Saturday, August 30, 2008

Mass Consumption

It would seem that both the movie WALL-E and its reviewers lack balls. That's the way I see it anyway.

As we can already see, almost all the reviews of Pixar's latest "heart-warming" feature say the same things - "charming," "endearing," "with an environmental message" - and overlooks the same things too, namely the hypocrisy of its so-called "message."

While it quite explicitly rebels against mass consumerism, showing future humans as fat and useless, and apathetic towards their environmentally-devastated home, the "environmental message" is simply null and void. Even stupid to a certain degree.

And the ending of the movie - it simply lacks balls. It doesn't have to be a downer, but there's huge potential there to do something different, to go against expectations. But at every turn, I was met with the same boring, predictable stuff.

But the movie is prophetic. With all the glowing reviews coming together into an indistinguishable mass, what's to differentiate between the fat and useless humans in the movie and the "mass-consuming" reviewers? We are indeed becoming a hive-minded blob. Even when a story like V For Vendetta, which stresses the importance of individuality, is adapted into a film, it also morphs into a mass appeal ending with the masses taking on Guy Fawkes masks.

Look at WALL-E this way:

That "charming" robot as merchandising becomes a metaphorical crusader of mass consumerism. EVE was, at first, a rebellious individual who wanted to destroy WALL-E, ie. destroy consumerism. But soon she falls in love with him, certifying that, yes, sooner or later, mass appeal gets to you, whether you like it or not.

And that's frightening.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Ada Apa Dengan Zohan?

I say this with total conviction: You Don't Mess With The Zohan is probably the most fucked up movie I've ever seen in my entire life. It's so fucked up, you'll feel completely fucked up after seeing it, even more if you found yourself laughing at some of the fucked up jokes.

I hardly ever use expletives to describe a movie, but I think The Zohan calls for it. How did a fine actor like John Turturro move from being in fine films like Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski to this disaster of a comedy?

I love stupid comedies, even Dude, Where's My Car?. And I love politically incorrect stuff. But the un-PC-ness of The Zohan is pointless and only crude and rude for the sake of being so. That's fucked up.

If I have to further describe The Zohan, sans expletives, it would be this: The Zohan is Borat with a bigger budget, even less taste and absolutely no point.

Ya, so the movie makes fun of both Israelis and Palestinians, and American rednecks, but essentially it says that the US is the only one that can get the Middle East people to live together peacefully. And that the Israel-Palestine conflict is really nobody's fault.

And that is truly fucked up.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

This Tumbler Is Not Batman's

In looking through a certain academic article online today, something crossed my mind.

Whenever we talk about multiracial and multicultural local films, the usual suspects, such as Othman Hafsham's Mekanik, Teck Tan's Spinning Gasing and Yasmin Ahmad's Sepet, always get mentioned. Of course, P. Ramlee had made a movie with a multiracial cast long before anyone. But the point I'm trying to make is, there is one movie that's always forgotten, unsung, unmentioned, and obscured.

It's a film that I can't remember much about either. It's called Red Haired Tumbler Di Malaya (1994), and it featured a large Chinese cast, including Elaine Kang, and Shima and Ahmad Fauzee, plus some Caucasian actors. I only remember it being not very good, and there were acrobats in it. I searched high and low all over the Web looking for information on it. It's not even listed on IMDB. But Sinema Malaysia has it listed, and that really cements the website's reputation as the most definitive and comprehensive on Malaysian films.

Check out the Sinema Malaysia page on the film here. It's directed by Eddie Pak. The synopsis:

"Tom lives with his father, a priest in Malaya. His parents are killed in the Second World War and he is adopted by his Chinese grandmother. When she dies, he has to fend for himself. Chow from Taiwan has to leave behind his girlfriend, Lily to come to work in Malaya. After the war, lily leads an acrobatic troupe and tries to find Chow. Deen Mohd falls for her but she is not responsive to him. In a performance, Patrick creates havoc but Tom and Tat Meng manage to save the day. Patrick accuses Deen Mohd of embezzling his company’s money and brings the police to search his house. Lily finally meets Chow but is disappointed when discovers he is married to Manik."

Interracial romance! It might not be a very good film, but I think historically it might be important in some ways. Definitely worth a mention in any discussion about multiracial local films, methinks.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Film As A House

It's been a long while since the last entry. I'm not sure how much Susuk has collected so far, but I suspect it should be a rather substantial amount. I've been trawling the Net for some reviews of the film, and funnily enough, most of them praise Susuk for its "non-linear narrative," and its many homage and references to other films and filmmakers.

Well, I love homage and tributes as much as the next guy. I even made a short film that was a tribute to Bela Tarr, although it was nowhere near the artistic intelligence of Tarr's films. I'm humiliated to admit.

The problem of homage was largely the problem with Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang, the winner of Best Film at this year's Festival Filem Malaysia. I enjoyed the first half of the film, but I hardly think it's best-film material. There's nothing wrong in paying tribute to a style and convention of the past; but to do it just for the sake of doing, just because you can? It was the same problem I encountered with Thailand's Tears Of The Black Tiger. The novelty wore off just after 15 minutes. Thankfully, KMBM had more than 15 minutes of an interesting and comedic story. Still, the novelty wore thin after a while, when the story seemed to head nowhere, or rather, it wasn't hurrying to get anywhere.

I must add that somewhere someone loves this film very much, and has championed it in every corner of available space, virtual and physical. But it's still a mystery why, because there has been no explanation forthcoming from the person who believes there is much to study within KMBM. I say this without an ounce of sarcasm: I really would like to know. Seriously, I think it would be interesting to explore another viewpoint - an alternate view - just because such a conviction exists.

Instead, it led me to a discussion of the function of film theory and the true nature of a film review. The conclusion was that film theory is essentially building blocks for the filmmaker, and a point of interest for the academic to scrutinise how a filmmaker has used various techniques to enhance, animate, construct, hold together the working parts of her/his film. But once the film is made and "released' to the audience, it becomes text and the only relevant references should strictly be philosophical, historical, psychological, cultural, and all other aspects of humanity that the film should reflect.

Unless, of course, a film was made solely for other filmmakers and academicians, which would then validate the use of film theory as reference in discussing the film. But who makes such films? Isn't cinema a "democratic" art?

I've used the "beautiful house" analogy before. But lately, I've realised that that could easily lead to further complications. A beautiful house can be constructed but with a lousy foundation. It could serve certain aesthetic purposes, but would eventually fail in its basic function as a house. An ugly house could be constructed from brilliant materials and craftsmanship. It serves its basic function but other aspects of it would be thrown into question.

So then, isn't film theory a construction manual rather than the building blocks? If you follow it well, but you cheat on the materials or building blocks, things will still fall apart. And a construction manual instructs you on how to build a house but it doesn't tell you what colour the house should be painted in. Even the choice of windows - lattice or grill or sliding glass - is entirely up to you.

In this way, film theory alone is inadequate for a discussion or a review of a film. A filmmaker who follows film theory to the letter isn't going to end up with a great masterpiece. As such, thou shalt not judge a film by how many semiotics there are, nor by the presence of such things as gestalt, millieu and whathaveyou.

OK, I shall stop now, because I'm at the edge of the freezing water, completely naked.

What I shall tell you next is that Woo Ming Jin's award-winning The Elephant And The Sea opens tomorrow in Cathay Cineleisure, at The Curve, and will be on till Sept 3.

Remember: The Elephant And The Sea at Cathay Cineleisure, The Curve, beginnig tomorrow till Sept 3.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

City Folk Black Magic Show

If this were Hollywood, Susuk would be looked upon with great suspicion. Over there, if a project gets stuck in limbo for two years, it would be deemed a failed endeavour and relegated to a limited theatrical release (probably in some seedy cinemas with tissue-strewn, sticky floors, in shady parts of towns) or straight-to-video hell.

But this is a different part of the world, and Susuk, despite a two-year delay, has collected RM1.2 million in its first week of release. In Hollywood, this would be nothing short of a miracle. The TV series has finished its run on TV3, and is being re-run in the late-night slot (at least I think it's a re-run), and the books of the movie (in Bahasa Malaysia and English) have sold well. What was initially a movie that inspired a TV series has sort of been spun around like the Mach 5 in a wacky race. The interest in the movie has obviously been nurtured by the successful TV series. What an interesting turn of events!

The last few days have seen some of the wackiest reviews and responses appearing on the Net. One blogger basically told Amir Muhammad to learn how to make a horror movie from Pierre Andre! Ya, I agree, 9 September was a real horror of a movie!

Well, I guess she must mean that movie, because Jangan Pandang Belakang wasn't directed by Pierre.

A major Malay newspaper headlined its review as "Can't understand the story." But really, the story isn't that hard to follow, unless you were in a coma. But here's another strange turn of events like the abovementioned.

The big twist, or temporal trick in Susuk is the exact same one that was used in a recent Hollywood movie. To find out which movie it is, highlight the paragraph below. Warning: IT'S A MAJOR SPOILER.

It was Rendition. The past and the present happen concurrently, and are kind of joined together at the end. But Rendition's temporal trick has a big reason for being - it shockingly and emotively reminds us that a tragedy like the one in the film has human faces behind it, which we don't see when we watch the news. I'm hard-pressed to find a good reason for Susuk employing the same trick.

But Susuk was made two years earlier, and that Hollywood movie only came out last year. Which, in hindsight, makes Amir and his co-director Naeim Ghalili, pioneers. Well, well.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Fireworks And Wireworks

I had a blast watching the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics last night. Traffic was bad, and I thought I would miss the show, but as luck would have it, I ended up in a medium-sized shopping mall that had projection screens showing the opening ceremony telecast. It was a nice crowd too, who even stood up during the Chinese national anthem!

It was an amazing show, made more by the fact that a friend this morning told me she wasn't impressed with it because it was "not big enough." I wonder, what could be bigger than THAT?!

There were quite a few "How did they do that?"moments, and it was a big opportunity to showcase all sorts of Chinese inventions, including, of course, fireworks. Then it hit me, that the Chinese also gave the world wire-fu, without which there wouldn't have been The Matrix! And there was no shortage of wirework displays last night.

And Zhang Yimou, who directed the whole show, certainly has had experience with wire-fu.

I bet Spielberg is banging his head against the wall of his house now, thinking: "Damn it! I thought the show would fall apart without me! Damn damn damn!" Or maybe he didn't even watch the show, which was a delayed telecast in the US and angered many Olympics fans who had to wait 12 hours for it.

Naturally, the protests and other "activism" has restarted, and this guy has expectedly posted another stupid blog entry on the eve of the opening ceremony. The guy is Grady Hendrix, and the blog is "Variety's Asian film blog," but you have to wonder what entries like this latest one and previous China-bashing ones have to do with "Asian films."

All these protests are missing the one pertinent point about the whole affair - that this is an inspiring moment where a nation troubled by natural disasters and other problems bounces back unfazed and against incredible odds to put on a formidable show, not just for the world, but also as a reaffirmation to themselves.

Here's what I wrote about the other Kaiju "smackdowns" of China
And here's Spielberg trying to be a hero

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Lost Landscapes

The Midnight Express snack bar in Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express, where Faye Wong's character worked, is gone. Check out what it's turned into here.

There are many other sights familiar to HK film fans that have disappeared or are fast disappearing, like the breathtaking Kowloon Walled City,which was also in Wong Kar-wai's Days Of Being Wild. The famous teahouse in the gunfight scene in John Woo's Hard Boiled is gone, and so are parts of Tsim Sha Tsui that were in Peter Chan's Comrades: Almost A Love Story. Ringo Lam quickly shot part of Full Alert on Bird Street when he found out it was going to be destroyed. You can read about all of it here.

Johnnie To's Sparrow practically bleeds with nostalgia for the old, romantic side of Hong Kong. Simon Yam's character goes around town with an old camera, capturing faces and places, as if they will all be gone by tomorrow. Which is probably closer to the truth than we think.

I attended a talk with Wim Wenders are a few other filmmakers last year at the Berlinale, and it centred around cities in film. There are certainly places that are instantly recognisable by their landmarks, and the more important landmarks are often preserved for good. But there are also places that have become a part of their inhabitants souls, but do not carry such importance as to be preserved as a national heritage or landmark.

It's a painful reality. Like in Malaysia, for instance, most mainstream film and TV productions are so preoccupied with including shots of the Petronas Twin Towers, as if those are the only landmarks that would imprint an identity on the locale portrayed. But any filmmaker or photographer will tell you that the true face of beauty and the real soul of the city lies in places not commonly seen in our films and productions but have been around long enough and lived in enough to be ingrained into the local consciousness. These are the true places of character, not the concrete-and-steel modernities that sooner or later morph into a single, shiny, indistinguishable mass.

But how many of our filmmakers are actually racing to preserve such places on film? I know of a few filmmakers who look to places like Ipoh and other towns. Most recently, Azhar Ruddin's Punggok Rindukan Bulan (The Longing) was shot in the Bukit Chagar flats in Johor Baru, which was torn down after they finished production there.

We certainly can't stop the force of progress, and we'll surely see more of these kinds of places being demolished. The only way left to preserve them is on film and within our collective film memory.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

It's That Time Of The Year Again

Yes, indeed. It's that time when dumb decisions are made, and even dumber results come about. It's the Festival Filem Malaysia.

First of all, check out the official webpage here and weep. No, seriously, the horrendous English will make you weep. Secondly, Congkak, the side-splitting "horror" movie, garnered four nominations, including Best Director and Best Sound. Now how in the world did that happen in an industry of sane people? For one, Congkak is a terrible movie, and I rolled all around the cinema floor laughing my ass off throughout the movie. No, really I did.

Secondly, I came out of the movie with an earache. What sound design? What sound effects? They were just a bunch of very, very loud "explosions" designed to jolt the audience because the movie has no real scares.

The nominees for Best Film are going to be announced on the night of the awards ceremony. I wonder, I just wonder, if Congkak will be one of them.

And then there's the case where the FFM snubs important filmmakers. Last year, Mukhsin, one of the best local films, was snubbed in both the Best Film and Best Director categories. Head juror Yusof Haslam thought there was nothing particularly new or groundbreaking about the film, just more of the same ol', same ol' from Yasmin Ahmad. So I guess, in a sulky move, Muallaf isn't submitted to this year's FFM. Just a bit of advice though: really, if the FFM doesn't care about you or your films, then your submission or non-submission will not move them to tears. In fact, I think there would be some rejoicing for the lack of real competition. More prizes to go around, if you know what I mean.

So, it's that time of the year again. It's the season when we celebrate mediocrity. It's the moment of sucky films and sulky filmmakers.

By the way, Amir Muhammad is on this year's jury, although I don't exactly know what the implications of that are.

Nah, I won't even bother linking to the full list of nominees.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Up, Up And Away

I've never been to Hong Kong. Well, I've had a stopover in Chep Lap Kok airport, but all i could do was look out the large windows at the hills outside. Couldn't step out to see the city. I had another chance to visit Hong Kong, but at the last minute, SARS broke out and all my plans had to be cancelled. Friends who have gone to the island before say it's a shopping paradise, and it's always busy, crammed with people.

But for Johnnie To, there's a romantic side to the city and the island. Sparrow captures that perfectly, alternating between the old and the new, and sometimes mixing them up. I don't believe Hong Kong has ever been this beautiful on film, or at least this endearing. The slick and the rustic exist together, so do the archaic and the modern, the past and the present. There's a sense of a temporal mash-up not just in terms of the visuals of the city, but also the movie's characters.

Simon Yam's Kei could easily be a Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or Clark Gable. The opening sequence of him in his apartment sees him reaching towards a sparrow that had flown into his room. From his graceful, choreographed movement, I really thought he was going to break into a dance, and song perhaps. But he never does, throughout the entire film. He's always close to it though, and together with the very characteristic music, gives the film the feel of a 60s French musical. Closer to the truth is that it's as if Alain Delon is in a Hollywood musical.

Certainly, on the crime side of the story, it would seem the spirit of Jean-Pierre Melville is operating. The sense of style is strong, the capers skilfully drawn out with the coolness of a Melville heist. Four professional pickpockets, led by Kei, operate daily within the city, but their work is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious beautiful woman (Kelly Lin). It turns out that the woman is a Mainlander trying to free herself from the clutches of her wealthy, aged lover.

The four unwittingly get drawn into the mess, and this leads to a nighttime showdown in the rain, with umbrellas and sharp objects. It could all turn deadly, if this were a gritty crime thriller, but this is really To's love letter to his beloved Hong Kong, and romance even creeps into this final showdown. The victory is really the cinematographer's. Working with only dark tones, and at night and drenched in water, the beauty of every frame still leaps out. It must have been some really clever lighting at work there.

The editing of that scene and the scenes of pocket-picking is another proof of the painstaking editing that To gives a lot of attention to, like the street chase scene in Mad Detective.

But the winning point here is the stark simplicity of it all, with minimal dialogue and a story so uncomplicated, it's almost like a dream. Like Throw Down, this is pure cinematic storytelling, refined down to the point where the camera is the only one doing all the talking.

Ultimately, it's a story about home, or going home. The freedom outside can be attractive, the wide, open sky inviting, but in the end we all want a place to go back to. For the sparrow, it's not necessarily up in a tree. It could be on a rafter in the corner of an apartment's ceiling. Freedom is not a place, nor can it be drawn by boundaries. Freedom is what you do; life's what you make it.

In Sparrow, freedom is lost and regained, and home is where the heart is. And for Johnnie To, through his loving portrayal of his city, shows us that his heart is firmly in Hong Kong and proudly on his sleeve.

COPYRIGHT POLICY: It's simple: Steal my stuff and I'll kick you in the nuts