Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hula Girls for Japanese Tsunami and Earthquake Disaster Relief

On Saturday, March 26, I went to the Viz for the first time since December. Not by design, I had missed all the Asian American Film Festival screenings at the Viz. Their programming had been sparse prior to that. When I saw they were screening Hula Girls as a benefit to help the tsunami and earthquake victims in Japan, my sense of charity coincided with my love film.

Hula Girls starring Yasuko Matsuyuki & Yû Aoi; directed by Sang-il Lee; Japanese with subtitles; (2006) - Official Website

Hula Girls stars Yasuko Matsuyuki (Detroit Metal City) and Yû Aoi (the Bong Joon-ho segment of Tokyo!). I don't recall when I first heard of Hula Girls but it has been on my list of movies to see for quite sometime. The Viz chose Hula Girls because it was set in Fukushima Prefecture where the nuclear power plant which has been in the news for the past several weeks is located.

Set in the 1960s, Hula Girls is based on true events. The mining town of Iwaki is dying a slow death as the Japanese economy shifts away from coal (ironically to nuclear power for its electricity needs). The town latches on to the idea of using the local hot springs to open a Hawaiian center with indoor heated pools and amusement park. In support of this plan, the town hires a Madoka Hirayama (Yasuko Matsuyuki), professional dancer from Tokyo to teach the local girls hula dancing with the goal of creating a dance troupe for the Hawaiian center.

Hirayama comes with her own luggage. She in debt to some mobsters, she drinks too much and doesn't want to be in a small mining town teaching unsophisticated girls how to dance. She agrees to the deal for the money and to hide out from the gangsters.

The town does not embrace the Hawaiian center, the hula dancers or Hirayama. Many in the town view supporting the hula girls as not supporting the mines. The film focuses on two girls who join the dance class - Sanae (Eri Tokunaga) and her best friend, the slightly reluctant Kimiko (Yū Aoi). Sanae's father is a widower and she has three younger siblings. Kimiko's mother is a widow and bother her mother and older brother work at the mines. Kimiko ditches private school to go hula dancing and when she is caught she runs away from home. The pair are joined by Hatsuko (Yoko Ikezu), a slightly older woman who is the organizer's secretary and Sayuri (Shizuyo Yamazaki), a large, clumsy girl whose father encourages her dancing. After a rough start, Hirayama agrees to train the four of them. All the other women in town won't participate due to not wanting to go against the miners or because they think hula dancing is synonymous with stripping.

At this point the film becomes somewhat formulaic. The towns starts to support the dancers - check. Hirayama proves herself - check. Someone dies but it strengthens the troupe - check. There weren't that many surprises in the film. The film is carried by the performances of the two lead actresses - Matsuyuki plays the tough & gruff instructor with a heart of gold and Aoi plays the young dancer with real talent who comes into her own under her teacher's tutelage. Like many enjoyable films, the supporting roles are extremely well acted - Ikezu, Yamazaki, Etsushi Toyokawa as Kimiko's older brother and Sumiko Fuji as Kimiko's mother stood out. Sumiko Fuji, under the stage name Junko Fuji, attained screen immortality in the late 1960's and early 1970's in the Red Peony Gambler film series.

Despite blatant emotional manipulation by the filmmakers, I thoroughly enjoyed Hula Girls and my eyes even teared up a few times. As long as they are making films, they'll make "feel good" stories where the underdog overcomes and as long as they are well made, the films will be compelling and enjoyable.

The Hawaiian center which is such a major part of the film is still in existence. I'm not sure if it closed in the wake of the tsunami and radiation leak. It's now known as the Spa Resort Hawaiians. If you still want to donate to the relief efforts, you can try the New People link which is affiliated with the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. I've also donated to the American Red Cross.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Skateboard Immorality, Face to Face With the Devil and Black Cat

I saw a trio of films in March that didn't quite live up to expectations.

Machotaildrop; (2009) - Official Website
I Saw the Devil starring Byung-hun Lee & Min-sik Choi; directed by Jee-woon Kim; Korean with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Kuroneko; directed by Kaneto Shindô; Japanese with subitles; (1968)


Machotaildrop was billed by the Roxie as the "surprise hit of Indiefest." I recalled that Jason Wiener thought highly of it. When it played for a week after Indiefest closed, I decided to catch it.

The plot dealt with a skateboarder who signs a contract with a skateboard manufacturing company. They make him a star through videos and other products lines. However, he has to move to their compound which is on a island. He begins to notice weird things such as the gnomish elderly people who construct the products or the post-apocalyptic gang (they look like rejects from The Warriors) of punks who maraud the island. It turns out that his contract requires him to be slave labor after he gets too old or injured to skate the halfpipe. I'm surprised they didn't turn the old into soylent green.

Anyway, I found the film more derivative than homage to say Willy Wonka. I dozed off for part of it so I can't say with certainty that it was wholly unenjoyable. When I was conscious, I found the film less than enjoyable. The gang leader seemed to be doing a Bobcat Goldwaithe impersonation which quickly grew tiresome. The main evildoer was the Baron whose facial hair and vocal patterns proved tiresome as well. Enough said about Machotaildrop; if you enjoyed it, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.


I Saw the Devil was yet another of these ultra-violent revenge films from Korea. From their cinema, you would think vigilantism against serial killers, rapists and child molesters is commonplace in South Korea. I don't really finds these films enjoyable. The violence doesn't bother me but after a few of these films, the storylines begin to blur together. The only one of these I recall enjoying was The Chaser (2008) which I saw at the 2009 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. That one was a little different because the protagonist was a pimp who was avenging his whore's murder.

I Saw the Devil focuses on a serial murderer/rapist (whose known associates includes a cannibal!) picks the wrong woman to murder. He has unwittingly killed the fiancée of a secret service agent and the daughter of a police chief. Rather than solving the crime or even avenging the murder, the secret service agent decides to ratchet things up. He repeatedly catches, beats and releases the serial killer. He is able to do this because upon their first encounter, he shoves a capsulized GPS tracker down the killer throat.

Eventually, the killer discovers how he is being tracked. After taking some laxatives (nice scene where he scoops out the capsule from his fresh pile of soft fecal matter), the killer turns the table on his stalker and takes the fight to his inlaws.

Maybe some people enjoy this but it seemed terribly contrived to me. To make matters worse, the performances were oddly flat. Byung-hun Lee as the Secret Service agent goes about his role in such a stolid manner that he turns a thinly developed character into a bore. The character does turn into something worse than the killer he is tormenting but that descent was largely lost in Lee's performance. Min-sik Choi has the meatier role as the killer and has some fun with the role but he played the killer without a trace of humanity; more like a cartoon. Giving the killer a little bit more angst and regret would have made the film infinitely more enjoyable.

Byung-hun Lee and director Jee-woon Kim most recently collaborated on The Good, the Bad and the Weird which was also disappointing albeit lighter fare.


Finally, there was the cult classic Kuroneko which was re-released last year by Janus Films and played at the Castro. Director Kaneto Shindô made Onibaba (1964) which I saw at the PFA tribute retrospective for Kashiko Kawakita. The soundtrack was similar which I liked. The plot was also similar which I thought compared unfavorably to Onibaba.

In both films, a woman and her daughter-in-law are left to fend for themselves when the man of the house goes off to war. In Onibaba (which mean old devil woman or devil hag), the two women lure samurai to their deaths until the commence to fight between themselves. In Kuroneko (which means black cat in Japanse), the two women are gangraped and murdered by bandits (or perhaps desperate samurai) but come back as black cats. The younger woman changes into human form to lure samurai to their death. The man of the house returns triumphantly from war. He is given a title and the assignment of banishing the ghosts who have been killing samurai for the past year. When he confronts the ghosts, he sees a resemblance between them and his mother and wife. The sets up the final confrontation which I won't give away because its one of the better parts of the film.

Director Kaneto Shindô wife, Nobuko Otowa plays the mother-in-law in both films. I thought she was more effective as the earthy and petty woman in Onibaba. Kiwako Taichi plays the daughter in Kuroneko which is the bigger role.

The film was not so much a horror film. It was re-release by Janus Films because it is an arthouse film. It evokes a certain mood. I found the repetition of luring samurai to their death to be tedious even though it was done in a montage sequence. When the son finally confronts the two ghosts, it takes awhile for the action to commence. There was a lot of inner conflict and psychological posturing which seemed out of place. The level of introspection seemed out of place by J-horror standards. As I watched the Kuroneko, I couldn't help but think how much more I enjoyed Onibaba.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

French Illusionists and Korean Housemaids

In February, I saw The Illusionist at Stonestown and The Housemaid at Landmark Lumiere.

The Illusionist; animated; original screenplay by Jacques Tati; directed by Sylvain Chomet; (2010) - Official Website
The Housemaid starring Do-yeon Jeon; directed by Sang-soo Im; Korean with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

Both films came with impressive pedigrees.

The Illusionist was written by Jacques Tati whose films I greatly enjoyed at a PFA retrospective last year.

The Housemaid is a remake of the 1960 South Korean film which I enjoyed at the 2010 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. The remake starred Do-yeon Jeon who impressed me in Secret Sunshine (2007) which I saw at the 2008 San Franisco Korean American Film Festival (which sadly seems defunct). Director Sang-soo Im also helmed The President's Last Bang (2005) which was one of the last art house films I saw at the Balboa before it converted to its current programming.


The Illusionist was directed by Sylvain Chomet who made the much heralded The Triplets of Bellville (2003). Chomet contacted Jacques Tati's daughter and sole survivor, Sophie Tatischeff, for permission to film the unproduced script. Originally intended as an expression of love from Tati to Sophie, Tatischeff couldn't bear the thought of an actor playing the role originally intended for her father. Based on her favorable impressions of Triplets of Bellville, Tatischeff agreed to film The Illusionist if it was animated and directed by Chomet.

With that backstory, the film takes on added poignancy. Set in the early 1960s, the film follows an aging magician who travels around Great Britain playing venues large and small. Even in large venues, he draws small crowds as rock & roll music is crowding out his quaint form of entertainment. The magician physically resembles Tati and his alter ego Monsieur Hulot although the character is clearly different. This magician is a much sadder figure than Hulot. While playing in a small (newly electrified) village in Scotland, he impresses a pre-adoloscent girl named Alice. Alice stows away on the ferry and attaches herself to the Illusionist as he plays an extended gig in Edinburgh. Alice is awestruck by the big city and the Illusionist immediately falls into a doting and paternalistic relationship towards her.

They stay in Edinburgh long enough for Alice to become a pretty young lady. When she attracts the attention of a young man and the Illusionist simultaneously ends his extended run, he realizes that it is time to let his dove fly free. Animated like a classic Disney film from the 1950s, The Illusionist evoked powerful emotions in me. The inevitable passage of time and aging process as well as the changing nature of relationships between child & parent struck deep chords within me. Maybe I'm getting sentimental in my old age. Several critics agree with me that Chomet and Tati have crafted a bittersweet and moving tale.

I can only wonder how Tati would have played the role in a live action adaptation. Tati didn't want to risk the success he had with Hulot by having audience associate this story and character with him. Using Tati's trademark technique of minimal dialogue and emphasis on sound, The Illusionist is textbook Tati. However, the somber tone and melancholy humor is far removed from Hulot. So the script remained unfilmed for 50 years. The wait was worth it.


The Housemaid must be a difficult film to make in South Korea...they keep messing up the ending. Without giving away the ending, I will say that I was disappointed in the 1960 version although censorship may have played a part.

The 2010 version also ends on a sour note although it is open to interpretation. The ride was not as fun in the remake. My biggest complaint with the 2010 version is that they switched the role of the aggressor. In the 1960 version, the maid surreptitiously sees the husbands fidelity wavering and makes her move. In the 2010 version, the husband initiates the affair after a failed attempt at coitus with his pregnant wife. In the 1960 version, the housemaid clearly turns the table on her employers after she is forced into having an abortion. In the 2010 version, the housemaid is a victim throughout and never asserts herself even dysfunctionally like in the original film.

As I waiting for the 2010 version to synchronize with the plot of the 1960 version (which it never does), I was superficially entertained. Actress Seo Woo must be the sexiest pregnant woman ever depicted on film. The film is set in a house which is impossibly chic. That may have been the crux of my less than enthusiastic response. In the original, the family was up and coming but in the remake, the family is fabulously wealthy and has been for at least two generations. The remake makes some statement on class struggles. If I had paid better attention in school, I could probably have spotted Marxist theories of the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Along the way the film veers into melodramatic and eventually pretentious territory. When all was said, I preferred the plot and dynamics of the original which is also to say I preferred the 1960 version. If I had not seen the 1960 version, I think I would proclaim The Housemaid to be an affectation by director Sang-soo Im. The film seemed to lack the spirit of The President's Last Bang or the 1960 original.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thinking Inside the Box

One of the first films I saw in 2011 was Buried at the Red Vic.

Buried starring Ryan Reynolds; directed by Rodrigo Cortés; (2010) - Official Website

The premise for Buried sounds intriguing but proves problematic. The entire film is told from the perspective of Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), a US contractor in Iraq. Conroy has the misfortune of having been kidnapped and buried alive in a coffin. He has been left a cell phone by his abductors to communicate with the outside world. This sounds like an modern day Edgar Allen Poe story. Unfortunately, director Rodrigo Cortés literally didn't think outside the box.

The entire film is shot within the coffin. We seen Conroy from above, from the side, from the head looking down, from the feet looking up, etc. This gives a claustrophobic effect and makes the audience empathize with Conroy. However, it is extremely difficult to hold one's attention for 95 minutes with such a film technique. Cortés doesn't even apply flashbacks to allow the audience a break.

If his situation isn't bad enough, Conroy suffers a host of indignities while talking to various people on the cell phone. He is fired with cause from his job so that his employer can avoid any liability. I also recall he had to cut off his finger to satisfy the demands of his kidnappers. Cortés periodically ratchets up the tension or invokes outage from the audience but ultimately this is unsustainable for a feature length film. I believe Hitchcock mentioned that a thriller must give its audience a respite so that the audience can better appreciate the suspense. A great thriller should be a rollercoaster not a step function.

I read Cortés specifically made the film to respond to a challenge or self-challenge. He deserve plaudits for how close he came to pulling it off. Ultimately, my interest waned and I thought the film would have benefitted from some exterior scenes. The plot is fiendishly simple but packed with possibilities. Limiting the action to the box diminished the potential of the film.

I thought Buried was an interesting experiment but unfulfilling movie.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Batman, Billy The Kid and the Zodiac in the Castro

The Castro Theater had a strong lineup in February. I was particularly keen on the Fincher-Nolan Chronicles which consisted of three double features. Each twin bill screened a David Fincher film and a Christopher Nolan film. The Fincher films included Zodiac, Fight Club and Se7en. Those films were paired with three Nolan films - The Dark Knight, Insomnia and Memento, respectively. Unfortunately, I was only able to watch the Zodiac/The Dark Knight combination.

I've partially seen both films on television. In particular, I've watched much of Zodiac in 15 to 30 minute blocks. I've read good reviews of Fincher's Zodiac and liked what I saw on television so seeing the unedited film on the big screen was appealing.

Zodiac starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey, Jr.; directed by David Fincher; (2007) - Official Website

The Dark Knight starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger,
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart; with Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman; directed by Christopher Nolan; (2008) - Official Website

Both of those films are well reviewed and much discussed. I was partial to Zodiac. In particular, I enjoyed the relationship between Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards as the cops investigating the killings. Brian Cox turns in a flashy cameo as Melvin Belli. Zodiac kept the audience at arms length as Gyllenhaal gives a muted performance and the killer's face isn't revealed until close to the end of the film. Even at 2.5 hours, the film never lost my interest and is a top notch crime thriller as well as 70's period piece.

The Dark Knight is the 2nd installment of the Batman relaunch with Christian Bale. At the time, it was overshadowed by Heath Ledger's death and performance as the Joker. The Joker must be an actor's wet dream because it is impossible to overplay the role. I thought Christian Bale was kind of flat as Batman using a growling voice instead acting. The heart of the film is Aaron Eckhart as District Attorney Harvey Dent who would become Two Face after locking horns with the Joker. Eckhart delivers an awesome performance in transforming Dent to Two Face.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Dent's current and Bruce Wayne's former girlfriend makes the most of her screen time. Gyllenhaal has really built up an impressive filmography dating back to Donnie Darko. Gary Oldman is tremendous as the single-minded Lt. James Gordon (promoted to Police Commissioner at the end of the film).

The Dark Knight was a bit silly at times. I could have done without the large-tired Batcycle or whatever it was called. The film stayed true to Frank Miller's version of the story. In fact, the biggest compliment I can give The Dark Knight is that it looks and feels like a Frank Miller film.


I have long wanted to see Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid starring James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson; with Bob Dylan; directed by Sam Peckinpah; (1973)

The film is most famous for its soundtrack by Dylan. The most well known track is "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." The film has a reputation for being a flawed masterpiece and a sign of Peckinpah's waning abilities brought about by alcohol and drug abuse.

The first thing I notice about the film is the title which gives preference to Pat Garrett. This implies the film is as much if not more about Garrett than the Kid. The film largely follows that premise. After watching the film, I was motivated enough to do a little research. I read "To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West" by Mark Lee Gardner.

To be honest, I was more captivated by Gardner's book than Peckinpah's film. I was surprised at how closely Peckinpah followed the documented events of the story. Peckinpah depicted Billy's escape from the Fort Sumner jail and later his fatal encounter with Garrett very close to Gardner's recounting. The major shortcoming is that Garrett lived another 25 years after killing the Kid. His life was interesting as well as how he handled being Pat Garrett...the Killer of Billy the Kid.

James Coburn seems to capture the essence of Pat Garrett and entertains the audience as well. Garrett was a more subdued man than the Kid. Kristofferson doesn't really let loose as the Kid. I was expecting Emilio Estevez from Young Guns but I was a little more spirited portrayal than what Kristofferson offered. In fact, I thought his Billy was a younger and nicer version of the sheriff in Lone Star.

Part of the problem may have been the ages of the stars. Billy the Kid was 21 years old when he was killed. Kristofferson was 36 during the filming. Pat Garrett was 31 at the time of Billy's death. Coburn was 45 when the film was made. Both Kristofferson and Coburn looked their ages and then some. These were middle aged men that looked weary while Pat and Billy were young men full of life. To me that was the essence of the legend that gives it endless possibilities and interest. Billy was a cocksure young man that ran into an extremely capable Pat Garrett. Garrett was brave enough and had experienced enough to give the edge. Garrett's backstory adds to the legend; he was the son of a slaveowner whose family lost their social standing as a result of the Civil War. Garrett cut his teeth as buffalo hunter which was a hard life. None of this came out in the film.

Peckinpah presents Billy and Pat as equals except Pat has moved on in life while Billy is stuck in a outlaw rut. As progress come to the Wild West, Garrett is better prepared because he has given up his wild ways. Billy on the other hand, is a dinosaur and the authorities hire Garrett to track one of his own as it were. There are elements of truth to this but it seems to miss the totality of the two men and their relationship.

Peckinpah seems to be delivering an elegy for the Old West (or perhaps Western films) by packing the cast with familiar faces such as Chill Wills, Katy Jurado, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Barry Sullivan, R.G. Armstrong, Elisha Cook, Jr., Paul Fix & Jason Robards. Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" perfectly fits the tone of the film. It's as if the two men are dueling on the Titanic; no matter what, their lives as they know it is coming to an end. That cheapens the character of the two men and just as importantly takes away a powerful plot element from the story.

However, Peckinpah's skills as a storyteller are enough to carry the film. I saw the Director's Cut which was made a decade or so after the original edited film was released. The film was enough to inspire me to read more about the characters so film can't be that bad. Indeed, I was in rapt attention throughout the screening. As for those old character actors I mentioned in the previous paragraph, each one is given a scene to shine in and they all deliver (mostly death scenes). That's not surprising but what is surprising is that it doesn't throw off the balance of the film. It doesn't become a series of hammy cameos but advances the film and my enjoyment.

In the interest of full disclosure, I went to school in New Mexico so Billy the Kid has special interest to me. "To Hell on a Fast Horse" sets action in place that I'm quite familiar with - Dona Ana County, Mesilla, Las Cruces, El Paso, Organ Mountains & White Sands.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Here's the Preposition - On the Bowery At the Roxie In the Mission

In January, I saw the psuedodocumentary On the Bowery at the Roxie. The 35 MM print had been restored recently. It was proceeded by The Perfect Team which is a documentary about the making of On the Bowery.

On the Bowery; directed by Lionel Rogosin; (1957) - Official Website
The Perfect Team; documentary; directed by Michael Rogosin; (2009) - Official Website

On the Bowery used non-actors to portray three days on New York's Skid Row. The plot was fictitious but the people and setting were real. Ray Salyer (the name of the actor and character) is a down-on-his-luck railroad worker who hits the Bowery with a suitcase and a drinking problem. He falls in with Bowery mainstay Gorman Hendricks (also the name of the actor & character). Hendricks enables, even encourages, Salyer's drinking and promptly relieves the unconsciouis Salyer of his suitcase so he can hock the contents for a flop. With or without Hendricks, Salyer cannot seem to stay off the booze and he leaves town at the end of the film in even worse condition than when he arrived...just another piece of meat for the Bowery to chew up and spit out. Hendricks is nice enough to give Salyer some of money upon his departure. Unbeknownst to him the money came from selling off the contents of Salyer's suitcase but that's the hobo code of honor.

The film is amazing for the performances given by Salyer and Hendricks who really were down-on-their-luck denizens of the Bowery. Director Lionel Rogosin spent months in the Bowery gaining the confidence and trust of the people so he could shoot his film on location. Part scripted and part cinema vérité, On the Bowery could easily have fallen flat. Instead, Salyer and Hendricks propelled the film to a Best Documentary nomination at the 1958 Academy Awards.

Salyer was a weathered looking 40 year old at the time of the filming. He was offered legitimate acting roles after On the Bowery but couldn't give up the drink. He hopped a freight train and disappeared. His ultimate disposition remains a mystery. Gorman Hendricks who gives his shady character an amazing amount of sympathy, died before the film was released.

I noted the differences between the homeless then and now. First of all, everyone in the Bowery was white although I do seem to recall an Asian woman. They all seemed to be alcoholic but had enough to buy a drink or hustle a drink. No one seemed to be insane or hooked on heroin or crystal meth. No bar today would cater to the homeless today like On the Bowery. The homeless back then dressed better than today.

Lionel Rogosin's son Michael directed The Perfect Team. It features some interesting footage including a segment with Ray Salyer on The Today Show.