July 25, 2015

Short takes on the 19th BiFan Entries (Part 2)

Filed under: Personal Observations, Korean film-related — Q @ 6:02 pm

Continuing from yesterday’s post, which I guess is technically also dated with July 25 although written a day before, are the good surprises, ho-hums and nahhs from the Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival.

Michelle found Michael Fassbender-starring Slow West (U.K., New Zealand, 2015: dir. John MacLean) walking the “razor edge” between “deconstruction and recreation of the classic Western tropes.” It tries to criticize the ideology of white man’s Manifest Destiny but ultimately falls back on the cliched view of Native Americans. But she was pleasantly surprised by Poison Berry in My Brain (Japan, 2015: dir. Sato Yuichi), a romantic comedy with a premise intriguingly similar to Pixar’s Inside Out, except that the “controls” in her brain behave like corporate boardroom members, all futs and squirms as Ichiko, the owner of the brain, struggles to develop a crush into a romance. While the romance aspect was fairly routine, Michelle thought it was in some ways much more ingenious and truthful in depicting how our socialized selves try to behave amidst conflicting impulses and agendas.

I was not blown away but otherwise entertained by We Are Still Here, starring still-beautiful Barbara Crampton, cult actress Lisa Marie, Larry Fessenden (a horror film director of some recognition himself) and Monte Markham, a staple from ’70s TV, (U.S.A, 2014: dir. Ted Geoghegan, No. 30). With little ambition other than scaring bejeezus out of the viewers, which it does pretty efficiently, We Are Still Here just stops before actually becoming poignant, anchored by an excellent performance from Crampton. Spring (U.S.A., 2014: Aarom Moorhead, Justin Benson, No. 31) adds a contemporary twist to another hoary horror film cliche, an American guy who encounters an exotic and gorgeous femme fatale while touring the old Europe: no, she is neither a vampire nor a werewolf. Manifestation of her monstrosity is pretty well done through low-budget but creative special effects, but the movie’s last third, while uplifting and logical, is curiously uninvolving. Horsehead (France, 2014: dir. Romain Bassett, No. 32) is like a Jean Rollin film re-done with the sensibility of Nightmare on the Elm Street, with an impressive special makeup effects and sincere performances from the leads, Lily Fleur-Pointeaux and Catriona McCall. It will no doubt rub some viewer’s coats in a wrong way but I found it rather exquisite and eminently relatable.

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Darcy had mixed feelings toward 100 Yen Love (Japan, 2014: dir. Take Masaharu) that seems to go out on its limb to deny the kind of emotional release North American viewers would expect (and the film, typically, includes an episode regarding rape that will raise hackles among them as well), but loved Ando Sakura’s performance in the title role, an unlovely 32-year-old woman who takes up boxing. Nicholas Kleiman and Rob Lindsay’s documentary Why Horror?(U.S.A., 2014) certainly asks right questions, but the answers are more standard than insightful. Oshii Mamoru’s Nowhere Girl (Japan, 2014) was, according to Darcy, legible and clear-cut in its presentation if not overwhelmingly interesting. I keep expecting Oshii to fall into the black hole of his own dark subconsciousness and never come out but he somehow manages to remain coherent in every output.

Michelle also had kind things to say about the whacky Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (Japan, 2014: dir. Lisa Takeba), a zero-budget surrealistic satire in which Haruko, who incessantly carries out a conversation with her TV set, finds it transformed into a TV-headed guy. It’s not earth-shaking but cute and creative. She was, however, definitely impressed by the most unlikely source, Sono Sion’s G-rated “positive fantasy” about a would-be rock singer and his green pet turtle (which naturally grows up to be a huge but benevolent monster), Love and Peace (Japan, 2014). Michelle actually used the word “masterpiece,” and she is no big fan of Sono’s better-known gorefests.

Finally, two Asian films from me: Philip Yung’s Port of Call (Hong Kong, 2014, No. 33) is a great procedural/psychological thriller in which the heavily made-up Aaron Kwok as a Columbo-like detective investigates a horrendous mutilation-murder of a sixteen year old girl, known to have sold her body to make money. Not the kind of film the current Chinese administration would favor, it is a dark, foreboding film noir yet is suffused with uncommon level of compassion toward its deeply alienated characters. The Golden Cane Warrior (Indonesia, 2015: dir. Ifa Isfansya) takes the hoariest cliches of a classic martial arts film– a master seeking to pass on the mantle of the supreme warrior, the unworthy but skilled disciples versus the green but loyal one, a shadowy warrior with secrets of his own, and the final confrontation in which the ultimate fighting technique must be used– and reinvents them by infusing them with renewed emotional energy. Although some viewers will reject or deride the film as naive, I think its “naivete” is quite deliberate, a strategy to get at the core of what makes these martial arts movies tick. It was not as potent as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but, for me, it put a lot of elaborately plotted recent Hong Kong wu xia pian to shame in its simple fidelity to the basic qualities of the genre. Another kudos to Indonesian filmmakers!

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So for this round, Darcy recommends 100 Yen Love (with some reservations), Michelle strongly recommends Love and Peace (who woulda thunk?) and to a lesser degree Poison Berry in My Brain, and I strongly recommend Port of Call and, somewhat riskily, The Golden Cane Warrior. Make sure you check them out as they get picked up in the radar in your regions!

Short takes on the 19th BiFan Entries (Part 1)

Filed under: Personal Observations, Korean film-related — Q @ 2:26 am

The 19th Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival is coming to a close today. Unfortunately none of us, the English daily team, could attend the closing presentation of Kim Hui’s Chosen: The Forbidden Cave, as Mr. Darcy Paquet is busy with teaching a summertime Korean film course at Korean University, Professor Michelle Cho is off to Jeju Island for a well-deserved vacation. I confess I wasn’t inclined to brave the rain and attend the closing ceremony by myself. A movie-watching companion is worth his or her weight in… okay maybe not gold… but you know what I mean.

Instead of my usual ruminations on the festival with a heavy emphasis on photographs, I got permission from Darcy and Michelle to report on some of their disappointments and favorites from the festival entries. Of course I have my own choice of films, including a few I had managed to catch on iTunes, DVDs and/or Blu Rays before I have actually arrived in Bucheon. Some of these views were in substance repeated in our daily entries, which you can access through English pages of the official E-dailies, managed by the production crew from Cine 21.

OK, the opening film Moonwalkers (France, 2015: dir. Antoine Bardou-Jacquet). A clever concoction, but Michelle found it skirting the surface of ’60s mod fashion and lacking the mojo to be a truly politically bold satire. In fact, when Ron Perlman in the film declares “We are gonna kick ass in Viet Nam (the movie is set in 1969) because the U.S. has never lost a war!” Michelle wasn’t entirely sure that the statement was meant to be ironic.

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The Photographer (Poland, 2015: dir. Waldemar Krzystek– so this marks No. 26 of my continuing “One Hundred Nights of Horror” list) never moves out of the shadow of Silence of the Lambs and the American TV police procedural aesthetic, but its exploration of the ugly history of the Soviet occupation of Poland through the origin story of a vicious serial killer known as “The Photographer” is moderately interesting. More involving, at least psychologically but with more modest aims, is Emelie (U.S.A, 2015: dir. Michael Thelin, No. 27), which I confess climbed probably a half-notch up in my estimation, because it stars one of my favorite young actresses, Sarah Bolger (utterly wasted in The Lazarus Effect). I wish it did not predictably turn into a protect-suburban-nuclear-family action thriller in the last third (complete with a way positive reference to NASCAR as a father-son bonding experience), but it is pretty effective until then.

Michelle liked Chasuke’s Journey (Japan, 2014: dir. Sabu) enough, although it was overshadowed by Miike Takashi’s Yakuza Apocalypse (Japan, 2015), a typically crazy dish that only Miike could stir and fry, served with a dash of nonchalance and aplomb for this story of the tattooed yakuza squaring off against vampires.

Harbinger Down(U.S.A, 2015: dir. Alec Gillis, No. 28) is designed to be a showcase for physical visual effects, trying to demonstrate the superiority of its texture and realism against the CGI. I am totally with Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Robert Skotak and other VSE mavens behind this potboiler on this issue. CGI sucks! But unfortunately, Harbinger Down is little more than a pale echo of John Carpenter’s The Thing in terms of its story, and characters. I give Gillis credit for writing a meatier-than-usual role for the genre favorite Lance Henriksen, but otherwise it is all so predictable. Even the monster design is not very interesting: it’s just a toothy mouth with lots of tentacles. But it is way, way better than Stung (Germany, U.S.A, 2015: dir. Benni Diez, No. 29), in which American characters bellow the word “f*ck” in every other sentence, the mutated wasp larva somehow merge with the DNA of the hosts they grow up in, and even Lance Henriksen (yup, he is in this one too) is boring.

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Darcy was positive toward Dodo Dayao’s Violator (Philippines, 2014) that begins with somewhat pretentious art-house touches but gradually percolates into an impressive horror set piece inside an isolated police station. He was less impressed with Back Seung-Kee’s Super Origin (Korea, 2015), a follow-up to the director’s Super Virgin (2013), in which a long-haired humanoid alien try to teach a bunch of primates “civilization,” thus giving rise to the history of mankind, which awkwardly shuffles different genres and objectives. Darcy however was really disappointed by Sunshine (Korea, 2015: dir. Park Jin-soon), obviously made with good intentions but unable to rise above turgid melodrama.

So far recommended titles are: Yakuza Apocalypse (Michelle), Violator (Darcy) and Emelie (Kyu Hyun). More reflections on the BiFan films to come!

July 2, 2015

Tsukamoto Shin’ya Interview

Filed under: Interviews — Q @ 5:58 pm

Tsukamoto Shin’ya (please note that I follow the Japanese way of ordering their names, with surname first and given name next: no “Yukio Mishima” in my blog) is a world-renowned Japanese filmmaker, a true maverick, a visionary and one of the pillars of the global cyberpunk cinema as it stands today. His films need little introduction to those who have been following the lineage of cyberpunk cinema or anything at all creative and/or transgressive in terms of popular culture from Japan, but just in case you are not one of them, dear reader, here goes:

Director Tsukamoto, born in 1960 and a native of Tokyo, was an early film buff, making 8-mm short films with his childhood friends. After enrolling in the prestigious Nihon University College of Arts, he devoted himself to theatrical production, while earning income and experience as a director of commercial shorts. Tsukamoto soon founded Kaiju Theater, a theatrical troupe/production company that has since served as his base for launching feature film projects. Following a series of fun and quirky short films such as The Adventures of the Electric Pole Kid (1988), Tsukamoto released Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), a black-and-white mutant monster of a movie starring the director himself and the underground actor/punk musician/erotic cartoonist Taguchi Tomoro. Seen in grubby VHS copies throughout most of the world, the 67-minute long brain-cracker achieved the kind of notoriety seldom attained by the post-Golden Age Japanese filmmakers in ’80s: the film was outrageous, disgusting, mind-warping and weirdly beautiful, but it was also very obviously a meaningful statement, a motion picture about something: at the very least, our new post-industrial condition of being fused into metals, becoming bio-mechanoid/cybernetic creatures– melded from living organs and shiny machine parts.

Tsukamoto has since produced an astounding array of films belonging to diverse genres and exploring daring existential questions, including the harrowing, apocalyptic sequel to Tetsuo, Tetsuo 2: The Body Hammer (1993), the beautifully lensed neo-noir Bullet Ballet (1998), a ultra-stylized, butoh-inflected adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s iconic horror novel Gemini (1999), a series of haunting explorations into the interface between psyche and bodies, including Snake of June (2003), Vital (2004) and Kotoko (2012): and of course, Tokyo Fist (1995), one of the most amazing films I have ever watched regarding the concomitant allure and terror of physical violence, perhaps my personal favorite among his extraordinary oeuvre. Despite sometimes mind-shattering levels of violence seen in his films, one of the reasons that I find Tsukamoto’s films so ultimately moving and life-affirming is his deeply compassionate gaze toward his characters, often lost, damaged and angry, but never apathetic.

I was able to secure approximately 30 minutes of interview time with director Tsukamoto, who was visiting Bucheon for a retrospective of his films (it was a rare chance to catch his then-newest film Kotoko, which still remains unavailable as DVD or Blu Ray stateside, as of May 2015). I am very happy to be able to upload it in its entirety here, subject to only a minimal level of editing to enhance intelligibility or eliminate repetitions and redundancies (mostly boring passages of myself explaining certain contexts or sidebar issues to director Tsukamoto).

For the record, this interview was originally conducted at Koryo Hotel, Bucheon, South Korea, in July 25, 2013. I would like to thank the organizers and staff of the Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival for providing me with a venue to conduct this interview.

All translations from Japanese into English are by Kyu Hyun Kim unless otherwise indicated. Interview contents are copyrighted to Kyu Hyun Kim: reproduction in parts or in entirety without a proper citation of as well as notification to the interviewer is strictly forbidden.

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Q: Is this your first time in Bucheon and in Korea?
Tsukamoto: Yes, it is my first time in Bucheon but I have been in Korea a couple of times, for Busan and Jeonju Film Festivals. I have visited Busan quite a few times, in fact.

Q: What is your impression of Bucheon?
T: It sort of reminds me of Tokyo.

Q: When I was teaching a course on Japanese Popular Culture at University of California [UC Davis] at one point, I think it was two or three years after I had been appointed there in 1997, I decided to show Tetsuo to my undergraduate students.
T: Oh My. [Laughter]
Q: As you could well imagine, the student reaction was deeply split. Some students, especially female students, were nonplussed. A few of them left the classroom without bothering to see the whole thing. But the ones who remained to the last were, like, “I’ve never seen anything remotely like it!” or “Oh My God, what have I just seen?! It’s a masterpiece!” [Laughter]
T: That movie came out in 1989. It took me two years to complete. Once it came out, it won Grand Prix at Fantafestival, Italy.

Q: What was the reaction to it like in Japan?
T: It was pretty enthusiastic. Many magazines and media outlets wrote about the film, even TV news reported on it.
Q: What was the tenor of reaction, shall we say? Was it focused on the film’s innovative character?
T: Yes, that it was a strange, new kind of film, hotly received by the younger generation of filmgoers.

Q: Now that I look back at Tetsuo, I feel that it actually incorporates many classical, or old-fashioned, in a good sense, approaches to filmmaking, including, of course, stop-motion animation. Sometimes it evokes the look or feel of a silent film.
T: Right, the stop-motion effects are old-fashioned in precisely that way. I was shooting for the kind of texture one gets from the German Expressionist cinema. Also influential was the black-and-white Japanese films of yesteryears. After that… perhaps Italian Futurists. Those are visual influences on Tetsuo. It is not entirely new, you know, it does give rise to a sense of déjà vu. It is ultimately a new spin on the sort-of-familiar imagery.

tetsuo-the-iron-man-transformation.jpg© Kaiju Theater, Tetsuo: The Iron Man

Q: Could you talk about Kaiju Theater?
T: It started out as a theater troupe, but once I moved onto filmmaking on a full scale, it had to function as a production company as well. By the way, “Kaiju” with this set of Chinese characters does not mean “monster” 怪獣 but “sea beast” 海獣.
Q: I have always wondered whether you took it from Mizuki Shigeru’s comic book… [There is an episode titled “The Great Sea Beast” in Mizuki’s magnum opus comic series, Kitaro of the Graveyard]
T: Yes, yes! I love Mizuki Shigeru. I didn’t actually take that name from Kitaro, but I love that kind of imagery.

Q: Is Kaiju Theater mainly a theater troupe that happens to double as a film production company? Or is film production its main business these days?
T: It started out as a theater troupe. The same group of personnel– staff and actors– first made The Adventures of the Electric Pole Kid and then Tetsuo: The Iron Man. We have not staged any theater production since then. So we are pretty much committed to cinema, except for a few special occasions. I do feel an itch to try live theater once in a while, though. But we’ve got a lot of potential projects for movies lined up… they inevitably get the nods first.

Q: You have acted in your movies, and in other director’s films, quite often as a matter of fact. When David Cronenberg played the villain in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990) he said he did it because he wanted to experience the filmmaking process from the other end of the camera. What are your views about yourself as an actor?
T: I have always been an introverted child. Acting in front of other kids during the school was an eye-opening experience for me. It was so enjoyable that it was as if I realized the sky was blue for the first time in my life. So acting is very important for me. Acting for other director’s films is as meaningful for me as acting for my own films.
Q: Oh, so you are happiest when you are acting?
T: I wouldn’t go that far… acting sometimes makes me tense, and also things can get tough when I cannot quite come up with what is required in a role… but once I have got it right, the sense of release and joy I derive from it is… tremendous.
Q: What is your favorite performance you have given in someone else’s project?
T: Oh, there are a few… one that I had a great fun making is Travail (2001: directed by Otani Kentaro). I played the husband of a pro lady Chinese chess player, in a kind of romantic comedy situation. A wonderful experience, it was.

tetsuo-2-the-body-hammer-i-control-them.jpg © Kaiju Theater, Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer

Q: After you have completed Tetsuo, were you consciously trying to expand your filmography into new directions?
T: I wasn’t particularly conscious of new directions but I had a lot of ideas, the ideas that covered many different themes as well as genres.
Q: Please allow me to interject my personal views here… I wept my eyeballs out watching Tokyo Fist, it was so touching and amazing.
T: Oh really?
Q: I saw that movie, I think, right after I had married my wife… and the relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend somehow really spoke to me.
T: That’s wonderful.
Q: Can you speak a bit about the depiction of the female protagonist, Hizuru, in Tokyo Fist? It seems that the boxer hero in that film [played by Tsukamoto himself] sees only Hizuru’s interior self and no matter how much violence from her he is subject to, he does not change his view about her as a person, to the extent that perhaps he might be seen as a masochist by some viewers.
T: Thank you so much for saying that. Indeed, I had been making films mainly from the male POV, but with Tokyo Fist, I was influenced by the rise of woman’s power during that era [early ’90s]. I believe that is why Hizuru’s character shaped up to become what she is on screen. It was a challenge to create a strong woman character who would be noticed by female viewers.
Q: Tokyo Fist begins with a competition between two macho men, but as the movie progresses, Hizuru becomes stronger…
T: …and men become weaker. I followed my instincts, or “senses,” when I was making that film. I think it was the first time in my films that a female character really ended up dominating the whole film.

Q: As for Kotoko, the eponymous protagonist is played by Cocco, a singer from Okinawa. Was Kotoko’s TV-induced terrible delusion of her child being killed some kind of a political statement [about the U.S. military presence in Okinawa]?
T: Ahh, right, you can certainly read it that way, but when I filmed it, it was meant to be a distillation of all the terrifying images we routinely see on TV news. I hated watching world news programs on TV when I was growing up.
Q: You use a lot of extreme close-ups and handheld camera. Are there any difficulties associated with this type of technique?
T: I am most interested in capturing a natural expression of an actor, like that. So I favor filming at such close quarters.
Q: Do you rehearse a lot?
T: You know, digital camera actually allows me to do “filmed rehearsals,” which used to be a luxury. I was not able to do that when I was making movies on film.

tokyo-fist-hizuru.jpg © Kaiju Theater, Fujii Kaori as Hizuru in Tokyo Fist

Q: Shall we talk about your collaborators? One of the most important ones is of course Ishikawa Chu, your soundtrack composer.
T: I already had some ideas about what kind of music to be used for Tetsuo, largely based on sampling of existing music. So I looked for anyone who could do sampling and editing of music really well. In that process I ran into Mr. Ishikawa. Initially I thought he was a one-note composer, you know, specializing in a certain kind of steel-clanking noises [Laughter], but I soon learned he was able to respond to my requests and thoughts quite creatively. He is a truly versatile composer.
Q: What are your views of the role music should play in a motion picture?
T: I started out as a visual artist so “picture” is very important but I do not think “picture” is more important than “sound.” They are both top priorities. Music in my films is not just added for emotional or other effects. I want the viewers of my movies to experience their music, like they are inside a club listening to a live band.
Q: How about Taguchi Tomoro? Did he debut with Tetsuo?
T: He did act in a couple of films before Tetsuo. But yes, he became closely associated with cinema following that film. Before that he was mostly a punk rocker, a vocalist in a punk band.

Q: Have you been conscious about the position your films assume within the framework of SF genre?
T: In terms of science fiction films, I must cite Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). I love both films deeply. As for the science fiction literature, I don’t think I have been influenced by them that much. I certainly have not been an avid reader of SF novels.
Q: Do you consider yourself an urbanite?
T: Absolutely. I was born in Tokyo and have grown up in the middle of the city. Actually, I think this fact is the reason that I harbor a desire or a fantasy to escape into the countryside which surfaces once in a while. Ultimately, though, I am a Tokyoite. I do wish for a bit more of “nature” in my life, but that’s probably wishful thinking.

tokyo-fist-boxer.jpg© Kaiju Theater, Tokyo Fist.

Q: Could you tell me a bit about your impression of Korean cinema?
T: Oh, I think from about ten years ago, Koreans have produced quite a chunk of wonderful films. There are many really interesting ones. Old Boy (2003) was so ambitious and amazing. I loved The Uninvited (2003) too… and of course The Host (2006).
Q: Have you been offered any project from Hollywood?
T: In ’90s, there was a lot of talk from the U.S. about inviting me to Hollywood, but since then they seem to have lost interest somewhat. They still bring projects to me once in a while. There has been a talk about doing an American version of Tetsuo, but they could not quite convince me that it could be done right. Maybe a bit more promising was an American version of Nightmare Detective, but that did not pan out either.

Q: What is your next film?
T: I do have a project in development, but funding is always a problem. I have started filming just before coming to Bucheon, based on an idea that I have been nurturing for many years. It is completely different from Kotoko in terms of approach and genre, but there is a thematic connection. It will be a film about Japan’s dangerous slide into recognition and acceptance of war.
Q: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and views.

As a postscript, I am happy to note that in the intervening two years director Tsukamoto has completed his eagerly awaited new film, Nobi (Fires on the Plain), a remake of the Ichikawa Kon classic, itself based on the classic anti-war novel by O-oka Shohei. It is set to be released domestically on July 25, 2015, and I hope to catch it in Tokyo this summer.

April 29, 2015

Udine Far East Film Festival Report No. 2: Lavish Costumes, Arson and Friendship, Kung Fu vs. Hanjin Truck

Filed under: Personal Observations, Korean film-related — Q @ 5:28 pm

I was determined to spend more time catching film screenings at Udine than I usually do at film festivals, usually lucky if you end up seeing 7-10 per-cent of the roster in the theatre (you do catch up with some of them in the pressroom, but really, what is the point of physically attending a festival if you are not going to join the expectant viewers in their laughter, applause and boos hurled at the screen?).

April 25 yielded an opportunity to catch an unusually thoughtful Thai film that resists the stereotypical classification of the Thai imports as primarily working in the genres of fantasy, horror or urban thrillers. Fortuitously, I and Youngmi Angela were seated together with the producer Michael Pritchett at the lunch, and his fascinating tale of how he was able to launch the project persuaded us to go for The Last Executioner (2014), directed by Tom Waller (Mindfulness and Murder [2011]). The film tells the life-story of Chavoret Jaruboon, a prison guard and rifle expert who had performed 55 death-row executions until the government adopted lethal injection in 2003 as the preferred method of execution. Chavoret is played by Vithaya Pansringarm, a non-professional who has since 2011 became something of a minor cult actor (he appears in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives [2013] for one). He has a limited range of expressions but nonetheless endows the role with an unmistakable aura of authenticity. Director Waller recreates some of the more harrowing scenes of death-row executions in a kind of Magic Realist idiom (a standout episode involves an inmate who refuses to die even after being pumped full of bullets, apparently due to a Buddhist charm he wears on his body), but his theme has relatively little to do with the socio-political implications of the death penalty: the moral status of a man compelled by the law to take the lives of those condemned for taking the lives of others is explored not through the discourses on human rights, but through spiritual invocations of karma. Indeed, Yama (the Thai equivalent of Yeomma [Korean] or Emma [Japanese], the judge in the afterworld weighing the guilt of the deceased so that the wicked could be rightfully consigned to Hell), played by David Asavanond, repreatedly interjects himself into the otherwise realistic biographical narrative to snidely shake up Chavoret’s attempt to keep his private life absolutely unaffected by his public “duty.” A film difficult to classify as it hovers above the dividing line between a stream-of-conscious art-house meditation on the themes of guilt and redemption and of a straightforward melodrama with an admittedly morbid hook, The Last Executioner is well worth a look by fans of Asian cinema.

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Lee Do-yun’s Confession (2014) was introduced with the director gamely confessing to having tried a bit too much of the local variety of grappa, to the hearty approval of the audience. One of the hoariest, most masculine clichés of Korean cinema, male friends who grow up together only to walk different paths of life and become antagonists, receives a surprisingly fresh take in Lee’s hands. He keeps things very close to the ground level: practically every Korean man probably has at least one friend like Min-su (Lee Gwang-su), a nice guy who nonetheless cannot do anything above the level of basic competence, and one like In-cheol (Ju Ji-hoon, I Am A King [2012]), a blowhard who always tries to live above his means. Hyun-tae (Ji Sung, Blood Rain [2005]) is the straight guy estranged from his parents who had made fortunes out of running a semi-illegal gambling machine arcade. Things go downhill when In-cheol and Min-su’s scheme to burn down the arcade so that Hyun-tae’s mother, In-cheol’s favorite client, could collect insurance money. As one could foretell, In-cheol and Min-su badly screw it up, resulting in a film noir situation in which both “friends” must struggle with their own overwhelming sense of guilt as well as Hyun-tae’s burning desire for vengeance.

Confession is rough around the edges and director Lee is perhaps not quite in control of the key elements, yet is a fine psychological drama that chooses to seriously reflect on the moral questions provoked by the events depicted in the film. One of the film’s strengths is the surprisingly unconventional yet powerfully naturalistic ways in which its characters respond to their moral responsibilities, or let compassion and guilt intrude into their desire to maintain the outward forms of social bonding, including the male camaraderie. Some viewers might find Lee’s “literary” devices that become especially prominent toward the ending didactic or even preachy, but, given the way I feel certain Korean films, including some much-praised indie products, have unreflectively celebrated the narcissism-infused, hyper-masculine dedication of a protagonist to correction of an ethical wrongdoing (and by doing so morally justifying Kim Ki-duk-like splashes of extreme violence), I would rather take the side of Lee’s approach. It is too bad Ju Ji-hoon as In-cheol, while well-cast, is perhaps too unrestrained to truly convey the complex inner turmoil of his character, although ultimately the film reveals itself to be Tae-hyun’s story, about how he comes to recognize the “capacity for corruption” within himself, a quality that he has hypocritically assigned to others, including his evil-capitalist parents.

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On April 26, Lee Won-suk’s Royal Tailor played to an extremely enthusiastic crowd. The director greeted his fans in both Italian and English, and seems to genuinely love the galvanizing atmosphere of the Teatro Nuovo. The film itself was reminiscent of another Udine entry from some years ago, Yu Ha’s Frozen Flower (2008), beautifully made, with sincere performances, but somehow not quite as strong as it could have been, given the striking subject matter. Director Lee displays great comic timing, as per his previous comedy How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, and various sequences that focus on the Joseon garments as emblems of class and taste are hugely entertaining. Big star Han Suk-kyu (The Berlin File), whose do-I-give-a-shit-about-your-movie guffaws could become plenty irritating in wrong hands, gives one of his more restrained performances as Dol-suk, a commoner tailor for the royal family about to be awarded with the status of a yangban aristocrat for his exemplary service to the royal family. In one of the film’s highlights, Dol-suk, egged on by his streetwise rival Gong-jin (Go Soo, Haunters [2010]), indulges in a fantasy imagining of his freshly-sewen yangban garb appreciated by gigantic lunar rabbits making rice cakes, and Han sells this sequence to the viewers beautifully, bleaching the smarmy self-awareness out of his beatific smile.

For me, the key weakness of the film was a depressingly conventional love-triangle among Gong-jin, the young king (Yoo Yeon-seok, the young Lee Woo-jin character in Old Boy [2003]) and his neglected queen (Park Shin-hye, Evil Twins [2007]). They all look lavishingly beautiful, especially decked in truly eye-catching hanbok created by costume designer Jo Sang-gyeong, but completely lack the gravitas or authenticity of real historical personages. Gong-jin, in particular, acts too much like a contemporary fashion designer on the one hand, yet acts way too conservatively on the other, as the requirements of love-triangle melodrama robs his character of whatever true socio-cultural innovation a “character from the future” might have introduced to the Joseon dynasty social conventions.

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The contemporary action cinema from Hong Kong was well represented in Udine by Kung Fu Jungle (2014), a surprisingly gritty hand-to-hand combat extravaganza with a fascinating gimmick: the film asks what would happen, if “an evil upstart challenges the masters of martial arts in the jiang hu” plot familiar from countless numbers of the wu xia pian was directly inserted into the contemporary China-Hong Kong society. The result, of course, is a serial killer who goes about killing his opponents with bare hands, a deliberate anachronism: even the names of the protagonist, Hahou Mo (Donnie Yen), and the evil challenger, Fung Yu-sau (Wang Bao-qiang, A Touch of Sin [2013]), recall the old Chinese classics of warrior valor. Based on a screenplay by Mark Tin-sau and Lau Ho-leung, and directed by a veteran martial artist-actor Teddy Chan (Bodyguards and Assassins [2009]), the film features more than a few adrenalin-pumping action sequences, with the twist this time being that the feats of martial artistry unfold in the extra-perilous environment of perennial police survelliance and urban jungles through which cargo trucks careen through the wet asphalt, threatening to squish both our heroes and villains like bugs. Director Chan chooses not to play with the self-conscious irony of the set-up, and in the end folds everything into a mega-tribute toward the tradition of kung fu cinema, with acknowledgement of everyone from Bruce Lee down to Raymond Chow, which is a bit disappointing, especially coming at the heels of a challenging re-interpretation of the genre like Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). Nonetheless, one cannot quibble too much as it is indeed exactly what you would get when you ordered a “Hong Kong martial arts film, full of amazing stunts and brisk action sequences.”

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The same cannot be said of Helios (2015), an ultra-slick but hollow Hong Kong production that borrows some South Korean actors to launch its tale of international nuclear terrorism. The sophomore effort of Longman Leung and Sunny Luk (who previously helmed Cold War [2012]), Helios seems to be pregnant with some political subtexts resonant with the local audience but impenetratable by others, with its convoluted plot involving various bureaucratic agencies of China and Hong Kong, main characters spitting angry diatribes about the safety of the citizens of Hong Kong, and so on. Unfortunately, the film’s screenplay seemingly buckles under the pressure of an international co-production, making its already over-complicated plot a chore to sit through. Particularly chaotic are the dialogues spoken variously in Cantonese, Korean and English in all different pitches and modes, rendering some Korean and English ones unintentionally hilarious. Lost amid the car-crashing and machine-gun-blasting mayhem are some of Hong Kong and South Korea’s better actors: Nick Cheung, subtly emotive without losing an ounce of action-star credibility in Nightfall (2012) and Unbeatable (2013), is a cop so tough his jaws seem to be set in plaster. Ji Jin-hee pitches his performance at the level appropriate for a Korean TV drama, but still comes off as what-am-I-doing-here awkward. Other efforts to bring some human qualities to the villains fall flat: only Jacky Cheung as the scientist-advisor figure Professor Siu is allowed to bring a pinch of playful charm to the plate. Helios seriously bogs down in the second half, and then ends in a cliff-hanger denouement obviously meant to be continued in a sequel: this is one sequel that I would not be looking for in a hurry.

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April 27, 2015

Udine Fast East Film Festival Report No. 1- Korean Film Directors Session No. 1

Filed under: Interviews, Korean film-related — Q @ 10:55 pm

Darcy Paquet led a panel discussion on April 24 of three Korean directors whose films were showcased at Udine for the first half of the 17th Far East Film Festival. The directors were Lee Kwon (My Ordinary Love Story), Lee Won-suk (The Royal Tailor) and Lee Do-yun (Confession). Darcy addressed the questions in English and the directors answered mostly in Korean, simultaneously translated into Italian and English.

Darcy first asked director Lee Kwon about the challenges of meeting versus subverting the audience expectations for the intriguingly genre-bending My Ordinary Love Story, to which the bearded, tall and highly personable helmer readily acknowledged his willingness to take a risk in that regard. Lee revealed that originally the movie was conceived as a 50-minute one-act drama, with no substantial representation of the Song Sae-byuk character, and was subsequently expanded to include his perspective, and that some of the more poignant dialogues between the Kang Ye-won character and her mother were in fact derived from his real-life interaction between him and his own parent.

Lee Do-yun was then queried about his particular approaches to genre conventions. Director Lee, exuding the aura of a very bright junior academic, eloquently defended his naturalistic approach, pointing out that the attempts to bring “fresh twists” to his characters and plot points ended up getting in the way of achieving his objectives. It did not bother him in the end, director Lee argued, that certain aspects of the setting, space and character dynamics were extremely familiar to the Korean viewers: such identification could be wrangled to force the viewers to reflect on the “big lies” that lay hidden behind such familiar structures, he claimed. Darcy commented on the unusual intensity of the acting by three leads (Joo Ji-hoon, Lee Gwang-soo, Ji-Sung), and the director again professed the preference for casting the actors whose real-life personalities most closely resembled the characters they were assigned to, rather than evaluating them on their technical proficiencies (And of course, late night soju-drinking sessions were cited as a great help, considering that the age difference among the three leads was as wide as nine years, a potential issue in the intensely hierarchical Korean context).

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Director Lee Won-suk, familiar to the Udine crowd due to his crowd-pleasing How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (2013) and displaying cool fashion sensibility, was the last of the triumvirate to field the questions, which he did with a crowd-pleasing mixture of good humour and active gesticulations. However, Darcy’s query about the difficulties of accurately but also cinematically presenting the traditional Korean dress (hanbok) elicited honest and thoughtful reflections on the difficulties of producing a commercially viable period piece in this day and age. Working closely with the costume director Do Sang-gyung (responsible for most of Park Chan-wook’s output, among others), Lee claims to have worked hard to overcome the dilemma of showcasing the unique beauty of hanbok in relation to the implicitly Euro-centric standard of beauty (”We had a dress in Korea that looks just like a European one!”). Part of this brainstorm resulted in the decision to deliberately obscure the specificity of the historical period depicted in the film (although given reference to the Qing dynasty and other clues, The Royal Tailor seems to be set in late 17th- to early 18th-century) and go for a more fantasy-oriented approach. Responding to the question that pointed out the similarity between Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus and the one between Dol-suk (Han Suk-kyu), the royal tailor, and Gong-jin (Go Soo), a streetwise genius designer, Lee also frankly expressed regret about not being able to push the characterization of Dol-suk as explicitly gay.

It must be pointed out that all directors in their comments evinced strong concerns about the economic and financial future of Korean cinema in the long term, as the investors increasingly veer toward the safety-first, trust-the-established-stars mentality and the number of the stalwart producers who could protect the young talents from the interventions of the bean-counters and the pressures of the market gradually dwindle. Lee Kwon and Lee Do-yun readily acknowledged that they were lucky enough to have worked with the very such producers protective of their original visions.

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As expected, the thoughtfulness, commitment and enthusiasm of the young Korean directors toward their projects and the craft and spirit of filmmaking were palpably communicated to the equally attentive and appreciative journalistic corps and other participants. Here’s hope for their many happy returns to Udine!

Coming up in less than 24 hours: reports on the films– Confession, The Tragedy of Bushido, Kung Fu Jungle, The Royal Tailor and more– and the audience responses to them|

April 13, 2015

Cento notti di orrore [Hundred Nights of Horror] Continues in 2015, with carryover from 2014

Filed under: Personal Observations — Q @ 4:49 pm

Oh shame on me! I started the ambitious block-review series for ALL new horror films that I get to watch in 2014, that I hoped would amout to 100 films by the end of the year and from there I was going to select 13 best titles. But then again, I essentially stopped doing this on September as Fall quarter rolled on and my life again became insanely busy.

An important lesson: full-time teaching job and any ambitious plan for a personal blog do not mix. Or if it is mixed, it’s combustible and will blow up in your face.

But if there is anything I hate more than admission of a failure, it is to leave a plan unfinished and dangling in my conscience. So I am doggedly resuming in April 2015, when I am finally free from the teaching obligations, at least for a few months, the celebration of cheap, grungy, low-budget, found-footage horror films churned out by dozens every month, along with occasional insertions of A-list quality products actually made with some serious money. I decided to forgo the demarcation between 2014 and 2015 entries, and just keep on numbering the titles, whether it actually reaches 100 points or not. I won’t double back and recount the films, but I won’t stress over the issue of whether I choose the best 13 out of both the films watched from the last year’s blog entries (including such memorable titles as Occulus, The Quiet Ones, The Sacrament, Banshee Chapter and Rigor Mortis) and the ones watched from January 1, 2015.

Hey, no one is paying me to do this, and I am quite certain that by the Christmas time of 2015 I will have many, many other important stuff to worry about than this list. So if it gets derailed again then, so be it. Let me worry about it when that happens. Meanwhile, the block-reviews hereby resumes. We start out in April 2015 at the list number 21.

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21.The Devil’s Due (2014- USA, A Davis Entertainment Production. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Company. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett). Slickly lensed but empty-headed, The Devil’s Due is produced by 20th Century Fox, cluing us to the fact that it is in a nutshell a retread of the same company’s ’70s cash cow The Omen, with the new twist being its annoying capitulation to the found-footage format. A young couple (Zach Giford and Allison Miller, extremely pretty) travels to a vaguely Haiti-like foreign country but the wife is kidnapped and put through a vaguely Satanic religious ritual, after which she is found to be pregnant, naturally (The ultra-dork husband is entirely unaware of this episode until many months later, even though the whole shebang was recorded incantation-by-incantation on his own camera!). The film is technically polished and mounted with impressive, state-of-the-art special effects by its two directors but otherwise contributes absolutely nothing new to the genre. You know exactly what is going to happen at nearly every turning point, and the length to which the film goes to justify the presence of the amateur camera footage is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. The best scene is where a group of total strangers running into Miller’s character munching on innards of a deer, whereupon they get efficiently and gruesomely dispatched. A little more of these crisp, jolting scenes would have at least injected some verve to the proceedings. ☆☆★★★

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22. Blood Glacier(2013- Austria, An Allegro Films Production. Distributed by IFC Midnight. Directed by Marvin Kren). A huffing-and-puffing Austrian sci-fi horror from Rammbock’s (2010) Marvin Kren, about a misanthropic Alpine guide Janek (Gerhard Liebmann) who, along with a bunch of inane, useless scientists including a terribly annoying former girlfriend (Edita Malovcic), has to deal with red-colored micro-organisms that, like the plant microbes of The Relic (1997), have a capacity to mix and match animal DNAs, creating goofy-looking hybrid monsters. The basic template is The Thing (1981) and, while the film cannot even come close to the latter’s taut atmospherics, it does a fair job of laying about the expected monster mayhem: over-the-top silliness is certainly less bothersome in this context than would be in, say, a found-footage nonsense. And the blood-red blocks of ice adorning the Alpine peaks do induce a certain amount of poetic frisson in the viewers. It’s too bad that its protagonist couple is such sullen, unsympathetic jerks. Among the cast, Brigitte Kren’s (related to the director?) ass-kicking female politico leaves the most positive impression. ☆☆☆

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23.Dead Within (2014-USA, A 3:41AM/This is Just a Test Co-Production. Directed by Ben Wagner). Another one of those extremely low-budget horror film that uses the basic zombie epidemic premise to really head toward a different direction. Banshee Chapter explored the Lovecraftian territory: Dead Within explores paranoia and survivor’s guilt, pushing its main characters– a couple, Mike (Dean Chekvala) and Kimberly (Amy Cale Peterson) to the point where their mental stability is eroded. Even though the movie does include several effective scenes of old-fashioned jolt, along with the extremely uncomfortable scenes of carnage-by-implication (especially a few involving a zombie baby), the movie is essentially a psychodrama, with Mike and Kimberly gradually beginning to mistrust one another. Despite its nothing-budget, the film includes a rather elaborate nightmare-hallucination sequence complete with a decapitated naked woman. It certainly cannot be faulted for not trying hard enough: I liked the movie enough that I desperately wished that it would not end on the utterly, entirely predictable “ambiguous” ending but of course it does. ☆☆☆★

24. Tunnel 3D 터널 (South Korea- 2014, A Filma Pictures/Madang Entertainment/Yeonghwasa Kajok/Blue Eye Pictures Co-Production. Directed by Park Gyoo-taek). For a formal review, check out here at Koreanfilm.org. Despite generally competent technical specs, Tunnel 3D is such a tired re-hash of J-horror conventions that it threatened to put me to sleep quickly. You can’t have any investment in the characters when they act either dumb like a garden slug, or preen and strut like a department store manikin. ☆☆★★

25. The Wicked (South Korea- 2014, A Blue Whale Production Company, Distributed by IndiePlug-Movie Collage. Directed by Yoo Young-seon). For a formal review, check out here at Koreanfilm.org. Invited to the 2015 Udine Far Eastern Film Festival, this low-budget film has its supporters. Certainly the main actress Park Ju-hee is a notable presence, although even her character could have been improved on. In the film, it is never really explained how she could have collected so much knowledge, including some truly private information, about those whom she has run into, for instance.
☆☆★★★

I will be back with short takes and perhaps long-form reviews of more horror films.

December 22, 2014

‘Danger, danger,’ Beeped the Asteriod: THE TERRORNAUTS- DVD Review

Filed under: DVD Reviews — Q @ 6:31 am

THE TERRORNAUTS. 1967. An Amicus Production. United Kingdom, 1 hour 14 minutes (Original release version), 59 minutes (Re-release version). Aspect ratio 1.66:1

Director: Montgomery Tully. Screenplay: John Brunner. Based on the novella “The Wailing Asteroid” by Murray Leinster. Cinematography: Geoffrey Faithfull. Music: Elizabeth Lutyens. Production Designer: Bill Constable. Editor: Peter Musgrave. Producers: Max J. Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky. CAST: Simon Oates (Dr. Joe Burke), Zena Marshall (Sandy Lund), Charles Hawtrey (Joshua Yellowees), Patricia Hayes (Mrs. Jones), Stanley Meadows (Ben Keller), Max Adrian (Dr. Shore), Richard Carpenter (Danny).

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Between anthology horror films such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), The Asylum (1972) and Tales from the Crypt (1972), for which it is best known today, Amicus Productions, like their much-better-known competitor Hammer Films, dabbled in different genres. One such detour is this technically limited but conceptually ambitious and ultimately praise-worthy science fiction yarn.

Adapted surprisingly faithfully from a relatively short but large-scaled SF novel from Murray Leinster, The Terrornauts is a deceptively intelligent variant on the old invaders-from-space tale. Dr. Burke (TV actor Simon Oates), a young scientist, is heading a British observatory engaged in a scaled-down version of the SETI project, that is, trying to capture signals from the intelligent alien life from outer space. It is divulged through flashback that as a child he had a strange encounter with an O-o-part (“Out of place artifact”) dug up by his archeologist uncle, that led to a vivid dream of wandering around on the surface of an alien planet with two moons. When his observatory picks up what sounds like a distress signal from an asteroid, Burke is convinced that his childhood dream is somehow related to this weirdly familiar signal from the space. However, as Burke and his team are becoming aware of the signal, whatever that sent the signal on the asteroid becomes aware of them, and decides to send an interplanetary vehicle to fetch them.

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The Terrornauts, despite its pulpish title that promises some hideous, multi-ocular alien creepies in space suits, may require some patience for those not familiar with serious science fiction. They may be thrown off by the way the main protagonists must exercise their brain muscles to figure out the real purpose of their journey. This thoughtful approach, likely attributable to John Brunner’s (who was himself a Hugo-award-winning SF author) screenplay, may in fact have been responsible for the trimming of an already short film for a re-release (More about this below).

The asteroid’s alien-built space station, while rendered with cheap-looking miniatures in long shots, is impressively designed, with a non-human-form robot in charge who is refreshingly not cute but charming in its streamlined way. A sequence in which Burke, Sandy and co. are being tested, before being permitted to own weapons, features one of the most crazily designed space monsters I have seen, with a diagonal slash of a mouth with red bristles lined up inside, a set of misshapen crab claws, and a mascara-studded huge eye balefully staring out of the abdomen, as if its anatomy has been shuffled randomly before being put together: right out of a ’60s middle-aged British bloke’s dark, subconscious imaginings of an assertive, sexually active female? Nonetheless, the (welcome) message conveyed clearly to the audience in this sequence is that you must ask questions rather than shoot first, even when confronted by a wet-your-pants scary space beastie.

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Exploration of the whys and wherefores of the asteroid’s message nicely builds toward the climactic space battle against the returning invaders, which may be disappointing to the contemporary viewers used to the slick CGI. But then again, unlike, say, classic Star Trek TV series, it is not just all urgent talk while camera’s tilting this way or that: things go seriously kabooey all over the place. Conceptually and in terms of narrative we have little problem following what is going on, as the “good” and “bad” aliens (whose visages are never shown) use completely different styles of technology and design (bad aliens flash lethal beams of destruction, whereas the good guys use reassuringly torpedo-like missiles, and so forth). Contributing enormously to the atmosphere is Elizabeth Lutyens’s (The Skull, The Earth Dies Screaming) pounding orchestral score, punctuated by eerie electronic chirpings and beepings of the alien technology.

The cast is game: Simon Oates, looking like a cross between Patrick Macnee and Gene Barry, is a suitably stalwart but gentlemanly hero. Sandy is played by the dark-haired exotic beauty Zena Marshall, startlingly sexy and totally convincing as a half-Chinese female agent of Dr. No in the ‘63 Bond film. She does briefly play a damsel in distress but otherwise is a no-nonsense heroine, commandeering missile-launching consoles with gusto, side by side with the good astronomer. Charles Hawtrey and Patricia Hayes are comic relief characters, a befuddled solicitor and a landlady siphoned off the earth for a wild ride, thankfully not allowed to overstay their welcome.

The Terrornauts is one of the fondly remembered items from the late-night (black and white) TV viewings of the now-defunct AFKN (American Forces Korean Network) channel, which I was supposedly too young to catch but did anyway. Trying to figure out its rather sophisticated narrative points about the asteroid’s message and the meaning of Dr. Burke’s childhood dream, knowing virtually no English, was in fact a great fun. And that one-eyed space monster is, well, unforgettable, once you had run into it on TV at the impressionable age of ten or so.

DVD Presentation:

Network/Studio Canal Release. PAL. Region 2. Video: 480p Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1. Audio: English Mono. No Subtitles. Supplements: Theatrical Release, Theatrical Version Trailer. Release date: March 14, 2014.

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Network has been releasing classic British genre films and TV series for some time now. For some reason they opted to issue The Terrornauts only on DVD, not on Blu Ray. It appears that, compared to, say, Prisoner TV series, this particular vintage title did not possess enough financial clout to have its Eastman color photography restored.

But before we talk about the quality of the visuals at display, I need to bring your attention to the fact that the main title presented here is a drastically cut re-release version which clocks around 58 minutes. Missing is the entire “meandering in the space station” sequence: not only that unique-looking space monster but also the whole exploration of the alien technology by bewildered but curious earthlings have been cut out. Even though, as Network correctly states in the liner notes, “viewers will notice a drop in quality,” I nonetheless recommend you to go directly to the “Special Features” section and click on the “Play Original Theatrical Version” button, and watch that version instead. The so-called re-release version has been put through a form of lobotomy and manages to throw away some of the reasons for this motion picture’s very existence. As I reiterate, the monster, prominently featured in the menu screen, does not even show up in this version!

Having said this, I am obliged to note that the Theatrical Version is marred by a substantial amount of specks, scratches and debris, including green vertical lines that intrude into some scenes, especially in the early part of the film. The re-release version has been polished but its images are also rendered soft and pale, perhaps an outcome of excess digital cleanup. Colors of both versions are greenish and notably faded in earthbound, interior scenes. They fare a bit better in the space station-based sequences, but not significantly so. All in all, do not expect a sterling quality transfer.

The DVDs comes in a thin plastic case with no room for any additional written materials inside, although the DVD cover sheet reproduces on the reverse side an aggressively pulp-ish original poster (“The virgin sacrifice to the gods of a ghastly galaxy!” screams the headline. Well, this is technically not misinformation but…) and five b & w stills.

December 8, 2014

“Well,” Katniss Answers Sardonically, “You better get it on film.”– MOCKINGJAY PART 1 [Film Review]

Filed under: Uncategorized — Q @ 7:52 pm

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1. (U.S.A., 2014) A Colorforce/Lionsgate Production, 2 hour 3 minutes, 35mm/Digital Media, Aspect Ratio 2.35:1

Directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Peter Craig, Danny Strong. Adapted from the novel by Suzanne Collins. Cinematography by Jo Willems. Production Designer Philip Messina. Music by James Newton Howard. CAST: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Julianne Moore (President Alma Coin), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Liam Helmsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket).

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Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series is one of the darker and more complex Young Adult series in the market, examining heavy issues such as media manipulation through the dystopian world of Panem, in which twelve districts with varying productive functions and economic inequalities must send two tributes—one boy and one girl—to the Capitol to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a perverse competition where only one can emerge alive. The stakes of the Hunger Games, meant to punish the districts for a past failed rebellion and showcase the insurmountable power of the Capitol, spreads beyond the arena when Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year-old girl from District 12 who volunteers to spare her younger sister’s participation, manages to outsmart the process and in an unprecedented move save herself as well as her male counterpart Peeta. This is the story that the previous two entries– The Hunger Games and Catching Fire– managed to cover so far.

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Mockingjay Part I cannot escape the unfortunate fact that it is a filler movie. But let me state here that I do not mind the split to two parts, however cynical the financial reasons behind that decision might have been, as long as there was a narrative justification. The movie does an adequate job at this, expanding the world of Panem and providing a more introspective examination of trauma, terror, and war. Some critics have slammed this film for being low on action, but this criticism seems to stem from a romantic vision of revolution, rooted in the genealogy of middle school history textbooks that tell of the uncompromising, awe-inspiring badasses who lead the oppressed to an inevitable victory. It is important to note that this kind of heroic narrative is a gross simplification ignoring the complicated realities that ordinary people had to navigate through in order to survive. In truth, revolutions are very messy and terrible, hardly a suitable material for a feel-good Hollywood film—a cursory examination of the ongoing repercussions of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the Syrian civil war reveals this.

If anything, Mockingjay Part I should be lauded for presenting the harsh realities of conflict to a Young Adult audience. It is ironic but wonderful that many young Americans will be watching a mainstream big-budget movie about what is essentially a proletarian uprising against a gluttonous upper class. Whether this is intentional or an accident on the part of the filmmakers is, I suppose, up to interpretation.  

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While difficult to watch, the scenes in Mockingjay Part I that subvert the glory of war by revealing its cruelty are well done. The execution of hooded civilians, the bombing of a hospital filled with the wounded and unburied dead, and the piles of skeletons and carbonized bodies following the firebombing of District 12 drive home the terror of a total war. Contrary to the enthusiastic march of “La Marseillaise,” “The Hanging Tree” is a beautifully haunting battle cry even if its original lyrics are rather morbid. Individual traumas are examined as well. If the opening scenes of Catching Fire indicate Katniss’s yearning for peace, then the opening scenes of Mockingjay Part I reveal her complete psychological breakdown. It is perhaps relevant to remind ourselves that Katniss is 17 years old at this point. To demand that she continue to be fierce and independent is to completely ignore the mental, physical, and emotional torment she had to endure by the end of Catching Fire

At its core, the Hunger Games franchise is an examination of the spectacle, or distortions of reality through media. The first film and Catching Fire looked at this through the grotesque pageantry of the Hunger Games. Mockingjay tackles the spectacle with a more political tone by examining war propaganda. Katniss and Peeta are respectively used by the rebellion and the Capitol. Seeing Cressida (Natalie Dormer) forcefully prod for usable footage and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gleefully produce propaganda to propel the rebellion forward is uncomfortable (the effect enhanced by their superb acting), driving home the message that the omnipresent camera of the arena never left Katniss. On the other hand, watching Peeta through Katniss’s eyes (a smart directing choice) is chilling and perhaps allows Josh Hutcherson to give his best and most nuanced performance in his acting career.

The other popular myth that the movie at least attempts to deconstruct is the taint of collaboration. There is a tendency to view collaborators as selfish, immoral people who are just as bad as the deemed monsters they worked with, in contrast to the resistance, always viewed as noble and righteous. It is quite clear that the way Katniss is being used for propaganda, no matter the justification, renders the heads of the rebellion morally suspicious in the viewer’s eyes. The fact that the wily Plutarch Heavensbee sits on the leadership table is an overt indication of this moral ambiguity. From another angle, Katniss’s horrified reaction to District 13’s Pavlovian response to Peeta’s propaganda videos for the Capitol is well-delivered. The movie as well as the book call into question this notion that one would never betray the cause despite the psychological and physical erosion suffered through torture, indoctrination programs and other means of breaking one’s will. The latter aspect is best exemplified by the depiction of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart, refusing to plead for mercy amid torture, instead defiantly shouting “Freedom!” After all, would we call Vietnam veterans imprisoned in Hanoi Hilton, who signed statements acknowledging their actions as war crimes, “collaborators” or “traitors” to the United States? The film should also make us aware that those who label Peeta as such are no more virtuous, representing a hive-like mentality of simplicity and zealousness, while ignoring the complex choices that individuals have to make in order to survive.

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For all the things that Mockingjay Part I does right, there is one major issue that does not sit well with me. Although Katniss’s torn feelings between Peeta and Gale are toned down in this film, the fact that it lingers is problematic because it seems like her impetus to act is dependent on their situation. Yes, Katniss is psychologically fragile, but she is also smart enough to understand her value to the rebellion and make forceful demands. The fact that Katniss does not dwell on the implications of her actions outside of her considerations for Peeta and Gale is disingenuous and undermines her intelligence as a character. However, this was a problem that originated in the source material. It’s just unfortunate that the movie did not deviate from the book in this respect because I think it would make for a much stronger film.

*Guest Reviewer: Catherine Tsai.

September 7, 2014

Cento notti di orrore [One Hundred Nights of Horror]- Horror Cinema Reviews Part 3

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Personal Observations — Q @ 3:54 am

The trip to the Jeju island in August was a marvelous experience. The beauty and resplendence of the nature– waterfalls, fields of orange coral, rocks that look like Titan’s cupcakes– are matched by the amazing delicacies– “black” pork, seafood including twitching abalone, even, er, horse meat. The museums, art galleries and historical sites are of course wonderful, although we had to miss out the Hello Kitty Museum, allegedly the largest single site in the world devoted to… um, Kitty is not exactly a cat, is it? Whatever.

So the August entries are missing. At this rate, I won’t quite be able to fill out the quota for one hundred items by the end of 2014, but oh well, it’s not like anybody is going to fine me for missing it. However, I would not underestimate my own obsession with horror cinema. And worry not, there are absolutely no shortage of the horror films to watch: in South Korea or in the U.S.

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Item fourteen is Haunt (2013- USA: A QED International/Revolver Pictures Production, Director: Mac Carter), another IFC Midnight pickup, this time lensed in Salt Lake City, but pleasantly ahead of the curve in terms of scare tactics, command of visual language and production quality. A reasonably well-handled teen romance angle plus classic haunted house shenanigans maintain one’s interest despite the essentially hoary nature of the setup. The female specter is also well-designed and effectively deployed. The evil-triumphs ending is, like that for Oculus, slightly disappointing (and while not exactly illogical, leaves a lot of narrative debris to be cleaned up after the movie’s ending). I did a double take when I realized that the cool-looking actress who plays the protagonist’s mother turned out to be Ione Skye. Lord, how time flies. ☆☆☆★

Next up is Deep in the Darkness (2014- USA: A Chiller Network Films/Synthetic Cinema International Production, Distributed by Universal Pictures. Director: Colin Theys). A New York City doctor (Sean Patrick Thomas) relocates to a rural location with his family. His practice thrives, his neighbors, including an old man (Dean Stockwell) with a deformed wife, are nice, and everything seems to be hunkey-dorey, that is, until the old man tells him about the “isolates” who live deep in the woods and demand live sacrifices from the townspeople once in a while. A traditionalist spook show, complete with a surprisingly old-fashioned score from Matthew Llewellyn, the kind that blares horns whenever something “shocking” is about to happen. The movie is certainly preferable to some of the more ridiculous found-footage horror pics of recent years, but the direction is just too TV-sized and by-the-numbers. The monsters are also derivative of the mound-dwelling mutants in The New Daughter (2009), although the denouement harkens back to the schlocky spirit of Roger Corman’s New World drive-in features. Well cast, although the (good) idea of a black protagonist stuck in a white rural town with hideous secrets could have been developed further. ☆☆☆

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Rigor Mortis 殭屍 (2013- Hong Kong: A Kudos Film Incorporated Production, International Distribution by Fortissimo Films. Director: Juno Mak 麥浚龍)A suicidal actor (Chin Siu-Ho) moves into a bizarrely dilapidated apartment, populated by a zombie/vampire hunter chef (Anthony Chan), an insane beggar woman (Kara Wai), her little albino son (Morris Ho) and an old seamstress Aunt Mai (Nina Paw). When Aunt Mai’s elderly husband Tung (Richard Ng) dies from a suspicious-looking fall, she consults an exorcist/black magician Gau (Chung Fat), which turns her husband into the fabled “hopping zombie-vampire (jiang-shi).” The Cantonpop star Juno Mak, striking as a revenge-obsessed street vendor in Wong Ching-po’s harrowing Revenge, A Love Story (2010), brings a keen eye for visual language and a character-centered sensibility to his take on an old Hong Kong horror monster, more often than not milked for humor. Produced by Ju-on’s Shimizu Takashi (whose influence is evident in the film’s subsidiary monster, a pair of ghastly twin sister ghosts with cascading black hairs), the story drags in part but we always remain invested in the characters and their emotional tribulations. Nina Paw as Aunt Mai is particularly effective as a kindly old woman whose love for her husband (and fear of isolation) propels her to commit progressively awful acts of cruelty and heartlessness (Did Mak consult Bong Jun-ho’s Mother?).

Advertised as a martial arts-action film, Rigor Mortis is anything but, told with a deliberate pace and coming with almost metaphysically surreal set pieces as well as an An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge-like coda that could leave some viewers befuddled, scratching their heads. The film will likely divide its viewers according to their expectations: it does not show much fidelity to hyper-kinetic Hong Kong horror of ’70s and ’80s it superficially makes references to, so be warned if that’s what you are looking for. Instead, director Mak takes the native cinematic tropes and styles and sensibilities of J- and K-horror, puts them all in a blender and manages to concoct his own gateau délicieux out of the mix: crisp, not overcooked, affecting but not soggy. ☆☆☆★★

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The Quiet Ones (2013- United Kingdom: A Hammer Films/Traveling Picture Show/Midfield Films Production, Distributed by Lionsgate Films. Director: John Pogue) is another competent but not overwhelming supernatural horror from the resuscitated Hammer Studio. The film is based on a strange, real-life episode from the Canadian annals of parapsychological investigation, in which a group of researchers decided to “invent” a ghost named Philip, only to have this fake spirit create havoc. Now that story would have made an intriguingly innovative film. Unfortunately,The Quiet Ones scraps that idea and cooks up a very ’70s hokey-poke plot, complete with a demon-worshiping cult and a paranormal investigation team armed with an 8mm camera, among other gadgets.

The grad student research team is led by an arrogant, manipulative scientist (Jared Harris) in an isolated house, focused on the poltergeist and pyrokinetic activities taking place around pretty but troubled Jane (Olivia Cooke, well cast and very good). The film is sometimes reminiscent of an old episode of a BBC TV drama (not a bad thing in itself), and the found-footage stylistics rear its head in a square (1.33:1 ratio) screen that stands for Brian’s (Sam Claflin) documentary footage, which contrasts with the rather avant-garde and New Century sound design. The Quiet Ones is pretty good, but suffers from a screenplay that seems to add more twists than really necessary (Cooke almost manages to sell the duality of her character between “Evey” and “Jane”) and a couple of less-than-impressive CGI effects, made to look worse by having been inserted into the rigorously ’70s-style visual universe. ☆☆☆★

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Wer (2013- USA-Romania: A Film District/Incentive Films Entertainment/Sierra Pictures/Prototype Production/Room 101/Bell & Peterman Films Production. Director: William Brent Bell), like one of those vampire films in which human characters never once use the word “vampire,” is a werewolf movie that the word “werewolf” is uttered only once, at the very end of the film. Actually, it is set in France so it’s technically a loup-garou. The film has an interesting introductory setup: an excessively hirsute Eastern European hunk (Brian Scott O’Connor) is arrested for murdering and partially eating an American tourist and his child, and agrees to retain the defense counsel of a devoted human rights lawyer (A. J. Cook). She in turn solicits help from her former boyfriend, an expert on wild animals (Simon Quatermane), who is expected to provide a testimony that the killing could not possibly have been done by human hands (and teeth).

Again unfortunately, this intriguingly rational-procedural approach to the werewolf story is abandoned midway as the hunk simply goes on a rampage and the idea of Perry-Mason-meets-Larry-Talbot genre hybrid is thrown out the window. What remains is a standard werewolf action, albeit excitingly done. The half-hearted effort by William Brent Bell’s screenplay to suggest some kind of scientific explanation for the loup-garou falls flat and is largely forgotten by the film’s climax. I am glad the werewolf sub-genre is proving to be as durable as the vampire one, although Wer is primarily distinguished by its conscious desire not to rely on special makeup effects in its transformation or rampage sequences. ☆☆☆

Filmed on location at Bogota, Colombia, one is tempted to read some kind of political allegory into The Damned (2013- USA, Colombia: An IM Global/Five 7 Media/Launchpad Production. Distributed by IFC Midnight. Director: Victor Garcia), which stars American actors but is strongly Latin-American flavored. The set-up is not particularly original, to say the least. It starts out like the classic Twilight Zone episode “Howling Man,” written by Charles Beaumont, as a bickering group of family and friends are stranded in an abandoned Colombian hotel, whose proprietor is keeping a little girl locked in the basement. Of course, we immediately suspect the girl’s true identity but then the film moves to the Fallen (1998) territory, without the latter’s wry wit and the reflective attitude toward men’s evil nature, with a dash of Michael Reeve’s The She Beast (1966) mixed in. The film could either have been more phlegmatic and philosophical or, conversely, wilder and woolier. As it stands, it is neither hot nor cold, despite some effective set pieces. ☆☆☆

Okay, now we are at number twenty. A few more scare flicks to go. Next installment may finally include brand-new Korean horror films The Tunnel and The Navigator.

July 21, 2014

Cento notti di orrore [One Hundred Nights of Horror]- Horror Cinema Reviews Part 2

Filed under: DVD Reviews, Personal Observations — Q @ 2:59 pm

Resuming where I have left off last time with the Cento notti di orrore project, watching one hundred “new” horror films in the year 2014, to eventually select the 13 best-of list: We are now moving onto the lucky number seven. Up to here are the films I have watched up to, hmm, early June or so. Saint Anthony of Parking Spaces, I was really busy in the spring quarter.

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In late April I watched, let’s see… oh, here we have a self-conscious, almost tongue-in-cheek throwback to candy-colored, deliberately politically incorrect ’70s exploitation film as well as anything-goes ’80s slasher film “aesthetics.” Nurse (2013- USA: A Lions Gate Entertainment Production. Director: Douglas Aarniokoski)– presented theatrically in 3-D, no less– seems to have rubbed a lot of people in the wrong way, but it does score points for hutzpah. Director Aarniokoski gleefully doles out the knowingly schlocky exploitation content– mini-skirted nurses dispensing lethal injections from neon-colored hypodermic needles, lesbian bed scenes with a G-string underwear thrown about, a panting-mutt goofball performance from Judd Nelson (who’s actually game and does a better job at this sort of thing than, say, Christopher Atkins) as a lecherous doctor eventually carved up by Abby, the film’s serial murderess cum sexy nurse, and so forth. I appreciate what Aarniokoski is getting at, and some of his visual gags (such as the darn cool main title design) are inspired, but I also felt that he tries a little too hard to sell his wares. More problematically, Abby’s character feels like a sketch rather than a full-blown construct. Paz de la Huerta’s performance seems to be also splitting the viewers pro and con: I don’t think she has done a bad job, but her character is not nearly as compelling (or funny, for that matter) as she probably appeared on the screenplay page. Perhaps addition of a genuine sense of humor, rather than strained un-PC paroxysms that are “supposed to be funny,” might have helped her render Abby’s character more memorable. ☆☆☆

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Banshee Chapter (2013- Germany, USA: A Sunchaser Entertainment/Before The Door Pictures/Favorite Films Production, Distributed by XLRator Media. Director: Blair Erickson) is another micro-budget found-footage film. This time, an attractive, British-accented journalist Anne (Katia Winter) is recording her investigation of the disappearance of her college friend James (Michael McMillian), who has left a camcoder footage in which he ingests a US-government-created mind-altering drug called DMT-19, and apparently transforms into… a zombie? An alien-human hybrid? She hitches up with a counterculture writer Blackburn (Ted Levine, Silence of the Lambs) who had originally supplied James with a batch of the drug. Things go rapidly batshit-weird from there, as Blackburn’s girlfriend Callie (Jenny Gabrielle) is transformed in the same way James was. Anne eventually figures out that the drug changes one’s brain chemistry to be receptive to the signals sent by extra-dimensional monsters, a la Resonators in Lovecraft’s From Beyond. And they are determined to wear our bodies like boxing gloves to cause untold mayhem…

Banshee Chapter is akin to Shimizu Takashi’s Ju-on, in the sense that the movie is not particularly attractive, constructed in a threadbare manner on one or two effective ideas, but, it must be admitted, is darn scary. The budget is pathetically low to the point that the found-footage conceit is abandoned midway (most of what Anne goes through is filmed in a cinema verité style by “God’s perspective and not by her camera), but nonetheless the whole thing remains effective. The slack-jawed makeup of the “possessed” should be for intents and purposes a laugh riot but is actually seriously disturbing when sparely glimpsed in the context of the film. The best way to describe it is a minimalist version of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, although in substance much closer to Lovecraft than the Fulci extravaganza. ☆☆☆★

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One of the most controversial horror films released to the general public in 2014, The Sacrament (2013- USA: A Worldview-Arcade Pictures Production, Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. Director: Ti West) is a difficult movie to judge fairly. Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a fashion photographer, agrees to an assignment of conducting an interview with a commune leader known only as Father (Gene Jones), under whose benevolent spell his long-lost and drug-addict sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) seems to have fallen. At first, the community seems to be perfectly in order: but when one mother tries to secretly smuggle her child out of the compound with the documentary team, Patrick and his crew begin to suspect not everything is what it seems at Eden Parish. West’s directorial acumen is in display throughout this tightly constructed mockumentary. He carefully builds up anxiety and suspense levels, never resorting to loud bangs or jump-on-your-back visuals to keep you interested.

The Sacrament might well be tremendously disturbing and absorbing to those who have never heard of the Jonestown Massacre (non-American viewers, for one). However, I and many others who have, through various news reports, documentary programs and (admittedly more melodramatic) feature films such as Rene Cardona Jr.’s Guyana: Crime of the Century [1979], will not be able to shake off a debilitating sense of deja vu and, worse, pointlessness. In the end, the whole enterprise, expertly put together as it is, feels rather hollow, like a deed turned in too late, as Japanese merchants used to say. If West was trying to prove the point that “a real-life tragedy created by blind faiths is much scarier than fictional supernatural shenanigans” with The Sacrament, I must say he succeeded, except that, I should note, that’s a rather self-defeating attitude for a maker of horror film to assume. ☆☆☆

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Allegedly well-received at Sundance Film Festival and widely praised by critics is Great Britain’s In Fear (2013- United Kingdom: An Anton Capital Entertainment/Lovefilm/Big Talk Production, Distributed by Studio Canal/4Films/Anchor Bay Films. Director: Jeremy Lovering). Typical of the recent trends in the British horror, it explores anthropocentric horrors based on the active will to harm others, addressing the anxieties of social disintegration facing the country (Brits no longer need a nasty zombie epidemic or such fictional device to imagine their population bashing each other’s head out: sheer hatred of your neighbors is potent enough, thank you). The minimalist setup follows a young couple (Ian De Caestecker and Alice Englert) driving to a resort hotel in the countryside. Once they arrive at the vicinity, however, not only are they having trouble locating the so-called hotel (the gas is running out, the terrain is muddy, and the sun is setting), but are running into evidence of somebody (or somebodies) tracking them down.

A heavy-breathing psychodrama disguised as a random-disaster-falls-on-innocent-vacationers “rural” horror, In Fear starts out like a variant of Matheson/Spielberg’s Duel but turns into something else entirely. Intense and well-mounted, there is still little innovative in either conception or execution of the film: you can see the denouement from a mile away. Among the movies with a similar setup (an uneasy couple traveling in an automobile), I would yet prefer Winter Chill with Emily Blunt, which had the advantage of more sympathetic characters and less indulgence in “tasteful ambivalence.” I admit that its Harold Pinter-esque acting set pieces are of high quality, but the movie isn’t really thrilling nor scary, just depressing. Banshee Chapter can paint circles around this film in terms of the booga-booga factor. ☆☆☆

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Surprise, surprise: one of the hoariest clichés of Gothic horror, a haunted furniture, in fact a haunted mirror at that, receives an exceedingly clever treatment in the hands of Mike Flanagan (director of raw but intriguing Absentia [2011]) in Oculus (2014- USA: A Intrepid Pictures/Blumhouse Pictures/WWE Studios, Distributed by Relativity Media). Kaylie (Dr. Who’s Amy Pond, Karen Gillan), who works at an antique auction house, tells his younger brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) that she wants to prove that their father, who shot their mother and killed himself, was in fact goaded by an evil presence residing in an archaic mirror. Sneaking the artifact out of the auction house, she has set up a Rube Goldberg device that threatens to shatter the mirror unless it reveals its true colors to the siblings, and presumably to their camcoders. Of course, the mirror strikes back, by manipulating the sibling’s perception of time and space, which it does devilishly well.

Oculus is an ingenious horror film that pits human protagonists and the supernatural evil within the framework of something like a board game. Director-writer Flanagan then uses the film’s flashback structure to slowly undermine the viewer’s own certainties about the narrative content and character motivation. By the second half, the film turns almost experimental, as the flashbacks to Kaylie and Tim’s childhood selves become conflated with their adult “realities” to such an extent that the latter are unconsciously replicating their childhood “mistakes.” The film’s morale conveyed through another downbeat ending seems to be “Leave enough alone those things not meant to be stirred up,” but I found this denouement disappointingly conventional. I think Oculus would have been an enduring masterpiece had it introduced just one more tweak. Visually the film is somewhat dull-looking, although the reflected-mirror eyeballs of the apparitions conjured by the mirror-demon are a nice, eerie idea, especially combined with their vaguely smirking, rather than tormented, countenances. ☆☆☆★★

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Almost Human (2013- USA: A Channel 83/Ambrosio-Delmenico Co-Production, Distributed by IFC Midnight. Director: Joe Begos) is a Rhode Island regional production: it’s very energetic but cannot quite overcome fatally unoriginal premise and execution. A hunky lumberjack (I am guessing?) played by Josh Ethier is abducted by aliens and comes back two years later, and guess what, he has even less personality than before. Who would have thought? His wimpy friend (Graham Skipper) and beautiful wife (Vanessa Leigh) don’t know how to respond. Soon, the lumberjack is orally impregnating a bunch of guys and gals stashed in warehouse. And yes, he has ungodly designs on his pretty wife.

The movie samples Fire in the Sky, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Hidden and even X-tro, among many other (better) genre films. Director Joe Begos has zero notion of subtlety but, given the threadbare production quality, has the right attitude to just forge ahead and put in as many bash-’em-ups as he could find excuses to. ☆☆★★★

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Next installment will be written in Seoul, Korea. Already watched and waiting in the cue are Evidence, Haunt, Chiller TV’s Deep in the Darkness and Juno Mak’s exciting feature debut Rigor Mortis.