Still working my way through my London Korean Film Festival reviews over at Easternkicks.com. Hence the less than biblical flood of new things over at ThingsFallApart. In fact, could be quiet here for a little while (a little newsflash later this week I hope). But for those who can’t get enough of my prose? Have a little look at my thoughts on the enjoyable if flawed Korean Pandemic Thriller “The Flu”!
What Has Gone Before..
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Thursday, November 14, 2013
The Machine Girl” follows orphans Ami (Minase Yashiro) and her brother Yu (Ryôsuke Kawamura). Their parents apparently committed suicide after being accused of some murder (don’t worry, like much in this movie, it has no real plot relevance), and Ami has stepped up to look after her little brother. Unfortunately Yu is being bullied by a gang led by the son a local Yakuza boss, and is eventually murdered by them, along with his best friend. Ami being quite a capable sort, goes on the hunt for revenge. Her hunt for clues leads first to the family of one of the bullies, which ends up rather badly for all concerned, but does lead Ami to the home of the leader. Problem is, Ami is not THAT capable, and is captured and tortured, leading to her arm being lopped off. She manages to escape, and is helped to recover, albeit grudgingly, by Miki (Asami) and her husband (who are the parents of the other boy who was killed). After some bonding, the group vow to work on the revenge together, and supply Ami with a huge machine gun to replace her amputated arm. Blood will flow, bullets will fly, but will Ami get the revenge she so desires?
For an exploitative B-Movie, this one was a huge amount of fun. The general story made perfect sense (if you ignore some of the more surreal elements), and it remained pretty much focussed on the bloody revenge. Sure, the acting is of a lesser standard, but Manase Yashiro certainly gives us a determined and dangerous heroine, and manages to be rather cute to boot! It also sticks pretty much to outrageous gore than anything sexually exploitative (even with Japanese Porn Star Asami in a major role), with only one moment that is of serious concern.
And boy, the gore! Limbs get lost, blood gushed like over excited geysers, heads are shot to pieces, that is when they are not being decapitated. Usually this is not my cup of tea, but it is done in such an over the top way, and on such a low budget, that it didn’t offend. Think of a crazy Manga by the way of “Evil Dead” and you will get the idea. The effects are fun rather than professional, and you have to watch the film fully understanding the constraints it was made under – yes the Machine gun is wobbly and latex burns slip off faces when they are washed with blood, but for me this was just part of the charm.
There is plenty of imagination on display too, which I suppose is obvious from the central conceit itself. So if a schoolgirl with a prosthetic machine gun sounds like an idea you will dig? Then get ready for High School Ninja Squads, Bras with flesh grinding Drill Bits, housewives who deal with problems like Ami by frying them with Tempura batter, and Criminals with fairly messed up ideas of honour (they don’t mind killing and necrophilcally raping one poor girl, but heaven forbid they kill Ami the first chance they get).
Like I say, this is all done on a fairly low budget, but the availability of low cost digital film making equipment may not provide the polish of a blockbuster, but it does give the film a certain look, that is passable, and adds to the film’s charms.
It is hard to criticise the movie once you accept it for the limitations it has been made within, so the only thing that really bugged me was attempting to reconcile just where the opening sequence takes place in context with the rest of the movie. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, it is simply butting the core idea of the movie up there front and centre – otherwise the real action of the film would have been dreadfully back loaded.
The film also has no little heart. Ami is driven by a desire to initially protect, and then get revenge for her Brother, and the film makes sure you never forget that – even when she has possibly gone over the edge. It even makes time to build up a relationship between Ami and Miki that ends up being rather touching. I’ll be honest to say I really wasn’t expecting that.
I’m fairly unashamed to say that I really enjoyed this. Would it be the sort of film I could watch every day? Not so much, but for sheer imagination, sticking to the core concept, and simply not taking itself too seriously? Recommended!
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Monday, November 11, 2013
Remember when I used to write mini-reviews, and always say I might come back to some in the future? Well I finally have… sort of. My review of the ‘finally released in the UK’ 5th instalment of the Whispering Corridors series “A Blood Pledge” is now available, over on my occasional alternate home at EasternKicks.com.
In fact, might be a little while before we get new postings here… I am currently experiencing the 2013 London Korean Film Festival, and there should be a few reviews out of that.
But hopefully we will get something here soon. How about a Review of “The Machine Girl”?
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Killer Toon” introduces us to the recent star of the Korean Webcomic scene, Kang Ji-yoon (Lee Si-young). Her gory stories about murderous acts have made her a popular and feted artiste. We can see though that things are not perfect for our artist – she suffers from dreadful hallucinations and missing time, something her psychiatrist puts down to Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome (though it does appear the writers don’t actually know what AIWS is, but I digress). Things escalate for her when her editor is not only murdered, but in the exact same manner as her latest webcomic, which hadn’t even been published yet. This in itself is a mystery, but the physical evidence does suggest nothing more than a rather gory suicide. Detective Lee Ki-cheol (Um Ki-joon) is torn between marking this down as a suicide or murder, but when another death occurs following the same art-imitating-life pattern, not helped by Ji-yoon appearing on the scene. Turns out Ji-yoon isn’t necessarily the architect of her own stories, and a darker part of her life might hold a clue to exactly what is going on.
An utter delight. I seriously expected so little from this film, even though I have enjoyed some of Director Kim Yong-gyun’s previous work. I really thought this was going to be another terrible Korean Horror taking some modern concept (i.e. Webcomics) and pushing it uncomfortably into some silly rote horror story.
Now, whilst the actual underlying story is the usual story of vengeful spirits, I have to say this film is much greater than the sum of its parts. The Webcomic stuff is integrated beautifully, mixing in drawn scenes with what is happening on screen. It isn’t super flashy, but it is really well managed. Also, the early scenes of horror are really well executed, full of tension and scares and a fair bit of blood. Certainly for a Korean film. Whilst it isn’t the most explicit film you will have ever seen, I also thought it dealt in some fairly dark areas – such as suicides and semi-assisted suicides. Plus it deals in more human concerns such as plagiarism, and what actions one might take to succeed – at the cost of others.
Of course, the film does lose a little bit of pure horror steam when it reaches the second act, with the melodramatic backstory of both Ji-yoon and the other detective (Kim Hyun-woo) making for an interesting but rather long-winded double mystery. However, I actually really rather liked this, because it did something very few Horror films manage to achieve. Every death in this film has a reason, and is linked to the protagonists. Sure, the device of the webcomic brings some of the characters onto the same page as it were, but I always felt the film was utterly consistent, which is very rare in this kind of film. Even some of the more brainless acts of Ji-yoon (like running to the scene of the second murder) makes some logical sense within the confines of her character.
I also really liked the way that the Ji-yoon character was far from sympathetic – I did try and avoid the word heroine or star in my synopsis. Yes, she is the victim in some sense of the word, but she is also someone who harbours a fair few secrets. Our ostensible hero is equally flawed – he is an utter w****r to his subordinate, and makes some fairly silly choices himself, but Um Ki-joon is very watchable. Kim Hyun-woo’s character is also well done, moving from comic relief to something a lot more interesting.
Lee Si-young does fine in her role, although she is so pretty and glamorous that she doesn't quite manage to convince in her struggling artist flashback. But I did like her portrayal, and she was far more than an attractive scream queen. I did wonder if someone with a little more screen presence might have been a wiser choice, but on reflection, I think the balance worked because she isn’t meant to be central in a traditional sense.
It isn’t a perfect movie. The horror isn’t present consistently, and the long melodramatic sequences will not be to all tastes. The integration of the Webcomics is also a little too constrained in the first act. It will struggle to find a real audience outside of Korea, and hardened Horror fans will have seen much of this before. However the use of Webcomics was really well done, it delivered plenty of creep out moments, the story was wonderfully consistent within itself, and the lack of cop out over some of the darker moments made this a most expected but deserved Highly Recommended.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
Well it is nearing the end of October, which usually means I hunt down a horror film with which to spend that particular evening. Now, regular readers will obviously realise that I don’t really need a particular date in the calendar to make a date with a Horror film, but this year a number of films have landed on my doormat, which fulfil the requirement – so, with luck, I should manage to give us a short little series of reviews, and by complete co-incidence, they are all from Korea.
There are a few things that people who know me well would say that are shoo-ins to make me smile unconditionally. Asian Girls in Glasses. Banoffee Pie. A Tottenham Hotspur win. But within the bound of this blog? It has to be a Portmanteau Horror Movie. Now this one I have been looking forward to for quite some time, and the added bonus is that I also have the more recent sequel to hand. It also is helmed by a bunch of Directors that have a fair bit of experience in Horror films. So, let us have a little look at this first film, and see if my smile is at least justified!Horror Stories” gets a big extra star right from the start… as it has a linking story. A Schoolgirl (Kim Ji-won) has been kidnapped by the mute Yoo Yeon-seok. Via writing he informs her that he needs to hear scary stories, which will make him fall asleep, otherwise he needs to taste blood! Yes, this is the old “1001 Arabian Nights” idea, and whilst no particularly original, it gives the stories some kind of link, and actually explains something that has bothered a few reviewers.
Our first tale is “Don’t Answer The Door”, in which two young children are waiting at home for their mother, but fall prey to the home invasion of a Delivery Guy. Maybe.
I say maybe, because this really is a strange one. It opens magnificently, with the children being dropped home from their English Lesson by a potentially creepy Teacher, which includes a simply fabulous staging of a song version of “The Sun and the Moon”, which leads us to believe maybe we have a modern retelling of that Korean Folk Tale. As it turns out, we don’t, but the next 20 minutes are a perfectly reasonable Children in Peril jump/scare fest. Until it goes really strange, turns into a polemic on the injustices of those who have and those who have not. I am used to Korean films genre changing, but this one is so bizarre, even it’s attempts to tie back in with the rest of the film seem as if they were done by someone else who had only half heard about the previous 20 minutes of the story. In terms of pleasure, the opening sequence makes this a reasonable segment, but something seriously went awry.
Next up is “Endless Flight” where serial Killer Jin Tae-hyun is captured and put on a special flight to Seoul to be interrogated. He of course escapes and we have a battle between him and Air-Stewardess.
You could say this was rather unoriginal, but I actually rather liked it. Once I got past the huge plot holes and implausibility of the whole set up, this one has sufficient excitement and blood spraying to please. Our woman-in-peril is perky enough to fight back, and for me the concept worked perfectly in the time limited confines. Far from anything special, this one was a decent and competent segment.
My favourite of the four follows, “Secret Recipe”. Here a couple of sisters (Nam Bo-ra and Jeong Eun-chae) fight to marry a handsome and youthful Doctor. Their Mother has a favourite of course, and a course of Plastic Surgery and conniving make sure the preferred sister gets her man. But then, he might not be the charming perfect Son-in-law after all.
Whilst this segment is a little clunky in both execution and some of the storytelling, it is by far the most visually arresting in the film. It is a spin on the “Bluebeard” fairy-tale (a picture of which is still the scariest part of my childhood memories), with a dose of “Dumplings”. I can’t say that spoils anything too much, as the characters speak in metaphors that are so obvious, you would have to have a complete meltdown not to understand what is going on. This is the one which I felt would have worked as a larger movie, as it obviously had much more to explore about sibling rivalry, relationships and even the Plastic Surgery obsession in Korea. But despite these huge flaws, this episode still managed to give me more enjoyment than the rest of the film, and managed to be funny, scary and stomach-turning. I’m calling a win here.
Finally we have “Ambulance in the Death Zone”, which is probably the most straightforward and recognisable, being a Zombie Apocalypse film. An Ambulance picks up a Mother and unconscious Child in the middle of an infected area, and the on-board Doctor and Nurse fight when it becomes clear that the Daughter may have been bitten. The Mother will stop at little to protect her child though.
I did like this segment, although there was nothing new here. It is fast paced and exciting, and does offer up the gore a film of this type needs. The problem with it is that not only does it get a little repetitive, but it really isn’t anything terribly original. The downbeat ending is par for the course and everything turns out exactly as you expect. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the whole piece, and technically it is great. It just lacks that original touch that sometimes you need from a short.
Overall? I actually liked this movie. Some have complained that most of the stories don’t seem to have a resolution, and that all rely on false dream scares (something happens, our protagonist then wakes up). I actually think this is by design… the whole idea is that our Scheherazade character is trying to tell stories to make her captor fall asleep. Therefore she has to make things up on the fly, and will stop when a particular story isn’t working. I actually found this to be fairly smart work. But, taking the shorts on their own merits? It does make each course fairly unsatisfying.
However, I didn’t hate any segment, and “Secret Recipe” combined with the “Sun and the Moon” song give this film a Recommended. It is far from required viewing, but I would think most horror fans would get something from one segment at least.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
You don’t get to hear much about Asian Cinema on the UK’s self proclaimed flagship film review radio show (Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s Friday afternoon show on BBC Radio 5 Live), possibly due to the populist slant (though that is not a criticism, and it does cover plenty of other fare), so when this film got a more than podcast-only glowing review, I knew I had to see it. But would it glow for this jaded reviewer?
Nobody’s Daughter Hae-won” we follow a few days in the life of our titular student (Jeong Eun-chae). We start out with her meeting with her Mother who is just about to emigrate to Canada. It is clear that they have not spoken for a while, and this parting is probably the first moment of closeness they have had for years. After this meeting, Haw-won is overcome with sadness, and calls up her ex-lover, a much older and married Professor (Lee Seon-gyun). Obviously still totally besotted with her, the pair wander around, still totally panicked that people might see them, ending in a very awkward Soju-fuelled meal with some of her classmates. They part again after a jealous spat, and Haewon continues on her wanderings, meeting up with a friend and another Older Professor who also becomes besotted with Hae-won. He makes her an offer of marriage, and Hae-won finds herself totally confused about her future.
This really is an indie film with a loose indie sensibility and style. This is no criticism, and it makes a pleasant change from the often overly glossy films that I usually see from Korea. Director Hong Sang-soo is certainly no neophyte Director (though this is the first film of his I have seen), with many international awards. Stylistically it is very basic, usually with a fixed camera placed wide on two characters talking, with sudden clumsy zooms to accentuate the key vocal drama. It sounds basic I know, but suits this sort of film perfectly. The charm of the movie is about the conversations after all. And whilst it does display much of the visual character of the area in which it is filmed, it also echoes the somewhat barren and listless character of Hae-won herself.
Jeong Eun-chae is stunningly beautiful. Which is quite fortunate, as just about every character comments on it (including the surreal opening where she encounters Jane Birkin. Literally). All the women appear to be jealous of her, and pretty much every guy wants to bed her (if they haven’t already). Yet, her character is utterly without direction. And at times you can see why many people actually do not like her – she drinks too much, she says things you really shouldn’t (like asking her friend’s boyfriend how is depression is going) and is a lazy and unfocussed student. Jeong though just about manages to hold our empathy for her, which stops the audience getting too frustrated or angry with her.
The film is very melancholic in tone, but is full of amusing, mildly comic moments. The opening sequence with Jane Birkin is surreal, but later conversations are often uncomfortably amusing, and often show the weakness of the men who are drawn towards her, either intimately or casually.
As a piece of 90 minute drama it is entertaining, and I found an awful lot to enjoy. I did struggle with the film overall, as nothing is really resolved, no character has moved on or changed over the course of these few days. I was also somewhat frustrated by the lack of depth given to a few of the characters, which leads the viewer to make a number of assumptions about certain relationships. But having to think about things is not necessarily a bad thing.
My biggest issue is the ending. It ends terribly quickly, and suddenly puts a whole section of the movie into a totally different light. Something we thought was a dream sequence turns out to be a lot longer than we thought it was. I found it a little confusing, but at the same time potentially more rewarding on a second viewing.
At it’s core it is a film about a girl who has plenty going for her, but simply does not fit in. She is at a crossroads in her life. But as her links with her past disappear, instead of moving forward, she grasps at other concrete emotions from her past (it is not accident she keeps visiting the same locations as well as her ex-lover). Hae-won sadly will never achieve much, because she is the sort of frustrating person who is little more than a dreamer, and will never grasp the direction of her own destiny.
I liked this. It gets a recommended. It made me think and work. But at the end of the day, I would have maybe liked a little more from the film.
Tuesday, October 08, 2013
Remember a few years back, when Korean Cinema was full of touching romantic comedies, all seasoned with a healthy dollop of melodrama? For some reason those heady days of the early Korean Wave seem to have faded, and whilst a couple of movies have impressed me, I have to say I came to this one with lowish expectations. The appearance of Lee Min-ki was my main draw, just about the only young Korean actor that I enjoy enough to be tempted to try his films sight unseen. So, once again, will it be a bland disappointment, or a surprise treat?
Very Ordinary Couple” is in short the story of the relationship between Young (Kim Min-hee) and Dong-hee (Lee Min-ki). We meet them at an unusual time. They both work at the same Bank, and have had a secret relationship for a while, but they have recently broken up, albeit for vaguely unspecified reasons. This obviously causes some friction in the office (though most co-workers have no idea). They both try to move on, Young having an ill-judged one night stand with another co-worker, and Dong-hee meeting a much younger student. Unshockingly though, they both have feelings for each other, and after a series of both humorous and uncomfortable mishaps, the couple get together again, this time without the pressures of secrecy. The problem for them is, that they simply never got to working out the root cause of their original breakup – Dong-hee’s temper and lack of commitment, and Young’s frustration at having to compromise. Our couple is maybe doomed to repeat the same mistakes all over again.
Now this one was a complete treat. I really did not see that coming. I have to admit, I was a little wary of the framing device of the film (the workplace is subject to a documentary being filmed, which means quite often characters are being interviewed), but actually it worked in an interesting way – people actually said what they thought they should be saying when in the documentary, and it was the real world actions that actually spoke about what was really going on.
Whilst it may not tread the traditional format of the rom-com, it is funny quite often, usually when Lee Min-ki is on screen, having a drunken tirade. But to me, what is important about this film is how it is brave enough to say – you know what? Not all couples are meant to be together. Whatever the attraction, whatever their blood types. Some couples just are simply not compatible. There doesn’t have to be other people involved, there doesn’t have to be some secret illness. Relationships take compromise, but not everyone is capable of that. I know it sounds sad, but this dose of realism I actually found refreshing.
It is also a lesson on trust. You might tell someone your Facebook password, or have a cute joint mobile telephone plan. But people get funny when they are feeling rejected or have been hurt. Whilst I am very guilty of being a hopeless romantic, I think the film has important truths at play.
Lee Mink-ki brings the humour, but to be frank he isn’t the most likeable of characters here. The real star is Kim Min-hee. The only thing I have seen her in before is “Actresses” (which was assistant-directed by the Director of this, Roh Doek). She gives an amazing performance as a girl who is often loveable, but also capable of pettiness, anger and jealousy. And whilst she does cry a couple of times during the film, her eventual breakdown at a rain-soaked Amusement Park (yes, those Korean Rom-Com tropes of rainy days and Amusement Parks are given a little re-appraisement here), is totally believable.
Other performances are perfectly fine, as is a c-plot about another affair, which mirrors our main story without being neither too similar of contradictory to the overall message of the film. The framing technique is also well handled, and importantly gives us a reason for the film’s coda, set some months later. And whilst it has the slight feel of a happy ending, or at least one full of hope, it also hammers home the truth that people just keep making the same mistakes.
Reading this, it looks like I am a bit down on love and romance. That really isn’t the case. But I just found it refreshing to see a film about a couple who whilst obviously loving each other, simply were not meant to be together. One where people didn’t compromise who they are for the sake of being with someone. And one where the collapse of the relationship was nothing more than a realisation… with no need for one of the characters to fall from grace in some way.
This is a brilliant movie, touching, truthful, brave. But it never feels preachy. Whilst it probably isn’t a film to take in on a first date, it comes as Highly recommended.
Thursday, October 03, 2013
OK, so if you read the last review, the preamble can be quicker. This is the second set of three films, all penned (to some degree) by Lillian Lee, that have the express intention of revitalising Hong Kong Horror Cinema. Also, this one has the CATIII label attached, so I was expecting something a little darker. The first bunch were pretty good, shall we see how the next selection measures up?
Tales of the Dark 2” opens up with Gordon Chan’s ‘Pillow’. Nurse Ching-yi (Fala Chen) has a big argument with her boyfriend (Gordon Lam), after which he goes missing. Sick with apparent worry, she starts to suffer from insomnia. Taking advice from her Doctor boss, she purchases a new Pillow, which not only brings her sleep, but vivid and sexual dreams about her boyfriend. Of course things are not what they seem – I don’t think it is too spoilerific to say the insomnia is more out of guilt than worry (which is clear from the trailer), and this oneiric visits are actually from a spirit that has somehow inhabited the eponymous pillow.
I have rather mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand I loved the look at feel, the clean and start cinematography, the general idea of the story. I really enjoyed Fala Chen’s performance too – going from jealous girlfriend to washed out insomniac. On the other hand the piece has problems. Firstly, there was the structure. Whilst what is going on is hardly a surprise, I can’t help feeling it was revealed at entirely the wrong time. It either should have been introduced chronologically, or as some kind of final reveal. Both would have added an air of mystery to the reason for Ching-yi’s plight. Then we have the sex scenes, which whilst not actually baring too much flesh, were somewhat explicit in the sense of desire. They felt uncomfortable and really quite false (there’s something that really gnaws at me – people having film sex with their clothes on), and some of the more leery early shots of Chen in her underwear seemed a touch exploitative. Finally we have a somewhat disappointing ending, with Ching-yi’s final fate not only being unrevealed, but her afterlife-based saviour seemed a little too understanding. But on the balance, this was an enjoyable piece.
Next up is Laurence Lau’s ‘Hide and Seek’. Here we have a bunch of kids (played by pretty much unknowns) that go for a sleepover in the empty husk of their old school before it gets demolished. They decide to play a game somewhat akin to the English title, where humans and ghosts attempt to hide from the Ghost Catcher for 15 minutes. However, not only is the old caretaker still on the grounds, but the place is populated with real ghosts, that are a result of the SARS epidemic a few years before.
This one really was the most old-school horror of any across the two movies. And for the record, it was a lot of fun. All the old tricks of creepiness were in play, from sudden bangs to apparitions appearing in and out of shot. Acting was a little variable, but at least all the kids had distinct personalities. I really loved the occasional imagination at play too, with ghosts appearing out of a mural, and forming a secret conga-style line.
Sadly, this one seems to have been badly hampered by the running time. All three of these films clock in at around the 30 minute mark, whereas those in part one were all 10 minutes longer. And this one seems to suffer the most, because it really ends incredibly suddenly. Whilst the final fates are revealed in a strange couple of opening/closing scenes, I felt somewhat short changed that things just stopped at exactly the point they were getting interesting. Not only that, but some of the background story about the SARS epidemic and a potential student/Teacher relation really could have done with a lot more exploration. Saying all that, I was entertained for 30 minutes, and was probably my favourite of the three shorts here.
Finally we have Teddy Robin’s “Black Umbrella”. This one is left to last as it was actually penned my Lillian Lee (as opposed to script supervision or general inspiration). In it, we follow a mysterious man (Robin) traversing the streets late at night in Hong Kong. He encounters rude students, skater gangs, inept crooks and thugs. He despatches them all with a sharp tongue, or by the use of his titular Umbrella. When he comes across Mainland Prostitute Aliza Mo though, things take a turn for the worst. He is entrapped by her, and when he doesn’t succumb to her rather aggressive manner of soliciting, things take a rather bloody turn for the worse.
This one was somewhat interesting, though it was as subtle a a tin of Spam. I enjoyed Robin’s journey through the darker side of Hong Kong, showing that humans can be just as bad as the evil spirits we have been encountering in all the previous shorts. It is visually interesting (although you can see the occasional excess in ‘clever’ shots that so often mar the work of an actor behind the lens), and Robin makes for a charismatic and interesting lead. Less successful is the other side of the story, where Mo’s Prostitute character is all over the place character-wise. I wasn’t sure if she was to be sympathised with, empathised with or that maybe we should merely despise her. I can’t help feeling there was some metatextual social commentary here about Mainland Chinese women also. Sure, she was turning tricks, but her sudden about face in character I found somewhat jarring.
After that, the film descends very quickly into a Charnel House. It is far more grim and bloody as any other the preceding 5 shorts, and again seems to suffer from a too short running time, and to be perfectly honest a little bit of exposition. I could work out what was going on, but things might have been better served if someone spent two sentences explaining it. However, it was far from without merit.
So overall, I can’t say I enjoyed part two as much as I did part one. Two of the stories were severely hampered by the shortened running time. They were certainly more visceral, and had a lot more sexual content (meaning this one is never going to play in Mainland China). Each one had a lot going for it, in terms of performances, ideas and execution, but I could not say that one particularly impressed, or made me wish for them to be expanded into a much longer piece. Kudos to all involved for trying, and managing to bring some real Horror to proceedings, but I think this one gets a lesser recommendation. Plenty to enjoy, but not enough to consider essential. It does however make a big claim for the best Poster of the year!
Monday, September 30, 2013
Long term readers will have marked this down as a shoo-in for me to review. A portmanteau horror film is always going to get my attention. This one is actually the first part of a duo of films – this edition gives us three stories, followed up by a further three a few weeks later (I have both movies, so expect part two very soon). What makes it somewhat more interesting is that all 6 tales are from the pen of the great Lillian Lee. There should be some decent pickings in here one would think, so I will stop with the preamble and delve right on in.
Tales from the Dark 1” opens up with “Stolen Goods”, directed and starring Hong Kong Mainstay Simon Lam. Lam plays Kwan, a lonely rather unpleasant man who lives alone, and struggles to hold down a job. His abode is a tiny “coffin” apartment, cramped and cluttered, and he seems to be a little touched in the head, as his only relationship appears to be with some dolls. Desperate to succeed without relying on state hand-outs, he comes up with the plan of kidnapping urns of cremated remains, and holding them to ransom. His first attempt does not really work out, as the family see this as a way of stopping the on-going expense. The second appears more hopeful, as a man offers the reward, not wanting the widow to go through any more pain. As you might have guessed though, there is a little more going on here than you might expect.
I thought this one was ok. What I didn’t discuss in my synopsis was the fact that the streets of Hong Kong in Yam’s vision are flooded with ghosts of all shapes and sizes. Visually this is interesting, but it actually makes for a rather clumsy and distracting background. In terms of style though, it is pretty interesting. Sadly it means the story is compressed to the latter half of an already short piece. There are no real surprises and no real shocks. Yam himself is in full ham-it-up mode, entirely unpleasant, but in a short piece this doesn’t grate too much. My problem with the story as a whole though is that it is pretty noisy and chaotic, and fails to give real time to the underlying social concerns that are the root of what is going on here. I am pretty certain there are more links between the ghosts we see and Kwan, but these are not really explored either. However, as a piece of genre cinema, it is absolutely fine. It just isn’t an exceptional opening.
Next up is “A Word in the Palm”, directed by Lee Chi-ngai. Master Ho (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is a fortune teller who has the additional ability to see ghosts. Problem for him is that this has left him estranged from his wife (Eileen Tung) and son. He has decided to call a halt to his Fortune telling days, but not before he encounters the vengeful spirit of a young schoolgirl (Cherry Ngan). Urged on by new-age crystal diviner Lan (an unrecognisable Kelly Chen), he takes on one last case, involving a married and pregnant couple.
This one is going to split opinion, as it is the funny one. I however adored it. I thought it was bright and colourful and amusing. In fact, I would go so far to say if they made a TV show about Ho and Lan, I would be tuning in every week. It isn’t side splittingly amusing, and the overall mystery is about as opaque as sheet glass, but there was something about it that actually felt really fresh and different. Cherry Ngan stood out as the initially playful and teen-moody ghost, and Kelly Chen’s performance will be the epitome of marmite. For me, this one was a complete win (but I do know others hated it).
Finally we have Fruit Chan’s “Jing Zhe”. Susan Shaw plays an elderly “Villain Hitter”. This appears to be a custom where you pay someone to hit an effigy (or a photograph) of someone, basically cursing them. So we follow Shaw’s evening, initially by looking at her performing her service for Josephine Koo and others, until she is confronted by a young female ghost (Dada Chen). We then see that she is very much linked to this Ghost’s current state, and no matter how much “Villain Hitting” might be offered, things are not going to end up well.
Now Fruit Chan has given us the definitive Lillian Lee adaptation in “Dumplings”, and here he does another good job. Starting almost cinema verite style, he brings the confusing sights and sounds of the late night Hong Kong streets to life. Shaw of course is excellent as the old woman, and the first half of this piece is informative more than anything. Then we have a strange little moment which I think is a bit of political satire (and if any HKers can confirm this, it would be good), before settling into the actual ghost story.
Dada Chen does the perfect flower vase role here, suitably screaming in flashback, whilst remaining beguiling and tortured in her afterlife state. She doesn’t have to say anything really, but I was actually rather impressed. Fruit Chan then brings what has been lacking in the movie so far, a little bit of properly gruesome retribution – heads are torn off and people are impaled! My only issue is that the narrative seems hamstrung by wanting to make a certain reveal much too late (and in a 40 minute mini-film I would argue unnecessarily so), which leads to a little confusion on the part of the viewer, which is unfair as everyone in the film is not as in the dark as we are. But that is me being very critical.
So, we have one perfectly fine piece, one that I adored, and one I thought was pretty darn good. For this kind of film, that is undoubtedly a win. It isn’t the greatest set of Hong Kong Horror stories I have ever seen – but compared to the anodyne films I have seen coming from both HK and the Mainland recently, this one does seem to be quite step up. So this one gets Recommended (it misses out on highly as it is a little uneven), and leaves this reviewer very keen to see the second movie. Which I should be telling you all about pretty soon