Sunday, 1 February 2015

MEMENTO MORE PLEASE



"There comes a time in every man's life..." Wait, that's not it. Give me a second here. "Every now and then we take stock, look back and..." Nope, that's not it either. "The truth is, no man is an isla..."

Forget it. Here are a selection of easy-to-digest reviews of the films that shaped my love of Asian cinema. I'll be updating this feature on a regular ba...

I'll be updating this feature infrequently, but hey, that doesn't mean I don't care. It occurred to me recently that I have a whole room dedicated to Asian cinema and I've only watched most of the films once. Pretty sure I'm not alone in this. So I'm starting from scratch. Going back to the beginning. Maybe, just maybe, learning a few life lessons along the way.

Worst case scenario, I'm watching a lot of mediocre films that seemed like a good idea at the time. That's life I guess. A lot of mediocre moments strung together by the faint whiff of fulfilment. Kind of like a Woody Allen movie if you make it to the end.


ABNORMAL BEAUTY ***


Back in 2004 the Pang Brothers could do no wrong. It's been a long time since they've had a bona fide hit, but back in the day, Oxide and Danny were churning out more gems than eBay. Ab-normal Beauty had more than one trick up its sleeve. Not only was it a companion piece to Danny's Leave Me Alone, in which Ekin Cheng's character kills a girl in a car crash (the same car crash depicted in this movie) but it also stars sisters Race and Rosanne Wong - of 2R pop fame - as lesbian lovers.

Jiney (Race) is a photography student. One day on her way to school she witnesses a car crash and, without hesitation, starts taking pictures of the incident. All of a sudden she is experiencing satisfaction like never before and finds herself becoming obsessed with photographing grisly death. Jas (Rosanne) is clearly concerned about her welfare, with Jiney's fragile mind unravelling at considerable pace. Add a gormless love interest who hasn't quite figured out that she's gay and you have a recipe for jealousy, manipulation, murder and madness.

The cinematography is hypnotic at times and Oxide's direction is as assured as it's ever been. The Pang's rarely shy away from bombastic soundtracks, and the same can be said for Ab-normal Beauty. As always, from a technical standpoint, Oxide rarely puts a foot wrong. Race in particular is mesmerising to watch, though to be fair, her sister Rosanne is almost equal to the task. Jiney's back-story is compelling enough but it's her breakdown that will keep you hooked. It's not all good. The final act feels a tad contrived, if not a little tacked on, but there's a lot to like about this early Pang effort. Come on guys, isn't it about time we had another hit?

ACACIA **


Billed as a horror movie, Acacia is likely to disappointment those of you expecting the next genre classic. This 2003 shocker has little in common with the likes of Shutter and Ju-on, sharing the sidewalk with offbeat family dramas rather than twisted tales of revenge. There is a supernatural edge of course and at times Park Ki-Hyung (Whispering Corridors) delivers an effectively eerie ghost story, but in truth, Acacia spends too much time crawling when it should be creeping.

An artist and her husband are unable to have children of their own so they adopt a young boy named Jin-sung. He's a quiet, unassuming child who develops a strange fascination with the acacia tree in the back yard. Shortly after, the couple discover that they are able to conceive, and with the arrival of a new baby, Jin-sung mysteriously vanishes. Did he run away? Why are his parents acting so strangely, and what the hell is wrong with that blasted tree? Would it not be easier to cut the damn thing down? The film may have been a little short, admittedly...

The moody, atmospheric visuals are quite refreshing and the bizarre behaviour of the main protagonists both baffle and intrigue. However, the 'shock' moments are uninspired and the big 'reveal' can be telegraphed a mile away. It's not a long film by any means, clocking in at just under 101 minutes, but Acacia feels like a drawn out affair for the most part, almost as dreary as its two leads and intermittently haunting, sparking to life in a lively final third that lacks a satisfactory denouement. Frustratingly dour.

ACCIDENT ***



Listen up Hollywood. Over the past few years we have had to endure some of the most ill advised, money grabbing, logic defying, tiresome, pointless and downright shoddy remakes ever committed to film. Isn’t it about time you gave us something back? From Soi Cheang, the director of Shamo and Dog Bite Dog, comes the new suspense thriller, Accident. Louis Koo (Overheard) takes on lead duties as a paranoid hitman who designs his hits to look like freak accidents. The film co-stars Michelle Yip, Lam Suet and Stanley Fung, with Johnnie To acting as producer.

It’s a sombre affair, measured and moody. A courtly approach, intricate and contemplative. Soi Cheang sets his dominoes up in methodical fashion and Accident is blessed with some memorable set pieces, set-ups enhanced by the director’s laboured approach. As with the Final Destination series, guessing how events will play out is half the fun. That's where the similarities end though. Accident is a psychological thriller, where actions speak louder than words. With dialogue sparse for much of the films running time, Koo copes well with the deep-rooted anxiety and imperfections of a conflicted protagonist. The rest of the cast is solid, but this is Koo’s movie.

Paranoia sets in and Fai spends the rest of the movie eating away at himself. Convinced that the world, or Richie Jen’s Chan to be precise, is trying to bring him down, Fai spends the final act listening to wire taps and following his would be nemesis around. All well and good I suppose, but it doesn’t always make for gripping viewing - more cat and nap than cat and mouse. Unfortunately, the screenplay isn't as strong as the set-up. Fai is far too quick to condemn his trusted colleagues, and a subplot involving one of the main characters developing amnesia comes on like a bolt from the blue. The ending is bleak but it doesn’t grab a hold in the way that it should.

Soi Cheang follows Shamo and Dog Bite Dog with yet another moody affair. I wonder what he’s like at Christmastime? There are moments of genius at work here, but they're weighed down by lazy writing and unconvincing plot developments. Still worth a look mind.

ADRIFT IN TOKYO *****



Adrift in Tokyo is a touching drama by Miki Satoshi, the director of Instant Swamp and Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers. It's a road movie with a difference, unique because our main characters spend most of their time on the sidewalks of life (unless of course they’re being chased down by the owner of a small clock shop who thinks he’s Bruce Lee). Fumiya and Fukuhara walk, talk, argue and discover a little something about themselves. On the surface there’s little more to it than that. What might read painfully dull on paper proves in fact to be one of the most engaging films in years.

Up to now, Fumiya’s life has been anything but extraordinary. A university student for the past eight years, his life is going nowhere fast, but all’s about to change the day he meets Fukuhara. Fumiya owes money to loan sharks and a man called Fukuhara turns up to collect the repayments. Fumiya can’t afford to pay the loan back so Fukuhara makes a proposition. He will cancel the debt as long as Fumiya agrees to walk with him across Tokyo to the police station of Kasumigaseki, where he plans to turn himself in for a crime he deeply regrets.

Fumiya and Fukuhara are fundamentally the same person - transparently lonely, one a little wiser than the other, but with an inner sadness that radiates from them both. It’s the little things that truly affect in life and Satoshi is making a career of depicting them. His films have always had the ability to find meaning in the most trivial of exchanges. As such, Adrift in Tokyo is a poignant roller coaster ride of genuine emotion, full of ups and downs and - rather fittingly - an abrupt conclusion. Comedy, drama and touching performances provide Miki Satoshi with his most accomplished film to date, an enchanting masterpiece that rewards in the subtlest of ways. Highly recommended.

AKIRA *****


You don’t get much bigger than Akira, the cyberpunk landmark in Japanese animation. Akira is a 1998 animated sci-fi film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, based on his own smash hit manga series. The plot focuses on two bikers, Tetsuo Shima and Shotaro Kaneda, battling it out over the release of dangerous psychic Akira. Rebellion, friendship and the occasional nuclear explosion provide Akira with its heart and voice, and in a world reliant on computer technology, it’s refreshing to witness a pixel free animated movie.

The city of Neo-Tokyo isn't the kind of place you would want to raise a family. Anti-government terrorism and gang violence have been rife in the years that followed The Third World War. A teenage gang member, Shima Tetsuo, comes across an esper on a highway, bringing his buried psychic energy to the surface. Tetsuo is captured by the government for experimentation. Fortunately, an anti-government group - supported by Tetsuo’s best friend Kaneda Shotaro - plot to rescue him before his powers consume the city.

Highly regarded by fans and critics alike, Akira is often considered the benchmark of modern animation. Which probably explains why Hollywood is determined to sour the taste with a live-action remake. The production has been shut down four times already, probably because it would prove way too expensive to do the film justice, but thankfully we’ll always have the original movie to fall back on. I’ll always be an amateur when it comes to manga, and I'm still not sure I understand it entirely (the finale is both inventive and bizarre), but Akira introduced me to a brave new world, and you can’t ask for more than that.

ALIEN vs. NINJA **


When a strange fireball crashes near their village, a mighty ninja clan goes to investigate and winds up in serious danger. Flanked by lightning-quick alien creatures, the ninjas struggle to find their enemies' weakness before they are killed in gruesome fashion. That’s pretty much the entire plot of Seiji Chiba’s quirky Japanese offering, Alien vs. Ninja. 

The three leads are entertaining enough, unfortunately, it’s the comic relief stooge that nauseates from start to finish. Having said that, his fat ninja routine does grow on you as the movie gathers pace, and his death scene is the film's stand-out moment. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, another fat comic relief guy turns up, and he’s even more annoying than the first. A fat gay comedy ninja, what will they think of next? Thankfully he doesn’t stick around for too long, and finally, director Seiji Chiba remembers why he called his movie Alien vs. Ninja - as opposed to Fat Comic Relief Guy Vs. Camp Fat Comic Relief Guy.

Some of the effects are perfectly adequate, and that’s the highest praise I can muster, but what about the alien itself? Well, I really don’t know what you were expecting, but I was definitely anticipating a man in a cheap rubber suit. Having said that, his CGI enhancements are a pleasant surprise and the alien jelly babies (I don’t know what else to call them) offer a fresh spin on an all too familiar alien host. Is it wrong to suggest that they’re actually rather cute? Once the stage is set Alien vs. Ninja becomes an enjoyable ride, complete with maximum carnage and a good sprinkling of humour.

There’s enough mutilation and mayhem to keep you from reaching for the remote control, and even though it lacks the invention of its siblings, Alien vs. Ninja exits stage left with its dignity intact. Having said that, quite how much dignity a man in a cheap rubber suit deserves is open to debate.


ALONE ***


Worthy scare-fests like Shutter, Coming Soon and Phobia took the world by surprise, sneaking up on unsuspecting cinema audiences and slaying them with well-timed scares and short, sharp hooks. Much like the killer at the heart of the tale, they succeeded in getting under the skin of the movie going public. There was a time when we couldn't get enough of them, a time when coming out from behind the sofa wasn't even an option. Times change however. Conformity rears its ugly head. In a world besieged by sub-standard horror movies, some films just don't cut it anymore. Which is why it felt like a good time to revisit Alone, to see if it has the same impact now as it did in 2007.

Of course, Alone didn't feel particularly fresh in 2007 either. Not only had we been there and done that, we'd also been chased through the woods wearing the tee shirt we had bought. If you've yet to see the movie, do yourself a favour, don't watch the trailer first. All the best bits are ruined in the trailer and believe me, there are some moments to savour in Alone. Pim and her husband return to Thailand to care for her dying mother. When they arrive, Pim is haunted by visions of a past she had tried to forget. Of a twin sister she was very attached too, both literally and figuratively, and a life she had hoped to leave behind.

Parkpoom Wongpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun orchestrate memorable set-pieces throughout, but Alone isn't nearly as scary as it ought to be. Perhaps familiarity is to blame, because there's still plenty to enjoy if you're willing to overlook the monotony. The build up is full of promise and some of the imagery is truly sublime. However, repetitive scare tactics are likely to frustrate and the twist in the tale can be seen a mile off. It's an interesting story though and the two directors know how to keep an audience engaged, even if it does see them repeating the same magic tricks over and over. Technically impressive but lacking the suspense of Shutter, Alone is a worthwhile venture if you're new to horror, but seven years is a long time in film, and this one creeks when it should be creeping.


AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS ****



When Princess Feiyin (Kelly Chen) takes her place on her father's thrown, all hell breaks loose. Before he died, the king himself had wanted Donnie (that would be Muyong Xuehu) to take over but some of the king's followers were slightly miffed that he would want a bastard orphan to take his thrown. So they give it to a girl instead and hey, that's okay right? Well, no actually. Some of Yan's army don't like the idea of being controlled by a woman either (happens to us all in the end) and fear that Yan's control will be taken from them. Either that or they'll be listening to Kelly Clarkson songs and platting each other's hair before the day is out. Out of jealousy, the Commander-in-chief dispatches warriors to assassinate Feiyin.

An Empress And The Warriors wastes no time out of the blocks. The opening act is chock full of glorious action, sporadic drama and thumping training montages as Donnie (it's easier to type) teaches Kelly to become a proper warrior. Donnie is usually topless of course, Kelly on the other hand is not. The production values are high and the pace is swift. Then act two kicks in. It's here that the tone of the film changes dramatically. The Princess and Duan fall in love, I don't have a problem with that, but do we really need an excess of sappy love songs, sickening balloon rides and log fire sex scenes? Bloodshed, violence and musical interludes amongst the clouds… did somebody say this was a Donnie Yen movie!?!

Kelly Chen is miscast as the Empress who will unite a kingdom but she was made for sickening romance. Saying that, I kind of liked the shift in tone. Too many martial arts movies have felt the urge to take themselves seriously of late. I certainly cared more about the characters in A.E.A.T.W. than I did in movies like The Banquet. Realism may have been forfeited for the sake of entertainment but when exactly did 'being entertained' almost become a criticism? Flesh is exposed, slow-mo camera angles are deployed, fiery mane is unleashed and An Empress And The Warriors finds its feet again. So leave your expectations at the door and enjoy the ride. Balloon optional. Just don't be surprised when the all powerful Empress turns into a sulky, lustful teenager who shouldn't be fronting a girl band, let alone an army.


APARTMENT **


APT is a 2006 South Korean horror film based on a comic by Kang Full, directed, produced and written by Ahn Byeong-ki. Byeong-ki is well known in the horror genre, having directed both Bunshinsaba 1 & 2, Nightmare and my own personal favourite, The Phone. All of which are essentially the same movie. Apartment (APT) is a cross between two familiar themes. One being an Asian ghost story, all the rage back in 2006, and the other being Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. What sets it apart (the only thing that sets it apart really) is the accomplished direction. 

Oh Se-jin (Ko So-young), a lonely business woman, is haunted by a woman at a train station who commits suicide after their brief altercation. We enter Rear Window territory when Oh Se-jin notices the lights in the building across from her apartment flickering at the same time every night, and strange events (mostly suicide) take place shortly after. It takes a little while for the police to suspect her, seeing as she's always close by when disaster strikes, and even though the detective investigating the case is suspicious of Se-jin, he has to let her go because ghosts tend to clean up after themselves. Introduce wheelchair-bound neighbour Yoo-yeon (Jang Hie-jin) and we re-enter familiar horror territory. The girl is being abused by her carers, there's a ghost on the loose and things are about to get very creepy indeed.

Ahn Byeong-ki has been making the same movie for years now, which isn't particularly courageous of him, however, it does mean he knows a thing or two about staging scares. Apartment is an atmospheric offering that relies on familiar shock-tactics, jumps and themes. The only thing that makes it bearable is the fact that Byeong-ki is relatively accomplished in this field. There are moments to savour and it never gets boring, but Apartment won't be remembered as one of South Korea's greatest offerings. The characters are forgettable, they act in stupid ways, and there's nothing we haven't seen a million times before. It's a solid genre effort but you can do far better. In fact, Byeong-ki did just that, four years earlier with The Phone. Approach with caution; creepy grinding noise optional. 

ARAHAN ***


The great thing about revisiting your Asian film collection is, more often than not, you stumble across a film or director that reignites your passion for cinema. Back in 2006 I couldn't get enough of Seung-wan Ryoo. In an unfortunate turn of events, I haven't watched anything he's directed since. That's a crying shame, surely? I can't wait to revisit No Blood No Tears, The City of Violence and Crying Fist, but first up (because it starts with the letter 'A') is zany martial arts action comedy, Arahan. 

When a thief on a motorcycle steals a purse from a pedestrian, the clumsy rookie policeman, Sang-hwan, runs after him. Unbeknown to him, a beautiful martial arts specialist is also on his tail. She captures the criminal and injures Sang-hwan in the process. Palm blasts can be tricky it seems. After taking him home, The Seven Masters of Tao (of which there are only five) discover a powerful Qi (the spiritual energy of the universe) and realise he could be the all-powerful warrior they have been waiting for. Which is fantastic timing, because business is slow and using the art of levitation for changing light bulbs seems a tad wasteful. As Sang-hwan begins his training, the evil and ambitious Heuk-woon is released from imprisonment. He wants the key that will give him ultimate control of the universe but he won't get it without a fight.

Sang-hwan's annoying character traits do start to grate after a while, fortunately they are laid to rest by an action-packed finale that packs quite the punch. Much of the comedy comes in the first hour, and it is laugh-out-loud hilarious at times, even if Seung-beom Ryu comes close to derailing the movie with his relentless hissy fits. Still, there is a lot to admire, particularly So-yi Yoon, who holds her own in a mesmerising finale act. 
Heuk-woon isn't really the villain you would expect from a movie like this, his intentions aren't despicable enough and he's difficult to hate, but the action choreography is great and the effects work - most of which still stands up today - ranges from admirable to impressive. Seung-wan Ryoo has made better films but for the most part Arahan is a pleasant surprise, a martial arts comedy big on laughs and action. Worth a look.

ARANG ***




Most films are instantly recognisable, but because I tend to favour imports over official UK releases (some films are never likely to see the light of day over here), the film I'm about to endure isn't always obvious to me. Take Arang for example. The DVD case is written in Korean, as is the blurb on the back of the box. There are no screenshots from the movie either, so all I really know is I had watched the movie at some point over the past 15 years, and the film sat somewhere between Arahan and Armour of God on the DVD shelf. Talk about going in partially-sighted. 

According to legend, Arang was the daughter of a magistrate (busa) of Miryang during the Joseon Dynasty. Her nanny conspired to have the servant Baekga rape her; however, she resisted and Baekga stabbed her to death. Her father, thinking she had eloped with a stranger, resigned his position in shame. 
Thereafter, whenever a new magistrate was appointed Arang's corpse would appear; soon no-one would take the position. At last a bold man named Yi Sang-sa was appointed to the post, and he promised Arang's ghost that he would avenge her. The plot of the movie, set in modern day South Korea, plays on these tragic events.

Though there are horror aspects at play, Arang works best as a detective drama. Early attempts at scares fall flat, with familiarity rearing its ugly head at every turn. Arang is a welcome thriller in which our two protagonists debunk traditional horror lore only to fall prey to it all the same. Song Yoon Ah and Hyun Gi are great value for money, more than making up for the ham-fisted jump-tactics littered throughout the first act. Because the detective drama works so efficiently, the cheap scares are mostly redundant, born from uniformity not necessity. The ending though, was a pleasant surprise. Twist endings don't always work out but Arang's is quietly affecting. Definitely worth a look. 

ARMOUR OF GOD ***


The first thing that sprung to mind whilst watching Armour of God was, "Crikey, look how young Jackie Chan is". Obviously, it's been way too long since I watched the world's number one action-star at his prime. Jackie plays The Asian Hawk, a bounty hunter and martial arts expert with an insatiable appetite for adventure. Jackie is blackmailed into acquiring the Amour of God, a mysterious artifact from the Dark Ages, which holds the key to infinite power. Basically, it's a hokey plot device that allows Jackie to unleash his wondrous box of tricks.

The second thing that sprung to mind whilst watching Armour of God was, "Crikey, this is actually quite violent for a Jackie Chan picture". The opening act is all over the place. Violent shootings, bloody murder, slapstick comedy and wooden performances compete for your undivided attention. It's not until the second act that things calm down, and in between the generous helping of action sequences, Armour of God falls prey to weak character traits, casual racism, mild misogyny and unwelcome romance - none of which are that uncommon in 80s Jackie fare.


However, the action sequences are exhilarating, especially when Jackie puts himself in harms way. Chan was hospitalised during the shooting of this film when a stunt went wrong. As luck would have it, you too can relive that terrifying moment as the outtakes roll. Not only do they show Chan being taken away on a stretcher, but they also show the accident which rendered him unconscious. Jackie's dedication to his profession has never been in question but Armour of God is not the best example of his colourful career. From an action perspective Armour of God really does hit the spot, but as a movie experience it feels dated and mildly insulting.  But, oh boy, that action...

ARMOUR OF GOD 2: OPERATION CONDOR ***


It's pretty much true, you can copy and paste the review above for Armour of God and apply it to Operation Condor. This 1991 sequel, coming four years after the original adventure, shares all the same hallmarks of part one. The action sequences remain essential viewing but the plotting is awkward and the casual racism, though completely innocent I'm sure, will make you wince from time to time.

This time around, The Asian Hawk is having more than his fair share of adventures. Near the end of World War II, Nazi Germany was on the brink of defeat so they hid their gold in a secret fortress in the Sahara Desert. The United Nations want the stolen gold recovered and Jackie Chan is the man for the job. Joining him on the adventure are three attractive co-stars. Carol Cheng is the token map expert. Eva Cobo deGarcia is the granddaughter of Adolf, the guy who hoarded the Nazi gold, and Ikeda Shoko completes the line-up as a Japanese traveller who sells handmade crafts for a living. As you do.


This is very much business as usual for Armour of God fans, and once again Jackie excels in the action stakes. Fans of the first film will find plenty to enjoy, not least the classic showdown in a wind tunnel, but they'll be forced to endure some casual racism, underwritten co-stars, weak plotting and slapstick humour along the way. But hey, it's not like I'm telling you anything you don't already know. Overlook the 'harmless' stereotypes and Operation Condor sure has its moments. Jackie has made better movies but when it comes to thumping action sequences, the Armour of God series provides some of his finest work. 

ARIRANG *

Kim Ki-duk is angry at the world, but more importantly than that, he’s angry with himself. With 15 films in 15 years to his credit, its little wonder Kim Ki-duk had an emotional and creative breakdown on the set of his last movie. It was during the filming of 2008’s Dream that Kim’s life took a drastic turn. While shooting a suicide scene, the lead actress nearly died. She fainted and later recovered, but it’s an incident that scarred Kim, and one that he could not forgive himself for. As an act of self-administered therapy, Kim closed his doors to the world for three years, with only a cat and a secluded log cabin for company.

The documentary cuts between question and answer sessions between Kim and himself, and footage of the Samaritan Girl director rediscovering himself away from the harsh light of day. We watch as he chops wood, starts fires, cooks meals and – rather impressively – puts together his own espresso machine. Kim spends a lot of time looking into the distance, reflecting (presumably) on life as the cat wanders around outside. Thinking about it, the cat probably wonders what it did to deserve such luck. He spends even more time getting drunk (Kim that is), and after ten minutes of voyeurism, you will start to wonder how the winner of the Leone d’Argento Award at the 61st Venice Film Festival arrived at such a low point in life. It doesn’t take long for us to find out.

Kim Ki-duk enthusiasts might take some pleasure from this warts-and-all soul explosion, but Arirang is unlikely to find an audience in the rest of the world. It’s rarely easy viewing, and at times you’ll fear for the cat, especially when he launches into that folk song for the third time. The final act lurches into fantasy, and whether or not he had a point to make remains unclear. I can't be the only person with no interest in him whining to the world for 90 minutes. That's why we have Facebook. Especially somebody who, as he points out on more than one occasion, has an avid fan base and a respectable career. 
The tortured sole routine works well up to a point, but self-indulgence will have you questioning just how much rings true.

ART OF THE DEVIL ***


Art of the Devil is the first in a series of brutal Thai horror movies that focus on witchcraft, revenge and seductive demons. The original film isn't connected to the two sequels that followed but it is an entertaining movie in its own right. I wasn't a big fan of this entry in the series on first viewing, favouring the two demented sequels instead, but Art of the Devil is an effective chiller with gore, sadistic violence and dubious acting aplenty. Everything we have come to expect from a Thai horror movie.

When a millionaire spurns his pregnant mistress, she places a deadly curse on his entire family. Sure enough, each member dies in brutal fashion. The rejected mistress, who loses her unborn child in a tragic accident, sets out to reclaim her inheritance. To do this she must kill the millionaire's ex-wife, not to mention the entirety of her family as well. All in a days work for a vengeance seeking purveyor of the dark arts. A young reporter sets out to investigate the case, but he soon comes to realise you should never underestimate the power of the, um, dark arts.

The first film seems tame in comparison to its fiercer siblings, but don't panic, there is some arresting imagery along the way. As with most Thai horror movies, the lead actress certainly looks the part, which helps to ease the pain of dubious plotting, weak performances and budgetary restraints. There's a traditional lank haired demon thrown into the mix too, but thankfully she doesn't get in the way of the blossoming witchcraft.

The Art of the Devil movies are a refreshing change of pace for Asian horror fans because they favour the dark arts over vengeful demons. Of course, the relentless torture and extreme violence of later instalments don't hurt the series either. The original outing deserves a little more loving than you'll find online though, it's an effective chiller even if it doesn't break the mould. Check it out.


ART OF THE DEVIL 2 ****



Art of the Devil 2 shares little in common with the first film in the series, besides the obligatory gore and black magic of course. Part 2 introduces Aajaan Panor (Napakpapha Nakprasitte) to the mix, a beautiful young teacher who is humiliated by her students. The plot is convoluted but it holds your attention throughout, aided by Nakprasitte's memorable performance. The rest of the acting is, as with the film that came before it, a mixed bag of delights and disasters, but Art of the Devil 2 brings with it some glorious imagery courtesy of the Ronin Team, seven directors with a common passion for horror.

Quite why the six friends/victims decide to pay their respects to Miss Panor remains unclear, but it does give the Ronin Team a reason to bring on the torment and titillation. Which is what they do, in a series of unforgettable torture sequences that linger long in the darkest corners of the mind. My personal favourite, you ask? When dozens of salamanders claw their way out of one of the victims bodies, killing him instantly. It's a fantastic sequence, bloody, brutal and beautifully realised. In fact, I would go as far as to say it's one of my favourite moments in horror history.

Napakpapha (better known in Thailand as Mamee) was a nominee for best actress for the Bangkok Critics Assembly's 2005 awards. She was also nominated as best supporting actress for the Thailand National Film Awards. Strangely enough, the nomination was protested by Mamee and Five Star Production, who insisted that she should have been nominated in the best actress category. Five Star then boycotted the awards ceremony. Still, Art of the Devil 2 is an accomplished horror movie if you can overlook the contrived plotting and weak performances. Embrace the bloody vengeance instead, and try to avoid falling for your teacher - that rarely ends well.


ART OF THE DEVIL 3 **


As I mentioned earlier, falling for your teacher rarely ends well. Put a love curse on her and you're asking for trouble. Miss Panor (Napakpapha Nakprasitte) is back for more pleasure and pain (pleasure in pain more like) in Art of the Devil 3 (Long khong 2), a workman-like prequel which fails to hit the same dizzy heights as part two. Once again, Art of the Devil 3 is directed by Kingkiat Khomsiri, Art Thamthrakul, Yosapong Polsap, Putipong Saisikaew, Isara Nadee, Pasith Buranajan and Seree Pongniti, known collectively as the Ronin Team.

Revisiting key moments from part two and bringing together a cast of fresh and familiar victims, Art of the Devil 3 finds Miss Panor strapped to a bed in the psychiatric ward as her nurse looks on. Which works for me. Miss Panor is pregnant, as is the nurse, who also happens to be an aunt of one of the characters from part two. Art of the Devil 3 is less convoluted than part two, which works in the films favour, however, it's not nearly as satisfying either. The events of part two are woven in with aplomb, though I would definitely advise refreshing your memory before you dive into this one.

The new characters struggle to make an impact and in truth, Art of the Devil 3 falls a little bit flat. Perhaps the success of the second instalment demanded that a prequel be rushed into production, but Long khong 2 is less satisfying than part two, despite another commendable performance from 
Napakpapha Nakprasitte. Die-hard fans will still get a kick out of the gruesome torture sequences, even if they don't quite hit the mark this time out, and it's always a pleasure to spend an evening with Miss Panor. Unfortunately, Art of the Devil 3 pales in comparison to part two - a lukewarm retread that feels more like a greatest hits collection than a worthy addition to the series. Disappointing.


AS TEARS GO BY ****


Jackie Cheung, Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau give standout performances in this gritty, overblown tale of gangster life. During its initial Hong Kong theatrical run, As Tears Go By grossed HK$11,532,283. It remained as Wong Kar-wai's highest-grossing film in Hong Kong, and his only film to gross over HK$10 million, until the record was broken with the release of The Grandmaster in January 2013. Critics have compared the film to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, as the central plot revolves around a small-time gangster (Lau) trying to keep his friend (Cheung) out of trouble.

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. This is 80s Hong Kong cinema of course, and overblown drama is part of the reason why it is so fondly remembered. Things haven't really changed to this day, where would John Woo be now without a little theatre? 

Lau's attempts to find redemption in the arms of his cousin are mostly endearing, a character played with undeniable vulnerability by Maggie Cheung. Oh how we miss 80s movie icons, but perhaps that's just a sign of us getting old. Though the outcome is all too swift and a little too predictable, As Tears Go By is an excellent 80s genre piece that stands out thanks to top-notch direction and a superb cast. Jackie Cheung in particular is a joy to watch.



AUDITION *****



Takashi Miike is one of Japan's most accomplished directors, Audition is one of his most accomplished films. It's certainly his most mature; a slow-burning exercise in titillation and torment. Admirably, Miike keeps his cards close to his chest for the most part, drip-feeding despair and loneliness before given his characters (and the audience) a false sense of hope for the future. Fools, the lot of us! Sure enough, we don't have to wait long before he starts to strip that hope away, layer by layer, in an agonising finale that does for needles what Leatherface did for chainsaws.

Audition tells the tale of a lonely businessman hoping to restore his faith in life after the death of his wife seven years earlier. Setting up a casting session for a new film he has no intention of making, Shigeharu believes that his prayers have been answered the day he meets mysterious young dancer, Asami Yamasaki. His friend, Yasuhisa Yoshikawa (Miike regular Jun Kunimura), who came up with the idea of the audition process, isn't convinced about Asami's true intentions, and sets out to investigate the girl on his own.

So far so romantic drama, then. Hang on a minute, didn't we say this was a Takashi Miike movie? Cool. If the first hour of Audition was designed to suck you in, prepare to be blown away by a nerve-shredding, wince-inducing, soul destroying final act; an uncomfortable evening of exemplary entertainment. Dog lovers should maybe consider staying away too. Both Ryo Ishibashi and Eihi Shiina give standout performances in this sadistic story of vengeance, and with Takashi Miike at the helm, Audition proves to be Japanese extreme cinema at its very best.



THE AVENGING FIST **



From Andrew Lau, the director of The Stormriders and A Man Called Hero, The Avenging Fist is an action-packed fantasy that comes on like an out-of-control live-action video game. Martial arts purists will no doubt bemoan the fast editing and manic choreography, especially when you consider the film reunites (and wastes) two of Hong Kong's biggest action stars. Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung barely get a look in hidden behind some distracting (yet inventive) computer generated effects. They might not hold up by today's standards but The Avenging Fist is blessed with a candy-coloured neon landscape, which remains a feast for the eyes.

If it was Andrew Lau's plan to create a live-action Tekken adaptation then he hits the mark with considerable style. The plot barely registers, something to do with accessing the 90% of the brain that we don't use and harnessing its power to control the world. There's a power glove too, three versions of it, and a lot of young adults goofing around. Still, the imagery is breathtaking at times and even though the special effects and bat-shit crazy editing destroy any chance of free flowing fight choreography, it does present a movie going experience that is both vibrant and occasionally satisfying.


The cast remains a big selling point, with Sammo and Yuen joined by Stephen Fung, Kristy Yang, Gigi Leung and Lee Hom-wong. It's juvenile in places, the blossoming romance is cringe-worthy, some of the comedy misses the mark by a country mile and yes, we get it, Sammo Hung has put on a few pounds since his glory days. Jesus. Minor criticisms aside, The Avenging Fist is a serviceable sci-fi fantasy with occasional action flourishes. Ignoring the wasted potential, Andrew Lau has delivered a visually accomplished fantasy movie, one that will be remembered for its garnishes rather than its filling. 

AZUMI ***



I remember watching Azumi for the first time. Having been impressed by Ryuhei Kitamura's breakout feature, the futuristic genre mash-up Versus, my overall impression was one of immense disappointment. The action choreography was uninspired, some of the performances were weak, and the story line was perfunctory at best. The final act was superb, but the film as a whole - clocking in at just over two hours - dragged its heals from time to time, lacking both the humour and flair of his stand out movie. 

Serialised since 1994, the comic by Yu Koyama has developed an avid following over the years. With Kitamura at the helm it should have been in safe hands. Azumi (Aya Ueto) is a beautiful young girl, trained from childhood to become a fearless assassin. Now she must face the ultimate test, fighting to defeat a merciless band of warlords. Watching the film again after all this time, there is a lot to love about this bloody affair but Azumi still falls short. 

The young actors aren't great at conveying emotion, particularly anger, and looking back, Ueto is a little miscast as the film's heroine. She certainly looks the part but she's not as intimidating as she ought to be. The action choreography is a little flat early on, lacking both the playfulness and originality of Versus. There are some missed opportunities too, but it does appear that Kitamura was on a leash for the first half of the movie. Despite a serious amount of bloodshed, the fight sequences fail to land that fatal blow. 

Escaping his chains for the final act, Kitamura delivers a delirious final battle complete with memorable villains, a sprinkling of dark humour and ample destruction. Over the top for sure, but at least the film ends on a high note. Azumi didn't perform particularly well at the box office but DVD sales ensured that a sequel saw the light of day. Azumi is great fun in places, less consistent than previous work, but it's no coincidence that when Bijomaru shows up (a madcap creation who belongs in the world of Versus), Azumi finally delivers on it's promise of bonkers brutality. Worth a look.

BANGKOK DANGEROUS ****



Stylish, violent and bursting with unforgettable imagery, Bangkok Dangerous is another great example of Korean cinema. Telling the story of Kong, a deaf and mute hit-man, Bangkok Dangerous is surprisingly affecting at times, energetically depicting the growing relationship between Kong and his new-found love interest, Fon. In stark contrast to these tender moments, which remain unusual for a Pang Brothers production, the violence is often brutal and astonishingly effective.

The Pang Brothers are certainly familiar with style over substance, particularly when you consider their recent output, but Bangkok Dangerous remains arguably their finest hour and a half. Stylistically they have been compared to John Woo, particularly after the mainstream success of this movie, however, the Pang Brothers have yet to match their early collaborations. 
Ignore the Hollywood remake, that was almost as tragic as Nicolas Cage's hairpiece, even if the Pang Brothers are partly to blame for such a colossal waste of time. 

The Pang's have always had a habit of following success with mighty disappointment. You would never bet against them though, even if they have kept us waiting far too long for a genuine hit. The giddy heights of The Eye and Re-cycle feel like a distant memory; a neglected story arc deleted from Ting-yin's computer files. And even though, more often than not, we associate Oxide and Danny with the horror genre, it's this gutsy action thriller that leaves you breathless. 

3 comments:

  1. Some great picks here-and I agree 100% with the misses, too. Never did understand what the big deal was over Acacia. I think I actually fell asleep before the big "reveal".

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    1. I loved the gloomy, sorry, atmospheric look of the film and at the time it still felt different enough to Hollywood horror, but there are much better examples out there now.

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