Monday, June 28, 2010

NYAFF 2010: 8000 Miles 2: Girl Rappers

8000 Miles 2: Girl Rappers - Irie (2010)
This sequel starts with Ayumu (Maho Yamada), as she wakes up at home in Gunma Prefecture- another suburb of Tokyo right next to Saitama where the first 8000 Miles took place. We notice the slogan hanging from her desk in her cluttered room, perhaps the remnants of a New Year's resolution from god knows when: "Be a cooler person this year". Living at home with her single father, helping family business- making and delivering konjak, a traditional green gelatin, she is an aimless twenty-something, like the heroes of the first movie. But she once was a vibrant member of an all-girl high school group, B-Hack, with her friends Mittsu (Love Exposure's Sakura Ando), Mamie and Beyoncé. It was the legendary local DJ TDK (the same Takeda-san from the first movie) who inspired them. The girls are struggling with ups and downs of grown-up world - getting old, debts, boyfriends, unwanted pregnancy and lame jobs. At the mention of regrouping, Mittsu barks, "Rap music is not cool anymore." But their passion for music once again ignites when they encounter two b-boys from Saitama (Ikku and Tom from the first film), who make a pilgrimage to where TDK's life altering concert took place- a riverbank in Gunma. After their hostile free-styling battle, the girls are motivated to pick up their act one last time.

Similar to Shogung, B-Hack goes through an ultra embarrassing gig in the middle of the film. Taking place in a public swimming pool, their reunion performance doesn't even remotely resemble gangsta rap, but is closer to a Spice Girls act. With their bubble gum lyrics and matching bathing suits, it's pretty pathetic and they know it too. Without any close ups, director Yu Irie goes for a wide, single long take for the entire performance, as if to spare the girls from further embarrassment.

The differences between the first 8000 Miles and Girl Rappers are not only in far superior production value and acting, but in the characters themselves: they are much better drawn out and their struggles much more heartfelt. Even the stereotypical characters here have redeeming qualities and are likable. What sets these girls apart from the boys is their genuine passion for music, not the put-on act that comes with the rap culture.

In the end, like Ikku and Tom, the girls realize what rap is about. You rap about what you know. It's a confession of sorts. It's a way to vent your anger and frustration. It is, ultimately, a therapy. With Girl Rappers, Irie has matured to a patient, observant filmmaker representing the blank generation of Japan and I expect great things from him in the future.

8000 Miles 2 is screening on June 29th (8:45 PM) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of 2010 New York Asian Film Festival. Director Yu Irie will be at the screening!
Review at Twitch

NYAFF 2010: 8000 Miles

8000 Miles - Irie (2009)
A sleeper hit of 2009 in Japan, Yu Irie's 8000 Miles is a no budget tragicomedy about wannabe b-boys in Saitama, a Tokyo suburb. A chubby NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) Ikku and his farmboy friends Mighty and Tom(u) are members of Shogung, a hip-hop group, lounging around empty warehouses and practicing their freestyle rap, dreaming of big success. Decked out in gangsta gears of their idols (2pac and Notorious B.I.G.), cocky attitudes and made-up slangs (bro, here stands for broccoli), it's pretty clear from the get-go, these ne'er do well, twenty-somethings are more interested in the idea of being rappers than actual music. Ikku tries to be relevant though- he collects clippings of newspaper headlines for lyrics.

The trio (because the rest of the group bailed at the last minute)'s first gig takes place in a local PTA meeting about youth problem. Shogung performing in front of the completely unresponsive audience and the Q & A session that follows are the most uncomfortable yet funniest scenes in the film. Irie's penchant for long takes works well here to catch all the awkward moments.

The subplot includes a sickly legendary DJ Takeda-san(TKD) residing in seclusion in their neighborhood and Ikku's high school flame turned porn star to stir things up inside the group.

All in all, this small movie is not really about rap culture in Japan. It's more to do with the blank generation and suburban ennui. Irie, a native of Saitama, understands well the frustrations of these lovable losers in suburbia and portray them with warmth and care. Hidden behind all the oversized parkas and dark shades, 8000 Miles is an ultimately a tender bromance between Ikku and Tom.

8000 Miles is screening on June 29th (6:30 PM) and June 30th (3:30 PM)at the Walter Reade Theater as part of 2010 New York Asian Film Festival. Director Yu Irie will be at the screening!
Review at Twitch

Saturday, June 26, 2010

New York Asian Film Festival 2010: Ip Man 2

Ip Man 2 (2010) - Yip
Wilson Yip's saga continues, this time it's Hong Kong, 1950. Having just arrived and penniless and friendless, Ip Man, the master of Wing Chun style martial arts, faces first the complex local martial club hierarchy, then yet another abusive foreign power, this time, the British empire.

After losing a number of hard earn pupils to tuff wars, ever stoic and dignified Ip Man reluctantly enters to a test to earn respects and rights to open his own martial club, under the watchful eye of a respected and rich local honcho, master Hung (Sammo Hung). Against one master after another on the ricketty round tea table, Ip Man shows them he is much more than enough to be called a master. The fights are heavenly, especially between Sammo Hung, who choreographed all the fight sequences in both Ip Man movies and Donnie Yen.

Then the film goes into Rocky IV territory with the corrupt, racist British police force arranging the West-East boxing match to show who the boss is, with an obnoxious boxer named Twister. Sammo Hung, at the tender age of 58, gives the most heart wrenching performance here as the master who abides to the rules to survive, but not to the insult to Chinese. Ip Man 2 belongs to Hung as much it does to Donnie Yen.

The fight between Twister and Ip Man is way over the top. It was the ruthless but dignified opponent Miura that gave the first film weight and integrity, a worthy opponent so to speak. Twister, a thick headed foreign devil, comes across as Hugo Weaving on steroids. I kept expecting him appearing in flip-flop dress as in Adventures of Pricilla Queen of the Desert. Ip Man 2, with the political urgency gone, is lighter and sillier than the first one, but still great fun to watch. It even squeezes in little Bruce Lee at the end.

*Prior to the screening, Sammo Hung received Asia Star Lifetime Achievement Award from ever enthusiastic Grady Hendrix of NYAFF. As Hung introduced this Opening Night Film of the NYAFF 2010, his good humor and grace didn't go unnoticed by star-struck audience that packed the sold out screening.

Ip Man 2 is the Opening Night Selection screening on June 25th (9:30 PM) and is screening June 27th (8:45 PM) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of 2010 New York Asian Film Festival Sammo Hung will be at the screening
Ip Man 2 Review at Twitch

Friday, June 25, 2010

Same same...

A State of Mind (2004) - Gordon
With the US's Iraq invasion looming therefore the North Korean Gov't attention being elsewhere, Daniel Gordon, a BBC documentarian gets an unfettered access into the lives of two North Korean school girls as they prepare for 2003 Mass Games for eight months. Families of these two girls are at first stand offish, but as the time goes along, we get to see how the people in Hermit Kingdom lives, granted they are among 2 million privileged people living in the capital, Pyong-yang. What's surprising about this non-judgmental documentary is how similar and ordinary the girls are to the rest of the world's. They laugh a lot, want to sleep more rather than go to school, have tit-tats with their families.

As they prepare their moves on concrete schoolyard for grueling 20 day, two times a day performance for the 55th anniversary of founding of the republic, we get to see how this small country managed to scrape by (not very well, but nevertheless) for all these years by the power of collectivism. The mass games, an astounding display of discipline and devotion are necessary conditioning from an earlier age (later military service) to have people always at odds with the sworn eternal enemy the US, the imperialists to keep the regime going.

The girls seem to be happy as they make pilgrimage to the sacred Baek-du mountain, the supposedly the birth place of the eternal leader, Kim Il-sung and preparing for the mass games in the hopes of their great General, Kim Jong-il making an appearance at the stadium. He never does, breaking girls hearts everywhere.

Fascinating, intimate and beautifully shot documentary that shows that these people aren't that different.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Turning Back

180° South (2010) - Malloy
These rugged boys got it good. A surfer/climber Jeff Johnson and friends try to duplicate the journey to Patagonia by Ben and Gerry of outdoors world(Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia Sportswear and Doug Tompkins, founder of North Face turned environmentalist) in 1968. Johnson hitches a yacht ride, making a detour to Rapa Nui(Easter Island) when the mast of the ship breaks, picks up a hot surfer chick Makohe(she sings beautifully too) there, then arrive in Patagonia to climb the revered Corcovado. It is then, a total surprise for the crew(including Chouinard who's fast approaching his 70) that the peak is not snow-capped anymore, due to climate change and thus unclimbable.

The environmental message here mixed with 60's idealism is pretty strong. Tompkins apparently bought 2 million acres of lands in Chile to conserve it and is fighting alongside the locals against the development down in Patagonia.

Cutting back and forth between stunning nature photography and 16mm footage of 68' journey with soundtrack featuring James Mercer, Isaak Brock, Mason Jennings constantly in the background, 180° South plays out like a pretty North Face commercial at times. The cutesy animation is also too hipsterish for its own good. But the beauty of visuals is too overpowering for me to be cynical about this crunchy granola of a film.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Private Healthcare

Britannia Hospital (1982) - Anderson
The esteemed Britannia Hospital is in frantic mode because they are expecting a visitation from HRH(Her Royal Highness). But the Unionized kitchen staff are on strike, refusing to serve rich patients their caviar and lamb shanks. And there are demonstrators outside shouting 'down with the privilege' and protesting some cannibal African dictator who resides in the hospital.

This third in Mick Travis Trilogy(If.... O Lucky Man!) is a biting satire where no one is safe from Anderson's criticism- private-run health care, deal-making Union bosses, silly upper-class, irrelevant nationalism... Even though it's from different era, Britannia Hospital is just as relevant as it was then. It's funny as hell and much more coherent than messy O Lucky Man. Malcolm McDowell has a minor role as an investigative reporter who unwittingly becomes a subject of a medical experiment of manic, messianic Dr. Miller. Anderson's absurd and prophetic open ending is a right fit to conclude the trilogy. Oh, Mark Hamill makes an appearance as dope smoking news crew who gets overrun by the angry English protesters.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Gym Shorts

The recess was ending. Playing in the sandlot, you lost track of time. You were nine years old. You had to go to the bathroom really bad. The field cleared as the bell rang. Peeing in the corner of the building while no one was watching, at the time, seemed like a pretty logical thing to do in your mind. It was either that or wetting your gym shorts. You quickly looked around and pulled your shorts down. As you relieved yourself, someone tapped on your shoulder. It was a hall monitor. You knew you were in trouble. You were escorted to the teacher’s lounge, to Mr. Lee, who happened to be your favorite teacher. The hall monitor told him what you were up to. Mr. Lee dismissed the monitor and looked at you with a cigarette dangling in the corner of his mouth.
“Peed on the school property eh?” He tsked, shaking his head.
“Come closer,” You obliged.
“You pulled your wee-wee out in front of everyone?” You were too mortified and embarrassed to speak.
He took a deep drag from his cigarette. You remember the red hot of the cigarette to this day. He pulled the front of your gym shorts toward him. Then he flicked the ashes off his cigarette in to your pants. Snap.

Your wife left you. Took the kid too. Things weren’t going well for a while between you two. The love was gone if it was there in the first place. Business school, MBA, night classes, 2 years of out-of-state training, overtime, business trips, junior lender at 33, two cars, house, bigger house… for what, you thought. She left. With the kid. 35 years old. You are on meds. Clinically depressed. Bipolar. Whatever.

It’s Friday night. Here you are at the City Central, a bar near the office. Drinking with your so-called co-workers. Larry, your boss is talking with some skank on the other side of the bar. He throws glances at you and smiles. You smile back lifting your Chivas on the rocks. You haven’t told him about your wife leaving him. You haven’t told anyone. The glass is empty. Do you want another shot? The barkeep says. You nod, then shake, then nod again. Fuck it, you say.

Larry called you in to his office two weeks ago. You’ve known him for ten years. He took you with him from the previous job. Bigger company, better pay. Linda and Damien, you know the names of his kids. You drank his homebrew. You play with his dogs. You are forever grateful to him. But the current financial crisis made you jittery. Made everyone jittery. The company’s cutting back. That means your job is on the line too. “Jung-bum came to see me yesterday,” Larry said.
“You know what he said to me? He said you were on anti-depressants?”
That little shit backstabbed me, you thought.
Jung-bum is that ambitious Korean kid who just got out of his MBA. You liked him. You took him in under your wings. In private, he called you brother in Korean affectionately. Now he tells Larry, your boss, of your defects, your Achilles Heel so to speak.
“He wants your job. “Larry Said.
“I didn’t have to tell you this. But you and I go way back. I guess the kid didn’t know. All I’m saying is, get your shit together and trust no one.”

Jung-bum approaches you from the other side of the bar with a drink in his hand. Fuck it, you say as you down your fifth Chivas.
“Great crowd huh?”
“Yes.” It pains you to see the kid in the face.
“Something wrong? You look pale”.
You don’t answer him right away. You ask the barkeep for another shot.
“My wife left me. She took the kid. Soon she will take the house, cars and all my money. I’m a mess.” You gulp your drink down.
“I’m bipolar, too.” You let him have it all.
“I’m so sorry, bro.”
“No, you’re not. And don’t call me bro!” With that, you walk out of the Central Station.

You notice something in the alley as you look up from puking your guts out. It’s a homeless person sleeping. He’s an old Asian man. And he seems very familiar to you. Can it be Mr. Lee? You go closer to inspect. Certainly the man looks like him. You squat down next to him.
“Mr. Lee. Remember me?” No response.
“I didn’t expect to see you here today. A nice surprise.” The bum twitched in his sleep.
“You were my favorite teacher, you know?” Your smile is lost in the night.
“I don’t suppose you’ve ever thought I would turn out this way, have you, all broken and sad….” You sigh.
“I did everything by the book, everything I was supposed to do, studied hard, went to good school, worked hard, got a good job, got married, a house, kid, cars….” You fight tears welling up in your eyes. You lay yourself down next to the bum.
“Mr. Lee. I really don’t know what to do. And I’m scared.”
The bum opens his eyes and gets up, grunting. The man is too drunk to stand up straight by himself. You get up to help him. He touches his groin area, grunting.
“You have to go, is that it?” You ask him.
You undo his fly and get his penis out just in time for the bum to start urinating. The steam rises. The bum releases a sigh of relief. You feel better, standing next to him, holding his penis, looking out into the darkness.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies...

Che: Part 1 & 2 (2008) - Soderbergh
With Jon Lee Anderson, the author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, as a primary consultant, Soderbergh presents perhaps the most dispassionate biopic I've ever seen, in two parts. He cherry picks from the revolutionary's life, first the Cuban Revolution up to the takeover then jumps to Bolivia where Guevara meets his untimely end- It should've been dubbed as The Rise and Fall of Che.

Soderbergh's approach is all reasonable and sound. Given its heady subject matter, the more I think about it, his all out objectivity is/should be the only logical conclusion for anyone's attempt at the screen adaptation. Benicio Del Toro seems comfortable in the role who was the disciplinarian and the moral core of the cause rather than personable human being. But for the true revolutionary who exclaimed the love for the common men, the film lacks any kind of emotional resonance. Not that it's not compelling: each part devotes itself to a long grueling combat scene- Bolivian part more so as Asthma stricken Che struggles to keep up with the rest of the group.

I never quite understand Soderbergh's infatuation with technology. Throughout his spotty filmography, his insistence on trying new 'look' never worked for me. I hated the look of Che, especially the second one. It's not as ridiculous as Traffic's blue and orange dichotomy, but the bluey, dreary exterior comes across as amateurish at best.

Che was not quite the disaster I was expecting. But it was far from satisfying experience. Parts of his life I was interested in the most- his Congo campaign and his role in after-the-takeover of Cuba were excluded. It's interesting to see what's going on in Latin America right now, especially Bolivia where his failed attempt at igniting its people to the revolutionary cause, with its almost biblical implications.