Ever since I saw the American release of Rumble in the Bronx, I’ve been in love with Asian films. So when the Los Angeles Pacific rolled around I got a chance to explore all kinds of new Asian films. Unfortunately the only representative from Hong Kong was Dragon, which I saw under the Chinese name Wu Xia at ActionFest. The only Thai offering, Headshot, conflicted with another screening and location. So I explored the latest in Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Taiwan cinema last week.
This collection of short films from Taiwanese filmmakers was my highlight of the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival. There was barely a dud in the bunch, which is a far better track record than prestigious collections like Paris Je t’aime and New York, I Love You. Standouts for me were Cheng Yu-Chieh’s Unwritten Rules, a comedy about filmmakers dealing with some political propaganda attached to their location, and Chung Mong-Hong’s Reverberation. Reverberation is a badass tale of revenge far more excessive than the initial insult. Then there’s something like Chu Yen-ping’s The Orphans which is an intentional downer about homeless special needs immigrants, but you get that out of the way fairly early on. Most of the shorts have a good twist and display the landscape of Taiwan, if nothing else.
Since it takes place in Hawaii and there’s a scene of Hong Kong’s destruction, Battleship counts as an Asian film so I get to weigh in on it. The “talkie” remake of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Battleship Potemkin isn’t that faithful to the original, but it’s still pretty good. Actually, I think it’s a perfectly valid creative exercise to adapt board games or whatever source into a movie. I just wish they’d go a little crazier and embrace the ridiculousness of the narratively devoid source. They’ve really just been remaking Independence Day for the past 15 years. This one is down to the spelling out the formula of the irresponsible rebel (Taylor Kitsch) who has to step up in a crisis. They just added chicken burritos to it. There’s some fun destruction but where the film really got me over the hump was a few crazy ideas towards the end. I love the WWII battleship and the WWII veterans at the end. It really out Bays Michael Bay with true patriotic rah rah joy. The amputee (real life Lt. Col. Gregory Gadson) pays off well in a battle with the alien too. And they actually did demonstrate real naval maneuvers, so it wasn’t just mindless explosions. I wish there’d been 90 minutes of crazy before but they got some fun stuff into the finale.
I was wondering what a Vietnamese martial arts film would look like. There are such clear distinctions between Hong Kong, Korean, Thai and Indonesian martial arts, but the Vietnamese seem very influenced by the choreography of Yuen Wu-Ping. That’s not a bad thing at all. The historical story involves an evil ruler and the man she orphaned growing up to seek revenge. It gets a little complicated and convoluted, perhaps a little lost in translation (these particular subtitles did not help much). It’s clearly got the story to back up the action though. The fights are thrilling, the romance between the warrior woman he meets along the way really sparks and there are some moments of humor. It is every bit the Asian action film I hoped to see at the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, considering I’ve already seen Dragon (Wu Xia.)
I Am a Ghost
This looks like it’s going to be a Japanese horror movie but it’s in English and from a director named Mendoza. It’s not very well done but the ideas are interesting and you kind of want to see what he’s attempting. Emily (Anna Ishida) goes through the same routine, in fact the film repeats many exact shots of her waking up, frying some eggs, freaking out at the breakfast table and bandaging herself in the bathroom. I’m sorry, but literally showing the same scenes over and over isn’t the way to convey repetition. Emily finds out she’s a ghost when the voice of a psychic tries to help her pass through, and also explains why she keeps repeating and forgetting. There are interesting rules and attempts at effective technique but the novice skills border on amateurish. Cutting to flash frames, split screens, echoey voices; every technique is a groaner. Mendoza gets a few cool shots, like a single highlight in an all black frame, but the production value is really cheap. Emily is wearing an ill fitting old timey dress and looks like a modern girl playing dress up. The scary things look ridiculous and there’s some guy’s floppy schlong and some CGI. Still, I kind of admire the attempt.
This Korean drama uses the device of a backpack to explore a character’s childhood and adulthood. After Dong-jo (credits not available) leaves the bag on a train, he must seek out old high school friends for help. Through their meetings and Dong-jo’s memory we find out what they’ve been through, and how the backpack has changed hands over the years. It’s got some coming of age with kids’ burgeoning romance, but it goes there with the sex. There’s some childhood trauma, but it’s Bullhead level bullying. It’s tragic what these kids had to deal with and as a result they make desperate choices. You don’t really see any parents in the movie. It’s a solid drama, also a little cloying. I mean, if you have a good story and characters you don’t need a device to reveal it. Also I think it could have used more kicking.
Nice Girls Crew
This web series stars Lynn Chen, Michelle Krusiec and Sheetal Sheth as Sophie, Gerldine and Leena, three childhood friends now in a book club. In each episode they pick a book and basically perform a comedy sketch around it. I really liked these characters and I thought their banter was really funny. Leena is the kind of girl who’d scare me in real life, but Sheth is fascinating to watch getting dangerous and passive aggressive. Geraldine is the Type A and Sophie is the innocent, and yes they’re stereotypes but they really work in this trio. If it were just pretty girls being funny that would be plenty appealing, but there’s some perceptive humor about human interaction here. And some expert slapstick, from Leena fidgeting with sofa pillows to Geraldine’s crazy dance.
Over My Dead Body
I realized my only exposure to Korean cinema was all the violent ones. This is actually my first Korean comedy. Two activists are protesting an evil CEO, who they don’t know is actually smuggling a microchip out of his own company by embedding it in his skin. When the CEO is poisoned, the activists plan to steal the body and ransom it back to the company. Of course gangsters come after them looking for the microchip. It’s a fun, light heist movie with some good Oceans 11 style scoping out and planning (they even use split screens.) There’s some funny shenanigans to distract the mortician, awkwardly acting natural in front of passersby and some gross-out vomit. It was a tad hard to follow, but that may have been festival exhaustion, but that would be some coincidence. It could be the convoluted heist genre, but it was a good time.
Seeking Asian Female
This documentary played at SXSW so I was happy to get a chance to catch it later. Debbie Lum set out to explore the obsession some Caucasians have with Asian women. She ended up chronicling Steven Bolstad’s determination to find a Chinese wife online. He begins a relationship with Sandy and brings her to America. It stops being cute real quick, but it doesn’t become creepy. Bolstad is sincere, if naively optimistic about real differences between them, let alone Sandy’s actual motivations. Lum plays an interesting role in their communication and maintains a sensitive objectivity whenever possible. I don’t think Lum really revealed anything about the psychological motivation of Asian fetishes, but she captured a human story really well.
Malaysia has a dark criminal underbelly too, and it’s pretty much like ours only the location is changed. Am (Shaheizy Sam) owes a gangster some money, so he and his little brother Ad (Mohd Syafie Naswip) get involved in a baby black market to pay. People shoot up in the street, Ad sees a prostitute but only talks to her, and the mother of the infant of course becomes emotional. Also Ad is entering a dance competition, so that’s a twist. I learned that “Whack” still means “Whack” in Malay. The drama is solid, a stark portrayal and probably important to illuminate. I just didn’t feel there was anything more than dwelling on the problems. In America we call it Oscar bait.
Another movie from SXSW, this one is based on the premise that the main character doesn’t just say what something is. A nurse (Monique Gabriela Curnan) comes to L.A. to bring a bone marrow sample back to the hospital. Some D-bag hits on her and she’s intentionally vague about the cooler she’s carrying. So he takes the cooler to mess with her. If she just says, “Look, I’ve got bone marrow in here,” nobody would go near it. Then as she searches L.A. for the cooler she still won’t tell people what’s in the cooler she’s looking for. It’s kind of important information, more than a random plastic cooler. Also, it’s not marked as biological material? Anyway, I respect that the script by Ernesto Foronda can keep the hunt up long enough for a movie, but this review writes itself. It’s an idiotic excuse for a journey of self discovery. 27 minutes in another character, her ex-boyfriend (Sung Kang) chastises her for leaving out important information, but then she continues to not tell people it’s life saving bone marrow for the rest of the film.
If you’re a fan of J Horror, the latest by Takashi Shimizu should make you happy. I am not, but I can appreciate how it takes that genre to the next level, and I don’t mean the 3D level but just the level of weirdness. Daigo puts a dying rabbit out of its misery on the school playground. Since then, he is haunted by both an animatronic-like plush rabbit and a life size “guy in a rabbit suit” version. And then a lot of crazy stuff happens to Daigo and his mute sister Kiriko. Ever since The Grudge I’ve been kind of immune to this creepy atmosphere. I’m not afraid of croaking Ju-Ons and I’m not afraid of giant rabbits. However, that’s what Shimizu does, so to explore the weirdness of these rabbit manifestations is an inventive way to stretch the genre. The narrative is really loose and the reality shifts several times in the movie. That makes it unpredictable and disorienting, but also feels like a bit of a cheat. Like he writes himself into a corner, so then he just breaks the walls. The 3D has some good uses but also runs into the boundaries of the screen often ruining a lot of the effects.