Monday, May 30, 2005

Shaw Me a Little Love, Baby...

Ye olde movie poster The Shaw Brothers studios have been instrumental in the filmmaking careers of many people, including a certain director by the name of Quentin Tarantino. Their films helped shape the asian martial arts film as it is today.

Today we will tackle one movie from the extensive SB selection, the movie Five Shaolin Masters, directed by the legendary Chang Cheh. Since I can't remember much of the cast (there are so many of them it's hard to keep track with just one viewing)so I'll just tell you the story.

So, one fine day, the Qing emperor sends some evil Manchu guys to totally rape the Shaolin Temple. They succeed, and only six survive. Five of them are the titular Shaolin Masters of the film. Led by Hu Dedi (one of only two names I can remember) it also includes a Jacky Chan-ish funny young guy, a serious guy, Meng Fei's character, and some other guy, they escape separately then meet up in some river somewhere. Dedi then gives them some signals to memorize and tells them to recruit more patriots and allies so that they can have sweet revenge and overthrow the Qing court. They also suspect that this thing was an inside job, that there is some sort of spy or something that betrayed the Shaolin. They go their separate ways, running off into the sunset.

MEANWHILE, back in the Shaolin Temple, the sixth monk is walking along minding his own business. After he does something dagnasty evil you realize that this guy is the traitor that sold out the Shaolin. Eventually we are introduced to four other evil Manchu guys, led by the traitor, Ma Puyi and General Chang (or was it Ching? I forget) They have no name per se like the "Five Shaolin Masters," so for the sake of discussion we'll just call them the Fu Manchu Five. There's Ma Puyi, the General and his two Tonfa Baton lackeys, some Mantis Fist practicing guy, some guy with a wicked "flying axe" (an axe blade tied to a rope) and some other muscular guy.

We go back to the Shaolin guys, and their first efforts at recruiting allies and fighting the Fu Manchu Five prove disastrous. It is clearly apparent that compared to the Fu Manchu Five the Shaolin guys are pussies. This culminates in the death of a very strong ally, General Gao, in a rescue mission that aimed to rescue the Jacky Chan-ish fellow.

Realizing that they are pussies, the Shaolin guys decide to train, each specializing on how to defeat the techniques of their Fu Manchu Five counterparts. For example, the Shaolin who challenged Flying Axe Guy decides to counter with using a long range weapon, the staff. Jacky Chan lookalike decides to learn the Tiger and Crane styles against Ma Puyi, who doesn't know those styles, and so on. Eventually they learn to kick ass and they decide that the time is now.

Eventually they lure the Fu Manchu Five into a generic grassy river thingy, they fight, and a titanic battle of Shaw Brothers proportions ensues. After the fight, well, you'll have to see for yourself.

The camerawork is pure Shaw Brothers. Sudden zoom-ins, long panning shots, they're all in there. You also have your generic grassy area as a battlefield, used in many movies of the 1970s. It's chopsocky fun and refreshing to watch. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Breasty Moons

Yeah, this film has a shot of the moon turning into breasts. The title of the recent 2004 film Yeogosaeng sijipgagi (the English title is "Marrying High School Girl") pretty much says it all. Yeah, I know what you're thinking, you're getting that My Little Bride vibe again (or if you haven't, probably some weird sort of double-sided Nabokovian feeling.)

Okay, I didn't make much sense in that last paragraph. I'll try again.

South Koreans lately seem to be kind of preoccupied with this Lolita concept of an old guy having a relationship with a young girl, or two young lovers getting busy or somesuch. Examples of this idea are the aformentioned movie My Little Bride, Kim Ki-duk's movies Samaria and The Bow, and that K-drama showing now on local screens, My Bride is 18. I really don't know why, but heck, I'll take it.

Lim Eun-gyeong. Ain't she cute? The story is kind of taken from an old Korean folk tale, The Princess and the Beggar. Pyunggang (played by one of the most beautiful young actresses in Korea, Lim Eun-gyeong, pictured to the left) is a high school student who has been cursed by the spirit of Princess Pyunggang (the princess in the folktale.) You see, in the folktale, Pyunggang didn't get to marry her love, Ondal the fool, thus she became a ghost to someday be resurrected. Now the present Pyunggang must find the resurrected Ondal on her 16th birthday and marry him or else she will die.
Eventually, Ondal does come, in the form of a brainy high school student portrayed by Korean musician-turned-actor Eun Ji-won. Pyunggang, a bit of a tomboy (but still cute) is hesitant but throws herself at Ondal, even going as far as to awkwardly seduce him (which is a bonus point to Lim Eun-gyeong's fans... =p) Eventually a lot of stuff happens, a strange subplot is dealt with in cringe inducing manner, a strange foreign girl is thrown in for no apparent reason except to tittilate more viewers, and everything basically ends up happily ever after... kind of.
I personally feel hesitant upon liking the ending too much. It does deal on teen marriage and sex, but it seemed to trivialize the whole thing (you can probably guess the teenage couple does get busy in a hilarious sequence involving the moon, bunnies and a mortar and pestle. Use your imagination) that prevents it from becoming anything remotely socially relevant or responsible; a trend some people are seeing in movies or late (the last half Jenny, Juno for one) and that sort of detracts from their experience.
But you see, I don't think that was the point at all. This is another turn your brain off goofball highschool comedy, full of the slapstick and green humor stuff that you usually see in K-comedies. It is a stranger blend of My Little Bride, although I do admit that despite Lim Eun-gyeong being more beautiful, she stands no chance against the ultra cuteness factor (I just had to bold-ify that) and general charisma of My Little Bride's Moon Geun-young. My Little Bride is the better movie of the two, although I would be lying to you if I said I didn't enjoy watching it. Besides, Lim Eun-gyeong is in it. And that makes any movie (even Resurrection of the Little Match Girl!) around 2381 times better.
If you don't really mind the concept, and if you like over the top, silly K-comedies, try it.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Two movies with much kicking of ass: A Jet Li pseudo-retrospective

Damn, that was a long title. It says it all, anyway. Here are two movies from an Asian Martial Arts Superstar: Jet Li.

Unleashed, Jet Li's latest work, is an interesting collaboration. For one, the script was written by film director Luc Besson, probably best known for films like Nikita and the Professional. The action choreography is courtesy of Yuen Woo Ping, who has either directed or choreographed some of the greatest martial arts sequences in the last thirty or so years. To the martial arts fan, it is a tremendous moment: Yuen and Li have not been together since Li's Wong Fei Hung days.

It is all the more ironic that if you are looking for stylish martial arts in this film, you won't find much. Jet Li's fight scenes are raw and brutal. Don't worry; he still kicks ass, but only a bit in the style we've come to know him by. When he's punching them, it hurts sometimes to watch it unfold.

Oh, I haven't told you about a story yet, silly me. Jet is Danny, a human "attack dog" that kills efficiently and viciously. His "master" is some British bald guy whose name currently escapes me, who treats him like a dog and is more or less a bastard to everybody. One day they get into an "accident" (read: their car is rammed by a ten wheeler and is peppered with bullets) Jet is freed relatively safe. He is taken in by a blind piano tuner, Sam (played by Morgan Freeman) into his house and through him, his stepdaughter Victoria, and the power of music, the shrouds that cover his humanity are slowly unravelled. But the British guy is still alive, and there are more questions to be asked: why does Danny have an affinity to pianos? Why can he play this one piano piece when he doesn't remember how he learned it? How did evil bastard guy have Danny in the first place?

Jet Li shines here not with his martial arts, but his acting. He sold the part of a man who kills viciously, but still maintains a childlike innocence. He knows hurting people is bad, but it was what he was trained to do. When he gets a taste of what being a normal guy is like, he realizes that he's being taken on a ride by his evil master. At the end, he makes a decision

Plot holes notwithstanding, the movie is quite entertaining to watch. It uses nice editing techniques and I can't say anything bad about the camerawork. There was a little humor in there too that's true to Besson's style. All in all this is one of Jet Li's more unconventional movies. Yes, he leaps, punches and kicks here, but it's a different Jet Li. The jury is still out whether it is a better Jet Li, but for what it's worth, it sure serves the action well.

The Tai-Chi Master is vintage 1990s Jet Li. It tells the story of two Shaolin brothers, Tianbao and Junbao (Jet Li.) Junbao is, kind and good hearted. Tianbao is mischievous, gets Junbao into a lot of trouble, and is highly competitive. After Tianbao is wrongfully removed from a tournament to decide the students who will learn the higher techniques of the Shaolin, he and Junbao (who stepped forward to protect him) are expelled from the monastery. They wander into a province ruled by this evil Eunuch named Liu. The two brothers do their stuff, and meet quite a lot of supporting characters. Tianbao decides to join Liu's private army and become a high ranked military man or something, while Junbao decides to stay in this restaurant. Soon Tianbao becomes dagnasty evil at some point because of his lust for power and predictably does some dagnasty evil things, like, say, betray all his friends including Junbao. Eventually Junbao learns some tai chi and kicks the living crap out of his Shaolin Brother, but not before a few scenes of Jet Li walking around like a nutter.

The martial arts sequences are okay, including an excellent fight scene in the beginning involving wooden poles. It's not Jet Li's best, but it's good enough to be entertaining. One scene involves him and Michelle Yeoh (who is basically pasted onto the movie for the sake of it) seemingly facing off against a gazillion soldiers. Yowza.

Anyway, this movie is solid fun. It's no masterpiece like his work in the OUATIC series, but it's a very fun way to spend 90 or so minutes of your time.

Reality Bites

After much hoopla, Carrie Underwood has won the Fourth Season of American Idol. I really wanted Bo to win. He was original, he took risks. Granted, he was not the besst singer, but at least everytime he sang he had emotion.

I don't dislike Carrie per se, I'm just a bit... disappointed, that's all. I still have the notion that the best singers in this competition left the contest early.

In other news, Sergio Mora has won the Contender championship round in Caesar's Palace! I thought he was going to lose, getting a bad cut in the early rounds, but the Latin Snake kept on making those combinations in the end and that made the difference in the scorecards. I hope Peter Manfredo Jr. won something for that fight, however - I like the guy and he put up one hell of a fight.

So that's it. 1-1 on my count. Looking forward to Amazing Race 8...

Monday, May 23, 2005

oh, put a Cannes on it...

This year's Cannes Film Festival ended recently and the winners were announced. I don't know a lot about this year's films, but they do seem interesting. David Cronenberg and his film A History of Violence is nowhere to be seen, or Gus Van Sant's Last Days... hehe. Lars Von Trier was snubbed again, as his second film in his Land of Opportunities trilogy, Manderlay came up with nothing too.

Interesting Jury selection, too... people like John Woo to Salma Hayek to famed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (Ten, Five Dedicated to Ozu, etc.)


Palme d'Or - "L' Enfant" (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)

Interesting choice - I don't know much about the Dardenne brothers' films except Rosetta, a story about a girl who tries to make a living despite many hardships, which won the Golden Palm in 1999. L'Enfant (The Child) is a tale about this man who sells his newborn infant son for money, but soon, overwhelmed with guilt, decides to take him back.

Grand Prix - "Broken Flowers" (Jim Jarmusch, France-U.S.)

Wow - this totally blows my mind. I can't believe the guy who directed Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai won the Grand Prix at Cannes, hehe. Broken Flowers is kind of like a road movie. Don Johnston (portrayed by Bill Murray) is sort of a guy who has a lot of girlfriends. One day he receives a letter from some guy who claims to be his son, so he goes on a little road trip to find out with whom of his old flames did he have a son with. I'm looking forward to seeing this one.

Best Actress Award - Hanna Laszlo ("Free Zone," Israel-Belgium)

Another road movie, this time starring Laszlo and Natalie Portman. It's basically about two Israeli women bound by circumstance who go around the country doing stuff. I don't know what that stuff exactly is, but it sure involves a kissing scene between Miss Portman and one of her male co-actors at the Wailing Wall, something that was a point of controversy a while back.

Best Actor Award - Tommy Lee Jones ("The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada," U.S.)

Nice Surprise. This is Jones' first theatrical directorial debut, much less a film directorial debut in Cannes. This movie is about how Jones' character is carrying out the wishes of his good friend, to be buried in his home country of Mexico, and undertakes a journey there. Of course, this tackles the state of tensions on the Mexico- US border.

Best Director Award - Michael Haneke ("Hidden," France-Austria-Germany-Italy)

I believe this was the critics' choice for winning the grand prize. Shows you how much they know, huh? hehe. Georges, a TV host guy, finds a couple of tapes that shows their house being filmed from a distance, plus a few weird drawings. Over time the stuff that is being sent kinda sends signals that the sender has known Georges for quite some time. It's one of those "functional family discovers something dark about one or more family member/s and the whole family structure/functionality collapses" kind of thing. The most concrete example of this would probably be one of the greatest Korean movies of all time, the 1960 film The Housemaid. However, from what I've seen Haneke develops the basic thriller premise of the movie and dives into the psychological aspects of the thing. I'll have to see it to find out for sure.

Best Screenplay Award - Guillermo Arriaga ("The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada," U.S.)

See above for comments. Note that Arriaga wrote the screenplay to Amores Perros, another amazing movie.

Jury Prize - Qing Hong ("Shanghai Dreams," Wang Xiaoshuai, China)

By far the only Asian entry in the list. It's a period piece about people leaving the major cities to go to the poorer sections of China and live there. Not much about it has been seen, but it looks terribly interesting.


Palme d'Or -"Wayfarers" (Igor Strembitsky, Ukraine)
Special Mention -"Clara" (Van Sowerwine, Australia)

Dunno much about the short films, so I can't comment on 'em. Clara is animated, however.


The other Cannes competition. I thought Hong Sang-soo's new movie A Tale of the Cinema was in here somewhere. I know Kim Ki-duk's The Bow was in Director's Fortnight, but I can't be sure.

Prix Un Certain Regard - "Moartea Domnului Lazarescu" ("The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," Cristi Puiu, Romania)
Prix de L'Intimité -"Filmman" (Alain Cavalier, France)
Prix De L'Espoir - "Delwende" (S. Pierre Yameogo, Burkina Faso)


Caméra d'Or Winner
"The Forsaken Land" (Vimukthi Jayasundara, Sri Lanka)
"Me And You And Everyone We Know" (Miranda July, U.S.)

Haven't heard of the first one, but the second one was made by a US indie filmmaker. I think she has another film released this year.

Prix Vulcain de l'Artiste-Technicien (technical award)
Leslie Shatz ("Last Days," U.S.)
Robert Rodriguez ("Sin City," U.S.)

It's cool that Rodriguez managed to get a technical award for Sin City. That film looked tight.

mad props to twitchfilm for the info.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Adventures of Nothing

I can't believe Star Wars has made 50 million dollars in just one day, in the US alone. That's 10 million more than the previous record holder for the opening day weekend, which I think was Spiderman, and 6 mil more than the all time record holder, Shrek 2.
Well, maybe I can believe it. The movie definitely has replay value, mainly because everything goes fast the first time you watch it, you're tempted to watch it again just to absorb everything you missed the first time around. I have watched the film five times myself, which is impressive considering the most times I saw a film in a cinema was ten, and that was for Fellowship of the Ring, and those ten viewings were spread out over a month.
Speaking of major box office takes, I remember all the hype that surrounded the Matrix Reloaded. I remembered being very slightly disappointed at the Wachowski's version of a sequel, but nevertheless thought the fights were incredible (for some reason, they felt slower.) It did make a lot of money at the box office, so much in fact that I think the profits for the third movie in the trilogy were purely profit.
I rarely see a theater jampacked with people here in the Philippines. The most I think I ever saw in a movie theater was for the Japanese horror flick Ring, Men in Black 2, and Star Wars Episode II. There were so many people, their collective body heat overloaded what passed for the theater's air conditioning. There was no "standing room only" situation, because there was basically no standing room at all. Lines hundreds of people long impeded the traffic of mallgoers from one place to another.
As for Filipino movies, I saw the most people during a screening of Bridal Shower. Sex + comedy = teh win. We (or at least, our cinematic elite) goes nuts for films that have incidental humor, have all-star casts, "drama" that consists of people slapping each other, and a "socially relevant" theme. What happened to free expression unbound by creative constraints under the pretense of social relevance? Whatever happened to decent characterization and solid, untrite plots? Whatever happened to films of the sixties and seventies that did portray social relevance without being preachy or didactic?

* * *
I've been having a strange waking vision of a person I've never met before. It's a girl around my age, not really that attractive, with short hair and half-closed eyes. She wears a white cloth jacket and something black underneath. I have no idea who she is.
* * *
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Leon Kadena.

Reportedly her real name is Minamo Kusano. She's a very cute Japanese model, with traces of Eriko Sato in there and something entirely different. She doesn't do AV per se, but if you watch her videos, she does a lot of teasing - and that's it (which proves to be quite frustrating to most of her fans (read: maniacs) out there.)

I buy into her only because of the cuteness, however. I'm trying to get one of her videos *cough*BT*cough* but it is painfully slow - 1kbps to be exact - I'll probably be done next month.

* * *

reality show time!

Who do you think will win American Idol? I'm rooting for Bo. I think Carrie's performances are mostly flat emotionally, as if she's just singing for the sake of it. Plus, Bo is someone different, he takes risks, and he makes every song he sings his own.

Who do you think will win The Contender? I'm rooting for Sergio Mora. I just like the guy. He's smart, he has plans within plans without being too scheming, and he's a good fighter.

* * *

My download has progressed 0.1 percent. Excellent. 11 days to go.


Friday, May 20, 2005

Under the tongue root a fight most dread...

The Duel ...and another, raging behind, in the head.

This line from Robert Graves' The White Goddess, used in Episode I in Duel of the Fates, pretty much sums up the entire movie, and the trilogy in particular: beneath an external battle of blasters, spaceships and lightsabers, an internal war of the mind rages, using deception, emotion and lies.

I had the extreme pleasure of watching Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in theaters today. Twice, in fact. Did I enjoy it?

Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

Episode III is the unifying chapter in the Star Wars saga. It is a tragedy in the purest sense of the word: a dark tale of how a good man turned to evil, of how two good friends turned into bitter arch-enemies. It is the story of how an aging Republic turned into a despotic Empire. This is the movie some of us have been waiting for 27 years to see. Ever since George Lucas told us of the backstory of how Darth Vader and Obi-wan fought on that lava planet, we've been wanting to see it. It was The Duel, the fight to end all fights, the stuff legends are made of. We wanted to see who Luke Skywalker's parents were like before the dark times, what the Republic was like, what the old Jedi were like before the Purge.

The story starts with the kidnapping of Chancellor Palpatine by the Separatist rebels, which brings us to the first major battle of the movie: the Battle of Coruscant. It is dizzying, amazingly attuned to detail, and you may find yourself breathless as you see the two Jedi starfighters race along the side of what is to become an Imperial Star Destroyer. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of ships in the fray, dwarfing the Battle of Endor through sheer scale. The entire first third of the movie is fast-paced, something that I haven't seen in a long while. At times the action reminded me more of Indy Jones than Star Wars.

Other than the effects, we see the camaraderie between Anakin and Obi-wan, and their chatter is reminiscent of the time when Luke and Han were gunning down TIEs from the Millennum Falcon. There's the sense of 'hey, we're brothers, I won't just leave you behind. Let's have some fun with this.' Once they make it into the Separatist flagship we get Jedi vs. Dooku round 2, and some great scenes with R2-D2. Yes, it's on, and Anakin has improved. Visually, the scene immediately recalls scenes from Episode VI, with Palpatine seated as his minions do battle, seducing his minion's opponent to the dark side. Soon, thanks to Palpatine's egging, Anakin is slowly seduced to the dark side. It's not yet the total conversion thing, but just a little push in that direction.

Once the bells and whistles are finished, it's time for a little exposition. This is the only breathing space you get in the movie, and it's very short. Here Palpatine (portrayed excellently by Ian McDiarmid) places the last pieces of his plan into motion: he plants seeds of distrust between Anakin and the Jedi Council, creating a wedge between them. He knows what is going to happen; he's forseen it. He's been in this deception business ever since Episode I. Anakin has strange visions of his wife dying, much like his dreams about his mother in Episode II, but done in a better way. Palpatine is baiting Anakin by promising the knowledge of powers that can save his wife from death - the knowledge of the dark side. Palpatine must secretly be laughing all the way to the bank as he gives Anakin an offer he cannot refuse. And when all the traps are sprung, the deception revealed, and the dark side finally manifested, things go pretty downhill for our protagonists from here.

What happens next is brutal, scenes of death and destruction. You know the bad guys are raping the good guys. Badly. I did cheer a bit when Anakin killed the separatists, however. Killing Viceroy Gunray was fun.

So it all boils down to this: Anakin sold his soul to the devil because of love. He loved his wife so much he feared letting go of her. An attachment to other people and things is one of the things that the Jedi are not supposed to have, but Anakin does not care; his love is too strong. And his fear of losing her due to that love lead to the dark side, indeed, it is the first step to becoming a Sith. Ironically, it is Luke's attachment to his friends and father that prevented him from turning to the dark side later in Episode VI, and it would be Vader's love for his children that would prompt him to kill his evil master and return to good.

I have to give props to Ian McDiarmid again. His portrayal of the Emperor makes this movie. The whole prequel trilogy is also a story of how he basically screwed everyone up until he was the ruler of everything, and everyone believed him. When he screams "UNLIMITED POWER!!!" you kinda want to applaud the guy. Well done. The galaxy is now yours. Or when he goes from this mild-mannered chancellor into this cackling dirty old bastard in this great scene where his voice changes, you can see the transformation. This is what he truly is - a badass, evil Sith lord.

You also have to hand it to that little gift Lucas gave to us - the Wookie battle on Kashyyyk. He's been wanting to do this ever since Episode VI, and now he's showing us how it's supposed to be done. It's an amazing little scene that just in there for the cool factor, and I like it.

The lightsaber duels are spectacular, especially The Duel. I loved the way John Williams used Anakin vs. Obi-wan and Battle of the Heroes, with a few strains of Duel of the Fates thrown in for good measure. Hayden and Ewan must have practiced this fight for months; it all feels so natural and so damned fast - there must be like three to four moves a second. This was not just any ordinary battle, this was a battle between former friends. There was an emotional tinge to this battle that parallels the many Luke/Vader confrontations in the other trilogy, and the duel adds more intrigue to Obi-wan and Vader confronting each other in Episode IV.

When Vader is being 'suited' and Padme is giving birth, these two scenes are intercut, a curious visual moment that gives some interesting parallels. Here Padme is dying, giving birth to her children. At the same time, Vader is being 'reborn,' but as one under living death, like a zombie. Excellently, John Williams used the funeral music from Episode I, denying the suited Vader's birth this celebrational feel, only a sense of mourning for the death of a good man and the birth of an evil one.

I had barely any problems with the dialogue, even in the much maligned love scenes. Who goes to Star Wars for the dialogue anyway? The actors are much refined here. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman are both talented actors, and they use some of the experience from the other movie roles they had after appearing in Episode II. They also appear more natural with each other - their pairing in Episode II seemed a little forced for my tastes.

There are a lot more interesting things you can catch while viewing the film, little easter eggs for you to enjoy. The Rebel Blockade Runner, the Millenium Falcon, Grand Moff Tarkin, the Death Star in it's infancy, a view of Alderaan, the cameos by Lucas and his kids.

One thing I loved about this movie was that it was paced so fast- you can barely feel the two hours on you. It is an exciting event, one that you will want to see again and again.

And yet, this is the last Star Wars film. The circle is complete. And it brings a sense of closure to this tale that happens a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

May the force be where no man has gone before

Tomorrow is a sad day of sorts - with the premiere of the last installment of Star Wars, and with the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise on US television, it will be an end of sorts to these two sci-fi franchises. Of course, they will still be around in some sort of form. Star Trek will have a series, hopefully a better one, under the helm of better people. There's a prequel movie coming, too, although it is a bit doubtful at this point whether it would be completed or not. Star Wars will continue to have TV series, books, and possibly Episodes 7,8, and 9. Someone else will have to do it, since the original actors are quite old, and George Lucas has said himself that he won't be penning any new movies.

These two series have shaped my life for the past 20 or so years. They have been a part of me, they helped me fuel my imagination, take me to places I would never have thought of.

I've considered myself a big Trek fan ever since I first saw it- I couldn't remember what exactly, probably syndicated reruns of the original series. They were unlike anything I have ever seen before. I was intrigued by the fact that a spaceship could travel like that around space. I liked the fact that people like this had evolved ideals, a higher sense of morality. Then I saw Wrath of Khan, the greatest Star Trek movie of all time. It was a battle between two individuals, bound by destiny. Khan, in his throes of revenge, sacrificed everything to kill James Kirk. And Kirk was placed in this situation out of a choice that he thought was the best thing to do. He thought it was the best thing to do to leave Khan and his colleagues on Ceti Alpha V. He never thought the planet would be wasted, Khan's wife and most of his friends dead, or that Khan would be forced to live his life in a hellish limbo. I loved how the two of them dueled in their ships, Kirk with the Enterprise, Khan with the Reliant, and how each phaser blast reflected their inner pain and torment. Then the Next Generation came along. It shaped most of my childhood imagination. With the lack of a proper toy, I wrote NCC-17010 (sic) on my desk lamp and imagined it as the Enterprise D. I made long, crude yet heartfelt comics about it. I liked the new crew, the new adventures. My heart stopped with suspense when I watched The Best of Both Worlds. I liked DS9 and the epicness, the long extended cast of characters. I even liked Voyager to a certain extent. I liked the movies up to First Contact, saw things like the mystery of Star Trek VI, the camaraderie in STV, the sheer fun of STIV, Picard's lust for revenge in STVIII, the last adventure of James Kirk in STVII, the death of my beloved Enterprise in STIII.

Then Insurrection and Nemesis came along. Insurrection was a moralistic tale, much like the episodes of Star Trek and its spawn. It just felt too much like a TV movie than a movie. When I saw Nemesis I felt hollow. Something was missing from this movie. It felt too much like a ripoff of Wrath of Khan. It was full of battles, but the battles lacked intensity. It lacked that singular thing that pushed Wrath of Khan to greatness. It was full of contrived, unnecessary scenes. I felt that something had died that day.

Enterprise came along, and although I had my doubts, it went strong in the fourth season. The original series was referenced often. People wanted it to stay a bit longer. They made petitions, donated millions of dollars.

It was canceled.

While this was going on, I managed to see Star Wars in its vintage 1977 glory in the mid eighties, when I was a kid. There were no special additions, no CG Jabba, and Han shot first. It was a rollercoaster ride from start to finish. My heart stopped when Luke was alone on that trench on the Death Star.

I didn't get to see Empire Strikes Back, considered by many to be the greatest Star Wars of all time, and missed out on the revelation that made the entire movie series, that Darth Vader is Luke's daddy. Instead, I saw Return of the Jedi, and that film remained my favorite until a few years ago. Again, there was a rollercoaster ride packed in there. The Battle of Endor forever changed the way I would see a space battle. It was the first epic battle I would ever see- the first of many. In fact, the three films would change the way I was mainstream blockbuster cinema for a long time.

When I later rediscovered the three films, I found that their magic had not faded. I still felt that rush of excitement during the Battle of Yavin, or that duel between Vader and Luke on Bespin, or the Battle of Endor. I had reassigned Episode IV as my all-time favorite. Why not Empire? Episode IV was a straight-and-clean good vs. evil movie, a clever rehash of Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. Episode V changed all that. It wasn't just good vs. evil, because everyone had their shades of gray. Everyone was on the run; this was a story that happened after the "...and they lived happily ever after" part, and for the trilogy it was as bleak for the protagonists as it could get. Plus, there was the cinematic plot twist to end all cinematic plot twists ever since we found out that Soylent Green was made of people.

But Episode V would never have stood its ground without Episode IV. Ep. IV was the template for the rest of the series, the "establishing shot," so to say, the opening act of a three-act play that chronicles Luke Skywalker and his transition from farmboy to a powerful Jedi.

Then I saw the first two prequels. They were okay, but not without their faults: Episode I had Jar Jar Binks. Episode II had the unsatisfactorily played romance story. But there were good things to offset the bad; Episode I had Duel of the Fates, Obi-wan and Qui-gon versus Darth Maul. Episode II had the Battle of Geonosis, and our first glimpse at an Empire near birth. It was somewhat satisfying, but there was something missing from them.

Tomorrow I will watch Episode III, which may or may not redeem the entire prequel trilogy. It will probably also be the last Star Wars movie I will ever see.

Yes, it is a happy and sad day for me tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Traces of Sunshine

Lee Jung-jae and Jang Jin-young Korean melodramas are still in full swing not only in their home country, but also the rest of asia, notably Japan and China. They may not be films that get critical acclaim; it is often the case that melodramas are the target of merciless panning from critics. I personally don't mind watching them; after years of trying to avoid them I have finally turned over to the dark side, so to say. While some of them do fall into the generally cheesy category, some do prove to be entertaining films that leave me with a satisfying feeling.

One example of the latter is the 2002 film Over the Rainbow, directed by Ahn Jin-woo. A recent export to Japan, impressive considering that the movie is three years old, the movie centers on Jin-soo, (Lee Jung-jae, who isn't a newcomer to the genre, having worked on one of my personal favorites of the genre, the soon to be remade 2000 film Il Mare) a TV anchorman who, one rainy day, gets involved in a car accident. Due to this accident he gets a case of selective amnesia. Over time he finds that the amnesia has robbed him of the memories of a woman who may have been his girlfriend. As he tries to uncover the story behind this mystery girl through his old college friends, he grows closer to a friend, Yeon-hee, (Jang Jin-young) who willingly helps him in his search. As he comes closer to the truth, he begins to doubt his desire to continue unraveling his mystery and he starts looking towards the present.

The mystery of who this girl is drives the story forward and keeps it from getting boring, but it is really the performances of the leads that raises this film from mediocrity. Lee Jung-jae has this kind of character type nailed, considering the films he's worked on in the past. Jang Jin-young impresses as a contemplative character on one end, a vibrant and slightly outspoken character in another.

The movie may suffer from a few staples of K-melodrama: the shot of the two leads roaming around in one location, yet failing to find each other (I call this the 'salisihan' shot,) the token dramatic scene in the rain, the occasional Korean ballad/English song (this time borrowed from old classics like The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain - the latter marked by a bit of a Fred Astaire-ish dance number from Lee,) and the montage of characters feeling blue or otherwise occupied.

Despite it's shortcomings, the movie was a very entertaining experience, and a bit of a surprise for me. Some may call it cliche, but come on, even the word cliche is cliche. Check it out.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

We Want Short Shorts

When I watched the first ambitious compilation of short films by Japanese Filmmakers, Jam Films, I thought the whole thing was pretty uneven, but altogether okay. Yukihiko Tsutsumi (who directed the very interesting Chinese Dinner) made something darkly funny, Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus, Azumi) made something cool, George Iida (Another Heaven, Dragonhead, and the forgotten Ring sequel Rasen) made something very, very strange, Isao Yukisada (Go)made something nice, Shunji Iwai (Swallowtail, Love Letter) made something cute and quirky (which is kind of a given since he had Ryoko Hirosue in it.) However, I was pleasantly surprised that my favorite of the eight shorts was not from any of these directors that I knew, but by someone I was a bit unfamiliar with - Tetsuo Shinohara's Kendama, a light slightly romantic comedy that entertained me a bit. (He would later go on to direct Heaven's Bookstore, a film that I have, which makes me naturally want to watch it.)

The follow-up to this production, Jam Films 2, presents us with some works by up and coming directors, in contrast to the established directors we saw in its predecessor. Instead of six films, we get four 30-minute shorts for our viewing pleasure.

Junji Kojima's "Armchair Theory" (pictured top right) was for me the most entertaining of the four shorts. It is told in a video presentation on the subject of 'kosai' -literally dating, among Japanese people. Quirky and refreshing, it elicited many a laugh from this moviegoer.

Eiki Takahashi's"Clean Room" (pictured top left) is full of beautiful visual symbolism and interesting little nuances that may warrant discussion - if you manage to remember the film after you watch it. Not much really happens in the film that manages to get you. The ambience reminded me of the ambiance from Tatsuya Ishii's 1996 film ACRI - kinda slow, full of pretty images.

Hide Inoue's "Hoops Men Soul" (pictured bottom right) is about how a bakery boy is helped by a gang of street hip-hop guys to save his girlfriend from the clutches of an evil debt collector. It starts out pretty nicely and it has a lot of interesting characters, but it doesn't dwell on them too much. Also, the camera techniques Inoue's cinematographer uses kinda makes it hard to focus on the action, whenever it happens. Inconsequential, but it managed to get a few laughs from me.

The antholog ends with Kouki Tange's "Fastener," (pictured bottom left) inspired by the Mr. Children song of the same name. A dying man remembers a childhood kiss, probably his first, and engages in a long series of dreams, memories and visions, aided by a stunning visual style that can be at times cool, or at times even unnerving. I had seen the Music Video that the short was based on; I wish I could see the original material again.

Also, watch out for a brief cameo by Eihi Shiina (best known from her role in Audition) sometime during the middle.

All in all, this new compilation is a bit better than the first one, quite impressive for works from up-and-coming directors. I look forward to Jam Films S, the newest addition to this short film anthology series, coming out this year.