September 24, 2004

The Five Obstructions

Directed by Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier

Directed by Martin Tsai

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier has achieved notoriety for two reasons. Thematically, he has created some of cinema’s most memorable martyrs and subjected them to the cruelest of ordeals in his gut-wrenching epics. Stylistically, he has formulated the influential Dogme 95 manifesto that imposes strict filmmaking rules. In The Five Obstructions, von Trier does a variation on both with devious glee.

He persecutes mentor Jørgen Leth into remaking Leth’s 1967 short The Perfect Human with seemingly impossible restrictions – such as no shot exceeding half a second. Believing this will be a therapeutic experience for his hero, von Trier encourages Leth to make crap. Much to von Trier’s dismay, Leth rises to the challenge. To finally render Leth powerless, von Trier makes his own “obstruction” then credits Leth as director.

The exercise proves that artificial limitations actually inspire filmmakers to creatively express the same ideas using different means. A testament to Leth’s talent, the various Perfect Human updates are as witty and enthralling as the original. In a year flooded by uninspired remakes (Dawn of the Dead, Around the World in 80 Days, The Stepford Wives, The Manchurian Candidate, Alfie, et al), it’s refreshing to see someone thinking outside the box.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Good Morning, Night

Directed by Marco Bellocchio

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

In the past four decades, Marco Bellocchio has made several films that examine the socio-political upheaval in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s. He revisits that dark chapter in history with Good Morning, Night, which recounts the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro by members of the Red Brigade. Moro served as the Italian prime minister between 1963 and 1968. His violent death impacted Italy like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shook the United States. Told from the perspective of one of Moro’s assailants, the film is controversial for its moral ambiguity.

Bellocchio often employs a family unit as a microcosm of the society. Here, the interplay between and among the quartet of kidnappers and the prisoner ironically feigns domestic normality. Between meals, arguments, watching TV and babysitting, drama unfolds in this house of cards.

In a post-9/11 world where terrorism elicits strong responses, the film is singularly uncompromising in its refusal to demonize terrorists. Increasingly elaborate dream sequences insinuate the protagonist’s detachment from her crime and her guilt. With crucial questions still unanswered by its end, this elusive film is more rewarding to those intimately familiar with its historical background.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.


Directed by Takashi Miike

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Obscenely prolific (pun intended) Japanese shock-meister Takashi Miike’s third film this year is a time-traveling, genre-bending samurai swashbuckler that ponders existential mores. An unofficial sequel to Hideo Gosha’s 1969 epic Hitokiri, Izo is one of the more somber and substantive efforts among Miike’s 60 titles.

Narrated by a croaky folk singer, the film depicts the afterlife of an assassin captured and crucified by the Shogunate in 1865. Endlessly wandering through time and space as if condemned to eternal hell, Izo is out for blood and spares no one – his mother, an ex-lover, school kids, Buddhist monks, samurais, yakuza, a SWAT team, vampires and the prime minister (a cameo by “Beat” Takeshi Kitano).

A conceptually ambitious pastiche that blends the hallmarks of David Lynch, Akira Kurosawa, Dante and Shaw Brothers, Izo isn’t exactly the kind of trashy pulp that fans expect from Miike. The film struggles to make sense of the perpetual cycle of violence throughout the history of human existence, sporadically using archival newsreels to illustrate the phenomenon. Ultimately too cryptic and iconoclastic, this unparalleled effort will leave most viewers baffled.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

The Missing

Directed by Lee Kang-sheng

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Best known as the enigmatic star of all of Tsai Ming-liang’s films, Taiwanese actor Lee Kang-sheng has garnered international attention as the alter ego/muse/fetish of the Malaysian-born auteur. Making his directorial debut with The Missing, Lee also establishes himself as Tsai’s worthy apprentice. The film is a deserving companion to Tsai’s haunting masterpiece Goodbye Dragon Inn. In fact the two films were originally conceived as halves of the same feature, but split due to considerations of length.

Following two separate but intersecting narratives, The Missing depicts a grandmother’s frantic search for her lost infant grandson and a student seeking diversions in order to cope with the disappearance of his grandfather. The film offers some fascinating insights into how people helplessly resort to irrationality in dealing with loss and desperation. The grandmother hops onto a random stranger’s motorcycle, while the student skips school and spends all day in an arcade.

Lee borrows some of Tsai’s favourite cinematic techniques, but achieves drastically different results here. His studied long takes and long shots quietly unravel a sense of urgency centering on Lu Yi-ching’s tour-de-force performance as the grandmother. Simultaneously unnerving, frustrating and droll, this masterful effort demonstrates the tremendous potential of a new filmmaking talent.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

10 on Ten / Five

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The two new documentaries from Iranian visionary Abbas Kiarostami are worthwhile for his loyal fans and daunting for the uninitiated.

In 10 on Ten, he revisits his triumphant 2002 drama Ten and lectures on his cinematic method. Following the same template, he navigates around Tehran in his car and discusses various aspects of filmmaking during the 10 segments. While informative and absorbing, the film requires viewers’ prior knowledge of Ten. A pair of sunglasses largely conceals Kiarostami’s facial expressions, and the unwarranted English dubbing here further eclipses any signs of his animated zeal. Since the film’s visuals are mostly futile, the director’s insights probably better serve as a commentary alongside Ten on DVD.

On the 100th anniversary of Yasujiro Ozu’s birth, Kiarostami pays tribute to the late Japanese master with Five. Kiarostami trades his signature winding dirt roads for the beach, and sets up five Ozu-esque long takes to survey driftwood, people, dogs, ducks, waves and ripples. Some will find this exercise excruciating, as the entire screen is nearly pitch black for over 20 minutes during one segment. But the film’s wonderfully studied details will reward the kind of patient and observant viewers who find amusement staring into a fish tank.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 17, 2004

A Silent Love

Directed by Federico Hidalgo Starring Vanessa Bauche and Noel Burton

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, A Silent Love sets out to explore the dynamics of a mail-order marriage. It's always refreshing to see a homegrown film appropriately reflecting upon Canada's omnipresent diversity and immigration issues, although this particular effort doesn't ultimately venture into any ground not already covered by similar films like Green Card or Sylvia Chang's Siao Yu (a more serious treatment scripted by Ang Lee).

Through an internet service, middle-aged Canadian professor Norman (Noel Burton) and twenty something Mexican schoolteacher Gladys (Vanessa Bauche of Amores Perros) have corresponded for a year with the aid of a translator. Despite the fact that they can barely converse, they decide to get married and invite Gladys' widowed mother Fernanda (Susana Salazar) to join them in Montreal. Apparently still ambivalent about the arrangement, Gladys often bursts into melodramatic tirades worthy of a soap opera on Telemundo. She constantly argues with Fernanda - en Espanol - as if the dumbfounded Noel is invisible.

That language barrier is not something that just the protagonists have to struggle with. Feebly written with prosaic dialogue, the multilingual screenplay makes about as much sense as the lyrics to Livin' la Vida Loca. Like its running silent-film motif, most everything in the screenplay fails to communicate the meaning and significance of the story.

The characters are constantly making rash decisions and taking action on a whim, such as Noel giving Gladys a home office or Gladys taking a job as a dishwasher in a Chinese-owned Japanese restaurant. What do these episodes mean? Should we care? It's not as if they shed any light on the characters' personalities or advance the story. On the rare occasion the screenplay allows some explanation, it awkwardly engages the characters in tactless and humiliating confrontations. For instance, Gladys and Norman's dinner party guest dishes out hot potatoes like "You got to admit this system of wife-buying is pretty colonial."

A Silent Love misses several opportunities to meaningfully explore obvious subjects, such as the cultural shock of moving from Mexico to Canada or the effect that a generation gap has on a marriage. First-time director Federico Hidalgo seems totally uninterested in his characters, and invests no time in examining their motivations, values and cultural differences. It's really a shame, because the film might have been fascinating if he actually bothered to.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 10, 2004

Intern Academy

Directed by Dave Thomas Starring Peter Oldring, Pat Kelly, Dave Foley and Dan Aykroyd

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Intern Academy offers viewers a new appreciation for the TV series Scrubs. Both revolve around the misadventures of hospital interns/residents, but that's where the similarity ends. This film gives you an idea what the sitcom would be like if everything went horribly wrong. Not only does it lack the engaging plots, likable characters and zany silliness that make Scrubs a success, Intern Academy alternates between the embarrassingly unfunny and the repulsively crude throughout.

Within its opening minutes, Academy already resorts to such lowbrow humour as a plastic doll stuck in a patient's rectum. It continues to scrape the bottom of the bedpan with more mind-numbing gags involving body fluids and waste products, gratuitous nudity and the obligatory strippers. The film is shamelessly sexist, and eventually turns even its most uptight female characters into total whores.

As if the juvenile humour isn't offensive enough, it ups the ante with blood and guts. There are some messy surgeries - including one in which the surgeon vomits into the incision opening - plus a fight with characters throwing organs at each other. Unfortunately this isn't a Takashi Miike film, so all the gore elicits more cringes than laughs. Equally unpleasant is Matt Frewer's Jim Carrey impersonation as a knife-happy surgical instructor.

Aside from its tasteless sense of humour, the film has plenty of unintentional logistical gaffes. For starters, the characters are still learning pre-med basics in a classroom despite the fact they are already hospital interns. Plus, nobody ever wears a surgical mask during the operations here. Moreover, a doctor in the film has just performed open-heart surgery but immediately tells the patient's family that his office will call to schedule a follow-up, when in reality the patient would recuperate in the hospital. This lack of attention to detail reflects the filmmaker's laziness.

Writer/director Dave Thomas (of SCTV fame) provides a series of situational skits complete with amateurish shot/reverse-shot filmmaking in the total absence of an intelligible storyline. All of the characters are merely plot devices, and they fail to register even by the film's end. The climax-if you can even call it such-is so inconsequential, that it only serves to give the viewers a sense of relief knowing this mess is nearly over. Thomas continues to dig deeper into his colostomy bag of tricks with a desperate gag reel during the credit sequence, but even that cannot resuscitate this incurable film.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 03, 2004

Wicker Park

Directed by Paul McGuigan Starring Josh Hartnett, Rose Byrne, Diane Kruger and Matthew Lillard

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Despite its stylish appearance and engaging plot, Wicker Park unwittingly falls into the common traps that encumber most American remakes of foreign films. It is a by-the-numbers adaptation of Gilles Mimouni's 1996 French thriller L'Appartement, but unfortunately far too many elements here get lost in Hollywood translation.

Josh Hartnett stars as Matt, who spontaneously puts off an important business trip and a marriage proposal after a brush with a woman reminiscent of his old flame Lisa (Diane Kruger). He traces her using a hotel key she has left behind, which eventually leads him to a different woman (Rose Byrne) who claims that her name is also Lisa. It turns out that her name is really Alex, and she has an ulterior motive to keep Matt and Lisa apart. The jigsaw puzzle of a story weaves a web of obsession, and every character appears to be stalking someone else.

Fresh-faced Hartnett seems awkward in the lead role, which probably demands someone slightly older (think Vincent Cassel of the original). Essentially playing himself as always, Matthew Lillard somehow gives the most memorable performance in the film as Matt's best friend Luke.

Screenwriter Brandon Boyce substantially retains the characters and the scenes from L'Appartement, but inevitably simplifies and demystifies their complexity for North American consumption. He maintains the original's effective structure that constantly shifts time and perspective, and then patronizingly goes on to explain all the twists and turns to a degree that is totally unnecessary. In an attempt to dumb down the story further, Boyce sacrifices the original's murder-mystery subplot involving Lisa's widowed stalker. Although that character remains in the film, he has been reduced to relative insignificance.

Director Paul McGuigan infuses a few gracefully layered images, making even split-screens pleasing to the eye. But he ultimately utilizes this device too infrequently, despite the fact that it works wonders with the film's fragmented storytelling.

McGuigan seems to be on autopilot the rest of the time, duplicating scenarios from L'Appartement while completely missing the point. The original pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock classics such as Vertigo, Rear Window and Strangers on a Train and while some of those elements remain in Wicker Park, the director leaves an impression that he is oblivious to the Hitchcockian references in Mimouni's version. To make matters worse, the film blasts an ill-conceived pop-rock soundtrack with placid guitars slowly strumming away what little suspense remains.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.