into a lumbering mess before I entered the cinema, so I was more than surprised with the end results. Not a flawless masterpiece, but still an immensely unique experience, and a really good and entertaining film. I'm interested to see how it'll do at the festival circuit next year, and also when it's released commercially next January. It's difficult not to admire the film.


Trailer of Love Exposure


(UPDATE 3/12/2008): Four days after seeing the film, I would end up stumbling into a role as an extra in a film with lead actress Mitsushima Hikari, was introduced to her, and then had a brief conversation with her. Read about it here.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Autumn at Ueno Park

I decided to go to Ueno Park today to see whether there were any autumn leaves left. I've never been to the park before and I thought a stroll there would bring me peace of mind. Bringing my trusty but crappy camera with me, here are some photos I snapped in the afternoon. It's a beautiful place, but I wish I had a good enough camera that can do the scenery justice.

I started out by snapping photos of the trees in the park. Not many golden leaves were left, but still a nice sight nonetheless.

Tree at Ueno Park

Little girl at Ueno Park

Autumn leaves at Ueno Park

Autumn leaves at Ueno Park 2

Ueno Park's Autumn Leaves

Autumn leaves at Ueno Park 3


Not just a simple park, the place is actually famous for its numerous art museums (which I didn't enter because I didn't want to pay the entrance fees, and also because I didn't have that much time, I had to catch one last film at the TOKYO FILMEX later in the day), temples and shrines, along with the Ueno Zoo, which used to be the home of the panda bears, but the last one died this year, depriving the zoo of its most popular attraction.

I saw the sign Big Buddha in Japanese and went off to have a look. I saw a shrine.

Shrine next to the Face of Buddha


But apparently, only the face of the Big Buddha remained. (the whole statue was damaged during the 1923 Big Kanto earthquake, and then 20 years later, all except the face of the statue was melted down for use in the war effort during WW2. Very demeaning and sacrilegious!)

In fact, an old Japanese guy behind me was surprised too. "Only the face?" He exclaimed.

Face of Buddha

Me beside the face of Buddha


Then I continued walking around the park. It was a wonderful weather, so the place was crowded.

Autumn leaves at Ueno Park 4

Walking past the trees of Ueno Park


People liked to hang out and watch the fountain as well.

People watching the fountain at Ueno Park


There were some food stalls (seen at the background of the photo below), and the most popular food I saw today seemed to be the crab noodles.

Little kid and mascot at Ueno Park


A cool bronze statue of Prince Komatsu Akihito (1846-1903), said to be a brilliant military tactician who subdued many samurai rebellions. He later became founder and president of the Japan Red Cross Society.

Bronze Statue of Prince Komatsu no Miya Akihito


I heard the sound of accordion and followed its source. I saw an accordionist performing with a juggler. They were fun to watch. The second photo shows the juggler throwing, er, his juggling thingie, high into the air.

The accordionist and the juggler at Ueno Park

The juggler juggles at Ueno park


An elderly couple walking past the autumn trees.

An elderly couple strolling by at Ueno Park


The Kiyomizu Kannondo Temple. Another temple at Ueno Park.

Kiyomizu Kannondo Temple at Ueno Park


I went to the Shinobazu Pond, a huge pond in the middle of the park divided into 3 sections: The Lotus Pond, the Boat Pond and the Cormorant Pond. At its center is the Benten island, where the Bentendo temple is erected (seen vaguely in the background of the 1st photo below, and much clearer in the 4th photo).

I liked the Lotus Pond, despite the fact that the lotuses had wilted.

The Lotus Pond (Shinobazu Pond at Ueno Park)

Wilted lotuses

Girl sitting beside the wilted lotuses

Betendo Temple


I guess its beauty stemmed from its decay.

After spending nearly an hour and a half at Ueno Park, I headed off to watch LOVE EXPOSURE at TOKYO FILMeX, a 4-hour Japanese film, I will write about that later.

I just read from another site that YOYOGI PARK is actually a better place to visit during autumn, although, by now, as we are in the middle of the transition from fall to winter, I might not catch that much. But I'll go there tomorrow or Monday if I feel like it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Conversations With Other Women. The split screen technique.

Conversations with Other Women, starring Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter


More update on the Japanese short film I've been writing lately (read about my seriously comical research on Akihabara maids in preparation for my writing). Being a melancholic tale of an old man and a young girl wandering aimlessly through the empty streets at the span of a night, chit-chatting, and haunted by memories of lost love, missed opportunities etc.

Yes, even before Allan pointed it out, I was highly aware that the synopsis sounded like Tan Chui Mui's short film, A TREE IN TANJUNG MALIM...


A TREE IN TANJUNG MALIM


Not that Mui was the one who innovated such a genre. And aside from being a Japanese film, the storyline is vastly different from hers. But then, if I were to make this a minimalistic film (which was my initial plan), accusations of being unoriginal may be inevitable. Thus I started rethinking other methods to present the story, sifting through the film library in my head, and then, I suddenly thought of Hans Canosa's CONVERSATIONS OF OTHER WOMEN, a 2006 film starring Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter. I saw the film last year, and it was interesting because the entire film was in split screens. However, instead of being gimmicky, the split screen technique was used as a necessary storytelling technique.

Aside from boosting its rewatch value, CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN turns audiences into perceptual editors, so they mentally edit the film themselves based on how they want to watch it (by choosing which frame to pay attention to). Let me provide a few scenes from the film available on Youtube for you to get an idea what it's like.








There are more on Youtube, but I'll only put the earlier scenes of the film here to avoid spoilers. Of course, by going with the split screen experiment does not make my film any more appealing to the masses, in fact, predicted complaints of film being 'too slow and arty' will probably shift to 'too fast and chaotic, hard to keep up, bloody arty!". On the other hand, it open numerous new opportunities for me to explore the story with, and I'll be using two cameras for the shoot instead of one. quite an interesting try.

During my days in Perth, when I was experimenting and studying filmmaking, I was very in love with the split screen technique. And had used them on my early video experiments, and also my student films, VERTICAL DISTANCE and GIRL DISCONNECTED. In fact, for VERTICAL DISTANCE (horribly dated now due to my immaturity and lack of experience in filmmaking then) I think its best scenes are those split screen sequences.


My 2006 student film, Vertical Distance


At that time, I haven't seen CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN yet, but I thought it was used well (and memorably) in Ang Lee's THE HULK, Aronofsky's REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, Alexander Payne's SIDEWAYS, some Tarantino films, numerous Japanese films and anime, the TV series 24, and even Andrew Lau's Initial D. I was tempted to make split screens my personal signature as well. However, I ended up not using it in the short films that I made this year because, well, story comes first, not the self-conscious need to impose one's own stylistic signature.

However, the writing of the script became more challenging (and experimental). I put in a 2-column table, each column representing a screen. Here's a sample of what I wrote:



Normally I use FINAL DRAFT PRO for my screenwriting, but this time, I shifted to MS Word to do this.

Of course, the title of this blog post isn't only about the film CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN,, but also an interesting process I went through to write the script, which involved some conversations with other (Japanese) women.

It's tricky to write about a foreign culture without committing the usual mistake of exoticizing or stereotyping it. Therefore, I enlisted the invaluable assistance of Japanese lady friends during the writing of the script. Lia the Artist and Maiko the Producer (who had just returned from her 3-month internship at Toei in Kyoto). What I did was I had them sitting around as I was writing, and asked whether they would react like that, or whether an old Japanese dude would say something like that.

In simpler terms, they acted as my 'bullshit filter', calling me out if something felt wrong for them. For example: there was a scene where the old guy asks the young woman whether she has a boyfriend, she says yes, and he asks her to tell him his name... immediate Lia the Artist said that a Japanese old dude wouldn't really do that. Totally out of character. And so I made my changes.

Thanks to my conversations with other women while writing my CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN-influenced screenplay, I've completed its second draft (the first draft wasn't in split screens) but I still need to do some more tweaking with my script. Even when I'm done with it, and after I get it translated, my script will still serve mostly as guidelines, I'm assuming that I will work closely with the actors, allowing them to analyze their characters, improvising and adding more lines to what I have.

For another example of cool use of split screen technique, here's Cibo Matto's Sugar Water music video by Gondry. Love the use of split screens here as well.



Well, folks, can you think of any other cool examples of split screens used nicely on music videos, films or TV?

(UPDATED 28TH OF OCTOBER, 2009:)

It's amusing to do an update nearly a year after writing the original blog post. The script I mentioned above that I was writing would end up becoming a short film called KINGYO. I then shot KINGYO in January 2009, completed its post-production in June 2009 and premiered it in competition at the 66th Venice Film Festival. Of course, it was mostly in split screens.

Here is its trailer.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

[TOKYO FILMeX] Swifty Reviews 'Strizh'

Strizh


Just got back from STRIZH at the TOKYO FILMeX. The 2nd film I saw at the festival. I was watching this film in a perpetual state of annoyance and anger. It had nothing to do with the film itself but what happened to me during the screening.

Though I've recovered from my flu, I've been coughing badly. So I coughed during the screening, and a woman sitting few seats away from me whispered 'please stop it' (yamete kudai) to me.

Stop what? Stop coughing? Gee, thanks a lot for being so thoughtful. She made it seem as if I COUGHED IN PURPOSE during the freaking screening. And what did she do? I covered my mouth when I coughed after that, and her? She was dozing during the film, and struggling to stay awake, so what? Miss Moral Police asked me to STOP COUGHING so she could doze off during the film?

Hence my annoyance. Hence the anger. It's not as if I was the only one coughing, hell, there were a few people around us who were coughing pretty badly as the film went on. I didn't see her standing up and asking them to STOP. COUGHING. Well lady, thanks a lot, I'm sure you're very proud of yourself, maybe when you see a guy in a wheelchair, you'll ask that guy to please stand up to walk, maybe when you see an amputee, you'll ask them to grow some limbs, jeez.

The humiliation I underwent pissed me off in the same way Ainur, the heroine of Strizh, a petulant tomboy, is annoyed with most people around her. Unhappy with the chaotic situation in the house she shares with her heavily pregnant mother and alcoholic stepfather, she spends most film wandering around Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. Perhaps her only solace is her cleaner dad.

In many ways, this film reminded me of Bresson's Mouchette and Truffaut's 400 Blows, in fact, this film shared many plot elements with the former (aside from that that, Ainur also lies about her mom's death to skip classes, like Antoine Doinel did in 400 Blows), I almost wanted to ask director Abai Kulbai whether Mouchette was a major influence when he was writing his debut feature. It's about a girl who had been left behind by the rapidly developing modern society, a familiar subject matter and theme in independent films.

This coming-of-age film is familiar, yet exotic because of the culture and locale portrayed onscreen. This is probably the very first Kazakhstan film I've ever seen (frankly, it's probably the main reason why I wanted to catch this film), and the Kazakhstan here is nothing like Borat's! Director Abai Kulbai said that the film was shot during the transition from winter to spring, when the snow is thawing and the first flowers are growing, in order to mirror the emotions of the protagonist, and also her growth. Inessa Kislova, a newcomer Abai Kulbai discovered from his old school, has a strong screen presence that makes the film engaging to watch. Under the hands of a lesser actress with lesser charisma, film would definitely have fallen apart, but I'm stating the obvious here.

Film's shot in HD, and the snow scenery's beautiful. Standout scene for me is when Ainur and a classmate rides a funicular and watches the city of Almaty from above. It's shot with a fish-eye lens, so city is distorted into looking very fantastical, a contrast to the normal, gritty and realistic blandness in other parts of the film.

Director Abai Kulbai during Q and A session for 'STRIZH' at Tokyo Filmex
Director Abai Kulbai during Q and A session for 'STRIZH' at Tokyo Filmex


Like I said, despite my familiarity with its premise, the settings and culture I see are really fresh to me. And during the Q and A session, many questions about Kazakhstan (instead of the film itself) was asked. Reminds me a little of The Elephant And The Sea screening at the Santiago International Film Fest in Chile last year, when audiences showed utmost curiosity towards Malaysian culture and its film industry. Kazakhstan looks interesting because it seems like a fusion of the east and the west, people who look remarkably Oriental, and also those who look Caucasian, Ainur's mom looks Asian, while her dad, based on other reviews I read, is a Russian, so being of (maybe) mixed heritage, makes her an even bigger outsider? Just assumption.

Strizh means 'shorn' or 'haircut'. Film begins with Ainur getting a boy-like haircut at the barber's. In classroom, a classmate takes her baseball cap and writes "Shorn Bitch" (strizhenaia suka, the subtitles I saw was 'bitch with haircut') on it with a correction pen. She blots out the writing with her own correction pen, leaving only the word 'strizh' (shorn/ haircut). A deeper and much more knowledgeable analysis and review of the film can be read here. But it's heavy with spoilers.

Films I want to catch at the Dubai International Film Festival

The list of films for the Dubai International Film Festival had came out yesterday on their site. And I was absolutely blown away by their line-up.

Now, aside from presenting my own short film, CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY, during its two screenings (I'm also facing some stiff competition under the Muhr AsiaAfrica Short category, and Naomi Kawase's chairing the jury committee for this, wow), I think I'll have plenty of time to catch as many films as possible during my eight days in Dubai.

So I will now make a quick list for the films I intend to watch for now.

AUSTRALIA = Baz Luhrmann's romantic epic starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. Heard good things, know it's an Oscar contender, definitely interested.


Australia trailer


BALLAST = American indie film that I've noticed after it garnered a lot of attention during Sundance earlier this year. Films like that tend to stay in my radar. I thought the trailer's pretty poetic too.


Ballast trailer


BLINDNESS = It's showing in Japan now. I missed it when it was at the Tokyo Film Festival. I'm a little reluctant to watch it after hearing so many horrid things about the film, even though Mereilles is one director I totally love (embarrassing but true, I rewatched THE CONSTANT GARDENER during flight back from Rome and despite having seen it many times, I teared up during the ending) But if I get to catch it for free, no prob.

CHE = 4+ hour film by Steven Soderbergh and starring Benicio Del Toro (who won Best Actor at Cannes for this film) as Che Guevara. Sounded like a monumental cinematic achievement that might escape mainstream success and Oscar adulation. In Cannes, it was separated to two films, because they sort of differ in style, but I definitely want to watch the entire film at once. 4+ hours ain't that big a deal, it'll be like a little half of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy marathon I sat through to watch THE RETURN OF THE KING few years ago.


Che trailer


THE CHASER = Korean film, heard a lot about it from Ming Jin. Am intrigued. You don't hear much about good Korean movies these few years.


The Chaser trailer


DIBAWAH POHON (UNDER THE TREE) = Indonesian film. Met the director Garin (godfather of Indonesian cinema) briefly at the Tokyo Film Fest. Saw it traveling a lot in film festivals, thus very curious too.

ENTRE LES MURS (THE CLASS) = Film that won the Palme D'or at Cannes this year. Documentary-style film about a teacher in a classroom of foreign-born students. Based on the journal of a school teacher who actually played the school teacher in the film. Whoa, totally meta.


THE CLASS trailer


GENOVA = Michael Winterbottom's latest film (man, he's so insanely prolific!) about a man (Colin Firth) dealing with the loss of his wife with his two young daughters. Heavy stuff. But using Arcade Fire in trailer? Immediate awesome.


Genova trailer


GOMORRA = Critically acclaimed Italian mafia film. Italy's entry for the Oscars, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.


English trailer of Gomorra


HUNGER = I heard interesting things about this film, and Sebastian had mentioned its ballsyness when he caught the film at Pusan. Sounds like an experience.


trailer of HUNGER


IL DIVO = Nothing to do with the pop operatic group. This seems like a stylish-looking and possibly funny documentary (non-fiction film?) of former Italian PM, Giulio Andreotti. Also heard many great things about it.


Il Divo trailer


JE VEUX VOIR (I WANT TO SEE) = Either I'll catch this film at the ongoing FILMEX, or I'll catch it at Dubai. I'll see what happens. Some sort of a semi-documentary set in Lebanon starring Catherine Deneuve.


Je veux Voir trailer


LENG KUY XIAN JING (WE WENT TO WONDERLAND) = Chinese documentary. I was scrolling through the page for this list, then was attracted by its synopsis 'An elderly Chinese couple make their first visit to Europe, under the watchful lens of their daughter, director Xiaolu Guo'.

SLUMDOG MILLIONARE = Another Oscar contender. Danny Boyle's latest film. Another filmmaker I admire verily. I think Sunshine's criminally underappreciated, even though like everyone, I thought the 3rd act's rubbish. But this one seems REALLY good.


SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE trailer


THE HURT LOCKER = Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq War film is about a bomb disposal team. I heard many good things about it.


Italian trailer of THE HURT LOCKER


THE WRESTLER = Golden Lion award winner at the Venice Film Festival. Darren Aronofsky is my hero. Even though I have mixed feelings about THE FOUNTAIN (future sequences were awesome, medieval sequences were B-movie-ish, present-day sequences were TV movie-ish), REQUIEM FOR A DREAM remained one of my biggest influences during my student filmmaking days in Perth (the hip-hop montage remains something you see in most of my films, most recently CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY). Since I used to watch wrestling as a child, and later during the first years of this century, of course I gonna check this out.


THE WRESTLER trailer


UC MAYMUN (THREE MONKEYS) = I've heard about its unique visuals when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Fest. Tan Chui Mui told me then that it was one of her
favourite films in the festival. Since then, I've been paying attention to this film.


THREE MONKEYS trailer


W. = Oliver Stone's film starring Josh Brolin as George W Bush. I think Oliver Stone might be around for Q & A sessions. More reason to watch this!!!


W.'s trailer


TOKYO SONATA = Kiyoshi Kurosawa's critically-acclaimed film about a Japanese family will be showing over here in Tokyo with subtitles, but I'll rather catch it in Dubai.


Tokyo Sonata


Of course, this isn't my full list. I'm just listing films I've heard of. That's why they're mostly the big-time Hollywood and European films. But it's a good one to refer to when I go there 14 days from now. Ideally, I would like to discover some gems that I've never heard of, especially those from the Middle eastern regions. And of course, I also want to check out the other short films that are in competition with CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY. But I also want to check the sights in Dubai, meet and hang out with other filmmakers too! Aaargh!

Monday, November 24, 2008

[TOKYO FILMeX] Swifty Reviews 'Linha de Passe'

Linha de Passe poster


I've only seen two Walter Salles films, 1998's CENTRAL STATION and 2004's THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, (I'm discounting the short films he did for PARIS JE'TAIME and CHACUN SON CINEMA, but I like his segment for the latter) I enjoyed the former, but I preferred the latter. Walter Salles also had a hand in producing one of my all-time favourite films, Fernando Mereilles' CITY OF GOD.

This film, LINHA DE PASSE, the opening film of TOKYO FILMeX, is a collaboration between Salles and long-time collaborator Daniela Thomas (she was co-director for most of Salles' pre-CENTRAL STATIOn films). She was there to present the film and also for the Q and A session.

Director Daniela Thomas introducing 'LINHA DE PASSE' (co-directed by Walter Salles)


LINHA DE PASSE is what some may call a 'slice of life' film, it's about a housekeeper Cleuza (Sandra Corveloni, winner for Best Actress at this year's Cannes Film Festival) and her four sons (all from different fathers): Dênis (João Baldasserini), a motorcycle courier trying to help raise his infant son (he's separated from the baby's mother), Dinho (José Geraldo Rodrigues), a gas station attendant who is trying to seek purity in body and soul through Christianity because of a hinted troubled past, Dario (Vinícius de Oliveira, I was shocked to find out only later through the Q and A session that he was the kid from Central Market) who realizes that he may be getting too old for football tryouts and Reginaldo (Kaique Jesus Santos), whose black skin makes him feel like an outsider even in his own family.

The family live at the outskirts of São Paulo, and the film is really about all of them struggling to live a better life in a big oppressive city. When explaining about the title, LINHA DE PASSE, Daniela Thomas said that it's a children's game played by four people where they have to kick the ball back and forth without letting it drop onto the ground. Which is pretty much the metaphor of this film, as the four siblings are supposed to stay in the game, striving to be respectable members of the society. For the likes of Dario and Dinho, the only way out is football or religion, while young Reginaldo tries to take every single bus in the city to find his real father (the only thing he knows about him is that he's a bus driver), while Dênis faces a moral and ethical dilemma when is given a chance to make more money by committing some petty crime.

It's cliched to remark that the location and settings of the film are almost like a character of their own. But that's really the case, film is actually feels more complex now that I'm thinking of it, as compared to what I thought when I just got out of the cinema. Some social issues and everyday problems are subtly touched upon without being too heavy-handed and preachy. And it probably means more to a viewer when he or she has done more research on Sao Paolo.

The film mostly intercuts between each character's storyline, and apparently, they are mostly based on real-life incidents. It's also very engaging to watch.

Initially, I was most interested in following Dario and Reginaldo's storylines (which are actually quite conventional in their premise, but unexpected in their execution), since I'm curious to see whether Dario can get accepted in a football team, or how Reginaldo's gonna find his father, but I gradually start to like Dinho's storyline a lot as well.

The cinematography's top-notch, alternating between handheld and well-composed static shots, editing's very rhythmic, and acting's wonderful. Except for Vinícius de Oliveira, all cast members were making their feature film debut. When Daniela Thomas was asked why they made a choice to use non-professionals and amateurs, I figured out that the filmmakers probably wanted to preserve the authenticity, since that's mostly what independent Malaysian films go for as well, but another reasoning made a lot of sense. Daniela Thomas said that because they had a very mobile crew, and were doing shooting the film guerrilla-style at public areas, it would be unwise to have a very recognizable face that could attract too much attention.

The film took four years to develop, and it was built around Vinícius de Oliveira, who actually went to football school for four years to prepare himself for the role. And of course, they also wanted to find co-stars who share some facial resemblances with him so that they are believable as siblings. Definitely neo-realism. The subplots of the story gradually builds up towards an ambiguous, open-ended 'Life goes on' ending. As the film was nearing its end, I started figuring out which direction it was heading and was a little surprised. But then, I knew it was impossible to tie up all loose ends without sacrificing the realism of the film, and besides, the last 10 minutes are so haunting and poetic that I felt there really weren't any better ways to end it. In fact, I think this film has one hell of an ending!

Daniela Thomas said that the open-ended ending has more to do with her influence, which I believe, since Walter Salles' own films, THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES and CENTRAL MARKET, try to provide tidier resolutions in their endings.


UK trailer of Linha de Passe... makes the film seem more sentimental than it really is. Film doesn't have an overwhelming orchestral score like this


This original trailer is better at capturing the film's actual spirit, though still pretty emo compared to the original film, ah well, you gotta do whatever it takes to attract audiences, yeah?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shocked to see old high school friend in a short film!

A few nights ago, I had a really bizarre dream.

I was with Chewxy, and he decided to show me his latest short film. He told me that after his attempt at film noir with WEB OF LIES...


WEB OF LIES trailer


... he shifted to doing a kiddie fantasy film.

I nodded.

He switched on the TV.

I was assaulted by images and colours, and stuff you normally see in student films, like fast-mo city montage, rapid cut editing. My memories of what he showed me were vague, because it is hard to retain memories of a dream, I remember what he showed me wasn't too different from WEB OF LIES, except more colourful, and people were dressed in fantasy costumes.

Then two young women appeared in the film, staring straight at me, delivering their nonsensical dialogue. My heart skipped a beat. They were two of my high school friends.

"What are Siah Kah Ying and Wong Fei Lin doing in this film?" I muttered softly to myself, staring in disbelief.

They laughed, and then they were gone, it was almost like David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE. A little girl popped out and said she wanted to continue her quest to save the world.

And I woke up.

I was welcome by the sight of my glowing laptop screen, and remembered that I had spoken briefly to the two friends on Facebook chat the day before. There was also an equally brief MSN conversation with Chewxy as well. I was slightly amused that I managed to connect the dots and figured out how I came up with a dream like that.

Days later, I told Justin about my dream.

"People from high school never fail to appear in our dreams." He remarked.

I agreed. By then, I was already feeling slightly melancholic. I wondered whether it had anything to do with nostalgia. I wasn't entirely fond of my high school years, yet somehow, most people from that period tend to leave the deepest impressions.

There are times when I'm reluctant to attend high school class reunions. I am apprehensive of the idea of clinging to the past, maybe because it constantly haunts me and I don't want to compound the problem. Sometimes when I strive to achieve something now, especially with filmmaking, I wondered whether I was trying to disprove judgments and perception people had of me from high school. A way of saying "I am not just a fat ugly nerd anymore!" But most times, these thoughts are fleeting, and easily dismissed.

An hour ago, I decided to eat some potato chips that I just bought at the convenience store nearby when I did my grocery shopping. Potato chips are best eaten when one is watching something, so I decided to find something short to watch as I munched through my chips. I found one of the three DVDs given to me by Vincent The Cinematographer back in March, shortly before I came to Tokyo. They were all short films that he had served as cinematographer (and one was also directed by him).

I've already seen the other two long ago, but never felt like watching the last one, so I decided to honour him and watch this 30-minute short film, TRUE, directed by his former lecturer Patrick Lim (whom I've spoken once via email before, long ago). I heard it was a test shoot meant for an intended feature-length film project.

The short film's about a blind film student trying to make a film, and she decided to enlist the help of a perpetually pissed-off constipated cinematographer classmate to help her out. The perpetually pissed-off constipated cinematographer classmate (PPCCC) is a maverick and aspiring artist who is pissed with the mundane classes he had to go through, the silly film rules his lecturers are talking about, because PPCCC is an avid fan of Wong Kar Wai and he wants to break film rules. Definitely a misunderstood artist.



As for the heroine, the tragedy of her blindness was made even more tragic because she navigates without a walking stick, and resorts only to stumbling around, feeling for objects around her with her hands.



She is absolutely very vulnerable and sensitive.



Towards the end of the film, a new female character popped out. At first, she was wearing a cap.



Then, her cap was removed. And my heart skipped a beat.



On AIM, I typed a message to Justin:

"Dude... remember the dream I told you about? Of seeing high school friends in a short film?"*


"It really happened." **



* the original message had more profanity, but just let me just take some creative liberties here, okay?

** Kylie Chan Kai Xuan, my classmate in form 4 and form 5

Megumi Yokata photo exhibition, TOKYO FILMeX Opening Ceremony + Tony Leung Ka Fai's 5 greatest roles

Originally, I've intended to write about both the TOKYO FILMeX opening ceremony, and then my thoughts on the opening film co-directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, LINHA DE PASSE (really good film). But I'll write my review in my next post.

I headed to Yurakucho rather early today because it's the opening of the TOKYO FILMeX and I wanted to make sure I can get tickets for LINHA DE PASSE. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there would be an opening ceremony before the screening of the film. Being one of the first to buy tickets at the door, I managed to secure two nice seats for myself and my friend, Mahmoud the Tunisian director. (Four rows from the screen)

Then as I waited for Mahmoud to come, I saw that there was a photo exhibition being at the next hall, so I went and had a look. It was a photo exhibition of Megumi Yokota, a Japanese girl abducted by North Korea in 1977.

Megumi Yokota


CNN profiles Megumi Yokata story



While I know about the North Korean abductions of Japanese, and might have read about Yokota's story in passing, I have to admit that I didn't know who she was when I was first looking through the photos. Everything was in Japanese, so with my rudimentary grasp of the language, and my own deducing skills, I tried to figure out what was the exhibition about. I knew it was about a young girl named 'Megumi-chan', I saw lots of heartwarming photos of her with her family, and then I gradually figured out that something bad happened to her, but I wasn't sure what it was. I understood the words 'disappearance', but not more. Then I saw photos of a grown-up Megumi getting married, and carrying her baby daughter, and I began to deduce that it might be some impostor case similar to Anastasia's.

I pondered a little more, studying the photos in the exhibition and finding myself feeling slightly suffocated by the heavy atmosphere caused by them. I walked out and someone showed me some books written by Megumi's mother, and then, a manga based on her too. I got increasingly intrigued, spotted an English version of Megumi's mother's memoir, and finally, after half an hour at the exhibition, knew what exactly was the exhibition about.

Prior to the opening ceremony, I bumped into Jason Gray again, but was horrified then that there weren't any popcorn for sale, so Mahmoud and I ran off to a nearby convenience store, bought some snickers and drinks before entering the hall for the TOKYO FILMeX Opening Ceremony. We were just in time. The ceremony was officiated by its festival director, the jury members of the FILMeX competition walked onto the stage, and I got very excited when I saw legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Ka-Fai, whom I've grown up watching. He had totally dyed his hair white! I went "OMFG, it's Tony Leung Ka-Fai and borrowed Mahmoud's camera to snap a photo when chairperson of the jury, Nogami Teruyo (frequent collaborator of Akira Kurosawa) was giving a speech. The other members of the jury onstage are Korean film director Song Il-Gon, Brazil / Sao Paulo International Film Festival President Leon Cakoff and French film critic Isabelle Regnier.

Tokyo Filmex Competition Jury: Nogami Teruyo, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Song Il-Gon, Isabelle Regnier, Leon Cakoff

Tokyo Filmex Competition Jury poses for photo session


In 'Big Tony's honour, I shall name, off the top of my head, the top 5 greatest Tony Leung film roles. Not in any particular order.

1) BIG D in Election (2005)

The role that won him his third Best Actor award at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2005. Since playing the hot-tempered and loud Big D in Johnnie To's film, he had been playing variations of this character in the past few years, like last year's THE DRUMMER.




Tony Leung Ka-Fai talks about his character in ELECTION


2) KEITH LU in 92 Legendary La Rose Noire

This role earned him his second Best Actor award. As a kid, my memory of Tony Leung Ka-Fai was defined by his performance as the effeminate detective Keith Lu (Lu Fong) in this classic film. Many remember TV actor Gallen Lo Ka Leung playing the same character in the TVB series Old Time Buddy.



3) CHU REN in He Ain't Heavy... He's My Father (1993)
This time-traveling fantasy has both Tony Leungs. Tony Leung Chiu Wai playing the son, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai playing the dad. Story's about 'Little Tony' traveling back in time by accident to the 1960s see the courtship of his parents. Yes, it's pretty much the storyline of BACK TO THE FUTURE, but with Hong Kong nostalgia instead. The most memorable scene for me was when both Tony started singing 'TELL LAURA I LOVE HER' (like BACK TO THE FUTURE, the son helping the father with the courtship of his mother) Aside from that, the Chu Ren character had numerous memorable lines that many people started quoting during my primary school period, like 我为人人,人人为我 (kinda means 'I serve everyone, and everyone serve me')

4) UNCLE NINTH in Men Suddenly In Black (2003)

In this unforgettable cameo (which he won Best Supporting actor for), Tony Leung Ka-Fai plays the hilariously tragic Uncle Ninth, who took the fall for his friends when their wives showed up at their favourite strip club. Since then, he had been placed under house arrest by his wife.


Haunting memories of Uncle Ninth's funnily tragic sacrifice


5) JIMMY YAM in Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone (1999)

Not exactly an iconic role, but I have to mention this cos I think this is an underrated film, and I consider it a classic (not to be confused with the so-so Andy Lau/Jacky Cheung film). Jimmy Yam is a rather complex role, even though it's less exaggerated and showy as the other four roles. A ruthless triad kingpin on top the world. Then he finds out he's the target of an assassination plot, decides to reevaluate this relationship with those around him. All kinds of funny stuff happen.


Jimmy's wife got kidnapped....


The trailer


Well, it's up to you guys to shower your appreciation for Tony Leung Ka-Fai here. Feel free to name his other awesome roles.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Final thoughts on Rome trip and BMW Shorties

I suggest you read the following posts (or skim through the photos I painstakingly took) before you read this:

Rome Day 1 (Pt. 1) - Grand hotels, real Italian pizza and Via Veneto!

Rome Day 1 (Pt. 2) - the EASY VIRTUE premiere with Jessica Biel, the bittersweet fun at the International Rome Film Fest

Rome Day 2 (Pt. 1) - Unforgettable sights during the half-day city tour

Rome Day 2 (Pt. 2) - PRIDE AND GLORY premiere, Colin Farrell hides from me as I walk down the red carpet


Zahir Omar, me, Maha and Ide Nerina outside Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi before departure
Zahir Omar, me, Maha and Ida Nerina outside Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi before departure


It is now the 21st of November, Friday as I'm typing this. 2 weeks had passed since I came back to Tokyo. 3 weeks had passed since I returned to Malaysia from Rome, 4 weeks had passed since I returned to Malaysia from Tokyo to fly to Rome. 6 months had passed since CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY won the two awards at BMW Shorties, and gave me the trip to Rome.

As time stretches even longer between those events and the present, it feels increasingly vain to bask on long-ago glory and reiterate the experience of a long-ago trip. Yet closure is always necessary, even though I often favour ambiguity and open-endedness in the endings of my own films.

The Rome trip is fleeting, but fun. I left with the joy of seeing so many iconic sights, yet mingled with a slight twinge of regret that I wasn't there longer, and also bemusement at the long-held expectation that I was supposed to present my film at the Rome Film Fest and only to realize belatedly that I didn't have to do that, and that all I had to do was just to sit back, relax and enjoy the festival for what it is. Also, traveling with Ida, Zahir and Maha had been a pleasure (and having Mui for half of the trip added a lot of fun too), and this isn't some artificial butt-kissing statement just to garner some goodwill. I'm a loner by nature, so to actually enjoy traveling companionship is almost a rarity.

Now I turn my thoughts upon the BMW SHORTIES. Only in its second year, and despite its imperfection, I can see a lot of good about this competition and other similar short film competitions. They'll be constantly discovering new filmmakers, motivating the creation of new works, and maybe, most invaluable of all, the Malaysian public gets to learn and enjoy more of the underappreciated short film medium. Long being regarded as a 'lesser medium', I find the common prejudice against short films rather baffling. To me, a film is a novel, and a short film is obviously a short story. The latter isn't a lesser art, just a different medium asking for different sort of stories or experimentation.

One of my fondest experiences during my stay in Perth was attending the TROPFEST, a major nationwide short film festival where each year, 16 of its finalists are screened at Sydney, which is then broadcast live via satellite to venues in Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Hobart, Melbourne and Adelaide. In each venue, thousands of people gather around to watch the films, admission's free. Whole thing's like a rock concert.

When asked for suggestions about what BMW SHORTIES should try next year, I suggested public screenings of the finalist films, mostly because of my nostalgia for Tropfest. One can say that having these films being streamed online is easier because anyone can watch it anytime and anywhere, but is it really? Most of the people I know had complained about the connection being too slow for them to load my film for viewing (of course, it was unfortunate that my film was nearly 20 minutes long). And I also belong to one of those old-fashioned types who think that the big screen experience can never be replicated, and that some cinematic experience is better enjoyed via the big screen, where the films are presented in a way where they are meant to be watched, and not through a tiny window where its video quality is compromised greatly by compression (and once again, it's also a matter of whether the video can finish loading when we have an internet provider as... reliable as Streamyx)

But will this be possible? Or is this just wishful thinking?

Ultimately, what BMW SHORTIES really is, in my opinion, is some sort of financial grant for new filmmakers, an opportunity to make an expensive short film with a budget of 75k (50k last year). People place themselves in consideration for this 'grant' by submitting their own short films. Last year, it was Zahir. This year, it's Nazim. Consequentially, they (BMW SHORTIES) have charged themselves with the task of choosing the most appropriate candidates to conjure a worthwhile project destined to travel extensively at major film festival circuits, and aiding the careers of these filmmakers. Let's make more of this happen then.

I had also said half-jokingly that maybe some cash prizes should be considered to accompany the nice trophies that they give out. Not because I prefer cash over a trip over a Rome trip, but mostly because I still think that some attractive incentives should be given to increase the amount of participants in future competitions. By adding more luster to this competition, the more participants they'll get, the higher the chances of seeing even better short films being made.

Perhaps the tone of this post is sickeningly idealistic, perhaps it's damnably daydreamy, which should be expected from its writer whose horoscope is Pisces. Even so, the Malaysian film scene is developing, not stagnating, so it's unsurprising if people start upping their ante considerably in the near future for BMW SHORTIES. The ball is in BMW SHORTIES' hands, it's just a matter of what sort of role they intend to play on the field. The possibilities are endless.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

[Tokyo International Film Festival] Swifty Reviews 'The Clone Returns To Homeland クローンは故郷をめざす'

The Clone Returns To Homeland posterI only managed to catch two films at the Tokyo International Film Festival last month before I got too busy preparing for the meetings at the Tokyo Project Gathering. The first one was the omnibus film headed by Mamoru Oshii, KILL. Which left me very underwhelmed, and immediately after that film, I went off to see THE CLONE RETURNS TO THE HOMELAND, because I was intrigued by its trailer and its title.

Kanji Nakajima's THE CLONE RETURNS TO THE HOMELAND is a rare live-action Japanese science fiction film, and even rarer, an arthouse sci-fi film more in the vein of SOLARIS (I haven't seen either Tarkovsky nor Soderbergh's version, but that's what this film's been commonly compared with in other reviews) than STAR WARS. And being modestly budgeted, the film's aesthetics reminds me of the much-underrated GATTACA. It's more about the ideas and philosophy behind the science, it is the cinematic equivalent of a 'hard sci-fi' novel (that all my life, I could never seem to finish), but instead of being too technical and dry, the deliberately-paced film won me over because it was so visually poetic and marvelously acted.

Film's about an astronaut, Kohei Takahara (Mitsuhiro Oikawa, dude's in many films, but most recently seen in a cameo at 20th CENTURY BOYS as the lead vocalist of the rock band in Tomodachi's cult) who is shaken by the recent death of a colleague and still blaming himself for the death of his twin brother during his childhood (shown in an extended flashback, very harrowing to watch, but Eri Ishida's performance as Kohei's mom when she first encounters the site of the accident, and later the aftermath, is absolutely fabulous and heartbreaking) The guy doesn't really get a break. His mom's dying too, and he promised his mom that he would live extra long to make up for his brother's death.

Alas, shit hit the fan, and he dies in the course of duty. His widow Tokie (Hiromi Nagasaku, the pitiful abused wife in FUNUKE, SHOW SOME LOVE YOU LOSERS! and the cougar in DON'T LAUGH AT MY ROMANCE) seeks compensation, but is horrified to find out that her husband has agreed to be brought back to life as a clone prior to his death. Yet she is incapable of accepting the man, insisting that he's different even if he's a complete copy of her late husband.

Unfortunately this early experiment of cloning is imperfect, and the clone is stuck at Kohei's traumatic memory of his twin brother's death, acting like a child. So the clone is put on observation (ready to be terminated once they create another better Kohei clone). The clone escapes to the countryside to the river where Kohei's twin was drowned to death, and finds the actual corpse of Kohei.

Or did he?

Towards the end, the film twisted to directions I wasn't entirely expecting, becoming increasingly abstract, viewers seeking logical explanations and actual closure to the many plot strands will be disappointed. The things that occur onscreen may have been mere hallucinations, or dreams, because I just couldn't believe that the high-tech facilities where the cloning is done is only within walking distance away from the countryside of Kohei's childhood.

There's not much I can explain, the last act is ambiguous like the last two episodes of NEON GENESIS EVANGELION, or the last few minutes of 2001: SPACE ODYSSEY, it's all up to audiences to draw their conclusions. It's like my latest short film, LOVE SUICIDES.

Ultimately, this film is more like a visual experience, or a mood piece, or a beat poem, than a traditional narrative. Metaphysical questions related to cloning are raised, but seldom answered. But because it also also science fiction, it may also not be taken seriously by the hardcore realist audiences who scoff at anything that slightly defies logic. I enjoyed the film, I was absolutely enthralled by Hideho Urata's cinematography (the countryside scenes are immensely stunning to look at, and once again, poetic).

When the film ended, a question and answer session with writer-director Kanji Nakajima began. An English translator came in front and asked who needed English translation, I was the only one who raised my hand. She stayed around and did the translation only for me. I don't know what her name was, but she was wonderful.

The screenplay of the film won the Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award two years ago (Miranda July's screenplay for ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW won the same thing too, and I also met this year's winner at the Tokyo Project Gathering). Wim Wenders served as a jury member that year, liked the script so much that he agreed to exec-produce the film. My memories of the session are vague, but I remember some young dude raising his hand, and then saying stuff about his friend being a student of the director's (apparently, Nakajima teaches too) and him being happy to finally see the director and his film.

Immediately, I thought:
Bullshit, you were sleeping through almost the entire film.

I knew for sure because the guy was sitting next to me (before I moved to the center during the Q and A session for a better view) and his snoring had annoyed me verily.

The director politely asked the kid to remain on-topic, and only ask questions relevant to the film.

Then the guy said something about "Oh, ah, I liked the outer space sequence, er, how did you shoot that? With the space shuttle and all?"

Immediately, I thought:
Yes, of course you liked that. That was the only scene you remember, and you fell asleep after that, genius.

"I borrowed the space shuttle from NASA. To tell you the truth, this film is actually much more expensive than RED CLIFF." Nakajima deadpanned (RED CLIFF was the opening film of the Tokyo Film Fest).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Swifty Reviews 'Ichi 市'

poster of Ichi starring Haruka AyaseI first saw the teaser of ICHI back in June, it was shown before the other Haruka Ayase vehicle, CYBORG, SHE. And I was mildly intrigued by the idea of doing a gender switch on the classic Zatoichi character, of course, by the time CYBORG, SHE ended, I immediately took a liking to Haruka Ayase and made a mental note to watch this film.

It's been a busy year for the actress, having four films being released (the other two being the Koki Mitani ensemble comedy hit THE MAGIC HOUR, and the latest HAPPY FLIGHT, which came out recently and I may watch soon) And I think she is a very good actress when given the right material (I was first introduced to her via the hideous J-dorama TATTA HITOTSU NO KOI たったひとつの恋 JUST ONE LOVE, which I stopped watching after 2 episodes, and I didn't think she was that promising. A mistake.)

Gradually, I found out more about ICHI, learning that it's the first live-action film from Fumihiko Sori, the director of 2002's PING PONG (he also did last year's animated feature VEXILLE, which I haven't watched). I watched PING PONG only a few weeks ago on late-night TV in Tokyo, and that movie was fabulous enough to increase my anticipation of this movie.

I'm not that well-versed in the Zatoichi mythos, having only seen Takeshi Kitano's 2003 version (which I really enjoyed), and having some vague memories of the older black and white films that my dad used to watch long ago during my childhood. And because once again, I was watching the film without subtitles, there were many guesswork involved, I had thought that this film was a re-imagining, so it never occurred to me that this film could be a partial continuation of the previous films until I read Todd Brown's review on Twitch, and that the female protagonist was being trained by the original Zatoichi, who is possibly her dad.

The plot of this film is similar to what I remembered from Beat Takeshi's Zatoichi. The wandering protagonist goes to a village to make a living by performing music, but finds her normal day job interrupted when she unwittingly gets involved in a Yakuza war.

The disfigured main bad guy Banki is played by Shidou Nakamura, and he makes a lot of crazy faces, like the bad guy character played by Koichi Sato in SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (Riki Takeuchi's also in the film as Banki's second-in-command, and I agree that he was definitely engaged in a crazy-face contest with Shidou). Yosuke Kubozuka, main actor in PING PONG (and that was probably the most recent film I've seen with him in it, I actually haven't seen anything he did after he fell off from the balcony of his condo back in 2004), plays the son of the local yakuza, who is pissed that he's helpless against Banki's gang. (before I read Twitch's review, I thought he was the son of the sheriff or something, was never aware that villages are protected by Yakuza) There's also a subplot of a useless and bumbling wandering samurai played by Takao Osawa who befriends Ichi, and can never seem to draw his sword out of his sheath due to some tragic incident, and a motherless little boy who serves as Ichi's guide.

What I thought about this film, after I walked out from the cinema last week, was that it was crafted very well by Sori. It was beautifully photographed, the stark snowy landscape adding upon the tragic and isolation of the Ichi character, and certain shots are composed in a very artful and unconventional manner, they really show show Sori's indie roots, separating him from most bland and boring TV-trained directors I've seen recently in Japan. Aside from the gorgeous cinematography, I also noticed that Haruka Ayase was also framed in a way that most shots accentuate her sharp features (her face is normally tilted in a slight angle). I guess that's the thing about watching foreign language films without subtitles, since I'm not busy reading the subtitles, I get to pay attention to other details.

Aside from the climatic battle sequence, each action scene happens in brief spurts, but choreographed very well. So it is very thrilling whenever Ichi's forced to draw her sword from her cane. However, this film is quite a downer, and Ichi's a perpetually lonely and tragic figure. Much unlike previous portrayals of the Blind Samurai character, whom I remember more as a cheery, laidback rogue whose blindness can sometimes be used for comedic purposes. Not in Ichi's case, especially when towards the end of the film, there is an extended series of flashbacks that show her past, and makes the character so tragic it's unbearable... sigh.

I think this is Sori's homage to this classic genre, so instead of loading the film with anachronisms, or throwing in nice little tap dancing moments, he follows genre conventions respectfully and with fondness, throwing in archetypes and predictable plot developments (Banki fights honourably, but ultimately he's 100% evil). In the end, I find it a little difficult to like the film, I truly appreciated it for the filmmaking, for the production values, for the performances, but I wasn't blown away. The film didn't do well at the domestic box-office, but I still think it's a film worth admiring. But of course, I rather see Sori inventing something new and unexpected like he did with his debut feature PING PONG.


ICHI trailer


Monday, November 17, 2008

17th of November. Mom's Birthday. A Video Retrospective

Today's my mom's birthday. Unlike last year, where I was able to celebrate the day with a whole gang of relatives like my grandma, uncle, aunt and cousins, I'm here in Tokyo. So for this event, I shall re-post some of the older videos of my mom so that you people will know her more.

My mom comes from the city of Ipoh, that's where we usually go to celebrate Chinese New Year, by visiting the family from her side. This is a video of one of those visits back in 2006.


Celebrating Chinese New Year 2006 In Ipoh


We spent a brief weekend there again during the end of the same year. My dad, Cousin Hing Yip and I hopped into a car to visit places of my mother's past (my dad's a romantic).


Weekend In Ipoh Pt. 1: Day And Night In Ipoh


Weekend In Ipoh Pt. 2: Unlocking My Mother's Past


I just realized that due to bad video compression, you can't really see my mom that clearly from the videos.

Anyway, I may have made some off-hand remarks about my mother being a singer (before marrying my dad... actually, the story of my parents' courtship had appeared on newspaper before), and while she had asked numerous times whether I could make some videos using her old songs during my last trip in Malaysia... which was, well, two weeks ago, I haven't done it.

But if you're interested about my mom's singing voice, you can check out this video. In this medley, my mom's singing can be heard during the 1:41-2:12 minute mark, the 3:54-4:10 mark, the 6:50-7:15 mark. You won't miss it since you'll see a photo of her during her segments, if you can read Chinese, look for the name 戚舜琴, interestingly, my 3rd Auntie (mom's younger sister) also sang in the medley, her photo is next to mom's, she's the one with short hair and wearing light blue shirt. I posted videos of her (3rd Auntie) comeback performance back in June, if you haven't seen it, you should see it now as well.

As you can see, even though my mom's quite tiny, she had a great voice, like the legendary Edith Piaf (who was tiny but had a great voice too). Of course, somehow there had been speculations that my mom lost her singing powers after giving birth to my cute little sister. It was a bummer: (if that sounds like the plot from CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY... well, all I can say is that, the film isn't entirely fictional *winks*)

Posing whilst newborn sister is sleeping.
The 5-year-old Swifty, with newborn little sister.


It's not everyday that you'll Google for your own mom on the Net. But today's special. I can't find much on Google, but then, I managed to dig out some interesting stuff on Baidu (China's equivalent of Google), and found a recent video interview with my mom. After marriage, my mom pulled a Momoe Yamaguchi and left showbiz, moving on to other things. And since 2000, she had been running a publishing company known to publish Buddhist-themed publications like Merit Magazine 福报 (available every 3 months), or vegetarian cookbooks like 有福同享. She's involved in numerous Buddhist-related events, humanitarian efforts and the like.

This is the video of the interview with my mom regarding a Buddhist praying ceremony that she attended.



I actually compared my mom to Edith Piaf and Momoe Yamaguchi in the same post, talk about being filial!

Happy birthday, Mom!
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