Monday, May 31, 2010

Grand Master

Ip Man (2009) - Yip
I'm happy to report that after the awful wire work/FX ridden wuxia swordplay period, Hong Kong cinema is once again enjoying bare-knuckle kung fu boom. Wilson Yip's biographical film on the Wing Chun School grandmaster Ip Man, trailing him through the Japanese occupation, the big battle and his flight to Hong Kong is a sumptuous experience. Master Ip is a humble aristocrat who doesn't want to show off his skills. He only receives guests who wants to 'practice' with him occasionally in his big mansion where he lives with his wife and young son. But the words get out that he beat every master in Fo Shan, a southern Chinese city famous for its numerous martial art schools. But the Japanese occupation begins and Ip goes through hardships just like any of his fellow Chinese. After seeing his friends beaten to death in a martial arts match set up by a Bushido practicing Japanese captain while working at a coal factory, Ip once again picks up the trade he had to abandon in order to feed his family in desperate times.

Master Ip story has been loosely adapted to martial arts films many times(after Bruce Lee and Jet Li, now it's Tony Leung as Ip Man in Wong Kar-wai's latest, Grand Master). But nationalism and heavy handedness aside, Ip Man is every martial arts fan's dream. Donnie Yen brings righteousness and stoicism that fit the role well. Sammo Hung's fight choreography is stripped down to basics, but it's a glorious one. I can't wait to see Ip Man 2 in which Sammo Hung co-stars.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Splash, Chlorine, Swimming Suites...

Naissance des Pieuvres/Water Lilies (2007) - Sciamma
A perfect Summer fling movie. Must be something to do with splashing of water, chlorine smell, tight swimsuits... A swimming pool is a perfect setting for a coming-of-age drama. For Marie (Pauline Acquart), a flat chested 15 yr old, her object of desire is not some boy but sultry Floriane (Adele Haenel), the school's synchro swim team captain who has reputation as a school slut. While her early-puberty-hit best friend Anne daydreaming about hunky François from the swim team, Marie hangs out at the synchro practice and practices her skills in the bathtub. Marie gets her ogling privileges at the practices in the swimming pool, in exchange for being a Floriane's wingman whenever she wants to hang with the boys. It turns out, Floriane's sluttiness is all but an act since no boys will dig her once they find out she's an inexperienced virgin. Floriane needs to lose her virginity fast. But to whom?

First time director Céline Sciamma has a great visual sense as well as great empathy toward her characters to handle rather a pervy material. Never fully explicit, the girl's sexual escapades don't lose its grip on reality. The friendship among the girls seem genuine and touching.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Nature Calls: My Abandonment

I am very picky about what I read. Sure, there are a lot of books with pretty covers calling out to me like sirens but I've been burned so many times (copies of half-read books with pretty covers stacking, spilling out our bookshelves), I don't go for that as much as I used to nowadays. Anonymous library copies will do. Having just abandoned Faulkner's impenetrable Sound and the Fury, I needed something to read. I do browse at the bookstores. It's a good pastime for me. And all the good books I've read over the years, it's usually happenstances: We were in Soho area on Friday night near McNally Jackson, a medium size, independent bookstore that has been a cultural island in the sea of expensive shops and tourists. I wasn't really looking for books, just wandering about, absorbing the balmy Spring weather, on the way to the train station.

Then I see this in there:
Intrigued by its cover, I flipped it over and read the description:

A THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL AND HER FATHER LIVING IN FOREST PARK, an enormous nature preserve in Portland, Oregon. They inhabit an elaborate cave shelter, wash in nearby creek, store perishables at the water's edge, use a makeshift septic system, tend a garden, even keep a library of sorts. Once a week they go to the city to buy groceries and otherwise merge with the civilized world. But one small mistake allows a backcountry jogger to discover them, which derails their entire existence, ultimately provoking a deeper flight.
Inspired by a rue story and told through the startlingly sincere voice of its young narrator, Caroline, My Abandonment is a spellbinding journey into life at the margins and a stirring tale of survival and hope.

I'm sure it's many urbanites' fantasy (including mine) to live self-sufficiently in nature, away from civilization. And I know the city of Portland and the Pacific Northwest pretty well. The book starts out and fulfills that fairytale of ours faithfully. Then it gets darker- sort of McCarthy's The Road with a resourceful girl instead of a helpless boy. I didn't expect that sudden change of mood. Good thing is the author Rock doesn't play the helpless child card. It's about a girl finding herself through abandoning normal life.

I read the book in two days. It happened to me only once or twice, and I'm a very slow reader. I recommend the book to any good friend of mine. It will delight your senses and then disturb you. But don't despair, read on and the beautiful ending will reward you.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Virtual Friends

We Live in Public (2009) - Timoner
The doc starts with a video message of Josh Harris to his mother who's dying of pancreatic cancer, "hopefully we will see each other again on the other side. While you are there, say hello to all the relatives and our ancestors and whatever..."

Harris, one of the dotcom kids who made enormous amount of money in the 90s, invited documentary director Ondi Timoner in 1999 to document his latest venture, Quiet, a 24/7 surveillance camera wired bunker commune of young artistic types, under Manhattan. The candidates would sign their privacy away into this Orwellian experiment for the live world of internetz fame. It was a grandiose experiment and a true show of excess. It was Harris' vision of the future where people's lives are inseparable from this thing called world wide web.

For me who thinks Media Studies is the most worthless subject in the world and who can't stand exhibitionists, this doc didn't sound too good. But at the same time I had a strong desire to see this Josh Harris guy crash and burn at the end of the movie. Even though I've never heard of Harris, I remember attending one these ravish party/art shows thrown by 'one of the dotcom millionaires' in the late 90s.

Harris, a man-child who was admittedly brought up by television in a loveless family, made money in the silicon valley and created internet tv stations called Pseudo in the mid 90s. There is a footage showing Harris bragging to Bob Simon from 60 Minutes that it's a matter of time Pseudo would take over CBS. Mind you, internet was still far away from broadband.

After some freakish behavior (dressing up as a clown named Luvvy, his internet persona) that scared some investors off, he left Pseudo to his fellow shareholders and embarked on Quiet- his own world where he can be in charge in every aspect. It was the peak, the tail end of good times before the internet bubble burst. With their dial-up internet, the world got to see young people doing everything (except creating it seems)- eating, taking shower, fucking, shitting... and chat about their Quiet experiences. The commune was also equipped with a gun firing range and interrogation room. After a while, there are mental breakdowns, fights and it ends with Giuliani's police raid right after the new year 2000.

Harris then jumped on the idea for We Live in Public, a first internet couple living in public 24/7, with his girlfriend. What he didn't realize was that people lose interest fast, and subjecting himself to the experiment would backfire. In the end, he loses all his money, girlfriend and falls into obscurity, alone and lonely. Everything he did afterwords, comes across as stunts for that fifteen minutes of fame with his desperate desire to be loved still intact.

We Live in Public is a fascinating doc. One way or another, his vision came true, maybe not the exact way he predicted. I don't have to tell you the eminence of Facebook, blogs, youtube and even chat roulette in our lives. Hell, the reason we are here conversing is because we want some kind of validation on ourselves. The bottom line for coming to these sites is, we want to feel good about ourselves, ain't it?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thicker than Blood

Flounder (2010) - Park
The first time director Park Joon-bum's film is about three best friends on the verge of adulthood in the harbor city of Pusan. A country where friendship/brotherhood is thicker than blood, it is easy to see why Park concentrates on the trio - a baby faced college student in the eve of mandatory military service, a fish market worker studying to be a cop and a lazy Korean b-boy wannabe, and not much else. There are slight unfulfilled romances, poverty and family issues to test their friendships.

Flounder has a neo-realist feel with its squalid, down to earth settings. Their lives' ups and downs might not make big impressions but they are treated with warmth and care. Part of the reason it works is that Park is of the same age as these characters and knows what he's talking about. Even with all the melodrama, Flounder shows Park's potential to be a great filmmaker.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Woman Under the Influence

Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971) - Hancock
Jessica (Zohra Lampert) who just spent 6 months in NY institution, moves in to the idyllic Bishop manor near a lake in a small town with her supportive husband and their friend. They will be a farmer and she will get better in time. First, the small town folks are not only unfriendly but down right creepy with bandages on their wrists and on their necks. The trio then finds a strangely attractive redhead, Emily (Mariclaire Costello) living in their house. She warms everyone up and they agree on the beautiful vagabond staying with them indefinitely. While they are settling down, Jessica is seeing things and voices in her head mess up her quietude, make her question her sanity again.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a moody thriller that plays out as if Cassavetes tried his hands on the horror genre. It's a slow burn. Thank goodness the characters are not teenagers and there are no cheap scares. But with Lampert's great acting and eerie setting/cinematography/sound design, Let's Scare Jessica to Death is an unsettling little gem.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tokyo Destroyed Again

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009) - Oreck
Rainbow Beetle at whopping $47!
More of an anthropological essay than straight-up documentary, Beetle Queen shows the latest craze in Japanese culture- bug collecting. With a typical Japanese woman's voice over(courteous yet sultry), we get to see and hear the urban landscapes, lights, cars, trains and people juxtaposed with close ups of bugs, mountains, forests, rice paddies etc. It shows how Japanese see the world in microcosm and simplicity through Shintoism and Zen Buddhism- haiku, zen rock garden, bonzai trees... Therefore, bugs are seen as logical connection btwn human and nature.

With sight and sound skillfully put together, Beetle Queen is a very hypnotic, seductive film. It's a delight to gaze upon the excited children's face as they marvel on these giant bugs and hear elders talking about their prized items with nostalgia. It reminds strongly of Chris Marker films but much more intimate and inviting.

Once You Go Black...

Black Snake Moan (2006) - Brewer
You've all seen the poster: half naked Christina Ricci chained up, kneeling before towering Sam Jackson in his dirty wife beater. When Black Snake Moan came out, I just rolled my eyes and didn't give it a second thought. Recently my musician friend played some songs from the film, sung by Sam Jackson hisself and man oh man, he can really bring it on. So why not, I'll bite that race bait, I thought.

First off, I'd be lying if I didn't enjoy seeing Ricci chained by the waist writhing about. She's got one fine bod. But behind all the trappings, Black Snake Moan is a tender love story with a capital t. Combining race, music, Jesus and booze in American South, Brewer succeeds in telling a sweet story of redemption and change without being coy.

Ricci plays Rae, a little nymphet with a fucked up childhood, who can't seem to close her legs up and Sam Jackson is Lazarus who, after getting dumped by his wife for his brother, sets out to fix Rae up in her wicked ways even if it means chaining her to the radiator which has been warming his house all these years. Lazarus, a retired blues musician, is far from a saint. But he wants to help the poor girl.

It's a Sam Jackson show. Lazarus is a very well developed, fully three dimensional character. Even though Rae comes off as a little too stereotypical whitetrash whore, still retains her humanism by Ricci's volatile/vulnerable performance. Justin Timberlake is also pretty good as an army vet/ messed up kid who gets to be taught a lesson by a big balding black man. Honestly, who wouldn't want shouting Sam Jackson to be their relationship counselor?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Beautiful Youth, Ugly Grown-ups

En Kärlekshistoria/A Swedish Love Story (1970) - Andersson
the IT moment
Swedish Love Story
One can still see Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor, You, the Living)'s penchant for wry, absurd humor that he's known for in his later works, even back then. What's obvious is his adoration for youth and hatred for ugly life of grown-ups. People in the theater (including me) who were expecting more of a sweet love story, the film was disappointing that there weren't more on-screen time for the attractive young leads. But that's quite all right. I had some hearty laughs at the end. I craved for some crayfish and vodka after the screening.

Obliquely Bleak

With a Girl of Black Soil (2007) - Jeon

The film falls between Spirit of the Beehive and Morvern Callar. It takes place in a wintry small mining town in rural Korea. A miner finds out that he has a lung disease. He gets laid off. He has a retarded boy and a young girl to look after and the coal company is planning to demolish their shack. Talk about bleakness. The bright eyed girl is adorable. She tries to make the best out of the poverty stricken life. After all, she's still a child and doesn't really know anything other than her surroundings. Or does she?

Things get progressively worse. Her brother does stupid things to make life more difficult and papa drinks to forget his troubles. The girl has to resort to stealing ramen and soju from a local convenient store. Even with little hints here and there, I was still surprised by the powerful ending. There are many amazing scenes of tenderness with beautiful, natural photography in this independent feature by Jeon Soo-il. However objectionable her actions may seem, as the title suggests, we go through the experience with her without judgment.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Miserablists in the Caucasus

Anton Chekhov's The Duel (2009) - Koshashvili
A beautiful resort seaside town in the Caucasus had been a setting for many of Chekhov stories purgatory. The setting presented here, shot by Egoyan regular Paul Sarossy is nothing short of stunning: Clear blue sky and even clearer, darker sea. This costume drama concerns the miserable lives of Vanya Laevsky (Andrew Scott) and his mistress Nadia (Fiona Glascott). At first glance, young Vanya is an all around douchebag- always drunk, gambles, treats Nadia badly. But with a good reason- he's fallen out of love with Nadia and feels stuck. To make matters worse, he gets a letter from Moscow that Nadia's husband had just died. This could mean only one thing: a hasty loveless marriage. He conceals the fact from her as long as he can. Nadia on the other hand, busies herself with material things while cumulating debt and admirers alike (with her milky white complexion, showing off her sizable cleavage in her beautifully tailored dresses against stunning surroundings) all around town. Even in the small village away from 'civilization' they are bound by rules and customs of the society. Vanya tries to get away and asks for money from sympathetic Samoylenko, an old army doctor. The doc in turn tries to borrow money from Von Koren, a zoologist, man of science, who only has contempt for Vanya's very existence. Things escalate.

Like many of Chekhov's novels, however miserable and contemptible, every character is humanistic and redeemable. They just need to be shown what they are like even if it means pointing or being pointed at with a pistol.

I usually don't like sad sacks. But with Chekhov's bourgeois miserables, I always find myself drawn in and end up enjoying the hell out of them. Does this make me a masochist?

This adaptation is a great one. It has considerable humor and acting is top notch all around. Russian born Israeli director Dover Koshashvili handles the material with care and sets out the boundaries for the actors just right. I heard this theatrical run here is world premiere.I hope this will find a wider audience.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The World Upside Down

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988) - Ward
Too bad I can't find better screenshots from this film. Part b & w and part color, Vincent Ward (Map of the Human Heart, What Dreams May Come)'s time-traveling journey of citizens of Cumberland in time of the Black Death is nothing short of stunning. Griffin, a boy who keeps having a vision of the future tells band of fellow miners the fantastic story of a city with a church on the far side of the earth. With his vision as guidance, they must dig the earth until they come out on the other side(which happens to be modern day New Zealand), find the church with a towering spire and put a Cumberland copper forged cross on top to stop the plague. The catch is, they have to do it all in one night before the next dawn. It's a childish story, borrowing elements from La Jetée and Vertigo. And it's beautiful to look at.

The Navigator, the second feature by Ward, already demonstrates the visionary filmmaker's penchant for grand, poetic visuals (his grand visions didn't bode well in Hollywood- fired from ill-fated Alien 3 project and after badly received Robin Williams schmaltz-fest What Dreams May Come, we never heard from him again). It would be nice if Criterion picks up this, Vigil and perhaps Map of the Human Heart. That would make me very happy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Perfect Tempura Batter Recipe

Are you sick and tired of trying and failing at duplicating that crispy tempura they serve at your favorite Japanese restaurant? I finally have found the batter recipe that actually produces the bestest, crispiest, lightest tempura you will ever taste!

You will need:

Vegetables of your choice, sliced thinly
Shrimp peeled and deveined

1 cup flour
1 tbsp corn starch
1 1/2 cup cold seltzer water
1 tsp salt

4 cups canola oil

Mix flour, starch and salt and slowly add seltzer. Beat it until everything is mixed well. Dip desired vegetables and shrimp and fry immediately in high heat, 2-3 minutes. Drain on paper towel.

*The secret of the great tempura is pretty simple- freshness: you should prepare for it and serve it right away. The whole process should take only about 10-15 minutes.

For a dipping sauce, I usually dilute regular soy sauce with water 2:1 ratio with half a tea spoon of sugar thrown in.


Dances with Wolves in NY

Wolfen (1981) - Wadleigh
A surprisingly elegant urban legend film. Drawing a parallel btwn gentrification and territorial war, Wolfen is a very well done atmospheric supernatural horror. A lot of great 80s actors- Al Finney (cop), Tom Noonan (zoologist), Gregory Hines (coroner), young Diane Venora(looking like a brunette nastassja kinski and not annoying for a change), and Edward James Olmos (sexy Native American construction worker) all take parts in the plot with a strong environmental message. It also has a lot of great visual details and gritty NY settings. The Bronx looked like a war zone back then, victim of years of neglect, drugs and landlords intentionally burning down tenement buildings for insurance money. And there are spectacular shots of Manhattan skyline from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. With lots of dusk and morning shots, New York looks all very empty and lonely. And how they managed to wrangle all these real wolves in Battery Park is anyone's guess. Pretty awesome movie.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The New World

Nuovomondo/Golden Door (2006) - Crialese
The Mancusos, a poor farmers from rural Sicily in the turn of the century decides to move to the new world, America, where the money trees grow, produces that grow as big as houses and milk rivers flow. They leave everything behind to make the arduous journey in steerage to the new world. Salvatore, the mustachioed oldest son is smitten by a well-dressed, mysterious redhead English woman Lucy(Charlotte Gainsbourg). Rumors fly among fellow voyagers- Lucy is a princess abandoned by her lover...

The Ellis Island procedural has rarely been portrayed in detail like this on film before- grueling physical exams, absurd psychological test, etc. A defiant Fortunado, the matriarch of the Mancusos shouts back in her heavy sicilian dialect "Who do you think you are, God? Judging me if I'm fit to enter the new world?" when asked to do a wooden block aptitude test.

Agnes Gordard's cinematography creates a dream-like atmosphere and the film has just enough whimsy but never delves into saccharin. A good movie with a gentle heart.