Time to rediscover some of the movies that helped shape my love of Asian cinema, in tiny, easy to digest, mini-reviews that won't eat away at your free time. You'll be downloading porn again before you know it...
Uzumaki (2000) ****
Stylish and unique, Uzumaki rises above its low budget origins to deliver a surreal vision sure to impress anybody willing to take the ride. From snail shells to washing machines (in one of the films barmier moments), Uzumaki is nothing if not original. The cinematography, the use of sound, they help to convey a far grander experience than the budget would surely allow for.
Higuchinsky has delivered a striking horror movie, and though the outcome is somewhat bizarre, Uzumaki is no less appealing for it. We like it when movies don't make sense, we like it when they leave you with a sense of wonder, and to give anything else away would be a crime, but the reason for the existence of these spirals is absolutely insane. Hollywood doesn't make movies like this. That's why we fell in love with Japanese cinema.
Versus (2000) ****
A case of style over substance if ever there was one, Versus is the perfect date movie for any girl that likes her knight in shining armour dressed in eastern glamour. Zombies, martial arts, gunplay, dark humour, blood, guts and more zombies. The screenplay for Versus was probably knocked up in under half an hour. But when a movie looks this good you'll find it hard to care.
Kitamura directs his debut feature with incredible flair, and while some might argue that there's at least one set piece too many, Kitamura is talented enough to keep you on the edge of your seat with his overblown, frenetic style. Rarely has a film this daft been so incessantly entertaining. Versus is a master class of popcorn entertainment, which leaves me enough time to slip on my leather jacket...
Princess Blade (2001) ****
Princess Blade is a film of two halves. A reason perhaps why some people were left unimpressed by its subdued outcome. Opening with some dazzling samurai action, Princess Blade races out of the blocks at a pace that's hard to match. Donnie Yen - a master of action choreography - delivers some exceptional action sequences in the opening act, which paves the way for a high-octane spectacle, so very typical of Asian cinema today.
Somewhat surprisingly, the action takes a backseat in the second act so that character development can thrive. Princess Yuki and Takashi form a close bond as they await their fates in a low key, strangely affecting second act that might have some viewers reaching for the remote control. Princess Blade is certainly not the hyper kinetic samurai movie that the distributors would have you believe, but I for one enjoyed it. A downbeat ending gives the movie punch of an emotional variety, and Princess Blade is a much stronger movie as a result; stylish, spectacular and emotionally charged.
Isola (2000) **
Isola has, at its heart, some intriguing ideas; a heroine that can read minds and a young girl who suffers from multiple personality disorder. The thirteenth of which (see what they did there?) has a taste for revenge and murder. Taking place amidst the aftermath of an earthquake, you would think that Isola has more than enough to keep it interesting over the course of ninety minutes, and in a way I guess that much is true. A little too much in fact.
None of the themes are explored with any real conviction, and Isola is neither genuinely scary or truly enjoyable enough to prevent restlessness setting in. A shame because at times it can be quite entertaining. If only the filmmakers had chosen a path and explored it fully, we could have had something that was truly worthwhile, rather than barely worth watching.
Pyrokinesis (2000) ****
Pyrokenises is a surprisingly well-made horror movie, which makes up in vision what it lacks in exposition. Telling the tale of a girl that starts fires with the power of her mind (obviously), the scriptwriters aren't exactly subtle when it comes to throwing in plot developments that cater for their needs, nor do they concern themselves with viewer intelligence. They assume that the kind of person that watches this film will allow for such lapses in common sense and go with the flow.
Which is lucky because that's exactly what I did, and I have to say I really enjoyed it. The acting is first rate, the two detectives following the case are incredibly entertaining and some of the fiery effects are excellent. This was a pleasant surprise for me, and the ending is a real blast. Highly recommended.
Returner (2002) ****
Watch the trailer and you'll be blown away. Some of the imagery is spectacular as sixty seconds of unadulterated mayhem washes over you. The finished article is an entertaining mishmash of all things sci-fi, but it never quite reaches those elevated heights of expectation. There's some great stuff here. The relationship between our two leads is endearing, the big bad is pure cinematic gold, the action is well executed and the final standoff is pretty much the coolest send off in movie history.
We have, however, seen it all before. Some of the western dubbing is really distracting and the effects - while impressive - aren't quite as eye popping as the tantalising trailer suggests. That’s really just nit-picking though. Returner is an entertaining package, utterly rewatchable and fully loaded.
Volcano High (2001) **
Where does a movie go when all it has to fall back on is its visuals? The exact same visuals that - courtesy of The Matrix - we've all seen a thousand times before. The plot of Volcano High is nigh impossible to follow, the humour is incomprehensible and the performances start at over the top before climbing into the stratosphere. Thank Heaven for the visuals then. Hang on a second, we've covered that all ready. Volcano High is a huge disappointment. The final act does at least reward the viewer with some beautiful imagery but when the rest of the film is so incomprehensible, school is out for Winter, Summer, Autumn and Spring.
So Close (2002) ****
In the words of Homer Simpson, "Shu Qi, Mmmmmm....". Mixing sexual menace with the actual ability to act, Shu Qi is one of the most versatile actresses to emerge from Asia. Stormriders (cute and sassy), A Man Called Hero (mysterious and vulnerable), Visible Secret (spooky), Transporter (wet). Shu Qi has shed her category 3 origins and persuaded the world - or me at least - that she's going places.
The closest comparison would probably be Charlie's Angels, but So Close takes itself more seriously than that and breaks those ties with some excellent action choreography (courtesy of Cory Yuen) and an infectious performance from Vicky Zhao. Who gave her the right to steal Shu Qi's thunder is anyone’s guess but she almost does. Almost. The plot is pretty pointless but pretty none the less, even if So Close could never be considered the perfect action movie. Thanks to Shu Qi and a scene-stealing turn from Vicky Zhao it comes so very close. See what I did there?
As Tears Go By (1988) ****
Jackie Cheung, Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau give standout performances in this gritty, overblown and engaging tale of a gangster’s love and life. Andy Lau is excellent as the 'big brother' of the story, doing all that he can to protect and defend his over eager 'little brother'. Erupting in violence at regular intervals, As Tears Go By doesn't hold back when it comes to stark reality, even if the melodramatic score feels a little out of place at times.
Lau attempts to find redemption in the arms of his cousin are mostly endearing, a character played with undeniable vulnerability by Maggie Cheung. Though the outcome is all too swift and a little too predictable, As Tears Go By is an excellent eighties genre piece that stands out because of top-notch direction and a superb cast; Jackie Cheung in particular is a joy to watch.
Once A Thief (1996) **
No glorious slow-mo, no ballistic gun play and certainly no doves. Who said this was a John Woo movie again? Sure, we still have Chow Yun Fat playing our gutsy protagonist, but gone is the moody, mysterious type typical of Woo's biggest hits, replaced by a slightly annoying comedy offspring who once did for gunplay what Jackie Chan does for action comedy. More Bulletproof Monk, less Hard Boiled.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, because Once a Thief works really well up to a point, but it isn't long before Woo dispenses with originality and returns to what he knows best. It's a shame that he fails to recapture the magic of previous collaborations, almost as though Woo is impersonating himself, with varying degrees of success. The action is quite tame and the plot becomes tiresome very quickly. Not a bad movie, but not a classic Woo/Fat movie either. More Broken Arrow, less The Killer.
Written by Adam Wing