Category Archives: film

“Of Love and Honor” (Bushi no Ichibun) (2006)

High production values. Fits the genre to a T: melodramatic and predictable, with overwrought weather elements and even a cameo by Ogata Ken as an Obi-wan Kenobi figure (the facetiousness of such an analogy is fully warranted imho). In other words, dull viewing.

At one point, the movie presents a possibility that it could transcend its banality: the lead Mimura has divorced his wife for sleeping with another man in order to keep him fed, and modern audiences would no doubt be ambivalent about Mimura. Hence watching him seek revenge would have been interesting. But it’s soon revealed that the other man had lied. The wife Kayo reverts to being a cardboard Oshin, the other man is suddenly just another stock villain, and Mimura has an empty, heroic, crowd-pleasing gloss. Naturally, the film winds up with a wholly unrealistic ending, stopping along the way for the obligatory fight scene.

Director Yamada Yoji is best suited to mining humour from scenes of humdrum existence, and the early scenes with the low-ranking samurai food tasters are the best. As a whole though, this movie is cinematically insipid.

The Literary vs the Martial

Using examples from recent movies, this post in The China Beat makes an interesting observation about the kungfu genre, and why Kung Fu Panda really relies more on American cultural tropes than Chinese ones:

The assumption is that writing encodes greater cosmic-martial truth than image. Those who can read attain higher occult power than those who can only view. While this may sound hopelessly snooty in the age of YouTube, the basic idea still resonates in Chinese cultural spheres.

Variations of this idea can be found in most Chinese-language kungfu movies. The literary and martial arts are taken to be two sides of the same cosmic coin, or the Way. Both are said to be inspired by the tracks and movements of birds and beasts. Hence the same metaphors and protocols inform both the civil and martial domains, invariably urging the harmony of heaven, earth, and man.

But I wonder if the author’s mixed up his genres. The observations about the cosmological importance of the written word apply more to wuxia movies rather than gongfu. (For a quick description of wuxia, Wikipedia suffices although I don’t totally agree with the list of movies in the entry.)

Kung Fu Panda has more in common with the gongfu works of Jackie Chan, Gordon Liu etc. Those latter movies can be interpreted as perpetuating a middle-class self-improvement morality tale as the blog entry implies, but it’s difficult to deny that they’re any less Chinese than wuxia.

Hellboy II

I wonder if I’m the only one who was underwhelmed by Hellboy II. My view of the Hellboy movies is likely tainted by my liking the comic and Mike Mignola’s art very much, and I have to keep telling myself that the movies are more like an alternate reality of the Hellboy world rather than an adaptation of the comic.

Even so, I don’t think this movie stands out among Guillermo del Toro’s works so far. Overall weak characterisation (with Abe Sapien self-pityingly becoming Data from Star Trek: TNG and Johann Krauss depicted as a bully), awkward gags (Most of the audience laughed during the scene with Barry Manilow’s Can’t Smile Without You. I was half-horrified though — had to keep telling myself it’s an alternate universe…) with plotholes (Uh, if Nuada knows what Nuala know then why does she go look for the map?) and an inexplicably dubbed young Hellboy in the prologue. (No pancakes? =p)

The homages are a nice touch: Prince Nuada is a really a version of Chang Kong in Zhang Yimou’s Hero (played by Donnie Yen there), with brilliant martial arts skills. del Toro even includes a scene where Nuada slaps a water drop with his spear, recalling a similar scene in Hero. Maybe I’m stretching it, but the plant elemental sequence seems to reference the Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing, especially his death.

It’s not that del Toro’s bad, but that his unique visual and directoral style are so overwhelming that Hellboy and the rest of the B.P.R.D. seem out of place as characters, as if they’d somehow wandered onto the set of Middle Earth and instructed to fit in. Already, Hellboy II is a incongruent mix of Mignola and del Toro’s worlds, and the film suffers from it overall.

The absence of govt in creating the Korean wave

According to an essay a colleague referred to me, the Korean Wave / Hallyu seems to have happened with little direct govt support.

Rather, it was the happy confluence of:

– a large domestic population that could sustain local production

-Chaebols making early investments in filmmaking talent and facilities (mid-late 1990s), so they could get content for their cable channels (in turn facilitated by govt legislation). When the chaebols got out of the game, the talent stayed in Korea and joined indies.

– Legislation encouraging investment in film by chaebols first, then VCs, funds and individuals (perhaps the only good direct action by government?)

– K-drama being cheaper to acquire than J-drama

– Media liberalisation across Asia

Citation:
Shim, Doobo, “The Growth of Korean Cultural Industries and the Korean Wave”. In East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave, edited by Chua Beng Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008 )

Reading without rhythm – 24/4/08

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Thanks TokyoMango!

Vom leisen Inferno der Depression und von der Unheimlichkeit des Glücks.

– Vantan gets a sneak preview of the Peranakan Museum. The museum occupies the old Tao Nan school building at Armenian Street, next to The Substation.

PingMag pays homage to Tony Silver, one of the first to identify and capture the anarchic spirit of graffiti culture on film in the 1984 Style Wars. When he went back to interview the same kids in 2003:

The reunion was different for each person. Some of them had succeeded as artists while others regretted what they had done in the past. But every single one of the kids Silver had captured in the early ’80s on his 16mm film were radiant and the filmmaker who shared that moment might have been one of the first few adults to deeply understand hip-hop culture.

– It’s nice that Newater’s winning prizes, but maybe we should learn from how the Aussies conserve water?

– Omodaka, responsible for the infectious Kokoriko Bushi video, has more music videos up on YouTube.

What is OMODAKA?
OMODAKA is the name of the project developed through a trial and error process of mutational fusion of music and motion graphics. It will knock over your existing image toward a music video by a beautiful trajectory.

OMODAKA って何?
音楽とモーション・グラフィックスの突然変異的融合を試行錯誤してきた企画の名前それ が OMODAKA。あなたのミュージックビデオに対する既存イメージを美しい軌跡でひっ くり返します。

– SFS is screening Manufactured Landscapes this Saturday afternoon (details here), and Sight and Sound has a review.

– Ok, we know Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami, Majidi, Abbas, (does Satrapi count? viz. Persepolis) But who’s Rakhshan Bani-Etemad?

Internationally, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad is a directors’ director, loved by the dedicated and the educated. At home, she is a godmother of Iranian cinema who has been working for two decades and whose films are hits even as they critique Iran’s paternalism. Her work deserves to be seen abroad because she addresses many of the questions which western Europe and America have, not only about living in an Islamic state but also about the individuality and identity of all women who live under anti-woman regimes.

– In criticising religion, atheists don’t have a good explanation of why religion is still so pervasive. They seem to have ignored its narrative power, as Mark Dery argues:

Arguably, this is because it’s not about God; rather, religion is simply the only philosophical (or, if you will, mythic) language available to some Americans to articulate their discontent and their visions of social change. The Dawkins/Hitchens question—What’s wrong with religion?—is far less illuminating than the question they might have asked: What are American evangelicals really talking about when they talk about religion?

SIFF 2008 — Milky Way Liberation Front, Keronchong for Pak Bakar, After the Rain

(cross-posted on the SFS blog. To see all cross-posts, click on the “SFS Blog” tag or category)

Leaving the cinema after the end credits for Milky Way Liberation Front rolled, that was the end of SIFF 2008 for me. I was already tired when we sat down to watch that movie. It was a good way to end the festival. Milky Way Liberation Front was fun, a long string of gags that gently poke fun at indie filmmaking, film festivals and the people who participate in them.

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Like his first short Datura, Abdul Nizam’s Keronchong for Pak Bakar is distinguished by impressionistic editing with strong narration and the use of vocabulary with religious undertones. There isn’t a clear narrative or chronological momentum, but the mix of image and narration can be slightly hypnotic.

I agree with Tan Pin Pin’s comments about the film: the work is concerned more with Abdul Nizam’s relationship with Abu Bakar bin Ali than with the latter’s past. In fact the documentary strongly suggests that the Abdul Nizam in the film is seeking a father figure identified with the golden age of Malay cinema. This search is expressed early in the movie as a search to know more about movie legend P Ramlee, through which Abdul Nizam discovers serendipitously that the man who lensed many of his movies lived just above him. At one point, Abdul Nizam expresses in regretful tones how he discovered too late that his hardworking father had loved film stars and movies. Throughout, Abdul Nizam is extremely respectful – even protective – towards Abu Bakar.

The material used in the documentary come from two major sources. The first is clearly the recorded footage from Abdul Nizam’s conversations with Abu Bakar. The second is more mysterious — footage of a train journey up Malaysia to Penang, ostensibly taken while location scouting for a feature film on P Ramlee’s life (according to Abdul Nizam the project eventually fell through).

Empty spaces feature prominently here, partly illustrating Pak Bakar’s current solitude. When I asked Abdul Nizam why he weaved in the silent, lonely sequences from his train journey, he indicated that it was partly to convince Abu Bakar to come out of his solitude more often, perhaps to work on film again.

That documentary left the audience with far more questions about Abu Bakar Ali than answers. Why did Abu Bakar stop working on films? Why does he mostly talk about technical matters — for most of the documentary he is fiddling with an old Bolex handheld camera — and nothing about himself?

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I’m still surprised and a bit disgusted that SIFF screened Royston Tan’s latest short “film” After the Rain before Keronchong for Pak Bakar. Rose-tinted nostalgia and banal cliches (the father coughs to prefigure his eventual death) pliantly placed in the service of the Singapore government’s ideological imperatives. This is not a film but an advertisement, worse than the Citibank ads played before every SIFF screening because of its slick hypocrisy. Why did SIFF even bother?

SFS History in “Latent Images”

A couple of weeks ago, while reading up to prep for the Perspectives Film Festival, I discovered that Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde had already compiled a comprehensive account of the Singapore Film Society’s history since 1958, in their book Latent Images: Film in Singapore. I contacted them, and they were kind enough to allow the SFS to reproduce the section online.

However, records from the 1960s and 1970s suggest the Film Society might have been active even before 1958. A January 1961 Sunday Times article noted that the Singapore Film Society had been “in existence for six years.” Similarly, in February 1971, film critic Koh wrote that the society “had been in existence for some 16 years.” In the 19 March 1985 edition of The Singapore Monitor, Wong Sing Yeong claimed that “the Singapore Film Society was formed in 1956 to complement the commercial cinema by screening less popular art films.”

Click here to read the complete extract.

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Latent Images is a key academic work on the history and development of Singapore cinema. I recommend the CD-ROM version, released 3 years after the book with some updates. It also contains video clips – interviews and footage of the former Shaw studios at Jalan Ampas.

If you’re interested, you can get it online from the Asian Film Archive.