Monday, December 14, 2009

The Dream Sword (1979)

The Dream Sword (1979)

December 17th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Wu Xia (swordplay) films are one of China’s oldest and most popular cinematic genre. Because of internal politics during the Nationalist era of the 1930's these films were banned. This lead to boom in Hong Kong productions of this form. As the Nationalists were deposed by the Communists the ban still held, and so Hong Kong continued to carry the torch.

During the late 1950's new writers came onto the scene creating the novels that hundreds if not now thousands of films would stem from. Beginning with rather primitive productions Taiwan created its own Wu Xia boom. They could not compete with the mammoth productions of Hong Kong Shaw Brothers Studio, but they were able to take advantage of their domestic market. Most of these films were cheaply made knock offs of Hong Kong Wu Xia films, but there were a few directors such as King Hu and Cheung Paang Yik that were able to improve the quality and inventiveness of Taiwanese productions.

The Dream Sword is average by Hong Kong standards, but a solid film containing the complexity for which the genre is known. This typically includes wild plot twists, double identities and an atmosphere where nearly anything can happen. The film itself deals with the hunt for a magical sword and its unbalancing affects upon the martial world.

Taiwan, Director Li Chao Yung, Cast Chiang Ming, Chung Wa, Hu Chin and Lung Fei, 93 minutes, in Mandarin with English Subtitles

Monday, December 7, 2009

Thirst (2009)

Thirst (2008)

December 10th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Director Park Chan-Wook’s lose adaptation of the novel Therese Raquin by Emile Zola. The plot of Thirst involves a Catholic Priest played by Song Kang-ho who falls in love with a married woman only to run afoul of a medical experiment that turn him into a modern day vampire.

Beyond horror or a thriller film, it explores ideas of desire and human psychology delving into darker subject matter. This sort of material is old hat for writer director Park Chan-Wook who’s credits include the Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy of Mr. Vengence (2002), Oldboy (2003) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)) and JSA - Joint Security Area (2000).

The film stars Song Kang-ho, who has gained stardom through major roles in blockbusters such as The Host (2006) and The Good, The Bad and The Weird (2008) as a comic actor that is also very comfortable with darker material making him the perfect choice for this reinterpretation of the vampire myth.
The Thirst is also a tangible example of the relative closeness of the American and South Korean film markets that has been developing over the last decade with its home video release happening simultaneously between the two countries becoming a fine starting point for someone who is becoming introduced to South Korean cinema.
South Korea, Park Chan-wook, Cast Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-bin and Shin Ha-kyun, 134 minutes, in Korean with English subtitles

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Red Cliff Part II (2008)

Red Cliff Part II (2008)

December 3rd, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Red Cliff Part II continues the events of the first part, whereby the two forces are camped as opposing sides of the river making ready for battle. For more information please see the previous BLOG entry on Part I, which has more in depth information on the overall story and more details of production.

As the first part was geared towards introducing the characters and setting up the climactic final battle, this part features the battle itself. While there was extensive use of CGI, there were also 100,000 extras in the form of Chinese soldiers provided by the PRC for the filming.

The naval sequences use twenty-four full scale ships made for the production, although through camera maneuvering and CGI, many more ships are seen onscreen. The sequences were filmed at a reservoir and during their production a stuntman was fatally burned during a fire sequence.

Mainland China, Director John Woo, Cast Song Jia, Hu Jun, Zhang Feng-Yi, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro, 140 minutes, in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

No Screning this Thursday (Thanksgiving)

No Screening This Thursday (Thanksgiving)

The Series will continue next week Thursday (December 3rd) with Red Cliff Part II

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Red Cliff Part I (2008)

Red Cliff Part I (2008)
Part II will be shown in two weeks time

November 19th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Red Cliff Part I is the first instalment in a two part Chinese period war epic. Part two will be shown in two weeks later, the next Thursday after Thanksgiving. The story deals with the climactic battle of the Three Kingdoms era 169-280AD. For those unfamiliar with the wider story, a brief description is provided bellow. In the near future Red Cliff will be receiving a limited US theatrical release and later domestic DVD and BluRay.

The differences between the two versions amounts to Part I and II being condensed together into a single shortened film. This was done at the request of the films Director John Woo who believed that many of the sub plots would be distracting if not all together meaningless to Western viewers unfamiliar with the events of the story. The majority of the cuts come from non-action sequences in Part I.

Red Cliff is John Woo’s return to Chinese cinema. Beginning in the mid 1970's, Woo became a well known director of Screw-ball comedies for the Golden Harvest studio directing such films as Money Crazy (1977) and From Riches to Rags (1979). Later he helped to begin the Heroic Bloodshed wave of action films of the 1980's which use a unique mixture of fanatic gunplay, melodrama and male bonding similar to that featured in the films of Chang Cheh of who Woo served as an assistant director under. He left Hong Kong after creating his Heroic Bloodshed masterpiece Hard Boiled (1992) to come to work in the United States. While in the US he directed a series of high profile films including Broken Arrow (1996) and Face-Off (1997).

Red Cliff was given the largest budget of any mainland Chinese film and in addition to the use of CGI for some of the epic battle scenes, it makes use of massive sets and large numbers of costumed extras. Both parts have been widely released throughout Asia, typically to great commercial and critical success.
Some aspects of Red Cliff’s back story are not explicitly stated in the film. This is not a disadvantage to most Chinese audiences who are familiar with the characters and events. The film, who’s tittle references the location for the climactic battle of the Three Kingdoms era, is based upon The Chronicles of Three Kingdoms, an official historical account of a period of division and Civil War in the wake of the collapse of the Han Dynasty. This means that the film deviates from some of the aspects of the 14th Century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, recognized as one of the four great novels of classical Chinese literature.

In short, the events leading up to the Battle of the Red Cliffs are as follows. The Han Dynasty, already in a weakened state is thrown into confusion after the death of the Emperor. His two prepubescent sons, born of different mothers are used by relatives who jockey for the thrown. This causes many alliances to be formed and broken. After a long period of fighting there are only three sides left, each controlling an area of the Empire.

Of the three sides Cao Cao controls the North and with it the capital city and the remaining son, now made Emperor, but in reality only a figurehead. Cao Cao has massive numbers of troops and industrial capacity and rules by the use of fear and mistrust. For the events of the film he decides to move against the last two challengers to his ultimate victory. The first of these is Liu Bei, a distant relative of the Emperor and hence member of the Royal Family. When the era began he was a minor official who never sought power for himself. Later on he was given a secret mandate by the imprisoned Emperor to restore the Dynasty and defeat Cao Cao. Liu is honest and generous, leading by example and personal loyalty. By the time of the film he has been beaten back to the South-East and only has a small force remaining at his command. The second man is Sun Quan who holds a hereditary claim upon the South-West. He is a shrewd leader who has hung back for the majority of the conflict and because of this, still controls many major cities as yet untouched by the war. In the film Liu Bei and Sun Quan must join forces to somehow turn back Cao Cao’s great conquest.

Mainland China, Director John Woo, Cast Song Jia, Hu Jun, Zhang Feng-Yi, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro, 140 minutes, in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Guard From The Underground (1992)

The Guard from the Underground (2002)

November 12th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Ever since the 1997 film The Cure, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been recognized as one of Japans premiere directors. This recognition has grown to place him as one of the worlds prominent art house film makers. But his early career mirrored the path of many other Japanese directors in that it began in V-Cinema.

Beginning in the 1980's the Toei Studio began producing direct to video films, usually Yakuza (gangster) and other genre productions. These films were given reduced budgets compared to major theatrical productions, but the production values are far from paltry. Other major directors to begin in V-Cinema include Takashi Miike with Dead or Alive (1999) and Takashi Shimizu with Ju-On (2000). These films do not garner the same automatic prejudice as direct to video productions in the US.

By genre, Guard From the Underground is a 1980's style slasher film, but by inclination it is a satire of Japanese business culture of the late 80's. Akiko Narushima (Makiko Kuno) begins work as a fine art expert for a major corporations new art division. Her position there seems ad hoc at best. While exploring the office building she also meets a series of stereotypical corporate personal as well as an enigmatic boss. But the danger comes from a former Guard who might just be that sumo wrestler everyone was talking about who was banned from the sport because of excessive violence.

Japan, Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Cast Makiko Kuno, Yutaka Matsushige, Hatsunori Hasegawa, Ren Osugi and Taro Suwa, 96 minutes, in Japanese with English subtitles.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My Beautiful Girl, Mari (2002)

My Beautiful Girl, Mari (2002)

November 5th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Korean animated films have existed for more then forty years, but it is only in the last ten that South Korea has gained widespread notoriety in this area. By the early 90's Korean animation studios were in the ascendance, they were initially concerned with subcontracting work from Japan as well as a few high profile American projects such as the first season of The Simpsons.

During the 2000's the Japanese animation market came to rely on South Korea so much that few animated series don’t have at least some Korean involvement in their production. This helped to reach a point where Korean animators felt more able to create their own unique animated features.

The 2002 film My Beautiful Girl, Mari became one of the first of these high profile animated features. Its director Lee Seong-kang helped to create a visually distinctive world that is unlike typical Japanese or Western animation. He would also go on to direct Korea’s most successful animated film, a period folk tale entitled Yobi, the Five Tailed Fox in 2007. Both films became major international successes, although Korean animation has not been spurred on as much as some hoped it would be.

The films story deals with a young man who remembers back to time spent at a seaside village where he encountered a strange young girl who may have been a dream. The story features surrealistic voyages into the young boy’s encounters with the strange girl.

South Korea, Director Lee Seong-Gan, Cast Lee Byeong-Heon, Gong Hyong-Jin, Bae Jong-Ok and Ahn Seong-Gi, 86 minutes, in Korean with English subtitles.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Purana Mandir (1984)

Purana Mandir (1984)

October 29th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Indian cinema during the 1970's featured few horror films, and the few that it did have usually came from the collaboration of the two Ramsay Brothers. They co-directed a series of low budget horror films and developed a set of their regular actors and crew, but had found little real success.

In 1984 they released Purana Mandir, their most ambitious production up until that time. It would become one of the most successful films of the year and collect massive profits on its minuscule budget. In a sense it became the first Indian cult horror film and began a wave of popular horror cinema that would last until the mid 1990's.

Its simple tale involved an evil force that had been wronged by a family and years later began to seek revenge. This would become one of the Brothers basic plot devices for many later films. Unlike Western horror, it mixes in unique elements found in virtually all Indian cinema such as comic relief and musical numbers. Purana Mandir may seem on the absurd side to Western audiences, but it remains an Indian cult classic.
India, Director's Shyam Ramsay and Tulsi Ramsay, cast Mohnish Bahl, Arti Gupta, Puneet Issar, Sadashiv Amrapurkar and Ajay Agarwal, 145 minutes, in Hindi with English subtitles.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Body Jumper (2001)

Body Jumper (2001)

October 22nd, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

The early 2000's witnessed a burst of Thai cinema, including many horror films. The most well know of these were the works of the Pang brothers and their The Eye (2002) series, but there were many others working in this area.

Body Jumper is a horror comedy that follows a group of teenagers who inadvertently unleash a liver eating ghost who possesses them with monstrous results.

Thailand, Director Haeman Chatemee, Cast Danai Smuthkochorn, Angela Grant and Chompunoot, 98 minutes, in Thai with English subtitles.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Love Eterne (1963)

The Love Eterne (1963)

October 16th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Few films of any Chinese cinema have left impressions felt as deeply as The Lover Eterne. It could be viewed as a culmination of the Huangmei Opera genre that had been growing in popularity for almost a decade, made by the director that given it its modern cinematic form. In 1955 a Mainland Chinese Huangmei Opera film who’s English title is The Heavenly Match became popular in Hong Kong and surrounding regions. It was a typical Opera adaption for its time, in many ways purely a filmed stage performance with a limited cinematography. Director Li detected what he thought was an opportunity and convinced the Shaw Brothers studio head Run Run Shaw to give him a relatively large budget to produce a Huangmei Opera film in color, still a rarity at the time. This film was Diau Charn (1958) based upon the character from the Romance of Three Kingdoms. In it he altered the traditional form of regional Huangmei Opera and made it more cinematic and in other senses modernized it. It became a huge critical and financial success and suddenly everyone was jumping onboard to make Huangmei Opera films.

Diau Charn was the first of three Huangmei Opera films directed by Li which would come to be viewed as the cornerstones of the genre. The second was The Kingdom and The Beauty a year later in 1959. In its he would experiment with creating an even stronger cinematic Opera style then before. Its success was much greater then his previous film. After this he would direct several Hungmei and other period films winning great acclaim. In 1963 the Huangmei trend in Hong Kong was still strong, but had lost some of the fever pitch of five years earlier. At this point Li created his third great Huangmei film, The Love Eterne. Based upon the Tang Dynasty folk tale of the butterfly lovers it was shot on location in Japan, although much of this is still in a studio as Hong Kong film production was still in the process of modernizing.
Upon its release The Love Eterene was well received in Hong Kong, but its true impact was felt elsewhere. It was popular throughout South-East Asia and would continue to play for more then a year in the Shaw owned theaters of the region. This was nothing compared to its reaction in Taiwan. It swept the second annual Golden Horse awards, winning in virtually every category including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress. Its soundtrack would become an all time best seller and its theatrical run would go on for years. It can arguably be called the most popular film in the history of Taiwanese domestic consumption.
Now a little about the Opera form. Huangmei Opera originally came from China’s Anhui Provence and is one of dozens of regional opera forms. The name literally means Yellow Plum Tunes and its unique elements include restrained movement and frequent repetition of action and lyric. Before 1958 the two dominant opera forms in Hong Kong cinema were Cantonese and Beijing Opera, but for a period of roughly eight years they faced major cinematic competition from Huangmei Opera films.

The story of the Butterfly Lovers involves the daughter of a wealthy family, here played by Betty Loh Ti, who disguises herself as a man to attend advanced schooling. There she befriends another scholar played by Ivy Ling Po. She falls in love with him and starts a chain of events that challenges fate. Ivy Ling Po became a popular figure in Huangmei films, usually playing a man. This might cause some confusion to Western viewers, as a large number of these films such as Love Eterne already involve a woman cross-dressing to pass herself as a man for whatever plot device is applicable. Men playing women were very common in other opera types, especially before the 1970's but Huangmei is unique in that the trend was reversed. The Love Eterne is a testament to an era of Hong Kong film making that was creatively transitional and sadly frequently ignored by modern audiences.

Hong Kong, Director Li Han Hsiang, Cast Betty Loh Tih, Ivy Ling Po, Yam Kit, Chen Yan Yan, Lee Kwan and Cheng Miu, 122 minutes, in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sayonara Jupiter (1983)

Sayonara Jupiter (1983)

October 8th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

During the 1970's and 80's Japan created many lavish space operas. They can typically be viewed as spinoffs of their giant monster or Kaju eiga genre. They usually involved Earth encountering some hostile alien and sending a fantastic spacecraft as our last hope to do battle with the menace. Sayonara Jupiter is an exception to this formula. Its production values are lavish, far above other space opera of the period and with the originality of the story, they certainly aim high.
Based upon a novel of the same name and adapted as a screenplay by the author, Sayonara Jupiter is the story of a black hole ready to devour the Earth. With the influence of alien technology, humanity develops a plan to save themselves by destroying Jupiter, hence the tittle.

The film was directed by Koji Hashimoto, who worked extensively on the Godzilla films of the 1960's and 70's and one year later, would go on to direct the big budget Godzilla revival/re-imagining Godzilla 1984.

The results are conflicted, with such great ambitions, the film is nicknamed the Japanese 2001 A Space Odyssey, it became convoluted and buckled under its own lofty goals. It still stands as an interesting and still entertaining entry into a reviving Japanese cinema and a unique vision for the science fiction genre.
Japan, Directors Sakyo Komatsu and Koji Hashimoto, Cast Tomokazu Miura, Diane Dangely, Miyuki Ono and Rachel Huggett, 140 minutes, in Japanese and limited English with English Subtitles

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Save the Green Planet (2003)

Save the Green Planet (2003)

October 1st, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

This award winning Korean black comedy revolves around a seemingly disturbed man by the name of Lee Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun). To almost everyone around him Lee is a unbalanced oddball, driven out of his mind by the death of his mother. But to Lee and his only follower, he is the Earth’s only hope of survival. His private investigations lead him to believe that a powerful corporate executive is really an alien in disguise. Now he must stop him at any cost as he attempts to save the Earth.

The only film as director for Jang Joon-Hwan who also authored the script, this oddity from Korea became a favorite at international film festivals. Beyond its strange premise, the film also is a sly critique of labor practices and an impersonal business culture that has developed over the last few decades.

South Korea, Director Jang Joon-Hwan, Cast Shin Ha-Kyun, Lee Jae-Yong, Hwang Jeong-Min, Gi Ju-Bong and Lee Ju-Hyeon, 113 minutes, in Korean with English subtitles.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sino-Dutch War 1661 (2001)

Sino-Dutch War 1661 (2001)

September 24th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

This historical epic revolves around the events of the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and in its final gasp of glory, the war between the Ming and Dutch forces that occupy Taiwan. The production values are good to great with access to dramatic settings and great care is taken with set design and costuming. Its swordplay elements are played down, as is frequently the case with this kind of period dramas made in the mainland. The story is the central focus beyond any action.

The star of the film is Zhao Wenzhou, who literally plays the last Ming General. He is better known for roles in Tsui Hark’s The Blade (1995) and some of the later Wong Fei Hung films from the mid to late 1990's. The films director Wu Ziniu had only a limited career, but is notible for directing Don't Cry, Nanking (1995), one of the better entries of a rash of Hong Kong films about Japanese actions during World War 2 made from the mid 1980's to 90's.

To understand much of the meaning of the film it is necessary to be familiar with some of the events taking place in China during the 16th and 17th Centuries. This is just a brief description of one set of interpretations of events, of which there is still much historical debate. The Ming Dynasty had ruled a largely prosperous China since the defeat of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. By the late 1500's a series of internal and external forces unbalanced the Chinese economy and governmental structure. These included the attempted Japanese invasion of Korea, which became a massive drain on the Chinese government after they came to Korea’s aid. There were also fluctuations in silver and a series of natural disasters including a earthquake that killed nearly a million. The government was further unbalanced by extreme corruption as well as some rebellion within the military and a increasingly paranoid central government best illustrated by the creation an internal intelligence gathering organization run by Eunuchs known as the Eastern Chamber.

Sensing this weakness, newly unified groups of formerly nomadic Manchurians came together under a central leader and attempted to make war on the Ming. The vastly superior Ming forces were involved in infighting relating to internal Ming politics and disputes with regard to Imperial succession. Some of the Ming forces joined the Manchurians, seeking to regain some kind of stable government. As the conflict waged on more and more Ming Troops and Officials joined the Manchu and their new Qing Dynasty. The Ming holdouts retreated to the South as a traditional defense against Northern Barbarians, as they viewed the Manchu. The new subjects of the Qing were required to adopt the Manchu hair style of a shaved front and long ponytail known as a Queue, the punishment for failing to comply was death. In the last years of the conflict the remaining Ming forces held out in the South and managed to retake Taiwan from the Dutch, which had been annexed decades before. The Qing would eventually win and engender many diverse views from the Chinese people of the era. During the early Qing, the standard of living for the average person was arguably the highest in the world. But at the same time they were viewed as foreigners by the majority ethnic Han Chinese and bitter memories of the war between the Ming and Manchu, which had killed around 25,000,000 people, that is more then died of combat during the first world war continued.

The film has a very overt political message, namely the promotion of Nationalistic feeling and the idea of reunifying the Chinese people under common purpose. This gives Sino-Dutch War 1661 an interesting position both as a historical epic and modern take on the reunification propaganda films of the past.
Mainland China, Director Ng Ji Ang, Cast Zhao Wenzhou, Shiu Ling, Yoko Shimada, Du Zhiu Guo and Xu Min, 98 minutes, in Mandarin with English subtitles.