April 2, 2014

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN [Blu Ray Review]

Filed under: DVD Reviews — Q @ 4:40 pm

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN. A Twentieth-Century Fox Film Production. U.S. 1 hour 52 minutes, 1973. Directed and Produced by Stuart Rosenberg. Written by Thomas Rickman, based on the novel by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall. Cinematography: David M. Walsh. Music: Charles Fox. Cast: Walter Matthau (Sargent Jake Martin), Bruce Dern (Inspector Leo Larsen), Louis Gossett Jr. (Inspector Larrimore), Anthony Zerbe (Lieutenant Steiner), Albert Paulsen (Henry Camerero), Cathy Lee Crosby (Kay Butler), Joanna Cassidy (Monica), Val Avery (Inspector Pappas), Mario Gallo (Boddy Mow), Clifton James (Jim Maloney), Frances Lee McCain (Prostitute), David Moody (Pimp).

Long-time mystery fans might recall that Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy was not the only Swedish genre fiction to have hit it big with North American readership. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a common-law wife and husband team, were prolific mystery writers who wrote ten police procedurals starring Superintendent Martin Beck from 1965 to 1975. Their fourth novel, The Laughing Policeman, actually won Edgar Award given by the Mystery Writers of America, and served as a basis for this sole American cinematic adaptation (as of yet) of the pair’s literary output. The novel is a taut, phlegmatic mystery in the classic sense, with a genuine plot twist at the end. The film version written by Thomas Rickman (Coal Miner’s Daughter) and directed by Stuart Rosenberg, however, is a loosely structured, very ’70s-style concoction that, despite the eyebrow-raising level of violence, occasionally threatens to sputter to a halt.

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There is no real urgency to Martin’s (called “Jake” Martin in the movie) investigation of the mass murder of a public transit bus passengers, who gradually suspects that the heinous crime was designed to cover up the intended murder of one of the passengers, his partner who was looking into a long-unsolved murder case of a prostitute. Rosenberg, who displayed uncommon sensitivity in directing an eclectic cast in The Voyage of the Damned (1976), seems to be neither interested in psychological insights nor in genre thrills. Like many urban crime films of the similar vintage, the movie is primarily held together by life-like interactions of the cops, petty criminals and various professionals involved in the public service sector, essayed by veteran and up-and-coming actors, although none of the roles are particularly distinguished enough to leave indelible impressions in the minds of the viewers.

Walter Matthau cuts a fine figure as a hard-boiled, gum-chewing senior cop, but as a character his Martin is something of a sourpuss (roughly manhandling his dead partner’s woman, played by Cathy Lee Crosby, and sullenly withstanding harangues from his neurotic superior Anthony Zerbe). His borderline-racist New York cop in Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (1974), for instance, was a much better developed character. Bruce Dern is also underused: he is shown to engage in “routine” activities like forcing a stool pigeon into a urinal in a police bathroom but much of this feels tacked on to give his character a veneer of naturalism. Leaving a strong impression in a brief role is the outrageously beautiful Joanna Cassidy as a nurse hit upon by Dern’s detective: Louis Gossett Jr. has a nice turn before his breakout role in TV’s Roots, although, again, his character merely sits in the sideline in regards to the main plot.

The film was obviously made by those with a progressive outlook, what with the strong position given to Gossett’s black detective, yet its portrayal of San Francisco’s gay subculture seems rather perfunctory (added just because the setting is San Francisco?) as well as ambivalent. On the one hand, Matthau’s Sargent Martin has no trouble shooting down Leo’s suggestion that the blackmail based on a character’s homosexuality might have been the reason for the culprit’s desperate act of mass murder: he quips, “’Fruiters’ now flaunt their [sexuality], rather than keeping it in the closet.” At the same time, the culprit’s “sexually perverse” orientation is sort of floated in the background, as if that is a motivation enough for his original murder of a prostitute, which is never really explicated to the audience’s satisfaction.

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David M. Walsh’s location shooting captures the beautiful city in a pleasant, naturalistic light, punctuated by gritty scenes of violence, autopsy and confrontations in public settings. To give credit where it is due, the film does include several, excitingly edited chase sequences that makes good use out of narrow, steep roads climbing up and down dem hills of San Francisco. With these many talented actors in the stew, we never entirely lose interest in the movie, but it does not quite become compelling or special either.

Blue Ray Presentation:

MASSENMORD IN SAN FRANCISCO [Massacre in San Francisco]. Region Free. Blu Ray, Carol Media-Twentieth-Century Fox Home Entertainment. Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1. English/German Dolby Digital Mono. No Subtitles. Supplement: Theatrical Trailer, German language biographies of Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern and Louis Gossett Jr. Release Date: September 21, 2012.

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The Laughing Policeman receives a Region Free Blu Ray release from Germany’s Carol Media, that have also released minor but interesting US titles such as The Android (with Klaus Kinski), The Naked Face and Mambo Kings in Blu Ray. The visual quality is okay to good, not top-notch, with the elements in a reasonable but not pristine shape. Color timing appears to be correct: complexion tends to run a bit on the ruddy side but otherwise the filmic texture is fine, except when the scenes featuring actresses are pictured in soft-focus. The Dolby Digital mono is serviceable, with a typical ’70s American film ambience. I sampled German audio track out of curiosity: other than the fact that voice actors dubbing Matthau and Dern sound completely unlike them, the dubbing crew seem to be working extremely hard to approximate the flow of colloquial English. English subtitles are sorely missed.

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Even though the Blu Ray cover (and all retailer specs) lists the running time as 1 hour and 45 minutes, the actual film in the Blu Ray clicks at 1 hour 52 minutes, identical to the IMDB listing. Including this sloppy mistake, the Blu Ray package is far from attractive, with Bruce Dern’s name not even showing up in the marquee for some reason. However, for fans of the film, the added resolution and improved visuals and audio of a Blu Ray should be sufficiently attractive.

*Blu Ray copy courtesy of DaaVeeDee.com

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March 4, 2014

R.I.P. Michael Shea, 1946-2014

Filed under: Personal Observations — Q @ 6:52 pm

I was shocked and disheartened to learn that SF, fantasy and horror author and one of the foremost practitioners of the New Cthulhu Mythos stories, Michael Shea, has unexpectedly passed away. It comes as a blow, since Mr. Shea was located in Northern California and I was hoping that one day I could get to meet him in person… even perhaps starting the process of introducing his works into Korean language.

Michael Shea’s short story collection Polyphemus, published in 1987 from the fabled Arkham House, is one of the most dog-eared and tattered copies of English-language fiction I still own, along with such genre classics as John Shirley’s In Darkness Waiting, T.E.D. Klein’s Dark Gods and Robert Charles Wilson’s The Perseids and Other Stories. I have read every story included in collection many, many times but “The Autopsy,” one of the greatest horror-SF short stories ever written, holds a special place in my psyche… its utterly inimitable combination of luridly sophisticated, hypnotically florid prose, sharp, taut characterizations and ultimately humane perspective is thoroughly addictive. I have returned to the story time and again, dozens and scores of times… maybe really even more than a hundred times… to savor Shea’s virtuoso verbal orchestration of a cold, demonic alien mind sparring with a world-weary American professional who find solace and pleasure in the acts of dissecting corpses.

He found his parochial pity for Earth alone stretched to the transstellar scope this traveler commanded, to the whole cosmic trash yard with its bulldozed multitudes of corpses; galactic wheels of carnage– stars, planets with their most majestic generations– all trash, cracked bones and foul rags that pooled, settled, reconcatenated in futile symmetries gravid with new multitudes of briefly animate trash…

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It is even more heartbreaking to think that Mr. Shea has just finished the second installment, Attack at Sunrise, of what promised to be at least a great trilogy following in the steps of The Extra, an outrageously entertaining hybrid of ’50s monster-movie mayhem and the corporate Hollywood satire. Now we will never read its possible third installment… which could have been called Burn, Hollywood, Burn, I would like to think. Probably I will miss his supremely witty yet authentically grandiose Cthulhu Mythos stories most. In the end, though, he has left behind a sizable legacy of numerous short stories, the Nifft the Lean saga and other novels, all of which I will continue to treasure as long as my brain still manages to decode English language writing. Goodbye, Mr. Shea, thank you for giving this Korean fan years of reading pleasure.

January 3, 2014

My Favorite DVDs and Blu Rays of 2013

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Personal Observations — Q @ 7:57 pm

That’s it, another year now passing beyond our grasp and becoming a fodder for the famished Langoliers… 2013 was in many ways an unusually active year for me, leading to some notable and hugely enjoyable achievements, albeit with minor irritations and setbacks, too. It would have been really nice if I had the foresight to schedule my second book manuscript project so that I would have a rough draft around this time of the year, but I can live with the delay… and who knows, some good might come out of it as well. The Big Medical Crisis of the 2011-2012 winter season is still casting a shadow over my life but overall things are moving forward. Youngmi’s parents are settling down in Oakland, Yunie is enthusiastically playing piano for us whenever we talk on Skype, my friends, colleagues and former students are generous and responsive as ever. Really, I can’t complain too loudly. Maybe about the idiot politicians in the U.S. (The Tea Party and…), Japan (Abe Shinzo and…) and Korea (The ruling party and…), but hey, I bet ancient Egyptians complained about their idiot politicians too at the end of their calendar year.

Korean cinema outwardly regained its box office muscles in 2013 although the industry’s major structural problems– most importantly the overwhelming dominance of a few blockbusters of theater screens that leave a vast majority of motion pictures barely able to recoup their production costs– have not been fixed. Meanwhile, cinema-watching on the home front is continuing the slow and incremental process of conversion toward streaming/downloading, although as should be obvious from the present best-of-2013 list, Blu Rays have clearly become the dominant mode in which I watch and collect motion pictures.

Even though Blu Ray as an optic disc format is still subject to occasional hiccups, labels such as Shout! Factory (and its horror-SF subsidiary, Scream Factory), Olive Films, Twilight Times, Arrow Video, British Film Institute’s Flipside (both in England) and, of course, Criterion have firmly entrenched themselves in the practice of supplying great, under-appreciated, rarely seen and indescribably weird motion pictures of the past to consumers like myself with a reliable regularity. Old collector’s habits die hard, and I still find myself mostly using Netflix and Hulu Plus for “fast food” consumption of the low-budget horror cinema, and waiting for Criterion to release their amazing inventory of Janus Cinema titles stocked in Hulu Plus as Blu Rays, and if not, as Eclipse DVDs. As streaming/downloading services always “reserving the right” to withdraw their products at any time, this collector cannot quite shake the feeling of distrust.

The upshot is that it was about three times more difficult for me to generate the top ten, even when I cheated and extended the number to top twelve (and cheated further and mixed in a few different items for Korean and English-language lists), for Blu Rays than for DVDs and streamed/downloaded films combined. In fact, even though the number of DVDs purchased in 2013 were only slightly smaller than those of Blu Rays (not counting individual films in monster collections like the 25-disc Zatoichi), the pool of candidates for top ten has shrunken even further compared to the last year. The reason is very simple: the desirable movies are now directly coming out to Blu Ray. Now I am picking up the Blu Rays of the films that I have only read about or was completely unaware of, in addition to crowd-pleasers or old masterpieces that I had missed out or avoided (due to bad transfer, for instance) as DVD editions. Conversely, the improved resolution of the Blu Ray format has added unmistakable layers of value to select classics, whether they are silent films nearly one century old, or British or Italian ’70s horror cinema with wacked-out lighting schemes. We are now preparing to overhaul the home theater system in the living room, complete with the addition of a subwoofer and rear speakers (I have been using an old 5-speaker system in my study for reviewing DVDs and Blu Rays all these years), and it is bloody obvious that this setup will stack the deck even further in favor of Blu Rays. Such is the price of progress we must pay.

As before, the list reflects the discs that grabbed my attention and gave me viewing pleasures like no other in 2013, not a collection of the “best” films (however you may define the “best”) or highest-quality packages. Some are total, sight-unseen discoveries, a few are re-visits that have obliterated the memories of previous viewings, and yet others are oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-I-can-watch-this-again, nostalgic jolts from the past. This of course means that some absolutely brilliant masterpieces of world cinema in unbelievably beautiful, majestic hi-def presentations did not make the list (not surprisingly, many releases from Criterion: Nashville, Badlands, City Lights and Medium Cool, to name only a tiny fraction). I am not ashamed to admit that this list essentially exists to gratify my collector’s ego: I can only bow in a humble gratitude if anyone finds this list helpful in his or her own search for the interesting, weird and wonderful works of cinema.

Shall we, then, move onto the list? First there are ten DVDs, or more accurately nine DVDs and one streamed film, and then we move onto twelve Blu Rays. I usually upload a parallel Korean-language list on Djunaboard with a slightly different content but since it is regrettably under repair from malware/virus attack, I will do that at M’s Desk, my alternate blog site. [Update: Djunaboard is back! It is off and running as of January 23 and I have already had a couple of inquiries about the 2013 best-of list… so the Korean-language list will be up at Djunaboard as planned, sometime in early February]

10. Marine Boy: The Complete First Season (Warner Archive Collection, Region 1)

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Well, some of you may roll your eyes at the mention of Marine Boy, or yet others (especially young ‘uns) might tilt their heads in befuddlement, but no matter. The series, produced by Japan Tele-Cartoons (Terebi Dōga) in 1965-1966, 1969-1971 and picked up by Seven Arts-Warner Brothers for North American broadcasting, is one of the key missing links between Saturday morning cartoon animation of the Hanna-Barbera variety and the Japanese anime. Because its character and plots were designed with export to the English-speaking market in mind, they have flavors distinct from the classic Japanese anime made in the similar time frame but obviously geared for the domestic viewers, including Astro Boy. You would think Warner Archive’s VOD of Marine Boy season one will reveal limitations of relatively stiff, old-style animation but mostly it shows off its relentlessly fast-faced action, charmingly juvenile yet cool design and sometimes intimidatingly surrealistic or hallucinogenic explosions of (supposedly) underwater color, as various sea monsters— an anthropophagous gigantic jellyfish, a large clamshell with hypnotic power of suggestion and a swarm of noxious red starfish, among others— attack the Ocean Patrol and its top agent, Marine Boy!

9. Body Melt: Katarina’s Nightmare Theater Edition (Scorpion Releasing, Region 1)

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This iconic ‘80s splatter-horror from New Zealand directed by Philip Brophy, an experimental musician, Melbourne-based scholar of Japanese animation, film music scores and sound design (and an author of an excellent early article on Korean horror cinema, to boot) and cinema studies professor at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, had previously been available from Vanguard in a disappointing 4:3 transfer, but Scorpion’s new edition is considerably superior with popping colors, properly matted to 1.78:1. Often compared to Peter Jackson’s early splatterfests Bad Taste and Dead-Alive, Brophy’s mordantly witty (and genuinely gross) satire is a unique (unborn, melted) baby of its own. It no doubt left indelible impressions on the young minds who first stumbled onto it as a VHS copy carried in the neighborhood rental shop.

8. Kim Kee-duk Collection (Blue Kino- Korean Film Archive, Region Free)

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No, not that troubled auteur Kim Ki-duk of the Bad Guy and Pieta fame, but Kim Kee-duk, a 1934-born classic-era director perhaps best known to American film fans as the director of Yongary: The Monster from the Deep (1967), available in a spanking, clean transfer in Region 1, with the Herman Cohen-produced Konga (1961) as an MGM Midnight Movie double bill. Another must-have for the fans of Korean cinema, this Korean Archive DVD collection puts together four films from different genres— a youth melodrama, a war film, a Cold War human drama and a proto-feminist romantic comedy— all robust commercial successes in their time and perhaps more representative of what the ‘60s Korean theatergoers truly enjoyed than the works of his internationally better-known contemporaries such as Lee Man-hee or Im Kwon-taek. And like so many other classic Korean cinema, these films are very much capable of sneaking up on and slapping us silly for underestimating their emotional and intellectual prowess: just go through the stunningly taut scenes of dismantling anti-personnel mines in Five Marines (1961), or the climactic torrent of existential despair overwhelming three main characters in North and South (1965), that clearly anticipates the similar sentiment that dominates the ending of The Front Line (2012), and you will see what I mean.

7. The Facts of Murder/Il Maledetto imbroglio (Mya Communications, Region 1)

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This was a big surprise, a disc that I purchased without knowing anything about it, simply trusting in the names of Pietro Germi and Claudia Cardinale (one of those European stars who seem to have dominated the Korean TV screens of ‘60s and ‘70s yet probably virtually unknown to North American viewers of today). It handsomely paid off: turned out that I had seen The Facts of Murder a million years ago on Korean TV with the (probably Japanese-imposed) title The Detective. It even features that ultra-familiar tune Sinno me moro composed by, who else, Carlo Rustichelli. A fabulous murder-mystery with a biting dash of social commentary, all filmed in super-attractive black-and-white: c’e nulla di non amare, no? We can always use more releases of classic Italian cinema.

6. The Machine That Kills Bad People/La Macchina Amazzacattivi (Criterion Collection, Hulu Plus Streaming)

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The one entry here from the pool of films not released on DVDs or Blu Rays as far as I know (at least in North America) but I was able to catch on a streaming service is, what d’ya know, another early ‘60s Italian classic. This one is just as unexpected: a comic fable directed in a strikingly Neo-Realist manner by the great Roberto Rossellini. Set in an immediate-postwar Southern Italian island, this altogether delightful fairy tale is about a local photographer who receives a blessing (or is it?) from St. Andrew, that one of his cameras be endowed with the power to kill off anyone… all he has to do is to take a picture of the mark’s photo again, and he or she simply freezes forever in whatever pose assumed in the original photo. Initially horrified by his newfound ability, it doesn’t take long for the photographer to learn to use it to “cleanse” the city of such social ills as usury, hooliganism and corruption of public officials. Digitally restored in 2011 by Cineteca Bologna and The Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory, this Criterion presentation is simply amazing, even as a streaming file (it helps that our new fortified internet mechanisms protect the connection from breaking down as much as they can). If you think a “social-realist surrealist fable” makes no sense either as an English phrase or a description of any work of art, you gotta watch this baby, signore.

5. Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classic Collection IX (TCM Vault Collection/The Film Foundation, Region 1)

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The steady flow of classic film noir in affordable DVD collections has not been severed thanks to the Turner Classic Movies, Sony Pictures (owners of the Columbia Films) and now the Film Foundation (and that means the films come with introductions by Martin Scorsese). This fourth Columbia Pictures film noir collection descends further down into the territory of acute paranoia and (anti-Communist) hysteria, Joseph H. Lewis’s So Dark the Night (1946) and Gordon Douglas’s Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) being standouts. But as has been the case with the previous film noir collections, even when a movie is frankly less than memorable— as is the case with Walk East on Beacon! (1952)— there is always something instructive or interesting to discover in these classics of bygone Hollywood. My only complaint with the package is about the bizarre disc-holding method used by the foldout plastic case: if in doubt, can we just use sleeves?

4. Glenn Ford Undercover Crimes Collection (TCM Vault Collection/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Region 1)

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And speaking of TCM vault collection, this bundle of a wide genre of films starring the inimitable Glenn Ford beat the film noir collection to punch. Glenn Ford is one classic Hollywood actor whose filmography has now become as familiar as that of Michael Caine or Christian Bale thanks to the DVD revolution, especially the WAC and other MOD releases of classic oaters and programmers, and not just prestigious Vincent Minnelli projects like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962). Ford is alternately charming, mysterious and engrossing in a remarkable array of characterizations showcased here, sweaty and wracked with self-doubt in Convicted (1950), beautifully playing against the mountainous Broderick Crawford, irascible yet irritatingly attractive in Framed (1947), and so on. A true star-actor, conveying so much through mere flicks of his eyes.

3. Masaki Kobayashi against the System (Eclipse Series No. 38, Criterion Collection, Region 1)

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This is a no-brainer choice of the year for the best DVD list, and would have taken the top spot had it not been two other discs below. It is rather problematic that in English-language classic Japanese films are still mostly known through the genre of jidai-geki (period piece), otherwise (often erroneously) known as “samurai films.” Okamoto Kihachi, to give but one example, is primarily known to North American viewers via his bakumatsu (end of the Tokugawa rule) swordplay films like Samurai Assassin (1965) and The Sword of Doom (1966), excellent as they are, and his far more controversial and personal works such as the Desperado Outpost (1960) series, The Elegant Life of Mr. Eburi Man (1963) and Human Bullet (1968) are nowhere to be seen in Region 1. Kobayashi Masaki, the director of two world-class masterpieces Harakiri (1962) and The Human Condition (1959-1961), suffers from the same problem, but Criterion’s Eclipse series has gone a long way in rectifying that situation. Herewith are Kobayashi’s more political and socially conscious takes on contemporary Japan, Black River (1956) and The Inheritance (1962) rivaling any Euro-American film that deal with the same themes of alienation and material greed. Yet, the true revelation here may be I Will Buy You (1956), a calmly condemnatory exploration of the baseball recruitment game that manages to expose the inherent corruption of the system without demonizing its players… given the incredible popularity of the sports in Japan, I am rightly flabbergasted that Kobayashi was able to take such a merciless stab at it. Perhaps it was made before the baseball really took off as a national sport. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he received death threats from irate fans over this motion picture.

2. Ikariye XB-1 (Second Run, PAL- Region Free)

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Holy Crab Nebula! This film was for long years one of the holy grails of the ardent classic SF cinema fans this side of (now-no-longer-extant) Czechoslovakia. It even played at Pucheon Fantastic Film Festival but it just so happened I missed it. And now, it is available through an English-friendly Region 2 DVD from Second Run, the specialist in Eastern European cinema. Ikarie XB-1, loosely based on Stanislaw Lem’s Magellan Cloud, is a brilliantly designed and executed science fiction masterpiece, way ahead of American movies in the same time period (1963!) both conceptually and aesthetically. It is quite obvious that the film directly influenced Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but it is even more obvious that TV shows Star Trek and Space 1999 blatantly ripped off this relatively short (82 minutes) film’s every single plot point—a birth of a “space child,” twentieth-century spaceship drifting and encountering a future expedition, the “black sun,” et cetera— for their individual episodes. A truly pioneering work of science fiction cinema that harkens back to the foundational spirit of space exploration and scientific investigation without a shred of concession to space-opera dick-waving or militaristic hardware fetishism, Ikarie XB-1 belongs to any serious SF fan’s film library.

1. The Beast with Five Fingers (Warner Archive Collection, Region 1)

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And my favorite DVD number one spot goes to one of the last remarkable horror films from the classical Hollywood period, starring who else, Peter Lorre. While not nearly as deliriously uncanny as the latter’s early starring vehicle with a similar theme, Mad Love (1931), The Beast with Five Fingers is a genuinely scary confection that, in a harmonious conflation of superb special effects and Lorre’s extremely convincing bug-eyed performance, scales the very heights of Gothic menace. Ach, wir vermissen dich, Peter!

OK, now I am moving toward Blu Rays… and for beginners I must confess that more than twenty well-qualified discs, which might have made the list in previous years, had to be dropped for frankly nonsensical, or otherwise deeply personal reasons, and it pains to enumerate them, not to mention this list is already getting alarmingly long. Heaven knows I would love to get to review them all, one by one! It will probably require another, no, make it two more, entire lifetime to do justice to all these great works of cinematic art. Ahh…

12. Bakumatsu Taiyōden [The Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era] (Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, Region B)

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One of the more popular classic Japanese films that lack obvious elements of appeal to the “Western” viewers, Bakumatsu taiyōden is supposedly a jidai-geki parody of the “Sun Tribe” films (many of them starring the megastar Ishihara Yūjirō and penned by Yūjirō’s brother, Ishihara Shintarō, the President Wannabe of Japan– eh? Yeah, I am being sarcastic) but is in fact much more than that: taking a burlesque comedy that unabashedly reproduces all manners of melodramatic and comic cliches dating back from the Edo period, director Kawashima Yūzō infuses the busy proceedings with the subtle political and social commentary as well as a surprising degree of pathos, perfectly captured in Frankie Sakai’s lively but tough performance. A scoundrel and grifter who sees an opportunity for profit in every squabble or instance of hypocrisy, Sakai’s Saheiji is a commoner protagonist who holds his own against thuggish young samurai activists led by Takasugi Shinsaku (Ishihara), plotting to burn down a foreigner’s residence: yet he is also afflicted with consumption and is anticipating an early death. This HD transfer from Masters of Cinema is a product of Shochiku’s 100-year anniversary digital restoration in collaboration with Asahi Newspaper, perhaps not as sparkling as some Region 1 restoration jobs but many degrees ahead of the previous video incarnations.

11. Runaway Train (Arrow Video, Region B)

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Arrow Video has been steadily releasing top-ranked, highly desirable genre and cult films– Mario Bavas, Dario Argentos, George Romeros, Brian De Palmas– in jam-packed, special edition Blu Rays coming in distinctive, white cardboard boxes adorned with freshly commissioned cover arts: their Region B titles have sometimes proven to be distinctively superior to (comparatively more expensive) Region A releases, as was the case with, say, De Palma’s The Fury. Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train was the notorious Golan-Globus Cannon Film’s best shot at the Oscar prestige, adopted from a Kurosawa Akira screenplay and featuring two of the career-best performances from John Voight and Eric Roberts. Not a usual Arrow Video title, for sure, but despite its sometimes annoying ’80s aesthetics (including a dated electronic score from the usually talented Trevor Jones), the movie is a great, existentialist action film ripe for re-appreciation. The label puts together a superlative package with customary gusto, packing in brand-new, substantive interviews with Konchalovsky, Voight, Roberts and other participants.

10. The Ballad of Narayama [1958] (Criterion Collection, Region A)

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Kinoshita Keisuke’s 1958 adaptation of Fukazawa Shichiro’s short story is perhaps not as well known outside Japan as Imamura Shohei’s 1983 Canne Prize winner, but it is equally emotional, mysterious, beautiful and, in the end, unbelievably moving. Kinoshita uses boldy theatrical techniques that highlight artifice of the background but instead of making the film “artistic” in the conventional sense, they render it mythical and timeless. As a historian I cannot but find problems with Kinoshita’s “feminism” that insists on glorifying the self-sacrifice of the Japanese women (especially more so in the depiction of their suffering due to wartime or postwar poverty), but Ballad of Narayama, like a judo master who bests a much younger and muscular opponent, renders such ideological objections completely irrelevant. Criterion’s Blu Ray is a revelation in its visual splendor of the landscape and sets as well as in its heartbreaking depictions of hopping black crows and scattered white bones.

9. Schalcken The Painter (British Film Institute, Flipside Series, Region Free)

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For the sheer number of eyeball-popping-out-of-skull discoveries of the “B” or “obscure” cinema in English language, the BFI’s Flipside series has no parallel. In this year, too, they released so many indescribable rare items in Blu Ray-DVD double format, no less, and John Krish’s Capture or Sax Logan’s forgotten TV horror Sleepwalker might have easily qualified for the list… except for Schalcken The Painter, a BBC TV episode made for an anthology series Omnibus. Originally filmed in 16mm, the short but feature-length (one hour and ten minutes) film is reconstructed in ridiculously gorgeous hi-def presentation that brings to life the carefully mounted visuals that marvelously replicates the painting style of Dutch masters. Based on the genuinely disturbing short story written by Sheridan Le Fanu, who invents a quasi-supernatural, cruel tragedy regarding the real-life Dutch painter Godfried Shalcken, that purports to explain some of the just-noticeably disturbing elements in the latter’s paintings. Beautiful, sinister and harrowing, it is like a super-artistic episode of Night Gallery pulled from broadcasting for being too disturbing.

8. The Thief of Baghdad [1924] (Cohen Media Group, Region Free)

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There is so much unbridled magic in this silent version of The Thief of Baghdad, from unbelievably athletic Douglas Fairbanks who seems to defy laws of gravity right in front of our eyes, to William Cameron Menzies’s fabulous Art Deco production design, to outlandish yet matter-of-fact unfolding of special effects– flying carpets, flame-breathing dragons, a charmingly “water-free” undersea duel with what the heck is that, a sea spider?, culminating in an instant materialization of thousands of soldiers, armed and ready to bound for an assault! Even the stereotypically “Oriental” villains, played by the Japanese émigre Kamiyama Sōjin (1884-1954) and the Chinese-American star Anna May Wong, are given moments of dignity and far more complex (and attractive) characters than Asian villains in today’s Hollywood blockbusters. Watching The Thief of Baghdad with fresh eyes makes one seriously wonder: what is it that we have lost from cinema since we stopped making silent films?

7. The Man Who Knew Too Much [1934] (Criterion Collection, Region A)

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A thoroughly delightful early Alfred Hitchcock from 1934: watching this film back to back with Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger (1946), another espionage thriller that could have easily made the list, I could not help draw comparison between Hitch and Lang. But one thing is clear: Fritz Lang, or any other film director, for that matter, could never have made The Man Who Knew Too Much the way Hitchcock have done here, mixing in the dastardly yet charming humor with the genuinely unnerving set-pieces marinated with suspense and a real sense of peril. Topping all that is Peter Lorre’s larger-than-life villain with a shock of (radioactive?) white hair, looking straight into the camera in a mixture of serpentine insinuation and knife-point rage.

6. Things to Come (Criterion Collection, Region A)

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Near the top of the list of classic SF movies that I have missed out in younger days, H. G. Well’s Things to Come (1936) is indeed a great film– a work so much bound to its time, yet looking so resolutely ahead into the future, one cannot help but be inspired by its vision, even when one notice– as we do in Griffith’s Intolerance (See below)– the more rational, technocratic and tolerant future may not be entirely free from its own self-contradictions (Yes, I am well aware of its dangerously totalitarian overtones, a hallmark of nearly all idealistic science fiction… and no, I don’t find the movie preachy at all). Along with Alexander Korda’s adaptation of Wells’s The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936, available through Hulu Plus), Things to Come showcases genre film-making at its pinnacle of intellectual prowess, equally convincing in realistic depiction of human communities reduced to medieval social norms as well as of high-tech machinery operating on a transcendental scale.

5. The Mummy: 3Disc Blu Ray-DVD Combo Set (Hammer/ICON Home Entertainment, Region B)

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Another British masterpiece, this one an acknowledged classic, The Mummy, with its dreamy, romantic fever-dream atmosphere, is my all-time favorite Hammer film and certainly the most beautiful motion picture the studio has ever made. Hammer through Lionsgate released The Horror of Dracula (1958) on Blu Ray this year, and it received a lion’s share of publicity among horror film collectors due to the reinstatement of a few extra minutes of gore and Lee’s final performance culled from the so-called “Japanese print,” literally a stuff of too-good-to-be-true rumors until recently, but I found its color timing very bluish and cold– much like Kino Lorber’s The Whip and the Body Blu Ray, which otherwise would easily have made into the top ten list. Thankfully, their Mummy Blu Ray retains the rich (and slightly soft) color palette of DP Jack Asher. The enhanced HD transfer in display here is clearly superior to other HD presentations of this film I have seen so far, including Warner Film Archive’s streaming version: this is the first time I have noticed the eyelashes of Yvonne Furneaux, embalmed as Princess Ananka, delicately trembling as Lee as Kharis almost finishes reciting the content of the Scroll of Life.

4. Marketa Lazarová (Criterion Collection, Region A)

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Ever since I have caught Frantisek Vlácil’s The Valley of the Bees (1968) at UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, I was in fact dreading the days in which I would have to come to see Marketa Lazarová. To say that this movie presents the medieval European life in the way the denizens of the times perceived it is such a terribly inadequate way to describe it, and I am not even sure whether such a claim can be proven. What we can conservatively accept is that Marketa Lazarová shakes one’s perception of linear narrative, of reality, of diegesis like so many snowflakes in a glass sphere, and yet it somehow retains the core strength of a mythical, eternally retold story about human desire, misery, violation and forgiveness. I suppose on one very basic level, it, like many great works of art, asks what makes human beings different from animals, and what makes them aspire to but unable to reach Godhood. Well, in Marketa there is an omniscient narrator-God, who dismissively mocks the blood-drenched travails of his Creatures, “yes, and their stories are such. You know them very well.” Pardon us for disagreeing, God, but there is not a single movie like Marketa Lazarová anywhere, and its beauty and power is frighteningly mysterious. Criterion’s Blu Ray presentation makes it as if this hypnotic, magical wonder of a motion picture was filmed and sound-mixed last week.

3. Intolerance (Cohen Media Group, Region Free)

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Another silent film Blu Ray from Cohen Media Group, this time even older than The Thief of Baghdad, Intolerance (1916) is D. W. Griffith’s magnificent follow-up to his racist epic Birth of the Nation, and it was already a crazy enterprise in its day: four stories set in four different time periods, with roughly but not exactly corresponding characters, progressing in a parallel, until the climactic raid of Persians to Babylon and the efforts of the Dear One to prevent her husband from being executed wrongfully clash together in a dazzling cross-cutting editing. I only attempted to watch Intolerance once before in a blue moon but under such a crummy conditions I retain hardly any memory of it: so it comes as zero surprise that watching Cohen Media Group’s restored Blu Ray, with the majestic score composed for the revival by Carl Davis, and played in correct speed and tinting schemes, was like seeing a 60-karat diamond made out of a jagged stone unfit for hammering a nail down. Yet, days after seeing this pioneering motion picture with jaws dropped on my knees, my brain is still haunted, not so much by its incredible spectacles, but by its wonderful characters, especially Mountain Girl and Friendless One…

2. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman Collection (Criterion Collection, Region A)

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By all ye Gods, the position of No. 1 Blu Ray release should have been claimed by this truly, absolutely AMAZING package from Criterion. Katsu Shintaro’s all Zatoichi films, from his very first Tale of Zatoichi (1962), not only to his Daiei but Toho-produced later works, all the way up to Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973), all 26 of ‘em, all in sparkling hi-def transfer: what can I say? I cannot quite think of any other Blu Ray release of a film series like this one.

Here I just want to add one sentence: now that you have this magnificent, resplendent package in your hands, do me a big favor, please, and don’t call them SAMURAI FILMS. You see, Zatoichi is not a samurai. He is, if anything, a SAMURAI-KILLER. So if you want to call ‘em SAMURAI-KILLER MOVIES, go right ahead. Just don’t call them Samurai Films. Wakatta?

1. Bullfighter and the Lady (Olive Films, Region A)

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This happens again, but when it come time to explain my reasons for choosing the year’s top Blu Ray choice, words always fail me. I really cannot articulate why Budd Boetticher’s intimate take on Mexican toreo, a “sports” that certainly will be frowned upon by animal rights activists today, should be given this position. All I can say is… that Bullfighter and the Lady seems to hail from an alternative reality, in which human beings somehow act (“act” as in “move,” and also “act” as in “pretend”) differently from ours, where everything is purer, more direct and more emotional. This alternative reality is neither utopia nor Heaven. Just a place where cinematic lens is always perhaps a notch or two clearer, where a human smile is just a shade brighter and realer.

Of all movies I have seen at home-front in 2013, Bullfighter and the Lady, an autobiographical movie directed by the master of B-Westerns, was the one that most profoundly touched my movie-fan’s heart (And let’s not forget that Olive Film’s Blu Ray is a restored version that runs 124 minutes).

Oh. My. Lord. I am exhausted, but I am so pleased that I was able to mount this list, a small, small record of all the great motion pictures I was able to catch in 2013. Too bad I am too tired to list other worthy candidates that did not make the list. As usual, for anyone who has wondered around to this blog, I hope this list provides whatever modicum of aid to enrichment of your own movie-watching experience, and happy movie-watching in the new year as well!

December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

Filed under: Personal Observations — Q @ 12:12 pm

A christmas tree made of (unused) bound journals, encyclopedia entries and other publications, Shields Library, UC Davis. Sorry that the picture is a bit blurry and you can’t quite make out the titles.

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It’s become another cliche to duly express outrage and regret around December that yet another year is passing… and so few blog entries! The year is not quite over yet, but I am slowly gearing myself for an inventory of 2013 movie-watching and disc-collecting… for blu rays this year has shaped up to be an embarrassment of riches. And I finally managed to catch 2-3 streaming/downloading films, not available in DVDs or Blu Rays, that I might be able to fit into the year’s final list.

Meanwhile, I am slogging through the mountains of data to complete my second book on the colonial Korea chapter by chapter… I am learning so much about Northeast China (Manchuria) and Taiwan in 1930s and 1940s on the side that I am sorely tempted to write whole articles on them. But first things first… the book on Korea must be finished, or at least 2/3 finished, so that I can talk to the publishers.

In any case, Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays to everyone who has stumbled into this here space… the one and only Tsukamoto Shin’ya will soon be featured! And of course the best-of list for 2013… another wonderful year for the collectors of the rare, weird and/or underappreciated films from all over the world!

November 13, 2013

Book Review- John Shirley, DOYLE AFTER DEATH

Filed under: Uncategorized — Q @ 6:11 pm

DOYLE AFTER DEATH.
By John Shirley

Witness Impulse, Harper Collins Publishers
October 22, 2013

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One of the cyberpunk founders John Shirley, an extensive interview with whom has graced these pages some time ago, has come up with another genre-defying concoction, in which– are you ready for this?– a second-rate private eye from Las Vegas dies and “wakes up” to find himself settling down in what appears to be a pleasant country resort town called Garden Rest, where he befriends, ah, you guessed correctly, Arthur Conan Doyle. The protagonist, a bit of a smart-mouth named Nick Fogg, discovers to his fascination and befuddlement that the afterlife is so much like the “real” life– there is sex, there is money, and everyone hankers for cigarettes– but is even more surprised, not to mention disturbed, to learn that the dead folks can be murdered, in a fashion, and the consequence for one’s spiritual self is no less dire than the “original” death. When the terrible, ectoplasmic “remains” of a meek botanist are found, Doyle and Fogg team up to investigate, the erstwhile gumshoe volunteering for the role of a somewhat smart-alecky Dr. Watson.

Doyle After Death is a “typical” Shirley-fiction in the sense that its prose flows naturally and describes the improbables and imponderables with a good deal of sensuality and aplomb, but never forgetting added spices of switchblade wit and genuine weirdness, as in, for instance, his depiction of a psychic storm that, in this afterlife, assumes a terrifyingly climatological dimension. Nevertheless, the overall tone of the relatively short novel is exceptionally gentle. There seems to be a level of optimism– set against the abyssal view of a Lovecraftian universe– that, without attachment to corporeal bodies, we are more likely to come to embrace peace and understanding, reminiscent of Gnosticism and certain aspects of Buddhism.

In fact, perhaps to the disappointment of the readers looking for a Holmesian pastiche, Shirley focuses on Doyle’s spiritualism rather than his status as a creator of the world’s most famous consulting detective. The British author has previously appeared as a character in genre novels, for instance in William Hjortsberg’s Nevermore (1994), but I think Shirley might be the first writer to take his dabbling in the afterlife seriously enough to actually bring to life some of his ideas (Of course, Doyle in the novel wryly and readily acknowledges that so much of his speculations and beliefs about the afterlife were bogus or just plain wrong). In other words, Shirley himself is pretty serious about the prospect of the afterlife, and puts a lot of efforts in designing and laying down basic principles behind the topography of Garden Rest, in a deft mixture of the fanciful (the birds that echo a character’s thoughts back to him) and the eerie (a strangely convincing form of spiritual vampirism, colorfully messy).

Like the alien planet in Shirley’s brain-shaking masterpiece Splendid Chaos (I am still waiting some insane movie producer/director to at least attempt a cinematic adaptation of this), and much of the similarly fantastic landscapes in his other fictions, the afterlife in Doyle After Death comes with an ecological system of its own, with some spiritually advanced beings getting Summons into an unfathomable “higher” state, while others devolving into spiritually “lower” states of forgetting their objectives or meanings of their existence (The blue, fleet balls of light known as “forgetters” amusingly remind me of the Japanese hitodama). Transcending one’s obsession or addiction in the original life is a key to evolution, one of persistent themes in Shirley’s works.

Doyle After Death cannot be really construed as a mystery or detective fiction, hard-boiled or otherwise, despite some obvious stuff flowing in from those genres (including a very funny, menacing and pathetic character straight out of an urban crime fiction named Bull Moore, whom I wish was given a bigger role). Neither is it a biting socio-political satire in the manner of, say, Robert Sheckley’s Immortality, Inc. (1958), although there are elements of that in Shirley’s novel as well. In a way, Doyle After Death is a novelistic variation of film blanc: the afterlife is essentially a benign place bereft of the limitations of the physical life, and the characters struggle to overcome the issues and problems that have constrained (and destroyed) them in their “real” lives and to reach a level of higher understanding. The main difference between this novel and the classic film blanc like Heaven Can Wait (1943) is the absence of a (guardian) angel, although the Greek philosopher Diogenes may fit the bill in a few instances.

Seen from this angle, Doyle After Death is an unexpectedly soothing novel, that, despite its terrifying demons and otherworldly shenanigans, ultimately attempts in its way to persuade us to accept death as a transition, an opportunity to growth toward greater wisdom and inner peace.

* Review Copy Courtesy of Edelweiss/Harper Collins.
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August 9, 2013

PiFan Report Part 2

Filed under: Personal Observations — Q @ 4:20 am

Perhaps the most controversial entry in this year’s PiFan, The Act of Killing is an extremely disturbing film that could potentially generate strongly negative responses regarding the ethical stance of its director Joshua Oppenheimer. It made quite a stir at San Francisco Film Festival this spring, yet was reportedly rejected by another Korean film festival. Texas-born, Harvard-educated, England-based Oppenheimer was tasked with making a feature-length documentary about the 1965-1966 massacre of more than a half-million “Communists” and ethnic Chinese in the process of consolidating Suharto’s military dictatorship.

However, Oppenheimer, instead of mounting an investigative journalistic effort, replete with newsreel footage and talking heads– possibly because this tactic was not really feasible, given that the perpetrators of these atrocities apparently remain intimidatingly powerful today (they are affiliated with or are honorary members of the Pancasila Youth Association, a right-wing paramilitary group with allegedly three million members), this is where I believe some “dull” exposition could actually have been helpful– invited some of these perpetrators, the former members of local thugs known as “Fremen,” to make their own movie version that glorifies these acts of killing as patriotic endeavors. The actual documentary alternates between the first-person interviews and recollections of Anwar Congo, his nephew Herman Koto and Adi Zulkadry, and the hideously kitschy, pungently surreal “recreations” of the interrogations and killings by these men playing their youthful versions.

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We have to admit that most of The Act of Killing is bold, powerful cinema, recalling Errol Morris’s The Fog of War (2008) and Wener Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1998) at various points (Morris and Herzog are, not coincidentally, listed as executive producers). The protagonist’s utterly guileless, guilt-free descriptions of how they strangled, beaten and stabbed, but mostly strangled, hundreds of their victims are initially hard to take, but as the movie progresses, we notice that the subtle changes brought about by this very process of re-enactment. Anwar Congo starts out as a suave, old badger of a sociopath, and yet as he immerses himself into the role of Fremen, and later “Communist” victims, his polished exterior begins to crack.

These instances are undeniably compelling, but I felt that Oppenheimer’s ironic juxtaposition of the so-hideous-it’s-almost-funny movie-in-movie– featuring a cowboy Anwar lassoing a Communist from horseback and choking him to death, a waterfall-drenched revue dance number and Koto dressed up as some kind of vengeful, cannibalistic deity– with the matter-of-the-fact reportage of the carnage was excessively intellectual, if not morally wrong-headed. I remember being similarly disturbed (not in a good way) by Herzog’s Lessons of the Darkness, which “creatively” rearranges the images of American oil company workers in the Persian Gulf to tell a “fictional” apocalyptic story. I think The Act of Killing is a much more conscientious (if that is the term) than that, but I must admit Oppenheimer’s claim that seemingly expands on the Indonesian case under examination to encompass the generalized state of “unacknowledged atrocities” in the modern world in an interview was a bit worrisome. If anything, The Act of Killing is an excellent tool for discussion. It raises many interesting questions; can filmmakers really let their subjects speak of themselves in a motion picture (and especially in a documentary)?; can a (cinematic) re-enactment or re-creation really generate true historical consciousness? Not easy questions to answer, but those that must be asked.

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Tsukamoto Shin’ya, the cyberpunk master behind the unforgettable Tetsuo series, Tokyo Fist (1995), Gemini (1999) and A Snake of June (2002), was the honored guest at this year’s PiFan, with most of his feature films and the short The Adventures of the Electric Line Pole Boy (1987) playing for the sake of his eager fans. This was also a chance to catch up with his latest film Kotoko (2011), sadly not available even as a DVD in the Region 1 market as of August 2013. Like many of Tsukamoto’s works, Kotoko is a pithy little piece of filmmaking that combines intimacy of a very aggressive home movie and intensity of a live theatrical performance. The eponymous protagonist, played by the Okinawan singer Cocco, has the terrible curse of seeing a “negative double” of any person she encounters, but Tsukamoto does not really make much out of this vaguely science fictional premise. Instead, he quickly turns the film into an excruciatingly in-your-face portrayal of a mentally disturbed young woman trying to raise a son by herself, while being not even sure if her own presence is potentially the biggest threat to his life. But as he has shown in his earlier works, Tsukamoto never once loses sympathy for the female protagonist. True, his punch-in-the-stomach cinematic style is not for the squeamish, but he nonetheless brings this relatively short film to a perfectly timed, non-extravagant resolution, which abruptly brought tears to my eyes. A master at work.

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Short notices from Forbidden Zone: The UK documentary On Tender Hooks (2012) explores those who suspend themselves from considerable heights, piercing their skins (and muscles) with hooks. Kate Shenton’s direction is gently observant rather than sensationalistic, which in some instances actually enhances the grotesquely twisted feeling of admiration we feel for the subjects of the documentary.

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Hello, My Dolly Girlfriend (2013) is the cult cartoonist-filmmaker Ishii Takashi’s latest feature film. Not nearly as pornographic as it sounds, it is still not for children or polite company. A word like “fetishistic” does not simply do justice to this wackoid sleazefest, that can only be described as a chest-beating expose of the Japanese male obsession with girl’s underwear and living-doll figures. Imagine a movie where the climactic fantasy scene involves the thirty-something male protagonist (Emoto Tasuku) looking mesmerized up the tutu of a panty-less ballet dancer suspended in the air for what feels like five solid minutes. You can’t? OK, so, obviously not for you. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to take shower at least twice after watching it, but at the same time I freely admit that I felt an odd twinge of sympathy for the film’s loser protagonist. Sweden’s Wither (2012) was, on the other hand, a disappointment. A film totally under the influence of Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead, it comes with neither the sense of humor about itself nor the sharply honed filmmaking skills that could have overwhelmed the viewer’s sinking feeling that we have seen this all before. The makeup effects are pretty effective, but that’s about it that I can recommend concerning Wither.

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Finally, this year’s NAFF project spotlight involved presentation of seven Filipino films in various stages of completion. As usual, the pitch meeting showed the filmmakers bringing strikingly different approaches to describing and visualizing their projects, some employing extensive storyboards, others preferring more literary approaches. Some were dry and to the point, others were graphic and colorful, reflecting the personalities, confidence levels and imaginations of the directors and screenwriters. Amable “Tikoy” Aguiluz’s Dance of Death seems to be a mythological martial arts film, with a veteran director behind the helm and Danny Inosanto (!) cast as a master. Richard V. Somes, director of Mariposa in the Cage of the Night selected for PiFan this year, presented Thy Kingdom Come, an apocalyptic thriller. Fascinatingly, he mentioned Yul Brynner-starring Ultimate Warrior (1975) as one of the inspirations for his project. I doubt any Korean attending the pitch meeting would have seen this film (or if he or she had, could identify its English title).

Ato Bautista’s Bad Blood struck me as philosophical despite its graphic violence, perhaps inspired by Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. USC graduate Rico Maria Ilarde’s Tusok peaked my interest for delving into the Philippines history of American colonialism. Ilarde’s model appears to be Pan’s Labyrinth, as he seeks to cater to both arthouse and genre crowds. Tyrone Acierto’s The Boy Who Roams the Sky is an American-style fantasy about a boy who learns how to fly. The project is conceived as rather low-budget, but fantasy sequences are pretty ambitious. I did not quite take to Peter Duria’s Hotline, an urban thriller that sounds like more than a few recent Hollywood thrillers involving frantic emergency calls. But perhaps such familiarity is required to sell tickets. Finally, Khavn’s Ruined Heart, presented mostly by producer Achinette Villamor, comes attached with Asano Tadanobu in another of his soulful drifter roles in pan-Asian films. Again, my interest was peaked when Villamor presented a real-life clip of the traditional Filipino martial arts arnis (stick-fighting), a black and white one in which a very young boy sways two long wooden sticks with hypnotic grace and precision. If I were a North American investor, I would probably go for Dance of Death or Thy Kingdom Come, but I personally found attracted to Tusok and Ruined Heart. I certainly hope to see all of these films as complete products someday, and as was the case with Singaporean films a couple of years ago, attending the pitch meeting made me feel like I have to learn a lot more about Filipino genre pictures.

Well, that is a wrap for this year’s PiFan. In the coming weeks, I will hopefully be catching up with the domestic and foreign productions that have gone the route of general release, including the closing film The Terror: Live, the Spanish horror Insensibles, Miike Takashi’s Shield of Straw and Lesson of the Evil and Johnny To’s Drug War. Good movie hunting everyone!

* Coming soon: A Tsukamoto Shin’ya interview!

August 3, 2013

Volunteers are salvation

Filed under: Personal Observations, Korean film-related — Q @ 2:43 am

Hey, this is true of any meaningful organized human activity but is especially true in case of a film festival like PiFan.

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Kang Kwan-Woong’s sculpture Salvation in front of Hyundai U-Plex Department Store, Bucheon, home of CGV Bucheon multiplex theaters.

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Young volunteers manning… womanning the station at CGV Bucheon, braving the heat and a lot of rain. Their smiles are like sparkling gemstones.

August 2, 2013

PiFan Report Part 1

Filed under: Personal Observations, Korean film-related — Q @ 2:33 am

This year’s Puchon [Bucheon] International Fantastic Film Festival (17th) was again met with the expected enthusiasm and popular support, many guests and local viewers braving the usual humid and wet weather to attend screenings, workshops, Q & A sessions and NAFF (Network of Asian Fantastic Films) events, this year focusing on a series of Filipino genre film projects. The recent, happy trend of showcasing low-budget Korean genre films continued, with Southeast Asian, European and Latin American genre efforts strongly represented. The opening film was Waltz with Barshir’s Ari Folman’s animated adaptation of Stanislav Lem’s The Congress, while the festival closed with the NAFF-supported The Terror Live, directed by a PiFan alumnus Kim Byeong-U (whose Anamorphic received much praise during its participation in the 2003 PiFan). This year’s festival also eschewed the old Japanese and Korean film retrospectives, and concentrated on two very different but renowned auteurs, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Tsukamoto Shin’ya, the filmmakers who can truly claim titles to “transgressive artists.” The highlight of my festival experience this year was nabbing an interview with Tsukamoto.

As usual, I hoped to catch something like 30 films, but in reality would have been lucky to view 12 (I managed to do around 13, give or take a few that I managed to catch up with outside the festival), which is the number of feature films selected for Puchon Choice, the films selected for official competition. Haunter, a new project from Splice’s Vincenzo Natali is a decent horror film geared toward young adult sensibilities, with a sympathetic performance from Abigail Breslin (and a shout-out to Siouxsie and the Banshees). Insensibles directed by Juan Carlos Medina is another meditation on the legacies of the Spanish Civil War, told via the stories of “special” children who cannot feel pain and therefore feel no guilt in inflicting it on others. The Philippines’s searing neo-noir On the Job (directed by Erik Matti) was the most talked-about entry, the star of which, Joel Torre, was a very deserved winner of the Best Actor Award. The Best Actress (Alice Lowe) and the Best Film Awards were claimed by Sightseers, Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to his much-praised but superbly cynical Kill List, whereas the Best Director Award was given to Anurag Kashyap for Ugly, an Indian thriller involving kidnapping of a young girl but seems to be more of a meticulous character study.

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The “main course” entries, World Fantastic Cinema, as usual ran the gamut from Mike Mendez’s Big Ass Spider (a self-explanatory title if there ever was one) to Xan Cassavetes’s retro-chic vampire flick Kiss of the Damned. The anthology format continued to display life. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how good the sequels of last year’s anthology film entries were: V/H/S 2 (featuring participation from Gareth Evans, helmer of The Raid) and Horror Stories 2. For the latter, episodes directed by Kim Sung-ho (Into the Mirror) and Kim Hoon were both solid takes on the climbing and car accidents (the running subtext appears to be how the young generation is being financially and socially squeezed by the merciless neo-liberal global economy), but Jeong Beom-sik’s scatological, surrealistic episode, involving an internet magic formula that can allow one to “escape” this world (But into what kind of world? That is the problem…) and a schoolteacher named Jo Byung-sin (OK… so… this is not exactly subtle humor), is an absolute hoot. A delight from start to finish.

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– Q & A session at July 20 screening attended by director Kim Hoon, actress Baek Jin-hee, directors Kim Sung-ho and Jeong Beom-sik.

I also managed to catch The Truth, another variant on the I Know What You Did Last Summer formula set in the musical theater scene. It inadvertently recalls early ’60s, bargain-basement horror entries from North America in which a “crazy” killer stalks burlesque-theater “dancing girls,” but with surprisingly strong gore effects. Unfortunately, despite the reasonably compelling premise and fairly decent “plot twist,” the acting and direction never lose an amateurish air.

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Ellie Suriati Omar’s Curse of the Malayan Vampire, technically adroit and suffused with wonderful, evocative music, was unfortunately saddled with a heavy-breathing religious ideology that pushed the film right out of the old Hammer territory into the realm of religious sermonizing. Allah’s glory is invoked literally every third sentence in the dialogue, regardless of the context. Too bad, as the character of Murni, a poor girl who due to a familial curse becomes Penangalan (Leyak, which also seems to be a relative of the Filipino Aswang), a disembodied, baby-eating “flying head” monster (memorably depicted in the iconic Mondo Macabro title Mystics in Bali), has a lot of potential.

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Islamic teaching of the fundamentalist variety plays another important role in a film of very different stripe, Indonesia’s Something in the Way, Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s intimately observed portrayal of a Jakartan cab driver (brilliantly and subtly essayed by Reza Rahadian), whose daily routine consists of driving around and masturbating to Korean (!) and Japanese porn on illegal DVDs, and comes to see himself as a saviour of a prostitute with a young daughter. Something in the Way is quite compelling, with stern teachings of the local mullah serving the same function as Christian pietism in the self-righteous morality dramas of North American (or Korean) origins that compels the hero toward his own personal jihad. There is only one problem with it: it’s such a close approximation of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (especially Paul Schrader’s screenplay, even more so than the actual film) that it almost feels like an unacknowledged remake. I really wished that Soeriaatmadja could find some way to deviate from what was obviously an overwhelming influence, as there are many aspects to the film that I liked a lot (By the way, it certainly does not give one a flattering picture of the urban Jakarta).

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* Coming up: The controversy surrounding The Act of Killing; Tsukamoto’s Kotoko; NAFF coverage.

July 20, 2013

Pucheon International Fantastic Film Festival 2013 Commences

Filed under: Personal Observations, Korean film-related — Q @ 11:41 am

We will not be doing English dailies for the 2013 PiFan (they are now doing them more or less as translated copies of the Korean text. Too bad) but that means I (and Dr. Michelle Cho, too, perhaps) will be uploading a proper PiFan report for this page. This year’s PiFan is somewhat slimmed down, both economically and stylistically: there is no longer a monstrously bulky catalogue, for instance, but the movies are just as interesting and far-out as usual [Well, Darcy corrected me: there still is a monstrously bulky catalogue, it’s just not distributed as freely as before].

PIFAN CITY HALL #1 7.19.13

One notable difference this time is that there is no retrospective screening of Korean and Japanese “oldies” (films made before 1980s). Instead, there are two major retrospectives of Tsukamoto Shin’ya of Tetsuo fame and Alejandro Jodorowsky. I will be reporting on the festival itself here– to be uploaded as a summary in the official page after a while– and hopefully scribbling down film reviews as well, to be up at M’s Desk with a link to Djunaboard if in Korean, and here if in English.

Or something like that. I am so busy with going over the half-point for my second book, review essays, family obligations, planning to go to Japan, etc. etc. something’s gotta give, so I cannot promise to cover every important event or watch 2-3 movies every day at the festival as I would feverishly like to do.

Yet, I always end up watching more movies at PiFan than any other film festival, in the end, so I will have plenty to talk about. What can I say? It’s truly custom-made for someone like me.

More stuff coming very soon!

PIFAN CITY HALL #2. 7.19.13

April 11, 2013

Miscellaneous observations on streaming services

Filed under: Personal Observations — Q @ 5:42 pm

I watched Gosha Hideo’s marvelous adaptation of Chikamatsu’s The Oil Hell Murders (Onna-goroshi abura jigoku 女殺し油地獄), included in Hulu Plus’s Criterion Collection. The movie was as engrossing and powerful as I remembered, but the presentation was just not up to the Criterion standard. The 1.37:1 aspect ratio may have been correct but the transfer was weak, soft and clammy. The red kimonos and fundoshi should jump out of the screen but they look all drab. Disappointing.

Fans of John Carpenter, among others, are probably aware that the 3,000 limited copies of Blu Ray of Christine issued from Twilight Time was sold out in the matter of days. Now it fetches something like $130 at Amazon. Well, I thought, go for a chicken when you can’t get a pheasant, so I checked out HD-grade downloadable files of the movie at Vudu, iTunes and Amazon Prime. Well, it was disappointing, to say the least. I could have forgiven the compression artifacts and grungy color, but all these files showed the movie in an artificially cropped 1.78:1 ratio, whereas the TT Blu Ray presented the movie in 2.35:1 widescreen. Most gallingly and befuddlingly, they all showed the movie’s end titles properly formatted at 2.35:1! Why? I just don’t get it. I am glad I didn’t plunk down money to actually purchase one of these HD files.

So two thumbs down for the streaming services this week.

On a more positive note, Warner Archives has started its own streaming service. It’s apparently not ready for a big launch but is now available as a private channel for Roku.

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I haven’t really delved deeply into it yet but from what I have seen so far I like it. It’s a bit expensive but considering the money I am putting down for Warner Archive Collection DVDs it is likely to even out. Most interestingly, many of its catalogue titles are available in high definition: Black Scorpion, Death in Venice, Blow-Up, Horror of Dracula, Fearless Vampire Killers, Cat People, Gun Crazy, The Americanization of Emily and others. The sampling was rather quick so I probably missed some problems likely to be noticed (To be sure, none of the HD presentations were comparable in quality to high-end Blu Rays that come out of Criterion, Arrow or Warners themselves, or perhaps to classic titles available in Vudu or iTunes), but this seems to confirm that the outlets who care about good DVD presentations are those who do a good job with streaming.

Finally, I am happy to note that Synapse Films is also now streaming through Roku channel (and promises to do so via Apple TV as well: will that really happen?) and I am overjoyed to have access to their inimitably, seriously weird titles without having to hunt their OOP or hard-to-find DVDs down.