April 24, 2014

Far East Film Festival - The Day Before

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I'm now in Udine, Italy for a film festival, one of several happening simultaneously. Most eyes will be on the events of Tribeca. But I am in Udine for one of the most significant festivals dedicated to Asian cinema outside of Asia. Part of it is because of my appreciation of Asian cinema, but also because this might be my only time to meet, even if briefly, a couple of people I've known online for a few years.

I first was aware of the Far East Film Festival when I lived in Thailand, and was following the Thai film scene through the writings of a couple of English language journalists there: Kong Rithdee and Wise Kwai. The festival president, and cofounder, Sabrina Baracetti, responded when I first read about the festival presentation of Asian musicals, and the corresponding book offered at the festival. Not only did I get the Asia Sings! book, but also the most recent film festival catalogue and a monograph on Ann Hui. A few years later, I returned the compliment by sending Sabrina a copy of the book Southeast Asian Cinema which included an essay I wrote.

I have also been corresponding with freelance film historian Anchalee Chaiworaporn, since buying a copy through her of the Asiexpo book on Thai cinema. Asiexpo published the book that includes my essay. We have since then written on occasion to each other both on Thai and Hollywood cinema. It was through Anchalee that I was able to purchase the DVDs available through the Thai Cinema Archives, which I wrote about a couple of years ago.

Here is the list of films to be presented at this year's festival. I am going as a "Black Dragon" which means that not only can I see everything at the festival, but I have a reserved seat. Not that I'm going to see everything - I don't have the capacity for that anymore, and with ten days, I'd prefer to pace myself. The festival is heavier of Chinese language films, with a greater emphasis on Hong Kong cinema that is more directed towards local concerns, as opposed to the Hong Kong films that have been designed for play in mainland China. Of the films scheduled, I have already seen The Raid II with a small, but no less enthusiastic, audience at my nearby Alamo Drafthouse theater. I know that the Korean film, The Attorney is to get a home video release soon, having seen a preview from one of the recent Well Go USA DVDs I reviewed recently.

Since everything is happening at one theater, I don't have to worry about having to choose between two or more films with conflicting schedules. On the other hand, if I miss a film, I might not ever have a chance to see it again. Since I'm not on anyone's payroll, I can see and write about what I want, so my film festival coverage will reflect my own personal interests which should include one documentary and a couple of the restored classics. Some, but certainly not all, of the newer films, will probably show up on home video in the US. My biggest challenge will probably be to wake up early enough to catch a couple of films scheduled for nine in the morning, especially the three hour Taiwanese baseball movie, Kano.

If things work out with my less than comprehensive grasp of technology, I might also post a few photos taken at the festival. With luck, Undefeated will be more than the title of first film seen here at Udine.

April 22, 2014

Hallucination Strip

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Roma Drogata: a polizia non puo intervenire
Lucio Marcacinna - 1975
Raro Video BD Region A

Hallucination Strip is one of those odd films best appreciated by the more curious cinephile. How odd? This was the first film Bud Cort made, almost five years after Harold and Maude. Even with facial hair, Cort's wide eyes and baby face hadn't changed much since his onscreen fling with Ruth Gordon. Cort's filmography up to that point had several unconventional films, notably Brewster McCloud, so being in an Italian crime drama that take a break for an LSD trip doesn't seem like such a stretch.

Weirdly enough, there is Robert Altman;s French connection from Images here, Marcel Bozzuffi as the cop with an eye on Cort, mostly in the hopes of nabbing Rome's bigger drug dealers. Too bad Altman wasn't on the set of this film. Just having two names from two films that defined Hollywood in in the early Seventies can't make Hallucination Strip more than a film that is neither bad enough, nor bold enough to even be considered cinema maudit.

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This is the only film by cowriter and director Lucio Marcaccini. As reported by editor Giulio Berruti, Marcaccini seemed to be adrift on his own set. Maybe someone will get Bud Cort to relay his own version of the making of this film. In the meantime, Berruti's story is of an editor for a small production company, who is asked by the producer to "stitch" a film together, and finds himself occasionally advising the novice director. Marcaccini also reportedly produced the film with his own money. The only consistent information about Marcaccini is that he made this film. His stint as an assistant on Garden of the Finzi-Continis and a couple other films is not documented.

It could be that some of the basic story ideas were percolating in Marcaccini's mind well before he had the opportunity to make the film. Certainly, by 1975, making a film about rich high school kids smoking very fat jays and going on bad LSD trips was hardly topical. Add to that a scene of body painting, some performance art, a bit of consciousness raising, and you have a film that might have seemed marginally more "with it" had it been made in 1968. Bozzuffi is Marcaccini's proxy here, disapproving of the drug taking, and questioning the kids' politics, but also taking the parents to task for being too self-involved to really know what their children are up to. In keeping with that beloved cinematic tradition, the high school kids all look like they've all past their 21st birthday.

April 20, 2014

Coffee Break

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Kelly Lin in Mad Detective (Johnie To & Wai Ka-Fai - 2007)

April 17, 2014

Death Occurred Last Night

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La morte risale a ieri sera
Ducio Tessari - 1970
Raro Video BD Region A

It was future screenplay writer Ric Menelllo who clued me in on Ducio Tessari. We saw Tessari's one foray into Hollywood filmmaking, Three Tough Guys, starring Fred Williamson, Isaac Hayes and Lino Ventura. On my own, I saw the Alain Delon crime thriller Tony Arzenta, released in the U.S. under the title of No Way Out. Tessari's most familiar work is as one of the writers for A Fistful of Dollars. Death Occurred Last Night has none of the exuberance of Three Tough Guys, nor is it an exercise in style like Tony Arzenta, but Tessari makes some interesting choices here.

Raf Vallone is a panicked father whose daughter has disappeared. The daughter, Donatella, is twenty-five, but is described as "mentally deficient". Vallone is seen in a series of full shots, some from a pronounced distance, that emphasize his isolation and sense of smallness in trying to find the truth about his daughter. The film takes place in Milan, and Tessari often uses shots where the scale of the city, the tall apartments, office buildings and even a stadium dwarf the characters. Police captain Frank Wolff reminds Vallone that his daughter is just one of many missing young women, and Tessari creates a visual motif to illustrate a sense of personal anguish in an indifferent environment.

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There is also a very unusual scene where Wolff and his wife, played by Eva Renzi, have alternating monologues. The wife has just published a book, it's suggested that it is pictorial, documenting the violent state of the world. It takes a little while to realize that the two are not having a dialogue, but are each commenting on the kind of void one feels after accomplishing something, whether it it solving a case, or getting a book published. It's not every genre movie that gives room for the characters to have a little existential crisis of justifying their lives.

Even though the film begins with Raf Vallone confronting the police, the narrative mostly follows cops Woff and Gabriele Tinti who persuade a former pimp to help them seek out Donatella. I was a bit thrown off when Wolff is seen with a syringe, and medically treats Vallone, until I learned that the source novel is one of several books about physician turned detective Duca Lamberti. The novel's author, Giorgio Scerbanenco, lived in Milan, where all of his books take place. The source novel's English language title is "The Milanese Kill on Saturday".

A couple more visual bits that I liked: a shot of Frank Wolff handing out cash to a couple of madams at one of several "houses" visited, while in the background, behind frosted glass, we can see one of the girls undressing. Also a shot with the camera tilted up at a staircase where several floors above, several oranges fall to the floor, dropped by one of Vallone's startled neighbors.

Chris Alexander, of Fangoria magazine, provides a video introduction, as well as an overview in the booklet to Death Occurred Last Night that in retrospect tries too hard to position the film within the dominant Italian genre films of the time. The problem is that this approach brings certain expectations for the viewer. There is also some discussion of the film score by Gianni Ferrio, that some critics have cited as inappropriate. I had no problem with the music, which would seem to coincide with Tessari's overall aim which would be to go against the grain of familiar genre conventions.

April 15, 2014

Seven Warriors

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Zhong yi qun ying
Terry Tong - 1989
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In Christopher Frayling's biography of Sergio Leone, Frayling recounts how issues of plagiarism held up the release of A Fistful of Dollars in the United States. After making millions of dollars, well more than a fistful, throughout most of the world, Leone had to settle a legal dispute over his publicly acknowledged use of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo before United Artists would introduce American audiences to what became known as a spaghetti western. Just a few years earlier, and with the same studio, Kurosawa made more money from the United Artists' remake of Seven Samurai than he had earned making the original film.

I wouldn't know if Kurosawa was unaware of the Hong Kong film that was very obviously inspired by both his work as well as the Hollywood remake by John Sturges. Maybe he thought any financial rewards would not be worth the effort. Certainly, at the time Seven Warriors was made, it was not seen by anyone outside of Hong Kong and some Chinese language areas in East Asia. If the film played in the U.S., it would have been seen in the circuit of Chinatown theaters. Whatever the case of the film's visibility, Kurosawa's name is nowhere to be seen in the credits.

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The concept is of some interest, transposing the story to China of the 1920s, known as a time of conflict between various warlords vying for regional rule. The more remote regions of China were similar to "the wild West" with people essentially fending for themselves. There is one scene that plays on that analogy, with one of the soon to be members of the seven, a tall man armed with several knives, facing a man in a very western style black suit, along with a cowboy hat. The story is essentially the same: a group of peasants wish to defend themselves against a gang of bandits, and hire some professionals to fight on their behalf. The professionals are men, down on their luck, who take on the job as a means of keeping what is left of their self-respect.

At a little more than ninety minutes, Seven Warriors is quite a bit shorter that either Kurosawa's original, or Sturges' popular remake. Character development is set aside for action. A couple of sources list Sammo Hung as having had a hand in the direction. Hung is quite visible in an opening scene, saving his sister from the clutches of a warlord, and showing off his kung fu moves. The most notable stars would be Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Jackie Cheung, both relatively early, when they were starting to gain traction as Hong Kong stars. Leung is more of a lover than a fighter, the idealist of the group. A scar-faced Cheung is a martinet, training the villagers in military tactics. Old school Shaw Brothers star, Lo Lieh, has the plum role are the warlord the seven are fighting against.

Seven Warriors hasn't aged as well as the films it was trying to emulate. Particularly grating are the sound effects, the punches and clanging of swords that sound like they came from the same library as countless other Hong Kong martial arts movies. There are a handful of nice action scenes, especially those with Ben Lam as the knife throwing Mao, and a heroic Jackie Cheung. I also like the inclusion of a point of view shot from blacksmith, the top screen grab, taking a peek through the burnt out bottom of a pot.

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April 13, 2014

Coffee Break

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Elizabeth Pena in Mother and Child (Rodrigo Garcia - 2009)

April 10, 2014

Confession of Murder

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Naega Salinbeomida;
Jung Byung-gil - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The best reason to see the South Korean Confession of Murder is for the action set pieces. This is the kind of stuff that reveals the conventionality and lack of imagination in big budget Hollywood. The first chase scene has the brother of one of the victims in pursuit of the confessed killer. When the two are not leaping around from one fast moving car to another, they are having a fist fight on one of the moving vehicles. The action is cut between point of view shots with the camera at bumper level. There is a lot of fact cutting, but Bung is able to organize the shots so that the sense of direction remains coherent. There is a second high speed chase with the dogged detective in a high speed chase driving one very large truck, following a man on a motorcycle. The dynamics of scale are immediately set up here, along with the constricted space of part of the chase filmed in a tunnel. Many of the scenes throughout the film take place in very restricted or enclosed spaces, but Bung amps up his chases with cars and trucks that spin sideways and upside down, and lots of breaking glass.

As a critique of celebrity, Confession of Murder takes a few pot shots at a familiar target. Shortly after the statute of limitations has expired, a book is published, written by a confessed serial killer. The book is a best seller, with the killer earning millions of dollars. There is still one death that the killer may have been responsible for, but he's not admitting to more than what's been published. Detective Choi, who sports a scar on his mouth from when he almost caught the killer, finds himself conflicted in still wanting to bring the man to justice, yet at the same time finding himself protecting the killer from relatives of the known victims. The killer, Lee, with his boy band good looks, enjoys his time appearing on television, and taking the admiration of his young female fans. In spite of the evidence, Choi is not totally convinced that Lee is the real killer.

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There are some scenes with the producers of a reality show, setting up a meeting with Choi and Lee. The producer is concerned that Choi might shoot Lee on live television. The station owner sees that possibility as an "exclusive". Several characters debate the use of celebrity and mass media manipulated for personal advantage. Whether Lee is the actual serial killer, and if so, is truly remorseful, are almost beside the point.

Where writer-director Jung excels is in setting up a sense of almost constant claustrophobia, of the action taking place in enclosed spaces. The first scene takes place on a dark, rainy night. This is one of those few times when use of a shaky-cam, with the camera lens smeary with rain drops, is used to good effect. The killer is introduced wearing a storm bucket hat, his face partially covered by a surgical mask. The is very little visibility, and the the surrounding darkness seems more like walls rather than an infinite space. The crowds who have come to see Lee, and the shots of multiple television screens add to the oppressive atmosphere. Jung also films a fight inside an elevator, alternating shots from the observational camera with some point of view shots, as well as overhead shots showing a little room there is for the two foes to maneuver.

It should be noted that Confession of Murder was inspired by a real life, unsolved case, of the murder of ten women in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province. Until 2007, there was a fifteen year statute of limitations for murder, later changed to twenty-five years. Currently, the South Korean government is considering a bill to abolish any statute of limitations for first degree mursder, making release quite timely.