This column’s purpose is to pick and choose from the doings and transpirings in the world of Asian cinema. As such I’m not attempting to summarise everything that happened in the world of Asian cinema, just the stuff that piqued my interest and will hopefully interest you.
Indonesia: Macabre (Darah) is a film I was really lucky to see. It played at a bunch of film festivals and then never showed up on DVD, VOD or even a limited theatrical run. I caught it at a local film festival (the Leeds International Film Festival) with an amazing audience and it was a highlight of the year for me. A twisted, violent, hilarious, crazy, Indonesia horror film which blended the brutal violence of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with the demented humour of Evil Dead II. It was, to use parlance which has nothing to do with our times, a hoot and the kind of film which would have totally found a receptive audience if anyone had bothered to release it. The directors of Macabre, the Mo Brothers, have announced their newest project Killers and Twitch has a teaser poster and a synopsis you can read below.
Nomura, a man in his early thirties, lives successfully in Tokyo, Japan. Girls like him and he likes being in their company, however, none of them realizes the true sinister identity behind his clean cut façade. Nomura has been leaving a legacy of violent murders that he immortalizes through video clips that he posts in a public video website. He revels on the sight and fact that millions of people have been witness through his virally spread videos.
Thousands of miles away from him, in a whole different world, lives Bayu, a disgraced investigative journalist living in a violent and unstable Jakarta, Indonesia. As Bayu’s life is hit by the nadir of failures, he starts to take cue from Nomura’s videos that create an alter ego of a vigilante serial killer who records his own brand of “justified” killings. Nomura’s seemingly confident and controlled charm starts to peel when his ego is wounded by the fact that Bayu’s videos have reached a significant numbers of followers that could rival his own …
This sounds like it could be a lot of fun especially considering how great Macabre turned out to be. I just hope that it actually gets picked up for distribution.
Thailand: Last time I ran with the teaser trailer Pinkaew’s new film The Kick. There is now an official trailer which Beyond Hollywood ran a few days ago and which you can see here. The trailer suggests that The Kick could be a whole heap of fun and it definitely seems to have the style of Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong, even down to what looks to be an inexplicable car chase. The thing I liked the most about the trailer is that it seems to show some really interesting choreography. As much as I liked both Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong I felt that both films often skimped on proper back and forth combat in favour of showcasing Tony Jaa’s god-given face breaking abilities.
Whilst I do love Thai action cinema I often feel that there is a kitchen-sink mentality which means that fights are forceful but never particularly visually interesting. I think only Born to Fight and Chocolate has actually impressed me in terms of showing interesting fight sequences. This is completely subjective, but I’ve just always preferred long drawn out one on one fights (like the end of The Young Master) rather than multi-person brawls. It is one of the reasons I found Bangkok Knockout to be fairly tedious.
Still this is a film which highlights Taekwondo and has at least one sequence where a man gets hit in the face with a frying pan. I’m all about people being hit with frying pans, so I’m optimistic.
Malaysia: Twitch has the trailer for Petaling Street Warrior, which you can see here. I know next to nothing about Malaysian cinema. In fact I’m pretty sure I could name way more films partially set in Malaysia than were actually produced in the country. As such I really don’t have much in the way of context when looking at this trailer. All I see is Kung Fu Hustle, but without Stephen Chow or the amazing visual design
Hong Kong: I know that everyone hates Asian ghost films now so you’re all probably going to groan at a teaser trailer for another entry in the spooky wet haired girl club. Just to give some context I still find Asian ghost stories amazingly effective, but that is due to a number of reasons. The main reason is that when I first watched The Ring, which whilst not the stylistic genesis of these films was definitely the movie that moved them onto an international audience, I knew nothing about the movie. In fact I was watching it on a tiny portable TV at just a little over midnight on Channel 4 at the start of the 00s. The film did a number on me, in particular the finale, and I’ve always been an easy mark for that aesthetic. Whilst few other films have created that same palpable terror feel I’ve found films like Pulse and Noroi have used the tropes of Asian horror to create an amazing sense of existential terror.
To get back on track 24framespersecond has the teaser trailer for the newest film in the Asian ghost genre, What’s Under The Bed. Due for release in Hong Kong sometime next week the film looks….interesting, if lacking in subtlety. The film’s press release states that the movie is about a woman who opts to stay in a haunted hotel and is then presumably antagonised by wet haired ghosts. Directed by Niu Chaoyang, who I admit I know nothing of, the film looks like it could be interesting at least. It’s certainly odd seeing the ghosts in a ghost story being all up in people’s business.
Thailand: I love Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, more on this later, and I’ve always been enamoured by the work he produced in the mid-00s. However Ratanaruang shot to fame in his native Thailand with a bunch of crime thrillers in the 1990s. Ratanaruang’s filmography is kind of hard to get a hold of in Europe and the UK. Europe just has Last Life in the Universe, whilst the US also got Invisible Waves. Whilst these are both great it’s always frustrated me that I couldn’t explore the back catalogue of one of my favourite directors. Earlier in September Twitch ran the international trailer for Ratanaruang’s latest film Headshot. You can see it here and it seems to be a return to the crime genre that Ratanaruang started off with.
The trailer looks amazing and seems to mix Ratanaruang’s most artistic proclivities with a commercial sensibility I’m not really used to. In fact the tone reminded me a lot of Michael Mann’s mid-90s, early 00s crime output. Whilst Thai cinema doesn’t have a shortage of crime films it’s always interesting seeing a consummate visualist playing in the genre. The key concept of the film is also fairly intriguing in that the protagonist has had his vision altered so everything he sees is upside down which gives Ratanaruang an opportunity to show off some interesting visual tricks. It seems that Asian crime cinema has something of a predeliction for protagonists with unique conditions, think Bangkok Dangerous and it’s deaf assassin.
Twitch also ran a review from the films showing at the Vancouver Internal Film Festival which suggests that Headshot is a film to keep an eye on.
Hong Kong: Finally. I love Tsui Hark, really do. I think he’s one of the funnest, most inventive, Chinese directors working today. Even when his films have stumbled a little they have always been full of wonderful moments and ideas. Detective Dee is probably one of my favourite films this year, an energetic, visually stunning, Sherlock Holmes style adventure movie and I’ve got high hopes for his remake of Dragon Gate Inn. The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is a remake of Tsui Harks’ 1992 New Dragon Gate Inn which itself was a remake of King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn from 1967. New Dragon Gate Inn is one of my favourite Wuxia films so I’m kind of interested in Hark’s second remake.
Beyond Hollywood has the trailer for The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate which you can watch here. It looks lavish and surprisingly close in tone to New Dragon Gate Inn so I’m definitely going to be keeping an eye on it.
So what is Spike’s canon? Well it is a fancy name for what is essentially an essentials list. These are what I view as being part of my own personal canon and they represent films that are great and films that are pivotal, and sometimes films that are both. Despite the academic language this is very much a personal list and should be taken as such.
Last Life In The Universe (2003) – d. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
The Players: Tadanobu Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak, Yutaka Matsushige, Riki Takeuchi, Takashi Miike
The Plot: Kenji (Asano) is a suicidal Japanese man, working and living in the heart of Bangkok. Almost pathologically passive his greatest desire seems to be killing himself, a desire which is continually thwarted by infractions from the people around him.
Following a surprise visit from his brother Yukio (Matsushige), a Yakuza on the run for his life from his former employer, only exacerbates Kenji’s woes and puts him directly into the path of Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) a young woman who bonds with Kenji over a shared tragedy.
Spike’s Thoughts: Last Life in the Universe has floated around the middle of my by ‘Best of the 00s’ list since I caught it on DVD back in 2004. Back then I was consuming a steady diet of DVDs released under the TARTAN ASIA EXTREME label. Even though it was released in the same year Last Life in the Universe winged its way to a western release about a year before Ong-Bak shunted Thailand’s action cinema onto the public consciousness. Ask anyone who is into foreign cinema to define Thai cinema and they’ll probably describe films that are known for the physical prowess of their stars.
But whilst the late 00s were definitely dominated by various iterations on the theme of hitting someone in the face with your elbow/knee really hard the cinema of Thailand had been undergoing something of a new wave in the late 1990s and early 00s. Leagues away from the scrappy, punk-rock, stunt-man endangering cinema of Prachya Pinkaew were the stylish, sophisticated; seemingly Hong Kong influenced films of Nonzee Nimibutr, Wisit Sasanatieng, the Pang Brothers and Pek-Ek Ratanaruang. Whilst the relative qualities of the films created by these directors is debatable (although I’d go to the mat for the Pang Brother’s original Bangkok Dangerous and Sasabatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger) they demonstrated a tone and texture which seemed to position Thailand as a cinematic focal point.
Last Life in the Universe is definitely my favourite of this New Wave of Thai cinema even if it doesn’t feel specifically like a Thai movie. With a Japanese and Thai lead and a peripheral cast rounded out by Japanese and Thai actors it feels far more like a pan-Asian affair that a specifically Thai film. It is actually one of the reasons I really like the movie because it often feels like Asian cinema can be claustrophobically ethno-centric. The lead character, arguably, is Kenji who is an outsider in Bangkok because of both his own personal hang ups and his nationality. The issue of race isn’t particularly broached by the subject, but Bangkok itself and its innate foreignness to the Japanese characters is a key facet of the films overall tone.
Ratanaruang’s film isn’t a romance in the strictest sense, the connection between Kenji and Noi is far too serpentine and glacial for this, but it’s a film about the importance of human connection. In particular it has the basic tropes of romance in that Kenji, our protagonist, is shaken from one equilibrium to another by the intervention of a romantic partner. The problem is that Kenji falls in love with Nid, Noi’s older sister, whose untimely death throws Kenji and Noi together. But whilst Kenji loved Nid it’s his relationship with Noi which starts to really rehabilitate him as a person. As such we have the unusual situation of a man’s life being made better not by the person whom he fell head over heels in love with, but the person who he had to make do with. It’s also a testament to movies in general that someone making do is considered unusual.
At the centre of all of this is Tadanobu Asano who injects Kenji with a stoic, slightly bemused, energy. Now for my money Asano is one of the most talented Japanese actors working today and whilst he does have something of a laconic shtick that he occasionally falls back he has got an amazingly versatile filmography. From the crazed Kakihara in Ichi The Killer through his role as a stoic ronin Hattori Gennosuke in Zatōichi and Cronenbergian lead performance in Vital Asano has always been able to bring a peculiar energy to movies. I think most people would know him either as Kakihara or his turn as Temüjin in Mongol (he is also barely in Thor as one of the Warriors Three). What we get in Last Life in the Universe is a role that Asano is quite comfortable with, the dislocated, laconic, stranger who reacts to every escalating situations with a bemused confusion. Asano is a king when it comes to reactions, his underplayed style making even the subtlest reaction seem infinitely hilarious. It is this prosaic energy that makes Last Life in the Universe both so enrapturing and so potentially frustrating, because whilst some may look love Asano’s muted performance others will find it endemic of a film that seems to be actively screwing with the audience.
Ratanaruang has a specific tone and style he wants to convey in Last Life in the Universe and this tone means that the entire film can feel oddly slack. It is the kind of movie that unfurls very slowly and seems to purposefully goading the audience into response. The small roles given to Japanese genre legend Riki Takeuchi and his frequent collaborator, the crazed director, Takashi Miike seem to lend weight to this theory. Their mere presence seems to distort the texture of the film and makes audiences expect something a little more wild and frenetic but whilst both Takeuchi and Miike are suitably offbeat in their restricted screen-time they do little to change the overall momentum of the film. Ratanaruang seems far more interested in maintaining an offbeat, lyrical, tone which constantly defies audience’s expectations but never seems overtly transgressive. It’s the sort of film that briefly slips into moments of magical realism halfway in, which constantly makes us assess what the relationship between its central characters is based on, which cuts between two different versions of the third act giving no indication of which is canon and which is imagined.
But whilst this all sounds terribly frustrating it is never anything other than a joy to watch. Ratanaruang balances the tone perfectly, never allowing the film to become too maudlin or too cold, and Christopher Doyle’s cinematography patiently builds up a style that flits between small intimate moments that are akin to Cinéma vérité and grand sweeping moments that bring to mind Terence Malick. What makes me personally love the movie is how all of these tones are held together so consistently, with the gallows humour of Kenji’s half-hearted suicide attempts mixed with the very real pain that Noi feels at the loss of her sister. It is a film whose tone should be all over the place and yet Ratanaruang never lets the movie escape him, making each element work in tandem. It is a film that through its use of imagery and music (which always reminded me of Boards of Canada) gains a hypnotic feel but is never anything less than humane. It’s a film where its main thematics are laced overtly throughout its runtime, excerpts from a childhood book Kenji loved about a lizard realising he is the last thing left alive on Earth directly comment on the movie as it goes along, but which still has an ephemeral tone and feel. It is a film where two versions of the ending are played concurrently, with vastly different outcomes, and both feel like they could be a natural ending to the movie. As such it is a film that should feel out of control, swamped by its elements, and yet it never does. Ratanaruang’s follow up film, Invisible Waves, which paired him again with Tadanobu Asano and Christopher Doyle is very good but didn’t have the deftness of tone that made Last Life in the Universe quite so special.