Saturday, 28 April 2007

Passion, The อำมหิตพิศวาส (2006)

This movie is brought to you by the letters O M G W T F B B Q!!!

There's an apocryphal saying, sometimes attributed to French New Wave/nouvelle vague director Francois Truffaut, that goes "There is no such thing as a bad film, only a badly-made film". Clearly whoever said this must've had The Passion in mind. Previously in the past year, I thought that I have seen the worst movie in Thai cinema, but couldn't decide if the movie was called Colic or Ghost Game. Today, I would like to retract my earlier statements: The Passion is by far the worst movie in Thai cinema, not because of any immature handling of premise or bad taste, but solely because it is so badly made that you will be sorely tempted to hurl fistfuls of popcorn and rotting fruit and vegetables at the screen while watching this movie.

Here's the lowdown: The Passion is an exploitation movie set almost entirely in a shopping mall and cineplex that's run by corrupt and depraved security staff. The security chief is played by the director of this movie, and as such, he gets to molest, rape, and punch every other female appearing in this movie, while blackmailing his boss (who'd like a moral cleansing of the corrupt cineplex system - such an idea is so... farfetched it's brilliant) for a payout of 250 million baht. But this is the security chief's unlucky day - due to the tensions between the staff of the mall, the delivery of the blackmail money goes wrong, and worse still, his latest victim happens to be a psychologically disturbed girl with a huge knife in her bag... Will the corrupt chief continue his reign of terror, with the help of his hidden network of CCTV cameras throughout the mall, or will the innocent victims walk free?

Now, this does sound like the premise for either a gripping thriller or an allegory on the depraved state of Thai film industry and the trash that gets produced and lapped up at box office record levels by audiences, and then distributed in Singapore as "Smash Thai hit of 2006!" That's why I entered the cinema. But almost from the word go, it became apparent that this isn't the film I would be watching. For one, it looks as if the film was shot by secondary school students who snuck into the mall one night at 2am and rushed to complete their shoot by sunrise. You know, the "smart" idea to film chase scenes all over the mall and cineplex, in its hallways, back alleys, carpark, kitchen, rubbish dump, and even storage rooms. Sure, it's a smart idea, but only if it wasn't so incompetently done.

Here's a quick rundown of the horrendous stuff that first-time director Sarangyoo Wongkrachang offers us, from the first 40 minutes of the movie:

The editing (please thank Mahasak Dhasnapayak!) is completely botched up. It's as though Dasanapayak never realised it's bad cinematography to cross-cut between scenes, shift camera angles, jump cut between 4 different chase scenes and different plot lines every 3 seconds. Do congratulate Dhasnapayak for making a bigger mess out of what is already an incoherent script...

Apparently, Director of Photography Suthot Ruengui can't hold a camera without at least half of every take ending up out of focus. We hope he'll use an automatic camera next time. Both Ruengui and Dhasnapayak also form a tag-team, collaborating to give us shots where actors standing in front of a light have an unearthly glowing outline around their bodies. Also, Ruengui and director Wongkrachang have this special move, where every time the camera angle shifts from one character POV to another, the camera distance is set too far off...

Director Wangkrachang continues his spatial cluelessness by having a character on the second floor with a camera take footage of a murder on the top floor, even though his camera is aiming straight and not up...

Sayun Somkourn and Anusorn Pinyopojanee, the art directors, should be commended for finding a prop that looks like a charred and completely burnt for hours human body. The only thing is... they used the prop for a character who was doused with normal cooking oil, set on fire for 10 seconds, and then put out with a convenient bucket of water...

Scriptwriter Chatrisa Srisantiwong should be commended as well for the rather incoherent (but not incompetent to the point of surrealism) script, which allows a man to rise up, slap, punch and body throw a woman after she plunges a drill into his chest. That and having the Last Girl creep up to surprise the security chief in his office, even though he has hidden cameras all over the mall's corridors. That and having the Last Girl hide in a water slide from a security goon, despite the fact that everyone could hear the water splashing all over her, and the fact that the goon would have just spotted her by standing up straight because the slide is below chest level.

Whoever was in charge of continuity and simple logic on the set should also be commended: the blouse on a dead girl alternates between buttoned up and undone depending on which scene you're watching, even though no one has moved the body. There's also a weird ventilator fan death a la Daylight, except that the body is sliced into half on the first turn of the fan... and everyone knows that fans only pick up speed on rotation after a few turns...

And finally, here's a tip to the director: if you're going to make a thriller with a twist at the end, it only works if the rest of the movie is coherent, makes sense, and is free of glaring errors.

The Passion is one of those rare films where anything that can go wrong in production does go wrong. I would recommend it highly for aspiring filmmakers, media students, and film lecturers as an excellent and highly entertaining (You'll groan at the movie so much that you 'll start giggling!) educational tool, but the rest of us normal folks would benefit from staying away from this bad movie, which somehow won a Thai movie award. I leave you to ponder over how that can happen.

First published at incinemas on 3 May 2007

Friday, 27 April 2007

Spider-man 3 (2007)

Here's a good reason to arrive at the cinema on time for Spider-man 3: its opening credits sequence is no obligatory preamble, meaningless eye-candy, or leftover pennies to keep the studio's animation department, long reduced to thumbtwiddling in the wake of the rise of CGI superhero movies, somewhat busy. Instead, observe the opening sequence, a montage of scenes from the first 2 Spider-man movies, rendered or rotoscoped into comic-book art stills. Yes, we know it's a recap, but the sequence brings to mind the stained glass panels of say, the Stations of the Cross, that you can find in cathedrals. And that's exactly how this sequence should be viewed - not a recap, but a restatement of Sam Raimi's treatment of the Spider-man trilogy, film version of a Marvel Bildungsroman, perhaps titled "Sentimental Education of a Hero", in which one young webbed crusader must learn the ethics of saving the world as a vocation. You know, the sort where in the hero must first learn the consequences of his superpowers and struggle to understand that he has to renounce his ego to fight with evil-doers (Spider-man), then learn it's okay for a crimefighter to act on his personal emotions and passions while doing his job (Spider-man 2), and then learn when he has to rein in his own desires again, lest he become too self-centred (Spider-man 3). It's important, therefore, to note that what makes Spider-man the best superhero franchise of this decade is its focus on the realistic emotional foundations of its superhero, instead of CGI-fests like the FF4 movies or the dark psychology of the rebooted Batman. If Spider-man 3 carries its unique exploration of the education of the supehero, then the movie should be seen as a success. Which of course, it is.

But for those short of attention and hungry for novelty, what is there that Spider-man has to offer? Raimi probably knows the dangers of repeating himself in the final act of the trilogy, and hence gives us something slightly different here: there are 3 villains to contend with instead of the usual single villain. Yes, we do get a breath of fresh air this time, away from the "supervillain of the episode" feel of the first two Spider-man movies, but then Spider-man 3 may come across as losing some sense of unity and coherence that its predecessors had. It is still far better than X-men 3, a movie consisting of 30 second cameos of every mutant in the X-man universe.

Since there's no question that Spider-man 3 is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, I'd just like to take the time to present to you my list of 5 minor annoyances and 3 major raves for this movie:

Spiderman 3 would be far more impressive than it already is, if...
1. The director used sand instead of corn pellets to create the Sandman CGI. Yes, it's very noticeable that pellets are far larger than grains of sand, leading me to think Thomas Haden Church was cast as Breakfast cereal man. Also, this must be the reason why aside from one scene, no one ever got sand in their eyes, when lots of sand-like pellets were flying in the air in every Sandman battle.

2. The editor wasn't too trigger-happy with his scissors, presumably deleting a few scenes that left a Venom science explanation hanging in the mid-air (How did Peter Parker realise his suit was alive, and thought to submit a sample to the FDA?)

3. The costume designer had ensured Tobey Maguire got a more fitting costume for a certain scene. Wardrobe malfunction and moose knuckles, yikes!

4. The makeup artist hadn't resorted to making putting black eyeshadow on Venom-possessed Peter Parker. He simply looks like a goth kid.

5. The CGI department spent more effort on the Venom design. Not only is he far less unhinged and psychotic in the script, he is so unscary and unconvincing that I thought the shinigami from Death Note were more impressive.

3 good things that you'll remember about Spiderman 3
1. Stan Lee and Bruce Campbell have cameos in the movie; Campbell's segment is actually entertaining with his spot-on imitation of John Cleese's characters
2. The best homage to the THX trailer ever, hidden in the final fight scene
3. Despite a prolonged buildup, this movie has a clean resolution to the trilogy, tying up all loose ends

First published at incinemas on 1 May 2007

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Wind that shakes the barley, The (2006)

At a loss for words, their romantic dinner sputtered to a halt

Decades from now, historians will point to Ireland as the centre of the disintegration of the British Empire. Years before Gandhi marched barefoot in India to protest the salt tax, before David Saul Marshall went to London to fight for autonomous home rule, the Irish revolted when their colonial masters reneged on a deal for autonomous self-rule after WW1, and gained their independence only after a long war, a fake indepedence, and a civil war that split the independence movement. Of course, the long sunset and deserved humiliation of the British Empire will not be complete until all 6 counties of Northern Ireland are returned to the Republic, until all colonies are independent and free, until the Empire loses even Scotland and Wales. But until that day has come, we have to make do with celebrating the dismemberment of the British Empire through films such as Gandhi, Partition, and The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

Now, compared to later tales of decolonialisation in Asia, this film is about the little-known (in the region anyway) Irish war of independence and features actors speaking in a thick brogue. At first glance, the film does comes across as outright unsexy, another dry movie about another war of independence fought by valiant heroes set in a distant past that audiences may not be interested in, but even as the film opens, you'll realise that Ken Loach isn't intent on making that kind of movie. Instead, what will strike you is the in-the-trenches atmosphere that the director dunks the audience in, right from the beginning. The naturalistic cinematography makes the green hills of Ireland look lush and beautiful, yet not so pictureseque and artificial that it forms an incongruent backdrop to hit and run guerilla tactics and mutual reprisals are exchanged between the Republican army and the British occupying force. It's amazing when you think about it: the movie has no scenes of urban warfare, battles between armies, bombs going off - yet the sense that a real war is taking place, a real insurgency is being fought, is something you can feel right in your gut. Alert audiences may even notice early on the similarities between the Irish war of independence and the Iraq war. I'm not sure if it's a deliberate agenda of Ken Loach, but the portrayal of the daily humiliations of the Irish peasants by the British occupying forces, the wanton, deliberate, malicious, yet casual cruelty of the occupying army hew too close at times to images from the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and other modern horrors.

That Ken Loach manages to capture all this, in a naturalistic, gritty, almost documentary-like manner is certainly a minor achievement that is magnified all the more if one realises that Michael Collins, the other film on the Irish war of independence, could only tell the story through the filter of the "Great Man" historic narrative, forsaking the stories of the ordinary soldiers and civilians who fought in the war. This movie manages to capture the intensity of the physical and ideological conflict from the point of view of a small cell of Republicans in a smalll town far away from the urban centres of the war.

Even more remarkable, though, is Ken Loach's unique touch to the story of the war. The director - like his previous films - wants to reopen dead history, interrogate old wounds, give voice to the fallen, the points of view that have been set aside by the flow of history. This he does very well in the second half of the movie, which turns an ordinary story of a revolution into a lyrical piece that lays out what happens after any other revolution, about how revolutions can only end up eating the best and most noble of revolutionaries.

All in all, if you are in the mood for a war movie that feels like a war movie, The wind that shakes the barley may be a good bet. Just remember to sip that mug of Guinness; it may help you understand the thick Irish accents better.

First published at incinemas on 3 May 2007

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Fracture (2007)

Top civil servants deserve a pay hike to keep them in the service!

Let's get this straight. In the first 10 minutes of Fracture, you get to see Anthony Hopkins play Ted Crawford, an incredibly wealthy and talented engineer who shoots his wife in the head after she returns home from a rendezvous with a lover at a hotel. He methodically shoots more bullets into the windows but deliberately avoids hitting his gardeners, places the murder weapon in a corner of the room, and proceeds to burn his shirt and wash himself thoroughly before letting the police in to arrest him. It's an open and shut case, right? But like a Hannibal Lecter, the engineer leers at young hotshot state attorney Willie Beachum (played by Ryan Gosling), saying "Prove that I did it, Willie!" And proving it proves to be a challenge, because all the evidence that the police find are invalid due to a legal technicality (the wife's paramour is the detective who arrests Crawford, gathered the state evidence, and conducted the interrogation!), and the murder weapon found at the scene turns out to be not the murder weapon at all! That's when you get goosebumps and root for both sides, because you want to see Hopkins with a creepily genial smile, chanelling Hannibal Lector while toying with yet another brilliant investigator and lawyer, and because you want to see how the attorney races against time to solve the mystery and find more evidence to put the killer away.

So, how did Hannibal Crawford do it? I'm glad to say that like any good old school murder mystery, the clues are all there in the first 10 minutes, and that unlike some disreputable modern murder mysteries, there is no twist ending introducing completely new and unknown tangents to the story. The centrepiece of the movie, however, is not its brilliantly engineered mystery, but its focus on Ryan Gosling's public attorney (Yes, Anthony Hopkins agreed to chew up less of the scenary so that the main character of the movie would be Gosling). The poor sod may be the star lawyer with the highest conviction ratio in the state attorney-general's office, but he's still a middle class boy without the privilege of money, a middle name, and golf buddies. And like any other middle class overachiever, it eats into him: Gosling's lawyer has his eyes fixed on that private sector job with its fat salary. Will underpaid civil service talent be poached by the private law firm? But will failing to convict the killer jeapardise his ascent into the private sector?

The remarkable thing is how Fracture comes down on the civil service pay issue: Beachum may be the wunderkind, but as long as he has his mind set on benchmarking his track record to the best of the private sector and expecting a correspondingly "deserved" pay, he becomes a sort of a minor monster himself, an asshole with delusions of entitlement, a self-assured but hubristic character. I'll leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide if pecuniary-minded civil servants in real life, especially in Singapore, end up talking and behaving like Beachum. I think this movie shows that even in a meritocratic country like the United States, people expect their civil servants to act out of a sense of justice and professionalism, and that those who behave otherwise... are simply assholes who are so caught up with their self-righteous comparisons to the private sector that they end up failing to do their jobs properly.

The best thing for people to do is watch this movie - in times like this, we need to be reminded of where our priorities and morals should lie.

First published at incinemas on 19 April 2007

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Eternal Summer 盛夏光年 (2006)

The seasons of love, the seasons of life: like Japanese haiku and waka, the best introspective movies have a seasonal component in their titles. The mildness of spring speaks of innocence and youth, while movies with summer in their titles have more scorching passions: in summer and teenage years, one experiences growing up, coming of age, first love. Within a title like Eternal Summer is the youthful command to celebrate the exquisite feeling where the realisation of being young and alive hits you for the very first time. Yet the title presents a simultaneous urge not just to celebrate the moment of youth but to freeze it in amber - because Summer, like youth, is a period so precious that you want to revel in and struggle against the impetus of the moment, which carries its own destruction within itself, a destruction called Change. That particular joy of being young and surrounded by those you love carries with it a knowledge that after this, nothing else will be the same - not you, not your friends, and not the relations between everyone.

"I don't want to sound gloomy, but, at some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that with him so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again".

This may be what Christopher Lee felt for his Hammer Horror pal Peter Cushing years after his death, but it is the same feeling that infects and bothers two childhood buddies, Jonathan and Shane. Virtually inseparable since their primary school teacher forced them to pair up, the duo must come to terms with the long summer that they have slumbered in, when Carrie, a new classmate from Hong Kong, crashes into their lives. With her entrance, the wheels of change begin to move, and the duo will soon (and over years) realise - and yet deny - that their perfect moment of youth, a world to call their own, would never be quite the same afterwards. From here on, the stable dyadic relationship is transformed into a less stable, more nervous triad where the close relationship amongst the trio makes the process of growing up, making friends, and falling in love far harder and far more poignant than any ordinary summer experience. It is particularly even more so when all three take turns to develop from buddies to crushes to lovers with each other, and struggle to comprehend when exactly they turned from buddies to crushes to lovers...

I believe that certain quarters will try to make Eternal Summer out to be the LGBT movie of the year, but I am sorry to say that this isn't really what this movie is about. At the real heart of this movie is the teenage crush, the ones that play out in schools everywhere in the world, and happens thrice in this movie, the ones that happen between friends and even long-term buddies. Once you understand the core of this movie, the LGBT angle becomes far less transgressive than what the same quarters on the internet review circuit will suggest, and why the movie may appear to some as an utterly conventional teen school crush story reminiscent of many Taiwanese televsion serials (or idol dramas, if you prefer). You know, as if Meteor Garden were reworked as a fanfic by some yaoi fangirl. Oh, if you're a yaoi fangirl, do take note that certain cuts to the film have been made which I believe have compromised the integrity of an intimate scene, and changes it so drastically that audiences may be misled thinking a rape had actually taken place.

More impressive than the conventional story is Leste Chen's camerawork, which might be a more persuasive reason to watch this movie. The director's experience in producing Taiwanese music videos shows clearly in certain scenes, which are just hypnotic or heartbreakingly beautiful in a music video or KTV video kind of way. Unsurprisingly, Chen's music video background should explain why the camera seems to bask so lovingly in the beauty of Kate Yeung, who positively glows in almost every scene where she is on the screen, and why her co-stars Bryant Chang and especially Joseph Chang have very little camera charisma despite forming the main relationship in this movie. Viewers should also focus on the director's compositional skills; I believe the shots of Taichung by the sea and urban Taipei by the road are testament to his great eye for landscapes and backgrounds.

Eternal Summer is a credible evocation of the headiness and angst of that teen school crush, but comes rather at the wrong time for the career of Leste Chen. Coming as his second feature film, Eternal Summer betrays a certain lack of maturity and regret, a lack of a regretful and elegaic quality that its title promises and is inherent within the premise and script itself. Despite the moribund state of Taiwan filmmaking, this film is good enough to establish Leste Chen as a young filmmaker with occasional flashes of brilliance, whose future works must have our attention.

First published at incinemas on 26 April 2007

The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007)

Imperial guards vs Chaos cultists, fight!

There's no doubt that the sequel to the remake of last year's The Hills Have Eyes is a vile piece of cinema. The movie opens with a bloodied and dirty-looking woman chained to a bed giving birth to a deformed baby, and things just get progressively more disgusting and twisted: there's a mutant rape, people getting their heads or faces smashed in with axes, stones, bayonets and even wallets, two scenes with cannibalism, and a man crawling out from the hole in the toilet. Okay, the last image is probably a twisted homage to The Ring, but really, it's an indication that this film (like any other rose) isn't too far removed from the gutter.

Before you decide to buy your tickets at the box office, you should know that Weisz and the Craven team have overdone the disgusting elements in this movie, to the extent that there aren't any horror elements left in it. Yes, the heavily deformed mutant humans (unevacuated victims of nuclear tests in the New Mexico desert) are back, but there are no scares in this sequel (would you be horrified by their 1980s style prosthetics? Or the modern school of loud noises carefully calibrated for shock?). This is more of a slasher film, where one by one, a party of militia guardsmen are picked off by our favourite mutants in increasingly disgusting ways. That, interpersed with lots of ugly mutants molesting captured women or embedding foreign objects in the skulls of unsuspecting victims.

Given the pungent, almost sick approach to the slasher film, it makes sense to see this movie not as a horror movie, but as a successor to the long moribund genres of the video nasty and the monster nudie. You'd probably have far more mileage if you went into the cinema because you wanted to watch a vile, sick movie than if you went in expected a horror or straight slasher flick. In fact, you'd underappreciating The Hills Have Eyes 2 if you see it even as a straight slasher flick. You have to understand that sickening movies like this haven't been made since video nasties stop getting made in the mid-80s, or that the art of making monster nudies (or erotic horror) died off with Ed Wood in the late 70s, living in a strange afterlife as tentacle monster movies in Japanese cinema and anime.

But enough about how twisted and perverted the movie is. The more impressive stuff takes place in the second half, where our beleagered guardsmen militia enters the cavernous depths of the mountain mines in order to escape the mutant family hell-bent on eating them or worse. Here, Wes Craven's influence on production design is strongly felt - in an attempt to innovate the genre and cult series he created almost 30 years ago, the producer turns the second half of the movie into a vehicle for American-style, neo-German Expressionism. Like an Escher painting, the geography of the mines, tunnels and passageways connecting the caves of the mountains make no sense, but impart a very palpable sense of the weird and the ominous, much like the more traditional use of Escher-inspired sets in last year's Call of Cthulhu. But Craven goes much further than this, and pulls the unsettling Escheresque geometry inwards, onto the bodily frames of the mutants, making them the manifestation of horror within the horrific location of the caverns. This is what is completely lacking in modern slasher flicks like Saw, Hostel, et al: the sense of true, old school horror spit out with an unexpectedly modern take.

It is very easy to dismiss The Hills Have Eyes 2 as a tasteless movie, but if people would allow themselves a closer look...

Verdict: A pleasant experience that revives the monster nudie and video nasty genres. Personally, I'm waiting for Wes Craven to commission a Warhammer 40,000 remake of this movie!

First published at incinemas on 19 April 2007

Method (DVD) (2004)

The saying goes, there's no such thing as a bad film, only a badly made film. I humbly submit Method to you as my sole exhibit to prove my case. To be up front with you, Method is a failure of a film. It's not a failure because of its premise, which is simply: "(Method) actor immerses herself too deeply in role, becomes the serial killer she portrays". You see, the premise is a bunch of hokey, but in the right hands (director, scriptwriter, actors), it could turn out to be high camp or excellent drama (see Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich in Shadow of the Vampire). In the able hands of Brad Wyman, Katie L Fetting, and Elizabeth Hurley, though, the result is more of an accidentally-funny farce of a thriller, and a valuable lesson for all aspiring directors, scriptwriters, and actors. Join me now as we gaze upon the destruction that the merrily untalented trio have wrought... so that you can solemnly swear never to repeat their errors when it's your turn to make a movie. Or decide to rent, borrow, or buy this DVD.

The director: Now, if you have a premise like this, you'd want to make sure that the movie looks credible. But there's no way you can achieve that if we keep seeing over the top hallucinatory sequences where the actress is brainwashed by her imagination of the dead serial killer character she's supposed to play, mixed with over the top fantasy sequences where the actress may or may not be killing off extras and cast members on the set in a fit of dotty madness, and further mixed with very cheesey period footage of the "film" within the film of the movie about the serial killer. In general, any one of these elements will turn a good thriller into a joke; congratulations to Brad Wyman for hitting the jackpot thrice!

The writer: You could either write a deliberately bad thriller movie or you could write a good thriller about an actress losing her mind on the set of a very bad movie. If you wanted to do the former, you'd have the dialogue in the period film within a film be as stilted, cheesey, and elaborate as the dialogue in the rest of the film, but you'd do it with a heavy sense of self-aware humour. If you wanted to do the latter, you'd have to make sure that the actual movie outside the period reenactment is free of over-the-topness. Katie L Fetting succeeds in avoiding both, and creates a mess of a script.

The star: Unfortunately, Elizabeth Hurley is not an actress. More unfortunate for the viewer of the DVD is the painfully obvious fact that she isn't even a performer. She can't even pull off an impression of a bad actress, not to say a woman on the brink of madness.

Reviewer's advice: This film could have been saved if some other character were cast in this role, or if the writer were smart enough to realise that by injecting completed, post-production footage of the film-within-the-film, it implies a certain sort of conclusion about the film. This movie is perfect for a bunch of oversmart movie buffs in need of a great laugh and a fun party game (drink a beer whenever you spot a script/directing crime!).

First published at incinemas on 17 April 2007

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Cadaver ศพ (2006)

Med school never looked so hilarious before

I'm convinced that Cadaver must be a horror comedy. You see, it's set in med school, where students have to learn how to dissect cadavers. Let's face it: if you get squeamish about the blood - or worse, if you're like the female protagonist of this movie, you think that the cadavers are haunting you - I'm pretty sure the dean will just transfer you out or get you expelled from med school. Here, though, the dean and vice-dean just counsel the poor girl while she turns up in school every morning with increasingly puffy panda eyes (yes, for some reason the cadavers haunt the girl at home, in the night) to scream or faint from a perceived ghoulish attack. It gets pretty hilarious thereafter: in a key scene, the dean demands to know why the girl is so superstitious about handling cadavers and having hallucinations about ghosts, but you realise he can't be asking a serious question because the shrouded cadavers in this med school arrive wrapped in garlands and remain wrapped in garlands even in the dissecting studio. I mean, it has to be a bit of a joke, right? The med school is apparently full of students, but its corridors are empty in all but one scene in the movie.

Sadly, though, this is yet another top-grossing horror movies of 2006 in Thailand, leading me to suspect that audiences go to cinemas to have a brainless time. I hesitate to say that these movies are entertaining per se: the spate of Thai horror films of the past year are just plain awful (a Thai film last year used clanging cymbals and wayang kulit music to invoke horror), plain stupid (a twist ending in another film revealed out of nowhere that the ghosts were haunting a baby because it killed student protestors in another life!?), or annoyingly offensive (ghost stories set in a former Cambodian torture camp, anyone?). Ergo, the horror movie genre of late in Thailand is solely for the taste of local audiences who don't mind badly-conceptualised, half-baked narratives as long as they provide the obligatory loud noises, people in green, grey, or white makeup, and jingly jangly wayang kulit music.

I'm not even going to try to go into the mind of Singaporean audiences who'd want to watch these horror movies because they were the box-office heavyweights in Thailand, so I'll just mention stuff that will strike the minds of ordinary moviegoers when they watch Cadaver.

Sight and sound
It's not bad, Cadaver does take a step forward for Thai horror film. The director here seems to figure out that wayang kulit music and clashing cymbals does not make people feel scared, and follows the Hollywood trend of basing the horror movie on sudden, loud noises that will be amplified a thousand-fold by the cinema speakers. Visually, Cadaver indicates that Thai directors have still not outgrown the peak-a-boo kabuki ghosts that they imported from Japan, and are beginning to import the 70s Hollywood shower horror scenes, but perhaps the most horrifying detail about this film is how unscary the ghoul looks - you'll jump out of your seat only because of the loud sound effects.

As mentioned, the premise is just incompetent, but I'm willing to overlook that just because Cadaver does not have a silly twist ending. It seems the director does have a head on his shoulders, wisely avoiding how other directors sink their already mediocre horror movies. I applaud the director in shifting the twist from the last 5 minutes of the movie to the end of the second act. If done well, the first act becomes a standard collection of pointless scare tactics that build up to an unexpectedly richer story in the second and third acts. In Cadaver though, the twist just turns the first act into incomprehensible nonsense, the second into an overlong and tedious buildup, and the final act into an anti-climax that lacks any real surprises.

It's very hard to take Cadaver and its ilk seriously at all, and it's very difficult to be frightened by their offerings. However, if Cadaver is any indication at all, Thai horror films could well turn out to be genuinely scary... in about 10 years' time.

First published at incinemas on 19 April 2007

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Haven (DVD) (2007)

Legolas ditches pretty-boy looks in bid for artistic credibility

Are you still disappointed that Alejandro Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga did not get their Oscars for Babel? One would think that after their initial critical success with 21 Grams, and Amores perros, the Inarritu/Arriaga signature portmanteau movie style had established itself as a major cinema genre when Crash won the Best Picture Oscar a year later. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but immortality is when your imitators win accolades. I mention these movies because I suspect that some of you really love this genre, but are getting tired of watching the same DVDs over and over again. I’d recommend you pick up Haven right now from the DVD store, on account that it’s a portmanteau movie, and shares producers with Crash.

You’ll have to note, though, that Haven was made before Crash, and adjust your expectations accordingly – the portmanteau formula is still being experimented on here – but I believe that the movie delivers most of what we expect from this genre. For starters, there are only 2 intertwining stories. The first tells of a father-daughter team who arrive in the Cayman Islands not for the tourism or its status as a tax haven, but because the father is on the run from the Feds for illegal banking transactions involving the tax haven. On the exotic, alien island, the two must find a way to rebuild their lives, but what they learn about the island – and themselves – may change them forever. The second tale has Orlando Bloom in an interracial romance with the daughter of a powerful citizen of the Caymans. He’s dirt poor, she’s rich, and their love will never be sanctioned by her brother and father, leading not just to a tragedy for the lovebirds, but a painful and tragic post-tragedy existence for the two. And of course, the principle characters will impact each other in unforeseen and lasting ways...

Like I’ve said, you should lower your expectations for Haven. Bob Yari and Frank Flowers have created a raw work – the lack of a third story in the mixture, the too-linear style of storytelling, and the lack of intercutting between the storylines wound the effectiveness and unity of the movie to a certain extent. In fact you may, by the end of the movie, actually be able to identify where the third story should have come from. What makes Haven a worthy film to watch (despite the mistakes made by its first-time director) is Frank Flowers’s instinctive use of the camera, the editing style, and most importantly, how he brings out the seductive colours and sounds of the Caymans.

DVD review

Haven has an interesting history: although debuting in film festivals in 2004, the movie never had a cinema release till 2006, and only then a limited release in the US, Japan, and Singapore. Whatever the reason behind its late release, it’s disappointing that there is only one feature on the DVD, a very slight making of featurette that has Bob Yari, Frank Flowers, and Anthony Mackie talk briefly about the movie. Their appearances in this video is dwarfed by clips from the movie itself. Why this is so baffles me – the "making of" feature resembles the standard promotional features that air on television to entertain the most casual of audiences, but this movie was never destined for a commercial release. Where is the in-depth feature(s) that we expect on a DVD for a film of such artistic ambitions? Where is the director’s commentary? These are features that fans of portmanteau movies would expect, and this may disappoint them greatly.

First published at incinemas on 13 April 2007

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Wild Hogs (2007)

John Travolta's mid-life crisis sees him testing his stand-up comic skills on actual stand-up comics

Wild Hogs is a mashup of the mid-life crisis comedy and the road trip comedy. Nearing the dreaded age where hair begins to thin, cholesterol levels need to be watched, careers lose their upward movement, and children and spouse either detest you or treat you with genial irrelevance, 4 college buddies react to their mid-life crisis by organising one last hurrah to recapture the glory days of their youth, where they were known as hellraisers instead of boring middle class men. So when 4 aging, out of shape men don their leather jackets, put on their sunglasses, and ride off into the sunset on their Harley Davidsons, it's not exactly a fairytale ending but the beginning of a promising comedy, like a Don Quixote on motorcycles. Except that Don Quixote thought he was a real knight, and they're pretending to be real cool bikers.

With such a premise, the optimal game plan for Wild Hogs would consist of two simultaneous strategies - there should be a standard fish out of water scenario with the 4 wannabe bikers coming up against ordinary challenges of road trips (like roughing it out, outdoors camping, the infrequent change of clothing, bathing...) and failing miserably, and another scenario where the pretendsters meet the real deal and gets into an escalating (but hilariously one-sided, of course!) rivalry with the mean outlaw biker gang. This is pure comedy gold if done right.

I'm happy to say that for the most part, the potential of the premise is realised in the movie itself. The weaker jokes are in the second act where the 4 wannabes fail at outdoors living, but once they meet the Del Fuegos, a very nasty extortionist biker gang, the jokes and laughs from escalating war between the pretendsters and the real bikers begin to kick in and build up to a hilarious payoff - a showdown brawl at a sleepy desert town (of course). However, the sting of the second scenario has been severely blunted, mostly by the Hells Angels lawsuit against Disney prohibiting the use of their name and logo in this movie. I mean, the funniest point of this comedy has to be that the biker culture that the 4 middle-aged wannabes base their romantic wanderings on do not exist, that the real bikers - the Hells Angels in the original script of Wild Hogs - exist in real life as drug dealers, smugglers, extortionists and gangsters, and violent ruffians. With that insight dulled to the point of practically taking it out, the comedy in this movie becomes a little too pedestrian.

That the script is a little too pedestrian may be the sole imperfection of Wild Hogs. Ignoring the forced change of Hells Angels to Del Fuegos in the movie, the script botches the first (but thankfully short) act, which begins the story by explaining how each of the 4 wannabes decide to go on their one last road outing. It's an entirely conventional way of telling the story (but imagine if the movie opened with all 4 already on the road trip... and failing it as bikers!), but what's not very acceptable is that fact the introductions aren't at all convincing audiences that our middle class heroes would actually take the plunge, and that the setting up of the classic middle class types (nerd, doctor, alpha dog, henpecked husband) is somewhat painful. Jokes-wise, situational comedy and physical comedy pay off more than the verbal jokes, while William H Macy steals the movie with his perfect timing and hangdog expressions, and appears to be a superior comedian than Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence, while John Travolta is... well, I'm happy to see Travolta hamming it up with a bunch of comedians.

Wild Hogs takes a little time to warm up its comedy engine, but once it gets there, it will deliver the laughs.

First published at incinemas on 19 April 2007

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Smokin' Aces (2007)

Every movie is like a magic trick!

A decade ago, Quentin Tarrantino used to cast a long and heavy shadow over many a career of an aspiring filmmaker. With the trio of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, the director's high octane, manic style and violence on speed created cottage industry of Tarrantino-inspired short films and features, because every new filmmaker wanted to create a movie as hip and callously iconic as Tarrantino's bulletfest grindhouse pics. I'm sure this should sound familiar with you; only a few years ago in Asia, the every upcoming Asian director fresh out of film school ended up making a Wong Kar Wai-inspired short film, the type that slavishly attempted to recreate the auteur's visual style, his storylines, character types, and even reusing his soundtrack choices, most notably Shigeru Umebayashi's theme for In the Mood for Love. I mention all this not because I get this nostalgia from recounting tales of my youth as a Substation First Takes monthly festival regular, but because I have to point out that invariably all these homages, these Wong Kar Wai-inspired films were terribly painful to sit through. Like his asian counterpart, the cottage industry of lesser-talented filmmakers attempting their own Tarrantino flicks have been equally dismal and lacking in success. Both genres, one would think, had died a natural and dignified death about 5 to 10 years ago, but Joe Carnahan thinks otherwise. Will he succeed this time round in making a Tarrantino bullet-fest, and make it better than the master? Let's find out.

To begin with, Carnahan seems to be going for Tarrantino by way of Guy Ritchie - Smokin' Aces has a very reluctant informant Buddy Aces Israel (as with Tarrantino naming conventions, you wonder which is the nickname and the real name of the character) having a contract for his life - or more precisely, his heart - taken out by his ex-mafia buddies. With news of the bounty leaking its way into the world at large, a race begins with multiple factions of bounty hunters slugging it out with each other and the FBI to see who gets to Buddy Aces Israel, a race that can only end with a spectacularly violent blood-filled finale.

Visually and thematically, the mashup of Tarrantino storytelling and Guy Ritchie visuals feels par for the game. Everything you expect from a Tarrantino-style cottage industry film is there: the fast edits, profanity, cartoonish gore and violence garnishing the sometimes chaotic and multiple plot lines that come together only at the end, with a huge wallop of an entertaining climax of loud noises and red bodily fluids. Yet for all his slavish Tarrantino playbook techniques, the best part of Smokin' Aces still has to be its first act. It's sort of a film equivalent of juggling with chainsaws, really: an entire half hour is taken up to establish the basic premise, the plot, and the players, and it's all done through talking - lots and lots of talking heads action. Each faction of bounty hunters and FBI operatives take turns to reveal more and more about Buddy Aces Israel, the bounty laid on his heart, and also introduce the next faction of bounty hunters. It's pure exposition dressed up as dialogue, as if the director wanted us to ask "it's a clever idea, but can he really sustain this properly, and can he do it expertly?" The first act seems good enough, fulfilling the structure of its storytelling method, but there's a problem that discerning audiences may notice - although intelligently adhering to the form, what director Carnahan's delivery acts is the wit and humour that one would expect if someone (say, Tarrantino) had been at the helm.

The first act of the film - its high points and pitfalls, are strangely emblematic of this movie as a whole. The insanely complicated plots all converge in a bloodbath, but audiences who look beyond the satisfaction of splatter on screen cannot help but notice that the true touch of genius - wit, pure enjoyment - is missing in this film. His efforts are acceptable, if totally predictable, but when Carnahan decides to put his imprint on the Tarrantino-wannabe film genre, things go awry - the director's attempt to inject a twist ending are patently and painfully obvious to the point of giving away the game early on, while any audience will feel amiss to see a straightforward splatter movie plod to a moralistic and preachy ending - simply put, the emotions that form the last 30 seconds of this film come out of nowhere, as if the director realised that his experiment cannot stand on its own.

To enjoy this movie to the fullest, you'd have to be a great fan of Quentin Tarrantino, a greater fan of the late cottage industry of Tarrantino-wannabe films, and pretty forgiving of missteps at the end of films. All in all, Smokin' Aces manages to satisfy, but just barely.

First published at incinemas on 12 April 2007

Children of Men (DVD) (2006)

One of the Oscar-worthy films not in running for a Best Picture Oscar

It is a rare occasion that a film could be nominated for 2 of the most prestigious Oscar categories, and yet not see a general release in cinemas here. I speak of Children of Men. Consider its nominations for best adapted screenplay and editing - by all means, it means that this is simply one of the best written and filmmed movies of the year. In fact, it's an even rare occasion that a film nominated for writing and editing would not receive the automatic third nomination for Best Picture as well, so don't take it as hyperbole when I say that this movie is one of the most underrated and underappreciated gems of last year. Perhaps the short shrift given to Children of Men might come from the fact that it's a science fiction flick, and therefore not a serious movie. LOTR may have broken ceilings, but its anomalous success at the Oscars is the exception that proves the rule that fantasy, sci-fi and horror movies aren't serious enough to be seen as legitimate contenders for the Best Picture award. Watching this DVD though, it becomes apparent that Children of Men deserves more than it got; it deserves to be watched.

Children of Men is a sci-fi flick that takes place in a dystopian future world where for reasons unknown, humanity has lost its ability to reproduce. No new babies have been born for decades, not because people don't have the time to have them, but because women simply stopped getting pregnant no matter how hard they tried. Of course, society has been greying and birth rates have been falling for decades, but imagine if that were irreversible! Dystopian fiction is one of the major tropes of futuristic science fiction, but from the start, this movie already shows it's not going to be the same old, same old. For one, you'll notice that Children of Men takes place in a world that's not too far different from our own, whose politics aren't very much different from what we see around us, except that it's a world that's in the middle of the slow apocalypse, the extinction of mankind. That's a set of concerns that are as far removed as possible from the standard, almost required, dystopian lineup of authoritarian regimes (Sleeper, Brazil, 1984, Gattaca) and their political screeds on the struggle between individuality and freedom against dictatorship. It's a set of concerns that shepherd the movie towards the real and the realistic, to show ordinary life as it is lived in a world that's seen better days, away from the surface razzle-dazzle production set-focused sci-fi films of late.

Cuaron employs his favourite road trip narrative to accentuate the shift towards realism and the nitty gritty in his sci-fi film. After a heavily pregnant refugee woman is found, several underground groups must ferry her to a safe refuge where an almost mythical organisation of scientists work to restore the viability of the human race. The road trip, of course, is merely a launching point for the Cuaron to direct our attention to his broad sweeps of a society living within the slow apocalypse, visiting various factions like the apolitical citizenry, the privileged elites, the disaffected revolutionaries, the corrupt and the selfless. It's an almost documentary-like approach that is well served by his choice of cinema verite cinematography and astonishing use of very long single takes. Up front, what is more terrifying than the apocalypse or living through it, is the idea that mankind will be just as full of follies, hopes and ugliness as before; humanity won't be much changed for the better or for the worse by the prospects of its impending decline and fall.

Most sci-fi films end on by either overdoing the bleakness and despair, copping out on a sugar-coated Pollyanna-ish ending, or an orgy of revolutionary chaos. It is evidence of the brilliance of Cuaron and his scriptwriters that Children of Men may well be one of the rare sci-fi films that has a completely ambiguous ending where you won't know if there's a happy, sad, or nihilistic ending. That, plus the incredible talent displayed in its screenplay, camerawork, and editing, is reason why you should rent or even buy this DVD.

DVD Review

Typical of recent movies, the DVD of Children of Men was rushed out shortly after the Oscar nomination list was announced. What's good about this is that audiences all over the world get to see a film that may not have been released in local cinemas; what's bad is that audiences all over the world tend to get a DVD that has no extras whatsoever - and wonder why the major disappointment, given that far lesser movies (#1 in US box office for all of 2 weeks) get DVD releases with the full set of extra features (including director's commentary audio tracks!) barely 3 months after their run in the cinemas. What's promising abou the Children of Men DVD is the inclusion of one extra feature, a documentary that dwelves into the top-class cinematography used in the movie.

It's best to watch this feature ("Men Under Attack") immediately after finishing the movie - only then will you realise that the movie was so well-told that the camerawork - even though it was impressive - may have gone largely unnoticed. Of course, the feature provides the shock and awe so you can marvel at just how well-filmmed this movie is.

First published at incinemas on 9 April 2007

Friday, 6 April 2007

To Sir With Love 스승의 은혜 (2006)

It was then that he realised he wasn't the teacher's pet

Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express casts a long shadow not just on the paperback mystery, but on movie scripts in Hollywood and far beyond. It's all in the twist in the tale, the trick ending where the revelation of a hidden truth (pulled out of nowhere) forces the reader to reconsider and reinterpret every event that led up to that moment. Other mystery writers had attempted similar trick endings before her, but this novel from Agatha Christie was the best shining example of the last minute twist - it was plausible yet unexpected, outrageous without being ridiculous, and instead of making the reader feel they wasted their time with the story before the twist, actually made them return to the first page, to let their new-found knowledge inform their re-reading of the book. The sheer artistry of the novel weighs heavily on the minds of scriptwriters even today, with The Sixth Sense being the finest tribute. It's not just the mystery movies now, because almost all Korean horror movie in the recent 2-3 years have gone crazy with the "unexpected revelation of completely unknown plot details" twist ending.

More often than not, though, movies with twist endings (I'm talking about Korean horror movies of the recent 2-3 years, of course) leave a sour taste on the mouth, because their directors and scriptwriters forget the paramount rule of the trick ending: never make your audience feel they've wasted their time. The most extreme example of a bad trick ending would be "it was all a dream/nightmare!", and no modern director would commit this mistake. What makes them stumble instead is their resort to the "it was all a lie!" ending, which is the equivalent of slapping the audience on their faces, and makes them ask "Why did I watch this movie if nothing that happened in the first 80 minutes ever happened at all?" Thing is, the trick ending in Murder on the Orient Express never invalidated anything that happened right up to the point of revelation. And even considering The Usual Suspects, where the story that Keyser Sore told was a lie, the details of his story were almost all true, and the revelation did not invalidate the movie leading up to the point of revelation either.

I don't think the surprise for the audience in To Sir, With Love will be its last minute, out of nowhere twist ending and revelation. That part of its scriptwriters' cue from Agatha Christie is a little to close to the dreaded "none of this ever happened, and there's no way you can reconstruct the entire movie - if at all, if coherently at all - without feeling cheated" feeling. What's more satisfying is its adoption of the other great innovation from Agatha Christie's train mystery, the part where all the travellers on the train are in on the plot. To Sir, With Love is the rare slasher film where all the traditional, conventional slasher victims turn out to bear an animus against their old primary school teacher whom they fete at a school reunion. They're all harboring secrets and grudges against her high-handed treatment of them in the past, and would be more than happy to plunge their collective knife into her. But of course, they all end up as the victims instead...

Personally, I was impressed with the premise - Korea is afterall a deeply conservative society where speaking out and criticising teachers is a taboo, beyond the pale desecration of polite behaviour. Societal attitudes towards teachers in Korea is comparable to Singapore in the late 80s and early 90s, simpler and more innocent days where the Ministry of Education groomed superstar teachers, featured them in MOE recruitment ads (remember "Teach. Do something with your life"?), and parents wouldn't bat an eyelid if a teacher used sarcasm, hyperbole, or more unusual punishments on their kids. Having a slasher movie where the kids return to settle scores with an emotionally abusive teacher is something you won't expect from the Koreans - the subversiveness is just about on par with Bewitching Attraction, a Korean sex comedy about university lecturers. What was less impressive was the actual slasher third act, where the execution of the gore and the squeamish factor was disappointing.

To Sir, With Love has a great premise but viewers may find its trick ending a little too much of a letdown, given its so-so slasher sequences. Its sheer audacity and imagination, though, make this one of the better Korean horror movies for a long time.

First published at incinemas on 12 April 2007

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Sunshine (2007)

The secret of real estate is all in the view

The Sun is cooling off, dying, and so is life on Earth. A team of astronauts are tasked to pilot a huge spacecraft armed with vast nuclear reactors into the sun in an attempt to kickstart the star. Deep down, each one knows that even if the mission succeeds, they'll die. It'll be a beautiful death, though, to bask in the thermonuclear furies of the sun... unless an unknown force is preventing their mission from carrying out its goals.

Everyone has high expectations for Danny Boyle. The director of gems like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later has proven himself to be a strong visual stylist and a successful reinventor of the zombie genre movie. You've seen the trailer for Sunshine; from its slick presentation of an "Armageddon meets Event Horizon" premise, it appears that Boyle is setting himself out to reinvent the space sci-fi movie, and we're interested to see if the director delivers his goals.

The first thing to note is that the Heroic Mission To Save The End Of The World is, despite the narration in the trailer, not overly pretentious at all. While the script only makes fleeting references to the Monumental Importance of The Mission (hence avoiding the Armageddon and Deep Impact traps), the movie's plot is safely within the slasher space horror genre. Just shortly after reaching the point of no return, the crew receive a distress call from the spaceship of the previous failed mission (no one knows why it failed), and this is when the crew of the ship - already at loggerheads with each other due to the collective existential angst of becoming heroic suicides - start to die off one by one, through accident and intentional sabotage from mysterious forces.

It is useful here to forget that you've ever watched Event Horizon in your entire life. After the first third of Sunshine establishes the moody atmosphere, introduces the hapless crew (oh little do they know that they will all die, but not in the manner they think they will die!), and drenches the eyeballs with Boyle's impressive spaceship design and aesthetics, the tentative groundwork for a potentially unique science fiction movie gives way to a sometimes plot twist for plot twist remake of Event Horizon, but this time with a different spaceship design, different crew members, and a more hip Brit-punk cinematography.

Why should we measure Sunshine primarily against Event Horizon? You'll have to note that the deaths of some Sunshine crew almost mirror those that occur in Event Horizon, almost deliberately. I'm not sure while Boyle feels the need to put his film up for comparison like this, but the fact is the deaths in Sunshine are almost free of gore and extremely unrealistic, paling in comparison to the delightful deaths in Event Horizon. It's as though Boyle wants to avoid showing any gore, yet wants to show how gruesome the deaths are anyway; but all he succeeds in is making fans of the space slasher genre very impatient and annoyed, and reminding them of how a movie made 10 years ago had a better execution.

It is more plausible that contrary to expectations, Boyle doesn't intend to reinvent the space slasher genre (a la 28 Days Later) than producing a pastiche of the genre. If we accept that, then several things automatically fall into place, such as the lack of originality, suspense, or surprise that comes with genre reinventions. Even then, one wonders why Boyle has failed to deliver real scares in this movie, or why it reeks of painful predicability. I venture that this is due to an unfortunate confluence of hewing far too close to the Event Horizon playbook and the sometimes inappropriate use of Brit rock soundtrack that punctures rather than punctuates tension-filled scenes.

Sunshine had great potential to be a classic, because Danny Boyle provides one of the best first acts in the sci-fi film genre. It is unfortunate that such a brilliant effort and originality did not continue in the movie's second and third acts. This movie may not be a classic, but it surely is one of the better sci-fi movies this decade.

First published at incinemas on 5 April 2007

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

I don't want to sleep alone 黑眼圈 (2006)

Love in the time of haze

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is Tsai Ming-liang's latest film. We know the director as the strange Malaysian emigre who's made a career out of making incomprehensible but very beautiful, erotic, moving, and very slow-moving Mandarin films, all of which tend to feature Taiwanese daytime drama actor Li Kangsheng in various states of undress. This time round, Li Kangsheng gets to play two roles in the movie, which means that there's double the exposure here. I'll try to top Li's act by splitting myself into 3 imaginary roles to give a rambling, but beautiful meditation on the movie.

1. The lascivious auntie views Li Kang-sheng's exposed butts

Tsai Ming-liang makes art films that critics at Cannes rave about, but normally close within a week of their commercial release. Way too arty, except for the fact that you can always count on the obligatory scene(s) where Li Kangsheng bares his bottom (and more). The actor may be a mainstay on Taiwanese daytime soaps (Fiery Thunderbolt, Taiwan Ah Seng, just to mention a few), but aunties who have grown to know and love the boyish-faced actor will be hard-pressed to see any revealing footage of him in these family fare. Instead, they'll have to enter the cinematic clutches of Tsai Ming-liang in order to get their fix.

The auntie will get more than what she's bargained for as the director casts the actor in two roles that drive the plot of the movie - or are driven by the plot of the movie: Li is a bed-ridden quadriplegic man who is almost a living dead. He's lovingly fed, clothed, bathed, powdered, and fanned by his elder sister, who turns on the radio to Cantonese opera, Mandarin evergreens, and the occasional Italian opera to lessen the hell he is suffering. But even then, paralysed bed-ridden men have feelings and urges, as do their selfless caregivers... Li also plays an itinerant beggar who is so badly beaten up by the hoodlums of Kuala Lumpur that he is now slowly recovering in a long convalescence in the loving care of a Bangladeshi labourer who found his broken body on the streets. The feverished man is lovingly fed, clothed, bathed, powdered and nursed by the complete stranger, but in the long companionship of social outcasts, even feverished beggars have feelings and urges, as do their selfless caregivers. Everyone's feelings and urges, and fears of having to sleep alone, will end up enmeshing both stories.

To an auntie, this movie could well be a triple-hanky weepie teledrama, with its theme of unrequited love, helpless heroes, and melancholic, even futile longing that screams to be fulfilled.

2. The Malaysian censor contemplates the represention of life in KL

The Malaysian censor wishes Tsai Ming-liang would make a much more arty film out of I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. Even hopes that perhaps the director will restore the missing 1 hour of exposed Li Kang-sheng goodness to the theatrical cut. But no, the problem is there's way too honest-to-goodness eroticism in this film. The problem is that the movie is set in Kuala Lumpur, one dominated by scores of abandoned building projects home to illegal Bangladeshi labourers, where a Chinese beggar is beaten up by a gang of Malay bomoh conmen, and where the provincial government is unable to combat the haze problem (PSI reading: over 600).

It's not just about KL's haze problem, poverty problem, or even race relations that must surely be under attack by Tsai's movie, but that the director manages to find really humorous ways of highlighting the absurd in each situation. How else can one view a recurring joke about a makeshift mattress that is discarded, reused, washed, and moved from construction site to constuction site, shophouse to shophouse? I can think of at least 5 politicians (a former PM, a former DPM, the leader of an opposition party, and the current PM) who would be uneasy with the irreverence Tsai shows to the most sacred of courtroom witnesses in the country... or at least would be very uncomfortable with a film set in KL, but only featuring the poor - and only telling the stories of poor minorities.

It is with great regret that the Malaysian censor had to ban Tsai's movie. Aside from last year's After This, Our Exile, there hasn't been a local film that basically showcases popular music sung in the streets, aired on radio, or screened on roadside VCD/CD shops. Tsai is at his best when he crafts entire scenes to the rhythm and lyrics of local music - whether it be Mandarin evergreens, Cantonese opera, Bollywood musicals, or even Malay folksongs. It's a loving tribute to multiculturalism that sadly will be unknown in Malaysia because this movie is apparently banned because it offends racial and political sensitivities.

3. A musuem visitor on time and thought

At some points during the screening, I felt like a watching one of those installation art films that seem to be in the rage all over museums. You know, the glacial pace, the lack of dialogue, the scenes that seem to drag on and on. But whereas one might (and quite justly so) label these museum pieces as largely self-indulgent, one cannot escape the sensational epiphany that Tsai is so far beyond that. Every scene doesn't feel self-indulgent, they feel just about the right length. Take for example the scene where the paralysed Li is getting his morning ablutions performed by a caregiver. A cursory, 10-second shot is the conventional choice of all filmmakers; it establishes what is happening and moves on to other scenes where Things Happen. Stretch it 10 seconds further - it becomes an angsty scene where Li is subject to ablutions. Stretch it 10 seconds more, and you'll have the stereotypical self-indulgent "art piece" that museums show, but unfortunately is too grating on your patience because unlike a museum visitor, you can't get up and walk to the next film installation. Stretch that 10 seconds more, and you're in Tsai Ming-liang territory. You pass through the cursory understanding of the scene, to feel the angst, and yet when all that is done (and because the scene is still playing) you begin to ask: how does that feel for the character, really? Why this certain camera angle, that both obscures and highlights his face? How would it feel, if done in your stead?

Because Tsai Ming-liang gives full measure to time and rhythm, his film escapes the realm of pure entertainment, and enters the domain of pure contemplation. You won't enjoy watching this movie (aside from admiring Li's exposed body parts), but you will remember it days later, and you will continue to ask questions about the film, even then.

First published at incinemas on 5 April 2007