Man on the Dragon


There is no “I” in dragon boats.

(2018) Comedy (One Cool) Francis Ng, Jennifer Yu, Chan-Leung Poon, Tony Wu, Kenny Wang. Directed by Sunny Chan

In sports, as in life, it is much harder to overcome individuals working towards a common goal than it is individuals working for themselves. United, a group of people can accomplish just about anything; without that unification, accomplishment can be difficult to achieve.

Pegasus Broadband is a Hong Kong Internet access provider who is going through what businesses euphemistically call “an austerity phase.” Rounds of layoffs have hit the engineering department particularly hard as three installers deal with an increasingly uncertain professional future. In addition, they are all going through mid-life crises in their personal lives as well; Chan Lung (Ng), a single man, has an unrequited love for the girl next door – well, her mom anyway. Chan cooks for the two women and generally takes care of them, dreaming of a day when the three of them will be a family.

Suk Yee (Poon) gets no peace at home. His mother and his wife bicker constantly and the toxic environment has moved their young daughter to get in a series of physical altercations at school. William (Wang) has given up a professional table tennis career for his girlfriend but is beginning to suspect that the price for staying with her is too high. Finally, middle manager Tai (Wu) is estranged from his wife whom he believes is having an affair with a sleazy real estate agent.

Pegasus, seeking to repair their tarnished image, has decided to put together a dragon boat team for an upcoming race. All four of these men are drafted to row on the team. Hard-nosed coach Dorothy (Yu) – who is forced to use an American crew coach as a front in order to get the gig even though she’s ridiculously qualified – knows the company expects to win the race but given the sorts of athletes she has and their lack of cohesiveness as a team that there is absolutely no chance in hell that they could beat teams that have been together for years but gamely, she tries to whip them into shape.

Although this is ostensibly a sports underdog movie and there are lots of elements that characterize that particular genre, this isn’t strictly put a sports movie. Rather, it’s about men facing uncertainty in their lives and trying to navigate often murky waters in an effort to find some sort of clue as to where they’re going, or even to take charge of their own boats. The main actors mesh together well and their relationships are totally believable. They act like long-time friends do, razzing each other and supporting each other when the chips are down.

The women in the film fare less well. Either they’re harpies, teases, unfaithful or unattainable. I wondered at times if writer-director Chan isn’t a bit misogynistic in his outlook; even coach Dorothy, who is a bit of a rallying point for the men, does not come off particularly well and she’s the only female character in the film who has any sort of development whatsoever.

The rowing sequences are nicely done, the speed and grace of dragon boats in the waters of Hong Kong harbor being captured well. The camera is absolutely smooth (I’m wondering if they used a Steadicam-like device to keep the camera stable) which makes watching the races pleasurable rather than bringing a handheld choppiness that leads to a feeling of seasickness in certain other films trying to capture rowing or crew races.

The movie feels a bit on the long side and the plot on the predictable side. Some of the dialogue is also a little overwrought but the movie has just enough charm to just about overcome the negatives and earn a mild recommendation. It’s not going to set any marks for originality although the number of midlife crisis movies isn’t a high one but I think unless you’re extremely discerning you’ll find enough cinematic bliss to make this one worthwhile.

REASONS TO GO: The male bonding is authentic and believable. The boat sequences are smooth and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The subtitles were difficult to read at times. The movie was a little bit on the misogynistic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors did their own rowing, supervised by actual dragon boat athletes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Playing for Keeps
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Far From the Tree

Liverleaf (Misumisô)


The phrase “pure as the driven snow” doesn’t apply here.

(2018) Horror (T-Joy) Anna Yomada, Hiroya Shimizu, Rinka Ôtani, Rena Ôtsuka, Kenshin Endô, Masato Endô, Kazuki Ōtomo, Masahiro Toda, Seina Nakata, Minori Terada, Ayaka Konno, Arisa Sakura, Reiko Kataoka, Aki Morita, Sena Tamayori. Directed by Eisuke Naitô

Bullying is sadly not an unusual thing, whether in American  high schools or Japanese ones. There always seems to be a human urge for the strong to prey on the weak.

Haruka Nozaki (Yomada) falls into the latter category. A transfer into a small rural middle school from a larger city, she doesn’t fit in and is preyed upon mercilessly by a gaggle of girls led by the diffident Queen Bee Taeko (Ôtani) who for a short while was friends with Nozaki. Now, she gives tacit approval to her followers in making the life of Nozaki a living hell.

Things start off typically; knocking her book bag out of her hands, throwing her shoes in a mud pit, knocking her into the mud-type things. Then things begin to escalate; a dead crow is put in her locker and she is jabbed with needles. Her mother (Kataoka) and father (Toda) have a meeting with Nozaki’s teacher (Morita) who is strangely cowed by the other students; they call her “vomit teacher” because she throws up when the misbehaving gets extreme. In any case, the teacher informs the parents that the school is closing at the end of the term and there’s no sense in opening up a can of worms. Nozaki’s parents take the extraordinary step of keeping their daughter home from school.

Infuriated, the bullies send Rumi (Ôtsuka) – a girl with a stammer who would be next on the list to get their full attention – to get Nozaki back to school but Nozaki knows all too well that things will end badly for her if she goes to school, so she declines. Rumi, wanting to fit in with the ugly bully crowd, professes that she wants Nozaki to die. Some of the boys in the group decide to see how serious she is. In the meantime, Nozaki has a friend in Aiba (Shimizu) who is more than a little interested in photography and is, like Nozaki, a transfer student. He lives, for some unexplained reason, with his grandmother.

But Nozaki’s refusal causes things to spin completely out of control from there as the bullies go way, way, way over the line. Tragedy results and Nozaki is left a shell of herself, a ghost floating in the winter snow. Even then the bullies won’t leave well enough alone and Nozaki finally stands up for herself – and she’s holding a knife when she does.

The film, based on an ultraviolent manga, is the latest teen bully horror film from Naitô who has already directed a couple of movies with comparable themes. Some critics have labeled this a revenge film and I’m not really sure if that’s accurate; certainly Nozaki’s actions later in the film could be construed as seeking vengeance but I get more of a sense that it is self-preservation she’s after. She’s pushed to a wall and like any cornered animal, fights her way out.

Yomada is excellent as the timid, cringing wallflower turned psycho killer. Her change from one extreme to the other is totally believable and while the gore and mayhem may be somewhat over-the-top, it is a comic book adaptation folks and one would expect an exaggerated amount of violence and bloodshed in that situation. In fact, some of the most brutal scenes in the movie are so beautifully photographed by cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya that you almost feel guilty enjoying the images he captures.

The movie could have used some judicious editing; the climax is a long time coming and when it arrives it’s almost a relief. I was left wishing it had come sooner but again, like most Americans I have the attention span of a loaf of bread. It felt like Naitô was taking a bloody long time to get to where he was going. I haven’t read the manga so I’m not entirely sure how faithful the film is to it but it feels like there was some fat that could have been trimmed.

As scary movies go this is more visceral than spooky. The scares are mainly in the gore and violence, not so much from any build-up from tension; think of it as a slasher movie in a Japanese school girl uniform (you know, the Sailor Moon outfit) and there you have Liverleaf, which is a local flower that blooms to usher in spring and is a big deal to Nozaki’s photographer friend, her only friend and maybe more than that. This isn’t going to scare the bejeezus out of you but then again, not every horror film has to.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the scenes of brutality are filmed in a strangely beautiful manner. Anna Yomada delivers a killer performance (literally).
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and disturbing images, gore, profanity and scenes of brutal bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on the Misumisô manga by Rensuke Oshikiri.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heathers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
1/1

Microhabitat (So-gong-nyeo)


Cleanliness is next to godliness.

(2017) Dramedy (CGV Arthouse) Esom, Jae-hong Ahn, Duk-moon Choi, Jin-ah Kang, Sung-wook Lee, Gook-hee Kim, Jae-hwa Kim. Directed by Jeon Go-Woon

The economics for those living on the bottom rung of the working class are fairly bleak. As inflation brings the price of goods and services up, the pay for workers isn’t keeping pace. The results are that we are working longer and harder for less. This is true pretty much on a global scale.

In Seoul, Miso (Esom) is a 31-year-old housecleaner who lives in a tiny one-room unheated apartment in a dodgy part of Seoul. She seems ok with her lot, so long as she has the three things that make her life bearable; cigarettes, whiskey and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn), an aspiring manhwa artist. However, new taxes bring the price of cigarettes up to a level that makes her right, meticulously managed finances even tighter. On top of that when her apologetic landlord is forced to raise her rent, rather than give up smoking and drinking, Miso chooses rather to be temporarily homeless.

It is winter and Seoul can be a very cold place in winter. Miso must rely on her friends to put her up, but each one has their own lifestyle and their own set of circumstances. Once all somewhat bohemian college students (some of whom were bandmates of Miso back in the day), they have all exchanged their ideals for conformity and in some cases, creature comfort. Each apartment she visits has its own habitat and the dweller within their own needs. Miso tries to meet those needs as best she can. She is unfailingly cheerful and even as she listens to her friends rant about their problems never feels compelled to judge. Neither do her friends feel compelled to ask Miso about her circumstances.

In many ways Microhabitat feels like it takes its cues from American independent films with the sometimes eccentric characters, the low-key comedy and the subtle message delivered in the slice of life presented for consumption. If this film had been made in America, Greta Gerwig would undoubtedly have been cast as Miso and the movie would have been set in New York. The difference here to an American version is the Korean traditional values, some of which aren’t all that alien to American audiences; the marginalization of unmarried women (particularly at Miso’s age), the rendering to near-invisibility of those working service jobs, the importance placed on wealth and productivity. Well, maybe the American film would have been set in SoHo and have the Miso character hanging out in bars where indie rockers played desultory sets for young hipsters. None of that happens in this film.

But of course there is no American version – yet – and judging Microhabitat on its own merits is not really very hard. Miso is a somewhat difficult character to get a real handle on because writer-director Jeon Go-Woon has the character play things close to the emotional vest. Yes, Miso is cheerful and helpful and maybe a little bit stubborn but we rarely see anything resembling despair except near the end when her boyfriend, tired of living hand to mouth, decides to accept a job in Saudi Arabia that will take him away from Seoul for two years. Other than those moments, Miso is always accepting, always polite, always giving. She’s not a saint – saints don’t smoke as much as Miso – and she may not have really grown up since college in some ways but she has grown in ways her friends who have essentially “sold out” could never understand.

In a time when most people are just one paycheck away from economic disaster it can be a bit painful to watch the realities of Miso’s financial situation; for some, they may strike a little too close to home. The tone is on the bittersweet side and the comedy fairly subtle but I have to admit that the ending was really charming and did a lot to elevate the movie. While it possesses a few bad habits common in American indie films, Microhabitat is nevertheless charming throughout largely because Esom makes Miso such a delightful character that everyone will want to spend time with.

REASONS TO GO: The tone overall is bittersweet but the ending is a bit of a grace note.
REASONS TO STAY: The economic hardships can be difficult to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Go-Woon is part of a Seoul-based collective of independent female directors called Gwanghwamun Cinema; this is her feature debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liverleaf

Beast Stalker (Ching yan)


In Hong Kong action movies, even pedestrian overpasses aren’t safe.

(2008) Crime Drama (Emperor) Nicholas Tse, Nick Cheung, Jing Chu Zhang, Pu Miao, Kai Chi Liu, Ho Man Keung, Jing Hung Kwok, Sherman Chung, He Zhang, Suet Yin Wong, Sum Yin Wong, Kong Lau, Tung Joe Cheung, Simon Lee, Accord Cheung, Ka Leong Chan, Esther Kwan, Si-Man Man, Francis Luk, Sai Tang Yu, Kim Fai Che, June Tam. Directed by Dante Lam

Lives can be changed in the blink of an eye. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have devastating consequences, the effects rippling out like a rock thrown into placid waters. Rarely are those ripples pleasant although in time they can turn out to be beneficial but that isn’t often the case.

Hong Kong police detective Tong Fei (Tse) is ambitious and arrogant. He’s chasing a well-known Triad crime boss and has him in his relentless sights. Working with his team whom he sets very high standards for, he manages to get the criminal arrested – only to learn that the guy’s thugs have managed to break him out of custody. Fei personally leads the chase after him along with longtime friend and mentor Detective Sun (Liu). A violent car crash leads to a terrible tragedy in which an innocent little girl is killed. Fei is devastated.

Months afterwards, the prosecutor for the case, Ann Gau (J.C. Zhang) is getting past the grief of losing a child when her surviving child is kidnapped by Hung (N. Cheung), a half-blind assassin who is caring for a paralyzed wife and needs the dough. The guilt-wracked Fei is obsessed with finding the missing daughter despite Ann’s pleas for him to butt out – she has been warned to not involve the police. She agrees to alter the evidence that will put the crime lord behind bars for a very long time; so Fei goes out looking for the girl on his own. Hung is just as desperate to make sure that the girl isn’t found and both men play a game of cat and mouse with a little girl’s life hanging on the outcome.

Like many Hong Kong crime dramas, the plot hinges around a number of coincidences (some might say improbabilities) that require a whole lot of disbelief suspension. How likely is it that the crook would steal the car of his prosecutor who just happened to stop the car she was driving so she could yell at her ex-husband on the phone? And the coincidences don’t end there.

However if you can unwrap your head around those plot points you’ll be treated to a story with plenty of nice twists and turns, maybe one or two you won’t see coming. Nicholas Tse and Nicky Cheung are two of HK’s  best action stars and they are at their best in this movie. The action sequences, particularly the initial car chase that sets everything up, are extremely well done with the aforementioned chase being literally breathtaking.

The story does get a little bit maudlin in places but again that’s pretty much standard operating procedure for Hong Kong action films – is there a manual for these things? – and anyone who is a fan of that genre won’t mind a bit. Dante Lam is one of Hong Kong’s surest action directors and while this wasn’t his very best work, it was certainly one worth reviving. It played the recent New York Asian Film Festival. While I don’t see it listed on any of the standard streaming services, you can find the DVD and Blu-Ray in a variety of places. If you like Asian action, you won’t want to miss this one.

REASONS TO GO: The action scenes are uniformly excellent. The plot is full of lovely twists and turns.
REASONS TO STAY: The camerawork is so aggressive and kinetic it becomes distracting. The story is a little bit maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, some mild profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was nominated for five Hong Kong Film Awards in 2009, winning two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Looming Storm

The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone

The Scythian Lamb (Hitsuji no ki)


….but the seafood is GREAT!!!

(2017) Drama (Asmik Ace) Ryo Nishikido, Fumino Kimura, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kazuki Kitamura, Yuka, Mikako Ichikawa, Shingo Mizusawa, Min Tanaka, Yuji Nakamura, Tamae Ando, Yoshihiko Hosoda, Toshiyuki Kitami, Miyako Yamaguchi, Shinsuke Suzuki, Sansho Shinsui, Yota Kawase, Masatoshi Kihara, Tsuyoshi Nakano, Daihi, Noa Miyake. Directed by Daihachi Yoshida

The rehabilitation of criminals can be a tricky thing. After all, there are all sorts of criminals; those who commit crimes by being in the wrong place at the wrong time; those who have a compulsion; those who fall in to the wrong crowd and some who just plain like being bad.

Like many other rural towns in Japan, Uobuka is having difficulties maintaining their population as many Japanese citizens are emigrating from the countryside to the big cities. The mayor of Uobuka has struck a deal with the Japanese prison system which is dealing with overcrowding to house six criminals who are considered low-risk; they are to be paroled early and send to Uobuka to live provided they stay there at least ten years.

A minor civic functionary, the handsome and somewhat enthusiastic nebbish Hajime Tsukisue (Nishikido) is assigned to get all six of the new residents settled. He greets all of them enthusiastically, remarking that Uobuka is a nice place…with nice people…and great seafood.

The first arrival, Hiroki Fukimoto (Mizusawa) seems rather nervous and when treated to dinner, eats like he had been lost in the wilderness without food or water for days. He is given a job at the local barber shop. My first instinct upon seeing him was “who in their right mind would trust this guy with scissors?”

Next comes the beautiful and sexy Reiko Ota (Yuka) who gets work at the local senior center. Hajime likes her just fine…until she strikes up a romance with his own dad! Shigeru Ono (Tanaka) is ex-Yakuza and wants to stay that way, reacting violently to a recruiting visit by his ex-colleagues.

Kiyomi Kurimoto (Ichikawa) seems rather tightly wound; she has an affinity for cleaning…and burying things in the garden. Katsushi Sugiyama (Kitamura) looks to be the bad boy of the bunch; he is unrepentant and with his shark-like grin gets bored almost the instant he gets into town and starts looking for trouble.

The one exception to the bunch seems to be Ichiro Miyakoshi (Matsuda) who comes off as gentle and friendly. After being placed in a delivery courier position (in a distinctive blue and yellow van no less), he and Hajime become friends which isn’t a bad thing; after all, Hajime has a bit of a double life, going from respectable city functionary to being part of a garage rock band on weekends. When Ichiro shows up wanting to learn how to play guitar, Hajime is fine with it. When he starts hitting on Aya (Kimura) who was the high school crush of Hajime (and lead guitarist in his band), things get a little awkward.

They get even more awkward when Hajime discovers that all six were convicted of murder and when someone shows up murdered…well, the fish guts are about to hit the fan, particularly when another functionary finds out their secret and enlists them all to participate in the Nororo festival, a tribute to an ancient sea creature who once terrorized the town, leading to a tradition of two people being thrown off the cliffs into the sea; Nororo would take one, leaving the other to survive.

Yoshida has rafted a wonderfully off-kilter movie that although ostensibly a drama has elements of noir, black comedy and slice-of-life coming of age film all woven in. The Uobuka looks like a pretty nice place to live which although the running joke of Hajime’s exhortations about the quality of life may get old they are nonetheless dead on which is part of the joke.

The performances here are really rather good. Each of the various parolees has a distinct personality and they each get their own moments to shine. Nishikido, known more for his music career than his acting, shows that he has the chops to make it in the movies on both sides of the Pacific. He doesn’t do a lot of singing even in the garage band sequences but he has plenty of presence nonetheless. Oddly, most of the score is less pop or rock oriented but is a kind of discordant minimalism that actually works better in getting across the “something is not quite right” vibe that this film brings to life wonderfully.

While the New York Asian Film Festival screening has already come and gone, this is a good bet to pick up some sort of American distribution. Sure it’s a bit strange but not so much that American audiences won’t connect with it. Hopefully those of you not in the New York area will get a chance to see it sooner rather than later.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is pitch black and the tone just off-kilter enough to be fascinating. Life in Uobuka looks pretty nice to me.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is minimalist and discordant.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality, some mild profanity and a disturbing scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nishikido is a major pop star in Japan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The World According to Garp
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Whitney

The Age of Blood (Yeokmo – Banranui Sidae)


Don’t cross swords with this guy if you can avoid it!

(2017) Martial Arts (Storm) Hae-In Jung, Won-jong Lee, Cheoi-min Park, Seung-jin Hong, Ji-hoon Kim, Hae-Sung Kwon, Tae-Joon Ryu, Sua-a Hong, Lee-won Jong, Jo-jae Yoon. Directed by Hong-sun Kim

I had always thought that the Chinese and Japanese were the masters of the martial arts period movies but of late the Koreans have won a seat at that particular table and this film does nothing to diminish their newly found status.

Kim-Ho (Jung) is a master swordsman for the army of King Yeongjo (Ryu) who has returned home in shame after losing a battle to the rebel armies of In-jwa Lee (Kim) who was captured during the fight. To his  mortification, Kim-Ho is demoted to a prison guard at the equivalent of a federal penitentiary. To make matters worse, he becomes subordinate to his Uncle who has become very disappointed in his nephew, as has Kim-Ho’s daughter who inexplicably winds up going to work with him his first night.

And that first night turns out to be a really bad night for “take your daughter to work” night. In-Jwa Lee’s right hand man and master swordsman in his own right Min-chul Do (Yoon) is dead set on breaking out his boss from jail. The plan is to then take him to the Imperial Palace where he’ll have the opportunity to take out the King and, to his mind, restore the kingdom to righteousness. Did we mention that Yeongjo ascended the throne by poisoning his brother, the rightful heir?

But neither In-jwa nor Min-chul reckoned on the presence of Kim-Ho who is armed only with what is essentially a nightstick, his own sword being taken away by his Uncle who disdainfully explains that he won’t need it. Kim-Ho will have to take on an army nearly by himself, one that is set on killing every living thing in the prison, guards and prisoners alike. Heads will roll (literally) and blood will spill before the night is out.

This is a more than satisfying action film with some spectacular sequences and some nifty swordplay. Jung has become a star in Korea although he is not quite as well-known here in the States; he is better known for his boyish good looks and tends to play more romantic roles. In this film, he starts off with almost a comedic role but as the film wears on becomes a deadly warrior. This is, so far as I know, his first foray into martial arts action star territory and he shows he can handle it ably.

The movie also benefits from a very well-done animated opening that sets the scene, and terrific cinematography throughout, although some of the night scenes are too dimly lit. There’s also a strange penchant to go from color to black and white and back again without any rhyme or reason.

Although some of the characters in the film are historical (and a few based on historical figures) this is largely fiction. While you get a glimpse of Korea’s Joseon era – in many ways their golden age – this isn’t a history lesson per se. However it is massively entertaining and is everything you want from a martial arts historical piece. This doesn’t have American distribution yet and sadly their last screening at the New York Asian Film Festival is this afternoon but keep your eyes peeled for it at your local Asian film festival. Hopefully a savvy distributor specializing in Asian films will pick this one up.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is beautiful and the action sequences outstanding.  The movie changes drastically in tone from beginning to end which actually works really well. The animated opening sequence is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: There are strange switches from color to black and white without explanation or seeming reason. Some of the sequences are poorly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: King Yeongjo was an actual monarch during Korea’s Joseon era who ascended to the throne pretty much the way it was described here in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curse of the Golden Flower
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Scythian Lamb

Respeto


Rapping is worldwide, son.

(2017) Drama (Arkeofilms) Abra, Dido de la Paz, Loonie, Kate Alejandrino, Silverster Bagadiong, Brian Arda, Thea Yrastorza, Nor Domingo, Yves Bagadion, Chai Fonacier. Directed by Treb Monteras II

The Philippines have had a rough go of it. After enduring years of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos, it seemed like they’d finally gotten past that and were on the right track – until they elected Rodrigo Duterte. Now it’s the bad old days all over again.

In the poverty-stricken Pandacan district of Manila, young Hendrix (Abra) aspires to be a rapper. He lives with his sister Connie (Yrastorza) and her drug-dealing boyfriend Mando (Arda). When Hendrix takes money from Mando without permission to use as an entry fee into a rap battle (and which he loses somewhat ignominiously), Hendrix and his posse Betchai (Fonacier) and Payaso (Bagadion) attempt to rob a local bookstore which ends up badly. Hendrix is ordered to help clean up the mess he made. Doc (de la Paz), the proprietor, is a poet himself and wrote protest poems during the Marcos regime. The two form an odd bond, as Doc becomes a mentor to the young would-be rapper.

There are parallels in their lives; Doc had to watch helplessly while his family was abused by Marcos’ thugs while Hendrix was forced to watch impotently while the object of his adolescent desire (Alejandrino) is raped by his biggest rival (Loonie). The frustrations of poverty in a crime-ridden world of drug lords, apathy and hopelessness lead to a shocking conclusion that even veteran moviegoers might not see coming.

First, the pluses; I was impressed with the social commentary here and frankly a little bit surprised; Duterte doesn’t exactly have a reputation of tolerating criticism very well. The film nonetheless got critical acclaim on the overseas festival circuit and even a brief theatrical release in the Philippines. I would expect that being compared to the rule of Marcos probably doesn’t sit well with Duterte.

Young Abra is also a very charismatic performer who on top of being ridiculously handsome also has a natural intensity that makes me think he could have a very distinguished career ahead of him. He keeps the audience’s attention whenever he’s on screen (which is most of the time). He stands out well above most of the rest of the cast, even de la Paz who has a couple of really good moments with the young actor.

Where there are pluses, there are often minuses and this being the debut feature for Monteras there are some of those. The most glaring of these is that in any ways this feels like an urban rap drama from the 1990s; it has a lot of the same clichés and while the ending of the film really rescues it, the rest of the movie feels very much like we’ve seen it all before. The movie also starts out a little bit bumpy as the plot feels a bit disjointed. Finally, the friendship between Hendrix and Doc feels very forced and while the characters have a lot in common, I never get the sense that Hendrix has the emotional maturity to befriend someone so much older. It just doesn’t feel natural.

Folks who aren’t into rap should be warned that there’s an awful lot of it on the soundtrack although to my definitely unpracticed ear it sounded pretty authentic and pretty good. This will be playing the New York Asian Film Festival on the 24th of July; while there are no immediate plans for an American release this may well eventually get something if a fearless distributor is willing to take a chance on it. There is certainly a market for this kind of film and even though I found it very flawed there is a lot that’s positive about it as well, if for nothing else to learn more about Filipino culture in the era of Duterte and Abra could well be a star in the making.

REASONS TO GO: Abra has a compelling screen presence.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie feels a bit dated. The friendship between Hendrix and Doc doesn’t feel organic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references, a rape and some other disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the rap battle sequences, actual underground Pinoy rappers are used.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 8 Mile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Age of Blood

Operation Red Sea (Hong hai xing dong)


The Sea Dragons are here to kick ass and slurp noodles and they’re all out of noodles.

(2018) War (Well Go USA) Yi Zhang, Johnny Huang, Hai-Quing, Jiang Du, Luxia Xiang, Sanâa Alaoui, Fang Yin, Yutian Wang, Guo Yubin, Henry Mai, Yu Dawei, Fenfen Huang, Nisrine Adam, Faical Elkihel, Ren Dahua, Hanyu Zhang, Noureddine Aberdine, Cai Jie, Qiang Wang, Bing Bai, Siyan Huo. Directed by Dante Lam

For awhile there it felt like the good ol’ US of A had the market cornered on chest-thumping military action films. Well, move over Uncle Sam; China has earned themselves a seat at that particular table with this big budget modern day warfare look at an elite squad (not unlike Seal Team 6) in the Chinese Navy.

The movie starts out with them rescuing a Chinese merchant vessel from Somali pirates. Captain Phillips much? In any case, no sooner have they mopped up that operation when they are urgently diverted to the North African (fictional) country of Yewaire which is suffering through a revolution being orchestrated by a terrorist organization called Zaka. Sure they want to set up their own intolerant theocracy there but there is a much more sinister motive; they’re trying to get at a supply of yellowcake, a type of weapons-grade Uranium. With that, they would be able to make a terrifying number of dirty bombs that could potentially wipe dozens of cities from the face of the map.

But then they take some Chinese civilians hostage and anyone will tell you that’s a really bad idea. The squad – called Sea Dragons – is sent in and put to work rescuing their citizens, preventing the terrorists from getting the yellowcake and in general saving the day while looking pretty dang good at it.

Like Hollywood hits 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, American Sniper and Lone Survivor, Operation Red Sea is as much entertainment as it is recruitment video – some might say propaganda (and they wouldn’t be far wrong). The military, in this case the Chinese military, is portrayed in a totally badass light with plenty of macho testosterone-laden one-liners meant to portray just how badass they are although the dialogue “Tom Yi: Give ‘em Hell!” is as cringe-inducing as a similar line from a World War II war flick is today. Kind of makes you want to slap a dame on the butt and give the Krauts what for although the Krauts here are the 21st all-purpose villain Arab terrorists.

There is a significant difference between this film and American versions however; for one thing, the Sea Dragons aren’t really given much individual character. For them and apparently the Chinese military in general as well, it’s all about the team and not the individual. The snipers here aren’t getting into one-on-one battles with their opposites pretty much although there is a little bit of that; the whole “Army of One” campaign that the US Army ran a few years back would have never played in China. Individualism is Western weakness; sacrificing for the good of society is much more desirable and that really sums up our societies in a nutshell.

Consequently there really aren’t a lot of standout performances here although the Chinese actors on display here are much more restrained than we normally see from Chinese films. One place they’ve definitely improved are on the battle sequences; utilizing Korean effects houses (the best at these kinds of effects in the business) the battles look realistic and terrifying. There’s a boatload of gore and I’m talking about an aircraft carrier, not a dinghy. Fingers are blown off, jaws are unhinged, people are perforated, stabbed, shot, burned and eviscerated and from time to time, heads are lopped off. The carnage can be pretty intense so be mindful of that if you are sensitive to such things.

This is going to feel a lot like movies you’ve seen before if you’re an American although if you’re Chinese chances are this will be much more unfamiliar ground. If the flag-waving and chest-thumping may be a little bit too bizarre for you coming from a Chinese film, it might be understandable. Not that long ago a movie like this would never have been picked up for American distribution; the Chinese military would not carry much of a resonant rooting interest for American audiences – the fact that not one Chinese civilian gets killed in this film is no accident. The message is that Chinese citizens are perfectly safe while the military is around which is some powerful stuff if you’re a citizen of the People’s Republic.

The entertainment value is pretty strong though and even though it is a bit of a different attitude than similarly themed American films there’s still the visceral enjoyment. To quote the legendary Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, a good many things get blowed up real good. This film, playing this week at the New York Asian Film Festival, had a limited theatrical release this past February and will be available on various streaming services as well as on home video effective July 24th. If you like your war movies with all the gore and none of the angst, this one is for you.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are well-plotted. The movie is entertaining throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too long for some American audiences. It feels like a fairly standard American military action B-movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as strong and often bloody violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Navy SEALs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Respeto

The Truth Beneath (Bi-mil-eun eobs-da)


Being a power couple isn’t always enough.

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Ye-jin Son, Ju-hyuk Kim, Yu-hwa Choi, Cheol-woo Han, Eui-sung Kim, Gin-goo Kim, Min-jae Kim, So-hee Kim, Sang-hee Lee, Gene Woo Park, Ji-Hoon Shin. Directed by Kyoug-mi Lee

There aren’t many things worse than a missing child. Your mind is filled with the worst possible case scenario but at the same time you are holding out hope that said child will return home safe and sound. It’s the not knowing that drives us crazy.

Jong-chan (J-h Kim) is a former news anchor running for the Korean national assembly against entrenched politician No Jae-soon (E-s Kim). His wife Yeon-hong (Son) is the perfect political wife; beautiful, loyal, elegant and erudite. On the first day of their campaign however their mercurial teenage daughter Min-jin (Shin) disappears. At first nobody seems to be all that worried; even though Min-jin is an honors student and by all accounts a good girl, she wasn’t always that way.

Yeon-hong is frantic, particularly when her husband’s campaign managers and the police seem unfazed by the girl’s absence. No is making hay on the incident as Jong-chan is running on a family values platform with the ironic catchphrase “Protecting your children.” No shows no shame in pointing out that Jong-chan is having problems protecting his own.

The more that Yeon-hong looks into her daughter’s disappearance, the more troubled she gets. It turns out that Min-jin was a much different girl than her mother believed. She was being bullied at school and had taken up with a kind of pop punk girls band (the music for whom isn’t half bad). She was best friends with Choi Mi-ok (S-h Kim) who seems unnaturally possessive towards her friend. The more Yeon-hong finds out, the more convinced she becomes that the trail to her daughter’s disappearance leads to a shadowy link between her school and her father’s campaign.

This starts out as a political thriller but as the investigation of Yeon-hong continues it becomes more of a standard potboiler. That’s not to say that this isn’t head and shoulders over most of the ilk – there is a lot here to like, chief among them the performance of Son which would be getting her all kinds of notice were this film made in Hollywood.

For those who like acclaimed director Park Chan-woo, Lee is a disciple of the Korean filmmaker and in fact got Chan-woo to co-write the script. There is much of his influence on the film overall, from some of the more taboo elements of the plot (which I won’t reveal here) to the labyrinthine plot that twists and turns through a maze of characters, red herrings and half-glimpsed clues.

Lee has an excellent visual sense which he exercises a little too freely perhaps. There is a surfeit of flashbacks and special effects shots (raindrops frozen in mid-air for example, an Asian staple) to the point where it can be difficult to keep up with the plot. Eventually the audience is left feeling that they don’t have a clue what’s going on which is to say that few of the characters in the film have either.

Still despite the occasional forays into “look ma, I’m directing” territory, the movie is a solid thriller that will keep the viewer guessing while making some occasionally dazzling sequences that will either throw you for a loop or leave you breathless. Korean cinema is an equal to its counterparts in Japan and China although most true cinema buffs already know that. It’s time the world in general discovered that too.

REASONS TO GO: The film starts off a little choppy but ends up pulling together nicely. There is an eerie feeling here that isn’t supernatural. Son gives an exemplary performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie starts off as a political thriller but eventually morphs into a generic thriller. The flashback-heavy plot is occasionally hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead actors Son and J-h Kim both previously starred together in the 2008 comedy My Wife Got Married.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ides of March
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2