Thursday, January 31, 2008

Malaysian No-Shows

This is the inaugural entry for a new column I just thought up. Some years ago, I used to travel to Singapore a few times a year to catch films that weren't shown at our local cineplexes or were badly butchered. Lately, our censors have learned to relax a little and we got some films released uncut. But still, others simply never appear or are banned. For example, I caught Brokeback Mountain at an afternoon full-house screening at Shaw House on Orchard Rd. On that same trip I also saw Takeshis in a cinema hall that had only two other patrons.

Till today, there is still a wider and better selection of films over the Causeway. Our problem is not only with the censors, but also the distributors who seem to have their own set of criteria on what sells and don't sell (therefore not worth releasing) in our cinemas.

Hence, from now on, I shall list the movies showing in Singapore that are either not shown here or are screened in butchered versions.

For these past weeks:

Eastern Promises (no cuts)
The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
3:10 To Yuma
Rambo (uncut)
Sweeney Todd (uncut)
The Kite Runner
The Mist
American Gangster (uncut)
Away From Her
Atonement (uncut)
Gone Baby Gone
The Flock
Love In The Time Of Cholera

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Real Journey

It seems we've got some film adaptations of Chinese classics lined up - from John Woo's Red Cliff to a proposed film trilogy of Water Margin. But one of the classics that have remained unadapted faithfully, not to mention well, is Journey To The West. Probably the most popular version is A Chinese Odyssey, which starred Stephen Chow as the Monkey King. And probably one of the silliest adaptations was that sci-fi/fantasy mash-up, A Chinese Tall Story. And anime series Dragon Ball is also inspired by Journey To The West, but of course, goes all off on a tangent of its own.

It really makes one wonder why there hasn't been one good adaptation of that classic.

But now, according to Monkeypeaches, it has finally been confirmed, the rumour that has been going around, that Stephen Chow is planning a new version. Best of all? From the quotes, it sounds like he's interested in making not just the best adaptation, but one that is faithful to the original story.

Let's hope it is.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A History Of Violence

A friend and I got to talking the other day, about Sylvester Stallone's recent "comebacks." We noted that while Clint Eastwood is growing old gracefully, Stallone is somewhat desperate in attempting to capture old glories by reviving the characters he once played. But unlike Eastwood, who did, in fact, return to an old haunt, too, namely the western, Stallone does not ply the same intelligent route but merely reenacts to the point of self-parody. Eastwood, on the other hand, redefined and reimagined the western in Unforgiven, somewhat reversing his usual role as the macho hero/anti-hero.

I told my friend: "Clint is like fine wine; he gets better with age. Sly is like bad beer; tastes terrible when it's old."

That may sound harsh, especially to die-hard fans like this writer of the book, In The Eye Of The Tiger - Survival Principles From Sylvester Stallone's Life And Films, whose admiration somehow translated itself into a crystal-ball gaze of penetrating insights into Stallone's Art Of War. No doubt, the writer is sincere in his idolisation of the actor, but it's also important to note what the Rocky and Rambo franchises meant in the larger and more focused context of ideology and politics.

As far as Rocky is concerned, the films' racial undercurrents have been well-documented in articles like this one by Michael Gallantz, or the recent scathing review of Rocky Balboa by The Guardian. While the Gallantz article pointedly observes that Rocky is basically anti-affirmative action and that its hidden racism is "vicious and systematic," the Guardian review by Joe Queenan notes that "there is no cliche African-American athletes despise more than being told that their talent is God-given, rather than the result of their own hard work and perseverance, the first Rocky said exactly what White America wanted to hear: They're gifted but we work harder."

Queenan also poignantly laments that a statue of Stallone had been temporarily placed on the Art Museum steps in Philadelphia (those steps made famous by Rocky), but nowhere in the City Of Brotherly Love is there a similar tribute to the real working-class hero, Joe Frazier.

Meanwhile, we now have scores of fans enjoying the return of one-man-killing-machine John Rambo in what is known in these parts as Rambo 4. This time, Rambo battles yet another Enemy Flavour Of The Times, the Burmese (or Myanmar, in non-fantastical movie terms) junta. But you know, Rambo's got to keep up with what's currently hot, so you have ten times the violence of the earlier films. But what really does Rambo represent? The ultimate self-help guru of contemporary times?

You need delve no deeper than Robert Kolker's excellent film analysis book, A Cinema Of Loneliness (Oxford University Press, 3rd edition 2000) to find the answers. The Reaganesque ideals of the series are laid bare, as is the embodiment and satisfaction of the right-wing fantasy of the hero who will put things right at no cost but to himself. Writes Kolker:

"Rambo is everyone's toy soldier, placed in fantasies of war, beyond harm even when captured and tortured, the apotheosis of the virile posing that Susan Sontag pointed to as a mark of fascist aesthetics. He is the perfect human machine, a cyborg, making new ideological history in which, because of his efforts, 'We get to win this time.'"

The enemies in the earlier films - the Vietnamese and the Russians - are representations and recreations of WWII Japanese and Nazis, respectively, observes Kolker. And in the final moments of First Blood, Rambo's psychological imbalance and emotional damages were blamed not on the war or American intervention, but on the "evil" other.

What's scarier is that, according to the writer, after a Middle East hostage crisis in 1985, then President Reagan said: "After seeing Rambo last night, I'll know what to do next time."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Singapore Seven

Johnnie To, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam did it with Triangle. And they were only three. The crazy Singaporeans are trying to outdo everyone with a film made by SEVEN directors!

Lucky 7, a game of tag among these seven filmmakers, premieres at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Each director makes a 10- to 12-minute segment, after which the next filmmaker continues with the same actor and crew, but with only the knowledge of the last minute of the preceding segment. Sounds challenging? You bet!

This kind of thing could either be a recipe for disaster or an intriguing experiment, depending on how creative and focused the directors are. The danger of becoming rojak is very real when they have admittedly put together a multiple-genre film, like a free-for-all. But the real motive behind the project, to bring together all the Singaporean filmmmakers for a collaborative effort, is very commendable.

In fact, the entire project, conceived by Sun Koh, was inspired by the "collaborative spirit of the Malaysian independent filmmakers."

Gertjan Zuilhof of IFFR wrote on his blog: "I saw the rough cut of Lucky 7. I didn’t have to think for long before writing to Sun Koh that she was welcome in Rotterdam."

The Lucky 7 website is online now.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Miscellaneous Miscellany - Five Easy Pieces

Stuff we know, whether we want to know them or not:

1. Stupid studio thinks lowly of Ang Lee's Hulk. Why else would they commission another film about the green hero? They think Edward Norton penning and starring in The Incredible Hulk will make a better movie. But just who the hell is Louis Leterrier? In a way, it's an insult because the studio is kind of saying Leterrier (Danny The Dog, The Transporter) is a better director than Lee. Ya, right.

2. The entire gang behind the awful 300 is back for Watchmen. Zack Snyder has even enlisted composer Tyler Bates to do the score. Tyler who? Well, Tyler "I think rock guitars are cool for action scenes" Bates who scored the bigoted 300. Trust me, Watchmen the movie will be nothing like the "superheroes for adults" graphic novel. It will be a movie for adolescent sensibilities. Watch it go down the drain like Dr Manhattan's radioactive piss.

3. The title for the next Bond film is Quantum Of Solace.

4. There will be scenes in The Incredible Hulk that will link to Iron Man. Or vice versa; I really can't remember or care. Which means there will be a future Hulk/Iron Man team-up movie.

5. Sylvester Stallone wants to remake Death Wish. If he does so, there's a big possibility that the title would fit his career situation. After all, having made new Rocky and Rambo movies, the guy is close to parodying himself. Or is he already?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Imaginarium To Be Re-imagined?

Poor Terry Gilliam. You have to feel for the guy.

This week's shocker, the death of Heath Ledger, has dealt a big blow to Gilliam's independent project, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. The trade mags have all reported that the film's fate now hangs in the balance, just as shooting's wrapped in London and was to have moved on to Vancouver.

This must bring back extremely dark memories for Gilliam. I saw Lost In La Mancha some time back, and, well, it was a harrowing experience, that documentary. Almost as harrowing as what Gilliam and crew had to endure. It was heart-breaking just seeing how the hardwork of everyone inevitably fell apart due to unforeseen weather conditions and the unexpected ill health of star Jean Rochefort who had just shot his first scene as Don Quixote.

And now this. I sincerely hope they find some solution to the problem. I thoroughly enjoyed The Brothers Grimm and find it largely unfairly criticised. I never got to see Tideland though (whatever happened to it?). And I regard 12 Monkeys as one of the very, very rare remakes that are actually very good and have their own things to say. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was a great film adaptation of an unfilmable book. And of course, there's Gilliam's dreamy ode to Orwell, the feverish Brazil.

And even then, Gilliam didn't have an easy time with that film either. Who can forget the ad he placed to implore the studios not to release the happy-ending version of Brazil that was edited without his supervision?

Let's just hope there's a happy ending for the predicament faced by Imaginarium, both for Gilliam's sake and for the memory of Heath Ledger.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What's The Point Of Your Review?

Last night, a friend directed me to this article that appeared in Sinema.SG. Titled "The art of reviewing," it duly points out the dos and don'ts of reviewing. However, what prompted me to respond to the article in this blog entry are some points made by the writer that I think are way off mark.

The rising indies

I don't purport to know the exact situation in Singapore right now, in regards to its independent filmmakers. But we can well see that there is indeed a rising visibility of the community and their works, what with the premiere of the seven-in-one film, Lucky 7, a collaboration between seven Singaporean filmmakers, at Rotterdam.

But to say that the digital technology is "taking its toll on viewers' staying power" is, in a way, putting the cart before the horse. The real competition has always been between the indies and Hollywood, not between digital filmmakers. A look at the Malaysian independent scene will tell you, very few would pay a ticket to see a local independent film at GSC's International Screens. Hollywood blockbusters? No problem!

"Critic" and "reviewer"

The writer seems confused between the terms "critic" and "reviewer." Critics are those with first-hand experience or knowledge of film and its techniques, be they academicians or practitioners. While anyone can be a reviewer, be it a journalist, a hobbyist or heck, even a chef with a deep interest in films. But what both do, on different scales and levels, of course, is to provide an individual perspective on a film. When a film is put out there for an audience, it becomes text that is open to interpretations and multiple readings.

To regard that a critic's or reviewer's job is first and foremost to help readers make an informed choice at the cinema is to possess a high level of delusion. It has yet to be proven that a film's success or failure at the box-office is a direct result of a review or critique. No single reviewer or critic wields that much power.

So what's a critic or reviewer's ultimate goal then? It is to provide her or his own insight into, perspective on and reading of a film. The individual interpretation may provoke discussion, argument or debate, or just simply be an unique, informed opinion. Some will agree with your take, some will disagree, but there are also some who will regard your views as exceptionally yours.

The creator's mind

The writer goes on to list the essentials in a reviewer's toolbox. One of it, he says, is to get oneself into the creator's mind situation, "the given conditions of a precise place and time, enter the specific spirit and facts of life as well as an artist’s ambition, the pursued objective."

But why?

If so, do we then always need to seek clarification from the filmmaker herself or himself? Do we need to interview the filmmaker before seeing the film? So if I were to read Pulp Fiction's fragmented narrative and copycat inventions as symptomatic of contemporary Hollywood's broken rudder and desperation, or its ability to rejuvenate but not reinvent old ideas, I would be deemed completely wrong because clearly that wasn't Tarantino's intention in making the film?

Once you put a film out there, it's largely out of your hands. It doesn't mean the filmmaker wholly relinquishes the property. It is still a product of the filmmaker's artistry, but the result may not always be the desired. That's not a bad thing. In fact, talk to any director and she or he will tell you about many "happy accidents" that can result in surprising outcomes.

Ultimately, watching a film does not mean we are beholden to the director's wishes and intentions.

It's All In The Branding

American Gangster is a great film about marketing. All students and professionals in marketing should go see the film and learn a thing or two about the importance of branding and protecting the brand you create. If I were a lecturer who teaches marketing, I would take my students on a field trip to the cineplex, get them to take notes during the movie, and hold a post-mortem discussion after that. Then I would write a proposal to the college/university/whatever to set up a special budget for purchasing multiple copies of the DVD as essential viewing for all marketing students. I would also go so far as to suggest that the movie be included as part of the syllabus.

While the movie is really just another story about the scourge and darker side of the American Dream, gangster Frank Lucas emphasises the importance of branding. His cocaine, imported from Thailand, is called Blue Magic, has a unique packaging to call its own, and is sold at lower than market price. Lucas protects his brand not with copyrights and patents but with fists and bullets.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. In today's world, marketing is everything. And who the better experts in this than the Americans? Hollywood itself has shown us time and again that aggressive marketing can sell just about anything. (Cloverfield, anyone?) And now, here's a Hollywood movie about what Hollywood does best.

But as a crime thriller, American Gangster is mediocre at best, with nothing surprising or new to offer. But to Ridley Scott's credit, the movie is well-paced and never boring for a minute. Yet I can't help but compare American gangster films with those from Hong Kong. In Hong Kong films, the cops know who the gangsters are and what they do, but are unable to do anything about it. That makes things infinitely more interesting.

But then again, it's all about marketing, and if it's done well, you can damn well sell just about anything.

Monday, January 21, 2008

10 Hidden Clues In Cloverfield

Now that Cloverfield is finally out after months of speculation, online and otherwise, the fanboys are getting even crazier. There are claims of backmasking in the end soundtrack, where the words "Help us!", allegedly contains a backward message that says "It's still alive!"

Don't ask me how they managed to play the soundtrack backwards.

Anyway, here are 10 clues hidden in the movie that you might have missed:

1. If you look closely at the Statue Of Liberty head that falls from the sky, you can see that it looks like the head of the Statue Of Liberty.

2. During the party, some of Rob's friends can be seen consuming alcohol!

3. In one of the many sequences of people running and screaming in the streets, you can clearly make out the sound of human footsteps.

4. And in one of the many scenes of destruction on the streets, look closely and you can see some stones in random positions on the street.

5. The line "It's alive!", when played backwards, reveals a hidden message that says "Ayyeesh ooov eell schh tee!"

6. During the first close-up of the monster, the creature's roar, which, when played backwards, sounds like "RRRRWWWOOOAAARRRGGGHHH!!"

7. When the empty horse-carriage goes by on the streets, it can be clearly seen that it's being pulled by a white horse.

8. Upon closer scrutiny, you can see that Rob has a stubble.

9. In the rooftop scene of the explosion, you can see smoke from the explosion forming random patterns.

10. During the closing credits, the names of the cast and crew are revealed.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Remake Watch: Cultural exchanges?

"Remake." Dirty word. Filthy idea. Sick phrase.

Is it really? I might be getting a little confused here, or I might be getting a little ahead of myself. But all of us are pretty much aware of the accusation that Hollywood's into remaking films from other countries because it's running out of ideas.

That may be true. But it's also worth asking, what's the real motive in remaking something? Most times, we suspect it's because Hollywood sees a good idea and wants to Americanise it to better sell it to local audiences. But then there are also things like Christopher Nolan's remake of Norwegian thriller Insomnia, which because of its quality, seems to suggest that Nolan took it on because he found something more interesting to say, or a more interesting way to say the same thing. It worked to his favour.

Of course, remakes go back a long way. The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Seven Samurai, although at the time, the dirty word hadn't been formed, only maybe the phrase "inspired by." Werner Herzog remade Murnau's Nosferatu. Wes Craven remade Bergman's The Virgin Spring into Last House On The Left. With Herzog as the exception, most times in today's remakes, unlike those of yore, themes and basic ideas are taken and dressed in wholly new stories or settings. I guess maybe today, remakes look all the more like mere copycats because storylines and plots tend to remain the same, as do characters, with everything seemingly lifted lock, stock and barrel, all of which indicates, of course, a lesser degree of creativity.

What's currently more interesting, is what Hong Kong has been up to lately. Benny Chan is in the midst of remaking Hollywood film Cellular. And most recently, Donnie Yen will be starring in an announced remake of Miami Vice, called Hong Kong Vice.

This might seem like a new trend,but we must keep in mind that Bollywood has long been into remakes of Hollywood films - Superman, Fight Club, What Lies Beneath. And considering the many versions of Devdas, based on Saratchandra Chatterjee's famous novel of the same name (the earliest film version was made in 1928), Bollywood has also long done what Japan is now doing with remakes of Sanjuro and other Japanese classics. But Bollywood and Nihon-wood are two of the most self-sustaining film industries in the world that can afford to remake their own classics and still find an audience. (The Malaysian contemporary versions of Pontianak and Orang Minyak cannot really be considered remakes, since they are new stories of classic folklore.)

With Hong Kong now remaking Hollywood films, making the trend now more widespread beyond Bollywood and Hollywood, are we seeing a new trend, perhaps a kind of cultural exchange?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Because I Have Nothing Better To Do Today ,,,

Andy U Da Man

It might look like a publicity stunt to a cynic, but I'd give Andy Lau the benefit of the doubt. Reported here at the Asian Fanatics forum, Lau was reportedly the hero at his own concert in mainland China recently. When a fan rushed to the stage to hand him flowers and was manhandled by the stadium security, Lau jumped to the fan's rescue, abandoning both song and dance.

There's a YouTube video embedded in that page, and you can see Lau shouting at the security guys to stop, then leaps like 2,000 feet from the stage, somersaults, and transforms into the Saviour Of The Soul before unleashing his deadly kungfu moves on the guards.

I'm exaggerating, of course. But Andy Lau, what a man! I'm now a hardcore fan.

Grady Hendrix of Kaiju Shakedown has a hilarious entry about What It Means To Be Andy Lau.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Miscellaneous Miscellany

See? I knew the whole Cloverfield thing wasn't going to end even after the film has been released. The movie is a marketing goldmine the way it's configured, nevermind that the movie itself is nothing to shout about. There are lots of spaces for a prequel and sequels. And this is possibly the start of it: an online manga. According to the Cinematical report, it's probably about how the monster got to New York.

Now, after some thought, some questions were raised in my mind, like how, in the current climate in the US, a monster of that size could get into the country without being detected, when you could probably get stopped at the airport for wearing funny-looking shoes. So much for Homeland Security.

Also, people are going to start seeing things that are not there on screen, claiming to have sighted some hidden clues in the shaky footages.

OK, time to put my crystal ball back in the cupboard.


I hate to admit this, but I was so curious, I actually paid money to see In The Name Of The King. It was my first ever Uwe Boll movie, and what an introduction.

Everytime Burt Reynolds and Ray Liotta appeared, I couldn't help but giggle like crazy. They look completely and utterly ridiculous in their costumes, especially Reynolds trying to look all regal and stately as King Konreid (his helmet is the single, most inspired piece of comedy in film history). Liotta hams it up as an evil wizard, and he's got this weird costume on, with upturned collar and blue scarf, sort of like a cross between medieval chic and Project Runway. Despite the earnest attempt, he still looks like a mob boss with that slicked back hair.

Then there's Jason Statham as a farmer named Farmer, whose son (luckily not named Son) is killed by the Krug, and his wife (luckily not named Wife) is kidnapped to be a slave.

This movie is a complete LOTR knock-off - the Krug look like Orcs, and there's even a character who looks like Legolas. What's more interesting is that Boll seemed unable to decide which of the one hundred and one looks to the film he wanted, and decided to use them all.

I walked out of the cinema after King Konreid's big death scene with swelling music, and I swear Reynolds looked relieved as his character snorted his last breath on the deathbed.

And just when I thought things couldn't get worse with Boll in the world, I got this piece of shocking news. Apparently the producers of an upcoming video game called Zombie Massacre sought Boll out to make a film of their game!

OK, I'm now feeling worse than any shaky cam in a monster movie can make me feel.


American Distributors See What We Don't See

The latest tragedy of title-change to befall an Asian movie is that of Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet. Reported a few days ago on Twitch, The Banquet (which I enjoyed immensely) is getting an American DVD release, but it's getting a title change.

It will be called Legend Of The Black Scorpion.

I personally think it would be extremely interesting to hear how Dragon Dynasty, the company releasing the DVD, would explain the new title, if they care to explain at all. I certainly don't recall a black scorpion (are there white scorpions, pink scorpions or green scorpions?) being central to the film, and I sure don't remember there being any kind of legend.

Other victims include SPL which is now called Kill Zone, Flash Point (The Signal) and Tom Yum Goong (The Protector).

This leads me to conclude that American distributors must see what the rest of us don't see. Otherwise, how do you explain this:

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cloverfield Monster Revealed

In all seriousness, Cloverfield has all the makings of a massive failure. For one thing, this is probably the most coy movie and the most coy marketing ever done. For hiding the monster completely from view, giving only hints of its shadow, brief glimpses of it between buildings, they better have a very original, truly mind-blowing monster, if they're centering the entire movie around it. It seems so because the trailer has no hints of a storyline. Monster attacks, people run, destruction, military takes action. Remember how the trailers for the Hollywood Godzilla were equally coy?

This is, at best, an opening weekend hit when the masses rush out to find out just what exactly the monster is. Once word-of-mouth gets around, there will be others who'd just lose interest once they know what it is. Few would be curious enough to see for themselves. Repeat viewings would be out of the question because of the shaky cam.

So, what is the Cloverfield monster? Or would you rather see it for yourself?


Cloverfield is essentially a love story with a monster thrown in for box-office gains. It's about a guy who races across Manhattan to save the girl he loves, while a monster levels the city. In the film, you can find elements of The Host, Blair Witch, Godzilla, Starship Troopers and a load of other influences.

Now, the love story element is not what the marketing for this film focuses on. The viral strategy has caused numerous speculations and predictions about what the creature is. Even sans hindsight, many of the shots in the dark were pretty silly - some think it's Cthulhu rising out of the sea, others perceive the woman's silhouette as bloating or transforming. It's exactly the kind of reactions that the marketing folks had forseen, and if you fell for it, then you were being predictable.

Here's the clincher. The monster isn't surprising, awe-inducing, nor something unseen before. It's not very original nor mind-blowing.


It's just a very huge monster with very long limbs. It eats people. It's got a tail. It's not Cthulhu. It's not Godzilla. It's something closer to the mutant tadpole in The Host, but slower, larger and less agile.

Because of this, I think the filmmakers have failed miserably. It's not a film you'd see more than once. The shaky cam makes things hard to see, and once you get past all that coyness with the partial shots of the monster, there's nothing left in the movie. Come to think of it, there are actually not many shots of the monster.

Spielberg held the killer shark back for a long while too, before he showed you the head, the tail, the whole damned thing. But he had a great adventure story with colourful characters.

Ultimately, Cloverfield is just another in a long line of throwaway entertainment that Hollywood has been churning out in the last few years. Even so, it's a great marketing subject, and will have a long shelf-life long after it's gone from our screens merely because many things in the film are deliberately left unanswered. Where did the monster come from? What are the smaller nasties that fall off its body? What the hell is the meaning of the title? You can bet there'll be websites dedicated to explaining all these. But all of it feels fake and forced, unlike, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey which is philosophically open-ended to generate deeper discussions.

What it could perhaps be, is a reflection of the attitudes today.The fears and anxieties of 9-11 are undeniably evident in Cloverfield. The immediacy of the supposedly found footages from a hand-held camera documenting the city's destruction is deliberately similar to the news footage of New York we're now only too familiar with. But the monstrous threat remains faceless, nameless, generic and with questionable origins. Its motive, origin and history are not to be pondered upon. Just blow that threat away.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Desperate Housewife

It's taken so damn long for Fei Mu's classic, masterpiece chamber drama, Spring In A Small Town (Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun), to finally have an English-subtitled version and on DVD. Like many others, I was taken by Tian Zhuangzhuang's gorgeous 2002 remake of the 1948 film (with the same Chinese title, but known as Springtime In A Small Town in English), and had been looking for the original since. Sadly, for a long time, there was only a China import copy without subtitles. Until now.

Now we can finally see the source material and understand the brilliance of Fei Mu, whose career was in a way ruined by this film, the director moving to Hong Kong after facing harsh criticism for being "insular."

Delicately told, with painstakingly thought-out shots and mise-en-scene, Spring In A Small Town is already a tension-filled drama even without drawing upon its many perceived political allegories and parallels with the period during which the film was made.

Set in a "small town" (in some translations, the title is Spring In A Small City) that is never seen on screen, the story is centred upon Yuwen, the lonely and conflicted wife whose voice-over narrates the film, sometimes bogglingly narrating moments that had taken place in her absence. This inner voice is made the more internal by sometimes lowering close to a whisper. (There are few voice-overs that I find actually works, and apart from this film's, the other effective voice-over is that of Terrence Malick's Days Of Heaven.)

Yuwen's husband, Liyan, is a sickly land-owner who believes he suffers from tuberculosis but others seem to think his ailment is only psychological. Yuwen, whose marriage is now only an obligation, spends her days robotically performing her daily routines, and the only moment in her life that she actually enjoys is when she walks along the ruined city wall on her way to, and back from, grocery-shopping.

One day, an old friend of Liyan's, a doctor named Zhichen, comes to stay a few days. As it turns out, Yuwen and Zhichen were childhood friends and their chance meeting now rekindles some old passions.

Here's where things get interesting. Yuwen desires a getaway from her seemingly pointless and confined life, but she's too tied to current obligations and the old ways to be truly able to run away with Zhichen and head for possibly better horizons. Zhichen, an outside force of modernity, unsettles the balance of things in this feudal home. Liyan wants to marry off his young sister, Meimei, to Zhichen but he's not interested. The microcosm may reflect the macrocosm of the times, but the story of lost opportunities, second chances, loyalty, and the nature of love, is timeless.

There are only five characters in the entire film (the other is the housekeeper Old Huang), but the dynamics are well established and the isolation is strongly felt when no other signs of life are evident in the "small town," bombed out during the preceding war years.

Fei Mu sculpts with time, using dissolves to create multiple scenes of the same conversation, and this was long before Godard came along with his jump-cuts in Breathless. Fei Mu also uses silence and facial expressions to great effect, with the actors often performing with just their eyes. There are lots of other things to savour in this film, often acknowledged as the greatest Chinese film ever made.

The print used for the DVD is unrepaired, with visuals not cleaned up, and some missing frames. So you get a picture that sometimes jiggles, with moments of sudden blackness (but only a half-second each time at most), and questionable contrast. But fortunately the night scenes are watchable. But leaving the film unfixed does lend it a certain charm, as it forces us to acknowledge the passing of time and the timelessness of Fei Mu's methods.

This Region 1 release is part of Cinema Epoch's Chinese Film Classics Collection, and the other titles include Princess Iron Fan, Romance Of The Western Chamber, Song At Midnight, and the two-part epic, The Spring River Flows East.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

My Wife Is A Loan Shark

Limbeh ga li gong, Ah Long Pte Ltd got trailer oredi!

Yes, Jack Neo's upcoming Chinese New Year fare, Ah Long Pte Ltd, now has a three-minute trailer on Youtube. And yes, it does seem to bear similarities to Korean movie My Wife Is A Gangster.

Ah Long Pte Ltd was shot partly in Malaysia, and will be released in Singapore at the same time as CJ7 and Kung Fu Dunk. Tough competition there. Over here, it will be released sometime in mid-March.

Moonlight Sonata

A funny thing happened on the way to watching Mamat Khalid's Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang. I saw it back-to-back with Joko Anwar's Kala. The guy at the ticketing counter was completely confused by the titles. And not only do both films have the word "kala" in their titles and use noir conventions, both also feature a reporter who's recently out of a job and supernatural elements.

I thoroughly enjoyed Zombi Kg Pisang, and it looks like Mamat has a good feel for comedy. Zombi spoofed old B-grade horror films, while taking the time to make some pointed observations about our society. Although it tends to drag at times, it's still a pretty good comedy, and Mamat must be credited for being bold enough to tackle something quite untried in these parts as a zombie film.

Now he's gone and done another ambitious movie, this time shot in black-and-white. Kala Malam takes a page from the old Malay movies of the 50s, the golden era of Malay cinema, when films were still largely made on soundstages and in Singapore. It's where you have stagey set-ups, melodramatic acting and sets that look like sets. But that's the charm and beauty of that era.

Then Mamat adds a touch of noir to the proceedings, with Rosyam Nor (who does a great job here) as Salleh, the quintessential hard-boiled reporter-cum-detective, and a couple of femme fatales. Salleh ends up in a strange village where people behave strangely and it seems a demon has been hunting men on every full-moon night. Everything seems to be connected to Salleh's discovery of a strange skeleton holding a keris.

The first-half of the film is wildly entertaining, as the offbeat characters are introduced (David Teo's "Mau masas ka?" motel-owner act is surely going to go down in history as one of the most memorable comedy moments!) and the mystery is setup.

But there's never a real mystery as the use of old cinema conventions is already a roadmap for the story. No, the real draw here is seeing how everything is spoofed, and it sure is a lot of fun. Just when you think it can't get any sillier, in comes a group of quirky communists with a "master of disguises aka shape-shifter" in tow. And their method of hypnotising and brainwashing people got the loudest laughs in the cinema.

Despite some underlit and grainy scenes, and a couple of goofs, such as the presence of modern road tiles at Jongkidin's workshop, overall Mamat manages to capture the feel and atmosphere of the cinema of yore. The black-and-white photography is gorgeous in most parts, and the props and backdrop are "authentically 50s," as are the musical numbers. It must have taken quite a lot of work for the art department to recreate the nostalgic look of this film.

Unfortunately, the novelty kind of wears off midway through, although the comedy still comes in spurts of inspiration. The fun disappears when the film suddenly turns all serious, veering off into pure drama and melancholy. A friend who's a film academician argued with me this is a two-act comprising comedy and tragedy. But I would argue that the transition from spoofing a style to adopting it wholesale are two different matters that do not gel effectively.

The first half plays with old conventions to mine what comedic possibilities there are, which often entails altering the nature or intended effect of those conventions. The second half uses these conventions to merely recreate. This was also the major problem I had with Thailand's Tears Of The Black Tiger, which is merely an homage to old cinema but fails to say anything substantial about it.

Still, Kala Malam is a very daring effort that is a nice direction for Malaysian mainstream cinema, which seems to be heading for more variety than the usual mundane, formulaic stuff. Mamat Khalid is definitely far more inventive and forward-looking than most local directors - who else would dare make a black-and-white film here?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Ghost World

It was a delight to discover that Joko Anwar's Kala had appeared unannounced in our cinemas. And so it wasn't a big surprise to find that I was the only one in the cinema hall this afternoon, having the place all to myself, although the darkness became slightly scary during the creepy bits.

Kala has been deceptively labelled as a noir thriller, and it certainly had me thinking it was a hard-boiled detective story. But what a complete surprise the first half-hour or so turns out to be. Kala isn’t just a noir crime thriller. It has elements of horror, fantasy and political intrigue. It’s a nice mix, with gorgeous visuals and a creepy and disturbing atmosphere, but it also has a huge problem towards the end.

I loved Janji Joni, Joko’s 2005 loving ode to cinema, one of the best films to come out of Indonesia. You could see how much Joko is influenced by Hollywood cinema, from the Fight Club-like opening minutes to the old-time romance at the heart of the film.

But don’t expect the same feel-good-ness in Kala. This is one very dark, very ominous and graphically violent film. The first two-thirds of it is almost like Dark City as envisioned by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

The story takes place in an unnamed republic where political tension is at an all-time high, where mobs are going wild with rampage and indiscriminate killings. It’s never made clear what the problems in the country are, but Joko clearly paints a portrait of a society quickly degenerating into civil unrest, apathy, corruption and blind rage, a society on the brink of swallowing itself whole.

The story involves the murder of five men, a not-so-typical detective, a narcoleptic reporter, the name of a mysterious place that everyone's after, gangsters, and the frightening apparition of a pale man. Interesting, eh?

Joko plays with noir conventions, but sometimes he turns some of them on their heads. The world the director creates feels extremely real, full of dilapidated buildings and decrepit apartments, and smoky underground jazz bars and rain-soaked streets. The disturbing atmosphere, draped mostly in dusky light, is very, very unsettling, and Joko punctuates the moments with equally dreary music. This looks like a ghost world, where people move through the shadows like lost spirits, and the air has the mossy taste of a tomb. Joko takes the shadowy noir setting and builds it into the perfect backdrop for horror.

From the very first frame, you’d know that you’re watching a very unusual, offbeat thriller. The story keeps you guessing at every turn. Clues are dropped, characters are introduced who add to the web of intrigue, and there’s constantly the feeling that there’s a huge surprise waiting just around the corner. The supernatural and the noir sit so well together in Joko’s hands that it seems like a forgone conclusion that they’re natural partners in crime.

But as the mystery gradually unravels, so does the story, losing itself to some degree of video-game its suddenly hip ending. The wonderfully realised atmosphere gives way to a stylised, hipped-up idea of archipelago myth and mysticism, with a touch of sword and sorcery. Suddenly, from Raymond Chandler-meets-Clarke Ashton-Smith in an Alex Proyas city, we’re right smack in Resident Evil territory. It’s a very bizarre direction to take, and one that makes the ending seem like it’s from another film.

But there’s no denying Joko’s visual artistry here, and his ability to build a palpable, otherworldly mood and atmosphere. Despite the strange turn of events at the end, Kala is still quite a film, and definitely something very different. I don’t believe I’ve seen anything from Indonesia quite like it. It’s worth checking out for its seamless mix of noir, horror and a good old detective yarn. Just watch out for that ending!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Two's Company, Three's A Crime

The only trouble with Triangle, the Tsui Hark/Ringo Lam/Johnnie To joint project, is that the three directors' presence takes precedence over everything else. It might have had a different effect if they had kept it a secret that there were three different directors, and only revealed that in the end.

From the very start, the appeal of Triangle isn't the story or plot, or even the three leads - Simon Yam, Louis Koo and Sun Honglei. It's the fact that this is an experiment that puts three directors to the test in a storytelling game similar to the one in Mysterious Object At Noon. And that fact overrides everything else, something that can't be helped in a work like this.

And what an interesting experiment it is. It kind of lays bare the three directors, exposing them to scrutiny, because connecting their three disparate styles can only make each more pronounced next to the other. I'm not that clear on the exact genesis of the project, nor how the three worked together and what their modus operandi was. The extras on the two-disc Hong Kong DVD set don't reveal much in those terms. But the challenge for them must have been to try and create a cohesive film as much as possible and not end up with three ill-fitted pieces of filmmaking. In that respect, Tsui, Lam and To succeed, as the transitions are seamless where one left off and another picked up.

Funnily enough, much of what goes on in the film reflects what went on in real life. Three very different directors come together to attempt to tell a story about three individuals from very different backgrounds who come together to attempt a seemingly impossible alleviation of their downtrodden, desperate situation. This almost preposterous film project lands squarely on a really preposterous story idea, of a hidden treasure in the women's restroom of the Legislative Council building. No explanation is given as to how the treasure got there, as unknowable as the element of mystery in the story - the old man who gives the three men a gold coin and clues to the treasure.

From there, the directors take off running and never stop. Tsui has a penchant for removing men out of their comfort zones and adding enough urban intrigue to situations that brings them to the brink of boiling over, while Lam brings things to a more psychological level, often blurring the lines between the real and the unreal. But it's To who gives a whole new lease of life to the story just as things threaten to turn mundane. He clearly has more fun with the material, freely flitting between action and black comedy, even using the comedy trick of the old switcheroo in the dark. There's tension, then bursts of comic relief, then chaos. It's clear where To intends to take the material the moment Lam Suet appears as a hilariously over-the-top Ecstasy-junkie. By the time To's done with the material, it resembles little of what had gone on before, but still somehow feels like a befitting close.

I could never understand all the complaints about the film being too eclectic, or having too many characters and subplots, and being confusing. There's clearly no other way of watching Triangle other than with a conscious view of this being sort of a "game." In that respect, the more subplots and elements thrown in in the beginning, the more fun it is to see how each director would resolve their segment of the story. And in this respect too, it seems To had the toughest job of the three.

The Hong Kong two-disc edition of Triangle, available from YesAsia, has a second disc of extras, including a very short making-of, behind-the-scenes with all three directors, deleted scenes, a TV spot and trailer. There are no English subtitles for the extras, but the behind-the-scenes don't really need any translation.

Encyclopaedia in a movie

After the unintentionally hilarious Wicker Man remake (a movie that actually grows in hilarity as it goes along), I'd sworn off anything with Nicolas Cage in it. That's why Ghost Rider came and went off my radar without me so much as glancing at it.

Strangely enough, I never bothered with National Treasure when it first came out, and naturally I couldn't give a rat's fart about its sequel now. But word had it that they're pretty good entertainment. I didn't believe it until David Bordwell blogged about it. And when Mr Bordwell talks, you listen.

So I headed to the cineplex and caught National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets. Bordwell's right. The movie is good, clean fun, PG with no sex, nudity or graphic violence. Hell, nobody gets shot even! But make no mistake - this is a silly, preposterously and stupidly enjoyable film that, despite its non-tension on the brain, doesn't overtly insult your intelligence. It plays like a Saturday morning adventure cartoon, with an easy-to-understand, by-the-numbers plot and completely no dark spots where you just know no one's going to die horribly and everything will turn out fine in the end.

What is different about NT2 is that it's probably the first treasure/relic-hunting film that takes place not in some exotic, faraway land but right smack on homeground in America. Watching the movie is like reading the encyclopeadia - you even get an explanation about the origin of the phrase "My name is mud." So you have an intricate puzzle about a piece of American history, involving the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and hidden treasure. And Cage runs around with friends and family in tow, still looking like a constipated deer in the headlights, but less annoying this time as his demeanour fits perfectly the character of history geek Benjamin Gates.

But as much as I enjoyed the movie, unlike Mr Bordwell, I'm not about to run out and get the DVD of the first film, nor am I going to get the first movie. It's just plain throwaway fun, you know, the watch-and-forget kind.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Everything's Alright With The World Again

Originally, Stephen Chow's CJ7 was supposed to open in the US first later this month. And that Malaysia was scheduled way down the list for March 7. But now, things have been slightly reversed, and CJ7 will open in the US on March 7.

The film opens in Malaysia on February 7.

Gong hei fatt choy indeed!

Remake Watch: A Tale Of Two Sisters

It's funny, but the Hollywood remake of Korean horror film A Tale Of Two Sisters has earned almost unanimous disdain from everyone. I think it's rare, or at least I find it rare, that a remake that has just completed production is almost universally hated without being given a chance at all.

I'm no fan of remakes, of course, but this level of hatred for a then-yet-to-be-completed remake is surprising, to say the least. And I'm glad that more people are waking up to the utterly useless nature of remakes. The Departed was, despite the critical raves and awards, actually an inferior remake of Infernal Affairs, and till today, it still eludes me how Scorsese could take an utterly enjoyable, no-frills, no-pretensions, no deep-psychological-musings action thriller and add so many unnecessary embellishments that turn his version into a too-obviously smug smirk at the original, not to mention a boring remake.

I wasn't very impressed with the original Tale Of Two Sisters anyway. For one, I could see the twist coming, as early as five minutes into the film, when the sisters stepped out of the car in front of their house. The way it was shot was just too obvious. Then there is this (highlight to read, major SPOILER):

How the hell does someone hang herself in a CLOSET?

Nice atmosphere, but silly story. I feel sorry for the remake.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Why Should I Care About Blu-ray And HD?

Blu-ray or HD? Blu-ray or HD? Blu-ray or HD? Who cares?

So Warner's latest announcement that it will back solely Blu-ray has set off alarm bells in the HD camp. But this is yet another part of the ridiculous constant development that is the progress of home entertainment. Every time a new format appears, everyone screams "This is the future!"

But take a minute, sit back, and take heed of Jack Nicholson's advice as The Joker: "Think about the future!"

If we're going to see something new on the horizon every few years, where's it all going to end? Never? I still have friends who're wondering what to do with their laserdisc collections. And then there's that filmmaker who's still in the midst of replacing his entire collection of VHS tapes and laserdiscs with DVDs. I bet he's pulling his hair out now with all this Blu-ray and HD crap.

I've always been late in joining the bandwagon. I bought my first VCR just when laserdiscs were invented, bought my first laserdisc and VCD deck just when both formats were dovetailing in the market, and got my first DVD player some years ago. I still have VHS tapes of movies like White Zombie with Bela Lugosi, and laserdiscs of Days Of Heaven and Blade Runner, plus a couple of limited edition LD boxed sets.

If we look closely at the trends, it usually follows that radical changes in formats, and in the shapes of the carrying devices, are what revolutionises the preferences of consumers. Compact discs stayed on because they were smaller than vinyls, more durable than cassette tapes (which in turn, were smaller than cartridges and caught on) and offered better sound quality (depending on whether you're a digital or an analogue person). Subsequent enhancements of the format, such as SACD, remain a niche. Mini-discs are, of course, a whole different story. The equipment for it was expensive and the sound quality was compressed. Perhaps that's why most labels didn't support the format, resulting in little available music on Mini-disc.

Now, you can probably draw parallel with the whole VHS and Betamax deal. Like Mini-discs, Betamax also offered a smaller version of an existing format. Like Mini-discs too, it didn't catch on at all (although Mini-discs are still popular in Japan).

The laserdisc and the DVD were radical improvements in format and caught on in a big way. Laserdiscs offered digital picture quality and sound, while DVDs improved on that, plus their size is also an advantage. Now, Blu-ray and HD are similar to the SACD or even the Betamax. They're purely technical improvements on an existing shape and format. What am I predicting?

No, I dare not predict anything. But I'm just pointing out the possibilities based on past evidence.

Personally, I couldn't care less about the new formats, because I still use a 21-inch TV, and I don't own, or much care for, an expensive home-theatre system. My basic principle remains that films should be seen and experienced on the big cinema screen, at least once. Once that whole feel has been captured, it's easy to translate it in your mind, or transpose it, onto the smaller screen.

What do I care what the resolution is on a 21-inch TV screen?

For most consumers anyway, portability is a plus factor. DVD already offers that factor, with some opting to watch DVDs on their laptops and other devices while travelling or commuting. Resolution and other technical perfections are the least of their concerns.

How else do you explain the millions of people who are listening to bad quality, compressed music via MP3 files in their iPods and other mobile devices?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sometimes They Come Back

Much of the current fuss over Blade Runner isn't really about the film's quality, but rather, it's mostly about how much it feels like the studio and producers are milking admirers of the film ever since it achieved cult status, guaranteeing its perpetual presence in the annals of film history and marketing.

I, myself, have lost track of exactly how many different editions and versions of the film there are altogether, especially with the latest blitz that includes a "briefcase edition" that comes with not just the different cuts of the film, but also a model of a Spinner and an origami unicorn. That's, of course, only for the most hardcore of fans (ie. those who can recite, in its entirety, Roy Batty's rooftop lament about "shoulders of Orion" and "tears in rain"), because even I had grown weary and wary of the new releases, having seen the original theatrical version, then the version on laserdisc, then on DVD. Now comes the Final Cut (is it really final, Mr Scott?), and I opted for the two-disc version now finally available in the stores here.

When I first saw Blade Runner as a kid, I was almost as confounded by it as 2001: A Space Odyssey. But like everyone else, I had the futuristic, dystopian landscape of rain, grime and orbs of light and lens flares stuck in my mind. Those images just refused to go away. The most memorable sequence for me at the time, wasn't Roy Batty's final, rain-soaked hours, but, strangely enough, Rick Deckard's encounter with Pris in the old abandoned apartment. It was memorable because it was the most bizarre thing I had ever seen, and still is, when I see it again now on DVD. The whole idea of toys of the future being completely life-like, is already very strange. Pris's sinister, child-like personality, certainly makes her the creepiest and most dangerous replicant in the film, not to mention also the most erotic. But the most memorable role in the film has to be Edward James Olmos's Gaff, a character whose gait, wardrobe and speech were almost exclusively developed by Olmos. Here's one of the greatest minor characters in a film that somehow feels more major because it's so well-conceived and real.

Like Ridley Scott's Alien, Blade Runner is also largely a brilliant exercise in art direction. I've always regarded both these films as thin on excitement and plot, even meandering at times. It's the magnificent visuals that keep you riveted. Blade Runner is essentially about a detective who hunts down some wayward replicants who have escaped the off-world colonies. That's it. The story is imbued with some philosophical undertones about what it means to be human, about the egotistical tendencies of human beings to exert superiority in self-destructive ways. There's almost no character development, as Deckard is thrown right into the thick of things, swimming solely with Harrison Ford's magnetic charisma and impressive acting chops. Blade Runner is neither plot-driven nor character-driven. I would argue that it's visually-driven. Despite its earnestness to rest its axis upon the love affair between Rachael and Deckard, the film still fails to elicit the required emotions, unlike the poignancy of the human-robot relationship in, say, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

The most interesting thing about this latest Final Cut, for me, was to see whether Scott has managed to make the story more interesting, or as interesting as it could be if it were standing alone apart from the arresting visuals. It was a little disappointing to find that much of the work on this latest version was mostly to clean up technical flaws. The shadow of the cameraman on the walls next to Deckard as he is being chased by Batty is gone, and so is the wire raising the Spinner in one scene. The shot of the dove flying out of Batty's dead hands and into a blue sky has been replaced by a more appropriate, wider shot of it flying into an overcast sky. The inexplicable hand on Batty's shoulder as he rides the elevator alone has also been removed from the scene. The unicorn dream sequence has also been extended by a few seconds, as are some of the violence. If there are any other changes, I haven't picked up on them because this is the first time I'm seeing the film again since the Director's Cut some years ago.

Apart from those changes and the remastering, not much else is different from the previous Director's Cut. But strangely enough, the Final Cut does somehow come across as more cohesive and the pacing more concrete. If Scott had done something there, it's surely not visually noticeable, but felt. I'm hard-pressed to attribute this slight, cerebral improvement to anything in particular. It's another one of those mysteries, but perhaps the answer lies in why the film only gradually gained popularity after it flopped at the box-office. It grows with time. Perhaps it's also grown on me over time. It would be interesting to see how we'll view it in another 10 years.

The Final Cut two-disc edition comes with a second disc of the three-and-a-half-hour long documentary, Dangerous Days: The Making Of Blade Runner. There are no surprise revelations here if you've already read the brilliant book, Future Noir: The Making Of Blade Runner. But bringing back the cast and crew after more than two decades to talk about the film is something the book can't have, although much of what is said is known history in the Blade Runner cult circle. The budget and schedule problems, the animosity between Scott and his crew, the terrible shooting conditions of smoke and rain - all of them are here. Then there are the outtakes, screen tests and deleted scenes, including the "difficult" love scene between Rachael and Deckard, and the alternate ending of the theatrical release with footage from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

The most interesting bits are of how the special effects were done, because this was before the advent of computer graphics. The SFX guys had to rely on their ingenuity and techniques such as forced perspective, multiple exposures, matte paintings and the old way of using motion-control cameras which took hours. Here, the revelations are more jaw-dropping than in the book because you get to see how it was all done, how a whole city was created (they literally threw the kitchen sink in there, because one of the miniatures was indeed a kitchen sink!). And it certainly puts to shame a lot of the current CGI work, because back then, effects were done in-camera and therefore, looked more real.

It's a long and arduous journey through the long and arduous history of the film, starting from the very day someone decided to buy the rights to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?.

Space Opera

It's funny to see the various famous film people being interviewed for the extra features on the 2001: A Space Odyssey Special Edition two-disc DVD, saying how they were completely bowled over by the film when they first saw it back in the 60s.

I'm not doubting their sincerity, but somehow I think at least some of them must have expressed their admiration for the film more as an afterthought. Like me. I was completely dumbfounded by it when I first saw it. What was that screeching sound apparently emanating from the monolith? What's with the trippy light show near the end? Why was David Bowmen seeing himself grow old? What was that strange room and how did he get there? What the hell's the ending with that space baby?

Raise your hands, how many of you were dogged by the same questions?

Naturally, when your mind is plagued by the elements you don't quite comprehend, whatever technical achievements and visual flair a film has, become second to the priority of understanding just what the heck you've just seen. It's infamous now, the story of how 2001 did so poorly at the cinemas initially and was almost pulled from screens when there was a sudden surge of attendance by potheads. Most of them seated themselves right in front of the screen (and, I don't know how true this is, but some even lay on the floor), stoned before the show, to experience "the ultimate show."

After a few more viewings, the film started to wield its power over me, and over time, with much research, it's clear that this is an extremely well-conceived film that attempts to alleviate visual storytellling to the realm of pure cinema. It starts off as silent cinema, and is bookended the same way. Part of its brilliance also lies in the use of music, an almost perfect combination of music and image. In fact, the film plays like an opera, with an overture, four "movements," an intermission and a finale.

This is the grand opera of the evolution of man, the epic dramatic cycle of human history. Much has been written about the symbolisms in the film; even an entire website is dedicated to explaining what the film is really about. Stanley Kubrick himself had said: "You are free to speculate, as you wish, the philosophical and allegorical meanings of 2001." The film is as open to interpretation as any film could be, the scenes in the final movement deliberately strung together without their thread being apparent.

But if the film is threaded together, or seen together, with the basic idea outlined from the very beginning of the film and rendered more pronounced towards the end, then it becomes the story of what knowledge entails. Quite simply, knowledge begets power, power begets ego, and ego leads to destruction. Moonwatcher, the ape who discovers the use of a bone as a weapon and commits the world's first murder, throws the bone into the air, in that now-famous scene where the bone transforms, via a jump-cut, into a nuclear weapon in space. HAL 9000, the super-computer, displays an ego, in voicing its pride that no 9000 computer has ever known to make a mistake, and in the end, thinks it knows better than the human beings on board the Discovery, and sets in motion a plan to destroy them.

The new Special Edition DVD includes interviews with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Douglas Trumbull, and many others, including a number of quotes from sci-fi writer and visionary Arthur C. Clarke, who collaborated with Kubrick on the script. It's interesting that many people today would readily attest to the fact that Star Wars is the most influential sci-fi movie of the last 30 or so years. But it's clear that 2001 influences much of Star Wars's look and design. The docking bay of the space station in 2001 had clearly provided the blueprint for the Death Star's docking bay. The first appearance of the gigantic Discovery spacecraft was probably what gave Lucas the idea for the seemingly endless shot of the gargantuan Star Destroyer. The influence of 2001 can even be seen in the design of the spacesuits and their colours in the TV series Space: 1999 (yet another sci-fi title with a colon).

The extras on the DVD include the evolution and making of 2001, early art concepts, an early NASA documentary featuring Clarke talking about the "upcoming" Stanley Kubrick film, a gallery of Kubrick's exceptional photography work as a photojournalist with Look magazine before he became a filmmaker, and an audio interview with the director. Some secrets of the film's astounding special effects, astounding even by today's standards, are also revealed.

The 2001 Special Edition two-disc DVD available for RM49.90 in stores is the R3 version.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

How To Disappear In America

There are films that do not contribute to, or advance the art of film in a great way, but still needed to be made. One example is Syriana, a story that really needed to be told. I praised the film when it first came out, and I still think it is relevant to our turbulent times, and will continue to be so, so long as politicians and power struggles exist. It needed to be made because no one was telling the story so emotionally wrenching from the other point of view, although the view it presents is nothing new to those already familiar with news from sources other than the mainstream media like CNN and Fox. But it is new to filmed stories, delving into the political, social and economic causes of terrorism and bringing us the human faces behind the terrorists. The last time a terrorist on film was presented with such humanity and not just as a faceless "evil foreigner" was in Paul Greengrass's United 93.

Rendition, directed by Gavin Hood, who made the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, isn't as interested in the root of the problem as Syriana does, but with its consequences and aftermath. It's also a story about how a blindsided, myopic agenda, no matter how good its intention, will always end in further chaos.

Although partly set in an unnamed, fictional country in North Africa, it's pretty easy to gauge what it's all supposed to reflect, especially when one local is seen carrying a placard that says "America Get Out." The story begins with a suicide bomb attack at a town square, which then consequently leads to the arrest of an Egyptian with a green card flying home from South Africa back to his pregnant wife and son in America. What ensues is a frightening horror story as the Egyptian is made to "disappear," then sent to a torture camp in that North African country.

Rendition is another one of those films that needed to be made because the story has its immediacy. The storytelling procedure is pretty standard throughout, and even easier to understand than the oftentimes convoluted Syriana. But what gives Rendition the extra edge, bringing its emotional quotient up to match Syriana's heartfelt lament about the tragedy of humanity, is a Romeo And Juliet type love story, and a big, big surprise towards the end.

Although the little tweak in the ending may seem a bit like a cheat, it's still a pretty clever way of upping the emotional connection with the characters and giving the audience a big punch to the gut. It also nicely underlines the fact that angry desire often blinds us to the real consequences that may already be happening right before our eyes.

And now we wait for Greengrass's adaptation of Imperial Life In The Emerald City.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Dark Bat Knight Man

So, you've probably seen the Youtube video posted recently that pits the trailer of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman with that of Christopher Nolan's upcoming The Dark Knight, in a split-screen comparison. If you haven't, you can watch it here.

The similarities are staggering. The timing of the transitions, the scenes, the action ... everything is timed almost exactly the same. This surely cannot be mere coincidence. How can two different Batman movies by two different directors from two different eras be this similar?

My take on the possibilities:

1. Nolan's team is paying tribute to Tim Burton by cutting the trailer almost exactly the same way; or

2. Nolan copied shots and scenarios off Tim Burton's version; or

3. The Dark Knight is essentially the same story as the 1989 version; or

and this is the scariest of them all:

4. Hollywood has a fixed template for all its movie trailers.

I've written about this before, how Hollywood cuts its trailers the same way - slow build up of scenes and dramatic music, pick up the pace, fade out with voice-over, then choral crescendo with quick cuts, then fade out again with voice-over of tagline, and one final burst.

So, here it's probably like:
10-second mark - show villain with cool quote
30-second mark - explosions
60-second mark - show hero fighting villain

and on and on.

You take your pick of which possibility you think is more possible. Good luck.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

What's Up In Malaysia 2008

There's probably a plethora of stuff coming up in 2008 of which I'm not aware. But the ones I'm aware of I already knew in 2007 that they were going to happen. Here are a few things to look out for:

Yasmin Ahmad's new film, completed last year, has yet to be shown anywhere in the world It's possibly opening in Singapore in March or April, and the Singapore censors have passed it uncut. It's laso possibly opening here in Malaysia after Singapore. This time it's no longer an autobiographical story about Orked and family, but a drama about two Muslim girls who run away from a bad home and befriend a Catholic schoolteacher. I've seen three versions of the film, including the final cut, and I predict it's going to generate very mixed responses from extreme ends of the spectrum.

Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang
Mamat Khalid's Zombi Kg Pisang was riotous, satirical fun, the rare contemporary Malaysian comedy with a point. KMBM will be released soon, and it has some plus points already going for it. Response from the preview screening has been largely favourable, and the trailer looks absolutely ravishing.

James Lee doing a blood-and-gore horror movie with a monster stalking girls in a college? The washing machine guy known for his ponderous films now taking a plunge into visceral supernatural horror? Well, it is happening.

Johnny Bikin Filem
One-and-a-half decades in the making, or rather, made and kept in the vault for 15 years, Prof Anuar Nor Arai's noir thriller is finally going to see the light of day, or at least the light of the projector's bulb. The original cut was reportedly five-and-a-half hours long. But we're getting the two-hour version in the cinemas.

Jarum Halus
The Malaysian updated version of Othello. Its trailer looks pretty good, but can first-time feature director Mark Tan pull it off? He's got a cast of largely newcomers, except for veteran actor Rahim Razali and Juliana Ibrahim, who had an impressive role in Yasmin Ahmad's Gubra.

Cicakman 2
Not much information on this sequel, except that one of the extras on the film leaked some photos of the production. Actually, it can't really be confirmed that those photos are of Cicakman 2, but speculation has it that they are. Whatever. The first film was a big bore - not much action for a superhero film. Let's see what they'll do with this.

The novel of the film has been out a long time, the TV series has been aired. Now apparently the film will finally be released this year. Or is it? Do we trust any news about Susuk anymore?

Evolusi KL Drift
If you think the Initial D craze has long gone, well you're wrong. Our very own 2 Fast 2 Furious is set to drift along the roads this year. After Impak Maksima last year, dare we hope that this will actually be a good automobile action film?

BS21: Brainscan
If this were a serious sci-fi drama, that title would be professional suicide. But since this is a sci-fi comedy, it might prove self-deprecating. But since this is directed by Ahmad Idham of Jangan Pandang Belakang infamy, it could well revert to being a self-destructive title. Heh.

Antoo Fighter
Fantasy-horror-whatever that tries to look like an epic LOTR-meets-Ghostbusters, but comes across more like a knock-off of Miike Takashi's The Great Yokai War. It still looks like it could be a hell of a lot of fun. Let's hope it is.

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