Saturday, 24 June 2006


This boy stands for the Singaporean art film: Constipated, angsty, pretentious.

Like those books we buy but never get down to reading, those books that we buy anyway because we fear being caught dead without one on the bookshelf, so is Royston Tan’s entire oeuvre to the Singapore public. Tan has a reputation that precedes him, so much so that everyone I know claims to have watched at least one of his films – inevitably, the short film “15”, or if you’re meeting a smart aleck, the feature length “15”, or if you’re up against a misanthrope, one of Royston’s more obscure short films.

So there exists, wholly as an aside to the really existing Royston, the Royston of our common imagination and invention: he of the rebellious streak, thumping his nose at authority, conventionality, ministers and civil servants, the director with an MTV style, angrily spitting out tales of teenage angst, alienation, and anomie, sullenly archiving the state’s extinguishing of age-old buildings, professions, and places. Yet Tan’s second feature takes a sharp turn away from this image. The teenaged gangsters and rebels, the MTV style editing, the saturated colours – all these, as well as Tan’s characteristic rage, are missing from the film.

If you’ve never watched any of his films, 4:30 is not an ideal introduction to the work of Royston Tan, especially. This is a movie where nothing really happens, where the audience never really knows what happened even as the curtains are raised, or what the movie was about. This is a movie made for the festival film circuit, a movie that may require film professors and Roystonologists to decipher and explain.

A 13-year-old boy lives in a SERS flat with a Korean tenant. Leading separate lives in the same space, away from all effectual aid for whatever it is that haunts them, Xiao Wu and Jung perish every day, each alone. Everyone has their poisons: Xiao Wu gulps down bottles of cough syrup to induce sleep while Jung toys with more potent forms of suicide. Only during that magical time in the morning, at 4:30am do the pair experience what can charitably be described as “peace” or even “bonding”, where Xiao Wu crawls into Jung’s rented room, rearranges his belongings, sleeps in his bed, and leaves a glass of orange juice at his door.

In a movie that does away with plot and dialogue, there is nothing to witness, aside from pure acting, in the body language of the actors. Tan should be commended for creating a movie that should remind audiences of early childhood, a magical period of life where children have an unreal and illogical sense of time, conjure up imaginary friends, imagine they are invisible to adults, and recognise or mis-recognise themselves in others, and experience someone else’s physical pain and emotions as their own.

Yet loneliness, angst and boredom are hardly original material, and hardly sufficient material to sustain a feature film, and very painful to endure without any dialogue or plot. As a 30-minute short film, this might be considered a brilliant piece of art. At 90 minutes, this is a dreary exercise that will create adverse reactions in audiences unaccustomed to extreme art films.

Is this film made by the real Royston Tan? 4:30 feels like a film by Tsai Ming Liang, especially with the run-down, dingy apartment settings. The poster, as well as Jung’s suicide scenes might well be lifted from Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe. An intimate scene between Xiao Wu and Young Jun would have touched my heart had it not been a near copy of Eric Khoo’s Be With Me poster (the one that got pulled out following objections from the MDA), and Xiao Wu’s sneaking into Young Jun’s room to do redecoration-cum-spying is straight of out Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express.

Given this movie plays far longer than its material can support, what can you do in the cinema? There is a deliberate incoherence in 4:30, audiences will have fun picking out the inconsistencies in the plot, to perhaps arrive at a guess at what has really happened in the movie. They may also pass time by pointing out the fantastic array of 1970s-themed objects on the interior set, as well as how almost every scene is shot to deny the existence (or visual tyranny, if you prefer) a modern Singapore, and to spot the inconsistencies in the set design, and what it might mean. I suppose this is an old move Royston pulled from his earlier short film “177155”.

This is a type of film where inconsistencies do not drive the plot, and are perhaps irrelevant to what really happens in the movie. In a perverse way, we can see this as a bona fide Royston Tan film: whereupon, having rebelled against every form of temporal authority, the latest thing he rebels against is a good movie. Some people will be insulted to watch a long movie about such a trivial and banal subject that worse still, is given no deep treatment and development.

For the die-hard Royston Tan fans and true art film lovers, 4:30 is a much-watch. Audiences who expect to be entertained by movies are advised to stay clear of this, while those who expect another “15” should be disabused of the notion.

First published at incinemas on 20 June 2006

Thursday, 22 June 2006


Click doesn't quite click, despite Sandler's pretensions to being Frank Capra

Aside from computer mice and their graphic representations as pointers on my computer screen, there aren’t any objects that you use to point and click. You can point and click with mice and mobile phones. However, the buttons on remote control are made of rubber; you don’t click with remote controls, unless it’s a special one with buttons taken from an old school calculator, the type with gigantic plastic buttons and an optional print-out receipt. Like its title, Adam Sandler’s latest movie is a confused mixed of imagery. Click does not click. Not even when David Hasselhoff, Henry Winker, and Kate Beckinsdale are roped in this time to fill out the movie as Sandler’s newest co-stars.

By now, you would have known from the trailer that Michael Newman, a frazzled architect on the verge of losing the fine balancing act between satisfying his slave driver boss (David Hasselhoff) and his family (helmed by a tolerable Kate Beckinsdale, who manages to channel Diane Keaton in her performance), chances upon a universal remote control with the power to remotely control his life during a shopping trip to Bed Bath & Beyond, an American domestic furniture chain store. Michael soon turns out that the trusty gadget has the power to slow down, fast forward, reverse and even skip any chapters of his life that he chooses, and uses the device in several sketches that may amuse the audience in the first half of the movie - until he decides to use the remote to fast forward to his promotion.

As eccentric tech support guy Morty (played with reckless abandon by Christopher Walken) puts it when he gives Michael the remote, good guys deserve a break sometimes, but there’s always the danger of getting what one wishes for. After a dizzying rundown of classic Sandler bad taste gags (fat people jokes, speedo jokes, gay jokes, fart jokes, cruelty to young children jokes, and dog humping jokes), the movie negotiates a sharp turn into melodrama and schtick, and showcases Sandler’s potential as a dramatic actor. You can almost hear the screech of the wheels on the tarmac as Click careens into the celluloid desolation known as “the moralising, heart-warming tale”.

If the first half of Click plays like a lowbrow Bruce Almighty, with Adam Sandler as a mean-spirited version of Robin Wiliams in RV, armed with a remote control that enables him to turn his life into Pleasantville, the second half is a spiritual successor to Mister Destiny, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Carol.

The second half of Click aims squarely at the emotional points of the audience, along with their tear ducts and sentimentality bones. Small wonder why the first half feels like a throwaway section, a product of self-indulgent Saturday Night Live scriptwriters more interested in mass producing every gag they could think of involving a remote control. Then, there are more signs of poor scriptwriting: Sandler’s illustrious co-stars aren’t given much to do with their roles, leaving him quite unable to deliver what any audience expects of a dramatic leading man in a melodramatic and sentimental movie. It’s definitely not a case of miscasting, since we have seen Sandler deliver as a dramatic actor in Spanglish and Punch-Drunk Crazy, both written by people who aren’t tainted by the SNL connection.

In the hands of more competent writers, Click would’ve been a homage rivalling the sentimentality and power of Capra, Belushi, and Dickens. Instead with lazy writing there is no way Click can live up to the potential of its concepts.

First published at incinemas on 3 August 2006

Tuesday, 20 June 2006

King and the Clown 왕의 남자 (2006)

Korea’s Kurosawa epic brims with Shakespearean sensibility

It has been 8 years since the passing of Akira Kurosawa, but this hasn’t stopped directors from evoking his style, replicating his panoramic battle scenes. or remaking his movies. The battlefield is littered with carcasses of failed films like The Last Samurai, The 13th Warrior and Tsui Hark’s twice-removed ripoff, Seven Swords. Finally, in the darkest hour, Lee Joon-Ik, whose film company imported several jidai geki flicks – including Kurosawa’s – to Korea in the past, has succeeded where many have failed, and created a film that evokes Kurosawa, yet looks like nothing the great auteur has directed.

Lee Joon-Ik’s tale revolves around the historical figure of Yeonsan, 10th king of the Joseon dynasty. Infamously memorialised in the official Joseon annals as a most profligate and cruel king (a traditional portrayal that Jewel in the Palace reaffirms), director Lee revisions the monarch as Richard III – an unpopular but emotionally-damaged king whose reputation has been subject to vilification at the hands of the nobles who deposed him, and the Confucian scribes in court.

Bringing salve to the king’s tortured psyche are street performers Jong-gil and Jang-sang. Arrested and tortured for putting on burlesques that satire the excesses of the king, his consort, and the imperial court, the duo make a bet with a courtier: Allow them to stage the burlesque once more for the king himself, and let them off if they manage to get a laugh out of Yeonsan. “What kind of a madman would laugh at this?” their accomplices ask, feeling the imaginary blade coming down on their necks. And yet the King does burst into a jolly fit, and fetes the clowns and their troupe as his official court jesters.

That signals the beginning of an ambiguous and unstable relationship between the king, his fools, and the Confucian courtiers. At times, the script appears to play like a doctoral thesis on "Parody and Subversion in the Masque" or "The Fool: Laughter and Danger in Elizabethan theatre" (The fools realise each time they put on a burlesque or masque for Yeonsan, someone ends up executed or murdered). It feels like a dramatic adaptation of an academic treatise on elements of Shakespeare’s plays, especially when some scenes are reminiscent of Hamlet (Yeonsan is eager to find out the truth behind his mother’s untimely death) or even Lear (Jong-gil the fool is the only human Yeonsan can strike up a semblance of a normal relationship with), and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (the tragedy of Yeonsan is indeed told through the eyes of the two fools).

While the tension and danger amidst the court intrigue are well-written, the movie may come across as more scriptable than lisable. Part of this feeling of misalignment comes from the fact that the Shakespearean feel is achieved at the price of anachronism – Korean never had a tradition of court jesters. The very idea that someone – much less a fool – would be allowed to openly mock a king, and to tell the truth at the same time, is completely alien to period and social hierarchy maintained by the Confucian courtiers. The sense of wild historical improbability does detract from this movie. There is precious little effort on part of the scriptwriter to square the circle and reconcile the idea of a court jester working within a Confucian system, or to examine the factionalism amongst the courtiers during the period.

Visually, the film boils over with frantic excitement and wide angle shots, with at 1 masque, 2 burlesques, 1 Chinese opera, 2 street performances featuring tightropes, acrobatics, 2 puppet shows, and 1 wayang kulit performance, while the charismatic interaction between the 3 main characters also serve to fill out emotionally the academic feel of the movie. The English subtitles, translated by professor Kim Yong Ok, are far superior to the Mandarin translation, and contribute to the rough and tumble verse of Shakespeare at times.

I’m bowled over by the audacity of the concept for King and the Clown, and despite its (very few) shortcomings, it’s a completely fresh take at Shakespeare, an original Kurosawa. Lee Joon-Ik evokes the great masters while pilfering none of their material, and I venture that he has created a classic that can count among the best Kurosawa interpretations of Shakespeare, and yet stand on its own.

First published at incinemas on 22 June 2006

Friday, 16 June 2006

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)

Dad may be crazy about Patsy Kline, but Ziggy Stardust has my heart

There’s something creepy about Zachary Beaulieu. The child fidgets and looks anguished during the Christmas midnight service, and his hand keeps touching the back of his head, where there’s a certain birthmark on his scalp. There’s obviously something annoying him to the extent that he practically gives the camera the evil eye. Zac’s born on Christmas Day, 1960, and you begin to wonder if you’re watching the remake of The Omen. Hastily, you check if you’ve stepped into the wrong cinema hall.

Relax, you’re watching C.R.A.Z.Y., one of the best films from Canada this decade. It’s about the pain and confusion of growing up, the joy and madness of family life, the love-hate relationship between siblings, between parents and their children. It’s about being special – Quebecois, Roman Catholic, and having the best and coolest father in the world. The film is suffused with touches of Quebecois old wives’ tales and beliefs and an honest, reverent religiosity that makes it much more than Growing Up meets The Wonder Years meets The 70s Show. In other words, it’s a film on universal themes, yet unique to its corner of the world.

Like every child, young Zac hero worships his macho father Gervais, who fired a machine gun in WW2, wears aviator shades, and as befitting an audiophile, has the complete collection of vinyl records from Patsy Cline, Charles Aznavour and other great classic singers. Thanks to his unique birthmark and birth date, the family believes Zac is gifted with a talent for healing wounds. Gervais takes his favourite son on secret car trips to get French fries, buys him the biggest Christmas/birthday presents of the siblings, and for a while, the pair are the best buddies in the world.

But children do grow up, and they eventually do something to disappoint their parents’ hopes in them. In Zac’s case, it is his “softness” and inability to be masculine enough for his father. Will the love between father and son be strong enough to bring them together again? Does Zac love his father enough to do everything possible to regain his favour, and not end up as a “fairy”? Does Gervais love his son enough to accept that all his sons are different from one another, to accept Zac as much as he accepts the drugged out second son Raymond as his own? Can mum Doris, who shares a special bond with her son, convince her husband to accept Zac’s uniqueness?

Families, I was once told by a cynic, are the only institutions in civilised society where people are legally allowed to be mean or even violent to one another. This film proposes that families are both a source of joy and pain – and that you can never extricate one from the other. Gervais may be a strict disciplinarian, but he’s still charismatic, charming and has a sense of cool. Raymond may be Zac’s greatest tormentor and nemesis, but it’s impossible for anyone to maintain their ill feelings for their most hated sibling for long. This film, then, is a love letter to families everywhere, whether they rock or suck, and precisely because they rock and suck at the same time.

Script-wise, the film is equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming, terrifying and witty. It’s extremely well-written and so tight-knit that I couldn’t find any unnecessary scenes. The movie is filled with gorgeous music from the 1950s to the 1980s, from Patsy Cline to David Bowie, from Elvis Presley to The Rolling Stones. Like guardian angels, the film soundtrack watch over the growth of the five Beaulieu brothers and their parents through a most difficult transition in Quebecois society, the misnamed Quiet Revolution.

Visually, the composition of the film is top notch. The sunlight falls on faces just so, the camera closes up and dances a slow mambo with the characters, seque. Director Jean-Marc Vallee, armed with a delirious sensibility, provides us with several wickedly funny and imaginative scenes that despite being way off-the-wall, actually work emotionally (One of them is the infamous melding of Sympathy for the Devil and the Christmas mass).

C.R.A.Z.Y. is a film that you might just want to watch more than once, if just to figure out how on earth its creators managed to produce a masterpiece from a rather mainstream subject.

First published at incinemas on 15 June 2006

Thursday, 15 June 2006

Scary Movie 4 (2006)

How did Hollywood forget how to make comedies?

Once upon a time (okay, that was 1980), the Zucker brothers brought you Airplane! The movie basically spoofs an entire series of airplane disaster movies. Together with Jim Abrahams David and Jerry Zucker continued their comic spoofs in Top Secret! (spoofing WW2 and Elvis movies), the Naked Gun trilogy (cop and noir movies), and Hot Shots (Top Gun). Those were the days when this comedy style was considered smart and funny, mixing non-stop gags with a consistent parody of a film genre per movie. And then it’s all downhill from here. Jerry Zucker has retired from scriptwriting, while the idea of spoof movies fizzled out, even with Mel Brooks directing Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

It’s no surprise then, that the Scary Movie franchise – a throwback to the Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker spoof film concept – actually began without the team. Scary Movie 4 brings back David Zucker and Jim Abrahams. Will their stint be any better than when the Wayans brothers were helming the franchise?

If you have been watching movies in the local cinema for the past few months, you would’ve seen the trailers for Scary Movie 4. These trailers are entire spoof scenes from the movie, meaning you already know some of the gags and spoofs that take place. There’s an iPod gag that segues into a War of the Worlds spoof, a Tom Cruise on Oprah Winfrey spoof, another spoof of M Night Shyamalam’s The Village, Saw, Saw II, and a gag by Leslie Nielson on GW Bush’s The Pet Goat 9/11 incident.

Without giving the plot away (and indeed, is there any?), the movie also spoofs The Grudge, Brokeback Mountain, and Million Dollar Baby. Cultural references are also worked in, such as bling bling, Mike Tyson’s ear chewing incident, Michael Jackson’s relationships with children, and Viagra.

There’s a huge problem with this instalment, as with all the Scary Movie sequels. The scriptwriters do not understand that references to a movie do not constitute a parody, spoof, or satire of that movie. Just because a certain scene makes a reference to some other movie does not make it funny. An endless sequence of gimmicks like these do not add up to a comedy. Nor does an obsession with people getting hit in the face.

There’s a silver lining in this almost unwatchable comedy: the special effects for the War of the Worlds spoof sequences look very expensive and recreate the actual look of the Martian machines and their death rays in the original movie. Zucker and Abraham have lost their touch; their gags may come in an almost non-stop torrent, but these are a pale shadow of the actually funny and sometimes brilliant verbal jokes from their 1980s comedies. What actually worked for me was the running gags involving Chris Bierko as a well-meaning but negligent and incompetent father.

There’s one reason why the spoof movie genre is on its dying legs. Spoof movies have devolved into spoofing just about any pop cultural event or movie from the previous year. If Airplane! Top Secret or even Hot Shots had a coherent plot from spoofing just one genre at a time, their last surviving descendent, the Scary Movie franchise, has none because it spoofs everything and anything. Why pay money to watch in a cinema months later what you can watch for free on television in sketches of Saturday Night Live, MADtv, the David Letterman Show, or The Daily Show? If some sketches fall flat on these television shows, you know that the next skit might be better. In Scary Movie 4, the next skit is just more of the same referencing to last year’s movies and (by now) outdated cultural references.

First published at incinemas on 22 June 2006

Tuesday, 13 June 2006

Road to Guantanamo (2006)

Road trip to hell exposes moral failings of War on Terror

The Road to Guantanamo has a very limited release in the United States, apparently because it dwells on topics too hot for movie distributors to handle. Maybe it’s the image of prisoners decked in orange straitjackets and shackled in leg irons and goggles 24 hours a day. Maybe it’s their torture and beatings by the US Army. Maybe it’s their indefinite detention and denial to any judicial proceedings, or the insistence by GW Bush that these prisoners are all evil and guilty anyway, Maybe it’s their detention in prison camps that incidentally aren’t liable to international law anyway. Maybe the American public would rather remember the War on Terror through the rash of 9/11 propaganda films United 93 and World Trade Centre – where they are always victims and never perpetuators of evil.

The rest of the world, though, is more than ready for this documentary.

The Tipton Three, as they have been dubbed by the media, were originally four English lads of Pakistani descent. Boisterous, goofy, and close-knit friends, they keep dropping into street slang like the Bhangra Muffins duo from TV comedy show Goodness Gracious Me. When one of the boys returns to his hometown in Pakistan after 15 years in the UK for an arranged marriage, he invites his 3 close friends over, and they decide to make a side trip to Afghanistan – it’ll be good, clean fun. Never mind that American and UK forces began bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan a few days before our lads cross the border; the huge naans are worth the trouble.

What ensues can be described as a comedy of errors in their road trip to hell. The extreme budget travellers lodge in free rooms in mosques, get downed by food poisoning, are stranded by the round-the-clock bombings in the capital, then get spirited to a Taliban stronghold city when they request safe passage back to the Pakistan border, get captured by the Northern Alliance army when the Taliban surrenders, and are delivered to the American Army, sent to various detention camps and winding up in Guantanamo Bay, where their captors, exhibiting true American hospitality, welcome the prisoners by telling them “From now on, you’re the property of the US Army!” and insist they confess their crimes as terrorists, Al Qaeda soldiers, and provide the location of Osama Bin Laden.

As a documentary, The Road to Guantanamo is a dispassionate film that never descends into angry denouncements or disrespectful jibing of the architects of the war. The experience of the Tipton Three (the fourth is missing and presumed dead after an airstrike blows up one of the convoy vehicles in Afghanistan) is very simply re-enacted by actors, interspersed with interviews with the 3 real-life survivors and news reports from the Afghan war and Guantanamo Bay. There is simply no need for polemics, since the depiction of life in the detention camps, as accounted by the trio and corroborated by reports from the Red Cross and Amnesty International, are enough to send any sane person into anger and despair. Shot in a mixture of grainy film stock and handheld video cameras, there is an authenticity that prepare the audience for how the young men’s lives change once their road trip ends in the detention camps.

I’m not going to spoil your enjoyment of the movie by giving away the horrifying details, but they do highlight the malevolence, incompetence, disconnection from reality, and sheer mendacity of George W. Bush and his administration in their prosecution of the War on Terror, and how this behaviour has lost them the respect of people around the world. It’s a wonder that the 3 men – victims of injustice and a Kafkaesque system – managed to survive their 2-year imprisonment intact and emotionally stable.

First published at incinemas on 22 June 2006

Thursday, 8 June 2006


Pixar's first utterly bland animation?

Watching a Pixar animation is an true cinematic experience. Since 1995, I have always looked forward to several things: the wordless short cartoon that precedes the feature animation, cameo appearances of characters and objects from previous Pixar animations, spotting the recurring voice actor John Ratzenberger, and the out-takes and extra clips at the end credits. Spotting the familiar is all great fun, especially when each Pixar movie is radically different from the previous one (except Toy Story 2, the only sequel from this animation studio).

One Man Band

In the tradition of Pixar’s short cartoon openers, One Man Band is a showcase of technical CGI wizardry married to a simple and comic ‘problem story’. This time round, two street performers (Bass and Treble) go through great lengths to impress a girl, who may tip one of them with her single coin. Both performers come up with more and more over-the-top acts, until the girl surprises them with a virtuoso performance on her own, with just one instrument. It’s a little unfortunate that last year, none of the nominees for the Best Animated Feature Oscar were CGI films. Yes, audiences and Academy voters, numbed by the technological whiz-bang and gadgetry of CGI animation, voted for the virtuosi performances from smaller studios outside Hollywood which have chosen to focus on creating engaging stories, nevermind the low-fi animation techniques. One Man Band had better not be a prophetic allegory for the Disney Pixar vs Dreamworks rivalry and the coming collapse of current CGI animation paradigm.


In a year with as many as 9 CGI cartoon releases, Cars, Pixar’s latest feature film stands head and shoulders over its competitors. For starters, this is the studio’s first ever sports movie. In the world of Cars, automobiles can drive themselves, talk, and come with their own personalities. It’s a little like the world of Toy Story, with the vehicles in the place of the talking toys, and no humans.

Owen Wilson voices Lightning McQueen, a hotshot rookie in the racing circuit. Talented and on the verge of a title trophy and greatness, the sports car’s ambitions are derailed when an accident leaves him stranded in Radiator Springs, a sleepy town off the historic Route 66 highway near the Grand Canyon. There, the impatient and arrogant rookie will learn some valuable lessons about life from the quirky denizens of the town, lessons that will help him win the next big race.

What does Pixar do right, and much better than many American animation studios? Although Cars is a typical genre film made into a cartoon, it has a competently-written story that doesn’t rely on toilet humour, slapstick comedy, or even pop-cultural references. The story can stand on its own, and measures up well against many live action sports movies. In addition, all the major and minor characters are lovingly designed and unique; weeks after watching this movie, the characters will still stand out from one another in your memory.

There is humour in Cars, but more of a mature, wry, understated kind (aside from one madcap sequence involving the automobile version of cow tipping). Instead of viewing Cars as a cartoon comedy, it makes better sense to think of it as a comic drama like Northern Exposure. The winning point about this animated movie, despite its genre plot, is its small town off Route 66 setting, which allows the movie’s creators to paint a loving and sentimental tribute to the Mother Road.

However, there are a few issues with Cars that make this Pixar’s weakest offering to date (but still, Pixar’s weakest is worth more than any studio’s best). The choice of a genre film is a departure from the Pixar originality that movie audiences have grown to love and expect since 1995. While solidly written according to genre standards, Cars lacks character development and any hint of plot innovation and unpredictability.

Visuals-wise, there is a confusing mix of styles. In some scenes, automobiles look almost photorealistic; in others, like toy cars; and yet in others, caricatures. Different cars are drawn with different levels of details, and when you see in the same frame, all these different styles thrown in together, there is a sense of inconsistency and bewilderment that distracts from the movie unfolding before our eyes.

The landscape of the Grand Canyon was disappointingly rendered. The trees looked like they were shot in stop-motion with surplus plastic models from Aardman Studios. While Finding Nemo and Prince of Egypt showed that 3D animators could create realistic-looking water and waves, Cars proves that dust, gravel and rock still can’t be convincingly rendered in 3D yet, surprisingly. As a result, the Grand Canyon – almost a major character by itself – looks flat and uninspiring, with no sense of atmosphere, and appears more like a cell background – except cell backgrounds deliberately sacrifice verisimilitude for aesthetic effect and atmosphere.

These are minor quibbles, of course, and should not detract from anyone’s enjoyment of the movie. The screening of Cars is also accompanied with the sneak trailers for Ratatouille, Disney Pixar’s next movie. Judging from the trailer, Pixar’s next film is worth waiting for, and will be even better than Cars – but then, almost every Pixar movie is better than the previous one!

First published at incinemas on 8 June 2006

Tuesday, 6 June 2006

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005)

The audience may find it difficult to stifle their giggles in the very first scene of U-Carmen eKhaelitsha. That’s fine, it happened to me too. A squat-faced, rather large African female stares impassively at the camera. As the voiceover narration begins, it’s clear that you’re supposed to believe this is the face of Carmen, the free spirit with a fiery temper whose beauty, coupled with her impulsive whims, cause the downfall of many men who long to possess her. A few seconds later, you realise with a shock that this version of Carmen will be performed in the Xhosa language, complete with all its dental, alveolar, and lateral clicks. A minute later, the camera zooms into Khayeltisha, a large township on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa – a world apparently populated by humans of ample, almost classical proportions.

Outrageous? Gimmicky? This is certainly not the first all-black Carmen – one is reminded of Carmen Jones, the Oscar Hammerstein musical and film. Neither is it as gimmicky as Karmen Gei, the 2001 Senegalese adaptation featuring a bisexual Carmen. For U-Carmen, the relocation from mid-19th century Seville to modern-day post-apartheid Cape Town is the only artistic license its director Mark Dornford-May takes. Perversely, the fact that Dornford-May’s decision to stick to a more-or-less faithful adaptation of Bizet’s original opera makes it all the more challenging, and the end-result more rewarding to the audience.

Visually, U-Carmen convincingly makes the case for an authentic African Carmen. The hustle and bustle of Seville translates well into the poverty-stricken yet vibrant shantytowns that make up Khayelitsha. The third-world style economy and underlying casual violence of post-apartheid South Africa enables the writers to preserve wholesale many details from the original opera, including the cigarette factory in which Carmen works, the small barracks from which her newest love interest, the police sargeant Jongi (Jose in the original) hails, and even the band of smugglers which they both join after Jongi deserts the police after letting Carmen escape from imprisonment.

The music, delivered in Xhosa, are brilliantly executed by the cast, who have big voices. Pauline Malefane as Carmen has magnetic charisma and an aura of unconventional beauty that makes her believable as an outsider and rebel. Somehow, music director Charles Hazlewood has managed to translate the opera such that the Xhosa lyrics match the English subtitles syllable for syllable. It’s almost magical once you realise what’s happening.

There are relatively few musicals on screen that can make the audience forget about the theatricality, the ersatzness of the production - after all, people don’t sing their conversations in everyday life. However, once you are comfortable with the conceit of overlarge black men decked in police uniforms singing in harmony, you’ll be more engrossed at the sheer dynamism and energy of this screen adaptation, from the buzz of its camerawork to how the shift to modern-day South Africa changes none of the issues from the original opera. I hazard that Carmen’s participation in smuggling is more understandable in this adaptation: she isn’t flawed or evil, but simply trying to survive by taking part in the black economy.

It also won’t be long before you are struck by the brilliant singing from the cast. Indeed, in North America and Europe, silver-haired seniors struggle to fill even half of the seats in otherwise empty concert halls, while middle-aged singers draped in curtains belt out tunes fashionable more than a century ago. Opera, as you have guessed, is slowly dying in the continent that invented it – and is most vibrant in postcolonial, post-Apartheid Africa. Throughout the continent, an entire generation of young people are training in music conservatories like the University of Natal Opera School and Choral Academy, and producing prize-winning talents like Cameroonian Jacques-Greg Belobo. Here’s an even more fascinating fact: the singing cast are from Dimpho Di Kopane, whose members were sourced from the shantytowns and had no formal musical training in opera at all. That certainly knocked the socks off my feet.

In line with the spirit of Bizet, the orchestration for U-Carmen has incorporated very nicely traditional Southern African music and rhythms into the original score. This, with Dornford-May’s approach in the script, points towards a serious African interpretation of opera, one that succeeds and more than deserves the Berlin Bear award.

First published at incinemas on 8 June 2006

Saturday, 3 June 2006

Almost Love (청춘만화) (2006)

Almost romantic, almost comic, almost melodramatic. Almost watchable.

Once upon a time in 2003. Kwon Sang-wu and Kim Ha-neul starred in My Tutor Friend, which remains in the top 20 all-time bestselling Korean films. Kwon’s new acting career was given a huge boost due to the popular reception to the movie and the inevitable Korean acting awards. Since then, Kwon has become an A-list actor, gracing cinemas at least with at least one romantic comedy a year and collecting his annual booty of Most Popular Actor awards. There’s no secret to Kwon’s appeal: with his pretty-boy modelling looks and toned physique, every commercially successful Korean romance has him baring his torso (or much more) for his fans.

It’s a pity that his one serious attempt to break out of typecasting in last year’s Running Wild was met with poor reception from Korean filmgoers. Yearning to regain box office respectability, Kwon reunites with Kim Ha-neul in Almost Love, which seeks to duplicate the romantic comedy formula that propelled Kwon to stardom.

This time round, Kwon and Kim are neighbours as well as very close childhood friends now studying in college. Ji-hwan (Kwon) is in the karate team, but his life-long ambition is to be an action hero like his idol, Jackie Chan. That explains his moonlighting as a stuntman on a film set, but his awful bowl cut and pallid skin tone makes him look like a clone of Ricky Hui. Since the in-thing in Korean comedies now seems to be the alternately oddball goofy and charming male protagonist, Kwon’s resemblance to Ricky Hui seems frighteningly accurate, although unintended. Providing the other half in the freakish-yet-charming-couple formula is Dal-rae (Kim), an aspiring television actress who fumbles all her drama club readings and film auditions with her incessant trembling and nervous tics. The two pals bicker and cheer each other up. When they begin serious dating with other people, their friendship becomes strained. What will it take for both of them to realise their love for each other?

It’s not an entirely new premise, and in the hands of a good writer and director, would be watchable at worse or a middling success at best. In the clumsy hands of Lee Han, who gave us the complete mess that was Garden of Love and the ultra-trite Lover’s Concerto, the film never gets off at all. Yes, we all know that Kwon Sang-woo and Kim Ha-neul are great looking stars, that they ooze sex appeal with their looks, that they had great screen chemistry in their previous collaboration, My Tutor Friend (directed by the subversively funny Kim Gyeong Hyeong). Lee Han knows that too, and then assumes that’s enough to see Almost Love through.

It’s as though Lee Han is pulling the Jedi mind trick from Star Wars: expectations of what the movie is, what its main characters are like, how these two childhood friends possess a deep and unspoken love for each other, and how great they look, will distract or blind the audience from the lack of character development, the weak characterisation (till now, I still can’t get a finger on what kind of girl Dal-rae is or what draws Ji-hwan to her), and the lazy scriptwriting and plot holes this movie suffers from. Or maybe with those expectations in mind, the audience would mentally fill in the gaps and end up watching a vastly different and more superior movie from the one that is on the screen – the one that I, without an extensive fan-worship of the stars, the genre, and the Korean wave, ended up watching.

If there was sizzling chemistry between the two stars, I didn’t notice it. Perhaps the script had Hi-hwan and Dal-rae as really good friends, both in their adult and kiddie incarnations – and that’s all they are. Goofily horsing around with one another, childishly pouting at each other for neglecting their friendship, any romantic undertones between them is purely a product of audience expectations, because the script – as far as I know – didn’t develop it at all. Emotionally, the stars had much more chemistry with their on-screen dads: Kwon bonds well with Jeong Gyoo-soo as a bohemian hippy father, and Kim delivers the most tearjerking scene in the movie with Choi Jong-ryol as a father paralysed by stroke.

So underdeveloped and flimsy is the relationship between the two protagonists that a severe jolt is delivered at the end of the second act, turning the film into a melodrama. It’s the in-thing for Korean films to feature a sudden and violent twist, accompanied by a switch in genre, and it sometimes works well. In the hands of Lee Han, the twist is achieved by an unnecessary and meaningless plot device, comes out of nowhere and has never been properly foreshadowed in the earlier acts, and is succeeded by a melodramatic third act that feels overlong and saggy. And again, the emotionally intense scenes come from Kwon and Kim’s solo scenes, and not from their reunion finale. Their reunion, of course, is achieved by another flimsy plot device that makes me wonder if an aeroplane could manoeuvre through the holes in Lee Han’s script.

There’s a scene in the movie where Ji-hwon hands a screenplay to a movie director (don’t ask me how it comes to this, and don’t try to think too hard in the cinema why it would ever come to this), and the director tells him the script has some good ideas, but some scenes are irrelevant, the plot goes nowhere, and the dialogue is bad. I wish someone could’ve told Lee Han that. Fans of Kwon Sang-woo and Kim Ha-neul shouldn’t expect a remake of My Tutor Friend. They had best arm themselves with a strong imagination in the cinema, or rent the My Tutor Friend DVD to avoid disappointment.

First published at incinemas on 8 June 2006

Friday, 2 June 2006

Frostbiten (2006)

The Swedish writers couldn't wait to sink their teeth into the horror genre

Ah, Sweden. Home of morose and serious movies, Ingmar Bergman, and the chess-playing Death. And since 1999, the epicentre of a horror short film cottage industry. Anders Banke and Daniel Ojanlatva finally take their compatriots’ aspirations a step further – Frostbite is the first full-length feature horror film to come out from Sweden in decades. And looking at the Frostbite poster, which recreates the look of Nosferatu: Symphony of Horror, Banke and Ojanlatva really mean business. It’s like they’ve thrown down a gauntlet, as if to say “We’re going to make a really scary vampire movie the old school way, with none of those watered-down parodies, laugh fests, or CGI showcases that the Americans end up producing when they make vampire movies!” Yes, they want to make a serious horror movie. I guess that’s somewhat Swedish, and it does sound like a really great idea.

In Frostbite, Saga (Grete Havnesköld) and her medical researcher mother Annika (Petra Nielsen) relocate to the surburbs in the city of Norrbotten during the midwinter, mainly because the mother is eager to work with the genius geneticist in the local hospital. Unknown to them, Prof Beckert (Carl-Åke Eriksson, a dead ringer for Peter Cushing’s Dr Van Helsing!) is hiding a secret that is linked to a spate of horrific murders apparently committed by a vampire, while Saga’s newfound friends in school are poised to be acquainted with the Prof’s secrets in a particularly nasty way. A nice twist to the vampire genre is the location of Norrbotten: situated well within the Arctic circle, the midwinter features 30 days of continuous night, a perfect environment for vampires on a feeding frenzy.

Astute comic book fans will notice that the twist isn’t new or groundbreaking at all – Steve Niles has done this in the highly acclaimed “30 Days of Night”, set in a town in Alaska. (Incidentally, the film adaptation will be produced by Sam Raimi and is scheduled for release next year.) The creators of Frostbite have other ideas, though. Their film is a collection of the ideas – original or otherwise – for serious vampire films. Aside from the 30 Days of Night plot, Banke and Ojanlatva weave together other disparate ideas like the “WW2 vampire movie” where Nazi soldiers encounter a house of vampires when they get separated from their platoon, the kooky “mad scientist scheming for world domination movie” that brings to mind Bride of the Atom, the “scientific vampire movie” that offers a scientific explanation for vampirism, the “vampire-zombie movie” where vampires multiply out of control, the “wandering vampire coven movie” from Anne Rice’s Lestat novels, and a plot idea that might be called “I became a teenage vampire”.

If that sounds wildly ambitious, that’s because it is. There’s more than enough ideas to sustain an entire series of good horror movies, but mashing them together into the space of just 100 minutes is an invitation to either greatness or dismal failure. So does the film work?

The individual parts of the movie are well-stitched together, well enough that it took a few minutes after the credits started rolling for me to realise the patchwork nature of the film. Both director and writer are great at creating the atmosphere and establishing the set up, such that the mood felt authentic even after the sometimes abrupt gear shifts from one classic vampire lore to another.

On the other hand, the movie as a whole felt like an unaired pilot for an entire series of full-length feature films. While great at creating the feel and emotional underpinnings of each separate story idea, the writers fail to develop them to their logical ends, preferring to jump from one story idea to another. Without proper development and exploration, the five (or six?) story ideas remain just that – either hanging in mid-air or resolved poorly. The audience get tantalising hints at the superb horror films that would be made, if only the writer and director chose to focus on any one of their story ideas and expanded it fully.

For a low-to-medium budget horror flick, Frostbite has more than competent prosthetics and make up, which interestingly look better than the CGI effects in the same movie. As a nation’s first effort at a serious horror movie, this definitely puts stuff like Pontianak, The Maid, or even recent Hollywood horror flicks to shame. Bankes and Ojanlatva should be applauded for their sheer ambitiousness, which propel what would’ve been a B-grade horror movie into something better: it might end up as the most unforgettable horror film of this decade, even though it’s not quite a modern classic.

First published at incinemas on 31 August 2006