Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Malaysian Cinema: Time To Move On

I still remember, like it was so long ago, that every little recognition the so-called Malaysian New Cinema received was welcomed with much fanfare. We'd all get so excited about someone winning some award overseas. While James Lee and Amir Muhammad had blazed the trail first, opening up new possibilities for our cinema, it was later that Ho Yuhang started the awards rolling in, starting the Nantes Festival Of The Three Continents.

Of course, before all of this, folks like U-Wei and Tsai Ming-liang had already garnered the attention of international festivals. But here, for the sake of narrowing the discussion, we're talking about the New Cinema, or New Wave, of digital filmmaking, which has now morphed into a movement that includes pretty much anything that functions outside the mainstream machine, or anything that pushes boundaries or takes off in whole new directions. We can't exclude the mainstream completely, because a film like Mukhsin, a Berlinale winner, is a commercial effort.

After almost a decade now, all is still well with New Cinema. Even now as we speak, there is a massive showcase of more than 30 Malaysian films at the Rialto Theatre in Amsterdam. Some of the filmmakers are also in attendance for various events. And our productions are truly going international, with Ho Yuhang getting funding from Korea and using Hong Kong and Taiwanese talents, while Yasmin Ahmad has just announced a Malaysia-Japan co-production of something called Forget-Me-Not. While on the quiet, our one-time Venice Special Mention winner, Yeo Joon Han, has been moving in the festival circuit with his "comedy with songs," Sell Out!, getting a lot of good press and exposure.

And in Taiwan, we have yet another Malaysian, Ho Widing, making moves into feature filmmaking after going to Cannes with his short films Respire and Summer Afternoon.

Now, at this point, we must be able to take a step back and evaluate the situation.

We've come this far and won so much. While there's a noticeable momentum still propelling Malaysian films forward, it's also time to let go of certain things. For one thing, a sense of direction is important, so that we don't become stuck in a rut. I think we can already notice that some filmmakers are falling into monotony, which almost always leads to self-parody. The independent scene, as a whole, is also in danger of becoming too attached to, and identified with, one style which a local critic recently called "morose films."

And just last week, Muallaf picked up a special mention in Tokyo and there were what felt like too many fists punching the air. My question is, do we really need to react in a manner like we did eight years ago? Back then, even if a film won, say, Best Dressed Director (I made it up, it doesn't exist), we'd all be jumping for joy, maybe even hold a party or two at the mamak stall. But I think Mukhsin's Berlinale win has up the ante, and when you've gone that far down the road, it feels a little silly and pointless to go back to the starting line and cheer that we actually made it to the race. Of course, every win is a cause for celebration, but I'm saying that it should be in an appropriate magnitude. Otherwise, we'll always be cheering at the starting line without actually moving forward.

This is my suggestion. This is my call. Malaysian cinema, let's move on to bigger things, or on to newer and unchartered waters.

Let's see where we can take it.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Return Of The A.I.

If you've been following recent Hollywood releases, you'd notice a very peculiar thing. There have been no less than two tributes to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, in particular to the mutinous supercomputer HAL 9000.

Mild to major spoilers ahead for the movies WALL-E and Eagle Eye. So if you haven't seen them, stop right here. Otherwise, forward march.

If there's still anyone who hasn't seen Kubrick's masterpiece sci-fi opera, even after the recent two-disc DVD release (actually I wouldn't be surprised at all because 2001 isn't an easy film to sit through), here's the lowdown: HAL 9000 kills everyone on board the mission to Jupiter when it realises that humans will jeopardise the mission.

In both WALL-E and Eagle Eye, there is a mutinous supercomputer; in both movies, it resembles HAL 9000 with its "red eye." In both movies too, the supercomputer sees human beings as a threat.

I don't quite know how to pinpoint the reason for these tributes (and could I be wrong in suspecting that there will be more tributes to come?). The one obvious reason we can all see is that this year, it is exactly 40 years since 2001 was first released.

Also, I've read that Kubrick was somewhat influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis in making 2001. (Could HAL be the reincarnation of Hel, the dead lover of scientist Rotwang who wants to build a robot in her image?) Metropolis was released almost exactly 40 years before 2001. And now, at almost 80 years since Lang's film first came out, the legendary missing reels have been discovered in Argentina. Of course, all this is just coincidence, but it makes for curious statistics and baffling wonderment.

Perhaps these reappearances of HAL 9000 are just a symptom of our times in which our tools and machines sometimes become too independent of our control. Take a step into a train, and notice that the recorded voice through the PA system sounds more lively than the bored, tired human chatter around you.

Kubrick predicted it after all.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wherefore Art Thou, Red Sorghum DVD?

Having once been obsessed with the Chinese Fifth Generation films, I have most of Zhang Yimou's films on DVD. I own two editions of Raise The Red Lantern, one of my all-time favourite films. I bought the Taiwanese edition in Taipei at a time when there were no proper DVD releases of the film. I own two copies of Ju Dou, one a local VCD and the other an R1 edition DVD. Unfortunately the R1 DVD is full-screen; I can't understand why Razor, the studio that released the DVD, would do so. If you check the specs on Amazon, it says "2.35:1." That needs correcting.

The transfer, too, is rather piss-poor.

MGM's Raise The Red Lantern fares so much better, with a fair quality transfer and the correct aspect ratio.Yet the picture resolution is still a tad wanting.

And now I have two copies of Red Sorghum, the first film in Zhang's "red trilogy." I had the film on VCD for years, having to put up with the crap burnt-in subtitles and terrible picture. Then recently I discovered the China edition DVD and was surprised to find that it had English subtitles. Unfortunately, the transfer is very piss-poor, clearly from an analogue source. The subtitles are passable, with some minor mistakes. But the worst is the aspect ratio. I don't remember anymore what the correct aspect ratio is for Red Sorghum, but the DVD clearly has it wrong. The top of the picture is cut off most times. (DVD Beaver has a review of this Chinese edition here.)

I remember many, many years ago when I first saw Red Sorghum on TV (yes, very surprising that Malaysian TV actuallly showed the film). It was a Sunday afternoon, and I only caught part of it. I remember switching on the TV just as the strange little scene at the meat shop was unfolding. I still recall seeing the cattle head being dropped on the table, and actor Jiang Wen eating it. Then I remember the scenes with the Japanese soldiers. It was all very weird to me at the time. But then anything from Mo Yan is usually a little strange.

Now, seeing it again after so many years, it still has some considerable power, its celebration of peasant resilience and its overwhelming atmosphere of isolation, solitude and devastation. It's definitely not Zhang's strongest work, but it was certainly a strong start.

Now, is Criterion or anyone else ever going to give the rightful royal treatment to Zhang's early films, especially the "red trilogy"? Like the Italian neo-realists and the French New Wave, China's Fifth Generation filmmakers deserve seats in the same hallowed halls.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Watchmen And An Alan Moore Interview

Anyone who knows me knows how hard I've been fighting against the Watchmen movie. There are some of us who feel a Watchmen movie should never be made, let alone a Watchmen movie by a crap director like Zack Snyder, which should be banished right away.

I discovered an Entertainment Weekly interview with Watchmen scribe Alan Moore. It's a fascinating interview where he not only talks about Snyder and Watchmen, but also Malcolm McLaren, South Park, The Wire and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

The best quote appears on the first page:

"[Zack Snyder] may very well be [a nice guy], but the thing is that he's also the person who made 300. I've not seen any recent comic book films, but I didn't particularly like the book 300. I had a lot of problems with it, and everything I heard or saw about the film tended to increase [those problems] rather than reduce them: [that] it was racist, it was homophobic, and above all it was sublimely stupid."

Indeed! What's also sublimely stupid is a story like this one, where the writer clearly has no clue what Watchmen is really about, but is lobotomised by popular opinion enough to quote a million other hive-minded, so-called comicbook fans in saying that the uniqueness of Watchmen is that it "is best-known for deconstructing the myth of superheroes, portraying them as people with flaws and weaknesses."

Really? So what have Stan Lee and gang been doing all these years? What then do you call the Fantastic Four and their family problems? What about Peter Parker as a youth thrown into the "myth of superheroes"? What about Chris Claremont's storylines for The Uncanny X-Men?

The real milestone of Watchmen is that it's the first time the power and authority of superheroes are brought into question. How much power does it take to corrupt a superhero, who is at the very core still a human being with human flaws and biases? What would you do if you possess that much power or hold the fate of the world in your hands?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Time Capsule

I've had Dinah Washington's This Bitter Earth playing for some weeks now. I owe this current obsession to Charles Burnett's excellent Killer Of Sheep.

You know, the AFI's list of 100 great American films has rightly been called into suspicion by Jonathan Rosenbaum all these years. Lists of what supposedly constitutes great American films almost always get it wrong. But the Library Of Congress certainly got it right in 1990 when it declared Killer Of Sheep a national treasure, and made it one of the first 50 entered in the National Film Registry.

The National Society Of Film Critics later selected it as one of the 100 most essential films of all time. But let's not go there, because I still have a great distrust of lists in general. (And I especially hate books with titles like "1,000 Films You Must See Before You Die.")

It's unfortunate that one of the film's greatest strengths was also its own worst enemy. You can call Killer Of Sheep a "plotless film," but then, seeing what Burnett was trying to do with it, more capturing the essence of life in Watts in the 70s than telling a packaged story, you have to ask if a person's life actually has a plot. Of course not.

In trying to capture what life was like, as opposed to what life was about, in that particular area, in that particular time, about those particular residents, Burnett conveyed the inner poetry of each moment using the most emotionally stirring tool there is, which is music. And his choice of music is just impeccable.

One of the most emotionally impactful scenes in the film is when the protagonist and his wife, their relationship troubled, are dancing wistfully to This Bitter Earth, their silhouettes against a large window, the wife desperately trying to reach out to the husband. You could just feel the yearning and the heartache pouring right out of the screen.

But it was the rights to the music used that kept the film out of circulation for a long time. Back then, Burnett and his then-little seen film must have been quite the urban legend. I mean,this was his thesis film, and already it is quite something so solidly original in its vision, with such a distinct voice and an uncanny understanding of how to translate the everyday into a poetic engagement.

The film starts off with extreme close-ups. You don't quite know where you are, but from what's going on and what is being said (a father scolding his son), you know it's a domestic setting. In almost all the interior scenes, you're never quite sure of the surroundings, because Burnett uses close-ups or focuses on the characters and the characters alone. What surrounds them seems inconsequential, but Burnett seems to suggest that the interiors embody the personalities of their inhabitants, and vice-versa. Only in the larger locale, the exteriors, do we really get to see the people framed by a distinct sense of place. And it's that, I think, which is the larger frame that "controls" the whole "plotless" film.

While Burnett was certainly ahead of his time, and Senses Of Cinema rightfully called him a"one-man African-American New Wave" (actually, I think "one-man American New Wave" would be more appropriate), most (local) filmmakers today seem to think plotless films where nothing much happens amount to something if they just "show." That would actually be "pointless films." Big difference.

Even if nothing much happens on screen, something is always happening within the characters. Burnett perfectly captures the emotions going through a blender, in the faces of his characters, their gait, their speech. It is a story of faces as much as it is a story of places.

That's also why I felt inclined to reprimand my friend Mr Nutshell for his review, where he basically said the film didn't work for him because it "showed too much of the drudgery routine in the life of the poor" where "nothing much happens." He said that perhaps he didn't get the "socio-economic climate of the time" or the "many subtexts that the movie presented."

My response to him was, this is a film about life, not subtexts and not anything socio-economic in particular. And if it didn't work for you, then maybe you've been going through life in a coma. Harsh maybe, but Killer Of Sheep certainly deserves more than just a simple brush-off, and it's definitely my greatest discovery of the year. Never too late.

Killer Of Sheep official site

Criterion Gets Doyle's Stamp Of Approval

The Criterion blog now has a post about the upcoming Chungking Express release. There's still no mention of which cut it will be, but there's a nice story of how the Criterion team managed against all odds to get cinematographer Christopher Doyle's approval of the transfer.

There are those who regard Doyle as an overrated DP, and I wouldn't say I agree, but I do find the quality of his work to be inconsistent, and sometimes unremarkable. Doyle did, after all, admit that he stumbled into the art of cinematography (drunkenly, I think) and never ventured into it as a conscious ambition. But if he meant that little origin story, which has been repeated often enough now, to be a humble reaction to all the praise heaped upon him, I think it's more of the opposite effect. It would make any educated cinematographer who spent years studying the craft meticulously before venturing into it, frustrated by the fact that someone like Doyle could so easily grope around in the dark to become one of the most renowned talents in the art. It's almost like Happy Gilmore stumbling into the art of golf.

Lastly, what I can gather now is that the original Hong Kong theatrical cut was much shorter, and the scenes involving the Bangladeshis and Brigitte Lin were much less. And that the one scene in which Tony Leung's Cop 663 drinks coffee is accompanied by Faye Wong's version of Dreams. In the western DVD releases, that scene has no music.

Asian Horror Vs. Western Horror

It's been a long, long, long while since the last blog entry. I'd meant to follow upon that last post, but you know how things often get sidetracked or derailed. And since Halloween's round the corner and the Hungry Ghost Month was just two months ago, here's something I've been meaning to hurt your ears with.

The thing that I hear quite often about our Asian horror films is that our films are scarier, or at least it's more effective for us, because we have a rich tradition of the macabre, that we have the pontianak, the toyol, the woman in vengeful red, etc; that we have a rich culture of superstitions to draw from. (For more of what Malaysia has to offer in this respect, check out the latest tome coming soon from Amir Muhammad's Matahari Books: The Malaysian Book Of The Undead.) I hear this quite a lot even at my workplace, that being posted as the main reason why our films are much more interesting and scarier.

I feel that's a too simplistic way of looking at it. Let's face it, the western world has its own rich tradition of vampires, werewolves, banshees, incubi, etc. So why should it be any different or less scary? All the ghosts and ghouls are really just symptoms.

The real casue is simply that we, Asians, are unable to let go of life, so much so that we not only believe there is life after death, but that the afterlife is very much similar to the here and now. We believe that people can still crave for food after they're dead. We believe the dead crave the same necessities as the living, therefore the living make burnt offerings of houses, cars, servants, clothes, DVD players, mobile phones, to the dead.

Quite simply, we want to believe things will go on as they are even in death. The netherworld exists on the same plane as the living one. Spirits with unfinished business don't have to do any "crossing over." They're here right now. When the dead and the living exist in the same sphere, then often the past and the present overlap. In Ringu, things from the past never really left, and when conditions are right, both worlds blur into one another.

Something like Alejandro Amenabar's The Others subscribes to this concept, but there is a difference. In the western world, there is a distinct line drawn between life and death, whereas in Asia, that line doesn't exist. If The Others were an Asian horror film, the battle between the living and the dead wouldn't end just like that. They'd still be grappling with each other for the same space. In the end, someone has to vacate, and by that, I don't mean just leaving the house physically.

Because we believe the afterlife is the same as the living world, and that we want the same basic necessities, then something like Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Kairo (Pulse) makes perfect sense in that context. The sphere of the dead is overcrowded, so the living has to vacate the physical world to make space for the dead.

So is it any wonder that western remakes of Asian horror films often fail miserably?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Are You Waiting At The Station?

It's chugging along just fine, and will be arriving soon. Me, I'm anxiously waiting at the station, hoping this time they get it right.

It's Chungking Express I'm talking about, and Wong Kar-wai's masterpiece is getting the Criterion treatment. Finally!

This isn't exactly news anymore, but through all the excitement and bits and bytes we've been getting, there's still one thing I'm not so clear on.

But first, as usual with Criterion, the cover design is exceptionally beautiful. Criterion always chooses less iconic or familiar images for its covers. Like for The Ice Storm, it's the red jacket seen through the frozen window. And for Vampyr, it's a missing scene from the movie with the shadow of a scythe over a sleeping girl. And the most lovely thing about the Chungking Express cover, if you notice, is how the "C" logo gets integrated into "Chungking."

Unfortunately, while the film is getting the Criterion treatment, it's not the royal treatment as we would expect. No box set, and only one disc. The extras sound good though (even if you're sick of Tony Rayns appearing everywhere):

- Audio commentary by noted Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns
- U.S. theatrical trailer
- Episode excerpt from the BBC Television series Moving Pictures, featuring Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle
- New and improved English subtitle translation
- PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Amy Taubin

And the specs:

- New, restored high-definition digital transfer
- Remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack supervised by director Wong Kar-wai

I really hope Christopher Doyle is drunk during that interview; that would be interesting.

But like I said, there's still one thing unclear about this release, and that mainly is: which version of the film will it be?

Over the years, there've been several versions, and the original Hong Kong cut, theatrically released in Asia when it first came out, has long disappeared. I don't remember how long the original cut was, and neither do any of my friends. But later, there was the ridiculous "Quentin Tarantino presents" version from Rolling Thunder, where, as far as I know, some alterations were done to the film, namely there's a song or two missing from the soundtrack.

There's also a R2 DVD from Ica Projects from 1995, and another from the same period from Artificial Eye. The Artificial Eye version you see on Amazon UK has Takeshi Kaneshiro and Brigitte Lin on the cover, while the copy I own features Faye Wong, but I should think both DVDs are essentially the same.

And now, there's a newly remastered R3 DVD out now in Hong Kong.

The funny thing is, all these versions are clocked in at 100 or 102 minutes. And I'm told the UK and US versions are one and the same cut. I can't explain all the differences or possible differences in the original cut and the later ones, because I've never seen the HK version. Very unfortunate. But friends who have tell me there definitely are differences. What's more, there's even rumour of a bootleg version that has a longer cut.

Whatever it is, I hope Criterion will let us know which version it's releasing. I would think it's the original HK cut as intended by WKW because he supervised the remaster of the soundtrack.

Anyone out there knows?

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