The New York Asian Film Festival (read all our past coverage and reviews here) is one of the highlights of my year, and this year has been almost overwhelming. The number of films I want to see far exceeds the number of hours in the day I have to see them. The most impressive part of this year’s program, in my opinion, is the inclusion of some very rare Taiwanese exploitation films: Challenge of the Lady Ninja, A Life of Ninja, Woman Revenger, Lady Avenger, and the granddaddies of all Taiwanese “social issues” exploitation films, On the Society File of Shanghai and Never too Late to Repent, as well as the documentary, Taiwan Black Movies. Of the lot, I’ve heard of all of them but only ever seen Challenge of the Lady Ninja. Unfortunately, that remained the case throughout the festival, but I am hoping the work the NYAFF crew did in unearthing prints of these films might lead to them eventually finding their way onto DVD somewhere.
I can’t remember exactly how it was I stumbled across the first in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. It was most likely a title dropped in passing by Veronica Belmont on the Sword and Laser podcast, coupled with the book then appearing on a Goodreads list of the best steampunk books. So I guess I take that first sentence back. Apparently, I remember exactly how I first heard of the book. Let’s move on, shall we? Anyway, it was a book well worth stumbling onto, and since finishing it, I’ve become a huge fan of the series and its author. The blend of supernatural shenanigans, romance, adventure, steampunk, and dandy vampires all wrapped up in a Victorian comedy of manners style tale was exactly the sort of breezy — but not unsubstantial — book for which I’d been hoping. Needless to say but here I am about to say it anyway, I was pretty excited to move on to the second book.
At first — and even second — glance, Last Tycoon is a movie that seems custom-made for me and based entirely on some of my favorite obsessions: Shanghai during the 20s and 30s, old-time fashion, Jazz Age decadence, shidaiqu (that unique Shanghai brand of jazz that combined American swing with traditional Chinese music), a title stolen from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and Chow Yun-fat in a cool suit blowing suckers away. Pretty perfect set of ingredients, right? Unfortunately, the chef is the frequent butt of jokes here at Teleport City, Wong Jing. Under his stewardship as director, all these wonderful elements almost come together into something great. There are moments of brilliance in this film, and moments of stunning beauty and excitement. But there are also some moments that are just terrible, and many that are just sort of stumbling. The whole thing is a bit awkward. In other words, it’s a pretty typical Wong Jing directorial effort, with more good than bad but not as much great as I was hoping for.
I read a lot, but that reading happens only in a few specific genres. Predictable ones if you’ve read anything on Teleport City — science fiction mostly, with a tiny smattering of fantasy, and a healthy dose of non-fiction ranging from military history, travelogues, and anything where Teddy Roosevelt punches out a rhinoceros and gets malaria while exploring some remote niche of the globe. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given my fondness for horror films, is that I read almost no horror fiction at all. I don’t know why this has traditionally been the case. What I read in the past just didn’t click with me. I mean, there was some Clive Barker, sure. Everyone in the eighties read Clive Barker. But the Barker I liked skewed much more toward the fantastic than actual horror — Weaveworld, The Great and Secret Show, Everville, and Imajica.
Dune was one among many books/series I read in high school or college and remember almost nothing about. At this point, most of what I remember about Frank Herbert’s genre classic probably comes from the David Lynch film that me and ten other people in the world actually like. And as for the subsequent books — I don’t know. There was something about some kids, right? And Duncan Idaho with metal eyeballs? Yep, that’s about the limit of my memory, which I think sufficiently qualifies me as having not read Dune even though I’ve read Dune. So I decided that it was time to revisit the series, especially since, regardless of my recollection or lack of, I never finished the series. But, of course, I figured that if I was going to read/re-read Dune, I was going to reread all of it. And that meant starting at the narrative’s chronological beginning — in other words, starting with the books written by Frank’s son, Brian, and his partner-in-crime, Kevin Anderson.
Bloody Tie is an interesting film because it sports all the polish and big budget precision typical of Korean action films but combines it with a frenetic, almost anarchic approach to filmmaking that makes the entire thing feel like it’s totally bonkers and off the rails even when it isn’t. The closest comparison I have for it is Myung-se Lee’s 1999 film, Nowhere to Hide, but you’d have to take that and mix it up with Goodfellas and a healthy dollop of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without and Humanity, maybe with some Michael Mann on the side, to come close to the loopy energy of Bloody Tie. It’s a deliriously colorful, insane celebration of the very seediest and scummiest cops and drug dealers you can conjure up under Korean censorship laws. Even within those confines the movie achieves a level of sleaze I’m not accustomed to seeing in Korean films.
Cordelia’s Honor is an omnibus that collects two novels of the “Vorkosigan Saga” together under one cover. The first, Shards of Honor, is straight up space opera, telling the story of Cordelia, the middle aged (finally!) captain of a science vessel. While exploring a planet, her small group of scientist-soldiers find themselves under attack by soldiers from the planet Barrayar, known for their fanatic commitment to all things military. It turns out that the attack on Cordelia and her people was nothing but a ruse to cover a politically motivated mutiny among the Barrayan officers. Their captain, long a thorn in the side of many due to his commitment to being honest and honorable, has been left for dead along with the remnants of Cordelia’s expeditionary force — which consist of Cordelia and one other officer, irreparably crippled by a Barrayan nerve disrupter.
My introduction to modern Korean cinema was a crash course facilitated by a company whose name escapes me at the moment, but it was a Netflix style rental-by-mail service (with blue envelopes) that concentrated on foreign and non-Region 1 DVD releases. Within the span of a couple of weeks, I rented and burned through probably half a dozen Korean films, including Shiri, Nowhere to Hide, something with a lot of electric guitars and flying swordsmen, and Arahan. I didn’t know much about any of the films and was picking them largely on “that title/cover/plot synopsis sounds OK” with occasional input from some fo the few English-language websites that wrote about Korean cinema. Each of them proved to be very impressive in their own way, and while Shiri emerged as my favorite and Nowhere to Hide was the most visually striking, Arahan also earned a special place in my heart with its blend of urban setting, martial arts action, fantasy elements, and ridiculous comedy.
Let me begin this article by commenting on how happy I am that this movie did something with an empty handgun other than the “bang bang click click look at gun throw away.” I mean, why would you do that? First of all, guns cost money, and you can always reload it later if you get the chance. Second, even empty it’s a solid chunk of metal (unless it’s a Glock, I suppose) that is just waiting to be creatively applied in other ways. During this film’s climactic showdown, North Korean spies Pyo and Dong spend some time taking pot shots at one another and, upon exhausting their supply of bullets, they both take to using their guns as sort of brass knuckles-meet-bludgeons. Gentlemen, I salute your ingenuity. And now, on to the review…
Like most New Yorker’s I read a lot. This is a function of having a daily commute between Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and the East Village in Manhattan, leaving me with a half hour or more, twice daily, with little to do other than sit on the train and read. I don’t tend to select especially challenging material for the ride. It simply isn’t an environment that lends itself to such. But a good espionage book, some non-fiction, a comic book — stuff like that. Recently, as I’ve mentioned previously, I started exploring the world of science fiction books from the 70s, 80s, and a bit of the 90s. Some of them were books I’d read before and wanted to reacquaint myself with. Most are things that I completely missed, having been largely unconnected to any sort of conduit that would have clued me in to such things. I have no idea what I was doing most of my life.