April 22, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle

Directed by Stephen Chow Starring Chow and Yuen Qiu

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The legendary Bruce Lee first brought chopsocky to worldwide masses, and then came braindead vehicles for Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren, et al. that ruined appetites for the genre and consigned it to the fringe. But Hong Kong's movie industry has kept the tradition commercially viable in the region by tricking it up with speed and effects, as well as boasting charismatic stars such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Although color-coordinated wuxia pian opuses from Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee have since made martial arts palatable for discriminating subtitle readers in the Western hemisphere, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon initially met with a tepid reception from Asian audiences. They favour fast-as-lightning sensory assaults as exemplified by Stephen Chow's reign atop all-time H.K. box-office records.

Chow isn't even a black-belt grasshopper. In fact, he has invited comparisons to Jim Carrey for his eagerness to do anything for laughs. On the heels of Crouching Tiger and Bend It Like Beckham, Chow's North American theatrical debut Shaolin Soccer could have been a mega crossover hit. But Miramax sat it on the shelf for two years, dubbed and un-dubbed it, then butchered it by re-editing and chopping off 30 minutes before its release last year. Fortunately, the writer/director's Kung Fu Hustle arrives here unscathed. He stars as his usual smalltime loser, in this instance caught in a turf war in pre-revolutionary China between axe-wielding gangsters and unassuming villagers. Everybody turns out to be a kung-fu master, fighting off frightening opponents with expert timing.

Even though its title seems to evoke Carl Douglas, Van McCoy and David Carradine, the film is actually a hybrid of Jackie Chan, Chuck Jones and Quentin Tarantino. Chan's mischievous slapstick is its most obvious influence. The cartoonish humour is straight out of Looney Toons, especially the Wile E.Coyote/Roadrunner-esque footrace. Parodying Gangs of New York, The Shining, The Matrix and Spider-Man while paying homage to Bruce Lee/Shaw Bros./Golden Harvest classics, Chow's nerdy enthusiasm for cinema is comparable to Tarantino's. Yuen Wo-ping and Sammo Hung (star of television's now-cancelled Martial Law) choreograph action sequences here. And like Kill Bill and Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Kung Fu Hustle resurrects some screen legends from decades of hiatus or obscurity. While the film is mostly silly and senseless fun, Chow's earnest affection for martial-arts films of yesteryear inspires awe.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

The World

Directed by Jia Zhangke Starring Zhao Tao

Reviewed by Martin Tsai Since his debut Xiao Wu won the Dragons & Tigers competition at the 1998 Vancouver International Film Festival, Jia Zhangke has quickly established himself as one of China's top filmmakers. Heavily influenced by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Robert Bresson, Jia's work consistently illustrates the communist society's surrender to Western capitalist mores. Banned by Chinese authorities, his underground films offer keen observations on the impact of everything from privatization, unemployment and crime to Taiwanese pop tunes. The World - his latest and first state-sanctioned production - contemplates implications of migration and globalization in China.

Set in a suburban Beijing theme park, the film's symbolic and literal global village flaunts miniature world monuments such as London Bridge, Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triomphe, Torre di Pisa, pyramids and Taj Mahal. Still-intact Twin Towers in the replicated Manhattan skyline suggests behind-the-times displacement of the park and society at large. The disorienting establishment also represents a foreign world that is only illusionary to average Chinese citizens, whose sheltered worldview is strictly within the insular bounds of government-controlled knowledge. In a surreal Vegas-style pastiche, staff performers don various national costumes and do their best interpretations of ethnic caricatures.

Transient opportunists flock to the park, desperately hoping to make ends meet. Showgirl Tao (Zhao Tao) and security guard Taisheng (Chen Taisheng) have both left the impoverished Shanxi province behind, and many of their fellow countrymen soon follow their lead. Anna (Alla Chtcherbakova) comes from Russia so she can earn enough for a trip to see her sister in Ulan Bator, and she befriends Tao despite the fact that they can't converse. Taisheng's adulterous married lover Qun (Wang Yiqun) is waiting on a visa before joining her husband abroad. These characters' plights all mirror China's own struggle to transform itself and adapt to the global economy.

Even though it delves into Jia's usual thematic concerns, the film uncannily echoes Lost in Translation and Chungking Express. The director's ambitious and interwoven expose never ceases to fascinate, but he still hasn't overcome a nagging inability to define and develop characters. Shot by his frequent collaborator Yu Likwai in luminous scope format, The World also recalls La Dolce Vita and Millennium Mambo. Its visual vocabulary eventually becomes redundant, as Jia keeps revisiting the Eiffel Tower motif long past its novelty. Yet he astonishingly digresses from his thesis, and the haunting finale doesn't resonate with the film's immense premise.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

April 15, 2005


Directed by Park Chan-wook Starring Choi Min-sik

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

When asked why the Cannes Grand Prix-winning Oldboy was glaringly absent from last fall's Vancouver International Film Festival, curator/critic/Asian cinema aficionado Tony Rayns pointedly responded with "I hated it." So what's to hate? The sight of someone sewing into his wrist to mark each year of his imprisonment? His bare knuckles bleeding from repeatedly punching a wall? Ants crawling out of his orifices? His ingesting a live octopus as its tentacles whip and grip his face? His extracting an enemy's teeth during a round of interrogation? His severing a tongue with a pair of scissors? Or his unwitting association with acts of incest? More of a cinematic stunt than an auteurist statement, Park Chan-wook's relentlessly nasty revenge tale will stop at nothing to disgust and revolt.

Choi Min-sik of Shiri stars as Oh Dae-su, a businessman kidnapped and locked up for no apparent reason. Television updates him on an outside world no less insane than his ordeal: rise of Kim Jong-il, handover of Hong Kong, death of Princess Di, collapse of Twin Towers, and the murder of his wife for which his captor framed him. Released just as inexplicably 15 years later, Dae-su has five days to twist his way through some head games if he wishes to disinter the reason behind his torment. His inquiry and retribution develop in an increasingly erratic and pointless manner - the most mind-boggling discovery being an aberrantly melodramatic back story concerning an ostracized high-school girl who perished as a fierce summer gale thrashed her white dress and long straight hair.

Oldboy is destined for cultdom, especially with the endorsement from last year's Cannes jury president Quentin Tarantino. It invites comparisons to works of Takashi Miike, David Fincher and Charlie Kaufman, but it doesn't similarly withstand critical analysis and interpretation. Park's frivolous penchant for the taboo affects an infantile coolness without commenting on or at least poking fun at all the absurdities. While his sadomasochist streak is comparable to Miike's, Park's lack of a satirical bent makes the film an agonizing experience. One can almost liken his desensitizing extremities to temper tantrums of an attention-starved child. The film's most impressive set piece is actually a long-take tracking shot in which Dae-su hammers his way through a lynch mob. Its Lone Star-esque final twist is a relative letdown considering how many mind blows the viewers have already sustained to reach that point.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

April 08, 2005

Look at Me

Directed by Agnès Jaoui Starring Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Parisiens are practically the same as Manhattanites. At least they appear that way in les mondes parallèles constructed by Agnès Jaoui and Woody Allen, where petty preoccupations perpetually frustrate the narcissistic bourgeoisie. Perhaps snobs are not entirely unique to Paris and New York, as you’ll always notice inconsiderate faux cinéphiles attending local cinémathèques religiously in a thinly-veiled attempt to prove their sophistication. Those moviegoers will certainly relate to Jaoui’s or Allen’s work for depicting the style de vie they lead or aspire to.

Gliding among stuck-up literary and classical-music types at lavish parties, fancy restaurants and posh homes, Jaoui’s Look at Me scrutinizes the hypocritical mutual dependency and loathing between insufferable VIPs and obsequious sycophants. Those in power get away with routine insensitivity, and only display interest in others when in need. The nobodies are eager to sell out their principles in exchange for fame and fortune. People say things they don’t mean to avoid confrontations, but their self-interest threatens to betray those white lies. This world of high art is full of shallow egos and ambitions.

A.O. Scott of The New York Times wrote that while the film’s “characters’ folkways may strike Americans as quaint, picturesque or enviable – if only the cook at our country house made rabbit with tarragon sauce! - their behavioral traits, the less admirable ones in particular, will not seem exotic at all.” Considering he also pronounced Sideways as “the most overrated film of the year,” he possibly lets personal bias cloud his better judgment since both films feature similarly complex and realistic characters who are at once endearing and loathsome. Perhaps he can’t fully appreciate Alexander Payne’s film because its uncannily crafted underachievers are foreign to Scott’s scène sociale.

Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri’s interwoven screenplay etches out power dynamics with precision, rendering every scenario and emotional facet true. But what begins as an observant social satire eventually devolves with a humdrum female-empowerment tangent à la Fat Girl emerging as its morale de l'histoire. The final justice impacts only a fraction of the characters, and the pair of conceited hotshot authors here miss out on the lessons they deserve the most. You get the impression that Miles Raymond’s unpublished The Day After Yesterday is a better read than anything these soulless jerks could come up with. Unless, of course, you’re A.O. Scott.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

April 01, 2005

Frank Miller's Sin City

Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez Starring Bruce Willis, Clive Owen and Mickey Rourke

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

It was the early 1990s. Sin City changed up the meat and potatoes of Modern-Age comic art. It had expressionist monochrome illustrations, negative-space treatment and hard-boiled yarns. It had hard-luck roughnecks, seamy dames, crooked authority figures and tough cookies who were tougher than nails. It had narrations with exaggerated rat-a-tat riffs on Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It blew in on an ill wind and shook up the sleepy art form. Seven anthologies came and went. But the whole thing took a dive with tired plots, colour bits and faded novelty. In the end, it became another batch of gonzo pulp channeling Quentin Tarantino.

It was just a matter of time before the inevitable movie treatment. Frank Miller's Sin City seems faithful as a nun, with the black and white and spot colour look and the original panels as storyboards. Miller himself even co-directs and stars in it. Gray doesn't exist in his artwork, and that's tough to replicate. But the film's got some of the surreal, impressionist images straight from the source. You don't find such images on celluloid every day, and it's a shame there aren't more. Still, the movie isn't too much of an improvement on other adaptations associated with Miller such as Daredevil and Elektra. And it still gets a thing or two very wrong.

Sin City has that cool non-linear setup like Pulp Fiction. Tarantino also drops in to shoot a scene. But it gets downright redundant, tight-packing three volumes that were all similar - namely The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill and That Yellow Bastard. Robert Rodriguez does a juggling act: co-directing, lensing, editing and co-composing. But the man's methods are strictly wrong-side-of-the-tracks. Even with Miller's stark touches, the film whiffs of that namby-pamby superhero aura as phony as Joel Schumacher's take on Batman.

The brooding mood pieces in the novels are a lot like film noir. But the flick's slick, rapid-fire editing is decidedly cartoonish. The original work cites old country ballads - the slow-burn, sappy kind. But an obnoxious electro score makes the movie seem like a parody. And as in a parody, the performances here are often way over the top. The terse dialogue from the books sounds ludicrous when spoken. You get this queasy hunch that Sin City is not much different from Toontown where Roger and Jessica Rabbit live.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.