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.
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.
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.
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…
Karate Robo Zaborgar presented me with the sort of soul-searching conflict that often plagues those of us who worry about the higher philosophical questions in life. On the one hand, it was a presumably loving spoof of one of my favorite genres — the old “tokusatsu” superhero shows of the 1970s, with their karate cyborgs, fringed jeans, motorcycle helmets, random explosions in rock quarries, and theme songs dominated by jazzy trumpets. On the other hand, I watched a similar movie last year — Takashi Miike’s Yatterman — and still consider it one of the worst, most unenjoyable movies I’ve seen in the better part of a decade. My bottomless disdain for Yatterman comes despite the fact that I generally like Miike as a director. Karate Robo Zaborgar, by contrast, was directed by Noboru Iguchi, a director who has yet to make a movie I didn’t dislike. His stock in trade is slapstick splatter send-ups of popular Japanese genres, but done with such juvenile laziness and awkward, ill-realized timing that what should have been outrageous comes across merely as tedious.
Yatterman is a colorful, overblown, largely idiotic live-action adaptation of an anime series from 1977. It’s also a painful illustration of every weak point wildly hit-or-miss director Takashi Miike possesses, while at the same time it fails to highlight any of the thing he does well. Miike’s staunch unwillingness to make anything less than 14,000 movies a week means that if nothing else, he became by virtue of quantity alone a force to be reckoned with in the reeling, post-bubble Japanese film industry, when more and more directors retreated into the realm of the low-budget direct-to-video (and later, DVD) market. Miike’s prolific nature meant that he produced a few incredibly bad movies, a whole lot of mediocre ones, and a few that either were or teetered on brilliant.
You are probably like me, at least in some ways. Many of you were Jackie Chan fans. You came in during the wild, wild days of Police Story, Project A, and Dragons Forever, or maybe a couple years later it was Drunken Master II that turned you on to Jackie. Or hell, maybe you’re even older than me, and you were around for Young Master and Dragon Lord. Whatever the case, you knew the first time you saw one of those movies that it was something special. You became obsessed, started haunting the local VHS-stocking Chinese supermarkets in search of Jackie Chan movies you’d never heard of. You began scouring other video stores for the rare dubbed domestic releases. Or you decided that it was time to enter the seedy shadow world of tape trading. Anything to get your hands on another movie, or hell, even a scrap of information. At the time, there was no world wide web. There was no Netflix. If you wanted info on Jackie Chan, or any other Hong Kong movie makers, your only sources were Rick Meyers’ column in Inside Kung Fu magazine, and word of mouth.
I really should write a full review of Tsui Hark’s landmark Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, but until that happens, I wanted to pop in with a few random thoughts and reminiscences inspired by watching it this past weekend at the New York Asian Film Festival. The festival this year was honoring director-producer Tsui Hark, so the line-up was pretty heavy on Hark films — all of which I’d seen before, and all of which I would gladly have watched again. Well, that’s not saying much, because I own them all and do tend to watch them not just again, but again and again. But the thrill of seeing one of Hark’s films on an actual movie screen –his films often being big on eye-popping visual spectacle — is usually too good to pass up no matter what I have sitting at home on DVD.
Me and Benny Chan go back a ways, and our relationship has been stormy. Some of his directorial efforts, like Who Am I and Big Bullet, I really like. Others, like New Police Story and Gen Y Cops, I really dislike. So I guess I come out even enough that when Chan makes a new movie, I figure I might as well see it. Shaolin, Chan’s first stab at a big budget period epic, is in a way the ultimate Benny Chan film for me in that I really liked about half of it and really didn’t like about half of it. It’s a movie that seems specifically designed to highlight both his strengths and weaknesses as a director.