Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A Wandering Stare


When I finished watching Lee Yoon-ki's debut film This Charming Girl last Saturday, I didn't know what to say about it. Some parts seemed extraneous somehow and the film as a whole didn't seem to coalesce into something tangible. I couldn't see what everyone was talking about that made the film so good.

Over the course of the next days, however, I couldn't stop thinking of this film. By the next day, my opinion of this film changed vastly, and I now consider the film to be one of the best of the year. Quiet, delicately restrained and contemplative, This Charming Girl is an interesting picture into the psyche of a woman struggling to break free.

Break free from what, you may ask? You'll have to see the movie to find out. The movie begins with us seeing the main character, Jeong-hye (portrayed superbly by Kim Ji-soo in her first film role,) going through the motions of everyday life. She works as a postal worker, quietly going through her days silently toiling, seemingly aimless. As the movie progresses, we notice that something is different with Jeong-hye. She spends moments of quiet contemplation, and sometimes engages in strange little things like impulsively buying kimchi from home shopping. Director Lee states that it's not that Jeong-hye couldn't make kimchi for herself, it's more of the fact that she's curious and wants to try it out on a whim.

She takes this attitude to a new level when she decides to take a chance. As we see how she deals with the repercussions of this act, we see more and more through the layers of her past and the things that has shaped her life up until now. What we see by the end of 99 minutes is a small glimpse into someone's heart.

The camerawork in this film is very interesting, to say the least. There are lots of handheld shots (I wouldn't be surprised if I found out the entire film was handheld) and lingering static shots with a good eye for composition. I also noticed that there are few long-distance, wide angle shots in the movie (I counted 10, give or take a few.) Most of the scenes lavished its attention on Jeong-hye, her face, her expressions, her little motions and quirks, never capturing her more than a few meters away, giving the film a slightly voyeuristic (or personal, depending on your interpretation) feel. But this is her movie, after all.

Some people may be put off by the languid pace the film takes; I do admit that watching a movie like this takes a bit of patience, but in my opinion the payoff is extremely rewarding.

As the film cuts to a final shot of Jeong-hye's face, we try to find the meaning in her expression. Was it sadness? Or was it the promise of hope? Lee wisely lets us make the decision ourselves; or perhaps we can say that Lee leaves it to Jeong-hye - in the end, it's ultimately her life.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Say you, say me part 2: Rikidozan

When I see professional wrestling on TV, I still see, after almost two decades, the flashiness, the electricity in the air, the soap opera style sketches. I was a fan for a long time; as kids and teens we lapped up the suspense and the matches and cheered our favorite wrestlers on.

In Japan, professional wrestling (contracted into "purores") is considered as a more serious sport. Wrestlers are treated more like sports athletes than entertainers. One even got into the Japanese Government, no less wearing his trademark mask.

The man who almost single-handedly brought pro wrestling to Japan was a man called Rikidozan. How interesting it is to note that Rikidozan, a man who is considered a national hero in Japan is actually from Korea.

Rikidozan the movie is a biopic, but it does try well to get out of the pitfalls that other movies of its type suffer. We see Rikidozan as a man beset by faults, but striving for a place in the world. Or perhaps we can say that all he wants is a world where he won't be judged because of his race or creed.

Some of the more enjoyable scenes in the movie occur when Riki fights his first match in Japan. At the time Japan was a wreck after losing WWII, most importantly with respect to morale. I noticed that the announcers talked about the match in this way: they didn't refer to Rikidozan "beating up Mr. this and that," but rather of Rikidozan "defeating America." It was a great source of pride for the Japanese people, giving them something to hold on, something with which to save face, for a country obsessed with saving face and personal honor.

No, Rikidozan was not a perfect person. His love story with his wife Aya, portrayed by Japanese actress Miki Nakatani (Chaos, Ring 2) may be a bit underplayed but it works, for what it's worth.

I am now in the opinion that Sol Kyung-gu is in the top tier of actors in Korea, if not Asia, if not the world. He gives the character Rikidozan life, a marked contrast from his roles as a mentally impaired person in Oasis or as a suicidal man in Peppermint Candy. His usage of Japanese is quite good from my reckoning, and I probably wouldn't have known that he was a Korean actor had I not known.

In the end, Rikidozan was a good effort. It may not have been a perfect film, but it competently shows the quest of a man whose only wish was to be able to smile as much as he wanted.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Say you, say me, part 1: 2009 Lost Memories

Why, you may ask, "say you, say me?" Well, the next two movie reviews are going to tackle two movies that have something in common: they are movies with Korean actors in Japanese-speaking roles, and the setting is either Japan or a colony of Japan. Can't make the connection? Neither can I. :p

First up is 2009 Lost Memories, starring Jang Dong-geun and Toru Nakamura. The premise of the film is very interesting.

Here goes. In 1910, Korea was under Japanese rule. This all changed when a man named Ah Jung-geun killed Prince Ito Hirobumi, then Governor General of Korea. This later lead to many uprisings that eventually led to the Annexation of Korea in the same year.

The film poses the question: what if the assassination attempt failed? An amazing sequence of parallel history shows us what could have happened. The movie then begins in Seoul, but as soon as I saw the city, everything felt different. When I saw the Japanese-style police cars and the suits, I knew that this was a different Seoul, a different world.

The immersion is what matters in a film like this, and although it does start very well, the immersion wasn't as good as it was at the beginning once you get to the movie's second half. Jang Dong-geun does a decent job speaking Japanese, but I kinda felt the accent still shining through. It is a challenge speaking a different language, so I do commend him on his effort. The rest of the actors there only have supporting roles, perhaps except for Jang's partner Toru Nakamura, who does a decent job whenever he is on the screen.

The action scenes were okay, although there was nothing special in them. No wirework, no bullet ballet, just people shooting each other a whole lot. The special effects are quite commendable for a Korean movie and are a service to the story.

There aren't many sci-fi films in Korea. Perhaps people were still reeling from the massive box office faliure that was The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl back then. I can only name Natural City and Wonderful Days as truly sci-fi themed films released since then (does Yesterday count? I'm not really sure...) 2009 Lost Memories is a great effort to make a Korean sci-fi movie that works. Well it did, earning a good deal of money, but the costs offset it. Hopefully soon Korea will start its true foray into sci-fi. I'm looking forward to what the results could be.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Paradise Lost

Much has been said about Masamune Shirow's other epic influential manga, Ghost in the Shell. That manga, and the anime movie and television series that followed it, helped popularize and revolutionize the anime phenomenon.

That isn't Shirow's only manga, however. There is one manga that he considers his "life's work-" that manga is Appleseed. Still ongoing after around 20 years (and uncertain if it will be finished at all) it is a deep reflection on man, technology and society.

An anime adaptation was made, if I recall correctly, in the early nineties, and it wasn't all that good. The story was taken out in favor of the angst and action - and considering that what was left was mediocre animation, it wasn't all that appealing.

Years later, I found out that there was a second adaptation of Appleseed, and when I saw the trailer, I was stunned. Unlike the full CGI approach that movies like Final Fantasy The Spirits Within took, Appleseed took the approach of cel-shaded 3D graphics, used previously, to my knowledge, only in videogames like XIII.

Having seen the movie, my verdict is: the movie looks spectacular, but if you're looking for a deep story, there's none of that here.

Appleseed takes us to the future earth of 2137, where man has almost driven itself to extinction. In a bleak, devastated field of battle (in a spectacularly choreographed scene that shows us how to use slow mo the right way) a warrior named Deunan Knute is rescued. She is taken to Olympus, one of the last refuges of man, a city that looks like paradise... at first. In this land humans and artificial creations called bioroids live side by side. But there are forces that conspire to destroy this balance between human and bioroid. Deunan and her former partner (and lover?) Briareos Hecatonchires team up to find out who before a terrible mass murder is committed, as well as uncovering the secret of Appleseed.

Visually, this movie is, for lack of a better term, gorgeous. The CGI is astounding, a significant leap over previous Japanese attempts at CGI (Visitor and A.Li.Ce come to mind) The ocean scenes showcase the added visual power the movie has in comparison to its predecessors. The climactic final scenes are fast and are a delight to watch.

The pulse-pounding soundtrack is excellent - while it lasts. Somewhere in the last quarter of the movie, the frenetic electronic tracks are replaced with much more standard action movie soundtrack fare, only to reappear in the opening credits. I wish the whole film was included in the soundtrack - it gave the first 3/4ths of the movie life.

The story, unfortunately, is where the movie begins to falter. The scenes feel too tacked on with respect to each other. It feels like a cliff's notes version of the manga - and even then, it takes a lot of liberties with the original material. More importantly, the philosophical discussions and overtones of the manga have been all but omitted in the film - and that's what Shirow's manga in general has in substance: the complicated politics and sci-fi metaphysical musings.

Appleseed succeeds in being a revolutionary movie in terms of visuals, but in everywhere else, it's your normal anime movie. Sadly, this trend has been seen in several other anime as well, and the use of cliche may not be as appreciated by some audiences. For me, however, it turned out to be a very satisfactory experience all around. Watch out for it, if just for the eye candy.



p.s. speaking of eyecandy, Appleseed 2 is in the works. John Woo is reportedly producing. Not to be outdone, Square is releasing the much antipated CGI-animated sequel to Final Fantasy 7 - Final Fantasy Advent Children. The movie premiers in the Venice Film festival at around this time. I've seen the trailer and I was pretty much blown away...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Oh $#!t, did that guy just jump through a...

Banlieue 13 is enjoyable, just like Yamakasi, (another Luc Besson produced movie) is enjoyable. If you enjoyed Yamakasi you will probably enjoy this one a lot more. This is a stylish French action movie if I ever saw one, and kinda goes like the French version of Ong Bak. Heck, the people who made this film probably saw Ong Bak (I'm certain at least Luc Besson did) and said "Holy $#!t, did that guy just jump over a ****ing SEDAN and hit a guy in the head with his ELBOWS!?" and then made a smooth comeback by saying "Hey, we can do that too."
The plot is paper thin, but that really isn't the point. It's the future and areas with rampant crime are being sealed off. Banlieue 13 is such a place. Things have gotten so rough even the police are abandoning the area. A cop (Cyril Raffaelli, who had a villain's role in the Jet Li movie Kiss of the Dragon) is tasked to go to the area to prevent a neutron bomb from killing everyone. Of course, he won't get through the area without a guide, and Leito (David Belle, who had a few bit parts in the Palestinian Movie Divine intervention and Brian de Palma's Femme Fatale) is just the man for the job. He has a bit of a past with the man who has the bomb, so naturally he's eager to kick some ass.

And action ensues. The action is stylish. Mix Ong Bak (without the muay thai) with Yamakasi and you basically have it. Climbing buildings without support, kicking people's asses, jumping from building to building, that's what it's all about. The two lead actors kick ass in their respective scenes, but the scenes at the first 50 or so minutes are better and more numerous than the scenes in the rest of the film. That's okay, since the movie is only 85 minutes long, but it does affect the flow of the story.

Soundtrack: synth and some French rap. French rap, mmmm! Aristocratic. The camerawork is kinetic and serves the action well, which is all it needs to do.

This is by no means a thought-provoking action movie that transcends our minds, blah, blah, blah. It's merely a fun way to spend 85 minutes of your time with great action and death-defying stunts - like I said, just like Yamakasi. Believe me, if you're like yours truly, you'll spend many a time saying the words of the title of this post, stupefied and entertained.

INSIDIOUS

I was walking around the mall and passed by a McDonalds. Guess what I saw in an ad DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THE STORE.

That's right, an ad for Jollibee.

INSIDIOUS.

I was at one of the Pediatrics wards of the Philippine General Hospital (there are 2) and the place is newly renovated. I walk around and see sick kids (natch.) Then I see that the people responsible for the renovation is McDonalds. Hence the garish McDonalds colors, and the pictures of Ronald and the kids sprinkled all around the wards.

of a hospital. See you later, kids!

the PGH have no money to speak of so it's kinda understandable, but from a marketing standpoint...

that's horribly clever.

...and

INSIDIOUS.

I went to McDonalds yesterday, ate one of those double cheeseburgers. Mmmmm-mmmm. Did I have a choice? No, everywhere else was full. Did I enjoy the meal? Hell yes. For a slab of processed meat n'cheese in a bun, that was damn tasty. I kinda want another one.

INSIDIOUS.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Read or Die

No, this is not about the anime series. For the past week I've managed to read three books. Two of them in two days. This is good, right?

The first book I read in my book binge was Alex Garland's The Coma. It's beautifully illustrated and well-written. However, it doesn't last very long - then again, what does? A good imagination makes this book even better.

The second was Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Also short (I read it in around three to four hours, including breaks) it's sentimental and nice, although there is one mistranslation of Filipino in the final chapter.

The third was Morgan Spurlock's Don't Eat This Book, which is sort of a companion piece to his film Super Size Me. He makes some salient points about the food industry, and how we are bombarded with ads ever since birth. It's all a business thing. Ironically, the first thing I did after buying this book was go to a McDonalds. Heh.

Well, until next time...

Monday, August 01, 2005

One musing for the week:

... and this is going to be strange and in the end will sound more like a weird ramble than anything else. I don't have a lot of time, so here goes:



Okay, this is Anna Ohura, an AV actress (adult video, another term for porn actress) in Japan from the late nineties, early turn of the millennium, reportedly mixed Japanese and European blood, with huge natural breasts. I mean huge.

But that's not my point. I've been seeing her... "work" for the past few years and why is it that everytime I see her (well, around 75 percent of the time) she has this look, which can only be adequately described as a mixed confused/annoyed look. In Filipino it would be called nakakunot ang noo. Can't visualize? Here's an example:


This look has been baffling me for years. What does it mean? Is she annoyed at her male counterpart's insufficiency? Is she thinking to herself, "what the hell am I doing here?" Is the camera making her insecure? Are there spectators around, and are they making her insecure? Is that her "thinking deeply at the course of my life" look? Is she confused? Annoyed? A combination of the above? Does she have chronic back pain? More than half a decade of looking and I have no idea. Note that this look doesn't show up in still photographs, only in video, only live.

Ladies and gentlemen (especially gentlemen,) AV stars are people too. They think about various things in their life. This look may entail a deeper meaning for all of us.

That, or I'm just insane. I'm leaning towards the latter.