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Hiff – Part 2/2

October 2, 2010

Monday

Jackie Chan’s long time dream project Little Big Soldier (HK/China, 2009) turned out a mediocre action comedy. A historical road movie with war background, Jackie plays a coward warrior with unbeatable battle strategy: play dead. As a sole survivor after a battle he captures a wounded enemy general and tries to take him back to collect a reward. The mission is made difficult by countryside bandits, enemy troops, and a hostage that attempts to fight back at every chance.

Slightly more violent than expected, Little Big Soldier entertains but fails to leave a bigger impression. The action choreography and humor have their moments, although there’s little new on offer for Jackie’s fans. The ending isn’t entirely successful, and the gray visual look feels somewhat out of place.

R (Denmark, 2010) is a Danish prison film that hits hard even in its own genre. Unlike most award-hungry prison film it doesn’t attempt to tell a “coming of age” story nor does it feature wise and philosophical narrator. Instead it’s a 90 minute dive to hell. R refers to its protagonists, Rune, and also supporting character Rashid, both of who are serving only a short term sentence in a prison where it’s impossible to survive alone. Loyalty must be towards those who can keep you alive. Even then, R does have his sunnier days behind the bars.

The film doesn’t swallow itself in constant pessimism or overly graphic images, which only makes it more powerful. Many of the actors are real life prison guards and ex-prisoners. Impressive although not overly original film to depress the audience.

In Symbol (Japan, 2009) a Japanese man in funny pajama wakes up in a big white room covered by small buttons resembling a little boy’s genitals. He discovers that by pushing these buttons he can have various items delivered to the room: chopsticks, manga comics, bonsai tree… One button opens a hope in the wall. Getting out proves easier said than done. Same time in Mexico a middle aged wrestler Escargot is preparing for his match. What does this second story – shot entirely in Spanish and falling under the serious drama category – have to do with the nutcase white room Japan scenario?

Hitoshi Matsumoto’s (Dai nipponjin, 2007) brilliant comedy is not only the most confusing but also one of the funnies movies in years. Yes, there’s symbolism – what would you expect from a film with such title – but whether it’s meant to have any comprehensible meaning is up for the viewer to discover. While there’s room for 12 million interpretations, ultimately the “symbolism” is just one of the director’s tools and easily ignorable in the sense of deeper meanings. Matsumoto’s main aim is to entertain, not philosophize. Even if he heavily borrows Kubrick.

Bong Joon-ho’s (Memories of Murder, The Host) new film Mother (South-Korea, 2009) is a brilliant and darkly humoristic thriller-drama. The film’s central character, as suggested by the title, is a mother whose grown up son is arrested as a murder suspect. Convinced that her son has been framed, the mother starts her own investigation to find the real killer.

Unlike many other Korean directors Bong Joon-ho makes more old fashioned cinema. Mother doesn’t excel with ultra-stylized visuals or fast moving plot, but allows plenty of time for characters and storyline. This is why its excitement curve also resembles typical cinema from half a century ago: the film gets more involving little by little as it builds on good screenplay and takes its time to do so. The main character is never given a name in the film – she’s the anonymous woman resembling all loving mothers in the world.

Titles can be deceiving yet accurate at the same time, proves Pang Ho Cheung’s Category III thriller Dream Home (Hong Kong, 2010). While flawed, Dream Home is easily one of the most exiting finds in recent Hong Kong cinema. Lead actress / producer Josie Ho stars as a young woman obsessed with purchasing a flat she’s been dreaming since childhood. The money is there, now she only needs to get rid of the current tenants.

A refreshing mix of social commentary, Hong Kong city landscapes, and unusually inventive splatter, Dream Home is a rare beast to come out of today’s Hong Kong. It’s decently well acted, technically competent, and allows plenty of time for storytelling, even characterization. The somewhat slow moving back story, which forms the majority of the film, is played next to the current moment – the lovable Josie Ho butchering people in ways that are as stylish as they are graphic. Some of the gore and gratuitous sex turn into successful black humor. Dream Home is a modern flashback from the golden years of Hong Kong Category III cinema. And no, it won’t be shown in Mainland China.

Tuesday

Following his sub-par manga adaptation Crows Zero Takashi Miike surprises with a solid sequel Crows Zero II (Japan, 2010). The second film in the high school action saga improves on all areas: the dullish back story is now wrapped, the punk-rock soundtrack is more effective, and most importantly, the strange flashiness that plagued many of the first film’s action sequences is gone. Simply put, Crows Zero II works like an oiled engine despite its longish, 133 minute running time and zero-surprise storyline.

Meisa Kuroki’s odd R&B numbers are included, too, but even these parts are relatively catchy. The focus, however, is on the (near-openly homosexual) male struggle: good looking male idols beating the hell out of each other. The high school war finale alone is 27 minutes of non-stop fist fighting action, some of it surprisingly masochistic fist-in-the-face beating. If it wasn’t already done by the original manga by Hiroshi Takahashi, Miike’s film would define the modern Japanese high school delinquent gang. This is true beat em up punk cinema!

Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (Japan, 2009), the second remake movie in the series of four films, takes a more independent path that the first one, including adding a new character to the story. For an Evangelion fan it no doubt makes a more rewarding film, although newcomers may still be puzzled. With more than 10 episodes fitted into one movie, the pace is quite dazzling at times. After the action packed and somewhat uninteresting opening the film does slow down quite nicely. It’s the quiet moments that are Evangelion’s strength.

The second film doesn’t quite reach the epic hights of the first film, though, and the humor feels mostly repetition. Nevertheless, 2.0 is a very solid viewing that leaves the audience look forward to the next film. And, the scene showing Tokyo waking up to yet another (deceiving) beautiful sunrise – next to the music borrowed from The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979) – that is pure perfection.

Samuel Maoz’s war film Lebanon (Israel, 2010) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Based on the director’s own experience as a tank gunner in the Lebanon war in 1982, the film could be described as the Das Boot of tank movies. Opening and closing shots aside, the camera stays inside the tank for the entire film. Maoz places the viewer where he was; trapped inside a tank, only knowing what the radio tells him and only seeing what he can see from inside the tank. The director’s choice makes the film as difficult and claustrophobic as it’s impressive.

Needless to say Lebanon is not a tale of war heroes. Maoz stated people think veterans get together and share their old memories. That’s bullshit, Maoz says. Those are times you never want to remember again, yet they will haunt you for the rest of your life. War is kill or be killed. And when Maoz once hesitated to pull the trigger, it resulted in team member being killed. Lebanon attempts to display real war on screen to the extent possible without losing the audience. Much of the footage that, according to the studio, would make no one want to see the film, was left in the cutting room.

And then

I didn’t have time to see Armadillo (Denmark, 2010) on the fest, but it opened in normal distribution soon after so I rushed to see it. Might as well attach it to my report because A), it was port of the festival selection, and B) it’s the most talked about movie in Scandinavia right now, and hopefully in the rest of the world soon! Janus Metz’s documentary film follows a platoon of Danish solders in Afghanistan for several months. Why are these young men traveling to the other side of the world to fight and die in a war that has nothing to do with them? What could easily be another “war is hell, ice is cold” documentary becomes so much more in the hand of Metz. He remains objective and unsentimental to the extent of not featuring any interviews or narrator in the film. Instead the cameraman is one member of the platoon, following them everywhere they go, including battlefield. This gives Armadillo an extremely cinematic feel, not to mention the almost unbearable tension of the “battle scenes”. The cinematographer, fully armed to protect his own life, actually gets involved in gunfights, being lucky not getting hit by any of the bullets that seriously wound some other soldiers just next to him.

Armadillo also creates a very interesting comparison part to Samuel Maoz’s Venice Winner Lebanon. While Maoz stated, based on his own experience, that war is hell that you will never want to experience again, Armadillo shows how many of the soldiers in fact enjoy the adrenaline rush of it. Many of them returned home, only to sign up for 2011 comeback to Afghanistan. It’s no wonder the film has been an eye opener and somewhat of a small scandal to the public in its native country. Technically a documentary, Armadillo should be treated as what it truly is: a superb movie that happens to be 100% reality.

Verdict:

The Housemaid (South-Korea, 2010) – 2.5/5
Outrage (Japan, 2010) – 3.5/5
Kaboom (USA, 2010) – 3.5/5
Sound of Noise (Sweden, 2010) – 2.5/5
I’m Gonna Explode (Mexico, 2008) – 2.5/5
Summer Wars (Japan, 2009) – 1/5
Accident (Hong Kong, 2009) – 3.5/5
Little Big Soldier (HK/China, 2009) – 2.5/5
R (Denmark, 2010) – 3/5
Symbol (Japan, 2009) – 4/5
Mother (South-Korea, 2009) – 4/5
Dream Home (Hong Kong, 2010) – 3.5/5
Crows Zero II (Japan, 2010) – 3.5/5
Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (Japan, 2009) – 3.5/5
Lebanon (Israel, 2010) – 3.5/5
Armadillo (Denmark, 2010) – 4/5

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