Asian Film Festival of Dallas 2011: A look at the festival’s first films
This year’s Asian Film Festival of Dallas (AFFD) has a wonderful line-up of films representing all manner of countries in the East. Unfortunately there’s just not time enough to see them all. I am the lone GATWer covering this festival so instead of doing full reviews of all the films, which would take forever, I’ll be giving shorter critiques in a couple of recapping posts to give you a wide look at everything this ten-year-old fest has to offer.
GOLDEN SLUMBER (2010)
Writers: Yoshihiro Nakamura, Tamio Hayashi, Kenichi Suzuki & Kotaro Isaka (original novel)
Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura
This is a film I saw almost a year ago at Fantastic Fest and ended up being one of my favorites of the fest. Extremely ecstatic it would be playing in my town for AFFD I went to the very first show, which, coincidentally, was also the first film of the festival.
The story is about a young man, Aoyagi, who meets up with an old college buddy for what he thinks is a weekend of fishing. In actuality he is being set up and framed for the assassination of the Prime Minister. Now he spends days on the run from the crooked police and strange men trying to set him up while recalling significant moments from his past with his close-knit group of college friends. They interact with him along the way as he dodges the cops, has run-ins with a serial killer and a helpful man in a wheelchair.
GOLDEN SLUMBER has something for everyone, I dare you to not at least like this film – but I know you’ll end up loving every last minute. At the core this is a thriller and a tale full of conspiracy, but there is much, much more. Laugh out loud funny and deeply touching, the story unfolds around Aoyagi’s nostalgic memories for his school days all revolving around The Beatles’ song “Golden Slumbers” from Abbey Road. The song is about someone trying to get back home to a place and time where they were safe and happy. The true heart of the tune means more to Aoyagi now than he ever imagined. Because of this music I’m sure it will be very hard for Nakamura to get a real American release, since all of the music licensing would be a nightmare. It’s a real shame, because this movie really touches so many wonderful bases.
It’s one thing to have a film with rich characters who you relate to and care for as the credits roll, but Nakamura and company have managed to find a way to make you feel not only that but also nostalgia for a time you didn’t experience, with people you don’t know – hell, they don’t even exist! As a lasting testament to how wonderful this is I found myself tearing up as the first few notes of “Golden Slumbers” began playing in the film, because hearing those sweet sounds mixed with this visuals of the film reminded me of the wonderful journey I was about to embark upon again. Anyone who sees this will be forever branded with a very real, but very fictional, nostalgia and that is a wonderful thing.
KARATE-ROBO ZABORGAR (2011)
Director: Noboru Iguchi
Here is the latest offering from the somewhat new production company Sushi Typhoon and already infamous director Noboru Iguchi (THE MACHINE GIRL, ROBOGEISHA). Instead of the extremely violent and over-the-top blood spraying in his previous films, KRZ is more an ode to an old '70s Japanese kids show. The kind of show that would go on to inspire the likes of MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS and many others.
Yutaka Daimon is has a robot “brother” named Zaborgar who can transform between a motorcycle or bipedal fighting machine. Together they work for the secret police trying to keep those in power safe from a group known as Sigma. This evil cyborg heavy conglomerate is abducting the top minds in Japan to use their DNA towards making a giant robot for the purposes of destroying the world. Of course. Daimon has to stop them to save the world, but his love for Miss Borg, and evil female robot, might get in his way.
This film gets the usual “what the hell am I watching” reaction and nervous laughter from the audience that all of Iguchi’s films seem to garner. While it is a lot of fun, more so than ROBOGEISHA, the ultimate downfall of this film is how strong its start is. So much fun and action happens in the first half of the film that the slow moving second half leaves you bored before the big finale as the same jokes are tread over again. This is not to mean that there aren’t good moments along the way and throughout, but maybe KRZ shouldn’t blow its load so quickly.
All of the crazy you expect from Iguchi/Sushi Typhoon is here. Girl robots with bombs coming out of their chest, or two dinosaur heads in place of breasts, some crazy fighting, bulldog trucks and, my personal favorite, a male breastfeeding! What would you expect from a movie that has an element called Daimonium that turns anything into robots? If you enjoy these types of films, and Iguchi’s past work, then I’m sure you’ll love KARATE-ROBO ZABORGAR. There’s less blood, but plenty of insanity.
SAIGON ELECTRIC (2011)
Writter/Director: Stephane Gauger
A young girl from a rural area of Vietnam, Mai, moves to the city with aspirations of attending the local dance academy to perfect her traditional ribbon dancing. Nerves get the best of her and she doesn’t make the cut but soon becomes friends with a Kim, female member of a local breakdancing crew known as Saigon Fresh. They are practicing for an upcoming contest that could mean big things for them but a lot stands in the way. A rich boy takes Kim’s attention away from the group and a company wanting to build a hotel is threatening to tear down the youth center where they practice and teach free classes to neighborhood kids.
Much of this movie sounds like one of the big dance films from the past few years (STEP UP, SAVE THE LAST DANCE, etc..) and while in many ways it’s similar, it is also far from them. Some of the locations are nice and the dancing is great but everything else really gets in the way. It feels like one of those parody films where they try to fit all of the stereotypical plotlines into one film except they take it all seriously here. There’s the little fish in a big pond, rich guy and poor girl’s doomed relationship, save the youth center and, of course, the dance contest just to name a few. Because of all of these stories there is not much focus on any one that elevates it above.
This movie also needs more dancing! When they finally get to the big dance battle it’s been so long since there has been any real talk of the crews that I almost forgot that’s why they knew each other. Once they do get down and move to the thumping bass it’s all smiles, but there’s just too little too late. I will say I was pleasantly surprised to see they didn’t have Mai join the breaking crew and incorporate her ribbon dancing somehow like I figured they would.
Writer: Li-ting Tseng
Director: Doze Niu
This tale of gangster brotherhood involving teens in 1980's Taiwan sees Mosquito meeting some bad dudes on his first day at a new school. They get in many fights and work protection for one of the guy’s fathers, who is boss of a certain street in their town. Soon they bond as brothers in crime and fully enter the Taiwanese underworld. Between fighting amongst the other street gangs and an accidental murder things really go downhill fast for the boys who are just trying to defend their turf.
At times this film can be light and funny, mostly in the beginning, but it has a very serious overall tone. It does revolve around the world of crime and gangsters but it’s heavier on the drama side of things than action. This is not to say there isn’t any cool battle scenes, because there are, it just isn’t that type of movie. The way this bond between friends is shown is quite in depth. The only real downfall is how “sappy” things become during the final act. All of the actors do a wonderful job, even if one of them looks stunningly like the Taiwanese Sean William Scott (Rhydian Vaughan as Dragon Lee).
For those of you that enjoy your crime stories more on the dramatic side and less about action, this is for you.
THE STOOL PIGEON (2010)
Writers: Dante Lam and Wai Lun Ng
Director: Dante Lam
If MONGA was a bit tame for you in the action department then this was the perfect film to come after.
Don Lee is a cop who works with police informants in order to bring down some big time baddies. His latest CI, Ghost Jr, was just released from prison and agrees to risky position in order to pay off debts of his father for which his sister is being held against her will. The job is to become a member of a gang of gold thieves headed by Tai Ping and The Barbarian and give the info so they can finally arrest them on substantial charges. Along the way there is a girl mixed up in everything, a former CI who has been scarred, both physically and mentally, for life due to Lee’s work and a whole lot of action!
This film serves as my introduction to Lam’s work, but I will now be checking out a lot more! Hong Kong action flicks really know how to give you what you want. It has all of the action and stunts of the brainless fun we get here in the States, if not more, and all with the added bonus of an intriguing and tight story. What really elevates this above the domestic fare is how realistic it feels, especially when it comes to the up-in-the-air fate of those involved. It’s also nice to see some well crafted characters in an action flick with their own plotlines away from the main story.
This film really has everything any action/crime film fan would love and then some. The only complaint, and it’s a very small one, would be that it’s a little long at just less than two hours. Still, it holds your interest and remains engrossing from the first scene to the unforgiving and rather brutal ending.
ZEBRAMAN 2: ATTACK ON ZEBRA CITY (2011)
Writer: Kankurô Kudô
Director: Takashi Miike
In the year 2025, fifteen years after the events of the first movie, Zebraman wakes on street and is chased and ultimately shot hundreds of times by some masked men in long black coats. He survives but has no memory of who he is, where he is or how he got there. It seems that the last governor of the city took over and changed the name of Tokyo to Zebra City. He introduced a thing called Zebra Time that allowed a police force to kill anyone one on the streets for ten minutes a day (five minutes each at both 5AMand 5PM). As harsh as this is crime has been reduced overall, but the governor’s daughter, a pop sensation named Yui, has other plans. She is out to bring back the aliens who Zebraman defeated previously in order to help gain power over the world.
This film is comprised of many wonderful aspects of the strange side of Japanese filmmaking. It’s the film KARATE-ROBO ZABORGAR wishes it could be. There are plenty of laughs throughout, but it also has a very interesting, well-written story and a fun take on the superhero. A bit of the story is outlandish, but what superhero story is completely grounded in reality? Where would the fun be then? Kudô’s screenplay is very consistent on its levels of humor, action and seriousness throughout which is what really elevates this above your average comedic action offering. Miike once again shows he can still make some crazy fun Japanese cinema. I’m really glad he made another chapter in the Zebraman story. Let it be known that it’s not necessary to see the first film before this, there are some flashbacks shown, but it will make it a little more fun, and it’s a good movie.
SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni
Director: Akira Kurosawa
I don’t think anything really needs to be said about this film. Everyone knows it’s great. Even if you haven’t seen it there is quite a reputation that follows it in the world of film. Just an example of the great programming and repertory screenings AFFD has to offer. Seeing this on a big screen in 35mm…amazing!
Writer: Kwang-young Choi
Director: Chul-soo Jang
A young woman from Seoul, Hae-won, witnesses a crime but is too cowardly to put the men behind bars. While at work her stress and fear get the best of her and she lashes out on a co-worker. She’s forced to take some leave and decides to get away from the city to a small island, Moo-do, where her grandfather once lived. It has been years since she’s been there, but a girl she would play with when she was younger, Bok-nam (Yeong-hie Seo), is more than excited to see her old friend. In the years of absence it becomes apparent things on this island are not on the up and up. The old women constantly badger Bok-nam without ever questioning the men, including her husband, and her insolence is met with harsh abuse. She won’t be able to take much more, especially when the safety of her young daughter is on the line.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that Korean filmmakers have a lot of rage to be displayed and they put that in their films to amazing results. Though there are some moments of levity in this film it is nothing light – at all. The themes go very dark and it gets quite brutal. Part of what is so difficult to watch is made possible by the ridiculously good and realistic performance by Yeong-hie as Bok-nam. She starts as a light, happy woman glad to see her friend again but soon transforms into a broken and desperate human being who has had enough. BEDEVILLED might not be something that everyone can watch but those who do will find a very well written, well-made first film by Kwang-young. Truly breathtaking.