Sunday, June 18, 2006

A Fighter’s Craft

It was the early nineties, I remember. My cousin and I were in an arcade in Tagaytay. After a successful run of X-men the Arcade Game, burning a few hundred pesos worth of tokens in the process, he was playing Street Fighter II Turbo, still considered one of the greatest fighting games of all time. As he waded through single player mode, another person approached him.

I think he used Ken. Soon my cousin was in a one-on-one fight against him. Seconds passed and I knew that he stood no chance against this stranger. Because of his win, the stranger played Single Player mode while my cousin left his place.

A strange feeling passed over me then. I felt I needed to do something – it was the kind of urgent feeling you get when you wanted something really bad.

I had to defeat this guy.

I stepped up to the arcade station and challenged him. At the time I had never challenged anyone before in any videogame in public, ever. This was my first time. I used Dhalsim, for that was the only character I knew. The match started.

Before I could realize it, adrenaline pumped through my veins as I started pushing buttons. Although it scared me, I found it quite exhilarating. Soon I found myself winning the match. It took all of thirty seconds. I completed the single player mode and went on my jolly way.

A strange feeling poured over me as I walked away from the machine. It was the feeling of victory – something rare and alien to me at the time.

That was my first experience with a fighting game.

In this computer-driven age, the gentlemanly duels of ages past have been replaced with something more convenient – the fighting game. Instead of rapiers or guns or katana we have controllers or fighting sticks – each one with their own personal feel. I get this feeling all the time – my current controller, as defective and as battered as it is, will always be my fighting controller, despite the fact that I’ve wrapped toilet paper around the analog sticks to prevent it from breaking into a gazillion pieces. The place of dueling – the local arcade, or anywhere with a decent TV and a console. And at least, a loser walks away from a match from a fighting game with only a bruised ego, instead of an ear, a nose (like Tycho Brahe,) or his life.

While the image you probably get when you see ‘fighting game’ involves two digitized characters beating the crap out of each other, I see it in the context of a ‘versus’ game – something that involves one person fighting against another in a game of skill. Be it a game of hockey, billiards, basketball or even tetris, it is a fight, a battle. Thus, the term fighting game. When playing against the computer, one can decipher its strategies and make a decent strategy to counter perceived weaknesses. With a human player it’s different. People adapt and try new strategies, plus they’re unpredictable. It’s the ultimate challenge.

It went way back to the first few videogames in the fifties and sixties. Even then the first games weren’t something you’d play singly, it was a versus game – tic tac toe to be exact. Then there was Pong, which is basically a computerized form of tennis. People flocked to it in droves, creating a craze and, ultimately an industry. There was Yie-ar Kung Fu back then for the NES. Then came the Street Fighter Series. The concept of combos, multiple attacks strung together, was born. From 2D the fighting progressed to 3D. The nature of attacks evolved, and the strategy of fighting became a precise art. For some games knowing the frame speed of different moves can determine whether one wins or not.

I went to the local PS2 rental facility and found many people playing games that involved a versus component in one way or another. One fellow powerbombed his young friend in a wrestling match; in another station, a girl was throwing haymakers at her boyfriend in a boxing match. You could see the enjoyment in their faces, the exhilaration. It’s hard to describe.

After that one experience in Tagaytay I never got to play a decent fighting game against a friend or stranger in years. Years passed, then college rolled by. It was our first week, and with a three hour break we decided to head to the local arcade at the mall.

I discovered Soul Calibur.

Soul Calibur, (then the latest game of the Soul series) was a weapon based 3D fighter in the mold of old Playstation games like Toshinden, taken to the next level. Even now it is considered one of the greatest 3D fighters of all time; many look to the excellent gameplay and balance the game had to offer. The best version next to the Arcade Version, arguably, was the Dreamcast version, and it was one of the reasons to buy a Dreamcast. I was drawn to the game immediately and started playing. At first one could finish the game with simple moves, but it was clear that against people you wouldn’t go anywhere with just simple moves. I first faced my classmate, a veteran of fighting games who played Tekken Tag quite well. Even though it was his first time, he had instinct, and he managed to beat me using his character. Yes, I thought, simple moves would not be enough. I would have to move with my character, make his movements an extension of my own, his mind one with mine.

To beat a skilled person takes technical skill, reflexes and fighting instinct. The first two are easily attainable by practice, but the third takes something else entirely. For the third, you need experience. That’s built up by fighting countless battles with someone else – and not just one person, it has to be different people, to absorb as many fighting styles as you can. And so I battled against total strangers. Students, employees, mall janitors, anyone I could get my hands on. I won a few, and I lost a few. Sometimes I would lose all the time. But I would take it in stride and be happy that I managed to fight someone strong.

I met a couple of people that seemed too intimidating to fight: the bespectacled student that intentionally lost matches to get the most of his six peso token; the Court of Appeals employee who used his characters like a virtuoso, the random person who you know is top tier from the way he mixes up his moves.

One day I was in SM City, playing by myself. Suddenly the challenge screen appeared; someone had decided to challenge me. He was very good and managed to win against me consistently. I would win a couple of matches but never one whole set. I did everything I could to no avail, spending most of my tokens. I was not disheartened by my constant losses… I felt exhilaration. I was genuinely happy that someone this skilled was fighting me. Then, eventually, I won a set. That player never returned. It was one of the greatest feelings ever. Even if I hadn’t won that set I would have been pretty impressed anyway. It wasn’t the victory or loss that was important, it was the idea of having to fight someone really strong. I wonder if warriors of old thought of the same things. I wonder if they, lying cold, bruised or dying under the rain after a mutual duel, resigned themselves to death knowing that they were beaten by someone strong.

Afterwards I learned the power of strategy. Before my style was increasingly aggressive - I merely tried to get as many hits in as possible, and hope that I caused more damage than the other guy. But then I learned how to play defensively. I started blocking, waiting for an opening to attack. I learned how to run away and evade attacks. It made me think before I attacked - and that improved my game drastically.

Alas, like all things, we move on. Since then I’ve moved on to other games, and I've met a lot of good friends through them. I’ve learned a lot of things while playing, and not just about the fighting game itself. In the game of life, I’m decidedly mid-tier – but the tokens in this game are endless, and I’m happy for the challenge.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

One Year of Insanity!


Don’t mind the title image. Consider it a representation of my feelings. Yeah, guys in top hats and H-bombs (yes that is an H bomb in the upper part of the picture) represent my feelings. Go figure.

One year! Wow, I didn’t expect this blog to go on for so long. Well then. Enough of my rambling, enjoy the picture.

Oh, and happy anniversary.

The Power of Rock and Roll

Little did I know that upon watching the first episode of an anime series called Beck (no relation to the singer of the same name) that I would get hooked on it and consider it one of my favorite anime series of the year. Beck is an anime about a group of guys who decide to form a band, kind of like Gravitation without all the bishounen. In a way it is Anime’s tribute to Rock.

At the beginning of the series Yukio Tanaka, who is called Koyuki by his friends, is a timid middle schooler. He isn’t particularly talented in anything; he isn’t athletic nor is he inclined towards any hobbies. His nights comprise of listening to the latest J-pop Idol singing about how everything’s going to be okay. He has a crush on his old childhood friend Izumi, and lately she’s been playing a larger role in his life. One day she lets him listen to the (fictional) band Dying Breed. This isn’t the music he’s accustomed to, and he’s intrigued. After meeting a guitarist named Ryusuke, he soon begins traversing the path onto becoming a rock musician and becoming .

The anime, like most other series about a certain topic, focuses on its many aspects, in this case, the aspects of rock music and becoming a rock musician – learning the guitar, hearing other bands, performing a live gig. Various references are made to famous luminaries of rock – Lennon, Cobain, The Lizard King and so on (a panorama of personalities from the local and international rock scene even appears during the end credits.) This anime is bilingual – English and Japanese, so expect the occasional line of English dialogue to pop up (and this doesn’t even include the songs, more on that later)

Beck is also a slice of life story – focusing on the different aspects of Koyuki’s life and how he deals with the people around him. I liked the romance angle that pops up every now and then, and Beck does it in a refreshing way – without all the cuteness and/or ecchiness that seems to work its way into other anime (unless you take into consideration that one scene in the swimming pool...)

Being an anime about a band, naturally the series has its own music. Many songs from Japanese indie rock and some other classic rock songs appear too, including an appearance by the Pillows, who we know better from the Gainax anime FLCL.

“Moon on the Water,” Beck’s love theme, has got to be one of the best sounding songs I’ve heard in an anime for a long time. Sung by either Koyuki’s singing voice actor or by J-pop artist Sowelu, it’s a cool rock ballad that is catchy and managed to keep me on LSS mode for a long time. However, here’s where the problem arises: most of Beck’s songs are in English, and apparently whoever wrote the lyrics did so in Engrish. While some of the other singers on the show have no problem singing it, it sounds really awkward to the native English speaker (I wonder why they didn’t just have Yoko Kanno staple Tim Jensen do the lyrics… he did the ending song after all.) It’s up to the viewer to accept the music and not concentrate on the lyrics or not. Having listened to my fair share of good-sounding-but-strangely-worded songs, I forgave the music and enjoyed it for what it was.

Another thing about the music is that we hear little of it before we cut to the next scene, and some of the songs are sung almost every episode. I can’t tell you how many times I heard ‘Typhoon 20! 20 Chiba! 24/7!’ then have the thing cut to the next scene… only to hear the same thing in the next episode. I mean, show me the rest of the song! Grrrr. Anime Soundtrack Marketing people at work, I guess.

One point that many fans seem to have a problem with is the ending. Like many anime series, Beck stops while the Manga continues. While the show could have stopped at episode 25 (IMO, a great resolution to the series) episode 26 tries hard to cram 3 volumes worth of manga story into one episode (actually ten minutes or so!) I don’t mind the way the director wanted to end the anime, but the extremely fast pace of the ending scenes may turn off some.

In closing, I left Beck still loving it, despite its flaws. It almost made me want to make music myself. It’s a quirky, fun anime that I won’t hesitate recommending. Maybe soon you’ll be singing along to Moon on the Water too…

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Failan

The theme of lovers separated by distance, physical or otherwise, has been tackled again and again since the beginning of cinema. In Asian Film, recently there's been Korea's Calla, Il Mare and Ditto, Shunji Iwai's Love Letter (one of my favorite movies) the Ken Zhu starrer Sky of Love and the the recent Filipino offering Moments of Love.

Failan, a kind of Chinese-Korean joint venture, tackles the concept, but ends up becoming something far different from the above. At first what seems like a Korean gangster movie turns into a touching character piece about a man on the edge of his life facing (and ultimately, regretting) the choices he has made. I won't cut corners and tell you that you will find the content emotionally affecting; bring box of kleenex or two, you may need it. This film is no commonplace tearjerker, this is perhaps one of the greater films of the past few years.

Since enjoyment and analysis of the movie kinda depends on the story, Spoilers follow. You've been warned.

Despite the title, we are first introduced to Lee Kangjae (Choi Minshik, delivering a brilliant performance, as always), a low level gangster relegated to inane tasks like extorting store owners or hocking porn. He's been a gangster for some time now, but he's still the rank he is while his other friends have become bosses, and his supposed subordinates treat him with no respect. He acts tough but is all talk; in truth he doesn't have the heart of a gangster. This goes on for half an hour, portraying a dark and seedy world that is harsh and unforgiving. This section of the film portrays Kangjae in an unflattering light, and we, the audience think of him in a negative way.

One day something really bad happens, and he is given the choice to take the rap for his gangster boss friend in exchange for something that he's always wanted. However, before the time comes, he is told that his 'wife,' Failan has just died.

Here we are introduced to Failan, played by Cecilia Cheung (recently of the Promise, here in a rare at the time crossover), a gentle, kind woman who came to Korea to search for her relatives. The search does not end up as expected, and she ends up working as a laundry woman under a paper marriage - to Kangjae. Although Kangjae is her husband only on paper (and true to his character, Kangjae forgets the whole thing later,) his simple act matters much to Failan, and treasures the only thing he left her - his picture and his red scarf (ironically, something that Kangjae had shunned because the color didn't look good on him.) Here the tone of the movie changes significantly, and as Kangjae goes to where his wife finally rests, he grows more and more attached to the one person who had seen him, acknowledged him as a person. Here we begin to rethink our perception of Kangjae, we pity him for his unfortunate situation, of a possibility of something that will now never happen.

Separated by distance, we could speculate that perhaps Failan was only in love with a mere perception of Kangjae; we know better, after having seen the first part of the film. But what if she really did see something special in this seemingly worthless man that so many others had neglected? To me it seems like a vicious cycle - from the people around Kangjae who spurned him, to Kangjae himself initially thinking little of Failan and forgetting about her. Failan, who is pure and saintly, never thinks of her spouse negatively, even when he virtually never sees her alive except for one time.

It sounds implausible, I know; falling in love with an idealization. But we have crushes all the time - to become infatuated with someone that we do not truly understand. I think when we do so, we see the best in people, beneath the surface, into something that other people do not see. And this realization, in my opinion, is what drives Kangjae closer to Failan (in this case, his idealization of her - and in our case, we know how she is.)

The climax and denouement of the film is heart-rending as the pieces fall into place. I knew that the end was inevitable, and Failan's song at the end is haunting. I personally could not stop watching the film as the credits rolled, and even as the film had stopped.

The acting in the movie is superb. It goes without mention that Choi Minshik is one of Korea's most talented actors. He radiates his emotions, his every movement and action flowing with sorrow, almost like Takeshi Kitano, whose deadpan face still communicates emotion even when it's... deadpan. Cecilia Cheung does a good job as Failan, although her character could have used more development. The music suits the occasion well, and the technically the film succeeds well.

In the end, I prefer to think that Kangjae had been saved; for a brief moment in his life, someone had seen something in him that even he may not have noticed. Failan is an unforgettable film that makes you think about the little things in life that you may take for granted.