Friday, January 30, 2009

Variety Asia

I'm just posting this to further an idea that many of us have: Grady Hendrix must continue even if Variety Asia folds.

As Jason has already posted, as well as Todd at Twitch here, Variety Asia looks to be the latest victim of bad economic times.

But, this is the blogosphere. Sure, the hard copy may go but there is no reason that Grady's blog has to disappear. Even without the masthead of Variety over/above/on his blog, Grady has built a solid web presence that people like me, Jason, Todd, Yvonne, and others rely upon.

I have a list of websites that I check on a daily basis and many of them cover similar territory but they all have unique and distinct voices that I value.

The web voice of Grady Hendrix is one that I value as an Asian film fan and blog reader. I'm sure he will survive this!

For now, enjoy that voice here. There's more than enough older content to read if you've never seen the site before.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

True Women For Sale


Herman Yau's follow-up to his 2007 film Whispers and Moans, True Women for Sale, is a mini-masterpiece. I wouldn't say it's a perfect film but it is a uniquely Hong Kong film that -- much like Ann Hui's The Way We Are -- manages to be very specific about time and locale and by doing so becomes universal in many ways.

And it's also yet another showcase for actor Anthony Wong. Really, the Hong Kong Board of Tourism should just make posters with Anthony Wong on them; one poster with Wong from Exiled, another with Wong from this film, and so on.

But it's Prudence Liew who steals the film, alternating between humour and pathos in her Golden Horse award-winning performance of Chung, an aging hooker in Hong Kong who may be a bit crazy as well.

Look for cameos from Monie Tung who was the star in Yau's earlier Whispers and Moans as well as Chapman To as a cop and Yumiko Cheng in a part that I think I missed.

Without giving away too much, I can say that there is a scene on a commuter bus that acts as a kind of mini-Hong Kong drama -- almost like a play being performed inside the larger film -- where suddenly all of the disparate threads from the story come together in a somewhat slightly forced way but all in the service of a very human story. In moments, despair and exasperation give way to hope and purpose and this sequence was as exhilirating for me as the pickpocket sequence in Johnnie To's Sparrow.

Kozo's review is here. And Yvonne from Webs of Significane rightly praised the film as well on her blog's Top 10 HK films of 2008 list here.

You can order the Mei Ah DVD here from YesAsia.

Washingtonian's 100 Best Restaurants

You know, it seems as if every month Washingtonian magazine -- sometimes called The Washingtonian by us locals -- has some restaurant list in its pages.

This month's issue has the 100 Very Best Restaurants of 2008 and I've only been to about 10 of them for those of you keeping score at home.

See, that's why I don't consider myself a "foodie" -- I'm an adventurous eater within certain cuisines but I'm just not inclined to spend $100 on a steak, or on French food at a place in the city, but I would spend $100 on sushi, or $50 on Korean barbeque, so to each his or her own, I guess.

When you read a list like this, there are certain restaurants you know will be in there because they are famous and get written about a lot -- it's a self-perpetuating thing, really. And there are rarely any big surprises with a list like this.

And it goes without saying that The Washingtonian magazine is even safer with its choices than The Washington Post when it comes to restaurant reviews.

I may sound like a Luddite for saying this but my theory has always been that the high-end, haute cuisine places are designed for once-a-year type dining experiences, meaning that they are not designed for repeat business.

I guess if I made a lot more money, I would go to high-end places more than once-a-year but that's another story.

So the trick is to find solid better-than-average places that depend on repeat business.

A few of my friends would consider Penang a tiny bit pricey but in my book it's reasonable and interesting with a big enough menu that I'm not bored yet.

And my loyalty to Mandalay is legendary among my friends. They have yet to disappoint and their prices and menu still meet my approval after some 5 years now.

But some high-end places, like Makoto, are worth seeking out and it's only my laziness that prevents me from going to a place like that more than once-a-year.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

All About Women and The Beast Stalker

All About Women

Tsui Hark's All About Women (2008) is a WTF? film. Much like a film such as The Road to Wellville, it's a film that one watchs where you ask yourself: "What the f*** were the producers thinking when they okayed this film? What the f*** is going on? What the f*** is the point of all this?"

Okay, I'm being a little bit cruel. And, heck, The Road to Wellville, for all of its weirdness and multiple big budget missteps, is still a better film that this one.

The other thing you think when watching this film is how material like this might work better with stronger personalities in the main roles; Zhou Xun tries mightily to imbue her character with some personality -- and it *is* fun to see this mainly arthouse actress ply her craft in a new genre -- but none of the leads are memorable in any way and seem as baffled by the material as the audience is. Scenes start broadly only to be followed by a semi-serious scene; other scenes are almost like live action cartoons only to be followed by straight romantic scenes.

Apart from Zhou Xun, the female leads are bland; the male leads are even less well defined -- Alex Fong looks like he walked into the wrong movie by mistake and is trying to figure out what his part is; I didn't even recognize Stephen Fung in his role.

Material like this worked a whole lot better when it featured stars like Anita Yuen and Leslie Cheung. Yes, the art direction and sets are impressive and there are some nice visual moments but they all add up to nothing important in the end.

I haven't watched Missing yet, but this was a major disappointment for me from director Tsui Hark; Seven Swords wasn't entirely horrible but this almost was.

Kozo's review is harsh but still more kind than I can be.

What does it say about a film when the best performance is by supporting actress Shen Chang as Kitty Zhang's character's assistant? Her bits were funny and human and not so cartoonish as to be annoying.

The Beast Stalker

Which brings us to The Beast Stalker (2008), a masterful thriller that manages to be simultaneously very much a Hong Kong action film and yet something more.

This is one of those films that is hard to talk about without giving away plot points. And the plot and the way that it carefully unfolds is a joyous thing.

Each character -- hero, victim, or villain -- has a backstory and a motive for his or her actions. There are moments of overwrought intensity in the film like most action films these days but, overall, the picture is remarkable for the amount of backstory invested in each character in this otherwise simple story.

Actor Liu Kai-Chi dominates his scenes without even trying very hard. A really great performance from the actor recently seen by this reviewer alongside Aaron Kwok in the Pang Brothers' The Detective.

Nicholas Tse was pretty good. He is playing against type, obviously, as he's too young and too handsome to be thought of as a police chief. His famous looks are almost a distraction at first until we start to understand the character a bit.

This is a film where the hero may not even be as likable as the villain and the sympathetic villain is still terrifying in many scenes.

But the film belongs to Nick Cheung. A great performance that only Francis Ng could have played as successfully but Francis would probably have made the character too likable; Nick alternates between engaging our sympathies and scaring the crap out of us -- sometimes in the space of minutes! A great, great performance in recent Hong Kong cinema.

I may disagree very strongly with YTSL that Sparrow *is* a great film but we both do agree on the merits of The Way We Are and, now, The Beast Stalker, both of which made it into her Top 10 Hong Kong movies of 2008 list recently.

You can order All About Women here in a cheap, barebones edition DVD.

You can order The Beast Stalker here in a nice, 2-DVD set with about 21-minutes of deleted scenes, a 13-minute "making of" segment, and some behind-the-scenes features and all have English subtitles! And it's reasonable priced! Nice!

[Photo: Crienglish.com]

Monday, January 26, 2009

Why I Didn't Like Slumdog Millionaire (Spoilers!)


I didn't see Forrest Gump but I can recall with chilling vividness the numerous conversations -- more like harangues -- that I had to suffer through where some person with Middle American middlebrow tastes had to explain to me how great Forrest Gump was as a film, all the while mistaking their own emotional reaction to that film with a carefully considered opinion on it.

(Hell, I cried like a baby during Superman Returns and yet I'm not stupid enough to argue that that film was as good as a similar film like Iron Man, for instance.)

And while I admittedly watch a lot of junk from Hong Kong -- and yes, I do have a double standard at work here because any way you cut it, Beauty and the 7 Beasts is a piece of crap -- I expect more from films presented in the West in "arthouse" theaters during awards season, especially films that somehow garner an excessive 11 Oscar nominations.

Which brings us to Slumdog Millionaire, a film I like less now the more I think about it.

The problem with Slumdog Millionaire is that it is a film made for an audience of emotional retards.

How else is one to explain a film where somehow the story of a poor child from the slums of Bombay getting onto a TV game show and winning millions of rupees is just not dramatic enough on its own? No, the child has to be an orphan. And not only that, a Muslim orphan whose mother was murdered before his eyes! And not only that, but an orphan taken in by a sinister benefactor who is recruiting kids to be professional beggars! And not only that, but the benefactor physically maims and disfigures the children to get more money out of them as they beg on the streets of Bombay!

Folks, we're venturing into Lillian Gish territory here.

It is also the kind of film where girls become prostitutes but conveniently remain physically pure and virginal for the heroes -- I'm supposed to believe that the Fagin-like guy who kidnaps Latika intends to pimp her out because virgins get more money and, yet, he's just not done that yet by the time that Jamal and Salim conveniently find her? She exists only to further Jamal's fantasies of a chaste and pure magical love to strive for. Without her, Jamal has no impetus to survive apparently.

And it's the kind of film where an adolescent character somehow has a gun hidden in the waistband of his pants when going up against hardened criminals and yet, none of the hardened criminals -- adults all -- has a gun at that same moment?

It's the kind of film where every event's backdrop is in direct proportion to the importance of the the event at hand. For instance, when Jamal confronts Salim late in the film, the confrontation takes place on the top of a highrise being constructed conveniently in the place of the slum where they grew up as kids, never mind how these two young adults just wandered up there during the day past numerous workers. Much like in Hong Kong films, the most dramatic gunfights seem to take place on rooftops; it's the same kind of lazy storytelling at work here.

The situation should have enough drama on its own that it doesn't require the most dramatic locale in the entire city to add weight to the proceedings. We get it already!

It's the kind of film where a man who is supposedly the Regis Philbin of India is able to feed wrong answers to a contestant on a game show but also can do it while being oh-so-conveniently out of sight or hearing range of any of the dozens of other producers and production assistants who are visible in the TV studio in every other scene.

It is the kind of film where the same guy can not only get mad when the contestant doesn't take the wrong answer that was fed to him but gets mad out loud, in front of coworkers, thus revealing the cheating he just attempted to commit.

Would the craven Regis ever even risk his career in so obvious a manner for such a trivial reason?

If anything, the host of a show like this would want the kid from the Bombay slums to win so that more and more kids from the Bombay slums would watch the same show and try to get on, thinking they could win millions as well; it's not in the host's interests for this kid to lose to begin with so why the attempted sabotage? We don't know.

Besides, the host's condescension to Jamal while on the show is enough for us to understand that the host character is a phony.

It's the kind of film where the hero is for one night the most recognizable person in India, with his car mobbed by throngs of wellwishers before his final TV appearance, and yet the same guy is able to just wander a busy train station in Bombay (Mumbai) unrecognized until he spots his true love right after the TV show.

It's a film where the criminal underworld corrupts only the "bad guys" of the piece and not the heroes.

Okay, let's forget all that. I can forgive a film that kind of lazy storytelling if the sentiments are there and the characters are involving. Hell, a lot of Frank Capra movies are guilty of similar sins.

The leads are appealing yet they remain blank, some simply "types" and none with much motive that we can understand. We have a central character whose very emptiness is what drives the film (much like Forrest Gump). A main character in love with another character in the context of a story that just happens to them and whose appeal to us in the audience lies simply on the leads' luck in getting out of horrible situations.

Jamal is resourceful but to what end? A love for a girl he barely knows? Both remain characters that we barely know or understand.

In the end he triumphs and we are happy because he was lucky and smart enough to seize multiple opportunities without losing his humanity in the process.

And?

The cast are pleasing and the film's translation of tropes from Charles Dickens into modern India is interesting; I don't think that the filmmakers are very aware of what they are doing beyond simply using tried Dickensian plot devices but it kept me interested on some level as a former English Literature major.

I kept thinking that "this probably worked better in the novel" as I watched the film.

The laziness of the film is seen by the use of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" in a sequence. One, the sequence is set years before the song was recorded -- no kidding, right? -- and, two, the song is a Sri Lankan-by-way-of-London rapper's rap using a much better song by The Clash as the sample underneath. I venture to add that the lines about Coca Cola in Strummer and Jones' original "Straight to Hell" would have both fit the film's narrative timeline and the subject matter much more closely than "Paper Planes does.

And what's so wrong with Coca Cola anyway? So as a viewer we are supposed to fear the smiling benefactor offering the kids Cokes in the middle of a trashheap as if the Coke and outstretched hand is somehow worse than the hell the kids are living in?

The message being that they are at least pure before the tampering of the West comes along to spoil their lives any further? That is the worst kind of patronizing on the part of the filmmakers.

It is the whole bullshit "noble savage" concept that was out-of-dated during the Victorian era and, worse still, it is being perpetrated by white filmmakers who think that they are saying something about the plight of poor people in Mumbai when really they are just creating entertainment out of "other people's misery," to paraphrase The Sex Pistols.

I venture to add that the real Jamals begging on the streets on Bombay would take every chance they got to escape and wouldn't be so pigheaded as to focus on a girl they barely knew for the sake of deliverance for themselves and those around them.

I recommend this review from indiewire's Eric Hynes; I wrote my piece before I read his review but he says a few things much better than I can.

UPDATE: For an example of how you make an affecting film about people overcoming some levels of adversity, I recommend Ann Hui's The Way We Are. My psuedo-review is here. It's the first film that comes to mind at the moment and at the very least, Ann Hui's film doesn't beat the viewer into emotional submission like Slumdog attempts to do. Ms. Hui understands that less-is-more and that some situations in life don't need any further amplification to make them dramatic for viewers.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ip Man Up For Pre-Order!

The latest Donnie Yen masterpiece (fingers crossed) is up for pre-order at YesAsia in a few different versions.

Here is a link to the basic edition.

Happy Lunar New Year


Well it's Lunar New Year time. Time for frivolous Hong Kong films and time for celebrities to be in the spotlight.

Karen Mok, an actress I have come to reevaluate more favorably after her performance in Mr. Cinema, is wishing everyone a Happy New Year.

Having not seen either Red Cliff, I can't comment on hottie Li Chi-Ling's acting skills. I have my doubts. But she and Jay Chou were promoting a new project. I almost like Jay Chou despite not liking any of the films that I've seen him yet.

Hey, it took me a few years to actually like Eason Chan as an actor, so give me time!

There were nominations announced for the Asian Film Awards. They better hurry up and release the complete Red Cliff on DVD so I can see the big thing.

Though, admittedly, this looks like a set of films that need to be seen on a big screen. Unfortunately, I'm sure that if a US distributor chooses to release the films in the States, I'm sure they will edit them together into one film, thus robbing the saga of some of its historical complexity for this viewer.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Celebs



Okay, just look at that picture and tell me that they both don't look gorgeous? Yeah, the film will probably be almost as bad as Yesterday Once More (that bad?) but at least it will be eye candy for film fans wanting to see some stars -- any stars! -- of the Hong Kong film world. And besides, isn't the Chinese New Year the time to release fun, light-hearted films like this?

The film premiered in Beijing on January 20, 2008. Hmm, what else happened on that day?

Zhou Xun will be starring in a spy film with Li Bing-Bing. The film, Feng Sheng, will mark the first time that the two actresses have worked together in a decade.

I think I first saw Zhou Xun in Suzhou River and I saw that film slightly before I even got into Hong Kong cinema and was still watching mainly Mainland art films with Gong Li.

Zhou Xun also was out promoting Pantene shampoo along with Connected-star Barbie Hsu and others. Photos and details from Crienglish.com.

The Butterfly Lovers (2008) and The Way We Are (2008)

Really, I couldn't pick two more dissimilar films to watch back-to-back while off work today!

The Butterfly Lovers

Really, the less said about this film the better. I've seen worse but my love of Charlene Choi is quickly being outpaced by my love of not wasting another 2 hours of my life on stuff like this. Despite the presence of Ching Siu-Tung doing the limited fight choreography, and the presence of Ms. Choi, this film left me cold. It's like watching a Miley Cyrus/Jonas Brothers version of Romeo and Juliet.

I guess Charlene can't help being cute and charming; she's going to be forever typecast like Meg Ryan was in the US for a few years until she's had enough and tries too hard to do edgy films and then disappears from the spotlight for good.

There's a minor part played by Xiong Xin Xin, the villainous rival chef in The Chinese Feast (1995). And Shaw Brothers legend Ti Lung is wasted as Charlene's father -- shouldn't he be playing her grandfather given the ages of the actors involved?

I think if you're a fan of Charlene Choi, you'll probably at least want to see this film despite the fact that her performance is not that good -- she had a far more memorable turn in Funeral March (2001).

I hate to admit it but this film and Painted Skin (2008) were both much worse than I expected them to be.

I'm beginning to think that there are certain actresses that should not do period pieces at all.

The Way We Are

Director Ann Hui seems to have foregone the lyrical fatalism that made The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006) such a downbeat experience for so many viewers and instead embraced a very simple matter-of-fact style in this film.

So matter-of-fact that the lack of obvious drama becomes its own style with the act of changing a neighbor's lightbulb taking on all the drama of a shootout in a Triad film.

I hesitate to write too much about the film for fear that it will blow out of proportion the very tenderness and beauty that I liked in the film in the first place. A bus ride back from Shatin to Hong Kong hits with such emotional force given the first hour of the film that I found myself wiping away tears I hadn't even noticed I was crying.

Now if someone could just please tell me the name of the song that plays over the final sequence as the credits start? And who's singing it as well.

You can order The Butterfly Lovers (2008) here.

You can order The Way We Are (2008) here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Anthony Bourdain's D.C. Episode - UPDATED

Tonight, at 10:OO PM EST, Anthony Bourdain's episode in Washington, D.C. premieres and here is my two cents.

I guess I should explain that I do not consider myself an expert on food; I just know what I like. I don't even use the word "foodie" to describe myself as it's annoying and it connotes something vaguely yuppie that gets under my skin.

I should also admit that I don't care much about European food; given the choices in this area, I'd rather find an Asian restaurant of any kind over a French restaurant or cafe.

But, I have spent most of my life in this area and I pay attention to stuff; If I try a new restaurant and have a dish I'm not familiar with, I usually run off and look it up online to learn more abut it and see if what I had was in any way authentic or accurate.

Because I'm enthusiastic about the places I like, and because I'm fat, people assume that I must know what I'm talking about when it comes to food. Maybe I do for certain cuisines.

Well, for some reason, Comcast already had this Bourdain episode available on its On-Demand service weeks ago. I watched it and was simultaneously happy and disappointed with Bourdain's journey to this area.

I am going to try to highlight the positive but I have to deal with the negative.

Tony spends far too much time at an adequate restaurant in D.C. -- Clyde's, I think? -- with an expert from the Spy Museum. I have no interest in the Spy Museum and am guessing that the parent company of the Travel Channel, the Discovery Channel, has a financial stake in the place and is using this Bourdain segment as a sort of advertisement for it.

UPDATE: As of July 2010, I think the Travel Channel is now owned by the Food Network.

Bourdain also ventures to the very famous Ben's Chili Bowl which *is* a D.C. landmark but which I've never been to (hangs head in shame).

I was delighted to see that Bourdain took local writer George Pelecanos with him. I met Pelecanos recently at a used book store in Silver Spring that I've been shopping at for almost 18 years now -- the great Silver Spring Books.

I was a very happy Bourdain fan to see that he did indeed find The Eden Center in nearby Falls Church, Virginia. Frankly, Bourdain could have devoted the whole episode to this place as there are more than 100 Vietnamese and Chinese-Vietnamese restaurants in the complex. Bourdain's segment takes in a Vietnamese bakery typical of many in this area where a customer can easily see the French influence on the Vietnamese cuisine.

The bakery, Song Que, is a new place in the Eden Center and it takes the spot of the much loved Four Sisters Restaurant -- same owners -- which has moved out of the complex and into a new location in Falls Church.

Side note: The old Four Sisters Restaurant in the Eden Center used to be the most upscale establishment in the complex and perhaps a trifle less "ethnic" to all outward appearances. By that I mean that you would see lots of white people eating at the Four Sisters Restaurant but almost no white people eating at any of the other 99 restaurants in the Center.

Admittedly, it can be intimidating to go to a place where you may not be familiar with all of the dishes on the menu. Some people would never go to a restaurant that has ducks and pigs roasting on display for patrons but to each his or her own.

The clip at the bottom of this post has the entirety of Bourdain's visit to the Eden Center.

Check out this recent post on the Four Sisters Restaurant in their new location!

Bourdain also partakes of Latin American and Ethiopian cuisines in the Virginia suburbs. There are thousands of different Latin American restaurants in both Maryland and Virginia and it is quite easy to find Peruvian food, for example, in this area. I need to explore that more myself.

As for Ethiopian, I am intrigued but by no means an expert. This area is rightly famous for having a lot of good Ethiopian restaurants in various suburbs and in D.C. itself. Bourdain seemed more intent on having a rare beef dish not even on the menu than highlighting good Ethiopian food.

I tend to get disappointed with Bourdain when he ventures into this "bizarre foods" territory; that's what the Andrew Zimmern show is for. To his credit, Bourdain usually does a good job at illustrating everyday dishes from all over the world and how those dishes fit into the lives of the people in the places he travels to. But, hey, you've got to get viewers and sometimes he has to go for the "ooh look at this!"-dishes.

Then Bourdain devotes quite a bit of time to the Minibar and its chef in D.C.. Most people in this area 1) can't afford to eat at places like this or 2) don't have the time to eat at places like this because their work schedules are too full. Again, it's a case of the exotic and has more to do with D.C. wanting to be like NYC and less about what already makes this area special and unique.

But Bourdain's biggest mistake is getting crabs in D.C.! I wanted to throw something at the screen.

Now, I'm not a big crab guy despite being a Marylander but I respect the culture and I know that one goes to Baltimore, or the Eastern Shore, or Chesapeake Bay, or Annapolis for crabs, not to a ramshackle fish market in D.C.!

That fish market is most likely trucking in the crabs from Maryland anyway!

With all of the good seafood in this area, I'm still amazed that the producers thought that this segment represented anything other than a tourist trap; the same crabs probably cost half the price in Annapolis.

So while there were moments of this episode where Bourdain seems to be making the point that the story of D.C. is the story of its suburbs, he doesn't do a good enough job of doing that.

Lots of big cities have places like Minibar in their hearts. But few cities have the wealth of Vietnamese or Korean restaurants that Northern Virginia has, or the amazing number of seafood restaurants along Chesapeake Bay.

And as the Travel Channel is affiliated with the Discovery Channel, and as that channel's headquarters is in Silver Spring, Tony could have walked over to the marvelous Mandalay Restaurant and Cafe -- perhaps my favorite restaurant in the D.C. area!

I'm still a fan of Bourdain; maybe one day he'll just do an episode on the Virginia or Maryland suburbs and hit all of those places?

Details on this episode are here.

Here's another blog link on the episode that is a bit more brutal than I am.

Friday, January 16, 2009

New Puffy (Puffy Amiyumi, that is) Single!

A new Puffy (Puffy Amiyumi for us in the U.S.) single is already up for pre-order at YeaAsia and the link is here!

PUFFY - Hiyori Hime

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Queen of Under World

Reading this news this morning, that the suddenly retired Gigi Lai is planning a marriage to a 52-year-old millionaire, I decided to watch one of her films, Queen of Under World.

I really sometimes think that I got into Hong Kong cinema a good 10 years too late. Despite some earlier forays and toe-dippings, I didn't dive in completely until I got my first DVD player in January 2001.

And that is about 10 years after such "masterpieces" as Amy Yip's Queen of Under World were unleashed to the world.

With appearances from frequent Stephen Chow co-star, Ng Man-Tat, and Gigi Lai, the film seems a notch above standard Category III exploitation fare of the time. But I said "seems" didn't I?

Yes, Amy Yip is the star and while the film does provide the usual Amy Yip teases, the woman is trying to act in this melodrama and for that I would recommend it.

The film plays like a weird mix of "scorned woman" drama from the golden days of Hollywood and a sexploitation romp typical of that era in Hong Kong. Shing Fui-On, Yip's costar from The Blue Jean Monster, assays the only decent male role in the picture.

I mean, where to begin? The scene where Amy cuts off her husband's penis after he is caught in bed with another woman and he kicks their daughter in the head? How can you top that?

I really wish I had a time machine so that I could have seen this in a theater in Hong Kong upon its release in 1991. The sentiments and melodrama are laid on so thick that it's hard to take the film seriously even though all the participants seem to be doing so.

And, there is a certain pathos in watching Ms. Yip try to add a little more drama to the usual sort of part she was asked to play.

The DVD looks pretty good -- never having seen any previous editions, I can't say much beyond that. The subtitles are pretty weak, though, with many grammatical errors and misspellings during the film.

Still, it's a weird sort of fun that this film provides. If nothing else, it's a reminder of the sort of Hong Kong fare sorely missing nowadays.

Brian's review of the film provided my starting point and you can read that here.

You can order the remastered/re-issued Joy Sales DVD here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

More Celeb Stuff


My enthusiasm for the upcoming Andy Lau and Shu Qi film, Look for a Star, is directly in proportion to the sorry state of Hong Kong cinema at the moment. Only a few years ago and a film like this would be just one of many silly Lunar New Year's films on release. Now, it seems like this is a major film to look forward to since there's so little else on offer.

But, Andy Lau and Shu Qi *are* still big stars, as far as I'm concerned.

The duo and the director launched the film's website yesterday.

Multiple sources are reporting the news that Jackie Chan is going to star in a remake of The Karate Kid.

Okay, not that I need to, but here's why this is a bad idea: a remake directed by the director of a sequel (Pink Panther 2) to a remake of a similar franchise starter; Jackie Chan near the end of his career taking on another ridiculous Hollywood role; Will Smith turning his kid into an actor; the kid will probably have some kind of rap song to go along with the film -- maybe to be played over a training montage with Jackie Miyagi.

While it seems that Stephen Chow has come to his senses and will probably not even be starring in the Green Hornet film with Seth Rogen, I don't think Jackie will.

In a world where Jet Li announces his retirement from wuxia films, does a respectable film like Fearless, and then stars in the 3rd Mummy film, anything is possible.

Maybe my standards are just too high now after decades of Hollywood crap, all designed to start or re-start franchises?

Tang Wei from Lust, Caution appeared on the cover of Vogue. Her career definately deserved to take off after her performance in that film. Is it a case of a woman taking on a sexually daring film role that has not allowed her to -- so far -- become the star that she so clearly deserves to be?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fan Bing-Bing in the Land of Hats!

I really can't resist Fan Bing-Bing, can I?

(For what it's worth, before I get ridiculed for my devotion, I should add that if I had had a blog 6 years ago, I would have been posting excessively about Cecilia Cheung instead of Fan Bing-Bing. And Cecilia's picture would have probably been up there on the masthead instead of Fan Bing-Bing next to Sophie Ellis-Bextor.)

Fan Bing-Bing is shooting a new TV drama which I know nothing about except that it seems to be about hats.



[Photo: Crienglish.com]

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Celeb News and Pre-Orders -- UPDATED


Charlene Choi shot a new ad for some clothing line. You can see the rest of the pictures here. I just wanted an excuse to post a picture of Charlene, of course.

Joan Chen is playing Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, in a Chinese television drama. Okay. I don't really picture the Goddess of Mercy as a former US television actress who has had noticeable plastic surgery done but maybe I'm being a snarky jerk by saying that?


The other Bing-Bing, Li Bing-Bing, has written an autobiography. Okay, a bit presumptuous at such a young age but she is a decent actress, I suppose. Details are here on that topic.

Eason Chan, Joey Yung and Leo Ku were all awards winners at something called The Ultimate Song Chart Awards in Hong Kong recently. Eason and Joey starred in the wonderful Crazy 'N The City. Buy it or rent it.

The Anita Mui wax figure at Madaem Tussaud's in Hong Kong was given a new set of clothes to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the star's death which may seem like a tacky thing to post about except for the presence of Miriam Yeung and director Stanley Kwan at the ceremony. Rouge, from director Stanley Kwan and starring Anita Mui, was one of the first non-action Hong Kong DVDs that I purchased some 8 years ago.

Jolin Tsai and Lee-Hom Wang made a shampoo commercial.

Gigi Leung released a 2009 calendar.

Since I'm not a huge Zhang Ziyi fan, I'm probably not going to post on her beach paparazzi photo scandal story. I will comment on the announced film she's doing with Fan Bing-Bing where the two women play 'love rivals' which raises the question this red-blooded male is asking himself: "Would I leave Zhang Ziyi for Fan Bing-Bing?" And the answer is a ringing "Yes!"

DVD Pre-Orders

The highly regarded The Beast Stalker, Tsui Hark's All About Women, and the Blu-Ray version of Lady Copy & Papa Crook are all up for pre-order at YesAsia.com. There *was* a listing for the regular DVD version of Lady Cop visible on the site but they took it down. Sources informed me that the reason was that the selling price had yet to be determined.

More details on Sammi's return to the screen are here. Let's hope she does a goofy comedy next. She needs it, Hong Kong cinema as an industry needs it, and fans like me need it.



UPDATE:

Lady Cop & Papa Crook is now up to order at YesAsia here. A very reasonable price, I might add.

In an earlier post, I mentioned news of a "tell all" book on Zhang Yimou. Yeah, well now it looks like he's suing -- or at least taking legal action -- regarding that book. You can get the details here.

[Photos: Crienglish.com, Tungstar]

Seven Samurai and Ikiru -- The Criterion Collection

It's hard to write anything more about Kurosawa and especially hard to think of something new to say about Seven Samurai and Ikiru but here goes.

Seven Samurai (1954)

One of the first DVDs I purchased near New Year's Day of 2001 when I got my first DVD player (for a movie fan, I was late to upgrade to the format!) was Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954).


The original barebones Criterion disc listed for close to $40 and had very few extras. And the picture quality of the disc was not impressive; I assumed that a DVD version of this classic would have had a better presentation.

That experience soured me on Criterion for some time. While my friends, and other fanboys, were getting into the Criterion experience, I was avoiding their releases unless they offered significant extra features. I was certainly not going to be like someone I know who knew almost nothing about film but was busily buying Criterions because they were numbered and limited and pricey. The presentation was trumping this guy's love for, or knowledge of, the films inside the cases.

When I got my first all region DVD player, I started looking for some of the titles that Criterion has in the US on cheaper R2 versions without the Criterion number on their spines.

I had to have some Kurosawas in my collection and to remedy that deficiency and save money, I purchased a mainland China, all region Kurosawa box set that had a bunch of his titles, some with great picture quality and some with abysmal quality and all with horrible subtitles. Good thing I had seen all of these titles already or they would have been hard to understand!

But for some reason this past Christmas when Border's had a few good DVD sales in a row, I got a few titles on Criterion that I really loved or wanted to see, including rebuying for the third time some Kurosawa titles.

The labels' exemplary job on Bottle Rocket convinced me that, yes, sometimes their discs were worth $40 a piece.

Which is a long way of getting to that point that the 3-DVD edition of Seven Samurai looks amazing! Infinitely better than the barebones original Criterion DVD of the same title that I purchased some eight years ago.

The film thrills and moves me every time that I see it. And where I once, as a teenager, wondered why the film didn't have more action, I now find the action getting in the way of the human drama that holds the film together.

The first time that you see the film, you remember Toshiro Mifune but on the 2nd, and each subsequent, viewing, you remember Takashi Shimura. His presence remains at the center of all of the action and drama as his character, Kambei, is the one that gives a meaning to the mission.

Once Kambei is on the side of the farmers, the rest of the samurai are hired and the drama commences. It is Kambei's decision to support the farmers' cause that gives nobility to the mission which enables the other samurai to take up the same cause as a worthy one.

The introduction of Kambei and the following "hiring the samurai" section is still one of my favorite sequences of film of all time -- the use of sound and editing, and slow motion imagery for a brief spell, all contribute to what amounts to almost a classic mini-film within the larger drama.

The Extras on Seven Samurai

Let's just say that watching the film and the entire set of extras -- with a pause for dinner -- took me all of a Sunday -- nearly 8 hours! But it was time well spent.

The episode from the Toho TV series on Kurosawa's work is quite good with some interesting bits on the writing of the script for the film.

And the nearly 2-hour conversation between Kurosawa and fellow director Nagisa Oshima is fascinating if a bit static; a few clips or edits would have made this a bit more vibrant.

The Criterion-produced documentary on the samurai film was informative and enjoyable even if it sometimes felt like a commercial for all of the other samurai films that Criterion has already released.

Even without a Border's sale involved, I'd say that this version of Seven Samurai was easily worth a $50 price tag.

Ikiru (1952)

Ikiru is one of those films, like In The Mood for Love, that I'm always afraid I'm going to ruin by writing about.

Having seen the film a handful of times now, I can say that, like Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or On The Waterfront, Takashi Shimura's performance ranks up there as one of the world's best film performances. Alternating between using his expression, his body, and his voice, Shimura becomes the character of the everyday clerk struggling to find meaning in his life before it is too late.

Shimura in a weird way exaggerates Watanabe only so that the character will stand out in the crowd scenes. We are witnessing a man that has let life pass him by finally discover the joys of the everyday world. The film could have been shot in a documentary style but what Kurosawa is doing is adding drama -- like in a silent film -- to Watanabe's journey. And Shimura is using that wonderful character actor's face of his to move from comedy to tragedy in sometimes seconds.

When Watanabe is out for a night on the town with the writer, the viewer doesn't know whether to laugh or cry or both.

I really can't explain this section of the film very well but it always works for me in the way that Charlie Chaplin works for other people; my grandfather would always talk about when Charlie Chaplin played a guy so poor and hungry that he "ate his own shoe" and how funny/sad that was.

And then when I realize how poor my grandfather was as a child when he probably saw that Chaplin film, it adds a layer of poignancy to the Chaplin comedy that maybe wasn't there for me before.

I guess it's just a case of finding the humour in tragedy.

In your mind, as you watch Ikiru, you can envision any number of ways to shoot the same story. And the manner in which Kurosawa breaks up the sections of the film still baffles a bit.



But it is one of those films, like maybe Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson or Being There with Peter Sellers, that succeeds on the strength of the lead actor; no one else could play a part like this but Takashi Shimura. Even without sound, this film would work largely due to the expressions on Shimura's face.

Unfortunately, I can't rave about *this* Criterion release as the picture quality is a bit sub par -- not so much grainy but rather with lines running down entire scenes. Some early scenes have a very light thin line running right down the middle of the frame which tends to make you forget about the drama you are trying to focus on.

The Extras on Ikiru

There is another episode from the same Toho series on Kurosawa that has a bit of background on Shimura with some great clips of the actor singing in an earlier role.

And there is a 81-minute documentary on Kurosawa that is quite good.

I don't feel that my $40 was misspent just glad that I had seen the film a few times before so that I wasn't seeing it for the first time with such a poor picture.

You can read about, and order, Seven Samurai and Ikiru on the Criterion website.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Maybe It's Reno



I have a tendency to both glamorize the past and Britpop and frequently those impulses converge.

From 1987 to 1988, I worked at a college town used record store which was not what I would call a cool record store but more a good place to find stuff for my collection. I met a lot of cool customers during that time and that era of my life I associate heavily with first getting into Creation Records bands; I was already into 4AD a bit too much, going from buying any import cassette with the 4AD logo at the DC Tower Records to buying any CD from the label at the old Olsson's in Georgetown or, again, at Tower.

And from September 1988 to about May 1990 when the store closed, I worked at The Record Co-Op, a record store on the campus -- in the basement of the Stamp Student Union building -- of the University of Maryland. Not quite a "co-operative" as the name suggests, we were more a one location new music store, ordering directly from the major labels and from distributors and import music vendors.

I had gone from customer-buying-4AD-imports to guy-ordering-the-4AD-product for the store to stock.

Those two years I got a lot of free "promos" in the mail and a lot of free concert tickets and I met a lot of artists at concerts and other functions.

But I also came to know a handful of what I'd call the "cool" customers; I think any good record store employee tends to judge people based on their purchases which are usually reflective of that person's taste.

Some customers of this store later formed Velocity Girl, with Bridget Cross going from that band's first incarnation to the seminal D.C. non-Dischord band, Unrest, to Unrest's "spin-off" -- for lack of a better word -- Air Miami.

Now, while I was impressed at the time that people I knew could form a band named after a Primal Scream song and get signed to Sub Pop, I was especially impressed that someone I knew from that era could get signed to the almighty 4AD label which Unrest and Air Miami did.

So that's quite a long, personal introduction to a mini-review of Maybe It's Reno's first self-titled release. I somehow missed this entirely -- was I too busy looking for a mediocre Dirty Pretty Things single last year? Maybe. DPT broke up, anyway.

The band is essentially Bridget Cross from Unrest/Air Miami with members of those two bands backing her up.

The sound is a bit more stripped down but still nice, reminiscent of early work from Tracey Thorn with a more vibrant -- sometimes low key -- vibe underneath the vocals.

Parts of the album -- songs like "Gravestones and Christmas Trees" -- recall Rebecca Gates from The Spinanes. But the harder rocking "Drunk Pilot" recalls Tanya Donelly's work with Belly (also 4AD artists).

The other standout track for me is "Venice Gate" which is enough like Laura Nyro -- but with some nice slashing guitar riffs thrown into the mix -- to please this fan.

I think that if you liked Bridget's vocals on Unrest's "Light Command" or Air Miami's "Seabird", you'll be quite happy with this first album. I hope the band records more and eventually tours.

The band's website is here.

And you can order the CD or download the album here from Amazon.com. Or you can buy directly from Teenbeat Records.

For old times' sake, here's one of my favorite Unrest songs -- even though Bridget is not the lead vocalist, her bass work is quite prominent on this track.

I always put this song on mixes next to mid-1980's era Wedding Present for some reason.

UNREST "Make Out Club"

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Beauty and the Beast -- The Criterion Collection


Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is a hard film to like. I've seen it before but that was two decades ago when I was enamoured of Wings of Desire, a film whose cinematographer worked on the Cocteau film.

While there are certainly films I never get sick of, I'm not sure that this is still one of them.

However, I should admit with a bit of sadness that, while I thought it was firmly in my permanent Top 10 in 1988, Cocteau's film now is more a thing to be admired than enjoyed. Sorry. I will turn in my film snob pass at the door.

That's not to say that some parts of the film don't still thrill me, sometimes on multiple levels simultaneously; it's the rare film that works on one's imagination, intellect, and emotions equally.

My interest in the material goes all the way back to my childhood and King Kong (1933). That film, obviously, both literally and thematically quotes the Beauty and the Beast fairytale.

Additionally, as a child of about 5 or 6, I had this weird little record player with a slideshow device -- like a TV -- built-in below the turntable. You would play a record with a storybook and a filmstrip and when a bell "dinged" between sections of the story being read on the record, you turned your page and advanced the filmstrip one more frame in the turntable-thing.

The only story I remember using on that contraption was a version of Beauty and the Beast.

Then, I had a film book about Kong and other ape movies and that had photos from the film in it, despite the fact that the beast is more cat-like than ape-like. The arm-candelabras image stuck with me at that age having seen that picture in the book.



And a local PBS TV station that used to show foreign films during the weekdays when I was a bit older -- where I first saw The 400 Blows when I was 13 -- used imagery of the Beast from Cocteau's film in their title sequence (the majority of the films shown on this channel in this series were also from the Janus collection which morphed into the Criterion Collection on laserdisc and then DVD).

And, obviously, for any man blessed with less than good looks, the story hits close to home. It seemed even as a fat child, I could see the beautiful people with me the "beast" observing them.

But, it wasn't until I was a 20-year-old, roughly, that I was again drawn to the story, this time Cocteau's 1946 version, due to the music of Bill Nelson. Nelson, former frontman of Be-Bop Deluxe, not only named his solo record label after Cocteau, but he composed his own score to the film that I used to play quite a bit.

(Nelson's associations with David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto got me into quite a few other things once my imagination was sparked to pursue the influences on these performers.)

The film seemed a wonderful thing when I first viewed it on an old VHS videotape 20 years ago.

Now, having watched it on a 44-inch television set on a Criterion Collection DVD, I find myself a tiny bit disappointed. Is it a case of me growing out of the film?

The film, to its credit, is played completely seriously and doesn't have the tone of a film meant for children, despite the subject matter. And some wordless sequences, like Belle's entrance into the hall, are still rapturous.

It's just that the film alternates between moments of a very forced kind of theatricality -- more like mannerism than stage acting -- and moments of a surreal, dream-like quality.

The 1946 film has probably never looked better, although the technique used to restore the missing frames in the film does produce a few sequences where things appear jumpy. And the film does have a few washed out sequences that -- at least on my TV -- were not as sharp as I would have imagined they should be.

I did enjoy most of the extras on this DVD, especially the 30-minute TV episode from France showing the real locations of the film with interviews with a bearded Zeus-like Jean Marais.

You can read more about the film here on Criterion's website.