Keeper of Darkness (Tuo di qu mo ren)


Ghosts at the window.

Ghosts at the window.

(2015) Supernatural Horror (EDKO) Nick Cheung, Amber Kuo, Louis Cheung, Sisley Choi, Shi Yanneng, Philip Keung, Shawn Yue, Elena Kong, Jacky Cheung, Wai-Keung Lau, Lawrence Ng, Olivia Yan, Andrew Lau, Karena Lam, Angie Cheung. Directed by Nick Cheung

NYAFF

What lies in wait for us after we die is an utter mystery. Do we go to heaven or hell, or are we reincarnated? Do we simply cease to be or is there something else out there, some other existence for us? One thing’s for certain; life after life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Wong Wing Fatt (N. Cheung) is an exorcist, but not the kind who dresses in vestments and engages in ancient Catholic rituals. He has “the third eye,” or the ability to see ghosts. He generally prefers to negotiate them out away from troubling the living, although sometimes he uses more violent means. When he’s not taking care of the dead, he’s part of a Hong Kong triad with a boss who gets little respect from the police. “I’m the biggest criminal in the district!” he complains to a disinterested beat cop who is hassling Fatt.

A video of one of the exorcisms Fatt performs gets the attention of tabloid journalist Ling (Choi) who contacts Chung (L. Cheung), the erstwhile assistant of Fatt who is, unfortunately for Ling, disinterested in an interview. Fatt is living in the same house where his mother (Lam) committed suicide and where years before a beautiful young mistress named Cherr (Kuo) did the same. Cherr, however, is more benevolent than Fatt’s mom who has stayed away from her son; Cherr, on the other hand, is in love with him and he with her. They both hope to be united in the next life.

But that is the least of Fatt’s problems. A vicious ghost named Hark (Yanneng) wants vengeance for the death of his wife and daughter and has been murdering charlatan psychics when he discovers they can’t give him what he wants. When he discovers that Fatt is the real deal, he gives him three days to kill the offending still-living man…or else Fatt and his pre-dead friends are all going to be joining the choir invisible.

Exorcism movies are far different in the East than they are here in the West. Generally in Hollywood and Europe, the Exorcism movies are wrapped up in Catholic ritual and tradition. In the East, often Buddhist principles of Exorcism are used in which exorcists physically battle demons with “spirit weapons” and spells. There is some of the latter here, but this is far different than any other exorcism movie I’ve ever seen so it gets props for that as well.

Nicky Cheung has made a reputation as being one of Hong Kong’s top action heroes of this decade, but as a director he has gone the supernatural route with both of his films and there’s literally no action scenes involving Fatt in the film, other than him getting tossed around like a rag doll by Hark. He has a great deal of screen magnetism and commands the attention of the viewer whenever he’s on, which is most of the film as he’s in nearly every scene. Amber Kuo, one of Asia’s most beautiful actresses, makes a perfect romantic foil for him.

The special effects are inconsistent at best. At times, Cheung makes a very atmospheric ghost tale; at other times, the CGI are quite frankly subpar. There is a scene in which Fatt goes over to the “other side” to confront Hark and there is a bit of an Inception feel to the look of the segment, but it looks like it came from a special effects house circa 1996. Even though it depicts someplace fantastic, it looks computer generated which takes you right out of the film.

The romantic relationship between Fatt and Cherr is at the center of the film, which may prove disappointing to horror buffs and action buffs alike. That romance, which can never truly be consummated, lends a melancholy air which actually fits nicely in the overall theme. Some critics and fans might complain, but I thought that while the romance did slow down the movie some, it was actually part of what made the movie so compelling.

There are lots of cameos from some of Hong Kong’s most recognizable stars and faces including one at the very end which brazenly sets up a sequel which quite frankly I wouldn’t mind seeing. This isn’t scary enough for most horror buffs, not enough action for most fans of that genre and the romance is less physical than those who like those sorts of movies. It was the combination of the three that intrigued me and delighted me about this movie. It’s possible it might get a U.S. release but if it does it will be a brief and limited one. Look for it on your favorite Asian movie DVD or streaming sites in the near future.

REASONS TO GO: The ghostly atmosphere is genuinely creepy. Cheung is an appealing hero. Interesting to see an Eastern take on exorcisms (i.e. non-Catholic).
REASONS TO STAY: The CGI is pretty poor. A fair amount of plot holes and occasional inappropriate humor mar the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gruesome images, some violence and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Clooney and Roberts have appeared in a film together.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Finding Dory

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Mr. Six (Lao pao er)


Father and son have a little heart to heart.

Father and son have a little heart to heart.

(2015) Drama (China Lion) Xiaogang Feng, Hanyu Zhang, Qing Xu, Kris Wu, Yi Feng Li, Hua Liu, Ju-Gang Bai, Shan Jiang, Jing Liang, Nuo Lu, Hao Ning, Yuxian Shang, Zeru Tao, Hewei Yu, Yi Zhang, Yishan Zhang. Directed by He Guan

NYAFF

There has always been a disconnect between the young and the old. In every culture, the youthful have had difficulties relating o the elderly, and vice versa. In the 60s, the term “generation gap” was coined and there are no signs that things have changed.

In Beijing, there are a collection of alleyways called hutongs that were built once for the diplomatic corps that worked in the foreign embassies nearby at the turn of the 20th century. These alleyways have collective houses surrounding them; they are charming but are mainly inhabited by less well-to-do folk these days.

Among those folk is Liu Ye (Feng) who is better known around the neighborhood as Mr. Six (it is never explained how he acquired that nickname). He was at one time a hoodlum, although he seems content to exist selling things in his shop and leading a life under the radar. He has the respect of everyone in the neighborhood – including the police – and often is turned to when disputes need to be settled. He is something of a Don Corleone but without the impressive Long Island compound.

He hangs out with his friends with colorful nicknames, including the somewhat slow but loyal Lampshade (Liu) and the feisty brawler Scrapper (H. Zhang). He also has a somewhat interesting romantic relationship with his neighbor Chatterbox (Xu). He doesn’t have a ton of money but then again he doesn’t need much.

That is, until his son Bobby (Li) went all stupid on him and started sleeping with the girl of street racer and scion of a corrupt politician Kris (Wu). Although Bobby and Mr. Six are estranged, Mr. Six feels honor-bound to negotiate his son’s release and help clean up his mess. However, Kris proves to be somewhat arrogant and demands 100,000 yuan (about $15,000) rather than the 2,000 yuan that Mr. Six brought with him. And when Lampshade tries to help but makes matters worse, Mr. Six is forced to bring his old gang back together again to take on the young street racing gang, knowing that the cops won’t help since these are all sons of businessmen and politicians and are basically untouchable. As an added complication, Mr. Six is having some fairly serious heart issues that may sideline him from the fight. And then there’s the fact that Bobby doesn’t want anything to do with his father…*sigh* kids today, right?

Some movies are roller coaster rides from the get-go and others are slow burners; this is the latter kind of movie. It starts out at a very quiet and slow pace and builds. You would think that the subject matter would make this more of an action film, but there’s actually very little of that which might upset action movie junkies somewhat.

Feng is a solid presence, laconic and menacing and brooding at times, but never a figure of pity. One reviewer compared him to Charles Bronson and I suppose that works but for me, he was a little bit more stoic than Bronson was. He is the moral center of the movie, a man of strong convictions but one can’t forget that his convictions allowed him to harm innocents as well. He is a complex character and Guan allows us to get to know him thoroughly. He may well be the most fascinating character we’ll see at the movies this year and one of the most interesting ever.

The movie largely starts out as a slice of life in the hutong and I really liked that. I’ve actually visited a hutong in Beijing and found it fascinating. Da Queen and I got to see how people live in China and it was one of the highlights of our trip. You don’t get a sense so much of the hustle and bustle of life in a metropolitan city the size of Beijing; this is a much slower pace of life.

There is a scene in the movie in which Bobby and Mr. Six are sitting in a tiny noodle shop having a meal and the two are trying to make some sort of common ground between them. It is an amazing scene, a very real discussion between two men who have little in common but their love for each other as father and son. Each is sure the other is wrong-headed and that they are in the right; each doesn’t know how to navigate a trail that they can both walk on. It’s mesmerizing and heartbreaking at the same time because so many fathers and sons have the same failings.

There are some moments that are a little bit bizarre, as when Feng goes after the street racing gang and it feels like the scene should have been in Furious 7 rather than this film, and there are other moments that have that feeling that they came out of different movies, plunked themselves down for a moment and then went back to their original location. These moments are a bit jarring and may throw you out of the mood of the film for a short while, but stick with it. As a slice of life this film works on every level.

REASONS TO GO: A slice of life from Beijing’s hutongs.  The film has a mythic quality to it. Feng delivers a powerful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: There are odd moments that almost seem like they came from other films. It lacks the action to satisfy fans of that genre.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of profanity along with plenty of violence, some sexuality and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Feng is not only an actor, but is one of China’s most popular directors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Term Life
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Nuts!

A Violent Prosecutor (Geomsawejeon)


They're talking about him again.

They’re talking about him again.

(2016) Crime (Showbox) Jeong-min Hwang, Dong-won Kang, Jin-mo Joo, Byeong-ok Kim, Eung-soo Kim, Hong-pa Kim, Won-hae Kim, Sung-min Lee, Ji-hwan Park, Sung-woong Park, So-yul Shin. Directed by Il-Hyeong Lee

NYAFF

We live in an era of corruption and graft. Of course, every era to date has had such qualities to it. When justice is twisted upon itself, all that is left is vengeance.

Byun Jae-wook (Hwang) is a prosecutor, and not just an adequate one. He has an extensive knowledge of the law that stems from his intense love of the law. He will do whatever it takes to put criminals behind bars where they belong, which sometimes leads him to some questionable interrogation tactics in which he literally beats confessions out of suspects.

At an environmentalist protest of a planned development at an important bird sanctuary in Korea, a group of outsider thugs come in and initiate a confrontation with the police. One of their number is arrested after assaulting a police officer and is taken to Byun for questioning. The suspect dies mysteriously while in custody and Byun is charged with murder. Byun claims that the suspect was an asthmatic and that his inhaler had malfunctioned; however, there are no records of the suspect having asthma. Byun’s boss, Kang Yeong-sik (E-s. Kim) who has political aspirations, advises Byun to plead self-defense. However, that strategy fails miserably despite Kang’s reassurances and Byun realizes, belatedly, that he’s been framed.

In prison, he is at first a target for regular beatings – he had personally put away many of the prison’s residents. However, his knowledge of law helps a couple of guards and they make sure that Byun is untouchable and he becomes a gang unto himself. When con-man Han Chi-won (Kang) is imprisoned, Byun sees an opportunity. He befriends the narcisstic young man and prevails upon him to do Byun a favor if Byun can get him released early. Thus begins a deadly game in which Byun and Kang are the players and Han is caught in between. Byun will stop at nothing to prove his innocence, but can he truly trust the amoral Han?

One of the things that is most delightful about this movie is the various influences on it. It’s a prison movie that has a lot of similarities to The Shawshank Redemption as well as a number of 90s-era action B-movies starring the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren. There are also elements of such classics as The Sting as well as the retro-hip score and look of the Oceans trilogy.

Lee deftly weaves together all these disparate elements and we end up with a taut crime thriller with heavy comedic overtones. The movie is fast and fun for the most part, and Han – a leading teen idol in Korea who gets the teen girl crowd over there sighing expressively – provides some occasionally over-the-top but surprisingly solid comic relief.

More to the point is Hwang, a craggy actor who is one of Korea’s very best. In many ways the equivalent to Robert De Niro, he has done a lot of gangster films in the past including New World (2013) which is justly considered by some to be the Godfather of Korea. Byun is a complex character, one who has had issues with violence in his past but has come to regret some of his actions, now that he has effectively seen how the other half lives. Hwang commands the screen like a boss whenever he’s on and quite frankly from this point over I’ll go out of my way to see anything he’s in.

The movie runs a bit over two hours and for the most part, you don’t notice that it’s a bit long for this kind of film. Those who have trouble staying in one place for two hours might have some issues with it, but film buffs are going to feel like scarcely any time has passed. This might well be the find of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It doesn’t have American distribution yet, but hopefully it’s huge success in Korea will lead to at least some sort of distribution deal here. I hope so; it deserves to be seen by a lot of people.

REASONS TO GO: Hwang and Kang make an effective team. The film combines a number of different genres to make a satisfying stew.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too long for the attention-challenged.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made $22 million on its opening weekend and is currently 16th on the all-time Korean box office chart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Six

What’s in the Darkness (Hei chu you shen me)


Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

(2016) Drama (HH Pictures) Su Xiaotong, Guo Xiao, Liu Dan, Lu Qiwei, Zhou Kui, Jiang Xueming, Li Shiru, Wu Juejin, Ren Long, Liu Jieyi, Gu Qilin, Li Mei, Jia Zhigang, Deng Gang, Wang Zhengping, Jiu Qi, Han Yuye, Tian Feng, Luo Wei, Shi Ying, Yan Jia, Ma Chenxiang, Yu Zhengnan, Huang Xiaoya, Wu Yue, Du Gangqiang, Liu Kaiming, Huang Yan, Xia Hongxia. Directed by Yichun Wang

NYAFF

Growing up is a dangerous, frightening thing. It’s a struggle, dealing with all the hormones coursing through your body, trying to understand the world around you as best you can without much help from your parents and other adult figures in your life, although they often mean well; they just don’t get what you’re going through and in any case, they never have anything good to say about you – it’s all just complain, complain, complain and nothing you do is ever right. Lucky for you, they don’t have time for anyone but themselves and frankly, you want to keep it that way.

Qu Jing (Xiaotong) feels exactly that way. She’s a pre-pubescent girl in a Chinese mainland technical high school in the Hubei province in 1991. In the late spring, the nude body of a woman is found in the local lake. She’d been raped and murdered, and a crude cross carved into her thigh. Qu Jing’s dad, Qu Zhicheng (Xiao) is a police officer, one who happens to have been trained in forensic medicine. He’s the butt of jokes to his peers and a source for exasperation to his commanding officer, Chief Cao (Shiru). He prefers to use deductive reasoning and follow clues while his fellows prefer choosing suspects pretty much at random and beating confessions out of them. It keeps the rate of conviction impressively high.

When a second victim is found, pressure is put on the cops to solve the case and they haul in a suspect (Gang) and get him to confess to the crime. Qu Zhicheng is skeptical about the accuracy of their investigation; the discovery of another victim, killed while the suspect is in police custody, proves him right.

Qu Jing is having problems of her own. Her mother (Dan) is a shrill shrew, unhappy in her marriage and her life and taking out all her issues on her family. Zhang Xue (Qiwei) is Jing’s best friend but Xue’s not the nicest person ever; she is condescending to the point of arrogance, knowing that her beauty and sexuality will take her far – far out of town, which is what she wants to be (as far as the more tropical Hanmei resorts if she has her way). Xue is sexually active and has attracted the attention of Zhao Fei (Xueming), a local tough guy and petty criminal.

Qu Jing is beginning to have hormonal shifts that are causing her to think about sex. She asks questions like ‘”Does giving birth hurt?” and reads clinical manuals, trying to find out everything she can. She goes to romance movies and watches the love scenes with great interest. When Xue disappears after being thrown out of class for falling asleep, the murders begin to come frighteningly close to home.

I originally listed this as a suspense film but changed my mind; it’s not a mystery. It’s more of a drama. This isn’t a police procedural. The crimes here hang on the periphery, coloring the proceedings but never dominating them. Yichun wrote this as largely autobiographical. Part of that is why this is set in the era that it is, and the era this takes place in is critical to why this movie exists.

China was on the verge of changing its economic structure from pure communism to a blend of communism and capitalism which it employs today. While the rural areas, such as the one this was set in, still carried over many of the same restrictive policies that existed for the past decades, change was in the air.

The performances here are interesting. Xiaotong is a real find; 17 years old when she made this, she shows a great deal of emotional depth, from playful to petulant, sullen to joyful.  She epitomizes the confusion and pain of growing up, particularly in a household where she’s largely reminded at how much it cost the family to even bring her in to this world. She was the second child in an era when families that had more than one child suffered heavy economic penalties for it; her older brother, away at university, doesn’t appear other than as a reference in the film.

Guo Xiao also does an outstanding job as the somewhat nebbish police officer, adrift in a sea of incompetent goons. He lashes out at his daughter, henpecked by his wife and laughed at by his fellow officers. Deep down however he loves his daughter as only a devoted father can. He shows it in between bouts of screaming at her for her transgressions, real or imagined.

The dynamic here is a lot different than what we’re used to from Western films. The police are not only as fallible as all get out, they’re also clods who do little constructive to protect or serve. Fathers and mothers aren’t supportive and wise; they have their own hang-ups and issues and don’t necessarily have their children’s best interests at heart at all times.

The society they live in is repressive and prudish but something darker lurks beneath the surface at all time. All around Qu Jing and Xu there are men leering lecherously; an old man in a senior home makes a pass at young Qu Jing in a particularly loathsome manner. The message here seems to be that while some things can be repressed on a societal level, that doesn’t mean those urges aren’t still there.

The senior home sequence and others like it might be off-putting for some who may be a little queasy at the sexualizing of prepubescent and pubescent girls, who are often made to wear make-up for choir performances and school functions.

This doesn’t have the kind of pace you’d find in a typical mystery. There are no gun battles, no car chases, no fistfights. The ending is abrupt and disconcerting. We don’t get much detail on what the police are doing to solve the crime (other than picking up the wrong people and forcing them to confess). We get a sense that after the film ends, things aren’t going to change much.

When all is said and done, this is more of a slice of life type of film; this particular slice happens to have a serial killer in it. It’s like getting a slice of mincemeat pie and biting into a clove. It’s just the luck of the draw. However, this is a tasty slice of pie from someone you can tell is going to only get better at baking pies. I can’t wait to see what comes next from Yichun’s oven.

REASONS TO GO: Unsettling atmosphere keeps viewers from getting too comfortable. Interesting portrait of a period in China less familiar to the West.
REASONS TO STAY: Sexualizing of young girls is a bit off-putting. Too slow-paced for most American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content, some foul language and a disturbing image or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Qu Jing is the same age as director Yichun would have been in 1991.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diary of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buddymoon

The Bodyguard (2016) (Super Bodyguard)


Wu Lin gets ready to run the gauntlet.

Wu Lin gets ready to run the gauntlet.

(2015) Action (Independent) Yue Song, Xing Yu, Becki Li, Wai-Man Chan, Jiang Boa-Cheng, Dong-Mei Xu, Colin Chou. Directed by Yue Song

NYAFF

When you become a bodyguard, you literally take the life of another person in your hands. It is your job to do everything within your power to protect that person and keep them safe from harm. For some bodyguards (and you would include the Secret Service in this category) that may be at the expense of your own life.

Wu Lin (Song) is a martial arts expert whose master has just passed away. Leaving the village here he has studied for years, he goes to the big city to search for his fellow apprentice Jiang Le (Yu) who had left under bitter circumstances. The master, you see, had chosen Wu Lin to wear the Iron Boots and learn the secrets of the Way of 105 Kicks. The Iron Boots add to his leg strength, making Wu Lin’s kicks lethal. He also cannot take them off, which probably makes Dr. Scholl’s a necessity.

Jiang is heartbroken to hear about the death of his master and now owns a bodyguard service and invites Wu Lin to be a part of it. Industrialist Jia-Shan Li hires Wu Lin to be the bodyguard for his daughter Fei-Fei (Li) after Wu Lin saves Jia-Shan from a group of thugs. Fei-Fei turns out to be a spoiled poor little rich girl who wants nothing to do with Daddy and less to do with Wu Lin.

As it turns out, she has great need of his services when it turns out that there are some pretty nasty bad guys after her. Wu Lin saves her once but eventually even his skills can’t protect her and she and her father are taken. The man orchestrating all the mayhem turns out to be someone intimately familiar with all the parties involved – and with an army standing in between him and Wu Lin, it will be a minor miracle if Wu Lin can save the girl (and her father) and defeat the bad guys.

Like many martial arts movies, the plot really isn’t very important. Basically, the story serves as an excuse to set up elaborate martial arts displays, and Song – who not only directs and stars but also co-wrote and edited this sucker – is a natural, reminding me (as he did other critics) of a young Jet Li. Song has the kind of potential to equal the onscreen achievements of that martial arts legend.

The fight scenes are pretty amazing, to be honest, with elements of the fantastic but solidly rooted in the crime procedurals that are all the rage in martial arts movies these days. Combining the two is certainly a smart move and Song utilizes the elements of both, integrating the two harmoniously and organically. Points for that.

Negative points for being a bit cliché in terms of the filmmaking; there is the “romance is blossoming” montage set at a beach house and set to flowery music as well as a villain so villainous that he all but crushes the skull of a kitten beneath an iron boot except that it’s Wu Lin literally wearing the iron boots, but never mind that.

Chinese cinema buffs will recognize the name of Collin Chou, but he has little more than a cameo appearance here and no fight scenes, so don’t let that fool you. Besides, there are plenty of amazing fights and jaw-dropping stunts to keep even the most jaded fan of the genre grinning ear to ear. The performances here are solid enough, although not spectacular (although Song shows tremendous promise) and while the dialogue is a bit cheesy, no more so than most Asian martial arts films.

Think of this as a Wuxia gangster film and you aren’t too far off the mark. This, incidentally, has nothing to do with the Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner film of the same name; the Chinese translation of the title is actually Super Bodyguard and there is also a Sammo Hung film also titled The Bodyguard coming out this year as well (which is also known as My Beloved Bodyguard – confused yet?) just to keep you on your toes.

In any case, fans of martial arts films will have much to appreciate here, getting to see a rising star in the genre show off his chops. There are a few cringe inducing moments (such as when a young boy whips out his thing to urinate on Wu Lin) but not enough not to recommend this, particularly to those who like their action with Asian spice.

REASONS TO GO: The stunts range from the spectacular to the sublime. A nice mash-up of genres.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit disjointed. Cliché in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief nudity, some rude humor and plenty of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Yu was, prior to his acting career, an actual Shaolin Monk.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Proof of Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: High-Rise

The Priests


There's never any telling what lurks at the end of an alleyway.

There’s never any telling what lurks at the end of an alleyway.

(2015) Horror (CJ Entertainment) Dong-won Kang, Byeong-ok Kim, Eui-sung Kim, Ho-jae Lee, So-dam Park, Soo-Hyang Jo. Directed by Jae-hyun Jang

NYAFF

There are those who will tell you that the things that go bump in the night are real. There are also those who will tell you that there are things that will possess a human body, things that can only be driven out with the help of an exorcist.

Exorcism does exist, although it is no longer the exclusive province of the Catholic Church, movies on the subject notwithstanding. However, we most associate the rituals of exorcism with Catholicism, and it has to be said much of that goes back to a certain 1973 movie that turned out to have some roots in fact. This one, apparently, only has roots in that movie.

Fr. Kim (B.O. Kim) is the go-to guy for exorcisms in South Korea, mainly by virtue that he was the deacon for the go-to guy for exorcisms, who is now too old and too feeble to perform them himself. He is in the midst of performing one now, a grueling affair that has gone on for six months. The victim is Young-shin (Park), a 14-year-old parishioner of his. He is a curmudgeonly man who has gone through Deacons at a terrifying rate – twelve of them thus far. Of course, some of the things they’ve seen during the rituals would be enough to send any sane man flying for the exit.

His latest Deacon is Choi (Wang), who has been coasting his way through the seminary. Not taking his theology terribly seriously, he has made it through life on the back of his delightful grin and his not inconsiderable charm. Now, however, he has been given a new assignment and he reluctantly takes it on, but in fact he’s kind of intrigued. After all, he’s seen the movie too. He just doesn’t really believe in it. It’s just a movie, right?

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, things are going badly for the girl. She’s been compelled to commit suicide by the demon inside her but survives somehow in a coma. The demon is looking for a good man (what woman isn’t?) to take over; apparently men are much better possessions. Kim knows that the spirit of the demon must be moved into the body of a pig which should then be drowned in a river in order to make sure the evil entity doesn’t return to the girl. And the family has sued to turn off the life support so that their daughter can finally be at rest – they believe Fr. Kim has been molesting her, which prompted the suicide attempt. And everything is pointing to this night to be the best possible time to get rid of the possession – and the good father with his reluctant assistant – who has demons of his own to conquer – will move heaven and earth to save this innocent little girl.

Certainly the film takes most of its cues from the classic William Friedkin film The Exorcist (but also from other demonically-inclined films like The Omen) but there are some differences here. It introduces modern horror stories, like intimations of abuse by a priest, and political infighting within the church hierarchy, but curiously stays away from modern horror idioms. This is definitely a man’s movie – the only female character with any substance in the film is the victim herself.

This isn’t as effects-laden or as gory as other exorcism movies, particularly those of recent vintage. Jang relies on atmosphere and an overall feeling of dread that something spectacularly bad is about to happen. He’s so good at building up the tension that the climax, when it comes, is a bit of a disappointment – but only a bit. I don’t think it is possible for any climactic scene to live up to the build-up that this one got.

Park as the possessed girl outdoes even Linda Blair here; she has her moments where the innocent little girl is present but for the most part she is chilling, manipulative, much smarter than either of the priests and in short, a worthy opponent. She scares the living daylights out of you every time she’s on the screen.

Kang is one of Korea’s rising stars and also one of its best looking. He sometimes has to play a bit of the fool and his foolishness is a bit jarring compared to the rest of the film but again, cultural differences. Movies from other places don’t necessarily have to live up to American expectations, no? In any case, he has some moments, particularly near the end of the movie. He does have a good amount of potential in any case.

The special effects are pretty minimal so American teen horror audiences will probably think this lame, but true horror fans are going to recognize the craft here and perhaps flock to it should it get any sort of distribution. Keep an eye out for it on various web horror outlets (like Shudder) and your local film festivals, particularly those that celebrate the realm of the fantastic. This is a solid, entertaining and downright spooky film that ranks among some of the best of the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Some real nice touches of authenticity. Park delivers a show-stopping performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the effects are a little weak by American standards.
FAMILY VALUES: Scenes of terror and disturbing images, as well as some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kang is considered to be one of Korea’s biggest heartthrobs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Exorcist
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Apocalypse Child


The Aquaman audition went very well.

The Aquaman audition went very well.

(2015) Drama (Arkeofilms) Sid Lucero, Ana Abad-Santos, Gwen Zamora, Archie Alemania, RK Bagatsing, Annicka Dolonius. Directed by Mario Cornejo

NYAFF

Some of the choices we make in life are based on the hand we’re dealt with before we’re even born. Then again, it’s pretty easy to blame stuff that’s not in our control, when a choice implies that our decisions are well within our control; we just choose not to be accountable for our own actions.

Ford (Lucero) is a surfing teacher in Baler in the Philippines. He was once a surfing champion, but after choking in a championship event he just kinda hangs out, living on past glories and what might have beens. His perky girlfriend Fiona (Dolonius) has some talent in that area as well, and she seems content to lead the life of a surfer; all about the party and the beach.

Ford is thus named because his mother (Abad-Santos) is positive that his father was none other than Francis Ford Coppola, who was filming Apocalypse Now in the area at the time. In fact, local legend has it that young women in the area gave birth to a lot of babies nine months after the cast and crew of the film left; these were called “Apocalypse Children.”

When Rich (Bagatsing), an old surfing buddy and friend who has recently been elected as the local congressman returns to town, Ford is forced to confront the transgressions of his path, his own lack of inertia, and the trajectory his life has taken. Ford doesn’t handle it very well; he starts to develop a relationship with Rich’s girlfriend Serena (Zamora) which threatens not only his existing relationship but basically his standing with everyone he knows, including his mother.

The theme here is that most of the characters are running away and avoiding the consequences of their actions (or inaction). Whether it’s the mom’s refusal to escape from her past which has long since left her behind, Rich’s dwelling on things that Ford has done, Ford avoiding commitment and responsibility whenever he can, everyone seems to be coping with life by not living it – or rather, living a semblance of it that mostly consists of the parts that involve partying, getting wasted and getting laid. All lovely pursuits and certainly young people of that age group are going to have a certain fixation on those things, but it feels like they are using it like a narcotic, to block out all the unpleasant things that they have been doing to each other.

The cinematography has a curiously washed out look, as if it were filmed through a fish tank – although to be fair that might have been the screen I was watching it on. The dialogue is a mix of English and Tagalog/Filipino and the subtitles were so small as to be virtually unreadable, often flashing by before I could see what they said. After awhile, I gave up, so the film suffers in the review because of it – make the subtitles just a smidgen bigger.

Cornejo clearly has an affection and respect for American indie films, and this one carries many of the cliches of that idiom. Montages set to mournful indie folk, complicated romantic relationships, hipsters (or the Filipino version thereof) gathering at parties and acting insufferably…the whole gamut is here. Fans of indie cinema may well look at this as an homage but it feels a bit like a knock-off as well.

I just never connected to the movie. I felt myself losing interest the longer the film went on. The movie is supposed to follow the characters’ growth and to be fair there was some, but it didn’t feel like it was earned. Any growth that any of the characters had seems more because the writers deemed that they did rather than in an organic, believable way through learning from their mistakes. Ford, in particular, seems hell-bent on destroying everything he has yet at the end of the film his reconciliation seems to come out of the blue and for no apparent reason. I know I’d have decked him a lot more often than he got punched out in this movie.

I will admit that the lifestyle doesn’t appeal much to me and the negative review here might be as much a product of my own prejudices as it is any filmmaking sins on the part of the filmmakers. There are some lovely scenes (but again that washed out quality, like everything is filmed on a cloudy day…on a defective camera whose lens aperture is nearly shut) and Zamora is the kind of beauty that will make your heart stand still. Otherwise though this is one festival film you might choose to avoid.

REASONS TO GO: Gwen Zamora is absolutely gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: Makes its points over and over again until the audience screams. Too much like a soap opera. Washed out cinematography and too-small subtitles.
FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of profanity, drug use, nudity and graphic sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Surfing was popularized in the Philippines when Francis Ford Coppola filmed the infamous surfing scene of Apocalypse Now on Baler beach in the Philippines and locals became more obsessed watching the surfing experts and instructors ride the waves.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Wednesday
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: The Priests